Down in the church basement, we’re sitting in the lady minister’s office, the nine of us. Pilgrims, Claudette calls us, herself included. Claudette is the lady minister and what we all call her, as opposed to Pastor Claudette or Dr. Warren or another title of respect. Claudette is the first and only lady minister ever to join the staff of six other pastors at this large and wealthy church. She doesn’t seem to mind having been placed in the basement and has softened her cement block walls quite effectively with high wooden bookshelves and a couple of pastel quilts. Claudette would like us to view ourselves as equals making a journey together but clearly she’s got wisdom and experience that puts her leagues ahead of the rest of us. Which is why we signed up for her spiritual formation class in the first place, at least the reason I did.
The topic of meditation and quieting ourselves, even silent retreats, has been raised and Claudette tells us to sit with our eyes closed and to count how many thoughts come to us in one minute, she’ll time us. We sit in an oblong circle, the way the room naturally arranges itself: two on the soft, floral couch that could easily accommodate three if everyone weren’t still keeping polite space between themselves (it’s our third meeting); two on straight but comfortable upholstered chairs, separated by a side table; Claudette in her leather, ergonomic desk chair that she’s turned towards the group; and the rest on metal folding chairs, the deluxe kind with built-in vinyl pads both seat and back so that the bare metal doesn’t chill a person through.
The pink candle has already been lit; Claudette’s big on candles. Although the glare of the overhead fluorescent light robs it of any illumination, a warm, peaceful scent rises from it, which is probably the point. Begin, says Claudette, and as her silent clock begins its circular sweep my mind–or heart–takes note of the fact that here I sit, in a group that’s supposedly a gathering of traveling companions, still feeling like that first week at a new job.
I remember lunch break on the eleventh floor of a downtown office building, brown bagging it in the conference room around a long, wide table in the company of an assortment of people I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to make friends with. Odd, how the rather crazed looking, older man became a true comrade and confidant over time while the warm and friendly receptionist proved to be a lazy, even dishonest, coworker in the end. I haven’t thought of either of them for ages. I notice how far my mind has traveled and I am aware of being aware of it, so does that count as three thoughts or four? I realize I’ve got a question here and imagine asking after our time is up how, exactly, one counts thoughts. It would be easier if they all came discretely packaged, with rigid edges. But what does one do with the thought that ribbons out, elaborate and pliable and full of color? I decide that if I don’t want to reveal just yet what a dope I am I’d better keep quiet instead of trying to describe this ever-expanding and intersecting net of thoughts and the picture of a net comes to mind, a sort of computer-generated image, and I think, there, that’s got to be thought number seven, at least. I wonder how much longer this is going to take (eight) and my stomach growls, rumbles actually in the quiet of the room, which I can’t help but take note of (nine), and then Claudette calls time.
We go around the room, taking turns reporting the number of thoughts we’ve just experienced. The blond second grade teacher, leaning comfortably back into the couch cushions begins. Eleven, she says easily and matter-of-factly. Clearly, she has had no trouble trying to figure out how to count her thoughts. The woman next to her with the name I can never remember says, just as easily, thirteen. The photographerturned-accountant says se,se,se,seven–he has a slight stutter. That puts the stay-athome mom, myself in other words, in comfortable company with my nine, which I manage to say out loud without my voice cracking. The man in thick glasses cheerfully confesses, “over thirty.” The investment planner, round-faced and balding, claims seventeen. Miss Perfect says twelve, and the woman with the hearing aid says eight.
Now Claudette tells us she’ll give us another minute. This time, when a thought surfaces, we are to gently push it down. I close my eyes. Begin, instructs Claudette. Somehow, without effort, I find myself ready and poised in a blue, misty room.
We go around the room, taking turns reporting the number of thoughts we’ve just experienced. It is empty, quiet, without visible walls. Amazing. I think this is the place! But how did I get here? Has this space been this near all along and have I just never managed to enter before? And just as quickly I am aware of myself there and wonder if that’s a thought, whether the blue room is another thought, and quickly I push both worries down without letting them play out, as if I’m engaged in a tame, underwater version of that Knock-A-Mole game at the carnival.
Knock-A-Mole. I would have never considered paying good money to play such a nerve wracking game except that last summer one of the prizes was a stuffed Spiderman figure that had Velcro hands and came with a gray plastic web it could grip. My son spotted one and couldn’t forget about it. We walked the length of the carnival, taking inventory of the rides we might dare to try and the different games we hadn’t seen before, but Dirk could see nothing, enjoy nothing, contemplate absolutely nothing but that Spiderman prize. It consumed him, threatened to devour our whole afternoon at the carnival. Do I tend to spoil my son? I try not to, although my daughters– his older sisters–believe I should try a lot harder. Must one always sacrifice the whole of a sunny day to make a point? Sometimes I just try to cut my losses and so that afternoon I studied that game from a distance and strategized.
