Leap day

pool_closedAT SOME POINT, I’M going to have to admit that I have crossed the line between recovering from surgery and being a normal person. (Well, my normal.) How do I know where the line is and when I’ve crossed over? I feel like I have. Not in every way, but in most ways. I’m no longer in pain, aside from the near-constant muscle ache associated with rebuilding my sliced-through abdominals. (It’s amazing how much those muscles do for us! I never realized.) My stamina is good, not great. No swimming or yoga or long bike rides yet. My body is not the same as it was, but it will never be the same.

My stream of visitors wishing me well and bringing me food and flowers and driving me to appointments has dried up, as it naturally should, leaving me with boatloads of gratitude and friendships old and new that I’ll have to take an equal role in sustaining. Oh yeah, that. This is a good development. It means I have to start actively participating in my life again.

I’ve been passively social, you might say. For so long, I was waited on, pampered, treated so well, with no need to make plans or decisions for myself, with no calendar day holding more than one or two easy things to do. I was healing, and that was enough. Now, I’m not only tying my own shoes; I’m doing pretty much everything I need to do to get through my suddenly busy days. This is good, too.

GameOfLife1How did I get so busy so fast? I went back to work two weeks ago, a little sooner than originally planned. I was kept busy with a big freelance copy-editing job and studying for an exam. I sorted through a lot of medical bills. I did the laundry and cleaned my house. Life, in other words.

I’m done with the freelance job, and the test was taken last night, so I suddenly find myself with time opening up again on this, the “free” day we’re given once every four years, possibly to make more room for squeezing in the summer Olympics and a presidential election.

I know it’s not really an extra day, it’s just how we name things; but it can be fun to think of Leap Day as a freebie, just as we can celebrate that extra hour we get with Daylight Saving Time. Thinking, What will I do with my extra day? is a good way of reminding ourselves how precious our time on this planet as human beings is. I’d rather do that than treat it as just another day. Don’t we do enough of that already?

Leap-Day-CalendarSo, I’ve decided to use February 29 to get over the idea that I have no time for writing. I’ve been keeping my hand in it over the last few months, what with the Caring Bridge website and, okay, two blog posts on here and some writing in my journal and even some writing at work. I’ve also been reading a whole lot of good writing and sent a couple of short pieces out and edited my friend Alan’s novel.

All of it counts as something—inspiration or contemplation or learning or honing my craft—but the harsh judge within me feels like I’ve not done a lot of “real” writing in all this time, by which I guess I mean fiction. I’ve not worked on my novel or written any new stories. I’ve felt a little stuck in that sense. Maybe I need to find an online course.

But then I tell my harsh internal judge to shut the fuck up. (Applause.) I’ve been busy healing my demolished body, growing a liver, and gaining back (so far) 20 pounds. (More applause.) And nurturing the most wonderful connections with friends and family and my  cat, Emma, studying and teaching Dharma, vacuuming, and working in the yard. The weather has been wonderful!

How we spend our days—yes, this is life.

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Shelter from the Storm

Barbra Streisand: PeopleWHERE DO WE GO for refuge? There is a Buddhist answer to that question, and it’s a good one—the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—and though that ought to be enough for me, I find that I still rely on another source of refuge in my life.

People.

What do I mean by refuge? For me, it’s about finding a place where I can feel supported, especially when I am not strong enough on my own. It’s a place where I can let my guard down, be exposed and vulnerable, and know I will be loved. Shelter from the storm: we all need that. I hope I can provide it for others, too.

This idea became clear to me recently when the three people in my life who I consider most important to my feeling grounded and loved happened to be, all at the same time, away or otherwise unavailable for a spell. Lucky for me, I have a lot of wonderful friends who contribute to making me happy, so I was not alone. I am also a whole lot better than I used to be at being on my own and knowing that I am always connected, so there was that, too. It was not a crisis, in other words.

But it was interesting. It was really striking to have that small support network of mine temporarily unavailable. It made me realize how much I rely on them, and how lucky I am. I wish everyone could be so lucky.

