Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The art of waiting and the certainty of death

Life, it seems, has been tearing ahead of me like a snow-obsessed beagle mix with cabin fever who's just been offered his first walk in weeks (this is a very specific simile. Snacks has been very excited about all the snow). It has been hard to keep up.

But I don't really want to talk about all that. The world will continue turning and churning whether I whine about it. And anyway, I'm the one who ends up choosing the pace at which I'm living.

For the last couple of weeks I've been wanting (and waiting) to write about waiting. 

Last year I spent a lot of time waiting to feel less weight. Waiting to feel happy and creative and productive. Depression, it seems, is a lot about waiting – even if while you're in it, you don't realize you're waiting. You just feel like you're sinking. And you don't even really care if you get pulled out of the bog. That self-preservation part seems muted and sluggish.

Since regaining my footing and returning to a more normal rhythm, I've come to realize that all that waiting was necessary. My brain had been demanding stillness. And when I resisted, it decided to force it on me.

I think waiting is often framed as a negative activity. We view it as the opposite of progress and productivity. Something that's foisted on us, unwanted and unwelcome. But maybe it doesn't have to be that way.

In fact, maybe it shouldn't be that way at all.

I recently picked up a copy of "Waiting" by Kevin Henke for a friend who's due to have her first baby in March. It's a children's book about a group of toys who spend their days on a window ledge waiting for things to happen. Waiting for the moon or the wind or the rain. And while they wait they watch the beautiful world outside the window. The illustrations are soft, sweet and lovely. And the sentiment is that waiting doesn't have to be this exasperating, temper-raising activity. It can be calm and sweet – and often necessary.

As a mother coming out of the holiday season I related to the story. And as a mother who's always anxious for certain phases of childhood to be over (do we really need to splash every time we get out of the bath tub? Every time?! And at what point do they start wiping themselves? And speaking of the potty, will I ever get to poop alone again?) But in between all these frustrating things are these beautiful moments of enduring sweetness that disappear before we even have a chance to acknowledge how wonderful they are. That's the bittersweet pill of motherhood. You spend so much time waiting for the sleep and the shower and the five minutes of peace, you can easily miss the pure joy of childhood.

Humans of New York recently had a post that touched on this exact thing (read the whole post here)

Don't treat your life as a waiting room. I mean, it's actually a waiting room for death I suppose. But then we should treat it like one of the most magical waiting rooms we experience. Let's not look at it like the line at the DMV. Or, if you are stuck in DMV mode, at least acknowledge all the others stuck there with you. Get their story. It's better when we share.

A couple weeks ago during my Sunday morning drive up to Blue Hound, I was listening to "On Being" on NPR. The guest was author and teacher Stephen Batchelor, who's written "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist," "The Faith to Doubt" and "Buddhism Without Beliefs."

This portion of the interview stuck with me:

"MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you — this is also from 'Buddhism Without Beliefs' — 'Since death alone is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?' So you are bringing the way Buddhist tradition has grappled with the ancient human question back to that question — what does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live? — without the promise of something beyond this life. 
And you said, so again, “Since death alone is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” You wrote, “Over time, such meditation penetrates our primary sense of being in the world at all.” And I wondered if you would speak, as we close, just about — in a very concrete way, whatever that means, yesterday or today, about how this observation, this questioning, penetrates ordinary life, an ordinary day in the world, your primary sense of being in the world at all. 
MR. BATCHELOR: Well, the meditation on death that you’ve just read out is actually an adaptation of a Tibetan reflection on mortality. 
As a young man, I did this practice daily. I found, of all the Tibetan practices I did, it was the one that was most life-changing, to the extent that today, I find that my sense of being in the world is deeply infused with an awareness of how this may be my last day on Earth. And these reflections on death are not in the remotest sense morbid or gloomy.
The weird paradox is that the more you ask yourself that question — “Death is certain, its time is uncertain, what should I do?” — this brings you back to a very vivid sense that you’re alive. It intensifies the sense of aliveness, in terms of how you see the colors, the shapes, the leaves, the flowers, the — whatever impacts you visually, from the ears to the nose to the tongue to the body to the mind — it is a kind of intensifier of being alive. A kind of — almost a celebration of being here at all. 
And that is infused not only with a sense of wonder, but also with a sense of possibility, a sense of responsibility, that in what you say, think, do, this may be your final legacy on this earth. That, to me, is where this reflection leads me. And it’s with me — I wouldn't say every single minute of every single day. I also have moments in which I’m not particularly proud of how I speak or act or think. But broadly speaking, I find myself constantly returning to what’s implicit in that question. And that has made my life, I think, very full."
I've been ruminating on this -- at the farm as I'm picking stalls or at home when the girls are being especially ... trying ... "Since death alone is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?" and I have to say, it gives me pause. It helps me change my perspective. Be more loving. Be more patient. Be more gracious.

