Posts Tagged ‘Zen’


Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again while expecting different results.

So…I might be insane.

I’ve been reading through my Peace Corps journals recently. I’m almost through one of five. I wrote everything down every single day. I wanted to remember everything: smells, sounds, people, conversations. I did a remarkable job. Reading through, I’ll hit a sentence that brings back an entire day’s worth of memories. Oh yeah, I remember that training session! And what that food tasted like! And how mad I was at the bitches smoking by the doors of our compound so we all had to smell their exhaust! And how it felt when that scorpion stung me!

My first reaction in reading through was pride in the person I was then, then sadness that I lost much of my confidence and center. When I went into the Peace Corps, I’d just finishing my stint in Boone with Johnny, my best friend. We were extremely close. He taught me more than perhaps anyone else I’ve ever met in my life, and I was in a very strong, Zen, centered place. I lost that while I was in the Peace Corps. Not that Johnny didn’t try to help me keep it: he wrote letters, which meant a lot as he hates to write, and he called me every week. If it hadn’t been for him and my parents, I don’t know if I would have made it through all two years.

Anyway, the main reason I wanted to go through this exercise was to find out why I ever even liked my ex-husband in the first place. At this point, I don’t remember at all. I remember how I felt around him when we were in Lesotho, but I don’t know why. I hope I wrote that down.

First, though, I have to make it through Katiso, subject of one of my published short stories. It’s been an interesting experience. I have this memory of Katiso and our relationship, and it has absolutely no correlation to what I wrote down in my journal. Even when I was writing down what was actually happening, I was totally making up things in my mind. There are a lot of “if only” statements: if only things were slightly different, they’d be perfect; if only he did this one thing differently, it’d be amazing; we’ll be perfect once these things are ironed out. It’s like I imagined our relationship even while we were together. And if that wasn’t scary enough, I could replace Katiso’s name with my most recent ex’s and the story would stay almost exactly the same.

No joke.

Almost exactly.

That frightens me.

So I called Johnny.

Full disclosure: not only is he my best friend, but he can see my future. He’s always had this ability, and sometimes I’ll purposefully go months without talking to him because I just don’t want to know. Everyone thinks it’d be great to be able to know your future, but it’s more annoying than anything else. Trust me. Because knowing your future does not give you the ability to change it.

I told him what I was thinking, and he said, well, I was just waiting for you to figure that out. (See why I sometimes avoid talking to him?)

I just don’t know what to do from here. Okay, I keep falling into these same types of relationships (and Katiso wasn’t the first–the first was a boy I met in high school who kept me under his thumb for an entire decade), so how do I stop? What is the lesson that I need to learn to be able to break the cycle? Johnny had some suggestions, but he can’t give me all the answers. Well, he could, but what would be the fun in that?

What I’d really like is to find someone who loves me for who I am and not what I can give to or do for him. I want someone who makes me feel special, who thinks of me often, who encourages me to grow into the best version of myself I can be. The only time I’ve ever had that in my life was with Johnny, and we were never romantically together. He managed to do all of that while just being my friend. And that’s why I have such a high standard of friendship. We bought each other flowers. We left each other cards. We cooked meals together, pretty much every single day. I moved down the street from him. We watched movies and cuddled together on the couch. We talked about deep, important things. We went on trips together. We knew everything about each other. It was like the perfect relationship, except it was just missing that final piece.

So I guess I’d like to find my Johnny. I suppose that’s my answer. I should stop settling for anything less.


Now, on an entirely different note, mom’s one-year anniversary is coming up October 17th. I’m sad and depressed, as could be expected. We’re going down to the beach to scatter her ashes, as she wanted. It’s going to be heart-wrenching.

I got a new tattoo on Tuesday. I wanted a filigree design on the inside of my left wrist that matches my modified wedding ring. I told my artist that I wanted to incorporate mom’s initials, SSS, into the design, but they didn’t have to be front and center. He came up with this design that has SSS in the middle of a filigree heart. It’s amazing. Every day, I love it more and it means more. It has a power that I didn’t imagine. I feel like it’s turning me into a different person. I’m sure it’s not the way mom would have chosen for me to remember her, but it’s exactly what I needed.

I’ve learned that the feeling of loss never gets easier to bear: you just learn to live with it. Compartmentalize it, someone told me last week. I had hoped it would become less acute, but I guess that’s not the way these things work. So I’ve compartmentalized it. It’s now on my wrist. I stare at it all day, every day.

