As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m working on being happier this year. Not that I wasn’t pretty happy last year. I just want it to be more…conscious this year, I guess. More intentional, since last year’s was in large part the result of non-repeatable actions. Moving 1/2 way across the country, downsizing to a new house… That accounts for a great deal of my excitement last year!
This year, however, we’re living here already. And have more or less ‘settled’ in. We’re (literally!) putting down roots: planting trees & shrubs & flowers and garden beds and swing sets. Well, if digging holes and filling them w/wet cement to ‘plant’ swing set legs counts…
It seems like I’m grownup enough (finally!) to work towards happiness, if necessary. And it appears that’s actually not a bad plan. Last week’s prompt asked me to consider what I do well. And how much of that comes naturally, compared to what I’ve worked to grow better at. And it turns out? There is very little I think I’m ‘naturally’ good at.
This week’s prompt asks me to list ‘what things do you do that take you out of your head?’ Good question! And many of them are the exact things I listed the week before, that required me to study them, practice 🙂them, learn them.
I wonder how many of us still believe the happily-ever-after stories of our childhood. That we would somehow just ‘become’ happy…? That it would descend upon us like a warm sunbeam, and wrap us in light.
Instead, it’s beginning to look as if happiness is more like the garden bed I put in last fall: I had to dig out the execrable red clay (down 10+ inches!), mix peat moss & manure & dirt together, and then put it back in the bed. My beloved had to put in edging to hold the newly raised bed surface in (N.B.: other folks aren’t responsible for our happiness, but they can help!). I had to plant seeds I bought into tiny peat pots, and put them under the lights on the light table, and water them until they were ready to transplant outside. And then I had to mulch the little plants, watering when it was dry weather. But by October? The bed was so lush & lovely no one could believe it! See above. And that was in autumn, when gardens are supposed to be winding down!
Another metaphor (you knooow how I love metaphors): aging is like autumn — full of brilliant light, even when the leaves are falling and the air is chilling. Even on the days when arthritis is a royal pain, and other attendant challenges rear unreasonable heads, I’m grateful to be here.
That too is a part of the whole happiness thing, I’m learning. Gratitude. Another thing I’ve been practicing, writing regularly in my gratitude journal. With entries that range fom the chickadee on the feeder outside, to my elder grandson telling me you’re the best, GiGi!
So here’s my prescription for you and your future happiness: practice it. Treat it like a skill that you can learn. Because it is, I promise. And the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. Honest.
This is what Pascal, my older dog looked like when he came to us 10 years ago. A tiny elf-eared puppy, easily frightened — a big cat, a leaf falling, the smell of the resident possum in the back yard… Any of those could do it. So could the vacuum — even a few days ago.
Today we killed him. Yes, I know: we say ‘euthanised,’ or ‘put him down,’ or ‘put him to sleep.’ But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like we killed him. Even though he was in a lot of pain, and wasn’t himself at all. He’s had dysplasia since birth — he was supposed to be OFA certified to NOT have dysplasia, but… — and it’s just worsened. He also had epilepsy, in a couple of versions. And our previous vet told us he has the dog equivalent of autism, as well.
Through all of his trials, he was still so beautiful. So loving. And such a mess.
A couple of weeks ago, he began having seizures. Two a day, grand mal. And he probably had a stroke, as his leg began to drag, and he showed very poor coordination. We took him to the university veterinary hospital, an amazing facility, staffed w/ utter saints. Seriously — I think the requirements to work there are more stringent than canonisation… I’ve never met more people w/ overtly compassionate affects in one place. Ever.
Turns out that the resident canine neurologist (yes, there’s one on staff) diagnosed a brain tumour in addition to everything else. So now we have a dog that needs pain medication for his hips, anti-seizure meds (2), and allergy meds. And he’s still doing verrrry poorly.
Then it really fell apart: yesterday, he tried to bite me when i petted him. He tried to bite his brother twice when poor Hugo just brushed against him. And when my beloved — Pascal’s version of the Supreme Deity, if there ever was one — reached down to pet him, Pascal tried to take his hand off. So we took him off meds to see if that helped. It did not.
We sat at the vet’s for almost two hours. Pascal’s veins were so thrombosed that the techs couldn’t get an IV in him. And think about it: if he didn’t want to be petted, even, how did a needle feel?? But in an oddly reassuring way, it was an affirmation that we were making the right decision, despite our grief.
Buddhists talk about ‘letting go.’ It means to know that everything is transient: life, certainly. But also love, pain, joy, grief. Everything passes — clouds across Big Sky Mind. I know that in a year, I will still miss my sweet mess of a dog. I also know it won’t hurt the same way. As I know that death always follows life.
