What Is This?

Around this time last year, I jotted a couple of notes-to-self on hot pink sticky notes and tacked them over my desk. “Feel less guilty,” one read. And: “Read more current events.”

I was content enough with my vague resolutions, but then something, dare I say?, ironic happened. On New Year’s Day I was browsing e-books in a trance, trying to distract myself from feeling guilty about how little of The Economist I’d read. Before I knew what had happened, l had purchased a book called Mindfulness.

It was as if some stifled part of my psyche was using my Barnes & Noble account as a Ouija board to tell me something. It was the last day of a blissfully quiet holiday staycation, which I’d spent reading and writing and knitting and taking long walks by the water, avoiding Manhattan and drinking Manhattans. A stark contrast to the chaos of “real life” which was looming the next morning.

In real life, I spend most of the day, day after day, in a self-induced trance. These days amount, alarmingly quickly, to weeks, and months and years. It’s a defense mechanism, and I blame it squarely on Herald Square. Twice a day, five days a week, I heroically traverse the sidewalk space in front of Macy’s and its clusterfuck of pedicabs and and teenagers and European tourists and tabloid hawkers and shabby Elmos—and, just yesterday!, a man-sized red-and-white fish sprinting inexplicably around the roasted nut vendors.

The only way to not go crazy in Herald Square is to turn your brain off and leave your body. This is make-it-or-break-it territory. I’ve lived in the city for years, but only in the last couple, since I assumed this commute, have I begun to seriously wonder WHY!?!??!?!?!

It was becoming one of those crises that was threatening to reveal me for who I actually might be: someone who punches innocent jerks. I think it had occurred to my subconscious, the thing I entrust to get me across the street in one piece, that something had to give, that something had to give, and as it wasn’t going to be Macy’s, it was going to be my outlook.

Two weeks later, I’d read maybe half the book and abandoned it, along with that Economist subscription. But in the meantime, I’d downloaded some meditations that accompanied it to my phone. I started listening to them a couple of times a week on the train: returning to the breath, making peace with the moth-like thoughts that flitted around ceaselessly in my head, being “here now,” and “letting go.”

The meditations are led by a guy with a British accent, a deep soothing cadence strikingly similar to the Geico lizard. They’re full of maxims and blank space for breathing and gentle reassurances. One of my favorites is the one in which he probes me to ask “What is this?” We’re addressing sensations and feelings, especially distracting, uncomfortable ones. The back crick, the stomach knot, the uneasy feeling of something un-,under-, or mis-said. But it also applies to what’s going on outside. Everything I avoid for lack of ability to eradicate it. (And where to begin!) The lizard advises that I confront whatever it is with curiosity, rather than ignoring it… or punching it.

Gentle, yet persistent. Cute, if a little cloying. It’s his little green voice that’s been echoing in the back of my mind.

“What is this?”

It’s a jackhammer. Tragic news. Guilt. Some misfiring neurons. An ogling pedicab driver. A cat sleeping on a blanket in the park. A tourist. A teenager. A teenager. A teenager. A tourist. The Empire State building with its confetti crown of camera flashes. A tourist. An inopportune hangover. A creepy-ass Elmo. A fat baby in a hat with ears. A patch of pure blue sky in that tiny swath between buildings. Tragic news. That Christmasy nut smell! Very severe weather. A jackhammer. A truly blissful macchiato. A door.



Previously in series: The Only Way Left To Be Radical In America


Also by this author: My Summer On The Content Farm


Jessanne Collins is managing editor at mental_floss. Photo by Jay Santiago.