A few months ago, I walked into Witch City Ink (Paul Martinez worked on me; highly recommend him) and had the phrase Every day is a good day inked on my left forearm. It's actually a quote by Ummon, a Chinese Zen master born in 862 or 864 CE. It was something I came across while reading a book on Zen buddhism and had stuck around in my head for quite a while. For some reason, I felt the need to tattoo it on my arm.
I know, I know...a bold statement. And one I put permanently in a visible place. It is a reminder. A constant method of checking myself and the state of my thinking. When a project at work starts to get out of hand and I'm being run over by code, I feel my blood begin to rise. The first few moments of a mini-eruption inside the monkey mind begins to boil. My natural reaction to change and hardship makes itself known. And then, I look down at my arm, read Every day is a good day and take a breath. The eruption recedes away. The ink has done it's job.
I think it's easy to get caught up in the speed our negative emotions maintain. One thing cascades into another and, all of a sudden, it's anger and frustration sitting in the pool of emotion. My dearest friend has told me that our thoughts take these neural pathways that are much like a stream through rock. The thoughts one thinks slowly grind away at the rock, burrowing deeper into the same path day after day, thought after thought. If all we think about are the negative aspects of any situation, those neural streams dig themselves deeper into our minds and the first reaction to a situation is our pessimistic, change-is-no-good attitude. But these neural pathways can be reconfigured. New streams and inlets can burrow into a more positive thinking pattern (or, at the least, a neutral pattern). Every day is a good day is a way to remap my mind, a way to slough off the past 3 1/2 years of Boston banality.
It's been working. I read my arm and think just how amazingly wonderful my life is. Sure, sure...I've got things I want to improve. Sure, sure...I've made mistakes in my past. Sure, sure...I'm not where I want to be just yet. But damn, life is pretty sweet. I wake up each morning with a little, old pug who likes to spoon. I work at a job that I adore. The small amount of friends I do have are loyal, kind, and would go to the ends of the earth to help me (and vice versa). I have a close-knit family. And hey, I'm sitting here this morning, warm, comfortable and writing. How can life be so wonderful?
I do strive to improve my life. But I need to remember that right here, right now is perfect. This moment is perfect. To just be in this world as Nikki is such a random, chaotic act of nature; I can't take it for granted.
Every day is a good day.
Above image courtesy of Mayme Snow
Last night as I sat on the couch, a feeling of boredom and a sense of pathetic-ness washing over me, I became despondent. It's a feeling of not knowing what's going on with my life, of questioning my decisions, of realizing just how sad my life can be. This isn't how I feel all the time; actually, it's not how I feel most of the time. But last night, well that damned, little imp of self-doubt and confusion was creeping around messing with the wires in my head.
It's usually the cause of being in a bad mood during the day. The endless questioning. A strong dislike of who I am cascading into my walking day. Relationships at work become strained as I fight internally over the ridiculousness of me and the wonderfulness of me (I know, lots of ness's). It is hard to explain to coworkers why I stay quiet, why my brow burrows deeper in between my eyes, why my responses are short, succinct, directly to the point. If I were to speak more than a few words, tears would come running out of my eyes; a mass exodus of marathon running tears pushing their way past the start line when the starting gun fires. Days like yesterday are the days where I want to stay home, wrap myself in my comforter, and drink endless bottles of beer to alter my mood.
So, when I came home, after cleaning up after a sick dog and berating myself for not being a good mother, I made myself a decent meal and a strawberry-banana smoothie. I sat on the couch watching Burn Notice. My mood slightly changed but then I grabbed a beer and after the first half of the beer was gone, felt the swooning wash of slight inebriation envelope me (yes, I really am that much of a lightweight). I started flipping through YouTube videos on my Roku, something that is a rarity for me, and happened upon a movie trailer for a movie I just can't remember the name of. The male protagonist of the story says, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Loving you is like shouting into the void!"
And I thought, "Now, there's something!"
Take off the love part, make the phrase present-tense, and you've got a shout into the void. What better way than to summize what I'm doing here, on this blog, in my journal, trying to figure out my head than that simple little phrase? I write but no one reads, at least to my knowledge. And, if they do read, how are they to contact me to let me know? I've had this dualistic desire for many years: to give credence to my voice, to scream until I'm hoarse but not wanting to own my words, my feelings, afraid of the consequences being true to yourself can bring. It's a definite selfish trait. As I write more and more, I'm learning to let that go. I'm learning to recongize my voice. I'm finding out that it's okay to have an opinion and put it out there.
