When I turned 17, I began doing something odd: every few weeks, I would take everything out of my room. Bed and bedding, cello and chairs, stereo, bureaus, bookshelves. Everything. Completely empty the room.
And then bring it all back in again — only with everything now in a different place. It was a game with its own strict rules: 1) absolutely everything had to vacate the room, and 2) it all had to go back in in a completely different and uniquely new arrangement.
If my parents thought this behavior strange, they never said so. At least, not to me. If they had asked me what on earth I was doing, I don’t know what I would have said.
So, what was I doing? Seems to me, I was practicing.
At the time, I was involved in starting a new high school. Once it was up and running, I attended as a student, graduated, then joined the faculty and taught there. And then suddenly I was living in Indiana, playing cello in a symphony. And then I was living in Boston, driving a taxi at night and teaching Oriental Medicine during the day. And then I was running a business. And then I was editing journals.
Each time I woke up in a new career, it felt as if I’d stepped out of the room for a moment, only to come back in and find it completely rearranged, with all different furniture. The only thing all those lives seemed to have in common were that they were all some version of me.
So what was “me” — the stuff in the room, or the empty room itself?
In my twenties I had a son who, at ten months, took ill and died. The marriage did not survive. All at once I found myself staring at that empty room.
In my thirties, now married again, I started a publishing business that flourished, then foundered and collapsed under the weight of its own growth until one spring day I found myself standing before a judge in bankruptcy court. That marriage didn’t survive, either.
Oddly, having tinkered with that teenage rearranging game seemed to help me through those difficult times. As if, being already familiar, that empty room was not so terrifying as it might have been, the prospect of starting over not so daunting.
Of course the process was not always so catastrophic or stressful. When I began writing brief essays for the publications where I worked, I found the best way to arrive at something that felt worth saying was to take all the furniture out of the room in my head and start with a plan as empty as the page.
These days I experience that empty room constantly, every day.
When I awake, one of the first things I see is my wife Ana’s face, which has become my favorite sight in the world. (Third time’s a charm, they say, and in this case they are spot on.) And yet as familiar as this sight is, it surprises me, every time. So does the rich warmth of that first morning cup of tea. And the sensation of walking, as I plod to the kitchen to make it.
“Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.”
So wrote Shunryu Suzuki in 1970, in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book I devoured and cherished when it came out. He might as easily have said, Treat each moment as your first.
The sound of the catbird outside my window; our dog Ben snoring on the bed; the taste of the morning toast; the feel of her hand in mine as we walk the neighborhood.
Who took all the furniture out of my room while I was sleeping, and replaced it all with this amazing stuff?