Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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And February Was So Long, That it Lasted Into March*

I’m calling it: January is the cruelest month. Or maybe February. Or maybe the entire January-February continuum, from New Year’s to the first of March. I always have high expectations for January. I’m off school, so I make a copious to-do list, embrace the time, and plan to walk into February light as a feather, with 56,000 new words written, my closets cleaned out, my shoes polished, my psyche clean, and my body well-rested, in shape, perfect.

Instead, this January kind of sucked. I struggled constantly to figure out which project to work on. I got some good notes towards a novel but ended up only finishing one essay. The entire family got sick, and days went to tending L and M. I fought off low-grade depression the whole time. I did clean out my closet, the last night before school started, in a burst of desperate energy. I did not get to Goodwill, get my pants hemmed, find the Savings bond I was looking for, locate an affordable piece of furniture to house the six or seven box-worths of junk that’ve been waiting in the living room since we moved in in October. I did not get a date night with M. I did not sleep very well.

I did have some nice times: one perfect, lovely weekend in Inverness, a tiny town next to Pt. Reyes National Seashore, with my creative lady friends. We hiked, meditated, did yoga, read books, drank wine, chatted about writing and art and creativity. The last day, L and M met me there and we spent the day at the beach, L frolicking in his underpants in January sun (Boston, eat your heart out). We went out for lunch in Pt. Reyes Station, the charmingest of towns. Driving back into Berkeley, I felt M’s and my energy kind of sink with the weight of the impending week, though I held onto the nice feelings from the weekend for a few days, felt lighter, happier, more possible.

But last week, when classes started, this low-grade panic took over my body. Monday night, I told M I wasn’t sure I could do it (teach these classes I have taught a gazillion times, that is. I did it, obvs). Tuesday night, I junked out on the couch, exhausted. All I could think about was getting to Friday. But now that it’s the weekend, I feel more of the low-grade panic, plus a general feeling of malaise and depression, kind of like I just don’t want this life of mine anymore. Kind of this feeling that I never get a break, that a weekend isn’t even a weekend. And that maybe I wasted January.

I know how this sounds: whiny, extreme, annoying, privileged. And I must confess that I woke up with a really rotten cold and spent the morning moping in bed, trying to sleep, so that can’t be helping my mood. But it’s kind of, well, how I feel.

I wonder if this is a problem of expectations. Or of connectivity. Like, if I hope too much for things and don’t just accept things as they are. And if I feel depressed because I realize that, even when I don’t have students to attend to, I’m already too “on.” I used to look forward to weekends; now I dread soccer and the social events that characterize them. And I’m anticipating things to come—a conference I’m participating in, a workshop I’m leading—with an unhealthy level of anxiety. The other day, I thought to myself, I just have to get through February. And at least once a day, I have fantasized about getting in the car and just driving back to that beach in Inverness and hiding out until it’s all over. Until what’s all over? Exactly. Who knows.

This doesn’t seem like any way to live.

Last week, I saw this therapist I’ve been seeing lately, and I confessed that sometimes I wonder if January has been hard the last couple of years because it’s the anniversary of the miscarriage that nearly took my life. She looked shocked; I hadn’t told her of my dramatic ectopic explosion in January of 2013. I told her that last year, in January, I commemorated the miscarriage by getting salmonella and spending a week in bed, thinking far too much about what had happened a year earlier. This year, the depression, the family getting sick, and then a trip to the ER because I thought I might have a blood clot. I told her how, being back in the ER for just an hour (I was fine) last week, I had this strange desire to go back upstairs to my old room and stay the night, nurses poking and prodding me, everyone else in control. I didn’t want the loss again, but I wanted something else.

“Well,” she said. “Trauma works like that. We often have trauma anniversaries, times when we just feel off as the body remembers what’s happened.” She suggested I revisit the trauma, heal it, so I can move on. I haven’t thought of myself as deeply traumatized by what happened, honestly. But it still makes me teary to think of it, to write about it, so maybe there’s something to it. Maybe January is a little doomed because of it.

And I feel better even having written this. I’m sitting on my back porch. It’s the most gorgeous day ever. M is happily working in the yard. L has been a love lately. And tomorrow, it’s February. Maybe February will surprise me. Maybe next year will too. To quote Dar Williams: “You never know how next year will be.”

