Crying in Shrine Rooms

 

As one long prepared, and graced with courage,e822b14f0865dc062b6f321667d2d591
 as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing. –C.P. Cavafy

I had a panic attack once while meditating. This is counter-intuitive, right? I mean, meditating is supposed to be relaxing. It’s supposed to put your mind at ease. And in fact, being at ease was what set the attack off in the first place.

I was in college, my first year. I was a participant in Zen meditation sessions led by one of my Asian Studies professors, a man named Tadanori Yamashita. I remember we were sitting there, counting our breaths up to ten, starting over again. Over and over. Breeeeaaathing. And then, I must have dozed, because all of a sudden my head snapped up with a start, my eyes wide, my heart beating wildly. I was sweating, and scared, and trembling. I felt like I would die.

I knew that what had happened was that I had fallen asleep, and in a more logical moment, I would have been able to recover easily from the momentary surprise and confusion of waking up. But I remember thinking “I have no control over myself. I have so little control over myself, I can’t even keep myself from falling asleep while sitting up. My body is out of my control.” And the more I thought about this, the more scared I got, and the more trapped I felt by the little tea house and the other students breathing beside me. I managed to not run out of the place, but I waited in a state of rising panic until I could scuttle back to my dorm, distract myself somehow, and take a Klonopin.

I practiced meditation on and off after that, in varying forms and in varying places. I wouldn’t say I’m a Buddhist, exactly, but there have always been things about Buddhist practices that spoke to me more than any other religion or philosophy. I can feel Buddhism in my bones – Attachment, in its myriad forms is real and it definitely causes suffering. I can see it every time I am in Target and decide that I need every colorful bauble and bit of cloth they sell. I can see it when I get fixated on a negative thought and turn it around and around in my brain until I feel completely mired in a pit of swirling, negative despair. The ability to see a sticky thing or thought and just let it sail by is a valuable one. It’s an ability I crave and strive for.

In 2008 (approximately,) a relationship of mine was falling apart. Ok, it wasn’t a relationship per se, but more of a friendship that involved some relationshippy things. It was not good for either party, but man did I cling to it ferociously. I tagged along with this man on a few occasions to the Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery (KTC) in Wappingers Falls to meditate. The shrine room of the temple didn’t quite fit my previous spartan, zen-influenced aesthetics, with its walls of gold statues and colorful scrolls, and their beliefs and practices were somewhat unfamiliar. But the temple was beautiful, the people there sweet and gracious, and the vibe pleasant. I felt instantly at home there, standing in bare feet and drinking tea with the monks and nuns in their maroon and orange.

As this friend prepared to move to NYC, we went to the KTC for one last meditation session together. I knew at that point that things between us were falling apart (and that really, we weren’t compatible,) but was still deluding myself into thinking we’d rally somehow. I was terrified of being alone. I was still telling myself I would visit him, that he’d let me visit and goddamn it, he’d like it, that we’d hang onto this thread that connected us. That it wouldn’t hold us both back. I think I may have still thought that his talks of leaving might not be real. We hadn’t been romantically involved in a while, but I still told myself we may be again. I could. not. let. go.

That last night, we took our shoes off for the last time, walked upstairs to the shrine room for the last time, and sat down on those cushions for the last time. The bowl was hit and after it stopped reverberating, the room relaxed into silence.

I sat there, breathing, counting, thinking I was doing ok at the whole meditating thing (and then thinking “dammit! I thought something!”) But then, out of the depth of my chest, rose a sob.

I had been maintaining this balance between grasping frantically at this world I knew, and telling myself that I wasn’t actually losing that world. I had been distracting myself with internet and friends and video games and books. But sitting in that silent room, all of a sudden it hit me. Everything was changing. Again and constantly. And I had to change with it, or break.

It was embarrassing, sitting there wracked with sobs, hoping nobody else noticed. I dried my eyes as best I could, and at the end of the meditation, we walked outside into the cold evening and my friend talked to one of the residents there about finding a place to study in his new home. That was the moment I guess I knew there was no going back, and there would be no desperate clinging. I needed to let go.

