Category Archives: Buddhism

Lost: One Pair Perspectacles, Slightly Used

FullSizeRenderDo you all read Glennon Doyle Melton, the woman behind Momastery? I bet a lot of you do. She’s pretty awesome, not least for being almost the only self-proclaimed christian writer I’ve read who has never, ever, I mean not once, come across as sanctimonious or preachy. That takes some skill, especially for readers like me who have an over-sensitive sancti-meter. Anyway, Glennon (we’re on a first name basis, in my mind) coined the term “perspectacles” to talk about the importance of being able to see your life with new eyes sometimes, to remember all that you have to be grateful for and not feel coerced into keeping up with any crazy external standard for your life or your body. This post explains it well. It’s a handy concept to invoke when I’m feeling pissy for no good reason (or, more often, when my kids are revealing their sense of entitlement to their horrified leftist mama). As a tryna-be Buddhist, perspectacles fit well into the precept of looking for the best in people and situations, and practicing gratitude. Good things to practice, for sure.

This month, however, I seem to have misplaced my perspectacles. I feel all oscar-the-grouchy about everything. Granted, there has been some shit happening the last two weeks that is worth grumping about, including but not limited to: the flu, the other kind of flu, Chad’s grandma almost dying, my kid getting sexually harrassed at school, and a dear friend getting diagnosed with breast cancer. I mean, no one in their right MIND would be grateful for any of that stuff. But the point of perspectacles isn’t to cover up or gloss over the shit; it’s to put it in PERSPECTIVE, as in: I no longer have any kind of flu, Chad’s grandma didn’t die, my kid handled herself like a rockstar, and my friend caught it early and will, we hope, have a good prognosis. And I can WRITE all that, and SAY it to myself, but it just isn’t working. Like, my brain is all, “But HEY: you got into GRAD SCHOOL!! With FUNDING!! In the SOUTH!!! Holy validation!!” and my heart is like, “Fuck you. David Bowie is STILL DEAD. FOR ALWAYS,” and my brain goes, “But you’re getting to go to the UK this summer!! For two weeks! Without your kids!! Don’t be a brat!” and my heart says, “I KNOW I’M A BRAT SHUT UP. Everyone is yelling all the time and I’m sick of this election season and I’m worried about money and I’m not getting to my to-do list and I won’t be ready for the move aaaaaahhhhh,” and my brain gets fed up and is like, “FINE. God, you’re such a Debbie Downer. Go read some Y.A. fiction or something, if you’re going to act like a twelve-year-old all the time,” and my heart yells, “DON’T YOU DISS Y.A. FICTION IT’S SOME OF THE BEST WRITING HAPPENING RIGHT NOW AND ANYWAY GENRES ARE AN ARTIFICIAL CONSTRUCT,” and then my brain and heart storm off into opposite corners in a huff and I immerse myself in a John Green novel which is lovely¬†but I’m still grumpy.

I dunno. Probably I need to meditate or something, but also probably sometimes you just need to be grumpy for no good reason and let that happen. I’ve always hated it when I’m having a public meltdown (Facebook counts as public, right?) and some well-intentioned soul reminds me that things could be worse and there are starving children in China or something. I mean, has that ever helped ANYONE? Like, I still feel crabby but now I also feel SUPER GUILTY about it. Good job! So I’m trying to be kind to myself, while also looking like hell for those perspectacles because I do not wish to be an entitled, blind-to-my-own-privilege asshole. BALANCE.