And, I'm learning that it's okay to just start typing, having no real direction, and finger vomit all over this screen.
It’s Friday morning, a quarter to six. I’ve been up for the past 45 minutes. The calm that comes from meditation still surrounds me.
This is my morning ritual: I rise around 5 and make a cup of tea. Once it’s done steeping, I meditate for 10 minutes, pick up the tea from the kitchen counter that is now cool enough for me to drink, and sit down at my desk to write longhand for another 10 minutes. In these 10 minutes of writing, I allow myself to write anything, so long as my hand continues to move without any editorial demons screaming at me for the alleged ridiculousness I may put down on paper.
This practice has slowly started to build a base on which I am able to stand on throughout the day. It is a base that stays solid; that no matter what may happen today—whether good, bad, or indifferent—tomorrow I will get up and perform the same ritual. This act of love toward myself has no basis in what happened the day before or what may come in the day in front of me. I come to the meditation with monkey mind (a sort of horror realizes itself at having a monkey mind upon first waking. Does one’s mind ever turn off?) and by the time the gong has been rung, I feel more calm and focused. The meditation is completely my time to allow everything—the dire situations or petty concerns—to slide off my shoulders. The floor around my zabuton is littered with the hollow shells of discarded concerns that no longer have a hold over my mind.
This is not to say that the dire situations and petty concerns do not plague me. Far from it. A project at work that is falling behind, the heating oil gauge delicately kissing EMPTY, a sick dog that I’ll be picking up after all day; these are still real problems that need real solutions. But, for those 10 minutes of meditation, I do not worry about them. I come back to the breath. I breath in and out and, when monkey mind starts to creep back in, I count breaths in stanzas of 4.
Writing afterward gives me the chance to explore, wail, scream, lament, or be a giddy schoolgirl without any judgement. Free reign to be as small and petty as I feel myself to be. However, looking back through the past month and a half of daily entries, I see that I am not as petty or pathetic as I feel. Entries of hopes and dreams, working through feelings, coming to terms with my divorce, little snippets of a short story are more of what I find. Once I’ve given myself the 10 minutes to explore and the gong has rung again, I feel more grounded. I am beginning to understand myself, my mind, more each day. Peace has been slowly folded into my daily life.
This morning ritual seems to work. First, the act of following through on a promise I made to myself is a feeling of accomplishment. Even if everything I set out to do that day fails in one way or another, I know I have completed one thing. The days I do not perform my morning ritual, which have been few and far between over the past month and a half, I feel a sense of unease. A malaise settles in at the back of my head. I have learned that on the mornings when I do not want to go through the motions, that sense of malaise is worse than actually sitting my butt on my mat and in my chair.
Secondly, I find that I have a better understanding with whatever problem or experience I end up writing about. 10 minutes is just long enough to write a full page. I need to be succinct and get to the heart of the issue quickly, rather than take my normal circuitous route around it. Allowing the space between my mind and the issue when meditating dulls the sense of urgency. Writing about it, even if it’s only to lament, gives me a clarity that I don’t think can be realized if thoughts only stay in our head.
Finally, the morning ritual just seems to make me happier. I’m starting to smile more. I’m starting to become friends with myself. Creative ideas are flowing a bit more freely and my writing outside of the notebook has started to increase. The morning rituals are my markers; little cairns on the side of the path that I am walking, marking each day. I’ll always be able to find my way back by just following them.
Previously, my morning ritual was to wake, make coffee, and start coding. More than likely I would be working on a freelance project, sometimes working on a personal project, responding to emails, and getting all worked up before the sun even rose. Now, I carve out the morning for me and me alone. It is one of the best things I’ve done to increase my happiness, sense of self, and confidence. It has allowed me to let go of a lot, to uncling, to focus, and to keep me from reacting immediately. The morning ritual has given me a solid base on which I can explore and experience my life.
