Monday, December 24, 2007
I woke this morning in silence. The low hum of the humidifier that's been on now for over a month, keeping our lungs damp in a blown-heat house, was all that could be heard. The streets dead because of Christmas Eve (we're in the kind of neighborhood folks mostly leave to go home from, not the vice-versa, when it comes to holidays), the visiting cats in momentary peace with Aviva (Kiki and Gracie are lovely but have fought most of the last week with our kitten), and the furnace off, the house held in some limbo suspended state. Last week, in writing classes, one woman called the present moment "limbo" and I have been savoring the inherent ambiguity and truth of that possibility - that in order to be in a time that never really exists, because by the time we know it is happening it has gone, we are in a moment that, in fact, is between moments, somehow. That's what the moment felt like - a moment between moments, between separate feelings and separate experiences. Then I realized I was holding my breath, and when I began breathing again, everything began moving again.
My first thoughts went to my brother, the elder of the two, with whom I haven't spoken now in over three years. My last contact with him was over Christmas of the first year I cut contact with him - I emailed him, sad to be apart, but also needing the space, and tried to express this ambiguity to him. Justifiably, he emailed me back and said that I had to set a really clear boundary. Either we were not in contact or we were. I chose to maintain, and it's been silence, since. I have no idea of how his life is, though I certainly have my guesses. My therapist told me awhile back the most sage piece of advice I've received in years, though I cried to hear it: "Do not contact him again until you feel ready to accept him even if he hasn't changed at all". I'm not. And I don't know what I am doing with this limbo, but I do know, that like in meditation, it's not intended as punishment - for either of us - or denial. Just to be space, to be the room between then and now, so I can digest, stop for a moment and let it all sit a bit. I sincerely believe that my relationship with Dylan, and all its wonderful concumbent parts, wouldn't be here if I hadn't taken this space. That isn't blame, just noticing the beneficial effects that "nothing" has on me.
When my grandfather died, many things hit the fan, and they hit fast. It was 1999, and my mother had only died a couple of years before. My eldest brother had gotten married to a woman with whom I had a lot of conflict, and her with me. I was in Portland when he actually passed, and my brothers had to file through many address books to find me - I, ironically, was normally very astute at giving my itineraries to interested parties, but not this time. Instead of flying back, I chose to drive back - a modified version of my original plan, with one of my best friends at the time. I needed the space, though I wasn't able to articulate it at the time. And now, when I look back, I am glad I took it, though it hurt my brothers' feelings (both of them) and confused everyone, including me. The estate sale, arguments over boundaries and rights, confusion over money, not to mention the actual death, funeral, mourning, whole nine, were very, very tough on me and the whole family, creating conflicts that haunt me to this day, and setting into motion, for me, the issues that fostered the final isolation I have chosen from that brother and his wife and son. At first I worried I was just doing what my mom would do - not speak to her best friend for eight years out of anger (or that's how I perceived it, anyway) but now I realize more clearly that there is no substitute for space, just as there is no substitute for being present.
Dylan and I spent yesterday with his parents, having Christmas curry (as his mother says "a new tradition!") and exchanging gifts. I went to Milwaukee the day before to spend time with Alex and Tyler, and we went sledding down sloshy hills just to get out and be active, our best way to spend time together. It's been a very mellow Christmas, moreso than ever, and I have actually liked this time, though there is a perennial undertone of sadness. I feel relief not to be trying to make traditions happen that I may not have liked in the first place, or trying to play a role in someone else's family. We took a family portrait of Dylan and me, with his parents and Aviva in the background (accidental but oh-so-cute!) and although I missed his siblings, it did feel like some sort of family to me, which is both incredibly hard and a huge relief to say. It's been a long time - I was always glomming onto my eldest brother's new family, and Alex and I have had a hard time making holidays perky with just us and his son.
Aviva is asleep next to me, Dylan nursing a Christmas cold and in a little bit, Becky will come over and we'll live out one of her Christmas dreams - to chose who she spends (at least part of) it with, baking cookies and watching movies. I have cried a couple of times, simple acknowledgment that although the "required" festivities are over and these are now just a couple of days I have extra-off when the Y and my favorite coffeehouse are closed, there is still an undercurrent there that tugs me, and likely the whole family I was born of, now alive or dead, like an echo, like trains forever leaving...
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Although Laine and I have joked that we should have a stamp for our kitchen calendar that reads "Miri on retreat", these weekends aren't truly retreats. Recently, birdfarm asked if she should attend a weekend retreat of these sorts, and I was able to see that it wasn't what she needed - she needs peace and quiet, not barrages of information and philosophy. As helpful as those things are, they aren't always what's needed, and in seeing so clearly that it wasn't what she's needed, I pushed aside my own fear of sounding ungrateful and realized that, in fact, getting sick the last few days (before my vacation of 10 days, which begins today), forcing me to cancel classes and pt work, was also a result of too many dharma weekends, too many non-retreats. Too much information, travel, and lack of time to digest. I *am* grateful, but Becky pointed out as I confessed this to her that it's not helpful if one uses dharma as an excuse to block oneself from what one really needs - days at home doing laundry, listening to itunes, calling friends who've recently lost loved ones (two in one week! ouch!), or reading mystery novels (shout out to Laine's rents for the Cara Black book).
I am primed to look over these notes now in the next week, make cd's from my recordings of the Paul Shippee talks, and do some digesting. I am also primed to "watch it" a bit with this stuff in the future. It's especially hard because I already teach some weekends, and weekends are becoming more and more precious to me. Luckily, and it feels so weird to say this, there are no more "retreats" or dharma weekends planned for the rest of the year. I just need the space to digest. I am teaching two one-day workshops, but those feel like a breeze so long as I have a Saturday before them to putter around the house and not get dressed.
Time to go grade WCATY kids, who are sharper this time around, as well am I. Repetition is such a blessing - a class that killed me the first two times I did it now feels so much easier, even with my fullest and youngest class ever (25 5th graders). It is funny how repeating sometimes makes a task easier (like this teaching) and sometimes repeating (like weekend after weekend of dharma talks) just makes things clearer, though not always easier. Sigh. : )
Thursday, October 25, 2007
I can't seem to stop watching Jericho. Of course they planned it this way - that toward the end of the first season you would stop everything in your life - you would drop all social activities unless they involve others watching Jericho with you, you would stop sex, eating, anything that got in the way of watching the riveting final hours of a town constructed from the post-Apocalypse. But I have it on DVD, which makes it far worse, as those of you whom watch TV shows on DVD know full well.
For the last couple of months, about the time span I have had these DVD's on hand, I have also ramped up meditation practice to, on average, 1 hour/day (as part of Shambhala Guide requirements, but I am also happy to report that it has helped my practice a TON) and I have also started working out regularly (3-4 times a week, swimming or elliptical at the Y) and both of these activities, as regular habits, are almost addictive - I feel off when I don't do them, and clear when I do do them. For instance, yesterday, I had this tremendous anxiety about getting back to work after a week of basically vacation in Toronto, and after watching an episode of near-war situation Jericho, of course. But the fact that I had both worked out and meditated in the morning set me up to see the anxiety pretty quickly, regard it, acknowledge it, and get to work anyway, wading through the piles of emails and getting my online class set up for WCATY.
But what if meditation and exercise didn't have to fight Jericho? I won't be asking that until I am all caught up with the show, I fear. In the meantime, writing also tends to fall by the wayside (you see it wasn't in my list of regular healthy activities ramped up up there) - it has gone back into the perilous position of something I don't do just to do, regardless of how I feel (which is where things like contemplative/meditative practices and exercise MUST go for me, lest I forget the part where I love them and believe I hate them until NOT doing them makes me totally nuts).
So here I am. Baby steps. A meditation instructor recently told a friend of mine "Just sit for 5 minutes", as she was having anxiety returning to meditation after long absence. And I feel like I can use that, too. "Just sit down and do the blog, baby, you don't have to write a chapter of the novel and three letters all in one day". It's the "making up for lost time" feeling that I have a hard time shaking - I used to have it, almost ridden with guilt, at the end of every weekend, and I certainly have it still after vacations, where the lack of structure, which is a necessary freedom now and again!, also means that things I don't do without structure fall apart.
From the "good news" side, I have finally nailed down one very significant aspect of organizing my days, besides the exercise and meditation (and writing!) in the last week alone. For a long time I have plagued myself with uber-long to-do lists, and I have tried prioritizing them and giving myself a break when I don't finish them, but it always feels like there's some super human me on the other side of the fence getting it all done (Yeah, me, 5 years ago. Ugh. Not going back to that!). Starting Tuesday, my first day back from vacation, I made a two-thing to do list (both were pretty complex, mind you, but I knew all I had to do) and then, I did both things, plus a few extras while I was at it, but the key thing is that I got the two things done that would have made me nuts had I not done them (sounds like common sense, but I'm not so good at this particular task!) and didn't worry about anything else. I gave myself space, and didn't feel guilty when some of it went to a Jericho fix. All this while PMS'ing! Not bad!