In summation, I am grumpy, for no good reason. But I wanted to end this post on a more positive note, and I remembered a thing I’d posted on Facebook earlier this year that I’d been meaning to blog for posterity, but I couldn’t remember when I’d posted it so I just searched Facebook for “Elise Robinson peanuts sex.” Which is maybe the most awesome string of search terms I’ve ever personally used. Also, and I’m not sure how I feel about this, the search came up with two results, and only one of them was mine. I haven’t even looked at the other one because I don’t know if I can handle it right now. Anyway, here’s the post, from September 2015:

Oh, lawsy, I wish I had a video recording of the conversation I just had with the girls in the car. Highlights include:

– Eleanor advising Sylvia to get married to a boy instead of a girl if she wants to have babies, because if she marries a girl she’ll have to “get shots” to have a baby

– Sylvie asking me how you have babies with a boy and thinking I said”peanuts” instead of “penis”

– me uttering the phrase “NEVER PUT PEANUTS IN YOUR VAGINA”

– Ellie wondering how you have sex and guessing that you “just walk up to someone and ask them”

– Sylvie deciding she just wants to adopt

Never put peanuts in your vagina, y’all. You can take that to the bank.

Wachet Auf

To say that I am not a morning person would be an understatement approximately equivalent to saying that Voldemort has some anger issues. I’m the kid who never took an 8am class in college or grad school, because I knew I’d never pass it. When we were looking at kindergarten options for the Hatchling, I immediately ruled out any school with a start time earlier than 8:30, because we would be tardy Every. Single. Day. My natural schedule would see me going to bed around 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning, and sleeping until 10:30. I yearn for the days when I have surly teenagers who sleep until 1 pm so I can go back to sleeping in myself. I’m also a person who a) needs a lot of sleep and b) looooooves sleeping. Some people can function on 5-6 hours of sleep per day; I am not one of those people. If I don’t get 7 or 8 hours a night, I’m an irritable, edgy, semi-functioning mess. I find sleep almost perfectly satisfying, whether it’s in the form of a mid-morning catnap or a luxurious weekend lie-in.

However. I am thinking that I may need to start getting up … argh … before my children do, ack, because I have not been finding regular meditation time, and it is making me cranky.

Meditation is a key element of Buddhism, some would say THE key element. The Buddha said, “Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work with mastery. Like the moon, come out from behind the clouds! Shine.” Buddha taught that meditation leads to both serenity and insight, which are the “swift pair of messengers” that bring nirvana. I dunno about you, but I certainly could use more serenity and insight in my life. At a practical level, meditation makes me a much more patient parent, makes it far easier for me to weather the ups and downs of life, and dramatically reduces my urgent desire for mood-altering substances like cocktails and all-expenses-paid cruises to the Mediterranean. So, for many reasons, I need to find regular time to do it. During the school year, I was managing to meditate while the Hatchling was in school and the Sprout was napping, but that’s no longer our schedule. I could do it after the girls go to bed, but y’all: I am fucking TIRED at the end of the day. All I wanna do after the girls go to bed is sit on the sofa and watch Glee. (While checking on my online class and surfing Facebook. Ahem.) So I think mornings are going to have to be the time.

At any rate, for the next two weeks I’m going to try to get up before anyone else and do some zazen. Surely even *I* can do two weeks of early rising, right? I’ll keep you posted.

That is one big fucking molehill

Anyone who’s been a parent for any time at all will tell you that it’s not like you expected it to be. I’m sure this is exactly the kind of statement that drives non-breeders crazy, but I can’t help it: some things in life require experiential knowledge, and parenting is one of them. As the oldest of six kids and a regular babysitter, I figured I had a pretty good general idea of what I was getting into with the parenting thing. I wasn’t naive enough to think I didn’t have anything to learn, but I thought I had the basics down. This, of course, is kind of like assuming you’ve nailed the basics of oil painting because you majored in art history. It’s not a totally irrational assumption, but it does happen to be a wrong one. Which is just my super smooth way of saying that if I had to condense my experience of parenting into a single sentence it would be something like, “I didn’t know it would be like this!”

The constant unexpectedness of parenting comes in all kinds of forms: positive, negative and everything in between. Some things you embrace, some you brush off, and some you run smack into like a two-foot-thick brick wall. We’re currently having a brick wall moment around these parts, because the Hatchling – my reason for starting this here blog – has recently been diagnosed with a language disorder. “What the hell is a language disorder?” you are no doubt asking. I know I sure was. There’s no pithy answer, but basically what it means for the Hatchling is that in a lot of situations, she finds it difficult or impossible to use language to communicate. Lemme just take a moment to recover from the nausea that writing that sentence produced. Okay.