Pain into beauty. Such is life. Or so we hope.


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Tapping the Well

In the last post, I mentioned that my therapist asked me to write down some emotions and make a list of how I was feeling about each. It was difficult, but I made some headway. We started talking about it last Friday. (I saw her again a few days ago on Tuesday, which is when I usually see her, but we were preoccupied by other things this week, so we haven’t gotten back to it just yet.)

I pulled out the list. She asked me to read it, and I said no and handed it to her. She asked if she could read it out loud, and I said no. It was hard enough to write. I didn’t want to hear it out loud. There are some things on that list that I am barely able to admit to myself, so making them real by verbalizing them is just too painful right now. To be honest, I didn’t want to even talk about them. It was the hardest session I’ve ever been through. At the end, I felt raw and vulnerable and exposed. I think I spend so much time trying to ignore bad feelings that acknowledging them is extremely difficult. I know it’s something I need to do, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Things are generally getting better, especially as I try to work with the emotions I feel as I feel them instead of trying to bury them. It’s interesting to me that the most difficult thing I’m dealing with is one of the core components of Zen: let things be. Feel emotions as they come and allow them to be as they are without clinging or fighting or turning them over and over again in your head so they become overwhelming.

Life is just a continual learning experience.

I still miss mom terribly. Work has been extremely stressful these past few weeks, which has had me even more on edge (no worries: everything’s great and I still love my job, but it’s crazy!). And I’ve got some other personal stuff going on that I’m having to learn how to manage. I feel lonely a lot. My heart still hurts. I find myself longing for the last time I felt happy, which was when I had just moved back to NC and was staying in my little room in my parents’ house, and I’ve been trying to dissect the me I was back then to figure out what was making me or allowing me to be so happy in the hopes that I can get that back. I think I have some good ideas. Again, not that it makes things any easier.

I’ve been thinking it might be time to start trying to turn this blog into something else. Maybe going back through it and constructing a story out of it will help me process some of the emotions I’ve been avoiding. I hate announcing writing projects because they never seem to get off the ground once you do. We’ll see.

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WordPress provides certain stats about hosted blogs, including search terms that lead people to this blog in particular. I got a lot more page views when I was posting weekly and when I had more important things to say. I guess lots of people were very interested in mom’s condition, but not so many are interested in mine.

Over the past 30 days, these are the search terms that brought people here:

i will remember my mother 2
prayer of a daughter 2
why did bodhidharma come from the west 1
praying for daughter to do the right thing 1
lung cancer prayer 1
eulogy for mom from daughter 1
+free thanksgiving prayer to my daughter 1
mom’s eulogy 1
prsyrd for mother to rest in peace 1
ssmallpoems about mom going to heaven but always knowing she be there 1
rest in peace momma 1
prayer for eulogy 1
rest in peace prayers 1
prayer for a daughter who seems not to listen 1
loss of a daughter prayer 1

Some of these search terms are interesting. I have no idea why “why did Bodhidharma come from the west” pointed people to my page. This is a Zen koan, so maybe the fact that I tagged some posts with Zen made a difference. Kind of interesting. If Buddhists are finding their way here interested in learning how to deal with things like losing a mother to a terminal illness, I’d point them to Brad Warner’s books. He’s much more eloquent than I. (Also, I do have to say that I worry about people who think they’re going to find an answer to that koan on the Internet. It’s a koan, which by definition has no answer. So get back to your meditation cushions, people.)

I also like “prayer for a daughter who seems not to listen.” I wonder about that parent. I assume it’s a mother, but I guess I can’t know for sure. I think we all go through a stage in our teenage years when we stop listening to our parents. It’s a difficult time for everyone. I have a feeling that printing out a pre-made prayer for such a daughter would only make things worse. 😉

I was looking around at all the 17- and 18-year olds in my dance class last Wednesday. They all seem so young to me, but I’m still young enough to remember what I felt like when I was that age, how old I felt and how I felt so sure that I knew everything, or at least more than my parents did. I see so much potential in their faces: innocence, youth, boundless future. And there is no way to tell those girls that they have that inside of them. They can’t listen. It’s an impossibility. It’s like that speech Baz Luhrmann gave to a graduating class…there’s in line there that goes something like,

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, nevermind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked.

You are not as fat as you imagine.

