2015 was my hardest year ever. No contest.
Just the level of chaos was bizarre. A BB through my living room window. Car problems. House problems. New windows. A bullet through the living room window into the new TV.
And the medical drama. An abnormal mammogram for me. Blood in Barry’s urine. Chronically high PSA levels. Barry deciding not to get a biopsy to determine the probability of (and possible spreading of) cancer.
What good came out of 2015? I’ve always wanted to simplify my life. To a great extent, I’ve done so now—albeit not always voluntarily. I’ve gotten rid of almost everything in the basement. I’ve whacked everything in the yard down to a more manageable form. I truly believe that I have less stuff now than when we lived in the apartment. That is huge.
And I’ve learned who I can and cannot count on in times of need. The blinders (and sometimes the gloves) are off. No more pretense. I know who can trusted and for what. At the top of the list are my parents. When my friends were all letting me down, my folks were there for me. They gave me a car. Can anyone say “Holy crap!”? And my mom showed me her totally awesome household abilities. There is just about nothing she hasn’t at least attempted in the past. She doesn’t always know what does work, but she can tell me if something is a royally bad idea. I don’t see her dying with Alzheimer’s like her mom. I envision her death as a fall off the roof or something falling on top of her. She has inspired confidence in me. If she can do something, I should be able to do it.
That confidence is what I am leaning on now. I’ve handled so much that I feel like I can handle almost anything. Maybe not all at once, but in bite-size chunks. I put the house up for sale and have done dozens of other things by myself I never thought I could or would have to do.
My life now is more authentic, perhaps by default. Having limited emotional, time, energy, and financial resources has forced me to let go of everything that no longer serves me (or maybe never did but I wasn’t honest about it). I see one-way relationships for the parasites they are, demanding access to my precious resources and then not finding my needs to be convenient for them. I’ve had to get more realistic about finances. The other day, the local neighbor kid came by. He has done a ton of yard work for me and I have paid him handsomely for it. He wanted to earn $40 for a ticket to Indiana. I explained that we were not rich and that the nice car in my driveway was given to me by my mom. Forty bucks is a lot of money in my world. I am authentically broke. Reality bites sometimes. Deluding myself into believing that I have social and financial resources that I do not actually possess has cost me dearly emotionally and that’s a price I am unwilling to pay any longer. If I am authentically pathetic, so be it.
Everything seems to come down to what I am and am not willing to invest my time, energy, and money into. Becoming realistic regarding my limits has been almost unbearably painful. Just because a relationship worked in my twenties doesn’t necessarily mean that maintaining it today is a worthwhile endeavor.
What do I want to take with me when I leave Michigan? What’s worth preserving? The less crowded my life is with things and people that serve no purpose, the more flexibility I have. Flexibility is more important to me than almost anything else I can think of.
Who knows? My values will probably change as time goes on, but that’s where I am at today. I don’t know if my life is any better today than a year ago, but I have a clarity about certain issues that I couldn’t even dream of this time last year. I am walking into 2016 clear-eyed and capable. Nothing beats clarity. I never had this kind of clarity going to church. Thank you, Zen.
I’ve been in a lot of emotional pain lately because all the traumas I’ve been dealing with this past year are calming down and all the feelings I had to repress to simply cope are springing to the surface, all at once, of course.
I have felt unimaginably stuck. Not metaphorically stuck. Metaphysically stuck. I could no longer move up, down, left, right, any which way. It is hard to want to live when no movement in any direction is possible. Who wants to spend the next umpteen years trapped in a box (or a bear trap, to illustrate the pain level)?
I have been trying to let everything go (or just let it be, however you want to look at it). I asked a New-Age-y friend for suggestions. (It’s amazing how un-picky one becomes for sources of advice when feeling so trapped all you want to do is gnaw your own leg off.) She suggested Ho’oponopono and the book Zero Limits by Joe Vitale.
What is it about? Getting to the Void (they call it “zero”). I recognized it as a part of the Buddhist concept of shunyata. Another key aspect is accepting absolute 100% responsibility for everything in your world. The emphasis is on the repetition of “I love you.” And repentance in in the form of “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.” You don’t say these things to another person but to yourself. You are the creator of your world and, therefore, if your life is messed up, you need to fix yourself first and foremost. It’s all about “cleaning” your subconscious.
