Zazen Days 9, 10, 11, 12 – the great catchup

Discipline has always been the hardest button for me to button. I have been sitting these last 4 days, mostly right before I go to bed. I’ve needed the extra boost of calmness (and, on day 10, a lorazepam) to rest my mind. Part of what makes zazen so challenging is the checklist of body positions one needs to master – left thumb hooked in right palm, hands cupped, half-lotus seat, shoulders back, head lifted but cast down, tongue resting loosely on palate, eyes 1/3 open. The last is particularly difficult for me; I’ve really only been achieving that about 50% of the time and for the last few days.

Which is horribly ironic considering how my eyes are rarely open fully. Part of my anxiety, my looming and overwhelming fear of failure (creatively, spiritually, physically) is the manifestation of guilt in the form of ignoring a problem until falling headlong off a cliff. Which pretty much happened this week. Now I’m playing catchup with my responsibility, making big, awful changes and accepting defeat – a failure that could cause serious problems down the line.

Debt is not something people talk about socially, but it weighs on every single action or decision. Each day I go to sleep with calculations buzzing in my head, the addition and subtraction that determine how I feel – comfortable or imperiled – and for how many days. My financial problems feed my anxiety – I worry about injury and illness and accidents, risks with low probability but huge, ruinous real-life implications. Being uninsured makes you a hypochondriac, a worrywort, or a doomsayer. I don’t go out much, which I can laugh off as social anxiety. It’s more acceptable to be quirky than broke.

I continue to sit, and have been more active in trying to rectify my situation. Though zazen may not be about control, it is teaching me to exert my agency over other areas in my life. And it’s free.


Zazen Day 8 – hollow

My mind was kind of numb last night, so I didn’t get this off in time. I had a lot of day job work yesterday, the kind that makes you reexamine all of your bad choices. Okay, not really, but mind-numbing nonetheless. I resolve to leave the house today at all costs. (read: a $3 cappuccino)

Before I sat last night, I was thinking again about Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind. In the book he talks about the theory that anxiety is best described in personal terms; Kafka describes his as tiny strings under his skin being tightened at his core. (paraphrasing) After reading this passage – on the train to visit my father who has been struggling deeply with depression, among other illnesses – I started to think about what my anxiety is like.

I came up with this horribly dramatic description based on the primary symptom of tightness: before a panic attack, or when I’m lathering with self-doubt or reproach, it feels as if someone is making a plaster cast of my chest, just a little too small. As it dries, it tightens. Then the cast goes out into the world and is me — takes my place.

This sounds like something I would have journaled when I was 16 (or, honestly, 25) – but it’s the unfiltered image that immediately sprang into my mind. Later that week, I had dinner with my old roommate in Brooklyn and we got caught up on the twin markers in our lives – writing, neuroses. A few glasses of wine in, I was honest and spilled the above. She nodded and agreed…there’s a fake you you send out into the world, but the real you ends up feeling fake. This is something I’ve always wrestled with. At times I’m mercurially honest and emotive, to a teary fault. Other times I say whatever other people want to hear, the perfect yes-woman who fit in only when tamping down anything true. More than two years into my old job, I cracked a joke at a social event with my boss. She laughed, surprised, and said “You’re funny!” I’ve relied on humor as a defense-mechanism for so long it has just become second nature, yet after working closely with her for a significant amount of time, she had no idea.

My personal life came crashing in about two and a half years ago and compartmentalizing just got too difficult. Still, I kept my head down and did my job – aimlessly furious most of the time. I was frayed, and the edges showed to those I trusted, but I could never disappoint those who were counting on me – despite having earned it years ago. I looked down upon a co-worker who couldn’t hide her own distress. She’d cry at her desk, I cried in corners or on the subway or in bathrooms. Part of it I chalk up to work ethic – you show up for a job, you SHOW UP. But a large portion is control. Showing weakness is just not an option.

I still have a hard time speaking up and I find myself afraid to open my email. I’m months late with a project that ran concurrently with the latest family-illness event horizon, but I’m giving myself slack. Hand over hand I’m pulling myself out of the abyss.

Best online thing I read today: The New York Rangers 2013 Schedule
(That’s cheap, no matter how true, so how about this: Teemu Selanne! … Plus Nine Other Dudes to Watch This NHL Season by Sean McIndoe / Grantland)

Song I loved today: Tangerine / Led Zeppelin

Zazen Day 7 – perfect

“She had little pieces of paper and notebooks filled with her round, girlish hand, with her proper cursive.”

Last week, I read a Vanity Fair piece about the making of Thelma & Louise written by Sheila Weller. The name sounded vaguely familiar and a search led me to another piece I had read in Vanity Fair, an excerpt from her book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation. While I am almost wholly unfamiliar with the work of these women, other than peripherally or accidentally, Weller’s rich prose stuck in my mind. So much so that I chose my twitter handle, and name for this blog, from a quote about Mitchell’s habit of leaving lyrics and poetry everywhere – something I used to do in the analogue days.

