And just like that, November is over. Every year, I vow to catch up with grading over Thanksgiving break, and every year I make only modest progress with my grading piles, catching up with sleep and household tasks instead.

December is the busiest time of the semester: just two weeks of classes before everything is due. J put up our Christmas tree on Thursday, and today, our neighbors put a big red bow on our neighborhood Little Free Library.

Tomorrow night into Monday, we’re expecting snow. Even clouds know that November is over and December is here.

Flames

This past summer I read Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life. Steinke’s book is one I’ve been yearning for since realizing I’m perimenopausal. Unlike the countless books that describe lowered hormone levels as a malady to be fixed, Steinke’s book describes menopause as a passage to be navigated.

Steinke’s book is part memoir, part cultural history. Steinke recounts her own experience with hot flashes, insomnia, and the crazy-making changes of middle-aged womanhood, and she also explores cultural attitudes toward post-reproductive women. (Spoiler alert: these attitudes aren’t pretty). In a society that fetishizes nubile women, women who have outlived their natural fertility are a nuisance and a threat. As a result, menopause is either marketed as a medical problem to be cured through hormone replacement, exercise, and other products or it is dismissed as the punchline to a misogynistic joke.

Several years into perimenopause, I’ve come to see the experience as inherently spiritual: a kind of involuntary retreat where you are subjected to physical discomforts you didn’t choose and thus can’t control. There is no escape from the suffering of insomnia, night sweats, and hot flashes because your own body is the source of that suffering.

When I teach meditation, I explain how the body is chained for better or worse to This Present Moment. The mind can (and does) wander across time and space: close your eyes, and you can immediately transport yourself in your imagination to distant lands or far off eras. The mind can and does wander, but the body is itself a root. Regardless of how flighty or scattered my mind may be, my body is always Right Here.

Meditation is nothing more than a conscious decision to bring the wandering mind back to the rooted body. The moment you focus your mind on your body–the arch and angle of your spine, the tender gaze of your eyes looking toward the floor, and the rhythmic rise and fall of your breath–you witness the most wondrous of reunions: your mind returning to your body, your self unified with itself, at last.

On a long retreat, your body’s aches and pains–all those pangs, itches, and grumbles–are a goad urging you back to your practice: a reminder to your Mind that your Body is still here. Instead of running away or trying to distract yourself from physical discomforts, you hunker down and make a conscious decision to stay: stay in the moment, stay in your own body, stay in your own experience. This simple act of staying is transformative. By staying with your own discomfort, your suffering transforms into strength.

In a battle between mind and body, body always wins. When we are young and able-bodied, we tell ourselves otherwise, internalizing the myth of Mind Over Matter. But the wisdom of our elders–the wisdom of our own aging bodies–is that Matter Matters More.

When I told a middle-aged friend that my meditation practice helps me cope with nighttime hot flashes–the middle-of-the-night eruptions of heat and restlessness I call my Dry Roasts–she misunderstood, thinking that meditation somehow made these surges less severe. But that’s not what I meant. Meditation doesn’t stop the waves of heat roiling through my body; instead, meditation helps me weather them. Instead of running from my body–instead of recoiling, resisting, or refusing–I return to it. I recognize these waves of heat and energy as a call from my body to my mind to come back from from its restless wandering and stay with my body as it smolders in its own dying fires.

In Zen we say you have to digest your karma like a cow chewing its cud. The flames of a hot flash are not unlike the flames of karma. In either case, the heat arises unbidden; in either case, you are powerless to time or temper the emotions that are visited upon you. What you can do, however, is choose to return–return–return. Here is my body, damp with sweat, sticking to my own skin. Here is a heat that arose without warning and will last as long as it chooses before passing away.

When I am lying in bed awash in what I call my waves–surges of heat that originate in my torso then pool and pulse in my extremities–I think of the ancient anchoress Julian of Norwich, whose visions of the embodied Christ are full of fire, sweat, blood, and tears. Julian didn’t have a cerebral Savior but a bruised and bloody one. That rooted embodiment is how she knew her Savior was real.

Reading Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary was a relief, like finding a wise companion who whispers “You’re not the only one.” It is a rite of passage for female teachers to explain to adolescent girls the changes that will come when they start to menstruate, and for the questions our teachers didn’t answer, my peers and I turned to the well-worn copy of Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret we secretly passed among ourselves.

When you hit menopause, however, you’re largely on your own: no more teachers, no more Judy Blume. In a culture that loves to ogle nubile femininity, post-reproductive women are largely invisible, left to figure things out for ourselves. Thank goodness for women like Darcey Steinke who are wise enough to light the way.

After dinner

For the third year in a row, J and I went to Davio’s in Chestnut Hill for Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of ordering a traditional turkey dinner, we ordered off the menu: J had filet mignon, and I ordered scallops. We split a cocktail between us and shared his and her desserts: a cranberry tart for J, and maple creme brulee for me.

Although J and I often go out to lunch, we rarely have dinner out, so Thanksgiving is our annual splurge. We make reservations for the late afternoon so we can get home in time to feed the dogs and do our evening pet tasks. This year, we were home and I had changed into pajamas by 5:30 pm, long after dark.

Stained Glass by Tiffany and La Farge

Earlier today I paged through the weekly planner I use to track my monthly goals, and it was sobering to see a week-by-week account of the various stresses I’ve withstood this past year: the day we put Bobbi to sleep in April; the various hospitalizations, rehab appointments, and medical setbacks that culminated in Toivo’s death in July; and my Dad’s passing in September.