The process claims miracles can happen. I asked myself, “What would a miracle look like? How would I recognize it?” I didn’t have to wait long. After talking with my dad, I started it (“I love you, I love you…”) and had a strange epiphany. I realized I no longer had a desire to participate in an aspect of our relationship that had previously exasperated me. I felt the temptation leave. When my dad tries to re-start that particular dynamic, I honestly don’t know what I’ll say or do, but the old dynamic is gone and he will have to find a way to deal with it. A shift has occurred within me. We’ll see what happens.
Continuing cleaning, I started to come up with ideas. Dad was talking about “illegal aliens” and how they are such a drain to our system. I am pretty sure some of my neighbors are illegals. I realized I might want to help my Hispanic friends. But how? Two words came to mind: Cristo Rey. It is a local community center founded by Hispanics. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. I have volunteered for them in the past.
I still don’t know what I will do, but I feel more spacious inside. Where did these ideas come from? I certainly wasn’t thinking, “I really want to go volunteer at Cristo Rey. What excuse can I use to do so?”
Some people say that feelings shouldn’t matter in our decision making. They are idiots. Feelings go by other names: impetus, motivation, giving a damn, love, and hate. Try having motivation without some emotional component.
When emotional debris is cleared out, even a tiny bit, inspiration can occur. Otherwise, all you are doing is reacting from memories. I can attest to that. So many memories that chewing my emotional leg off to get a taste of freedom is a perfectly reasonable idea.
But you have to make space. Zen does that. Buddhism is full of aphorisms like “mind is like sky and thoughts are clouds.” Zen can be disruptive precisely because it makes so much space all at once that repressed garbage can flood in and be highly destabilizing. I believe it needs to be practiced with the spiritual supervision of someone who has “been there, done that.”
This past year has been hard, but I feel like I have some tools to improve things. And that’s all I care about this minute.
“Buddhism was a process; one did not need to delude oneself or pretend to be other than oneself, and one did not have to become completely passive in order to embrace the notion of peace.” Jan Willis, Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist, One Woman’s Spiritual Journey, p. 201
These are lessons she learned from experience. Having grown up Baptist, she enjoyed its fellowship and community, but it was always tinged with fear of the KKK. She held no illusions of her own safety. Spending time in India and Nepal showed her Buddhism in action and in exile.
Her remarks speak to the importance of authenticity. Willis understands the pain of rejection and fakery. Pretending to be other than oneself is exhausting. And an enormous waste of time and energy. The problem isn’t “What if they reject me?” No. The problem is “They love this person I am pretending to be. How much of my integrity am I willing to sacrifice to maintain their approval?”
I have felt compelled to leave various friendships and organizations over time. It is my firm conviction that you don’t know where the expectations/boundaries are until you violate them. Then, suddenly, people will come out of the woodwork to correct you and inform you of “your place.” Such organizations are seldom, if ever, worth the price of admission. To be rejected honestly is comparatively refreshing as opposed to having a manufactured persona accepted and admired. My needs and values of my twenties do not bear any resemblance to the ones I have today. Remaining true to the values of a Cindy who no longer exists is very empty.
Willis’ remarks also speak to having a “self.” What is this self? In Buddhism, it can be debated whether such a thing exists. But, being black, she can address this from the position of having her self reviled simply due to the color of her skin, an essentially meaningless, superficial feature. She is not arguing against its existence.
One problem Buddhism in America has is how it came from Asian masters directly into white middle- and upper-class America. Debating whether or not one has a self is a fine academic debate, devoid of meaning and real-life application. But violate those selfless expectations by advocating for a sangha community of color and watch how quickly people are put in their places. Also, I saw an article about “white trash Buddhists” in a Buddhist magazine. The author expressed some of the same frustrations I have: the cost and inconvenience of going on sesshins, dathuns, etc. Even poor whites have a rough time dealing with some of the unspoken expectations. You don’t know what the expectations are until you are incapable of or unwilling to live up to them.