So, like most impairments of this type, the diagnosis has been a long time coming. Language has never been the Hatchling’s strong suit; she babbled charmingly as a toddler, but it took a while for her to convert the babble into actual words and sentences. I worried about it in a vague way, but her pediatrician seemed to think she was fine and there was nothing I could put my finger on. We assumed it was just her way of developing and it would work itself out. When she was three (in 2009) she started preschool, and about 1/2 way through the year her teacher pulled me aside to ask if the Hatchling had done her pre-K screening yet, because she was acting kind of weird sometimes in the classroom. Again, it was nothing she could really put a finger on, but it seemed like sometimes the Hatchling didn’t understand what you were saying when you gave her instructions, or she would sort of go vacant in the middle of an activity. So we took her in for the early childhood screening session, and she passed with flying colors. I even told them ahead of time that I had some concerns about her language development, but they didn’t see anything, so whew, right? No worries. All good … except I would still occasionally have interactions with the Hatchling that would leave me vaguely anxious, feelings that I dismissed because, let’s face it, it’s not exactly unusual for me to feel vaguely anxious and mostly it’s a mountains out of molehills situation.

Then, this last winter, her completely different preschool teacher at her completely different preschool ALSO pulled me aside to express some concerns about the Hatchling. And just like everyone else, she couldn’t quite put a finger on it, there just seemed to be something a little “off” about her and had I noticed anything like that at home? And of course I had, here and there, so we agreed to get the Special Ed. teacher who serves the school to do some observations and then we’d go from there. And thus began the months-long process of observations and reports and needing further testing and doing the testing and waiting for the results and meeting about the results and the results are: Language Disorder. Significant Language Disorder. In other words, to quote the 12 page single-spaced report we got this morning, “Her language samples provided evidence of significant difficulties producing meaningful, accurate and organized language.”

I recognize that things could be a lot worse. The Hatchling could have a terminal disease, or a more severe impairment, or we could not be catching this so early, leaving her to struggle through school without knowing why. We’re fortunate to live in a state that will provide some support for the Hatchling once she starts Kindergarten, to live in a metro area where there are resources available to us we might not have elsewhere. All of this is true. But let me tell you: it still sucks a metric fuck-ton of suckage to sit in a meeting at 8:00 in the goddamn morning and be told that your kid has a level of disability which – at the very least – will make it really hard to be successful in school, not to mention any social or emotional effects it will have or might already be having. The thought that this language disorder could make the Hatchling lose her sunny outgoing friendliness … well, I’ll start crying again if I think too long about it.

If I’m honest, though, I think what I’m most worried about in this whole scenario is that I won’t come up to snuff in the parenting department. This is not my subtle way of asking for compliments on my fortitude or excellent mothering capabilities – I’m really fucking scared about it. I mean, this is the kind of situation where I’m supposed to draw on all my reserves of strength and be a pillar of support for my kid and my family, right? Only I’m not at all sure that I have any reserves, and god knows I’m plumb out of patience and temper has never really been my strong suit. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but I’m EXTREMELY verbal. Me and language are, like, super BFFs. So not only do I know bupkiss about dealing with language disorders, but I also can’t imagine a task I’m less temperamentally suited to handle. I can’t imagine anything more frustrating than having thoughts and feelings and ideas and not being able to speak them. It kills me to think this might be a life sentence for the Hatchling. I don’t want to fuck this up.

