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

Human in Chair, Writing

Life has started to really take its toll on me. I’m more tired, grayer, weightier, unfocused. There was a brief respite where my ego had time to rise – to think about goals and ambitions and productivity. Productivity. I’ve come to hate that word. It makes us all sound like robots. But robots don’t have children who get tumors. Again. Robots don’t watch their friends go through chemo treatment or their parents suffer from Alzheimer’s or partners in chronic pain. Robots don’t wake up each and every day wondering what that day might hold.

If it sounds as if I’m getting a little dark, stay with me. There is light. Eventually.

This has been a year of unending anxiety and constant resetting of expectations and plans – more than the usual chaos of being human. I found myself constantly saying I just need to find my center. I just need solitude. I just need a few days without menopausal shifts. A week without anxiety. A few nights of good, solid sleep. Then I will feel better. Then I will feel like me. Normal. Balanced.

Pardon me while I break into hysterical, teary laughter.

Depression has permeated my brain. We’re in the middle of yet another medical crisis – a drawn out one that will take months to resolve and may have lifelong impact. A parent’s nightmare. Trauma in slow motion. And still, I rise, I demand, get your shit together, Michelle. It’s an unkind, harsh voice. Who needs enemies with a brain like this?

7902654I turn to some old friends in the form of books. I pick up Toni Bernhard’s How to be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. I read it a few years ago, while supporting my mother-in-law as she wended her way through Alzheimer’s. It was a perfunctory read. Lately, I read with hungry desperation. Tell me how to cope with this. Give me answers.

Sometimes a message reaches you at just the right moment, when you’re an open wound in need of salve. The author of How to be Sick is chronically ill with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. I am not chronically ill, nor I hope, is my daughter, but this year has been a chainlink of catastrophes. Situational depression is to be expected. My little family has felt this in a myriad of ways. But still, we trundle on and we play a lot of card games.

There’s a practice I learned from the Bernhard book that I’ve started using. I’d been swimming in the disappointment of expectation. There was a brief space in time when everyone was well, when routine seemed possible. Then another medical scan revealed its terrible news. Immediately anxiety wrapped its death grip around my brain, as it played out every future scenario. Stuck in the past, throttled by the future.

canstockphoto16849001
The only tolerable memes.

If there’s anything that annoys me more, it is that every idea or thought is memed now. The be present exhortation is on coffee mugs, t-shirts, people’s email signatures, and one of the first pieces of advice that pops out of anyone’s mouth who imagines themselves to be wise or enlightened. Like a sulky teenager, I tend to react badly to what everyone else says or does. I’m likely to do the opposite, even when it shoots me in the foot. This time, though, I just have to ignore the commodification of an idea and focus on what it really means.

The practice is this: state exactly what you are doing in the present moment (Bernhard credits Byron Katie with this practice). As a writer, I find this interesting and sometimes amusing to do. Woman standing at sink, washing dishes. Person raking leaves. I like the paucity of words, the practice of narrowing the world down to subjects and verbs – seeing the world as it is actually happening, where nothing is before and nothing after. People easily say be present, but this is a practice that requires mechanics. Same goes for meditation. You need the mechanics to start you down the path. Focus on your breath. State what is happening.

38746152I started reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights yesterday. It reminds me that every single moment is filled with life – that there is beauty and curiosity wherever you are, but you have to be there, really there to notice it. I watched as my daughter slid in and out of the PET scan machine. She was swathed in a white blanket and my mind shot back to her crib nearly 14 years ago. I looked down at her round, rosy-cheeked face, her brilliant blue eyes, and her dark, spiky hair. At that moment, I wasn’t seeing radiation warning signs or hearing the beeping of machines. But that memory came with a terrible longing and I could feel the tears well up. It was bad time travel. Woman watching over daughter. Then, but more importantly, now.

