Knowing/feeling

Surrounded by emptiness, always, surrounded, bounded, filled with emptiness. I used to feel empty all the time. So I filled up with booze and chicken wings.

“Empty” means something so different now. Empty is full. I know that sounds like NewSpeak, and it’s hard to explain, but emptiness feels more like space, spaciousness, room to move, not this gnawing ravenous maw of need, but this open, wide, wide mind, wild mind, empty of thought, empty of preconception, empty of need – not a nihilistic empty but an emptiness that allows, allows for specie, allows for fresh thoughts, allows for a new connection to every fresh moment. Huh. Guess these teachings are really beginning to sink in, take root, push up shoots.

Shoots – gardening. We talked about gardening. Planting seeds, growing radishes, small miracles. The other day someone said that when they spent a year here in south Florida and then went back to New York, they found themselves feeling like they’d missed something, finally realizing that what they’d missed was winter.

Me, I don’t miss winter. I’ve been back to Toronto in February twice in the past few years and it was bloody cold and thoroughly unpleasant, no thank you very much, my blood has thinned now, and I don’t miss winter.

But what I do find myself missing – in both senses of the word, actually – is spring. Well, not literally. It’s still spring when I get back to Canada each year at the beginning of May. But what I do miss out on is the rhythm of the planting season. I realize that when I’m not there for the end of winter and early spring, I don’t know/feel what’s happening with the weather, with the ground, the soil. How much snow cover did that flower bed get? Was there enough snow to keep the roses alive? Was there a thaw in January and then a cold snap that killed off the tulips? Were there crocuses in February? Did they come up where I planted them or did the squirrels move the bulbs? I don’t know these things anymore.

I didn’t know that I used to know/feel these things, instinctively, in my bones, like the cold gets into my bones on those icy-crisp days on the ski slopes. I didn’t know I had a knowing in my bones.

Staying in touch – why is it so hard?

I know I keep saying this, but this time – this time – will be different. I’ll do better at staying in touch. I will. I will.

But the tiny voice inside me, that voice that knows everything, says: You are defeated already. You know you won’t. You never do, even though you say you love – you do love – all those people you don’t stay in touch with, not even on facebook.

And I feel bad about that.

So, why don’t I stay in touch? Gooood question.

Answer #1: I guess I feel my life isn’t all that interesting? What do I want to tell people about? “I went to the pool today.” “I had an egg for breakfast.” “I feel strong.”

But do I not want to know how they are doing? I do! I do! So why wouldn’t they want to know how I am doing? Huh.

Answer #2: “I’m so busy.”

Really?

Answer #3: It takes so much effort to tell people what I’m up to. In order to do that, I need to sort things out in my mind, process my experience, open up, talk about myself. Huh.

“The unexamined life is a life not lived.”

And this: Open up, you say? When did I stop opening myself? When did I become the shoulder to cry on, who never cries on anybody else’s shoulder? When was the last time I had a girlfriend I talked to every day, confided in, trusted with my secrets? Ah. Before Jack. A very long time ago.

So what the hell happened?

  1. Alcohol gradually formed a buffer between me and the world.
  1. Burnout – literally got so busy, with work that overwhelmed me, with volunteer activities that consumed me, with family obligations –monthly trips to Toronto, trips now magnified by having two families to visit, complicated by the sheer distances between family members, happy but exhausting weekends of driving, driving, driving, punctuated by the good stuff — the love and laughter over meals and endless cups of tea (and, at the time, glasses of wine to wind up the day).
  1. The internet: changed the way I relate to people. Fed into my natural reluctance to pick up the phone and call people. More emails. A buffer. Now I text just to check if it’s okay to call. Exacerbated by the need to call people for work, to which I also developed an aversion.
  1. Telephone technology: I was bad enough at making/returning phone calls when we had landlines that worked perfectly all the time, every time, with reliable clarity and connectivity. Now we’ve traded quality for mobility, so that perfectly functioning landline has been replaced by unreliable, often crappy, VOIP phones and cell phones, the crazy-quilt complexity of routing calls through RingCentral, the spotty coverage of cell phones. (I’ve actually stopped using our magicJack phone altogether except for the odd local call because our internet coverage here in Florida is so spotty. Very frustrating!)
  1. Emails: why don’t I write more? BECAUSE IT TAKES ME FOR-FUCKING-EVER (see answer #3 above)
  1. I’ve become increasingly solipsistic in my old age, increasingly protective of my own space-time. Last year, it was my relentless focus on losing weight and gaining fitness, and on my spiritual path – the Buddhist training and the sobriety both.

So now what?

