Archive for category musings
It’s high time. I have to have a talk with my Self.
I jump right in. It’s going to be awkward, what I have to say. And Self can be very—fragile and defensive. No sense in beating around the bush.
“Self,” I begin (because it’s always good to call people by name, to personalize it, right?) “You are so not perfect. Face it: you’re just human. You make lots of mistakes. You can’t do it all. You will never be perfect,” I repeat the not-perfect part for emphasis, to be sure she’s getting it. “Just relax, Self. Good enough is good enough.”
Self answers, in her most icy annoyed tone: “I never SAID I was trying to be perfect!”
“Then why,” I ask. “Why are you so impossibly hard on yourself when you fall short? When you say the wrong thing, for instance. When you can’t get it all done. Or when your writing isn’t quite—on the mark?”
Self thinks hard.
Self remembers something a friend showed her the other day.
Underlined in a book she doesn’t even know the title of (can you believe she can’t remember?) she read the words of some learned wise person who said that perfectionism is a form of egoism. That it springs from thinking you’re so good you have to do better, be better, be—perfect. And that it’s actually quite generous and healthy and more productive in the end to allow yourself to be imperfect. To treat yourself kindly, to encourage your Self.
Self thinks of the last few days, where she felt so inadequate in her Self and also so damn worried about the state of the world. As if she were falling short by not fixing the world. As if she could somehow do more than her best and miraculously end hate and prejudice and also finish her novel, and meet some deadlines all in one week. She has a choice here: get mad at her Self —or relax.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Self suggests. And as usually happens when my Self and I relax into what is, instead of what we fear, we find joy again and the world suddenly reveals its lopsided and absolutely imperfectly perfect beauty. Everything glows brighter.
Good enough is good enough.
And the sunsets in June are the best.
Last Sunday I drove through a deluge to Bloomington, Indiana, to say goodbye to my older daughter. She’d finished her graduate program, and after the celebration that afternoon, I was going to help her pack up a uHaul van with all her worldly possessions. Her new life in a new state, hundreds of miles away, awaited. I felt happy and excited for her. New adventures, new influences, new experiences awaited her, and she was ready. I tried not to think how my days of driving over to hang out for a day, to have a swim and a bike ride with her, were over.
Driving along Indiana 46 through Nashville and Brown County, I was flooded with memories of the fall evening in 2009, when she and I made that drive together, for the very first time. It was raining buckets that night, too, raining so hard that I was unable to see more than a couple of feet in front of the car. I was unfamiliar with the hilly, twisty road. There was no place to pull off. I just kept going, creeping along at ten miles per hour during the worst of it, afraid to stop completely, afraid to go faster. My daughter, uninterested in the college tour I’d arranged, was silent next to me. She had no desire to go to INDIANA of all places. Funny how things work out.
Back then, I was struggling with my work/life balance and felt wobbly about many other things, too. One thing hasn’t changed. I still feel wobbly. But I’ve acquired a few tools to cope. One is that I accept the wobble without judgment. Or try to. Sometimes I still resist it. After all, teetering is scary and frequently results in pain. But is pain always bad? Maybe it is essential, like rain?
I wonder if seeds feel a stabbing ache deep in their hearts, right before they burst into bloom? Do the flowers in the garden that is mine—suddenly, inexplicably mine —do those flowers cry tears as they leave their snug underground root homes, and push into the bright, overwhelming world?
I wonder if the bird songs I hear this May morning are songs in tribute to an earlier time, a warm time in a safe, blue-egged world? Do we all sometimes yearn for what we have left behind?
Like the birds and the flowers, I am always pushing out of the past into new sunshine. After the first dark nights of spring—those ones where the nights are bitter and cold—I think after those are past, the songs and blooms open into new dimensions. The harmony of life is always rooted in the oldest times, in the home, the baseline—oh, but the melody! The melody—it is ever-changing, renewing, like the new birds hatching, like the new flowers blooming. The melody reflects the newest influences. How much sun, how much warmth, how much care and how much love we drink in, how much love we shine back.
My melody tastes smooth and green today, like the perfect ripe avocados I slice on my beans and rice. It tastes like strong espresso in the morning, tastes like a deep cleansing breath, tastes like my dark red root chakra, tastes like my heart opening up like a sun-drunk peony, yellow-pollen dusted. My melody smells like oatmeal bubbling on a gas stove, feels like being touched and feeling loved, like sinking into a steaming bath in a claw-foot tub. My melody sounds hushed, like the deepest shade of listening, shivers against me velvet-soft as a word heard in the dark, and held safe.