I’m trying to take a Buddhist approach. I’m trying to stay in the moment, to “expect nothing.” Buddha taught that the practice of mindfulness not only allows us to fully experience our lives, but it also enables us to respond effectively to the curveballs that life seems to enjoy throwing at our heads. This is one of the Buddhist paradoxes that really hits me where I live. All evidence to the contrary, I tend to convince myself that dwelling on past issues or trying to project into the future will somehow help me be better prepared for whatever shit comes down the pike. What it really does, of course, is just cloud my judgment and perceptions so that I’m too freaked out and preoccupied to respond to anything. Focusing on the here and now allows me to see clearly what a sweet and loving child the Hatchling is, how willing she is to embrace new experiences, how easily and quickly she makes friends, and how far she’s come with her language in the past year. It reminds me that I don’t have to climb the whole fucking mountain right this very minute – I just have to take this particular step. I find some hope in the present moment. Yeah, I didn’t know it would be like this. But then none of us ever really does.

Mothering, Multi-Tasking, and Buddha, Part 2

OK, so you’re caught up on my blossoming interest in all things Buddhesque. The reason I made you sit through all that was … well, I’m not going to lie to you, part of it was because I’ve just been THINKING so much about it and I wanted to have someone to talk to. But also it was because the thinking about the Buddhism has – in particular – got me rethinking my relationship to multitasking.

Here’s the thing: I kind of hate it when parent-bloggers write from the assumption that having kids is some kind of holy experience that fundamentally differentiates them from non-parents, because I actually think that parents and non-parents have a lot more in common than not. BUT, having said that, it is also true that having kids has given me a completely different relationship to time. Before kids, when I was working full time, there were certainly times when I felt like there weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that I wanted to do. Especially when I was, say, in tech rehearsals for a show, or finishing a really big project. After having a kid, and even more so after having two kids, OMFG THE TIME – There isn’t – I mean – Are you kidding me with the no time thing? And I’m not claiming that this is some essential quality of parenthood. I have high-powered lawyer friends without kids who get this, for example. And conversely, I’m sure there’s a person out there for whom parenting was the beginning of a whole new world of happiness and a sense that they were finally doing what they were meant to do. I’m just saying that A) that has not been *my* experience, and B) if I ever meet that person, I will punch them in the neck.

It’s just that lately, by which I mean for the last five years, I’m so goddamned worn out by the end of the day from taking care of my adored, demanding, lovely, exasperating children, that it’s all I can do to figure out what we’re having for dinner and *maybe* make it, before ceding all power for the rest of the evening to Mr. Squab – who is, of course, wiped out himself from working at the office all day. But at the same time, I’m craving time for myself like a heroin addict craves a hit. I mean, taking care of kids is eminently worthy and important work (DUH), but it’s not exactly the most mentally stimulating activity you could ever engage in. In fact, most of the time, and I say this with love, it’s boring as fuck. So once the kids are in bed, my brain switches into hyperdrive and suddenly I have an urgent desire to dive headfirst into every single self-centered grown-up activity I can think of in the 4 hours I have before my own bedtime. It’s like somehow I have to make up for all the lost time I wasted grooming the next generation when I could have been catching up on the latest season of Mad Men. NOT THAT I WOULD KNOW, since I don’t have time to watch that show even though literally everyone I know has told me that I would love it and I’m sure they’re all right. So every evening, I cram in as many of my favorite selfish activities as I can get into the brief time available to me, often doing three or four things at once just so I can cross them off my list. You remember that episode of Seinfeld where George works out a way to have sex, listen to a ball game, and eat a hoagie all at the same time? Well, add knitting a sweater, reading a murder mystery, drinking a bourbon-and-coke and obsessively refreshing my Facebook feed and you have my ultimate fantasy night.

It’s ridiculous, and the stupid thing is that I’m not even enjoying it. Somehow, I’ve convinced myself that my self-worth and sanity are predicated on maintaining all my pre-parenting interests and activities even as I engage in one of the most intense and time-consuming periods of being a parent. Now, there’s a part of that that’s right on the money: Every parent – every caretaker of any kind, for that matter – needs a healthy dose of caring for themselves on a regular basis, and lord knows those post-kid-bedtime hours are precious as gold. But I also recognize that I’ve gotten distinctly grabby with my “off” hours, in the sense that I collect activities around me and then hold them close with the single-mindedness of a born hoarder. I HAVE to read at least a chapter of my book every night. I HAVE to keep up with all the weekly shows on my DVR. I HAVE to knit-or-bake-or-sew-or-draw at least once a week. I HAVE to read every single Facebook post from every single friend and family member. I HAVE to skim Newsweek. And The New Yorker. And Entertainment Weekly. And Vanity Fair. Have to, have to, have to, because … well, because I ENJOY all those things, dammit! And I should be able to do things I enjoy! Haven’t I paid my dues? Don’t I deserve this time for myself? DON’T YOU TRY TO TELL ME I DON’T DESERVE IT!

