The flurry of news, executive orders and meetings in Trump’s first week in the Oval Office has been breathtaking, the potential consequences overwhelming and, for me, heartbreaking. Some scholars and analysts have referred to the immigration ban as a “shock event”, designed to destabilize people and distract them from a more subtle, but possibly more dangerous maneuver. That could be very well be true. Regardless. it’s easy for me to get swept away in the maelstrom, believe I have to stay abreast of every development and, in the process, lose my connection to the present moment. If I am not careful, I can swing between hyper-vigilance and numbing out, the emotional responses I developed in childhood. These are easily triggered when I’m overstimulated.
In the last few days, random strangers in the physical world have brought me back to the here and now. As my Zen teacher reminds her students ad infinitum, the present moment is the only place where one can take effective and deliberate action, whether that is breathing mindfully, brushing one’s teeth with care, working out, attending a protest or calling representatives in Congress.
Last Friday, while walking briskly in the cold along a busy street lined with ethnic eateries, mom and pop markets, beauty salons and thrift shops, I was about to pass a tall and large man on his left. He wore a red hooded sweatshirt and knit cap. As he turned to me, I noticed a trim orange beard framing his round face.
“I wonder what happened up there,” he said, pointing to two fire trucks with flashing lights.
“I don’t know,” I said, slowing to match his pace. “I hadn’t really noticed it.”
“How could you not notice?” he asked, looking at me as if I were from another planet. “Didn’t you hear it?”
I tried backpedaling, a bit ashamed that the emergency vehicles hadn’t registered more prominently on my radar.
“I did see them but my mind was elsewhere,” I said. My brain had swirled with thoughts of something I wanted to write about. When I get caught in a reverie, either of creativity, delight or fear, my attention and field of vision narrow to my immediate surroundings, literally to the next step I need to take. At times my thoughts are so loud internally that certain sounds don’t register. While there are moments when it’s a good idea to choose to block out the world, other times it is counter-productive.
“Well, welcome back to earth,” he said, shaking his head. “I hope you enjoyed your travels.”
I became mildly defensive, not wishing to be judged as a space cadet unconcerned by the world around me. I explained that because I was walking rather than driving, and the trucks were a few blocks ahead, their presence didn’t impact me enough in the moment to think about why they were there. Maybe this fellow lived nearby and felt more connected to the happenings on the street. Still, after I moved along, I took his words to heart and tried to get out of my head, something that I find easier to do in nature than in civilization.
The following day I drove to a produce market. It wasn’t until I had loaded the groceries in the passenger seat and buckled my seat belt that I saw a note under the windshield wipers. Someone had scrawled in pencil that a woman driving a white Toyota had hit the side door and left. The anonymous witness had included the license plate and, at the bottom, “Hit and run”. I checked the driver’s side of the vehicle. Sure enough, white scratches marred the side door and above the rear wheel. Since this person had bothered to leave a note, I imagined they not only saw the incident but also heard the crunch of car against car. My shoulders sagged at the thought of having to deal with yet another car incident in short succession. Would the bad car karma ever stop?
I called the local police to report the episode. A friendly lieutenant at first asked me to stop by the precinct, but then offered to run the plate number I’d received. Sure enough, he called me back to say it matched the description of the car. I imagined he’d dismiss my complaint as being less pressing than other matters, but instead another officer drove to the house where the car was registered. He politely asked the occupant if something unusual had happened. She admitted that she had not been paying attention, that her mind had been elsewhere. The police obtained her contact and insurance information and gave it to me by phone. They also asked me for the plate of the car I was driving. Since it belongs my brother, I haven’t memorized it and I went outside to remind myself. That’s when I noticed that the white scratches along the side were, actually, powdery residue of the paint that had rubbed off the Toyota. Had I bothered to pause and check, rather than responding to the sense of urgency triggered by seeing “hit and run” on the note, I am not sure I would have involved the police.
Still, it wasn’t for naught. The officer calmly reminded the other driver to pay more attention, just as the man in the red sweatshirt had reminded me. Sometimes we’re more likely to take in such guidance when it comes from unexpected places. And I am grateful to the good samaritan who left the note on my windshield: rather than being lost in their own reverie, they had been awake enough to witness the accident and write down the details.
We will need to awaken and remain awake during this presidency. Being awake is not the same as being hyper vigilant, jumping to conclusions or taking dramatic action based on something we read, whether it’s a news article, a Facebook post, or a pencilled note on the windshield. Staying clear eyed is a practice. We start with our surroundings and grow from there. Slowing down is usually a good first step, as I remind myself, again and again.