A New Year

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Happy New Year, everyone!

Another year came to a close, another winter break over. The kids and I didn’t do much, except go to the tide pools three times. Let’s face it. Our options for vacation were nonexistent. New year, same shit show– at least for now. I’m feeling a little restless. Tired. Not quite bored, but not quite inspired. I guess you can say that what I am experiencing right now is feeling stuck. Stuck in the mud, with no extraction date in sight.

We were back at the tide pools on New Year’s Eve, where we hiked to a secluded cove with tons of rocks teeming with sea life– purple sea urchins, green sea anemones, hermit crabs, sea slugs. The tide was the lowest we had ever seen, and the weather was perfect. I know it seems absurd to complain about life when you’re in the middle of winter wearing shorts, spending the last day of the year inhaling the salty ocean breeze, listening to the white noise of waves ebbing and flowing, exploring, poking, prodding, hands plunged in sand, the cold Pacific Ocean washing over our feet and cleansing our minds and souls, if only for that moment.

It felt good just being outside. How pathetic is that. In a long pandemic year, being outside is medicine for the claustrophobia of being confined to the home. I know we were probably always confined in some way– in offices, cars, racing from here to there, impacted calendars. But this feels different. This is solitary confinement.

New Year’s Day uneventfully came and went. I made new intentions, as I usually do, but I did not forget the fact that my 2020 intentions still sat in a booklet in the back of my closet, most of the goals like “travel to Japan” and “take the kids to at least three museums” nothing but pipe dreams left to the dustbin of history.

My firstborn turned 11 a few days into the New Year. I still remember the night I thought I had the swine flu, and it turned out to be premature labor. I remember giving birth to a 2 lb. 15 oz. baby under bright lights in a delivery room packed with doctors and nurses, catching a glimpse of my husband where he stood frozen off to the side of my bed, shell-shocked. It seems laughable today, in the middle of a real pandemic, with real political turmoil, and so many more reasons to feel afraid than what we could have imagined back then.

At least I had two weeks to unplug during our winter break. Once school resumed, I felt the weight of the world again. I’m so tired. Sometimes I do the dishes in the evening and just cry to myself, asking for the 5000th time what I ever did to deserve only parenthood. And then a pandemic. Only parenthood plus a pandemic, the perfect combination for mental breakdown. I watch other people going to indoor restaurants without masks as ICUs are at 0% capacity and I don’t know what to believe anymore. I wish people would work harder to protect each other. I wish their actions reflected a commitment to stop the spread. Instead, here we are. Numbers high. Death rate going up. No end in sight. It’s hard to witness.

I did not visit Kenneth at the cemetery on New Year’s Day, per our usual tradition. I was too busy being mad at him. Mad at him for me having to do the dishes every night. Mad that I’m alone to do asynchronous work with the children. Mad because I have to carry the weight of the world alone. I often vacillate between feeling sorry for him and being mad at him for leaving us too soon, and this month I am mad at him. I feel like it’s one of those things you would only understand if you were on the receiving end of the fallout.

Most days of the year I am more measured in how I deal with this aspect of my life. There’s just something about the holidays and a New Year and this ongoing pandemic that creates a gaping hole inside of me, everything I have pent up spilling out into a gnarled heap of emotions, which I will quickly sweep up and compartmentalize, because I don’t have the time to dwell too long in it.

Recently I began to study in the minister’s assistant program at my Buddhist church. I hate the word church; it reminds me of everything I rejected growing up in a Catholic church, but this is what they call it, and honestly, it is better received by others when I tell them I went to church on Sunday.

In college, I saw a flyer for a trip to China. I was 19-years-old and immediately I decided I wanted to go, and I did. Alone, joining the group of strangers from all over the United States. I saw Mao Zedong’s dead body, tried tofu for the first time, and walked on the Great Wall of China, but I also visited my first Buddhist temple. I remember it feeling magical, set in the jungle, carved animals on ornate rooftops. It was just a casual encounter though.

Buddhism and I would meet again four years later, during my second year teaching in 2005. I was assigned 7th grade world history as one of my 5 preps. World religions are part of the standards. I remember making a poster of footprints to represent the Eightfold Path for a class activity. The blind leading the blind. Another casual encounter.

The following year, I took part in an East Asian history mini course with a colleague in the district where I now work. This is when I visited my second Buddhist temple. I remember my very devout Christian colleague being perturbed by having to be there. I was intrigued.

A few months later, I started dating the Japanese teacher in the classroom next door. I have to wonder how much that East Asian studies course laid the foundation for my interest; I had never dated an Asian man before.

