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(Personal) Spit and Vinegar into Clear Water

Buddhism 150I think most Buddhists, if we’re really honest with ourselves deep down, flirt with the daydream of what we’d look like enlightened. I know personally I would love to resemble Budai, the eternally-laughing bodhisattva known for his jovial attitude, wisdom, contentment, and the fact that you can rub his belly for good luck. In my daydream, I would move through the world with a wide smile and ready laugh, meeting everyone in my travels with the same abundant good humor whether they were friend or foe. Of course, these daydreams about my enlightenment are ironically a barrier to my enlightenment. They move me away from who I am in the present — an already-enlightened being too distracted to realize it.

This daydream does something a bit more subtly damaging, too. Instead of accepting the parts of myself that are difficult to absorb I excise them to mold myself in the image of this laughing Buddha. Gone is the brief but intense flash of anger; gone too is the persistent static of anxiety and fear that thrums through my veins. Self-doubt, an easily-overwhelmed brain, impulsive and puzzling behavior — all mysteriously absent. As much as I love the idea that I would be Budai, the truth is I would not be; I would simply be myself, as imperfect as always, but mindful of my imperfections in a way that allowed me to express the Dharma in a truly unique way.

It’s important for me to remember this, especially these days. For a very long time I have built my energy around the hope that if I believed hard enough, I would unlock something within myself that loved everyone without reservation. I wanted to be the embodiment of loving-kindness, of compassion in even the most difficult circumstances. This is a not-so-secret of mine: the most beautiful thing in the world to me is a moment of small grace in a hopeless situation, those automatic gestures that speak to the spark within me, that gives me hope that for most people the basic state of humanity if collaboration and love.

One of the reasons this year has been so rough on me is that this dream of mine is dying and I have no idea what to replace it with. Reconnecting with my family and spending time briefly in Baltimore has shown me what life is like for too many people who have lived their entire lives in a hostile and unforgiving world; any sense of compassion and connection is seen as a weakness, and something even as basic as a smile is not to be trusted. Everyone has an angle, not because they’re selfish, but because it has been ingrained in generations of black Americans that there is absolutely no one who will look out for them; they’re on their own, and the more quickly that’s realized the better able they will be to get theirs and keep it.

Some brothers and sisters in the city are so desperate for connection that they’ll see any attempt to give it freely as an opportunity to tap the well dry. While it’s understandable, given their background and experience, it doesn’t make the reality of it any less unpleasant. I find myself pulling back more and more to protect myself from being drained completely, but at the same time I feel intensely selfish for doing so. I left Baltimore, and over a very long time and through painful effort eventually managed to build a decent life for myself. I have a loving husband and amazing friends. I make decent money. How could I not want to go back to the place I came from and help others to do the same thing?

It makes me feel like a bad person to not be generous. Aren’t people with compassion supposed to be? Isn’t that how you prove loving-kindness?

At the same time, I find it increasingly difficult to be compassionate and loving towards those people who have demonstrated time and again that my life, my rights, and my happiness mean less to them than preserving the status quo or taking a hard look at the inherent problems in our society. When I see someone making excuses for fascists, white nationalists, misogynists, bigots and other anti-social people I am filled with a rage that I have worked hard to manage and redirect towards positive action. But this is happening so often that I’m angry all the time; exasperated that there are so many people who are still silent and equivocating even though it’s so obvious that the current administration is filled with incompetent, criminal racists but that this is the result of decades of cultivating distrust of the government, racially-coded dog whistles, and the persistent preservation of institutionalized inequality. I used to believe that you had to be patient with everyone, for they were fighting a battle you could not see. But now we’re in a place where these people mean to do me real harm; I cannot be patient with someone who doesn’t see a problem with a world that thinks my continued existence is a threat to its survival.

So I am taking an increasingly hard stance on politics. I’m ending long friendships with people that I genuinely liked, because they voted for a man who is damaging the ideals of this country beyond repair. I can no longer tolerate people who have a problem with Colin Kaepernick but no problem whatsoever with police who brutalize and kill people of color without even a trial. I can no longer ignore that these people would rather be blind to the real fear and anger I have about my country than think about how they’ve been implicit in the progression of white supremacy and make deeply uncomfortable changes. I just don’t have it in me any more to give these people any quarter. But does that make me a bad Buddhist? Does that mean I simply can’t achieve boundless compassion for all people, for all times?

