Leaning in, Letting Go

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Photo by Jill Wellington on Pexels.com

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about getting better at spotting and identifying what is and what is not for me, mulling over the concept of letting go.

A new school year just started. I began my 17th school year, and it was definitely one-of-a-kind with everyone doing distance learning. We are in the middle of a pandemic. Only 31% of ICU beds are available in my county. There are many unknowns and fears and uncharted territories that we are all trying to navigate. Stress levels are high. I cried once last week trying to make the situation work at home, and I sit here on a Saturday afternoon feeling drained. I may just go watch some K-drama and let my brain thaw. Maybe I’ll tackle the to-do list. But probably I’ll go swim at my sister’s house, which has been our only social recreation during quarantine. There aren’t many options.

In the beginning, I felt a lot of anxiety about being stuck at home. It felt like doomsday. Not being able to go out. No sitters for the kids. No breaks for me. The idea that I’m going to be single forever at this rate.

But now, I’ve grown accustomed to this new normal and I’ve found other ways to occupy my time and mind. I’m not anxious about my fate and I am determined to maximize our current situation. In many ways I am more focused on my goals than I was pre-pandemic.

Sometimes I think about what’s next– life after COVID-19. A trip to Hawaii, toes in soft white sand, dips in warm rolling waves and reading a book on the patio as a colorful sunset spreads across the sky. Or I begin to plan where I want to go for my 40th birthday in 2022: a safari in Africa. Giraffes and elephants and lions. Maybe a stop in Paris on the way over there, with walks through the Jardin des Plantes and warm crepes with chocolate and fresh strawberries as I stroll down the streets and stare into storefronts. And then I come back to reality, knowing that next year will probably be some variation of the same– a pandemic still being the backdrop of each of our lives. Also: for the first time ever, I have a passport that is useless all over the world.

Despite the current dismal situation, there is a lot of good in my life. The copious amount of time I physically spend around my children. We are healthy. There is a roof over our heads, and we have enough resources. Lunch time together, a toasted sandwich that I can eat fresh and warm instead of the soggy ones wrapped in aluminum foil I would’ve had in a normal school year. Exercise now my go-to activity on a daily basis. No scurrying around as much as we used to do. Being home enough to open our blinds and enjoy the house. Cuddling with kitties. The way my kids are maturing, preparing their own meals, managing a task list and learning self-regulation. Peter Jack catching a baby lizard, and then deciding that life was too boring for the little critter and releasing it under the pomelo tree to live its best life in the wild. It’s a different kind of joyous existence than I would expect to have, and it still has stress and challenges, but we are happy. There is gratitude. We are not missing out on life. It’s just a different kind of life.

Us humans have a tendency to view the world in certain terms. We have specific conceptions of happiness. It’s difficult not to cling to this version of reality when our expectations are so great.

But the more I live, the more I understand that happiness doesn’t always look the same as it did yesterday. Sometimes we have to let go of what clouds our ability to spot joy in the present moment.

I used to resent when people said “it’s not meant to be.” It sounded incredibly passive to quit what you want and concede to an invisible force that has more control over your life than you do. I want to be in control over my own life. Weren’t the most successful people in life ruthless in pursuing what they wanted? How do you distinguish between “needs more effort” and “let it go”? These are questions I have grappled with.

Yet, maybe it isn’t exactly a matter of letting something go, but rather learning how to pause that version of what we think we want, and being open to something new materializing right now. Not better or worse, just different.

I recently learned the word “upadana.” It means clinging to existence, attachment. One type of clinging could be to the permanent version of self. This will ultimately lead to suffering, as there is no permanent version of self. We know this to be true when we look at our children. They will never stay the same. Ethan is starting the fifth grade, but just yesterday he was a 2lb. 15 oz. preemie who nestled against my chest. Now he is about to get braces put on and wears Biore strips at night. Someone I know just had their third child move far away and I commented on how sad that would make me feel. The person said they don’t regret anything– that they enjoyed each stage of their children’s lives and look forward to the next ones. I really liked that. I want to be able to say that I enjoyed every stage of my life and my children’s lives when it is all said and done. The alternative would be to bemoan something I couldn’t change.

And isn’t that the truth for everything? We can either let go and embrace, or hang on and regret.

I decided to make a pandemic office to get me through working at home. Dedicated space to be productive. My dad painted the room. I bought a desk, and then I embarked on the task of finding items to decorate. I did quite a bit of research to figure out what I wanted before I found the rug I envisioned: black and white with a fun Moroccan pattern. I arranged curbside pick-up and brought it home, setting it up under the desk and reveling in the new rug smell. I had a gold geometric circle mirror hung up and felt pretty good about the creative space I was putting together, where I would retreat to do good work and make the best out of pandemic life.

The next day, Peter Jack was painting in the backyard, and somehow he managed to step in orange paint. You can guess the rest of the story. He ran into the house, down the hallway, into my office and stepped right onto the new rug.