Except, here’s the thing. I got it wrong. It’s “proper” not “perfect” cursive. I had revised the quote in my head, giving the speaker an almost scolding tone. “Proper cursive” sounds respectful – amazed at the writer’s technique that stands out in a sea of slanted or illegible scrawl. “Perfect cursive” has an edge of derision; this good girl who pursues straight As, who lavishes on her homework and keeps the torch of meaningless excellence burning, would write in nothing short of perfect cursive. Even with no one watching, she wouldn’t want to disappoint.

The narrative I’ve invented with this misquote is no doubt a reflection of my own. A character transformed and diminished through the years; the pre-lapsed Catholic; the teenager who never smoked, drank or fucked; the woman awaiting permission to tell stories. A song comes up on shuffle, an article flickers in the ether, a book’s spine leaps out in a beam sunlight and I remember the hurt girl I was for so long. The one I felt I betrayed by moving on, getting better, falling in love. The one inspired by others, not overrun by jealousy. Over time, the list of people I admire turned into an acrid catalog of authors, screenwriters, and filmmakers who are better than I will ever be.

Sitting today felt, for the first time, an obligation – in the lighter sense of the word. It was something I had to do, because I do it – not because I was afraid of the repercussions if I didn’t. “Routine” can have negative connotations but at a certain point the things we do become borderless, absorbed. I didn’t want to sit today, but I did. The permission I’ve been waiting for is the permission to fail. And now I’m learning to strive to be…not perfect, but proper. A proper writer.

Best online thing I read today: A Feminist Timeline by Kara Vanderbijl / This Recording

Song I loved today: Frankly, Mr. Shankly / The Smiths

Zazen Day 6 – Adjustment

My favorite part of zazen is the part where I remember that I am not supposed to focus on one spot. This realization inevitably dawns on me after contemplating a singular wood grain pattern on the floor. In the introductory video I watched, the instructor says something along the lines of your peripheral vision should be active at all times so you are viewing the whole room as you sit.

For some reason, it feels extraordinarily good to widen out your scope. There’s something inherently relaxing in not choosing. It was easier to calm my thoughts tonight then in the past. I still have a hard time not making a to-do list, or drafting a post, in my head while sitting. But awareness of my eyeline and also my body helped to minimize the wanderings. I had an itch at about minute 12 and wouldn’t let myself scratch it. It was kind of fun to examine how the itch evolved – a pin prick of annoyance at my brow, a creeping vine of near pain, a rash of eerie numbness. Doing something metaphysical helped me find the physical, tangible world.

Right before I sat, I finished reading my alumni magazine or, as I call it, parade of people who have done better than you. I’m 33, more than a decade out of college and a nearly a decade since I enrolled in grad school. At a standstill, working towards my best shot at a goal, it’s easy for me to negate all I’ve done in the last few years. I don’t feel like I have anything tangible yet to show for my work — a lot of almosts and behind-the-scenes work that meant a lot to me, but not much to the outside world. I’ve come to terms with my need for glory (a character term from grad school, not like actual glory where I would contribute anything seriously meaningful to the world) and am straining to make sure it doesn’t outstrip my work ethic. It’s too easy to get caught up in the feeling I’ve wasted time; my anxiety revolves around this notion. Ironically, anxiety has made me waste even more time. I’m hoping sitting will knock the inertia out of me.

Best online thing I read today: Now That’s What I Call Small Talk, Volume 452,793! by Dan Rozier / McSweeney’s

Song I loved today: You Will / Lia Ices

Zazen Day 5 – The Dream of the 90s

I skipped this post yesterday, but I did sit, late. It’s theoretically easier to focus at night but harder from the standpoint of my crazy neighbor was berating his dog for a third of the time of the sit. I’ll sit – and write – earlier today.

Yesterday I was thinking a lot about the 90s. It’s so easy to glorify whatever era of (pop) culture you came of age under; what was special to you at a formative age will always seem better than what came before or comes after. Me, I miss the women. These women:

pj bjork tori

I got a ride home the other day after watching a poorly-scored but entertaining British mystery. The poppier end of 90s hip hop was the soundtrack and it was a nice little memory jog. After a brief “best of times/worst of times” reflection of the 90s, the driver then put on some Hole. Despite the Courtney Love of it all, it still feels fresh and special like nothing else does these days. (Again, I’m fully aware of the completely subjective nature of this statement.) I listen to my fair share of female artists: Lia Ices, Alela Diane, Neko Case, Robyn, and all of the above, plus a lot of bands whose significant make up is female: Wye Oak, Chairlift, Warpaint, Tamaryn, Viva Voce, etc. But I miss the crazy a little bit. The outsider, the weird.

