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Grief, Addiction, and Cooking Kale

January 11, 2010

Today I showed Karen* how to cook kale.  Nothing fancy.  She’d seen me whip up a pan of it to throw into a bowl of leftover minestrone soup for lunch.  She watched me eat my strange mash-up and said, “Katie, you think if I ate healthy stuff like you that I might feel better and be more calm?”

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for Karen.  After dropping out of her rehab program, she found herself back on the streets, cold, with nowhere to go.  Having lost her husband to cancer this summer, she struggles to confront the agonies of grief, on top of mental illness, without turning to her crack or heroin habits for escape.

Karen’s full story is not mine to tell, and I won’t attempt it.  But since it’s my door she shows up at when she’s hit bottom (because it is also the door of the street ministry where I live and work — with only one other staff person this month, while the rest are in Nicaragua), lately her life has intersected with mine in deep, complex, ways.  So complex that in this, my third attempt to write about it, I still don’t really know what to say.

But I can start here, with a bowl of kale, and what it meant to me today.  When Karen asked me to show her how to fix it, the request was partly a gesture of peace.  In her misery, terror and desperation lately, she hasn’t always been kind to me, you know?  Which is natural, and even helpful, in a way.  Observing my own responses to the slights and blowups is some of the best meditative practice I can think of.  Not easy.  Very helpful.  Especially learning when to check my own neurotic impulses to ‘offer wise advice,’ realizing instead that I’m just not the one she can hear it from at that moment.  Someone else might be, but I’m not, and that’s okay.  A practice like that allows me to (a) examine and (b) alleviate the pressure I put on myself to “help” or “perform” in particularly visible ways.  Without that pressure, I am free to notice the “spaciousness” of the situation, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche would say.  Which means more calm and more intelligence — unforced, fluid.

And, as today reminded me, I’m not the only one who benefits from this fluid intelligence.  I’m beginning to get wise to a major role I can play here at the Faithful Fools (again, a street ministry): what I’ve dubbed a “stabilizer.”  Someone who can absorb some of the trauma, tension, and stress without adding too much of their own into the mix.  Remain sensitive but unruffled.  Just be there.  Listen.  I suppose that some people might be loud, active stabilizers (not sure if, in practice, this is an oxymoron), but my style is definitely quiet.  Unassuming.  Just doing my own thing, participating earnestly without getting drawn into all the tangles.  I do it for myself, certainly, as a well-being measure.  And it might just be catching on, too.  Slowly.

That’s another dimension of the cooking demo request: Karen sees something in me that she likes and wants for herself.  I’m content, she says.  I take care of myself.  I feed myself good, healthy, scrumptious food.  And while her interest is sweet and even flattering in a way, the best part is that it shows she values herself.  She wants to take care of herself, to really learn how to do it.  (Which is a long way from some of the extreme, ominous, grasping things she’s said in the last week.)

At the same time, I’m not trumpeting a triumph here.  Frankly, a third reason Karen asked me to show her how to make kale is that she’s still so strung out that she needs to keep herself occupied, moving, at all times.  Diversionary cooking may be healthy, but it’s still diversionary.  Until she can learn to consistently turn to life-affirming supports during the hard times, Karen may stay stuck in her cycle of addiction, disillusioned over and over again.  Plus, on my end of things, I’m still open to (at times, haunted by) the possibility that all this “stabilizer” talk is just so much self-justification, with no lasting beneficial effects.  A false sense of progress.  Perhaps.

But for now, a few things I can say.

No one at the Fools has given up on Karen or canceled her friendship, and no one will.

I am now able to face these crises with a greater sense of bounty, borne of the work of 2009 and meant to be shared.

And kale, as always, is delicious.

—    —    —

*not her real name.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Lea permalink
    January 29, 2010 5:06 pm

    Katie!! As always, you capture something that precisely rings a bell for me, the idea of being a stabilizer. This is EXACTLY what I’ve been thinking about with my own job and life plans: the vital importance of being my own calm center in the midst of pain and chaos. And then the follow-up question of what precisely it takes to maintain that centeredness and how best to honor and be honest to what is needed while at the same time balance all the other demands of my life. Thank you for once again giving the perfect words to something I care so much about.

  2. January 29, 2010 10:03 pm

    Lea! I miss you and wish that we could frolic in the snow together up here in Vermont. And thank you, by the way, for that delightful text message a while back — it made me smile so much for the rest of the day.

