How to be Estranged

I came to the end today. Two years and eight hundred pages since starting the journal I titled How to be Estranged when reeling from my grandfather’s death and my mother’s overdue abandonment. I love the way I’ve written this, including for the first time photos and more creative writings with the worries of the day, dreams of the night.

My first entry was a dream:

Covid. July. 2020.

A small, quite ridiculous creature appears uninvited; there is no door. It has a large mouth which, as one looks, gets bigger and bigger, revealing more and more sharp menacing teeth. Its already small eyes are quickly hidden. Lurching out from beside, clasping its own mouth over the creature’s, my even smaller, yet fiercely loyal protector, breaks the spell.

The dangers of our times are absurd. Could the antidotes be simple?

My last entry is this image from the JWST:

7/11/22-7/12/22

No words.

connection

A work friend’s family was in attendance at the Chicago parade, two parents and two very young children, huddled together with strangers in the stock room of a nearby store for 2 hours while the shooter was still on the loose. How terrifying. She seemed okay, grateful, and relieved the store was slow so we had some time to talk about it.

Everything to say about the US right now is too obvious, but I find it comforting to directly communicate with people, check in, temper feelings of isolation. This is the heart of why I think I panic when faced with the prospect of not being able to do what I’m doing. There’s a bittersweet flavor. I’ve been fortunate to encounter such wonderful people, also to have had busy hands and attention during a time when without it I might sink into social media and despair.

I tried really hard today, to connect with a young man who has worked in the store for just a few weeks. I just can’t seem to make a connection, which concerns me because he is like this with everyone. When asked what he’s interested in, nothing; what he wants to study, nothing. He doesn’t engage. He quietly does his tasks, but doesn’t feel as much there as others do.

I may have been projecting too much onto him because of so many young disconnected men in the news, but it seems right to be a source of warmth, lightness, in whatever ways I can.

degrees of freedom

The world is perceived as an apparent objective reality
when the mind is externalized,
thereby abandoning its identity with the Self.
When the world is thus perceived
the true nature of the Self is not revealed:
conversely, when the Self is realized the world ceases
to appear as an objective reality.

-Ramana Maharashi | Indian sage

Fourth of July. Writing from bed because my back insists I not willpower my body into working the way others work, pushing the way others push. I didn’t do anything to injure myself; it was a simple day. Yet, by the fourth hour standing tears were breaking through–not even from the pain itself, but from my imagining dire consequences around not being able to continue, as though I’ve always done this, every day, rather than part time for the last three years. Although I’ve been considering a new role or change, I want to do so on my own terms this time.

A tendency toward catastrophizing, on the flip side generalizes personal experiences and puzzles as having much larger implications in the wider world. Yes, the personal is political, but the range can reach delusional degrees. “If I forgave my mother, would the threat of US fascism retreat?”

I am “always trying to save the world”, my grandfather would say, not as a compliment. But how can there be a difference between self-preservation and preserving one’s world? A sudden memory of him sometimes surprises me, like the day we walked around property he owned in Georgia, showing me what he intended I someday inherit. There were deer tracks running through the land, which I’d never seen before then, and I immediately began visioning out plans for the space. Excitedly, I told my mother that I would open a home for unwed mothers there. He changed his mind, of course. I wasn’t thinking of property values or neighbors. I was young. When he did pass away a few years ago now, the property he left came with lots of strings attached.

Someone I dated a few years ago:

[Him] You give money to causes and campaigns? I’d rather drive a nice car
[Me] I’d rather drive a crappy car and live in a nicer world...

I’ve doubted this tendency lately, have been suspicious of trying to be good, questioning my deeper intentions. But my therapist says that’s the product of looking to adults for love and validation, yet receiving criticism. If intention isn’t pure, that still doesn’t mean one should not follow a generous inclination. Questioning intentions can lead to greater sincerity.

Building on that, I’ve come to realize that there is nothing wrong with striving for excellence, or even goodness, but to expect perfection is to deny the very nature of our evolving humanity, of openness, of further possibility. It is to become critical, flaw-minded in a negative sense rather than a wabi-sabi appreciative one. One mustn’t turn on themself, abandon themself, even if that’s been modeled.

I remember being a little concerned that the Zen aesthetic I was drawn to could feed into perfectionistic propensities, once I recognized them. I felt thankful to see the opposite occur.

Although as a teen I developed intense stubbornness to show how little I could need or be hurt by someone withholding ‘things’ (by the time I left home at 18, my bedroom and closet were already nearly bare). I’m not afraid of having things, now, and don’t give away everything that comes to me. Back then, that space had been the only space I thought of as my own, and felt most powerful when it was empty.

