Hello, dear readers! I’ve really missed you, or my perception of you, which is writing and publishing here.
My partner and I took 2 vacations in September, after going almost nowhere for nearly 3 years, and then for whatever reason I haven’t had the mental space or inclination to write much lately. But I can feel it changing. Something typically Z-ish will come out soon.
In the interim…
I finished (nearly – it was an audiobook & I had 30 minutes left when the library took it back) Being Ram Dass this week. I’m not a big biography or memoir person, but we had a long road trip and we’re both fans, so I made an exception. He was working on this with Rameshwar Das right before he died. Since I didn’t hear the ending, I don’t know whether he considered it complete when he moved on, or if Rameshwar Das filled in the final bits, but he does talk quite a bit about dying, which I always find compelling from someone who is actually on that edge, especially someone like Ram Dass.
I’ve heard many of, and weekly listen to more of, RD’s talks, so the really good stuff, the funny, vulnerable, human, loving Ram Dass stuff was nothing new to me. And if you want that, I’d recommend the Here and Now podcast instead. What I valued most in this book was him returning, again and again, to fucking up.
My first reaction to the stories of him getting wrapped up in ego, or power, or non-spiritual drug use, or blame, or self-pity, or self-criticism, or lies, or disingenuousness, was discouragement. I mean, if Ram Dass, who had known Neem Karoli Baba – who had known universal unconditional love – who had been guided by some of the highest beings on the planet and devoted his career to the pursuit of truth kept falling off the path, what hope is there for me?
But the flip side of that interpretation is (you already know the answer) that when we keep fucking up, we are just like Ram Dass. Human life is an institution not designed to cultivate spiritual development, but it’s the only school that would let us in, or the only one our guidance counselor told us about. So if that’s the major we chose, we just have to make the best of it & get what we can out of the curriculum. Much like the Acting BFA my former classmate & I were deprecating a few days ago: it wasn’t a great program, but we’re grateful for what we managed to take out of it. Unlike the Acting degree, we don’t have any other programs to compare it to, so living is truly the best and worst option available to us.
As Edward Abbey wrote, “Life sucks? Compared to what?”
I’ve been feeling pretty good about myself lately.
My new volunteer gig is frightening and wondrous. The easiest and hardest volunteering ever: literally nothing I have to do [exhale] … except hang out with people I don’t know [gasp], and infinitely rewarding.
And I’ve developed a new superpower: CHANGE. As some of you may have read in The Fireworks Guy anecdote, I (yes, the writer you know and love) have the ability (it’s okay: you can touch the hem of my garment) to stop doing destructive shit! Not only have I stuck a wrench in the churning hatred of Fireworks Guys (so successfully that I don’t feel any anger even when surprised by one of the little bombs anymore, just … surprise), I also preemptively stopped myself from falling into passive-aggressive relationship patterns twice last week.
The magical source of this newfound talent? Dumb old meditation. The best explanation I can give is that I’ve grown accustomed to my thoughts, or to observing them. Instead of just reacting to a perceived offense thoughtlessly, my response sits in the center of my vision like a dog in need. I can get off my lazy metaphorical ass and try to figure out what the issue is, or I can ignore it, fester in my angry/grumpy/bitter automation, while it slinks off and waits for the next opportunity to bump me out of inertia. In both recent scenarios, instead of just thoughtlessly plodding along as I usually do, I had a brief debate with myself over my choices:
I’m gonna be withholding now.
Because I didn’t like that.
And will clamming up make you feel better?
And will it make him feel better?
And will it teach anybody anything?
… … … no
Fine. Forget it.
And that was it. I just didn’t do the pointless, harmful thing. Twice. I was so excited about my new superpower that I had to share it with the Practice Check-In group at my local sangha on Tuesday. To be honest, I was feeling pretty fucking cool. Not braggy cool, just quietly proud cool.
And then today I felt like shit. Depressed. Surly. Trapped. Drained. I took a short nap. I worked out. I logged out of my work computer. I listened to some Lizzo, did some dishes, took a walk. Everything helped a little, but I still feel shitty. What is this need for control? For consistency? Why do I panic whenever I’m down? I suppose there is some fear of feeling the way I used to when I was younger, of struggling to get out of it. And I have a need for answers. I have a few – an unfulfilling job, some bad news about a project I’m working on, eating too much sugar this week. But those answers don’t help me right now. Just sitting with it is probably the best thing I can do. But part of me wants to be better than that. Perhaps I need to stop thinking of the “good” things (my superpower, for example) as a step forward and the bad things (depression, criticism) as a step back, and see it more as a dance, a sidestep, an expansion into more, rather than better.
