Sylvia always makes a New Year's resolution on New Year's Eve, and last night she told me hers for this year was to have more fun. She had returned just a few hours before from a day of outings with her daughter, eating in restaurants and shopping, touring the community college campus, and visiting with friends.
They invited me, but my new books from the library and a day of solitude after the company of the holiday season seemed therapeutic to me. There was also the CAD drawing of the studio that called to me, with the challenge to fit everything Sylvia wanted into the existing walls, in spite of her telling me to let the project go.
The problem was that our different viewpoints on design and permitting were causing stress for both of us. Sylvia's response was to become visibly upset. Mine was to withdraw and lash out with hurtful comments. Clearly this kind of engagement would lead to woe.
When Sylvia told me her resolution for the new year, it seemed like a resolution to our problem. What we wanted was to enjoy each others' company during the winter, going places and taking art classes together. Installing the bathroom in the studio was just supposed to make that easier. Instead, the project threatened to spoil our good times.
We spent maybe an hour talking about my descent into mild depression over the last few weeks. Of course it went way deeper than just a disagreement over how to build a bathroom. For me there were links with the state of increasing disorder in the environment, the economy, and our culture in general. The rule of law seemed to me our only hope to avoid chaos and social collapse.
As simple as it sounds, Sylvia's wish for me to “be happy” seemed impossible, in the light of all the dire forecasts for our civilization. They overshadowed everything. Even if the studio was finished to my specifications, there would still be the threat of extinction, or at the very least another coming Dark Age.
There were also the day-to-day barbs that plagued me like mosquito bites. Looking down while passing through the back porch, my mind recoiled from the jumble of boxes, cat beds, furniture, tools, and stockpiles of toilet paper and paper towels. Outside there were piles of dirt and sheets of plywood covering the trench for the pumped sewage line. Inside the house there were cats, food dishes with brown pasty-looking sludge, and litter boxes with gravel spilled on the floor.
This is not to say that my place in Wyoming is any better. My property has piles of rotting logs and heaps of cut brush, as well as gaping holes in the ground with rocks stacked around the edges. My storage structure has way more stuff in it than Sylvia's back porch, all of it in various stages of decay. There are half-finished projects staring me in the face at every corner of my property.
The difference is my being used to all of that old jumble, and none of the new disorder. My own place seems natural to me now, but Sylvia's place is new and jarring. With time, the new environment will seem natural, just as it must for Sylvia, but what to do in the meantime? Everywhere little things that seem out of place trigger whispers in my mind, involuntary judgments, tiny jolts of anger and disgust.
Is there a way to turn off that interior dialog? Buddhist meditation trains us to notice the mind babble and let it float like bubbles to the surface of a pond. The trick is not to get sucked into a thought, and not to let those thoughts trigger an emotion. You notice, but you don't judge. You feel, but you don't react. This keeps the fish on the bottom of the pond from stirring up the mud and clouding the water.
Perhaps being happy in the face of so much suffering signifies a higher state of consciousness. After all, the Dali Lama seems to have a smile on his face most of the time, and statues of the Buddha show a composed expression. Is it possible to put an end to suffering, even while embedded in the world? Those spiritual leaders' examples suggest that we can be fully aware and happy at the same time.
Sylvia's wish for me could be even more ambitious than her studio construction project. Maintaining a positive state of mind in full awareness of our troubled world requires training, discipline, and determination. We don't have to suffer if we live appropriately. People have achieved this, and inspire us to do the same. It takes courage, but there are lanterns along the way.