Sunday, July 29, 2018

Making Room for New Growth

Mara here:

There are a few things I'm good at. There are many things I'm competent at. Then there's a whole galaxy of things I am completely incompetent at. Gardening is one of them. And I'm not being hard on myself. There's a trail of dead plants that can confirm this assessment.

Honestly, it's not for lack of trying. I want to be able to have plants. And I feel terrible when I know I've caused a once-living thing to now be dead.

I have a black thumb. I've come to grips with this affliction.

So it should be no surprise that when we moved into our house, we hired gardeners to maintain the front and back yards.

I find Los Angeles gardeners are a mysterious group. For one thing, they are everywhere. Every day, on every street, at any time of daylight, there are the telltale pickup trucks filled with lawn mowers and trimmers. Men with leaf blowers who politely pause their blowing if you walk by.

They will give you a courteous nod if you force them to interact with you, but otherwise they move stealthily in the background, like part of the scenery.

Our gardeners come once a week. I find it incredibly awkward. I'm not sure why. I always have. I wrote a whole blog post about how I hide in the house when they're here because it feels so strange to me that there are people who show up at my house and do stuff for me.

They come through in a flurry of activity; there's usually a group of two or three guys and I can hear them as I sit in my darkened bedroom, listening to the noises emanating from their movements.

I know there are some people who are probably in regular contact with their gardeners. These are people who know the names of their plants and probably pick out fresh annuals that need to be planted every year.

I am not one of those people.

In fact, there have only been two times I've spoken to the gardeners. The first was when we moved in 13 years ago. My neighbor's gardener approached me and asked if we were going to need a gardener. He told me about how they schedule their days based on when the garbage cans need to be taken to the curb so they would take care of that for us. 

The whole moving-the-garbage-cans-for-you as part of their gardening is genius marketing, because not having to remember garbage day and moving the cans to the curb in itself is something I would pay for on its own.

So we discussed a price, and the deal was done.

And ever since that day, once a week, rain or shine, holiday or not, a truck pulls up to our house and they do their mysterious gardening.

The second time I interacted with them was earlier this year when they had mysteriously stopped trimming one of our bushes. After 13 years of trimming the bush, they suddenly stopped. So I very timidly asked if they could please go back to trimming it because it looked like another bush was growing out of the original bush.

It all feels like a mystery to me. Sometimes they trim. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they fertilize. Sometimes they don't. I'm sure they know why they do things. But since I have no idea what plants need, it's all a mystery.


Particularly mystifying to me is when they decide to cut the plants back in the winter. The first time it happened, it was a bit shocking. Our grape bush, which grows into a monster of vivid and luscious vines, was cut back to a sad little clump of bare sticks. I really thought they had just decided to murder my grape bush.

And they did the same thing to all our rose bushes.

What had been lovely, full bushes of white blossoms was now just a clump of jagged stems, a quarter of the size they'd previously been.

The reasonable part of me knew that it must be something that gardeners do. It didn't seem likely that our gardeners went crazy and just decided to take out their bad mood on our plants. But I did wonder.

And, of course, after asking a friend about whether we had some sort of psychotic gardener issue, she told me it's common. They have to cut everything way to back to make room for new growth.

Sure enough, the following spring, everything bloomed back to life, growing fuller and more beautiful.

As I've gotten older, I've realized this cutting things back is something we need to do for ourselves as well. Like a not-so-subtle metaphor for our brains, we need to periodically cut back the negative thoughts and behaviors that we've built up over the years to make room for growth. We need to give ourselves room to experience and absorb new things.

I tend to be a bit of a hoarder. I hoard things and I hoard thoughts. But it's a helpful reminder to me every year as I watch our grape bush and our roses bloom and then get cut back, that I too need to take some time to clear my mind of negative thoughts that have been festering. I tend to cling to them and nurture them, giving them a little attention each day. I need to cut away some of the things that I have let grow and flourish, because there needs to be room for new growth. 

And I need to go through my closet and my desk and get rid of some of the clutter I've built up around me to make room for new things that might come my way.

And now that I'm older (and I like to think wiser), I don't even need the gardeners to remind me of the importance of making space for myself to grow. When I'm feeling stuck in a rut, I will take it upon myself to take stock of what I've allowed to build up around me and see what I can clear out to make room for a new experience.