I have been continuously meditating over the past week & have come to realize how busy my mind really is. A thousand thoughts zip by each second, each one bringing with it should haves, could haves, why-didn't-you's that cloud the process of meditation. And each time I bring my focus back to my breathing, envisioning that I am the ocean & each out breath is the waves crashing into the rocky cliffs, each in breath the retreat back to the great expanse of sea (of course, when my mind is calm, the seas in my mind's eye are reflective of that).
In the past, I have been a sporadic meditator. A few days here & then something else would take my intention from meditation & place it somewhere else. These past 8 days have been the longest conscious meditation span I have embarked upon. Although I still fight with my monkey mind, it is slowly getting easier. The time span is starting to feel too short whereas on the first day, it was an eternity in hell spending that much time with my mind. I have begun to accept the chaotic nature of my self. And I have begun to see things in new ways.
The hatred I have for this city has begun to shift. Perhaps that hatred was wrongly misplaced. Perhaps that hatred is a vein that runs through this city & only those that are unhappy, scared, & fearful are the ones that tap into it. And rather than trying to change this city or change my behavior to match it, I just accept Boston as it is. I make no judgement. I see, I acknowledge, I release.
This has crept into my working life as well. Rather than being dissatisfied that I have not advanced or been able to make a more meaningful impact in the company, I'm learning to accept my role. It's a very small piece of a larger whole & my fingers code out other's decisions but I am happy with that now. Removing my ego from the job (My ideas are important! My ideas are valuable!) removes the need to prove myself. And it also frees up time & focus to work on other things that I find valuable.
There have been many changes I've been making over the past few weeks. At times, it feels like too much; like my body shouldn't be able to cope with so much upheaval in such a short time span. But, all it really takes is the decision to change & action upon that decision. I suppose that's why my mind is so full of monkeys throwing their excrement at each other; it's rebelling against the changes. It was comfortable smoking cigarettes, eating shit food, getting angry at things that don't matter. My mind is an adolescent teen lashing out against her parents.
But, the meditation helps. It is calming. It prepares me for my day. When something gets my panties in a ruffle, my immediate reaction is "What the fu-" & then I catch myself, let the reaction wash off my head & shoulders, & take a breath. Life is a bit better looking at it this way.
Since starting my 21-day cleanse of eating only a vegan diet, focusing on whole foods and juicing, I've noticed something. I'm becoming intimate with my food. No, no, not intimate as in George Costanza in the Seinfeld episode (check it out). Rather, I'm familiarizing myself with the food in my kitchen.
This morning, I purchased cilantro and parsley, along with many other fruits and vegetables. This evening, as I was preparing dinner, I held the cilantro close to my nose; inhaled the sharp, clean aroma. I took the leaves between my finger tips and rubbed lightly back and forth. There was so much moisture coming off of them. On the cutting board, as I drew the blade carefully across their stalks and leaves, the smells intensified. I proceeded to cut onions and carrots, garlic and daikon radishes, broccoli and green peppers, all the while soaking chickpeas and cooking rice. What usually is a complete chore for me has turned into, at least for tonight, an intimate way to get to know my food.
I was bred in the world of practicality and realism. Food was a means to an end: nourishment, sustenance, calories. I actually could take or leave food and preferred not to eat. I stuck with my cigarettes and coffee. Part of that was just never wanting to spend the time preparing my food and the other part was that my stomach is quite sensitive to anything put into it (I won't tell you how many times I've ran for the bathroom at a restaurant). It never really dawned on me that what I put in my body actually manifests itself into how I feel within my body.
So, to spend more time than it takes to peel a foil wrapper off of some quick food is quite an accomplishment. To feel a sense of gratitude toward my food, to spend the time smelling and feeling and chopping and smiling, is another thing altogether. Tonight, the headaches that have been a constant din in the back of my head have subsided and I've been able to enjoy my meal in peace. This new food path that I've begun is starting to feel okay.
Granted, there are some things I'm missing. I have an awful sweet tooth and broke down last night. Rushing to the grocery store just before 5 o'clock to beat the rush hour, I picked up some vegan treats (sweet potato chips and raspberry sorbet) to help me over the sweet tooth hump. Too much sugar for sure but it is better than picking up something worse. As Kris Carr says, you've got to work at your own pace and make changes that fit into your lifestyle. I don't think of the sorbet and chips as a step back but rather a way of being kind to myself (something my ex would always say). And today was a new day, as will tomorrow.
