Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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Sorting It All Out

Since my surgery a week and a half ago, I’ve run through the gamut of emotions, not to mention aches and pains. But I have not meditated even once. I know, I get hung up on the practice–but then, it is a practice. One I’m not doing, despite many hours at home and even a good chunk of alone time.

My tiny, tiny scar--and the weirdness that is stitches, dried blood, and glue in my belly button. The camera, and then some instruments, went in one of these incisions, I'm not sure which.

My tiny, tiny scar–and the weirdness that is stitches, dried blood, and glue in my belly button. The camera, and then some instruments, went in one of these incisions, I’m not sure which.

My daily resting place has moved from the bed, where I was fairly ensconced until Wednesday of last week, to a sunny spot on the couch. My father-in-law asked me yesterday what the “rehab plan” was. I said, “you’re looking at it.” I take a short walk every afternoon, I get up to pee or make myself food when no one else is around to do it. I can now take a shower with no fear of passing out. Marc drives me everywhere we need to go (not many places). My parents have left. Lex keeps saying, “Are you better now, Mama?” and the other night, when I was crying, he asked, “Are you doing okay, Mama?”

This may make it sound like I’ve been quite depressed, and I haven’t been. I’ve been amazed by how upbeat certain moments have felt; when you go to the brink and come back, there’s a certain joy to be found in things like fresh-squeezed juice, smoked salmon on toast, Netflix on demand, a good book. But I also feel in the last 48 hours like maybe the emotional piece is starting. I have been wondering whether my butt is still on the couch because I’m actually exhausted or because I just don’t want to go outside, get fresh air, run into anyone, think about whether I want to try again, any of it.

You know what’s weird? When you start wishing you were back in the hospital and you had to do it all over. Marc said maybe it’s like prison, you get out and then part of you wants to go back in. I don’t think that’s it, exactly, but nonetheless this healing phase, this almost-better phase, is much tougher, emotionally, than when I was hopped up on Vicodin and nauseated and the knowledge that I could have died was very fresh in my mind. Today I faced the boring realities of a Monday: calling to get out of jury duty, checking in with my work, arranging playdates for Lex. It’s kind of like life continues as it was, only I got spun off the axis and landed somewhere…else.

I guess I am hiding out.


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Sick Mama

I almost can’t believe what I am about to write. Warning: it’s graphic, and maybe a little shocking. And quite sad.

But let me step back. I loved bussokuseki’s evening comment on my last post, “Sick Kid”:

My Zen teacher said something to me on Sunday that I have been sitting with since, and of which I am reminded reading this post: “Could it be that this moment, this very moment, is the moment I have been longing for?”

Not just accepting…but longing for…? Even if you aren’t sure of the answer, what incredible space this question opens up.

I thought of this twenty minutes later, when Lex was vomiting so hard he had puke in his eyes, his nose, his ears and his hair. We took him into the bathroom and gave him a bath, and then my sweet boy lay pale and red-lipped in his daddy’s arms while I put his bed back together. I decided to sleep in his room that night in case he needed me, but the sickness had passed and he didn’t throw up again. I asked myself whether I could have been longing for that moment, and decided I was: one of the beautiful, fundamental things about being a parent is being needed. And I was not unhappy to be going to bed that night knowing I’d be needed the next day, and maybe even that night. I was ruminating a lot on parenting, and how it throws your life into tumult, and how you must long for that tumult. I thanked bussokuseki in my head for helping me see that.

I was seven weeks pregnant, you see.

At four a.m. I woke up feeling like I, too, had the stomach flu. I started to vomit and have diarrhea and I was so uncomfortably…uncomfortable I couldn’t quite sit with myself. On the way to the bathroom to throw up, I passed out on the floor. I made it into bed, and spent the day in agony. Calls to the advice nurse yielded little since we kept insisting that my son had stomach flu and I must, too. They agreed. I was not bleeding; I was not miscarrying, I kept thinking, because I was not bleeding. But I was in so much pain and agony that I kept passing out. I’d huff too much air in an effort to get over a wave of nausea–though I’d stopped throwing up much, much earlier–and black out. Eventually around 7:30 p.m. I told Marc we needed to call 911. He was skeptical, I think we both were; the cost, the extravagance. But I knew I was dying of dehydration if nothing else, and I suspected something else might be really wrong. And I knew I could not get myself into the car and over to the emergency room without help.