Love,

BB

*A line from a really fabulous and sad Dar Williams song called “February,” which you can listen to above. Thanks, Dar

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New Year’s Revolutions

I never find the new year that powerful—I think because I teach, and my mind runs on the school calendar, I think of the “new year” as beginning in September. For me, Christmas is a little blip in the middle of the year and the fact that the calendar flips from 2014 to 2015 doesn’t mean much beyond reminding me that I have to start dating my checks differently. (An aside: my wonderful cousin Lauren cracked me up around New Year’s, 1984, by saying, “Geez, I’m still writing 1982 on my papers….”) I think I made a resolution in December, but honestly, I can’t remember what it was, and I’m not worrying too much about it, since I’m still working on my resolutions from September. See what I mean?

But I did this sneaky thing, where I made resolutions for L, who is five, which really isn’t fair but I did it anyway. Actually I can only remember one resolution, which was: to make sure he brushes his teeth every day before leaving for school in the morning, since we have fallen off seriously on that task. And then I made some comment the other day, like, “Another resolution for you could be—” wherein he cut me off by yelling, “That’s too many revolutions!” and absolutely freaking out.

Oh, the irony. L is definitely in a revolution sort of phase. He got Legos for Christmas, big, shiny, ridiculous displays of Legos that I (somewhat regretfully, now) sanctioned, and who wants to go to school when there are Legos to build? And so we found ourselves, this morning, in a battle with a tear-stained five year old who just wanted five more minutes to putter with his Legends of Chima creatures and talk to himself and whisper and have them whack each other with their fantasy-weapons (which in my head I believe are less awful than representations of real weapons, e.g. guns, but maybe I kid myself) when it was really

Time

For

School.

I can’t remember a morning as bad as this one; all three of us ended up in the bathroom, me wielding the toothbrush (that fucking resolution) while L shouted about how it was my fault and I took all his time away and I always ruin everything and I always take his time away and M trying to patiently explain that Mama doesn’t control the time, it just passes by, and school was starting and etc. etc.

And then I walked L to school and on the way realized that he was absolutely wrung out with grief, his face like a sheet, blotchy from crying, devastated, exhausted. It was so saddening for me, to see him so utterly defeated, and me defeated, too. Last night was a similar battle, over dinner; I can’t even remember how it started, but it ended with that same dynamic of L blaming me for something going wrong in his life, for being hungry, for Dada not being home yet, and my patient requests for him to help get dinner ready faster by setting the table were met with shrieks and cries and refusals and just…ugliness. And then we sat down to dinner and L lectured me about how I thought what was going on between us was his fault, but actually—”Actually, Mama, it’s your fault. Really.” (This line delivered with dead serious calm, almost funny; funny now, at least.) So by the time M did walk in the door, I was speechless and done, L was a wreck, all (horrible) current events were irrelevant, and M’s bad day went completely unnoticed by everyone because we had major domestic issues happening instead.

I think because I’m on vacation this month, I’ve had a little greater access to patience and clarity than I usually do (though I admit to having lost it a couple of times during the last 24 hours). And when I am patient I can kind of see L’s behavior in a clearer light. I have realized—and it makes me no end of sad, though maybe it should not—that I have an extremely emotionally complex kid. My kid is the one whom other parents think is so easy; he’s a delight at school, he follows the rules, he doesn’t generally hit other kids or bully or anything like that. But what he does do is save up all his bad feelings and dump them on his father and me. And lately, since Kindergarten started, I think, there seems to be no end to the bad feelings. He complains about everything; he says no to everything. Everything is a battle: exercise, school, TV, Legos, snacks. I have realized that even if I walk into the day with a huge reserve of patience and goodwill—a phenom that happens, what? Once or twice a week at best?—by bedtime it has been slowly drained out of me. I realized this yesterday, actually: we were in line at the coffee shop, enjoying each other, after school. L wanted an agua fresca watermelon juice; then he asked for a baked treat. I told him to choose one or the other. He chose both. I told him to choose one. He chose both. I told him to choose one. He chose both. I threatened to walk out unless he chose; he chose both. I nearly walked out. At the last second, he chose juice.

Picture me like an hourglass, the sand rushing out. It is these tiny moments that drain me. 

I talked to him about this, later. I explained that his “pushing”—this is what we call it—was draining my patience, that I needed more help from him, less pushing. That I needed better listening. That I would try harder, but I needed him to try harder, too. He promised; he always does. But he’s five. Ten minutes later, he’s pushing again.

And so I will come to my own resolution/revolution: clearly, I need to take the high road, here. To be the bigger person, to be the adult. Resolved to stop taking L’s blame personally. Resolved to do what I can to stem the sand from flowing out. To find that extra tiny piece of patience even when I think it’s all gone. To not tell myself anymore that we’re doing a bad job because L is difficult. To stay strong with M. There’s no one else I’d rather parent with, and that’s something.