This afternoon, some of the tension returned and I discovered I wanted to fill it with a list of things to do, and so choosing to write was choosing space and acknowledgment over busy work. This feels like a shift long-coming, and I am sure it won't be without struggle, but if I can learn to work in this realm instead, this realm of reckoning and choosing to feel the tension over filling it, things could be a lot more peaceful in my life. I recognize that I have an awful lot of room in my life right now, for two more weeks, anyway, and actually celebrating that, even if with tv, or best with fall walks and calling people, DOING NOTHING, is great. Some kind of something - step, improvement, cause for cheer, to be feeling instead of filling.
Monday, October 01, 2007
The search for the novel inside me continues. Like Michelangelo, I don't think that I am making anything up - writing this whole time has felt much more like divining. Recently, one of my students whom I am also tutoring has gotten into exploring mixed genres of writing, and in particular, shows very strong aptitude for lyric essays (please check Seneca Review online for great examples!) She pointed out to me that she thought my "project" sounded like it might be suited to this form, too, but it's taken me weeks of that suggestion stewing in my head, along with many articles and reviews and examples sent my way from her (also for her benefit, of course!) to get me to actually experiment with the form. This is the first try, and I am really pleased with it. Here it is, in not-very-edited form. Please keep in mind use of first person here is mostly fictional, though the emotional intent is similar to real life, the facts, fact-sounding though they may be, aren't.
Comments are welcome!
---------from "Stranger Ancestors" (working title of "novel" in progress)----------------
My mother kept silent from age 42 to 50.
In the later years of life, the inner ear recedes in on itself and makes of any noise a maze.
Though hearing aids can assist the sounds in entering deeper into caves of the cochlea,
it is rare to ever recover whole sounds.
She claimed she couldn’t hear, too.
How does one dis/prove a deaf/mute?
Such guilt to even assume she’d waste any of her very few words
on a lie like that.
Often, in grief or response to similar trauma, subjects lose their ability to hear
earlier than the typical timespan, which is chemically predisposed to occur in the mid seventies. Sometimes, because of this early loss, the shocked subjects refuse to speak.
My father-in-law has a similar early hearing loss. But he isn’t silent at all. In fact, he
constantly interrupts, not having heard others’ words, and jolts and juggles his own sounds, constantly pretending he can hear everything, including himself.
Women are more likely, socially, to respond to this largely genetic indisposition with silence, rather than arrogance. Being the quieter sex trains such subjects for the reticence and subtleties of early hearing loss. Many embarrassing incidents can be avoided this way; however, lifetimes of social interactions also crumble in these cases, compounding the loss.
I am lucky they never met. Imagine what a holiday mess that would be! My father-in-law wailing away without explanation, his stream of consciousness impotence in face of his auditory ignorance. And my mother, pushed over by the force of his steam train presence, would have heard his intention loud and clear, pounding her butterfly heart, like an action across the world making impacts unseen.
Ironically, it has been found that the inappropriate overly-loud speaking to the deaf so commonly found on the part of the hearing is often a parallel behavior in the deaf themselves, as they have no volume regulator of their own. Rather than looking into the face of the listener – who may reflect back a shame or pity they’d rather not see – they newly, early, nearly-deaf often choose, especially male subjects, to barrel forward without bar.
I read a fantastic book on sign language when my mother was 43, after she’d been silent a year. I hoped we could learn to “speak” to each other this way, but I of course missed the point that she was done communicating altogether. The book, “Train Go Sorry,” has become irrefutable confused in my mind with another book published in the same era, “French Lessons,” as both are memoir-fact books, and had similar facts, tone and even colors on the covers. When I moved to France for a study abroad year, the two became even more interlinked, as I often felt both dumb and deaf in the face of speaking French every single day.
Because second languages are stored in a separate part of the brain from the primary or mother tongue (except, of course, in the case of being raised from birth in a plura-lingual environment), stroke research has found and been able to point at the strange ability of otherwise mute stroke survivors becoming able to speak, fluently and without question, their secondary or tertiary languages, but without being able to either recognize or form their mother tongue, regardless of age.
My maternal grandmother had had a stroke when I was young and for a few days, it is rumored, all she could speak was French, being that she had learned it when she was a child, though later, as a teenager in school. I remember her mostly in French, and so I felt strangely close to her in France, and yet, I had the hardest time parsing out anything beyond the basic nouns and verbs I needed to get enough food to eat. Beyond that, at bars and on the street, as soon as I missed just one word, I would become so ashamed that I couldn’t stick to the frame of the speaker, whether directed at me or not, and the world would grow grey and silent in misunderstanding. I wrote to my mother about this near the end, having had no contact with her all the year, feeling so distant from her without her face to see. I expressed a great deal of sympathy for how she must have felt the last few years, and thanked her for passing on the French her mother had taught her. I hoped she had broken her vow and read the letter, feeling me touch her through it. She died a day after my exams were over, and I flew home early for her funeral.
Studies find that babies cannot hear, after the age of 16 months, the basic sounds of languages other than their mother tongue and any other languages sung constantly in their presence from their time in the womb. This is striking because many sources now confirm that when a baby is actually born, or perhaps soon before, it is born with the potential to hear and discern all languages, and this deafness of human potential is a fast and distinct loss. It can never be regained later in life, though aptitude toward language learning can assist in regaining some semblance of discernment of differing sounds.
I found the letter, months later, unopened on her desk.
Friday, September 28, 2007
I'd love to teach more retreats. I plan to keep as many classes during the week as I currently have, but the retreats, especially now that a core of my students attend them and also do a great job of holding space for the newer students - are a real bonding space for all of us, and a real chance to take the practices deeper. I have a few retreats in mind - I want to do four a year, three in the Arena WI location we've been doing it (a lovely old farmhouse with 200 acres of hiking land and goats and horses and great views) and in the winter, one at the Shambhala retreat center near Plymouth, WI. Then, I have in the pipes a few other ideas - non-residential retreats (like what I taught in Florida) - in particular, one the weekend before New Year's Eve for folks to process the year and visualize what they want out of the New Year - and yoga and writing combined retreats with one of my students, who is a yoga teacher in town and has expressed really similar teaching philosophies to mine.
All of this is spurred on too, not just by time and adjustment, but the support from the group of teachers at Marquette, where I will begin teaching in the spring. Little did I know when I rejected my acceptance to the Contemplative Education Masters at Naropa in order to have more time to teach that I would be able to find a community, be paid to be a part of one, nonetheless!, in which I could do a lot of the same research, discussion, exploration and be supported by similar approaches to the Naropa program. This month's reading focuses on how to balance intuition and intellect in teaching, how to leave room for space and koans and also get the grading done. We have our first big monthly meeting today, this afternoon in Milwaukee, and I am actually *excited* about it - excited to continue working in this ecumenical group, excited to follow up the retreat from last spring which surprised me with the diversity and acceptance (various breeds of Catholics alongside various breeds of Buddhists and other even atheists) - something I didn't expect to find in academia. Certainly, perhaps because of my parents' extreme academic mentalities and intellectualism, I never expected to find the kind of teaching I do - very intuitive, non-graded, well thought out for certain but non-standardized for even more certain - not only validated but encouraged in a well-reputed academic university. Let's hope this is just the beginning!
Off to go hear the Venerable Khandro Rinpoche speak in Milwaukee as well this weekend. For years I have wanted "a teacher" and just recently, ironically right before this 40-something young and perky teacher's visit, I have settled into realizing that I have many teachers and I am likely more a many teacher person than one teacher person. She fits the bill -challenging and young, favored by the feminist queer set, reputed to be edgier than Pema Chodron (also related to the Shambhala Lineage) and it may still work out - we'll see, I'm not decided yet. But training for Shambhala Arts is starting up in Minneapolis next month and I am most likely to continue on the track I am on - learning through teaching, and workshops related to that and the arts, than to go and study with one particular teacher. It might just be resistance, too, so we'll see. Regardless of outcome I am exceptionally grateful at the moment for the potential for growth that continues in my life and the myriad manifestations of the work I've done so far and that others have done for me. Hallelujah!
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Becky and I have been talking a lot lately about how appreciation is an often-forgotten antidote to many things. Even appreciation can be appropriated and used against yourself - oh I am depressed because I am not appreciating my situation enough, blah blah blah. But true appreciation, giving the things I enjoy and desire a chance to show their face in the field of manure that seems to be my mornings - is actually helpful, and mostly available. For instance, I got my heart of hearts car last week for a super sweet deal, as Becky's and my car (a one dollar hand me down from her parents, which lasted us a year) died full on last week. Even during that occurrence - me stranded in Fitchburg on the way to test drive the car I was certain I was going to (and did) buy - I had an appreciation of the humor of the way things sometimes fatefully crash together, and of the high winds and weather, the crispness of the air and the cost of the tow truck, of how we didn't wind up stranded in that old Toyota Wagon near Milwaukee or Chicago, which were trips taken recently and planned on again in the upcoming future. I appreciate that I appreciated those things in those moments. I wonder, actually, if I am more able to do this in "crisis" moments than in everyday life. Perhaps this is why CTR really focuses so much on "Ordinary/personal world" - our day to day maintenance, relationships, carpooling, work and break time. Though certainly some folks don't handle crises "well", I have known a large number of folks, myself included, who excel in crisis, but somehow tend to fall short in daily life. This sounds judgmental as I write it - it's not a performance issue, but more how a moment in alarm is somehow sharper, clearer to me and easier to act in than in the fuzzy morning, even if what is making it fuzzy are the very things I like most - soft sun, new kitten in my lap, meditation.