13935017_10154410028909763_122216761633289756_n
Me and my most favorite man EVER at KTC.

Fast forward eight years (eight years! Wow.) That relationship (or whatever it was,) is long over, and I’ve moved on to better things, at least in the romance department. My father died in March, though, and I’ve been sort of floundering ever since. I’ve followed distraction after distraction trying not to get sucked down into the misery that is losing a parent.

I’m not typically a person who allows myself much mental downtime, which is maybe a big part of why I am so drawn to Buddhism, and  meditation in general. Left to my own devices, I fill my brain with a million and one thoughts so I don’t have to confront the fear and sadness that lurks inside. This has been especially true since my father’s death. My preoccupation with occupying myself has been almost frantic. If I don’t stop moving, I don’t have to face myself.

It was among this sadness that I saw the post about the kirtan with Krishna Das at the KTC. I have only gone there once or twice since that last evening with the non-boyfriend, but I still have connections there, and despite now living 45 minutes away, I often think about going back. A free ticket (thanks, Doug!) gave me a good excuse to go.

(As an aside, Krishna Das has always occupied a special place in my heart as well. When I was pregnant with my now 13-year-old son, Keith, I listened to him obsessively. I brought the CD with me, in fact, when I went to give birth. Mother Song was literally the soundtrack to his entrance into this world. So to hear the artist in person was too good of a chance to miss.)

I brought Jp. We got there early, found seats on the floor of the KTC’s new Maitreya Center. It was beautiful and colorful and comfortable. I was told the statues were made out of butter. I found this fascinating.

14054029_10154409355434763_5355966798582599147_n
Krishna Das at the Maitreya Center

After about a half an hour, Krishna Das came on the short stage with his accompanying musicians, and began to chant. Because it was a kirtan, we in the audience chanted back.

At one point, I looked to my left to see a thin, aristocratic-faced lady with her hair in an updo, her eyes closed, tears streaming down her cheeks. My initial reaction was embarrassment on her behalf for displaying emotion so brazenly. Then I tried to dismiss it with a shrug. I guessed she must have some deep emotional attachment to this song. That’s fine, right? We all have our secret pain.

I closed my eyes, then, and continued chanting along with everyone else, and then, all of a sudden, it hit me. On the Krishna Das albums I used to listen to, you’d sometimes hear a chorus of people chanting back. And here we were. We were the chorus. It sounds simple now that I write it out, but it hit me as this sort of divine truth in that moment, that we were part of this, every single one of us was part of this greater whole of humanity. We all suffer. We all have these feelings of loss and abandonment and sadness, and in that shared suffering, there is a sort of power. Because none of us are alone, because we’re all together in our aloneness.

Then the tears started rolling down my cheeks. And at first I thought Jesus Christ. Not again. I’m crying in public here again(And then I thought what is this, some sort of communicable crying sickness?)

But as I wiped the tears away and continued chanting, I thought this is why I do this. This is why we’re here. To confront the monster of suffering, then wave as we sail on by. 

 

 

 

The Healing Power of Selfies

A few years ago, before I got my job at the library, I worked at a sporting goods store. It was a pretty shitty job with bad pay, but I did become friendly with a number of the other people there. One of them was a younger woman who was pregnant at the time. She and I became friends on Facebook, as I did with many of my other co-workers.

She was a different kind of person than I was used to when it came to social media. The people I knew typically used Facebook and its ilk to make witty observations, to prove their intellect with articles about sciencey stuff, to prove to the world how funny and clever and cultured they were. This was how I used it, for sure. (Though occasionally I used it for bitching.) Facebook was a convenient way to present a curated image of the best version of yourself. This is who I am. I am smart. I am clever. I am funny. I have good taste in music and movies and books.

But this girl used it differently. She posted selfies. All. the. time. Smiling selfies. Frowny selfies. Selfies in the mirror. Duck face selfies. Selfies with makeup. Selfies without. She rarely made a post with words. It was all pictures. Of her.

