Mindfulness Monday: Lessons From Shakespeare & Co. – Heather Demetrios

I’m going to take a slight pause in our discussion of how to begin a meditation practice in order to sketch an illustration of how the practice applies in real life, in real time. I promise to pick up practical instruction in the next post, but if you want to get started, you can go here to begin.

Last week, I had the blissful honor to step into Shakespeare and Company, Paris’ beloved English bookstore. Named after the store frequented by the Lost Generation during their days swilling gin and slinging ink back in the twenties, Shakespeare and Co. is nothing short of a delight. It’s in the Left Bank, a stone’s throw from Notre Dame at Kilometre Zero, the official center of Paris, the point from which all roads in France begin. It feels like a place of beginning, but also of returning. It reminded me how much I love books and words and the spaces that hold them. It is every bit a cathedral as the gothic masterpiece a few steps from its front door (and was, in fact, a monastery back in the seventeenth century).

The hand-painted storefront welcomes you with inspirational quotes and there’s even a framed photo of my dearest Walt Whitman, looking down benevolently on all who enter. And, of course, there’s Will. Inside: old wooden beams and floors, a sleepy cat tucked in a nook upstairs, all your favorite authors waiting to say hello. It’s packed, and utterly magical, with all kinds of quotes and articles and decorative embellishments covering the walls. I found a whole list of writing advice from Raymond Chandler I’ll cherish for life, pasted beneath a stairwell. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I’d wanted to come here for a long, long time.

Right away, I went to the writing section and my eyes fell on a copy of Light the Dark, an anthology on creativity that includes some of my favorite writers: Elizabeth Gilbert, Sherman Alexie, Stephen King. This would be my Paris souvenir. It’s a big treat for me, buying a book, and I hugged it to my chest and tried not to think about how this paperback was going to set me back eighteen euros. (I’m supporting an Indie, I’m supporting an Indie).

Just through an archway past the writing nook is the kidlit section. A few steps away. I knew I shouldn’t walk through it.

Some backstory:

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to see a book with my name on it in a bookstore. A book I wrote. I now have six books out, and am also included in an anthology. More are on the way. You would think I’d get to see lots of books with my name on them in bookstores, but, alas, that is not the case. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn after first becoming published was that very few bookstores would ever have my books. Granted, there are very few bookstores left. But, more often than not, Barnes and Noble won’t even have them. I tell myself it’s because they’re sold out, but the truth is: six books. And not one on the shelf. Sometimes one. Sometimes.

 It got to the point where it hurt to walk into a bookstore, to see a bookstore. And I almost wondered—very briefly—if I should quit writing because it was going to take away my love of reading and books and the sacredness of the bookstore space. (This was a brief and melancholy flirtation with the abyss). I decided, instead, to do my level best to avoid the sections of the bookstore that were likely to have—or not have—my book. Then: I’d never know. Ignorance is bliss! I wanted to be okay enough not to care, but come on: I’m not Yoda.

Problem is…it’s so very hard to resist the temptation to peek once you’re in the bookstore. And so, I keep finding myself drifting toward the YA section, like an addict. Looking over my shoulder to make sure that whoever I’m with doesn’t catch me (it’s so embarrassing when you’re book’s not there – it shouldn’t be, it shouldn’t fill me with shame, but it does. Like it’s somehow my fault that the store didn’t buy it or re-stock it).

This is the kind of hurt that brought me to meditation, the reason that publishing was literally driving me crazy. I am not misusing the word literally. I was unraveling. Some days, I still am. It’s a profound hurt, and yet it feels like a privileged hurt, too. Because you know that you at least got published, got paid, got in. And so it becomes a silent hurt, a sort of writer’s mystique, where instead of being the wife suffering in her kitchen, I’m the writing suffering in an outpost in publishing Siberia (this, despite being with huge publishers). Mindfulness and meditation helps me manage this hurt, helps me see outside it, to see that it’s not me. It let’s me get back to the work. To myself.

Shakespeare & Co street scene

So: here I am at Shakespeare and Company. I know I shouldn’t look. Shouldn’t ruin this temple for myself. I shouldn’t allow there to be a kernel of resentment toward this beautiful place that has sheltered over thirty thousand writers and thinkers, literally putting them up for the night in cots and couches, the Tumbleweeds of the bookstore. No. I should walk away.

But you know I don’t. I can’t. Because what if it’s there? What if my book is in PARIS AT SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY?????

And you also know: it’s not.

I scan the titles a million times. I’m always near Dessen, before Forman. But maybe someone misplaced it? Nope. Non. No I’ll Meet You There or Exquisite Captive or Bad Romance, or any of the others. There’s quite a large selection of books, which is almost worse. I see friends. I try to be happy for them. I knew it would be like this, I knew. So my heart sinks and it’s all so familiar and I hurry out, my eye snagging on debut authors who’ve already got their foot in this door. And before I find myself falling down that rabbit hole of it’s not fair, how many books do I have to write before—, I’m invisible, maybe I should just give up, I’m so tired, FML—

 Something wonderful kicks in. Immediately, a voice—me—says quietly: This has nothing to do with your self worth.

As Sara Louise Bradshaw in Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved would say: Oh my blessed. What a relief to hear that. I felt so free, so utterly okay. Sad, bittersweet. But OKAY. You’re okay. Life is good. Your worth is not connected to whether or not your book is in this store. And I still loved the bookstore, even though it had hurt my feelings a bit. I hugged someone else’s book to my chest and decided to explore some more. To not let this place be ruined.

And then, because the universe is beautiful, I turn a corner to go upstairs, to where the poetry is, and this Hafiz verse is painted on the steps, each line written so that you read as you go up:

I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.

My friends, I have spent many, many hours trying to cultivate self love through meditation practice and mindfulness. I have been lonely and in darkness and I have sat through it. And it hasn’t always gone away, but it has lessened, some. But on that day, on those steps inside a little bookstore in Paris, I caught a small glimpse of the astonishing light of my own being.

When we take the time to cultivate our internal lives and calibrate our emotional compasses, the fruits of our efforts show up when we most need them, and when we least expect it. One of the most revered places of worship, with its rose window and gargoyles and incense and candles was steps away, but there—on these steps that countless readers and writers had trod and that I was now ascending—I felt like I had touched something divine.

And so, I kept going up.

Breathe. Write. Repeat.

Heather Demetrios author photo

Heather Demetrios (’14) is a young adult author, writing coach, and meditation teacher for writers. She’s the recipient of the Susan P. Bloom PEN New England Award and the author of several critically acclaimed novels, including Bad Romance, I’ll Meet You There, and Exquisite Captive. She’s the editor of the upcoming anthology, Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors and Teens on the Dark Side of Love, which features several VCFA faculty and alumni, and the author of Code Name Badass, an upcoming feminist pop biography of WWII spy, Virginia Hall. New fantasy, contemporary, and historical novels are also forthcoming from Macmillan. Her honors include books that have been named Bank Street Best Children’s Books, a YALSA Best Fiction For Young Adults selection, a Goodreads Choice Nominee, a Kirkus Best Book, and a Barnes and Noble Best Book. She lives abroad in various locales, but you can always find her at Mindfulness for Writers and on Instagram (@HDemetrios). Find out more about Heather and her books at www.heatherdemetrios.com.