Let me recount the tale of the the car transfer, as it is a doozy. Becky and I bought her parents' second car last year for the low low price of a dollar, and we put a few hundred into it, shared between the two of us. It got us through a winter of driving to Milwaukee for Shambhala Training programs, trips to Chicago and Milwaukee for holidays, and even got Becky to Northern Minnesota and Southern Illinois. It was a Toyota Camry, 1990, the wagons that some folks still love so much and they don't make anymore. We knew there were going to be other costs coming up soon - an oil leak slowly getting worse, brake lines rusted from some time in the garage in disuse. I was even entertaining the idea of putting a few hundred more into it to get me to Milwaukee/Marquette over this upcoming winter, but in my deep heart I knew I'd need to get a much more reliable car. A couple of weeks ago, we were aimed to go to Plymouth Wisconsin for a meditation instructor training program, and I went to get the oil changed and a fuel-ish smell checked out. Turns out the fuel lines are both rusted together and also falling apart (so much for the strength of a union, eh?) and they informed us the car was on the way out and certainly not to take it out of town. So we took another friend's car to the retreat - or, started to - only I burned her clutch disk while getting used to her clutch, which is especially picky, and there was a big panic with smoke and we wound up taking a THIRD car, because we feared the second cars' clutch fork was BROKEN. I set aside in last week time to ask friends who know cars how to buy a new one, and scoured Craigslist for a couple of days, emailing folks about used but still good Honda and Toyota Sedans, but my heart wasn't in it. Sure, they are sturdy, reliable cars, and sure I can no longer afford the Saabs that my ex used to fix for me for free, but I needed something that would make me happy, too, and boring sedans just don't do that. I never said it aloud, but what I really wanted was a Subaru - an Impreza Outback, a hatch with stationwagon size but a cuter back end. Ask, even silently, and sometimes things get delivered - for one appeared, cherry red, incredible deal, on Craigslist the second day. After a flurry of emails and hoping someone else hadn't gotten to it first, I drove the now-dead (at the time dying) Toyota out to Fitchburg on the edge of Friday afternoon to test drive the Suby. The old car DIED (I heard the last fuel line POP just a mile from his house) and I succumbed myself to it so simply, without resentment or panic, because it just seemed to make so much (absurd) sense. I called a tow company, and then Erika, my former roommate, who came to get me and take me to the new car. We drove it and I fell in love - yes, this is a car I could drive to Milwaukee once a week, with Becky out to Colorado next year, and anywhere in the interrim in town and to Chicago to visit folks like Birdfarm. He agreed to take it to my mechanic, and we got the very last appointment of the day - all to find out it needs some work, more than he or I realized. At this point, I turned to him and asked if he'd lower the price and he and I negotiated outside of the Car X, and he said I could take the weekend to think it over. "Oh no" I said "I am sure if you are. I have my checkbook on me (had to take out a loan) and I have no car. I'll drive you back to Fitchburg and we can sign the title there, if you don't mind." He was clearly blown out of the water, and needed to think about it himself, but in the end, he was as happy as I was to have his search to sell the car done in less than two days. And so we did. I registered it yesterday.
In recounting this funky tale of seeming fate, my appreciation increases for how the unknowing we have about any situation sometimes leads to what we call auspiciousness, or coincidence, and sometimes leads to murky mornings without direction. I realize I don't always have to get a "prize" like the Suby to appreciate things. And I realize I can't be appreciating 24/7. So I'll go have a cup of coffee, grateful I had the time to write, grateful even for a floor I have time to sweep so I can appreciate it clean instead of resenting it as dirty. And when I get sad, I will cry, hopefully, without worry. This is appreciation too, accepting without judgment, regardless of the status of the situation - it need not be perky and cute like my new-to-me Suby in order to be something I can say I am grateful exists. And for the things that are seemingly beyond gratitude, things I really don't appreciate exist, nor do I see myself appreciating? Who knows. There's always room to learn. Ours is not to question why.
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
Some of those posts were Prayas', so I can't claim that all of them are mine. But I've basically been the poster on this blog for over a year now, and somehow 101 feels like a nice number to arrive at. This blog has more and more been a place where a particular kind of non-linear writing practice occurs - snippets of daily life, plotted out in no particular fashion, then sew back together as I slowly write about them in the same space. Sometimes the result is emotional chaos, sometimes I am as surprised as you all who read it to see where it goes and how it all links together. That's practice for you - as my teacher, Paula, used to say, "Practice makes practice".
The too-hot sun of our recent 90-plus degree weather is creeping in over my shoulder and onto my lap, a bit like a nagging kitten. So I am going to stop here for today. Know that the novel is progressing (I hope to post some chunks here soon), getting rich into Chicago history and linking my "family" in its fictional state with Al Capone. Aviva is growing rapidly but definitely still a kitten (visit Flickr to see grotesquely cute pictures!) and Dylan and I are doing well. Domesticating is a quiet enterprise, slyly satisfying. Something I have looked forward to for years. Yum.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Other than needing some serious claw trimming (ouch!), her behavior so far is very easily modified (still trainable). She goes through spats of crazy spastic activity, then calms down for a half hour or so. She seems to mostly sleep through the night in the room where we set her aside (a bit too small and too active to be alone in the house without us yet, we have determined), believe it or not. She's actually sleeping next to my typing elbow right now, though occasionally stirred up by a passing car or the bells of this set of dogs that get walked by our open window about six times a day, she can actually sleep, out cold, for an hour or so a few times a day, so long as she's allowed total open arm and claw spazzing out in-between nap spurts.
I have found that, despite my interest in doing otherwise, if I ignore her she stays calmer. Staring at her, a bit like with a dog, riles her up. And even when she is sleeping she seems to have a sixth sense for me exploring her little rising and falling back with my loving eyes, for suddenly her own will pop open and she'll swat at the elbow she was peacefully ignoring brushing by her just a moment ago.
And so it goes. I will have to ignore her as much as I can. So much for my own personal edition of cuteoverload.com . I'll sneak in glances when she's already riled up and save my wanting to jackboot her for her over the top cuteness for when she's a bit older and more willing to tolerate my staring with just distain, instead of attacking back with her own special brand of love...
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
In addition to loving their excuses in their heads, including excuses to a neck-less concrete lion who oversaw our return and was the recipient of one student's explanations, two things happened last week which top the charts for funny things that occur with group walking meditation in public, so far, at least:
1. As we were walking, in one of the four classes, a woman saw us coming from down the sidewalk, and stopped in place to stare at us, openly. She was smiling, very big, and I sensed her watching, so in order to keep an eye on what was happening and intervene with any chatter or interference, I raised my head to make eye contact with her, smile, nod. Usually they get it with that. But she made eye contact and started to gesticulate a bit. Finally, she mouthed with really huge lips spread open super wide, not making a single noise: "Y-our do-ing wa-lk-ing me-di-ta-tion, yes?". I smiled and nodded and she looked very pleased. After I told another class this story, this week, during writing, one student looked up and caught me staring into space, but caught my eye and mouthed it at me and we both almost cracked up while the rest were writing.
But the best, and this came out of the class where the students made up stories in their heads and wrote them out and shared them with everyone to justify what we were doing to interested passersby, was this 2. One of my students went to work that day, after we were done with class, and a co-worker, quite randomly, said: "You know, the funniest thing happened to me biking to work this morning. I saw a group of adults walking REALLY slowly together. I could not figure out WHAT they were doing. My guess is they were some kind of adult day care. You know. HEAVILY MEDICATED? I couldn't even tell who the leader was. Usually you can tell in that kind of situation, but they were ALL walking REALLY SLOWLY." By now my student was cracking up - she said this woman does walking meditation, regular meditation, is a bit "in the know" shall we say. She told her the "real story" and they both had a good laugh. When my student told us this at class this week, we all roared with laughter. One other student, who had also made up stories about what we are doing, pointed out that the word "meditate" and "medicate" are not that far from each other...
Sunday, June 24, 2007
We made jokes - about kicking each other out of the court, about whether or not aspiring Bodhisattvas can be competitive (1/2 of us have taken our Bodhisattva vows), insider Buddhist jokes. It wasn't very Heathers at all. The party had started with me showing up unsteady, sad and filled with a strange grief that had strangled a chunk of my days previous to this day, and I realized upon arrival that even here, with my sangha, I felt, I often feel, what I and a couple of others later called "knee-jerk social anxiety" - it kicks in before you even can convince it you don't need it - "No - these are Buddhists - they are ok with feelings and neurosis!." We laughed and cried over this - how I could actually say to someone I like a great deal but know very little, when asked "How are You?" "Well, I'm here. Pretty shitty, though." What party allows that? What kind of re-training will it take for me to be this honest? A lot, is my guess, and I'll still be anxious the whole way.
