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.

—-

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.


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And Then There Was One…

I have been feeling a little guilty for the negativity of my last post. Shortly after I wrote it, I hauled out my Osho Zen tarot deck and gave myself a reading. And the predominant card that came up was the Courage card, in the position of “repression,” as in, what was missing in my life was my courage. And that rang very true.

photo-12I love the Courage card–this scrappy daisy pushing up through a crack in a rock; it has come to me before and always reminds me that negativity and pessimism are just another expression of fear. It also reminds me that anything is possible. I had all these brilliant thoughts about this last week, all these very Zen, very mindful thoughts–but today as I’m trying to write them down, they’re all gone, save the imperative I have given myself to keep moving forward, through the fear, and to carry courage with me as I go.

Because IVF is not for the faint of heart, people. (Aside: the root of the word “courage,” of course, being coeur, French for “heart.”) It somehow hadn’t registered with me how many opportunities there would be for disappointment along the way. That’s not quite true; of course I knew; but I hadn’t focused on how there would be this day-to-day roller coaster of emotions. To wit: when I last wrote, I was injecting my belly with stim drugs every day, and there were nine follicles. Then there was that appointment with the nurse who told me somewhat coldly that if there weren’t at least five mature follicles, we wouldn’t move forward. Then there were all of a sudden fifteen follicles, but we weren’t sure how many were mature. Then there was the egg retrieval, and the doctor got a whopping ten eggs and sent them off to the lab. That was on Friday, and it was a good day.

But on Saturday morning, we got the bad news that of those ten eggs, only two had fertilized normally. We spent the weekend in tears and triage mode, poor L confused about why there was so much weeping, so little laughter, so much heavy energy in the air.

Then Monday, the doctor called to say that the two embryos looked terrific–grade A embryos, all normal cells, good news. The roller coaster was back up.

Then today: one of the embryos still looks good. The other has not changed. It has likely, he said, “arrested.”

So there is one.

Wow. It feels a little like being on the edge of a knife, and this–baby–could topple in either direction; into existence, or gone forever. I know that in this moment there is every reason for me to find as much courage as I can, and what else can I do? We will get another phone call in the morning, telling us whether #1 embryo has also arrested or whether it has progressed from an “early blastocyst” to a regular-old blastocyst. And if it has, it will be instantly frozen and be suspended in time until my body is ready to receive it. And then there will be more terrible waiting, not knowing, and uncertainty.

But there’s no way to get there but to keep moving forward.

Thanks for listening, readers, and for me keeping me in your thoughts.

–BB

 


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Someone is Throwing Rocks at My Head; or, The IVF Files

Hi. My friend Laal reminded me that while silence and privacy are great and all, she missed my ruminations. And I realized I did, too. Though as I also told her, I’m not sure where to start since it kind of feels like someone is throwing rocks at my head. M put it this way: “It’s pouring on us.” And, I have to say, it seems like it’s pouring on most people I know. Is this what it means to be an adult? That all of a sudden you can’t remember what it was to be carefree because your life is insane?

(Aside: read this rambling, funny, very cool article about being in pain when everyone around you seems to be, too.)

Short version of the pouring: I’m doing IVF. I am uttering this out loud on this blog after having felt more than usually private about it. But there it is: I am taking injectable fertility medications twice a day, preparing a cadre of eggs for what, we hope, will eventually become a sibling for L. My feelings about IVF alternate between excitement/joy and fear/anxiety; mostly I am just happy that the side effects of the drugs are minimal and I’m doing something proactive in my life about something that has felt unchangeable, fixed, and stagnant. In and of itself, IVF is surprisingly okay.

