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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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.


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Of the Body

I’ve been thinking a lot about the mind-body connection, and about that nebulous concept of a soul and how the body is just the temple in which the soul resides or just the housing for the emotions and intellect and–how does that idea go? I’m not sure.

SNC12333I spent much of December sick. I got a cold, then a weird stomach bug, then just before Christmas, when L and I were up early to board a plane to Boston, I had to take two Advil to quell the flu-like symptoms with which I’d awoken so I could get through the flight. Back East I swore up and down that I was no longer contagious because I’d had my cold for ten days already and it was just taking a while to work its way out, but after I left, my brother reported that I’d gotten him, his wife, and my parents all sick, and I realized that I must have had back-to-back viruses (is that even possible?) and been shedding all over the place. There were a few days after New Year’s when I was well, then bam–salmonella, Noro virus, whatever it was that felled me for three.five days.

And then on Friday, on the one-year anniversary of the rupture of the ectopic pregnancy that could have killed me, I walked quickly head-first into a 4 x 4 support beam at my son’s school and got a mild concussion. Out of it, spacy, a little nauseated and with a throbbing head, I was sent home to rest, and spent much of the rest of a day in a fog.

What next? I wondered. It felt like my body was betraying me a bit.

Being a woman at my age, it feels sometimes like there’s so much physical noise to contend with even in an otherwise healthy life. In conversations with friends we talk about how we can’t get our hormones right, how we think we have an autoimmune condition, how we’re tired or our digestion sucks. We’ve sprained our ankles, we have a chronic knee injury. As parents of small children, we know only too well what it’s like to catch every virus to go around the school (and pray we miss the head lice and pinworm epidemics). Health takes up so much space, even when we’re relatively healthy. This reminds me, always, how privileged we are to know, to have health insurance, to have the means to explore our health and strive for health. To have clean water. To have lived long enough to have experienced suffering. Etc. But it also reminds me how much energy taking care of a body takes, and how much psychic energy when we’re unwell (or fearing we might be). And it makes me wonder, what’s the purpose of all that noise?

In December, we lost another family friend. She died at 47 after a 12-year battle with a rare and pernicious kind of ovarian cancer. She left behind three kids. I’m trying not to think about how many women I know who know other women in their forties with cancer. It terrifies me, is the truth. I put so much stock in my health, in eating well, in exercising, in trying to reduce my stress, all in hopes of avoiding ill health. And it amazes me how a common cold–or a concussion–can leave me depressed and fragile. What would I do if I faced cancer? Diabetes? If my husband did, or my kids? All our efforts sometimes just can’t stave off the inevitable. All this work, for example, to try to improve my fertility—with no discernible change.

I’m not trying to depress anyone, the above paragraphs to the contrary. I’m just thinking about it. Pema Chödrön reminds us that no matter what we look like, what car we drive, how much money we make, we all still have to face old age and death. Is it weird that I find that comforting? I do. It reminds me that the body will do what the body does. That life will have its path. That, in a sense, there’s no sense in worrying about our health. And yet, we do, all of us, all the time.

What would a really positive mind-body connection look like? I think about this. I think about how so much of my desire to find a spiritual practice had to do with this sensation that if something really terrible happened I wouldn’t be able to deal with it. I think about how one could get to a place, through meditation (or prayer, sure, or yoga) where one could be unattached even to huge bodily failures. I think of how my mind influences my body negatively (hypochondria, reactions to stress) and how my mind can influence my body positively (reduction of stress, calmness). And how the body, when it’s unwell, can influence the mind towards depression or anxiety. On a more mundane level, I think sometimes how great it would be if I could just eat a bagel without feeling terrible afterwards, or could drink another glass of wine without worrying so much about the next morning. Perhaps when you get so in tune with your body that you’re hyper aware of the slightest misstep, you lose some carefreeness.

What is your experience of the mind-body connection?


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Mistakes were Made

photo-4 copy

I conceived of this post in the middle of the night, when I woke up with insomnia of the social remorse variety, so it’s still a little unformed.

The background: I’m the co-chair of my son’s cooperative preschool. It’s an amazing place, but I’ll let you in on the dirty little secret of co-op nursery schools: it’s a shitload of work to keep them running. And, because almost everyone is volunteering, on top of being moms and dads with jobs and lives, stuff falls through the cracks. Interpersonal things get intense. Budgets get interesting. Meetings can drag on. On top of that, you still have to “participate” every week and show up for work days twice a year.

Since becoming co-chair, I’ve been wrestling with this feeling of not being good enough. I had two meetings this week, and after each, I came home feeling like I’d made mistakes. After the first I thought, oh why did I make that one comment? Was I inclusive enough? Do people like me? Am I doing a good job? And after the second I thought, oh why did I make that one comment? Was I inclusive enough? Do people like me? Am I doing a good job?

That last question I verbalized to The Hubs after I got home: “Do you think I’m doing a good job as co-chair?” To which he replied, “Why are you agonizing over whether you’re doing a good job as co-chair?” To which I replied: “Isn’t that my point in life, to agonize over whether I’m doing a good job?”

You’d think I was kidding. Sadly, I wasn’t.

In the middle of the night this came back to me. I thought again about the meeting I’d had and whether things had gone down the way they were supposed to. Then, bizarrely, I remembered how in college, when I edited an anthology of women’s writing for my senior project, I failed to correct a grammar mistake in one of the poems. Embarrassingly, what I did do back then–in 1995, nearly twenty years ago–was attempt to edit another poem that was perfectly fine as it was; in fact, I read the other day that this woman went on to get her PhD and has published several books of poetry and has a tenure-track job somewhere, so clearly the joke is on me.