In the end, we played half a court and bent all the rules as much as we wanted to. A bevy of Boy Scouts toting canoes past us only vaguely interrupted the game, but the strong sun of midday really is what broke us down - without the shade of June clouds, we were perilously unprepared, and we pulled up court, packing the balls and pins and mallets back into my travel croquet set. Toward the end, we groaned - "Isn't it over yet?" "You mean she *didn't* make it through?" "C'mon, you're supposed to win so we can be DONE," but we were all smiling the whole time. That's the best we can do, I suppose. Feel shitty and grin about how funny it is that we can feel that way and still show up. Laugh at how we dread games we set up ourselves - games we consciously or unconsciously decide to play, engage in, invite others to join, and then quit halfway - whether mental or croquet.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
It's been a very strange week. Last weekend, a sadness began to mull inside of me like a slowly rotting cider, the alcoholic sort, and by the time I got to Monday, my first "official day back to work" after a week or so of vacation, I ploughed right through the day, and right through any feelings I was having. The masochistic working woman, I pushed through, thinking, seeming to take my time, check in with myself, always for less than five minutes, always suspiciously with the result that I went back to working all the harder. By the time I got to Monday night I was exhausted and suspicious of myself, by the time I got to Tuesday, I was downright sad. Wednesday was the worst day in a very long time, grief seemingly randomly renewed (from working too hard? From what we may never know) and pouring out of me in what my therapist deemed "melancholia". "You're grieving," he said. Why now, I thought? Why suddenly, without warning, tagged to a Hallmark Holiday? As if he could read my mind, he said "This can and will come at any time."
When I was a kid, my fondest memories of my father were of times I spent totally alone with him. Usually this came under the guise of going out together, alone -to the movies, to a concert (Larry Penn and his "I'm a Little Cookie" about a broken cookie tasting just as good as a whole one, and Lou and Peter Berryman still make me tear up thinking of him). Specifically, the dusk on a Sunday makes me long for him, keen for him - for the sharpest memories, memories more of a feeling than the plot of any of these particular occurrences - are of going to a Sunday matinee at the old theater just down the street from our house, and wandering out into the daze of swallows winding up the dusk around us. I recall from that time a sense of wabi-sabi, a sense of sad loneliness and aching heart that I have, in some ways, only recently begun to really understand, if anyone can ever understand that kind of a feeling. The sense of impermanence, even before he was diagnosed, or had his heart attacks, or lost his toes because of diabetes, was strong and ever present. Getting out of the theater just before the sunset was a powerful experience - the next time I was to see day, as these movies usually happened during the school year and always on a Sunday - I would be waking for school. School. Hated. Horrifying. And always more time away from my father. Later, when he had had heart attacks and that impermanence became as tangible as impermanence gets, I would insist on staying home, because even though he had gone back to work, even though he'd never be home the whole day while I was at school, I somehow felt closer to him just by being there.
For many years, This American Life put a perky into Sundays that had long been lacking. At some point early-to-mid-afternoon, I would take this gem given to me by David and Kate so long ago (they are now split up, but the seed of their mutual love of David Sedaris grew fast in me once they planted it) and linger in it, and honestly it seemed the hour long program could last the whole day for me. Then, once I began meditation practice, three-hour long sits in the mornings on Sundays (Nyinthun - or "day sit") gave me a much clearer start to my week. Even if I could only make an hour, and even though it meant I couldn't sleep in, there is nothing like meditating for more than an hour, especially in the presence of others. But then Dylan works on Saturday mornings, and the rest of the week, and now I teach on Saturday mornings, and suddenly Sunday mornings are the only time we can linger together - our late nights clouded over by my teaching and "recovering from teaching", our early mornings off kilter because he is up so early and I am still so dead to the world. But I realize now I really miss those mornings, and how they had reshaped the plague of Sundays for me for a long time.
I don't recall any particular Father's Days. Nothing in mind that passed while my dad was alive, though I am sure we "observed" this day, and no particular memories - one way or another, since he has passed. And, now, I have had more Father's Days without him than with. Looking at pictures with Dylan a few weeks ago, desperate to see his - and my mother's - face, I cried the second the photo came into focus for my eyes. "He looks like a stranger to me," I wailed into Dylan's soft shoulder, and what do you say back to that? He held me, which is all one can do, when faced with impermanence - hold our own, and others' tears, gently, and stay strong in face of the truth that all of us will die and many will cry when we are gone, just as we cry for others, now.
A certain restlessness kicks in when I feel sad, and I am beginning to recognize it as a discomfort, before it's become out and out busy work rebellion. Just now, it hit me sitting at the sewing machine, in my newly reorganized office. "I need to write," I realized, quite suddenly, once I had the space to realize it. And so I have, here.
I'll go for a run before the sun sets, hoping a bit of the night's semi-relief will seep into my pores and push out sweat in the exchange that's been happening, earth to sky, skin to sweat to rain, for so many hundreds of years. Pushing along, gently, like a pencil to paper, not worrying about words or the content of my run, but conscientious, this, too, will likely work like writing often does - no big conclusions in the end, no big help for my mind, but much relief for my body and heart, just by putting time into the practice...
Thursday, May 31, 2007
My classes are absolutely full. This is the first time this has happened since I started teaching, and a week ago, I wouldn't have told you it was going to happen. All four writing classes, two weeks before the first class even begins. They have *mostly* been full before, but the perpetually partially-empty 7:30 Thursday class is even one student from being full. And *really* full, not just students who may or may not show up. Welcome, waiting lists! We haven't even put up fliers yet!
Miksang is still out there a bit - not full yet, and fliers will be needed to pull students in. But that seems always the case. Funny how the more developed teachings are taking a longer time to launch in my home teaching areas - Madison and Milwaukee. I just finished teaching Milwaukee's class last night, and I go on a retreat the next two days to develop it, and contemplative writing, into full-fledged honors courses for Marquette University. So there are markers saying everything is going to be fine, and other conflicts lately have lead me back to my teacher, who has reminded me Miksang is so much bigger than any of us, and time and space can only help it to grow. And so I take a deep breath and do whatever is needed next. Birdfarm is helping me to clean up the forums (thank you, Birdfarm!) on Flickr, which is much-needed and will help a *lot* since this is the main -in some cases, only - way that the communities keep in touch with teachers...
And where am I in all of this? This morning, doing tonglen for a friend who feels very lost in his life and doesn't know what to do next in terms of work, I reflected on how I am not exempt from that fear, though it has a different flavor. I am very sure of what I am doing, though Laine will testify that I do have my moments when that isn't clear to me or anyone else, and my path is relatively clear - no major obstructions, tons of support, and early success. And yet, that underlying fear, that fear I thought would be alleviated by success or clarity, is still there. Funny how it never goes anywhere. One of my students this week spoke of "a layer of nervousness" and I imagined, realized, an image of nervousness always being there, of my life consumed in various strata of the bedrock of human existence - sometimes I subsist on the nervous layer solely for weeks on end, sometimes in the confident layer. Although I spend less time in the nervous layer nowadays, some of the stability (relatively) of work and home life (living with Laine is a godsend, and yes, two heads *are* better than one!) has actually allowed me to notice that that layer, for instance, and layers of fear, sadness, all the layers are, so far as I can see, always there. I can be up in confidence doing whatever, down in sadness and seemingly lost, and in the meantime, all these other possibilities are always there. I am not saying anything hundreds of great teachers haven't already said, but to really viscerally experience that for myself (it felt almost like a visualization, the way my students' words triggered this experience in me, which was momentary and I've been unpacking all week) had a profound effect on me.
Laine has been speaking a lot lately of nostalgia, almost to a degree where he has concern about it in his life - buying old albums, listening to old mixes, looking up old videos online, etc. I have had many periods of this and his nostalgia doesn't worry me in the slightest, and in fact, I have found I am having a new, weird version of this. I am nostalgic, but very interested in incorporating those things into my life right now. It's almost as if I am harvesting my past for nuggets of wisdom I chucked when I moved forward (which definitely was my former attitude toward past happenings - even successful ones - one of shame, of needing to "be better than the past"). This is also really making me reconsider some serious choices I've made in the last couple of years, as if seeing all these strata at the same time is also helping me to see more time periods at once, too - I feel like I can hold last year and this year at the same time, more frequently, than I could before, for instance.
I wonder at some of the choices I have made, and although I regret nothing, I see some things I want to change, or, at least, consider again whether I want to renew my commitment to these decisions. None of these things are really even discussable yet - as Laine and I found out the other night over wine on the back porch as the sun set - but more therapy material. But what I am interested in in this post is the quality of how I am not regretting anything, or worried about "having made mistakes", which would have been my foremost concern in the past. I am curious more than anything else - about what I thought I knew about myself, or what I *did* know about myself, or what information I was working with at the time. The difference between clarity now and clarity on the same situation a year from now is amazing to me. The same student who brought up "layer of nervousness" also mentioned that memoir is typically cited as a form which must be composed years after the fact, just to be able to write it - in some circles it's actually considered "impossible" to write memoir as it happens (which makes me immediately recoil as a rule, as it denotes how seriously denied journalling is taken as a "serious form" of any sort). I do think there is a nugget of something in there - not of truth, persay, as the truth is pretty shaky when it is all subjective, anyway, but of perspective. Honoring how I see things now as being a worthwhile thing, regardless of how I see it a year from now, is new for me, in other words.
Enough on this. Time to pack up and go stand up as the sole non-professor at a Marquette retreat and discuss contemplative education. I am very excited by what I have seen going on so far in this initiative, and it seems a far bigger thing than I had ever thought I would find in a University setting. More on it after the retreat...