Now I’m kind of ashamed to admit it, but I made a public post elsewhere saying that people who posted “nothing but selfies” needed to get a life, that it was pathetic. She ended up seeing it and taking offense. I was mortified.

Fast forward five years or so. A friend of mine posted an article about selfies with regard to transgendered folks. The gist of it was: We (trans people,) are not being narcissistic. We are documenting a transformation into a body we actually feel comfortable in. We finally look like who we have always been inside. These are the photos that we didn’t have for all those years of being uncomfortable in our skin – We’re making up for lost time.

This was the first inkling, for me, that selfies could function as a form of therapy. A form of self-affirmation. I am here, and I am alright. I’m beautiful and strong and smart and I am all of those things I have tried to prove on social media and elsewhere. I am the universe and the universe is me. Here’s photographic proof. You can see nebulae in my eyes.

 

20160714_102934
Managed not to look like a scrub.

I suffer from anxiety and depression, and have since I was a teenager. There have been times, when an anxiety attack has reached its peak and I feel like I am just a ball of tense, angry ectoplasm, that I go into the bathroom, look at myself in the mirror, and just breathe. I look into my own eyes. “I am here,” I say to myself. “I am ok.”
And recently, while dealing with depression, I realized it was hard to convince myself to do anything. And the same thing helped – The self-reflection on the visual level. And so the selfies started. A photo in the bathroom affirmed my humanity because I managed to put on makeup and brush my hair that day. A photo of my dinner (oh I know how some sneer at food photos,) showed that I pulled myself off the floor long enough to prepare healthy food for myself.

I’m not being narcissistic. I just need some proof that I exist, that I’m doing ok, that I’m a human being that can take care of myself. And that’s helpful, and not to be discounted as frivolous. We all need affirmation sometimes, with no strings attached. We all need the chance to say “look, I’m here and I’m worth the space I occupy. I don’t need to prove that with witticisms and clever observations. Sometimes, it’s enough that I just am alive and breathing.”

I don’t talk to that girl from the sporting goods store anymore, but I do want to say I’m sorry for judging her. In retrospect, affirmation was probably what she needed, too. I hope she’s doing alright, wherever she is.

In Memorium

My father died in March. This is what I read at his memorial.

 

When someone you love dies, the timeline of your life splits in two. The day of their passing becomes a gate between two distinct periods: The time before that day is filled with the subtle but unmistakable color of their presence. The time after seems dark, a grayscale desert. Nothing is the same. Everything is different without them.

I knew losing a parent would be harder than other losses, of course. And although the dramatic wailing and phone-dropping I imagined didn’t occur, my father’s passing introduced a new type of pain – A pain of emptiness, of blacks and grays and a profound awareness of a missing piece to the puzzle.

But as the days passed, it was like my dad became more real again in a way. My father the man was gone, but my father the essence was still very much here. I started seeing shades of him in places I never really took note of before.

His meticulous financial acumen in my sister. His way with electronics in my brother. His wanderlust, love of nature, and sometimes twisted sense of humor in me. His tender hearted love of animals in us all, and in turn in our children. There is no doubt that he’s gone, and we feel that loss profoundly. But he left pieces of himself, scattered among his children, grandchildren, and indeed everyone whose life he ever touched.

I recently read an essay on dying in a Buddhist magazine, and it included a poem, part of which I will read here:

With your every movement
Worlds rise, flourish, burn and are dispersed
As your gestures tear through
the luminous heart of space

Before anything was born,
After all has died,

Here:
You are the zero point.

This poem is about Kali, the Hindu goddess of time, change, preservation, creation and destruction, but it seems to apply to us all. My father, like the rest of us, is the point at which a million universes burst forth, and from each of them, a million more. Every trip we went on. Every movie we watched. Every snowman we built and Christmas we shared. Every swim we took. You all have these moments too, where his influence was felt and continues to be felt, and that influence is timeless, infinite.

12028890_10153955859074763_8506697022647831097_o
My childhood with my father has consumed my mind lately, realer in a way than it was before he left. I remember picking dandelions in the yard when their delicate yellow leaves had transformed into a shock of lighter than air white. I knew I shouldn’t, that it would wreck the lawn, but I couldn’t resist plucking them, raising them to the sky, and blowing.