But just like it's still always shocking to walk out of my house after the gardeners have been through and see a whole row of decimated plants, it's always uncomfortable for me to let go of thoughts I've grown accustomed to, or to give away bags of old T-shirts that I no longer need.

However, every year, the plants grow back. And every year I have new things and thoughts that can be sorted through.

Toni here:

Mara, I love how you take ordinary occurrences, like the gardener coming, and turn them into life lessons. I always learn from you when I read your pieces.

I have an entirely different relationship with our gardener. I consider him and his family to be personal friends. Jose and Teresa have six kids, three of them teenagers. I never know who will show up when they come, which is every other Saturday. Sometimes it's just the teenagers. Then I know we'll get a B+ gardening job, which is fine with me. But when Teresa comes, I know we'll get the A+ job. 

I love to chat with the kids. We talk about school and sports...and sometimes girls (all the teenagers are boys). Teresa doesn't speak much English so our conversations are limited, although sometimes one of the kids will translate. When I asked what they ate for Thanksgiving and it turned out to be tamales, the next time they came, Teresa arrived with a huge plate full of four different kinds for your Dad and me, including one that was a dessert. 

They work hard and they expect their kids to. Jose also does some repair work for me. One time, he fixed a gate and, as he did so, taught their 10 year old how to do it. I've never seen a harsh word pass among any of the family members. It hurts my heart to know they might be discriminated against in these anti-immigrant times. They're all U.S. citizens (not that I condone nasty behavior toward people, whether or not they're citizens of this country).

As for my gardening abilities, they're as poor as yours except (and it's a big except), I seem to be able to grow bonsai trees in our bedroom! And to think that you started it all off a few years ago by giving me a small Juniper. I was sure it would die. Instead, it and my other five are thriving and, yes, I have to constantly prune them back.

And, just as you said in your piece, pruning them makes them grow back stronger and more beautiful. This is a lesson I try to take into my daily life. I feel lighter than air whenever I clean out an area of the house. Same with cleaning out my mind, although that's not as easy!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Some Fun Summer Reads

Mara here:

Well, it's definitely summer.

And even though as an adult, life doesn't change that much over summer (it's not as if I'm suddenly spending a lot of time at the beach or anything), the heat of the summer days definitely makes me feel as if life is a little slower. Even though my school days are long behind me, I always mentally feel like I should be taking things less seriously during summer.

And mentally, this means I always look for books that are "summer reads" or books that would be easy to read if I were going on a vacation. I want to read fun books. I want to read books that don't require a lot of concentration to understand.

This is not to say that I don't read these books other times of the year, but I tend to seek out these books more in the summer. So I thought it would be fun to share some books that I've read that I think fall under this category. Most of these are books I've read recently. They're not necessarily my "favorite" books. But they were books I enjoyed (meaning I was sad when I got to the end) and were easy to read (meaning they hooked me fast and they were page turners).

I'm not going to give plot summaries because it's easier for you to just look them up at Amazon or whatever bookseller you prefer. Instead I'm just listing the titles and a quick reason why I liked the book.

—Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
I read this one a few years ago, but I'm including it on my list because I love it so much. It's laugh out loud funny. I very rarely actually laugh out loud when I'm reading, but this memoir is funny. If you have ever thought your life was crazy, Jenny Lawson's life is guaranteed to be crazier.

—Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine: A Novel by Gail Honeyman
This is a very quirky book, but I found it very charming. A combination of comedy and drama, it's subtle plot twists keep you engaged and rooting for Eleanor the entire time.

—Where'd You Go Bernadette: A Novel by Maria Semple
This was a fun book that I related to as a mom who has had whimsical fantasies of escaping the everyday hassles we all face. It's well written and definitely not predictable.

—A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
This is a very odd little book that I ended up loving. The author is Swedish and the protagonist is old and cranky. But you end up loving him in the end. There's even a film version you can watch for free on Amazon if you have Prime and don't mind subtitles.

—Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
I read this before I even knew she was a television (now film) star. I bought it because it had great reviews and the summary peaked my interest. Her memoir is very well written and fun, which is not surprising considering how smart and funny she is.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
I'm including this book because of all the books written by Gillian Flynn (author of Gone Girl) this is my favorite. It's not a light subject like most of the others included on this list, but with the new HBO television adaptation, I thought I'd put in my little plug for the book. It's not what I would call light reading, but definitely a page turner. Great characters and plot.

The Rosie Project: A Novel by Don Tillman
This is just a fun book. The protagonist is odd but loveable and it's pure entertainment.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
I actually read this on a vacation so it's 100% a summer vacation read. It's a fun look into a world of riches and extravagance. There's a movie version coming out soon.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
If you were a child in the 1980s, you will definitely enjoy this book, especially if you loved video games. (Or if you were like me who had a brother who loved video games.) There was recently a movie version of this book, but as is often the case, the book has a lot more detail. It's a fantasy/sci-fi futuristic look at the world. Definitely a quick read and very fun to re-live some of the nostalgia of the 1980's.

—Home by Harlan Coben
Harlan Coben has been a bestselling author for decades, but I had never read any of his books (or even heard of him) before I saw him interviewed on television as part of a commemoration for the former First Lady Barbara Bush. He has long been involved with one of her many charitable causes. So after seeing him interviewed and learning he was a bestselling author, I checked out one of his books and really enjoyed it. He writes interesting mystery/action stories with lots of heart.

Toni here:

Wow, Mara. I'm impressed by how much reading you do! Due to my illness, it's hard for me to read, so I listen to audiobooks. But I go at a much slower pace than you do so I don't have many summer books to share. I'm going to take your list to and check out the sample from the narrators. (If I don't like the narrator, I won't buy the audiobook. This is why I personally chose the person who narrates all three of my books!) 

As I've mentioned before, I always have a book by Alexander McCall Smith going—from one of his three series's: The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, The Sunday Philosophy Club, or 44 Scotland Street. There are multiple books in each series and the narrators are fabulous. I can start playing one and know from the narrator's voice which character he or she is representing. I love all the characters in McCall Smith's books and I love his perspective on life. We see the people and the world in the same way. 

Here are a few other books I'd like to mention. Two are by Ann Patchett. I'd read her Bel Canto several years ago and so thought I'd check out her newer books. I listened to: State of Wonder and Commonwealth. I recommend them both highly. I've listened to Commonwealth twice and am about to listen to State of Wonder again. 

And, by listening to these two books, I discovered a new narrator I love: the actress Hope Davis. Unfortunately, she hasn't read that many books, but finding her led me to get Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero (he wrote The English Patient), and Anna Quindlen's Every Last One. I've loved a couple of Quindlen's books (Blessings is my favorite) and have found others to be less than compelling, but Every Last One is the best account of grief (in a novel) that I've ever read. I plan to listen to it again soon.

So what about you? Do you have a favorite summer read?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

My Mind is not Anyone Else's Mind

Mara here:

Yesterday I had a photoshoot with a young actor. I was taking "headshots," which means we spent a good amount of time together. It can be awkward for actors, and it's part of my job as a photographer to make them comfortable. So there's a lot of small talk.

We chatted about where he was from since most actors are not from Los Angeles (he's recently moved here from Philadelphia), and what he thinks of living here. About a half hour into the shoot he said: "Your house is really nice. I think it's really pretty. I meant to tell you that when I got here."

My immediate reaction was: "Really? It's old; we have so much we need to do to it." Then I went on with my usual spiel about how it's probably a tear down for new buyers and we're not sure if it's worth trying to fix up.

As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized I was doing the exact thing I've recently been working on not doing: arguing with people who compliment me.

I'm particularly bad about having negative words about our house, which is unfortunate because I love our house. I appreciate that our little house has never leaked and rarely loses power. That makes me feel happy and safe.

But it is kind of "The Little House That Could." It's small. It's old.

When we moved into the house 14 years ago we: a) never imagined we'd still be in the house 14 years later; and b) assumed we would make lots of improvements to the house.

This is an assumption made by many first-time home buyers.

Before you own a home, you don't realize how much work is involved in doing anything "house" related. And you definitely don't realize how expensive everything is. Ignorance is bliss. So when we were looking at houses, we assumed that we would constantly be making improvements. We assumed we would just add on if we wanted.