So I practice. I practice reminding myself of what is. I practice deep breathing. I try not to be so cruel to myself. I write here, because it is my duct-taped practice of Buddhist Tonglen – giving or sending, receiving or taking. When I say the hard parts out loud, I feel the suffering recede. I see that we do our best, all of us. I see that there is beauty to be found in this very moment, in you, in me, in the world. We just have to open our eyes to what is in front of us.

Meditation on a Banana and Writing

It’s been a year focused on mortality – hits and misses, losses and anxieties. Someone of my morose temperament is more likely to start self-medicating than rallying forth. Having given up on drinking and smoking years back and never really taken much to drugs, I’m left to my own devices, which usually involve excessive organizing, surliness, and voracious reading. Solitude has been a fleeting, rare creature for months now. Writing, the beast which I chase in my dreams, still eludes me most days.

15799151It is times like these when other artists save me. I just finished reading 842450Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work and Jill Krementz’s The Writer’s Desk. These are the kind of books – part inspiration, part instruction –  that you pick up when time and space seem to conspire against your best laid plans. Maybe it’s a hope that something is contagious in reading about other writers’ lives. I come away feeling less alone and more heartened about the piecemeal fashion in which I pursue writing.

Writing carries baggage for me. That baggage is full of mixed messages: the fears that I may never accomplish what I seek to accomplish and the realization that it all matters so little in the scheme of the universe. It is full of envy and self-loathing, disgruntlement and all manner of desperation. This can be heavy and paralyzing, lugging the baggage along into every writing session.

Like muscles that tighten into a knot, no movement is possible until you relax. There are meditation and Zen practices, most of which have now been repackaged and priced and sold along with a set of knives capable of cutting a car in two. The simplest of these practices, and I offer it to you absolutely free of charge, is to focus on the moment.

I had the most delicious banana this morning, but it took me a few minutes to run canstockphoto25301478through the overthinking that comes with anything I do. First I thought about the fires in the Amazon and wondered how they affected the bananas. Then I thought about how they were predicting that this particular kind of banana would be extinct in ten years, due to various fungi. Extinction made me think about the climate and Greta Thunberg and how adults, in their usually capacity as jackasses, were criticizing and mocking her this week for lecturing said jackasses on their climate paralysis. Then I thought about plastic and the fact that I can’t stop seeing it everywhere, with every product, without thinking about whales’ stomachs.

I was halfway through the banana.

Earlier in the week, I’d lectured a friend on catastrophic thinking and how imagining the worst thing that can happen is deleterious to one’s current state. I didn’t use the word canstockphoto65164533deleterious, but that’s how I’m telling the story. When we’re in the middle of a situation, our brains have this capacity to go completely free-range, snarfing down every bit of anxiety in its path. Bloated with neuroses and catastrophic thought, we rarely take action that alleviates it. Instead we eat ice cream, drink wine, binge watch TV or porn, smoke pot, go shopping, or rage online – anything that distracts us from the bloat.

Three-quarters through the banana.

If catastrophizing makes nothing better and churning in those thoughts brings us misery and paralysis, the only solution is this moment, this banana. It is delicious, I am enjoying it…it is delicious, I am enjoying it. It bears repeating, because already my brain is starting to think it is gone, what next?

And then it really is gone. I missed most of the joy – too busy letting anxieties ramble unhindered through my thought processes instead of having the visceral experience of eating a delicious banana.

30659Is it not so with any endeavor? How dense and rich would life be if we practiced being in the moment, having the experience, tasting the food, looking at the scenery, rolling words through our brains? Those sentences make me laugh. I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. It’s made my prose a tad odd.

The point is, and I am pretending that I have one, is that this can be applied to writing as well. All the thoughts about publication or how it measures against others’ works – all the thoughts about never succeeding or maybe being too old to be in this game – all the thoughts of self-denigration and unworthiness. These take away from the moment you’re in – the writing of a delicious sentence. The picking of a word. The telling of a story. The befriending of a character. The joy of expression.