My dad, like all those who came before, and like all of us here right now, is the zero point. The big bang. The dandelion head. A wish whispered and fulfilled. And as we seeds blow on the breeze, I think he would want only one thing: That we fly free, bury ourselves in the warm soil, and go on to seed again.

 

Untangled

My mind is a tightly clenched fist, most of the time. It curls and tightens around itself, cutting off its own air supply, causing itself to asphixiate in its own neurotic grip. I’m a very reactive individual, mentally. I’ve struggled with anxiety throughout my life. With every awkward social interaction, with every task completed imperfectly, the fist tightens, until I feel I can’t move. Can’t think. Creativity? Ha! A caged brain is a boring brain. No room for creativity here.

What I need is to unwind that knot of a fist, pry the dendritic tendril fingers apart one by one and relax.

Just RELAX, they say.

Sometimes they yell it. “Why can’t you just relax?! JUST CALM DOWN.”

Just calming down isn’t a thing I can do on demand, and sometimes that fist-knot is just so tight, has such a death grip on my psyche by the time I realize it, well how do you untangle that?

I’m not a cyclist. I tell my man this all the time. He used to be, has all the old accoutrements of the lifestyle: the expensive bike, the no-nonsense gloves, the padded shorts that feel like a diaper. I put on all these things, strap a helmet on, climb on the expensive bike and text him “I’m going for a ride.” The part I leave out of my text is an addendum. “I’m going for a ride, but feel silly because I’m not a cyclist. I’m a plebe riding on a bike that’s too expensive and too fancy for me. Wearing this helmet and these pants, I look more like those Serious Cyclists who ride by on weekends, rather than the college kids who glide by on cruisers, wearing flowing skirts and flip flops, their 70s-free-love-cult hair flowing in the wind. But I’m neither. I’m a poser. Neither an artist nor an athlete. I should just stay home, but today, I’m not.”

I’m not a serious cyclist. I would remind the man, but I have so many times before. The fist insists I remind him, insists on reminding me. You are dressed like you mean business, but you are only dabbling.

I tell the fist to shut up. I don’t care what I look like, I need to untangle this knot it has created. The fist is silent.

I am not a Serious Cyclist, but I do possess relatively muscular thighs and a desire to get there. To get where? Well, somewhere, I guess. To the top. To the place where I can look down and see all the other places. To the place where I am everywhere. Where I am nowhere.

Plus, riding a bike is one of only a few things that can untangle this mess, leave my brain knot-free. As I glide down the back roads, my butt bone burning despite my diaper pants, I am at first unsure if it is working.

This is hard. I am terrible at this. I look like an idiot. Everyone is looking at me and thinking “Why is she on that expensive bike? She is obviously not a Serious Cycist! But she’s not an Arist, either! She is an IMPOSTER!”

And then, I feel a finger relax, just a little.

I’m rushing by houses! I smell hamburgers on grills! I hear birds calling across the way, see horses in their prisons (sorry, horses!) I fly by glistening, flushed runners. Motorists give me wide berth, nervously. But I am not nervous! I am free! I take my hands off the handles and peddle.

(Yeah, look ma, no hands!)

I rush by a motorcycle gang. They wave. I wave back. We’re all on two wheels! We can all feel the wind in our hair! Your mode of transportation may be way scarier, but you waved to me. You thought I was cool enough to wave at. Maybe you thought I was a Serious Cyclist? Maybe you didn’t care. Maybe you confused my bike for a pegasus. Maybe you thought you saw me flying.

And then another finger loosens, and another. Just a little bit, almost imperceptibly. But then a rush as the fist gives way, the hand unfurls.

I rush around the corner, ideas for essays, for poems, for stories, rushing through my brain. I can do this! I think. I can make metaphors! I can make connections! A group of chickens who have wandered out of their yard stand on the shoulder of the road and cluck at me irritably. “Life is like a gaggle of chickens,” I think to myself, testing out the newfound surge of creativity. “It wanders all over the place, and picks grubs out of the neighbor’s yard, and…” Well, ok. That one doesn’t work.