That was then. Lately when I can’t sleep in the middle of the night, instead of shopping online, I make donations. There isn’t much I can do, but it feels good to try, and generates hope in a time in which it’s deeply important to be hopeful. Last night I happened upon a women/youth shelter, which linked into the memory of my early intentions well. The feeling of finding that shelter was is: closure. I can validate that early yearning and imagining toward saving my world, myself.

It’s difficult to describe how Buddhism helped me come into healthier distinctions, but I think in part it has to do with tantra, and the way one can experience so much on the level of intention and imagination. There is so much to love and appreciate across such an unfathomable range of possibility! There is so much space in things, after all, and so little is actually hindered in the ways I might conceive of when forgetful-of-true-nature.

As for my weak back, and the work that requires a strong one, I don’t know. I find myself writing and dreaming about, my family-of-origin more. Could it be that just as I feel safer having things, it feels safer to tell my stories, too?

P.S. The Maharshi quote at the top of this post came to me via a note Andrew Holocek sends out each night for those subscribed. I’ve only been receiving these for a few days, but it’s a lovely way to signal winding down for the night in a dreamy-minded way. https://nightclub.andrewholecek.com/

flying under

A wee-small-hours of the morning dream stayed with me throughout the day, which is unusual on a work day, when I generally shift into such an entirely different gear so as to forget almost everything else. Often before work I sit in my car for a small meditation, hold an intention to bring that energy into rest of my time, only to blink and be right back in my car, several hours having passed in a blur. So I’m not sure why this dream is so potent, but it may be its great vibe… a weirdly optimistic Bladerunner aesthetic.

There were street markets and hidden gathering places. People were generally poor, but a sense of community was present, and life didn’t feel unsafe outside of a vague sense of surveillance far away. It felt like some idealistic vision had been realized, an alternate timeline that was missing greed, somehow. No one was showing off for one another at all.

What I remember most strongly, and what kept coming up all day, was the sensation of flying in a car driven by a friend, and the seamless transition between driving on a road into flying. Who this friend was keeps changing in my recollection, but the way she told me we were only able to get away with flying the car at the height we were flying, as the way to access places we were going, remains vivid. I looked up when she said this, to see another layer of the daytime sky I hadn’t been aware of before, and a globe-shaped vehicle traveling through that space.

As I mused with the dream earlier I realized, “Ah, we were flying under the radar!” And I thought of Bob Dylan’s line “To live above the law you must be honest.” Interesting associations, but there may be more to consider.

After all, here I am, writing about it now, shaking it for further treasure.

seeing out

They say that these are not the best of times, but they’re the only times I’ve ever
known,
And I believe there is a time for meditation in cathedrals of our own…

-Billy Joel

Casual meditation with friends today, zooming in as we do regularly from various parts of the world, each with disparate strings of contemplative practice, brought together by a bright star whose timezone doesn’t match well lately. It was a day in which talking felt strange, contrived, which happens somewhat often. My sense at least, is that there is substantive nonverbal communication going on, but humans are so used to filling the space between, covering over awkwardness, that there is discomfort in not doing anything–not meditating and not talking, yet setting aside the time to be together. The second one of us suggests this may be going on however, we might correct for it and end up just as contrived, staring at each other without meditating or non-meditating. 🙂

Each of us can only respond to such an intuition in a personal way.

Presence.

Sometimes, I want to lay bare all the circumstantial struggles I’ve been having, but to what end? Just because someone is wise about their own life, doesn’t necessarily mean they would have insight into what I might do to shake loose the restrictive patterns in my own. Therapy is for that, but not really. There’s very little advice in therapy, per se, just steady mirroring and encouragement, reminders to be gentle with myself, and to write about it.

I seem to have built a circle of people with incredibly different circumstances from mine, so different in fact that it’s hard to imagine they could comprehend the difficulties of my life, really. Compassion for my life? Sure. But deep down I feel as though anyone’s honest response to my needing help to see out would be along the lines of my mother’s favorite phrase when grounding me, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” But does anyone really make their own beds? By the time I had any sense of agency I was already quite deeply embedded.

In a psychological sense, if one is grounded a lot as a child, by a parent whose moods and punishments dramatically swing, perhaps there can develop a pervasive sense of entrapment… a feeling of going from one trap or set up into another. And perhaps there might be confusion about when one deserves to be punished or not, what one could have controlled along the way. I can still feel like this when trying to measure what my value is at work, or read overall signals, for instance. I’m having trouble keeping up physically, but am blank about what alternatives there might be. Sometimes my body feels like another captor.

