I crossed my feet and mindfully watched my ankles rub together. I felt the tingly heat from the friction against my skin. It quickly danced up my legs and thighs and settled in my belly. I inhaled. Deeply. The leftover warmth swirled up my spine and then down my arms. I exhaled slowly, letting my eyelids close and my belly release.

“Are you sure you don’t want a Xanax?”

I could hear the words echoing off the walls in the small, well-decorated den. I opened my eyes as I shook my head. The artwork against the walls had been meticulously hung. Vivid colors watched me watching them—reds, golds, royal purple hues against a canary yellow backdrop.

“Pooh?”

I shook my head again. I didn’t want a Xanax. Or a glass of wine. Or a shot of tequila. Or a puff of pot.

“But, Pooh, are you sure? One Xanax would make you feel so much better.”

“I’m okay,” I finally mumbled, turning to assure my cousin, Kristy,

who is more like a big sister than the daughter of Mom’s youngest sister.

Her brows creased into her forehead.

“Pinky swear.”

“I know you’re not drinking right now, Pooh, but…”

She was right; I was on sabbatical. I did it every year between January and April. Today was February 28th.

“You don’t have to be strong.” She rested her hand against my thigh. It flexed from the touch of her fingers and the concern, the worry, the love – all pressed against me too, working to be let in. “Your father was your world. And now he’s gone. That’s a lot—even for the strongest person to try to handle.”

She was right again. He was my world.

I studied myself in the mirrored sliding doors. The heavily made-up woman stared back at me. The funeral makeup was supposed to hold up against even the most determined tears. At least that’s what the shop girl in Sephora told me. But I didn’t feel like crying right now anyway. I hadn’t cried at all today. Or yesterday for that matter. Instead, as the fragrant burst of pumpkin tickled my nose hair, I grinned. The candle atop the coffee table had been quiet until now. Pumpkin spice. Flashes of autumn raced through my head, stopping right in front of the Field Museum between a cluster of colorful trees.

My father lifted me onto his shoulders, the Field Museum stood majestically at eye level now. My little hands grabbed a branch on the giant tree and pulled it to my chest. Those crabapples didn’t stand a chance. Daddy laughed from his belly, the lake breeze pushing the sounds of his happy further into the crisp air around us. I laughed with him. It was all so infectious, the innocence and the joy. A couple walked past and snapped our picture. We giggled harder. Then he boosted me higher into the tree to rob the next branch of all its tiny red apples. In no time, that tree was empty and we were off to rob another one nearby.

I was mindful and accepting of the energies that were flowing around and through me. Having practiced being mindful in the quiet moments of meditation was already proving to have been good preparation for the noise that would surely clutter my emotional and physical space today.

 

“Are you ready for today?” My mother poked her head into the den.

I looked at the lines etched into her weary face; she’d spent most of the week worrying about me. She wouldn’t say it, but she was terrified that I was going to have some sort of emotional breakdown and spiral into a depressive bout, or even worse, an uncontrollable manic episode. I am bipolar – like really bipolar – like really really bipolar. Sometimes my mind races and I can’t seem to catch my thoughts and hold onto them long enough for my words to create coherent sentences out of them. Paranoia and restlessness make cameo appearances during my dark days as well, especially when I’m caught in the web of severe anxiety or major depression. And history has shown that all I need are a few good triggers to send me spinning out of control.

“Yes, I’m ready.” I watched the dark smoke from the candlewick swirl around itself.

“I asked her if she wanted a Xanax,” Kristy explained to my mother in whispers that sounded a million miles away. “She keeps saying she’s…”

 

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I tip-toed down the carpeted stairs and crouched against the banister. I didn’t want daddy to know I was awake. It was hours past my bedtime. By now, I was supposed to be knee deep in dreams of sugar and spice. Plus, he’d explained earlier, before he sang me to sleep, that Santa would only stop by our house if he could hear me snoring. But I was wide awake, and even more determined to find out if that red-suited man had been to our house yet. I could feel the sweat beads popping up beneath my flannel onesie. I peeked around the banister and spotted Daddy. He was wrapping the train set I’d told Santa I wanted earlier in the week when Daddy took me to the Evergreen Plaza mall.