I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it does me no good to judge these feelings as bad, or keep trying to run away from them. They are who I am at this moment, and as such they are as much a part of this enlightened and distracted being as the love and equanimity I feel. I cannot sit with something that I refuse to recognize.

So I have to be honest with myself — and with all of you — about how I feel. I’m angry, all the time. I’m very scared that we will not be able to find a way out of this. Even if we impeach Trump and remove him from office, we still have a major political party that was willing to bring us to the brink of fascism to hold on to power — and that party has rigged the system through gerrymandering and voter suppression to make it easier that they keep themselves in state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and Congress. Even if we make sweeping changes to reset that, we still face the existential threat of climate change — the same issue we’ve been talking about for 50 years without meaningful progress or even complete willingness to make progress. There’s the runaway train of capitalism that replaces compassion with competition and will not stop until it is forced to crash, killing most of the people trapped on board. These problems may not be insurmountable, but they will require coordinated and sustained effort to solve. We are nowhere close to that, and we’re running out of time to get there. In this environment, it’s so easy to despair. I struggle against that every day. It takes more and more effort to try; what’s the point of succeeding in a world that seems determined to destroy itself anyway? Why bother being kind in a world where kindness is weakness to be taken advantage of? Why keep shouting into a void that wants nothing more than to render me invisible?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m having a tough time with this. I’m hoping that facing it will help me find a way through.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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I’m…37? Yeah, 37.

Self Improvement 150Yesterday I celebrated my 37th birthday by watching Kubo and the Two Strings, playing two rounds of mini-golf, and having a dinner out with a few friends. It was tremendously fun, and I really appreciate folks coming out to help me ring in another personal new year. I have amazing friends, and to say that I appreciate all of you would be an understatement. You inspire me, you encourage me, you elevate me closer to being the rabbit I would like to be. Thank you all so much for being in my life.

Year #36 for me was a pretty big one. I went back to school for a time, reconnected with my family in fairly tragic circumstances, fought with despair and anger about the direction our country is going, and always kept trying to build on the gains that I’ve made — wherever they might be. Through the loss of my sister and helping my mother, the passage of time and the inevitability of death have been weighing on me. In three years, I’ll be 40; it’s such a strange thing to write because of the weight we place on middle age. In a lot of ways, it feels like we should be calcifying into the person we are by then; change happens much more slowly, through concentrated and difficult effort.

That doesn’t feel like the arc of my life at all — or the arc of most of the people I know. Human beings are nothing if not adaptable, and I watch as my friends struggle to cope with the setbacks of life, changing and strengthening through their experiences. Some of us have figured out our path and the struggle becomes how to walk it consistently; others of us are still seeking out a foothold that will allow us to see the way forward. But no matter who we are, we are constantly changing, molding ourselves towards our goals and the times, becoming the people we need to be.

To be honest, it’s been a joy to watch — and to experience. For all the difficulties this year has brought me, it’s helped me to see how change can be weathered and how the support of the community can be essential for that. When Teneka died suddenly back in April, so many people stepped in to help when they really didn’t have to. They gave me emotional support, direct assistance, financial support; knowing that I didn’t have to face this nightmare alone helped pull me through one of the most difficult parts of my life. It restored my faith in humanity at a time I badly needed it, and it helped encourage me to try and do the same for others. This tragedy, and all of the chaos that followed, made me stronger and more compassionate. I have everyone who helped to thank for that.

Looking towards the future, it’s easy to be frightened and overwhelmed. Personally, it feels like there’s an ugly undercurrent in our society bubbling up to the surface, threatening to consume us all. Beyond an erosion of trust in our institutions — our governments, our media, our businesses — there seems to be an erosion of trust in the concept of society itself; it feels like so many of us distrust the goodness within our fellows, that the purpose of our lives is to take as much as we can for ourselves and maybe the people closest to us while we can do that. The American Dream isn’t a just and prosperous society; it’s elevating the “virtue” of selfishness above all.