100% true. Anyway, I hope that people who randomly make their way to this blog find something of value to them. Our own personal experience are valueless if we cannot find a way to put them to use in serving others.

I realized this when I ran into a co-worker (we’ll call D) the other day who said she had been out visiting a friend in the hospital. I asked her if her friend was okay, and then the conversation turned…she told me her mother had metastasized breast cancer. Her mom’s 71, and she’s living with D. I said, “Oh, so you’re the primary caregiver?” and then D said that she was and that her father was living with them too, but he had Parkinson’s.

Oh. My. Goodness.

“You need a hug!” was my first reaction, and so I gave her one. “I’m here if you need to talk,” was my second. Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I think that’s the best thing one could say to a caregiver. Caregiving is HARD. I was not a full-time caregiver, but the time that I spent caring for my mom was extremely taxing. I cannot imagine having a stage IV mother and a father with Parkinson’s living with me. (Her husband is there, too, so I guess there’s that…but what kind of toll is this taking on the marriage?!) Hugs are good. As is empathy. And having someone to talk with who’s been through something similar has to be a blessing. I hope I can be of service. To her and to everyone who is going through something like this.

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Learning about Loss

I’m planning on going back over to see my parents on Saturday, and I really want to make mom a dinner that she’d enjoy. I’ve been thinking long and hard about it. I even asked her brother if he remembered mom liking any foods as a kid (his first response was “grits and sugar!”). I have a box of my mom’s mom’s recipes, so I looked through there, but nothing stood out (lots of cheese and cream of mushroom soup, blech).

There were a few recipes in the box in my mom’s handwriting. One of them is for the Angus Barn chocolate chess pie, which we always LOVED (I could eat the whole pie, seriously). I thought I could make that for dessert.

I called mom today to ask if she was craving anything, and she seemed very excited about the pie. She had an extremely hard time thinking of anything else to tell me, though. A phone conversation with her is very strange…and sometimes it’s like that in person, too…but you’ll say something, then wait with no response. I can tell (in person) that she’s thinking hard and trying to find the words to say. I think she’s fully there, inside, but she just can’t grasp the right words to communicate. When I ask if she’s thinking or just can’t find the words, she’ll say she can’t find the words.

Mom’s seeing physical, occupational, and speech therapists twice a week. As long as mom says she’s not giving up, I’m fully in support of continued therapy, but there has to come a point where we’re honest with ourselves and each other. I can’t see mom getting better from this. All she does all day is sleep. She has trouble standing, walking, going to the bathroom. She can’t communicate as well as she used to. Mom doing “better” means she made it to the table to eat lunch (and she doesn’t eat nearly as much as she used to).

I was thinking about that recipe card tonight. I realized that my mom will never write me another letter. This is the first thing that is fully gone and will never return. I know it is the first of many. And it breaks my heart.

And I hung a picture in my room, the poster board that mom had made for me before I went into the Peace Corps. It has pictures of all my friends and family, and everyone signed it before I left so that I could take their wishes and prayers with me. In the pictures of my parents, my mom is smiling. I can’t remember the last time I saw her actually smile like that. Her smiles now (whenever they come, which is rare) are small, weak. I don’t think she’ll ever smile like that again.

She’s had the same hairstyle for my entire life. She had it cut at a Vidal Sassoon studio while she was on a trip to California, and she kept the style. It fell out when she had her full-brain radiation. It took a long time to start growing back, and now it is very short and kinky. It feels almost like a horse’s mane. I asked if she wanted me to make her a hair appointment, but she said she’s given up on her hair. I wish I could give her old hair back to her.

I’m continually thankful that she’s not in pain, but this slow loss is so very difficult on all of us. Maybe it’s good in some ways. Maybe the full sense of loss won’t hit as hard when it comes. I doubt it, though. I’ve had over a year to prepare for what is about to come, and it has not made this process one bit easier. I wish I could take it all away from her…and my dad. He’s working so hard to take care of my mom. I’m afraid he’s going to run himself into the ground.

The Buddha taught that life is suffering. The only way to transcend it is to be fully in it at all times. And it’s true. I find peace in moments. Right now, at this very instant, this very breath, life is good. I have air to breathe, a roof over my head, people (and cats) who love me, enough resources (or credit) to get by, food in my stomach. I feel like I have done well in my life so far. This moment has no pain. What hurts is the moment before this one and the moment after.

Sometimes it’s enough to remember to breathe.