Saturday, May 26, 2007
This latter part I would have never really experienced before. Honestly. I like lying on the grass as much as the next former goth-hippie, but my mother raised me by punishing me in the form of "helping her in the garden". She called it quality time, but it sure didn't feel that way, coated in mosquito spray and mosquitos, clamoring over her jungle of a food-producing former driveway cum garden, or tangled in the raspberries lining the back of her flower field, which took up half our backyard (the sunny part) and was forever in the way of our tiny badminton games. I hated gardening, I hated taking care of her houseplants when she was gone, watering her infernal greenhousery of plants out burning in the backyard summer sun. There are many pictures of me with all her flowers in the background - at the cabin, or home, in Appleton, and I am smiling in all of them, because that is what dutiful daughters do. But underneath was always the itch to get out from inside of her vines and claustrophobic British mock-up of a garden and go scamper in some open field somewhere. Not that my mother was a perfectionist - the gardens she always kept were a little unkempt, the kind of garden that would send my current neighbors running to the phones to report us for having any kind of weed-like cousin over an inch over knee high - but they were her life. Strangely enough, as much as I didn't like my mom a lot in my teens (who does like their mom a lot in their teens? It happens, but is rare, on average), I think now that I must have resented how simple and clear her relationship was to the garden, how it came before anything - before cooking or groceries, how it was her shrine, how our house had more warmth for plants than for me, it always felt to me.
Within a month of her death, I moved back to our childhood home and in with my middle brother, and, irony of all ironies, got a job at a greenhouse. I sensed, instinctually, it would do me good to be nearby plants. I learned a lot in that time - mostly that I hated retail and I should go back to working in nice, dark theaters - and on the top of the unexpected list (I've always hated the sun, so the darkness cravings weren't a big surprise) was finding out that my mother had, actually, treated her plants quite badly. I'll never forget going home after first hearing about "dusting plants" (their leaves can't breath if coated in dust) and being shocked to find that all the plants in the house were coated with the same crap all the fabrics in the house were filled with, too (my brother and I washed curtains we thought were tan to find out they were, in fact, white, and all over permeated with 20 years of chronic smoker-dom). I stayed up late that night, wiping off all the plants' leaves, and I still swear the oxygen rush I got as the hundreds of plants in the house gave off new found plant-exhaust in relieved thanks was like no jungle I have ever trekked through. It was really intense. Then, an even bigger deal, was figuring out that my mother had let a *LOT* of her plants, if not all of them, become completely root-bound. When I would pull out any plant at all, I'd see its roots had clearly been swirling into each other for years and years, struggling to find one last patch of soil to rest in. Some were basically all root. I felt triumphant and not altogether compassionate about this, and when I told my eldest brother about my findings he acted as if I had desecrated her grave (he was much more affectionate and compassionate toward her than I was at that point). I was attempting to do just that, I think, at the time. Not proud of that one, but what are you going to do? Teen angst, college sass and a lot of deeply hidden grief are a toxic cocktail for all involved.
I have always had houseplants ever since, a mix of my moms' (though I'd be hard pressed now to tell you which ones were hers), gifts from folks, leftover plants when friends moved out of town or out of the country. I never "gardened", but that was also part of apartment life. Friends talked about gardens and my eyes would glaze over. Even though I still loved fresh vegetables and went to farmer's market before the crowds got to me, I still couldn't fathom ever having my own garden.
Then, when Erika and I moved into this house three years ago, a garden was thrust upon me. The former owners had turned the smallish front lawn into a massive perennial garden, mostly natives, and it turns over in the seasons in a way I appreciated in a general sense, but hated to deal with in person. Every spring for two years we got it in order in a horrendous, over-worked weekend, and situated her sculpture, covering as much ground as we could so the weeds wouldn't take over. It was narpy, honestly, for the most part. This year, I got a craving to make it different, even if a little late in the season. Friends with big gardens pointed out that newspaper, lowly newspaper, in thick blocks weeds really well under mulch. I saved newspaper for weeks, eager to get going on the garden. And yesterday was great. I suddenly could see what was weeds and what wasn't (an old psychological block, as I am certain I must have ripped up my mom's favorite plants and gotten a reaming for it, numerous times), I could feel the earth and how ready it was to be clear, I felt a certain affection for the poor tulips that were overwhelmed with creeping charlie. And then the beauty of an organic but well-laid out garden kicked in, and I really enjoyed the results, too. All of it. I caught myself craving being back out in the garden when I was inside, grading. The weather was perfect - overcast, 70's, my ideal weather to be outside and instead of resenting the task, I saw it as an opportunity.
A few weeks from now, one of my students is moving to Canada, and I offered to take some of her houseplants, which she loves dearly and she wants to go to good, discerning homes. I feel more confident waking up today that her plants will continue to be loved here, not just resented, like I so often felt I was under my mother's care and like I continued to treat plants, with a great feeling of superiority, until really quite recently. This afternoon, Laine and I will plant our herbs and vegetables, and I will revel to have my hands, cut from weeds and tired from funny grabbing positions, back in the earth again. Thank god for change, for the softening of my heart and the soil, allowing forgiveness to come so late in the game - forgiving her, and, really, forgiving me, allowing me to move on from the solid rock of resentment and let myself enjoy gifts given to me when I wasn't ready to unwrap them.
Friday, May 18, 2007
I explained that no particular anniversary gets to me more than another - sometimes I know for weeks ahead of time that one is coming, sometimes, I don't see it until I am in the midst of the day and my day seems exceptionally rough, and sometimes, more often than not now, I get past a big day - mom or dad's anniversary of death, birth, or Mother or Father's day, and I barely notice anything at all. This year, this past 12 months in particular, have been a rough "Mom's year" in fact - every anniversary around her has sucked, while my father, the center of my grieving for so many years, has sort of taken a cheap seat, up near the back of my mind, not actually in on the action of grief.
Still, it's rare that a Hallmark holiday (one started to promote peace, mind you, until the originator declared it overtaken by commercialism) instigates as much in me as the wakes of this Mother's Day has.
Commuting back and forth to Milwaukee to teach Miksang weekly has been rough on me - rougher than I anticipated, but good to know, for I will be doing it for 15 weeks at a stretch whenever I teach at Marquette (for now, first gig is slated for next spring). Plus, Laine and I are still struggling to get the clean laundry put away and paint bedrooms and get the garden in "make sure the inspector can't measure the weeds by his knees after all this rain" order. So I actually sort of rushed through actual Mother's Day, although with occasional naps and snuggles, emotionally, by keeping "busy". But throughout the week I had a hangover-y feeling, as if something were unresolved. Like mourning, my period sometimes causes distress before it's arrival and sometimes not, and as I am due soon, I chalked it up to pms. But then, in Milwaukee on Wednesday night, I had the most ornate dream about my mother. I dreamt that after my father's death she, instead of miring in depression for years until her own death, remarried and became the artist she had always wanted to be. She moved back to Chicago and went to the Symphony seasonally and had all kinds of friends (this is, um, to say the least, not at all how my mother's life was after my father's death). I dreamt of a house with lofts and art everywhere, spacious but lively, how I aspire for my own house to be, in fact, only even all the moreso because she is older and has had that much more experience.
I woke feeling both sad and happy for it. I wanted to linger in the dream, as if it were my last memory of her, ever, and once I left I would "stop accumulating memories of her" as one of my students said about her own mother this week in class. Of course, when I woke, I realized it was all fantasy, not memory. I wrote everything down in intricate detail and I have loved thinking about this other life for her all week. But then there is the undercurrent of a new kind of sadness. Starting last summer I began to miss my mother for the first time since she died - that's almost 10 years of not missing a person, more missing a role, being blocked from my own grief by denial and anger - but I didn't actually really miss who she could have become, who we could have become. And although the dream was poignant, it took until a student wrote about the contrast/conflict she has about missing her mom when she's not around but also being so full of memories of her that she doesn't even know where to begin (her mom's still around) that I realized that I, indeed, have totally lost the chance to make new memories of her. Some part of me still expects to wake up from all of this like it is a bad, sick dream. In the dream I *did* have, all the things I have told myself over the years whenever I would begin to miss her - that we would have had a worsening relationship, that she would have been miserable, that it was for the best, that I wouldn't be where I am now if she had lived - all those things flew out the window in the dream. We had boundaries. We were each our own person. And our relationship eventually healed and we could move forward with our lives - more than that, revel in them.
This is so painful there aren't even words for it. Honestly, last summer when I began to even peek at missing her I thought "Oooo. No wonder I have avoided this one. It's going to HURT."
I was right. And just when I thought that I hit the hardest part, it gets harder. New, special, painful bits of grief creep up. And yet, there is this tenderness to it all. She's been dead for 10 years now, and so there clearly is no chance she's coming back. I am not torturing myself with the pain at all. Part of me recognizes by now that I am in it for the long haul, that it will hurt, that in some ways it is endless, but, in all the ways it is endless, the space around it (and I mean this for real, not just conceptually) also is endless. I can grieve and also feel joy. I can imagine a better life for her even as she is dead.
Laine has offered to help me do some kind of graphic novel about the world she inhabits now, this apartment with the symphony and art (even meercats! She had meercats!) as some kind of therapy. I am happy to think of making something for her like that, for me, too. And you can bet the novel will now take a turn as well, considering that her life has taken on so much dimension for me, after death.