This kind of thinking will lead to our ruin. We have not evolved to be a purely self-absorbed species; we are a social animal, built for collaboration and cooperation. We share this planet with other human beings with different ideologies, cultures, histories and perspectives; we share this planet with other animals who depend on us to make sure we keep things in balance as much as our limited understanding will allow us. We can’t focus only on the things that we have while ignoring the suffering of others. We can’t preserve our safety and prosperity if our neighbor is poor and in danger. We can’t keep taking whatever we want without making sure there’s something left for others, for our children.

I really don’t know how we rebuild our trust in our society. I don’t know how to encourage people to care about each other. I can only trust in the goodness of my fellow beings, know the selflessness and compassion I have seen in others, and see that in everyone I meet. I can only treat people as if they were their best selves already, because in so many ways they are — fearless and resourceful and far more beautiful than anyone gives themselves credit for. I want to be a mirror that reflects the Buddha-nature of everyone I meet.

But that takes a lot of difficult and consistent practice. In order to shine and reflect as well as a still pond, I must first smooth out the ripples of fear and anger within me. In order to reflect Buddha-nature, I have to realize my own.

That, I think, is what I will strive to do with myself in year #37. I’ve lived through a difficult year, and I know that I can live through another one. That’s not enough. I want to develop an equanimity through difficulty that helps me move through my own fear and anger; I want to be calm and reflective in even the most difficult of circumstances. That sense of stillness doesn’t mean inaction, or disinterest in the world around me. It means that no matter what happens, I can engage with a clear mind and a full heart. It means recognizing the poisoning influences of fear and anger, working with those difficult emotions, and ensuring my actions don’t only come from those places. That is much easier said than done.

Thankfully, I have 36 years of experience to draw upon. I have the help of my community. I have the wisdom forged by countless difficulties through thousands of years, lived and remembered through the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves. I have the hope that one day, we will look at someone different and see not a stranger or an enemy, but ourselves and our capacity for boundless compassion and love. I only hope that we won’t make things too difficult for ourselves before that happens. I only hope that we don’t fall to our fear and anger and destroy ourselves.

I love all of you. I know I’m scared. I know I’m angry. But I am choosing to struggle past that. There is something so much better on the other side.

 

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(Personal) Ashes In The Mouth

Myth 150We all know how difficult family can be. Our siblings know all of the buttons that will drive us insane, no matter how carefully we try to cover them up. There’s something about a comment from our mom and dad — even though they might swear it’s innocuous — that feels like a judgement passed on every decision we’ve made in our lives. Even in the best of times dealing with our folks can take a lot out of us. They know us intimately in ways most others don’t, but at the same time there are all these parts of ourselves we’ve learned to hide from them.

My mother and I have a relationship that’s more complicated than most, I would imagine. I left home for good a few weeks before I turned 19 and I’ve only seen my mom again earlier this year, for my sister’s funeral. While I can’t say we’ve grown closer over the experience, it has re-established the difficult bond we have with each other. She’s now 83 years old and under a host of medical conditions; she can’t walk without falling, she can’t see so well, and there’s a lot about modern life that confuses her. After the death of her only biological child last year and the recent sudden loss of my sister, I’m the only child she has left. If I don’t take care of her, who will?

It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure. Mom has always been a difficult woman to deal with, and that hasn’t changed with age. She’s very particular about everything, even the amount of time it takes to get what she wants. It’s hard to negotiate with her because she’ll forget things that she doesn’t want but agrees to do and never lets go of the things she does — no matter how impossible they might be. Whether or not this is on purpose, we’ll never know.

The past two weeks have been especially trying. Mom is currently sitting in an inpatient rehab facility to hopefully regain mobility. Advanced arthritis and multiple falls have made a constant pain in her hip so bad it hurts her to move; she has been on pretty heavy-duty painkillers for it who knows how long. Now, they’re trying to ween her off the habit-forming stuff, giving her medication that doesn’t work as well, and putting her through pretty intense, painful physical therapy as much as they can. Mom doesn’t want any of this. She wants to be back in her own home, or at least in her own hospital, and she blames the caretaker that’s stepped in to handle her and me that this isn’t happening.

