When Life Gives You Lemons, Make a Soufflé

The quality of one's life is not determined by the circumstances. Is life perfect? No. I still manage to hit rough patches, or as friends say, "Oh great, another f-&*king growth opportunity."
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portrait of a sad and stressed...
portrait of a sad and stressed...

Pema Chodron, one of the greatest Buddhist writers of our time, became a Buddhist because she hated her husband. One day she was sitting in front of their house and her husband walked up to her and said, "I've fallen in love with someone else and I'm leaving you." She picked up a rock and threw it at him. It turned out that he'd been having affairs over the course of their marriage and the feelings of overwhelming betrayal and bitterness would not diminish no matter what kind of therapy or spiritual study she tried. She was trapped in negativity. One day she read an essay by Chogyam Trungpa, which essentially said, "There is nothing wrong with negativity per se. It's the blame and the spin-off that is the problem. The energy itself is helpful. Just not the spin-off. Anger is the key to something rather than the obstacle. So the question is: how to wake up and how to use the energy of your life." She said she didn't really understand the essay at the time, but she became obsessed with understanding it and ultimately, that anger led her to her path as a great spiritual teacher.

A few years ago I faced several personal challenges of my own. At the end of 2008 I lost my job. My husband of 23 years and I separated the following April. In May, my mother went into the hospital with a broken femur. A few weeks later she was diagnosed with bone cancer and died on June 9th. In July, my 21-year-old daughter moved from New York to California, maybe to get out of the cross-fire of her parents' divorce. I had to move from our apartment. With 2 dogs and no job, I didn't have many options. I felt like a tsunami had washed over my life. I had never experienced that kind of grief. I was underwater. The only perk was that I was on the divorce diet and lost 20 pounds. As my friend Megan told me, "Tragedy becomes you."

I found myself at a place called Friends In Deed in Manhattan, "a pragmatic spiritual crisis center which deals with life-threatening illness, care-giving and grief." Sitting in what is called the "Big Group" -- a place where people come to share whatever is presently going on in their lives -- I couldn't believe people were talking so openly about illness and death, a rarity in our culture. I also couldn't believe that all their services, like the group, crisis and nutritional counseling, reiki, massage, all of it was available without charge. It was like a miracle, an oasis for my recovery.

Friends In Deed was created over 20 years ago by Cynthia O'Neal and Mike Nichols, when the AIDS epidemic was at its peak. When I started going, in 2004, as a caregiver for my mother, the groups were made up of mostly gay men who were HIV positive and a few women. In 2009 when I returned, the groups were becoming equally divided between men and women. Many women are care-givers or dealing with cancer, HIV, or coping with grief over the loss of parents and spouses.

It doesn't matter why you are there, all that matters is that you "speak the language of grief." I've learned so much sitting in those meetings. I learned that the only way out is through and that staying in the present moment is really the only place to be. I learned that the glass is both half empty and half full. I learned that no one gets a free pass, eventually we are all going to deal with heartbreak, disappointment, and loss. I learned to use the word "and." "I am struggling and today was a pretty good day." I learned Pema Chodron's lessons about sitting with feelings and not trying to escape them. I learned how to cry, in front of others, unashamedly, and to be held up by love and empathy. I learned how healing it is to cry and to talk, and especially to listen.

I also learned one of the most important lessons: the quality of one's life is not determined by the circumstances. In every one of those groups, no matter how tragic our stories seemed at the time, we always found something to laugh about. It is helpful if you have a place like Friends to go to, but talking, crying, laughing and listening -- with family, a therapist, friends, 12 Step Rooms -- is pretty much all you need to do. And hang on. And be patient. This too shall pass.

I feel deep empathy for anyone going through any kind of suffering. I try to practice the Buddhist concept of "maitri" -- which means compassion, a friendliness towards ourselves and others. Wars are still being fought around the world, but if more of us practiced maitri and less aggression, maybe there would be less war.

Three years later, I can honestly say I am happier than I have been in a very long time. I always loved to dance and stopped for over twenty years. This past year I started dancing again. It gives me ridiculous amounts of pleasure. A play I co-wrote is scheduled for a NYC production next spring and I'm working on a book on the subject of post traumatic growth and it's going to be funny, I promise.

Is life perfect? No. I still manage to hit rough patches, or as they say at Friends In Deed, "Oh great, another f-&*king growth opportunity." But I have grown, am growing. Actually, I am smaller, but I feel taller.

This week, my beloved daughter is moving back to New York City. She won't see the same mother she left three years ago, she'll find someone who is getting to the other side, and making life a joyful thing. In fact, I'll probably be dancing in the kitchen and cooking up something with lemons.

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