Letting Go

My oldest and dearest friend, my first sister-in-law who chose me over her wandering-eyed brother, just staged an intervention—about my CLOTHES. She ambushed me as we were peacefully sitting around a campfire at the cottage with our daughters. I think I even teed it up for her by recounting a confession I made the week before that the dress I was wearing had also been worn at the after party for my first wedding—in 1977. The dress is still in perfect shape. Even the elastic top has not worn out after all these years, despite the fact that it now must support a bit more weight than back in the day. But she is not a fan of my bra-less summer style and told my daughter on the sly that it was unflattering. She may be right, but comfort trumps style every time in my book and especially in the summer at my own house. Still, I did admit that my dapper new boyfriend (yes, I am fully aware of how ridiculous that word is when used by a 61-year-old woman, but my daughter says my joking substitution of Boy Toy is even more offensive) wanted to take me to Nordstrom and “dress” me. My friend said, “ME TOO!!”

There was a time when I cared about clothes. I was making good money, was married to someone making good money and had a job heading a loan division that existed solely to make loans to people so rich they had absolutely no need to borrow money. I needed to look like I belonged in the same room with them, so I shopped at Nordstrom and Saks and sometimes the old Hudson’s and chose a few high quality pieces that I mixed into my low quality wardrobe and it all worked. It was fun. I hadn’t had babies yet and was a perfect size 6, sometimes even a 4. But I still never got rid of anything that fit and hadn’t worn out. All the lovely suits with football player shoulder pads have long gone to Goodwill, but all the comfy casual stuff is still in the closet. I did have a bit of a fright when I took an ancient sundress to France once and saw myself in lots of pictures looking faded and droopy-boobed. I will concede that a few items should no longer go out in public, but I still love wearing them at home with my nearest and dearest. But now even they are turning on me.

This raises the deeper issue of letting go in general.  When I picked up the same friend at the airport I wanted to carry her daughter’s suitcase. It seemed the polite hostess thing to do and I was raised to be polite at all costs. But this 14-year-old must’ve been raised to think old people were feeble and can’t carry suitcases. Or she is just as stubborn as I am because she would not let go. I said, “I’ve got this, honey.” I said, “Really, I want to carry this.” I said, “Let go.” To which she replied, “YOU let go.” At this point my friendly tone changed and I said, “Seriously, LET GO” and she finally did. But the realization that winning the point, having my will prevail was so important that I would have a wrestling match with a houseguest over a SUITCASE was an AHA moment. Jesus. Is it THAT important for me to win in every single encounter? Apparently, appallingly, so.

Maybe it stems from feeling so many things are not in my control. I could not save Tom’s life, could not even extend it, despite trying to find him the best medical care. I could not ultimately give my kids an in-tact family, despite trying for 16 years to make it work. I cannot keep summer from ending and my child’s joy-filled, carefree days with it. With so many big things out of my control it makes me want to be in charge of all the minutiae that will bend to my will. But that is stupid and stressful and often flat out harmful to other people and my relationships with them.

John and I were at a wedding and I lost my tiny purse. He said he would go check at the front desk to see if anyone had found it. I said I would go and check myself. He said he would go. I said it was my purse and I was perfectly capable of checking on it myself. He said he realized that was true but that I could let him do this one small thing for me. I said I was used to taking care of myself. He, in full therapist mode by now, said, “Yes, but do you want to continue to be what you have always been.” I then repeated this at full volume for the entire table in an outraged voice—joking, but not, and then went to check on the purse. I have no idea what this was really about except my ridiculous need to be in charge of absolutely everything and my fear of ever letting go in even the tiniest thing.

Alyssa told me tearfully that it would mean so much to her if I expressed belief in her, if I really thought she was going to be successful in school and in life despite being completely different from me. She did a little mocking imitation of me crossing things off my To-Do list with manic glee and rushing off to the next task. She asked me to remember that she had a good year last year and almost always gets things done although not in the manner and time frame I would wish. She basically said, “Please let go of my school life and leave it to me.” She is 16. It is a reasonable, probably long overdue, request. She needs to know she is a capable, self-contained unit before leaving for college in two short years. I need to know that too and express that knowing to her.

I do not, in fact, want to be what I have always been. It is time to change. It will not be easy. There may be blood. And possibly tears. No matter. I believe I finally left my horrible marriage because I realized my life expectancy could be as high as 97 (since that’s when my mom died) and I could not fathom staying that unhappy for another 40 years. I now think being this controlling for another 35 years will either kill me or leave me all by myself with me being the only person who can stand me and that might even be a stretch.

I hate change. I especially hate making changes. Painful. Tiring. NECESSARY. I’ll try. But the tube tops are staying at least until next summer. That’s the best I can do.

Going Public

When companies go public it is never easy. Besides all the financial nonsense (investment banker types, structuring the IPO, stock market exchange red tape) there is the emotional toll it takes on the current owners. They feel as if they are selling their baby to a bunch of big bad stockholders who might make them rich and ruin their company at the same time. And if the owners are family members they sometimes forget that things have changed and that they can no longer make major decisions without getting approval from that pesky new board of directors who now must include people besides Uncle Fred and Aunt Susie.

