mindfulness

Gratitude, A Photo Journal: Brain-Picking Becky #14

I just can’t with the news this week – so much violence, anger, fear, greed. I decided that rather than focusing on how awful our world leaders are, I needed to take a break from current events and focus my energy on the little things in my day-to-day life that make me grateful. In the past, avoiding the news felt like I was being irresponsible, neglecting my duties as a citizen, but now, taking the space I need to focus on gratitude seems like the best way to resist the hatred and negativity that’s spreading through our country, our world, like a disease. It’s a lot easier for me to be kind to others and treat them with respect and compassion when I’m feeling full of gratitude, and kindness, respect, and compassion are exactly what this world needs more of right now. So whether you continue to tune into the news or not, I strongly encourage you to also tune into the grateful wavelength. It might take some reminding at first, but we are all capable of making this choice and sticking with it. Here are some photos and thoughts to hopefully get you started.

IMG_1027I very much appreciate green things growing out of rocks. I also appreciate the sound of lapping water and my silly/awesome star tattoos and the way sunshine feels on my
bare feet.

IMG_1019There is beauty everywhere if we allow ourselves to see it, even in steel and machines and concrete. I also love the fact that five different countries were represented on this single subway car; NYC is proof that people from all of the world can live together in harmony.

IMG_1024From the subway to the bay to the ocean. My commute is special. When I look out at this body of water that goes on and on until it reaches another continent where someone of a different race and a different language is, like me, staring into its depths, I feel grateful that I am so small yet also connected to something so tremendous.

IMG_1016Not everyday can be sunny. And that’s okay; I appreciate a gray sky and the smell of rain and the sound it makes as it falls against my umbrella.

Okay, I confess it’s perhaps ridiculous to have this many animals in a Brooklyn apartment, yet at the same time, it’s magical. I love my little menagerie and I love being loved by them. I greatly appreciate that we all make it work.

IMG_1059And, of course, this boy. Every day I am grateful for him; becoming a mom is the most incredible and rewarding thing I have ever done.

BeckyLewCryingAlso, the craziest. But I’m grateful for the imperfect moments, too, for the screams and the exhaustion and the ink stains on towels. I’m glad that life is complicated.

IMG_1077And I’m glad that in the midst of these complications, we find opportunities to relax and reflect. As a child I dreamed of something different than the cow farms and cul-de-sacs I grew up with, and now here I am thriving in New York City. May all people have a dream and the gumption to go for it.

IMG_1084And may all people also have the luxury of a summer afternoon with Prosecco, good friends, and a beautiful view.

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

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Brain-Picking Becky #8: This Extreme Love

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Dave and I recently took our first vacation without Lew, a glorious five days in Los Angeles in which our main concerns were things like how bad the traffic was on this or that road, if we needed a sweater or could get away with just a t-shirt, and if my new diaphragm felt better or worse than condoms. Yes, we missed Lew like hell, and we even missed our pets, our home, and our busy little New York life, to the point that by day four I woke up feeling melancholy, but that California sun, the crisp Pacific water, the happy hour cocktails and fresh fish tacos and the not at all worrying about things like nap time or diaper rashes or how many hours had passed since we last let the dogs out, was enough to dampen the longing. I spent the week relishing in my husband, in the beautiful, sexy ways he smiles, laughs, talks, and I let myself feel everything that bubbled up, the love and happiness, the angst and anxiety, the joy and the fear, and I thought, Whoa, it is such a luxury to just be able to sit here and think and feel. I’d never before considered ruminating to be a luxury, but in my regular life where someone needs something every thirty seconds, it’s nearly impossible to follow a thought through to its end. Passing all that time just breathing and thinking felt lavish.

~

Ever since I can remember, I’ve operated under the idea that I was supposed to make everyone happy. In order to do this, I had to be perfect. People loved me because I was pretty and nice and smart, and it was my duty to be all of these things so that they could be happy. I honestly don’t remember a time in which I didn’t feel this way. In fact, I distinctly remember being four-years-old, emerging from the basement of my childhood home into a kitchen crowded with family members, and delivering a serious but also sarcastic speech about the food we’d just eaten (yes, I was a hyper-verbal preschooler who used sarcasm). At that young of an age, I knew I’d said something funny and that I wanted to be funny, but even more so, I’d said something serious and wanted to be taken seriously. But when everyone laughed and no one engaged me in a real discussion, I burst into tears. Mom rushed over, gripped me in a tight hug, and said, “Honey, that was funny, we’re just laughing because you’re so smart, not because we’re making fun of you.” This made total sense to me, and I remember formulating the idea for the first time that it was okay if people laughed at me without understanding what I’d said, because laughing meant I’d make them happy.