Today, as I was driving home from the farm on 83 I passed an accident scene. The rescue workers were holding up a white sheet, blocking the southbound traffic from seeing whatever was happening on the side of the road. 

I already knew what was going on though. 

The interstate was closed for miles around the accident scene – the road was empty. Eventually, I came to the backup. Miles and miles of tractor trailers and cars all waiting to  move.

When I got home, I texted Brad. "Was that accident on 83 N a fatal?"

"Yeah, it was. A pedestrian got hit by a truck I think," he wrote back.

And so, it goes again.

"Since death alone is certain, and the time of death is uncertain, what should I do?"

I should be kinder. More patient. More generous. More loving. Right now. Today. This month. This year. Because you never know what your last act might be. Where your life ends and your legacy begins. 
P.S. I'm kind of obsessed with the the song I included above, which I first heard while watching season two of "Transparent" (if you're not watching "Transparent" you should be watching "Transparent.") I love how meditative the song is. It calls for us to wait.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Who says you can't teach a middle-aged dog new tricks?

Snacks, our beagle mix, has lived in this house for nearly all of the nearly seven years his lived on this planet.

And in those nearly seven years, he's gone down the basement steps on his own four paws exactly once. 

Now, I'm not a dog (well, I'm not literally a dog. I imagine if you asked enough people there might be one or two out in the world who would say that I am a dog, metaphorically speaking. And specifically speaking, a female dog. See where I'm going with that?) Where were we? 

Oh right. I'm not a dog. So I can only speculate about Snacks's reasons for not venturing down the basement steps. Maybe it's the fact that they're dark and steep. Maybe Snacks, like me, can still hear the sickening thumps followed by ear-splitting screams of kids who've tripped down the steps while chasing the cat, who, for obvious reasons, does not wish to be cuddled within an inch of her life. Maybe he knows something I don't about the definitely-not-haunted-creepy-doll living down there.

See. I told you she's not haunted.
Whatever the reason, whenever members of the family are in the basement, Snacks can generally be found sitting at the top of the stairs, his front two paws balanced on the first step. His giant ears flopped forward in curiosity (or terror ... those ears hold many mysteries).

Snacks in his standard top-of-the-stair stance.
But you know what happens next. (Because nobody ever writes the story about the dog who never overcomes his fear of the scary basement steps. While there's an obvious obstacle to overcome, there's really no rising tension. No conflict. No denouement. Instead of conquering his aversion to the basement steps, he simply deepens the dent he's dug out for himself in the sofa in between barking at the mailman and waiting for meals). 

Snacks' sofa dent.
What happens next is that Snacks stands at the edge of the abyss and climbs into it in pursuit of heretofore unknown wonders.

What enticed him was the beckoning of Lily, Jovie and their friend and his hope that there might be crackers or Pirates Booty or some other type of tasty treat in store.

The wonders he would discover were cat food and litter boxes.

In fact, the treasures buried in the bowels of our home were so fantastical, Snacks made multiple forays in search of the apparently delicious, brown morsels.

(Side note: I would not let Snacks lick your face anytime soon).

That's kitty litter on his nose. 
Sure, he's tentative. He's not racing down the steps like Shaun White on fresh powder (is that still a relevant simile? I'm not very sportsy). He's no mountain goat. But he's gaining confidence with each trip down. No doubt lured by the possibility that Peanut Butter has made a fresh deposit.

It's all very new and exciting. For him at least. For me it opens up a whole new door of logistics. Do we put the baby gate back up? Feed the cat on top of the dryer again? fence off the litter boxes somehow? You can understand why I'm not so thrilled about Snacks' new-found bravery.

Still, I'm kind of proud of him. For almost seven years this dog would only stare down the steps. And then all the sudden today he takes the first through 11th steps to adventure. It's inspirational.

I mean, relatively. 