I was walking with B & V after the most recent of the January 6th Committee’s televised hearings, describing the witness tampering that Liz Cheney had teased at the end, when I stopped myself mid-sentence. “My god, there’s no hatred in my voice when I say that name. Do you know how long I’ve been hating the name Cheney?” Decades of (arguably justified, if unhelpful) emotional enslavement to anger and disgust and horror around the lies, war promotion and profiteering, torture, and spying that defined her father’s vice-presidency vanished from my current self as I appreciated his daughter’s impartiality, levelheadedness, search for truth, and willingness to risk her political standing for our cherished institution of democracy. She has shown me that I can let go of the fraught attachment to the feelings, and that the letting go is not a forgetting or absolution. I think her political philosophy is inhumane, plutocratic, and destructive. I think her father was a war criminal. I would doubtless vote against her if I had a chance to do so. And I can hold all those beliefs and take any oppositional actions made available to me without hating her, without feeling any tension or revulsion at all; fully recognizing her as a part of the greater human mess and a person worthy of compassion. Liz Cheney has helped lower the bar in the best way, though I’m still working to drop it further: how little can I understand or sympathize with a person’s actions or beliefs and still empathize with them as a part of me, an interdependent element of my complicated world?
In the 90s, Ram Dass’ shrine featured Neem Karoli Baba, Buddha, Jesus, and Bob Dole. (Remember when Bob Dole was the ultimate enemy? FunnyNotFunny?) He said when his gaze settled on the latter photo, he would feel his heart tighten, and know where his “spiritual homework” lay. I don’t have a shrine, but if I did today I wouldn’t put Trump on it. I’m not welcoming that daily dose of constriction, but I know it’s something to strive for.
Last week, while picking up garbage around the community center where I volunteer to hang out with unhoused and economically marginalized and other random folks from the area, a guy started harassing me about why I was cleaning up there. He wasn’t happy about it and wasn’t, I realized a few sentences in, interested in actually conversing with me so much as lecturing me, and it wasn’t pleasant. But it didn’t take long for me to recognize several truths he had unveiled. First is my persistent desire to be liked and even appreciated, which has been a barrier for as long as I can remember – causing an often immature reaction to criticism and at times preventing me from being honest with people when it’s important to do so, and, as in this case, taking too personally words aimed at the idea of a person, and having little or nothing to do with me. I also have a compulsion to explain myself, which I guess I can attribute to ego attachment. (As my best friend once said to me, “I bet you’re one of those motherfuckers who has to explain why you’re leaving to your boyfriends.” It had never occurred to me that not doing so was an option.)
When my critic was giving me shit about “my own house,” I also had to recognize that I have neglected my own community in favor of coming to this one every week. I view the unknown neighbors on my block as unworthy of my attention – comfortable, middle-class white people who are so polite and reserved that I have written them off as repressed and dull. I have thought about hosting a happy hour, but never done it. I have convinced myself that I wouldn’t know what to say to them, yet I’m literally and figuratively going out of my way to converse with what are often mentally or chemically ill folks in another neighborhood. I’ve often declared in the past several years that my particular talents serve best through my talking to well-intentioned White people who don’t see the destructiveness of their internalized racism, ableism, etc. yet I do that almost exclusively in structured, deliberate environments, rather than creating open spaces where those meaningful conversations might unobtrusively and effectively seep in. There is work to be done here.
The final and perhaps most successful boddhisattva who came into my life recently is The Fireworks Guy. I liked fireworks well enough as a kid, but both of the dogs I have lovingly raised as an adult have been terrified of fireworks. Like most good mothers, I have loyally hated the things that cause harm to my kids. A few weeks ago we took V to our local dog-friendly restaurant patio for the first time in a year, and as soon as the server delivered her beloved marrow bone, a massive firework went off a few houses away. V started shaking, I yelled an obscenity, and B took off in anger (rare for him) to find the people who did it. What he reported back was that the guys (a racially mixed group) saw the fireworks as an intentional act of rebellion to annoy “yuppies”, protest “gentrification”, and generally disrupt people’s comfort. On the flip side, I have long held fireworks to be a deliberate act of toxic masculinity, symbolic violence, and cruelty towards nearby animals and traumatized humans. In fact, there’s little truth to either my accusation or their justification, certainly in the sense of a higher truth. Both beliefs are lacking in compassion and overflowing with resentment and blame. Something clicked in me after B’s interaction, and I made a conscious decision to stop getting angry about fireworks. V isn’t nearly as traumatized by them as she used to be – CBD chewies have worked wonders, and thunder (which we can’t pin on anyone) is much harder on her nerves – and I’m tired of crafting narratives of cruel, abusive men in my head. There are enough real ones out there. I haven’t got time for the pain.