    Yes, I love how you put it: “the vital importance of being my own calm center in the midst of pain and chaos.” Stabilizing takes effort — it’s not passive.

    At the same time, and especially for people like us with perfectionist tendencies, being a stabilizer shouldn’t be another ball to juggle; another skill we must master immediately. If self care stresses us out, then it isn’t working very well, right? So that balance you’re talking about, with all the other life demands, comes into play. Is the act of maintaining our centeredness just another item on our to-do list, or is it a practice we can draw on any time to enhance and deepen whatever it is we happen to be doing?

    How has centering and anchoring looked for you lately? And were there certain experiences at work that particularly brought up this question for you of being a stabilizer?

    I love you and am so proud (if that’s the right word) of the work you’re doing. Sharing this parallel experience with you is a real comfort.

    Thank you for writing. Kisses from up north!

    ps: one of the women in my class (first-semester) reminds me SO MUCH of Jenna — super funky radical anti-war activist who lives here in Vermont. Makes me feel right at home. :)

  3. Lea permalink
    February 2, 2010 5:59 pm

    Yes, next time for sure swing by Brooklyn!! I would also like very much to get over to that other coast sometime in the next few months, mayhaps we could talk about that when we next phone?

    I definitely agree with you that those of us with perfectionist tendencies should be cautious about any sort of “self-improvement” to be sure it doesn’t turn into an end, just another thing to accomplish, rather than a means in itself. I have been working recently on seeing “goals” (calling them that for lack of a better word in this moment) less as the end point I’m striving towards, and more as a nebulous general guide that, honestly, I will never reach, but instead that give me some direction. [Wishing I had a better vocabulary that was less geographically-oriented as well] And acknowledging and keeping in mind the general direction or guidance, and also at the same time being accepting of failing to heed that direction, and of not being “there” yet (which means reminding myself that there’s not really a “there” to get to).

    I think this general principle (awareness of ways I would like to change or be “better” but at the same time being loving towards and accepting of myself) is one I can apply to my efforts at calmness. Sometimes I do get stressed and anxious. Sometimes I do get pulled around by other things that make demands on me (family, thinking about future and grad school, work, old and new friendships, my significant other), which are things that on one hand can contribute to and on the other hand can sometimes take away from my sense of central calm. This is OK, and even good, to engage with these forces and people and emotions all around me, but also I want to maintain awareness of what I need to do to regain a balance. Sometimes this means spending time on the phone or on email catching up with friends and family. Sometimes it means spending a day in bed with Aaron. Sometimes it does mean staying late at work to catch up so I don’t feel anxious leaving. And sometimes it means going to the gym or watching TV or taking a walk or cooking or going to the library and getting a new book all by myself. Awareness and attention rather than striving towards an absolute seems like the key to avoiding the pitfalls of perfectionism.

  4. February 4, 2010 8:00 am

    Ok, this — just — thank you. :)

    This really helped me to articulate some stuff I’ve been trying to say about my studies. I love your search for a less-geographically-centered vocabulary, too. One way I wound up thinking about it is through a metaphor of taking steps. Now there’s the kind of traditional dimension of taking steps toward, which remains in a kind of goal-oriented, map- or path-based metaphor, and then at the *same* time we might have an idea of taking steps IN, as in taking steps in the rhythm of a dance. A dance goes nowhere in particular, necessarily (although you can, for example, dance your way to work, as I have on occasion ;)), but the whole point is keeping the balance and presence with each new movement, with each step. Then we can dance our way through anything. Just another means of imagining the whole progress/process relationship. Exactly like you said, “Awareness and attention rather than striving toward an absolute.”

    I think it was Chogyam Trungpa who pointed out to me very clearly in one of his books that one of the reasons we spend so many hours in meditation just sitting and bringing our attention back to the breath, over and over, is that the practice of awareness is a very progress/process undertaking. What we are repeating and strengthening (awareness, equanimity) is exactly identical to the ultimate liberation we are seeking. So every moment we spend in calm abiding and full being (in other words, in rhythm) IS an experience of buddha-nature.

    Thanks for all your inspiration in keeping the balance. And hell yes, the moment I reclaim my phone charger let’s get to talkin about a West Coast adventure visit.

    Love you.

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