A psychotherapist friend would often suggest “Dream on it”, modeling this guidance well over the course of years when facing her own challenges, but dreams have been missing guidance lately; my body is often achy from pushing through work, resulting in restless sleep. How I long for the deep deep contemplative rest experienced when on retreats! Was it the company, the simplicity, natural surroundings? What made way for that natural rest to take the helm during those times? If I must be captive, must be trapped, let me be trapped by Such a keeper.

“Someone who does not run toward the allure of love walks a
road where nothing lives. But this dove here
senses the love hawk floating above,
and waits, and will not be driven or scared to safety.”

― Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

finding thoughts

All of these issues are connected. I know most of us know that, and that it is hard to have everything out on the table at once, but the book bans, the freak out over CRT and freer gender expressions, the discourse over freedom of religion that assumes everyone is Christian.. needs to be taken on the whole.

I usually try to understand other positions on issues like abortion, especially having had different feelings about it in my youth that did frame what I did with *my own choices*. Back then, I had not educated myself on implications, and the way monied interests manipulate culture wars. But also, my feelings were about influence, not legislation. Even back then, I thought to be “pro-life” was about making a world where women would have support and care. I was naive. Even the most sincere people celebrating what this Court is doing seem to have no vision or passion for care that extends beyond their own circles.

I’m hanging on to my moderate-ness by an unraveling thread, because I’ve ‘believed in’ aspirational democracy as the best hope we have. Regulated capitalism has seemed to be a hybrid vehicle capable of taking us farther along that “arc that bends toward justice” — but y’all….

The above is an Instagram post I wrestled with posting, in the wake of the overturn of Roe v. Wade, but feel it is cowardly to share just other people’s words and memes about such serious issues, or to just read as friends pour their hearts out about the matter. I paired it with a video of a self-described “white Christian” woman speaking to, I think, a school board. She eloquently expressed the distinction between trying to make kids feel bad, and educating kids (and everyone) in ways that affect how we govern and behave from here on out.

Abortion rates drop when there is sex education, access to contraception, and support for families to get out of poverty. If someone is not for such policies it seems to me they are for higher rates of abortion, but want to be seen as part of a certain political club.

I believe I’m a better mother because I seriously considered whether that was the right choice for me. I had that option, to weigh the sacrifices of following through with an unplanned pregnancy, which included the option of marrying someone I was in love with and had a good chance of making a life with… someone with the resources to support the decision. Contrast this with the Court’s decision to allow basically everyone to carry a gun everywhere, I would not have lived to become a mother had there been a gun in the often terribly violent home I grew up in.

restfully wandering

Checking in here after nearly a month, coming around to a more settled rhythm. My sense is that of rich undergrowth having spread more fully between insights and events, highlighted by sunbeams innocently playing their way through domes above. I finally stopped to look around, finally noticed, after happening upon a protective cool spot in the middle of a scorching day.

Inner, outer: who can tell? And who wants to?

It’s a wonderful thing to let oneself be a little lost, leaning into phenomena as though adventuring with a wise and rugged friend. Deep listening is available, loosened grip, easing the industriousness of the last few months, so as to accept an invitation to quite intentional appreciation. The richness of What Is.

The pull is close to that of aimless wandering practice, which I first engaged in at what used to be, and I guess still is, Windhorse Farm. Was that back in 2012 or so? It always strikes me as especially delightful when the practice finds and captures my attention, even here in the city, with the same persuasiveness once experienced in that lush old-growth forest.

Beautifully, that land has fairly recently been returned to the Mi’kmaq. The following letter is from the website linked to above:

Sadness for the hundreds of years of colonization of these bountiful and beautiful lands and people. Joyful that the Land is returning, through gift and sale, to the loving hands and hearts of tthe Mi’kmaq through Ulnooweg Education Centre, an Indigenous Charity.

The Wentzell and the Drescher Families have lived here for 180 years caring for and protecting this place, in reciprocity with all the other beings who live here. In effect, we have been mere placeholders waiting for this auspicious “land-back” event to occur.

We are in deep appreciation to all of you who have come to play, work, live, learn and heal here at Windhorse for 31 years during our “watch”. You and the Forest Families have offered warmth, moisture and nourishment to the legacy.

Now it will return to those who have been here for 15,000 years – to the loving care of the First People, as a place of healing, education and ceremony – to those who have known and respected the sacredness and healing medicine of the Land.

These First People are teaching us all the power of, and need for, living in reciprocity with all beings – the leadership necessary to carry us all through these uncertain times.

A cause for celebration and gratitude.

​Looking forward for seven generations, may all beings, seen and unseen, benefit.