But what about the turkeys on the other side of the road, who puff up at me so threateningly when I deign to near their driveway? “Life is like a turkey,” I think to myself. “If you get too close, it will probably bite you in the ass.”

Alright neither of those make sense, but it’s ok, because that fist has been crushed under my wheel and I am free.

Freedom isn’t permenent, but it is precious. And every second I’ve caught it is worth the price of admission.

Freedom can be bought with wheels but it can also be bought on a mountain. The man and I camp up in the Catskills, where our cellphones lose service, and there is no WiFi.

I’m a very technologically connected person most of the time, but this break is necessary. It pries the fist loose. Every internet argument I don’t witness, every superflous article I don’t read, every time I DON’T check my e-mail, is an unwinding of the knotted fist.

Every time I say no to consuming and just be.

When we lay in our sleeping bags at night, close together under the thin tent, I am sometimes awakened by the man’s awakeness. And the snuffling of a bear.

I’m not afraid of bears in the daytime, but when we’re lying in that tent, I start to have flashes of the horror stories I’ve read about bears dragging people out of tents by their feet and eating them like candied ham.

I spend the rest of the night in uneasy half-sleep. The fist never totaly unclenches.

Sometimes, I power my way to the top of a hill on the bike, only to walk it down because I’m too scared to let go and just ride.

And sometimes, as I ride the bike down a hill, the wind whipping loudly at my ears, I sit back, spread my arms wide, and smile.

Look ma, no hands.

12 Backyard Birdies

So I’ve been using this app to count the birds in my backyard, called BirdLog, because I figure while I’m watching the critters, I may as well also be counting them and doing my part for Citizen Science and all. It’s a really cool app. Nobody paid me to say that, btw. I just really like it.

I have this thing though where, when I am counting things, I can’t help but turn it into a version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” in my head. It is an affliction. I did it with the items found in Ed Gein’s house, too. (You know, “One the twelfth day of Christmas, Ed Gein gave to me 12 bones and fragments, 11 human skull bowls, 10 female heads,” and on and on.)

And so, I present to you, The Twelve Birds of My Yard

*A hem*

The Twelve Birds of My Yard

On the first day of this week

These birdies came to me

12 tough-guy starlings

11 common grackles

10 red-winged blackbirds

9 fighting cowbirds

8 dark-eyed juncos

7 little sparrows

6 tufted titmice

5 … bluuueeee… jays

4 mourning doves

3 chickadees

2 red-bellies

and a fat carolina wren

Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week.

(As a aside, I tried to sing this to Jp, who protested loudly saying “No Christmas songs, please!” Well, excuse me, mister. This is not a Christmas song. This is a song about birds. Hrmph.)

Backyard Bird Dining Customs – Weird Facts!

Unlike the protagonist of my new story, Carolina (shameless plug, sorry), I did not watch birds as a child, or even a teenager. I grew up in a relatively well-wooded suburb, and I’m sure there were plenty of birds around, but I was busy with other things (like trying to will a pet unicorn into existence, but that’s another story.) I did have pet birds (cockatiels) but never really turned my gaze outward to the trees.

So now as an adult having just picked up this bird watching hobby, everything is new to me! Bird fights on the porch over a peanut? Most exciting thing to happen all day! Red-winged blackbirds hanging out with the starlings? FASCINATING. A pileated woodpecker on the neighbor’s tree? HOLD THE PHONE MY LIFE IS COMPLETE. It’s all brand new and exciting.

Even the way the birds eat is fascinating to me, and when I see a particular behavior (e.g. the chickadees lining up politely on our clothes line to wait for their turn at the feeder) I look it up in one of our bird feeder guides that we’ve acquired.

So what have I learned about bird behavior? What wisdom have I brought back from the North American Birdfeeder Handbook? Which facts absolutely BLEW MY MIND? Funny you should ask.