BexVampy

This idea came to rule my life. Getting straight A’s, being first chair in band, memorizing verses for Sunday school, cleaning the house, learning to cook, reading college-level novels when I was 12 but also still playing with the dolls Mom had bought me – all of this meant everyone else was happy and therefore I was good. Sure, some of this was motivated by my personal likes (reading and cooking have always been favorite activities of mine), but there was a constant current of pleasing others that ran underneath all of it.

Of course it exploded. How could it not? I was primed for an eating disorder and it wasn’t anyone’s fault. It just was.

~

After years of working on the project of myself and my life, I’d made my way to the milestone of the first vacation as a new mom without the kid (two years later, parenthood still feels new). My husband and I were lounging in Topanga Canyon on a breezy spring day, surrounded by horses, donkeys, birds, and roosters, listening to our friend tell a story about walking his dog with a neighbor who he later realized was Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks. I laughed and then turned inward as he moved onto an anecdote about Gary Busey. I noticed I felt heavy, emotionally weighed down somehow, but also excited and inspired and eager to be creative, and I realized that all that hippie shit about California and its vibes is so real, like straight up totally for real. Somehow, the strange land of Los Angeles is genuinely healing, filled with an indescribable magic that vibrates in your bones, yet is also completely consuming, devouring, even devastating. No wonder people do so many drugs.

IMG_0456I couldn’t put these feelings into words and I didn’t even try (a rare moment in my life). Instead, I just sat in them and let the vibrations do their thing. I thought about my own healing process, my own magic and potential, my own ability to consume myself. Out of all the remaining pieces of “residue” (as I like to call my old bad patterns and habits), the idea that other peoples’ happiness is my responsibility is the hardest to kick. I’ve made progress with this, but it’s an ongoing struggle. My brain wandered on to how crazy it is to have a child, to have this part of yourself walking around outside of you, how being separated from it is so relieving yet also terrifying. I thought about how much parenthood has changed me, how it’s brought me closer to my understanding of humanity, closer to my core. I see so much of myself in Lew. The way we both move through an empty room, the way we love Dave, the way we need to talk. He’s got my boundless energy, my desire to help and please, my fast-paced brain, my passion to express and to learn. “I’m running in a circle, running in a circle, running in a circle!” he shouts as he literally runs in circles.

Oh dearest Lew, you act out the inner workings of my mind, I thought as a rooster crowed somewhere in the canyon hills. But I will teach you how to breathe and to meditate and to reign this all in. Our kind of mind is a power and a curse, and I’m going to teach you how to use it. The real gift is in accepting how the you and the now are always changing, and just letting that be.

~

The sunbathing, hiking, ocean swimming, sexing, thinking, feeling, breathing, all did me good. I left LA relaxed, refreshed, eager to tune in to the NYC vibes I love yet take for granted, ready to reunite with my family and bring this tranquility home to them. But then, within a mere three hours of picking everyone up from the grandparents, I found myself with Lew’s shit on my pants, a dog peeing in the house, my keys dangling from outside the apartment door, my shoulders tense and tight, Dave unreachable at work, and I thought, “THIS is what I missed???”

I took a deep breath. Yes, this imperfect life with its messy emotions, these constant yet gratifying responsibilities, this extreme love, this is what I missed.

Baz&Lew

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

Brain-Picking Becky #7: The Cat Bardo

“And when we have to let go, something else becomes possible.”  –Pema Khandro Rinpoche

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A few weeks ago, Dave and I put down our old lady cat Blacula. She’d been howling every night for half a year at least, a long, drawn out wail from somewhere deep inside of her. The sound had found its way into my subconscious, pushed my already strange dreams into new realms of oddity and confusion, and I’d wake up all anxious and sweaty, only to realize it was the damn cat again.