People want to be supported unconditionally. I guess that is one of the big attractions of marriage. I am skeptical of the notion that we can find one person to provide all that we need, forever. I’m not even sold on Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracksthe idea that we need anything from anyone—ideally, we wouldn’t, and I’d like to get to the point of experiencing the truth of that. But until I reach such an enlightened state, I am glad for my support system. It’s nice.

So many people in our culture make a fuss about finding that special one, what we used to call a “soulmate.” (Does anyone still use that word, or have they all been laughed off the dating websites?) One is the loneliest number. Who decided that one is enough? And does anyone honestly believe that there is only one person in the universe we are destined to find and stick with for life? Dating is challenging enough without the pressure to find the supposed one in 7,236,660,000 you could be happy with.

I was reading something recently about arranged marriages in India. I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic, not by a long shot, and I know these things are fraught with problems—gender and economic inequities and so forth. Despite that, it got me thinking. We modern Americans tend to look down on the idea as limiting individual freedom (Gasp! The horror!), but looked at a certain way (theoretically, at least), there could also be a very nice element to arranged marriage: an attempt by society to match people up, to be sure no one ends up onKurt Vonnegut: Slapstick their own (unless they want to be). Yes, I know that’s not how it always works in practice. That said, I’ve read studies showing people in arranged marriages generally tend to be happier and are more likely to stay together. I’ll bet the lack of unreal expectations is a factor. Love the one you’re with.

So, maybe not marriage, but wouldn’t it be nice if everybody could count on having someone they could count on? It seems like human nature to seek refuge in each other. I remember long ago reading something along those lines by Kurt Vonnegut, some kind of scheme to match people up. Lonesome no more! And so it goes.

 

A poem

Tree, Mission PlaygroundAPRIL IS OVER, BUT the poetryfest continues. I’m not at all sure it’s any good, but I have enjoyed writing a poem every day, and so I’ll keep on doing it into May and for as long as it still feels right. It’s also good practice for me, a reminder to write from places other than my head.

I started the month by asking on Facebook if any of my friends wanted me to write a poem about them, and that provided material for the first few days. Since then, other poems—maybe most of them—have also been inspired by individuals, but on a more immediate level, as in, who affected me emotionally today? If you look around, these people are everywhere. You probably don’t need me to tell you that.

This one was inspired by a musician friend of my roommate who stayed with us.

Bodhisattva on the Couch

I’m starting to get it, my kind teacher,
Bodhisattva sleeping on my couch
A lesson learned only once you’d gone
Drumming, drumming, the beating of hearts
Riding the wave of it, I drop something heavy
Crack open from the inside out
The peacefulness of it floods me
Washing away imperfections, stains,
Insecurity, doubt, loneliness, pain

I am left with my open-wideness
Ready to head into the world without fear
And try it out on someone
Going right up to some boy I’ve only just met
And saying, “You are beautiful,
Not just outside, inside too
I love you. I see you”
Because it’s true
He looks into my eyes, knows I mean it

Wishing happiness and nothing more
No obligation, no expectation
No agenda, no hiding, no sleaze. I smile
For this is true love
It demands nothing at all
Though if he were to offer something
Like love for me in return
I would gladly accept
Such a generous gift

 

Thanksgiven

David Bowie: ChangesonebowieIT’S THANKSGIVING AGAIN, a holiday I wrote about last year. It’s so interesting to me (and probably only me) to see where I was then as compared to now. I had been through a lot and wanted to acknowledge progress I’d made and thank those who helped. This year, things are not quite so dramatic, thankfully.

This is a good holiday, one that’s easy to like. It’s about appreciation. Thank you.

A few good friends of mine commented that it seems strange to set aside a special day to give thanks since they do that every day. I try to do the same. Still, it can be a good reminder for all the folks who don’t have a daily practice of giving gratitude…which is, I think, most people. These are the people who will be shopping tomorrow.

I decided upon waking this morning to take a radical approach to thanksgiving and keep a running list of all of the things I am thankful for today. I had to abandon it around 90 minutes in because it was just too much. There is so much to be grateful for, writing it down almost made me late for my yoga class. You should try it sometime.