  1. Chickadees employ a strict hierarchy, meaning there is one chickadee who is the biggest, baddest chickadee in the
    I'm the baddest chickadee up in this yard!
    I’m the baddest chickadee up in this yard!

    flock. All the other chickadees give him the chance to eat first. Then the second biggest, baddest chickadee takes his turn, and so on. They all kind of look like cute little fluffy puffballs to me, so I’ll just trust the birds to determine who the most badass is.

  2. Male cardinals, while perfectly polite during breeding season, can be total douche nozzles during the winter, chasing the females away from the feeder. Hey, buddy! Just because you’re pretty doesn’t mean you get to boss your wife around, geez. (Though to be fair, this is pretty typical birdy behavior from what I can discern, and not that serious of an annoyance to the female.) Oh, another fun fact about cardinals is that they mate for life, which is not typically the case for a species where the male is so gorgeous. I guess I would feel kind of lucky as the mate of a particularly brilliant cardinal dude, knowing that his pretty feathers were just for my enjoyment. Suck it, other cardinal bitches!
  3. Doves and pigeons are basically the same kind of bird. They even both feed their nestlings a concoction called “pigeon milk” (aka crop milk,) which sounds vile but I’m sure is delicious to a baby pigeon/dove.
  4. Blue Jays are known to imitate the calls of hawks, a type of raptor known for their interest in munching on little tasty birdies. Scientists think the blue jays may be warning other blue jays that a hawk is near, or perhaps just trying to scare other birds away from the bird feeder so they can have all the sweet, sweet seed to themselves. This seems like a dickish move, but I understand. We can’t let that alpha chickadee and his gang get all the seed, now can we?

If you’d like to learn more about birds, let me recommend the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. They are amazing, and run several birdfeeder cams that my cat and I really enjoy watching. I think you will, too!

Cats + Babies

So today I asked my Facebook friends what to write about in my blog, since I want to start writing here again but was at a loss as to what to write.

I decided to take the first suggestion given to me (thank you Chris) and so, I present to you my topic for today:

Cats + Babies! 

Hoo boy. Ok. Here we go. I’m gonna go ahead and make a list here. A cat and baby list.

  1. Cats are a lot like babies in a few different ways.
    1. They lay on you and look so cute that you are afraid to get up and disturb them, so you end up laying there really really still until you fall asleep.
    2. They meow at you when they’re hungry and are (for the most part) incapable of feeding themselves.
    3. They are really, really soft.
    4. They like to attack small animals and play with them cruelly, sometimes killing them, sometimes only horribly maiming them before they escape.
  2. Here’s a little story: There is a teenager (let’s call her “E”) who comes to our library and who often babysits her little cousin. When E’s niece was really little, she would bring her in a stroller, with the top pulled down so the sleeping baby would not be disturbed. Sometimes, E would not bring her cousin, but instead bring three tiny kittens in the stroller, with the top pulled down so they couldn’t escape. We never knew, when she came with that stroller, whether there would be a baby or kittens inside. Then she’d pull the top back and WOOSH, there’d be a baby. Or WOOSH. There’d be kittens. It was kind of like Schrodinger’s Box, but nobody was ever dead.
  3. Fun Fact: In the past, cats were sometimes blamed for killing babies. If a baby died with a cat nearby, everyone rushed to blame the cat (or was it a witch) for sucking its breath out and suffocating it. That’s kind of unfair, don’t you think? Dogs get blamed for farts and cats get blamed for infanticide? Harsh. (Side note: When one starts typing “Do cats kill…” in Google, the first thing that pops up in autofill is “babies.” This is still literally a concern people have. COME ON, people! Really?)
  4. What do Cats + Babies = ?
    1. Cats + Babies = Kittens
    2. Cats + Babies = Toxoplasmosis (Don’t clean the litter box while you’re pregnant, ladies!)
    3. Cats + Babies = Angry cats in dresses
    4. Cats + Babies = Fun, adorable videos that will get a million billion views on YouTube!
    5. Cats + Babies = Some horrendous, terrifying, feline-human hybrid that can’t control its motor functions enough to lick its own butt clean.

Have your own thoughts about cats, babies, or any combination thereof? Leave them in the comments!