Weirdly, that worked like an off switch. Once I let go of my manufactured justification for harboring the anger, the anger disappeared completely. I still don’t like the sound of fireworks, and I still wish it didn’t bother V, but I’m no longer wasting a single iota of energy on hating the perpetrators. Crazy, right? I’ve certainly tried to let go of emotional attachments in the past with far less success. I don’t know if this one came easily because I’ve been practicing more, or because I recognized the weirdly ideological motivation for the resentment or what, but it does give me hope for my indubitably lifelong efforts to let. shit. go.
Driving a precarious 2-lane mountain road, as I have done countless times in the West. Always that fear that something could go wrong – a wayward driver, a fallen rock, ice. You expect it for so long without incident that you start to believe it can’t happen.
An animal. So fast and my reaction likewise that I couldn’t identify it
And I was over the edge. No guardrails on dream highways. Light gravity and intense propulsion as well, since I did not crash flipping painfully and gracelessly over the lip as would have doubtless happened on Earth roads. Instead, as if shot out of a cannon, I flew….
Three phases hit in blinkingly fast succession, each cresting before surrendering to the next overwhelming wave.
One: Panic – oh fuck, I might die. The shortest phase, since as soon as I left that road, the end was inevitable, clearing the way for
Two: Oh, I am definitely going to die. This one packed a punch, filling me with sadness and loss and a pleasantly wee soupçon of vague regret. It only lasted a few seconds, but holy shit was it real. I was absolutely done and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. It was visceral, literally in my gut. The end of my life on Earth. But because it was a dream or because it was not intentional or because I am an enlightened being (*kaf kaf*), I didn’t experience The View From Halfway Downthat surviving bridge jumpers and Secretariat on BoJack Horseman seem to relate without fail. No big should’ves or could’ves or whys. Just a transition to…
Three: Well, we all want a good death: let’s get to it. I flew into the stunning sunset, backdrop to a scene of lush pines below, cliffs all around, and mountains in the distance. Definitely the kind of place I’d like to die. The only thing missing was the ocean, but oceans have always signaled an edge for me, a boundary, and here I had to create my own edge – that of my human existence. The sunset was inspired by one I’d seen a few night previous from home, sloppily captured in the image above – roiling rose and bright magenta, with lavender highlights. I got to it posthaste, projecting, as well as I could, love to my partner and my dog, attempting to transmit my lack of fear and my total okayness with dying. I would have, doubtless, moved onto other folks, but my car had finally begun to arc downward, and as I pondered the gorgeous, jagged trees below me I had a gasp of, “what if I don’t die instantly” and a quick flash of me crushed in my car, in the middle of nowhere, with bones impaling organs, but not deeply enough to kill me, leading to a slow, agonizing bleed out. (What I should have done at that point was follow the advice of the adept die-er in Palm Springs: take off your seat belt to propel you into a quicker demise.) I shook it off: unlikely scenario, given the height I was falling from, and I was still bound to die eventually, if more slowly and painfully than I originally anticipated. Change. Impermanence. The car’s downward decline accelerated and then
I woke up.
Which was a hell of a thing in itself, being thrust back into life after fully accepting death. But I wasn’t unhappy about it. I make no secret of my love for this planet and my ambivalence about leaving it, despite the indescribable experience of true Knowing and the freedom from human and corporeal concerns I’ve had in other consciousnesses.
I went on with my day, working at my non-inspirational job, for fuck’s sake, and at one point distracted myself with an email from National Geographic: animal photos of the year. I quickly stumbled across this stunning creature, who broke my heart with that look.
I read the description accompanying the photo and found that this older male (looks like a kitten!) had been followed by the photographer for two years and died not long after this was taken, chasing an ibex off a cliff.
We had the same death!
I wondered what it was like for the leopard – if it got to feel the fall. If so, whether it tried to fight or let go, if it recognized and accepted its inevitable death. A far fetched, but not insane idea: non-human animals seem much better at predicting and accepting their own deaths than we are. My favorite example was that of Buster, the surly cat that served as the mascot at the old bookstore where I worked for a decade. He hated almost everyone, and rarely put up with any affection whatsoever. One day he came into the mail order department and lay down on the center of the sorting table, letting anyone pet & speak sweetly to him. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong, other than the change in personality. Two days later, we found him dead in the alley next to the storage shed. Buster’s gorgeous, wild cousin could certainly have at least that much self-awareness, after a lifetime lived in that landscape. Either way, I hope he didn’t suffer. I hope he got to enjoy flying for a second or two.
