The fall is suddenly upon us, and it is indescribably wonderful. I’ve felt this exact autumn in my bones most of my forty-one years and I could recognize it with only a handful of my senses. I remember the last ninety-plus degree day, just a short few weeks ago, and then suddenly the temperature dropped. It is still warm enough, with rich rains, sometimes violent ones. My husband kept watering our sparse tomato plants right up until last week, although I told him there was not enough summer warmth left to coax the green fruits into ripeness.
The weather may be dipping into fall but it’s still plenty warm out, the sun is still hot on my skin and the heat catches and holds in my pigtails as my sponsor and I step out of the grocery store – carrying small packets from the deli and in my case, a quaint salad roll of basil, avocado, and cucumber – and travel to her car. She’s a far-parker, like my late father. It feels delicious outside.
My computer – an expensive piece of equipment, and one I rely on utterly – seems to have died. I try a cold boot, I try a PRAM boot. Nothing. My husband comes home in the evening and although the computer is important I have enough discipline not to worry; I set the problem aside. We also have dinner to make, and a kitchen to clean, a garment to finish sewing, a dog to bathe, teenagers to wrangle, and company this evening.
So at 10:30 Ralph tells me after taking a look at the Mac: “I don’t think your computer has a discrete hard drive I can remove.” I ask him, “Can you boot it as a slave?”
“I might be able to do that,” he says; then, “And I am impressed you’d suggest such a smart idea.”
“I tell you, when it comes to computers I’m like my dad. A savvy caveman.” My father was like that. He’d have a problem and he was calm about it. And when I was available to take a look he’d tell me, “I notice it only ___ when this is blinking,” and he’d point to something onscreen and it was always a relevant clue. And he’d nod like, this thing works on moonspells and snakeblood and I don’t quite understand it but I give it some respect.
Today it would have been my father’s 75th birthday. I know we would have done something special for him. I would have made him a cake. He’s been gone ten years. I don’t believe his presence is here. But his presence isn’t entirely missing, either.
I meditated this morning after reading some of the Dhammapada. It calmed me a great deal. Returning to regular meditation is essential; and more importantly, I am ready to recommit. I am ready to be here again, and more often, and calmer while I am.
New Year 2017 was a quiet affair at our place. I have a steady Saturday volunteer gig that I don’t miss for anything. Now yeah, there’s a lot of Saturday nights I don’t want to go. I want to stay home with my lovely husband and children. But I go, unless I’m in the hospital or called out of town.
So tonight I got dressed up a little, a hooded dress of my own making, a little eyeliner, a deep red lippie. The closer my hair is wrapped up and the larger my hoop earrings, the more secure I feel!
I had to pick a friend up. I’m off through the streets of Aberdeen, which are innately familiar. I’m a night person but New Year’s Eve others are obliged to join me. Lights in restaurants and taverns; a few souls out on the street but it’s cold, snow mixed in with the rain. I know people are gearing up to carouse, or maybe they’ve already started. A friend of mine is nearly run off the road by a drunk driver.
I’m to a little corner building, flipping on lights while another friend brews the coffee. A vigil, here for those who observe life’s triumphs and travails without the use of drugs or alcohol.
As much as I love the holidays, I’ve come to know that they are a hard time for many people. I figure since I’ve been okay for holidays, I love them in fact, I can be there for others. Maybe one day my time will come, and it won’t be so easy.
The coffee: hot, dark. Delicious. I have half a cup. Alongside my quart jar of water. I still get the moonshine jokes. I’ve never had a drop of moonshine in my life!
I welcome a man who is new to the area. He’s just moved, and he’s exhausted. I get to talk with a woman I see now and then. I’m thinking of a man I knew. I can see him crystal clear. He was older. He was on oxygen. He wasn’t healthy. I can’t remember his name but I remember his face. He would come in from the beach to sit with us. I grew to a swift affection. Where is he now? His name will come to me. Is he still with us? Is he sick? Is he well?
