Remember when you were young and the day awaited? You rushed through breakfast, eager to get to the project you had in mind. It could be continuing work on a fort you started building yesterday with the neighborhood kids. It could be getting back to the paper-doll village you were making with your sister.
Whatever it was, it promised a day of losing your mind.
In my case, it was usually choosing a new occupation to pursue with my best friend Lynn Fly. One week we were interior decorators; the next we were spies. We huddled over blank sheets of typing paper, making a flyer to post: NEED A MYSTERY SOLVED? THE SPY SISTERS ARE AT YOUR SERVICE! We set up an office, with tools of the trade collected in a pillowcase: magnifying glass, binoculars, sunglasses, dusting powder, thin onionskin paper for tracing, pretend walkie-talkies, baseball caps, a tape recorder, tweezers.
The point was not really what we were doing but the level of concentration we applied to the task at hand. Our attention never swayed. We didn't break character except when we had to answer to our parents. A day felt like a week in its richness of focus and activity. Two or three days in a row in the wash of that kind of play felt like a month.
That is how I felt on Mother's Day, going into the garden at 7:30 a.m. to prepare seedbeds. An hour or two of clearing the newly emerged weed crop, an hour or two raking the soil, removing rocks and sticks, ruffling up the dirt to hold the tiny seeds of poppies, flaxes, black-eyed Susans, cornflowers and larkspurs. An hour or two mixing seed with sand and meticulously spreading it over the prepared patches of soil. Another hour spreading a thin layer of compost over that. Another hour gently running the rake over the seeded beds, dispersing the seed, packing it down slightly, exposing it to the sun but protecting it from the wind, then watering it.
By the time I was done, I had made the tiny circuit around and around the southwest corner of my house a hundred times over. The entire back side of my body, from Achilles tendon to C-7, ached from the unfamiliar extension forward, bent over toward the ground.
What was on my mind? Not much. The sight and smell of dirt. The different shades and textures of soil. The birds out hunting a stray handful of seed. The filtered sunlight. The gauge of the breeze. The sight of an earthworm unfurling and withering back into its hole.
The next day I looked back on this as a day of doing nothing and wished for another day to "do nothing." Something, I guess, amounted to going to my real job -- checking e-mail, researching, writing stories, grading papers, answering telephone calls, scheduling meetings.
But lingering within me was that experience of what the yogis call "mindfulness" but what I think of as mindlessness: not thinking much, just doing, repetitively, with no sense of the passing of time, in a state of quiet motion.
I have spent hundreds of hours and more money than I care to remember searching for that state in a yoga class. But much as I love my yoga class and my practice, the truth is I spend a great deal of my time trying not to think rather than not thinking. The teacher puts on quiet music. A crowd of bodies stretches and bends, breathing in and out. We are gently reminded by our teacher to let go of our day, to let go of our list of things to do, to listen to our breathing. Sometimes I move with ease, sometimes with difficulty, but I never lose my mind for more than a second or two.
Now that the seedbeds are planted, I have to water them -- not much, just enough to keep them damp -- every morning and every evening until seedlings emerge and grow strong. I am grateful for this, because each occasion of watering a black patch of scratched-up dirt is a mini-retreat. I wake up, dress for work, load the car, check on the kids, then slip out to the side yard and turn on the hose.
I don't think of where I'm going, of the office or the day ahead, only of the changing color of the soil as the gentle spray of water hits it. I paint the ground.
I lose my mind.