How To Calm Down

(YouTube) Meditation, desire, recent reading

Hello, happy new year, and welcome back to Not Knowing How! I have migrated this newsletter to beehiiv because of Substack’s inaction on their Nazi problem. The Substack is still live for now, but all of my previous posts are now available on beehiiv, and once I've had a chance to double-check that everything is where it needs to be here, I’ll be leaving Substack entirely. I’ve made the assumption that if you wanted to hear from me on Substack you’ll want to hear from me on beehiiv, but if I’m wrong about that, feel free to unsubscribe!

This newsletter is the first in a series about my experiences with meditation. Thanks for reading.

At the beginning of January I was awarded an alumni residency at Djerassi, where, a decade ago, I experienced two transformative residencies that led me out of a previous life into the one I am living now.

Six days back there after so much time away. Six days for my novel, which I completely revised (again) and substantially shortened. Six days being my lonely weird self, devouring handfuls of chocolate chips and pumpkin seeds after meandering hikes into the redwoods. Six days of a kind of bad sleep I had almost forgotten, my internal clock wrecked from hours of being on and open. Instant oatmeal for breakfast, spaghetti for dinner.

Djerassi was the beginning of northward movement in my California life, my first taste of a smoky chill that would make me change my life. As I arrived, driving out of the woods onto the dramatic slope of the property, I found myself saying out loud over and over again, “There you are. I know you.” Still the barn with its wide windows out onto the thick white storm with which we were blessed; still the deer and baby bunnies gamboling on the hillsides, the rushing creeks. I was the one who was different.

I was eager to reenter Djerassi’s intoxicating scent of petrichor and bark and cloud. But this time it eluded me. Maybe it was a different season than when I was there before, maybe its absence is connected to the changing climate, but more likely I didn’t smell it because I’ve recently learned I suffer a form of Long COVID called parosmia, a distorted sense of smell. Scent is the herald of memory. Being changed in this way will change—has changed—what I can recall.

The last time I was at Djerassi, I was married to my first husband. The last time I was at Djerassi, my parents owned the house I grew up in. The last time I was at Djerassi, my mom was alive.

The last time I was at Djerassi, I was not expressing my breastmilk with a manual pump every morning and carrying it into the woods to give to the land. One day I poured my milk over a tree stump covered in turkey tails, because it—they—looked thirsty. In the next fifteen minutes I found so many huge chanterelles that my afternoon began to resemble a Miyazaki movie. I confirmed the identification with a more expert resident but ultimately couldn’t bring myself to eat these gifts, even after I’d cooked them. Into the compost they went. I hope that was not an insult to that beneficent generosity.

Every morning at Djerassi I did something I haven’t done years: Dr. Wayne Dyer’s Morning Meditation for Manifesting, via YouTube. (The internet is much stronger at Djerassi than when I last visited.) I’ve kept it up, mostly in my parked car after exercising in the morning.

“And what I’d like to do here is have you use this meditation, every single morning, and while we do this meditation together, I will actually do the sound and ask you to do it with me,” it begins in the late Dr. Dyer’s stentorian voice. A sound relic from a previous life, an earlier season of change. I take a deep breath. When we reach the final “ahhh,” I massage my third eye with my left index and middle finger. I make the sign of the cross.

I make my noise. I urge it to bring me what I want.

Wanting is a difficult way to be.

Wanting is a difficult place to be, I wrote initially. That’s true, too.

Want is what has impelled me towards practices that I’ll call meditation for the sake of simplicity in these newsletters. Not a desire for peace, or not directly, but the idea, flawed and simplistic, that getting what I want will help me relax and accept reality as it is. As I have made it. I have gotten what I want, more or less, in my life. Or so I think. I have practiced magic in my life, more or less. Or so I think.

Whatever works has always been the mantra of my spiritual life.

For the next little while I’ll share stories about these practices and their consequences in this space.

Recent Reads

I am the worst at recording what I read, so one idea I have for this newsletter is trying, in my idiosyncratic way, to collect some of the more meaningful examples here.

You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer: My favorite novel of recent memory imagines the meeting of Moctezuma and Hernán Cortés and their respective retinues, lubricated the consumption of a lot—a lot—of hallucinogenic fauna.

Little Fish by Casey Plett: A book that reminded me what a novel can do, Little Fish follows a winter of adventure and danger in the life of Wendy, a trans woman living in Winnipeg who comes to believe her long-dead grandfather may have also been trans. I loved this book’s commonplaces, its way with time, memory, and loss.

Monica by Daniel Clowes: I was chagrined to learn by reading this Alta interview that Clowes, one of my most favorite authors of comics (in a kind of holy trinity with Adrian Tomine and Nick Drnaso) released a book in October that I’ve only just found out about. I read it in one sitting and it made it hard for me to sleep. I’ll try it again when I’ve forgotten how provocative, mournful, and frightening I found it.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson: After buying yet another copy of it, I didn’t actually complete my umpteenth reread of Lila, but I carried it around with me as a talisman and got pretty deep in, hoping that by osmosis I might too become capable of descriptions like this one:

She knew he was thinking and praying about how to make her feel at home. She had never been home in all the years of her life. She wouldn’t know how to begin. But the shade of the cottonwoods and the shimmer of their leaves and the trill of the cicadas were comfort for her. The pasture smell. Elderberries grew in the ditches by the road, and they picked them and ate them as they walked. Sometimes it was dark when they turned back toward Gilead. Once, he noticed a bush glimmering with fireflies. He stepped into the ditch and touched it, and fireflies rose out of it in a cloud of light.

I kept Lila with me at Djerassi as a talisman of rest, hopping to read it to sleep. But in the wee hours of the night all I could do was research the private lives of people I don’t know and then, exhausted, put on one Tara Brach meditation after another, hoping to drift off until dawn. It’s been this way since childhood, it’s never really gotten better: when I am alone, I need the sun to rest.