It’s not just the obvious things — friends, family, health, good food — but all of the intangibles that kept coming up that interested me: the support structure for my life that keeps it all humming along, almost unnoticed. We like to think we are solely responsible for all of the material happiness and successes in our life (and that others are responsible for the problems and failures), but it just isn’t so.

We humans are totally dependent upon each other, not just as helpless infants or as we near the end of our lives — that part is easy to see — but every day. Think about how many people, past and living, contributed to producing the energy and the systems required to keep our house warm. Who made our clothes? How is it that we can simply turn open a tap and fill a glass with water? How did our food get in that refrigerator? Who paved the roads that we use to get from one place to another?

Dave X Robb and MonaOr get this: I can form these thoughts in my mind, these very thoughts you’re reading right now; translate them into a communications system we call language, tapping keys that correspond to letters on a keyboard; and create a digital record that, with the click of a single “Publish” button, then not only goes out automatically to my friends on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, but also becomes available for translation back to people searching the Internet all over the world. How incredible is that‽

And I didn’t do it myself. I had almost nothing to do with it. I certainly didn’t invent the technology or the language. Even the thoughts are not my own. They are the product of my interactions with people, dead and alive, who have shared with me the thoughts they formed based on their own interactions…and on down the line. (My fingers did tap the keys.)

As I look at the list I started this morning, there’s almost nothing on there that doesn’t result from the kindness of others, from my comfortable bed to Mona’s magic pills, my face lotion with UV protection to Changesonebowie and the stereo system it’s played on, my bike and my breakfast and the pen and paper I used to make the list.

So, thank you, David Bowie, and all of the other people whose names I don’t know. Thanks to the sun and the forces of nature that sustain this planet for today’s gorgeous weather. Thanks to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha for the gifts of refuge and wisdom. And, of course, thanks to my dear friends and family. (I would thank my pets, too, but they can’t read.) You provide me a very personal support system that gives my life happiness and meaning, without which I couldn’t do much.

Feelin’ stronger every day

Dave X Robb atop Bernal Hill

Today marks an anniversary, the end of my last relationship. I look to it not to dredge up a past that seems so long ago, but rather to honor how far I’ve come in a year.

Although the exact end date is debatable, I count from the last time I saw him. Even though I half expected it, I was stunned by how things ended. I tried to steer away from blaming myself or him, which would have been pointless, in an attempt to learn from the experience. I wanted to get something good out of it.

So began my new project: a deep, uncomfortable, scary, and enormously valuable hard look within at my relationship to relationships, to love, and to life.

As followers of this blog know, a lot has happened in the past year, life-changing stuff that has both challenged and nurtured me. It all really does make you stronger if you’re open to getting the lessons. It was still September when I asked my doctor about that odd-looking mole on my arm that would turn out to be melanoma, the first of two such diagnoses. A couple of surgeries later, I have mean scars and fewer lymph nodes; and I have a new relationship with my body, with life, with death, and with the sun.

At the end of the month, my loving roommate off and on since the dawn of the millennium, Amber, moved back in with me. We talk about everything, our lives running amazingly parallel, so we are able to offer each other tremendous support through life’s ups and downs. And she lends me really good books, some of which I’ve talked about here.

In October a friend introduced me to the Tuesday night meditation and “modern Buddhism” dharma talks at Saraha Buddhist Center. It’s a place I still go to regularly for refuge, wisdom, community, and peace of mind. If I seem different to you now, this is probably the single biggest reason why.

My writing has also been a wonderful refuge, feeding my soul and helping me to work things out. In November, encouraged by my stellar writing coach, I got more serious about it all, taking on the NaNoWriMo challenge. Writing some 52,000 words loosely based on my love life to date was cathartic in more ways than one.

(As a side note, I’ve gone back to work on some of the stories I wrote as part of that exercise, and am happily surprised that some of it is actually good, even if I do say so myself. I will post excerpts on here soon.)

That was also the month I reconnected with a beautiful man I love. We aren’t boyfriends, and that’s okay. By the time February 14 rolled around, I found myself getting quite comfortable with the idea of being single, something I couldn’t have imagined not so long ago. The Singles Awesomeness Day party may become an annual event.

Travel is always an opportunity to look at life afresh, and I’ve done a more than usual amount of it this past year. Sweeping out the cobwebs and confronting my self-cherishing during and after my trip to Peru, I’ve realigned and recommitted to what is important to me.

I went to the International AIDS Conference in July and found myself unexpectedly moved in ways I thought had died. I also made some nice personal connections on that trip without really trying. And I feel a closeness to my parents, to whom I dedicate this post, that goes deeper than ever before.

And so on. It hAwesome Singles Loveasn’t stopped. Throughout the year, incredible experiences and loving friends have continued to open my eyes, my mind, and my heart. I know I’m still learning, happy and strong, encouraged by how I’ve grown this past year. I’m incredibly grateful to all who love and support me. I could never have done it without you.

Slacker

Colca Valley, PeruI’ve been on vacation. Not just vacation-vacation, but vacation from quite a few things in my life. Writing, for one. Yoga. Swimming. Dating. Sex. Ironing. Even seeing friends, to some extent.

It’s fine, though. I just felt like I needed some time to step away from it all, clean the slate, clear the clutter, assess and regroup. It has served as a sort of experiment, too, to see what happens when I stop doing the things I do. How does the time fill up? Who calls? Do I get asked out on dates? Who misses me? Who do I miss? What do I miss doing?

It’s all kind of explicable: Surgery was just over a month ago, and that came just as I was starting to feel fully recovered from the previous surgery…so that accounts for the break from the physical; maybe the dating, too. And I took a long trip to Peru right after that, so I’ve been out of my routine.

Zona de Vicunas, Pampa Blanca, PeruThe trip was great, one of my best ever! As with the last time I traveled out of the country, I purposely left my phone at home. I didn’t miss it — except once, when a flight was cancelled and I missed seeing the email about it — and I thought my 17-day break from the iPhone might be a good start to a different kind of relationship with it.

Same with facebook. I did hop on a computer a couple of times while away, but only to take care of travel business. The one time I was tempted to check facebook, I couldn’t figure out how to type the “@” using the Spanish keyboard, so I took that as a sign of divine intervention and gave up. Blessed be.

Facebook is an addictive little bugger, even worse than the phone. As with the phone, I like it, mostly, and I think it serves a valuable purpose in my life at times, but why all the qualifiers in this sentence? I know what a time-robber it can be. I’m convinced it also causes me and my friends — whether or not they are on facebook — to see less of each other in real life.

At the same time, it’s my only connection with certain people I like being connected to. What to do? The easy answer: moderation. We’ll see if it’Meditation, Amantani Island, Perus easy to do. I’m not one of those people who can’t stop after one drink or one pint of ice cream, so there is hope. (Tortilla chips and Wheat Thins are another story.)

Since being back, I’ve used it to post vacation photos and connect with some people I met while traveling, and not so much else. That leaves a lot of time free.

There are few things quite as interesting as looking at how you spend your time. We all have 24 hours in each day, no more, no less. How we fill them matters, sure, but does it matter all that much?

Consider: I drove myself to write a blog post every week for the last year as a kind of discipline. I’m glad I did. I realize, though, that was an arbitrary rule I set out for myself just to ensure that I kept writing. It didn’t matter. As far as I can tell, no one cared about that rule but me.

But here’s the thing: without some kind of a structure, even if it’s totally made up, I find it almost impossible to do anything. Is that a sign of some kind of low-grade depression, is it laziness, or is it completely normal? I’ve heard arguments for all three diagnoses. (By the way, don’t ever tell a depressed person you wonder if maybe you are depressed. They will not like it one bit.)

So, dropping the requirement Machu Picchu, Peruthat I post on a schedule caused me to stop writing. Completely. It was a little frightening to see how easily that happened.

Similarly, when I quit my expensive gym months ago and no longer carried around in my head the idea that I needed to exercise something like 4 times a week to get my money’s worth, I stopped exercising almost entirely. (Granted, the operations had a little something to do with that as well.)

Do you see where this is heading? In my quest to go easy on myself, to care less, to simplify and cut myself some slack — which, you may recall, was this year’s resolution — I find myself going slack, quite literally, physically, and figuratively as well.