But our pets are part of our family. At least, in my family they are. And as the owner of a 17-year-old cat, another aging dog, and a second cat still in his prime? I want them to live forever. With health & vigour. I want no more grief. The Buddha would shake his finger, probably smile, and remind me that I am attached.
I confess to it. As I confess to wielding the power of life, then death, over a small dog. We let go — holding a small sleepy body in a tearful hug before the vet gave him a shot to the heart (he never could get the IV in). We let go, wishing him dreams of possums in the backyard, and long walks by the river, and lots of treats. We let go of his pain-filled life. But somehow, he’s still so very here, and I don’t know how to really let him go. I don’t know how to explain to his brother (at least, that’s what we called them, although they weren’t littermates) where his buddy is. I don’t know how to explain to my grandson where Pascal is, either. And I don’t know how to let go of any of this grief.
Sometimes, I am acutely aware how inadequate a Buddhist I am…
I’m a writer. It’s what I do. More honestly? It’s what I be. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember: keeping journals, writing stories, even a novel as an elementary kid (okay, so it was pretty short…).
I’m the kind of writer (person?) who has to write it down to figure out what I even think. And to top it all off, I’m a damn scholar. There. I said it: I research everything. And I know how to. (See previous post.) This is a curse, these days, folks. And I’m quoting a much fancier blogger than I am to bolster my case.
Reading Jessica Livingston’s ‘Sound of Silence‘ struck so many resonant chords it was like she was playing my song. A soundtrack to a current dilemma I’m waffling over. Which is…to FaceBook or not to FaceBook.
Back story: I use my FB as a kind of ersatz progressive news outlet. One entire side of my family is evangelical Christian, in the least progressive of definitions. They are anti-choice, homophobic (in my eyes, at least; they would say they’re ‘pro-Christian marriage’), filled with white privilege (which they would say was ‘anti-special treatment’), and extremely pro-Christian (to the extent of being highly suspicious of other religions). We don’t have ANYTHING in common, politically.
But they’re my family, folks. MY. FAMILY. So I keep trying to point them to unbiased news sources (‘they’re liberal rags’ — the Washington Post?? Reuters??). Look up government docs (‘it’s an Obama conspiracy!’). LInk them to actual video of what was said, or what happened. So they can see with their own eyes.
And it has as much impact as rain in Africa. Their beliefs are grounded partially in religious propoganda from the pulpit (think Franklin Graham, or Pat Robertson), and partially in the visible changing of the colour guard of American culture. Gays! Brown people! Muslims! And while my family will say they harbor no ill will towards ‘them,’ they will also find reason after reason why such groups should be watched/ listed/ disenfranchised.
It’s enough to put you off reunions entirely.
I have worked diligently to learn ‘the other side.’ There are excellent articles available on why so much of economically depressed, blue collar white America voted as it didd this election. Against its own interests, progressives would say. But in line with history & the pulpits of evangelical Christianity.
Did I mention I’m also a Buddhist? And a socially engaged Buddhist, at that…I’ve revisited the 14 precepts of socially engaged Buddhism, as defined by my beloved (never met f2f, but always there as a mentor to me) Thich Nhất Hanh. What I’m struggling with is how NOT to be angry w/ such boneheadedness. How NOT to dislike narrowmindedness, even as I realise (with no small sense of the irony!) that my family thinks I’m the boneheaded one.
This is when I wish I had a teacher present to ask a question of. But in the meantime, I guess I’m going to have to learn, as Sharon Salzberg (another beloved mentor) says her own mentor told her, “The Buddha’s enlightenment solved the Buddha’s problem, now you solve yours.”
I just wish it wasn’t so damn HARD! Any suggestions?
When I was a very young woman, I was a card-carrying member of the ACLU. Really. It was during the 70s, and the Neo-Nazi party was demonstrating (or trying to) in Skokie, IL. There was a huge outcry, because (you probably don’t know this) more than 1/2 of Skokie’s population was Jewish. In addition, a large number of the Jews who did live in Skokie were Holocaust survivors. In other words? A tragically incendiary situation.
I was a journalist for years. And as a radical liberal — if there is such a thing! — I defend freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly. They are building blocks to a liberal democracy. So I sent money to a financially strapped ACLU; liberals weren’t happy to see ‘their’ organisation defend Nazis, and there weren’t many donations coming in. My friends were horrified.
But I remembered someone had told me, in a class I had once on ethics in media, that freedom of speech wasn’t about defending the things we agree with. It’s about making sure that even the things we HATE are also given the right to air. Even things that make us crazy angry.