My harmony echoes the old beats, the cutting fear that smells of metal like blood and swelling August summer nights and darkness, sharp, salt-edged, a scream unheard. My harmony is dropped, not held, dropped like a penny in one of those spinning funnels at the fair. My harmony smells faintly of baby powder, Annie Greensprings, and the onions I chopped crying at Taco Bell, sweating in my brown polyester uniform. It smells of a hand clamped over my mouth, and also of kittens mewing and apple juice and laughter and marshy-fresh tide-pools in Biddeford. Of Carolina pines, of Gilbey’s gin with squirt lime, it smells like a grimace, a shuddery gulp, a shiver, and a tight hug.
Somehow, new songs are written,
even when you can’t see where you are driving
can’t see the where the edge of the road
falls away to cliff
new songs come together
out of old and new notes
bright and aching and alive
forever, and always, new songs.
Driving back from Bloomington,
rain pattered my Subaru’s roof
like a drumline, a sweet soothing rhythm
this road will never be the same,
without her smile at the end of it—
I wrote new songs in my head
driving alone down Route 46
thinking about what I left behind
one last time, one last time.
Happy rebirth-day to me
I don’t know the actual date of my rebirth-day. It was a Monday, the day after Easter, 2012. I suppose I could easily google it, but I prefer to let the day float in time, tied forever to the anchor of Easter. I wanders through time the way the ancients believed a woman’s womb wandered in her body.
My rebirth day began like any regular day, only slowed down. It was so hard to summon the will to get up. I’m pretty certain my husband called goodbye from the hallway, heading in to work early. I made coffee for me, hot black tea for my daughter before she scooted off to high school. I sliced an apple, sprinkled it with cinnamon, ate listlessly.
I had a full day of deadlines ahead, but I was tired as I climbed the stairs to my attic office. When I walked, my leg throbbed. I couldn’t focus, and there was a tickle in my throat. Damned perimenopause. After working through lunchtime, I decided I should go to the doctor.
“I had a terrible charlie horse on Easter morning,” I told the receptionist. “It really hurts a lot. I need to get into see someone today, please.”
“Is it swollen? Red? Purple? Streaking?”
I looked again, but it wasn’t. It looked exactly like it had the evening before, when I’d rolled my yoga pant-leg up and asked my daughter if it LOOKED swollen. Cause I could see in the mirror: it did not. Like me, on the outside my calf looked normal. The hurts were inside.
“Dr. S has a slot Thursday at 3:30,” the receptionist offered. “Or call at 8 am tomorrow and we might be able to work you in same day.”
I felt defeated and suddenly tearful. Working from home, my bedroom was just across the hall from my office. I did something I never did. I laid down in bed, while the sun was shining bright in the sky.
I sank under the covers, felt so peaceful, amazingly peaceful. I began to drift off—and then, wham! I woke with a start, as if someone had shaken me. An insistent inner voice demanded that I go, now, to a doctor. Any doctor. By this time, my daughter was back from high school. I limped downstairs and asked her to please drive me to the urgent care. I was so exhausted I couldn’t have managed to get there. I felt numb.
In yogic philosophy, samskaras are pathways worn into your thought processes by repetition, like the ruts worn into a pasture by cows plodding to the barn at feeding time. Over and over, that trip to the barn. Conditioning. Samskaras can be positive, but most of us struggle with our negative ones. The ruts of repeated beliefs and behaviors are worn so deep. Change seems impossible. My samskaras—my willingness to turn away from my own pain, to ignore it, disown it, to discount my physical sensations and emotions—a path of not trusting my own body and mind—almost did me in.
At the urgent care, I got really lucky. They were slow, and I was seen quickly. The nurse who did the patient interview was thorough. After the question about family history of heart disease, when I said my father died from a heart attack in his mid-fifties, he made a note on his clipboard and excused himself from the room. Seconds later, he returned. “We’re not going to charge you, you need to get right to an ER. We think you are having a heart attack.”
“But I don’t have chest pain?”
“Tell the ER we suspect heart attack,” he repeated. “Have your daughter drive you straight there, so we don’t have to wait for an ambulance.”
It was, in fact, not a heart attack. My charlie horse was not due to potassium deficiency or even perimenopause, at least, not directly. It was due to deep vein thrombosis, thanks to the low-dose “safe” birth-control pills that were supposed to make me feel better. And the DVT had been throwing off clots, caught by my waiting lungs, slowly filling them. “Multiple pulmonary embolisms in all lobes,” the cardiologist said. “Usually, this is diagnosed on the autopsy table. Any one of those clots could’ve caused instant death. You’re very lucky to be alive.”