We would have stagnated and likely died off as a species if we had settled for perfection. Evolution requires variation – a mutation from expectations, from what was extant or even conceivable before it happened. Our selectively cultivated foods – our pluots and actually tasty apples – came out of a desire for variety and difference: improvement, not perfection. When the focus shifted to profit, perfection took primacy over variety. (In the narrowest sense of the word profit, meaning a strictly financial benefit for the titular “owners” of the item in question, because the loss to the world has been enormous.) When we move from variation to perfection, we get shit. Look at the strawberry. Mass produced, global strawberries are engineered to be very red, very large, and very firm – the perfect image of a strawberry, and perfect for easy picking and long, bumpy transport. They are also flavorless. We are so averse to imperfect looking foods that we created a space for an alternative, radical industry based on selling “ugly” produce to people on subscription, because grocery stores won’t sell them. Because we won’t buy them. Perfect-ly good food, wasted because it doesn’t fit our model of what a particular food should look like.
Likewise, any ideal is just as timebound, subjective, and limited. Who created these standards? In the US, certainly, they are largely male, wealthy, White, able-bodied … you can keep adding privileged identities. What are those guys missing? The answers are infinite. Their idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. Perfect children were quiet and still and obedient. Perfect citizens conformed with social expectations and followed laws, which have at many times been exceptionally cruel and immoral.
What even is imperfection? Is it just a name we give something that doesn’t fit the way we want it to be, the way our necessarily limited human expectations circumscribe the parameters or potential of a being or object? Is perfection simply acceptance? Is that what Neem Karoli Baba demonstrated when he instructed Larry Brilliant to eradicate smallpox while unironically insisting that everything was exactly as it should be? Is a world without pain and horrors a perfect world? Or is the world always perfect, regardless of Global Weirding, genocide, pick your cause; and is our empathy and grief and work to change those circumstances as inextricable a part of the perfection as the ghastly circumstances themselves? Is a perfect world one in which suffering is present for us to relieve? Is that super self-serving and monstrous? That, just as plants and animals must die to feed other plants and animals, and forests must burn to allow for new growth, our human world must be filled with resource extraction and cruelty? Maybe. Or maybe we just throw out the idea of a perfect world and instead live the paradox of simultaneous acceptance and opposition.
Buddhist, Native American, and other religions imply the idea of an individual entity being perfect independent of the community which literally and figuratively keeps them alive is absurd. Our selves don’t end at our “skin-encapsulated ego” (Alan Watts), and neither does the strawberry’s. That perfect strawberry is here reinterpreted as a massive failure because it poisons the soil, the farm workers who pick it, the air we breathe through the chemical inputs to grow it and fossil fuels to ship it; and denies nutrients and spreads disappointment to the people who eat it. In these interconnected worldviews there is no place for perfection, which attempts to delineate something that is by nature fluid. As the infinitely amazing Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy writes, we have deluded ourselves with the idea that power, or success, means domination. “This is not the way nature works. Living systems evolve in complexity, flexibility, and intelligence through interaction with each other.”[i] Evolution is never just personal; our environment decides which mutations are worth reproducing. Every creative act, every change is a collaboration between living things and their environments and cultures.
In the creative realm, the concept of perfection puts restrictions on what a thing can be, and creative potential can be smothered by such boundaries. If there is perfection to be reached, there is an idea of what is acceptable or appropriate, and therefore an unspoken idea of what is unacceptable, which is pretty much anything unfamiliar and innovative. If War and Peace is “the perfect novel,” where does that put The Vegetarian?[ii]Or Beloved? Or any number of works from other cultures that I have not been exposed to? What is a perfect face and who decides that? We’ve all seen the destructive potential of “the perfect body” and many carry that burden to the detriment of our health and happiness. The idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. At one time, perfect art was representative, and representative only of the “noble”. Every genre of art rejected the previous genre’s idea of perfection. Nadia Comanechi achieved “perfect 10s” in her Olympic routines in the 70s. Now that same performance wouldn’t even get her into the Olympics. But that’s just time, you might say. Indeed, time is a characteristic of culture, and just as arbitrary and whimsical in classifying excellence. Think of all we would want (in the dual, Shakespearean sense of the word) if previous standards of perfection were enforced. Future creators will say the same thing about our standards, even though that is hard to imagine. A culture of perfection makes the new harder to imagine. We assume that we know what a thing can be, and knowing is the beginning of the end. A beginner’s mind is a space for exploration, creativity, and growth; an expert’s tends to resist change
With perfection out of the way, there are so many more ways to be. Perfection is static, proscriptive, and therefore inhibiting. If the nature of all being is boundless, as Buddhism and psychedelics tell us, then either nothing is perfect, or everything is. And if we are perfect and thereby liberated from the pointless goal of achieving perfection, what could we do with the energy we now spend on self-improvement and material comforts to salve our cravings? We could make gloriously imperfect art, perhaps, or grow imperfect tomatoes, or form imperfect, diverse, messy, mutualistic communities that cultivate the joy of future imperfections.