Girls is starting again tonight and I have to admit I’ve never seen it, but it’s fucking inescapable. I know I should watch it because women making TV, blah blah blah. But it doesn’t really appeal to me. I don’t care about characters in their 20s with alliterative names. What I have seen from it I haven’t really gotten into; the humor just seems too broad for my taste. (not a pun) But for something I haven’t seen, I’ve spent so much time thinking about it. Of course a portion of that is jealousy; what self-hating, uninsured, struggling 30-something writer wouldn’t be jealous? But typically when I’m uninterested in a show, I don’t spend much time thinking about it. I feel with this show you’re sort of forced into an opinion; opting out is not an option. Because there are so few voices, the most prominent current representation gets forced down women’s throats. No one watched Entourage and thought that show nailed masculinity. So, cool, a young woman has a show. Great. I shouldn’t have to care. I’ve linked to an article by the brilliant Roxane Gay on this subject. Her argument is that what defines girlhood varies from girl to girl, woman to woman, so it’s impossible for any one piece of art to fully represent an age, a population, a gender. The point of all the teeth-gnashing and breast-beating is that there should be more voices to choose from.

Enlightened also comes back tonight. I really love that show. It feels weird, strange, angry, reactionary. True. I wish more time was spent writing and thinking about Laura Dern and Amy Jellicoe — a fully realized character. A woman.

Some women of the 90s I’ve been thinking about:
– Homogenic-era Bjork (1997)
– Parker Posey as liberated, sometimes dangerous, heroine or scene-stealing supporting player – Party Girl, House of Yes, Clockwatchers, Henry Fool*, Kicking and Screaming, The Doom Generation, Waiting for Guffman, etc.
– Dana Scully and Chrissie in The X-Files: Jose Chung’s From Outer Space. “Love. Is that all you men think about?”
– Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams

*Where the hell is Hal Hartley?

Best online thing I read today: Girls Girls Girls by Roxane Gay / The Rumpus
*Read everything she writes!
**Just this once, read the comments – or, search the comments for one by equally amazing writer Jill Soloway

Song I loved today: Joga / Bjork

Zazen Day 4 – Focus

Today was even more scattered than usual, and I’m choosing to put the blame on my cat. I could barely get to one today but Monkey decided to step on my computer at minute 12 today. I’m supposed to be focusing on nothing, taking in the whole room at once with my eyes cast 45-degrees downward. But my concentration was easy to break today. I felt restless, frustrated, sad. And really curious what I’ll feel like on day 28.

So, for a particularly scattered day, a particularly scattered post. Things I was thinking about during Zazen today:

– That episode of Buffy when Giles makes her stare into the crystal while he’s drugging her for the birthday trial. I keep focusing on a particular spot on the floor, a few really, that look like eyes. Not quite a flaw in a crystal, but then a British man isn’t trying to inject me with power-draining serum. I swear that’s not a metaphor for anything.

– One of my absolute favorite episodes of TV – “Gone” from Spaced series 2. Watching this series was strangely formative for me; my sister and I mainlined the whole series in a night a few summers ago. Tim and Daisy’s relationship reminded me a lot of the friendship between a me and a guy I was interested in. At the close of the series, I realized that I was in fact completely in love with him. So Spaced will always have a spot in my heart, regardless of its utter brilliance. It’s always a treat to rewatch, especially now…I’m watching “Gone” next to that friend – now boyfriend – who was also randomly thinking about this episode today.

Best online thing I read today: The Old Corner Bookshop is Now a Chipotle by Rhian Sasseen / The Millions

Song I loved today: Plumage / Menomena

Zazen Day 3 – Resolutions

In spite of starting this practice dangerously close to the new year, I don’t really make resolutions. I say “really” because I’m sure I’ve made some boring promises to lose weight or write every day in the past, but I can’t remember any one set in detail. When I moved to Boston for grad school nearly 10 years ago (horrifying) I made a journal resolution to buy a vibrator and start smoking pot. The former was accomplished, the latter not until years later – and neither changed me in the ways I thought they would. The blank slate and promise of a fresh start that occurs for some on January 1st never felt like such for me. Resolutions are made to fail.

Attempting 28 days of Zazen now was not the product of any cava-soaked pretense of accomplishment, but the end of a very long road of suppressing my own needs for the sake of others. When I was in my teens and 20s, I was perpetually mortified by my mother’s behavior when she disapproved of someone; her disdain was visible, tangible. But my mother used to joke that she was nice when she was my age – then she started to know better. I’m still unfailingly polite, probably to a fault, but I get what she meant. I have fewer fucks to give, and I’m pretty much going to be trapped at the blue-line forever if I don’t start going after what I want and caring less about what people think of me.

So I was thinking today about what I would resolve to do – little things that are achievable but can seem insurmountable. I came up with two that were direct but not conditional (e.g. Start going to therapy, contingent upon affordability)

– Leave the house wearing lipstick without feeling morbidly self-conscious
– Write (at least) one short story
– Go to (at least) one live music show

A silly little list, really. I’m missing my mother a lot today. I can’t fix or change anything that’s happened recently, but I can do my best, for them.

Best online thing I read today: The Ride of a Lifetime by Sheila Weller / Vanity Fair

Song I loved today: Place to Be / Nick Drake