It's 14 years later and very little has been done to the house that didn't have to be done. We did do a few little improvements about five years after we moved in, but all the other work on the house has mainly been because something broke.

There are definitely some things we feel as if we probably should do, like repaint the exterior.

But there's a lot we could do with the money that would be required to paint the house. Not to mention the effort required to find companies to do it, get estimates, then prepare the house for painting...just thinking about it is making me want to do something else immediately.

And we feel a bit guilty about it. 

But not because we're unhappy about the house. We just feel as if other people are probably thinking we should be doing things to the house. 

I'm pretty much mentally prepared to apologize for the state of our house at all times. So when this nice young man had the audacity to sincerely compliment me on the house, I was ready to just brush his words aside and explain to him why he was wrong.

Then in the middle of my explaining that the house needs painting, the windows need replacing, and how we really should have added on—I stopped myself.

I was reminded of something my daughter used to say to me when we were arguing when she was a toddler: "Your mind is not my mind!"

Honestly, that's the most little Buddha moment Malia has ever had. It was so simple and so true. My mind is not her mind. The things I was saying and thinking were not the things she was thinking. All that arguing I wanted to do to convince her that my thoughts should be her thoughts and there she was, reminding me that they weren't. In that moment she was a little Buddha—an angry little Buddha—but speaking the truth nonetheless.

Her words have stuck with me. We often joke about it, and she still says it when she wants to tease me about trying to convince her that my way is better than her way. But it is the truth. The way that I think about things, no matter how strongly I feel about it, is not necessarily the way other people feel.

So I've been making an effort. When people compliment me about something, instead of telling them why they're wrong, I've been trying to train myself to just say, "Thank you."

I'm only successful about 10% of the time. And clearly yesterday was one of the other 90% times because a flood of word vomit about why our house wasn't nice or pretty exploded out of my mouth.

And then I felt bad. I felt bad because he had been so sincere. And I don't really know this kid—I have no idea what circumstances he comes from. I had to mentally slap some perspective back into my head.

Yes, by fancy Los Angeles standards our house is small and old. But for the other 99.9% of the world, it's a really nice house. For many people, our house would be considered luxurious. And even if it's not a nice house, we enjoy the house. The house has been a great home. I don't need to apologize for our house.

And maybe this young man didn't actually think the house was amazing, but he was trying to be polite. I should have just let him be nice. And I shouldn't have felt as if I needed to apologize for something that I'm fine with—even if I think other people are not fine with it.

So I will continue to work on letting people have their own minds. I will continue to let people say what they want to say without making sure they know I don't agree with them. I will try to have perspective and work on seeing things through other people's eyes.

My mind is not anyone else's mind.


I asked my mom about this:

Is there a Buddhist teaching about having differing opinions and perceptions? Do you have a favorite mantra that could help me remember to accept how other people feel? 

First of all, Mara, that's a great story. I think there are lots of people who dismiss and even dispute people's compliments about them (or their houses!). I love that you're training yourself to just say, "Thank you." I've been doing that too when people tell me I look good. I want to say, "Well I feel sick. I've been sick for 17 years." But I've realized that they're just trying to be nice and so, just like you, I'm training myself to respond by just saying, "Thank you."

About the Buddha's teachings. In one of his discourses called the Sutta Nipata, he talks about quarrels and disputes and says that he teaches a dharma that doesn't contend with anyone. 

He then goes on to say that people who are attached to their views and opinions usually go around annoying others. I've always loved this line. I sure find it annoying when people are attached to their opinions and want to argue about everything. 

You asked about a mantra, which is one reason I raise this discourse from the Buddha. I've taken on as a kind of mantra the idea to remind myself to live in a way that does not contend with anyone. 

When I don't contend—that is, when I'm not attached to my views and opinions—I feel better emotionally. It doesn't mean I'm indifferent. There's a lot about the world I'd like to change and I do what I can to change it. But I try to do without contending with others.

So that's my mantra, straight from the Buddha: Do not contend with anyone

Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Life of Bad Teeth and Lessons Learned

Mara here:

I got a tooth implant this year.

This might not sound like a big deal, but it was a five year process. Yes, five years.