[i] World as Lover, World as Self– 30th anniversary edition, p.152
We have a gorgeous, enormous black walnut tree in our backyard which has many fans, particularly the human and furry types. It’s not so much a bird tree as a squirrel tree, and I’m particularly enamored of watching squirrels, so that’s fine with me.
Over the past few months, we’ve recognized the formation of a relationship with the critters, or at least one of them. The squirrel in question will sometimes sit and watch us chatter to each other outside, will stop and look at me as I leave the house, rather than immediately escaping to safety, will often pause when I say good morning to it. It has even cautiously descended the trunk a bit when V is clearly outside to, as far as we can tell, get her to chase it back up. We see one or two squirrels pretty regularly, but never more than that, so we’ve decided that they must be residing in 2 of the 3 or 4 nests nestled in the large branches. Sometimes we listen to them chattering to each other across the tree. We’re so into them, and the one in particular, that we, just last night, shared the story of our extended family with some friends (who were not all that into it; fair enough: we’re odd). This is our household: 2 humans, one dog, two squirrels, a network of outdoor spiders, the bunny babies that the shitty rabbit mother abandons to us to protect 3 or 4 times a year, and the occasional chipmunk or mouse, welcome in the yard only, though there is sometimes disagreement on that.
And then, this morning, B came up to the office after I thought he’d left for work and tearfully told me that one of our squirrels had died. It didn’t show any signs of attack; he just found it on the ground by the tree. And then I remembered – the nest of dried leaves piled on a chair and the grass next to it. I’d seen it after I walked V earlier, and innocently assumed it was a nest that had fallen into desuetude – it couldn’t possibly belong to one of Ours.
I felt crappy for the next few hours. Not for the squirrel – I can no longer believe that death is bad for the dead – but for us, and for the squirrel friend we imagine it left behind. I had been worried that our buddies might not have enough food for the winter because our tree decided not to fruit this year, likely due to the drought, and wondered if we should donate some nuts…. And now – one less squirrel to worry about. It’s been a while since I felt a loss. But when I finally left the house this afternoon, a squirrel ran all the way across the yard to scatter up the tree next to me, pausing when I said hello. And when I returned from my errands, it stopped and looked at me before heading out on its own. And just now, when I came out to write this, it ran up the tree trunk again, pausing at the fork and checking out V & me.
Maybe it’s the more social squirrel that survived, which would be nice, but still sad. Maybe it’s looking for its friend. Maybe it is trying, in some knowing, unknowable way, to let me know it’s still here. (There it is now, climbing to another resting spot.) Whatever the magical or materialist reality, it has certainly made itself known today as squirrel. That Squirrel still lives. That there is Squirrel and there will be Squirrel. And whatever squirrel loss we have endured, Squirrel survives; long after we and V and even the tree are gone. I’m grateful for that illumination.
I’ve been thinking a lot about anthropomorphism lately: the arrogance of attributing human attributes to plants and animals, and the arrogance of assuming we know their limitations. I’ll dig into that sometime soon. This is just a squirrel story.
As an American, or perhaps as a Westerner, or perhaps as a White person, non-binary realities are difficult for me to accept. I have meditated and learned and experienced enough to believe that a thing and its opposite can both be true, but truly living that BothAnd-ness is another thing. What did it mean when Neem Karoli Baba told Ram Dass that the world is both perfect and terrible, when he told Larry Brilliant that everything was exactly as it should be and that he had to go out and eradicate smallpox? Practitioners can get caught up in the everything is perfect concept in Buddhism and use it as an excuse not to serve others or engage in the pain of the world. We are taught not to work with the sole expectation of achieving a goal, that the means is the end, and yet the Boddhisatva vows commit the sangha to relieve all suffering everywhere.
How can the world be simultaneously obviously, painfully fucked up and also just as it should be? How can we accept this non-binary without becoming cynical? Without believing that if this is the way it’s supposed to be, we are therefore meant to be miserable, greedy, tortured, imprisoned, violent, starving? I don’t think that’s the point.
