John can usually be found at the coffee shop I often go to. He is a grizzled man in his sixties, homeless. Sometimes he talks to himself but he is gentle, always very gentle. Not like me, where gentle is a decision I make when I would really rather punch someone. He is gentle all the way through.
Sometimes he says hello and wants to talk and when that happens I listen. Once he told me all about the microclimate we live in and why it is prone to drought. Once he told me about his friend who drinks too much and often can’t get a bed at the shelter because of it. Another time he told me about a friend who had triple bypass surgery after too many years of eating peanut butter and popcorn, prompting me to change my planned menu for the day.
Today he is talking about education, and how learning shouldn’t be about all the things you’re doing wrong but about all the things you’re doing right. And also families need support and teachers need support. John is making a lot more sense than any politician I have ever heard.
I don’t know anything about him, in terms of biography. I guess he is a Vietnam vet, because his age and circumstances are right. That war did a lot of damage to a lot of people in his generation. I am old enough to remember the fall of Saigon and the last helicopter leaving, but too young for any of it to have left any scars.
John always thanks me politely for my time. I always say, “You’re welcome.”
I don’t know why I stop and listen. I have a lot of other things I could be doing. Maybe I listen to remind myself that life has almost nothing to do with how much I accomplish today.
Today my head is in that place I hate, where I know I am being Type A and I can’t seem to stop it. I know that the busywork is just avoidance, like that Burn Notice marathon last week. I can’t seem to help it. It is a feeling of being stuck, the idea that if I just do something, do more, I will change what cannot be changed.
I am letting go of outcomes, but it’s a process, and I’ve been letting go for almost twenty years now. I still don’t get it right a lot of the time. Today is one of those days. I am losing the path. I am one of those middling people who find it, then wander off. The ones Lao Tzu gently derides. I know it, and can’t seem to do anything about it.
Sadly, I tell Lao Tzu, I was not born a superior person. At least I am not a goat.
I don’t know what’s wrong with being a goat, but it seems a good thing to be thankful for, so I go with it. I am a middling person, wavering on the way.
John is quietly winding down about education policy. He looks up at me, his eyes watery and old behind his glasses.
“Not very many people can see reality,” he says suddenly, from out of nowhere. “I try. It’s important to try.”
It is like a little message from Lao Tzu. I can hear him chuckling.
“Thank you,” I say.
“You’re welcome,” says John. Then: “What is your name? I don’t remember it.”
“That’s right. Jenni-fu. Jenni-fu.”
I don’t correct him. I like what he has named me. I figure it translates to The art of not being a goat.
I am imagining what might have been. I don’t do this very often; it’s pointless and it hurts. But today in the warm spring sunshine it seems harmless, and I think I am tough enough to take it.
My “what might have been” always begins with “What if my daughter Jessica were like anyone else?” I might still be married. I imagine that I am, and that she will be going to college next year. I am not exactly imagining her as a college student; I cannot actually imagine Jessica as other than she is, and anyway this project is about me and not about her.
So she would be off to college and I would be married. Our mortgage would be nearly paid off and our retirement savings in good order. You see, I am imagining that nothing else has gone wrong, that no businesses have failed, that Jessica has not turned into a drug addict or died in a car accident on a lonely county road.
We would be comfortable, as they say, my husband and I, thinking our hard work had brought us here. We would be planning a trip, maybe a cruise but probably not, probably a two-week trip to China or Kenya.
I am probably a little smug. I am probably in better shape. I am probably content. I am probably thinking everything turned out just the way I wanted it to.
It is an attractive picture, for a moment. I turn it over in my mind. I think I would like to be her, the woman in that might-have-been picture. I think it would be very restful.
The sun is strong. I’m getting a burn. Later I will remark that I get older but I don’t get wiser. You would think after all these years I would remember the sunscreen. I go inside, turning the image over in my mind one last time. I would like that life, I think, and even as I think it, the picture starts to crack across, like what happens with old paintings, fine little cracks everywhere.
Even if Jessica were like every other child, that is not the life you would have, the part of me that knows me thinks. You would not be married. You hated being married, irrespective of your daughter. You hate being in relationships. You are like a feral cat, thinking someone is trying to trap you. The only relationship you have ever been in that has not strangled the life out of you is the one you have with Jessica. And if she were like everyone else, she probably would have strangled the life out of you, too. Also, you would never have money in the bank. Are you kidding me?
I rub some lotion on my sunburn, thinking age may not have brought wisdom, but it has brought something. Discernment, maybe. The ability to tell the truth from the lie.
The might-have-been picture crackles into dust. I am happy.
Today is my birthday, and it is one of those birthdays with a zero in it, the kind of thing that makes you think, “If thirteen-year-old me could see me now, she’d be saying WHAT THE FUCK!!?!!?”
