What follows is the book I am writing for my six year old grand daughter to read when she turns thirty. I will be long gone by then and I want her to have a credible source to tell her what she might need to know for the next part of her life. I want to give her the irreverent reality of an aging woman and I am hoping rather than dreading it she can look forward to it. Even though you are not my grand daughter I am sharing it with you in case you also find it helpful or amusing.
Sometimes when you know you’re going to break the best thing to do is to get it over with.
At 4 in the morning on a Wednesday in January I broke my life in pieces. I slipped out of the white on white bed of a friend in his tidy spare room and packed myself up for the third time in three weeks. Black clothes, all knit and easily folded, some old shoes and assorted items I didn’t remember bringing. I started at my daughter’s house, then mom’s and now here at my friend Craig’s home in my farewell tour. It was all quite dramatic with lots of wine drinking and crying. I wasn’t sure if I would or even could come back. A room waited for me at a Zen monastery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I regretted my decision before I even took off. But I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to hold on to anything that wasn’t real and I couldn’t sort out reality from myth. My life lacked context. I no longer had the children to see out the door or the husband to nag about taking out the trash. And that left me feeling like I had nothing. I figured I was covered in hairline fractures waiting to fall apart so I might as well just smash the shit out of me and get it over with.
Novitiates call this process renunciation. I didn’t know what to call it. I later learned the name for giving up and giving in so completely that you move to a Zen monastery had a nickname name and it was “Zencarcerated.” It is the choice of a shocking number of people who don’t know where else to go for answers. Even in this I managed to be a cliche’.
I needed to make a change because I couldn’t hide from my wounds anymore. I became them. My husband, not my husband anymore, left his cottage next door to me walking our dog, not my dog anymore, around the block and I could still feel my hands on her leash, the velvet of her long ears. The touch of his elbow as we walked past the blackberries bunched in a corner. I could see the lists he was always making like they were penciled in and left on the kitchen counter today when in fact they hadn’t been there for a year. How did I wake up one morning and become someone else who was no longer part of that? I watched him walking Daisy our dog out my living room window and felt like some sadder version of me. I could hear the cracking of my life and the snapping of my reality. I could feel it heavy in my stomach as I tried to move from the window and not watch them go for their walk.
I had dreams of earthquakes so vivid that I thought they were a premonition. In these dreams the house ripped in half, the dog was killed, I couldn’t find my daughter and grand daughter. My ex husband was fine, riding his bike down the street. My son eventually arrived smiling but in the dream I waited weeks for him to come back while I worried he had died. I pulled back the rubble looking for my dog, daughter and grand daughter. The dreams were so realistic I begged my friends to buy earthquake kits. In loving kindness they did. I bought them too and kept begging my daughter to buy more.
Sometimes I smelled the smoke from my father’s cigarette, heard him say my nickname, the one I hated which he invented to mock my feminism,”Chickee are you in here? Can you bring me a new ashtray?”He died eleven months earlier yet he hung around. I wrote him letters, dreamed him at night. I sensed him so strongly and so menacing that my friend suggested I light a white candle and ask him to leave. I did that and it helped. My friends saw me cracking but held me together in so many small ways. I could feel their love and I didn’t know why it helped but couldn’t seem to heal me.
I was stuck. The past was more alive than the present. Even the dead felt more tangible than the living. I couldn’t stay in reality. I needed grounding desperately.
Months after my dad died I got pneumonia. I stayed in bed for weeks in a haze of illness and grief. Time didn’t mean anything. I talked to dead people in the early hours of the morning, I felt my dog sleeping with me though she was not there.
I went to my doctor half a dozen times. He gave me the whole line of antibiotics but nothing seemed to help. He said he wasn’t sure I wanted to get well.
“The Chinese believe that we store grief in our chest” my friend told me. She said if I didn’t get happy I could die. But how would I get happy? How do you do it?
I had so many losses in that time. The divorce, my dad dying, my dog leaving and my daughter and grand daughter also moving out and I still hadn’t recovered from my son moving away to school. They tell you your kids will grow up and leave but somehow you don’t really believe it. You also know your parents will grow old but it seems impossible. How could my dad be so fragile his heart stopped? How could my mom have dementia progressing so she couldn’t remember me as a child?