Longer version of the pouring: I am doing IVF at the same time that our house is being sold out from under us and the landlady is being pushy and unreasonable (all correspondence now goes through a lawyer); on the same day there may be an egg retrieval there is a brokers’ tour going on at my house. I am doing IVF while I got an email on Tuesday from my supervisor at one of the schools where I teach telling me my contract won’t be renewed, and I suspect that this is retaliatory because I complained a couple months ago about the extremely unreasonable pay schedule. So I have been talking to an employment lawyer. Both of these things have me feeling more than a little upset and freaked out: I love lawyers when they’re my husband and my dad; I don’t like getting letters from lawyers who represent clients hostile to me, and while I have an email from the employment lawyer saying I might actually have a winnable case, I’m not in any position to sue the school and just want it all to go away. And I am doing IVF while my parents are dealing with logging trucks at their nice home in the country, people using a right-of-way to bulldoze the hell out of my parents’ property. On a lighter note, I am doing IVF while planning a terrific party for 150 people at L’s school, which takes place tomorrow, after yet another ultrasound. That task has actually felt like a really nice distraction, planning cheese trays and making hummus and organizing.

My Buddhist practice has been in full force. Ha! That makes it sound so lofty. What I mean is, I’m trying–trying–to practice mindfulness at every step of the way. I’m meditating every day, alternating between a cheesy 5-minute IVF meditation I found on YouTube (“Picture your ovaries nice and full…”) and my usual silent meditations, or guided ones courtesy of Insight Timer. It is helping; yet the feelings of despair/anxiety/fear/excitement/uncertainty very much remain. The happiest thing in my life right now is my relationship with M., who, after I texted him fretting yesterday that there are only nine eggs, and it might not be enough, texted back: “Nine eggs is great, I’ve decided. Nine beautiful little eggies.” We watch a silly episode of Parks & Rec most nights before bed, and he helps me “cook up” the meds and watches without wincing while I inject them into my bruised and swollen belly.

I very much hope this works out, but I suppose that goes without saying. This morning at a pre-op appointment I was told that if I don’t have a certain number of eggs all maturing at about exactly the same time, there won’t be an egg retrieval at all. So all my energy is forward to those nine beautiful little eggies, may they be what they are meant to be……

Onward.


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Reflecting on a Year of Becoming Buddhist

Hi; long time.

BirchesagainstskyI’ve been realizing, in that way we realize when a ridiculously long period of time has seemed to pass in a ridiculously short one, that it’s been a year since I started this blog and this project. It was about a year ago that I collapsed crying on the couch one night and, when I came to, decided that I really needed to change something about my life.

Reflecting on this past year has been a bit like a roller coaster, every day a different tiny revelation. The first one came in the form of the tight thought “NOTHING has changed in this past year. I’m still an anxious mess.” But a few days later—I can’t remember what I was doing—I realized that for a blissful second I was watching my life like a movie, utterly unattached to outcome. Also, some dear friends broke up, and while Marc has been terribly affected by it all, I’ve really been able to watch their process of separating with something like detached compassion. And, most of all, my Insight Timer stats tell me that since I started using the app (254 days ago, or about 8.5 months ago), I’ve meditated 140 times. There are days that number feels small, but it’s about 139 times more than I had meditated a year ago, right? On some level it amazes me: 140 times?

If I’m honest, I self-centeredly wished to be in a different place than I am, this year later. I wished to be unaffected, or at least, differently affected, by life’s difficulties: my waning fertility, my extreme anxiety about my book. Just two weeks ago I decided I was going to write a multi-part post about The Infertility Dukkha, in a moment of deep sadness about my failure to make another baby (I still might). I thought to write about the terrible process of getting published, or not, and the way I beat myself up and tell myself I’m not good enough. Then I heard myself say to someone over the weekend, “I consider myself very lucky,” and I realized that’s true, too. How lucky I am, how fortunate. How lucky I am. How fortunate. I think I used to say that with some feeling that I should, but some misgiving that I was, and maybe in the last year Buddhism has made me more grateful, realistic, mindful, and humbled.

Things to be grateful for: a tiny fall harvest from our garden

Things to be grateful for: a tiny fall harvest from our garden

And that is obviously a good thing. But it’s still all very mixed.

This past week, I was wrestling a bit. I have a lot on my plate these days: teaching isn’t letting up; L never stops talking; I’ve got appointments and meetings scheduled til Kingdom Come. In the midst of this, I decided to write a new pitch for my book and when I sent it out to friends to read and give me feedback, the response was not what I wanted. Several blew it off; several made lukewarm comments, and one old friend told me to scrap the whole thing and start over. I called Marc, crying. I told him that I should have known it might be that way, that I wished I could keep this in perspective, that every time there’s a minor setback I needn’t lose it. But I did lose it; I felt my self-worth challenged, again, by this difficult business of art-making and what I perceive as my failure to do things right. I thought, again, about giving up. And the worst part is that because of that busy week (poor planning, lady) I had no time to actually work on the damn thing. The words just sat in my inbox, tormenting me. And then it was Friday, and as luck had it I had a day to myself.