Phone calls to Baltimore are being made every day. Since Mom can’t do it, I’m in charge of trying to settle a mountain of debt on a fixed Social Security income (which has been reduced for reasons I can’t figure out). Utilities must be returned to good standing, property taxes must be handled, medical bills have to be settled; then we can turn our attention to seeing if the house is something that can be saved or if it’s something that can only be condemned. Since Mom has made the decision she can’t make things work with the caretaker, all of this has to be done quickly.

That, in a nutshell, is why I went dark last week and why I’ve made next to no progress on my word count and fundraising for the Clarion Write-A-Thon. For the past couple of weeks, life has been work, Mom, helping a friend with his cat and whatever small bits of rest I can manage in between. I can’t say I’ve been dealing with it all that well. I’ve gotten grumpier, quiet, and resentful.

One thing in particular continues to rattle me: a big argument I had with my mother last weekend. Fed up with the constant calls and texts from people passing along messages that Mom was unhappy, or that she was savaging the reputation of the caretaker who had taken her in, I spent an hour on the phone just letting her have it. If it was just about the way she had treated someone who tried to do a good turn and is getting punished for it, that would be one thing — but it wasn’t. I yelled at her about the thing she said to me when I came out to her, as well as the fact that she’s still denied it all these years later; I yelled at her about the money and time I’ve sunken into the family this year, and how I had to give up a semester of school and a summer session to handle things; I yelled at her about how whatever I do is not good enough for her, how I’m never appreciated for trying to do the right thing.

Of course all of this has been within me for a long time, and I accept that. What’s harder to accept is that these thoughts and emotions weren’t uncovered and dealt with in my own manner; it erupted over a phone call to an old woman in intense pain, who is very lonely, who has lost almost everyone close to her. My mother was not very good at raising me, and she did a lot of damage, but knowing what her life was like, where she came from, and who she had to rely on, I really do think she did the best she could.

There are a number of things that I won’t be able to forgive her for, and I accept that as well. But it’s clear that I have to do something with these difficult emotions — name them, explore them, accept them. Otherwise they’ll continue to curdle inside me, poisoning me in ways that I won’t be able to name or recognize until I’m screaming at an old woman on the phone all over again.

The work continues. I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to do with the Write-A-Thon at this point, but I’ll keep trying to write as much as possible. In the meantime, I’ll have to pull back a bit to tend to my emotional landscape.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2017 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Writing) Clarion Write-A-Thon, Week 3

Self Improvement 150During week 2 of the Clarion Write-A-Thon, I set a goal for 15,000 total words written and $200 raised for the Clarion Workshop. How did I do? Well, I got up to 11,951 words and raised $175 so far; I didn’t hit either goal, but that’s all right. It just means that I need to kick it into high gear this week!

My goal for week 3 of the Write-A-Thon is to hit 25,000 words by midnight next Saturday; that means 13,049 words written this week (more than I’ve written in the two weeks of the fundraiser), but I’m confident I can hit that. I’d like to raise $250 this week, which means another $75 in donations. That shouldn’t be TOO much trouble, but I’ll definitely have to raise my fundraising game to do it.

So what happened last week? Honestly, I ran out of steam at the end of the week and I’m not entirely sure why. These things don’t need a reason, of course. My brain chemistry might have just decided it needed to be on a low ebb, so when I really needed to push ahead I throttled back and tried to take it easier. While I don’t regret doing that — self-care is absolutely important, after all — it is a little concerning. It would be best to find a way to be relaxed AND productive, but that’s having your cake and eating it too, especially when you’re trying to build a habit.

My writing, especially towards the end of the week, was slow mostly because I started doubting what I was doing. It’s difficult to find your voice when your inner critic keeps blasting you for pulling away from your comfort zone or taking risks. I’ve gotten better at dealing with that, but I’m still not 100%. Especially with short stories, the closer I get to an ending the harder it gets to drive towards it.

Endings terrify me, and I’m not sure why. My creative process doesn’t really account for them, which is kind of strange. I think it’s because endings are SO important, especially when it comes to the kinds of stories I like to write, that thinking about them just fills me with a white-hot dread that overloads me. What does an ending look like? I ask myself. I don’t know, I reply, but does anything ever TRULY end? Fair enough, I say, and think of eighty new stories all with no idea how to pull them together for a satisfying end.