Everyone was leaving and I stayed. But where was I? I didn’t know where I belonged and to whom. This is what so many of us face after fifty. A critical shift which feels like a massive tsunami washing away everything we know to that date.
Until then, no matter what, I figured I would always have “The four gens.” I kept a picture of it–my mom, me, my daughter and grand daughter all smiling at a Starbucks in downtown Seattle. Before that there were the pictures of the four Akins, my husband, me, our daughter and son. Now there were no fours. No gens, no Akins, no one.
I never imagined it. I didn’t think I could be that alone–especially without my daughter by my side. That felt unbreakable.
The fact is there is something special between mothers and daughters. All the other losses I had braced for but when my daughter, your mom, said she was leaving and taking you with her, my beloved, I couldn’t feel my body anymore. I actually didn’t think she’d do it. We had a saying, “It’s always just us.” Since the day she came into my life she became the first of many “reasons.” The loss of her and you in daily life was the tipping point, the one thing too many.
I was hollow and brittle at the same time. Nothing felt real anymore. I could still see my old life in the hand prints on the wall, smell its scent like her Chanel Number 5 hanging in the laundry room or hear you, “Gam, will you read me a story?” but it- my life, soul, heart and even mind seemed gone. They were washed away in a storm and all I had was wreckage to clean. Even the remnants of papers and mismatched socks lay on the floor in her hurry to leave that night. We all cried. Your grandfather helped pack up the cars and couldn’t let go of you in the back seat. His body shook while he sobbed, I cried, your mom and you did also. When you pulled out of that driveway for the last time he went back to his cottage and I didn’t see him anymore. Without you and your mom he stopped wanting to show up.
The hand painted trim, shiny stars on your curtains, the stuffed animals – the laughter, wine with dinner, memories. All gone as if it had never been true.
While I was busy losing my way, Angela-my daughter and so much your mother- was gaining hers. She gained a man she loved and he loved her back. They moved away. They went to a place where I didn’t fit. They tried, they were kind and it only made it worse because I couldn’t fit in a new world. I still lived in the old one.
I had only me to face with no idea what I wanted or needed anymore. Without knowing it I had completely given myself away. It’s possible I never really had myself. I had taken no time to get to know me before family life and work and responsibility. I was the role I played. Somehow even as a feminist and working journalist I fell into the trap so tender I didn’t know it had buried me. I fell into secret crying spells in the bathroom and I knew the title of “wife” never fit me but I carried on. I had to and I wanted to. Now I see the wisdom of my former husband’s golf games and sporting events. His enrichment classes and friends I didn’t know. He kept parts of himself that he could continue–after. He must have known there would be an after.
Alone in the house I had to start the conversation with me. I asked myself over and over, “What do you want?” I stood in the mirror and yelled it-still no response. I had no point of reference to me anymore.
The only thing I could hold onto like a diver’s umbilical was the memory of being in a silent two week meditation years before. Sitting in a dimly lit meditation hall early in the morning and late at night with nothing but the high Sierra moon for company soothed me. I felt myself become still. We, the meditation students, did not speak nor look at anyone else. We slept in bare rooms called cells. There were no pens, papers, books, phones or contact of any kind with another human. It brought me fear and sadness until it brought me joy. I found a connection to the whole world of living things and myself as a part of that. I could feel the magnetism of the stars and hear the smallest sounds of birds and crickets. I felt the feelings of aliveness and well being. I sat on flat rocks for hours without a thought passing my mind or even an awareness of my body. I let the firmness of the earth hold me.
I didn’t need words or even direct contact with anyone. I was happy without explanation. On my last day I walked under the branches of a Eucalyptus tree. As the wind rustled the leaves it sounded like applause. It felt like I graduated. The weeks of silence had honed my senses and ended the need to be busy. I breathed deeply and smiled. Nothing more. It took weeks to want to speak again.
I didn’t know if doing something like that again would work but it’s what I could think of. It was up to me now. Just me. No one would save me.
All I had left was my job. So I quit it. Money and career were the furthest things from my mind. At first I thought I’d go live with my mother and care for her. But I would still need to make money. The nearest job was two hours in traffic. It would never work. Then I interviewed for another job in Portland, Oregon closer to your mom, you and your Uncle Claude. I was offered the job. My answer came. But the day the contract was supposed to be mailed to me the man who offered me the position was fired. The offer never arrived. I panicked.