The Pool at Bethesda

With each of these losses came a grief that was necessarily compartmentalized: with other obligations to tend to, I haven’t had the luxury of lengthy mourning. Unable to find the time to fall apart, I’ve simply had to soldier on, each loss layering over the previous.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day we are told to count our blessings, an endeavor I full-heartedly support. And yet, I sometimes bridle against the performative nature of Thanksgiving, as if giving thanks counts only if you do it in a festive and properly public way. Although I have no problem with giving thanks, the mass-marketed version of Thanksgiving portrayed in both conventional and social media gives me pause, as it reflects a quintessentially American optimism that papers over more painful experiences with a veneer of positivity.

La Farge stained glass

I’m happy if you indeed are “blessed not stressed,” but in all honesty, some of us are both blessed and stressed in equal measures, and I don’t think there should be any shame in counting one’s losses alongside one’s blessings. If we count only our blessings, we acknowledge only the bright side, not the accompanying shadow, and I don’t believe you can have one without the other.

When we count our losses, we acknowledge too our lessons. As much as I wish I’d had the complete catharsis of allowing myself to fall to pieces on any given day this year, soldiering on has taught me something not only about myself, but about the nature of grief itself. They say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but to experiences that gain, you have to open yourself up to the accompanying pain.

Tiffany glass

I think a superficial counting of blessings can be misleading and even harmful: a kind of self-censorship where we allow others (and ourselves) to see only our polished and perfect side: something I might call the Instagram-ification of our inner lives, where every experience is rendered through a rose-colored filter. If I share only my happy and picture-perfect moments, I lie to both myself and others, and my gratitude can veer painfully close a boastful form of one-upmanship.

Ultimately, I worry that the counting of blessings alone is a kind of betrayal to the ones we’ve lost. If we can’t acknowledge the pain of loss, how can we feel the depth of love? Our societal rush to Get Over any emotion that isn’t purely positive is the worst kind of superficiality. If we are comfortable sharing happiness but not pain, our interactions will be emotionally amputated: only happy, never sad.

Louis C. Tiffany's Angel of Resurrection

I am grateful for my blessings, but I am grateful, too, for the painful lessons of impermanence, mortality, and grief, as well as the love that preceded them. Perhaps Thanksgiving makes sense only when coupled with that other November holiday, the Day of the Dead. Our blessings shine more brightly when we remember the darkness that dwells alongside them.

Wreath and tree shadow

On my way home from campus tonight, I’m planning to stop at Trader Joe’s to brave the throngs of pre-Thanksgiving shoppers.

Grocery shopping right before Thanksgiving is a nightmare–almost as bad as traveling right before Thanksgiving–because folks who don’t cook the rest of the year suddenly realize they need nutmeg or cranberry sauce or pureed pumpkin. Whereas year-round shoppers typically know exactly what items they need as well as where to find them, Thanksgiving-only shoppers spend a lot of time stopping and starting as they try to navigate unfamiliar aisles.

There’s nothing worse than getting stuck behind an infrequent grocery shopper who needs to read every label before calling or texting a relative to ask what exact brand of X they need for Grandma’s Secret Recipe. For this reason, tonight is the last time I want to set food into a grocery store until Friday, when all the once-a-year grocery shoppers will move onto the malls and outlet stores for Black Friday sales.

November graffiti

Now that it’s late November, it gets dark before 5:00 pm. When I took the trash out just after 4:00 this afternoon, our mail carrier was hurrying through the end of her route. “I’m in a race to finish before the moon comes out,” she explained, “and I’m losing.”

Every November feels like a race against darkness. Today was bright and brisk after days of drizzle, and it was easy to feel energized as I worked my way through my daytime to-do list. But as soon as darkness falls, so do my energy levels. It seems unnatural to work late when the sun insists on retiring early. After sunset, my body wants to nest and settle like a bird returned to its roost.

And so I sit here typing with the pitch-black world pressed against my window. Roxy is curled into a snoring ball on the bed, and J is upstairs in his attic office, working. I have 15 minutes to post these thoughts before tackling my evening to-do list, and after those tasks are done, I’ll curl up on the couch with a book and blanket, ready to hibernate until the sun shows up again tomorrow.

Watching

This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center after months of being too subsumed with Other Obligations to attend formal practice. Whenever I go to the Zen Center after months away, settling onto a cushion feels like coming home. My meditation practice isn’t limited to the four walls of the Zen Center–even when I don’t drag myself to Cambridge to meditate with other folks, I continue to practice on my own–but there is something about sitting alongside other meditators in a Dharma room that is steeped with practice energy.

Meditating at the Zen Center this morning felt like a welcome respite: a chance to plug in my mental batteries after running for far too long on a depleted charge. On any given day, I feel like the queen of multitasking: every day there are students, pets, and a husband all depending on me to Do My (Various) Job(s), and it often feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. Meditating at the Zen Center, however, is pure monotasking. For thirty solid minutes, I have nothing to do but sit up straight, keep my eyes down, and follow my breath, gently bringing my mind back to attention whenever it wanders. This opportunity to do Just One Thing for an uninterrupted span of time is an inconceivable luxury.

Today has been rainy, with constant drizzle and intermittent downpours. After I’d finished giving the last of this morning’s interviews and had returned to the Dharma room for the final few minutes of practice, I noticed someone had opened the windows just a crack: not enough to let in the damp chill of November, but just enough to let in the sound of rain.