I am uninterested in participating in relationships/organizations that require me to delude myself or be fake to ensure my continued acceptance. One thing this past year from hell has done for me is to simplify my life, involuntarily at times. I only have so much energy and I refuse to use what little I have to nurture connections that will be a never-ending drain on my psychic energy. I’m just too tired to pretend to be someone else.
I am not traumatized at this moment. This past year has been repeatedly traumatic. I have a hard time growing, learning, and maturing when I am constantly challenged to simply cope. Being frozen in trauma postpones the learning curve indefinitely.
I don’t know how well I’ve been doing lately. I am always trying to learn something from just about every situation because I do not want to keep repeating the same stupid mistakes as I age. There is nothing sadder than an elderly person who never really matured. Age without wisdom is disheartening. So I try to learn. And so do my friends. And I am unsure of how much they’ve been learning, either. Are we just ageing without growing? Our behavior doesn’t seem to reflect much transformation at times.
I have always been obsessed with transformation. How does it occur? I read personal stories all the time. I just read a book by a black lesbian Buddhist. I have started a different book by a woman who is black, Baptist, and Buddhist. I have read conversion stories from people that have gone from non-Christian to Christian, Protestant to Orthodox, Christian to atheist, etc. I want to understand the process, the logic, the emotional components, etc. How one goes from being A to being totally different B intrigues me.
I want my life to be transformed, but I also see the value in denial. Dealing with Barry’s end-of-life issues raises the question of how much information do you really want if there is nothing you plan on doing with it anyway? A Christian friend was extolling the value of religion’s ability to comfort people, even if none of it is true. Her attitude was, “What’s the problem if it helps you and comforts you?” Part of me wholeheartedly agreed. And the rest of me realized that we were basically confirming that Karl Marx had hit the nail on the head when he said religion was the opium of the people—designed for comfort and not for growth. I never thought I would be proving Karl Marx right.
I have always pursued growth. My religion has changed over the years because of that. I am perennially looking for answers. I get along fabulously with religious leaders, until, that is, I start of grow beyond their level. Independent thinking in the Christian world is referred to as “heresy.” Then, suddenly, leaders start warning others not to associate with me. I am dangerous, apparently. That has been my frustration with Christianity is general: the promise of transformation and then the absolute refusal to allow the very factors (such as independent thought) that would enable genuine metamorphosis to occur. The complete defense of a dysfunctional status quo is the opposite of spiritual growth, as far as I’m concerned. It is not progression but rather regression to an infantile-like state. The verbal promise of growth is belied by the forbiddance of any and all information that might lead a person to make an intelligent decision. “Let us take care of you. We’ll meet your needs.” Then you join and find out the truth: now you are the church and it is your job to meet everyone else’s needs (even though no one had any real intention of ever meeting yours). It is pure deception. But maybe it’s a necessary one. Who do you know that would join a religion that promised them nothing?
Lately, I’ve been doing some Buddhist chanting. Why? Because it feels good. Does it change anything? Probably not. But I am not caring now. Perhaps it is non-transformational, but it feels refreshing. As an Orthodox Christian, I understood the purpose of a mantra: using the bandwidth of your brain to undo habitual, obsessive thoughts and clear out the mental cobwebs. Of course, Christians deny using mantras, but even a casual observer can verify their use: the rosary for Catholics (Hail Mary…) and the Jesus Prayer for the Orthodox (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God…). To say Christians do not use mantras is to not understand what mantras actually are.
How many people in our culture are frozen in trauma and unable to break out on their own? Christianity could really grow if it ever learned how to help traumatized people. The gratitude factor alone would cause an explosion in attendance. Helping people get unstuck would confirm the transformative potential of religion, as opposed to revealing the church as the enemy of growth and maturity. My attraction to Buddhism has always been its profound understanding of suffering and its practicality in dealing with real life issues. (Read anything by Pema Chodron.) But its Asian, patriarchal version doesn’t always look much different than some of the more screwed-up American and European varieties of Christianity.
I think it is perfectly okay for someone, like Barry, who has cancer and a very limited life expectancy, to live in denial. But I feel like I am still way too young for this (“this” being lying to myself freely and shamelessly to make myself feel better). I soooooo wish Marx was wrong, but I see the validity of his position more every day.
