In 2007, fed up with both external and internal demands to get my appearance right, I cut off my long hair, stopped wearing makeup, packed away most of my jewelry and quit shopping for new clothes or shoes. The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 8 of my memoir, about halfway through the year-long experiment.
My aunt, a committed practitioner of Zen Buddhism, sent me a book that fall as I struggled with a new discomfort: plainness was liberating but hadn’t given me perfect inner peace about my relationships or roles in the world. The story of my experiment wasn’t moving briskly toward some happy ending. The book was by a woman who had been a member of a Zen monastery and then become a first-time parent in her forties. I didn’t feel I had much use for this personal growth/self-help book, yet I read it the way one drinks blue Gatorade after thirty-six hours of food poisoning—my cherished personal objections becoming irrelevant in the deliciousness of its functionality. 1
As I read the book, I was reminded that in graduate school, I’d relied on a semiregular meditation practice to dull the sting of days when I understood myself to be an admissions mistake. And so one night I got out a candle and the brass singing bowl I picked up in Vietnam. I sat cross-legged in our bedroom window seat with my back straight, a zafulike pillow tucked under my butt, my eyes unfocused at a vague spot six inches away from my knees, and my hands in the meditation mudra, the shape of infinity and openness.
After forty-five seconds, my jaw went slack, and I fell asleep. I jerked myself awake, assumed my position with much more resolve, and promptly fell asleep again. I blew out the candle, got into bed, and stayed up late reading—sullenly—about how much meditation can help people at wit’s end.
The next night I caffeinated myself. I didn’t nod off and did manage to count my breaths past six, but instead of calm, I got more chatter about my problems, courtesy of the Voice.
I can’t believe your OB didn’t give you a postpartum-depression screen. Hello! This is not the fifties!
Innnnnnn and Ouuuut. Breath one and breath two.
I mean you got some of the best medical care available in Asia! What about all those women having babies over on the Mainland or in Vietnam? What do you think is going unnoticed or unchecked or crappily stitched up in them?
I pretended not to be interested.
You fucking should be interested! Why is it that you think of motherhood as a path to personal fulfillment instead of a basic human chore? Who told you labor and childbirth were an opportunity for self-expression? And if you’re looking for inner peace and happiness, then why are you being such a hard-assed drill sergeant about everything? You want to be self-disciplined about your work, self-disciplined about health and exercise, self-disciplined about not using plastic bags and buying organic—and now, on top of it all, you have to be disciplined about beauty? You’ve given up pretty hair so you can obsess about a pretty MIND?
Come on! It’s really hard to be woman, and it’s really hard to be you!
I didn’t listen to whiners. These thoughts were simply clouds passing through my mind.
They ain’t passing, sister. I got a six-month supply of unused estrogen right here telling me to sit tight.
I gave up on the meditation. Whatever she was fueled by right now, the Voice of complaint was just too loud to contend with or wait out. And while she was annoying, accusatory, and defensive all at once, I felt she had valid points, maybe even all valid points. Harping on them, however, solved nothing and gave me no peace.
“Your life is a garden,” the Zen parenting book said. “And you are the only gardener.” Maybe this was so, but during the year of my experiment, I just couldn’t see it that way. I felt the garden was elsewhere, out on the Morning Path, hidden deep inside the vegetative awareness of the banyan trees, or located somewhere in the future when all the problems of all the world’s women (starting with my own) were solved. I insisted—and the Voice in my head backed me up 100 percent—that my problems lay with John’s job, my weakness for skin-care products, the expatriate lifestyle, an archaic medical establishment ignorant of female experience, a sensitive and sleepless kid, and the last hundred pages of my novel. And the solution to all these problems was the story I told myself about beauty—both inner and outer. I believed it was something out there, and attainable, if only I could improve myself enough to gain its blessing. I was very attached to this beauty story because I thought it was all I had.
On a brilliant, cool morning in late October, John and I drive the kids out to Concord for a walk around Walden Pond. On the banks of this pond, Henry David Thoreau threw off the bonds of civilization and took to the woods “to live deliberately–and not, when [he] came to die, discover that [he] had not lived.” 2 I’m excited to see the small, self-made cabin, even if it’s only a reproduction, but when we arrive, the adjacent parking lot is jammed with cars. I fret, but John stays cool and we find a spot. We head around the pond on a woodsy, unpaved path, and as the stroller hits gnarled roots, I wince. Five years and two kids have turned my scorn for “overcivilized” hiking into appreciation for sidewalks.
We make slow, bumpy progress, stopping occasionally to throw stones in. Fringed by scarlet leaves, the bright, still pond looks beautiful to me. But I’m also aware that today, each of us is projecting our own story upon its emerald surface: the story of easy parking and literary sightseeing (me), the story of an athletic warm-up to hearty fall lunch (John), and the story of innocence and an unjust reprimand (Hattie, who gets yelled at after nearly pushing John in). Orson, at two and a half, is the only one of us who meets Walden Pond where it lives: in its wetness and splashiness. Halfway around, even he comes up with a pond story that has to be curtailed—the story of a wild forest boy swinging a pointed stick near people’s eyes. Our stories delight us intensely, yet often fail us, or come to an end.
