On The Road
Recently I visited my mom in northern Arkansas. My husband and I live in a suburb of Minneapolis, so I’m able to make the trip to Arkansas in a single day – but it’s a long, draining day. It’s a twelve hour drive door-to-door, assuming I: travel only 5 miles over the speed limit (fortunately the speed limit is 70 mph most of the way), stop for a gasoline/bathroom/stretch break no more than once every 2-3 hours, eat breakfast and lunch in the car, have good weather (moderate rain is fine, heavy storms and snow are not), and have no traffic/construction/road work issues. I’ve made this trip three times now, and each time I make lots of CDs, have a list of friends I can call and catch up with (I wear a Bluetooth headset, and only talk when traffic is light and road conditions are fine), and reserve caffeine for the mid-afternoon portion of the trip. The miles go by, and I arrive at each end of the trip tired and worn, but pleased to be either 1) with my family, or 2) back home.
For this most recent trip, I made a whole stack of CDs I was eager to listen to: This American Life episodes, TED talks, This I Believe essays, some Buddhist dharma talks, and some fun music that gets me dancing in my seat. I had more than enough content to cover the 24 hours (round trip), and at 6 am when I left my house, I popped in the first CD, and settled back.
But something interesting happened. Around 8 am, after I had eaten breakfast and was sipping tea, I became aware that I didn’t “feel like” listening to the CDs. Hmm… I flipped my car stereo from the current CD selection to the radio, and surprisingly I found a station, but realized I didn’t want to listen to that, either. I picked up my phone, but then hesitated. Nope, I didn’t really want to talk to someone, either. Well… since I was driving, I couldn’t do much more entertainment-wise than listen to something, or talk to someone (i.e. I couldn’t read, do puzzles, write a letter, crochet [these are the things I frequently do when my husband and I are on a car trip, and he’s the one driving]), so what was it that I “wanted” to do? Surprisingly, the answer came pretty quickly: I just wanted to be present. I just wanted to sit in the car, and hear the natural sounds of the car, and the road, and the surrounding environment. I just wanted to feel the vibration of the engine, and the wheel in my hands, and even the minor ache that was forming in my low-back. I just wanted to see the road as it was approaching, and the occasional informational signs I passed, and the other drivers I infrequently encountered; and I wanted to do all of these things without added distraction, with full awareness. I wanted to be fully present, even for the “mundane” repetition of driving on flat, straight, un-scenic Highway 35.
So, I did. I turned off all of the extra stimuli, both external (CD, radio, phone), but also largely internal, too (i.e., my chattering mind). I sat with what was: the car, the road, the experience of traveling. Mostly fully present. (I am by no means a “perfect” meditator; my mind still likes to go on many a tangent.) And you know what? It was lovely. Truly. Lovely!
Now, to be clear: I did not sit in silence for the next 10 hours. After a period of time, the CDs did come back on. But I also didn’t need to be “busy” for the entire trip, either. I alternated between sound and silence, between entertainment and equanimity, letting my experience shift as it wanted to. I still arrived at my destination physically tired and worn, but also internally quite still and peaceful.
It looks like meditation really is permeating my life, weaving its way into unexpected places. It certainly isn’t “me” doing any of this (apart from getting my “tush on the cush”), and it’s interesting (and fun, and rewarding) for me to see where mindfulness, peacefulness, calm, and compassion may pop up next.
The story of Hazel
I feel like a really shitty mom.
My husband and I are parents to a 14-year-old sweetie-of-a-dog, Hazel. I take absolutely no credit for Hazel’s docile demeanor, terrific temperament, or amazing manners; Hazel came to us this way. Her previous owner had her for the first 10 years of her life; that previous owner raised Hazel from a tiny pound puppy, trained her, cared for her, and loved her as his child. When Hazel’s previous owner was in the last stages of his life (dying from cancer [which he was diagnosed with at age 28]), he asked my husband and I if we would take care of Hazel once he was gone. Up to this point, my husband and I had been quite content with our responsibility-free lifestyle (no kids, no pets, not even plants to tend); and in my past, I had failed at caring for a pet (a cat), and plants (potted herbs in my kitchen windowsill). So I wasn’t super-gung-ho about agreeing to suddenly become the owner of a dog – a full-grown, 35 pound, needs-two-walks-a-day, active dog. But our friend was literally dying – what could I do? Be a huge bitch who wouldn’t agree to take care of a dog as our friend struggled to face his own mortality? It was the least I could do, really. So I said yes; and four years ago became a surrogate-parent to Hazel.
Adjusting to Hazel in our lives went quite smoothly; actually. I got used to taking her for a walk every day, in every weather condition (pouring rain, scorching heat, freezing cold, drastic wind). I remembered to feed her (and on the few times when I kind-of forgot, she reminded me just a short while after her regularly scheduled meal time had passed, so not too much harm was done). I checked her water bowls every morning, and filled them when they were low. I took her to the vet, gave her medicine, worked with my husband to trim her nails. I did everything one would expect a person to do in tending to an animal. But in those first few years, my actions were just behaviors, just “tasks” to do for the dog. The one element of “taking care of” Hazel I neglected to do was to love her.