I must’ve yelled out a whale of a gasp because before I could question why Daddy was the one wrapping my train set, I was being swooped into his big arms and snugly tucked under the Strawberry Shortcake covers with another lecture about Santa not appreciating me being awake. But how was I ever going to get back to sleep now? Are you kidding me? Tomorrow was Christmas Day! Knowingly, Daddy smiled and picked up my Mickey Mouse guitar. He strummed it softly and began whisper-singing my favorite bedtime song; it was our nighty ritual. And it didn’t matter that the plastic guitar was on its last two strings. And it didn’t matter that Daddy was about as good a singer as I was a Christmas Eve sleeper. And it didn’t matter that daddy’s breath smelled of fresh wine and stale cigarettes. All that mattered was that he was here, singing, “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain.” And it was the perfect lullaby. I was fast asleep, lightly snoring, before Daddy could choose who was coming around the mountain next.

       compassion    

“Yes, the funeral is being held at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church,” my Mother said, matter-of-factly, into the telephone. “Starts at 10:30.” She forced a smile before glancing across the room at me.

I looked down at my hands.

“She’s doing okay,” my Mother assured the person on the other end of the call.

I had my father’s hands.

Mom deepened the forced smile that had been stuck to her face. The crinkle in the corners of her eyes told her tales of worry. “Yes, she’s doing okay…” she said again, this time lowering her voice and slinking out of the room, “… for now.”

Was she right? Was it inevitable that I would fall apart? What about when I walked into the church and saw all the people who loved Daddy too? What about when I walked into the sanctuary with the pictures of Daddy, the oversized fragrant flowers, and his urn beside his favorite Fedora hat? Surely, I’d fall to pieces when I stood at the podium and prepared to recite the poetic story I’d written about my Superman. Surely, I’d collapse right there at the altar. Surely.

I closed my eyes. They danced around in their sockets. I let them. I breathed into myself. Slowly. My attention focused on the pumpkin-scented air as it filled my lungs. My palms were open, turned toward heaven, and my back was comfortably upright. The bottoms of my feet were situated against the green, tiled floor. I hate this tile. My stomach tightened.

I shook my head again. I didn’t want a Xanax. Or a glass of wine. Or a shot of tequila. Or a puff of pot.

I hate this shade of green.

This time, I felt the intensity in my belly as my stomach tightened even more.

I hate most shades of green. But this green on this particular floor tileI really really hate this green.

The muscles in my lower back contracted with my belly this time. I sucked back another deep, cleansing breath. Blood-orangey reds flooded the space behind my lids. I forced in yet another deep breath.

Green.

And then another.

Why did Mom pick this shade of green?

This time I observed how difficult it was to pay attention to the movement of the cleansing air as it ran through my nose hair and down my windpipe. As I worked through the struggle, I noticed that if I focused hard enough, I could actually see my intense attachment of hate to the color of the tile. Green. I breathed in the pumpkin air again, this time choosing to focus only on the space behind my eyelids. The ball of fury in the pit of my belly was slowly untightening. I exhaled just as gently and deliberately as I’d inhaled. The hate for the green tile was deciding if it wanted to leave with the toxic breath. I kept my single focus on that same space behind my eyelids. It was white now. A murky, creamy, eggshelly white. And I could no longer see clear shades of green. As that last breath made its way down my trachea and into my lungs, the light air passed easily through the maze of my respiratory tract. I inhaled again and focused only on the life energies passing through me, taking residual negativity and anxiety with them. There was nothing green or tiled leftover now. The fear of what could possibly happen when I arrived at the church in one hour was gone as well. The pumpkin settled somewhere in the back of my throat.

I need to sneeze.

That’s when I knew for certain that I was back. I was here. Right here. Present.

I need to sneeze. In this very moment.

To sneeze or not to sneeze?

And especially mindful. I let the sneezy thoughts pass and continued to watch the now bright white sparks of light loop around the insides of my eyelids. And I continued to breathe.

“She hasn’t cried yet?” Kristy’s voice swirled around me.

“No, she’s just been sitting there like that pretty much all morning,” my Mother whisper-explained. I pictured the two of them huddled together, standing in the doorway, one behind the other.

“What’s she doing?”

I let myself hear them, but continued to focus only on my breathing. It was deep and rhythmic now.

“I think she’s meditating.”

I could feel the presence of someone else joining their conversation. “What’s she doing?”

