The Universe is always speaking to us… sending us little messages, causing coincidences and serendipities, reminding us to stop, look around, to believe in something more, something else.” -Unknown
I sipped my Belgian wheat beer, or “Weiss” beer as I’d been trained to say during my six days in Germany just before, and savored the malty flavor. Who knew a growing wine connoisseur had a hidden affection for the less-formal brewed beverage? Must have been my German heritage. Surely I’d go home and get back to my stock of Bordeaux’s aging gracefully in my new basement wine cellar, but for now, for tonight… ah, that crisp, slightly sweet taste.
I was six chapters into my fifth book of the trip. Four of those books had been set in the times of WWII, and had brought context through my travels in Germany and Austria — “Killing Patton” in particular had provided a historical backdrop to the fascinating city of Berlin. But now I was in Copenhagen, and after finishing my most recent book set in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, a lighter, mystery romance seemed just the ticket.
In fact, the whole scene brought a sense of satisfaction after 12 days of traveling: the beer, the book, the spirited crowd speaking in many different languages at the tables around me, the… lamp?
A break from reading, a casual glance around the room at the lively atmosphere, and my eyes immediately paused on the lamp located prominently in the center of the bar.
More accurately, they locked onto it.
“When do you feel the most at ease?”
The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction instructor looked eagerly around the main room of our group’s location in a quaint, adobe Tucson church. “Think about a time where you feel relaxed… content… would anyone like to share?”
Not one to hold back, on this first night of the eight-week course, my hand shot into the air.
“Yes, Megan, please.”
“That’s an easy answer: When I’m traveling.”
Several people in our circle of chairs around the room nodded; as did my instructor, who probed me further. “Why do you think that is?”
“Because I’m exploring. Even if it’s simply sitting on a train, watching the world go by out the window, my only job is to experience each and every thing around me. I’m completely present, enjoying the moment.”
As I describe in Girl Enlightened, much of my journey following my dad’s death and simultaneous painful running injury had to do with refining the principles described in those Mindfulness classes. More specifically, as occurred to me in that first class, I quickly learned I needed to relate those principles to the feeling of contentment traveling brought me — being more in the moment, letting go of anxieties to enjoy the present.
Having only lived in Tucson a few months prior to starting the classes, I found the concepts relatively easy to employ. My dog and I dubbed our final weekend day “Sunday Funday” nearly every week, and made a point to explore a new hiking trail or park. Amidst those hikes and parks was a setting of mountain peaks and desert vegetation that left me in awe of their colorful beauty each and every time I saw them. Every sunset looked just a little bit different, the colorful sky emulating the likes of a painting on a canvas. Even on something as simple as a weeknight walk after work, it was easy to stop, stare, and take in my surroundings with a deep, calming breath.
But when I moved back to Madison in June of 2015, it proved harder to get into an “exploration mode.” I was in a familiar city — one I’d spent over two decades in; and with working full-time and the busy-ness of seeing friends and family again, life seemed to move quicker, living little room for catching my breath.
That’s when I realized I was still missing a crucial component of this lesson: How could I make my simple, everyday life feel like I’m traveling?
Two years later, there are a few ways I’ve figured out how to:
- Drinking my coffee on the back patio with my dogs in the morning: It means getting up 20 minutes earlier each day, but I wouldn’t trade those minutes for the world; a chance to take in the air of the new day, soak in the sunshine (or clouds), steal a few extra cuddles with my favorite companions, all while enjoying my freshly brewed morning beverage. I notice the taste, the smells, the sights, and of course the occasional licks.
- Taking a walk at lunch: my office happens to be positioned less then ten minutes by foot from the lovely UW-Madison campus, flanked on either side by the gorgeous Lake Mendota and the bustling State Street complete with a magnificent view of the Madison Capitol building at the end. There are times I still end up eating my actual lunch at my desk, but the walk is a chance to see, hear, smell my surroundings, and get out of my head for a bit.
3. Taking my dogs for a walk nearly every weeknight: One of the first things I noticed upon checking out my then-new neighborhood a year ago was the amazing view of the Capitol produced by the elevation in the center. Thirteen months later, that view still gets me, encouraging me to meander up that way no matter what route our walk takes us and enjoy the sights from atop the hill as if I were admiring any other worldly city. In fact, if you let your imagination wander, the Capitol building looks a bit like St. Peter’s Basilica towering in the distance of the Rome skyline.
My most recent trip to Europe this past spring reminded me once more that there is still an unbeatable contentment that comes from being in a new place, particularly when simply wandering a city. Many of my days across the pond started with nothing more than a map in hand, a few general spots of interest, and all the time in the world (no pun intended). It was that mindset that pushed me to check out what was around every corner, up every set of stone stairs, or down every cobblestone street. It was that mindset that allowed me to experience each and every structure in my path — whether a charming house on the side of the road, or a famous church I happen to stumble upon (like the abbey from the Sound of Music that literally just popped up during a walk) — with an unassuming eye, taking it all in without any presumptions or expectations.
There are some bigger themes from my time in Tucson and overseas that I’ve adopted into my now Midwestern life — getting out and exploring nearby points of interest, trying more new restaurants, going for a hike with my pups at one of the many nearby state parks. But it’s the day-to-day, embracing the moment, taking each new experience — sight, smell, feeling — as it comes, that has allowed me adopt a true “traveler’s mindset,” whether I’m in a completely foreign city, or a place I’ve lived in for most of my life.
If you’ve read my second memoir, you may remember the story of the “green lamp,” which also happens to stem from that very first Mindfulness class. On that initial night of the course, during our very first (of many) meditations, the instructor shared a recommendation:
“Many of my students like to look towards the window when they do their meditations. The outside visual helps with focus and calming.”
My eyes already closed for the activity, I opened them back up to heed her advice and began to turn my head to the open window in our quaint little room.
That’s when I noticed the lamp.
The unique green lamp had adorned my dad’s office desk all while growing up. Every night after he’d finish work for the day, I’d take my spot in his chair, and by the glowing light shining through that oval shade, I’d complete my daily homework.
I’d signed up for this class largely due to the grief from my dad’s death I was still experiencing, a way to connect more to the present, and to him. On that night, just like it did two and a half years later in a pub in Denmark, the sight of that lamp — a sight I may not have otherwise noticed without stopping to take in the room around me — brought a sense of comfort, the light telling me, in it’s own special way, that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.