So many come and go. I can’t keep up with them all; not just the sea of faces, smiles, and handshakes here in this room – but the friends who wish me well, the little letters and emails and text messages, those who write me and ask for advice or who thank me or who call on me for some reason or another. I used to be able to grasp them all but there are too many. So I get to settle for telling people Thank you, and trying to comfort and be kind, and to show my appreciation.
Home now, and I have a hot slice of deep dish pizza. We sit down. After my shower, I am still not feeling well. My husband holds my feet in his hand, paints my toenails; holds my hands and paints each fingernail too. I am still feeling ill. I lean up against him. He smells wonderful; like cedar and warmth. He has always smelled wonderful to me.
At midnight, the fireworks, more than I figured. I bump up the music: INXS’ “Need You Tonight”. I’m on the couch in my blanket and I watch Ralph and Nels don coats and go outside to watch the pyrotechnics; I lean back and feel that mixture of sadness and joy. I remember where I was the day we heard Michael Hutchence had died by suicide. I was at a house party and someone played a ballad and for a moment we were quiet, drinks in hand doing nothing to keep us from reflecting on yet another loss.
And tonight, another year sober and another year deepening my practice. This year brought me more Buddhist practices; I am still astonished as I sink deeper into them. Tonight, my oldest child is sketching at the table, on a tablet. My youngest is in his underwear, gaming on the couch. He is only a few inches shorter than I, now.
This year life kept crashing along, despite everything.
The first function of mindfulness is to recognize, not to fight. “Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me. Hello, my little anger.” And breathing out, “I will take good care of you.”
Once we have recognized our anger, we embrace it. This is the second function of mindfulness and it is a very pleasant practice. Instead of fighting, we are taking good care of our emotion. If you know how to embrace your anger, something will change.
It is like cooking potatoes. You cover the pot and then the water will begin to boil. You must keep the stove on for at least twenty minutes for the potatoes to cook. Your anger is a kind of potato and you cannot eat a raw potato.
My hands are buried in a bin of t-shirts – shopping a sale for the ever-growing young people in the house – when I sense an argument behind me, a man and a woman. As they move close to where I’m installed I hear her say with intensity, “I’m grumpy because you screamed at someone in the parking lot which caused a panic attack!”. I laugh and say, “Yeah dude, that’s totally uncool!”
I look up to see a young woman with her father. She looks shocked, and blurts out: ” – that’s my dad!”. Meanwhile “dad” is glaring at me like he’d like to light me on fire with his mind. But what strikes me is that this young woman clearly finds him so fearsome she can’t believe someone would call him out. I think, “Well I’m not scared of your dad, babe!”
But I say, “Hi!” to them both and smile. She feels better a second later and compliments my hat – and I tell her, “Thank you.”
It is sad to me this man thinks he can act like a bully, can scream at someone, and in no way expects to be confronted. I used to be so incredibly non-confrontational I could never say a thing. But it’s a lose-lose, isn’t it? You call someone out directly, or with any heat – they’re angry. You call someone out with humor – they’re angry. What this means is this fellow thinks he can treat people poorly and that no one should object.
What an example to demonstrate for your child!
I hope this young woman comes to realize that she is not the bad behavior of her parents. She doesn’t have to answer for their poor behavior nor does she have to stand for it. She can un-learn these behaviors if she likes. She can love her dad but not participate when he does this sort of thing.
I’m thinking of my kids. I certainly don’t want them to grow up abusing people on the street – so Ralph and I don’t do those things. But don’t give me credit. Maybe it’s easy for me to treat strangers with respect, because my own father modeled this behavior.
But I also don’t want my kids to grow up like I used to be – scared to say anything. I figure I gotta work on having compassion for every one on the planet, every single person. If I’ve got the compassion in place, I should speak up like I feel.
