C19 Coping April 30. It’s drizzly, which makes it feel chillier than it is.
I woke up from a dream, of which I remember nothing other than that, around the time I woke up, everybody kept repeating COVID COVID COVID endlessly. It was exactly like this scene in Being John Malkovich, except not any fun at all.
Hence, the post header change. Also, I’m feeling less thrive-y today. Sometimes, you just do what you can to get by.
Once again, I find myself resisting.
But I realized yesterday why, and in order to share that, allow me a quick backtrack.
My first husband Karl died on July 10, 1989; it happened to be exactly 5 years from the day we’d met.
For at least a dozen years, right around the 4th of July, I’d start to feel unsettled, just lousy, like I wanted to jump out of my skin. Naturally, the first couple of years I acutely realized the death anniversary on the 10th. But it wasn’t long before I’d forget all about it until sometime around the 9th or 10th, I’d remember, oh. This is That Date.
But apparently, my body and soul commemorated the anniversary long after it stopped registering in my brain, getting going a good week early—the 4th was when Karl started to hit a final decline. It was, I think, the 7th or 8th time I had been told he wouldn’t survive a weekend. In this case, he did survive a weekend, but not much longer than that.
I did not do mourning well with Karl. It’s weird when your husband dies after a long illness and you’re 28. There’s the tremendous relief that the pain is over for both of you, and the deep desire to begin whatever follows. And you’re young, you have a lot of energy, you’ve endured forced celibacy for a couple of years. But then there’s missing someone you loved so deeply, who you’d planned to spend the rest of your life with only to have it stolen in a really nasty way. And meanwhile, other friends were dying of the same thing back in New York. Most of them I never had a chance to say goodbye to.
So things were somewhat fraught.
Eventually, though not for about about 15 years, I got help, and managed to get past my fury and sadness and even survivor guilt at his death, as well as the others. I think at about the 20 year mark, 2009, I noticed that July had become just July, and not much more.
Two years ago, Steve and I were in Germany, running an errand. We’d been there a week, and I felt happy that I’d finally slept through the night. Jet lag had been particularly rough that particular trip. As we drove, my sister Lisa called. Mom had had a massive stroke. A very long day later (given the 9 hour time difference) we were there, and a few hours after that, early morning of May 2, she died.
I’ve written about her death and life here. Because she’s my mom, and because if things work out the way they’re supposed to parents die first and not the other way around, and because she made it to 86, and because my dad died in 2012, and because none of us, including her, had to undergo the hell that is stroke recovery, the mourning process felt at least somewhat more manageable. That doesn’t mean it’s been less complicated—in fact, I am shocked at how complicated it’s been.
And I realized today, no wonder I’ve been having a weird, discombobulated few days. My body and soul are remembering, throwing back to those strange days, where I felt myself in a gray numb fog interrupted by flashes of anger, pain, and confusion. The fact that there was so little sadness was the oddest and most confusing part of all.
Sadness, I can feel. I don’t enjoy it, but I’m well-acquainted with it. Sadness can sit with me for its few hours or days; it doesn’t scare me.
It’s all that other stuff.
Zen and the Art of Mourning
I had been struggling with my beliefs for several years. My Christianity was so ingrained in me, I felt like the writer Frank Schaeffer, who, like me, grew up strictly evangelical only to forge his own path; he has said that if he were going to become an atheist, the first thing he’d have to do is pray about it. I’d started to dig into various meditation practices, nearly all guided. Enlightenment was not the goal. I just wanted my brain to stop hurting.
The year following Mom’s death, I thrashed around a lot. Then, on the last Sunday before we went back to Germany in April 2019, I went to the Ann Arbor Zen Temple for my first service. Guided meditation had simply not worked. Wasn’t the point to deal with myself, and not be distracted by someone telling me to relax? So I figured a group service would be interesting to experience.
I loved it. I really loved the temple priest, Haju. She was quiet, kind, and spoke carefully. I left, vowing I’d come back when we returned to the US.