Then there is My Dog. I have never used the word Perfect so easily as with this creature. Nothing else seems apt. She is moody and cold and stubborn and lazy and Perfect. There is no contradiction there; it’s simple and obvious. Her perfection doesn’t mean I don’t get annoyed with her, and her occasional brattiness doesn’t mean she isn’t perfect. Perhaps you have the same experience with your cat or your child. I’ve never felt that way about a human, even my favorite humans, and I don’t know whether it’s because I have some unattainable ideal in mind or no ideal at all. Perhaps it’s a failure of my ability to truly love human beings with the same generosity and vulnerability with which I love non-humans. Do I know them too well? Or the species too well? Perhaps that is the problem – trying to hang love on reason. Not in the love is irrational sense, but in the love is beyond rationality sense. Love is a spiritual pursuit, not a material or intellectual one. Perhaps, as such, it can withstand all apparent contradictions. And my neurotic, cat-like dog can be whatever she wants to be, and still be loved and perfect.
This is the only non-binary, nondual reality I can affirm as true rather than just believing it possible. I choose to see it as a jumping off point rather than a limitation. And I do want to take that leap, because something in me thinks that if I can really embrace nonduality, interconnectedness, bothandness, acting with integrity and wisdom will be a hell of a lot easier.
When you don’t love yourself, trust yourself, value yourself, whatever you want to call it, you over-invest in the judgment of others, either to confirm your worthlessness or make you feel better, depending on your mood and the occasion and, I suppose, how fucked up you are by the treatment that blinded you to your own beauty.
I’ve worked on the “love yourself” thing. I tried brainwashing myself with guided meditations specifically targeting people raised by narcissists. I tried a form of EMDR therapy. I even tried to read one of Louise Hay’s books (she of the mirror work fame), on the recommendation of a lovely young woman I met at a retreat. The pages were darkly colored & shiny, and therefore hard to read, and the content pissed me off, so that didn’t go far.
All this is to say, I Am Working On It. However, I am observant enough to know when I am being treated differently, and I don’t like it. I’m not yet at the place where I can let it go with grace, but I can trudge through it with intellect and compassion. Maybe this will help those of you out there who, like me, aren’t yet within spitting distance of the self-love mesa.
I attended a nonviolent intervention training recently, as part of my anti-racist, community engagement, minimize the police personal agenda. It was great, and really helped me feel like I could intervene to reduce the danger in some harmful situations without putting myself at unnecessary risk. The two main trainers were both very good- knowledgeable and engaging and charming and all that – but one of them called me out three times while never casting any shade on any of the 35 other people in the class. The first one was weird – referring to me as “the girl with the purple hair” (girl? and it’s multicolored, thank you), they “pushed back” on the appreciation I expressed with the first step of the process they were teaching us: Observe, and how I thought it was a good way to keep us from jumping into knee-jerk, evolutionarily obsolete reactivity. They said that, on the contrary, some of our instincts were good, and we shouldn’t shut those down. It contradicted what they had just told us, I thought, but I didn’t feel any question or explanation was welcome. The second shutdown was not worth conveying and I only enumerate it because of the other two. The third was after we were discussing what we learned from the role playing section, when I said it was good for me to get past my sometimes debilitating intellectual assessment of The Right Thing to do, and just try to help out where I could, wherein they jumped in and told the class what I had said when I first engaged, as an explicit example of how very Not Right it was. No other person’s actions were recounted by the trainers.
It was super weird, folks. I think the weirdness was amplified by them never looking directly at me when they were critiquing – there was no connection to me, no shared joke with me, no evident empathy for me, just strange commentary. My own issues amplified it as well – they were Black, and I’ve always put far more weight on any perceived antipathy from a Black person than a White (still that haunting ghost of a belief that Black folks are inherently superior to White folks), and therefore their opinions of my hold more weight; and of course, I cannot honestly say that I love myself, accept myself for who I am, believe I am enough, so that insecurity makes everything worse.
If I did believe I was enough, none of this would have bothered me or been worth writing except as an amused anecdote or flip observation about human nature. It didn’t hit me physically, or only subtly – this negativity wasn’t a crushing blow – but it did bother me a bit, and did stay with me, so here’s what I came up with to work myself out of it:
It wasn’t personal. First things first. If they didn’t like me – and that’s a big if – that has nothing to do with me. I could have looked like someone they disliked or talked with a phrasing they disliked or believed something they disliked. If I accept that my own aversions are the result of my own circumstances and suffering and not the fault of the thing I’m averse to (which is an essential to my Buddhism), then I have to believe the same when the situation is reversed. And even if they disliked every observable thing about me – my looks my words my tone my ideas my movements – it doesn’t make any of those things wrong. Finally, that’s not even me, “the most inner part, entirely free of disease,” the me that matters. It’s hard for me to believe all the above, to internalize it. Every time someone I respect – for good or petty reasons – appears to dislike me, I feel worse about myself. When they like me, I feel better. It sounds natural, but why? We know how fucked up & fickle everyone is. If they like me today & didn’t yesterday, does that mean I was an inferior person yesterday? What if they had just lost a friend or were in pain yesterday? What if their ex looked exactly like me? To place our self worth in the hands of humanity is to let it slip through their grasping fingers.