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I dragged the kids’ chair across the green carpet and past the row of books on the shelves. Daddy’s chair was way bigger than mine; his was for grown ups. He always promised that I’d be able to sit in it one day. I situated my plastic blue chair right next to his like I always did. A whiff of his familiar cologne acknowledged me. Daddy always had a stack of books in front of his chair and they were always stacked higher than my eyebrows. Today they were only as high as my nose. I made a note of that as I turned to walk away. Rounding the corner, I came back with an armful of my own books. I stacked them in front of my chair too, but they only came to my knees. I turned to look at Daddy. He didn’t take his eyes off the page of the book he was reading, but he smiled that one smile he always wore when my name was called for Honor Roll. I scooted into my chair and opened my Judy Blume book to the first page. I made sure to cross my right leg over my left just like Daddy does every time we sit in the bookstore before our movie at the other end of the mall starts. I tilted my head thirty degrees to the right – the exact same angle as Daddy’s big head. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him turn the page of his book. I hadn’t read one single word on my page yet, but I turned mine anyway. As Daddy nodded his head at the words, my two pigtails swung past my ears as I nodded my head too.

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“The limo will be here to pick us up in twenty minutes,” Mom told Kristy and her sister, DeShaun.

“And she’s still in her bra and panties,” Kristy said.

“Does she have a dress, Auntie?” DeShaun asked. “Seriously, how long does meditation last?”

I’d been sitting still, mindful of my thoughts for about forty-five minutes. As the extended thoughts of Daddy surfaced, I’d been careful not to attach a judgment or an emotion to them. Instead, I honored them and was willing to let them drift away from my thought space as easily and gently as they’d drifted into it. I was mindful and accepting of the energies that were flowing around and through me. Having practiced being mindful in the quiet moments of meditation was already proving to be good preparation for the noise that would surely clutter my emotional and physical space today. If a grade was to be given for my efforts to be mindful this morning, I suppose I would have earned a B+.

“Should we be worried about her?” Kristy asked.

“I don’t know. What do you think?” DeShaun said.

“I think she’ll be fine,” Kristy assured. “Yeah, she’ll be fine.”

Everyone in the doorway took a collective breath.

“Right, Auntie?” Kristy said. “She’s stronger than we think.”

I was much stronger than I’d been in the past, mainly due to the Mental Fitness Plan I’d been following. It had taken me fifteen years to design it. After my second release from the psychiatric ward—and after being under suicide watch—I was determined to find another way to live my life without meds. The truth is that I had not been patient enough to allow the various cocktails of psychotropic medications to work for my epic mood disorder. Or maybe I was just an obnoxiously stubborn and mentally ill rebel. Either way, I needed to find a way to live a fulfilling life; that was my birthright.

I’d been tinkering around, working on my emotional and mental fitness, when I stumbled upon meditation. After dating yoga for a while back in the East Village in New York City, I started seeing a whimsically cool guy who gifted me with a book that changed my entire outlook on the mind and its role in shaping reality: The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman. What resonated with me was the idea that we can be mindful of our thoughts and still accept and detach from them without judgment. Such a new and radical concept, right? Well, actually, it wasn’t, considering that mindfulness can be traced back to 1500 BCE with roots in Hinduism and yoga. Apparently, other people have been gifting themselves with this miracle for ages.[1]

Conceptually, it was quite simple. Take the time to stop and sit still. Breathe. Focus on that single breath as it moves through you. Think about absolutely nothing else. And as thoughts drift in, honor them, and then let them go. And then, breathe out and in again.

The bonus is that Mindful Meditation helps with depression and anxiety. Some even say that when done consistently and over a long period of time, it can even rewire neural pathways. And I’m all about that life.

DeShaun took her own deep breath. “Someone should definitely tell her she’s still sitting in her panties.”

“Shhh,” Kristy ordered, the consonant digraph bouncing around the room and landing in my lap. “I don’t think we’re supposed to be talking while she’s doing it.”

