Excerpted from Did I Say That Out Loud? by Kristin van Ogtrop. Copyright © 2021. Available from Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Something happened in the past few years, something sneaky and silent that I didn’t even realize was a problem until it was right upon me, like a bat about to fly into my hair: everyone around me became mindful.
When you were a kid, did you worry about mindfulness? Of course not. You just did your thing, tra-la-la-ing through life, with a relatively mindless approach that usually worked just fine. Now, suddenly, people are paying so much attention! Greeting every situation with open hearts and discerning minds, bidding each other namaste everywhere they go. And “learning” how to breathe, which, last time I checked, generally doesn’t need to be taught?
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As soon as I noticed this awful development I thought, Ugh. It all sounds so boring and I definitely do not need to change the way I breathe in order to be a better person or find out whether my life has meaning.
But one of the hallmarks of middle age is the mistaken belief that if you constantly endeavor to keep up with trends, you will never be left behind by your children, the culture, or that one woman in your book group who has always been cooler than you. I am nothing if not middle-aged, meaning it’s a long, pitiful slog from now until the end of my days to try to keep a grip on our world as it inexorably advances beyond my reach.
Thinking vs. Thoughts
Which is why I found myself, not long ago, in a mindfulness meditation class on an otherwise ordinary Sunday afternoon. I was sitting cross-legged on an orange bolster on the floor of the local yoga studio, trying to accept with an open heart and discerning mind the fact that both of my feet were beginning to fall asleep and wondering whether mindfulness was a bunch of hooey, just as I suspected, when I heard the instructor say, “There is a big difference between thinking and thoughts.” Immediately I knew that the 25 dollars I had plunked in the basket outside the studio was completely worth it because, even if I never achieve mindfulness, that one simple phrase uncovered an essential truth that has eluded me for sometime: I used to think, and now I have thoughts.
Oh, there is a difference. Thinking is linear, with one idea leading to another like identical cars of a long train, sleek and shiny, all linked and moving forward with precision to a preset destination. Maybe you are thinking about what you need from the grocery store or whether your dog has to go to the vet or how to reorganize your closet so each item inside doesn’t look like something you never want to wear again. Whatever the case, you are progressing in an orderly fashion with the hope—in fact, the reasonable expectation—that when you reach your destination, it will be pleasing and well worth the trip.
Once you pass the age of 45, however, the mysterious process happening inside your head is no longer linear. Now you are on a different train, a rickety circus train that looks like it’s held together with paper clips. There’s an elephant in one car and a lion in the next and then one with a giraffe whose head sticks out of the top and after that a car with a bunch of drunk clowns. You don’t know where you’re going and, really, does it matter? Because your circus train is probably about to crash.
That is the difference between thinking and thoughts.
Imaginary Dinner Guests and Other Midlife Indignities
Being a person with thoughts isn’t all bad. If you lose yourself in the colorful scatter that is your mind, you can find hours of entertainment. But if you fight it—try to get the giraffe to keep his head inside the train or command the clowns to sober up—you are just going to be angry and sad for the rest of your life, however long that might be.
I imagine that as they got ready for bed that night, one said to the other, “Well, that was fun, but it’s too bad about Kristin.”
My mindfulness meditation class ended at 5:15 and dinner guests were due to arrive at 6:30. I had worked throughout the afternoon to prepare for the party, making quinoa salad and cutting the asparagus and chilling the wine and setting the table so all I had to do was roast the salmon and asparagus. We were hosting two couples—my friend David and his girlfriend, plus newlyweds who had just moved to town—so with me, my husband, and two of our kids, that made eight people for dinner.
Everything went according to plan and I was feeling mildly triumphant when we all sat down at the table, me on one end and my husband on the other. There was a weird emptiness that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, a moment of confused silence. Then David said, “Are we expecting more people?” And all at once I understood the reason everyone felt so far away: I had set the table for ten instead of eight.
Ten place mats, ten plates, ten pressed white napkins, ten forks, ten knives, ten water glasses. Ten dessert plates waiting expectantly on the counter in the kitchen. All extremely organized. But not.
We had planned this little dinner party weeks earlier, and the number of people had never changed. Do I remember counting the guests in my head as I dusted the dining-room table and put down the place mats? No. Suddenly my mind was just at ten, because that’s where my train of ragtag thoughts had come to rest after it careered over the edge of the cliff.
“Do you want to join us?” David said, and I moved my seat to be closer, and we all laughed and made jokes about the imaginary guests who hadn’t shown up. We left the two extra place settings on the table. Everyone stayed a bit too late, which is always a good sign, and I imagine that as David and his girlfriend got ready for bed that night, one said to the other, “Well, that was fun, but it’s too bad about Kristin.”