Finally, the fact that I turn 30 this Sunday has it's own Mother ramifications. She gave birth to me. At the Dalai Lama a few weeks ago, he reminded us that we have been mothers to every being on earth, and they have mothered or fathered us. It just killed me when he described those first few days, months, even, when a baby is utterly helpless without a mother/someone to help us out 24/7. "This is how we all know compassion. We could not be here, have survived at all without care." I have many ambivalent feelings about the various kinds of care my mom gave me over the years but that is, indeed, irrefutable, and to think of her holding me as a tiny and totally vulnerable baby really puts me and her both in this tender space that helps me to hold all the years of hating her and let a lot of it go. It isn't forgiveness. It's something bigger than that. It's just being with what actually is and allowing all sides to appear and not feel like I have to defend my feelings about her from any angle.
So in honor of these Mother's Days, in honor of this week of her, this lifetime remaining in which I will think of her a lot, probably every day. Thanks, mom, for giving birth to me thirty years ago this Sunday. And I am sorry you are gone now, so you can't see me come into my own.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Last night, in Milwaukee visiting my good friend from college, Amy, I broke through a realization about a subtlety of teaching I hadn't yet understood. Combining teaching, and the business of running my own business, with being in a new and powerful relationship, the last year-six months of time have been spent putting extraordinary priority on things other than my sustaining friendships. This isn't a big surprise, but what surprised me last night was that also I have dropped something I didn't realize was a priority, because I have more ambivalent feelings about it - hanging out with people in larger social situations. "Sangha", or, community, is one of the three major components of taking a Buddhist vow, and I was surprised, though also not surprised, to find out last night that I have slowly seeped away from both my literal sangha (the folks with whom I meditate) and also my larger, more ambiguous sangha - folks who used to call me up for drinks every couple of weeks, the people I'd have over for a clothing swap, the friends from whom emerge closer friends. For instance, for years before Birdfarm and I began getting together for dinner every single Monday and really cementing our friendship, she and I would sort of hang out at the same gatherings. And this is typical - usually this is where the deeper friendships I tend to prioritize over all other social interactions usually emerge from, for me. Both because Birdfarm and my other closest friend in town, Becky, are moving within the next year, and because Laine's and my relationship has settled down (literally - he moved in two weeks ago), and, come to think of it, because Erika has now moved out (the third closest friend in Madison), it is time for me to begin reconnecting with a larger pool from which I can sort of harvest closer friendships, for one. Not that Birdfarm and Becky will be replaced, but I will need some closer support, in town, down the street support. As they have been. And, also, and this was the truly surprising component, with the lack of a larger social group or groups, I have felt a kind of loneliness I never really recognized before in my life, though I am sure I have recognized it. Social friends are sort of a safety net, a place in which you can invest your questions, joy and hurt, and I think I sort of turned (understandably because I was so busy) most of that aside to focus on the friendships closest to me. Becky and I have talked about this a lot for her side - needing to focus more on the friends closest to her, and not "waste time" in some ways on less deep friendships. And I agree that those close friends are still a first priority. And yet, to rescind myself entirely of all those other folk, with their diverse understandings of me, compassionate and yet exterior perspectives, although it seems to simplify my life, also kind of hollows it out.
When I had the flu for two weeks a couple of weeks ago, I really sat down and considered my priorities, and how they had tumbled apart as incidental result of spending all my time on the top three priorities: work, my relationship with Laine, and taking care of myself. Mostly in that order, so that even with all my energy focused on those three, I became quite ill and had to quit everything, top priority or not, for two weeks to recover. I realized how all my eggs, in many ways, were in one basket. And that's when, discussing this realization with Amy last night, I realized that another nuance was in place, totally unnoticed until now. My job is extremely social. And at the same time, very intimate - the content of the classes is quite personal, even if someone writes the rare blatantly fictional piece. And so I think in some ways I tricked myself, or, more gently, misunderstood teaching as taking care of that kind of larger social need. And certainly, it does drain some of those same energies, so by that mark, it is working the same muscles. But it isn't about me, and I don't reveal much of myself teaching (for professional reasons), and so although it uses the same muscles, it doesn't restore me the same way more casual social interactions do. Honestly, before in my life, I had NEVER thought of more casual social interactions as "restorative". NEVER. Yet, now I realize a certain amount of them in my life *is* restorative. Certainly depriving myself of them entirely for fear it would drain me has had the opposite effect - *not* having them is draining.
Like an elimination diet, now I am adding back in these interactions into my life, and slowly finding that I am hungry for them, again, a big surprise, and a delightful one. This might be a new development in my life, or it might be a noticing of something that's been true for so long. Like the wheat and dairy allergies I winnowed out a couple of years ago, it can be hard to tell what changes more - your self, or your perspective. Regardless, it feels good to realize my need for groups, and also, to recognize my resistance. Amy pointed out that she has begun making a general deal with herself that when she is invited to hang out in a social situation, she says yes 3 out of 4 of the time (I have a few other friends who have set the same general guidelines). She says what she realized when she started saying yes is that, in fact, often these things are uncomfortable, awkward, but also, somehow, something she needs. Like working out when you are out of shape. Because she's saying yes more (she had gone through a period of isolation a bit like mine last year) she's noticing that when she says no, sometimes, she thinks it's what she needs, but after a night alone she realizes she only said no because she was avoiding discomfort, not because she really needed time alone. Then, sometimes, she just really needs to be alone. These nuances are difficult to discern at first, but I feel like with practice I can learn to tell the difference between my real needs and my social fears or anxieties. As soon as she talked about this, I realized how much I have learned to avoid the social interactions around meditation time at my center, coming late, leaving asap, not wanting to have awkward chit chat. I have rationalized this by keeping myself busy, and/or gossiping with others that of course no one wants to do that kind of thing. And yet, I realize that when I think about it, I get kind of a sick, lonely feeling, that I am not reaching out or allowing myself to be a part of the larger sangha. What appears on the surface to be a protection (from boredom, from anxiety), is in fact not protection at all, but isolation. Again, sometimes this is true, sometimes it is not. Learning to distinguish that is a new, and good-feeling, desire.
Off to give myself some downtime between the now-weekly commute between Madison and Milwaukee, before my evening classes. As things slow down, I am letting myself slow down. And, as Dancingwaves noted on her livejournal, it is surprising how easy that can be.
Shout out to Birdfarm, who's in Iran for the next couple of weeks. I miss her much and can't wait to hear all the stories!
Friday, March 30, 2007
I am in Florida, Tallahassee to be specific, and I've been here for just over a week now. The weather is slightly overcast today, "Portlandish" as one of my hosts called it this morning, and honestly, it's my favorite kind of weather. Sunglasses *and* a broad-rimmed hat have gotten me through the impending sun of a Northern Floridian week, but at times the squinting has turned my Irish eyes a smiling into Irish eyes a struggling.
Now I am nestled in the lovely home of one of the major coordinators. The whole reason I was brought here was to teach a Miksang weekend (last weekend past), have a week of retreat, then teach a Contemplative Writing weekend (tomorrow and next day). She's an energy worker and PA at the Vet's Association, he's an art education professor at FSU. Their home is what I sort of expect mine might look like a coupla decades from now - organized but full, warm and worldly. It's very enjoyable. I've been touring the houses of the sangha a bit - my other organizer thought it better not to stress one member only over the nearly two weeks I've been here - and I've been staying in empty (haunted?) houses, big co-housing houses built 14 years ago, older houses similar to my own in terms of build (mine was built in the 30's) and finally this house, a ranchy bit nothing like my own at home, but feeling-wise, very similar. Has the same soul, one might say. I do truly love others' houses (I called it the "active Martha Stewart Living" when talking to one host - "Oh. So *That's* how they solved that problem!" kind of response.) (MSL is my very serious guilty pleasure). But the fact is that this trip has definitely taught me for sure that I am a homebody and need to stay in one home if I am gone from my own (and my own sweetie) for this long. Two weeks, 5 house changes is too much. Now we know.
The Tallahassee sangha is stunning. They are a very small center - just barely qualifying to be a center instead of a group, but very powerful, welcoming, and enthusiastic. They also LOVE Miksang, and I am leaving here confident that it has truly taken root here. Likely some of the students will emerge as teachers, as well (we'll have to wait about a year to make sure) and that's great, as neither teacher line has made a dent in the South yet.
And this *is* the South. I went to Orlando when I was 12, to visit a friend who's dad was in the World Band at Disney World. That was *not* Florida, nor the South. Last night I had oysters and mullet (tied to hairstyle? haven't checked yet) for dinner. The day before I went to a slave cemetery and saw an art exhibit portraying the Confederate battle flag in various, semi- to severly controversial depictions. The accents, the hospitality - all of it has felt seriously like a foreign country! When I mentioned this to one sangha member, she said "You've lived in France. Yeah. It's just like France. You greet a shopkeeper or they won't help you out. Presentation and politeness are everything." That explained the foreign feeling, yet the odd familiarity.
It's also been a very hard week for me personally. Things are in big flux at home (Erika and Aaron house searching, with tension around their moving out, and Dylan moving in), I miss Dylan (our longest time apart so far), and, ever classic, I have been far too hard on myself all week. I sort of cracked a bit by Wednesday, standing on an island in the Gulf, nothing around me but sky and water and sand, and cried and cried, after searching too hard for the perfect shells. I finally went to a chiropractor yesterday and he cracked a lot of it out for me. So hard for me to remember to relax and it gets harder the more pain I am in.