She woke the baby up, too. I’d stumble into his room at three in the morning and he’d stand up in his crib and meow at me. Except his version of a meow mimics the senile, eighteen-year-old cat version, so he’d say it like the word “why,” drawing out the space between the ‘wh’ and the ‘y’ in a dissonant tone reminiscent of old-timey folk laments. This became a nightly occurrence, and he started calling cats “gwhys,” a combination (we think) of the Spanish word “gato” and the cat wail “why.”

Blacula was never easy. Dave’s former roommates adopted her despite his being allergic, and she was one of those terrified-by-life kind of creatures. Always hid. Never let anyone touch her. Drew blood within seconds of being picked up. Her ovaries became infected and then she gnawed at her post-surgery stitches and infected those, too. Like cats tend to do, she fell in love with the one person who wanted nothing to do with her, so therefore Dave was the only one she’d let handle her during all of this. He nursed her back to health and she fell even more fiercely in love with him. The roommates moved out, leaving the cat they’d selected to the person she’d selected, and poor Dave, being the kind soul he is, accepted the commitment he’d been straddled with. Still, despite her obsession with him, holding Blacula was not allowed. Dave has a scar from the top of his pinky finger all the way down to the bottom of his palm from a particularly difficult visit to the vet.

Years later, Dave and I met and moved ourselves and our two cats in together then rescued two dogs soon after (yep, we’re nuts). Blacula quickly assumed the role of evil dictator who controlled her underlings through fear. She regularly bloodied our 80-pound Boxer dog’s nose, once so badly she left a small piece of skin hanging from its tip. She’d also do things like scratch the other animals’ faces when they were sleeping, watch them scramble awake in terror, then simply strut back to where she’d been resting and curl up in a tiny, black-and-white ball, satisfied with the disruption she’d caused. Or she’d sit in the middle of the narrow doorway that divided our railroad apartment in half, make herself as big as possible and growl at the other pets, smacking them into submission if they dared pass through. One of the dogs, Basil, took to lying on his stomach and singing for her, a strange version of a hound-like howl reserved just for these encounters. After a few minutes of this, she’d finally allow him to walk around her and into the other side. No one else could pass, though, until she got hungry and left her post, most likely to eat their food before finishing her own.

bexnblaBlacula and me when we first moved in together back in 2008.

Dave and I put Blacula down together while Lew was in daycare. I wanted to be there, to witness her death, to take responsibility for a decision I helped make, to ease her out of this life, to support Dave. But even more so, I wanted to be there to get some answers. I wasn’t even sure what my questions were, but I was positive that watching a creature die would give me some kind of insight. I was expecting a moment, a heaving sigh and shift in the air, something big and profound. I wanted to be able to say, “Aha, now I understand.” When the vet injected the medicine that would kill her, Blacula was dozing and drooling from the sedatives, motionless on the table as I pet her cheek and Dave scratched her head. We told her we loved her and then I thought maybe she’d passed but I wasn’t sure, I wondered if that was really it or if the big moment was yet to come, and then the vet listened to her heart and confirmed it had stopped.

I’d felt only enough of something to wonder if I’d even felt it at all.

blabasil

With Blacula’s history of abusing the others, Dave and I were obviously scared when I was pregnant. We imagined her attacking our precious newborn baby in the middle of the night, perhaps even scarring or disfiguring his perfect little body. And what would we do? Who would take a cat like her? It would be horrible to have to put down a healthy cat because of something like that.

To our extreme surprise, she loved Lewis. From day one. She sniffed him and sat near him and purred loudly. His earliest attempts at petting the animals were rough smacks with his chunky hands up and down against their bodies, and while everyone else would complain or run away, Blacula would just sit there and let him smack her. Each morning after we transitioned Lew into his own room, she’d enthusiastically run in to greet him as soon as we opened his door, sometimes even jumping into his bed. He was the only person who could ever give her a hug. He’d wrapped his arms around her torso and lay his cheek down on top of her and my heart would leap into my throat, and she’d just sit there calmly, happily even. If I’d done this, she would have scratched my face, my chest, any skin that her claws could reach until I’d let her go.