How do I get over this hump and start doing better at keeping in touch with the people I care about? I know it’s not just a matter of will, any more than losing weight or quitting drinking is just a matter of will. And I know it’s not just one-sided – it’s not like everyone is beating a path to my door and I’m ignoring them and not calling back. But, from my side, how do I support myself in making a change in how I open?

Don’t ask what you can do

Don’t ask what you can do. They can’t tell you, because they don’t know.

Don’t say, if there’s anything you need, just let me know. They don’t know what they need. They won’t call you. They’re too weary.

Just go. Call ahead if you must, but go. Don’t ask them to choose a good time. There is no good time. Just go.

Bring chocolate chip cookies, chicken soup, chili, or even a sponge cake. Comfort food. If they offer you tea and/or food, accept it. It gives them a moment of normalcy, a familiar ritual of hosting, doing something for you, their guest, a moment of stepping outside their grief and occupying themselves with something else, even if only for a moment.

Why did I not know this until so late in life? How come nobody ever told me?

I don’t remember my parents ever going to a funeral. Maybe they did, when I was very small, but I have no recollection of them ever saying, so-and-so died and we’re going to the funeral. I didn’t even know that you go not only to honour the one who died but to be there for the ones left behind. I didn’t know. It wasn’t part of how I grew up.

I remember our neighbour, Mr. Roden, who seemed as ancient as Methuselah to my 8-year-old self, whose plants I watered whenever he went away, with his special little watering can (in his somewhat Cockney accent: “It’s brass and copper, y’know”). I remember he used to paint, and I eneded up somehow with a small painting on birchbark, of a white cottage or boathouse on a lake, with pine trees and so forth, a quintessentially Canadian theme. And when he died, they told me he he was gone, but there was no talk of a funeral or honouring his memory or any kind of good-bye or closure. I don’t actually remember how I felt, but the word that comes to me right now is confused. Confused and sad, with no way to navigate through that, no lighthouse, no beacon to tell me, come this way, take my hand, it will be all right.

I didn’t go to my first funeral until I was nearly 30, when my friend Andrée (Dédé Bonbon) threw herself off her 17th-floor balcony one fine Saturday morning, some five years or so before my parents, in one of those weird coincidences, picked the building right next door to move into (and lived there until my dad died, also right outside their building, but that, as they say, is another story). I had no idea what to do. I didn’t know her super-well, but we did consider each other good friends — good enough friends that I’d gone with her once to visit her parents in the Eastern Townships.

I remember her hands on the steering wheel as we shot down the highway between Ottawa and Montreal, through Hawkesbury, through Montreal itself and onwards, fingers slender and tapering with that rounded worked-silver ring she always wore. The car was a dark metallic blue, a small car, a Mazda or Datsun or something (a matter of some controversy with her father, who apparently did not approve of Japanese cars — and many other things about Andrée’s life, but that is also another story). I can’t remember what we talked about in the car during the long drive there and back, but I remember the tone — light, easy, fun. I knew she was troubled, I knew she took psychiatric meds that made her feel bloated and exhausted. But I didn’t know how troubled.

The funeral wasn’t really a funeral, just a memorial service for her Ottawa friends. The funeral itself was in Victoriaville where her family lived. I don’t think her parents came, just her sister. I remember being surprised at how many people showed up, not just everyone from our office, but strangers who knew her from other parts of her life that I wasn’t part of, some of them family, some not. I remember feeling what I now understand to be disenfranchised grief — a feeling of not having a right to be grieving, not having a place in the grieving. I’d left the place where we’d worked together, so I was thoroughly alone in this, separated even from those who were also disenfranchised like me.

I’m still haunted by a phone call I neglected to pick up that Saturday morning. This was before the days of call display, so thankfully I can’t be sure it was her, but my heart tells me that it was. The phone rang around 9:00 a.m., when I was still in bed, and instead of answering it, I let it go to the machine (it was a machine in those days, cream coloured with square buttons, green and red lights, and an actual tiny cassette tape that you had to erase every now and again). That morning the green light was flashing, but there was no message, just a blank, a hang-up.

And then she was gone. Just gone.

SOOOO not a morning person

So yesterday’s writing workshop was marvellous. I was relaxed about it. There was hardly anything to do, no room setup to speak of, except for rearranging the cushions, no bathrooms to clean, no vacuuming, no flower arranging, just the group, meeting together and having a wonderful experience.

It helped, I think, that it was in the afternoon. I think maybe that helps with how much it takes out of me. I can do a morning gig, but even for a 10:00 a.m. start, I need to be there by around 8:30, which means I need to leave by 7:45ish, and I have to be up about 6:30ish. That’s a strain because I’m SOOOO not a morning person.

