26: Arrival of Hope

My mom went all out for Christmas decorating at our house.  Practically every horizontal surface had fiberglass angel hair covering small twinkle lights with the nativity and snowmen and other Christmas figurines.  Sparkly snowflakes hung in the picture window framed by more twinkle lights.  Vases would be filled with special holiday silk flowers and shiny beads and, of course, even more twinkle lights.  Every light fixture in the house could be off and there was this softly colored glow that felt warm and special.

Keeping the Christ in Christmas was always very important to her.  We attended church every Sunday so it was easy to incorporate the traditions we saw there into our home.  Every year one of the earliest signs of Christmas, often even before the tree or the twinkle lights, was the Advent wreath on our kitchen table.  Four Sundays before Christmas the church put up their huge Advent wreath, three purple candles and a pink candle in a wreath of evergreens, and we put out our Advent wreath at home, the four colored candles often left over from year to year in a modest and very used brass candle circle.  The first week just one purple candle was lit.  The second week a second purple candle was lit.  The third week the pink candle was added and the fourth week the fourth and final purple.  Every night at dinner the candle(s) would be lit.

Similarly, at the beginning of the month a colorful poster board Advent calendar would be nailed into the wood panel wall behind our kitchen table.  Our parents had to be at work very early in the morning so it was usually quite a chore to get us out of bed and down to breakfast.  But during Advent, my sister and I took turns opening the tiny numbered doors each day.  The years we had an Advent calendar with little chocolates behind the numbered doors were the best, but even when there was no chocolate there was a teeny tiny picture that got better and better as the days counted down.

If someone had quizzed us about what Advent was or why we had these traditions, I suppose I would have said something like “it’s the countdown to Baby Jesus being born.”  Obviously, I know now that the tradition and symbolism go much deeper than that.  I fell away from the church before taking care to learn the deeper meanings and since my beliefs are different now, I won’t even try to talk intelligently about what those meanings are.  Generally, Advent is a time of preparation and planning but patience for the goodness to come.

So much of what I love about Christmas is about the traditions, the things you do every single year.  When I started attending a Unitarian Universalist church, a place that does not have a single doctrinal (i.e. biblical) foundation and openly welcomes atheists I just assumed that many of the traditions I became accustomed to in that were based in my church would never be a part of my adult life.  Color me surprised to listen to a sermon last December all about the tradition of the Advent wreath and the importance of incorporating this, or something like it, into your family’s rituals.

December is the darkest month and as Christians are waiting for the birth of God’s s-o-n, those who are not of this faith are waiting in anticipation for the s-u-n to come back.  The candles can symbolize light triumphing over darkness.  They can also symbolize the cardinal directions or the elements of earth, air, fire, and water all acting in tandem with each other to create balance in our world.  In the Christian tradition, the candles represent: Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. Focusing on one of these each week serves as a check in an often ties into a gratitude practice and that’s what I am going to do to honor the Advent tradition this year.

Week 1: Hope.  Hope is a funny thing.  I am notoriously impatient so hope has always felt more like dark desperate terror-filled demands than some magical beacon of light out there in the distance somewhere.  My sense is that the only difference between desperation and hope is the fear of powerlessness.  Hope is something you want or a vision you have that you aspire to, though you are perfectly happy with what you have now and would be happy even if that vision never comes to be.  Desperation is the fear that you won’t reach that vision, and that life will be somehow less than because of it.  I have lived my life largely in desperation.  The things I do, I do because I don’t know or don’t like what life looks like if I don’t.

What’s the antidote?  Acceptance I suppose.  Accepting one’s powerlessness.  Giving up control.  I’ve written how 2018 has been a difficult year, and it has.  Dealing with the hope, and then the expectation, of having a baby.  There was a turning point midway through the year.  I’d picked a fight with Noel for not doing everything I thought he could do to pull his weight.  I realized immediately after that this exact fight was precisely what I had always said in my mind I wouldn’t let happen.  I’m not the person who wants a child for having a child’s sake: I want a child that is the product of a strong, loving, healthy relationship.  We had to do things differently.  We are still figuring out that balance of trying but not trying and all the while not losing the essence of what makes us us.  I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time.  Things feel easier.  The things I need to do to try for baby are the things I don’t mind doing that are now just part of the routine.  Physically and mentally I feel great.  Acupuncture, herbs, whole foods, more sleep, less stress, more restorative activity, it’s all working to keep me feeling strong and fit.  And most of all, I don’t feel alone in this.  I have a partner and people who care about me who have been wonderful.  So, yes, I want the vision of my future to come true but that can’t be all of my hope.  My hope must rest in the refuge of all that is good now.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