Ultimately, I am becoming more conscious into what actually goes into my body. Each time I put something in my mouth, it is a decision that I am fully aware of. And, believe it or not, it might just help me become more aware of other things in my environment.
I spent the first 2 days of this week in Blue Hill, Maine, a small town about an hour drive south of Bangor, nestled against the coast. My friend lives up there in a tiny, 12X12 foot cabin without any running water and a cast-iron wood stove to keep her warm. Her cabin is very warm and inviting and I kept telling her it was such an idyllic life, even if she didn't have running water. During my time there, I felt Boston melt away, slide off my body, and drop to the ground.
I don't particularly like the woman I've become during my 3 years in Boston. Before moving here, I was a bit more gregarious. I've always been a little shy but I never had problems with venturing out into the world and interacting with people. However, getting out of my apartment is now a chore. Amazon probably has what I need. I'll just order it and wait for UPS to deliver, is a common thought in my head nowadays.
Cynicism has become a running theme throughout all of my thoughts. I believe, or maybe it's believed now, that humans are a kind species that have sympathy for each other (and, when we are at our best, have empathy and connect on a much deeper level). This belief in the good-heartedness of humankind has eroded to leave a sticky residue of cynicism in the belief that humans are only out for themselves. Our environment plays a big role in developing who we are as a child but I think that also is true for adults; our environments can mold our personalities.
This cynicism has eaten it's way into how I think about myself. My guard to the outside world slowly broke down and now I find myself trying to guard myself against my own thoughts. The running commentary is that I'm not good enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough. I have always had thoughts like these in the past and I imagine most of humanity does too; a little self-doubt is healthy because it can fortify your resolve and make you prepare just a bit more. However, when there is no head to the tail of the cynic coin, the one-sided dialogue is a monotonous circle of the drain and a descent into self-loathing.
Some people have told me I need to have a thicker skin. I've always been told to buck up, put on a happy face, to not let the bullies' words hurt you. But a thicker skin is nor part of my DNA. My emotions run along the surface of me, ready to burst at any moment. Putting a thicker skin on that rolling, shit-storm of emotion is only going to end badly. I have learned to keep my mouth shut, to walk away, to put a temporary cap on my feelings. But I feel like it's not my fault or problem. I wonder why we can't just be nice. Why we have lost this collective feeling of caring for someone other than ourselves. Boston traffic is the perfect example of worrying only about one's self. It's rare to see someone stop and allow another car before them in the 5 o'clock rush hour traffic.
And so, now I am looking for another place to live. A place to start repairing myself. A place where there is a community that I want to be part of. Because, even though I've never been more financially stable and see my career taking off, I can no longer do it at the expense of my inner being. My soul can no longer take it.
I've got 2 full days left of eating meat and dairy. On Wednesday, I start a 21-day cleanse, courtesy of Crazy Sexy Diet by Kris Carr, focusing only on a whole-food, plant-based diet. But right now, my belly is full of pizza, fries, and a large helping of Butterfinger, Coffee, Oreo, and Peanut Butter yogurt. It was yummy and I immediately fell asleep watching the tube.
Why the cleanse? Like I wrote yesterday, Boston is slowly killing me. Granted, that sounds—and probably is—grandiose. A big part of Boston's slow death is what I've been putting into my body. The ease of ordering food here is almost an addiction. Hungry? Foodler! Thirsty? Packie down the block. I was raised eating what was considered healthy food but as soon as I made it out on my own, I rarely ate. I've never been a big fan of food. And, when I did need to eat, my choices were always Fast, Convenient, Easy and in that order. During my twenties, my daily intake consisted of coffee and cigarettes, with an occasional eight ball thrown in for good measure.
Now that I'm in my mid-thirties, I can't take that anymore. I'm a lackadaisical ass, sitting in my chair in front of my desk—either the one at work or here at home—and the only physical activity I get is walking Pugsy around the block. I figure a lot of my depressive attitude is from a lack of exercise and whole foods.