I do *like* mornings, especially those times when I’m up really early, up first, and there’s a mist on the lake our whatever, you know, that sort of holy hush and magic that you get around dawn — I love that. But it’s not a “natural” time of day for me, it’s not what my body considers a decent hour to be up and about. It’s a decent hour to be curling up and burrowing deeper under the covers for another delicious 90-minute sleep cycle (or more), and slowly coming awake after that.

That’s why 9:00-5:00 jobs were always pure torture for me, let alone that time when I worked as a bookkeeper (I know, right, that alone is a hilarious thought) and had to be there and put together(ish) and at my desk by 8:30, “there” being a hour’s drive away. Or that crazy six weeks when I did a summer course (French) starting at 8:00 a.m. five days a week. There were days when I literally could not remember getting there (I drove), when I could easily have run all the red lights and stop signs, or run over a whole herd of goats in downtown Ottawa and not have had any recollection of it. Times when I’d be sitting in the classroom at 8:30 and realize I was still sleep-breathing.

So doing a morning workshop is a bit of a stretch for me even now — doable, but it does wear me out unreasonably. So fine, I plan for that — no plans for the next day!

Coffee

cup-half-empty

I love my morning coffee, beyond reason. As far as I’m concerned, it is the elixir of life, nectar of the gods. I take the first sip of the smoky intensity of my first cup of Starbucks French roast and I am transported. Perfection. Sheer heaven. Nirvana.

But.

It has to be exactly the right strength and temperature — strong enough to melt cast iron, hot enough to almost burn my tongue, but not quite. As soon as it cools off, it’s no good anymore. If it’s not strong enough, it’s no good at all.

And here’s the thing: that no-good-ness makes me want another cup, to recapture that fleeting moment of perfection, that all-satisfying first sip. Trouble is, that fleeting first sip of perfection is just that: fleeting. It is all-satisfying for only a moment. One moment a day. It doesn’t last, and it never happens again. It can only be the first moment once.

Yet I chase it.

And that, my friends, is at the heart of both the nature of addiction and the nature of human suffering: the hunt, the reaching, the longing, the craving, for that fleeting instant, be it that amazing cup of coffee, that scrumptious cupcake, or that perfect sip of wine that harmonizes so perfectly with your perfectly cooked wild salmon.

We know in our hearts that this fleeting instant is immediately gone forever, but we keep hoping it will come back. We know this is irrational, but still we keep trying, we keep searching — searching, searching, searching, never finding, because that orgasmic first sip is always followed by a second sip, and a third, and so on and on, none of which can possibly ever be as satisfying as the first.

So we end up having three cups of coffee when one is all we really want or need. We find ourselves scarfing down the entire bag of chips or box of butter tarts. Or we find ourselves peering up from the bottom of yet another bottle, not quite sure how we got there.

And so the cycle of suffering begins. The insatiable need for things to be something they’re not. For the 10th sip of cold coffee to be the same as that first, perfect sip. The longing for our life to be more satisfying, less struggle, more fun. For the anxiety about money or kids or our job or relationship to be somehow quieted. For that non-specific, free-floating anxiety that strikes around 4:00 p.m. to be gone.

So we feed it things that don’t really help, when the only thing that does help is to dive in. To lean in, as they say. To lean into the winds of our own desires and failures. To sit with who we really are without trying to escape.

So simple. But not easy.

 

A Craving Is Just a Thought

I’ve found mindfulness is helpful for pretty much everything in life, but particularly helpful with weight loss and addictions because it has taught me how to watch my thoughts go by without having to act on them. Mindfulness is all about awareness and attention, and learning how to bring attention back to your breath — or to whatever you choose. And whatever thoughts you may have while you’re on the cushion are perfectly fine, you don’t try to push them down or send them away, but instead you just acknowledge them and move back to the breath.

I came to understand that craving is just a thought, and I know what to do with thoughts (see above). My meditation practice follows me off the cushion and into the rest of my life. So as I go through my day, when I get food cravings I just acknowledge them as thoughts, and then I can move on to have a different thought.

This is the tip of the iceberg about how useful my meditation practice has been on my weight loss journey. More in a later post.

Talker’s Block

In the interview that inspired me to start blogging every day, Seth Godin suggested that you can overcome writer’s block by just writing the way you talk. He said something along the lines of, he doesn’t know of anyone who gets talker’s block. It was a glib remark that I accepted at the time because, well, I was just nodding along with him.

But in fact: Ahem. Over here. I do. I get talker’s block. All. The. Time.

Especially when I’m with people who, um, let’s say, take up a fair share of airtime. When they finally stop for breath and turn to me and say, so, what do you think, or so, what’s going on with you, I find myself sort of bubbling, like a fish out of water, uuuuuuh, I don’t know. I’m okay, I guess. And often, in the time it takes me to collect my thoughts, they’re off and running again and I’ve decided they don’t really want to hear what I think about meditation or my weight loss journey or how my mindfulness practice is going or indeed how my trip to Iceland was last year.