So it’s clear overcoming that fear is something that will need to happen. That’ll take a lot of work, dedicated practice, and focus. The good news is that “Demolition” will be the very first chance I’ll get to work on that, with the ending scenes being written either today or tomorrow, depending. It’ll feel really great to have a completed first draft of that for a “win”, so that’ll be a big part of my focus for the next couple of days. Once that’s done, I’ll compile it and let it rest for a little bit, then turn my attention to the next Jackalope Serial Company project.

Here at The Writing Desk, I’ll have the final batch of DisneyFest reviews up on Wednesday and a bit of Changeling fiction up on Friday. “The Wayfarer House” was all right, but again — I feel the ending was weak. Too many bits of fiction use slipping into unconsciousness as a means to end, especially when it feels abrupt, so I have to work on finding other ways of gracefully exiting a piece after 1500 words or so. That’s the aim Friday: really bring the piece home with a strong, considered ending.

That’s my plan for this week! I’m off today for an oral surgery consultation and Friday will hopefully be nice and productive, so the three-day work-week should really help me get caught up on what I need to. How about you folks? Where are you with your own creative projects, and what’s your artistic plan for the coming week? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to pass along any tips you might have to hold yourself to your goals!

As always, if you would like to donate to the Clarion Write-A-Thon, my profile page is here. A donation will send money to the Clarion Workshop regardless of my word count, and would be much appreciated! However, a pledge will encourage me to hit my goal if you’d like to go that way: a pledge of 1/10 cent per word ($0.001) would mean $50 if I hit my goal, while a pledge of 1/20 cent per word ($0.0005) would mean $25. Please chip in, if you can!

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2017 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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(Personal) Mission Statement

Myth 150This is an amazing world, inhabited by amazing people. We don’t have to go very far to see an animal or plant that does something incredible, if we stop to think about it. All around us, there are countless people each with their own rich inner worlds and intense, beautiful, heartbreaking stories. I think the single greatest challenge facing humankind today is the inability to maintain a perspective that allows us to live in harmony with each other and the world we share. This planet is the only home we’ve got, and as our population grows it’s going to be more and more important to focus on the impact each of us has on it and what that means for our friends, family, neighbors and fellow human beings. It’s frustrating to see that as thinking more about one another becomes more and more necessary for our survival, we seem to becoming more selfish, short-sighted and small-minded. I have no idea if this is a trend that can be stopped, much less reversed. But I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no hope of that happening, so I have to hope that it can — and will. It’s my mission in life to help connect people as much as possible, and to remind them that an attitude of collaboration is so much better than one of competition.

All of us move through our days with blinders, trapped in the narrative of our own making. We’re the protagonists of our stories, so everything that happens to us is filtered through that lens. If something prevents us from achieving our goals, it’s bad or unfair; if it gets us closer to where we want to be, then it’s great. The people who agree with us and help us out are good; those that don’t hold the same values as us, or who want something that we want, or who are just too different from us to relate to — they’re bad. Over time, this narrative becomes stronger and our belief in it absolute. We never question what the same reality looks like to someone else; we stop imagining what a situation looks like if we’re not the star of our own story.

So we start thinking that what’s good for us is good for everyone, or ignoring the complex and often invisible forces that have helped us along the way in addition to our own hard work. Our tolerance for other perspectives erodes, bit by bit, until we’re simply incapable of even imagining what the world looks like to someone else. We even become incapable of thinking that the world COULD look different to someone else. Our opinions become fact; other ones become wrong, even evil. We start to disconnect from more and more people until our world is small and hard, an oasis that must be defended from anything that would seek to change it. In extreme, everyone who doesn’t think exactly like we do becomes an enemy to strike down. Our way of life is a beacon of good; anything different, therefore, must be evil that is to be eradicated. Once that becomes our story, it’s nearly impossible to think it could be anything else.

But it has to be if any of us want to avoid a bad ending. We can’t keep alienating each other, dismissing the perspective and experience of other people. If we don’t learn to see what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes, we’re not going to stop fighting each other until no one’s left — or until there is nothing left to fight for.