Actually, it's more of a lifetime of dealing with teeth that I sometimes feel are purposely trying to make my life more complicated, even though I know logically that teeth don't have free will.

But it still feels that way to me.

If you are a person who doesn't think very much about your teeth, I envy you.

Regular readers of the blog already know that my teeth are not my strongest feature. Ever since I can remember, my teeth have been poorly formed and tend to fail on a regular basis. In the back of my mind, I know at all times I should probably be at the dentist's office.

It started as a young child when my adult teeth grew in with cavities. While I'm sure he was not actually an evil person, my local dentist tortured me with hours of painful procedures as he put in two, three, four or more fillings with each visit. Every one of my molars had cavities.

This of course led to me having a fear of dentists and made it so that as soon as I became old enough, I just stopped going unless I was in pain.

So the drama-filled relationship with my teeth has been long and steady.

About six years ago, I noticed a lump on my gum. Me being me, I just sort of ignored it. It kind of looked like a zit. I have super sensitive skin, so I often get sores in my mouth. I have ever since I was a kid.

The lump on my gum would disappear and reappear. It wasn't solid. I could push on it.

At the time, I was in the middle of travelling pretty much non-stop with my daughter. I didn't have the energy to have my gum investigated, especially since (and this is the important part) nothing was hurting. At one point, I pushed on the little lump and it felt like it popped and then disappeared. Oh good.

Fast forward a year. We had just returned from being out of town for three months. We had a short three-week stay at home before we would be leaving for Japan for another month long trip, but in the meantime my daughter had dance conventions out of town that we had to attend.

About a week after we returned, one of my teeth started hurting. I know from past experience, once tooth pain starts, it's important to get to the dentist quickly. I reluctantly made an appointment with a dentist.

Since I hadn't been to the dentist in a while, it was a dentist I had never seen before. My mode of picking dentists is to look at the list of dentists covered by our insurance and pick the one who's closet to my house. 

I remember the appointment was on a Friday morning. I fit it in between driving my daughter to her homeschool teacher appointment (an hour each way from our house) and then having to pack for leaving for the weekend for a dance convention in Orange County (which turned out to be a three hour drive on a Friday night).

I won't bore you with the details of my dental visit. I will cut to the chase: my back molar had to have an emergency root canal and the tooth in front of that molar had to be pulled because it turns out that the little lump in my gum was actually the root of my tooth and when I had felt that pop, it was my tooth's root breaking. The tooth was dead.

Um, what? You're pulling my tooth out?

The visit was a whirlwind of major dental activity, and the dentist, while perfectly competent, didn't have a particularly friendly bedside manner. I remember sitting wide-eyed as, first, he went over all the tooth replacement options for the tooth that was pulled and then talked about the procedure I'd likely have to have on the tooth that had just had the root canal since my teeth are small and there was not enough tooth, meaning he'd have to cut down the gum. (Excuse me? Cut my gum?) 

He was speaking fast, and I wasn't really absorbing what he was saying. My shocked mind translated his words into: It's going to be super expensive and very painful.

I'm pretty sure that's when I sort of mentally shut down. I simply could not process any more information. I nodded my head, explained that I was about to go out of town for four months so could he sort of just patch me up and I would deal with it when I got back?

He did just that. He put an extra sturdy temporary crown on the root-canaled tooth, sent me over to the oral surgeon who pulled the other tooth (oddly, a fast and cheap procedure), and sent me home with lots of instructions about what I was supposed to do when I returned from my trip. 

I wandered out of the office after three hours, numb: numb mouth and numb mind.

I'm not sure how I made it through the dance convention that weekend. If you don't know what a dance competition is like, I will sum it up with: loud and exhausting. It's 72 hours straight of loud music and of dealing with kids and their parents. It's 17-hour days and, if you're lucky, five or six hours of sleep. It's chaos.

I think I just went into war-zone mode. I'm not trying to make light of what an actual war experience would be like, but I just mean that I hunkered down and got through it. I don't remember it. And people I've asked said they didn't realize anything was wrong. (Part of that is because I didn't really know how to tell people I'd just had a tooth pulled.)

When we're kids, parents (and dentists) make a big deal about "adult" teeth. There's an emphasis put on how they're permanent—they're forever.

Forever...that is, until they're pulled out. 