And I am SO not happy to admit that. But. I was in a much different place mentally, and emotionally, and spiritually 4 years ago than I am today; and that is just how it was. How I was. I was responsible, to be certain; but I was distant and cold. I did what I had to do; but I experienced very little joy with life. I was just a closed, sad person. I didn’t really “get” what it meant to be truly ALIVE; I was surviving, not living.
But I finally took different actions in my life; and over the course of the past three years have been learning what it means to really live. How people are more important than schedules or tasks or possessions. How anger directed at others is really just a disguise for fear within myself. How letting go of perfection and admitting ignorance can be truly freeing. And how making mistakes (past, present, and future) doesn’t make me permanently “bad”, or irreparably damaged, or forever screwed; just human.
Anyway, back to Hazel. Over the past year, Hazel’s health has started to decline, both physically and mentally. Arthritis set in to her bones, and anxiety began to take hold of her mind. We treated the physical pain with puppy aspirin, easy enough. But the mental pain was more difficult to address. We tried giving and withholding attention; we tried praising good behaviors and ignoring undesired ones; we tried adjusting schedules (both hers and ours), and moving beds, and introducing different toys. We tried leaving lights on in the middle of the night. We tried medication. And nothing we did seemed to help. Hazel’s anxiety grew more intense, more persistent, and more insistent.
Last weekend, I was at my wit’s end. Hazel had just experienced an “episode” that lasted 24-hours. Literally. From 4 am Sunday until 4 am Monday, Hazel was inconsolable. During that 24 hour period, there were probably ten 5-minute-long breaks in the action, where Hazel was somewhat calm. But as soon as she caught her breath, she was right back at it, shaking and panting and begging for us to do something to help. And there wasn’t a damn thing I knew to do.
So on Monday morning, I called the vet, and scheduled an appointment for the end of the week. I had no idea what the vet would be able to do for us, but something had to give. I just couldn’t keep on this way. Hazel’s anxiety was fueling MY anxiety. I felt like a shitty mom for not being able to help, and I felt like shitty human for getting frustrated with her. I began to consider the idea of euthanasia; and the mere act of simply contemplating that action brought me immediately to tears. (And still does.) Could I really *kill* something, just because it was “annoying” to me? My god, what a crappy-ass-person am I?
At the vet’s office, the doctor found a few issues, the most notable being a “very significant” bladder infection. Oh, poor honey… could all of this apparent “anxiety” really be Hazel trying to tell us something was physically wrong with her? How quick I had been to feel frustration instead of compassion, to dismiss behaviors as mental instead of physical. Granted, the fact that Hazel is non-verbal doesn’t really help us much; but still, shouldn’t I be better able to read her signs? The vet did console us by telling us that apart from blood work, there isn’t really any way to diagnose a bladder infection; and since Hazel wasn’t being incontinent, or giving us any other “pee-related” indicators, we really had no reason to suspect that she was having physical problems. She is 14, after all.
Okay. So how the heck does all of this tie in to meditation? This is a meditation blog, after all. Here’s the connection: This morning I was reading “Mindfulness in Plain English”, a fabulous Vipassana text by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. The author was discussing how our true nature is good, and explained that sometimes people who seem to be “bad”, or who do hurtful things, are really just reacting to their past and present conditioning. “For every one of us… there are countless causes and conditions – both wholesome and unwholesome – that make us act as we do.” (p. 183) To address this, Gunaratana instructs us: “Be full of kindness toward yourself. Accept yourself just as you are. Make peace with your shortcomings. Embrace even your weaknesses. Be gentle and forgiving with yourself as you are at this very moment. If thoughts arise as to how you should be such and such a way, let them go. Establish fully the depth of these feelings of goodwill and kindness. … Relax in its warmth and radiance.” (p. 186)
Hazel gave me the opportunity to see and experience all of my human failings, all of my shitty shortcomings. How quickly I get frustrated. How immediately I want resolution. How readily I am willing to give up on someone, even as they need me the most – and how scared I am that people will give up on me. But Hazel also provided me chances to see how well I can respond. How I can breathe through one of her episodes, and not yell at her or react negatively to her. How I can slow down when she’s terribly pokey on a walk, and recognize that she has needs, too. How I can step up, and do things for her that I may not necessarily want to do – but still do those things with sincere peace in my heart, because I know they are improving her life and experiences.
Perhaps most importantly, Hazel provided me a catalyst for change. How it’s NOT too late for me to change my attitudes and behaviors towards her. How I can reflect on the things I don’t like about my past self, and use those negative states as a stimulus to cultivate better states, helpful states, skillful states, positive states. And how I can forgive myself my past, and do my very best in the present.
So I can be there for Hazel, as she heals, as she lives, and as she dies. So that when her time does come, I will be able to say goodbye with only peace in my heart. So that I won’t consider myself a shitty mom, but a splendid mom. Or at least a suitable one.