But shadows are indeed see throughable. And I am grateful I caught on now, within the confines of the trip, rather than after, like in Europe last year. I *am* learning, though that, too, can be used against me (by me), of course.
Off the computer for a bit, to relax my poor eyes and overconcentrated neck. I'll be home next Monday, Madison! And next time I come back to Tallahassee, I will have to go to Wakulla Springs, filming location for Creature from the Black Lagoon, which, I have found out, is the first film to successfully shoot underwater (Dylan we'll have to rent this upon my return, as the looks I got when I told them I haven't yet seen it were SCARY!).
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
-London Underground ad, Easter 1915
I took my Bodhisattva Vow this last Thursday. When I walked out of the ceremony, my godmother, who had attended along with Dylan and my godmother's sister, Therese (who is in fact a Russian Orthodox nun) said "you look blissed out!". It was true. I felt so clear. When the teacher, Acharya Richard John, said "Welcome to a life of inconvenience," I just smiled. I felt I could handle anything. Then, four hours later (there was another ceremony for Refuge vows, then a reception and the drive back to birdfarm's lovingly donated city next refuge) I was really in the thick of it. Hungry, exhausted, worn out emotionally from a therapy session I still hadn't fully processed over 24 hours prior, Dylan was giving kind and gentle suggestions on how I could better help myself, and by proxy, him, as my pain was triggering suffering I was puking all over him. He was tremendously patient, but also exhausted himself. Emotional pain is hard to see, but the next day, when I had some physical pain, we were both able to see a little more clearly that I respond to pain by suffering. This sounds like a simple thing (we all experience pain, but suffering isn't necessary, and is a frequent response to pain) but I hadn't ever seen it quite as lucidly, personally, before. I also hadn't seen how inexorably linked my own self, my "other" (the part of me that prefers to be disjointed and suffering) and others (in this case, Dylan) really and truly are, which is key in the Bodhisattva vow, in fact. So it wasn't pretty, but my first post-vow lesson was strong and clear.
This idea that when I am in pain I immediately immerse myself in suffering is really amazing to me. It's not so much a surprise - I was in a lot of (gut) pain for many years before we diagnosed allergies and I stopped eating things that hurt me. But last night, again with the guts out of whack, birdfarm was amazed to hear how I had suffered like this for years and she had never known. When suffering muddies the water, it's hard to discern what is pain, and when suffering is muddying the waters, meta-suffering isn't far behind. Once I got home last night and laid on my belly with a hot water bottle and relaxed all my tense and overreacting muscles, the pain, too lessened, not weighed down by my suffering and worry. As soon as I experience pain, I head into a shock zone where the suffering piles on and I can't feel anything, even though it all hurts so much more than (now I see) just sitting with the pain, simply. I am amazed because it is simple, but so not easy at all to do. I am enthused though to know this more personally now - this is a teaching I have heard for years but I wasn't able to really work with yet - I think partially because of my chronic pain issues.
Last night, Dylan and I talked about conspiracy theories and chaos for a nice bit of time. He had spent the day at work poking around various sources for conspiracy groups online - focusing particularly on the "reptilians" (I hadn't heard of this before) and Illuminati sites. We got into a very interesting discussion about how risky conspiracy theories are, and how they take power away from awareness of real issues. That is something I have believed for a long time, in particular after 9/11, working at a lefty bookstore where the torrent of a wide range of theories started popping up in book and article form almost immediately. Anything from "the Jews did it" to "Bush and his cronies knew" filled the media for a long time, and people still sell books purporting both these and more out of their trunks all across America. I have always felt that wasting one's time trying to make order out of chaos, believing a 20/20 hindsight as being the same as a fully planned action, is not only a waste of time but in fact a complicit act on the part of the conspiracy theorist to keep attention off real issues that affect everyone daily - health care, poverty, food, etc. We talked about how funny it is that no one here wastes their time for instance with conspiracy theories about how Somalians are starving even though we (Americans) waste food all the time - when in fact there are real, honest, negligent policies that directly create a circumstance in which starvation is inevitable. That is not necessarily the plan of the politicians, but the outcome is clear to see for anyone really looking.
We also talked about perspective - he spoke about a rabbinical teaching in which human beings are demonstrated as being to God (taken loosely here) as ants are to humans. This was very powerful to me, as teachings about Space in Buddhism are key to understanding how panic, suffering and pain can seem to consume one's view and render them powerless in face of real work that needs to be done. Again, when we are consumed with plot (all I can see is all there is), we forget the endless resources around us (whether trying to feed Somalians, find out how something as horrific as 9/11 happened, or relief gas pain in our guts) and in the end, wind up perpetuating, if not contributing, to the suffering of everyone in the circumstance.
Carl Sagan, Dylan's hero, came up as well - Dylan mentioned that he talks about how if we want to play the Ockham's Razor card with this one, chaos is the simplest explanation, and the simplest explanation is most likely the real one. Fractals are one of my most favorite (I have come to think of them as, anyway) representations of how space and chaos work in our world. Something beautiful (or in the case of suffering or conspiracy theories, something awful) occurs, and we are convinced there was a plan to establish this. Fractals are so rad, something must have planned them! So intricate, so balanced, so real! And yet, as chaos theory goes, they are as much a result of randomness as anything else. Of course, evolution entered our conversation briefly, and direction of view - assuming something got to the place where it is because that was the only choice, or even best choice, is a pretty "anty" assumption to make about a very large, and very chaotic universe. I am constantly shown patterns in my work, but as Dharma (and many wise teachings of many traditions) points out, assuming that seeing patterns means that we *know* anything is quite arrogant. I would put conspiracy theories and their sheltering, righteous comfort far high in the arrogant category.
One of the guidelines my teacher gave me before taking the vow last Thursday was to go toward paradox. "If two things are resting side by side and it seems almost impossible that they are there, that is where you should be." I find a bliss in circumstances like this - the clarity of seeing through the bullshit of our political system, recognizing patterns and bringing to justice those who are, in fact, anywhere between benignly and negligently causing pain all the way to those planning to hurt others for their own gain, comes side by side with blind arrogance, often in the same beings. I am not exempt, and this, too, brings a certain smile to my face. A humble smile. Just when I think I can pass judgment on someone else and call myself scott-free, the label turns around and sticks to me. There is much to learn, and I will never learn it all. That's no reason not to keep going.
Monday, March 05, 2007
I have been reflecting a lot lately on what makes friendships endure or disintegrate. Birdfarm has reminded me that the older we get the more discerning we become - not just being friends with anyone, but with people who equally reciprocate in any number of ways - through equal communication, love, support and effort. Even equal silliness. And yet, this isn't about a laundry list (this seems obvious but still has taken years to clarify) of interests - this is, well, like when applying for a job, more about a "je ne sais quoi" quality to the arrangement. Things you don't know to ask in the beginning, because they aren't quantifiable: will I be respected, will you still love me, when I'm 64? These things I am learning to get a sense about from the beginning - sniff them out, ask related questions about communication, respect, life views, but it is hard to get it just right, especially when some relationships were born in eras of earlier desperation.
That desperation has returned in some of my relationships. There appear to be phases I have gone through in this Saturn Return, or whatever it is, when all relationships come into transition. It's relationship transition time again. Two of my closest friends in town are moving - one soon and not too far, the other very far in the next year. And, I have decided to ask Erika, for a long time my closest friend in Madison, to move out, and her fiance and her will likely buy a house soon and move on. I am ready for Dylan to move in, and he is ready to move in, but transitions are hard for everyone, and often this one has resembled a divorce (including who gets the dog).
There was an era in my life when I traveled and dreamt of moving all the time. I wanted to be this travel woman, writing travel literature, known for her saavy in many cultures. Not well known anywhere, only by reputation, not by location. Now, over time, I am getting more and more home-oriented, and my sensitivity to how I want my home to be is getting really keen. I want specific things and they cannot be too far comprimised. I was warned to travel much and young, for fear that once I settled I wouldn't want to anymore. I still trust I am as open as I ever was, if not moreso, but I see now how a desire to go deeper in my home is tempering my desire to be somewhere else, anywhere else.
Ironically, work calls to me to travel, for the first time in my adult life. I go to Tallahassee in a few weeks to teach. I am working on NYC and/or Portland for the fall, again, with a week-long, two-weekend inclusive retreat. These are fine, not too much travel at all, but last night I realized this is the first time I can anticipate I will miss being at home while I am gone. This is rare, very rare. The only time I have ever truly been homesick was last years' Europe trip, and that wasn't anticipated at all - in fact was a shocking, depressing surprise. This time, I know it is there and I can work with it.
I imagine I will always be interested in traveling, even if just reading travel writings. I imagine also there will be other eras in my life when I want to travel more, again. For now, all those discernment skills, telling the strange from the stranger, are turned inward. I wouldn't say I can totally relate to the quote title, but I can understand it more than I ever did before. Not moving doesn't mean not seeing, necessarily. Last year, at my retreat with Natalie Goldberg, she said aloud to all of us that she is jealous of people who live where they were born, for they truly really know a place from the inside out. This was the first time I had ever heard someone I respected revering that kind of life (my parents began the trend early on of deriding it). I continue to explore what it feels like to only travel, and move, inside, most of the time.
