Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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Secrets of Adulthood Revealed

photo (1)It’s Thursday. Thursdays have long been my favorite day of the workweek. When L. was smaller, Thursdays were his long day at school but my work-from-home day, which meant a day I could do as much writing as I could and still have time for grading/planning, a load of laundry, a trip to the store. And then, it was Friday. Now that I’ve gone full-time at work, I teach on Thursdays, but not until 3:30, which means I still have a nice long day before I have to get on Bart and go into San Francisco. I mean, look—it’s only twenty past nine, and already I’ve tidied my desk, made the bed, done a load of laundry, and checked my email.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an adult. The days peel off the calendar, and then it’s Thursday again, and some Thursdays, faced with all this time, I feel at loose ends. All week I look forward to having time to write–but then, on Thursday mornings, what I really want to do is tidy my very messy house and make sense of everything that’s been piling up all week. This, it occurs to me, is both totally mundane and totally what being an adult is all about. Balancing all these pieces–lunch boxes, laundry, clean bathrooms, messy desks, student papers, agent letters, bills to be paid, things to be mailed, gardens to be watered, dinners to be prepped, food to be shopped for, garbage cans to put out, novels to be pondered, soccer uniforms to be located, emails to be sent, tea to be drunk, lost items to be located–is this really what it’s all about?

In class this week, I had my students read the first chapter of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, where she lays out her year-long experiment to become more happy. I’d been resisting sharing it with my students since I worried they would all declare her an old lady, and boring, and while a few of them did just think she was having a “midlife crisis,” many of them found the reading really compelling. We talked about how sometimes you’re just rolling along in life and you forget to work hard and appreciate what you have and that that is true for everyone, at every age. I liked hearing from students in their twenties that they also contend with this feeling, because I’d worried, a bit, that it was just me.

I’ve realized that for the past four years, M and I have had this very strong diversion in our lives. Coloring everything–L’s milestones, our work, our marriage—has been this persistent drive to get me pregnant. In some ways, it’s been the hardest four years of my life. And in others, it’s been a project that has diverted us from everything real, and from the mundanity of adulthood. Last week, that project ended. We learned that our second frozen embryo transfer was not successful, and the dream of me ever being pregnant again went poof.

Of course miracles happen. Of course it’s not a definite. But I have to think of it that way in order to make it real, because hope hasn’t gotten me very far on this journey.

And so it’s been a week of adult-style reality. The reality is a nice one: I have a beautiful five-year old kid, a husband I genuinely want to be with. We have enough money (yay!), we have a loving family. We have, knock wood, our health and our happiness. But this is also it, this life of lunch boxes and lost sweatshirts, of work and taking out the trash and food prep. For many years, we have tried to add a piece of joy and chaos to this life of ours—a baby—and it hasn’t worked. It’s devastating, and it’s sobering, and it’s confusing, and it’s unreal, and mostly, it’s just a deep and central sadness that I suspect will be with us for a long time. And on the other hand, it feels like it’s just our path. It’s what was supposed to happen, it’s what we have to sit with, it’s our dukkha. It’s our adulthood.

In that first chapter of The Happiness Project Gretchen Rubin lays out her Twelve Commandments (the first one: “Be Gretchen.” I like that). Then, her Secrets of Adulthood, which includes gems like “If you can’t find something, clean up” and “Turning the computer off and on a few times often fixes glitches.” After we read, I had my students write either their own Secrets of Adulthood or their own Commandments. I loved how into it they got. One eccentric student who always comes to class in a suit and tie wrote “Dress for Success” and “Don’t Boast”; another, “Eat Happier.” One student’s list consisted of items like “Don’t smoke so much,” “Don’t drink ’til you black out,” and “Don’t eat out every night.”

And me? I wrote my own Secrets of Adulthood. It felt like a really happy moment in an otherwise sad time. I can’t exactly say why. I think because I remembered for a second that despite a large disappointment, I am still me. Me, who has lived on this earth for 40+ years and has gathered some basic wisdom. Me, who knows herself. Sometimes a tragedy or a loss can really shake your core. It’s good to remember who you are in those moments, that you still need a cup of tea first thing and a snack in your purse at all times.

