Groundlessness and the Cultivation of Courage

I return here, unsure of how to proceed. Writing this blog has always been an exercise in being present, but distant. I’ve written from wherever I’m at, but writing itself, putting life in words, is an exercise in putting emotions at arm’s length. My family is having its worst best year and it will carry on into next year and perhaps, beyond. This is unfamiliar territory, this landscape of worst fears. My anxieties have always nibbled at the edges, but now they are front and center.

canstockphoto8606963.jpgAs I’ve written in previous posts, my teenage daughter has been seriously ill. After two major surgeries this year, we are now moving into the chemotherapy stage. I don’t want this blog to become a recitation of medical victories and setbacks, but now I understand why people write them. It becomes your life. How is it possible to write about anything else? In fact, how is it possible to do anything in the midst of this? I’ve been unable to focus enough to read, to really write much, to do anything but read dense medical articles and try my best not to be steamrolled by what if, what if. It’s funny that the what ifs never include positive outcomes. How very me.

Perhaps life would be easier if I believed in higher mechanics at work. But the pain of seeing my bright, beautiful girl struggle makes it better that I don’t. The rage and bitterness would consume me. I’d rail at the sky gods and pulpit liars. I’d be unforgiving. Thoughts and prayers indeed.

I’ve always been drawn to the tenets of Buddhism and Stoicism, lightly adhering to the idea that what is here is it. What is now is now. Never have your life philosophy tested. You will discover a derelict home and how little you’ve done to maintain it. You’ll find there are foundations of styrofoam and duct tape, leaky pipes, and an overabundance of distractions/fixes that no longer do the job. You’ll slap up a foreclosure sign and walk away. Time to start over.

Yesterday I read a chapter in Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for canstockphoto3326225Difficult Times and it hit me – nothing I was accustomed to doing for comfort/distraction/numbing in my life was working anymore. I was suddenly and sharply aware of a nightmare I have of falling off a cliff, before I jerk awake in a sweat. The sense that all that was before and all that would come after no longer mattered. But there is no waking up, no relief to discover I’d just fallen asleep on my arm, drooled on my pillow. I’m awake and groundless at this very moment.

I grew up in poverty, plagued by its cohorts alcoholism and domestic violence. I struggled to put myself through college by serving in the Army for four years. I quit smoking. I overcame years of dysfunctional relationships to meet and marry a wonderfully kind and smart man. I went through a dangerous labor and delivery to introduce my daughter to the world. I trained in martial arts in my 40s – bruised and injured sparring with behemoth 18-year-olds. But nothing, nothing in my life is as hard as this moment right now.

How does a person live in this space? I’ve asked friends who have had similar life experiences. How did you do it? The blank look on their faces said it all. They just did what they needed to do. I wrote in my last post about the exercise of stating exactly what one is doing to bring the current moment into focus. That little trick stopped working a few days ago when I found myself mentally shrieking Woman folding clothes while trying to fend off another round of laundry room sobbing. It started to seem more like a defense against thinking unpleasant thoughts.

canstockphoto8192278There is, at the heart of all this contemplation, a concrete reason to keep learning how to work with my own mind – I will be a better person, a better parent, a better partner if I can live well with uncertainty. My thinking brain is a construction site – all activity and planning and loud machinery. It does not provide solace. It does not expand compassion. It does not cultivate courage.

So I’m learning all over again – how to meditate, how to silence the raucous noise, how to sit still. This insistence is also an insistence to be courageous – to recognize I have no control, no soothsaying powers, no magic remedies. To face that no amount of chocolate or bingewatching or reading or writing or housecleaning will distract from the sharp edges of my life.

I re-read this post and thought well, this certainly sounds like you’re making things canstockphoto11582099about you, you narcissistic twat. To write about my daughter at this point would invade her privacy and likely shred me. She is who I want to be if I ever grow up – self-possessed, funny, and honest. I take so many of my cues now from her. Still, it’s not on her to make me a better person. I have to do the work. I have to practice. I have to be mid-air, still able to breathe, still able to comfort, still able to laugh. I’ve been in flight, trying not to notice the lack of a parachute or wings. The trick is to not look down.

Sources that Have Been Helpful to Me:

Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy by Bruce Tift

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard

The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and Calmness by Jonas Salzberger

Naked People Speaking

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For the second time in as many months, I had to address my daughter’s school assembly last week, an audience that numbered 600+ people. That’s 1200+ eyes looking at me. It’s hard to imagine a greater hell, except if the assembly were in a mall. And I were standing near a smoothie stand whose blenders occasionally chimed in, while a small child shrieked in the background.

I have never done this before – spoken in front of such a large group. In high school, I competed in speech contests and performed in plays. I have a strong speaking voice. I practice a lot. I never, ever imagine my audience naked. First of all, in an elementary school that might make me a “person of interest”. Secondly, I am the one who feels naked – open to rejection and mockery on a grand scale. My legs shook so badly during a contest once, that friends pointed it out in jest. Ex-friends. My deodorant usually surrenders five minutes into a speech and I’m always afraid the stress will have me delivering a poorly received F-Bomb right into the microphone.

None of those things seem to impact performance time, though. Everything went well. A friend told me that she just pretended she was a rock star that people paid to see. Really? I just try not to pass out. It’s a curious sort of masochism. Yes, I know I will be anxious and sleepless the night before. Yes, I know I will feel like throwing up and that faces in the audience will suddenly seem disapproving. Some people like amusement parks, but I prefer my own reality show – bring on the fear factor! This mentality does not extend to eating bugs, though. Crunchiness needs to come from breading, not legs and mandibles.

When people talk about their comfort zone, I’ve always made the assumption that I liked to challenge myself and leave the “zone” on a regular basis. The closer truth is that my comfort zone lies between routine and constant change. I fear a static life. I fear that moment that has transformed many sentient beings into complete duds, when they decide: I’ve learned all I want to know. If my Maslow basics are stable: work, home, family – everything else is fair game to try. Except bug eating.

Having spent time in the military, rock climbing and working out at the gym, I’m familiar with the adrenalin junkie mentality. I’ve never been one drawn towards jumping out of perfectly functioning airplanes, climbing a mountain just because it’s there or running the rapids because I had a free weekend. I was born a cautious old lady. There is a rush, though, in doing things that absolutely terrify you. It changes you ever so slightly and opens the door to the world just a crack more.

In my twenties, I always assumed by now that I would have learned most of what I needed to know. I thought I’d be wise and brave and confident. This year, as I turn 46, I am delighted to say that I was absolutely wrong. I have enough wisdom to recognize that I know less than what remains to be learned and that there are still personal challenges on the horizon. Without bugs. And with clothes. Mostly.