“The more we realize, the more compassionate we become, and the more compassionate we become, the more deluded we have to be. When all beings are wallowing in the mud, we have to jump into the mud to be able to help them. And obviously, when we get into the mud, we become muddy. That’s being deluded within delusion. That’s our life.” On Zen Practice by Taizan Maezumi & Bernie Glassman, P. 143
The whole Bodhisattva ideal requires that I be deluded. Are you kidding? After spending so many years trying so hard to live in reality…
My issue? This self has to pay the bills and keep a little sanity in the meantime. And I’m not doing a great job of it.
This past week, I was obnoxious to someone. And too tired to care at all. What part of me was obnoxious? Was that my self, spirit, soul?
I’ve read a lot of psychology books and know that a certain level of ego strength is essential and non-negotiable for navigating the real world. It is mandatory for basic functioning. Someone or something has to have a job, do the dishes, etc.
But Buddhism says that my “self” doesn’t really exist, at least not in how I think it does. It has a very non-dualistic streak. I believe in the interconnectedness of all things, but that assumes that I believe that those things exist independently (at least to some degree) of me. Otherwise, what is it that is connected?
The hazard is that we tend to identify with whatever we can control. We assume that whatever we can control is part of who we are. When we are younger, that includes a lot, especially one’s body and career. However, aging destroys that illusion. As the body disintegrates, our illusion of control is shattered into a million pieces. I’m seeing that with Barry. As entropy becomes more central to Barry’s body, what, if anything, survives?
The Buddha consistently refused to answer whether or not there is a self.
I feel like I have accomplished an absolutely amazing amount this past year. I have done a ton of things to the house and dealt with repeated traumas. I never knew I could do this much. Necessity has shown me that I am so much more capable than I ever imagined I could be. I volunteered for none of it, at least not consciously. Certainly none of it was my idea.
But who achieved all of this?
I want to be spiritual. I want to be compassionate. But I also have to operate in the dualistic world of mortgage payments, doctor visits, dealing with people in denial, etc. I have always envied nuns and monks because they could focus on spiritual growth without those pesky real-life issues. However, when I met some nuns, I saw the end result and was not impressed. They were nice and sweet and child-like. Maturity comes from dealing with reality, something the nuns had never been required to do. When your every need is taken care of, maturity is simply not essential. It is just plain weird to meet a middle-aged girl. It was like she was playing dress-up. It is startling to meet people who age without gaining any appreciable wisdom.
The idea of struggling to live in the real world, dealing with it forthrightly, and then getting muddy trying to pull others out of the mud somehow, at this point in my life, does not appeal to me in the slightest. At this point, I would settle for sanity and just not being continually annoyed by myself and others.
Every meditation or exercise in spiritual growth starts with the instruction “Go somewhere you know you will not be interrupted for a few hours…” Sorry. That situation does not exist for me. I have to be continually available. That’s why I am too tired to care about most things anymore. Sometimes spirituality seems like a luxury. It’s probably a lot easier to believe a self doesn’t exist when expectations are not constantly placed on it or one is free to ignore them. It must be nice. Someday I will have that freedom, hopefully.
This past year has changed me. For the better and worse.
I am more bitter and stronger all at the same time.
I confess I am bitter because I have believed that people would truly be there for me when I needed them the most. That was what they promised. Those promises were false. When I tried to take them up on their offers, I found out that neither the offers nor the offer-ers were genuine. To stop the pretense of these relationships has been mournful and yet a great relief.
I am stronger because I have done so many things I never ever thought I could do, out of sheer necessity. Even my suicidal feelings have come in handy. Not caring whether I live or die has enabled me to say and do things I would have been terrified of in the past. Now, I just don’t care about so many people’s reactions. Confronting people is not a problem when you know you can survive just fine without their assistance and approval. The African American community has a saying I just love: “I can do bad all by myself.” It’s not bragging, just brutal honesty. It’s like saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m just as capable of figuring it out as anyone.” That’s what caring for Barry and dealing with the house have taught me.
