I’ve finished listening to Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You Are, which, title notwithstanding, is not a book for beginners to Tibetan Buddhism or meditation. It assumes you’ve already set off on this path of self-compassion and mindfulness and its lessons are there to supplement what you learn at your meditation centre or from your teacher. In meditation, evidently (for I am neither expert nor practitioner), you start with what you’ve got, where you are, and work with that stuff (suffering, pain, embarrassment, discomfort, pride, joy, whatever) as the raw material for “waking up” to your own life.
The system Chödrön describes is a complex one: there are slogans and principles and teachings and vows. Sometimes one teaching or one principle is broken down into a short list of its constituent parts, and these presented in abstracted language–or language that has become abstracted in the translator’s attempt to keep it accurate and true to the original meaning. While there are people out there, like Jon Kabat-Zinn at the UMAss Med Center’s Center for Mindfulness, who incorporate Buddhist teachings and principles into stress-reduction techniques, Buddhism is a religion and has an inherent system to which one must, ideally, be faithful in the whole and not just in the parts you find attractive for your current purposes.
Like most Westerners, though, I’m reading about Buddhism because it seems to hold the promise of experiencing less pain, or dealing better with pain, or not freaking out because things feel difficult or uncertain. So, if I follow the letter, if not the spirit of Pema Chödrön’s title and start with me right here and now, I’ve learned a thing or two:
- even serious meditators don’t actually blank out while meditating. Your thoughts are always going to come and engage your brain in its endless internal conversation loop.
- what is important is what you do with those thoughts. Do you use them to construct the narrative that is/becomes your self or ego? Or do you acknowledge that you’re sitting there, making a huge deal out of yourself and your internal life and you should just Let. It. Go.?
Buddhism and meditation have some good vocabulary to get at the root of the adage to know thyself and love yourself for who you are. The goal of meditation and mindfulness is not to zone out of your life in order to smooth over the rough spots. (Though let’s confess that this option sounds pretty attractive at times.) Instead, the goal is to really know what you fear, what prompts your anger or indignation, what makes you uneasy–and make friends with that emotion in yourself. See it, know it, feel compassion toward it. Lather, rinse, repeat. Then, share that compassion outward, recognizing that all the nastiness and fear in you is in others, as well. Send compassion outward, but start with yourself.
My inner dialogue often involves if . . . . then . . . . /or when . . . . then . . . . scenarios that I construct for myself. These scenarios help me come to terms with what I think my true values are, what is totally essential in my life, and where I want to wind up. A Buddhist teacher would likely tell me, or let me find out for myself, that I am not going to wind up anywhere–I am somewhere and will be somewhere tomorrow and somewhere the day after that. NOW is not a moment to flee or plan my way out of. Now is it and will be it and always has been it.
I know this. We all do. Pop psychology and self-help books are full of this advice and I’ve read it before. But living in the now–and really appreciating it and having compassion for it, warts and all–doesn’t fit well with that part of me that wants to have a plan for my family’s financial and material and educational future. I don’t think Buddhism would reject the notion of saving for the kids’ education, but I do think it rejects my own internal dialogue about what life has to look like in order for me to finally heave that heavy sigh of relief and say, “whew, we made it.” In part because I assume that I will have to overcome parts of myself in order to get to wherever “there” is. Those parts aren’t there to be overcome. They are there because they are there and instead of pitching some sort of adversarial war against them, I need to get to know them, feel love and compassion for them, and then choose to not do them if that is what I need to be happy.
So, it’s not quite “I’m smart enough, I’m good enough, and doggone it, people like me.” It’s more like, “yep, I am annoying and neurotic, just like everyone else. I’m going to make friends with my annoying behaviours and neurosis. You wanna do the same? Then maybe we’ll stop inflicting them on others, mmmkay?”
I have a book coming out in August. It’s an academic monograph on girls’ reading activity in late nineteenth-century Prussia, so you are unlikely to see it at your local B&N or Chapters. That’s ok with me. I hope that historians of education read it, women’s studies folks, children’s literature researchers, and scholars interested in women’s writing and girlhood studies. There is some good stuff in there on nineteenth-century curriculum, on the role of reading in formal and informal education, on the power of fiction to bolster the stories that communities tell about their togetherness or separateness.
I worked on that project forever. First it was a dissertation, then it was neglected, then it expanded in my mind, then I wrote it all over again and it is–mostly, but not entirely–good. There are issues I didn’t see in the proofs. They only became visible when my words were single spaced on a book page–snuggled close to their friends from three paragraphs ago, offensive with their repetitiveness and verbosity. Those will not be the last words I ever write, so I can always improve.
