"When it was his turn, he suddenly didn’t know what to say"
Mike’s audio connected to Zoom and what had been a budding cynicism now bloomed. New-age Indian flute music and a synthesizer beat whistled through the speakers. The teacher’s screen showed a stone buddha, the fat and happy one, resting atop a bookshelf. It looked down at Mike. Twirly bamboo in a glass vase sat next to the buddha. Mike was logged into the first session of Healing from Trauma.
As he’d anticipated, 80%, maybe 90%, of the attendees were women. Fine. He looked for the men. They were there. 10 or 15 guys. Half looked like they would announce their veganism at any moment - whip-thin, with unkempt hair, some even wore tie-dye shirts. They looked hungry for something food could not satiate. Two guys looked like die-hard cyclists. Restless competitiveness wafted off them as they fidgeted in their screens. One was eating nuts or trail mix, popping whatever it was aggressively into his mouth from his cupped hand. The cyclists looked around as if they had just found themselves in a cage. Perhaps, they were European. The others were middle-aged dudes. Seemingly composed and ordinary. They looked annoyed, cynical even, like Mike.
That morning Mike told his wife Claire he would be in a meditation class from 10am - 12pm for the next four Saturdays. He didn’t use the word “trauma.”
“Something Sheila recommended?” she asked.
“Yes.” he said.
“Oh good,” she turned from the sink to look at him. “That sounds good,” she said. “I’m glad you’re doing it,” she paused. She looked as if she wanted to say more but went back to rinsing out the coffee pot.
Claire knew Sheila. Sheila had attended Mike and Claire’s wedding. They interacted mainly at office Christmas and retirement parties. Once, they all went out to dinner – Claire and Mike and Sheila and her husband Jim. It was soon obvious this would not turn into a couple friendship, or a friendship for Claire and Sheila. Claire’s reactions to anything he mentioned regarding Sheila were kind, if a tad disinterested, and Mike and Sheila’s friendship marched along undisturbed.
The two worked together at the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. Ten years ago, when Mike was newly hired as a project manager, Sheila had joked in a large and unproductive meeting that “they worked at a mental health department for a reason,” and only Mike had laughed. Sheila was a department supervisor and about a decade older than Mike. They soon began eating lunch together. They started a walking group with coworkers. Mike confessed he had finally ended an unhealthy relationship with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Tessa. Sheila told Mike he would find love again without being condescending or motherly. With Sheila’s encouragement, he started exercising and eating better and dating better women. They just liked each other and that was that. When Mike met Claire and her daughter Annabel, and announced a few years later they were getting married, Sheila said, “Good job!” and clapped him on the back.
Sheila had tried for years to get Mike to start meditating, but he always refused. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself,” she said. Why would anyone want to sit still on purpose and what, have no thoughts? But in the past 6 months, as things worsened, Mike’s thoughts had become a screaming drill sergeant, and he finally asked Sheila to teach him how to meditate. It was hard. He found out thoughts don’t disappear, but it was helping. Occasionally, there were moments of peace.
Mike scanned the faces of the other attendees and landed on a woman two boxes over from his own. She had short dirty blonde hair and was probably in her fifties. “Linda” was typed at the bottom of her screen. Her eyes were closed through her thick glasses and her chin was tilted upward. Her mouth was set in a grimace-smile.
It was the thick glasses that drew him in. Why would anyone have “coke-bottle” glasses anymore? Dan at work had told him he was “blind as a bat, but you’d never know it because they make lenses super thin now.”
This woman’s closed eyes were huge, like one of those Instagram filters where the eyes take up half the face, so you looked like a cute deer. Her cheeks had deep jowl-lines like his own, her neck thin and long. Maybe a librarian or teacher that trained for marathons in her spare time. Mike stared wondering if anyone would know where he was looking.
Linda was meditating, or trying to, and her chin tilt and strangely set mouth aggravated the shit out of him. It was the classic “spiritual” look. These people acted as if they were in a state of euphoria. Special snowflakes that had special access to peace, joy, and bliss, and have transcended basic humanity. He bet crystals and incense were within arm’s reach of her seat.
Mike began meditating because whatever was working for him before wasn’t anymore. Sheila had said, “You have to go inside, the answer is never “out there”.”
It helped a little. Something hard in him softened. A micro-softening, but enough to keep him trying. “Keep at it. Return to the present,” Sheila said.
