I just returned from a trip to Virginia to visit my 94 year old mother. It's never an easy trip, not because it's hard by any normal definition, but because it's always a bit of an emotional experience for me. In preparation I decided to read a few books my very Buddhist friend gave me. I made some a sort of Cliff Notes from the books so that I might remember what they said. The notes are interpretations, shorthand, metaphors for what I read, as in this selection:
Buddhist Cliff Notes
Chapter 1: Self-Acceptance
One day it happens. What you've always dreaded. You find out it is
true . . .
You look in the mirror and see a baboon. Of course you do everything in your power to make the baboon turn back into you, or someone you might like to be, but it's too late. You see only a baboon. You know at last that you are a baboon and have always been one. Nothing can change this sad fact. Worse, now that you realize you are a baboon, you can not unrealize it.
Welcome to the first step in enlightenment.
What do I do after I realize I am a baboon?
Answer: Accept that you are a baboon. Once you have accepted this, you must become grateful that you are a baboon. You must think how lucky you are to be a baboon.
Well, it could be worse.
But what if I don't want to be a baboon?
Too bad. But you can think of this Buddhist truth and contemplate it:
Nothing lasts. Yesterday you thought you were a human. Today you think you are a baboon. So tomorrow you might realize you are . . .
But what if I get stuck as a baboon?
Then you can try to become an enlightened baboon.
Are you sure there is such a thing?
Certainty is not an option. Certainty is not a part of the Buddhist philosophy. Except for the certainty that you will suffer, grow old, get sick, and die . . .
Is that supposed to make me feel better?
It's not about feeling. It's about accepting. Accepting that you are a baboon. Accepting your uncertainty. Accepting suffering, sickness, old age, and death.
94 years is old. I have accepted that fact. My mother lives in the same house I grew up in, but a lot has changed, both for the house and my mother. One of the most recent changes is a plague of stink bugs that have taken residence in every room of the house. Even as she is walking, balancing on two canes, my mother stops to squish stink bugs.
When I tell her I am reading a Buddhist book that suggests one refrain from killing, even from killing bugs, when possible, Mom looks and me and grins and then reaches for another bug with her cane.
I haven't read that book she says.
I think how the book suggests I accept whatever is, whoever is, however things happen. And after I accept it, feel grateful. I make a promise to myself that I will try to do just that for this one short trip.
My mother can't hear very well or move with ease, and most of my visiting is spent sitting. She tells me the same things over and over. It's like watching Headline News for hours. She talks and talks and then kills a few more stink bugs. Crunch, crunch.
She also likes to take walks. Very slow walks with her two canes. When we are done with our second walk, she falls. WHAM. She falls backwards and lies there. I ask if she's okay, and she says to get her a pillow and a blanket. So I make the nec. phone calls, and then the two of us lie down on the floor with our pillows and blankets. Do you know the yoga pose for a dead bug? my mother asks with a smirk. For a moment we laugh. Then we snooze for a bit. And I try to think of how to be grateful . . .
I tell myself to feel grateful that there is good medical care close by, even if the ambulance can't find our house,
to feel grateful for ER care, even if it takes 6 hours for a 94 year old lady to get an Xray,
to feel grateful for the doctor's who want to make my mother stay overnight, even if my mother refuses and turns home late, exhausted, and furious.
And I am grateful that she didn't break anything. Grateful that she's a tough, old lady.
After a long day I read late in my room, watching the stink bugs circle and bang into the overhead light. When I turn off the light, stink bugs rain onto the sheets. Clunk, clunk.
I try to think how I can feel grateful for a rain of stink bugs.
I think: at least they aren't cockroaches. Like that giant round roach that was on the wall over my bed when I visited my daughter in El Salvador. It was the size of a dinner plate. My daughter decided that it was too big to kill. It would make a huge mess. So we left it there, on the wall, an arms length above my head. When I closed my eyes, I wondered if I would notice if it crawled across me in the night. If it would feel like a walking dinner plate. Would it move slowly? Or would it race on a million tiny legs?
I am grateful that I don't know the answer to those questions.
Last weekend was the Paterson Poetry Prize Reading. It was fantastic! I was so moved by the readings of my fellow poets that I had a dream last night about the poems they read, only all the poets were elongated and getting taller and taller as they read. Gail Fishman Gerwin was reading her poem about her Paterson legs while Lowell Jaeger was reading about learning to dance, which in the dream morphed into a dance with an Electrolux Vacuum. January O'Neil was addressing a bowl of okra, saying, No one believes in you like I do. And Meg Kearney kept blaming me for her need to read the poem, "First Blow Job."
Nin Andrews is the author of 5 full collections of poetry and 6 chapbooks. She is also the editor of a book of translations of the Belgian poet, Henri Michaux. Her literary comics are posted on Best American Poetry's Blog on Monday mornings.