I know where this idea can lead. So Jakebe, you might say, does that mean we have to understand why neo-Nazis see me as sub-human in order to avoid all-out war? Is that the message I’m supposed to take from this? Am I supposed to tolerate someone else’s awful idea just because not tolerating it means we can’t live together? No, of course not. Neo-Nazi ideology, or any intolerant, bigoted idea, should not be entertained or given quarter in civilized discourse. I cannot abide anyone who holds the idea that I’m fundamentally inferior simply because of who I am, and I cannot ask anyone else to do that either.

But, at the same time, the people who hold these ideas are not monsters. They are not fundamentally inferior, either. They hold abhorrent ideas and as long as they do I have no interest in entertaining them or their toxic perspective. But I try very hard not to forget that they’re people, and that whatever it is inside them that made them that way is also within me. That hatred, that fear, all of those awful emotions that make us shrink in on ourselves — that’s in me too. I could get there somehow, some day.

It’s very important for me to remember that, and to remind other people. We live in incredibly divisive times and just how our divisions are mended is really difficult for me to see. But we’re going to have to find a way to live together. And in order for that to happen, we have to stop seeing each other as monsters — or as pure evil, or unthinking hordes, or weak snowflakes, or enemies. We are connected, as difficult as that is to fathom, and each one of us has a hand in creating the world we live in. As flawed and frightening it is, we each have to look at what we’re doing to contribute to it for good or ill.

Personally, that means trying to be mindful of the role I play in someone else’s story. In every interaction, I try to be what someone needs in order to make their story that much better — though I know how often I fall off the mark. That doesn’t mean that I’m never challenging or that I never set myself up as an antagonist; if that’s what is needed, then that’s what I’ll do. I’m not going to subsume myself for the sake of someone else’s story.

It mostly means, though, that I won’t cause conflict needlessly if I can help it. I try to remind myself that each person who talks to me has their own story they’re moving through, and each “scene” with me is a chance to get them closer to where they want to be. If it feels like where they want to be is someplace that will actually lead to harm, I try to redirect that desire towards something better if I can help it; and if I can’t, then I try to be as honest and direct as possible. Which is the hardest, because I really get anxious about conflict.

As a writer, this means that I want to use my stories to remind people of the connections we share, the values that are most important to me, and ultimately a vision of what the world could be like if we just did a better job of looking out for one another. I want people to come away with a desire to engage with the world and with their fellow human beings; even if the story is a tragedy, I want it to be one that fosters compassion in someone else.

My life, my purpose, is to be structured around this goal. I want to live the way I’d want everyone to live — mindful of the responsibilities we have for one another, but to see that responsibility as a joy and an honor. To me, there is no greater thing than inspiring your fellow humans to live well, to encourage them to feel connected with the world around them, not above it or in enmity of it.

I know that I fail at this goal frequently, and I’m trying to get better. I may never achieve perfection with it, but that’s not the point; the point is the process, the attempt to get there. Even if I never reach my destination, the journey is what makes me a better person.

 

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(Personal) Eulogy For My Sister

Myth 150When I was younger, I used to make plans with my sister to run away from home all the time. We always thought that the way our mother treated us was grossly unfair, and after a particularly hard day we would pack up a few days’ worth of clothes, make a couple of sandwiches, and sit beneath the porch of our childhood home to plan our escape. Of course we never went through with it; when the time came to pull the trigger, we always found a reason that the timing wasn’t right or why tomorrow would be better.

Only, as time went on and we grew up, we both did run away in our own sense. I fell into a ton of extracurricular activities in high school and when I graduated, I worked two jobs and spent the rest of my day at the library until it closed just so I wouldn’t have to go back home. After that, I tried really hard to be an active Jehovah’s Witness. When that didn’t work, I fled to college in southern Maryland.

My sister literally ran away without me when I was 13 or 14 years old. Suddenly, she was gone for months and neither my mother or I had any idea where she was. I was so stunned that I couldn’t think of anything to do except sit and stare at the wall for hours after school. It was safer for me than feeling whatever it was I felt. I knew the emotion was too intense for me, and that I would end up doing something to purge myself of it that would not be good.