Love, The Drescher Family
Located in Mi’kma’ki, the unceded and unsurrendered territory of the Mi’kmaq
on Atuomkuk Wentzell’s Lake  and Pijnuiskaq LaHave River

Windhorse Frogs

Getting Back

I’ve been experiencing such dread on Spanish Class days. Thanks to COVID and other challenges, I slid behind the rest of my group, and have struggled to make up the difference since then. I can handle not being ‘best in class’, but don’t like to be a drag.

So.

I’m taking as my practice the backward step, what a good friend calls sheer appreciation. Even should I drop the class with just a week to go, it has oriented my view differently than before embarking, and has helped me to approach life in Miami with the enthusiasm of viable learning curve and endless opportunities. I turn my attention from the content of the painting, to the paint itself, appreciating a wider, less time-ordered view.

It’s okay to evaluate and revisit a goal, but if one forgets appreciation within that, the goal, meant to be one part of a complex universe of relationships and connections, becomes a sticky web.

In practicing open awareness, I’ve found it helpful to think of existence—the entire play of sounds and thoughts and bodies and trees—as the foreground of life, and awareness as the background.

In the Zen tradition, the shift from focusing on the foreground of experience to resting in pure being is called “the backward step.” Whenever we step out of thought or emotional reactivity and remember the presence that’s here, we’re taking the backward step.

If we wake up out of a confining story of who we are and reconnect with our essential awareness, we’re taking the backward step. When our attention shifts from a narrow fixation on any object—sound, sensation, thought—and recognizes the awake space that holds everything, we’re taking the backward step. We come to this realization when there is nowhere else to step. No anything. We’ve relaxed back into the immensity and silence of awareness itself.

Tara Brach

By contrast, the feeling of ‘endless opportunities’ is the opposite of what’s been going on with my work as of late, not just due to management shifts and the loss of an important presence on the scene, but general plateau. I’m still learning, but haven’t shifted gears in a while. I’ve been wondering if this is the restlessness I’ve sometimes felt intuitively, signaling a change of wind direction or something new out on an edge. I can appreciate this open question.

From this stance, I found myself captivated by one of the writer George Saunders’ [excellent!] “Story Club” emails. In it, he described ten ways of approaching endings.

WAY FIVE:

Another way I’ve talked about this is that we want to always be escalating, even into its last lines.  So, I’ll spend a little extra time goofing with the ending, sort of, you know, Rubik’s-cubing it, trying to see if I can get just a little more light into it.  I’m thinking something like, “Dear story, do you have anything else you want to tell me?’ 

This is where I’m at with my work in the store, Rubik’s-cubing it. Not a bad approach when dealing with restless edge states. And the idea of tweaking, playing, and backing up to open up to new meanings, brings to mind the Beatles documentary that came out during the last few years. I highly recommend it. Most of the promos rightly center around a fascinating moment when Paul is just playing, like a child in a bathtub plays with sounds and toys, and out of that comes Get back.. get back.. get back to where you once belonged….

A hundred grass tips

“All feelings are positive”, says Jenny Lim, yet so often, by the time I even consider inquiry, fears and discomforts have whirled by feverishly, leaving a mess to attend to in their wake. The window in which to sort through what was felt in any systematic way has already closed, rendering such guidance quaint.

I did okay with it today.

I left work deflated, having been busy from start to finish, wrapping up a series of designs in what I felt was the most efficient way–only to be (albeit lightly) scolded just before leaving, for taking too long. It had suddenly gotten busy just as I’d gone off floor to wrap details. Still, I knew I’d balanced my time well, and that the other person was operating from a blind spot. If anything, they’d spent twice the time with their clients I had with mine, after having come in hours later.

Mind you, I have a lot of respect for this other designer, and know the nature of things when there aren’t enough people to manage a rush. Everyone is handling more than they can, so it’s hard not to think the next guy isn’t doing their part. I’ve definitely fallen into that pattern myself. Still, rather than feeling put upon, it would have been better to ask more detail about what I was working on. I’m fairly confident they would have comprehended the deadline more clearly, but even If not, I wouldn’t have felt quite so shot down in a flash at the end of an exhausting day.

Granted, there was a time I would have cried, and I didn’t, though I am tearing up a little while writing here. That’s progress. And maybe therapy is finally clicking, because a few hours after arriving home, after tea, I was calm enough to ask a few probing questions.

What emotion were you actually feeling?
Disappointment.
Looked over.
Unsure whether it is worth trying to be heard. Why even try?
Sadness (I tried my best and still didn’t meet expectations)
Pride. **Don’t you know who I am?