Unless they’re asleep at the time of death, animals die with their eyes open. Seconds after her heart finished beating, I was shocked that she still looked alive. “It just seems like she’s resting,” I said aloud, then leaned down and stared deep into her dead eyes. I swear they looked back at me. Something was still in there. Then they began glazing over, just a bit at first then more and more until about a minute later, they had transformed into cloudy, turquoise mirrors reflecting the fluorescent light above us.

Blacula took to hiding under the futon for most of the day and night about six months before we put her down. The final weeks were pathetic – she was confused and scared, unable to properly clean herself, and rarely came out from her hiding spot. But the strangest part was how the other animals ganged up on her. The dogs began chasing and nipping at her whenever she did manage to venture out, and Frida, the other cat who’d mostly avoided her in the years since we’d moved from the railroad to a more spacious apartment, began guarding the water bowl and litter box and attacking her whenever she tried to use either. We thought this was an instinctive version of payback and did our best to make it easier on Bla, but then immediately upon returning home with the empty carrier after her final appointment, the other pets relaxed, became much friendlier and more easygoing – Frida even cuddles with the dogs now – and we wondered if these attacks were their way of telling us it was her time, that perhaps they weren’t enacting payback but instead trying to end her suffering, a suffering that was distressing them all.

In the movie The Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson shares a story about asking her Tibetan Buddhist teacher whether or not to put down her very sick dog. The teacher told her that we humans do not have the right to end another creature’s life, to take away its time of suffering, time it can learn and gain knowledge from, knowledge it will then use in the bardo, or the space between this life and the next.

laurieandersonLaurie Anderson by Maria Zaikina / Creative Commons

Part of me agrees with this sentiment. It didn’t feel quite right to end Blacula’s life. I took a power that didn’t belong to me, and she didn’t even have the capability to let me know if this was what she wanted or not (side note, I think about this a lot when it comes to eating meat, but I only have two hours here so the vegetarian days of my past and the omnivorous ways of my present are for another essay). On the other hand, however, I felt like I was giving her a gift. She’d suffered for such a long time already. Her mind was gone and her existence was miserable. She would not be missing these days. If I were in that position, I would want Dave to release me, too.

And, to be honest, we were wrecked. We’re parents, we work a lot, we both make art, and we weren’t sleeping because of the freaking cat, the difficult, mean, malevolent cat who’d been a challenge since the day other people picked her out and brought her home and left her to Dave, a person who never wanted a cat in the first place. We tried so, so many things to help her, but it didn’t matter; she just got worse by the day, and we were exhausted. More than wanting Dave to release me from this burden, I would want to release him from it.

We were sadder than we thought we’d be. It turns out you get used to a creature, even an evil creature, after sharing a home with it for years. “I want gwhy,” Lew repeated many times that night and the following morning. We did our best to explain it to him beforehand, used phrases like, “We have to say goodbye to Blacula because she’s going to die,” and, “Dying means your body is all done and you go to sleep,” and, “Blacula is going away forever but we’ll still have her in our memories.” We had these conversations a handful of times and each would end with him saying, “Bye bye, gwhy.” But it obviously didn’t translate. He’d look under the chair in his room, the place she deemed second best to under the futon, and say, “Gwhy? Gwhy?” then cry when we reminded him that she was gone. It only took two days, though, and he moved on.

img_6207_15446367261_oBut for me, days later, I was still upset. Yes, it took me four whole days to realize that through this experience of putting down the cat, I’d actually been looking for some kind of insight into my mother’s death. What happened to her when she moved from dreaming into dying into being dead? What kind of moment did she experience? What did the room feel like when/if this moment happened? Where is she now? We will never know, not even my father who was sleeping beside her.

So, I’d wanted this controlled experience with death, with choosing to end a creature’s suffering, watching the injection, feeling the moment, to inform me, to comfort me, to give me something. Instead, a million new questions ran through my head as I gazed into her mirror ball eyes. What happened during that minute between her heart stopping and her eyes turning? Where was she then and where was she now? Did she know I was there looking deeply into her final moment? Could she see me or hear me or sense me in some way? What do we even mean when we use words like “she?” Who or what was she? Who was my mom? Who am I?

Of course there are no real answers. But in letting go of my mom, in letting go of Blacula, in letting go of these questions and my expectations and my ruminations, something else becomes possible.