If he chose to meditate in khakis and polo shirts without a sage stick or crystal in sight, it wasn’t going to change how meditation worked. He was also a judgmental prick. Let go, he thought. He looked away from the screen.
God, he hated Zoom. He always looked at himself. His features never matched his thoughts or feelings, or who he felt he really was. Turning back to his laptop, he saw his jowl-lines were deeper. Puffier. Sloppy somehow on his face. He looked middle-aged, which he was, but older than his 42. He stuck out his chin and widened his eyes - the lines retreated, and his still-angular jawline was now more prominent on the screen. His nice, shining eyes made him approachable and friendly, but he looked tired. And irritated, and this irritability overrode the approachable eyes.
“Everything okay Mike?” colleagues started asking.
“Always giving the hard edge,” some might say.
He stopped correcting them. “Too much screen time.”
Men have resting bitch face too, he’d like to say. Give me a break.
He looked at the people in their Zoom boxes. 87 attendees. Here to heal from trauma. He looked at Linda. She stared forward, blue eyes magnified, wide and vulnerable. Her chest pushed out as if trying to receive something. She had suffered, Mike realized, does suffer. Maybe she’d had the shit beaten out of her when she was a little girl. With little coke-bottle glasses. Maybe her 12-year-old rescue poodle just died, and she didn’t have anyone else.
Mike exhaled and decided not to exit out of the course. For crying out loud, he’d signed up for this, with that ridiculous title, paid $159.99, flute music and woo woo shit was going to be a part of this. Guided meditation was typed in bold in the description.
The flute grew louder, cymbals crashed, and Marcia Black entered the teacher screen.
“Oh wow,” she smiled. “Oh, wow, it is so nice to see you all.”
Mike’s jaw clenched.
Marcia was a petite woman with blonde curtain bangs and a bob. She wore a light blue cardigan set. Small pearl buttons caught the camera light as she adjusted in her seat. She smiled a big, toothy smile.
“Hi everyone. I’m Marcia Black. I’ll be your teacher these next four weeks.”
She smiled again.
“I’m a certified psychotherapist with a background in Buddhism and non-dual teaching. I specialize in trauma and for over 15 years I’ve helped people learn from it and heal.”
Her voice was a contralto lullaby, drawing out words in weird places, like ‘psychooootherapist’ or ‘IIIIII specialiiiiiize’. Mike looked at the other attendees. Many nodded trancelike. This was a mistake, he thought. Why would Sheila think this would be helpful? She knew he couldn’t stand this shit.
But the past few months had been hard since he and Claire had come back from the hospital. And meditation wasn’t a magic pill. Sure, he could usually relax during the actual meditation, but the other hours of the day he struggled to not snap. He was hurting Claire with his withdrawal and anger.
He stopped sharing any feelings and if Claire mentioned hers, he would stare at her blankly, feeling nothing, then busy himself with laundry, dishes, yard work, organizing the garage. He snapped if the dishwasher wasn’t loaded properly, or the vacuum wasn’t put away. Anything could be wrong and usually was. He often wondered if Claire too was against him. And yet, she’d had to endure the worst of it. He wasn’t giving her the support she deserved. So, Mike did not exit out of the course. He listened to Marcia’s dumb spiritual voice and told himself to give her a shot. Maybe she knows what she’s doing.
“Just give it a try,” Sheila had said when he looked at her skeptically. “Maybe you’ll learn something. Be able to move on. The woo-woo birds can’t hurt you.” They called those caftan-wearing, aura-reading, crystal-loving spiritual types the woo-woo birds. "You’re just going to have to expect they’ll be there,” Sheila said.
Marcia started with a guided meditation. “Don’t judge yourself. Don’t fight your thoughts. Observe.”
Mike’s judgements were fierce. “Spiritual bullshit” and “Marcia’s bullshit voice’ and the “bullshit woo-woo birds” took over his thoughts.
“Focus on the sensations in your chest. What do you feel?” Marcia asked.
She guided the group to notice their bodies, stopping at arms, hands, belly, face, neck, legs, feet. “Really feel this. What are the sensations?”
Mike felt tension coursing through his body, but otherwise he failed deliciously at not feeling, or being peaceful. He could not escape the “bullshit” thoughts. His hands were fists in his lap. He dared not peek to look at himself on camera.
After the meditation Marcia spoke about the nature of trauma. Mike caught bits of explanation.
