It’s February, my birthday month. This will be the last year of my thirties, which somehow managed to be one of the worst and best decades of my life so far. There were certainly many good moments. Trips all over the world. The birth of two of my children. My career, move to our current home, and plenty of other accomplishments. I think I have experienced the most personal growth during this decade of life. But the dead husband and single motherhood really derailed my life plans. A global pandemic was the icing on the cake that nobody wanted.
Not the stuff little girls dream about when growing up.
I’m getting better though. Better at letting go of that old version of how I thought my life would materialize, and better about embracing the beauty of a life that grows out of whatever you have, wherever you are, like the flowers of weeds blooming between the cracks in the ground, stretching toward the sun. That’s how it feels sometimes.
Recently I have been immersed in studying Buddhism, and I came upon text about the mind becoming agitated through clinging.
The word stood out to me: clinging.
There is nothing nice about clinging. We don’t like it, and yet we’re all guilty of it at various moments in our lives. To complicate matters, we somehow have to learn–as humans– what to cling to, what not to cling to, and precisely when all of this should happen. Since there is no handbook for being human, we have to figure all of this out through trial and error.
Refusal to let go.
When I think about clinging, I think of a child desperately holding on to their parent in the pool, too afraid to swim on their own. Terrified of sinking. Too attached to the idea that a floatation device will be their only means of survival.
I think of all the adults yearning for their own flotation devices, only to find themselves already at the bottom of the cesspool.
Clinging reminds me of a person who smothers you with their codependency.
Clinging is what my mind does when I am sad or mad or tired and I repeat injustices in my head on a loop, searching for an explanation for which a resolution does not exist. Why did this happen? What did I do to deserve this? The human brain is desperate for a reason.
The Japanese saying, “shikata ga nai,” sticks with me. “It can not be helped.” I think this is medicine for our yearning. A placebo to quench our desires and assuage our fears. Why did this happen to me? The answer is easy. Shikata ga nai. Accept this lack of a real reason, and you will feel free.
I recognize clinging in the way that we take the things that bring us shame and weave them into our identities, the self-doubt like heavy anchors pulling us under the surface of our despair.
Clinging is the relationship we stay in because we are too afraid to leave.
I cling to the roundness of my youngest child’s cheeks, wishing childhood wasn’t a blur while simultaneously clinging to a version of myself in the past who did not have to share a bed with small people or be responsible for meals and groceries and homework– the same person who had once clung to the dream of being in this whirlwind of motherhood.
Now that I am getting dangerously close to my forties, I cling to whatever youth I have left, analyzing the creases on my forehead, puzzling over how to shed weight that might add to the sinking ship of being a woman who is no longer given the privileges of youth.
But you are young, my almost 97-year-old grandmother informs me. For a moment I detach from my assumptions and remember that my thoughts may not actually be reality, but it does not last long and soon I am researching botox again, looking up expensive creams that promise to magically erase time.
It is Black History Month, and we still live during a time when white adults can storm our capitol unscathed, while a 9-year-old black girl gets pepper sprayed while crying for her father. I think about the ways we cling to our biases, prejudices, assumptions.
James Baldwin said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Almost a year into this pandemic, we are settling into new normals while still resisting that which we did not ask for. I am itching to go on an adventure, somewhere I can not drive to, somewhere that requires my passport and foreign currency. Last year it was agonizing to cancel everything. This year has simmered into a nagging inconvenience, the rage hardened into an acceptance that I can not make plans until the world stops shifting beneath my feet on a daily basis. Maybe I have gotten used to the uncertainty. Will life be normal by the end of the year? I hope so, but I do not expect it anymore.
Also: normal is over.
Now is the time to redefine ourselves. That is, if we can stop clinging to the previous versions of who we were.
In the words of Taylor Swift, “I don’t think you can know who you are until you lose who you are.”
This pandemic is probably teaching all of us about who we can become.
Recently I read “The Midnight Library” and I pondered the idea of regrets and alternate life trajectories if I had made other choices. The premise is that a suicidal woman gets a chance to try out different versions of her life and confront her regrets until she finds her desire to live again.
Would I have chosen a different career?
Gone to a different school?
Be living in another state or country?
Married to somebody still?
Any other choice would have led to an entirely different existence. But would I have been happier? Probably not, but maybe for different reasons.
Sharon Salzberg said, “We need the compassion and the courage to change the conditions that support our suffering. Those conditions are things like ignorance, bitterness, negligence, clinging, and holding on.”
It makes me think about what I can let go in order to be a better version of myself.
What are the things I cling to that I did not choose?
What distracts me from what I want to do?
What takes away my peace?
What is not aligned with my values and purpose?
I don’t know who said this, but it is one of my favorites: Let it all go. See what stays.
And another good one, by an anonymous source: let go of the illusion that it could have been any different.
I think happiness is the work of excavation– digging our way out of everything that feeds our suffering. It is the opposite of clinging. Excavation is chipping away. Freeing. Making space and room for the treasures inside of us to emerge and shine.
This is not passive work.
This is our life work.