So, 2 weeks ago, I started reading Crazy Sexy Diet. I began watching more food documentaries (I recommend Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead and Forks Over Knives). I bought a juicer. I signed up for Boston Organics. I've slowly been weaning myself off of the 6 cups of coffee a day habit down to my current 1 cup a day habit, which will turn into no caffeine whatsoever on Wednesday. I quit smoking (again) over 2 weeks ago (I smoked from 16 -32, quit for 2.5 years, picked it up again in May, and now I'm smoke-free). My philosophy is that I feel like shit, both mentally and physically because all I've been feeding myself are negative thoughts and processed, complex foods. On Wednesday, that begins to change.
I've found that when I try to change something on a whim without any lead-up period, I fail at whatever habit I'm trying to change. Now, when I set goals, I give myself a date, usually 3 or 4 weeks into the future. I allow my mind to get used to the idea. I sit with it and marinate in what I think it will be like. This preparation has been successful for me. By the time my goal date arrives, I've already had the time to slide into the new habits.
These past 2 weeks have been good for me. I have a glass of juice each day, which is usually made up of kale, celery, apples, carrots, romaine lettuce, and some bean sprouts. I can't tell you how delish it is! I no longer have the cravings for a cigarette. I'm recognizing how sloth-like I feel after eating a heavy cheese, pepperoni, green peppers, and onion pizza. I noticed how bloated I feel and how my stomach starts to cramp up. I noticed how very tired I became after eating. I'm at the point now where I am looking forward to going through the 21-day cleanse instead of dreading the huge change to my lifestyle.
My hope is that by changing my diet I'll also change my thinking. It may be a long shot (I doubt it) but the food I put into my body is a concrete thing that I can change without affecting my budget or time.
It's just after 6pm on a Saturday night here in Dorchester. Dorchester, a primarily working-class, Irish neighborhood, is where I've called home for just over 3 years. I live in a duplex, occupying the top floor with my pug named Pugsy (no, I didn't name him; he's a rescue dog), my younger brother who's taken up residence for the past few months, and an empty space where my soon-to-be ex-wife used to fit in. I work in the Innovation District of Boston as a software engineer, where I make the sad and lonely trek by subway each morning to my desk, which sits in an open office with my back to the windows. I'm absolutely miserable.
What's scary is that I've let it get this bad.
I grew up in southeastern Connecticut and reached puberty just before Foxwoods became the monstrosity that it is today. I would often skip classes my senior year of high school and drive the 2 hour trip up to Boston to spend the day walking around Boston Common, sipping a Starbucks coffee and writing on the benches that lined the pathways. I loved it. Boston was alive with the sights and sounds of a modern city. I felt alive being in this city. Boston played minor backdrop roles to the short story fiction I would write.
And then I moved away from the east coast and moved west, becoming a cowgirl and falling in love with the ways of the West. I worked on a ranch, backpacked and hitchhiked across California, and wound up on a dude ranch in Colorado. Denver was home for the next 8 years. I became a designer, and then a web developer, and then opened up a small boutique design shop with a business partner. I made significant changes in my life. I grew big and unbounded. I was limitless. Each morning, I would get out of the shower and scream because I couldn't contain my happiness. No, really, I actually screamed. My neighbor actually came running over the first time she heard it.
But then, I missed my family. I felt like I couldn't grow any more as a developer in Denver. My design shop closed up. I moved back east and found a job here in Boston. I still felt alive. I couldn't believe my luck. I got a job as a developer making great money in the city that I loved in adolescence. I even registered the domain myheartinboston.com so I could share my love of the city with everyone else. One year passed by and the coldness of this city sunk in. And then another year and the hurried harried pace of people sunk in.
The third year has come and gone and I no longer scream with happiness. My jaw hurts when I wake from clenching it all night. My hair is falling out. I find black-and-blue bruises on my legs and arms and can't remember when or what I hit them on to cause the marks. I've always been very susceptible to environment and, to be honest, I think Boston is killing me.
It's scary I've let it go on this long.
I came to Boston hoping and planning for the next great adventure in my life. Instead, Boston has sapped the life out of me. It's a victimized stance, I know. And I'm in the process of making a change. This process is about becoming a better human, in spite of where I live. It's time to make a change. It's time to take control. It's time to be unbounded again.