“The root of trauma is unexplored feelings…. Emotional needs not met… Feel unsafe… Coping strategies to stay safe… that hurt us now… How do we give ourselves loving attention without turning away?”
Despite the singsong voice, this was maybe making sense. He began to listen.
“Trauma forms in the context of relationship. And healing happens in the context of relationship,” Marcia paused, scanning the Zoom boxes.
“By recognizing patterns you formed to feel safe and cope, and giving them the loving attention they require, you can stop hiding from them. Then healing begins.”
Mike paid attention. Was he hiding? That word jostled in him, clanging along his chest walls, shouting “Jesus, finally! I’ve been trying to get your attention for a while. How much louder do I need to get?” A man fidgeted in the Zoom box above him, pulling at his shirt, rearranging his laptop. One of the cyclists. His restlessness annoyed Mike. The man’s unkempt hair, raggedy t-shirt, and humble-smug face formed the perfect triad for Mike to loathe him, and yet somehow Mike knew nothing he was feeling had to do with this jittery man. He looked at Linda, annoyance beating its fists in his chest, and he imagined her dead rescue poodle. He saw loss rippling out into a moonless night. No light to see where it was headed. He exhaled.
Marcia explained they’d move to breakout groups of four attendees. Here they would explore emotion work more deeply.
Each person was to answer three questions:
“How does your past live in you now?”
“What emotions do you feel?”
“How does your body feel right now?”
Mike landed in a room with three women. One hailed from New Zealand. She’d woken up in the middle of the night to attend and kept stirring then sipping tea from a large mug.
Another woman was from Ontario, Canada. Her white-knit sweater had blue and yellow pompons sewn onto it. Mike wanted to be hugged by her.
The third had a hard New England accent and hated Zoom “because I’m on it all day for work and my eyes hurt,’” and determined she would be the organizer of this foursome. Mike would go last because “we’re all women with gray hair and it just makes sense for us to go first.” Mike nodded.
He made notes about what he felt. “Skeptical.” “Woo woo bullshit.” “This won’t work.” “Judgmental.” “Chest tight.” “Anger.” “Not there for Claire.”
Kind pompom lady went first. She thought Marcia’s approach to trauma and awareness made change seem possible. An exploration. She struggled with guilt and shame for how she’d raised her children. “Terrible. I just didn’t know how to do better,” she said.
The Kiwi spoke about her alcoholic father. “Even at my old age, I’ll get terrified out of nowhere. Like something very bad will happen and there will be no one that can help. Sometimes, I don’t want to leave the house.”
The New Englander was angry. “I need to be in control. I finally left my shitty husband and wonder what took me so damn long! I’m angry I put up with his shit and didn’t think I could support myself."
Mike teetered between the discomfort of witnessing other’s vulnerabilities and a deep distrust of everything this course aimed to offer.
When it was his turn, he suddenly didn’t know what to say, and silence hung a few beats too long.
“Mike?” pompom lady asked. “How are you feeling?”
“Uh…” Mike adjusted his laptop, “I wanted to say,” he said, “I don’t want to be here. There’s all this resistance,” he stared at the three faces. “But really, I’m here to be stronger for my wife,” he paused. “We lost a baby.”
The women focused on him. Kind pompom lady nodded her head for him to go on.
And then out of nowhere Mike started to cry.
“Oh god,” he said. His breathing was ragged. He caught glimpses of his red, distorted face on the screen.
“Go on, it’s ok.” Pompom lady encouraged.
Mike’s heart thumped. He didn’t want to cry to strangers on Zoom but couldn’t stop himself. He made his voice quiet so Claire, who was downstairs, wouldn’t hear.
“It was eight months ago. We found out there was a chromosomal abnormality, and the baby wasn’t going to make it,” Mike said, no longer crying.
“My wife cried and cried. But the whole time I thought, what about me? I hate that I thought that. And I couldn’t cry,” Mike shifted in his seat.
“My wife already has a daughter, from her first marriage. This would be our first kid together,” he said. His heart felt torn open.
“I didn’t know how much I wanted this. We can’t get pregnant now. She said ‘Sorry” when the pregnancy test was negative. Like she’d done something wrong, and I kind of felt she had,” Mike’s voice came out hard, clipped. “I’m terrible. I’m such a piece of shit.” He pulled at the collar of his polo shirt. “My stepdaughter doesn’t need me. Her father is very involved. I’m just some outsider.” He strained to not cry again. “I’m sorry,” he said. He wiped his face hard with his hand. “I’m angry.”
