Friday, March 8, 2013

The happiness of the moment

When I was growing up in Cuba and later in the United States, attention deficit disorder was no front-page news. I don't think many people had even heard of it and those who had probably weren't paying much attention to the phenomenon anyway.

Still, I suspect that I had a touch, or maybe a big dollop, of it. As a child I dabbled in practically everything, including endeavors for which I had no knack whatsoever like math and science.

Winnowing realistic pursuits from time-wasters and distractions is a problem that plagues me to this day: I can dart back and forth among items on my to-do list and yet at the end of the day feel like I've accomplished little.  And at age sixty-five, when phrases like "bucket list," "the home stretch" and "life expectancy" burrow into your subconscious, such daily meandering--or lack of mindfulness, as Buddhists would call it--is something else that really bugs me.

When you're a kid time seems unlimited, and indeed you feel immortal, so there's no rush to focus on anything. Maybe that is as it should be. I remember cooking up a hare-brained contraption, which I described as an "invention," that in fact may have been the precursor to today's drones. It consisted of a kite with a small camera dangling from its tail and it was supposed to take aerial pictures.

But how to trip the shutter while the camera was airborne? Or even before that, how to get a kite up in the air with such a heavy load hanging from it? Well, I never kept at it long enough to figure out those crucial details.

I also tried painting with watercolors, taking photos and building countless wooden things that most often didn't hold together long enough to qualify as carpentry.

All these hobbies received my dad's encouragement who provided all requisite supplies, but the only one that actually may have survived my gnat-like lack of perseverance is photography.

Indeed, as college loomed, the major that most often came to my mind was "Duh?"

I finally picked Chemistry, a hasty choice which ambushed me with a blizzard of numbers and equations that almost finished my college career. I bailed out at the end of the freshman year in favor of Political Science, a major that sounds important yet is actually quite nebulous and totally unscientific, but a hell of a lot more intelligent-sounding than "Duh?"

The only thing that has consistently stuck in my head is an enjoyment of words and how they work and sound together, and that interest came from just reading and writing. More generally, I've also enjoyed the visual arts like drawing, landscaping and photography.

But enough peering on the rear-view mirror, a generally a useless endeavor. What-ifs and could've-beens are no good as guides to what to do today.

Xochimilco's gondolas, called "trajineras"
Early this week Stew and I and ten others went on a one-day photo safari of the gardens and canals of Xochimilco, close to the heart of Mexico City. Xochimilco is a small man-made wonder dating back to the time of Aztecs; it has been quite manhandled but still draws tens of thousands of tourists.

Two experiences during our six hours on a gondola-like wooden boat, whose only propulsion was the muscles of a sinewy guy pushing a long pole, reminded me that lack of mindfulness--of concentration and enjoyment of the moment--is what drives the dissatisfaction that often gnaws at me.

One of my travel partners was a seventy-something woman and a good friend. On the way to the gondola that would take us through the maze of canals, without any particular rhyme, reason or prompting, she turned to me and said: "Al, I'm so happy to be here today!"

She lost her husband of fifty-some years about six months ago. She's hardly over the shock and occasionally bursts into tears when some incident or thing reminds her of her loss. Even before her husband's death, she never struck me as the giddy, Kum-ba-yah type, prone to ahhs or praise-the-Lord's every time she spotted a beautiful flower or a cute puppy.

Yet what she said made so much sense: "I am so happy to be here, today."

Without knowing it, she'd gotten to the gist of mindfulness, a key clue toward maximizing the enjoyment of what's in front of us today, while hushing all the voices murmuring about the past or  what might yet occur in our lives.

Retirement should facilitate concentrating on the moment. For starters, there are no bosses to hassle you or forced agendas to follow. But it's not that easy.

I should have been concentrating on the Xochimilco moment which by any measure was a happy one, but instead my mind kept traveling in all directions or worse still, focusing on negatives.

Quiet city: A great white heron glides by, not far
 from the rumble of Mexico's capital. 
The weather was perfect, the companionship enjoyable, and our destination--and island deep in Xochimilco's maze of canals and lagoons where some hermit had collected hundreds of dolls and hung them on the trees over a period of fifty years--creepy and fascinating.

On a Tuesday, when most everyone in the world is working, we were out floating along in a gondola, surrounded by an eerie silence interrupted only by the splashing and squawking of dozens of herons, and all of it right in the middle of one of the world's largest cities. It was almost miraculous. Can't beat it as a pleasant retirement moment.

Our captain Angel, who guided the clumsy barge with
 only a long pole and his own strength. 
During our tour I was hit by another example of mindfulness, this time as I watched Stew shooting photos with my old Canon. He's a good shooter and one of the reasons is that he's totally unburdened by technical preoccupations, photos he's seen, comments by anyone else or any other preconceived notions: Stew sees something he likes, pauses for five or ten seconds to contemplate it, and then shoots. Bingo, vamoose, on to the next shot.

Can't say I didn't enjoy our outing except that rather than fully focusing on the moment my mind kept going forward and backward. For example: The newspaper I worked for had offered me a job in the Mexico City bureau that I turned down. What would that have been like? Was it stupid to turn it down? Who knows, but it was definitely silly thinking about it at the time.

And so on, rather than being mindful of the moment--just that moment, that day--which as my friend said, was quite joyous and beautiful in its own right.

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4 comments:

  1. Nice photo of the gondolier.

    As for mindfulness, I share some of your distraction. Zen meditation can help a lot, but you might have to do it daily for months before it really begins to take hold.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we continue to fight the battle against distraction too.

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  2. Al, I've ruminated from time to time in my writing about the topic of enjoying life and the present. I certainly am not an expert and my journey will always be a work in progress, but it seems to me that being increasingly aware of what I wanted (being more mindful and enjoying the moment, and controlling that inner, critical voice), was huge progress. Once you concentrate on what you want, and begin to be aware, you begin to receive the positive feedback that relaxing and enjoying day to day life bring, it becomes easier. It appears to me that you are onto it...

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  3. I know why I have had trouble in the past of living in the moment -- I am far too focused on me. When I take the time to act as a servant -- to think of others first -- I have no trouble enjoying what I am doing. It is amazing how those lessons we were taught as children actually work.

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  4. I'm so glad that you, Stew and Billie enjoyed the canals and champas. To me it is a miracle that it is still there and that we are so blessed to visit its beauty.
    My trip has been one of my travel highlights of my life.
    Your photos are wonderful - as always.

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