Write the words. Eat the banana. Be present.

 

Other Books for Inspiration:

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artist Process Edited by Joe Fassler

Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life by Bonni Goldberg

Daily Rituals: Women at Work by Mason Currey

The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes

Rays of Light on a Dismal January Day

canstockphoto14568204It’s a gray day here at The Green Study and on such a day, in the middle of a Minnesota winter, one has to scrabble a bit to lift spirits. I’m going to share with you a few things that are lifting mine.

Fellow Bloggers

Sometimes you are really, really funny. Thank you. Here’s a few posts that have given the gift of a good laugh:

“31 brand new animal species discovered by amateur naturalists” by Guy Bergstrom at the Red Pen of Doom

“If my nose is running, my thoughts are leaking” by Ross Murray at Drinking Tips for Teens

“Affirmations” at Tabula Candida

“Becky says things about…New Year’s Resolutions” at Becky Says Things

Books That Make My Brain Happy

6425404I just finished reading Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. I picked this book up at the library after the first essay enticed me (“Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?”). As an indiscriminate reader, I often read above my pay grade. After taking twelve pages of notes while reading this collection of essays, I was definitely in the deep end of the pool.

From vocabulary I had to look up, to literary references to a hundred different writers, this was a challenging read. But a joyous one for me. It re-lit the pilot light for my brain, made me hungry for more. And if, like me, you are on the fence about David Foster Wallace, her essay “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace”, will make you want to revisit his work.

34043886For writing inspiration, I’ve been picking up Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, Ed. by Joe Fassler, and reading one or two chapters at a time. It’s less a “how-to” book than examples from established writers of what inspired them and how their writing reflects that. It’s enjoyable even as I take some notes on more things I need to read.

64369And I want to say thanks to Walt Walker at Waltbox for referring “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Gunaratana to me several months ago. Mindfulness has been one of those overused words bleached of actual meaning and I wanted to restore it in my own mind. This book is like a meditation teacher without actually having one. Unfortunately, I still meditate to the point where I fall asleep and wake myself with a little snore-snort, but if relaxation were the point, I’d be up for an award.

Exercise Wackiness

For much of this winter, I’ve been walking outside or going to my local YMCA. Every winter I hit that point where I get cold and it feels like I’m never going to be warm again. After a foot of snow arrived earlier this week, the thought of negotiating cold and mountains of snow is unappealing.  And I’m also feeling extremely anti-social while simultaneously self-conscious, so the Y has all the appeal of a pelvic exam at a teaching hospital.

I decided to pull out some old exercise DVDs and use them in conjunction with my 100 No-Equipment Workouts book. Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve been a fairly regular exerciser, but more importantly, an adaptive one. When I was a broke graduate student, I got in the habit of checking out VHS tapes from the library to get workouts in. I was working three part-time jobs at bizarre hours, so often my workout would be late at night or extremely early in the morning.

Jane Fonda produced a wide array of exercise tapes, but now they just seem like nostalgia. As a 50 year old woman, I can no longer watch people work out in what is essentially sparkly underwear. Plus, after years working with a personal trainer and doing martial arts training, I am more of a stickler about form. For some reason if you wear a shiny thong leotard with skin-colored leggings, I assume you’re a little loosey-goosey on form.

Then there are the Leslie Sansone DVDs with her low impact walk at home program. These are actually useful for those limited space, indoor workouts. They are enough to get your heart rate up and keep you moving. I’ve found myself muting the chatter and playing my own music. I’m pretty sure Leslie never imagined herself stepping to “Highway to Hell”.

I’m usually not challenged on endurance with these DVDs, but I am always challenged when it comes to coordination. I love Latin dance. As a spectator. As a doer, I’m a danger to myself and to anyone within striking distance. However, I have been part-doing, part-cussing, and part-laughing my way through Crunch’s Cardio Salsa. And it’s been kind of fun.