If an anxious, set-in-his-ways, obsessive beagle mix can overcome a fear he's held on to for all his life, well then there's hope for the rest of us. Right? 

It's never too late to take the first step into the unknown.

Who knows what treasures you might sniff out and dig up.

Some people have Ernest Shackleton. Others have Amelia Earhart or Neil Armstrong. This year, while mustering up the courage and optimism to tackle the new year, my role model is my dog. 

Bravery is exhausting.
(Note single piece of kitty litter on his nose.)
To reiterate, don't let him lick you.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Making sense of an old year

A snapped this picture of a spiderweb on a fence at the farm. Magical.
So 2015 was not my favorite year.

There was losing our beloved fluffy cat and the incident with my left boob and rejection and a massive literary slump and depression

And cancer

As I reflect on all this at the start of 2016, I won't patronize my friends who have suffered cancer's wrath in the last couple years by suggesting it was part of the universe's grand plan or something. That it happens for a reason. It happens because cells start dividing at an abnormal rate and impair the body's ability to function normally. 

"Even cancer isn't a bad guy really: Cancer just wants to be alive,” John Green writes in "The Fault in Our Stars." And he's right. Even if it's maddening.

I wish that cancer were more discriminate – feeding off ugliness rather than picking off the kindest souls. But that's not how it works. We don't always get to decide. We're just along for the ride.

While I won't try to find cancer's silver lining, I'm human. So I pick apart all these other disparate happenings and try to make sense of them. Try to explain them in a way that will help me feel at peace with being. 

Isn't that what the end of an old year and the beginning of a new year is all about?

Remembering and resolving. 

The previous 15 years or so of my life have been about happenings. Graduating high school and college, getting the first job, getting married, buying a house, adopting a dog, starting a family. Every year it seemed contained a milestone or a major event. And then the past couple of years working from home with two small children has been about running, running, running. 

While I've been racing on the treadmill, the foundation of my life settled. The girls became more self-sufficient and I became more efficient. In the past year, all of the sudden there were seconds and minutes of my day not filled with doing. This created somewhat of a vacuum, I think. At times it's felt like a great void.

Because while I haven't been doing, I've been thinking and thinking and thinking. About everything from white privilege to terrorism to gun violence to my place in the fabric of existence. It was all very overwhelming. And I think it shut down channels in my brain that felt joy and silliness. That appreciated art and creativity. 

For me, this was the hallmark of 2015. This massive black curtain shrouding a large portion of my psyche. 

So you can understand why I was anxious to be done with it.

Now, of course I know that something as arbitrary as the passing of 365 days does not fix me. Or change me. Though it has, I think. 

I don't love Depression. I've expressed that before. But I think it might have been my body's way of recharging. Of overriding the locomotive in me that insists on doing, doing, doing all the time. Depression quiets you. It's exhausting. It makes you want to stay in bed all day. Or flop on the couch in the middle of the afternoon and take a nap. Or binge on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" instead of writing your next novel.

But I wonder if this isn't a mechanism of healing somehow. Your brain becoming the petulant child who refuses to do anything because she's overtired and cranky. And if that's the case, I just needed to be forced into a vacation of sorts (not the sort I'd be eager to go on again), then maybe there was a point to 2015, afterall.

It was fitting then, that as the year came to a close that I had this epiphany while hanging out at the farm with my sisters and Kristi.

Life is this series of moments sometimes rapid fire, sometimes stretched out long and lazy. And I exist in this life despite all the doing and not doing. It is so liberating to drink in each moment, really be aware of the present – what is happening rightnow – instead of dwelling on what happened or worrying about what will happen. 

I've found it easier to recognize the joy in front of me. To find beauty and grace in the large and small things around me. 

The other part of this epiphany was being aware of, maybe for the first time, the connective tissue that tethers me to those around me and the Earth and the universe. We are all made of the same stuff, you know. Forged from the Big Bang. And we'll live here and die here and return to the Earth and become the building blocks for more life. 

"The world wasn't made for us. We were made for the world." - John Green

I know, I know. It just got real weird. A little metaphysical. But it's such a gift to understand that I am all that I need to be. All that I'm meant to be. It's all there. 

Since I've solved the quandary of my greater purpose, well all that's left for me to do is just be. 

And maybe write about it.

Perhaps 2015 wasn't so awful in the end. Still, I'm looking forward to 2016.