By: Jennifer Gonzalez
I open my eyes with a start. Not quite sure if the light I see is moonlight, sunlight or streetlight, I reach for my phone to check the time, 5:46. I’ve slept deeply. No puppy is swatting me with her paw. She’s at my ex-husband’s. We share custody. No teenage daughter is snoring in the room next to mine. She’s at her friend’s — just me. No work. No meetings. No duties. And, still, I’m awake at this hour. The light, I learn, is moonlight and streetlight. The sun has more sense.
I rise, aspiring to one day be like the sun. I brush my teeth, rote habit, and floss. Careful. Don’t look too long in the mirror. Aah, my inner critic is up, also. The day has begun. Next, shaking my sleep, I apply cream to my under eyes, wrinkled and bulldog baggy like my mother’s.
I put back the underwear and socks I laid out the night before. Instead of showering, I dress in black tights cropped, but I’m short enough that they almost cover my ankles.
I wear a hot pink tank top to show off my muscular shoulders but cover it with a black hooded sweatshirt. How like me to cover bright color with black. How like me to cover clothes that declare with clothes that conceal. Socks. The last clean pair before I must do laundry. Sneakers.
I drive to my ex-husband’s, pick up my dog and faithful walking partner. Drive back to my apartment, under a mile (yet, worlds) away. It’s not until I’m in my driveway that I take a full breath. In. Peace. Out. Chaos. In. Serenity. Out. Active addiction.
My dog, at just over five months, has circled me. Twice. Her nose to the drinking straw discarded on my front sidewalk. Her black leash wraps around my legs. It’s a thick fabric suitable for the size she soon will be. Already she’s strong enough to pull me in whatever direction she prefers. After eight one hour per week puppy training, she listens to me. Sometimes.
“Nala, sit,” I am stern. But, not loud. Never loud. That’s not my way. Slow and stern. She sits. I step over the leash and free myself.
Back in charge, momentarily, I walk with Nala to my right. We move at a nice clip, my partner and I, and only stop twice — once to pee (her) and once to take in the sunrise (us). I lean as I walk, from her pulling, from my imbalance. That’s one of the great “gifts” brain injury has bestowed. Once back at the house, I escort Nala to her crate and lock it before leaving.
This morning is the first of four weekly meditation experiences held for women, by women, to celebrate the Advent season. Mindfulness.
As I drive, I laugh to myself. I need Siri’s assistance navigating to a church less than two miles away. I’ve been there before — several times. But, I still need navigation assistance to a mindfulness experience. Against my better judgment, I choose to find the humor, not the embarrassment, in the irony.
Siri guides me to the parking spot. I sit and wait. I can’t recall where in the church and hall the workshop is being held. And there’s no way I’m going to look like the fool. A few women go to a side door. I risk it and follow, which is not very risky when you think about it.
Inside a woman greets me with a hushed voice. She takes my hand in both of hers. Regards me with warm, pale blue eyes and invites me to pass down the hall and enter the back room. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee echoes her invitation. I push open the white slatted door. On the other side, ten metal chairs form a circle. Lights are dim, and a lit candle, Bible, and small wooden cross sit on a low, rectangular table in the circle’s center.
The leader, a dark-haired woman I’ve met before, whispers a greeting and gestures for me to sit. Three other women each whisper a hello. I’ve seen the woman to my right before, at other church functions. But I don’t know her name. She’s dressed like I am — running tights, sneakers and gloves.
Her orange shirt, more form-fitting than my hoodie/disguise, flatters her shape. I adjust my baseball cap, perched backward over my newly grown hair. I might dare no hat if the reddish-pink scar that highlights the pronounced bulge —a leech—where my shunt lies underneath, weren’t visible. If I didn’t have two spots, half dollar size, at the temples where forceps extracted newborn me, forty-seven years ago I might forego the cap, too.
But, vanity takes a backseat to medical necessity, so on my head, it rests. Her hair is lovely. Long, black and curly. It’s pulled into a high ponytail at the top of her head, pulled through the cap closure in the back.
I look around the circle. More have joined. Music plays softly. Woodwind. No words. I recognize it. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” The flame flickers. The darkness is softening as the sun rises. Its rays surround each of us. I am directly across from its penetrating rays. I can’t see beyond our circle. I can’t see beyond. The candle in the center burns bright.
The leader, noting that all are here, welcomes the group and begins to read a selection from the Bible. It is about the second coming of Christ. I have to rush to my exercise class after this. I’ll be late. I’ll be a disruption. Maybe I shouldn’t go.
“… The word of the Lord,” the leader’s words call me back to the circle. She closes the Bible and lays it on the table. She urges us to close our eyes. “Feel your head. Your face. Notice the muscles on your face. Are they relaxed? Tense? Notice. Don’t judge…” Notice. Don’t judge.
I’m not sure I’ve ever just noticed me. I’ve spent my life judging me. I judge me. And I condemn me. She urges us to breathe. In. Out. And to notice where our breath begins. In the throat? The chest? The belly? She urges us to notice. She reminds us not to judge.
I look to the jogger (I’ve decided she’s fast and graceful, unlike me) and note her chest moves in and out. I smile, knowing I’m doing it “right”— from the belly. She doesn’t know we compete. But, in this leg of the race, she’s losing. In. Out.
“Quiet the mind,” the leader invites. “When thoughts come in, just let them. Notice them. Don’t judge. And, return your focus to the breath.” Don’t berate myself for losing focus? Don’t apologize? Don’t repent?
I hear someone’s stomach growl a bit. I smile, eyes still closed. Not long after, my own growl joins in the chorus. Should I say excuse me? Does one say excuse me at a belly rumbling? When all else is silent except soft music and the leader’s whispers? I don’t dare open my eyes. But, I’m sure many are staring at me and condemning my stomach rumbling for interrupting their peace.
I sit and listen. I feel. The chair beneath me. The warmth from the sun through the window across from me. The floor under my feet. My breath. In. Out.
Mindfulness. Notice. Don’t judge. A tear falls down my right cheek. Then, slowly, both. I let them fall. The leader whispers. To me? To the group? “There are tissues on the floor by the table should you need.” Even with eyes closed and focused, I hear the jogger next to me rise and get a tissue. A couple of women, presumably across from me, do too.
I open my eyes and take a tissue also. Once back at my seat, I dab my eyes, close them, and return to focusing on my breath. In. Out. From the belly feels natural. Not forced. I don’t do forced. That’s for another me. I learned my lesson a long time ago. She will be forced to… Not me.
“Feel your neck muscles. Notice any strain or pull, any stiffness. Notice. Don’t judge. And then your chest and back. Feel your back against the chair. The rise and fall of your chest as you breathe.
In. Out. Notice. Don’t judge.” I feel the chair, rigid with a slight curve, along the length of my back. I breathe into it. The sun warms my face. My tears fall.
Among the women, in my spirit, I have found home.
Bio: Jenniefer Gonzalez
Jennifer Gonzalez is a writer and special education teacher. When she’s not trying to get her sixteen year old daughter let her hug her, she enjoys walking her dog and pausing to breathe, see, listen and meditate.
Jennifer lives in Stratford, Connecticut and is enrolled in an MFA program at Fairfield University.
Jennifer is the author of The Icing on the Cake, her story of how one 24 year old had everything- promising career, boyfriend, graduate school and a brain injury stripped her of everything and reminded her what is important in life.