Originally published in the Novelists Ink newsletter for my Girls in The Basement column; November 2003

 A few years ago, I began teaching journaling classes to women in transition. Most are not writers, and some have difficulty in the beginning knowing how to write about themselves and their lives. To help them grow comfortable with the process of just letting words out of themselves, I discovered that timed writings of various sorts could be very useful. One of the most effective turned out to be the starter, “In the moment….” By simply describing exactly what was happening in any given moment, the writer was free to simply observe her environment and emotions without judging either her words or her world.

I’m a life-long journaler, but I’d not used that phrase in my ramblings. It proved so effective for my students, however, that I made it a rule to try it while on a hiking trip to France. I thought it would help me remember things better.

August, 2001

Paris, 7:30 pm

In the moment… I am sitting in the window of my little hotel room in the 12 Arrindossiment of Paris. Fourth floor, with windows that open like French doors to the street far below—I am completely free, if I wish, to throw myself to my death, and I love having nothing between me and the world beyond except a little grate. The view is not particularly inspiring. I’m overlooking a tiny alley, and across the way is an unbeautiful gray building. But there are apartments in it, and I’ve spent the last hour, blearily jet-lagged but unwilling to sleep, drinking red wine from a plastic cup (it has a tiny leak, so I’ve wrapped it in tissue), smoking cigarettes, admiring the snippets of lives I can see. There are red geraniums in clay pots lined up on the outside of one window, bottles of some sort in another. Directly across the way, even with my view, is a high apartment with the windows open and I can hear an Arabic family at dinner. If I spoke the language, I could eavesdrop on their conversation quite easily. Perched on their open window is a tricycle, almost poised for riding, right off the roof to the street 40 feet below.

I thought using the “in the moment” starter would help solidify my memories, but I gained something more. I began to practice “in the moment” when I wasn’t writing, too. It started running a litany through my head during the journey. “In the moment,” I’d think, “I’m sitting on an old stone wall where once a member of the French resistance had his lunch. My feet have terrible blisters, but I didn’t die on that last hill.”

What I noticed was that by practicing the discipline of “in the moment,” I was in fact actually participating in the moments of my life. Not judging them, not evaluating or reorganizing them, or observing them: living in them.

The result of that simple habit was that I came home with the details of the trip more firmly placed in memory than any other journey I’ve taken. It’s been a couple of years, and I’m still able to call up, quite clearly, thousands of “in the moment” memories.

I was also more aware of what was happening while it was happening. I was genuinely living—not worrying about what might be happening at home, or thinking about what I had to do for work, or trying to rush anything along. I found myself letting things just be whatever they were.

It was startling to realize how much that simple practice changed my perception of almost everything around me, and how it has begun to change the shape of my life. It is likely changing my writing, as well, though it’s hard to see our own work clearly except at a great distance.

Writers don’t need training in how to get things down on the page, as my journaling students do. They also don’t need instruction in how to step apart and observe—most of us have been one step separated from events all of our lives, watching the flow of life around us, often collecting moments without participating in them.

What we do sometimes need is a way to connect our minds to our bodies, a way of grounding ourselves in the real world. Writers are cerebral and imaginative. We live in our heads.

In the moment…

It’s early on a Saturday morning. I’m wearing my moon-and-stars hippie-dress-turned-robe, and my feet are cold, even in socks. I’m in my office with a red-painted wall and a Spanish Art Deco cigarette ad on the wall. My dog, wishing for me to come play, is breathing on my side, making a hot and annoying spot of yearning on my ribs. The Siamese is yowling. There is sun coming through the windows, through curtains so thin they’re like a glaze of ice. I love this room, this house, this dress, these critters. I love being awake early, writing in the quiet, with a fresh brain.

Now matters. There is a little extra sweetness in loving this room because I’m getting the house ready to sell, and I will miss it. Now, I’m here.

It takes practice to “be here now,” as Ram Dass, puts it. The modern world has trained us to be multi-taskers—and I’m as guilty as anyone. I notice I’m often doing more than one thing at a time: eating and reading, watching television and editing a book on the commercials, walking and listening to music. It’s very difficult for me to simply do one thing, and even when I do, I’m often thinking ahead to the next task, or thinking backward to something I wish I’d done. It makes it difficult to be aware of what’s going on in this minute.

Which means we often don’t even know what’s going on with our own bodies.

In the moment:

July 30, kitchen. I’m still recovering from the conference in New York. It was wonderful, but it’s always grueling, and I feel it in my shoulders and the back of my neck. I need more sleep, but I have to get some actual writing done! Maybe I’ll go get a latte from Starbucks and bring it back and drink it as a treat while I work.

August 4, back yard—I am tired. My shoulders ache. There is too much to do. Visitors to entertain, trip to New Zealand next week to pack and plan for (six talks!). The proposal to mail.

August 13, New Zealand—I am tired. I have a headache from a twelve hour flight. I need some coffee. The palms are clacking together, a wonderful sound.

August 23, Santa Fe—I’m enjoying this little side trip, but I’m tired. Too much travel, too many guests, too much to do! I have a little headache. I think I’ll go find some coffee.

September 6, back yard—I’m tired beyond description. Mama (my ex-mother-in-law) died. We’ll have to go to St. Louis.