And Last, but Never Least, the Small Comforts

Good coffee, warm socks, and no flu yet.

What Lifts Your Spirits These Days?

The Walking Room of Requirement

It’s hard to write when you don’t even want to talk. I was surprised that it had been nearly three weeks since I’d written a blog post, despite the fact that they have seemed interminably long weeks. I’m here, because I’ve been inside my own head for too long and at some point, it makes it hard to be in the world.

canstockphoto2046365Instead of connecting with people, I’ve been reading, gardening, and walking. It’s made me more intolerant of small talk than I already was and I know that is not a good thing. I’m in the middle of reading The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It by Shawn Otto and The Age of Anxiety by W.H. Auden. At breakfast, I pour through the tiny print of the most recent issue of The Economist. At night, I’ve been reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

I decided a few weeks ago to concentrate on reading and fitness and to let everything else fall by the wayside. On the heels of a lengthy depression, movement has become the antidote. I’ve been walking, biking, and running every day. I’ve dropped some weight, which is a nice gift to my knees. But all the focus and grim determination means that I feel a bit brittle on the inside.

canstockphoto4799180In suburbia, even in the older neighborhoods, walking is one of the most solitary activities there is – no one is outdoors except in transition from house to car and vice versa. On the rare occasion when I pass a walker or biker on the sidewalk, my smile feels strange, the muscles unused for too long. I wonder if it looks as creepy as I imagine it does.

Walking serves as meditation. Thoughts are allowed to come and go as they please. No attachment to outcomes or items to be added to a list. It occurred to me that I’m at a point in my life where I don’t know what I need. That maybe this moment, this padding along the pavement is it for now.

At first all is dark and each walks alone. What they share is only the feeling of remoteness and desertion, of having marched for miles and miles, of having lost their bearings, of a restless urge to find water. Gradually for each in turn darkness begins to dissolve and their vision to take shape.

W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

canstockphoto3578336Each time I return from a walk, I do not return the same as when I left. I remembered someone from long ago. I realized a feeling that I’d been ignoring. I saw where I’d been, like peeking into a series of rooms in a large building, to see if I was in the right place. Been there, never want to go there again, that was a nice visit, maybe the next one.

If I were to look for something specific, I would be thorough and systematic. I am the finder of things in our household. But walking means that I am the discoverer of things and that I have no control over what they might be.

“…it is a room that a person can only enter when they have real need of it. Sometimes it is there, and sometimes it is not, but when it appears, it is always equipped for the seeker’s needs.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

No great epiphany has hit me. I’m in a time of life of unknowing – who I am becoming, who I will be, what will happen. There are no plans, no driving forces working their will upon me. I’ve done it all before, sometimes repeatedly. Enough to know that letting go is the last frontier, that everything that has weighed me down, made me hold my breath, kept me on the sidelines, no longer carries weight.

I’ve realized that I can maintain my awareness in the world without getting caught in the cycling of outrage and lies. I can positively contribute without lying awake nights wondering how so much hatefulness can exist. I can look into the dark heart of humanity and still choose to embrace joy and love and kindness. I must keep walking until the shadows recede and the light warms my face.

In these hours and days of dual solitude on the river we hope to discover something quite different, to renew our affection for ourselves and the human kind in general by a temporary, legal separation from the mass. And in what other way is it possible for those not saints?

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Back to the Beginning

canstockphoto21954338Once upon a time, I had a business card with a job title. Over the years, I’ve saved each job’s business card, a potpourri of assistants and coordinators and managers. For a good portion of my working life, I did not have a business card and it felt meaningful when that first box arrived at my desk.

After my daughter was born, I spent two years trotting my wiggly baby to a daycare each morning and commuting downtown with my husband to a many-storied building of glass and metal. One year of hauling a breast pump and hunching over in the corner of a windowed conference room. And a breaking point – my misery seeping into the office. I left the job, got my baby, and came home.