I've been a cranky pants lately. And by lately, I'm not sure if I mean for the past week or the past year. This past week, I've been sick and I just can't get better. Icky, nasty, little throat droppings won't clear up and I've got that constant weight on my eyes of perpetual tiredness. Needless to say, I've been sleeping a lot this past week when I'm not at work. Maybe it was caused by quitting smoking 2 weeks ago; maybe it was caused by too much stress and a bit o' depression; maybe it's the cold weather and working in 50 degree temperatures (ya, our office is like working from a hut in winter in Iceland).
Maybe I've been a cranky pants for the past year because that's my natural state of being. Do you ever meet those people that you just think, "Jeez, do they have a negative view of the world!" and how you find each moment with them a drain on your soul? It's hard for me to tell if I'm that person. I've been a huge stress-ball for the past year. Financial woes, a divorce, absolutely loathing Boston, trying to shield myself from this city's personality, and work that has been a drudgery due to looking at the same code for the past 6 months is slowly whittling down my already thin shell of perseverance and self-worth.
Ms. Cranky Pants wakes up with me many mornings. She speaks a barely audible soliloquy as I make my morning coffee, switch on the computer, and start to work. By the time I get in the shower, I'm filthy with the droppings of her foul mouth. It's easy to say, "Shake it off. Get on with the day." But, the weight of these negative thoughts pushes down and makes my back hurt. I am dualistic in this nature: I have a strong sense of self yet have a poor view of myself. For instance, I believe I am talented and that I am a good software engineer (my profession) yet feel that I am not good enough to take a next step, such as giving talks or becoming a manager. I look to others to tell me that I am a good person and that I have worth. I look to others to tell me I'm pretty enough, skilled enough, nice enough. Because, and it bothers me that I believe this, I don't feel I am any of those things.
Boston is a hard city because there is no kindness from strangers here. People honk at the slightest indiscretion. Young and old alike stare at you on the T (the subway) and, when you look up to meet their gaze, they just keep staring. People rarely say hello when you walk your dog. The one time I saw Boston's kindness was right after the Boston Marathon Bombing. People were friendly and I felt like I was living inside this bubble of love. It was amazing. It didn't last.
The people I've met in Boston with whom I've had more than a passing acquaintance are very kind and lovely. They've given me hope. But, and maybe this is an East coast thing, as strangers we are a horrible lot. And being in that constant environment is so taxing on me because I need that external validation that I'm pretty enough, skilled enough, kind enough. Boston is not a city for thin-skinned individuals, of which I am a not-so-proud, card-carrying member.
Something needs to change. This I know. But what that something is I am unsure of. I know I have to get out of Boston. I can't stay here. My hair is literally falling out. I should probably go talk to a therapist but I honestly am not a big fan of talking about myself (Ya right, you say, why the blog then?). And I don't have the money right now. It's this self-eating cycle. But something has got to change.
I spent almost 12 hours on Wednesday staring into a black hole of code. I had started the day with relative ease. A cup of coffee on my desk, fresh tunes from thesixtyone.com, and an alert mind, I dug in. I came up for air for our morning scrum, about a half-hour later, feeling small & tiny. The boys I work with were generous & kind (as they always are), pointing at a few possible solutions, & I dug back into my code, vowing to myself I would conquer the problem. By the time 8:30 rolled around, I had to admit defeat for the day & go home.
The specific issue I was having (
The issue is that I base my worth as a developer on the outcomes of the day, rather than on my whole career. If a piece of code beats me (and, for you non-developers, code can beat the shit out of you, leaving you a bloodied, battered, bruised shell of a coder), I start to think my knowledge is miniscule. I question what I'm not getting. Any of my previous victories are null & void. I suppose, in my defense, I am looking at it from a Buddhist perspective: of being present in the moment. But, I would only be deluding myself. Buddhists practice compassion with real seeing & I, in that moment, have no compassion for myself whatsoever.
I feel inadequate as a developer. I marvel at how easy it seems that my coworkers just get it, whereas I struggle with the same concepts. The feeling of not good enough produces two things:
Mayme, while not a developer, helps me talk through my issues, allowing me the space to vent, helping ease the frustration. And, the constant coding in front of the square, is only improving my coding chops. The magic I once felt about how code goes from text to an application is slowly eroding into a tangible, concrete concept. I'm able to understand more fully. And that's such a better feeling than sucking at it.