Starting the Next Phase

I am in a tough spot, at least somewhat of my own making.

I realize that I cannot take care of a house. It is all beyond me. Mowing, raking, shoveling, Roto-Rooting, mopping, scrubbing, dusting, you name it. I can definitely do some of it, but not all of it, and not all by my myself.

When Barry and I got the house, we were both working and in much better health. I started back in school in 2004. In 2008, he retired and got cancer the next week. I was occupied with him, school, and trying to work so I would have something on my resume. His health slowly declined. He did less and less. I did not pick up the slack. The slack came about extremely gradually, so slowly it did not register on my radar.

Now it is 2015. There is a gaping chasm between what the house requires and my ability to handle it alone.

We went from being a dual-income, middle-class couple to neither of us working and now we live on a pension and disability.

If I have learned anything about change, it is this: if it happens slowly enough, even the most radical of changes can fly under the radar. No bells and whistles, just a substantially diminished existence.

Part of me feels like I am cruel to Barry because I want to move him away from his sponsors and support system. A growing part of me now feels like, “Just how long do you plan on waiting to move? How bad of shape does the house need to be in before you pack up and go to a warmer state with more resources?”

I’ve been waiting for a “clean break” to start the next phase of my life. I was waiting for him to die. This realization did not rise to the surface of my consciousness until the past year or two. Time went on. The winters kicked my butt. The default was that nothing got accomplished. My needs did not get met–at all. The only progress to the next phase will come solely from my initiative. I understand that now.

So I have started the next phase: a realtor has come out to my house. I cannot wait for something outside of my control to kick-start the next metamorphosis of my life. It is time to take responsibility. This is not how I would have preferred to have things unfold. I feel oddly empowered and ridiculously frustrated simultaneously. Honesty is like that.

Responsibility: Good and Bad

“What does it mean to take responsibility? Responsibility is very empowering. Blaming takes away your power. And the value of blaming is very short-lived, because the pain persists, the fear persists, the anxiety persists. When we take responsibility, there is no denial, no blaming. There is just trusting. Trusting means giving yourself permission to be yourself. It means giving yourself permission to either fail or succeed….When a crisis appears, an opportunity appears-an opportunity to enter a new territory, to penetrate a barrier, to overcome a difficulty. If you fail to act when that opportunity presents itself, you miss something very special and important in your life. Many time we just let the crisis pass, instead of seeing it as a wonderful dharma meal with which to nourish ourselves. We shy away from it, hoping it will go away. And chances are, if you deny it long enough, it will somehow disappear into the cobwebs of your subconscious. It is still there and functioning, but we don’t have to deal with it. But it is always there.” The Stone Lion, John Daido Loori,  Roshi, p. 14-15 of The Mountain Record, winter 2014-2015

This is exactly where I am. The crisis? Trying to clean my house in preparation for  visit for the realtor. When I realized I could get no help from my husband (due to the Huntington’s), I felt (and to some degree still feel) extremely burdened. But at the same time, I can do it all at my own pace.

The reason this all is such a crisis is my lack of housecleaning expertise. I feel like I am learning things most normal housewives learn by their mid-twenties. I truly suck. I have “issues” with this apparently. These emotions are exhausting to deal with. But what really hurts is having to admit to myself that I am simply incapable of taking care of a house and Barry. What is worse than that is admitting that this situation can only get worse over time, because Barry will only get worse as time goes by. Putting off this process only makes all aspects of the situation more dire. My best is just not good enough. I realized that, even if I have to get a new furnace, then that is what I must do. Pretending that I could do everything and beating myself up for being lazy was delusional in a big way. My consistent effort of the past few weeks highlighted two things: I can make things better and, at the same time, the responsibilities of homeownership are greater than my abilities at this moment.

Anything you do not deal with just goes underground. Karma does not go away. Ever.

Avoiding Spiritual Bypassing

Many years ago, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche addressed the issue of “spiritual bypassing.” The concept is simple: using spirituality to avoid the hard work of growing up and dealing with our issues. I was so guilty of it and had no idea.