That night when all other possibilities faded the image of that meditation experience came back to me. I closed my eyes remembering the hall filled with people breathing. I had the start of an answer. Some meditation centers offer residency. I got out of bed and checked for meditation residency and work trades. I made up a list of criteria: they must be close enough for me to get there without great expense, they cannot cost money, they must offer instruction and be decent places to live.
I narrowed it down to three or four on the West Coast and applied on line. In the next few weeks rejections came in. “We are not accepting residents at this time of year. You may apply in Spring.”
But one e-mail arrived which only said I would be given an interview for further consideration. Upaya Zen Center. I started looking at the website daily. It became a sacred ceremony. I scanned through the pictures. The thought of clear air and silence gave me hope. I read the website and it grounded me.
I received acceptance after a rather awkward Skype interview and felt intense relief right before equally intense terror. Would I ever leave? Would I really become a monk? What about love? Oh God, what about money?
So here I was getting ready to take my residency, launching myself from my friend’s house. I tried very hard to fit into something I knew nothing about. I wore long johns, socks, loose pants and a t-shirt, my son’s forsaken black hooded sweater and a ten year old pair of boots once belonging to my daughter. Hiding it all under a navy blue ski jacket of my son’s when he was ten. I worried pathologically about being cold. It’s what happens when I’m terrified, I tremble like a Chiuahua and think the cold will kill me. I hitched my back pack on, also a left over relic from one of the children and began the trip that I figured would re-start me. I couldn’t see another way. It had to work.
My pack’s best possessions were small rocks from the playground of your preschool. You gave them to me as good luck tokens and they were smooth, grey, green, mostly round and all very small. We stopped on walks to collect rocks since you sat in a stroller and you still did that and so did I, even when we weren’t together.
Kyra: you were five, blonde, eyes the color of my mothers Blue Willow China, wearing a fragile little patterned dress, poured them from your hands into mine. I kept them in a small zippered pouch in my backpack tucked away from harm along with your picture and a drawing you made of you and I holding hands under a big sun.
My pack also held a new toothbrush and toothpaste from your mom, wrinkle cream (an essential for all aging Zen monks), antacids and Benedryl along with a stash of extra socks, aspirin, tampons and shockingly a small make up bag. You never know, I thought as I packed it up.
It additionally held an industrial black home made Dell laptop your dad left with me one night, “Don’t you want your laptop?” “Ah keep it for now” he said. Now became permanent. I planned to write on it as much as possible. Writing helped me pour myself out. I thought when he gave it to me–a weighty old thing with a thick black chord-‘this will empty me right out.’ When I didn’t want to move forward, the pack with its contents, pushed me on literally. It weighed around forty pounds.
We were finally at travel day, the pack and I. It was too late to reconsider. I looked at my friends kitchen floor scanning its every day sturdiness. What happened to my resilience? If I was a floor you could fall right through me.
Craig talked about the awesome Jewish crackers he found while his wife slept in the next room and the very early morning coffee brewed. The every day normalcy of it represented safety and protection. I craved it even as I gave it up. Time circled us slowly. I noticed everything he did like I was taking notes. I saw his careful walk, how he talked like a lover to his cat and threaded the laces on his shoes as if I was in church or writing a paper. In that moment I imagined it would be easy to be his wife sleeping in the next room. It was hard to be me.
When we tiptoed out of his kitchen into the Portland, Oregon January I breathed in the drizzle and cold. I felt homeless in the rain and wind. We loaded my pack into his car and I shivered with the heat on.
The drive to the airport blessed me with distraction. We passed the vegan coffee shop where I waited for Craig the day before to pick me up. My son sat by me that afternoon looking concerned and trying to hide it. With Portland as his adopted home I knew I was lucky to see him. When he left for college it took me more than a year to stop crying. Love had always meant proximity and now it didn’t. I never stopped missing him.
I thought about the good bye we said to each other the day before at that coffee shop.
