Buddha, by way of my therapist, pointed out to me recently that “life is suffering.” I ponder this while working my way around a chocolate-dipped vanilla cone from the custard stand just up the street. At the moment, life doesn’t feel too bad.
Buddha was one smart dude though—he knew it’s always best to lower one’s expectations. If you expect your life to suck, then every good thing that happens, every ice cream cone, every sunny day, every kindness extended to you is a shining miracle.
As I finish my treat and start pulling out of the lot next to Burger King, it hits me that even though Buddha lived thousands of years ago in India, he knew all about Front Royal—freaky.
Maybe he visited a town like ours, out in the hinterlands, a small and mostly backward place that, nevertheless, deep down in the rocks and dirt, harbored a few stunning jewels.
Maybe he couldn’t see them until he calmed his mind and observed his surroundings without judgment, free of negative or positive attachments.
Yeah, right—easier said than done. But he was The Buddha—of course he could handle a little non-judgment.
Every time I meet with my crunchy, new age therapist, she reminds me about a related concept called “Radical Acceptance.” She’s just so ridiculously sensible. Radical Acceptance involves accepting life as it comes without trying to control every detail, run away, or push back like a trapped rodent. You either change the thing that is bothering you, accept that you cannot change it and agree to be miserable, or decide to improve your attitude toward the outside element you cannot change.
I wonder if Buddha had a cognitive behavioral therapist to help him through dark times, those days when his followers looked like cretins, dull-witted and selfish, without the least desire to imagine anything beyond what they had always known.
Or on days when they acted like spoiled, neurotic, type-A urban dwellers.
Did his therapist also swear by aroma therapy, bio-feedback, and creative visualization? Oh, wait, he was the therapist.
Honestly, driving down Osage Street, it’s hard to think of Front Royal without judgment, to call it Home with a capital H, a place we chose of our own free will.
But this is the town where we are raising our child, the place where we sleep and dream every night, a place without so many of the perks we used to consider essential.
Here there is no nationally top-ranked public school system, no nightlife to speak of, no art house movie theatre, no gay district, no government buildings named after civil rights leaders, no Ethiopian, Lebanese, or Moroccan restaurants, no children’s museum, no go-go bands performing on street corners, no metro, no Filipino Festival, no Kennedy Center.
After two years here, it occurs to me that when I look around, glancing up and down Main Street or peering down alleys, I’m more likely to see what isn’t here rather than what is. This is a problem. The absences are clouding my vision like smoke from a neighbor’s stinky brush fire.
If there were anything interesting or cool or inspiring here, would I even see it?
What would Buddha do (WWBD) in such a situation?
Just for kicks and because I don’t want Buddha to be disappointed in me, I decide to try an exercise suggested by my therapist as a way to relax before sleep. This exercise has become my night-time crack—it calms me, moves mind and body to a “receptive” place—whatever that means—and is, of course, much cheaper and more healthy than actual crack.
But will it work in broad daylight when I can actually see all the Sarah Palin stickers zooming by around me, all the NRA fundraising flyers plastered proudly downtown?
My assignment is to list the 10 things I am grateful for, not just any 10 things, but the 10 things about Front Royal that make me feel warm and fuzzy inside, or at least not suicidal.
It’s a lot like asking an artsy kid to explain why she loves military school or a video game addict why he adores folding paper cranes.
No, “there is no try, there is only do,” as Yoda would say. No past or future, only present.
Okay, so focus…breathe…observe.
1. Royal Oak Book Shop—how could you not appreciate a store that leaves a good chunk of its wares on the front porch for bibliophiles to pick up and pay for on the honor system? On the inside, this labyrinthine book shop feels like it blossomed out of the earth, books and maps filling every room like Virginia creeper. Admittedly, I don’t just tolerate this store—I really really like it.
2. Mountain Mystic Trading Company—a true hippy haven, this shop features funny, left-leaning bumper stickers (thank god), incense, crystals, scented oils, books on meditation, and funky jewelry. It provides a much needed balance to the shame/guilt/damnation vibe emanating from the Catholic shop on Main.
3. Front Royal Women’s Resource Center—not so much a physical destination as an amazing conglomeration of positive energy, this organization has moved FR light years ahead with its progressive programs for women and girls, its scholarships, arts events, and reminders of what woman anywhere can accomplish. No non-judgment here I’m afraid.
4. Yoga Studios—there are two in downtown FR—two! Blue Mountain Healing Center offers massage therapy, thai yoga massage, kripalu yoga, reiki, arch healing, and aromatherapy. Peaceful Energies offers hatha yoga, gentle yoga, pilates, reiki, and natural health consultations. Although one guidebook for young girls that I found in the local CVS warns against the Satanic evils of that far eastern cult, yoga, I have yet to start speaking in a guttural devil voice after enjoying Thai yoga massage. Maybe the masseur isn’t doing it right.
5. The Gazebo—I think someone pulled this white-columned structure near the Visitor’s Center directly from an early Mickey Rooney flick. The gazebo adorns FR postcards and is the site of community events year-round. It seems to attract all types of lollers and strollers. Sometimes you see mysterious groups of teens practicing traditional old-world European dances there or random D.J.s performing for non-existent crowds during the week. But sitting there on the grass surrounded by gorgeous flowers at dusk on a coolish spring or fall evening, the smallness of this small town seems almost not so bad.
6. Warren County Democrats—during the 2008 presidential election, this group opened an office on Main Street and I thought I was going to cry. A life-sized cardboard Obama gazed out from behind the front door onto a staunchly Republican Warren County. Against some pretty tough odds, a motley and diverse crew of liberals significantly bumped up the number of registered Democrats in the area. If that cardboard sign could have moved its lips, it would have broken into a smile as broad as the Shenandoah Valley.
7. Victorian Houses on Blue Ridge Avenue—even though too many have been torn down and replaced by modern structures or cut up into apartments, the intact homes that remain take my breath away. We’ve watched several neighbors restore their turn-of-the-century houses with painstaking care. The staircase banister in our own house has developed a rich satin patina. That simple piece of wood connects me to history every time I touch it.
8. Veggie Wrap and Background Music at Soul Mountain—stepping into this restaurant can make everything feel alright, baby. The lunch special can’t be beat—spicy wraps and a drink for a mere $6.95. But what really gets me is the vibe—reggae music, Bob Marley on the wall, and my favorite guy, Buddha, watching over it all.
9. View of the River and Mountains Coming into Town on 340 South—this sight just never gets old. Rolling down 340 south over the two bridges into town, you see the river on the right flowing down from the mountains between banks of trees. It’s all undulation and subtle shades of blue, purple, and green. If you listen closely, you can hear the velvet voice of poet Langston Hughes reciting: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
10. Custard Stands—do these need any explanation? I used to love the ones dotting south Jersey, where I spent a good bit of my childhood. They seemed magical then somehow and can still be a highpoint of my day. Maybe my therapist should set up an office right next door to one. She could start a new craze—ice cream therapy.
Now that I have named my list and become one with my cone, I feel receptive, humbled, grateful, warm, fuzzy, and centered. How lucky to live here and not in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo, or North Korea—life is good after all.
Kicking back on my front porch, swinging in the old wooden swing, I gaze at the cornflower blue sky, watch a bee buzz the azalea bushes, and then realize I’d better get off my butt and brew some coffee now before this haze of contentment swallows all my critical faculties like quicksand.
Please, not that.
If that were to happen, I might forget Buddha’s words about suffering, let my guard down, and start to expect way too much of this podunk little town.
And that, don’t you agree, would be a disaster.