“I’m so sorry Mike,” kind pompom lady said.
“Makes me remember how lost I felt at your age,” the Kiwi wiped at her eyes. “I had to let go, stop thinking I had control. You can do that Mike. It helps.”
“Ah, shit Mike,” New England said in her hard voice, “I didn’t want to like you because you kind of look like my shitty ex-husband,” she said, “but you’re honest, man. You’re being honest. Especially about your shitty thinking, and I can’t help but like that.”
A screen appeared flashing 59, 58, 57… indicating the breakout room time was ending. Mike looked at the three women, bewildered. “Thank you for listening,” he got in before the screen changed.
The next day was Annabel’s seventh birthday. Mike and Claire filled her room with balloons. She was a kind and happy child, and Mike enjoyed how she delighted in her special day. He made chocolate chip pancakes for her and felt both happy and lonely as he watched Annabel curl herself into Claire on a stool at the kitchen counter. They made a cozy cocoon that seemed the most natural thing in the world.
“For you, birthday girl!” he handed her a tray with the pancakes.
Annabel saw that the chocolate chips spelled the letters of her name in the pancakes ---- A N N A B E L with a smiley face pancake at the end. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “Thank you, Mike!”
He smiled wondering if biological parents ever thought they were trying too hard for a positive reaction. Maybe trying too hard came naturally, and they never considered ulterior motives, never questioned the bond or whether it was frayed from the start.
That evening they went to their neighborhood pub, The Rose and Thistle, for Annabel’s favorite dinner – a massive plate of chicken nachos. Shamrocks and Guinness signs festooned the walls, Celtic music blasted from the speakers, and other than the standard Shepherd’s Pie and Bangers and Mash, the rest of the menu consisted of American bar classics like chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, and greasy sandwiches. Annabel’s dad Jason joined them and afterwards they’d go to Mike and Claire’s house for cake and presents.
“I thought Lauren was coming?” Claire asked Jason when he arrived alone.
“Nah, just me,” he said. Annabel jumped out of the booth to run to him. Jason reached his arms around her, and she squeezed his thighs in a hug. He picked her up and she giggled with delight. “Happy birthday beautiful!” he said in a deep chuckle. Mike grabbed the menu from the table as if snatching a parking ticket off his windshield.
Claire squeezed Mike’s thigh and whispered, “I guess we’ll have to wait and see who the next girlfriend is.”
“I’m sitting next to you,” Annabel announced to her dad. In the booth she draped his arm around her and snuggled into his armpit. Jason sat across from Claire, and Mike looked over at Annabel who was transfixed by her small hand cupped in her dad’s. Mike decided to eat the Reuben sandwich with bacon cheese fries. Maybe get a milkshake. Fuck it, he thought, I’ll kill it at the gym tomorrow.
After hardly making a dent in her nachos, Annabel began drawing a rainbow in the sketch pad Claire brought for her to restaurants. Lately, everything Annabel drew was rainbows. Classic parabolic rainbows, rainbows diagonally streaking the sky, rainbow swirls, rainbows in just shades of reds, or blues, or greens, and often rainbows with people standing underneath them. Now she was making a yellow, pink, and red rainbow arcing the paper. She drew little hearts around it, and underneath the rainbow stood two stick figures.
“Nice rainbow,” Mike said.
“It’s me and my dad,” Annabel said, writing something underneath the stick versions of her and Jason.
She held up the drawing. There was Jason’s tall stick figure holding the stick hand of Annabel’s smaller self. She wore a blue dress and Jason wore a matching blue shirt and shorts. Underneath was written “I Love You Daddy!”
“That’s great,” Mike said. “Your dad’ll love it.”
Mike shoveled bacon cheese fries into his mouth and turned his attention to Claire and Jason.
“No!” Claire said in a faux-shocked voice.
“Believe it,” Jason said. “Come on Claire, Rachel’s always been impulsive, now she just has more money. So, she took off with the golf pro to Italy. Story as old as time.”
“Oh my,” she laughed. “Who needs tv when you have real life?” Claire’s cheeks were rosy from wine and laughter.
Mike took a long pull from his beer. Is this it, he wondered? Is this my life? He thought about his ex-girlfriend Tessa. He’d love for her to be here right now. Maybe they should have had a kid together, so he could watch Claire’s annoyance as he and Tessa swapped intimate stories about their mutual friends and past. Something to even the balance. Not be this disconnected alien sitting in on someone else’s family. But they hadn’t kept in touch. The last time he saw her at the grocery store she pretended not to notice him.
