Paying Attention to the Space In Between

Focused attention isn’t always a matter of life or death—but when we can bring exactly what we’re experiencing into focus, we might surprise ourselves with what’s revealed.

Song_about_summer/Adobe Stock

I honestly don’t know how to tell you this story. If we were having coffee together I would say: So, I almost died the other day. Or: Did I tell you about how a ladder almost took me out on the way to Windsor Junction last week? And it is a story about almost dying. And it is definitely a story about a close encounter with a flying ladder. But if we were in person together I would tell you this story almost wryly, I would tell it to you with a sense of wonder, a sense of: This is the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me. I would tell it a bit funny and a bit surface. Because the page is where I meet myself best, I’m writing about it—to share the story, and to unpack it a little for myself, too.

And that’s mainly because something happened the day that ladder almost took me out on the beautiful, winding, two-lane Cobequid Road—something happened that I don’t totally understand yet.

My therapist reframed it from a “near-death experience” to a “life-affirming experience.” My meditation teacher offers it was “an extremely wise moment.” My friend Waub, who was in the back seat of my car when it happened, characterized it as “some serious ninja shit.” Each of these is accurate in some way, but none really tells the whole story.

So, let me start at the beginning, as best I can.

On a sunny and cold Sunday morning, Waub, my husband Kev, and I are heading out to Windsor Junction, a rural community of comfortable houses set far back on expansive lawns, with backyards that disappear into forest. Waub is in town at the invitation of a festival I help run. Earlier that morning, as Kev went to get in the driver’s side of the car, I said, “No, I’m driving.” He scowled a little—he thinks I’m too critical of his driving (I am), and it is a repeating minor tension in our marriage. “It’s not personal,” I said. “It’s just that I’ll have Waub with me and he’s with the festival, so he’s my responsibility.” Kev got in the passenger side, and off we went.

Thirty minutes later, we are traveling the winding Cobequid Road, and we are talking about grief. Waub’s a writer, and so am I, and he has asked me about my work. The novel I’m writing has grief as a major theme—as all my work does. I have just started to tell him about a revelation I had a few months earlier about some grief I’ve been holding around my father. In fact, I’ve just said the words my father, when it happens.

In the other lane, coming toward us, is a pickup truck. It goes over a bump or a rise in the road, and the metal extension ladder that’s in the bed of the truck rises up too. It flies gently into the air, which stops my sentence at the word father. Then it begins to arc out so that it’s sailing perpendicular to the windshield of our car. It’s moving slow-fast, and so are we. Really, we are going about 45 miles an hour, and so is the pickup truck. The shoulders of the Cobequid Road are gravel and dirt, and they slope down into drainage ditches on either side. It’s a crisp fall morning, and there are many cars traveling this road. But the ladder is now the most important vehicle on the scene. I watch as it moves toward us.

I’ve rarely met a moment I couldn’t avoid by ruminating about the past or catastrophizing about the future—or simply embroidering a story about what it all means.

And I mean, I watch. Later I will think of this as locking gazes with the ladder, as if it can see me, too. I feel I can see every pore of its skin, if that makes sense. In this life, in this moment, I am a student of one thing, and it’s only exactly what’s happening right. Now.

I need to tell you at this point that this is not the norm for me. I am a very experienced time traveler. I’ve rarely met a moment I couldn’t avoid by ruminating about the past or catastrophizing about the future—or simply embroidering a story about what it all means. In an earlier car crash, five weeks after my father’s death, I lost control of our car, sliding on black ice on (again) a two-lane highway while (again!) a pickup truck barreled toward us in the oncoming lane. In the moments that unfolded, my mind and its attention splintered, generating stories like: I am a terrible driver, and we are going to die. And as we hit the guardrail and the side mirror snapped off: How much is it going to cost to fix that? And, as Kev rose up out of his seat and moved out of view behind me: Oh my God, you’re not wearing your seatbelt!! And as our tires left the ground and our car sailed through the air: How does this end? Do we die in water? As we hit the ground and rolled and the other side mirror snapped off: I could afford one, probably, but two is too much! And finally, as we came to rest on the roof of the car, Kev out of sight, me hanging upside down in my seatbelt, as I watched the whole front windshield crack before my eyes: Holy shit, I totally fucked up our car.