Now I try hard to avoid it and see it everywhere. One problem I see everywhere is the abuse of non-duality ideas to skip personal responsibility. Why apologize when we are all one? Another issue is the concept of “the eternal now.” American culture seems perpetually stranded in the present moment. The abuse becomes obvious with diabetics who don’t control their blood sugar levels and with people dealing with other quite obvious karmic come-uppance. What goes around, really does come back around. But keeping the focus on the present moment is a spiritual-looking way to not acknowledge karma.

I believe that life is often overwhelming–at least for me. And almost all the problems I am dealing with today come from my previous sense of overwhelm. I need to get my house ready to sell, and I don’t know crap about Homeownership 101. My inability and unwillingness to deal with the hard parts of life in the past are now biting me in the butt. I simply refuse to live my life like that anymore. I am dealing with issues now because not dealing with them is so problematic.

As I get older, I realize that there is no skipping steps–period. I have always been able to skip ahead because of my relative intelligence. Now I am 47 years old and playing catch-up. This is neither fun nor pretty.


“The Tibetan term ‘bardo’ or ‘intermediate state’ is not just a reference to the afterlife. It also refers more generally to these moments when gaps appear, interrupting the continuity that we otherwise project onto our lives….[B]ardo refers to that state in which we have lost our old reality and it is no longer available to us….[A]s soon as we see our life in terms of these successive deaths and rebirths, we dissolve the very idea of a solid self grasping onto an inherently real life.” Pema Khandro Rinpoche, Breaking Open, Spring 2015 Buddhadharma

This past week, I contacted a realtor. I intend to sell my house in Michigan. I have no idea how long it will take, but it is overwhelming to contemplate. Sometimes, the only thing worse than change is the prospect of no change.

It’s just weird to think that I really don’t know where I will live in a year. It’s fine and dandy to talk about having no security, but it is different to live it.

I want to grasp onto something, anything, desperately. I want a sense of continuity. I want to feel like I’m part of something larger than myself. Feeling lie a floating speck of dust is unnerving.

Evaluating Social Conventions

I have made a decision. It sounds real obvious, but I decided to only do things as long as I understand what I am doing and why I am doing it. I have given myself permission to do whatever I want—as long as I can say to myself, “I am doing X, for reason Y.” No mindlessness allowed.

Mindlessness is a variation of sleepwalking. If I wish to take a nap, I’ll do it consciously and deliberately. Just no numbing out. Staying awake is tough for me at times in this frozen tundra. Even the word “Buddha” means “awakened one,” which is a direct challenge to my hibernatory tendencies. Staying awake is a worthy goal that I am not always successful at.

My real target regarding consciousness is all those normal social conventions that I’ve never succeeded at and am now evaluating the worth of maintaining. When I was growing up, nobody ever had a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. If you weren’t full-blown autistic, you (I) could pass for normal. It has only been as an adult that I have met seriously Asperger-y people and done research on it. Looking at it, I realized, “Oh, my God. That’s me.” The shock of identification. When I thought of how I rock back and forth when stressed, it was like, “Wow. How autistic is that?”

I endlessly frustrated my poor mother. I continually retied my shoes to get my laces the exact same degree of tightness. I didn’t care how things looked, but they had to feel right. I am Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. A little less severe, but the same idea. I even admire Amy Farrah Fowler’s corduroy skirt collection. How wrong is that?

I have always felt like a freak, for good reason. I miss social cues. I have a really limited tolerance for physical touch and social contact. There is an episode of Big Bang Theory where Sheldon and Amy break up. Leonard asks Sheldon if he misses the social and physical contact with Amy. Sheldon’s response is perfect. “I’ve lived with you for seven years and can barely tolerate you.” That’s me.

My challenge is to figure out what social protocols I participate in that I can let go of. Just because I (or others) have always done something in no way implies that it is actually worth doing. I went to great lengths to get a degree so I can work anywhere and be at least semi-functional. This is the first time in my life I am seriously evaluating all the crap I have felt obligated to do. I have never felt comfortable with all the social etiquette, but I also never felt like I had a choice. I am giving myself that choice now. I am 47 years old and too old to be playing these games. There can be no new me without consciously letting go of those pieces of the old me that never fit in the first place. This in-between is a place of great pain, fear, and hope.

