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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Parenting Will Blow You (Away)

A friend sent me this article, called “Parenting Will Blow You Away,” on the site Beams and Struts, and I knew I had to post it here. It’s a bit long, but really quite lovely on the subject of attachment and parenting (NOT to be confused with attachment parenting). The essay likens our lives before children to one of those impossibly intricate sand mandalas, and our lives after children as a time when those mandalas are constantly and consistently blown away. I hope you enjoy it.

And my crass title today? Well, because of the large number of windows I had open yesterday before I read the article–I left it up so I wouldn’t forget–the last word of the title was cut off. So all day, as I was dealing with L and the Fucking Fours, I had the words “Parenting Will Blow You” staring at me.

Apt, in retrospect, though I don’t mean to take anything away from Sam Roberts’s beautiful piece.


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Growing Pains

I’m back.

After writing that post last week I felt clearer but also more vulnerable, a little raw, like I had revealed too much about my body and my desires and my self-absorption and my weakness. In case you’re wondering, I am officially not pregnant, TCOYF and its 18-high-temperatures-rule notwithstanding. It’s silly to feel betrayed by a book, but I do.

On Monday afternoon I was sitting on the deck at my friend Steph’s house, watching our children play nakedly in California spring sunshine, when all of a sudden I turned to her and said, “I am learning so much this year. It’s astounding.” When I said it, I could almost feel my head expanding, like a little brain growing pain.

I said this because I’d just had yet another revelation about the patterns I’m interrogating and trying to change this year, on this mindfulness journey. Context: A writer friend had offered to read an essay for me, and when she emailed, her response was simple and to the point: “I enjoyed your essay. I have some comments. When should we meet?” But all day I had been worrying that she wasn’t more effusive. What kinds of comments? Was there anything good in the essay at all? And as I revealed this paranoia to Steph on a sunny Monday afternoon my brain grew a little with the understanding that this is another of my unhealthy patterns that I need to change.

It seems I have this kind of revelation every week, lately. I notice so much more than I used to, or at least, I notice it and don’t let myself turn from it anymore. I can only assume that this is a consequence of taking the road to Enlightenment. But in the present, in the moment, it’s kind of a drag. I don’t want to be reminded of my patterns of behavior every week and realize how much they’re not serving me. I don’t want to feel so acutely hurt by an offhand comment from a friend that ultimately means nothing. Lately everything feels very weighty: the things Marc says, the times when we don’t connect, the coldness I perceive on the part of friends, my guilt over letting other friendships go, changes with Lex. These are things that a year ago I would have been able to turn from and ignore, or at least, not dwell so fully on.

I’m reminded of when I was a kid and told not to be so sensitive.

It’s occurred to me that, a bit like therapy, with mindfulness practice things might get more difficult before they get better. I say that because I do trust that the end goal here–if it’s not too anti-Buddhist to talk about goals–is to stop being attached to small hurts. But it feels as though in the short term I need to be MORE attached to small hurts. I’m continually surprised by this, and I’d love to hear from you if this is a phenomenon you’ve experienced, too.

I think I will look back on this year and remember it as a period of intense growth and learning. I just didn’t know how painful some of the growing would be.


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Done

My plan for today was to write about my garden, freshly spring planted, and how it is the loveliest little Buddhist thing in my life.

LettuceOne

The lettuce box with its shade cover, against the fence

I was going to write about homesteading, about caretaking, about how, after a difficult last week, I felt renewed on Monday by some sunshine and the imperative (self-imposed) to make a giant batch of chicken pho from scratch. It fragrantly simmered all afternoon while Lex and I played in the garden, and I took a photo of the platter of goodies we ended up with at dinnertime. All that green.

PhoPlatter

But instead, I’m going to write about this:

NotPG

Thud.

It is not even so much about that pregnancy test being negative (but it is so starkly, horribly, depressingly negative), but about what it represents. It represents my complete and total obsession for the last two weeks with whether or not I might be pregnant. It started harmlessly enough, with a promising ovulation, which I knew because, eager to see whether my hormones were on track or not, I charted my temperatures religiously this month and did an ovulation predictor kit, too. Whereas before I’d maybe manage a faint pink line, this month it was a magenta proclamation saying, “the egg is en route!” And that afternoon I felt the egg coming, a kind of tugging in my right side (the side where I still have a tube).

Marc was enlisted; acupuncture happened; optimism ensued.

We’ll see what happens, I told myself, meditating, feeling calm.

I’m not sure when things shifted into high gear, but I suspect it was when I started to read Taking Charge of Your Fertility a little too earnestly, comparing my chart to the charts in the book. I even hauled out old charts and studied them, looking for patterns. Like the charts were hieroglyphics containing ancient secrets, I studied them.

I won’t go into all the details. If you’re interested in how the body works, you can read this. The quick and dirty is that in the luteal phase, the body heats up because of the addition of extra progesterone. When you’re pregnant, your temperature is high. You can make a graph, and see when your temperature rises; that means you’ve entered the luteal phase. According to the book, if the luteal phase stretches to seventeen or eighteen days, you’re very likely pregnant.

I’m on day sixteen, but color me impatient.

Since day thirteen, I haven’t slept well. I dream I’m pregnant; I dream I’m bleeding. I wake up waiting for blood. There is no blood. Flood of relief and optimism. Flood of self-doubt and depression. I have to pee all the time; but I drink water and tea all the time. Vivid dreams and insomnia are signs of early pregnancy; vivid dreams and insomnia are signs of anxiety, too.

I just wish I could stop. I should never have peed on that stick.

Remember last week, when I wrote about how Buddhism is like accepting that your life is a movie, watching it without attachment? Well, that is a beautiful goal for me, to watch my life without attachment, and sometimes I attain it. But most of my life I have spent jumping into the screen of the movie and hollering at the characters, telling them what to do.

This week has been like that. Hard. Hard for many reasons, but hard for this one, too. Marc and I have been trying to have another baby for going on two years. In January I lost one that was never viable. I’ve swung from not wanting it anymore to wanting it so badly I’ve become obsessed. Every month is like a fucking carnival of disappointment. And the worst part is how stupid and vulnerable I feel. I said to M this morning, “I feel so dumb for being optimistic, like the world is laughing at me.”

Intellectually, I know this is an illusion. I know the answer to all of this is to keep sitting every morning (and maybe therapy and heavy drugs).

The sitting feels labored, but like a small relief.

It just can’t solve every problem. That’s not the point.

I knew that, of course.

And I admit how attached I am to another blue line showing up before this thing is done.


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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.