Our car was indeed totally effed. Kev and I both, miraculously, were unhurt. The violence and surprise of that experience snapped me out of grieving my father’s death, and into an almost rigid gratitude that I was alive, an orientation I often inadvertently weaponized against myself in the 17 years between that moment on a rural highway and this one. Still, for days or weeks afterward, I replayed the collision’s moments in my mind, seeing again and again the impact against the guardrail, Kev lifting into the air, the second mirror snapping as we hit the ground on the passenger side, and then that dreadfully silent moment when I hung upside down and the windshield cracked, and I spoke to Kev without knowing whether he was even alive. As it was happening, it felt like being in a movie. After, it felt like an unending nightmare. And then my driving was accompanied by the knowledge that catastrophe was possible. That I’m the kind of panicky driver who does exactly the wrong thing—wrenching the steering wheel this way and that trying to get control, everything I learned about defensive driving leaving my head the second things start to go wrong. I learned I was untrustworthy, terrible in an emergency. The kind of driver who could endanger her most beloved person—and anyone else unlucky enough to be around.

I became anxious in the car, critical of Kev’s driving, uptight and relentless. My father’s words were often in my mind. When he was helping me learn to drive when I was a teen, he said, “Never forget you are piloting a potential death machine.” He wanted to make an impression on my mind. Mission accomplished. I could not forget the warning, but neither could I reckon with the responsibility.

As the ladder arced toward me—and Kev and Waub—that morning, I understood a number of things. And I mean, I understood them in a bone-deep, intrinsic way. I knew I needed to pay close attention to exactly what was happening right this second. I needed to focus my mind only on what was actually happening—not what I thought about what was happening, or felt about what was happening. Just: the information the moment itself was offering. I needed to focus deeply on that ladder and my relationship with it. And I knew I needed to stay quite soft, but very alert. I knew that if I got tense and critical, my body would tighten. My shoulders would pull in and up toward my ears, and if my body was tight like that, my options would be limited. I knew I was afraid. I had a sense that I might not know what to do. And then a sense that if I waited, I would figure it out—and that there wasn’t time to worry about it. I can’t say how I knew these things—but I can tell you that I knew them intrinsically, in an embodied way that was outside of time. I knew them instantaneously, and deeply.

And so I settled into it, with the ladder. I watched it come toward us, as if it was being pulled by a magnet or a series of strings. At its full length, it was at least as wide as our car. If it collided with us, it would do so at my eye level. The road’s shoulder was gravel and loose dirt. No wiggle room. There were cars behind us, though not too close. And in the oncoming lane, the pickup truck. No room for me there. I took my foot off the accelerator and kept my hands easy on the steering wheel. Behind me, Waub said, “Holy shit.”

The ladder kept coming.

I came to mindfulness anxious, in physical pain, and very impatient. I hoped that regular meditation practice would help me feel more at home in my body, more connected to it, less likely to ignore its needs in favor of logging another hour at my desk, knocking another five items off my to-do list. And I really hoped it would do so quickly and efficiently so I could get back to the aforementioned to-do-list items. Reader, that was not exactly how it happened. Instead, I spent many long moments, week after week, with my meditation teacher as she cued me to notice my feet, my seat, my neck, the top of my head, my belly, my thighs, my shoulders, my chest.