Sigh. So then I’m reading my various Buddhist books, and they talk about mindfulness, and being in the moment, and letting your chaotic thoughts, your “monkey mind,” settle into a calm and spacious perspective, and I think, Gee. That sounds awfully nice. Maybe what I really want isn’t more hours in the day. Maybe what would make me happy isn’t being grabby and angry about getting more “me time.” Perhaps, if I allowed myself, even occasionally, to stop multi-tasking and really focus on what I’m doing right now … maybe then I could stop being afraid of losing myself in parenthood, and remember that Walt Whitman was right: I am large, I contain multitudes. And life is too short not to enjoy the hell out of it as much as you can.

So I’m trying. Not all the time, but occasionally, to just do what I’m doing when I’m doing it. If I want to read a book, I can just read it. If I want to watch TV, I can just watch it. I don’t have to check my email while I’m talking on the phone. I don’t have to knit AND surf the web AND drink a glass of wine to make it “count.” I don’t have to stay up until two in the morning to squeeze everything in. I can let stuff go. I can do things more slowly. And though my house will be dirty and my magazines unread, I think I will be a happier, squabbier, better, mother-and-daughter-and-wife-and-self. Which is really what it’s all about.

Mothering, Multi-tasking, and Buddha: Part 1

So. It’s been, what, nine months since I last blogged? Nine months. One explanation for the extended radio silence is probably that I’ve been blogging in one place or another since 2004, for chrissake, and it was time for a little sabbatical. The other explanation is that, mentally at any rate, this last year was pretty much the bottom of the barrel, in this Squab’s experience. I have really been struggling, and the horrible, dreary, never-ending winter we had this year sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I mean, man: this was a rough winter. Rough enough that I think it deserves its own special name. Let’s call it the WINTER FROM HELL, shall we? That has an appropriately evil ring to it. So the WINTER FROM¬† HELL came along and brought with it a fog of depression that simply refused to disperse. Here’s a fun thing about depression and blogging: Just when you could probably benefit most from the support of your lovely blog readers, you’re too fucking tired to write. Or do anything, really, except lie on the couch eating junk food, fending off your children, feeling guilty about fending off your children, and counting the minutes until your partner gets home to cope with things. (See? It’s even depressing to READ about it!)

So. There was depression and the WINTER FROM HELL and lack-of-coping. And then there were anti-depressants and beginning-to-cope. And then there were even more anti-depressants and thawing temperatures, and now we’re coping at basically normal levels, which means there’s still considerable room for improvement but Mr. Squab is no longer responsible for literally every household task and I can look toward the future with reactions other than “meh” or “I cannot DO THIS.”

Except that, actually, I’m trying not to look towards the future so much, because I’m working on living in the moment. And that’s because I’ve had the white over-educated middle-class middle-aged liberal agnostic version of a spiritual awakening. That’s right, folks: I’ve found Buddha. I mean, it’s not like I’d never encountered Buddhism before. There was a family friend who joined a buddhist monastery and would tell funny stories about it, for example. And my acting teacher in college both engaged in and taught a lot of Buddhist and Daoist practices, which for a while I also engaged in regularly. In a mostly uneducated way, I thought Buddhism was “cool,” sort of like yoga and vegetarianism and non-violent protests were “cool.” But it was never something I looked to for spiritual satisfaction.

