Towards the end of high school, most weekend nights would begin or end at a smokey coffeeshop. This was before wifi, before Starbucks took over the planet and before smoking was banned in public spaces. My friends and I would sit for hours, a stagnant cloud of Camel Light smoke engulfing us, trying to make each other laugh while half-listening as a kid from another school passionately plucked Dave Matthews chords during an open mic. Basically a Norman Rockwell portrait of white suburban teenage angst.
Occasionally, at one of our favorite haunts a woman would set up at a table in the corner and read people’s tarot cards. One night shortly before leaving for college we sat around her velvet covered table, rolling our eyes at each other but also curious enough to hand over five dollars. I don’t remember much of what she said, but I do remember it having something to do with how we’d all soon be separated (HOW WOULD SHE KNOW THAT) and how we’d all undergo transformative experiences (DID YOU TELL HER WE WERE GOING TO COLLEGE?) and other generalities that thrilled and bored us at the exact same time.
This wouldn’t be the last time I hoped a complete stranger would hold the answers I was looking for.
During my first year teaching second grade in Newark, I experienced crippling panic attacks at night when I should have been sleeping. The accumulated stress from the day swirled in my head while the expectations of my tiny students and their families seemed to pile up like a stack of bricks directly on my chest, making it impossible to breathe, much less get a good night’s sleep.
Eventually, I made my way to a meditation center a couple towns over, having spent the previous month googling success stories from this particular type of meditation — it seemed all I had to do was hand over a sizable chunk of cash, receive a secret mantra and voila! I’d find peace and calmness and also enlightenment.
When I got there, I was met by an old man who looked like the farmer from Babe dressed in Buddhist pajamas. He took me to a small back room where I told him what brought me in and realized if he was going to murder me, this would be the perfect time.
He didn’t murder me but he did explain the meditation practice, lit some candles on an altar in front of us and then whispered my special mantra in my ear. Afterwards, we chanted it together, first loudly and then quieter and quieter until it was silent, which is when I figured out I was supposed to continue chanting it in my head. Because that’s how meditation works.
I left with instructions to practice this twice a day, which I did and for a while it was super helpful. I was able to find calmness in chaos and most importantly, I started sleeping again.
Since leaving the classroom though, I’ve fallen off the wagon and practiced only intermittently, which I’m aware is not exactly the definition of “practice.” But when things get hectic and I need a break, I know I can always close my eyes, take a deep breath and repeat my secret mantra: That’ll do pig. That’ll do.