Lyman Conservatory

Both today and yesterday have been unseasonably warm: well above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is all but unheard of in Massachusetts in January. Yesterday I met Leslee and A (not her real initial) at the Smith College botanic garden in Northampton for a belated holiday celebration, and it was warm enough I could sit comfortably on a bench outside the Lyman Plant House before the two of them arrived.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

It was strange–unsettling–to go inside the plant house on a mild day: usually, the whole point of going to a greenhouse in winter is to experience a moment of tropical weather as a respite from the cold outside. These days, however, the world itself is a hothouse: Australia is burning, Indonesia is flooding, and everywhere denial and indifference rage rampant.

Lyman Conservatory

When the world is on fire, you save what you can, starting with your sanity. Every year, Leslee, A, and I meet for conversation and cocktails at, after, or around Christmas, New Year’s, or my birthday: a chance to catch up, exchange gifts, and feed our psychic fires.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

On yesterday’s drive to Northampton, I listened to Paula Cole’s This Fire, a CD that invariably takes me back to the rage and restlessness I felt in the 1990s, when I felt trapped in my first marriage:

Where do I put this fire
This bright red feeling
This tiger lily down my mouth
It wants to grow to twenty feet tall.

These days, I feel rage and restlessness for different, more global reasons. Right now the earth herself is raging through an unsettled spell. At the inaugural Women’s March several years ago, I overheard one woman compare global warming to the Earth experiencing hot flashes, and a half-dozen women of post- and perimenopausal age perked and turned at the comment: you talkin’ to me?

Inside Lyman Conservatory

When the world is on fire, you save what you can. Spending time with friends is one thing that soothes my spirit; spending time with plants is another. Those of us of post- and perimenopausal age have weathered our share of literal and figurative fires, and our hard-fought wisdom is tempered by flame.

Lyman Conservatory

As Leslee, A, and I looked at a chart of the various evolutionary epochs up to the present day, Leslee mentioned Rebecca Solnit’s “Letter to a Young Climate Activist on the First Day of the New Decade,” an essay that describes hope and rage as complementary sides of the same coin:

We need to love the earth as it is now and to see how worthy it is, now, of our greatest efforts. To look for that beauty and to treasure it is perhaps a crucial part of the work we have to do. This is what reminds us that the world is still full of things we love and want to protect and the effort is worth it. Galicia, the fury you feel is the hard outer shell of love: if you’re angry it’s because something you love is threatened and you want to defend it.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

Rebecca Solnit is a woman of a certain age; not accidentally, the various activist groups I’ve joined since the 2016 election largely consist of middle-aged, post- and perimenopausal women who like me are mad as hell at the state of the world these days. Where do we put this fire, this bright red feeling? We pour it back into our friendships, our passions, and our determination, again and again without fail.

Forefathers Burial Ground

This morning I drove to Chelmsford, MA to attend a postcarding group that meets at The Java Room, a coffee shop where I’d gone with A (not her real initial) to a book group more than 15 years ago, when A lived in Chelmsford, I lived in New Hampshire, and I was still married to C.

When A and I went to that long-ago book group, I was 35 years old, newly graduated with my PhD, and in the throes of a precocious midlife crisis, not knowing where my path forward should lead and idling in a haze of discontent in the meantime. A and other women in the group were in their 40s, on the other side of divorce and other reinventions, and I quietly envied them for the self-assured confidence that comes from being women of a certain age.

I don’t think I could have imagined then that 15 years later, I’d be divorced, remarried, and living in the Boston suburbs with a mortgage, two dogs, and eight cats. Back then, I had vague hopes of scoring a tenure-track job somewhere; first, though, I had to find the strength to leave my marriage, pay off my credit cards, and re-create a life for myself and my dog some 700 miles from my closest family.

I managed to re-create a life, but I never found a tenure-track job. Instead, all these years later I’m still in New England, still supporting myself as an adjunct instructor: no closer, it’s true, to the permanence and prestige of a full-time professorial job. In lieu of stable employment, I’ve settled into the predictability that comes with a house, money in the bank, and all the obligations that come with middle age. It’s not the life I’d envisioned, exactly, but it’s a living.

Yesterday I turned 51, and I can’t imagine how I ever grew to be so old: it feels like yesterday (or at least last year) that I was 35 and struggling to find my way. Last week, I heard an NPR story about Nirvana’s iconic “Sounds Like Teen Spirit,” a song that somehow is more than 25 years old: had Kurt Cobain lived, he’d be in his fifties now. How is it possible that the rebels and misfits of Generation X–my generation–are now middle aged?

During today’s postcard meeting, there was desultory chatter about politics and the world we live in: how is it that one woman’s smart thermostat responded to her loud laments about Trump, and how have we come to the point where handwriting get-out-the-vote postcards is a major method of preserving our sanity? At the end of the meeting, one of the women concluded with a wry observation: “I’ll see you next time, if we’re all still here by then.”

After the group dispersed, I ordered a cookie and a cup of hot chocolate to go, then I crossed the road to explore the old cemetery across the street. When you’re 51, you have a good idea where the path forward leads: on the drive home, I heard that Elizabeth Wurtzel, a writer I’ve never read, had died at 52. When you’re a woman of a certain age, you know how your story ends, eventually. What’s uncertain, however, is how many reinventions stand between then and now.

Journaling at Burdick's

This morning J had to wake before dawn for a work call, so after I finished my morning tasks, I drove to the Cambridge Zen Center, sat one meditation session, then walked to Harvard Square to write my morning journal pages at Burdick’s Cafe.