The power of fiction and story to tell us who we are or want to be still compels me but I want to look at contemporary fiction. In particular, I’m fascinated by the enduring interest in Holocaust fiction and memoir. The Book Thief and Sarah’s Key are two 21st-century examples of the genre that does not appear to fade even as the the generation of the victims and the perpetrators dies out. Recently I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr, written in England and The Old Brown Suitcase, by Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, written in Canada. I was struck by the contextualization of these memoirs as refugee stories–stories of disruption and displacement that can foster empathy and awareness for our own era’s displaced, hunted, and loathed populations. The Holocaust memoir or story is not the story of a horrifying singularity, then, but a story that can be re-told again and again–by Armenians, Rwandans, Bosnians or Serbs, or Sudanese.
So I’m on the prowl for an approach. Although it is tempting to sit down and do a literary analysis of these stories–or their marketing and contextualization by publishing houses–I want to connect with the readers, the kids who read the books. That’s pretty tricky business in academic publishing. Ethics boards, protocols, conflicts of interest. It might be tricky parenting business, too: Hey kid, read this book and tell Mommy what it made you think of!
Watch this space for developments. Anyone want to form a book club?
So, you may have heard, I’m feeling in a funk. Cures for the blues are like cures for hiccups, everyone has one that works for them–or worked for that person whose blog they read, or for their sister, or their grandma. Physical activity seems key in many of these cures and I know the day is better if I run or do yoga or go to the gym. I haven’t decided if the improvement is because I’ve gotten my “ya-yas” out, like the kids say, or because running and yoga both get me out of the cramped, dark space that is my own head and into my body. My body is a much larger and simpler thing than my brain. Its needs and impressions are immediate and unmediated. Paying attention to that is a good thing and also, I think, a teeny part of what meditation is all about: focus on the breath, let go of thoughts, be compassionate with yourself.
So, this morning after yoga, I decided to set a timer for 5 minutes and sit cross-legged for those 5 minutes and meditate. No mantra or slogan. No image or compass. Just focusing on the breath moving in and out for five minutes. I knew five minutes for a newbie, even one whose just done some yoga so is “prepped” for this kind of thing, would be an accomplishment. So I sat. And breathed.
And then the thoughts came. My brain, it would appear, is like a little hamster on a wheel and the hamster thinks it has to keep the wheel turning or . . . . the wheels will fall off . . . or something . . . .and that those thoughts are crucial and connect things and show me who I am and by their mere persistence demand attention. I thought about work. I thought about my posture and my abs. I thought about what meditation means. What does it mean that I’m trying to meditate? Is this ridiculous?
I stuck to the plan, however, labelled those things “thinking” and went back to the breath.
Then I really began to feel uncomfortable sitting cross-legged on the carpet. Maybe a different position would work. And why do my eyes have to stay open? Looking at the pattern on the couch is very distracting. Maybe I should close my eyes. Or keep them open. (breathe, those are thoughts, you are breathing).
Maybe I should write about trying to meditate and how I stink at it? (shut up, that’s not compassionate or gentle. Thinking. Stop Thinking. Breathe.)
Gosh, these are the longest five minutes EVER.
(Thinking. Stop that. Breathe. )
Could I really do this every day?
(Stop thinking, Jennifer. In. Out. Breathe.)
Ok, I’m going to peek at the timer. Seriously, this has gone on forever.
So I look at the timer and I’ve been trying to meditate for 13 minutes. I had set the timer but did not press “start.” I had given myself 5 minutes, telling myself that if the kids got up 5 minutes late, which they would if I had to wake them when I finished, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Now that five minutes was closer to 15 and the calm and in-the-moment-ness I had been seeking through the meditation attempt threatened to go Right. Out. the. Window. with the first wail of protest from the eldest: ” Why are you just getting me up now? I’ll never be on time now!! MOOOOOMMMMMMMMMM!!”
My pointy finger came out and I took a breath, mustering energy and verbiage for an expression of my lack of interest in or compassion for a 12 year old who doesn’t set her alarm clock and then wants to make it Mom’s fault. And then, I dropped the finger, let go of the rant and said: get up, you have a clock. Keep track of time and don’t make this about me. I am not going to be angry this morning.
And I wasn’t. At her. At me. At anything.
A storm blew in Monday night, just after people started their fireworks celebrations for Victoria Day. The temperature dropped and a cool breeze blew into the attic windows. It felt lovely . It is now Thursday, however, and it still feels like the storm is lingering in the air–muggy and full of hostile intent.
So I am inclined to use the oppressive weather as some sort of excuse or explanation for my own feelings of fogginess and hostile intention. But that is unfair to the weather gods. Fact remains, though, that I feel unsettled and pessimistic. I want to do things in my professional life that will maximize the potential for good and my capacity for change, but WHICH of the things should I concentrate on? I also need to do those things which replenish and restore me as a person, a partner, and a mom. I want to feel the flow that happens when you’re content and I want my children to see happy, content grown-ups who are at peace with themselves and their place in the world.