I still believe that.
However, it’s just not that simple anymore. There are, of course, limits to free speech: you can’t yell fire, as we know. And you can’t incite riot. And yet… Surely this political season, we have seen many ‘leaders’ fomenting hate: saying that entire groups of people should be deported, even (possibly) executed, if ‘necessary.’ We have seen jokes made (in verrry poor taste) about guns and various candidates, followed w/ ‘wink/nudge’ that ostensibly excuses the ‘joke.’
We’ve seen people with, ostensibly, the same political goals make accusations without any basis. Families (once safe from mud-slinging) are fair game, and spouses are attacked w/ impunity. A man’s father has been impugned as an accomplice to murder, a woman’s husband’s affairs alleged to be ‘her own fault.’ Debates have disintegrated into finger shaking and eye-rolling.
And it’s not just ‘them.’ It’s all of us. We’re all angry.
Yesterday, my younger son sent me a link to an article I’m posting here. It talks about ‘in-groups’ & ‘out-groups,’ & how we range ourselves against the ‘out-groups’ of our choosing. It’s not a new (or even overly recent) article: Scott Alexander, the author, posted it back in 2014, almost exactly 2 years ago. But it’s never been more relevant. For the next week or so, I’ll be referring to it more than once. Alexander so neatly articulates the tension these days: liberals are just as apt to forget freedom of speech as someone from the ‘other’ side.
As a Buddhist, I know about ‘attachment.’ Upādāna (it literally means ‘fuel’) is the fire that arises when we cling fiercely to a longing, a wish for things to be different. Maybe it’s a desire for $$, or freedom from pain. In my case? It’s a visceral ache for justice for all: equity (which is NOT the same as equal treatment, per se: equity is levelling the playing field — quite different). I want that kind of ideal fairness to EVERYONE. And so those who work towards that goal are my ‘in-group.’ If you’re not working for equity? You’re in my ‘out-group.’ And I’m almost certainly angry about it.
Equity also means that you can’t be a racist, or a homophobe. You can’t be a misogynist, or indifferent to your own privileges, racial or class or gender derived. I don’t think I’m any of those. But as Scott Alexander notes, I get no ‘virtue points’ for being ‘tolerant’ of differences like race, gender, class, religion. Unfortunately, I also get no virtue points for being tolerant of my out-groups(s), because I’m not. Instead, I’m angry. Almost all the time.
I”m leaving this here for now. Next blog? More on trying to live a Buddhist life of non-clinging while remaining socially engaged, and activist.
Sometimes, when things really cut deep, I compartmentalise. I do like the oyster: coat pain and irritation w/ something soothing, wall it off. Unlike the lowly oyster, however, I make no pearl. Just stick things into closed off spaces, where I can leave them be for awhile. I am my mother’s daughter…
My mother was about as non-conflict as it gets. She could pretend w/ the best of them. Things were ‘fine’ — almost always, unless she was complaining, which wasn’t common when I was little. Or, at the worst, like Scarlett O’Hara, it would be better soon.
I’m not quite that bad.😏
I just don’t think it’s good for me, at least, to brood. For instance — I’ve drastically reduced my FaceBook interactions, as I can’t stand hearing the latest horrible action masquerading as presidential. I make no secret of my dislike for the current administration. I need no reminders of why that’s true. Especially since I’m doing the very little I can: writing, sending letters, donating to resistors. But I know it’s not enough.
So I compartmentalism, until I can let the various dark spots of my life go. My new mantra — at least when grieving (a very dear friend was recently diagnosed w/a serious illness; another is in constant pain…), or when furiously angry — is Breathe. Acknowledge. Let it go. It helps enormously, especially when I wake up in the middle of the night, and my thoughts start pacing the confines of my head, like goose-stepping infantry.
I also drink tea. Since my younger son is still with us for a few more days, I ordered his favourite, Earl Grey. This particular brand is made with a high proportion of silver tips, and a higher grade of tea leaves. We both love it. Today, as the rain sifted down like spider silk, it was a perfect afternoon break. My worries for my friends, my concern w/the sad situations faced by so many flooded southern American, all were washed away for a few moments in a warm cup held between my two chilled hands. I even had cookies. 😉
It’s not a bad thing, I think, to compartmentalise until we can face the many dark places of the world. I have a pretty good life, which I appreciate deeply. Trying not to take it for granted,I still feel enormously guilty/angry when the world is cruel to others. So I do the whole Buddhist reflection of here is sadness. here is grief. here is untold pain & misery. acknowledge it. feel it. now…let it go…
it helps when there’s a cup of tea & a cookie. I promise.