Four players were required to qualify for a Spiderman-sized prize. If the three kids and I played alone and together, no other people butting in, it would cost me twelve dollars, three dollars per player, but one of us, obviously myself, would be guaranteed to win. I had planned on spending no more than twenty dollars on games. I had planned on sticking to a budget. I had not planned on desperately needing a Spiderman. I explained my strategy to the kids. Dirk, of course, needed no strategy. So confident in his six-year-old ego that the Spiderman, on some level, already belonged to him, he was just satisfied that his mother had finally caught on and was now willing to let him play and win. We waited for a lull in interest at the Knock-A-Mole stand. The operator, a broad smiling Mexican who seemed to be more genuine than his fellow con-artists, in retrospect, the most dangerous sort of carnival man, called to us from our sidewalk huddle. I allowed ourselves to be lured to the shady embrace of his game tent, packed to its support poles with plush prizes: snakes and bears of unnatural colors as well as a small army of Spidermen and their webs. Well, Dirk required no encouragement; he hurried ahead of the rest of us. I reviewed the prize rules with our captor to double check that we were qualified for Spiderman, then counted out and handed him over a ragged little pile of cash.
Dirk and his sisters had already assumed their stations. In front of each of us was a sort of tabletop punctuated with perfectly round holes from which mechanical mole heads would erupt. The object of the game was to pound with an oversized, padded mallet each mole that showed its face. Of course, the moles would appear out of sequence, randomly, and then quick duck back into their holes before the player could whack them with the clumsy mallet. The whole enterprise is rather maddening and the loud, manic music that accompanies it doesn’t help.
By this time, I realize I’m in the middle of a lengthy recollection that I’d rather follow along its happy twists but I’ve caught myself at it and dutifully return to the blue room with my unwieldy mallet and wonder how to count this sort of long video clip. It hardly seems fair to count it as only one unfolding thought. Perhaps going from the concept of Knock-A-Mole to the memory of playing it at the carnival counts as two thoughts and then the reasons I agreed to play the fool game as another and I catch myself calculating thoughts and with a good whack of the mallet tell myself to hush and keep still in this quiet blue room or I’ll have more thoughts to confess than the first round.
Mercifully Claudette calls time and I fine myself seven thoughts for that quieting minute, one for the blue room, three for the carnival–which I rather enjoyed and found to be quieting in its own way although I’m sure we were to be aiming for more emptying– and three for my counting and selfconsciousness and consciousness of my self-consciousness.
We go around the circle again, confessing the number of thoughts we’ve had to push down. The easy-going teacher says seven. The woman I’m still waiting for someone to call by name says three. Fah, five, says the accountant.
I decide to be really vigilant . . . and not to allow even the brown fiberglass ear of a thought to show itself, be it a mechanical mole or worse. Seven, I add. The businessman of over thirty thoughts says he’s managed to quiet himself to nine, an incredible accomplishment. The next man says nine, as well. Miss Perfect reports three thoughts and the lady with the hearing aid confesses five.
Everyone’s made improvement so I’m disheartened when Claudette suggests we do one more round, a bit panicked in fact. Haven’t we all shown sufficient promise and aptitude? Can’t we just practice in the privacy of our own homes and rooms? But no one protests and with a word Claudette starts us again. Begin. I rush to the blue room, surprised and relieved that I’ve managed to find it back so easily and wonder why it’s blue (one, whack). I decide to be really vigilant with my padded mallet this time and not to allow even the brown fiberglass ear of a thought to show itself, be it a mechanical mole or worse (was that a thought?). Surely my wondering was (whack) (two or three, I’ll decide later). In the pale blue room I try to watch and wait quietly. Quietly, I wait and watch. I see how this could be a really useful skill, especially on those days when I’m gathering laundry or unloading the dishwasher and unpleasant thoughts intrude upon an otherwise pleasant enough morning. Just whack them in the head, the thought of my in-laws for example, and continue on as if they weren’t the most irksome and puzzling and impossible people ever to cross my path. Now there’s a thought (whack, is it four already?). Blue room, blue room. Blue room. I wonder how long we’ve been at this anyway, there’s no good way to tell time in this blue empty space (five, whack). The only reason I can remember the name of the game, Knock-A-Mole, is because it’s so close to guacamole, except for the aye sound at the end. Still, I keep wanting to call it Whack-A-Mole, knock sounding too polite, a denial of the frenzy that ensues as the timer ticks and the mallet lands crazily in one direction, then another while mechanical moles rise and drop on all sides.
We go around the room one last time, confessing numbers. My six isn’t a great improvement over seven although during this minute of quieting I can honestly say that I spent more consecutive moments in the blue empty room than at the carnival. I refuse to fudge my number to four even after Miss Long Blond Hair begins this round by blithely saying three. If you can’t be honest at the outset of spiritual formation, when are you going to start?