Feelings…Nothing More than Feelings
When the father of my friend Rob was on his death-bed, he asked Rob, “What’s more important, thoughts or feelings?” Rob’s dad was 88 when he died, and the closer I get to that number, the more I begin to think that the question he posed was the most interesting question of life. Thoughts are important but they’re unreliable, unpredictable, and often unproductive no matter how mindful you are. Feelings—though—feelings are what endure.
We’ve all lost things over the years—and perhaps you’ve lost more in this past year, during the coronavirus pandemic, than in all the years leading up to it. If that is the case, I am so sorry. Hopefully your sense of humor is still intact. Hopefully you know that it doesn’t matter if your thought train is headed over the cliff, because it’s the feelings that linger when the train is upside down with its wheels spinning in the air. I’m aware that setting the table for two imaginary people may be a sign of cognitive decline—or a signal of a generous person with a welcoming attitude toward her fellow man.
It allows you to see that everyone around you is beset with frailties and blessed with strengths, just as you are.
If you’re wise, you look at the indignities of midlife (sleepless nights, elderly parents, a house full of crap you no longer need, not knowing how to dress, adultish children who persist in finding new ways to worry you—should I go on?) and think, Consider the alternative. You possess grace and patience and wit when faced with these indignities, because you have gained perspective by watching terrible things happen to people you love and your catalog of sadness has grown quite thick. You are old enough to have heard stories of unfathomable grief, and you never forget any of them, even as more accumulate over the years: a terminal diagnosis, a child with mental illness, the failure of a love that was supposed to last a lifetime, a global pandemic. You carry these stories with you, thinking, Consider the alternative.
You no longer believe you are special, which is a relief. When you’re young, it’s the job of your parents—if your parents are good ones—to convince you that there’s no one quite like you in all the world and that you are capable of anything your spectacular brain can dream up. Making you believe such a thing might be love, or it might be pressure disguised as love. As you get older, though, you realize that the world is full of people exactly like you. Maybe your hair is thinner or your hips are wider or you have more money or you have a laugh that lights up the room whenever anyone hears it. Still, you are pretty much like everyone else, which makes you more forgiving. More understanding. It allows you to see that everyone around you is beset with frailties and blessed with strengths, just as you are. Even if—like me—you don’t really know how to be mindful, the understanding and forgiveness you now possess make you a kinder person.
And the insignificant worries in your rearview mirror—you are thrilled to watch them diminish. If your children have reached their twenties, you no longer care about where anyone goes to college. Oh my God, the brain cells I burned obsessing over where everybody was going to college! I want all of those brain cells back. My kind of woman has watched enough kids get into and then go all the way through college to know that where you go to college doesn’t matter very much. Skinny thighs—those no longer matter. Also not important: watching that Netflix show everyone is talking about; whether or not your high-school boyfriend would still find you attractive; if your neighbor didn’t wave hello because she didn’t see you or because she doesn’t really like you. You are now self-actualized, meaning you don’t give a rat’s ass. Finally!
When Enough is Enough
When I was in my late 30s, I bought a house from a kooky 70-year-old woman who wore ribbed white tank tops without a bra and left a big messy pile of old family photos on the floor of the garage when she moved out. I gathered them in a neat stack, put them in an envelope, and sent them to her, because it was incomprehensible to me that she had left them intentionally. Old family photos have meaning! But that kooky lady knew then what I know now, which is that they don’t. Old family photos are just things, and if you’re smart, you know to value memories over things, because although both fade, one can live on in your head while the other just ends up at Goodwill or in some grown kid’s first apartment covered in water rings because what’s a coaster?
I salute the woman who has perhaps stopped caring about things. Maybe even about decorating in general. She looks at her dining-room door frame and sighs, not because the paint is chipped but because she remembers the winter her six-year-old ran into it while riding his Big Wheel inside the house every day. Why should she paint over it? Maybe the chipped paint sometimes makes her feel like her life is completely out of control, but more often it makes her smile, because that six-year-old is 18 and most of what she knows about his life comes from Venmo. What she wouldn’t give to have that boy banging into the door frame again, shouting to her with glee, just for an afternoon.
Yeats knew that things fall apart and the center cannot hold. My center can’t hold either, which is why I’ve got back fat and a muffin top above the waistband of my pants. But I try to laugh, because back fat and a muffin top and chipped paint and imaginary dinner guests are insignificant frustrations. Minor indignities, in the grand scheme. Middle age is full of them. And there are so many things that are much, much worse. None of us knows how life will turn out, and even if we forget everything else (who is Yeats again?), we must not forget that. So let’s just feel happy to be here. To cry sometimes, when the occasion calls for it, but to laugh as often as we can—that is enough. Because consider the alternative.
Photo credit above: Sasha Erwitt