Zen and the Art of Freaking Out

My mother had a complicated relationship with relaxation. She yearned for it, but didn’t really have the constitution.

I remember walking into her dark bedroom, aged seven or eight, to a screech from the dim far side of the bed: “Fuck off! I’m meditating!”

I didn’t really know what meditating was but I figured pretty quickly it wasn’t to be disturbed. And I’d blown it. As a child I filed the exchange in the deep internal folder marked: “Oh my god, I’ve upset my mother. Is it bad? I think it’s bad.”

I’ve revisited that moment over the years. Giggled at the inherent mission failure, the ridiculousness: Zen and the art of losing your shit. Related to it. Felt deeply the “I Just Can Not Even” of parenthood. Been distraught at my own failure to find nirvana at allocated relaxation moments: holidays, sleep-in opportunities, rare moments to myself. I’ve sworn at my children.

I’ve missed my mother’s endearing and disconcerting combo of chill and highly strung. Chill in intention, uptight in action, able to poke fun at the disconnect. “Put it in its universal perspective” she’d say about gripes and problems, though we’d both know that was never going to happen and laugh.

She found Buddhism. There was chanting and mindfulness weekends and small statues around the place. It was great.

But she didn’t give up being pissed off. And she deserved to be. There was a lot of crying when I was a kid, though I didn’t always know why: for the childhood she never got over, the marriage that broke her heart, for her own kids’ giant problems. Then terminal illness in the prime of her life. I mean really?

When Mum was dying she would sit at her kitchen table, with a coffee and a beanie over her chemo-bare head, transcribing sacred texts as a spiritual practice. It was a routine and relief I guess, a chance to still the mind. She was insightful and stoic — at least some of the time.

But she still railed against her fate. If there was acceptance it wasn’t calm. She snapped if you said the wrong thing (I had no idea what to say to do a dying person, let alone a dying mother). She was angry. She resisted death until the final throes and I love her for that.

A wise man said to me in those unimaginable hours afterwards that my memory of her would shift — it would stop being just about the death and dying and expand to embrace the whole life. And so it did.

But that was a long time ago now. I’ve been without her longer than I was with her. She exists to me in feelings and unreliable young memories, in a heart-shaped ring she gave me.

Occasionally she visits me powerfully in my dreams. Once with a yellow aura. Once in a black dress. Once in a field. It’s her turn to interrupt now.

And I carry through life a familiar mix of calm and anguish. Different, but the same.

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Sometimes writer, Sydneysider.

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