Every year at about this time, spiders build a community of webs on my ninth floor balcony. For a while I wasn't sure why they did this; then I realized that late September always brings clouds of tiny flies that are drawn to the lights and fruits in my apartment. The clever spiders climb up the building in the hope of capturing an easy meal.
A couple of weeks ago on a particularly warm evening, I approached my window air conditioner to bask in the cool breeze—but what I saw dangling on the other side of the window gave me a much deeper chill. Suspended in the center of an elaborate web was one of the biggest, hairiest, most intimidating spiders I had ever laid eyes on. His home stretched on for miles(at least a spider's equivalent), putting all of his neighbors' efforts to shame. I knew right then and there that I had come face to face with the leader of the spider community.
After taking a few deep breaths I moved in for a closer look, pressing my nose right up to the glass.
I was sitting alone by the pool last summer when Carol, the building superintendent, came crashing through the gate. With her hands on her hips, she stood near the shallow end for a good minute, shaking her head and quietly cussing at the water. I braced myself before saying "hello".
“I have to do this three times a day,” she groaned. “Clean all these damn tree droppings out of the pool.” Carol yanked the massive net off the fence and began combing the surface of the water, a bobbing bed of beetles, twigs, and seeds. “It would suit me just fine to cut down all the trees around here. Pave over all of them.” I wondered if she had forgotten the name of our residence: Geneva on the Park.
“Trees are very important,” I said. “We need them in order to breathe.”
“Well they're makin' a mess of the pool and the parking lot. Have you seen the roots ripping through the concrete?”
“I don't think nature is trying to inconvenience you. It's just doing what it's been doing for billions of years,” I said.
Just before Carol could respond, a long screech from the sky caught our attention.
Warning: this personal story contains descriptions of graphic violence and death.
I took antidepressants every day for a decade. You name the drug and I was probably on it at some point--Zoloft, Paxil, Luvox, Lithium, Celexa, the list goes on. The medication, prescribed to me after a bout of severe obsessive-compulsive behavior, left me emotionally numb. Most of my feelings were buried under a thick mental fog, making it impossible to connect with people, or sense the aliveness of the world around me. On a scale from one to ten, excitement, joy, and sympathy rarely reached more than a two. I simply couldn't look forward to anything, or care in the least about anyone. The love I had always felt for my family vanished after only a few months on meds.
This brain fog made life seem unreal. I would often be driving somewhere, or talking to someone, or wandering through a mall, and the whole process went on without my awareness, as though I wasn't a fully conscious participant, but a dreamer trapped within a dream.
After two years on antidepressants, I found something that gave me a jolt of feeling strong enough to wake me up for a moment.
If someone had told me ten years ago that I would one day be volunteering at a nursing home, I wouldn't have believed them. In fact, my 26-year-old self would have responded with, “Pffft, yeah right. Sitting around with a bunch of old people all day? I'd rather watch paint dry.”
Thankfully my mind has opened up since then. Once a week for about three hours, I do sit around with a bunch of old people, and you know what? I love it! I have made some unforgettable friends at the nursing home, enjoyed a ton of laughter, and gained more wisdom than I ever could have imagined.
I want to honor my elderly friends by sharing six life lessons I've learned while in their company.
It's not always easy to be present, to shut off the running commentary in my head and perceive with absolute clarity. The seriousness of life can be quite pressing. But standing here in the heart of the forest, far away from the thought-congested human world, my mind becomes quiet. So quiet.
All I hear is the sound of life around me—a chorus of chirping, clicking, and skittering feet. Each sound that plays with my eardrums stirs childlike fascination. My eyes dart around in search of their source only to catch tips of tails and feathers in the foliage.
I draw and release a deep breath … then another.
Autumn's fragrance fills my nose. Sweet notes of decay linger long after exhale. And with every breeze I am treated to a shower of falling leaves, each one in a slow, graceful dance with gravity. I watch their descent in silence.
High above me, beams of sunlight peek through the amber loft, casting warmth upon leaf-littered soil. Every beam contains a flurry of suspended particles that seem to come from another dimension. I wonder if they arrived with the light, or if they were here all along and the light is just revealing them.
With my eyes closed and chin raised I move under one of the beams, bathing my face with the sun's energy. The sensation is so pleasurable that I'm quite literally frozen in heat. I don't want to move. Tingles run along my skin, evoking a feeling of joy.
I take a few more deep breaths before opening my eyes to look around.
Many trees stand tall and proud, ancient guardians of the land. Each of their limbs has its own ecosystem. Some are covered with soft emerald carpets, others with webs that glisten in the sunlight. Older trees have toppled over, roots plucked from the dirt, hollowed flesh now home to those that lurk in the shadows. Tiny mushrooms push through blackened bark like buttons on a raincoat. Life emerging from death.
As I quietly reflect upon the natural world, there is a moment where my awareness shifts into total stillness. My mind goes silent. Suddenly, everything around me sheds a label and definition, becoming so much deeper than any thought can express. I can sense the aliveness of the forest, the nameless essence of life itself. It is everywhere. My surroundings regain a newness, a mystery, as though I'm seeing it all for the very first time.
Within the stillness a calm washes over me. Life is no longer serious. The worries and concerns that normally weigh me down evaporate, and what is considered so important in the human world is revealed as insignificant.
All that is real, all that truly matters, exists in the stillness of this moment.
I am the need to be right, to prove others wrong,
The thoughts that repeat like a hypnotic song.
I am the What will they think of me? What will they say?
The actor in all the roles that we play.
I am the attacked, the deeply offended,
The unconscious wound that cannot be mended.
I am the life story, the emotional scar,
The inner voice narrating who we are.
I am the gold in chest, the trophy on shelf,
The enhancer of our perceived sense of self.
I am regret of the past and fear of tomorrow,
The entity that enslaves us in sorrow.
I am the root of all pain, the source of mind's ills,
The symptoms we numb with all of our pills.
I am belief and opinion we'd die to uphold,
The conditioned mind that is a hardened mold.
I am the shadow cast when we are asleep,
The self-image created by thoughts that we keep.
I am the masks we wear, I am life's confusion,
The suffering within this convincing illusion.
I am separate countries with guarded borders,
The wars we fight through religious orders.
I am twisted logic disguised as sane,
The endless desire for material gain.
I am pillage and plunder of the natural realm,
The hidden agenda that stands at the helm.
I am greed, I am envy, I am need to flaunt worth,
The parasite spreading upon Mother Earth.
So how do we kill it? When does it end?
This human sickness we must transcend.
It's as simple as knowing your cash and your car,
Have nothing to do with who you are.
That the title, the status, the fancy degree,
Are only labels and not the real me.
Observe the thoughts that run through your head,
Be the witnessing presence behind all that is said.
And beliefs that you hold, merely subjective,
To never be forced upon the collective.
Let pass the urge of triggered response,
And starve the ego of what it wants.
Accept what is and simply allow,
For peace resides in the here and now.
Whether black or white, wealthy or poor,
View everyone equal, not less or more.
See a flower or tree as not a possession,
But living wisdom with a silent lesson.
It takes deep realization, a conscious seeing,
To sense that you aren't a separate being.
Just know we're all born from the same Mother,
And to love is to see your True Self in another.
Image credit: 'Duality' http://touchedbyred.deviantart.com/