Losing one of my teeth was scary. I felt as if I was missing part of myself. I felt on the shallowest of levels that I had failed an aspect of being an adult because one of my "permanent" teeth was no longer there.

So I didn't talk about it. I shoved some gauze in my mouth, kept my head down, and wore a scarf to cover my swollen jaw. I took copious amounts of Advil and got through the dance convention weekend. 

A couple of weeks later, we were gone on another set of trips for four months and, not surprisingly, I didn't go back to the dentist when we returned later that year.

In fact, I never went back to that dentist.

Fast forward three years.

My "temporary" crown finally dissolved. (Although props to that dentist who definitely put an extremely sturdy temporary crown on.)  I had to finally deal with the tooth that had the root canal. This led to pretty much two years of dealing with teeth that were literally crumbling out of my mouth. After two years of working with a dentist who I've come to trust, I finally dealt with my missing tooth.

The missing tooth had been weighing on my mind because somewhere, in all the information that the original dentist had spewed at me that awful Friday afternoon, was the fact that the jaw bone, without a tooth, will deteriorate. If you wait too long to replace a tooth, you wind up needing bone grafts which definitely sound more painful and more expensive.

So, I finally made the jump and initiated the process of doing the tooth implant.

And honestly, after five years of fretting about it, it wasn't really that big a deal.

Was it painful? Yes. Was it expensive? Extremely. But it wasn't as painful, complicated, or expensive as I had built it up to be in my mind. My mind had completely turned getting a tooth implant into a fictional monumental event, preventing me for many years from dealing with the reality of it. I had created a million scenarios in my mind why I shouldn't or couldn't do it.

And the reality was, as is often the case, not as complicated as I imagined it.

But what really surprised me was that while I never completely got used to the feeling of my missing tooth, suddenly having a tooth back in my mouth felt even more strange.

All of the teeth around the missing tooth had had dental work done on them. So when the implant was finally in, my mouth felt so strange. It reminded me of what it felt like when I had a retainer. All the teeth around the new tooth were sore. In fact, all the teeth were sore. There were a million little adjustments being made.

And I'm particularly sensitive, so I could feel the teeth around my new tooth moving. They felt loose. I could feel them wiggling ever so slightly. In addition, it was painful to chew on that side of my mouth. I hadn't properly chewed on the right side of my mouth for five years. Five years of crowns and fillings that had never really been tested.

So I continued to not use that side of my mouth. I would tentatively take a couple chews on the right side, confirm it was still painful, and then return to chewing on the other side of my mouth.

A week later, while flossing on the trusty left side of my mouth, my floss got stuck. And as I pulled on it, I felt something cave. Was it part of my tooth? Was it a filling? I wasn't sure.

I gently probed the tooth with my tongue, there was definitely a gaping hole where there had not been one previously. There wasn't any pain, fortunately, but I couldn't believe it.

I had just completed the process of the tooth implant. My dental insurance was maxed out, and my mental dental capacity was beyond maxed out.

The old me would probably have ignored it. But the new me, the older and wiser me, the me with a dentist whom I knew and trusted, decided not to be an idiot, so I called and made an appointment.

I had a failed filling. One of the fillings that my childhood dentist had painfully inserted decades before had collapsed.

So the filling had to be removed and replaced.

This meant I couldn't chew on the left side of my mouth.

This meant I had to chew on the right side of my mouth—the new tooth side of my mouth. The side where things still felt really weird, and it still hurt to bite down on things.

I seriously thought about just drinking liquids for two weeks. But then I decided to not be stubborn.

After every dental procedure, I've found that it takes a while before the new part of my mouth adjusts. If I have a new crown, the crown always feels wrong for a couple of days. It always takes a while for the rest of my mouth to accept the new part. I'm not sure if it's because things need to adjust physically or if it's that mentally, my mind has to adjust to accepting the new addition.

During the two week period while I had to wait for my new filling to arrive (they're like crowns now, porcelain and created in a lab) I slowly re-learned how to chew on the right side of my mouth. My teeth felt fragile. I felt like every time I bit down that something would break. (Honestly this has happened so it's not just me being afraid.) But day-by-day, my teeth slowly moved and adjusted. And my mind accepted the changes and adjusted.

And it made me realize how much I had adjusted during the years of my missing tooth—only chewing on the left side of my mouth. I remember how awkward it felt having a big gaping hole on the right side of my mouth. I remember adjusting to the fact that when I brushed my teeth, there was a place where I could feel the brush against my gums.

I remembered building up the courage to finally just tell people I'd had a tooth pulled. I remembered when I first visited my current dentist and felt embarrassed explaining that I was missing a tooth. I remembered when I'd had the tooth above my missing tooth crowned and wondering how they could do that without a bottom tooth. There had been so many changes between the time my tooth was pulled and when I had the new one implanted.

And every time, my mouth and my mind adjusted.

Sure enough, slowly but surely the pain decreased on the right side of my mouth. My teeth stopped moving and seemed sturdy. And even more slowly my mind adjusted. I re-learned to trust the right side of my mouth.

So here I am—for the first time in five years, the teeth on both sides of my mouth are functional. And for the first time in five years there's no pain. 

Have you had similar experiences of avoiding something because mentally you simply didn't want to have to deal with it?

I've done that too many times to count. I'm still doing it. I try to deal with it by taking a small stickie, writing those "have to's" on it, and putting it on my laptop. This forces me to stare at the stuff I don't want to deal with until I finally do deal with it. My reward is that, with great gusto, I get to cross it off that "stickie list."

My fear of dentists is mostly mental. Is there a Buddhist teaching for people to overcome mental blocks they have?

I'd say that teaching is found in the Buddha's first noble truth, which points out that there's no way around it: life is going to include unpleasant experiences. In the new edition of my book, How to Be Sick, I've named it "The Buddha's List," and getting what we don't want is one of the things on that list. The condition of your teeth is definitely something you didn't want for yourself and I didn't want for you.

I've found that learning to accept that life will contain its share of experiences I'd rather not have makes things easier mentally because it keeps me from adding anger and resentment into the mix, which only makes me feel worse. If life is inevitably going to be unpleasant at times, stewing in resentment and anger over a particular unpleasant occurrence is a waste of energy because it doesn't change things. Sometimes I say to myself that I know I don't want to do something but I have to (often for my health and safety). Then, mental block or not, I forge ahead and try not to add those painful emotions, such as resentment, to the mix. 

I'm so sorry about your teeth Mara. They've always been a problem. I had no idea it would continue into your adult life as it has.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

You Carefully Plan...and Then Life Happens

Mara here:

I went on a trip last weekend. It was a trip to Manhattan to drop my daughter off at a summer program at Columbia University, and then I was going to take the train north to visit some friends for a couple of days.

Travelling for me is always a mixed bag of emotions. I enjoy being in different places, but the actual experience of going places causes me a lot of anxiety.

So I did what I normally do which is pack carefully and try to anticipate the unexpected and try not to think about the trip very much. If I just "do" instead of "think" then things tend to go more smoothly.

The first 20 hours of the trip went smoothly. We got into Manhattan, got to our hotel, woke up the next morning and got Malia checked into her program. Then I met a friend for a drink before getting on the train.

Easy peasy.

Fast forward to 24 hours later. I am lost in a field, my face is covered in hives, and my daughter is on a train to meet me because she's decided not to do the program at Columbia and is coming home with me.


My friend and I had gone on a hike the morning after I arrived at their house and we somehow took a wrong turn and ended up in a field. This might have been because at the time my daughter was frantically texting me about how she didn't want to stay for the program at Columbia. She was going to withdraw which meant she needed me to either come meet her back in Manhattan or she would come to me. We decided that she should get on the train and meet me at our friend's house, but trying to explain to a teenager how to navigate Grand Central Station when she's never been there before isn't easy. So perhaps I wasn't completely paying attention to where I was going.

The hives had started earlier that morning. But as the day went on, my face got more and more bumpy and itchy. I was slathering on Cortisone cream and taking Benadryl, but new patches of rough bumps were popping up by the minute.

Fast forward another 24 hours and my daughter is home in Los Angeles and my husband is driving me to Urgent Care because, when I got off the plane at LAX he took one look at my patchy red face and said, "Oh honey, I think you need to go to the doctor."