I first became interested in Taoism at a young age, but I could not fully embrace it then. That makes sense to me. I don’t think you should be a Taoist in your twenties. I think you should probably be on fire, trying to save the world. You won’t, and then you’ll need to figure out how not to be cranky about that fact, and then you’ll need Taoism. But not before.
This is not one of those aspirational lifestyle blogs, you know the kind, where young men pontificate on how to make a lot of money and travel the world and be very hip and cool while doing it. The idea is that you should want to be like them.
So I shall be frank. You do not want to be like me. No one would aspire to have my life, an extremely ridiculous one full of sorrow and drudgery in which I am frantically trying to figure out how to pay the rent far too often for a woman of my age. I could win the lottery tomorrow, or the Pulitzer, and while I would not say no to either of these things, neither of them, or anything else, would cure my daughter and she would still suffer, and my life would still have a lot of sorrow and drudgery, which is to say, it would still be one of those silly human lives.
So I am talking to the grownups of the world, the ones who have bills, and regrets, and maybe a shrink. The ones who can’t abandon their lives to go live it up on the Riviera or to retreat to a mountaintop. Not just can’t: wouldn’t want to. The people who don’t aspire to my life, but have it already: a real life, warts and all.
I am sure there must be at least ten of us, right? And ten is a good start.
This blog is not about how if you follow my advice (“you should be like me!”) then you will lose fifty pounds/cure your acne/never get the flu again/attract your soul mate. I don’t have the first idea how to do any of that stuff. And besides, you don’t want to be like me. You want to be like you. With a little more peace, maybe. Not mistaking control and anxiety for mastery of anything.
This blog is about trying to be here with you, and to know that you are here with me.
For most of my life I have been a type A, achievement-oriented person, and so my response to every challenge that comes my way is to do something about it, which is why being Jessica’s mother is so maddening. There is nothing I can do about it. There ought to be! I don’t care how impossible the task might be, I would get it done.
But there isn’t anything to do other than to accept, which turns out to be one of those damned annoying Life Lessons that I am always doing my level best to avoid.
A few months ago, I had the random realization that every single thing that is a problem in my life, or that I consider a problem, is the direct result of my trying to solve some other problem. Yes, indeed, every problem I have was once a solution. Eating too much is a way to cope with stress. Teaching that class I hate teaching is way to pay the rent. Overspending on dining out is a way to deal with the fact that I don’t have enough time to cook from scratch.
So at first I thought, well that sounds a lot like life, it’ll bite you in the ass no matter what, and I started solving the problems I had created by trying to solve problems and I think you can guess where this is headed.
So then I thought, Dear Zeus, I am going to have to stop solving problems, and that is very hard for a person like me, harder than pretty much anything I’ve done in life, until finally I had the aha! moment that apparently all this dumbass work has been driving towards: I realized I needed to stop having problems.
Now you may not believe me but this is way easier than it sounds, or at least it’s way easier than it sounds once you realize every other approach you’ve ever tried has failed.
Once I stopped thinking of life as a problem to be solved, it suddenly became a lot more interesting.
This is not a site about personal development. I like you fine, warts and all. In fact, your warts are what I love about you. Nothing is more obnoxious than a saint, unless it’s someone who’s trying to be one. So light up that Marlboro; I won’t complain. I’m having a mocha overstuffed with sugar and two shots of espresso, even though I know the caffeine will keep me up tonight.
This is not a site about how you need to lose ten pounds OR YOU WILL DIE TOMORROW!!! or how to stop yelling at your dog UNLESS YOU WANT TO BE A BAD AND EVIL PERSON FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE!!! And, no, I don’t have the first idea what you should do about your 401(k).
This is a site about coping with the hard things in life (major loss, catastrophe, even) and accepting the gifts that such experiences offer us.
Now I’m going to tell you a story. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
When my daughter was three days old, a neurologist said to me, “Your daughter’s brain is massively deformed.”
In the heartbeat that followed this pronouncement, I thought the very best thing that could happen would be for us to die in a tragic auto accident on the way home from the hospital. You might call that not wanting to deal with the world as it is.
Later, when I decided I would do everything I could to cure my daughter, I was trying out another fantasy: that everything would be all right if everything just changed, if I just did something about it. The world was not to my liking, but it could be altered so that I would like it better, if I just tried hard enough.
On the day I thought, “I need to let go of everything I think I know about life,” I found the path through the forest. In thinking that, I chose the positive road, the warrior’s way, the path I like to think of as the Tao: saying yes to life in all its joy and sorrow.
In the beginning, what I sought for my daughter was something out there: an elixir, a cure, a magic amulet that would make her all right, take away her crippling disease. But there exists no such thing. What I learned, instead, was how to find everything I needed inside of me: acceptance, courage, strength—and joy.