Hope in uncertain times

This past week I’ve been whipsawed by a conjunction of opposing forces; hope and gratefulness in the morning; disquiet and despair in the evening. Let me explain.

Urged by a smart friend, every morning I’ve been meditating using Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra’s “Hope in Uncertain Times” (https://tinyurl.com/y8lsylxh). They’ve offered this simple application download free (generally it’s behind a pay wall) in a move they thought might help us through these months of pandemic. It’s a program that walks you through 21 days of meditation. Each session, 20 minutes in length, is focused on different aspects of gratefulness, self-confidence, self-awareness, and kindness. We’re encouraged to expand our consciousness, learn to fear less, hope more, and stay in the now.

For each of the 21 days, Oprah begins by telling us something about her life, or offers a relevant quote from a favorite author or thinker; she makes you feel like she’s speaking directly to you — as if she were just chatting you up as a friend. Then Deepak introduces the meditation. His voice is smooth, soothing, hypnotic. He introduces a mantra in Sanskrit, repeating it several times so that those of us in the West can pick up the odd, yet magical, sounds and correct intonation. A little bell rings and music plays quietly during the meditation time; a bell rings again at the end and Deepak prompts us to “gently release” the mantra, as if it were a small bird we’ve been holding. He ends each session with, “Namaste.”

I’m not great at meditating; in fact, I’m pretty bad at it. When Deepak says, “Make yourself comfortable and close your eyes,” I “scritch around” in my chair. I immediately think, why didn’t I put socks on. My mind rebels — I conjure up a list of all the things I’ve been putting off, suddenly thinking I should be doing one of those instead of trying to sit still and breathe deeply. Often I’m still clutching my morning coffee and taking surreptitious sips.

I restlessly open and close my eyes, I watch the clouds through the windows, scratch my neck. Sometimes Jackson sits with me. If he does, it’s easier for me to relax. Sometimes I actually do slip into a meditative state: I fill my lungs up and empty them out repeating the mantra to myself while the mourning doves call in response.

I’ve found that when I do sink down into my deeper consciousness, what I feel is sadness. Tears come easily, they well up in my eyes for no reason I can clearly decipher. Am I thinking about my mother, dead now six years; my father gone 40 years ago; friends I’ve lost? Am I reacting on some empathetic level to the suffering happening all around the globe as we lose beloved sisters, mothers, fathers, brothers, aunts and uncles to the virus? Am I grieving our broken democracy, our nation’s fall from grace, the way we mistreat vulnerable people, the loss of our national standing in the world? Do I fear my own death?

I don’t know. I just know that when I truly drop down and quietly follow my breath, grief is what I find.

Whatever the reason, if I manage to clear my mind and keep focusing on the mantra, when I do open my eyes at the end of the meditation I feel somehow quieter, clearer in my head. One morning I immediately got up from my chair and cleaned the pantry.

The dark side

At the other end of the day, I’ve been binge-watching “The Bureau” (original title: Le Bureau des Légendes), a brilliant French espionage thriller in four seasons that focuses on the hidden lives of agents in France’s General Directorate of External Security (DGSE), roughly equivalent to our CIA. Created by Eric Rochant and a team of writers, it follows closely to factual aspects of an office of spies and the ways they operate in a world we can barely imagine.

We see frightening high-tech surveillance techniques, get a glimpse of (or are prompted to imagine) terrifying torture scenes, and experience innumerable ways to die in international settings around the globe. The same characters interact throughout all four seasons — 40 episodes — and I fell in love with all of them.

“The Bureau” writing and production team consulted with members of the actual espionage community in France and showed them the first episode to get their reactions. Many agents were so impressed by the drama that they took copies home to show their families, because, of course, they are never allowed to talk about what they really do or how they work. Some of them said to their family members, “You may find me here…”

I found the drama to be absolutely captivating, addictive. Every night for a week I watched as agents manipulated, lied, and constructed convoluted plots to gain the confidence of their targets, at the same time they tried to be humans with “normal” lives. They entangled, intimidated, and hurt innocent people to get information. They lied to their families and even to themselves about the nature of their work. And they endangered the people they most loved.

Betrayals and loyalties were twisted and complicated. Nothing was as it seemed. Training an agent was a matter of tamping down their emotions, creating a backstory for themselves and then believing it was true, no matter what. Their motto was “Never let down your guard. Never.”

So every evening I entered a world of mistrust and intrigue, where the slightest detail could put a life in danger. The series was a drug: I knew it wasn’t good for my state of mind, but I couldn’t stop watching. After three or four episode in succession, I was riled up, unsettled, yet wanting more. My sleep was often disturbed. The last episode of “The Bureau” left me with an image that still haunts me.

Our world of contrasts

So for the entire past week, I’ve experienced a strange mix of quietude and focus in the morning and extreme agitation in the evening. Caught between these two extremes, I’ve embodied the whiplash of the pandemic.

Since I’m in the news business, I feel compelled to be informed, to keep current on the news, even though the pandemic mismanagement at the highest levels, the deception, the political ineptitude, the death statistics are debilitatingly stunning. My mind is restless; I’m confused and I’ve heard the same from many friends. Do we sink into the undeniable impact this virus is having on the world, our nation and its pathetic politics, and in our own lives? Or do we go on with our lives as if nothing were happening outside of these lovely spring days?

Deer have leapt over the fence in my yard to munch on new leaves. My fruit trees are blooming — the Liberty Apple is displaying a show unparalleled in years. The hummers are bombing around in dips and dives, pulling off tufts from the cattails to line their nests and glorying in the blooms on the fuchsia. Spring is unusually luscious.

The world is so many things at once. Keeping my balance as we spin through space is the challenge.

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