Subconsciously Annoying Myself

I have a strange “problem,” if that is actually what it is.

Many years ago, I realized that I jiggle my legs to keep myself awake. People thought I was nervous. So did I–until I tried to stop. When I stopped myself, I would find myself falling asleep. Many years later, I realized I was obsessing about things to achieve the same purpose, staying awake. I know this was the intention because, when I stopped, bam, I was asleep. Even currently, I consume caffeine to maintain awakeness. This habit is blatant and super-deliberate. There is no pretense of anything else.

Are these things real problems? They make zazen difficult for me. Perhaps that is a sufficient definition of “problem.” I have struggled my whole life with depression. For me, a big part of depression is the perpetual propensity to snooze in all conditions given half a chance. Right now, I am off any anti-depressants. My mood is fine. But I do want to nap. And the weather has been hibernation-inducing. Perhaps my propensity to snooze is normal in this frozen tundra. I wish I knew what normal was.

I want to be more Zen. I try to sit but then fall asleep. This is why I rebel at the idea of Mindful Based Stress Reduction. For me, it works. Too well. I feel like I am doing it wrong. I just suspect that my experience is not what the Buddha was trying to communicate.

Simplistic versus Simplicity

Ignorance v Awareness

Inattention v Knowledge

Laziness v Spirit of Helping

Deception v Honesty, Sincerity

Easy for Us v Easy for Them

I found this contrast online simply googling the word “simplicity.” It popped up in the “images” section. I traced it back to “”. It is perfect.

I have always sought simplicity, and then rebelled against the simplistic viewpoints I have encountered. Pretending climate change is a hoax is not simplicity. It is ignorance of the mind-bogglingly complex interconnections of the real world. It reminds me of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” debacle of the 1980s. Simplistic attitudes address nothing.

Of course, I found this nugget of perfection on a Zen website. Zen is real. Zen is in-your-face. Zen confronts you with who you are, not the pretty images we all try to project.

The most telling contrast is “Easy for us versus Easy for them.” Ask any programmer and they will tell you that the most complex thing in the world for them is to make a product “intuitive” and user-friendly. Like “the natural look” in makeup, a lot of work goes into its appearance of easy flawlessness. To make something look simple and Zen requires a great deal of up-front thought, planning, and preparation.

Anyone can take something simple and make it look complicated. It takes a genius to make something complicated appear simple. I had an anthropology professor like that. Sitting in his classes made the material seem strikingly obvious and left you feeling like, “Why do the other instructors make all this easy stuff look so hard?” Arthur Helweg (of Western Michigan University) is a genius. That’s all. In my opinion, he is on the level of Steve Jobs.

Leave it to our corporate, consumeristic culture to co-opt, bastardize, and taint the beauty of simplicity. Entire magazines are published to help people look simple and eco-friendly. The people in their articles wear $500 pairs of shoes as they tout the advantages of “simplicity.” It is difficult to imagine them missing the point to any greater extent. Meanwhile, McMindfulness overruns corporate America, encouraging workers to pay closer attention to their jobs. If they are not careful, these workers will start seeing through the meaninglessness of their jobs and start finding ways of making their lives genuinely simple.

I guess the reason the image of the contrasts struck me so hard was my attempt to live more simply and how demanding and relentless simplicity, harmony, and Zen truly are. Talking about them are easy, while doing them is something else. Making time for Zen is challenging. Staying on top of demands is never-ending.

I realized a week or so ago that part of my desire to “live more simply” is nothing more complicated than a yearning to be free of my current responsibilities. There is a limit to how simple my life can become while taking care of a sick husband. Also, the weather has made me want to hibernate until spring. The Weather Channel showed a map of the world’s temperature deviations from normal. The Eastern U.S. and Greenland were blue, indicating cooler than normal temps, and the rest of the world was various shades of red and orange, revealing the truth of global warming. In Michigan, many of us don’t even want to open our front doors because it is so bitterly cold. Nodding off is so easy—and tough to justify in a world gone haywire. “Keeping things simple” may be more fantasy than reality at this point in my life.  I reject both needless complexity and stupid simplisticness. Funny how it doesn’t feel like I am trying to strike a balance. Or be inordinately contrary. But it sure looks that way.


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