I believe that the reason people are in such denial and so resistant to change is because they know on some level that, if they truly deal with situation as it is and not live in their fantasy world, life will change them permanently. They will cross many Rubicons. There are many points of no return in life. Once you proceed forward, there is no option to go back. You can make a different choice and go forward in a different direction, but backwards is not an option because time does not reverse. I am 48. Next year, I will be 49. I will never be 25 again, thank god. It was not a “very good year”, to mangle Sinatra.
My life has been involuntarily simplified. There is only so much I can handle. Pushing me harder will get you nowhere. And if you push me hard enough, I will re-evaluate my relationship with you to decide whether or not it is worth maintaining in the long run. Life is not pretty sometimes and I refuse to make it more complicated than it needs to be. Part of simplification is a ruthless courage to eliminate all non-essentials.
And that includes relationships. It is easier to have fewer and more genuine relationships than to pretend to have lots of friends and not really know what you have or don’t have. Eliminating non-essentials makes space for more of the good stuff, I have found. Getting rid of the crappy couch gives you the space for a nice new one, for example. Same principle, writ large. I can be there more for my friends now because I have more free time. I now have fewer relationships, but they are of a higher quality. This process has created much grief, but it has also been satisfying, once the dust settles.
Do words mean anything? Should they?
I am wrestling with multiple levels of words, actions, visuals, and meaning.
The other day, a friend of mine was praising me up one side and down the other for what a terrific friend I am—and then proceeded to refuse me a favor small in comparison to what I’ve been doing for her lately. Seriously? She had had a rough week, but so had I. I was emotionally distraught and needed to talk. So she decides that that is as good a time as any to set and enforce a boundary.
Part of what made the week difficult for me had been the diagnosis of my husband as likely having a “small amount” of cancer. He heard “small amount that may take decades to become bothersome.” I heard “The cancer is back!” Given his previous cancer and Huntington’s (and how it affects his ability to think clearly and logically), my interpretation is radically different than his. Having a little cancer is like being a little pregnant in my mind. Is he just hearing what he wants to hear? Is that simply what all humans do?
Also, lately I’ve been encountering conservatives who assume I am one of them. A salesman had come to my house (basically under false pretenses of a vacuum-cleaner check-up). He looked to be in his twenties. When talking about where I wanted to eventually move to, I mentioned that I wouldn’t mind living in the mid-Atlantic, but not so much in Dixie because of some of the racial attitudes I’ve encountered. He said he had never heard of that motivation. I felt like asking, “And you’ve been living in what cave as of late?” He mentioned he would be careful due to the way some of the state governments are run. (Read: He wants a red state that is not obligated to honor federal rules, regulations, and laws he and his friends personally disapprove of.) I know conservative-speak. I was raised by a couple of them. I’m sure he was checking my responses. When he left, I said that, for December in Michigan, the weather now is exceptionally warm, thanks to the el nino. I could tell by his body language that I had triggered the whole climate-change-denial reflex, which was completely unintentional. I also have a friend that I will see later this week who is extremely conservative, but she comes by her assumption of my agreement honestly: I used to go to her church.
Why did he assume I was like him? Because of my clothes and demeanor. Having been evangelical and Eastern Orthodox, these environments have shaped my demeanor and clothing sensibilities. I dress very conservatively, which contrasts sharply with my liberal post-Christian views. How do I avoid these conversations? Side-stepping them is exhausting. I feel like I have no integrity talking to these people. I cannot be who I am with them.
How do I avoid these mis-assumptions? Do I need to dress in Buddhist robes or wear satanic jewelry to convey “I am not one of you”?
I feel like I am mis-firing on all cylinders. I am mis-communicating right and left. I am trying to find a Buddhist response to my emotional pain. I am in a lot of pain right now. What do I say? How do I say it? Does it even matter what I say if people are simply going to hear what they want to hear?
I am trying real hard to not damage my relationships right now by saying things I will regret. But how much value should I place on relationships that make high demands of me and then turn me away when I am in emotional distress? I don’t want to over-react, but I also don’t want to repeat the mistakes of my past. I believe that when a similar situation keeps popping up in fairly rapid succession, then I am somehow responsible for creating it. I am too old to keep making the same mistakes over and over. I want to handle all of this with integrity and compassion, not just for others but also for myself. I have no idea how to do so.