But I sat on the couch and read all day instead of scrambling to work on the pitch.

So over the weekend there was guilt, fear, confusion. I wasn’t working hard enough, etc. And then, trickling up like the first lava, there was this better, clearer sense that actually, I needed to take that tiny Friday break. It reminded me a little of the decision to start this blog and this project. Because if I had manically panicked to fix the pitch, to send it out, I wouldn’t have fully experienced the disappointment of not having gotten it right the first time. I wouldn’t have been at all present. (Not to mention I wouldn’t have read that wonderful book.)

I don’t know if this is making sense. I guess: I paused in the difficulty. I didn’t just press through it. And after a bit of time, I let go of some of the deadly importance I had attached to the task.

Yesterday, my neighbors had L over for a long playdate, and I was on my own, cleaning house. I put on my Pema Chödrön CD. Earlier, I’d listened to a guided meditation on Insight Timer, one where, partway through, the speaker tells you to make space for the difficult feelings that undoubtedly are coming up (yup; there they were: guilt, anxiety). I noted that I was on a nine-day meditation stretch, that I’ve begun to crave sitting like I crave exercise and my morning tea. I couldn’t do a retreat, this weekend, and I don’t know when I will. But it nonetheless felt like I had a mindful weekend, a triumphant one, one where I just might have become Buddhist.

Here’s to another nine days. Here’s to another year!


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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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The Practice

We have a family friend with Stage Four cancer, and this morning my mom sent me his latest YouTube video reporting on his progress. I don’t know him terribly well; I wouldn’t say we are close; but throughout the last twenty months I’ve watched his YouTube updates and sent him lovingkindness and generally felt both terribly saddened by his experience and enlightened by it. In addition to Western medicine and chemo, he’s found a Traditional Chinese Medicine healer named Master Lee, and he talks about his work with Master Lee in every video. Master Lee treats him with herbs and acupuncture but also teaches him to do yoga, to meditate, and to be mindful. In this latest video, Jonathan said: “My advice to you is to look into these things.” (Yoga, meditation, breathing, mindfulness.) When he said it, I found myself starting to weep in the coffee shop where I’m sitting, and I thought two strange and disparate thoughts: one, that no one in my family, watching this video, knows that I have been meditating since last November; and two, that my own personal, bodily dukkha these days is not cancer but my journey to try to get pregnant. For a second, they felt on the same plane, though I know they are not. Jonathan will likely not come out of this with his life. But we will all look back on this as the period in his life when he came to truly know himself, when he got as close to enlightenment as one can get. And I wonder how I will look back on this period of disappointment and confusion, whether it will feel worth it, whether it just is.

The other day my friend Steph, who has a new baby, said something I found terribly enlightening. She talked about how the baby had been up for six hours crying and she had to continually remind herself, “This is happening NOW. It is not happening tomorrow or the next day, and there’s no point in worrying about whether it will happen again tomorrow or the next day.” This was enlightening because I realized that the opportunity for mindfulness is continually happening. It is not something we do when we sit on the zafu, though sitting on the zafu is practicing—practice for real life, I guess. I feel when I am not finding the time or space to meditate that I am not practicing, but actually, the opportunity is always there, and that, it seems to me, is where I need to go next: the practice of daily life.

I share these stories because they help me see that not being pregnant NOW does not mean I will not be pregnant another time. And being sad today does not mean I will be sad tomorrow. It’s deceptively simple, really, but a good reminder for someone like me, who tends towards anxiety and fear and not being in the present. It’s not just a simple “this too shall pass.” It’s the realization that the feelings can be sat with and experienced, not passed through or tossed off. And it’s the realization that I can approach the dark moments and the frustrating ones alike with presence and a sense of, I am here now. This is my experience. This is the dark night that must be passed through.