Next Baby Steps
Still not knowing what I thought of Zen per se, I decided to sit in meditation for increasingly longer periods: first 5 minutes, then 10 minutes. Then 15. Now 30.
I also tackled some “find yourself” type books. But I rarely finished them. I’m not crazy about simplistic anything; in fact, it was my mom’s extremely simplistic approach to Christianity that drove me toward, at the very least, expanding my outlook.
One of the books I didn’t finish was by Brené Brown, an Oprah fixture. But I will be eternally grateful to Ms. Brown for introducing me to the writings of the late Charlotte Joko Beck. Reading a little bit of Everyday Zen every morning, all the way through twice, and now Nothing Special, I have learned that the point of sitting is not enlightenment, or bliss, or even peace. It’s to understand who you are, to realize, in the absence of any distraction, what your brain is actually like. How the body contracts when it’s anxious, or frustrated, or just planning, something I find myself constantly doing.
These are very basic explanations; for better ones, please read Joko’s books. But I can attest to the value of a focus on direct experience, and to overthink much, much less. I care less and less why I’m angry, something I used to spend hours parsing. One of the things I learned from my mom, and that we used to love to do endlessly for mutual entertainment, was speculate about why people did the things they did. In other words, the experience in and of itself was not the meaning. The meaning was all the stories we attached.
Another habit I learned from her was to classify everything along binary lines. Naturally, emotions fell into this category. Mom told me time and again that anger was a “sin.” So was worry. So was guilt. And I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to be too crazy about sex.
She also claimed that God had taken her anger away from her; the lack of self-knowledge, or refusal to see it, was painful to watch in later life. But when you’re a kid, you believe what your parents tell you. Cognitive dissonance had a hallowed space at every table in our house, including the nightstands. No wonder I grew up so confused, so clueless as to how to set healthy boundaries.
Glacial Progress (in the meaning we grew up with, not the current one, which is pretty damn quick)
Learning to deal with my anger—and worry and all that other stuff labeled Sin—has been very difficult. But Zen teaches you to simply feel the anger, or whatever else, not attach things to it or dwell on it, and then be open to the next thing that’s offered.
Of course, that’s way way easier said or written than done, which is in the old sayign why they call it practice. But working to understand non-attachment was a thing I needed to do. Especially in this crisis we all now call reality. Far from what people think is meant by non-attachment—that you simply don’t care—non-attachment has a great deal to do with not judging. You feel the feelings, let them run their course. But you don’t rate them on a 1-10 scale of “shitty” to “awesome,” you don’t add a bunch of stories that aren’t there.
And then, with luck and hope, you have a greater ability to be present, to show up for your life instead of spending all your times making plans.
Progress is incremental, as I said. But when the other day someone asked me about positive memories of a particular time, the question initially angered me, and I didn’t know why. After thinking about it for a day, I replied, the memories are just things that happened. I’m not comfortable assigning them a ranking. The person said, Fair enough.
A year ago, I never would have waited to figure out what was bothering me. I would have issued a snappy retort that likely would have started a little pissing contest. So yeah. I’m learning, a little at a time.
The last pleasant visit I remember with my mom was before she remarried; for many reasons, our relationship was never the same after that, a subject for many many posts that I may or may not write. We weren’t estranged or anything, but we stopped being close.
But on that visit, she helped me and Steve fill the back yard with bulbs, which she loved. She did visit again, including with the new husband, but never at a time when things were blooming. And Steve and I have been gone nearly every spring since.
This year, I’ve been able to enjoy her flowers from the beginning. They immediately bring to mind my mom digging in the dirt, as peaceful as she ever got, doing work that she loved.
They’re bulbs. Of their nature, the flowers don’t last long. But they do come back. Against the gray sky, they shine.
The Marcus Aurelius Moment* of April 30
From my sister Becky, the concept of Quantity Time: that often, the loveliest memories arise because someone simply showed up, was there, and together you happened to catch odd moments of grace, beauty, and laughter. The moments that make life sweet, that can’t be planned. Or lost.
*In the first part of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman ruler details what various people in his life have taught him. To read the full intro to why I care about Marcus Aurelius, click here.