by Don Tassone
Bill Armstrong looked down at his ringing cell phone. Spam. He got up and turned off the TV, then sat back down and opened his laptop. The email icon at the bottom of the screen showed 43 new messages.
“Damn!” he said.
“Sorry, I’m having trouble understanding you right now. Please try a little later,” said Alexa.
Bill grumbled, hoping Alexa wouldn’t hear, and logged on for his next Zoom meeting. He could hear his wife on a Zoom call in the next room and his kids in school online in their bedrooms.
The doorbell rang. Charley, his dog, barked madly at the front door. Bill looked out the window and saw an Amazon truck pulling away.
This is my life, he thought. There has got to be a better way.
“I feel like I’m being bombarded,” Bill told his wife Janice that evening after the kids were in bed.
“Bombarded?” she said. “By what?”
“Bad news. Non-stop emails and texts. Social media. I think all the noise is making me crazy.”
“Why don’t you try to unplug?”
“I’ve tried that,” he said. “Easier said than done. The world isn’t going to stop just because I turn off the TV.”
“Well, you’re right. But you’ve got to find a way to give yourself some peace.”
She came over, sat down beside him on the sofa and put her arms around him.
“I worry about you, Bill. You seem down lately.”
“I feel worn down,” he said. “I feel worn down by all the noise. I need a break.”
“Maybe we should go away for a long weekend,” she said.
He thought about it for a moment. But he knew with the pandemic raging, their options were limited. Besides, no matter where they went, the bad news on TV, the vitriol of social media and the incessant barrage of texts and emails would follow them.
“Maybe,” he said. “We’ll figure something out.”
“I love you,” she said, kissing him on the cheek.
“I love you too,” he said, his phone dinging with the receipt of another text message.
One morning, when the kids and Janice were online, Bill went down to his basement simply to get away from the busyness and noise in his house.
The only time he went into his basement was to watch TV, usually a big game. He hadn’t been down there in a while.
Now he walked past his widescreen TV and came to the door to a small room Janice used for crafts. He hadn’t been in it in years.
He opened the door and flipped on the light. The room was cluttered with colored paper, paints, brushes, markers, glue sticks, scissors, paper cups, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, cardboard boxes and plastic bins. The only furniture was a small table, a lamp and a wooden chair with a loose seat cushion.
The room had one small window. Sunlight streamed in. As Bill looked around, he was struck by the stillness.
He stepped over to the table, pulled out the chair and sat down. Aside from occasional soft footsteps upstairs, there was no sound at all.
Something outside, through the window, caught his eye. It was a large maple tree in his backyard whose bare branches were swaying in the wind. He hadn’t paid much attention to that tree before. Now it looked as if it were beckoning him.
Bill got up, turned off the lamp and sat back down. He thought of a class Janice had taken in meditation when they were first married. She had talked him into going once. Bill had found the experience awkward.
He had tried hard to clear his mind, even though the instructor had said, “When your mind wanders, simply return your attention to your breath as an anchor to the present.”
Bill had been unable to do that. Now, desperate for some peace in his life, he decided to try again.
He closed his eyes, put his feet flat on the floor and sat up straight. He rested his palms on his thighs. He took a deep breath.
He thought about the Zoom call he would have in an hour.
But he remembered what the instructor had said and brought his mind back to his breathing.
He thought about the spike in new Covid cases being reported that morning.
Again, he brought his mind back to his breathing.
He thought about the latest violence in Portland.
Then, once again, he brought his mind back to his breathing.
His mind kept wandering, but he kept returning his attention to his breath.
After about 15 minutes of this, Bill opened his eyes and went upstairs.
“Sure,” Janice said later that morning. “I don’t use it much anymore. Just keep all my stuff together in the storage room.”
That afternoon Bill went back downstairs and cleared out Janice’s crafts room, leaving only the table and chair. He even took out the lamp because the sunlight through the window was sufficient.
The following morning, Bill went down to the room he’d cleared out and tried again to meditate. His mind kept wandering. But each time it did, Bill returned to his breath.
He did this morning after morning. Over a period of months, he began to learn not to try to clear his mind but to train it to notice when he was lost in thought and then shift his awareness to the present.
He was able to do this in a room free of electronic devices, away from social media and all the trappings of his everyday life. Bill called it his tranquility room.
Of course, every time he went back upstairs, the noise was still there. Covid was still killing people, the “talking heads” on TV were still screaming and the news was still bad.
But Bill began to accept the fact that this noise would always be there. He knew he couldn’t stop it. But he realized he could stop listening to it, if only for a short time.
Day by day, Bill began to recover a sense of peace he thought was no longer possible. He began to let go of the things that had been bombarding him. And his heart began to feel open again.
As the pandemic subsided and people got back together, Bill was different, and the world seemed different too.
Life seemed a little slower. Bill listened more closely to his friends and loved ones, and he shared himself more openly with them. He was more present in whatever he was doing.
That year, through the window in his tranquility room, Bill watched the big maple tree in his backyard bud, bloom and leaf out. Then he watched its leaves change colors and let go. He had nearly forgotten this is what life is.
* * *
Don Tassone is the author of two novels and five short story collections. He lives in Loveland, Ohio. Visit him at https://www.dontassone.com.