I’ve been home ever since, spending some of the best and worst moments of my life without a business card. It was easy to justify. My husband has a decent job which has survived multiple layoffs. We have health insurance. The house and car are paid for. It didn’t make sense to pay child care, which had become increasingly worrisome with each developmental stage. I also had the big dream of establishing a writing career.

My daughter is 12 now and shaking off the yoke of an attentive parent. A writing career would be a surprise, given my work habits. And while I’m still chugging away at it, I’m not counting on it. I have a business card that says I’m a writer and every once in a while, I dust off the box, open it and then close it again. The genie stays in.

Today, I start a volunteer job. I volunteered twofold – to tutor high school English language learners and to help in the volunteer program office. Part of me dreaded the idea of data entry and filing, but I’m good at those things. I’ll have a boss and a system to learn. I’m sure there will be jargon and acronyms. Every job has them.

For a moment, I felt a twinge of despair. What had I gained by all these years at home? I volunteered, threw complex birthday parties (treasure hunts and crime mysteries – holy shit, what was wrong with me?). I grew gardens and taught my daughter the words to canstockphoto24937827Elvis songs and how to draw cats. She remembers very little of those years. All that effort and awkwardly conscientious parenting, just a figment of my imagination.

I talked not too long ago with a mother at the school where I’d been PTO president. All those hours planning fundraisers and staffing book fairs. Of talking with teachers and parents and doing assembly presentations. My name occasionally shows up on old documents, to be replaced by someone else. I was the uber-volunteer until I burnt myself to the ground.

canstockphoto1854942For years, I’ve helped take care of my mother-in-law. She lived two blocks and one phone call away. Running her to doctor appointments, taking her grocery shopping, writing note after note as her memory failed. Guiding her through daily physical therapy exercises. Doing her taxes and paperwork. Sitting with her until the paramedics came. Now she is in a nursing home. And no one, especially her, remembers all the years before.

My resume has a canyon in it. A vast expanse of about a decade, filled with dirty diapers and strollers and wheelchairs. Silly songs about dinosaurs, patient and impatient answers to questions about the remote control and the telephone. A filling in the sandwich generation.

When I interviewed for the volunteer job, I put on the only dress pants I own, Talbot suits long gone to consignment shops. I talked too much and laughed at weird times. I tried too hard. I realized that I’d been away from things too long, that I feel uncomfortable with small talk and I have to make a conscious effort not to use swear words.

Self-pity was in order. And boy, did I ever feel it. All of it was for nothing. There was nothing to show for my efforts, my time, my love, my exhaustion. Not even a business card.

As with all self-pity, my reasoning was severely flawed. My daughter is this amazing person – loved and loving, kind and funny. She fills our home with music and light. She may not remember how many times I sang silly songs to her, but her heart does. My mother-in-law spent many years in her own apartment, the last few only because she was protected and cared for and loved. She doesn’t remember my name sometimes now, but her face always lights up with recognition when she sees me.

As for all the school volunteering, well, the very nature of it is transitory. I did some good things, like filing for nonprofit status, which will lead to corporate donations. But it’s all like so much smoke, evaporating and invisible.

canstockphoto3210183This morning, I sat on my cushion and prepared to meditate. I’d been feeling a tad smug that I’ve managed this practice for the last few weeks, without fail, building up from 5 minutes to a shiny 13. As I settled in, our tom cat began his caterwauling. I focused on my breath. He yowled louder. I kept my focus, feeling a little proud that I’d managed to let go of my sensory irritation. Then I realized that I had forgotten to set the timer.

My perfectionist self was tempted to start over, but I decided to continue for a bit longer.  With a laugh, my eyes popped open. It was all about humility. A messed up meditation. Love without recognition. Not having a good answer to what do you do?

When it was all gone, when there was no money, no accolades and no title, I still sought a sense of importance, even in the most mundane activities. To learn humility is to be grateful for the gift of starting over again. And again. And again.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind