Greetings from the other side of the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States. This year, I stayed in LA and went to two dinners with different sets of friends, an approach I recommend for the sheer variety of foods and conversations it brought my way. It was a wonderful Thanksgiving and I felt very much grateful for the life I have (not to mention, all the pie!).
I wrote recently about how I feel like I died a couple of years ago, and since then, I’ve been trying to put a fine point on when, exactly, that happened. While I haven’t arrived at any specific catalyst, I’d definitely say 2018-2019 were the late stages of my own personal “before times,” with Thanksgiving of 2019 marking, perhaps, the nadir.
My plan that year had been to go to Joshua Tree with a group of rock climbing/Sierra Club-subscribing/nature-loving folks I know. I was to wake up in a tent on Thursday morning under a bright blue sky and spend the day outside, with great conversation making up for what I assumed would be not great food. (They claim it’s great but there’s a lot of sand out there, soooo…)
Anyway, rain showed up and the event was canceled. Some of the others and I instead had a low key dinner in town.
The next day, I woke up alone in my apartment and depressed as hell. Thanksgiving is about being grateful for your blessings, and I did not feel, in my bones, grateful for my blessings. I knew — objectively speaking — that I had a lot of them, but I did not FEEL it. I just didn’t.
However, I did the thing depressives have to do when they feel bad, which is make a conscious effort to move forward despite the gravitational forces pulling them in the opposite direction. My original plan had been to skip from Joshua Tree to Palm Springs, where my aunt and her family had rented a house for the weekend, for a couple of nights, so I decided to go through with it.
Wretched emotional state notwithstanding, I packed my things, dropped my dog off with a friend, and hit the road. The drive from LA to the desert is one hundred miles, give or take, but you really have to time it right due to traffic. It can take an hour and a half or six hours or somewhere in between. I left sometime around noon and figured I’d be on the short side of the drive, but I had failed to account for holiday travel. Still, I was optimistic. I cued up an episode of This American Life called “Burn it Down” about a man brought in to dismantle the racist culture of the Amsterdam Fire Department, figuring a classic “fight the system” kind of story would be just the thing to pull me out of my misery.
Alas, it was a grey, smoggy day, and the longer I drove, the farther away Palm Springs got. The way the traffic kept building, I would look down at Waze every five minutes or so and see that the remaining time on the trip was five minutes longer than the last time I’d checked.
What was worse was that the podcast episode did not turn out to be a story of triumph. It was instead a demoralizing tale of losing despite your best efforts. The man could not overthrow the cadre of bigots in Amsterdam; the system was too deeply entrenched, the resistance too powerful. He had to concede defeat.
The combination of two and a half hours in the car heading east and getting nowhere, a protracted story of losing to an unambiguously evil foe, and my already-precarious mind state was, well, not good. With every mile I inched along, the invisible weight I felt pressing down on my chest became heavier. I was having trouble breathing but I kept trying to reel myself in mentally. “It’s gonna be fine, it’s gonna be fine, you love Palm Springs, you will get there and you will see your aunt and your uncle and your cousins and you will be fine.”
Except I wasn’t going to be fine and I knew it. My aunt and her family are wonderful people. I knew they would be happy to see me.
But I was not happy with myself.
From my perspective, I was preparing to wash up on their shores on the verge of collapse. I felt piteous. I was sure they would view me as so. I couldn’t do it. The weight on my chest got heavier. My vision got spotty and tremulous. When the road started breathing, I knew I had to pull over. By then I was in the middle of the Inland Empire, an endless maze of suburbs and strip malls and vape joints that stretched for miles and miles in the middle of Southern California. I got off at the next exit and when I looked up I found myself parked in front of a Hobby Lobby.
A fucking Hobby Lobby.
I turned off the podcast and I tried to just breathe. I called my aunt and told her I didn’t think I could make it. That I was shaking so badly I had to stay put until I felt like I could drive again. I then called my sister, who answered in the squashed voice of someone who’s in the car with other people and is trying not to annoy them. “What’s up?” she said, and I could hear laughing in the background as she explained that she and her husband were on the way to a wedding with another couple. She was totally supportive as I choked out what was happening, but realizing I had not only interrupted her happy afternoon but also scared her made me feel even worse.
At that moment in time, I felt like the most pathetic creature in the world. Alone and having a panic attack in front of the worst chain store ever, without even so much as my dog to keep me company. I sat there for two hours, listening to music and breathing in and out until I felt like I could handle getting back on the road.
By then I was done with the idea of Palm Springs, despite my aunt’s best attempts to convince me I’d feel better when I got there. In hindsight I’m sure she was right; being with people who know and love you is a balm in the hardest of times. But at the time I couldn’t get over myself and how terrible I felt. And I couldn’t bear for others to see me in that state. Pride, ego, disappointment, anger, and a deep, profound sadness had created a prison for me that I couldn’t escape.
And that’s the thing about loneliness. It repeatedly kicks you when you’re down.
So I got back on the freeway, this time heading west. The drive back to LA took less than an hour.
The weekend before this year’s Thanksgiving, I went to a bar for a drink with a friend, and as we were talking, one of the servers came up to tell my friend what a nice speaking voice he had. How he found it sonorous and soothing, and how it carried out over the din of the restaurant in a lovely way.
It was a sweet moment — how often in life do you get a pure compliment like that? You can only stop, drink it in, and appreciate it.