Marc called my friend Steph, then 911. Steph took three minutes to get here. 911 took six. When they arrived–six uniformed men straight off the cover of a firemen porn magazine, and me sweaty, my teeth unbrushed, unable to breathe, dying–I felt enormous relief that someone else could take over. Being carried into the back of an ambulance, given oxygen, asked questions, prodded, poked, none of it was as I’d have expected. I kept thinking how I could not long for any moment that had happened all day, not one of them, save perhaps being in the back of an ambulance and not having to deal with the agony anymore.

At the hospital, it was more of the same: they gave me fluids, they gave me oxygen, they did blood tests. They were still treating me for extreme flu. I started to worry that I would leave the hospital feeling no different than I had, just slightly more hydrated. The doctor mentioned an ultrasound. Yes, I thought. Could the baby live through this flu?

Around midnight, the news all came together: my hemoglobin count was at 7, the pregnancy hormone was 9,000, I was anemic. The ultrasound happened and the doctor put it this way: “I think we have a bit of a tubal going on here.”

I don’t remember when everything registered, but all of a sudden I got it: I was anemic because I had an ectopic pregnancy and my fallopian tube had ruptured. I was bleeding internally, hence the horrible stomach pains. I needed emergency surgery and the fetus, unviable, was floating around somewhere and needed to be removed. There was so much blood they couldn’t see for sure which tube was ruptured. Just the week before I’d found myself thinking how much surgery terrified me and that I hoped I’d never have to do it. In the hospital I realized I had no choice: I would likely die if they didn’t operate.

The story has, I guess, a happy ending: an hour or so later I came out of that operating theater alive. I lost a liter of blood and one fallopian tube and, obviously, the fetus. Marc was with me the whole time, minus while I was being operated on. I have an active imagination for the “what if?” and he and I have needed to go over it a hundred times: what might have happened if we’d waited any longer? The good news is that we did not. The good news is modern medicine. The good news is those EMTs. The good news is Steph so gracefully arriving to sleep on the couch until we called my father in law, who came from the city in the middle of the night to relieve her and get Lex to school the next morning. The good news is the friends who have brought food and taken Lex for playdates. The good news is my husband, who has been an incredible nurse, even with his Ratchett-like moments (forcing me to drink the last of a raw kale smoothie, insisting on a walk down the block). It is good to be nurtured and encouraged to heal. The good news is my parents flying out this afternoon.

The sadness is there, but it’s secondary, floating, strange. Since telling my family and a few friends what happened so many women have volunteered their own losses: multiple miscarriages, absorption of twins, other stories of ectopic pregnancies. I was even in the very hospital ward where my friend C had to spend five weeks because one of two identical twins was stillborn and she needed to be on bed rest until they could safely deliver the other. These stories all put mine in context. What feels different is that the loss of the pregnancy is almost a separate issue, because it turns out we could very easily have lost me.

I hesitate to ask if this is all TMI–too much information–for a blog post. But I don’t know how I would go on in this blog if I didn’t come clean. I wonder how the Buddhist practice supports one through a trauma like this. I think I will be figuring that out.


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Sick Kid

I feel sometimes when I visit Becoming Buddhist that I live a secret life. I log out of my other blog, and into this one, where I see all the posts from people I’m following in my life as a Buddhist–my secret life as a Buddhist–and I enter this space where I read about boredom on A Year of Meditating or enjoy one of bussokuseki’s gorgeous poems or appreciate the wisdom of Amanda Green, and I feel a little like I am not even at my own house anymore, where we have a sick kid and no one got up to meditate this morning because we were sleeping off two middle-of-the-night puking sessions.

Hmm.

This is something I think about a lot, this idea of trying on different costumes, different roles. It’s actually something I have felt my whole life. I was a pudgy kid, and when in my twenties I started dropping pounds upon pounds without really trying, until I became the objectively thin woman I am today, I felt for the first several years that I was faking thin. When I traveled around the world with Marc, it felt for a while like someone else was taking that trip. Someone bold, intrepid: not anxious, scared me.

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Me in Hawaii, 2012

Being Buddhist feels a little like that, like something I’m trying on. Maybe that’s why I feel the need for this secrecy.

But man this Buddhist stuff gets in your bones. I’ll admit: my practice has been crap lately. I’m tired, and getting up before Lex doesn’t always happen. A few mornings my “meditation” has looked like this: a sleepy me on the zafu, shushing the wiggly toddler in my lap, both of us ensconced in blankies since it’s so damn cold in Berkeley lately. I grab a nanosecond of mindful intention before the wiggles shake us towards breakfast and the start of the frantic day.