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My Secrets of Adulthood

It all has to get done.

Putting things away when you’re done with them saves time later.

It’s okay to go out to dinner occasionally.

Don’t check email after ten p.m.

A cup of tea first thing.

Exercise saves all.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

No cell phone at dinner.

It’s worth it to instill good table manners in your kid.

Back up your data regularly.

If you can’t find something, clean up.*

If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.*

Don’t shy away from difficult conversations.

Be honest—but not too honest.

A little TV will not kill you.

Bring a snack.

Enjoy each other.

Guilt is the enemy of the good.

 

*Thank you, Gretchen Rubin


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Where Oh Where Do I Want to Live?

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A beautiful mountain vista, New Hampshire, August, 2014

I had an unsettling dream last night. I dreamed that M and I had both gotten jobs back East, him in New York and me in Western Massachusetts, where I went to graduate school. The dream involved lots of logistics–where would we live, could we find a spot in the middle where we could both commute to our jobs, and hadn’t I always wanted to live in New York City? And hadn’t I always wanted to return to Western Mass? And then I woke up, in Berkeley, in our new flat across the street from the old flat. Actually I woke up because my brother, who lives back East, sent a text to my other brother and my mom, who also live back East, and to me, three hours behind, and so at the ungodly hour of 6:15 I rose to silence my phone and then lay there thinking about this dream of moving back East and why it had unsettled me so.

I knew why; it’s because, for the last couple of months, I’ve been feeling decidedly like I don’t know where home is. Last spring, when we were getting kicked out of our house and in a nasty fight with our landlady, M and I pondered–and got close to–buying a house in Berkeley. Unfortunately/fortunately, it didn’t happen. There was disappointment and relief, both, and then we moved into the apartment across the street, and very much landed on our feet. But over the summer, L and M and I went to Maine for three weeks. My brother has a new baby, who I got to hold every day; I hung out with my sister in law as much as I could. I bonded with my niece and nephew, and I recall thinking that it had been the best visit in a long time. Easy, fun, fortifying. And then, we left, and when we got back to California I felt confused, out of sorts, and untethered. And if I’m honest with myself, I still do feel that way.

This feeling–it has been with me on and off since I was 21 and moved to Portland, Oregon, from Boston. I have spent the majority of my adult life on the West coast, far from my tight-knit family. I love them; I love spending time with them; and I also felt and feel a pull to be in the West. Because I make friends easily and well, wherever I go I’m surrounded by community, love, and “chosen family”–I am not lonely, all these miles from where I grew up. The West is in many ways perfect for me. It has everything I need. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss New England; of course I do. Missing it is natural, at times sad, at times conflicting, and at times, just, my lot in life.

What’s hard, what’s truly hard, is my guilt. I am prone to guilt. It’s an emotion I know intimately. And it’s an emotion my parents like to use as a weapon. To wit: for the last week of our visit home, and the five weeks after we got back, I did not have one conversation with my mother that did not involve her pressuring me to come for Christmas this year, even though it is very much M’s mom’s turn to have us. Besides the Christmas pressure, there were the others: If only M could get a job in Vermont, I think you guys would love Vermont and Did you know Pete and Mary are selling their house in Maine, it would be so perfect for you guys…

I think she thinks, if she needles away at us enough, we’ll just do what she wants and move back East.

At first, all I could focus on was that guilt and my anger at my mother for laying that trip on me. At one point, she made a joke about how she wasn’t feeling well (she had a cold at the time) and that we should really try to spend time with her while we could. I didn’t speak to her for a week. Does she think I don’t worry, all the time, about what will happen when she and my dad become unable to take care of themselves anymore and I live 3,000 miles away?