I saw straight through my own beauty story very briefly, in the fall of 2010. Orson was already a year and a half old. Like anyone going up to bat a second time, I’d invented some inspiring motivational tales about how things would go in my second child’s babyhood: better sleep habits, better mealtimes, better attitude, better everything. Eighteen months in, my inner sales pitches were failing me, and the chaos was still expanding like a mushroom cloud. From experience I knew meditation was beyond me as a sleep-deprived baby mama, so I turned to a book of Zen koans instead.
The idea of a koan is that you run a piece of verbal nonsense through your head until sense and nonsense trade places and offer up insight. For all of us who like to butt our heads against something, the answerless riddle of a koan is an ideal wall. The bonus is that no staying awake on a soft cushion in a quiet room is required. You can work on a koan while pushing a swing or washing a dish.
The koan I began with was this:
Does a dog have Buddha nature?
I started repeating this Q&A in my mind while I diapered, folded laundry, and shopped for chicken breast. After a week or so of unproductive repetition, I started thinking that “Buddha nature” was pretty much equivalent to “inner beauty,” and so I subbed in those words, instead.
Does a dog have inner beauty?
Is a dog beautiful?
I was dismayed by how negative this riddle solving was, and how cruel. Why was “No” kicking the poor dog? Frustrated by my lack of progress, I tried switching the subject around, too, so that I became the dog.
When I tried to stay patient with the kids, was that inner beauty?
When I bought used snowpants to economize was that Buddha nature?
Sometimes I couldn’t believe how hard “No” was riding my ass. How could it be that even with my very best efforts at being an attentive mom and wife—at staying in the game professionally, at vanquishing the yardwork and paperwork, at sending the relatives pictures of the kids in a timely fashion, and not freaking out at my husband when he couldn’t figure out where he was going to move us to next—the answer was still No? My writing? No. My education? No. My hopes, even for health and love and peace in the world? No. No. No. Not beautiful. Not Buddha nature. I decided that koans were for masochists and people with better senses of self-worth than I. I told No to go to hell, but it kept running through my mind like a spiritually nasty pop song, endlessly repeating its downer mantra.
My fight with No ended one cold fall morning as I took Orson for a walk to Kelley Pond. This small, man-made runoff basin was hidden in the woods behind a nearby elementary school. It was a convenient nature walk, if imperfect: I didn’t like to pass the muddy town mulch area to get there, and the woods were not thick enough to hide the plastic toys in people’s backyards. That day, though, the water in the pond was bright and clear, and the surrounding trees were decked out in autumnal finery. I looked at the long grass tilting at the bank, still a summer green. Orson stared quietly at the yellow, red, and brown trees and mirrorlike water, rapt.
Is this pond beautiful?
Does it have Buddha nature?
If this pond isn’t beautiful, my brain screamed at the koan, then nothing is!
With that, the word beauty dissolved. It cleared to the edges of my understanding like grease moving away from a drop of soap. And in the clean, empty center that remained were just the plain things themselves: the water in the pond, the deleafing trees, the breeze carrying vapors of pine and compost, the bright dots of sun on the toes of Orson’s boots. I looked from the pond to a pile of discarded beer cans in the undergrowth and found I had no feelings of comparison or preference for either one. I didn’t wish the traffic noise away; it was okay with me. I looked down at my hands too—dry, cold, and veined, resting on the stroller’s handles. The knuckles were raw, and palest pink. The realness of my hands surprised me, as did the pulse I could feel inside.
That moment of realization was a powerful shock—my brain would always draw me to what it knew as beautiful and would always give those things special value, but that brain itself was acculturated, hormonal, self-referential, and hardwired in certain limiting ways. It was deeply marvelous to draw my own mental software aside like a curtain—even for an instant—and peek at a whole universe unbound by my classifications, judgments, language, or beloved stories.
We do live in a world filled with these stories: success stories, love stories, stories of redemption and failure. The good ones can help us grow, or point us in the right direction. In the years since my experiment, I’ve worked on creating a new story of beauty for myself—one inspired by the rings of a banyan tree, with the gift of life at the core, and the delight of art and artifice at the outermost edge. But even a good story can set us up to hold reality at gunpoint, waiting for the promised payoff: I need youth or a semblance of it! the Voice rails. I need happiness or self-worth or inner peace! I need my life to be better than it is, and I will do whatever it takes to make it that way—just give me the ten-step program! But just as caffeine doesn’t solve a chronic sleep debt, stories of ambitious self-improvement don’t address the reality of a chaotic and imperfect world. Sometimes the gardens of our lives become stroller-unfriendly jungles filled with pet-snatching Burmese pythons. And what then? Raze the forest and unroll the Astroturf?
The more effective approach, I’m beginning to see, it to embrace the paradise that is already here: my real, living body; my real children; and my real husband. All of us are more deserving of my best effort than the phantoms of perfection: the woman I feel I should be, the husband I sometimes wish I had, the children I hope I am raising.
Phoebe Baker Hyde’s fiction and essays have been published in High Plains Literary Review, Confrontation, Chrysalis, the online travel journal Pology, and The Los Angeles Times Magazine. Her forthcoming memoir, The Beauty Experiment, takes place in Hong Kong, but she currently lives in Boston.
Photo by Harriet Liang.