“I’ve loved that breakfront since I was 12 years old,” Jody blurted out, trying to calm the blood pounding in her chest and head.
She was rifling through the stack of invoices on Ray’s desk, rage overtaking her so she couldn’t actually read the words on the papers in her hands.
“Jody, I don’t have any inventory list for the items you’re referring to: the breakfront and console table, the boxes and Lucite tables,” said Ray, nervously touching the little stainless steel metal balls attached to a hoop protruding from her lower lip.
“I was there when your people labeled them, picked them up and took them away, so I don’t know what you are saying. You have them, “ replied Jody through her quiet fury.
An hour earlier when they opened the vault — an eight-foot tall by six-foot wide wooden crate — our expectation was that we would see Grandma Claire’s beautiful breakfront, and all the other items packed up and put in storage for Jody in 2017 when our newly widowed dad was downsizing to move into a senior independent- living community. Our shared disappointment at seeing my old stuff instead of hers was palpable.
The chilly, cavernous warehouse was lined with hundreds of storage vaults: rows three boxes high going up 24 feet in the air. I imagined the office would quickly locate the correct invoice, the fork lift operator would drive to Jody’s vault, and the United Van Lines guys — Randall and Marvin — would be loading her precious cargo into their gynormous truck in short order.
When 10 or 15 minutes elapsed without any word from the office, Randall went to track down the problem. I gently suggested that maybe her move would have to proceed without that vault.
“I promise I’ll find it, and ship it to you separately,” I offered.
“I am not moving into a 950 square foot apartment in New York City twice!” Jody replied as she marched towards the office.
When no one arrived with paperwork after another 10 minutes, I walked down one of the long rows of wooden vaults to the office, hoping I might be able to say something that could defuse the situation. For some inexplicable reason, my head turned up and to the right and my eyes landed on a vault about 16 feet up that said “AUSTIN, BOX 1 OF 1, 6/8/17, NO INVENTORY ON SHIPMENT.”
“Oh my God, I found it!” I thought. Well, Austin is a common name, I reasoned, but the date makes sense. It’s not the same date as on the Potiker vault where we thought the furniture was tucked away, but it’s the right month and year, and Austin is Jody’s last name.
I was cautiously optimistic as I approached Jody, Randall, and Ray. “I found it,” I said. “I’m sure I’m right. It says Austin and it has the right month and year.”
We held our collective breath as the forklift operator gently placed the vault on the cold cement floor. “Okay. Let’s break it open and see what’s inside,” I urged the dude from the storage place.
As the first two metal clamps came off the front, I saw the weathered and peeling guitar case that my sister Jody has been traveling through life with since her late husband’s passing. The relief at seeing that guitar case was like a wave of expansion and joy mixed with wonder and spine-tingling awe.
“How in the hell did you find it?” Jody asked, relieved and amazed.
“Mom and Dad guided me,” I whispered. “It doesn’t make sense any other way.”
“I’m so glad you said that,” Marvin exhaled, brushing his long thin black and grey braids over his shoulder. “That’s what my people believe. I’m from Haiti. There is no other way anybody would have found that vault. You’ve been down that row five times this morning without looking up. You were guided to look up at that moment.”
What unfolded next was a magical connection between people and things.
“You don’t understand, I had so much rage I couldn’t see,” Jody said as she raised her hand to her forehead, her fingers pressed firmly into the space above her eyebrows.
“Why are you putting rage at your third eye?” Marvin inquired, his eyes sparkling with amused judgment.
“Her prefrontal cortex was hijacked by her amygdala,” I responded. “I teach this stuff.”
“You do? I need to learn this stuff!” Marvin enthused.
“Okay, here’s how this goes,” I said as I perched on the edge of my dad’s gray ultra-suede bench. “You feel an emotion coming up and you label it; that first step helps to calm your amygdala. So, let’s walk through it: Pretend I’m Jody. I’m feeling rage, and under the rage is something softer. There is sadness and fear. The sadness is grief: ‘I’m still raw because my dad just died. I’ve had the gift of living with him for the past three years, so our relationship has grown and deepened beyond anything I had known from my childhood.’ Now, let’s gently investigate why fear is there: ‘Of course there is fear. I’m moving back to NYC, setting my life up again for the fourth time in as many years after suffering tremendous personal losses, and I’m doing it alone!’ Now, don’t go down the rabbit hole of that story, so you are not over-identifying with that narrative. Instead, tell yourself what you really need to hear right now. That could be, ‘I’ve got this, I’m strong and capable, and I am safe right now.’ Then, if you want to go a step further to change the channel, you can pop in a memory of a time you really felt awesome, and re-experience that memory, letting it fill you up with good feelings so you rewire that negative mental state with a positive mental state, savoring the good feeling long enough to push the mental state to a neural trait. This makes a happy bridge in your brain!”
Pausing a beat or two to let that land, I explained that I just took them through two well-known methods for managing difficult emotions. I’ve been practicing them for years, so they’ve become automatic responses when I feel a difficult emotion arise.
The first method is R.A.I.N.:
Recognize the difficult emotion by naming it.
Allow it to be there.
Investigate gently what’s going on.
Not Identify + Nurture = Don’t over-identify and ruminate on the story. Letting it go without judgment is mindfulness; then, nurture yourself by telling yourself what you need to hear right now, which adds self-compassion to the mindfulness piece.
R.A.I.N. was created by Wendy McDonald and popularized by Tara Brach, me, and many others! It should probably be changed to R.A.I.N.N.!
The “change the channel” technique where you pop in a great memory to rewire your brain takes its playbook from Rick Hanson’s writings and teachings about Experience Dependant Neuroplasticity. I added the “happy bridges” language because I visualize the negativity bias in our brains being overwritten by them!
“Wow,” Marvin smiled. “That’s cool. It reminds me of a technique called Metu Neter, an African practice that deals with energy movement and shaping factors. I also do something involving my chakras and colors.”
“We’ve got a lot to learn from each other! I’ll look that up!” I replied.
An hour later Randall, elbow propped up on a wardrobe box, cocked his head in my direction and said, “You are a type B personality, right?”
“Excuse me?” I didn’t hear him.
“You are a type B personality, right? You’ve got the calm, smooth voice going,” he crooned.
“Actually, I used to be a lawyer, so in those days I was definitely Type A. Now, I don’t know what I am. I think I’m type Be Here Now!” I laughed, thinking: Oh my God, I’ve got to write that down!
I shared a little bit about Ram Dass, a widely known spiritual teacher who recently passed away and whose seminal 1971 book “Be Here Now” informed a generation of seekers and teachers.
Thirty minutes later the movers began wrapping the gray upholstered bench that lived at the foot of my dad’s bed until he passed away on November 15, 2019. When they placed it on its end, something fluttered out of the bench onto the cement floor.
Jody and I stood there stunned to see Dad’s business card, his photo smiling up at us. If that’s not a signal that he was there with us, I don’t know what is. A hard day became one filled with miracles.