It occurred to me this week that taking relationships public is not so very different. Against all odds I have met and fallen in love with yet another truly wonderful man. He is kind. He is thoughtful. He is smart. He does work that is important and improves peoples’ lives. He has a great group of long-term loyal friends. He is a little too handsome, but I have decided to let that one flaw go. He picked up my car last week and got the worn out windshield wipers replaced and while he was at it cleaned the filthy interior and filled it with gas. In short, he is a keeper. The fact that this is completely unexpected, that I was convinced I would never be happy again, much less love a man enough to want to plan a future with him is a topic for another day. For now, we will consider only the effects of going public.

It is sweet beyond measure when people fall in love. Surprisingly, this is every bit as true in one’s seventh decade as in the second or third. The initial attraction, the slow unfolding of histories, values, dreams and fears, the tentative embrace of deeper feelings. The realization that someone who was once a total stranger has now been knitted into your life in what feels like a permanent way. This is all mostly delicious. You wake up happy and go to sleep the same. You make plans, you text or call throughout the day, you miss each other with an ache that brings you up short. There are bumps as well—misunderstandings, triggers from past lives, even certain words that have deeply different associations for each of you—but if the fragile underpinning of feeling is tended with a little watering and weeding and lots and lots of long talks, even the rough spots can seem like important steps on the path to creating “we”.

But at some point you have to go out into the bigger world. I remember my therapist asking me in the early weeks of my relationship with Tom what we did together. I said “Mostly just hang out at his house.” She raised her eyebrows and said “You need to go OUT.” I now understand a little better what she meant. It is lovely to get to know someone in the small world that contains just the two of you, but unless you plan to buy your own island and recreate The Blue Lagoon movie it is not sustainable. Eventually you need to throw other people into the mix. People who love each of you and feel protective and a little suspicious. People who may be worried and judgmental and might even have their own agendas. Someone on my side of the ledger fears I will love John’s cottage and sell my own which she treasures. Someone in his camp wanted him to fall for a friend of theirs instead of me. It can be complicated.

Even if you tell yourself that the only thing that matters is how you feel about each other, those feelings may change when you go public. Old habits of snarky “teasing” may kick in. Somebody may talk too much or not enough. Too much attention might be paid to others. Someone important to one of you may find fault with the new love interest. It can all be tricky to navigate.

In our case, going public has already included dinner out with another couple, a small dinner party at a friend’s house, two weddings with entirely different guest lists and a birthday party for a long-term friend. This is a lot of socializing for a pretty new relationship and has mostly involved gatherings with his friends where I was cast in the role of the new girl. And I use the term girl on purpose as I can’t seem to get past the fact that I could have GIVEN BIRTH to his last girlfriend. I know, I know. Older men who date young women are just plain icky—except that this one really isn’t. He just wanted to find a partner and kept barking up the wrong trees. As someone with LOTS of experience in that area, I have to check my normally harsh judgments. My choices may have been age appropriate but they were wrong wrong wrong in every other way. All except for Tom, who was a lightning bolt of luck and wonder in the otherwise semi-tragic landscape of my romantic life. So maybe she who built and settled right into a giant glass house for half a lifetime is not in a great position to throw stones at a guy who had his head turned by some pretty young things.

And as it pertains to being less gorgeous arm-candy than his friends are accustomed to seeing him with, I have decided they will just have to suck it up. I am older, wiser, smarter and possibly more loving than any of them and he says I make him the happiest he has ever been. I addressed a recent email to him Dear Warren Beatty and signed it Annette, as in Benning, as in the woman who finally captured the heart of the notorious Hollywood playboy more with her heart, mind and spirit than with her perfect looks. And I’m guessing most of his friends were doing a happy dance.

So we will keep going public. Most of my nearest and dearest are not local so there may even be some road trips involved as we make the circuit of his and hers VIPs. And I will remind myself that absolutely everyone adored my first husband and I let myself be carried on that wave of approval all the way to the altar—which was a colossal mistake. So if my friends like John and his like me and they think we are a good match, great. But if they don’t we will have to make our own calls and listen to our own hearts. And that will be enough. Because unlike companies, after you go public in a relationship you always come home and go private again—and it’s what happens there that really counts.

5 Days Silent-Peeling the Egg

On retreat they served some sort of hot cereal each morning and then hard-boiled eggs. I took one every day in order to be sure to get adequate protein during the all-vegetarian 5 days. Often I wasn’t really hungry after finishing the porridge, but we had a long breakfast period, nowhere to go, no one to talk to, reading and writing discouraged so I would just wait a while and then slowly and carefully start to peel the egg. I was in no hurry and it’s a good thing. Eggs take a long time to peel. The shell sticks to the inside, it only peels away in tiny pieces and it takes a lot of patience to wind up with a nice clean egg. Now imagine doing that with one arm.

A fellow yogi did just that, or rather he most often didn’t do that because a neighbor looked up and noticed him and took the task on or maybe he tapped them and asked for help—I’m not sure.

One night after the final sit I went to the dining hall for a snack. The one-armed guy was there spreading sun butter on toast. I figured I would offer help but I looked over at the perfect spreading job and backed away. I got my snack and went and sat down in a far corner.