Claire wrapped her arm around Mike. “Hi,” she smiled at him. “Ready for cake and presents?” she asked the table.
“Yes!” Annabel cried.
The four of them walked to the parking lot and Annabel declared “I’m riding with you, Dad!” then raced off toward his truck. Jason turned to Mike and said, “I’ll follow you.”
After Jason left, Claire turned down the lights and left the wrapping paper and ribbons strewn about the living room. “I like to wake up and see we had a celebration,” she had said once when he offered to clean up. Mike loved how Claire found joy in little things. She was meant for him he thought.
In Annabel’s room, Claire lifted the blanket to Annabel’s chin and tucked it in around her body. “Goodnight burrito baby,” she said and kissed Annabel. “I love you.”
“Happy birthday kiddo,” Mike said from the doorway. “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite,” he said just as his dad had said to him.
“Mike,” Annabel sat up, “wait.” She reached for her sketch book and tore out a sheet. “I made one for you. I’m making one for mom too.”
He took the drawing from Annabel. A blue, purple, and green rainbow was drawn with two stick figures underneath it. The taller one with black hair was him. His shirt and shorts were orange. Annabel still wore a blue dress. “I Love You Mike!” was written below the two figures.
“Thank you,” Mike said, his words catching. “I love you too.”
Claire was reading when Mike came into bed. He put his glasses on his nightstand and looked at Claire. He loved how she tilted her chin up and furrowed her brow when she was reading. He moved his hand across the bedspread until it touched her arm. Claire put her free hand in his, her eyes still on the book.
“This meditation webinar is pretty good,” Mike said. “Lot of woo woos but the teacher’s good."
Claire turned to him. She searched his face, her brow crinkled but her demeanor soft. She was thinking something he couldn’t figure out. She squeezed his hand and said, “Sheila is a good friend,” she paused, “I’m glad this is helping.”
Mike breathed hard, stopping his chest from heaving. “Yes,” he said. He turned to his nightstand and busied himself looking for something to read among a stack of books and magazines. His breathing remained heavy, but Claire let him be.
The following Saturday, Mike logged into the second Healing from Trauma class. He searched for Linda. She wasn’t on the first page, nor the second, and on the last page he still didn’t see her, and he began to worry. He scanned the pages searching each face for those magnifying-lens glasses. God, he hoped she was okay. He summoned her face, remembering it straining to absorb invisible healing vibes. The worry for her was also a worry about him. That his negativity had caused her to leave the class. He saw black smoke emanating from him, infecting the others, and anxiety burbled into his throat.
Mike looked out the window. Maple leaves waved at him and a Weeping Willow beyond it swayed its slow melodic dance. He exhaled and turned back to the screen. Just three boxes to the right of his was Linda. Her closed eyes were blurry lines behind her glasses. The grimace of her mouth eager as ever. Mike beamed with relief.
The breakout room topic was sharing your conditioned patterns. Do you “Move Toward,” “Move Away,” or “Move Against”?
Marcia explained that those who “Move Toward” are concerned with image, outward appearances, always looking to fix what is lacking and flawed in themselves externally. Gain approval from others.
The “Move Away” pattern is focused on fear of commitment, doubt, holding back from life. Those with this pattern avoid experiences and distance themselves from people. Fear of rejection is big.
“Move Against” is about anger and a sense of entitlement. Harsh judgment of others is a way these people keep themselves separate and prevent connection. Their arrogance a veil for fear.
Marcia explained everyone has all tendencies within them, but one pattern dominates. As Mike listened, Marcia’s voice became nasal and patronizing again. The music unbearable. The faces of the other attendees annoying. He looked at Linda and hoped this was helping her. He fought the urge to slam his laptop shut.
In the breakout room, Mike was the only male again. These women were closer to his age, with one quite young, perhaps college-age.
“Move Away describes me best,” Mike said. He chose to go first. “But I’ve become angry lately. Lots of resistance to people. My wife’s ex-husband is such a douche. There’s a huge distance with my stepdaughter.”
