Thursday, May 31, 2007

"You Think You Know Her"

-Cause and Effect track from my teen years - a bit of a "one-hit wonder" that's been haunting me since it popped up on a mix on Laine's ipod a few days ago...

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

The birthday presents continue...

My legs and assorted lesser used body parts are very sore from a day of gardening and painting. A very satisfying day - a "getting things done" day, but with the added advantage of it improving not someone else's life (I've been grading my teen writing class lately) or getting bureaucracy in order (emails, promotion, etc) but rather, directly affecting our lives, improving our home and connecting me, in the process, to the earth.

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

Mother's Days

"Does Mother's Day usually get to you?" my therapist asked at our monthly session last week.
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

Picture windows

It's been awhile since I posted. A rough couple of months, both positive and "negative", but regardless, quite busy. I have a long stock of emails to catch up on, and many letters to write, not to mention phone calls to make to concerned godparents, friends and others who haven't heard from me in a long time. Due to a burnt hand side from an unfortunate teapot incident earlier this week, this is the most I can do for my "regular writing practice" - type on the computer, and so here for a few days I will get my need to write taken care of by typing instead of handwriting each morning. And bit by bit I will chip through the wall I put up around myself in the chaos post-Tallahassee and reconnect with my vibrant communities.

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!