I began to accompany him during his trips up north to visit his son, where we would attend service at a Buddhist temple in Sebastopol. I remember sitting in the back pew, feeling like a fish out of water. I never bowed or put my hands together. That was Kenneth’s thing. I was just a visitor; still half-heartedly Catholic. I was pretty sure that I didn’t need anything to follow. I wasn’t about to commit.

Once we were married with children, I agreed to raise our children as Buddhists, but I let my husband lead those efforts since it was important to him. I would often stay home on Sundays while he took our children to their dharma school. Occasionally I read books on Buddhism and attended a special service here or there. I liked what I heard, but still, I didn’t think I needed to practice anything. Still not willing to commit.

When Kenneth unexpectedly died, I found myself with the sole job of taking the kids to dharma school. I guess I could have stopped going, but part of me wanted to do it for him. In the throes of raw grief, you look for anything to cling to an existence that slowly drifts away from you. That was one of the ways I could try to stay on our sinking ship, dutifully keeping up with how he wanted to raise the children. The other part of me wanted to provide stability for the kids, and in my mind that entailed doing as much of the same as possible for them. This is when I started to regularly attend service.

I felt like a fish out of water for a really long time. To be honest, I still sometimes do. But I started to embrace the idea that feeling like a fish out of water is part of the learning process. I learned a lot by going every Sunday. I learned from different ministers. I learned from different readings. I watched and observed the others. Sometimes I would be in tears trying to get all three kids out the door and to service on time, squeezing into crowded pews as the chanting had already begun, feeling like a failure and an embarrassment. But the more you practice something, you can’t help but get better at it. It’s inevitable. And after a while, I looked forward to going on Sundays– it wasn’t just a chore or something I had to do for the kids. The ship had already sunk. Now this was my life. I realized I was now going for me.

I’d go to adult study with the baby strapped to my back, holding my breath that he wouldn’t throw his drink on the person in front of us or cry in the middle of the minister’s talk, but I wanted to learn. As I coped with my bone crushing grief, I found Buddhist ideas about impermanence and suffering soothing. A lightbulb went off inside of my head: for the first time ever, I realized I needed something.

And here I am. In this minister’s assistant study group, which probably wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t go to China, or teach 7th grade world history, or take an East Asian history course, date and marry a Japanese man, lose him, and then find myself in the middle of a global pandemic.

Sometimes I like to think that Kenneth gave me Buddhism as a way to cope with the world, especially his passing. But more likely, he was one of my many teachers, with many more still to come. He was the trigger that set me on this path, in this practice.

Recently, the kids and I watched Cobra Kai. We binged all three seasons in a couple weeks and now we’re sorry because we’re lurking around Netflix looking for another show to share and haven’t found anything. Yeah, it’s not the most appropriate show for children. But it did give us numerous opportunities to discuss bullying, referent groups, trauma, and other important topics that yes, even children have to grapple with in life.

The characters– both Danny and Johnny– emphasize the importance of karate becoming a way of life. It’s a path you take, kind of like Buddhism. It gives you a set of tools to use to navigate the world. It’s a tool to defend yourself in a world that is not always kind, where suffering and bad things will happen. But you have to follow the path. It has to become a practice. When you do, you equip yourself for any battle. You don’t just show up ready. You spend your life time getting ready.

Many kids in the series want to learn karate, but they don’t really understand what a path is. They want instantaneous results. I see a lot of that as a teacher who works with young people. If their efforts don’t secure immediate results, or if it isn’t a defined, known path for them to take, they don’t want to bother. In the series, a lot of kids don’t stick with the dojo. They aren’t willing to commit to the practice, or they can’t see the purpose of exercises, or they just think it’s all too harsh. It seems they expected something easier, and since they didn’t get what they wanted in the first encounter, they quit. Too many people still believe in magic bullets.

My wish for this new year is to continue my practice. I want to move forward with the work I have already started. Dig deeper into my goals, like writing, Buddhism, lifting weights and becoming leaner, playing better chess, cooking healthier vegetarian meals, spending quality time with my kids, and working on civic learning for more students. If the pandemic lets up and I have more freedom to move around, I’d like to expand social circles and travel again. But those are big question marks.

I can’t say I’m brimming with optimism right now. All I know for sure is what I can control today– where I can invest my time and energy in this moment. From there, I just need to stay the course. I’m often distracted, restless, lonely, tired, worried, anxious, and a lot of other things. But it’s not the first time I’ve ever felt this way. It’s certainly not the last time either. I am reminded about the importance of working on the tools I already know will help me navigate both good and bad times. Continue my practice. My struggles today are just the beginning of the rest of my life.

You know the saying: chop wood, carry water.

One step in front of the other.

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