And then I had kids, and I obscurely felt like I should have some formal approach to their spiritual and moral education, but I couldn’t find anything that felt like the right fit. In past eras I’ve been a practicing Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopalian (not, obviously, at the same time), so I thought of re-entering those communities first. As a child and even through college I was quite firmly christian in my beliefs, if a bit denominationally vague, but since then I’ve gotten more and more agnostic about the whole thing, and attending a christian church seemed like it would tax my sense of moral honesty. In grad school I regularly attended a lovely Unitarian church, which worked in part because you can pretty much believe whatever the hell you want and still be Unitarian. It’s a good haven for the ex-faithful who like the community aspect of religion but are a bit iffy on the dogma. So I thought about checking out my local UU congregation, which would be a handy place of worship (do you worship at a UU church? Seems more like a place of ponder. Or maybe a place of discuss? But I digress), since it’s attended by approximately 65% of my circle of friends. But that didn’t feel quite right either. It looked good on paper, but I couldn’t seem to summon the wherewithal to herd my family there of a Sunday morning. So I let the spiritual education issue slide onto my mental back burner and hummed happily along, until the WINTER FROM HELL hit and suddenly it wasn’t my kids who needed a community of faith so much as it was me, desperate for some kind of spiritual rope to cling to so I wouldn’t drown in my own sea of malaise. (Note to self: Sea of Malaise would be a great name for an Emo band.)

Where was I? Oh, right: drowning. Well, as none of you will probably remember, a couple of years ago I was discussing Asian religions with my kids’ pediatrician, like you do, and he offered up the Zen phrase “expect nothing” as a good mantra for parents of young children. “Expect Nothing” as in, don’t go projecting into the future about what will happen to your children, who they’ll become, how you’ll fail them or not fail them or ANY of it because the truth is, you have no goddamn idea what’s going to happen and thinking about it is just making you crazy. Sort of the Zen version of not borrowing trouble and crossing that bridge when you come to it. This phrase really resonated with me, probably because it’s a concept almost totally foreign to my nature. I expect shit, you know? All kiiiiiiiiiinds of shit. Good shit, bad shit, and every kind of shit in between: I expect it. But I can also really see, especially since I’ve had kids, how much trouble – how much needless trouble – that expectation causes, and how much better off I’d be if I could get a little more Zen. So I started trying to catch myself when the expectation mode kicked in, and remind myself to “Expect Nothing.” Round about the same time, I discovered John Muth’s wonderful children’s book Zen Shorts, about a Zen panda named Stillwater who moves in next door to three kids and becomes a beloved friend and companion. Muth based the book around a series of classic Zen parables, and, like the phrase from our pediatrician, these stories kept coming back to me. You know how people talk about the universe giving you signals? I don’t know if I believe in that, but … looking back, I can also kind of see what they mean.

OK, so fast forward to the WINTER FROM HELL, the struggling, the drowning, etc. In an effort to do something – anything – to claw my way out of the morass, I started meditating now and then. It’s something I used to do semi-regularly in college and grad school, and I thought it might be a way to get some much-needed mental space. Wanting to find techniques for more effective meditation, I dug out some old comparative religion books from school and flipped to the eastern philosophies section. I started getting more and more interested in Buddhism. What was the philosophy? The history? What differentiated the various schools of Buddhism? I approached it like the scholar I’ve been trained to be. I sought out more comparative religion books, bought some Buddhist magazines to see what the contemporary literature was, got some of that literature – I basically went on a Buddhism reading orgy, and y’all: it made a lot of freaking sense. I dunno exactly what it was, but something about the combination of having kids and trying to survive the WINTER FROM HELL made me, like, the perfect receptacle for Buddhist wisdom. Life is suffering? YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT IT IS. Suffering is caused by attachment? I FINALLY GET WHAT THAT MEANS. Suffering can be eliminated? YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW HAPPY THAT MAKES ME. The means of relief is following the teachings of the Buddha? SIGN ME THE FUCK UP!

And that’s where we’ll leave it for tonight. Tune in Friday for Part 2, in which I will actually address the first two-thirds of the post title: Mothering and Multi-tasking.