Mike hung his head admitting resistance to Annabel. She went to Claire for everything. For affection. For attention. Mike was the second act. Someone convenient when there was no one else. What had started as enjoying the company of a little kid now felt like he didn’t matter. He was the outsider. He walked out of the room now if she gave Claire a big, happy smooch. He wanted that unquestioned, easy love with someone. He held back with Annabel. “Typical guy,” he said resignedly. The women nodded.
The college-aged woman, girl really, went last. Her name was Irina, and she had a European accent, perhaps Polish or Czech, Mike thought. Her cheeks were flushed, and she spoke in a slow singsong as if she had just woken from a long nap in a fairy tale. After introducing herself she stopped speaking and walked out of the screen. Mike and the other attendees stared awkwardly at Irina’s blank Zoom box. Mike was about to speak when she returned holding a baby.
“I am sorry,” Irina said. The baby was pulling her hair and Irina pried his chubby fingers loose from the strands.
“I left my boyfriend,” she said. She bounced the baby on her hip, “I have all the patterns I think.”
“He is an addict. Video games, drugs, porn. More maybe,” she said, her voice rising. “I had our baby, and I can’t ignore it anymore.”
One woman began consoling Irina. Mike’s throat tightened and anger bloomed in his chest. Not toward Irina, but at the boyfriend. He wanted to help this young woman, but how?
“I need to stop these bad patterns,” Irina said on the verge of tears. “How do I stop finding bad people? For my baby?” The baby was drooling onto his mother’s shoulder.
59, 58, 57, began flashing. Mike’s mind raced, but he hadn’t said a word. God, I hate Zoom his thoughts screamed. Stunted connection, forced time, all in little boxes, and he hadn’t even managed a hopeful word to this young mother in need. He hunched over his laptop, shoulders tense and heart pounding, ready to spring to action. Then his screen suddenly changed, and he was staring at his Amazon shopping cart.
He saw an order for towels, children’s toothpaste, and biodegradable snack bags. Frustration clawed at his throat. What was happening? He saw he’d been death-gripping his mouse and had clicked into a different window. Deflated, heart still beating hard, he clicked back into the class. Marcia was introducing the closing meditation. He looked for Linda, and found her towards the bottom of his screen, still eager for a healing transmission. He couldn’t find Irina and didn’t want to. He didn’t want to be this helpless. Mike closed out of the class before the meditation began.
The following Saturday, Mike logged into Zoom. The spiritual music had a peppy synthesizer beat and was that an oboe he heard? He scanned the boxes until he found Linda. Mike inhaled and when he breathed out, he sent her every invisible good-filled vibe in his body. His chest thrummed. Linda remained unchanged. Her eyes still closed. Mike closed out of the class and went out for a 5-mile run.
After the breakout room with Irina, Mike started having trouble sleeping. He woke in the middle of the night, hyper, alert, planning how to save this young mother. He began meditating an hour rather than his usual 30 minutes. He hadn’t run in years but signed up for a half-marathon 6 weeks away and was now running 5, 6, 7 miles after work, pushing so hard until he felt nauseous. Claire looked at him with round, concerned eyes. She was an open and thoughtful communicator, but even she was hesitant around him. This avoidance was all him, he knew that now from Marcia. But he could not explain this sudden agitation and desperation to himself, let alone Claire.
In a half-sleep he’d see himself exiting a plane, racing into the winding streets of a European village, finding Irina in a decrepit, windowless apartment, and saving her from her horrible baby daddy. Irina would see Mike and collapse into his arms realizing she was finally safe. Mike was horrified by these thoughts but every night they returned. Irina was half his age, and he was in love with his wife. He saw the baby’s hand curling around Irina’s hair, and he would reach out for him, feeling the tiny body wriggling, hoping here was his chance to help, to be a dad.
Irina kissed his cheek, and fear snaked around his chest because he knew this story was going to a much worse, much more real place where Claire was lying on the hospital bed, riddled with pain.
She squeezed Mike’s hand looking at him with tears in her eyes, moaning from the contractions. Soon she would deliver their stillborn daughter at 24 weeks, and there was not a thing Mike could do about it. He had done this to her, and he couldn’t take it away.
When they came home from the hospital, Jason was waiting with Annabel in their living room. Claire knelt in the foyer and hugged Annabel for what seemed like an eternity. Annabel didn’t even look at Mike. Jason stared at his ex-wife with concern and Mike wanted to punch him clear across the room.
Before the last Zoom class, Mike worked up to a 9-mile run. He was still waking in the night, the stories of Irina and Claire looping in his mind. The pretend rescue and the real failure. He decided that instead of attending the last class, he would run 11 miles and just log in to check on Linda a final time.
