Tuesday, December 22, 2009

If it's broke, don't fix it

"All of us need to become more aware of our own strategy of escape, our own specific patterns of trying to "fix" our experiences. It's a given that we don't want to feel discomfort, but since it's inevitable, we have to learn how to address it. That's why the quality of perseverance is of key importance because we have to learn to just stay."--Ezra Bayda from Zen Heart: Simple Advice for Living with Mindfulness and Compassion

I've noticed lately that I seem to be in a big rush, almost manic in my quest to accomplish the next thing on my 75-item to-do list. I don't think it's just Christmas panic because I'm done with all the major presents--now I'm just adding on those last-minute stocking stuffers that every magazine claims is the death knell of your holiday budget. Today I plan to go to the British stationery store Paper Chase to see if they're having the big sale like they did last year. Do I HAVE to do this? No. A better idea would be to go home and make Pizzelles like I promised my in-laws. But I put go to Paper Chase on 172 Newbury St. on the list, so now I have to do it!

What I'm really doing is fairly obvious even if I didn't study psychology in college. I'm distracting myself from the onset of my annual Winter Blues with petty tasks and unnecessary errands. I know I'm about to face a week off from work, which in theory would be something to look forward to. But I know how I get when I have too much time on my hands. I start to feel depressed. I sleep for hours. I avoid doing the things that might actually lift me from my funk, like writing or yoga. I'm enervated, a sad sack, and eating leftover Spritz
by the handful just makes me feel like more of a lump.

One weekend recently I was in a sad way and I remembered the Buddhist teaching of "staying" with the emotion instead of trying to allay it with a back-to-back Hoarders marathon and a big glass of wine. I tried for an hour to stay with my negative feelings. I'm not going to put a rosy spin on it--it sucked. I also wasn't sure how staying with the feeling wasn't just a form of wallowing. Growing up my parents, especially my mother, had no patience for wallowing. My mother used distraction techniques--unfortunately not taking me shopping or out for a sundae, but by talking to me about something--anything--else whenever I would complain for too long. Which goes back to my original question: is it better to stick with the discomfort or distract yourself and thereby forget about the problem for a while?

It's like when I've written on here before about death. There are times when it strikes me that everyone I love is going to die, and so am I. What then? Yes, I know the answer is to live your life while you're alive, carpe diem and all that. But if I start thinking about death in the Buddhist way of thinking about death--we are all one in the universe, there is no "You" or "I", our ego is to blame for suffering, I feel discomfited. Yes I know that nothing is permanent--if it were, I'd still be in Paris, sitting by the Louvre eating Brie. But death is permanent, isn't it? I don't want to be food for worms. I don't want anyone I care about to be fertilizer, either. I want to have hope.

Not to be excessively morbid here. It's the holiday season, after all. It's better to enjoy the spiked egg nog and presents and your family and friends' company than to try to "fix" these questions of suffering and death. I'm beginning to feel like an Edward Gorey character, except without the sense of humor. But the question remains--if we don't try to "fix" the things that bother us, how can we ever be at peace?

Anyway, I'm just throwing these idea out there into the ether, like so many other people before me.

I plan to immediately forget this post by eating a chocolate from the office candy jar. I wish everyone who reads this blog a joyful holiday season and lots of happy present moments.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The transient life and what to do about it

“When you are grounded in the moment, you’re not thinking of what bad things can happen to you in the future, or dwelling on the mistakes of your past. To get myself into the present, I start with my senses. I try to hear only the noises that surround me—cars, birds, dogs barking, church bells—because if I give myself the assignment of listening to the actual sounds around me, I can’t obsess on a fear. Likewise, I concentrate on seeing what’s in front of me. At the very moment. Not in the year 2034.”--Therese J. Borchard, from her article "15 Ways to Stop Obsessing"

I just finished a novel by Chuck Klosterman called Downtown Owl. Klosterman is best known for his collection of pop culture essays for Gen X and Y, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. That was a funny book, but I didn't think he could pull off a serious, credible novel. But I was wrong. Downtown Owl has varied, interesting characters and, while there isn't much of a plot, readers can identify with the inner thoughts of Owl's residents. There were times when I thought--oh, he's just like Dane Cook--people like him tell stories to which almost anyone can relate, and so he becomes popular among the masses. So what? But the last chapter of Downtown Owl really stuck with me. Without giving away the ending, it's about the kind of situation where you narrowly escape something that you weren't anticipating in the first place. Now you can savor the present moment so much more because you almost lost it.

I broke my foot during a walking regimen. I wasn't expecting it. I never thought it would happen--I walk all the time! But the months of pain and not being able to walk far make me appreciate walking more now that I'm healed. I no longer take my good health or my body for granted.

This is one of the main reasons I took up this project of focusing on the present. How many stories have you heard of cancer survivors who suddenly have a new lease on life? How many times have you read accounts of people on the brink of death (or maybe, for all intents and purposes, actually clinically dead for a minute?) come back more grateful than they had ever been? I remember a documentary I saw called The Bridge which chronicled the stories of some of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge jumpers. One guy who actually survived the jump, as he was falling into the cold bay thought, I want to live! And to his astonishment, he did.