Tonight I sit in a room sparsely-decorated, save for one white-flocked artificial Christmas tree. A woman plugs it in and the meager, tinny lights spring to life. Somehow a few dollars of cheap electronics, and I can feel my heart cheer, just a little.
The book in front of us, and the topic at hand, concerns the St. Francis Prayer. It is read aloud, and I listen as I have before.
That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.
To understand, than to be understood.
To love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.
A man in the room shares how he interprets the prayer. He’s an alcoholic, sober a month. He says to imagine the words like a fire on a cold night, warming the body. He enlivens the analogy and as he speaks, I discover I like that way of seeing it. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with anxiety, with anger or hurt. Times like this I can’t think my way out of the pain and suffering. But prayers, Buddhist texts – they help me a great deal. They are like that fire, warming me when I have little left to give.
The group disbands for the evening. Outside it is cold, damp – the beginning of a long winter. This man who’d shared so eloquently, he wraps himself up in his best winter clothes and sets off to wherever he lives, wherever he sleeps, on his bike.
My car is cold and the heater only works part of the time, so it’s pretty damp inside. A friend’s yearly Christmas CD – populated by irreverent parodies, horror movie dialogue clips, and Motown Christmas standards – provides me sustenance in the dark and cold. In some small way I am comforted by the modesty of my surroundings; the car barely working. The yard bedraggled in winter sogginess. The humble but absolutely blessed rite of making dinner. A late meal, curled up by our own fireside – not a figurative fire, either.
Tomorrow is the last day of work for a while. A weekend to recover the slings and arrows of the week.
And comfort? It dwells within; but we find bits without, too. Like a spark, to find its twin flaring to life in our own breast.
This morning when I sat down to meditate, things seemed a bit muddled. I’ve been very ill, nothing serious, but debilitating. Too ill to work, or sew, or clean or cook. I knew I was a productive enough person, but I was not prepared to see just how much doesn’t get done, when I don’t do it.
It has been very difficult to watch the moments slip away and know that it means I can’t complete tailoring work, I can’t be in to my job in Elections where I am needed, I can’t make a meal for my family. Our bank is overdrawn for the first time in quite some time – hundreds, due to a series of fees that in inexperience I did not anticipate.
I can do nothing about this.
This morning I woke early. Sick or not, I am committed to a volunteer event I’d assigned myself too several months ago. About twenty to twenty-five individuals are traveling from the Seattle area, and I am hosting them – responsible for breakfast, lunch, and facilitating the event. I asked for help from my local chapter in this group – and only one person volunteered.
As so many are wont to say: “It is what it is.”
In meditation these thoughts – and a hundred more – come, swell to fruition, pass on. I come to realize over these few minutes that I do want to be there today, and want to feed and help my fellow volunteers. I am afraid of how ill I am, and that I will get worse, and that I won’t be able to do what I need to do – not just today, but in the days to come. I am uncertain – about so much. I am unsure as to how I’m going to pay for our keep. I am unsure of when I’ll get to rest again, when I’ll get a good night’s sleep.
But I don’t need to do all that right now.
Right now I let these thoughts come and go and I realize, I am very glad for the life I have. I am less sure than I was yesterday how things are going to go. But I am sure they are going to be fine.
The sun is banging against the blinds in our very small bathroom – one of my favorite rooms in our house. Outside I can hear my daughter; she shifts the vacuum hose to the back seat of my car, to complete her task cleaning it. At the moment my ears focus on her she pauses and coughs, coughs, coughs, a wretched, wracking symphony. In that moment I suddenly realize that, given her asthmatic flare-ups lately, she should not be charged with household duties that are dusty or otherwise might exacerbate her condition.
It would be easy to feel so terrible – #parentingFail, and not just mine – but instead, I have clarity: “I’ve never had a child with asthma before!” I’ve not had asthma, nor lived with anyone who has. Of course, I make mistakes.
As Rose Tremain said – “Life is not a dress rehearsal!” I can’t know how to do things I don’t know how to do.
