Life lessons


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.

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.

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.

Four cones

Every year, I repeat the same mantra as October turns into November: “If I can make it to Thanksgiving, I’ll survive the semester.”

Every semester is a marathon, not a sprint, and just as distance runners learn to recognize the cycles of any race–the places they get tired and discouraged, and the places they find their second wind–I’ve learned to recognize the phases of a typical semester.

At first, a new semester is both exhilarating and exhausting: for the first few weeks, you have to manage the adrenaline rush of new classes and a new schedule. Around week five, the novelty of a new term has worn off, and everyone is sick and tired: the start of what I call the Dark Night of the Semester.

For the past month or so, I’ve settled into the middling stride of my semester–my teaching days have fallen into a familiar routine–but this routine is also its own kind of drudgery. I’ve been behind with grading–buried in my paper-piles–for so long now, I sometimes wonder whether I’ll ever dig out. “The work always gets done,” I remind myself, a mantra I repeat every semester without fail. No matter how high the paper-piles, the work always somehow gets done, and usually not a moment too soon.

Whereas Spring Break comes right in the middle of Spring semester, Thanksgiving break comes at the almost-end of Fall semester: after my students and I come back after the holiday, there are two weeks of classes–the busiest time of the semester–followed by Finals Week. This week I told my first-year students, who have never completed the marathon that is a college semester, to rest up over Thanksgiving because when classes resume, the business of the semester will heat up, fast.

I’ve run this marathon enough times to know that Thanksgiving is when the uphill slog of the semester turns into a roller-coaster rush to the finish.

Minimalism

This past week my Intro to College Writing students at Framingham State have been preparing brief presentations they’ll give after we return from Thanksgiving break. My students have worked on individual projects for over a month now, doing research and spending lots of time thinking about their topics in advance of writing a five- to seven-page position paper. But before they submit the final version of that assignment, I’m asking them to prepare a brief presentation where they share their conclusions and field questions.

Being able to summarize a complicated issue in a clear and concise manner is a valuable skill: imagine a world where everyone could boil things down to their essence. In class last week, I showed students how to summarize their project in a single paragraph using a basic template I provided. This week, we’ve practiced converting this paragraph into a sentence outline, and today we’re translating that sentence outline into a keyword outline.

I tell my students that being able to express an idea both briefly and at length is a valuable skill: if you know a topic inside and out, you can whittle it down to its essential points or you can elaborate in more depth and detail. Many of my students are accustomed to school assignments that require them to write more rather than less, so they are surprised to realize how hard it is to be both brief and clear.

When you whittle something down to its essentials, you necessarily have to prioritize your points: which ideas are essential, and which are expendable? Brevity isn’t merely the soul of wit; it is also the companion of comprehension.

Cleared

Last week, I posted a photo of a little Zen garden shrouding a funky old house in our neighborhood. Today when I walked Roxy down this same street, I saw that they’d cleared all the trees in this garden, leaving only a lone Japanese maple.

One woman's trash is another woman's fashion

It’s a gray and rainy day–a damp, drizzly November in my soul–and I spent most of my office hours grading papers. We’re at the point of the semester when I could grade 24/7, and the bottom of my paper-pile would still be far, far away.

Sadly, I have things to do besides grade, so I chip away at my paper-piles during the smidgens of time between classes, meetings with students, and the perpetual need to prep class after class. (The biggest challenge in teaching six classes isn’t that you have six classes’ worth of papers to grade; it’s that every moment you spend in class teaching is a moment you aren’t reading papers.)

I’m writing these words in a notebook while my first-year writing students are crafting opening anecdotes for the essay draft that’s due next week: another batch of papers for my pile. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Toledo, I sometimes would go to University Hall late at night with nothing but a notebook, and I’d sit at the front of an empty classroom writing, imagining the day when I’d be a college professor sitting at my desk writing while my students sat quietly working at theirs.

This was the late 1980s, so I had no idea my eventual students would compose on laptops, tablets, and phones more often than with pen and paper. And I had no idea then how many papers I’d be reading now. How could I have known? Grading papers is invisible work: I never actually saw my professors doing it. Instead, I saw them lecturing in class or looking profound during office hours, when they were invariably poring over a book, never student papers or that more recent bane of modern academic life: email.

When I was an undergraduate, I never took freshman composition, the class I now primarily teach: the adjunct’s bread and butter. I never wrote drafts that were commented on then returned to revise. Instead, I took Honors Readings Conference my freshman year, and I met with my instructor face-to-face to talk about every paper I wrote. There might have been comments on those essays: honestly, I can’t recall. What I remember were the conversations I had with my professors and the awe-inspiring realization that they took my ideas seriously enough to encourage me to think about them even more deeply.

I’m not sure I’ve ever accomplished that in any of my written comments on student drafts: I’m not sure (ultimately) that these comments are even the point. What I had no way of knowing when I sat writing at the front of those empty late-night classrooms when I was an undergraduate in Ohio was how much of my life would be frittered away grading papers and how little of it would be spent face-to-face with my students, having the kind of deep conversations I so enjoyed. My expectations then seem as removed from my current reality as the height of today’s paper-pile.

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