Ughhhhhhh! I had spent the entire trip telling myself that the hives weren't very bad. I was hoping I would land at home and they would miraculously just be better. But apparently not.

I can't fault him for his concern. This isn't the first time that I have been struck with medical problems on a trip. During a trip to Reno, I got a UTI which required an immediate trip to Urgent Care when we got home. On a trip to New York City, I had a tooth abscess which required an immediate trip to the dentist upon our return. And worst of all, on a visit to my parents' house, I broke out in a massive case of hives all over my body, in which I was actually going to into anaphylactic shock and required an immediate trip to the emergency room because my tongue and throat were swelling.

Back to this week. As I was sitting in Urgent Care waiting to be seen by a doctor, I thought about the past 72 hours wondering what had happened. And really, my only conclusion was life happened.

Almost nothing about the weekend had gone the way I'd planned it. And the end result was not a scenario that had ever even entered my thoughts. I had thought about delayed flights, getting lost, forgetting to pack things, and bad weather. But I had not thought about ending up flying back home with my daughter (who was supposed to be staying in New York for three weeks) and a bad case of hives.

There was a large part of me that wanted to be mad. My inner toddler wanted to throw a tantrum because things just weren't supposed to end this way. But I'm not a toddler anymore, and I was too tired to be anything but happy I was home.

And I realized that regardless of what had happened, everything was fine. I was going to get better (thank you wizards of science and medicine) and my daughter was home and safe. All the other stuff was not that important.

It was another great reminder from the universe that you can plan all you want but, in the end, you can't control what happens. Because usually when you start to think that you know exactly how things are going to happens. And life is unpredictable. Life is messy. Life is frustrating.

Life is also beautiful and exciting and wonderful.

And life reminded me of all that this past weekend. 

As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."

Here are two questions I asked my Mom on this subject:
On your trip to Paris in 2001, when you initially got sick, how did you handle the disappointment of the trip not going the way you'd planned?

That's an interesting question because, of course, I had no idea at the time that I wouldn't recover. And so, I've never really thought about how I handled the disappointment of getting what I thought was just an acute illness. 

I was mostly disappointed that I couldn't keep your Dad company in Paris. He'd get up in the morning, go out somewhere, come back at noon to see if I was any better, and then go out again. For some people, this would be okay, but he doesn't really like seeing things by himself. Yes, he went to the Louvre, but he didn't really enjoy it.

On the whole, I was able to handle the disappointment of missing what I'd so carefully planned for. I loved to look at guide books and pick interesting places to see. I even had us going to the famous cemetery where famous authors and musicians like Jim Morrison are buried (his tomb having been made into some kind of shrine by fans). So I had a list of 20 or so places to go and things to do. People who've read How to Be Sick know that I did two things: went to the British Hospital to see a doctor and tried going to the Musee D'Orsay, which was a bit of a disaster.

But I was able to put it in perspective as you've been able to do with your trip to New York. I knew I'd come home to a house I love and to a job I love (the latter turning out to be short-lived due to the illness). My two children were happily married. All in all, life was good and so I could accept those "lost" three weeks. Little did I know they'd extent until now, over 17 years later.

What is the Buddhist teaching for accepting that things are not always going to go the way we hope and plan for?

Mara, that IS the Buddha's teaching—accepting that things are not always going to go the way we hope and plan for. You illustrated so well how you pulled that off as you were describing how you dealt with the craziness and stress of last week which, as you point out, can happen because of the utter unpredictability of our lives. 

I've been re-reading one of the first Buddhist books I owned. It's by Charlotte Joko Beck and this quotation struck me: "The only thing you can rely on is life being as it is." 

She emphasized "only thing" several times. If I could accept this—that is, "live it" 24/7—my life would be much easier—more calm, less complaining, more gentle. I've found that being mindful (that is: paying attention) of what I'm thinking helps me get to acceptance because it's only when I see all the ways in which I'm not accepting life being as it is that I can see the mental suffering and misery that goes along with that. That's my incentive to move toward acceptance.

Mara, from your piece, I see that you've experienced the peace (even if it's just muscles relaxing) that comes with acceptance—true acceptance, not a cynical whatever—even when it can be a bumpy ride to get there. I'm so grateful that you can get there. It's a gift.