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I got to speak with my parents a bit last night, and they’re hanging in there, though I think the reality of the situation is finally settling over them.  I wish I could be there full-time.  Dad said he took mom for a walk, but they didn’t get very far she she was so short of breath.  They’re still waiting for the blood-clot medicine to kick in so she can breathe better.

Lab results were still not in.  They have a friend who works in the Duke system, so she is able to check on things and provide close to real-time information, which is awesome.  I don’t know if they’ve come in today, but it looks like we won’t really know the next step until next Wednesday.

I was looking around at different medical sites, which probably isn’t a good idea, but I came across this one that had some interesting information:

20.13 Varying Survival Statistics for Stage 4

Survival reports differ. Some are favorable: “The 5-year cumulative survival rate was 88.0% for patients in stage IA, 53.9% in stage IB, 33.5% in stage II, 14.7% in stage IIIA, 5.5% in stage IIIB and 7.0% in stage IV.” Wu (1). “The 5-year survival rates for these patients were as follows: stage I, 68.5%; stage II, 46.9%; stage IIIA, 26.1%; stage IIIB, 9.0%; and stage IV, 11.2%.” Naruke (2). Others are dim, reporting survival rates of 20-30 weeks in clinical trials, even those receiving chemotherapy.

It may well be the status of the patient, since we know that the overall health or performance status, as well as the number of lymph nodes involved and other factors influence survival. A 45 year patient with a small area of metastasis in otherwise good health should do better than an older patient with COPD and multiple metastases. Those looking for hope can legitimately find it, not in bizarre reports from other countries, but legitimate clinical trials. Those looking for stark reality may find that the prospects of overall cure are limited.

20.14 Mental Attitude

Some would suggest attitude can play a role and that the willingness to fight and undergo treatment can extend life. The author of The Cancer Patients Handbook wrote the book while 3 years post-diagnosis for stage 4 NSCLC.
A patient in a support group wrote:

“I was diagnosed 7/99 with stage 4 NSCLC and chose to have chemo (taxol and carboplatin). Over three years later I am in remission and still enjoying life. I grant you that it is not life as I knew it before, but it is still quite enjoyable. So please, everyone who has lung cancer, don’t think there isn’t any use to fight it. I am living proof that for some, the outcome is NOT always the same and there is a possibility of living much longer than the statistics say.” Acor.org support group.

Now to switch topics a bit, I think it’s a widely accepted fact that folks tend to turn to their faith(s) when in sticky situations, and I have rather unsurprisingly found myself examining my own beliefs.  I am not a Christian (which isn’t to say that I don’t believe in the power of prayer…I just think it’s powerful for different reasons).  I associate myself most closely with the Soto Zen Buddhists.

Last year, Anthony and I had the pleasure of meeting a Zen monk whose work we admire tremendously.  (I’d rather not mention his name here because I don’t want to start drawing unrelated search hits.)  But he wrote about his experience going through a rough year that included the death of his mother (from a long-term illness), the dissolution of his marriage, and the loss of his job, among other things.  I thought he might be able to help me put things in perspective, and I wanted to share his reply with you here in the hopes that it might help some of you, too:

This is tough. The stuff with my mom went on for years, as you probably already know. My dad was a trooper through it all. But it really wore him out.

The phrase “it’s in God’s hands” is kind of true. That’s the way it is for all of us. Without trying to depress you even more (cuz I don’t think this idea is really depressing, but some do) all of our lives are “in God’s hands.” The statistics are against it, but you or anyone else you know could still be gone before your mom.

Which means you don’t have to do anything but enjoy each day as it happens. While your mom is alive, be alive with her. Do what needs doing for now.

It’s impossible not to worry. I know all about worry. I am a champion at it! But you can even find a place where you can allow worry to be as it is without worrying about it. If that makes sense. Worry comes, it sits in your brain for a while annoying you, and it goes. There is nothing specific you *must* do.

Respond to your mom’s changing condition as it changes. But don’t anticipate. As much as you can, try not to see things she does as symptoms or signs of deterioration. Just deal with what happens as best you can. Treat her pretty much the way you always have. She’ll appreciate it. I hate it when people around those who are terminally ill constantly send reminders to the person of their condition. They don’t need to be reminded! They know. Sorry. But I saw that happen with my mom and grandma and it was really awful.

I hope this helps a little.

You know, that sounds so easy, but I have a feeling it’s going to be more difficult than I can even imagine.

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