Never mind that watching that documentary made me queasy (think about it--you're actually seeing the jumpers in their last moments of life.) Besides the mixed feelings I had about the film, I took away the idea that people who face losing something appreciate it so much more.

I know this isn't an original thought, but sometimes it takes me a while to fully grasp concepts more than just theoretically. Do I need to get Stage IV Cancer to realize how much I love this life? Yes, my life is imperfect. I usually don't feel like I measure up to my ideal self. But there are the little pleasures on which I try to focus my attention. I know some of these things are going to sound silly or mundane, but here they are:

  1. My cup of freshly-ground George Howell coffee in the morning, especially if there's light cream in the house.
  2. Coming home from work and retreating to our bed, simply lying there with the sound machine turned to white noise.
  3. That first sip of wine.
  4. Clipping coupons and then seeing the amount I saved on my Shaw's grocery receipt.
  5. The kitten curled up on my chest or the older cat sleeping at my feet.
  6. When a package for me comes in the mail.
  7. Writing on pretty cards to friends and family whom I miss. Thinking of them opening their mailbox and seeing a card from me.
  8. Making a mess in the kitchen when cooking. Presenting my culinary creation and watching people enjoy it.
  9. The way the leaves look in early autumn, when some have fallen on the ground, creating splashes of yellow or red on the sidewalk.
  10. Cracking open a new book.
There are more moments, but it makes me feel good just to think of these. When you focus on the now and appreciate the present moment, your living your life to the fullest. You don't have to wait for some tragedy to befall you to wake yourself up--you can recognize your wealth right now. Then when you are faced with death, you'll know you savored everything while you had the chance. Older people have always said to me, life is short. It's taken a while for me to truly understand that. Sometimes it feels like living each day is an endless trudge through the muck. Those small moments keep me going. Because really, unless you believe in an afterlife or reincarnation, a human life span is short. Fear, shame, worry, perfectionism...they're all eating up my time on earth. It helps to stop and really think about that.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A minor post that's not really relevant to this blog

A couple of weekends ago Mike and I drove down from Boston to Staten Island, where my mother's best friend was having a 60th birthday party. Not being familiar with the geography of the borough, we brought along my father-in-law's GPS. Dad had warned us that five minutes into using the thing, we would be yelling at it. I thought he was exaggerating, but he was right--we were barely turning onto the highway when Mike started questioning the disembodied female voice on the GPS (let's call her Sheila.) I was excited about Sheila because, unlike my mother, I'm a lousy navigator. I don't drive very often (I've only lived in places with good public transit, so I never needed to) so I haven't honed the skill of going from point A to point B while avoiding point C because of the traffic. I also have no idea how to fold a road map. I just want to squash it into a ball and throw it in the backseat.

With the confidence that can only come from being smarter than us humans, Sheila started us on a different route to NYC than we usually take. She told us to go up the west side of Manhattan instead of taking the BQE. Mike, who had been questioning Sheila's judgment for most of the ride, suddenly exclaimed, "She's taking us through Bayonne! She's brilliant! We'll bypass the BQE!" For those not familiar with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, it's notoriously jammed. It doesn't matter if it's 5PM or 2AM, you're going to be stuck looking out at the grittiest parts of the city--the graffiti-covered exteriors of abandoned warehouses (which have more than likely been converted into million dollar condos), the smokestacks of highly-toxic chemical factories--not to mention about a billion billboards advertising Bud Light using the silhouette of a curvaceous woman superimposed with the phallic shape of a beer bottle. Subtle, ad men, very subtle.

We don't exactly "fly" through the west side, but at least the view is better. That's another reason I don't drive--I like those moments when the ugliest parts of Queens give way to the sparkling skyline of Manhattan. That, and I like to nap in the car. You start off in Brookline and before you know it, you're in Tampa. And with Sheila safely guiding us to our destination, I didn't have to pretend to squint at a map, trying to find the exit.

Sheila also kept track of when Mike was speeding. Every time he went over 35 miles an hour, she would warn, "Caution." I heard "caution" so many times that I thought we would soon be heading off a cliff. It pleased me that there was ANOTHER woman in Mike's life to nag him, that I was the good guy in this situation--my eyes closed and my head resting innocently on the LL Bean travel pillow.

But Sheila was not taking us through Bayonne after all. Instead we ended up on the BQE anyway. More yelling at Sheila. What was she doing to us? We had put our complete faith and trust in her and she was taking us on a wild goose chase through the five boroughs.

Eventually we did find Staten Island. The catering hall was called "Memory Lane" and it was next door to the Staten Island Alzheimer's Foundation, which we thought was some person's idea of a sick joke until the host told us they were connected. I was proud of the fact that we beat our parents to the party--our parents who were coming from Ocean, NJ, a mere stone's throw away. When they did finally arrive we had polished off our salads and had already been to the buffet line.

Turns out they got lost.

We may be acquiring our own Sheila soon. She's a little annoying at times, but no matter how confused we are, she'll get us where we need to go.