And so a new samskara was born on my rebirth-day. “Very lucky to be alive.”
I know now, I was always lucky to be alive. I just had been focused on the wrong things, avoiding confrontation, denying what was true, ignoring pain, smothering joy, trying to cover up pain instead of facing it. I’d had it wrong for so long. But that day, I began anew. “Very lucky to be alive.”
Old samskaras are persistent, though. My self-defeating ones haven’t gone away.
Turmoil falls like rain, slipping and sliding me into old familiar grooves. I pick myself up faster now, though. I let the rain wash over me. I even laugh at it sometimes, laugh at myself for slipping. I remember a summer day when I was with a dear friend, someone from this new lifetime. We were walking once, and got caught out in a deluge. I reflexively began to cover my head, futilely, looking for a place to run. Recoiling, I was trying to change the reality of the rain that was falling, reverting to old habits. He, on the other hand, laughed up at the sky, let the rain wash across his smile.
I felt a surge: I was lucky to be alive, in the rain, with my friend.
“Very lucky to be alive.”
We grow old, if we are lucky. Life hurts sometimes. Pain comes, uncertainty comes, loss comes. Sometimes it feels unbearable.
- This dewdrop world —
- Is a dewdrop world,
- And yet, and yet . . .
The Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa wrote that, after two of his children died when they were very small. He somehow found, even after such losses, beauty, and the will to go on. He too must have known he was lucky to be alive.
Life is hard, change is hard. I once thought perimenopause and my changing body and crumbling marriage were the end of me. That I was powerless, defeated. It seems almost comical now, looking back. Yes, my marriage ended, the imagined future I had hoped for ended with it. And yet—
“I’m lucky to be alive,” I think, with each pink bursting dawn, each deep breath, each morning’s first sip of hot coffee, each warm hug, each aching goodbye, each day and hour I get to live and write and walk and feel, the good feelings and the hard ones, too. Maybe someday I’ll wear away my old faithful, fearful samskaras with gratitude. Maybe someday my fears will dance hand in hand in the rain, smiling, laughing, transformed.
I’m still figuring out what comes next, and I accept I always will be figuring it out. Always falling down and getting up.
Always –“very lucky to be alive.”
This morning, there’s a fresh breeze, carrying pollen and dreams of what tomorrow might hold. It’s Easter, which is the day before my personal “rebirth” day.
Tomorrow is my fifth rebirth-day.
Five years ago today, I was dragging. I had woken in the night with yet another charlie horse in my right calf. I felt tired and old. I just wanted to crawl back into bed.
I was married then, and my best friend and her family lived a couple blocks away. My youngest was still at home—it was a different lifetime, and that day was the eve of my bonus lifetime. It seemed to me that my troubles had begun with the arrival five years or so before of the dreaded state called perimenopause. Reading up on my mounting list of problems, it was clear: insomnia? Perimenopause. Irritability? Perimenopause. Weight gain? Perimenopause. Marital disconnection? Sure, that was perimenopause, too, because I was freaking crazy. I was feeling discontented with our lifestyle, or rather mine—I worked all the time, and felt under tremendous pressure constantly. Life felt like an endless race to get more. But more of what? I began to question things. Yet perimenopause had robbed me of my former calm exterior, on top of everything else. I felt angry. I was a mess.
I was broken, and it was all the fault of my waning uterine cycles which had ebbed and flowed me right into the edgy throes of perimenopause. Which on reflection seems an awful lot like the modern-day equivalent of “hysteria,” the age-old catch-all diagnosis for pretty much every malady a woman might suffer from—especially maladies like being strong-willed, asserting her way, or having sexual ideas.
All the way back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, men believed that misbehaving women were being led astray by their wombs, which were wandering in their bodies. The cure was to be dominated by a man, made to submit. Later this was dubbed “Hysteria” by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC. Making women defective by design makes women less-than, makes us inferior. When you’re told something often enough, you internalize it. It’s called brainwashing.
It makes perfect sense in hindsight why, after a lifetime of being conditioned to believe that being female was a curse, a failing, the cause of any weakness or trouble, that I bought right into the notion that perimenopause was an awful trial to be endured. Not to say hormonal shifts are a cakewalk, by any means. But in adolescence, there seems more acceptance of the shift. Then, it’s a hopeful one, I suppose. Peri-menopause, we are meant to believe, signals a looming expiration date, a natural transition which is to be endured with drugs and/or surgery if you are to survive it.