“How’s that trauma class?” Sheila asked him at work.
“More spiritual bullshit,” he answered, feeling mean. He could not admit to anything positive right now.
“Oh, gosh I thought Marcia Black sounded really smart when I heard her on that podcast,” Sheila replied. She looked concerned for him. Mike’s irritation grew. Was she playing the “worried supervisor” role with him?
Mike put on his running gear and logged into the last class. Looking for Linda, he decided he hadn’t healed any trauma. Instead, now he just knew he was helpless to his avoidance patterns. Maybe this hardness inside him was here to stay. Wonderful.
Today though, something was different about the class. Linda was sitting eyes closed a few boxes down from his. Mike found Irina on the second page. She looked even younger than he remembered. But she looked determined. She was strong, he could see. Look at her signing up for this class, doing the hard work to improve, and at such a young age. The only thing he knew how to do at that age was play beer pong and order pizza. His shoulders loosened. Then he heard the music. That was what was different. It was a classical piece he recognized. Violins, violas, and cellos sang out.
The piece was Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme, which his mother played often when Mike was home sick from school. His asthma had been pretty bad in grade school, and at home with her, she would open the long windows in the living room and put this record on. They would lie together on the carpet and listen to this magical music which he somehow knew was a love song though no one had ever told him that. Mike stared at Linda and also saw the cream sheer curtains of his childhood home blowing in the breeze, his mother holding his hand. As Marcia entered her screen the violins soared while the cellos and violas countered with a low, deep reverberation.
Mike didn’t log out of the course.
“Today’s meditation will be a tonglen meditation,” Marcia said. “It’s a Buddhist practice that means “sending and receiving.”
Mike watched Marcia and she seemed transformed to him. She was unequivocally in charge of this space, but there was no superiority to her. She didn’t look different but everything else about her seem changed. Her tone maybe, her energy. He felt different. A softness settled inside him. He wasn’t judging. He felt connected to something, something unknowable yet kind. Marcia was one of the helpers, he knew that now. She knew suffering and she wanted to help people. Mike felt as if she was looking right inside him.
“Tonglen is a practice of compassion,” Marcia said. “Suffering brings difficult feelings we don’t want to see about ourselves or others. But with tonglen, we don’t turn away. We acknowledge suffering,” Marcia said.
“In this practice, we look at someone’s pain or how we withhold compassion. Maybe a friend ignored you. Maybe you see someone slap their child in the store or you judge your boss for wrongly yelling at a colleague. You’d rather turn away out of fear or anger. But here we breathe in their pain. We see how those actions come from pain. This is the “receiving” part. We receive their pain and take it in for them.” Marcia looked out at everyone. “And we breathe out relief. This is the “sending” part. We send away their suffering with a kind thought or gesture. Here we loosen the grip of our selfishness and we connect to our natural compassion.”
Mike sat eyes closed, inhaling and exhaling. He saw Linda, and Irina, and the three older women from the first breakout session. He sent away their pain. He noticed resistance bubbling inside his chest. Anger. He sent that pain away too. For everyone who has that angry, cynical barrier within them.
He saw Claire in her hospital gown, sleeping after she had delivered their lifeless daughter. He saw their daughter, her tiny purple alien head wrapped in a white muslin blanket, carried out of the room by the nurse. He thought of Annabel handing him rainbow pictures. And Jason with yet another girlfriend. He thought of Sheila encouraging him. He thought of his mother who had died after years of recurring breast cancer. He saw her holding his hand as they listened to the violins, violas, and cellos sing to each other, as he coughed and fought to catch his breath. What he had thought was her motherly look, he now knew was fear. Fear she couldn’t help him. He sent out so many breaths of relief to all who feel helpless. He imagined his exhalations spreading across mountains and sandy beaches, into high-rise condos, into McMansions on cul-de-sacs, into the winding streets of European villages, into places where people lived, he’d never seen before.
Marcia ended the meditation. Mike took one last look at Linda and shut his laptop. He rifled through the various papers on his desk until he found the rainbow picture Annabel drew of them. He pinned it to the wall behind his nightstand and walked downstairs to go out for his run.
Sigrid writes fiction and poetry, and her work has appeared in Expanded Field Journal, Backchannels Journal, and the International Writers Collective. She lives with her family in Northern Virginia.