Apparently the left over morning eggs are available in the fridge at night, because when I passed by later the one-armed guy had two eggs in front of him. And at his elbow was a guy named Asher to whom I had taken an instant dislike. He’s more Buddhist than Buddha in that way that only converts seem to be—shiksas who marry Jews, Jews who become Buddhists, born-again Christians—you know the type. Asher has taken mindful walking to new heights. He moves like a Tai Chi master and he’s, like, maybe all of 25 years-old. He prostrates himself 3 times in the meditation hall and even though others do too, his is bigger, showier, more annoying. Mind you we are on SILENT retreat so I have spoken not one word to this young man but have still stored him right smack on the annoying as hell shelf in my brain.

But when I look over, he has crouched next to one-arm guy and gently touched the eggs with a questioning look, received a nod and starts carefully peeling—one tiny shell piece at a time. He is kindness and patience personified. I am a horrible, mean-spirited, judgmental person and will be doomed to many eternities of suffering.

I have judged and mis-judged this young man. I’d tell him I’m sorry but he never even knew and besides we can’t talk. So instead I decide to forgive myself and set an intention to do better. Thanks, Asher. Buddhist master indeed. Well done.

5 Days Silent- Washing Dishes

I sign up for dish washing as my chore.

It is straight forward, satisfying, involves water.

At training the cook says lunch dishes (my shift) are the longest and hardest job.

I puff with pride (yes, competitive even on retreat) to think I have chosen so well and will maybe receive the paper plate award for hardest/best chore doer.

There will not, of course, be any paper plate awards.

The reward is the feeling of service, of contribution to this place, to this time together, to our oneness in the experience of work, such a welcome respite of doing in the midst of intense being.

I hold each plate, each cup and take care to scrub it well, imagining my own gratitude when taking a shiny plate off the stack at mealtime. The silverware I fish for in the sink, scrub each piece with care, remembering Head Cold Guy, Scary Cough girl and the importance of vigilance.

My work mate, Georgie, rinses and sanitizes in the bleach bath, arranges on the drying rack.

We take turns fetching new loads from the dining hall bins and then finally all the serving pans come, unwieldy but foreshadowing the end.

Never has work felt so honest, so simple, so good.

A small offering in the rich stew of receiving.

Metta—even in the kitchen.

5 Days Silent-Alex

He is young

With a shaved bald head

And, I suspect, a slight accent

He is in my group and shares that he has come here to find his own voice

For in listening to the louder voices of others

He finds himself in a life where he is “deeply unhappy”

He is seated next to me

And those words make me want to hug him.

I resist.

On break-silence day I tell him with a laugh that I have coveted the granola bars in his cubby.

He hands me one but I am gloved for dishwashing and cannot accept

He asks (in his slight accent) which cubby is mine and he puts it in there

Generosity and kindness

His own voice will be enough.

The Dialogue

Yogi Me:     Go sit.

Me:               I don’t want to.

YM:               Go sit.

Me:                Maybe later

YM:                Go sit.

Me:                 It’s not the same here. It’s cold. There’s no hall. I miss my friends. And that                              awesome little bench thing.

YM:                 I know but go sit anyway.

Me:                  Where would I do it?

YM:                 Anywhere

Me:                  I still don’t want to

Nike Me:        JUST DO IT

Me:                  OK! Geesh!!




5 Days Silent-Kimberly

She is the Teacher’s Pet and so I hate her.  Yes, this is aversion—the first obstacle to mindfulness. I don’t care.  I so want to be the teacher’s pet but I lack the Buddhist chops. The last I knew Buddha was a fat, bald, jolly guy. Now he is thin and in some headdress thing. It seems wrong to waste precious teacher Q & A time on “What happened to fat Buddha?” though I really want to.

Kimberly wears Temple Grandin and Math Whiz-Kid Competition T-shirts.  She is a statistician, like the teacher. She pops up like a jack-in-the-box at the teacher’s every need—Adjust lights? Ring bell? Lead sit?—Kimberly is your girl.

She chokes up asking a question about how to send metta (loving-kindness) to ROAD KILL. I have to bite my cheek hard to stifle the giggle but then am ashamed when the teacher tells a beautiful story of a dying fawn in Burma.

At final sharing Kimberly tells of picking thimble berries on the trail and wanting to bring them to Kate like a kid taking an apple to the teacher. Her knowing she is a suck-up makes me like her more and at lunch my feelings grow when I joke that I have never seen 44 people eat fewer brownies in all my life and she admits to having three.

We all want to please our teacher. We can’t help it. Her smile is more precious than gold. We want to bathe in it and then crawl inside and BE her—all that gentle wisdom, kindness beaming like sunlight, but also wry humor that makes her one of us, just a person on the path—-way, way, down the path, but still.

I divide the yogis into two categories—-people I would want to have a beer with (ok, in this crowd probably a chai tea) and not so much. I still don’t think I’d be drinking beer with Kimberly but I can now let her have Teacher’s Pet honors and send a little metta her way too. She’ll need it. There’s a lot of roadkill to get past!