Although I was sleepy at the Zen Center, the brisk walk to Harvard Square and a small cup of high-octane Burdick’s dark chocolate woke me right up. Practicing at the Zen Center always feels like plugging into a power source: even during meditation sessions when my body nods and dozes, I can feel my inner battery charging with every breath. There’s something energizing about returning to a familiar place and a familiar practice, like climbing back into a well-worn saddle.

Reflective self portrait at Burdick's

When I lived at the Zen Center, I’d often go to Harvard Square, claim a table at a restaurant or cafe, and write in the bustling anonymity of a clean, well-lighted place. Burdick’s on a Sunday morning nicely suits this purpose. You can generally find a table for one if you wait for quiet couples to finish their beverages then bundle up to leave, and once you’re settled in, the waitstaff doesn’t care if you take a half hour or so to nurse your hot chocolate over journal pages or the morning paper.

Some days I bring stationery so I can write a quick, chocolate-fueled letter; today, it was just me and my notebook. Like meditation, journal-keeping is a habit I’ve practiced for decades, so doing it generates its own energy, like a turbine turning a gear. Meditation fills my lungs, walking gets my blood flowing, writing stimulates my brain, and high-octane dark chocolate gives me a buzz that lasts the whole day. This is how you weather a sleepy morning that started before dawn.

Books read in 2019

Recently in one of the reading-related Facebook groups I’m in, a debate arose between readers who set goals and those who don’t. Some of the goal-setters had linked to their Goodreads “Year in Books” lists, and some of the goal-avoiders complained, arguing that reading is a pleasurable activity that is ruined and made too stressful if you set numeric goals.

This is a debate that repeatedly arises in this and other groups I’m in, and as a goal-setter, I’m perpetually mystified by it. Yes, I set reading goals for myself, but just because I set a goal doesn’t mean you should, too. For me, setting and then tracking a goal makes it more likely that I will actually do the thing I’m tracking. I an ideal world, I’d have plenty of free time, and during that abundance of time, I’d simply fall into a comfortable chair and begin reading spontaneously, without the nudge of a goal.

My life, unfortunately, doesn’t work this way. I keep daily to-do lists because I am apt to forget and thus neglect any task not on my list, and it gives me an obscene sense of accomplishment to cross something off said list. But if listing doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. I’m not going to tell non-listers how they should organize their lives, and I’d love to receive the same consideration in return.

What perplexes me about the goal-or-no-goal debate is the assumption that counting an end-result automatically robs that process of its pleasure. Do golfers, basketball players, or video gamers enjoy golfing, basketball, or video games less if they keep score?

There are plenty of fun activities that people track and monitor. I know marathon runners, for instance, who religiously record their times against their own personal best, and they don’t seem to enjoy running any less because of this habit of keeping-track. To the contrary, I’d argue that runners who keep a log of their times have an extra incentive to train and improve. The process of keeping score, in other words, turns training into a kind of game, and it makes running even more pleasurable by adding a sense of accomplishment to the activity.

The non-goal-setters in this particular Facebook group would probably be horrified at the sheer number of things I log and track on a given day. I habitually count both my steps and calories, though a quick check of my waistline would reveal I’m not slavishly attached to either number. I keep track of the number of times I meditate, write in my journal, and blog each week, and I have goals for both postcard- and letter-writing, museum and Zen Center visits, and the doing of some sort of Fun Activity each week.

Again, in an ideal world, these things would happen naturally and spontaneously…but I don’t live in an ideal world. Instead, I live in a world where things that aren’t on my schedule get bumped to tomorrow and the next day and the next, and I’ve learned that tomorrow and the next day and the next quickly becomes Never. Yes, Spontaneous Sex is the most exciting sex, but even Scheduled-On-Date-Night Sex is better than No Sex At All.

So every year since 2014, I’ve set myself a goal of reading 50 books a year, and every year I’ve met that goal without feeling unduly pressured or stressed, my love of reading surviving unscathed. On any given day, I try to read 50 pages, usually at night after my evening chores are done; I even go so far as to list on paper how many days it will take to read any given book at that rate. This not only gives me a daily reading goal to cross off the list, it helps me manage my library loans: when multiple holds arrive at once, I can roughly estimate how many books I can realistically finish and which ones I’d be better off returning and checking out later.

To me, tracking the books I read is almost as fun as reading itself. In a life where too many days feel Too Busy and Too Hectic, it’s reassuring to know I’m not neglecting the things I want to do in favor of the things I have to.

2020 planner

I bought a 2020 weekly planner in late October, back when I wasn’t sure I’d ever dig myself out of my paper-piles to survive what I secretly referred to as my Semester From Hell. While I blogged every day in November, this past month has been largely consumed with teaching tasks: reading drafts, grading final projects, (finally) submitting grades, and then recovering from all of the above.

Now that 2020 is only hours away, I’m looking forward to starting anew, again. Every year, I set more or less the same goals for myself: I always want to walk, write, read, meditate, and blog more. This past year, I didn’t meet all the goals I set for myself, but I’m proud to say I continued to track those goals all year: when I wasn’t walking, writing, reading, meditating, or blogging as much as I’d like, it wasn’t because I’d forgotten my commitment to do those things.

So today, I set-up the planner and calendar I use to track my daily, weekly, and monthly goals. I look forward to this routine every New Year’s Eve in part because I enjoy any excuse for buying office supplies. But I also appreciate the fresh start a new year, a new semester, or a new planner gives: a chance to turn the proverbial page. So as the end of December wanes into a New Year, I wish you and yours all the best for 2020.

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.