It doesn’t matter. Why do I care if this person likes me? Because they’re competent? The likelihood I’ll ever see them again is fairly low, the likelihood their opinion will have any bearing in my life extremely low. Am I just trying to rack up points? Why does this person’s apparent dislike count any more than the apparent rapport among the group of people I actually spent time with during the training? My self-ranking is like chess.com: I get a tiny bump for getting something right, and a big penalty for getting something wrong. Yeeshhiiiiiit.
What if it was a lesson? I don’t typically get targeted in situations like this. It’s definitely not unheard of (I had at least two White, female, self-proclaimed “feminist” teachers go after me because they felt threatened by me – one even flat out said it), but it’s not common. I’m smart enough, I try to be agreeable, I’m respectful of others. But so are lots of LGBTQI, Black, disabled, indigenous, immigrant, and other folks who get shot down in petty situations all the time. Maybe it was just my turn. Maybe others learned something by this trainer’s tactics. Who’s to say.
What if they were having a bad day? It didn’t look like it, but what do I know? Maybe they were hangry. If so, the impact was terribly mild, and I can handle (if not quite enjoy) a little bit of weirdness, which brings me to
What if I took the fall for someone else? I know I’m off in the deep end here, but what if a target was inevitable for some reason and I got lucky? That means someone else was spared as a result, someone who might not have a practice or level of self-awareness to process it, who might have reacted by treating themselves or someone else badly in response, or disrupting the training in a negative way, having a chilling effect on everyone.
Anyway, every experience of being isolated, ostracized, harmed, or embarrassed in any way is an opportunity to increase my compassion for the countless creatures that go through that every day, and to share the ongoing struggle with all of you. I long for the day that I don’t have to work myself out of it, that moment I react to someone’s hatred towards me the same as I do to someone’s hatred of a species of flower. Until then, practice.
When The Guy asked what I wanted for my 50th birthday, I didn’t have much of an answer. My big plans for a trip and a party with my contemporaries from college had dissipated with the contagion many months before.
“oh, nothing really. I mean, be nice to me, but that’s about it.”
As if this was a special request. As if he isn’t typically nice to me. What did I even mean by that? Maybe that I’d get a pass for anything shitty I did that week? I’m usually pretty nice, too – to the extent that I’m capable, so what was I actually asking for? What unpleasant scenario had a decent chance of evolving?
The person I need a pass from is me.
Hitting five-oh during COVID sucks, as far as birthdays go, as it has for so many millions of folks and many of my closest friends. So I kind of grumpily, snottily want to say Fuck It to the day. But I also want a chance to enjoy and appreciate this ultimately passive but still noteworthy achievement, so I decided to give myself the year to celebrate.
And what does that mean?
Again, the only answer I could find was “be nice to myself,” which rounds us back to
What does that mean?
Lots of folks take birthdays, holidays, vacations as a time to indulge themselves: eat, drink, smoke, fuck whatever they want, without “guilt” and that’s all fine & can be fun, but what is framed as a gift to oneself is often one you’d rather return. Drinking too much, eating too much, random sex, thoughtless purchases can all make you feel shitty. How is making yourself feel shitty an act of kindness? Or is it an act of niceness? Is there a difference?
I won’t dig into etymology here, but most of us recognize a pretty clear difference between nice and kind when it comes to other people. Nice is performative; kind is helpful. Nice takes little or no effort; kind may require something of you. Nice is habitual; kind is thoughtful. But when it comes to ourselves, I think it’s sometimes harder to distinguish. We associate indulgence with pleasure, even though the pleasure is so often fleeting, and the pain long-lasting. I’m not against fucking up and going overboard every once in a while, and I am actually thankful for the regret that keeps me from doing it much. I’m also not advising against a modicum of ridiculousness if it doesn’t seriously damage yourself or someone else. Rigidity is for the enlightened or unhappy few. But where is the kindness in those acts? Where is the love, baby?
How can I actually be Kind to myself for a year?
I am the only person calling me lazy or selfish or weak or thoughtless or disappointing or unworthy or simply inadequate. Others may think it, certainly, but if so, it’s hidden enough that I couldn’t identify who those folks are. That leaves me. I am the only one turning a perfectly pleasant day into a missed opportunity to save the world, an indulgent avoidance of important learning, a wasted chance to become better, stronger, faster – The Six-Million Dollar middle-aged woman. If I really want to be good to myself, I have to stop that.