That Easter I did what I always had done, since childhood: I sucked it up and put a good face on. I was just tired, after all. My allergies were worse than ever (also attributable to perimenopause, of course). I was a getting short of breath. And my leg was sore from the cramps in the night. But I got dressed and went to my friend’s for Easter dinner.
My friend still feels guilty for suggesting I eat more bananas. “They say leg cramps mean low potassium,” she mused. And that’s true, about potassium deficiency. I was willing to try anything, and that seemed as good an idea as any. My primary care doc had just last week prescribed an inhaler for my allergies, and it seemed to do nothing. Maybe potassium would help. I was so disconnected with the reality of my body that the alarm bells hadn’t gone off yet.
We ate lamb, I think (that day is a blur) and took a walk after dinner. The short block loomed long. I limped along, unable to do anything faster than a saunter. But it was a beautiful day, the dogwoods in bloom. I smiled and made conversation, but inside, I worried: Am I getting depressed? On top of everything else? The last time walking a block had seemed impossible was when I was depressed. Perimenopause causes increased depression, I’d seen an article on that in the doctor’s office waiting room…
For a couple years, I’d been an avid walker. Walking was the only thing that took the edge off my irritability. Three months earlier, at my routine gynecologist visit, I mentioned my surprising surges of anger to my doctor. “I thought PMS was a myth!” I said. “But now I wonder…and I have insomnia still. I’m trying to kick the Ambien now, but I barely sleep without it.”
“Very common in peri-menopause,” the doctor said. “Insomnia. PMS. It could get worse before it gets better. You have a while yet…have the hot flashes started?”
Panic surged. “Is there anything we can do?”
“Two choices,” she said. “Anti-depressants or low-dose birth control. Most of my patients your age are on one or both.”
Fearing the effects of anti-depressants when I was not depressed, I opted for the low-dose birth control pills. I did ask though: “Aren’t I kind of old for birth control pills? Isn’t being over 40 a risk factor?”
“Well, not for you,” she said. “You don’t smoke, and you walk —what—4 or 5 miles a day? You’ll be fine! It’ll just take the edge off. You need help getting through this time,” she consoled, writing out the prescription.
Easter night, I went to bed exhausted, and feeling very low. But I drifted off to sleep, desperate to escape the prison of worries over my failing body. After all, everything that was happening to me—the distance in my relationship with my husband, the years of chronic insomnia, my new sluggishness and shortness of breath, the five pounds I could not lose despite dieting, my scattered focus—it was all perimenopause. It was all me, falling apart. Hippocrates would have called me hysterical.
Alone in my bed, I was sleeping with the enemy.
The future narrowed like a closing aperture or the point of a funnel. I’d arrived at the stage of life any woman past child-bearing age knows will be a trial. Full of aches and anger. Full of complaints, and losses—loss of vibrant sexuality, loss of love, loss of joy, loss of adventure—such riches, it seemed, were for younger women, and if I hadn’t had my fill, I was out of luck and out of time.
Considering I nearly died twelve hours later, I almost was out of time.
(tomorrow: my rebirth-day)
anxiety field notes, entry 1.
What you resist, persists
so, if you RESIST anxiety,
it will PERSIST?
What you resist, you bury.
What you bury gets stuck.
Some things cannot be buried.
(Most things, actually.)
Seeds can, and should be.
Flowers should not be buried, if you want to watch them bloom.
If you bury flowers they die, they rot.
Bury anger deep in a trash can like a lit butt
cover anger with an placid lid, a smooth smile, it will smolder
poison the air
you will breathe it in
it will permeate every single cell in your body.
Unburied, anger dissipates, harmless as a whiff of stinky stinky cheese
but buried—it kills love.
Speaking of love:
Love cannot be buried, kept like a secret journal in a sock drawer.
at first, confined love smells like lavender, like a sachet,
love has to grow in the light.
Love has to see the sky in the morning
see your smile in the night.
Speaking of your smile:
Longing, what of longing, my specialty?
What you resist, persists—
does this mean I should not resist the fear
of you, so warm, fading from my mind?
Or does it mean I should resist this fear,
so your smile persists forever in my heart?
Speaking of hearts:
some questions are best buried,
dark-eyed as apple seeds
planted deep in my heart
to grow as they will,
wild upstarts, bearing sweet fruit, in time.
Dear Tich Naht Hahn
Dear Tic Nat Hhan
Dear Thich Nhat Hanh,
I mislaid your address and even the foreign mystery of the spelling of your name in the explosion. The girls’ school papers and award certificates, sheet music, lithographs, photo albums, love letters from my father to my mother, jars full of buttons and odd screws, art supplies and tax records and all those BOOKS everywhere.