But I don’t feel it right now. I feel depleted. I feel half-empty, at least. Everywhere I look, I see half-assed commitment, half of a genuine interest, half of a morsel of motivation. I can’t even knit at night for more than 30 minutes without feeling bored, bored, bored like it is all useless and will never work out and why did I think I was good at this, anyway? And when I run with the dog I wonder why I’m slower now than I was two years ago and maybe if I REALLY committed to that weight lifting program I’d get super lean and fast and would be awesome at that. But maybe not, because I’m me and I’m old and slow. And I finished writing a book and it’s getting published. That is a good thing, though it took me too long, and I should start the next project but . . . why bother? I don’t have that career any more, so no one will miss it if I don’t write that other thing. And now, you see, I’m drowning in a wave of sappy, self-involved bad feelings that I don’t need, my family doesn’t need and you, frankly—why are you still reading this? You don’t need this, either. You would be oh-so-right to point out that I am a materially comfortable, educated, happily married middle-class woman with two healthy, bright children–two cars, a house, and a dog in the bargain I have zero problems. Zero.
So I need to find the source, the well, will fill this glass of water again. And it can’t come from the outside. It isn’t God (sorry, folks) or the love of my husband or kids (though that’s great, of course). . . and it’s got to be around here somewhere.
(I delivered what follows a couple of years ago at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Manhattan, Kansas, as part of a service on stars and the cosmos in poetry and song and physics. The choir sang a choral version of Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star.” I sang with the choir and shared my thoughts on the poems afterword.)
Reflections on a Star
Choose Something Like a Star
by Robert Frost – 1947
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud –
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
Our cultural heritage—and I am sure this is not the case solely for Western Judeo-Christendom—reserves several linear feet of library space to the star. They twinkle and shine, they guide our way, they remind us of our contingency in the universe, they represent that wee speck of light in the darkest night to which we can cling—hoping for the sunrise tomorrow. We wish upon stars, we set our hopes on them, we reach out and grab them—symbols of our lofty goals.
Many believe that Robert Frost was gently (or not so gently) criticizing T.S. Eliot in these verses: Eliot himself as the proud star, whom Frost beseeches to reveal something about his inspiration, his gift, his talent. That’s fine with me. I am sure that Frost felt the need to poetically needle a man such as Eliot. But really, I could care less about what Frost INTENDED this poem to mean, what intertexts are involved. I have no patience for poetry a clef, and I don’t think you need to, either. When I read or hear or sing the lines of this poem, I know deeply that I am demanding that a mystery be revealed. To that light twinkling up in the heavens I shout: hear me now, tell me what it means, give me something to hold on to, GRANT ME MY WISH.
The star, however, has no interest in my plea. The universe, in its vastness, in its chemical and organic complexity, cares not one whit if I exist as breathing flesh and blood, pulsing with joy, or if my blood, tissue, and bones return to the earth to fertilize it for another season. The star burns whether or not I acknowledge its light.
I don’t think Eliot responded to Frost, either—or at least not in the way the poem suggests he should: “tell us what elements you blend; use language we can comprehend.” And so, at that point in the poem, Frost gives up on the star. Forget it. It burns; there are chemicals involved; it’s really hot and really far away.
So he then turns his attention to us. He tells his readers, “It gives us strangely little aid.” US—we are in this together, whether the star wants to participate in our meaning-making here, or not. So, as lofty and taciturn and disinterested as the star would appear, its very presence reveals something to us. That twinkling light in the heavens can serve as a point of reference—a compass by which we will not guide ships, but our own hearts and minds. Should praise or blame, should fortune or despair shower down upon us, we can look to the heavens, choose a star and be still, be comforted and staid. And, as Keats is explicitly mentioned and Eliot obliquely, perhaps Frost is telling us that any star will do—any point upon which you can rest and focus your mind and attention can stay you, support you, remind you that it is not the mob of the moment that matters but something more lasting, if more distant.
What role does Keats have for Frost here? Why does he get mentioned? What does he have to do with the star? Well, let’s look at Keats’ “Bright Star”:
by John Keats
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No— yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever— or else swoon to death.
Here, Keats wishes to be like the bright star in the heavens. Where the star is steadfast in his lone vigil over the night earth; Keats wants to keep his unsleeping vigil pillowed upon his beloved, whose breast here becomes the entire earth, while Keats—who here plays a patient religious zealot—feels the earth of her body rise and fall in slumber. He remains awake in “sweet unrest.”
The Eremite, however, remains the star—“nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite”—an entity to which one can aspire; an admirable steadfastness that suggests the unending cycle of time and tide on this earth. The star suggests, to me, that we may (or perhaps MUST) choose to find our meaning, catch hold of our inspiration, where we can. In the absence of a god, benevolent or vengeful, we must look and find something like a star in the heavens or on earth onto which we can pin our hopes and dreams. Keats chose his lover; Frost knew that both the poet and the scientist can reveal that which burns brightly within us. What do we wish upon?