See, I’m what you might call a sociable introvert. I can be sociable enough, but if you want me to talk to you, you have to draw me out. If I sense that you’re not interested, I clam up.

If there’s the slightest breath of conflict in the air, I seize up, I get tongue-tied, I don’t know what to say, I get embarrassed, I feel like I’m babbling. I don’t like having to defend myself or my point of view. I’m happy to share it with you, and I’m happy to have a lively exchange of ideas, but it has to be an exchange. If I sense that you want to challenge me by poking holes in my argument, I just fall apart. It quickly becomes a downward spiral, and I tell you, it’s not pretty.

So I propose that there is indeed at least one person who does get talker’s block. And I suspect I’m not alone.

The Pavement Ends at the Outhouse

We lived on a dirt road in a remote rural part of the country. It was an election year, so they were paving as many roads as they could squeeze in before the frost. We’d all watched with great excitement all summer long as the huge graders and pavers and whatever-you-call-ems made their way slowly up the road towards our place. Finally, FINALLY, this year it was our turn. Finally, FINALLY, the road would be paved right up to our driveway.

No more getting stuck in the bright red mud every spring. No more mufflers lost to the massive ruts that would freeze overnight so if you had the misfortune of falling into one, getting out was like climbing a mountain. No more having to park your car a mile and a half away on the nearest pavement if you wanted to go somewhere tomorrow and leave anytime after 7:00 a.m., when things started to thaw out and it got too treacherous for an ordinary car.

The only trouble was, the driveway would still be the same old clay. We’d still have to park on the road in the spring, and any time it rained when we got home from a day in the city, we’d still have to change into our gumboots in the car or we’d not only be tracking mud from the car into the house but ruining our city shoes. Such a shame that the paving crew couldn’t make a tiny little detour and just spread a little wee bit of that lovely pavement on our driveway.

Or could they?

We deputized Leonard, who had a way with the locals, to approach them. The rest of us watched from the window of our big old farmhouse as he casually strolled out to the road and located the crew chief, as if he were just out for a walk and was stopping to chew the fat for a few minutes, just being sociable. But soon they both turned to look at the house, pointed here and there, looked at each other again, looked at the house, more pointing, and well, you get the idea. After about ten minutes of this we could see the crew chief starting to nod, as if he was coming around to the idea, and finally we saw Leonard reach into his pocket before shaking hands and heading back to the house. I went to put the kettle on.

The big day finally came, when the great yellow asphalt machine would reach our part of the road. By mid-morning we could see it inching its way from the corner, belching sticky black tar from its rear end, followed by the oversized roller that would seal the stuff to the clay below. By noon, they were at the foot of our hill, ready to do the driveway right after lunch. We took them some our homemade cookies — the ones with regular white flour and the real chocolate chips, not carob — and settled in to watch while we did some necessary weeding.

The machines were so big and the driveway so small that by the time we’d reached the end of one long, sweaty row of broccoli and worked our way back, they were already gone. We nearly ran the rest of the way to the house, past the barnyard, past the leaky old barn, past all the leaky old outbuildings and sheds.

Oh glorious day! There it was, just like they said it would be, a beautiful strip of clean, unmarred blacktop, still steaming, running all the way up from the road so we’d actually be able to get out of the car and into the house without having to step off the pavement, and ending… just ten feet short of the outhouse. Just ten more feet …

Accountability. Community.

It’s 7:00am when my alarm goes off, after far too few hours, as usual — and it’s Sunday. I peel myself out of a vivid dream and then I’m out of bed, at an hour most people over the age of 19 would consider civilized, but I don’t. I’d much rather roll over and go back into the dream, thank you.

2016-08-10-11-35-43So why am I up, having a full breakfast half an hour later, and pulling on my exercise gear (including my Xena the Warrior Princess sports bra — truly a marvel of engineering genius that probably uses 100 calories just to put on) for an 8:30 killer barre class halfway across town?

Accountability. Community.

Accountability: The barre studio has a super-clever way of getting you to show up to what is essentially a drop-in class: pre-registration, and a penalty for last-minute cancellations. So all I have to do to trick myself into going is pre-register. Then I have to go or forfeit the class.

Community: I’m going with someone who matters to me, whose opinion counts, who has two little kids and doesn’t get enough time to herself. And I’m driving. And to top it off, the instructor also knows I’m coming. They’d both be okay with it, of course, if I didn’t show, but disappointed. And so would I.

Accountability. Community.