September 10—I can’t stop sleeping. Every night, I’m out cold by 9:30 and sleep straight through until 8, and I’m still taking naps every day!

If I’d been truly in the moment, instead of rushing around from task to task to task, I would have seen clearly that my body was screaming for rest. Instead, I kept pushing along, thinking about the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. Even a few minutes spent in the moment, being aware of what I was really feeling, might have been helpful. I would have been able to recognize the tired was getting beyond worn, into deep exhaustion. Instead of manipulating my energy with coffee, I might have taken a longer nap on the days I could. I might have let myself go to bed earlier and sleep later.

Instead, the more tired I grew, the less I lived in the moment. As a result, I finally hit the wall and could not function for more than a week. I dragged my aching body from the couch to the back yard then back to my bed. Read about seven novels in a row, watched movies, ate. Slept an average of 12-13 hours a day.

There’s more we can achieve from the awareness of the moment than an awareness of our bodies. One side effect of being in the moment can be a better grasp of truth. Truth with a capital T—the emotional truth and the physical truth of life as it flows by.

Writers are masters of reweaving reality. We’re always taking bits and pieces and snippets of life and weaving them around into new shapes, new forms. It’s how we create books, by doing all that re-weaving, re-adjusting, re-shaping.

An example: In my Irish-American family, arguing politics and books and ideas was an art form, but I’m not adept in verbal combat. I just don’t think quickly on my feet, and I learned to hold back, let everyone else argue, then later, in the quiet of my room, rewrite the argument including what I’d say if I could have thought it up fast enough. It was one of the things that turned me into a writer.

This is an absolutely necessary function of the brain that creates novels. It’s not always a great tool for living. If we’re always mentally rewriting, how can we be truly living and experiencing the reality? The emotional truth of a moment is sometimes difficult, and it’s only natural to want to shy away once in awhile. But often the most difficult moments have something rich to offer the girls in the basement, for those future novels.

In the moment:

It is a funeral for a woman I adored, my sons’ grandmother. She died very suddenly, and we’re all shell-shocked, dizzy, milling around outside the Riverview Church of God in St. Louis on a sunny, hot September day. I am wearing my very best “successful writer” outfit, a pin-striped skirt and shoes that make my legs look good, and a turquoise blouse that makes the most of coloring, because it’s the first time I’ve been around my ex-family (as if such a thing exists) since a divorce a couple of years ago, and I want to look prosperous and healthy. I do.

It doesn’t matter. I wish I was somewhere else—her death makes me feel hollow and lost. This moment is one I would rather not have in my life. But I force myself. Force myself to see this moment, because it won’t come again. Force myself to look at the sisters of the woman who crossed over, their neat dresses and sad faces and graciousness. See the long black cars ready to carry us to the burial. See my stepdaughter, sneaking away for a cigarette. She is too thin, too pale. I worry about her.

My eye is drawn to my sons, standing together, a little apart from everyone else. One neat and slim in his crew cut and tweed jacket, his long white hands patting the back of an aunt who hugs him. The other, six inches taller, dressed in a tailored black suit and black sunglasses, his long, beaded hair pulled away from his face. He laughs when another auntie says, “Can I have your autograph? You look so cool, I know you have to be famous.”

They’re painfully beautiful, my boys, grown up and well trained, and my heart swells double its size with pride—and recognition of how fast time goes. How did they grow to be so tall? They were only born yesterday! In an hour, they’ll be fathers themselves. In two, they’ll be burying me.

Today, this minute, one is twenty and in love and his girlfriend is holding his hand. His heart is broken—this is the first death that he’s really known, and it’s hard. The other is 18 and not yet fully aware of his charm. Mama is dead, and our family will scatter a little more, and I hate that. But as the Navajo say, “You see, I am alive.”

I remember a line I read as a very young writer: “a writer writes best with a sense of mortality at her back.” I had no idea at the time what it meant.

It means be here now. Live this minute. Then put that on the page.

Our moments are finite. Choosing to be conscious of the moment we are living in right this very instant makes more precious the hours of our mortality. It also makes precious and precise the moments in our books. It makes them detailed and rich and real. It means we have more details to deliver: the sound of the single cricket singing to the night last evening as you sat on the front porch for a little while; the smell of sausage permeating the air on a walk through an old neighborhood; the dog, still breathing hope of a game of tug-of-war on my side. The sweet, immeasurable, fleetingness of all moments, which observed, become eternal.

In the moment:

August, 1987–I am in the backyard of a house I love, a rental. My toddler sons, one blonde and slim, the other round and dark, are dancing in the sprinkler. The late afternoon sunlight makes the water glitter in the air and shines on the wet backs of these two boys. I can hear my husband singing a gospel song in the shower. I smell freshly cut grass, and I have taco meat simmering on the stove. I just cut the lettuce and I’m going to go inside in few minutes and finish up the last of the corrections to the manuscript Silhouette requested. We’ll eat in a little while.

For now, I just want to watch them dance, watch my dog April sneaking up on the cat–Moses Many Toes, who warns him off with his baseball-mitt sized paws. Chuckle over the song coming through the bathroom window. Life is sweet sometimes.

Long ago.


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