Kimberly Brown, author and teacher—my teacher, actually—says the kind of “Post-it Note” approach I had in the beginning is common. “Many of us are looking to kind of put Post-it Notes on our experience. I have pain in my knee. Post-it,” she says. “Well, what is that, really? What is that experience? Can you actually experience pain in your knee? It’s usually not what you think it is. It moves. It changes. It’s hot, it’s cold. It’s in this spot. In that spot. And it’s the same with everything. We have these ideas of what we like, what we don’t like. And when you practice taking the Post-it Notes off, well, now you’re actually directly experiencing, and slowly you are developing the capacity to directly experience your life.” We may still use the Post-it Notes sometimes, Kimberly says, and that’s OK—because we are developing the capacity to see what they are. “I think the first step is seeing the biases of the mind,” she adds. “Before you can start to investigate and just be with what’s happening, it’s to see: Oh, OK. I think it’s like this, or I have a story about that. How do I come back to my senses? And really it’s through just paying close, close attention.”

My meditation practice saved my life that day on the Cobequid Road.

It took me about a year of dedicated practice to truly begin to notice myself, not just the idea of myself, my story about my experience—to notice my actual feet on the actual floor, the actual air on my actual hands. My jaw as it clenched, my shoulders as they crept up toward my ears. I began to time travel less, and to connect more to my body. And out of that practice, I began to see the usual benefits—I felt a little more able to notice my anxiety and work with it when it arose. My compassion—for others, and somewhat for myself—deepened. I felt more free, in most moments.

And though I do feel that my meditation practice saves my life every day, in much less dramatic ways, I also feel strongly that my meditation practice saved my life that day on the Cobequid Road.

So let’s return to that scene.

The moment of decision was upon me. The ladder was very close now. I had no time to entertain an imaginary collision, the sound of the glass, the violence of bent metal, the oblivion of impact. When it seemed there was nothing else to do but move, I moved. Gently, so gently, I glanced my body away from the ladder, and with it, glanced the car away. Delicately and intentionally moved the steering wheel a little to the right. The ladder flew by us, inches from the car. It bent through the air around us, curved in front of the truck it had emerged from and skittered to a stop on the road’s shoulder. I watched in my side mirror as dust rose around it and the pickup truck driver pulled over.

“OK,” Kev said.
“Wow,” said Waub.
“That happened,” I said.

I didn’t have even a moment of shaky adrenaline afterwards. Instead, I drove along that winding road feeling a peaceful kind of wide-open gratitude. I had waited as long as I could to respond to the ladder, gathered all the information I needed, and we had emerged unscathed.

I tell Kim about Waub’s ninja comment. She laughs, but then says, “I don’t want anyone reading this to think, Oh, I’m going to meditate, gain superpowers, and I’ll be able to save everybody. And I wouldn’t want you to think that either, in the sense that, you know, causes and conditions came together so that you were able to perceive and act in a way that was beneficial. Sometimes it won’t happen that way—and it’s not your fault. Do you see? Even if you have the direct perception of the moment, there will be other factors out of your control. And you couldn’t blame anyone. Just hold that in your heart, too.”

The causes and conditions are as real as any part of the present-moment experience, I think. But one thing that flying ladder revealed was a capacity on my part that I wasn’t sure I had any access to. And while the collision after my dad died told me that catastrophe can happen, this experience allowed me to see the space that exists alongside that knowledge—the space that becomes more apparent the more I practice mindfulness meditation.

“Beautiful,” Kimberly says. “That’s it. Because you want to have that when a good friend is crying and sick—it won’t seem so heroic or magical, but it is when you can be present with them and not look away and not let your fear get crazy; when you can act appropriately. We need so many more people that can do this.”

And that, I think, is what I take—both from my meditation practice, and from that moment on the Cobequid Road. When I think back to that earlier collision, the black ice, the broken windshield, its predominant emotional color is: This can’t be happening! And then later: I am lucky to be alive—I could have died! And when I think back to the Cobequid Road, what I am left with is: This is happening. That moment happened, and I was there for every beat of it. And I am so, so lucky to be alive. What a gift it is to be alive.

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About the author

Stephanie Domet

Stephanie Domet is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book for middle grade readers. She’s the cofounder of the AfterWords Literary Festival and a contributing editor for Mindful. She lives in Kjipuktuk/Halifax, where she is, indeed, grateful to be alive, in the best way.