“I can never have nice things,” I lamented, a line I find myself repeating whenever I get upset at the demise of one of the few things I ever happen to do for myself.

We scrubbed and scrubbed, but when I look closely, it still looks like someone ate Cheetos in my office.

I had to let it go. It was an honest mistake. I wanted Peter Jack to entertain himself independently, and he did, but he’s only 5. He forgot to check his feet before coming into the house. One day, this house will be empty and silent, and I will long for dirty little pitter-patters of feet on my wood floors. Enjoy each stage, I remind myself.

The traces of orange now remind me of the cheeky little boy who looks for lizards and will start kindergarten in quarantine– a little boy who doesn’t know that the world is upside down. He’s just living his life. And so are we, when we really think about it.

I miss seeing people, reading facial expressions, traveling freely without concern about getting sick, and going to our temple every Sunday. I also like not driving everywhere, not having to tote around a purse or wear shoes for most of the day, and how I discovered I was a cat person when I adopted pandemic kittens after a lifetime thinking I hated them.

It reminds me of this quote from Ram Dass: The quieter you become, the more you can hear.

There are ways I have grown as a person in the last five months. My perspective and priorities have become clearer. There are also ways I have weathered the changing times with ease because of what I’ve been through in the past. Like Nietzche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’ve learned that this is true.

A shake-up in one’s comfort levels– and having the space to sit with it– is a great opportunity to find your clarity.

One of my goals has been to learn more about Buddhism, so I have been reading. Many of us know about Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. Did you know there are still Bodhi trees today? I know this because my son’s fourth grade dharma school class planted them. Roger Corless wrote in “The Vision of Buddhism” that the Bodhi tree survived because of vegetative reproduction. That is, cuttings and parts of the roots that were used to grow new trees. People helped keep this tree in existence, generation after generation. Siddhartha was born in 563 B.C.E, so you can imagine that having this tree still around seems almost miraculous. Corless wrote, “It is neither the same tree under which the Buddha sat, nor different from it.”

That made me think quite a bit about my struggle with knowing what is for me and what is not for me. It all changes by the day. I continue to learn new things about myself and the world around me, and it feels like every couple of months I’ve outgrown the older version of myself. No day is ever the same, and yet it is the same. I’m not the same, but my DNA is the same. What does any of this even mean?

According to Rumi , “Life is a balance of holding on and letting go.”

I would add that not only should we balance holding on and letting go, but we should also practice embracing and welcoming the new, interweaving it with the old, and being open to new versions of happiness.

My youngest child loves the movie Shazam. On the surface it looks like a silly movie. I actually liked the story though. A teenager was abandoned by his mother at a very young age, and he spent his subsequent years trying to find her. At one meeting with his case worker, she told him that he ran away and burned bridges with numerous good placements in foster homes, and that he was running out of options. He didn’t care. However, there was one family left willing to take him in. They had a large, loving home full of other foster kids. The main character was unmoved. He continued to resist any conception of personal happiness other than being reunited with his birth mother (him becoming a superhero is another plot line). When he finally found his mother, she wanted nothing to do with him. Although he was crushed, the main character was able to finally set aside his dream of having his mother back and could begin to accept a life with his foster family, forging a strong bond with his new siblings. It wasn’t the same dream he thought he wanted, but he was happy, and ultimately he got what he originally wanted: a loving family.

Knowing when to hold on, when to let go, and when to lean in to your present moment is everything.

“Things are as they are. We suffer because we imagined differently.” Author– unknown.

I just bought headphones for the kids to do their schooling. A laptop stand for me, with a wireless keyboard and mouse. My house looks like an elementary school classroom, with the solar system on the wall, letters lining the kitchen, school desks, class supplies, and even a white board. I have no vacations on the horizon. Dozens of face masks dangle on hooks that once held backpacks and school lunch boxes.

Artist Mari Andrew wrote on Instagram: “[I have been] continually challenging what I thought to be true about myself…exploring the tiny/enormous world of my mind has been a hugely freeing adventure in getting to know myself anew.” She continued, “the cool thing is, when you find a new way to think about yourself, you don’t necessarily lose the old way–rather, you expand into a more dynamic person.”

Right now, my kids are learning independence and time management. We are taking nightly family walks. I know my priorities– there are literally less than five things I am focusing on. I’m growing in my professional life, learning new technology and ways of working in a continuously changing world. I have a week and a half left in my master’s program and writing projects lined up. I’m making progress with my exercise and doing many of the things on my list. Pandemic life is stressful and messy, but it is also our life right now, and as such I have to let go of what would have been and embrace what I can do right now, in this moment. The good and the bad.

I’m inspired by the Maori Proverb: Turn your face toward the sun and the shadows will fall behind you.

I have no other answers, just the will and perseverance to carve out an existence of joy and authenticity. That has to be enough.

 

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