I resolved to keep less busy, to give myself down time, time for introspection and relaxation and petting the cats; but I know how I get when I have too much unstructured time on my hands. I go a little crazy. There’s a balance I’m trying to find, and it has been a sometimes uncomfortable process getting there. At least the cats are happy.

What I have been getting good at, though, is recognizing what kinds of things I want to spend my time doing. This whole vacation thing, it’s like I’ve cleared a big room of furniture and am now deciding what to put back in it.

Condor, Colca Canyon, PeruI like writing. When I don’t do it, I miss it. I like the challenge and the craft of it, and in a self-cherishing sort of way — more on that concept in a future blog post — I thrive on the feedback, the validation I get from others, and the gratification of knowing I might be having some small influence in the world, hopefully a positive one.

Yes, there is a big, probably unhealthy, dose of ego involved. It’s not easy letting go of the I, especially for a lifelong exhibitionist like me…but at least it’s an I nourished by connection with others. Otherwise, why bother? It’s nice to be back.

Love conquers all

Awesome Singles LoveWell, dear readers, Internet is down at home with no solution in sight, so I’ll put together a quick update here at the office. No real theme this time except to bring you up to date on the events of a very busy week. I swear all of this happened since I last posted:

We got a new director at work, after 20 months in limbo, and I couldn’t be happier. Not only am I glad to have the uncertainty settled, and glad for the prospect of having actual co-workers, but I am also really pleased with the choice. I’m feeling so much better about work already. Wonderful news!

My friend Jane took me out for a fabulous V-Day lunch, and the blog broke records. The Grindr is off my phone again — what was I thinking? — and I disconnected from all the dating sites. What a relief. I finished 1Q84.

Speaking of connecting with people the old-fashioned way, the Singles Awesomeness Day party was a smashing success, beyond all expectations. It was really and truly a mind-blowingly positive experience and represented, for me anyway, kind of a seismic shift. After an evening of drinking, laughing, sharing experiences, and eating Wheat Thins with about 15 very together, happy, self-loving singles (from 11 different countries, no less!), I honestly feel different about being single now. I know I’m not alone. I’m in good company, and there are no limits to the kinds of connections I can make with other people. Others had similar reactions.

I had the next day off and spent it in Napa with a dear girlfriend. I was reminded I’d traced a similar route almost exactly a year before on what would turn out to be the last such trip with my last boyfriend. What was interesting and somewhat new, though, was finding I could look back on that trip and that boy with loving fondness, without feeling sad or lonely or that I was somehow missing out by being single. It was a great day.

Sunset, Sonoma, February 2011I was still riding that high yesterday when I got the call — 3 months to the day since I got the all-clear from my last surgery — with a repeat of the infamous Dia de los Muertos diagnosis. Yup, ‘fraid so.

The exact-sameness of the circumstances was kind of eerie: routine visit to the dermatologist, didn’t look like anything too serious, but let’s test it anyway, a call 2 days later to say it was melanoma, surprise, the surgeon will be calling to schedule something…only this time, less explaining was needed since I’ve just gone through it all.

I’m not particularly worried they can’t get it all again (this one is independent of the last one, which is good news…or at least less bad). It was caught early, I think — hey, 3 separate experts each gave me a full body check just a few months ago and none of them caught it, which means it probably wasn’t there — but I am really not looking forward to going through that whole process again. Surgery is not fun.

It’s also more than a little disturbing to wonder how many more of these buggers I’ve got lurking. I’m not so vain — well, ok, maybe I am — but who wants to get a chunk of their flesh cut out and sewn back together every few months? Thank you, sweet boy, for saying my scar was sexy the other night, but really, scars are not sexy.

So, once again, wish me luck. The surgery is not scheduled yet, but chances are good I’ll be out of commission or recovering and not doing any yoga pretty much the whole month of March.

Addendum (March 6, 2012): The surgery is scheduled for March 21. I liked it better when they rushed me through the process really fast…feeling just a little less special this time around.

Addendum (March 13, 2012): Make that March 16. And all kinds of tests beforehand. They can’t be sure this new one is independent of the last one, so are doing every test in the book to find out.