Stopping the running critique seems selfish. Stopping seems privileged. Stopping seems immoral. I’ve managed to turn my fairly generic childhood psychological abuse into a moral compass: the words that have formed the voice in my head – others’ fucked up ideas – morphed into a sadistic, abnegating nun disguised as a conscience. Or perhaps it has turned itself into that in an effort to stay relevant. Our egos are infinitely clever in that way. Regardless, it’s much harder to recognize a critical voice as destructive and abusive if it’s saying things you know to be true – I am privileged, I do want to do more, I will feel better if I give more, participating is the way I want to live, I don’t want to “waste time.”
It’s not the message itself that’s destructive, it’s the judgment. Oh, and the way the message is delivered. When I have my dog tell me I suck in her weird, Cartman-like voice, that’s just not cool. Even as I write this, there is a voice in my head saying, “you’re just looking for a way out … all the talk about self-criticism being destructive is just created by lazy people who can’t hack it … being mean to yourself is motivating!” But I do actually trust science, and I trust my own negative reaction to “shoulding all over myself,” and I’m ready to try something different.
I suppose it’s a kind of behavioral therapy. I haven’t been able to work on my self-forgiveness and kindness from the inside out, so we’re going from the outside in.
For now that means that whenever I say something mean to or mean about myself, I’m going to stop and correct it. Or say something nice about myself. Or something sappy like, “I am enough.” Ugh. Haven’t worked out the details yet. I’m also getting rid of the word “should” in relation to the way I live my life and replacing it with “could.” None of this sounds easy. I’ll need help, so if you know me, please point out when I’m doing it. The Guy’s pretty good at calling me out on this bullshit, but I’m going to further empower him as well.
It’s worth a try. I’ll let y’all know how it goes.
In early August I was stung on the back of my left thigh while I was biking. I don’t know whether it was the type of wasp or the fast-pumping blood as I quickly pedaled the remaining 40 minutes home to sign on for a work meeting, but my whole upper leg swelled a hot, angry, itchy red that tightened my muscles for days and just fully receded earlier this week.
Yesterday, as we were walking down the middle of the street in a residential section of sleepy Alexandria, I got stung again. On the back of my left thigh, inches from the last stabbing. And I was, again, MINDING MY OWN FUCKING BUSINESS, WASP!
Pain can send you to weird places. The first place I went was Angryland, but the first place most unpleasant experiences take me is Angryland. It’s my home away from home, but it’s abusive, and years of meditation have helped me to pack up and get the hell out of there quickly under most circumstances. I felt like I was clear of the place within a minute of the searing pain kicking in, but really I was still kicking rocks out on the grounds, quickly transitioned from pure anger to angry fear. Why was this happening to me? I joked to my partner that the first stinger had planted a homing device in my thigh that was beckoning nearby wasps. He asked if I had recently bought a 5G phone. But I really was thinking similar thoughts, and the joke was an attempt to hide what I knew was irrational. Self-pity pumped through me with the next wave of sharp pain. Why me? What had I done to deserve this? Nothing, I knew. That was ridiculous. (I refuse to buy into that privileged Buddhist line of thinking.) But I still found myself looking for a reason, a rationale.
I caught myself before I’d gone too far down that path, because I recognized something I’ve long criticized in others: the imposition of a simple, but false logic on a series of random events. It’s that kind of thinking that both leads individuals to believe that their god chose them because they happened to survive a catastrophic event or two, or that the US is teeming with “reverse racism” because a BIPOC person was chosen over a White guy for a job or two. It is the kind of thinking that leads QAnon followers to find meaning in everything from the Trump’s lies to Trump’s ties. They’re scared, they feel vulnerable, and they want to believe there is order to the universe, even to the point of inventing more chaos (Democrats eating children?) upon which order will be imposed.
I am susceptible to this kind of thinking. Beyond the universal human predilection for pattern-seeking as a way to simplify life and save energy, I spent years dissecting works of literature for themes, metaphors, patterns. I am an analyst as much as I am anything. But I have to accept the likely fallacy of any of my assumptions, and the impact of that failure is far more consequential in life than in the study of 20th century American literature. I have to ground myself in the facts as I can reasonably verify them and find some sources I can trust to deliver those facts to me. Otherwise, it’s too easy to dissolve into despair and cynicism. Whether that’s justified or not, it’s not the way I want to live, because it leaves me isolated, helpless, or both.
So. I was stung by two waspy things in more or less the same spot within 3 weeks of each other. It’s weird, but it isn’t supernatural or unprecedented. It’s just hot and itchy and sucky. Like some other things, and not like many different things.