We sat with breakfast burritos and coffee as Claude urged me to be productive. Normally he didn’t show his emotions, always looking relaxed. But his leaning in and hands on the table gave him away. He repeated the mantra, “It’s a great opportunity to take time out and work on your writing and yourself” I went blank. I saw his face get pink, his eyes soften. You can’t really tell your mom she doesn’t know what she’s doing. You just have to hope it works out. I felt his worry as we lapsed into silences looking at each other. I wanted to take care of him and he wanted to do the same for me but neither of us could. I moved into pain and joy held equally. I thought in real time play by play; ‘I don’t want him to go. He is getting up and he is hugging me good bye. Oh it’s that sideways hug he gives. No I need a real kind of hug. Oh good he’s really hugging me now. I think I’m crying but I’m not sure.’
Nothing was sure as he slipped away and the bell on the door rang his departure.
I mulled our last meal in Craig’s warm car as if I would never see my son again. I tortured myself. I wanted to feel how much I loved him and missed him. I wanted to remind myself of all the ways I am his mom and how that mattered.
I saw him hovering at the bottom of the pool slowly with lazy, languid kicks, writing through the night on his blankets on the floor so I could take the bed and the flash of anger on his face a few years back when I insisted he chain up his bike in the pouring rain, “Someone could steal it.” “Oh my God mom..let them! ” I saw a vacation meal surrounded by candlelight when he was still in high school, “You know mom you’re trying to hang on to something that’s already gone.” He told me this as the appetizers arrived in answer to my reassuring him I would keep our family close while he was away at college. The rest of the meal was quiet. I didn’t know how to ask him what he meant because I knew.
He was right-almost clairvoyant. It turned out our family was going separate ways and I couldn’t stop it. When I reminded him of that in the coffee shop the day before leaving for the monastery he chuckled an apology, “Did I really say that? I was a mean little punk.” But of course he wasn’t. He had seen the truth and not knowing better, told it to me.
In some way he was my introduction to Zen. The truth doesn’t let us hide from it once revealed. We must see what is. The truth is a sword which kills us before it gives us rebirth. We are cleaved from our stories and delusions. Some part of me knew for years before I faced it that I’d wind up on my own. I knew the children would leave, I knew my marriage would most likely not make it and I knew I would be lost. But what good did that knowing do until the time came? You can’t prepare for everything, especially the hardest of things. You just have to live through them.
Craig took short cuts and described landmarks and the history of buildings and neighborhoods as we weaved through his city in the darkness. Even when we lived and worked in a San Francisco newsroom together he kept his home in Portland. He loved his place, “Portland has always been there for me” he’d said so many times I could tell when it was coming. The ride was twenty five minutes and two lifetimes. It ended with Craig’s smile and easy announcement, “Here we are. You ready?” “Fuck no. But I’m here so that’s as close as I’m getting.” His laugh hung around in the air unanswered.
It was early morning at the airport. Floor sweepers dusted around us, the check in clerks were quiet. The lines were small. I got to a kiosk and printed my boarding pass. “There you go” Craig said with resignation. Yes, there I go. I only had a one way ticket. I knew I had flung myself into the deep space of uncertainty. I shuddered. I kissed his cheek and hugged him a little too long until my pack folded me over. He grinned and told me in his grown up reporter voice to have a good flight as if I was off to Hawaii for a week’s vacation. I appreciated how normal and easy he sounded. He walked me to security check in and dashed off like he was on deadline at 4 am. His dress shirt tucked into slacks over neatly tied sneakers. Some television reporter habits are with us for life.
I shuffled through the short line slipping off my shoes one foot at a time and trying not to bend or fall over under the weight of my now seemingly ridiculous pack. I had no socks on, I had so many sweaters and coats that two were tied around my waste, but my toes were unprotected. Somehow that felt about right. Some part has to be vulnerable at all times. The truth was all of me was vulnerable and bare. The sign in the monitor said PDX to ABQ. It should have said, your life you’ve known so far to dropping through the floor of the world.
I knew no one at the end point, Upaya Zen Center, a high place of winter sun and shadow with red rock mountains brushing up against a vast, desert sky.
I had only spoken to one person at Upaya, a priest with a thick accent. He gave odd details about what I would experience as we spoke in a Skype interview, “you must commit to come to meditation and get up each day keeping the schedule.” His broken English made him hard to follow and the instruction seemed mysteriously basic. But I figured there’s a reason for his decision to communicate this simple way. I had to trust the process. There was nowhere else to go.
The tether to my life was cut. Zen was it.