Some of the books were yours. They were plucked, charred but readable, from the ruins, and this thank you to you is long overdue.
How calming you were to me during this topsy-turvy time.
Ironically, it was another of your books, “Anger,” that boiled me over like a pot left too long on the stove, unattended. Or maybe I was a pressure-cooker, with a broken shut off valve? Either way.
The resulting fire burnt down my imagined future.
For several months afterward, I babbled and cried. Later, after reading “How to Love” and “How to Walk,” I slowly relearned essential life skills from the ground up, and you, Thich Nhat Hanh, were my patient invisible Occupational Therapist.
Now there are many mornings when my feet kiss the earth as I walk. How I wish you’d climb the forty steps to my little hermitage right now. We could meditate together, with Cordelia, my plump silver tabby.
It is far from Plum Village, but from my roof I can watch sunsets through the golden leaves of the survivor elm. You might wish to climb out there with me? Or maybe just sit beside the window, as the sun sinks in the west?
When you come, I will brew a cheerful cup of tea, and sing you a song about letting go of fear of the unknown, and you will join in on the second chorus, because it is a song I learned from you, dear teacher, who I have never met but from whom I learned to live again, step by step.
wild and green
On my wedding day, I was filled with anxiety, mine and my mother’s.
I was wild and green in the ways of the world, though I thought a ceremony in Butler’s green garden would transform me into a more peaceful creature. I stood with my mother, waiting for my intended to arrive. I was there and not there: I firmly remember the carillons that sang and the placid old canal that drifted by, the buzzing droopy-headed zinnias and black-eyed Susans, the old-world rose bushes—all beautiful, contained, tranquil.
Carefree, not wild.
That day I’d turn into a wife, half of a unit, domestic, safe and saved.
On the outside I was transformed already, placid as the canal, sure of myself as the bees were sure of their buzzing industry. Yet I was wild inside, standing there next to my mama, a roiling mass of ancient fears.
Wild like a frightened doe, tired from running, running. Heart beating hard, danger clanging so constantly that mostly I was not even aware of it. Danger simply ran in my veins, and had for as long as I could remember.
Danger was wild in the rivers of my blood. Danger splashed in the waterfall of my heart.
I had no business getting married, but to be wild is, after all, dangerous. Plus, I was tired of being hunted. Somewhere inside I thought being caught would save me.
– – –
Deer were always an obsession for me. As a very small child, I drew deer after deer. I painted pictures of deer, read books about deer. I loved deer and wanted to be a ballerina so I could gracefully move like a deer. And disappear, like a deer.
But deer are wild things. Peaceful, except when under attack. Always wary, though. If a deer is cornered, and cannot run away, if a deer is outmatched and at the mercy of a terrible predator, she cannot hope to win by fighting. In cases like that, she will freeze.
I froze once, like a deer
I froze, like a river
I thawed and ran fast again,
like a deer
Like a rushing stream, like snowmelt
down a mountain
even when perhaps I should have paused to think
I was wild and green all my young self seemed to know
was freezing and rushing.
– – –
On my wedding day, I was young.
Younger even than my 23 years. Being frozen keeps you from growing up. So does running.
I was green. The lushness of the garden, the safe feeling I had next to my intended—gave me a sense that I was on a path. A path that might lead me out of my wildness. My scary, uncontainable wildness.
The path would rescue me from myself.
This was a sweet green notion, a kiwi of a belief, juicy and promising and bursting with seeds of hope.
What I did not know, in my greenness, was that you cannot shed your wildness like a snake sheds her skin. The wildness is inside, part of you.
I was right about the path, though.
It did lead me out, and then, decades later, landed me back in the thicket of myself, heart beating wildly, learning at last to savor the moments of life that stretch across the bones of time like supple muscles. Stretching, tightening, strengthening, and finally, letting go.
I’m still wild and green.
Older now, I have learned to listen to the wind, smell danger, believe the things my own heart tells me, and to love the wild frozen little girl-deer I carry inside. I learned that love does not rescue. Love merely holds your hand, then pushes you to grow. Self-love and every other kind of deep love pushes you to the edges of your self.
And when you grow, you risk.
One person’s sunshine is another person’s scorch.
One person’s neat-cornered bed is another person’s prison.
Sometimes you have to grow alone, in the wildness, where the deer appear and disappear to keep you company, silently.
(I wrote this from a prompt by Natalie Goldberg, “Write about when you were wild and green.”)