Friday, February 23, 2007
Today was an odd day on the bus. I noticed everyone seemed a little tense when I got on - a smattering of midday selectives: folks out of work, inbetween jobs, mostly folks going to special needs places (this is common midday, and most are very vocal about it, so it's hard to miss). The driver turned out to be quite terse, causing further tension: she was cutting off other drivers, telling customers she had "no idea if the #4 is behind us, haven't you learned to read the signs inside the shelter yet?!", and so on...I watched the aggression and it's repercussions all throughout the bus: sitting up front, a drunk man quite unstable, trying to engage with everyone passing, two older women talking too loudly about their jobs and bodies both falling apart, trying to drown out the drunk man. I didn't have my headphones on, I just sat and listened and watched out the window as dogs peed and people ran for flashing lights. It felt interesting to not get engaged, to not worry for all of them, like I might normally do.
I have come to really enjoy the bus, now that I am sharing a car with someone (I was carless for five years before this). It feels the extra luxury it always was, even when I am crammed next to someone reeking of alcohol and chew at two in the afternoon, only now I appreciate even more not having to be behind the wheel. As a woman at my chiropractor noted today, getting behind the wheel is a real buzzkill after any kind of treatment (massage, acupuncture, chiropractor). Somehow, something about letting go any sense of control really helps me to maintain the relaxation, even if it takes me a bit longer to get home, and even if the drama is sometimes more engaging than today's was. The part time city job free annual bus pass doesn't hurt, either.
This last week I got more done than I have gotten done in weeks. I realized also this week that I haven't been breathing much lately. I don't really realize it until I concentrate (eg during meditation, or focusing an exhale during work) and then it is stunning how little oxygen I can make myself survive on. Besides the masochism, I have no idea why I do this, but a woman in a workshop once said "If you breathe, you can't panic", and I have found that to be true. So I've been reminding myself to breathe a lot the last couple of days, and it relaxes me almost immediately. In addition, I then remember to do more relaxing things: take a hot bath, drink some tea, walk down by the lake. The good weather has helped, of course, but winter is no excuse for no self-care. My appetite for it is increasing, a good sign in all ways. That's all I really need to see.
It's felt like a boring day ever since I woke up this morning. Quite honestly I didn't feel compelled to post out of outrageous news (though I have two retreats coming up, which is GREAT and D. is moving in, and that is EVEN MORE GREAT). I felt compelled out of boredom, to see what I could make of such an unmoved day. Nothing much, it seems. And that's ok. I'll go read for a bit, work on my novel, get some dinner with D., who noted last night we haven't been out on a date for weeks. A proper date. Oh yes. We are going to have to remember those. On the bus to meet D., I anticipate more faces, and I will watch them, and they will watch me.
Thursday, February 01, 2007
Last night, after a couple of hours of attempting to deconstruct our own and each others' mild to medium depressions, D. and I were finally silent. I had cried, struggling, D. had struggled mostly silently, back tense against my belly and the world and D'ness. I felt so sad, so overwhelmed with the sadness of human suffering, then it suddenly hit me. I could see how for the last hours we had each been so gentle with each other, and so hard on ourselves, we traded off this way, gentle/hard, hard/gentle. Finally, I said quite spontaneously, "You know what I wish?". "I wish we could be as gentle with ourselves as we are with each other.". I could feel D. smile (smiles sometimes even stretch into back muscles!) and, and then say "Yes. That, that's a good wish." I resisted the temptation to peek out of my insulated window cover to see if there were any breaking stars out there I could put the wish on, and we fell asleep to this wish, like a dream, like a reality not so far out of reach if we can smile about the idea of it, instead of just crying.
Last week, my therapist and I discussed a huge piece of my whole puzzle that had felt slightly off to me for years. A few years ago, my former therapist and I cracked a big one - that it's not so much that my mother was an alcoholic, as narcissistic. This might sound odd for those of you who've heard a lot about my mom, and for those who remember the myth of Narcissus, which is ostensibly about the "positive" attributes of his ego (how he adores his own appearance, etc), but actually the lesson (read a good writing of it and I trust you'll see this) is that ego absorption is dangerous not just in "I'm in love with myself" form, but also in "I hate myself and the entire world reflects this" form. This second version was my mother's. This revelation helped me a great deal because I always felt there was a drive to drink in the first place, and understanding a deeper psychology (which up to that point alcoholism explanations hadn't given me) helped me a lot to break open what I had learned from her and why, and face my own narcissism. Last Friday, we were talking about workaholism, the other "ism" I purportedly adopted from my parents, and I said "the only thing that is weird is I feel like I got workaholism from my mom, but she never worked a day in her life, outside the home, and really wasn't too hardcore about any other kind of work - caring for us, groceries, cleaning, etc (she could be quite neglectful, in fact)." He smiled. Then he asked me what makes me think of workaholism, and I talked about being at my former job (where I worked again for a week last week), where I would work through hunger, through having to go to the bathroom, for fear of being interrupted, or to keep myself attached to the pain or the work, despite pain in my back or insides. He asked me what I would think if someone told me their boss was "making" them do that. I told him that would be wrong, a bad thing to do to someone, abusive. There was a pause. I began to cry. He gently pointed out that it is not less abusive when one does it to him/herself, it's just that it's called masochism in that case.
I inherited masochism, not workaholism. As soon as he said that word it all clicked into place. The way that the only relief from masochism is indulgence. This is something I will have to explore more later, but was hugely evident in my mom's life and now has it's own spawn in my life. The fine line this carries with sadism, or, in my case, a former lack of compassion toward others in pain (rather than inducing pain in others, but a close cousin).
We also talked about compassion toward former actions - in my case, why didn't I leave a job for five years that my replacement could tell in 5 weeks is a severely psychologically unstable place, with all kinds of manipulations and awkwardness? I didn't *see* it, or rather, felt it but often blamed myself, or took it upon myself to fix it. I was so angry all week - why didn't I know, why didn't I leave. My therapist simply asked that instead of being angry for not knowing, that I try being *sad* for not having known. That really made me cry, to realize I could give myself some slack for not having known something. The weight of expectation fell off me and I felt (though it was momentary, it was strong) a serious relief. A Sisyphean-caliber relief.
Finally, I had watched an Oprah special the week before that had made me bawl. At first I just attributed it to depression/over sensitivity to abuse of children, which I tend to have. But after we reached this point in the conversation, I brought up the program, and half way through I realized I already understood what he was saying. In the program, they talked to the boy who has recently been discovered after having been abducted for 4 years (he's 15 now). Everyone wanted to know "Why didn't he call/email?" (he had access to both phone and internet). Even Oprah couldn't help but ask. The psychologists were unequivocating and clear: a) never, ever ask a victim something like this, especially a child, as they will get defensive and blame themselves and b)fear is a super powerful agent. Incredibly powerful.
So why didn't I leave? I was scared and I didn't know better. I was raised in a family so much like my former place of employment that as fucked up as it was, it seemed like home. And to rag on myself now for not having done something earlier will only make me feel worse. I felt such compassion for that boy, I felt like I understood why he didn't call, without words, without being able to say why, and so when I expressed this to my therapist, I could transfer that feeling to myself. Instant tonglen (compassion practice).
What I have noticed is that I tend to discover these things when I am ready to handle them, which usually means partway through healing has already begun. My work habits have changed dramatically in the last few months, between the model of gentleness D. exhibits toward me (today is our three month anniversary!), and the inavoidable evidence that, in being my own boss, if anyone hurts me, it is myself. Plus, and this is no small shakes, my students too inspire me toward gentleness, and all of my other contemplative practices help to set stronger habits and precedents toward picking the kind way instead of masochising myself (new word). So it makes it easier to see because it's changing, and I have new, positive and healthy things to compare it to, instead of being mired in the habits (trees for forest). But also the last couple of days have been tiring - in the masochistic way where even cooking dinner (something I normally like) feels tension-inducing, where teaching feels overbearing and awkward, where writing feels like pulling teeth. Erika and I talked this morning about needing new-ness, open-ness, breaking open the cycles, trying something new (something I insisted would help D. last night - and we're talking new at a really deep level, not just novelty). Still lost today, but some things feel slightly clearer. This is how it goes. Shifting allegiances from hurting myself to being gentle to myself is hard. It's a long and deep set of habits. But knowing I am doing it is inspiring - and realizing things half way helps to keep me inspired.
And finally, as birdfarm reminded me today (through telling me about her own experience) and as Erika and I talked about, sometimes it's really tiny steps that work best. When I am feeling really fierce, really masochistic, I have to give myself gentleness a spoonful at a time or I will spit it back out. I had what we think was the Norwalk virus this last weekend, horrible puking and diarrhea for 12 hours, with cramps and fever. I got so dehydrated that in the end, D. had to bring me back by giving me a quarter of a teaspoon every quarter of an hour. Sometimes, (I am listening to Pema Chodron talk about how we can't scratch our itches or they get worse) it's not even just about stopping habits, especially when it is so dense it's hard to see what is happening, it's about sneaking in a 1/4 tablespoon at a time of care, until I am back to the present and no longer wanting to hurt myself. I really didn't believe that would help last weekend, I was so fucking thirsty. And I find myself skeptical of it today, but I suspect it is right, and I will try it. Bit by bit, I'll try to work my way out of the trees and the forest and see the sky.