Nonetheless, I feel myself different than I was a year ago, slightly more able to pause in the moment as I just…exist. And, of course, struggling to practice mindfulness as I…exist.

Today I had a sick kid. I also had a boatload of work I wanted to do. The two were mutually exclusive. I stayed home with Lex and got no writing or professional development done; we watched a leopard documentary, read some books, went for a short walk, and later, miraculously, he let me do some sewing. He wouldn’t eat more than a couple pieces of toast all day, but his spirits were high. I felt sure he’d be back at school tomorrow and me, off to do the work I’d not done today. But at dinnertime he still hadn’t eaten more than that toast. And he had a fever. And was totally listless and couldn’t climb out of my lap. And I am seeing my work for tomorrow slipping away, too.

I long–or perhaps I should say, I strive, since that’s what this project is all about–to be someone who thinks, “Today I am home with my sick kid,” instead of “I will never finish my book at this rate!”

That will be my mantra for tomorrow:

I am home with my sick kid. I am home with my sick kid. I am home with my sick kid.

I am lucky to be able to spend the time with him, after all.

Maybe we’ll watch the polar bear documentary.


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The Ordinary Shape of Things

I love this blog. It’s so therapeutic for me, the anonymity, the format, the project itself. Though I’d had ideas that the shape of it would be purposefully linear, structured by yoga poses or sutras, instead it’s been much more like real life: random. I’ve come to accept this (look at me, removing attachments). In fact, since starting the mindfulness project two months ago, I’ve come to accept a lot of things. I seem to be handling disappointment, dukkha, and change better.

To wit: I gave myself a little pep talk in the car while driving to pick up my son from school yesterday, and I actually believed it. The pep talk went like this: “Just do the work, S. Do the work and something good will come of it.” The backstory to this pep talk is that I had just turned my attention back to my book, the one I hope to work tirelessly on this month, after a fall largely spent avoiding it for reasons logistical (I was working too much) and subconscious (I was avoiding it). The book inspires the following feelings in me:

  • I am intensely, joyously proud of it.
  • I suspect it might truly suck.
  • I think it is likely self-indulgent.
  • I am quite sure it will never get published.
  • I am sometimes hopeful that actually, maybe it will.

And so, as you can imagine, when I work on it–or even think about it too long–I get completely overwhelmed. Reminding myself to just take it bird by bird, as Anne Lamott might say, is a huge help.

What I hope is that mindfulness will enable me to just see the book clearly, for what it is. I opened this morning a query email I’d sent to an agent last year. I realized the way I talked about the book made it sound precious and sentimental. Actually, much like this blog, it’s messy, sometimes raw. I think two forces fight in my brain: “polished” or “good” must mean “perfect.” And “raw” means unpolished, unprofessional, and, above all, scary. I think I will have better luck with the project once I embrace its raw, imperfect, perfect beauty and decide how I want to portray it to the outside world.

For now, though, I am thinking about the ordinary shape of things, a phrase that came to me in the middle of the night, beautifully.


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It’s Always Changing

I went to meditation on Thursday night, and the Dharma talk (which, it occurred to me mid-way through, is a sermon) by James Baraz was about “embracing change.” At first I expected a discussion of ways we might resolve to be better in the new year, but actually it was about accepting the transience of every moment in our lives: everything is changing, always. Baraz told a great story about being on retreat and one night, having the revelation that he had “conquered doubt.” He was prepared to go for a meeting with the retreat leader the next morning and bring this very lofty revelation to him about having conquered doubt. But by the time the next morning rolled around, he’d had a hundred other revelations, and had begun to doubt that he’d conquered doubt at all. So in the meeting he burst out, “It’s always changing!”

To which his spiritual leader said, “Yes. Exactly.”

Lex playing in a lake. Why can't I be as carefree as a three-year-old?

Lex playing in a lake. Why can’t I be as carefree as a three-year-old?

I have been feeling over the last few days a bit of the return of Shirley. I’ve been home with Lex, since preschool is out these past two weeks. Being home with my kid all day is always a roller coaster. We get so close that he wants to hold my hand wherever we go, has much less interest in his dad when he comes home, and acts loving and sweet when we play together. On the other hand he exhausts me with his constant questions and all the small things that make him feel wounded: broken toast, an animal figurine not in the place he expected it to be, me refusing him Playdough five minutes before dinner. Yesterday afternoon I was totally wiped out, feeling old and world-weary and concerned about my lack of energy. I watched an animal documentary with Lex on a beautiful dusky late afternoon instead of getting out his bike or taking him on a run. Guilt ensued.