I wasn’t good at this whole Mindful Meditation thing in the beginning. I’d sit in a quiet space and attempt to focus on nothing at all. That seemed impossible. My thoughts would sprint through my mind and I’d chase them down, wanting to experience them, especially the seductive and provocative ones. My favorite racer was the one with whatever super cute boy I was into at the time. I always chased that one down to see exactly how it would unfold. That’s the thing about being mindful during meditation; you have to be patient and gentle with yourself, especially during the discomfort. Because if I wasn’t engaging with my sexy thoughts, I was annoyed and focused on my butt, which was achy, or my back, which was achy, or my hips, which, after sitting cross-legged for more than four minutes, were… you guessed it, supremely achy. And that horn that kept beeping outside, or the barking dog down the street, and the wailing ambulance whizzing through traffic. How was I ever going to slow the world long enough so I could sit and breathe? My breathing was choppy and short-winded anyway. It was borderline painful to try and regulate it. But in time, after consistency, kindness, and patience, I began to find the calm and revel in the inner peace promised to those who practice this tradition. And it helped. My anxiety eased, my interactions with the world were much more pleasant, and I even had a few mystical experiences during my quiet connecting with my space in this grand Universe.

“I’m sure she knows she’s sitting in her panties,” Mom said.

“But people are here,” DeShaun said.

I wasn’t ready yet. And I quietly gave myself permission to just be still. Then I did what I knew how to do. I breathed into myself. Deeper this time. My cousin’s voice was still lingering in the air and I watched my attention drift to the lacy pink and black waistband on my panties.

Kristy cleared her throat. “Pooh?”

The Musketeers weren’t going to go away. So I peeked at them through my right eye.

“Do you wanna get dressed now?” Kristy asked, my Mom and DeShaun hovering over her shoulders.

I loved her. I loved them all. And I understood that they thought I was fragile. And maybe had it not been for the Mindful meditating that I’d made a part of my daily morning routine, I would have been a basket case—or an oversized suitcase. I breathed in again. And smiled. But today I was fluid. Today I was having an open and honest experience with the space around and inside of me.

My eye followed the silhouette of Kristy’s curves, emphasized by her fitted, knee-length black dress. “You’re very pretty,” I told her, shifting my gaze to her big brown eyes.

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I opened my bedroom door and twisted my neck to look up at Daddy. He was pretty too. In his freshly pressed, dry-cleaned suit and new tie, he was bigger than life. The evidence of his ten o’clock haircut rested on his shoulders as he took a well-deserved bow and held out his hand. I wrapped my little fingers over his big palm. The smile he wore today was one that looked exactly like the one he always wore when I walked down the staircase in my Sunday church dress and shiny patent leather Mary Janes. But today wasn’t Sunday, although my bobby socks and slick, Vaselined knees couldn’t tell the difference. Today was Saturday, our Daddy-Daughter date day. We usually went to the movies in River Oaks and then to Fuddrucker’s, but today we were going to a fancy restaurant instead. I pushed my eyeglasses up my nose and rocked on my tippy-toes, not caring about the deepening crease in my shoes. Daddy took my arm and wrapped it through his before bending down to kiss my forehead. His black and grey speckled beard tickled my skin and whiffs of his Grey Flannel cologne hugged me. Instantly, my happy rushed down my spine and then back up again. Daddy gently placed his hand over mine and escorted me down the stairs. As I stood in the foyer watching him reach for my frilly winter coat, I thought only of the adventure ahead of us. It was always an adventure with Daddy. I swiveled around on my kitten heels and eased my arms into the coat’s coziness. Daddy kneeled down in front of me and held my face in his hands. I flashed a toothy smile. It was the one I wore especially for those super special occasions when I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. And I was.

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I breathed in again. This time I held onto the breath for a few extra moments. I acknowledged the thought that daddy was no longer here in this place with me, at least not in physical form. Warm air encircled me and a calm fell over the very still room. I focused on it. And then I knew. Daddy had always been here. The air tickled my skin and whirled around me. Faster now. Stronger now. Hints of oaky wood, tiny apples, fresh book pages, infused with the pumpkin flooded the space. And then I smiled. It was the smile I wore when I looked into his eyes on my first day of school. I didn’t want to let him go that day either.

The room was empty when I opened my eyes. I was alone. But somehow, I knew I’d never be alone again.

“Princess?” I could hear Mom padding down the hall.

I inhaled slowly. I could feel his hand around mine.

“It’s time.”

“Yes,” I looked at my Mother. “It is, isn’t it?”

 

[1] A Brief History of Mindfulness. (2011). Retrieved from https://sujato.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/a-brief-history-of-mindfulness/Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice. (2015)