The very thought humbles me, gives me some thread of courage, as we move into a new season in our life – that of putting our affairs in order to buy a house. As pertains to my child’s illness, the medical bills – which I’d almost paid off a few months ago – have piled up. But there is a satisfaction to be had. My own health continues to hold. It has been almost half a year since I needed a treatment for my kidneys. I am very grateful for that. I have regularly paid on the other bills, so they do not hurt our credit history.
My mind has been consumed lately with bouts of what the Buddhist practice names Ill-Will – one of the Five Hindrances. I trust it won’t bore you very much if I don’t go on at length about the Hindrances and what they are – except to describe the symptoms of this particular branch. Like a fever in the mind, of thought. Distracting, and unpleasant: assuming the worst about people. Hoping bad things befall “enemies” (those who one minute I’m perfectly fine with – the next, have crossed me in some real or imagined way). Experiencing envy for those who seem to have things easier than I. Wishing I had more help. Believing I should ask. Experiencing shame if I do. Feeling angry if I don’t receive the help I think I “deserve”.
The list goes on. Like a fugue, like a fever in the night.
Ill-Will has invaded my mind lately, a flu that leaves me weak and tired. I have some thoughts as to why I have been thus afflicted – but it doesn’t matter much, does it? I tolerate these thoughts and the emotions that come with them, and I gently turn away from them. I suffer patiently and I exercise restraint in not acting on these fantasies – not saying the sarcastic thing, not practicing poor citizenship. I greet people and breathe deep and try to “show up” for the things I should.
It has been a struggle. As much as I have many to help me, my walk is still my own. Today in my kitchen my heart was flooded with fear – and I looked on my windowsill, the green and growing things I caretake and the blessed idol there – and I took refuge, and my heart grew strong again.
Playing badminton in the backyard, the net with a hole in it, one stake made of some kind of plastic tubing and one of wood. Our life can look so shabby at times. The openness and laughter of my children reminds me the future is not my past.
“We should focus on snuggling,” my son whispers, drawing nearer. He has a morning routine: his father wakes him up shortly after seven, whereupon the boy makes his toilet, dresses, gets breakfast – sharply objecting if Ralph dishes up too much breakfast as that means it will take up too much time – before climbing the stairs and into bed with me. His every single move in the morning, is such that he can maximize this time he holds me close. Sometimes I’m half-awake. Sometimes I get up after he leaves – sometimes, I fall back asleep.
For many days I didn’t even notice my boy was doing this, really. Living with children, swimming in the waters, you can miss even something special. And now I think: what gifts his morning demonstrations are. And I think, These days will pass by, just like everything else!
This evening I sat in a group, a spiritual gathering of sorts. I heard a man talking about his life a few years ago. He said some things that troubled me. I reached down and refolded my pant cuff, fiddled with my shoelace. Trying to process my thoughts, my feelings. Trying to touch them, first.
What is wrong?
I discover: I have a sense of unease, when people put themselves down. When they say how horrible they are, and especially when they use harsh words. Piece of shit, whiny little bitch, liar cheat and thief. I hear these things. I feel uncomfortable, that’s how I feel. Just about as uncomfortable as when people use that language to talk about others.
If I easily gravitate to hate-talk about others, or myself, even my past self – well, I’m probably still saying it, thinking those hateful things, about myself. Later, I will look back and ask, why was I so hard on myself? On others?
Life is too short for self-hate. It seems like it’s something we can’t stop. Maybe if we knew how much we did it, we’d feel appalled. We’d want to do something new.
Maybe that would be a beginning.
My husband and I meet in the kitchen, after housework is done and the kids are getting ready for bed; the cats are fed and the dog has been walked. I put my arms around my husband as it seems daily he grows more dear to me, more beautiful.
That’s one of those mysteries I wouldn’t have believed, or understood, maybe even not so many years ago.