I also suffered a bit of a professional setback this week, one I pretended didn’t hurt but, if I’m honest with myself, does.

Running underneath all of this is this feeling I have had this past year in Berkeley, where we live. I’ve been surprised by how much I like this city. I’m a true liberal, but I suspected Berkeley would be like a parody of itself, everyone having walked out of People’s Park in 1969. It’s not: it’s full of nice, community-minded, very normal people, and I have made some great friends here. But it also feels inexplicably small, sometimes, and some of my friendships are causing me a lot of anguish. One in particular has become—how to say this—totally oppressive. And I am working out my feelings around it.

If I were not studying mindfulness—and therefore, learning that really, all change begins with me and that I am the only person whose behavior I can control—I’d say this: I never intended to become close friends with this person. She inserted herself into my life very forcefully and she wants to spend time with me more than I want to spend time with her. There are moments when we connect beautifully, but for the most part I find she’s not a great listener and she can be by turns considerate and poisonous, hateful. Our children adore each other, which makes things hard. But the main issue is that I find her to be very manipulative. I say “no,” and she finds a way to make me say “yes.” I put up a boundary, she attempts to knock it down. She asks if she can borrow something and I say yes, come by in the morning, she says, can I come by right now? When I say now is not good, she says, well, it’s much better for me, would I reconsider? To say this person tests my patience would be an understatement.

Last night we had dinner with a Buddhist friend and I brought this up. Kim asked me two questions: what is this person here to teach you? And, if you turn it around, what do you admire about her that you want for yourself? The answer to the first, it seems to me, is that she is here to teach me how to get what I want, to be true to myself, to be strong and to have even clearer, better boundaries. After all, how did I let someone “insert herself” into my life? The answer to the second, I guess, is that I admire her ability to get what she wants out of a situation. (I don’t actually, totally admire that quality, but I guess I have some reverence for it.) But practically speaking, what do I do? Kim’s girlfriend suggested that I encourage hanging out in the ways I most enjoy this person, and I thought that was a great idea: she is great fun in a group, at a party, out to dinner with a few other women. So, to cultivate those experiences and minimize the times when we are attempting an intimacy I just don’t always feel.

But right now, here on a Saturday morning, what I feel is guilt, like somehow, I fucked this up. Maybe I did. I think in the new year I need to change the way I relate to this person. It feels hard, but I’ll embrace that. I feel better just having written about it.

If you want to hear the Dharma talk “Embracing Change,” you can do so here.


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Taking a Break

Long silence. (Actually I blogged on Christmas, but just found that post saved as a draft. Oops.)

I was with my family in New England for the holidays, and though I managed to meditate the first few days I was there, the practice quickly went out the window. This had to do with logistics, like jet lag, and not much private space, but I think also, mostly, had to do with the culture at my parents’ house, where I grew up.

My folks are lovely, lovely people. They really are. And they are also the type of folks who get up every morning and steep a cup of black tea for 10+ minutes before popping it down the hatch. They have another cup around noon. They bustle about, finding things to do. My dad is prone to periods of hanging out, but my mom seems to always feel that something needs to be done and is not getting done; she’ll invent errands or jobs or projects. When we were there we drove to the store every single day, I’m sure, and every meal was a production (a delicious production, but still).

A couple days in, Lex said to me, “I feel like we’re never going back to Berkeley!” I knew what he meant. I was drinking that strong tea along with everyone else, getting impatient with Marc’s…laid-back ways, and generally feeling the East coaster in me coming out. And I was definitely not meditating.

But I was noticing. I was noticing that I was not blogging and I was noticing that I was not meditating and I was noticing my impatience with a) my husband’s laid-back ways and b) my mother’s moments. Mostly I felt like I was on vacation from the practice. But this morning, back home, I got up for a very stiff yoga session and a brief meditation.

And so I start to build again.

One of my resolutions–and I have addressed the idea of resolutions before–is to work at this practice in January. That resolution goes in the pot with the plan to finish my book; start a fossil-fuels divestment campaign at my alma mater; clean my house to within an inch of its life; and explore my fertile and not-so-fertile self. The biggest resolution is to do it all calmly, mindfully, and in a balanced way. I don’t teach in January, you see. I am so excited for a break.