After the Hobby Lobby incident, I needed to do something nice for myself to make up for all the terribleness. A friend and I decided to get a tarot reading at the local witch supply store. I needed something, anything, to feel good about, and while tarot card readings don’t always tell you what you want to hear, sometimes they can tell you something you need to hear. I was open to that. I was open to anything that would give me a different perspective than the one I had at the time.
My tarot card reader was an older white woman from Northern California named Pam who very much fit the idea you might have in your head about what a tarot card reader looks like. “She’s the real deal,” the shopgirl told me when I booked the reading.
Pam told me the future of my work was in relationships, and that she didn’t see money being an issue — reassuring as I’d lost my job the month before. And then she drew the Hierophant, a card generally interpreted as the pope, and told me that writing represented a spiritual path for me. And that I was writing a book about spirituality that I’ve been working on for a long time, even in past lifetimes (!).
Hmmm, I thought. It was true that I’d been writing a book whose topic had gradually been revealing itself over time, but I hadn’t yet realized that it was about spirituality.
She also told me she could see a little star over my head and that it was shining a beautiful warm light. A fantastic proclamation, but, strangely enough, I wasn’t surprised by it. I also thought, “How is this possible when only yesterday I thought I was at the end of my path?”
Has anyone ever told you something about yourself that you knew deep down was right but that was too scary to believe? Something that was so generous, so insightful, something that revealed you to yourself in the best possible light?
These things are dangerous to believe in because they require you to hope. And to allow that seed of hope to take lodge in your heart.
That you could be more than you thought you were.
That in fact, to some people, you already were.
I happened to write these words from the tarot card reader down because I very badly wanted them to be true. They became a touchstone for me and gave me a way out — in the years since, I have been writing more and more about spirituality. And I have absolutely found that relationships — and specifically being a contributing member of multiple communities, online and off — are where my jobs are coming from. It’s an incredible thing.
But there have been so many times when I’ve heard someone say something kind or hopeful about me and I have immediately discarded it. It’s like we hear these things and yet we don’t. We squirrel them away in a corner of our minds that we can only peep by looking between our fingers. They’re too big, too scary. Too much to live up to for a small creature in a vast universe full of foes of both the external and internal kind.
The turning point in my life came when I made a conscious decision to lean into the good things, both about myself and about the world. To accept that while there are indeed many things that are unspeakably terrible, there are just as many things that are miraculous and wonderful, and those are worth just as much attention. And that there is even a lot more happening that is totally beyond my ability to know or understand.
It was, in a way, a decision to surrender to mystery and the knowledge that larger forces are at play, and that while I can steer the boat of my life, I cannot control what the weather and waves will bring. All I can do is try to be present and appreciate whatever comes, when it comes.
You may have noticed that in the passages above I talked about having friends and family being around me at all times. At no point during the Thanksgiving weekend of 2019 did I want for people and support. It was only that I couldn’t see them for what they were — blessings of the highest order.
And it’s that expansion of awareness that has made all the difference. Broadening my perspective to allow for things to be fine — or even great — as they are instead of as I think they should be has made all the difference in the world. It’s a choice that I have to make every day, but it’s never not worth it. Just hard. But as it turns out, doing hard things is not so bad; it’s the alternative that’ll get ya.
On to some other things I found worth sharing this week.
Speaking of Hard Things
“To continue practice through severe difficulties we must have patience, persistence, and courage. Why? Because our usual mode of living—one of seeking happiness, battling to fulfill desires, struggling to avoid mental and physical pain—is always undermined by determined practice. We learn in our guts, not just in our brain, that a life of joy is not in seeking happiness, but in experiencing and simply being the circumstances of our life as they are; not in fulfilling personal wants, but in fulfilling the needs of life; not in avoiding pain, but in being pain when it is necessary to do so. Too large an order? Too hard? On the contrary, it is the easy way.”
- Charlotte Joko Beck in Everyday Zen
I wrote the last issue right before I went on retreat at Mt. Baldy, where I gave a talk that quoted the above passage, which is one I return to again and again. You can listen to the talk here.
Could’ve used this on the way to Palm Springs.
Felt this one.
Perspective only a poem can give.
If You’re Feeling Generous
The little Zen Center where I practice is doing its annual fundraiser right now. I have never asked for donations or subscriptions in the three + years I’ve been writing this newsletter and have no plans to at this time. I view it as a labor of love and a way for me to connect with other people and, maybe, help them feel less alone.
However, if you have gotten something from this work and you have the cash to spare, I am asking you to please give some money to this organization that has given me so much and in some ways made the work possible. In return you’ll get
total consciousness on your deathbed our undying gratitude and also a rad calendar for 2022. (And some cool ring tones.)
Also, I have said this many times, but if you’re curious about Zen meditation, we give free instruction both in person and via Zoom. Come sit with us sometime, it’s a wonderful group of people and when we’re not meditating, we have a lot of fun.
A Tiny Assignment
You know that compliment someone gave you a long time ago? The one that lodged in your brain and became a defining characteristic of the person you’d most like to be?
What if you believed it?
That’s all for me this time. Thanks for being here, as always.
p.s. Thanks to Tom White and Billy Chapata for feedback on the essay above, and the crew at Foster for the ongoing support. You make writing about hard things easier.
p.p.s. Share this issue with someone who needs it!
Revisiting this one- thank you for sharing.
That was a really good one. "Broadening my perspective to allow for things to be fine — or even great — as they are instead of as I think they should be has made all the difference in the world." So important to try and keep in mind!