The waiting room is dimly lit with folding chairs lined up along the gray, dismal walls. Young mothers clutch their fidgeting babies, while downtrodden men with dark sad eyes fill the seats. Suddenly, a vibrant older man appears. He quickly comes toward me with a big welcoming smile, extends his hand and says, “You Chelsie’s Mom?”
“Yes” I respond.
“We love Chelsie!” he proclaims. “By the way,” he proudly announces, “I’m the Mayor of Skid Row!” Puzzled, I respond, “Skid Row? I didn’t know it was a real place.”
“Yes,” he says, “Of course. We have our own fire department and everything – the Skid Row Fire Department!”
I silently wonder, “How did we get here?”
Chelsie appears and I remember. I am here in Los Angeles at her outpatient program for heroin addiction to attend “Mindfulness Day.”
We sit in a circle with a diverse group of a dozen people. I listen intently to the leader, a youthful Vietnamese doctor and third-generation alcoholic. She explains mindfulness, a concept of being aware of the present moment and calmly accepting one’s feelings and emotions.
We start by practicing mindful walking slowly in a circle. Then the participants share their stories. I’m blown away from the raw, honest journey telling of their struggles that have led them here. A tiny tear streams slowly down the side of my cheek as I listen to the depth of sharing and the desire for healing. My daughter holds my hand as she tells the group she is grateful I came across country to be with her. I feel closer to her than I have in a long time. The doctor gives each of us a gift. My gift is Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, “Peace Is Every Step.”
A year later, I’m bundled in layers of clothes, a facemask, hat, scarf, and gloves as I walk slowly on a path through Central Park, surrounded by a foot or so of snow. Repeating silently “I am solid, I am free,” a phrase from Thich Nhat Hanh, I feel numb. Is it the cold in the air or my blocked emotions that create this sense of numbness?
Returning to the apartment, I complete my mindfulness project for my masters program. I write in my journal for an hour. “Peace, I just want peace. It’s all about peace.”
I have been searching for peace my whole life.
Six months later, it’s a cool misty July morning. I drive in solitude to the home of my teacher in a small rural Connecticut town. As I walk to the front door, the family dog, ole’ gentle Bella, greets me. With saliva dripping from her tongue, she sniffs and says “hello.”
Joan appears and leads me to the warm inviting kitchen, a fireplace on the center wall and neatly hung dried herbs to the left. I softly inhale an earthy scent blended with the smell of old burning tinder.
Half dozen or so women arrive. We stand around the kitchen counter, where a pitcher of water sits garnished with fresh strawberry and cucumber slices. The chatter gets louder and louder as our enthusiasm grows for our internship, “Real Food Matters.”
Our “lecture” begins with a walk outside to the sounds of chickens cackling, the sight and smell of lavender, and an abundance of herbs growing in the center garden.
“If you are drawn to an herb,” Joan tells us, “it’s your senses letting you know this herb is beneficial for you.”
I meet tulsi for the first time, with its purple and green flowers standing at attention. I feel a sense of calm as I rub a leaf drawing in a pungent yet sweet scent.
We walk to the side of the home where the vegetables grow.
“Go ahead and pick a potato,” says Joan.
The cool dark soil feels airy and moist surrounding my fingers searching for the hardness of a potato.
“Wow, magic!” I cry out, “I have never picked a potato!”
From our bounty of freshly picked herbs and vegetables, we cut and dice and tell our stories, in some ways no different than “Mindfulness Day” in L.A. Sitting outside under the trees, we honor our meal, mindfully eating in silence and gratitude. My mouth is salivating, as the burst of flavor, so delicately blended, is undeniably better than anything store bought.
By the following year, I am giving my first wellness talk – a dream I’ve held for years.
“It’s been almost 3 years since the ‘Mom, I need your help’ phone call. This is the moment when denial, often found in families with patterns of self-medicating behaviors, could no longer protect me from the depths of unbearable pain, separateness and solitary self-loathing. Chelsie and I have found, in our own space and time, a healing place of self-love, self-compassion, self-forgiveness and connectedness.”
I spot Chelsie seated in the front row. Her eyes are bright and shiny, skin clear with a healthy tone. She sits straight and tall, a stance she developed from her yoga practice. Her secondhand t-shirt “Dare to Keep Your Kids Off Drugs” and moccasins firmly planted on the ground, distract me for a moment. I quickly scan the nose ring, earring plugs, rawhide pouch dangling around her neck, and “pace e bene” tattoo on her left inner forearm, a reminder of her commitment to “peace and good.”
“Chelsie, I mean Tulsi,” I stumble, “is an ancient herb known for its calming properties. It is also symbolic of a woman who has overcome many struggles and becomes an honored and respected goddess.”
I pause and think how many times I confuse Chelsie with tulsi.
“I invite you to mindfully eat a Peacebar, sprinkled with tulsi. Close your eyes, taste the smoothness of cashew butter, the sweetness of apricots, the subtle blend of vanilla and cardamom. Have your tulsi moment.”
I am honor. I am respect. I am peace.