A few days ago, I was sitting in the coffee area of the local AA club while Barry sat in a meeting. To plug in my computer, I had to move somebody’s pictures to a corner of the table. I don’t know who the photos belonged to. I looked at a few of them. They were clearly from different decades, going back at least to the 60’s. I didn’t recognize anyone from the club in them and I didn’t see any descriptions on the back of who these people are/were.
It hit me real hard: is this all that’s left when we die? A pile of pictures that some random relative will have to dispose of? What’s more is that I have allowed few pictures to be taken of me as an adult. I may not be remembered at all.
Life is change. I am accustomed to thinking of things in terms of transitions from one thing to another, but some things don’t really change into something else; they just dissolve. Even Thich Nhat Hanh talks about water becoming clouds and that kind of thing.
Things seemed simpler when I was a Christian and believed in a personal god. A childlike faith can be reassuring, even if it is false.
This past week, Barry was told that he probably had “a few cancer cells down there.” At first, I found that reassuring. Some men, after all, can have slow-growing prostate tumors for twenty or more years. However, I doubt those men have Huntington’s or a previous cancer diagnosis. Is having “a little cancer” similar to being a “little bit pregnant”? I’ve decided to proceed forward from the position of “the cancer is back,” not “a few cancer cells.” When a person first gets a cancer diagnosis, they can get treatment and maybe live another twenty or thirty years. On the other hand, when someone is told that the cancer has returned, the next step is to get one’s affairs in order, starting with a will. We’ve already done a lot of that. I am just living from the perspective of a shortened prognosis. We already have a palliative care plan in place.
Six months ago, I thought Barry could live another ten years—a very possibly ugly ten years. The Huntington’s is slowly progressing and there is the possibility of a nursing home within the next few years. There was no light at the end of the tunnel for me. Now there is. Barry will not likely live another ten years. Palliative care is not treatment; it is hospice. I may outlive Barry after all.
Part of me says, “So what?” Eventually, any meaningful trace of my existence will disintegrate. In the end, the light at the end of my tunnel will be a train.
Pema Chodron wrote a book many years ago, When Things Fall Apart. It is really good. But what about when you fall apart? Not just emotionally, but actual physical dissolution? I am not talking about metamorphosis. I am talking extinction. Very different.
The past few days have been eventful. Knowing that Barry’s PSA was a 7, I was concerned that the obvious next step was a biopsy, which would be painful with a risk of infection. At first, he seemed like he might do it if his sponsor suggested so, and that had me panicked. So…….his sponsor gets to make these huge decisions and I get stuck living with the consequences and picking up the pieces. Great. But Sunday evening he said he didn’t want to have a biopsy.
I rejoiced, not so much from the choice but rather from the fact that Barry was taking full responsibility for it. I had no idea how exhausted I was from making all the decisions and trying to figure out how to handle everything. I feel like I could collapse from carrying that burden for so long.
This morning, we went to doctor’s office. The nurse practitioner said that the normal next step would be a biopsy, but Barry had previously said no and he said no repeatedly today. She said there were probably a few cancer cells “down there” and that men often have prostate cancer for many years and that Barry’s seems slow-growing. We will do the PSA test every fall, just to monitor and see if it suddenly goes up. If Barry has any troublesome symptoms, we have a plan in place medication-wise. She even mentioned “comfort care” which tells me that palliative care is on her mind and that seems perfectly reasonable. I feel like we are all on the same page for once.
Does Barry have cancer? Probably. But his unwillingness to treat changes the next steps.
I feel so relieved. I am not crazy for thinking that a biopsy would be the next logical step. The best part is Barry making his wishes so clear today at the office.
I want to tell people everywhere: take responsibility for your own choices! If you don’t, you lay the burden on someone else, who will likely resent it and may not end up making the choices in your best interest, but, rather, theirs. Sometimes, there just are no good choices. Here’s a good rule of thumb: whoever bears the responsibility should have the authority. Responsibility without authority is slavery. Authority without responsibility is license. If something has a huge effect in your life, take responsibility for it. If you don’t, be prepared to pay a high price.