-T.S. Eliot, Wait Without Hope

I will not see this month of darkness and waiting as something to merely get through.  I will accept the darkness and fight against my impatience to accept this time of rest and introspection.  Without winter’s blustery cold, the warmth of the summer sun would not feel so sweet.  Perhaps the hope I’ve place in my vision of the future falls woefully short of what is really meant to be.  Afterall, Adventus means arrival.

 

20: Love at first…

I knew he was special.  For someone who doesn’t especially subscribe to the idea of love at first sight, there was something palpably unique.  Mostly it was the kindness in his eyes and the genuineness of his face.  This was someone I needed to know.  Three weeks after our first date, I told my sister “I think I’m in love with him.”  The only word to describe that time is magic.

Even more than love at first sight, I definitely do not subscribe to the idea of life as a fairy tale.  Even the magic love bubble only lasted a few weeks before the reality of life had us dealing with pretty serious stuff.  Still, the newness, the possibility, the feeling of having all of life’s good things finally come together in the same place and time made difficult things feel less difficult.  I was the best version of myself.

I saw “A Star is Born” with girlfriends the other night and it really stirred something up.  I was very emotional on the way home and kept thinking about the movie for days later.  “Bradley Cooper.” my friend opined simply.  This was more than lusting after Bradley Cooper.

We’ve reached a bit of a crossroads in our journey to parenthood.  We’ve been trying over a year. We are doing all the things. We’ve had all the tests.  Nothing is wrong with us.  My doctor looked at me with pity-eyes and said “there’s nothing else I can do for you” and recommended we go see a fertility specialist.  My medical chart now says “female infertility.”

From the moment I reached out to the fertility clinic, my fears about taking a number in the baby factory felt true.  Electronically sign this form and this one and that.  Watch this online module about Zika.  Check out our website with all the pictures of smiling babies (which, of course, conveniently leaves off how much any of this costs).

It all makes me feel…inhuman.

That’s when it occurred to me; that feeling I had watching “A Star is Born” wasn’t lust and it wasn’t envy wishing  we were back in that new-love bubble, it was just that desire to be seen.  As a whole person.

That magical time three years ago when Noel and I had our first date, yes it was magic because I met such a special person, but it was magic because for the first time in my life I felt I was sitting across from someone who really saw my flawed awesomeness and was totally into it.  The other night Noel said to me “You want to think you find someone and get into a relationship because it’s easy, but it’s not.  It’s hard.  And it’s something you have to be really conscious and purposeful about all the time.”  Yeah you do.  Every day you do.  And you have to try things, and get them wrong, and try again, and talk…a lot, and ask each other for help, and do things that don’t come easily for the good of the relationship.

The inhumanity of trying to create a human, I’m not up for it.  For me, this is not an at-any-cost situation.  I want to have a baby.  Even more than that, I want to be the best version of myself.  And I want to have the strongest relationship I can.

My Chinese medicine dream team, they make me feel human.  I depend more and more on their words of wisdom and encouragement.  Jodie, my acupuncturist, has me reading “You are a Badass” by Jen Sicero.  As the name suggests, it is brilliantly simple.  Know yourself, love yourself, live yourself.  “There is nothing wrong with you” says the book and Jodie the Acupuncturist and Ali the herbalist, and Noel the Husband.  I like that.  “Trust your intuition” says the book and Jodie the Acupuncturist and Ali the herbalist and Noel the Husband.  “Love yourself because you are awesome and the only one in the whole world like you” says the book and Jodie the Acupuncturist and Ali the Herbalist and Noel the Husband.  All of that sounds so much better than sitting in a hospital gown waiting to be poked and prodded holding a piece of paper that says “female infertility.”

In the end, our family is going to have whatever journey we are meant to have.  In the meantime, we have work to do.  The daily work of overcoming the urge to fall into routines that prioritize tasks, chores, and obligations instead of opportunities to see, know, and support one another.  The humanity of trying to be the best I can be so that our relationship can be the best it can be.  I’m up for that.