I didn’t realize that was grief until just a few years ago, and since then I considered myself lucky that it had been the closest I’d come to the pain of losing someone so close to me. I can’t think of myself as that fortunate any more.

My sister died on April 30th, 2017. She had been found unconscious and unresponsive in her apartment a few days before, and when the paramedics arrived it took over twenty minutes to get back a pulse. She was on a respirator for days while the family gathered and doctors performed a few tests. By the end of that weekend, it was clear that her brain had died even though her heart was still beating. We heard the news as a family — my mother was there with me, and so was the father of her two oldest children. It shattered us; each of us had a complicated relationship with my sister that took us further away from her, then closer, over time. I’m not sure any of us understood how much she meant to us until we were told that we would never get to speak to her again.

In a lot of ways, I felt like I had already mourned my sister the first time she ran away. She came back and ran away a few more times before I left home for good, and that pattern would be repeated over the years in several fights with my mother. The last time I spoke to her, she had come back from going “off the grid” again for a few days, ready to work with Mom to get the house in order, take care of her children, and start the long hard road towards being a mother, daughter, caretaker and everything else folks wanted her to be. I didn’t think it would last, but I never could be sure because I didn’t know my sister — not really. The sister I knew had “died” the first time she disappeared without a trace, and all these years later I was still feeling my way around this changeling that had taken her place.

But of course that’s not the reality of the situation. Of course my sister was the same girl who plotted escaping home with her quiet, nerdy brother — just with more experience, an adult’s understanding of the childhood pain she carried with her for her entire life. When I think about what my sister went through in her too-brief life, I’m stunned by her strength and the realization of how much she loved people, how much she sought love and acceptance. And it breaks my heart that I realized that only now, when it’s too late to do anything with that knowledge.

Like all of us, my sister had mental health issues that had been inherited by our biological mother. Unlike me, though, she still lived in the heart of Baltimore City where these issues are largely unrecognized and go untreated. When she tried to talk to her friends about them, they would tell her that she was “making things up” or that she just had to think about her problems the right way to see how ridiculous an idea it was to have “anxiety disorder”. Over time, my sister learned to nurse her issues silently and even when asked she would be reluctant to talk about it. She had to bear the burden of her own faulty brain while stepping up to be strong for everyone around her. She worked so hard to clean and care for my mother, who only gave her scorn in response; she tried hard to provide a good life for her oldest son, even though his mental health issues will make it extremely challenging; she had to fight an uncaring bureaucracy for any help she could get, even though she had been punished for having such a hard time by losing her two youngest children to foster care.

Thinking about what my sister had to go through, it’s no wonder that she turned to drugs when she did — and that it was so hard to kick the habit whenever she tried. The comforting oblivion of being too intoxicated to think or feel is an extremely tempting one, especially when just piecing together a life for yourself is so hard and thankless. Still, she knew that she needed to stop for the sake of her children. The fact that she ultimately failed is a tragedy, but it is not one of personal deficiency. She needed a support network that believed in her and worked to validate her experience, one that would give her hope that she could still live a happy life. In the depths of depression surrounded by the craziness of the inner city, something like that can feel as impossible as flying to Mars.

Still, she stayed. She stayed because she was the only one who could care for my mother, an exceedingly difficult woman who pushes away anyone who gets close enough to help her. She stayed because her children needed her, and she tried to get clean for them. She fought and fought and fought until she couldn’t any more; but she never gave up. She gave her family everything she had and then some; she hid how much it hurt when she was told again and again that it wasn’t enough.

At last, her pain is over. Her struggle has ended. I wish this wasn’t the way it happened, and I’ll regret not doing more to do right by her for the rest of my life. The only way I can prove how sorry I am is by being as strong as she was, as giving and hopeful and tenacious. She eventually fell to her demons, but she never stopped fighting them. I can’t either.

Because of my sister, I will run away from my fights much less often. Standing my ground and fighting my battles is the legacy she left with me with. For that, I sincerely thank her.

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2017 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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Zen & The Art of Getting Shit Done

 

Buddhism 150It’s been a hard couple of months for me, mostly because of a few unexpected emergencies. I got into an accident at the end of February that totaled my car, and it took about a month for my insurance company to make that decision and offer me a write-off settlement. I had spent a bit of time researching available cars for a while, but past a certain point I had to blitz through buying a car because of the other sudden explosion — family. I’m still working through that one, and it looks like I’ll be devoting time and energy to that for a while yet.