I lay there in the dark, thinking about all these ways in which I haven’t done a good enough job. And I realized that I have been doing this my whole life: looking back on mistakes I’ve made, and regretting them. Often, in the middle of the night.

Lately, whenever I have a moment that, back when I could afford therapy I would have taken to my therapist, I now take to this little compartment in my brain labeled “mindfulness.” I think how Buddhism is helping and not helping with my sometimes-debilitating anxiety. And I don’t come up with many answers, truthfully. I do see that now, I notice these really unhealthy patterns of behavior, and I notice how intensely difficult it is to change them. I notice now when I wake up in the morning and feel like I’ve been beating myself up all night, and I can maybe, on a good day, remind myself that this is illusion.

What I truly hope is that eventually, I’ll stop doing it altogether, and sometimes, I see a glimmer: I think to myself, why don’t I just stop remembering how “sung” should have been changed to “sang?” Why don’t I stop remembering how hurtful I was to my 9th-grade boyfriend? And a tiny piece of me lets go.

But another piece seems to snatch onto it again, to hold it, like I need to keep torturing myself until I learn to do a better job. I’ll be forty in two weeks. Do I really need to do this for another forty years? What, exactly, would that accomplish?


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Scattershot Summer

I’ve had a post brewing for a few days but it’s felt scattered and unformed, and then I realized: perfect. How appropriate.

I’m in Maine with my parents and my son, and I’m thinking about how everything, always, is a duality of good/bad, right/wrong, confusing/clear, difficult/easy.

For example:

This is one of the most beautiful, peaceful places I know, yet I miss the bustle of Berkeley.

I craved the peacefulness of this place for weeks, but now I’m here, I can’t relax.

Being close to my parents makes me realize how much I miss them, but it also makes me realize how difficult it is to be with one’s parents.

Lex is adorable, but he is also, as a friend recently remarked, “fucking four”–loud, rude, inconsiderate.

Lex is perfectly normal, yet I worry that my relatives think maybe he’s an asshole.

I told myself a break from making a baby and a break from writing would be okay, good, but since I’ve been here I’m anxious about all the hours I’m not writing or making a baby.

I have been wanting to make space for these feelings of dissatisfaction, while at the same time, I feel guilty when I remember how lucky I am to have this nice life.

Etc.

Lately I have been reflecting on how my meditation practice this year has gotten me out of some sticky situations, mostly because, when I’m being mindful, I’m kinder to myself about what I perceive as failures and setbacks. I remember to be gentle, to have lovingkindness and temperance.

Lately I have also been reflecting on how challenging this year might have been if I hadn’t been meditating–and already, it feels like it’s been quite challenging. If anything, the negative voices in my head have increased. The stress about my writing has felt more overt, more divisive, more painful. The pain about being–say it–infertile–has been palpable. Meditation has helped me to deal with these feelings more, sure, but the feelings are still there, and I wonder if, along the road, when you start to practice sometimes things get worse before they get better.

On this issue in particular, I really want clarity.


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Recording with the Buddhist

I had the loveliest experience last week. I play music occasionally with my friend David, who is, incidentally, a Buddhist. He ran into Marc a few weeks ago and told him he was going to record some songs and that I should call him. I did; we played music one night last week; and then Dave invited me into the studio on Friday.

My relationship with music is a little fraught. Growing up, I amazed my marginally-musical-at-best family with a big, big voice. “You just open your mouth and it comes out!” my mom once said. I starred in the school musicals and sang in all the choirs; I went to District chorus in Massachusetts, got chosen for the “special octet” at my school, and took classical voice for many years. In college I sang in an a cappella group and took jazz voice, too, and then somewhere along there I started to play guitar; later, after college, I sang in a bluegrass band for a while.

There’s my resume. 

Growing up, there was always this expectation that I would be a performer my whole life. But there was also this expectation that I go to college, have something to “fall back on,” and because I didn’t come from a particularly musical family I was also content to be good enough; I’m terrible at music theory, and while I have a beautiful voice and a really good ear, if it’s not too conceited to say so, I can’t sightread to save my life and I’ve never moved from “okay” to “good” at guitar, despite having been playing for twenty years now.

So somewhere along the way, music kind of moved out of my life. And I have felt conflicted about it for many years. Honestly, it may be my last demon. I’ve worked out my relationship with my parents, I’ve forgiven my brother, I don’t have an eating disorder anymore–but I do have this tortured relationship with music. On some level, it’s a very practical sort of tortured: I chose not to pursue it. And I sometimes really regret that, or at least, I worry that I will regret it later. Marc has helped me to see that maybe the lifestyle that goes with the performing arts just wasn’t for me, and that’s something; writing fulfills me on a deeper, more true level than singing does. I have trouble putting down the pen (okay, the laptop), but I’m usually ready, after kicking ass on a few songs, to put down the guitar, accept some praise, and have a glass of wine.

Opportunities to make music and perform come up, of course, and I love them when they do. Last summer, for example, I was asked to sing at a fundraiser, and my friend Sean and I played a set to a rapt audience. It felt great. And then there was Dave, asking me to record with him.

SusieSingingThat Dave is a Buddhist is relevant because, folks, I saw non-attachment in action on Friday. Originally I was singing harmony on Dave’s songs, but then he decided that because I have the stronger voice that I should sing lead. That I should inhabit lead. Standing in front of a microphone in a dark little studio in Oakland, I found myself singing like I was on trial. I did it in one take. And then with the help of a guitar-teacher-cum-wizard named Emery, we figured out some harmonies, and I sang those, too. The guys mixed it after I left, and on Sunday Dave popped by the CD. There I am, singing an alt-country song with some grungy guitar in the background. It sounds amazing.

And now, I have to figure out my complicated relationship to making music. In the meantime, I have this great CD to listen to.


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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.