The star is there—it burns; it keeps watch over the night. Should we be awake or out and about during those dark hours when the map of the universe twinkles in the heavens, perhaps we should look up. Perhaps we should fix our eyes on that star and remember the purity and the beauty of the earth and be strengthened in our purpose; in our purpose to live a life of meaning.
I took my husband’s last name when we got married. We were in grad school (in the humanities!), that hotbed of liberal politics and loose sexual morals and more than one friend raised an eyebrow and wondered why I, as a good feminist, would do that.
I had my reasons at the time and those are valid still. Primarily, I wanted to indicate that my relationship with my husband trumped my relationship to my father (who, at the time, was the only other family member I had with the same last name as me). It was a symbolic gesture, more than a political or feminist one, and I haven’t regretted the choice.
Yesterday, though, the name of a guy I went to junior and senior high school with popped into my head and I went a googled him. W, as I’ll call him, was a couple years ahead of me in school; his brother was in my class. I didn’t know either one of them very well. W struck me as cute, rich, smart and popular (all of this, of course, from my teenage vantage point, a notoriously unreliable perspective). He went off to university and I heard, a few years later through the grapevine, that he had come out of the closet, become a political activist, and changed his name to reflect this change. D became W. Cool, I thought. And I envisioned W engaged in all sorts of very earnest HRC-type lobbying and sent him my warmest thought waves.
When I googled him yesterday, I found out that he’d gotten his PhD in English a few years before I got mine in German and is an English Prof and Associate Dean at a university far away from our home town. He looks older, of course, and somehow more like his little brother. There is no trace of his childhood name anywhere. Because I’d heard from a friend what his new first name was, I was able to find him easily in the interwebz.
It isn’t very common, of course, to change your first name. And W did it long before the advent of social media, so he wasn’t, as far as I can tell, “hiding” anything, but rather revealing something else. I changed my last name, keeping my maiden name as a middle name, and also saw this as an act of revealing rather than squashing. But I do wonder, if W or his little brother, or any number of acquaintances from wherever/whenever wanted to find me, does having a new last name cut me off from them? When I got married, I gave some thought to the argument of continuity: stay who you are; present yourself consistently over time and across space–keep your name. Those arguments didn’t sway me in 1996. I wonder if social media, googling, and the coinciding public curating of our private lives has changed the strength of that argument for me.
And, as the image above reminds us all: W changed his first name in an era when it was impossible in all 50 States to change your last name via the vehicle of marriage for same-sex couples. May we soon enter the era when my 1996 dilemma is open to all of us, regardless of whom we love.
Does this look like a torture device to you? Given your grown-up size, it may indeed be too small for your needs, but realize that the intended resident of this cozy little den is 22 pounds soaking wet. She fits.
She even curls up into a sweet little cinnamon-coloured ball on her green mattress and snoozes quite nicely of an evening. She knows she fits. She even likes her little den at night.
During the day, however, this cozy little dog den evidently transforms into a cross between a medieval Iron Maiden and a windowless solitary confinement cell. Now, mind you, I have no eyewitness accounts of this transformation. What I do have, however, are clues:
–blood smudges at nose level inside the den, from wee cuts on the nose of its denizen, received while she tries to chew her way out of what is obviously a painful environment
–odor, or, more frankly: stench. It’s what I like to call “the stink of panic and poop,” since that is what she does in the kennel when we’re not home. She panics, then she poops.
–drool, sometimes foamy. Granted, this is not in the kennel but in a wee puddle on the floor in front of the gate to the kennel. Evidence of her slobbering panic attack. Whether the drool happens before, during, or after the poop, who is to say?
The wire kennel we tried at first was an unmitigated disaster. She busted out of it two or three times (even with gate reinforcements). Ditto the Exercise pen. Those contraptions, being metal, posed a pretty big threat to her continued health, so we opted (on advice of doggie behaviourist) to put her in this plastic contraption.
On the plus side, she can’t bust out of it, so she can’t potentially impale herself in the attempt. Her wounds are just wee scrapes on her soft nose (poor doogie) and she isn’t really hurting herself. Also, her panic is contained and she isn’t tearing things up and pooping all over the house. Cleaning out the kennel beats cleaning carpets (or beds, or sofas) every day!
But dear sweet Bella: get a grip on yourself!! We always come home! You get to go on runs! You get training time (good doggie, yess, a treat for you! nice sit, nice stay! yesssss goooood doogggiiieeee) and tons of positive reinforcement. You get oodles and oodles of snuggles on the couch and scritches behind the ears.
You can do this. You can handle being on your own for six hours. I just know you can. Please!