Door

19: Whatever You’re Doing, Do Less

I used to cry e-v-e-r-y time I went to yoga.  It became sort of a half-funny thing between my girlfriends and I.  They would find opportunities to get me out of the house while I was single so even though I always saw yoga as a waste-of-time workout, I’d go along. I finally told my therapist this was happening and she wisely said “why don’t you stop thinking about whatever you’re thinking about.  Think about yoga.”  Amazing we need people to tell us these things right?

Buddhists are into shrines, something I haven’t gotten far enough in the teachings to learn much about.  The first time I walked into the shrine room and saw all this stuff on an alter, I heard my mom’s voice in my head saying “cult.”  I learned very quickly that the shrine simply uses a number of images and symbolic items to represent qualities inherent in ourselves and our lives.  I can get on board with that, the idea that what we do and what we put out to the world is a reflection of what’s going on inside of us.  So, I decided to create my own version of a shrine that I can carry with me all the time.  I wear necklace every day with a number of symbols.  It has a penny pendant, something I found at a boutique on a break from a Shambhala class.  It was attached to a card saying something about using pennies as a gratitude practice.  Every time you see a penny, say an ‘I’m grateful for” kind of thing.  It also has a silver pendant with a flaming chalice, a Unitarian Universalist symbol.  And finally, it has the silhouette of a cross legged Kwan Yin.

Jodie put Kwan Yin next to me during an acupuncture session. Like most things Jodie does I was like “this is weird but whatever works.”  I figured if she was going to sit with me I should know a little more about her.  I assumed she was a fertility goddess.  I was right.  Sort of.  Kwan Yin or Guanyin is like a goddess in Chinese and East Asian religious traditions, but a goddess compassion.  They believe that this quality, compassion, along with mercy and love, make her inherently motherly.  This really made me pause.   The symbol of motherhood, the root of our fertility… is compassion…

Right now my Saturday Cafe group at the Shambhala center is reading “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron. Compassion for others, she says, is a reflection of compassion for ourselves and requires total openness and acceptance of every aspect of ourselves, good and bad.  We need to fully see and accept who we are, people as they are, and things as they are, without holding on to our own idea of what they should be. This is what causes pain and suffering. Categorizing good or bad, blaming, these are are all signs that we are lacking in compassion.

This whole process of trying to get pregnant has put a magnifying glass on so many parts of my personality, so many patterns in thinking and behavior.  It’s like some cosmic bartender put me in a giant martini shaker and has been shaking that bitch for a solid year now.  Looking at what I want, what I need, who I am, who I thought I was all while having to go to work and interact with people and, you know, do life continues to be a journey that I expect will go on a long time.

In an earlier chapter on “hopelessness” Pema writes about the inevitability of difficulty, without blame.

“Without giving up hope-that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be- we will never relax with where we are or who we are.”

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God… Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us…Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.

The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it does not mean something is wrong. . . .Suffering is part of life, and we don’t have to feel it’s happening because we personally made the wrong move. . . .As long as we are addicted to hope, we feel we can tone our experience down or liven it up or change it somehow, and we continue to suffer a lot.

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty.

It is not our fault we are suffering.  It’s not anyone’s fault.  It is the nature of the human condition.

Now that Lake Michigan is almost certainly below 60 degrees until next Spring, my last swim of the season is likely behind me.  I’ve conveniently forgotten to tell my dream team that I’m running a marathon in a few weeks but have cut down my running to the bare minimum needed to finish.  Yoga is really the only exercise that is ideal for our efforts to get pregnant.  This is tough.  Not sweating, not feeling that total physical exhaustion,  not feeling that burn and fatigue, my default is to see this as some inferior form of exercise.  Especially when so much of the language just sounds like bullshit euphemisms.  “sits bones”  bleh “root into the ground” bleh “only do what serves you” barf…   I am trying to accept this fact and see it as an opportunity.  I’m also trying to allow myself to really embrace this in a similar way that I have other physical challenges and intend to practice 4-5 times a week.