My ADHD intersects with my Generalized Anxiety Disorder in weird ways. I’m not sure if I’ve talked about my anxiety disorder, but here’s a quick summary. Emotions are like the dashboard warnings on your car, right? They’re indications that there’s something you should pay attention to. Sometimes, the sensor and trigger for those warning lights can be faulty or over-sensitive; so you’ll feel angry at the slightest provocation, or your body will suddenly panic for no real reason. In my case, my anxiety trigger is really sensitive — it doesn’t take very much to trigger it, and that makes it harder to absorb new sources of stress when they arise. It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed.

When that happens, my ADHD kicks in. It feels like I have…hummingbird brain, let’s say. I’ll flit from thing to thing, rarely staying in one place or on one thought at a time. The more I try to settle down to focus on a problem, the more my brain slides away from it, distracted by the nearest shiny thing. Because there’s an urgent matter that needs my attention, some part of my brain will send an anxiety response to draw it back, but I can’t focus and I’ll slide to another distraction. This happens again and again, and I end up spending so much energy trying to get my brain on track that by the time I’ve wrestled it into submission exhaustion has set in and I don’t have much energy for whatever problem I’m dealing with.

It’s frustrating and awful. It means that instead of having the capacity to deal with what’s in front of me, my anxiety will throw me into a state where that’s more or less impossible. Flight becomes my default response, and I’ll get caught in an anxiety-flight loop until I’m too tired to run, metaphorically, from my problems. But I’m also too tired to deal with them.

This is one of the reasons that self-care is so important. I know that laying a foundation of care allows me to absorb stress better, recognize when I’m about to become overwhelmed, and pull back to manage stress as necessary. It does mean that things get done more slowly, but the process is a whole lot faster than letting the hummingbird tire itself out and trying to deal with things that way.

A big part of that self-care is taking time to practice meditation. Allowing myself to do whatever it is I’m going to do helps to ground me. It’s like…setting aside space to honor the hummingbird by letting it flit as much as it wants; sometimes it settles down to sip the nectar of a particularly attractive thought and I discover a solution for something I need to take care of. Sometimes, it simply gets tired and goes back into its cage of its own accord. Either way, meditation helps immensely to replenish my capacity to absorb stress and deal with unexpected things as they arise, without attachment or judgement. I can enter a state of flow more easily, and it’s not quite as devastating when that flow state is broken. Panic happens less often, and even if I’m tired at the end of the day it’s not that raw and troubled exhaustion that happens after time fighting anxiety; it’s a contented kind of weariness, knowing that I got shit done.

Those of us who have to deal with mental health issues have all kinds of other considerations that others might not. Whenever someone comes up to ask me something or make a bid for attention, there’s an instinctive rise of concern about how much this exchange will take out of me. If I’m dealing with a lot of stress-inducing stuff at the moment, I might not be able to spare much energy at all, but I want to help and I want to listen, connect, work with people. If I wake up too late to meditate, I realize that I’ve compromised my ability to deal with difficulties for the rest of the day and my focus will suffer. I worry a lot about being understood or communicating my internal life to others in a way that they will get or care about; it’s hard for me to open up or be spontaneous with people. There’s all this damage that makes the regular stuff so hard, and it’s hard to explain that in a way that doesn’t feel like a bid for pity or a plea for recognition.

With self-care, it can often be that a small change yields big results. Without stress management or coping mechanisms, the medication I take for ADHD can make it more likely that I’ll hit “hummingbird brain” — which is counter-productive to what the medication is supposed to do. Taking just 15 minutes in the morning to encourage quiet and focus can be the difference between a hectic but successful day and a total hot mess of wasted opportunity.

It’s important to do what you need to do to make it through the day; we all have those things that make us better people. It could be exercise, or conversation, or medication; writing, or singing, or hiking. Whatever it is, do it — and make space for others to do what they need. We never know what burdens other people might be under. We scarcely know how our burdens will affect us. But if we encourage and support one another, it makes everyone’s burdens a bit easier to bear.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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