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

I Know This Is a Wonderful Moment

tnhI first came to Buddhism as a twenty-year-old when I lost everything I owned in a house fire (including my cat). A professor and mentor of mine introduced me to the book Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh (pictured), and through reading, studying with my mentor, and developing my own meditative practice, I not only discovered ways to explore and grow from my pain and loss, but I also discovered that my anxiety and eating disorders were becoming manageable for the first time ever, even in the midst of this trauma.

I practiced regularly for a few years after that then trailed off as my work and academic life picked up. Every now and then I would sit to meditate and was surprised by how positive the effects were despite my inconsistency, but it was still difficult to find a routine. But then when my mom died, absolutely everything about my life was upended. It was like I’d suddenly and shockingly been teleported to another world, a sad, scary, dangerous world that seemed completely incongruous with the one I was physically living in. I had no idea what to do, but good ol’ Thich Nhat Hanh was there waiting for me.

Three years later, when I checked the news on my phone at 4 am on the morning of November 9th, 2016, I once again felt like I’d been teleported to a scary, dark, dangerous place that just didn’t match up with reality, a place in which women are not in charge of their own bodies and instead are told they exist to please men, a place in which good honest people who happen to have been born in the Middle East are threatened with violence, a place in which children can’t go to the doctor because their employed parents are too poor, a place in which the politicians in charge say that they and their rich friends can have anything they want, and can take more of it, while the rest of us must give and give and not have. But this time, I knew what to do: breathe.

peaceiseverystepIn the years since my mother passed away, I’ve embraced myself as a Buddhist and have regularly practiced meditation and mindfulness. But you don’t have to be a Buddhist or experienced in meditation in any way to utilize the gift of breathing. So, for those of you who can relate to the feelings I described above, I want to share a passage that I believe will help you stay centered, calm and focused, because we cannot resist if we give into fear and hatred. Stay strong, my friends, and breathe.

From Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment!

‘Breathing in, I calm my body.’ Reciting this line is like drinking a glass of cool lemonade on a hot day—you can feel the coolness permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel my breath calming my body and mind. ‘Breathing out, I smile.’ You know a smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Wearing a smile on your face is a sign that you are master of yourself. ‘Dwelling in the present moment.’ While I sit here, I don’t think of anything else. I sit here, and I know exactly where I am. ‘I know this is a wonderful moment.’ It is a joy to sit, stable and at ease, and return to our breathing, our smiling, our true nature. Our appointment with life is in the present moment. If we do not have peace and joy right now, when will we have peace and joy— tomorrow, or after tomorrow? What is preventing us from being happy right now? As we follow our breathing, we can say, simply, ‘Calming, smiling, present moment, wonderful moment.'”

Peace

breatheI am a New Yorker. I love my city. I am also a Kentuckian and I love my homeland. People in this country have two starkly different views of what America should look like, and this election took those views from the political and philosophical realms to the personal and emotional realms in an unprecedented way. I have so much to say, but I need time to wrap my head around those words before I can write them.

For now, please, be nice. To yourself, to everyone. Just breathe and be peaceful. The only thing that can heal this country is peace. No matter who you voted for, no matter what your views are, just be nice. Do not give into hate. Right now, community is what we need the most.

More to come.

Our Mothers Have a Way of Shifting the Universe in Lumen Magazine

Granny_Mom_MeThere is no better way to honor my mother than by writing. While she was not a writer herself, she did fully embrace her own creative energy throughout her life via the piano, her voice, and, mainly, her needle and thread. She passed her love of art onto me, celebrating the goofy short stories I wrote in elementary school as if they were Nobel Prize quality and always urging me to write more. When others told me a Masters in Creative Writing was a waste of time and money, Mom told me to do it not just because I wanted to, but because she knew I needed to. Therefore, it is incredibly special to me that Lumen Magazine has published my essay, “Our Mothers Have a Way of Shifting the Universe,” that I wrote on the first anniversary of her death. Please take a moment to read and share; not only do I hope to keep her spirit alive, but I also think that, in a society where death is a taboo topic for conversation, it’s important to share our experiences. Thanks, Mom, for the support that I still feel and will always feel.

Pictured: Me, Mom, and Granny.