But underneath my anger and guilt, a larger reality looms: California is not home. It can never be home, unless M and I decide, consciously, forcefully, soon, to make it home. To just admit that we will live here permanently. I see around me people whose lives look identical to mine in many ways–their kids are in the public schools here, they work locally, they garden and take trips and pay taxes–but they do so with the knowledge that they’ll be here for twenty, thirty years, that they have no intention of leaving. They settle, they trust, they buy houses and fix them up. And us? We go on, year after year, not knowing where we will be. And it is starting to really wear me down. Not only because I can’t paint my bedroom the color I want or rip out the flower gardens in the back yard–those small things do have a hold on me–but because I honestly don’t know when we will be in a place, a house or a community, that is truly home. And home is important to me. I thought, for a while, Berkeley could be it. This is a great place to live. I could make a home here. But I can’t, because I feel like my family won’t let me, or, more fairly, that I won’t let myself.

I realize that a lot of this comes down to co-dependence. My friend An Honest Mom reminded me that my piece of this is not the same as my parents’ piece. “You can feel sorry that they’re sad you live far away,” she said, “and that can actually not be about you at all.” It was a good reminder. And at the same time, I found myself marveling at her clarity that she lives here in Berkeley (maybe she isn’t so clear, maybe no one is–but from the outside, it seems like they are). I feel so much envy for people who are sure. 

And so, the dream. Waking up, it occurred to me that moving back East would require a Herculean effort–finding jobs, finding a place to live, etc.–but that if we wanted to do it, we could. We could just give in to the guilt, decide to make that choice, and do it. Honestly, we would miss this place, but we would be happy there. We could even give ourselves a time frame, like, we’ll be here until second grade, then go. (In fact, L, who has been telling us that he “hates the drought” and is “worried about the drought” told me the other day that in two years, we should decide where we want to live and go there–odd.)

Or we could muddle on in our uncertainty, and see what happens.


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Renewing My Vows

FrogBuddha

I started this blog nearly two years ago, a fact I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In the beginning, I had boundless energy for Buddhism and the project of blogging, but I’ve fallen off startlingly in the last year. As I was explaining to my amazing Creative Women’s Cocktail Hour group last night, in a week I feel like so many other things demand my attention: my kid, my house, my “real” writing, my teaching, trying to get published (we all have this story in our lives, no?), and blogging has fallen to the end of the list. It has both to do with logistics and some sense that this blog is less relevant to my work, and lately, I am almost all about what’s relevant. Over the summer I had two personal essays published in major magazines, and that’s given me the idea that I need to stay the course in terms of trying to get widely published in hopes that more will happen for me, that my memoir will get picked up or I’ll become somewhat, you know, known. 

Besides, so many changes in our lives. Kindergarten started at a brand new school, we moved (across the street), I started to work full time. It’s been a lot, though I am happy to report that these transitions have been fairly smooth for the whole family.

But for at least six months I have known that it’s time to throw myself into a new writing project, a big one. My memoir is still kicking around, and these essays keep coming, but I need a guiding principle in my writing life. As it happens, last week I shared this blog with a friend who is writing a book with a component in it about mindfulness and meditation (she, I would say fairly, is a skeptic), and her first reaction to the My Story page was–“wow, this would make a great book proposal.” Funny, because when I started this blog I had thought of it  that way–as a personal project but also, potentially, as a writing project. And then the writing part fell away. Her reminder that my original intention–to document my attempt to live a more mindful life–was still a possibility has really had me thinking. I had thought my next big project was a novel–a novel about violence, with a strong element of humor–but it also occurs to me that a book about this project, the Becoming Buddhist project, might be worth reading.

So where does that leave me? I don’t know; I think I’m going to start the novel, to see what happens, but also renew my commitment to this blog and to my meditation practice. I’ll try to blog every week; I’ll explore more. And I’ll see what happens. It means some rearranging of my life; I’ll have to push some of the logistical bits and pieces–the hours I spend crafting letters to agents and researching small presses, for example–to evenings and weekends, but that’s okay I think.

Tomorrow is my birthday. My birthday wish: clear vision.