Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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On the Advice of a Friend, Woman Writes Letter to Her Paranoid Self in a Time of Crisis

Dear BB,

Don’t be a fucking idiot. Many people lose some hearing with an ear infection and get it back just fine. You’ll be one of them. The Buddha would remind you that everything is always changing, that this—this horrible tinnitus and hearing loss—is what’s happening now. It does not mean it will be happening in a month. I know it’s been scary and all, that the other night you sat shivering and crying and saying “please make it end, please make it end” for hours all alone in bed with your ears roaring, absolutely roaring, after you read some scary stuff on the Internet, but put things in perspective: there are women being raped and murdered across the world. ISIS is terrorizing us. Ted Cruz just announced he’s running for POTUS. Your fucking ear problems are small fish. Seriously. Everyone—all the doctors—have said you will most likely regain full hearing when the infection clears up. Let’s assume that “most likely” actually means “definitely” or “100% positive” and just stop with the horrible anxiety that somehow you’ll live with tinnitus and compromised hearing for the rest of your life, okay? Don’t be an idiot. You know in two weeks you’ll look back and think, well, I knew deep down I would be okay. What was I freaking out about?

I should say—I know this illness has been absolutely the worst for you. It’s rare to get what you think will be a relatively mild cold and have it turn into a ten-day flu, complete with 102-degree fever, chills, aches, exhaustion, a racking cough, and congestion so bad that it turns into an intensely painful double ear infection after a week. I know it is doubly shitty that this all happened during your spring break, when you had big plans for that book proposal and that book revision and maybe even just a few hours puttering in the back yard without a care in the world, and instead, you spent the entire thing in bed. Yes, that sucks.

Still life with used tissues.

Still life with used tissues.

I know you’ve tried the following over the last two weeks:

Osha root tincture

Licorice root tincture

“Wellness Formula”

Advil

Tylenol

NyQuil (never again)

FloNase

Nasal decongestant

Mucinex

Antibiotic ear drops

Garlic-mullein ear drops

“Xiao Chai Hu”

Lycopodium 30c (homeopathic for tinnitus)

Vitamin C

Zinc throat spray

Azithromycin

…and none of it has worked, but still, don’t lose heart. Don’t assume that you’re going to be deaf for the rest of your life. That’s crazy!

Oh, and, I know you’ve also tried:

Acupuncture

Hot steam

Salt water as a gargle, in the neti pot, and in the humidifier

Raw garlic

Visualization

Bone broth

Acidophilus chewies

Acidophilus fancy drinks

Prayer

…and you still mostly feel like crap, but seriously. Enough is enough. Take a deep breath, a hot shower, another shot of zinc, and a slow walk. Clear thy head, girl.

Remember Pema Chodron when she reminds us to think of adversity as no big deal. Remember the adage: this too shall pass.

No really, this too shall pass.

Love,

BB


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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.


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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.

—-

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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On Realizing What It Means to Be a Grownup, or: A I Really Doing this All on My Own?

I’ve been having this persistent sensation the past couple of weeks that for the first time in my adult life I really understand what it means to be a grownup. This started the other day, lying in bed, when I had the somewhat stark realization that I am officially a person who has not and probably will not get everything she wants in life. Now, bear with me: this is pretty basic, I know. I mean, duh–no one fulfills every wish and dream! But, having been raised to expect that hard work breeds success, it was a bit of a shock to think that I might prove the exception to that rule. I wanted a second child, I wanted to own my own house, I wanted to have published a memoir. And, as of this writing, those three big desires are totally unfulfilled, and they weigh on me.

And, in one sense, it’s a lot to bear. We Americans, we love getting what we want. We educated, overachiever types, we expect to continue to over-achieve. I am no exception. I felt acutely the loss of the fleeting pregnancy that happened last month. I was hysterical when the doctor called to say that despite his initial optimism, my HCG levels were not increasing at all and I would soon lose the embryo. Ironically, right after I got this news I was walking to L’s school, sobbing on the phone with M., when I ran into the people who bought our house. They tried to catch my eye; we’d had a nice conversation when I met them earlier in the month; but all I could think was please, please, don’t remind me of my other hardships right now. That afternoon, we had an eviction notice in our mailbox. What a cluster of a situation it all was.

And yet, and yet. In the past couple of days, when I’m not mentally packing boxes or agonizing over whether the sublet we snagged from a friend is the right choice, and whether that editor at the major magazine is ever going to get back to me, I’ve felt a kind of clarity that being a grownup is not a bad thing–it just IS. My friend AJ and I were talking about this on Tuesday. He told me that when he was having a hard time at work recently, and they were trying to buy a house but it felt very stressful, that he had this realization that if he drastically fucked up, there was no one to save him. Sure, his parents loved him, and so did his wife, but at the end of the day, it was all on his shoulders. I’ve been thinking about that. About how that is true, and about how it’s profound, and how in most ways having the independence that is afforded to adults is a good thing. And that, even though it means dealing with life’s difficulties, which sometimes feel completely overwhelming, I would not trade it for some other reality.

Oh, and–oh wow. As I wrote this, I just received some really excellent news. News in the realm of, that major publication is going to publish an essay of mine. After I was completely sure that the editor had fallen off the face of the earth and was never going to return my emails again.

Sometimes, life is sweet.