I’m also seeing that this resistance I feel, this impression I have of yoga as inferior, weak, “bullshit”, is directly correlated to my experience of it being “softer.” It’s not about how much you can lift, how fast you can run, it’s not about physical straining strength.  It’s about letting go, quiet calm control, peacefulness, knowing understanding of the limits of our own body.  I’m not very good at any of those things and I suspect it’s because I have always looked forward to what is next, what is better, than to simply stand in the right now.  As Pema predicted, it is and has caused a lot of suffering.  I still cry at yoga sometimes, probably because when I stop the business and the rushing and the pushing I get this glimmer of softness.  It comes out when we are doing our shavasana at the end of class, literally just laying there not doing anything.  “Whatever you’re doing, do less” the instructor said.  Even in the stillest, quietest moments there’s an opportunity to do less, let go more, get softer still.  The softness is also part of me.  I need to accept that part too.  I want to be better at seeing it, acknowledging it, and caring for it.  I thought being awesome at my job was, in part, because I already was pretty good at being thoughtfully compassionate.  I’m now reminded that there will always be a threshold in my compassion for others if I can’t first be compassionate with myself.  So, Kwan Yin, I’m gonna keep working on it.

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6: Like a Junkie

We interrupt the regularly scheduled programming of Level II – Part II, to bring you a special edition of the Baby Buddhist.  Why? Because when you’re feeling good you gotta ride the wave.  (I’m sure that’s in Buddhist philosophy somewhere right?)

I believe wholeheartedly in the advice of two people: Jodie my acupuncturist (who I recently wrote about) and Teresa my tarot lady.  Look, I’m not some Nancy Reagan psychic consulting kinda gal, but once a year for my birthday I go see the tarot lady for a little check up.  When both those women tell me I have to calm the fuck down with the exercise…the dude abides.  

Without a doubt, modifying my exercise habits to try and get pregnant is the most torturous part of this process so far.  I was overweight as a tween, but was active my whole life, usually in competitive sports.  I was teaching boot camp classes on military bases by the time I was 21.  I started playing roller derby at 23.  I did my first triathlon at 25.  I ran my first marathon at 29.  I became an Ironman at 31.  At 32 I rode my bike across Wisconsin (175 miles) in one day.  Competing, training, kicking ass…it’s just what I do.  It’s what I’ve always done.  I’ve got a routine.  By now I’m training for the first half marathon of the season which leads right into the first marathon of the year in May.  From this to “take a walk” “how about a yoga class” and “definitely, no working out on your period.”  Let’s just say one of the most embarrassing meltdowns in front of my husband has been me crying about having to go to a Saturday morning yoga class instead of on a training run like I wanted to.  

And, there’s more to it than the endorphins.  Long runs on Saturday are time to run in quiet, with great music, with a dog by my side, breathing in the barely warm new-Spring air.  It also justified all the eating I did over the weekend.  Until they became my only options, yoga and walks were just bonus “workouts” that didn’t really count.  

Reading the section on exercise in my new trusty friend, Making Babies, was the nail in the coffin.  I have to take it easy.  As healthy has I’ve been as a result of an active lifestyle, fertile healthy is different.  The high intensity interval training and half day endurance training sends distress signals to the body so instead of nourishing it, the activity triggers the lady bits to shut down to conserve energy.  “Nourish” – Jodie the Acupuncturist says it all the time.  Get the blood flowing and healthy.  “Juicy activities” is what Teresa the Tarot Lady called them.  “Women’s bodies aren’t meant for all that hard stuff.”

So after the monthly hibernation I’ve decided to work out smarter. Running only in the first 10 days or so of my cycle.  All the nourishing stuff the rest of the time.   I belong to OrangeTheory and can’t bring myself to quit.  Last month I went to my classes but tried to keep my heart rate under 78% of my max.  It’s hard.  The classes are designed to jack your heart rate up so it’s a test of self-discipline to maintain this threshold.  But today, we’re in solid pre-ovulation phase.  No ovulation or implantation happening any day soon.  I just ‘er rip as my mom would say.  And it was like drugs.

One hour.  Feeling strong, rested, challenged.  One glorious hour that just felt familiar.  And just like drugs, I knew I was playing with fire.  I’m certain I probably pushed harder than I should have.  I know that when I go back tomorrow it’s not gonna feel this good.  It didn’t matter.  I just needed to ride the high.