This last one is funny, I guess. It’s the gist I boiled down from a longer rant about being taken for someone only capable of, or not even capable of, such a job. I realized how much I wish to be seen in a totality rather than as a body performing tasks. When I feel reduced in such a moment, especially by someone I’ve worked with a while, I’m especially sensitive and prone to catastrophizing.

If everything isn’t perfect, I jump to, “Oh no, I have to leave!”

Why is the discomfort so strong (disproportionate)?
Fear.
I fear this isn’t the right place for me.
Simultaneously, I fear that this IS the right place for me, and I’ll leave prematurely just before things get better. It’s always so close to ‘getting it (life) right’.

There’s more, but you get the idea.

Hidden in the bundle also arose spiritual perfectionism. Looking at the attachment I feel to my role, not just as a ‘good designer’, I see myself taking being an excellent worker and colleague to be a fractal of mattering to/in the world on the whole. I get through my day by seeing what I’m doing as more than what it seems to be a lot of the time.

photostock image

Perhaps I’m not holding my roles very lightly.

“For Hongzhi the whole purpose of practice is to “graciously share

yourself with the hundred grass tips [i.e., myriad beings] in the
busy marketplace.””

-from “Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi” by Taigen Dan Leighton, Yi Wu


“Looking back, I guess I used to play-act all the time. For one thing,

it meant I could live in a more interesting world than the one around me.”


― Marilyn Monroe

enlightened (non)activity

From Tuesday afternoon until Friday night, I slept, then Friday night through Sunday, attended an online (Dzogchen) retreat. Today, Monday, I’ve spent restless, neither sleeping nor awake, neither up nor down, watching snippets of things on my computer, half interested. I should be studying Spanish, but feel blurry-minded.

[ Entry: The week of our Covid-19, 2022. ]

Honestly, I’m already looking back on the retreat time, acknowledging the opportunity with a sense of importance and awe, although certainly, I wasn’t able to live up to what I’d envisioned my part of things to be: meditating in between sessions, taking contemplative walks. Quite ill, I had to make an on-the-spot exception, choosing to believe that given my situation, the teachers would have permitted my dizzy slouchy attendance.

At some point one of the Rinpoches did ask those in attendance not to take formalities lightly, not to lean back lazily listening. I was laying on my side as he said this, contemplating the ethics of recording the teachings, my eyes struggling to stay open, stomach cramping. They couldn’t see me, but in that moment I thought, even if they can, let’s just be really real. As my therapist says, life is “Come as you are.”

There’s a discussion to be had about accessibility, but this is a good example of why practitioners are encouraged to meet with teachers individually, address particularities and receive permissions in line with unique aptitudes and situations [a la skillful means].

In any event, I’m glad I made the call to attend; drowsiness and all, it was truly wonderful, and interestingly, my condition may have rendered me more receptive than otherwise. No temptation to multitask nor worry about what needed to be done in the apartment (there was plenty), I lapsed from time to time into vivid little dreams animating what was being transmitted, letting the boundaries blur until ‘I’ was neither here nor there.

It was especially interesting to lose myself into dynamics of translation, where it was sometimes impossible to see where translator left off and teacher began. The process was just so easy and wide open, not like work being done. I’ve experienced this a rare few times… ‘no doubt’ within some relationship dynamic; it can be close to the experience of creative flows one can’t consciously recognize until looking back, like “Man, where was I!?”

It was a loving retreat, focused precisely where my last blog post left off: timelessly luminous nature of mind.

After we closed, I fell asleep listening to a beautiful White Tara Lunar yoga nidra ritual through Tibet House US, feeling cradled and soft. Tara has been active in my awareness persistently for a few weeks now, as Green Tara in a sadhana shared by a friend where I also learned the Condensed Praises; as a friend at work by the same name who has been helping bring more awareness to the way I treat my body with food; to this practice; to happening upon another Lama suggesting Tara practices when praying for Ukraine, earlier in the day. Ah, and actually a few weeks ago I went into Second Life, showing the Green Tara Temple to another friend, and meditated there.

It’s funny to me that my friend Tara is not only not Buddhist, but doesn’t seem to have even referential knowledge of Buddha Tara. It reminds me how disparate our worlds can be, even as people who occupy the same city, job, age group, etc. I made a little comment once, that she was a buddha for me (I’ve learned a lot from her at work as well), and her face hardened a bit, not complimented, so I’ve never brought it up again, although we did have a nice conversation about faith in general.

I think she considers my Buddhism to be ‘belief’ in Buddha the way many Christians would say they ‘believe’ in Jesus. And that’s fine with me, for her to think that. Who am I to say it isn’t, anyway.

21 Taras (image gathered through Pinterest, where the poster got it from an image search. I didn’t find the first source)