Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 18 Winter 2019
2018 Passport photo. Never the most flattering but the most truthful.
2017 Ven. Prasannawati, Jane McEwan, and Charlotte, spiritual friends.
2015 Charlotte and my mother Betty, who died in 2018, at our last Mother's Day brunch.
2011 Granddaughters Miranda and Valerie and Charlotte.
2010 Sakyadhita USA organizing committee at International meeting in Vietnam.
2008 Charlotte and daughter Tiffany who died in 2014.
2007 Charlotte and brother Chuck who died in 2010.
2004 Son Michael, Charlotte, and daughter Tiffany.
2001 Charlotte with grandchildren Miranda and Jeremy.
2001 Charlotte with parents Albert and Betty at M.A. graduation.
2000 Tiffany and mom Charlotte.
2000 Dad Albert, Charlotte, and mother, Betty. Dad died in 2005.
2000 Charlotte and brother Chuck.
1996 Clyde and Charlotte get married.
1995 Charlotte and brother Chuck.
1985 Charlotte with son Michael, daughter Tiffany shortly after Tiffany's brain tumor surgery at age 13.
1984 Charlotte on a road trip.
1965 High school graduation photo.
1960 Eighth grade, first dance with a guy.
2011 Tiffany walks a desert labyrinth, the Mother stone of volcanic rock in the foreground.
Charlotte Collins is a founding member of Sakyadhita USA, a current board member and editor of American Buddhist Women. She is the author of a forthcoming book, A Path Called Tiffany: A Memoir of Rasing a Special Child.
It’s All Craving—Transitions in Identity:
Who Am I at Seventy-one?
By Charlotte B. Collins
At age 71, in the language of today’s gerontology demographics, I am a “young-old.” In that taxonomy, 90 is the old-old. I was born in the second year of the baby boom generation. There are 77 million of us born between 1946 and 1964. Americans older than 65 make up almost 13% of the population. Regardless of how many there are of us, the passage into old age in a conscious, awake state requires an additional measure of effort, attentiveness and dharma practice, on an individual level.
I look for my Self in the mirror and in the faces of other people. I have lunch with two women in their 80’s and I feel like the youngster. I spend time talking with two 20-year-old Mormon missionaries who knock on my door on a Friday afternoon and I am the crone. I am an old woman who listens to their faith witness and shares a little of my journey from Christian to Buddhist. I try not to overwhelm these young women with my longer memory and experience. I want to encourage them on their own chosen path. At 71 I am a caretaker and caregiver to young women.
When I look in the mirror, I see a younger woman’s face. By a trick of light and memory, I see myself as I must have looked years before. I am aware of an attachment to being an attractive young woman, a delusion that hasn’t been even close to true for 40 years.
It is more difficult to deceive myself in Selfies. Try as I might to hold my cell phone camera at just the right angle or to position my head in just the right posture, the photos reveal the truth that at 71, I am indeed an old woman. Gravity has pulled my face downward, leaving deep folds. The suffering I’ve endured makes my eyes sad and my mouth frown regardless of my effort to perk up for the lens.
For a woman, it may always be difficult to detach identity from the body. Our value is tied for most of us from the beginning to visual appeal and sexual attractiveness. The first time I was called beautiful is embedded in my memory. I was 15. On the last day of the school year, a graduating senior “Squeaky” McNeill wrote in my high school yearbook, “To the most beautiful girl…” Squeaky, who now goes by Don, and I have remained friends through the years. I saw him recently with his wife at a class reunion. He still thinks I’m beautiful, or at least I am attached to that belief. Because of his long affection for me, I believe he gazes at me like I'm still 15—a joint delusion.
Even so, at age 20, I knew the attachment to physical attractiveness as an identity was problematic. It didn’t bring me respect from my husband or bosses at work, nor more income nor opportunities that I longed for. At 23, I experienced a dramatic conversion to what was then called “women’s liberation.” I began to identify as a feminist. I joined a C-R (consciousness raising) group where we read Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Freidan and looked at our vaginas in hand mirrors. We stopped shaving our legs and arm pits and wearing makeup and wrestled with the problem of how to represent our new identity as non-women without behaving like men. We and our peers wrestled with language, rejecting the common practices of referring to females of all ages as “girls” and the generic use of “he” to refer to both sexes. We gave up the traditional privileges of having men open doors for us and pay our way. These small steps were magnified in our desires.
By the time I began to identify as a feminist, I was already a wife and the mother of two small children. I was also an office worker and a student in evening college classes. I suffered throughout that era because my emerging new identity was in conflict with the roles I was playing in my life. My identity was that of a woman, not a girl. I was married to a man several years older and Biblical in his belief that he ruled over his wife and family. At work, I put up with a Mad Men environment where males dominated and freely displayed their power over the women workers. My peers and I eventually demanded that our identity include agency, self-determination and equality with males at home and at work. This took nearly 5 more decades. I added liberal and activist to my identity and got a divorce.
In human life, we cannot survive without connection to other beings, and language provides the framework for those connections. From infancy, I knew myself first by what my family called me; “baby,” “sweetheart,” “pumpkin,” “sister,” “daughter,” “granddaughter,” or “Charlotte.” I knew myself through my place and role in my family as designated by the words used to label the role; “oldest child,” “big sister,” “Betty’s daughter,” “Brenda’s sister.”
As an adult I became Dave’s wife, Mike’s mom, someone’s neighbor, someone’s teacher, someone’s employee. For most of my life I have held a comforting place and role in a framework of human connections. To each role accrued both earned and unearned privilege. In my birth family, among siblings, I learned to compete for privilege and carried these skills into my own family and into the world of classmates, co-workers, neighbors and friends. I knew how to claim and protect my turf, my privilege, and my status in the group. As a woman, I learned to assert my territoriality subtly, covertly, behind the scenes, rarely confronting challengers or authorities directly.
My identity was constructed by all of these factors. In my social milieu, this identity was further protected and supported by my gender, race and class as a white, college educated, professional, heterosexual woman who spoke the English language of the dominant culture in the United States. I lived in an upscale west coast city, owned a late model car, was thin, attractive and could afford an expensive wardrobe. I was married to a successful man with a Ph.D., had a son who had a professional job and a beautiful family. Another factor constructing my identity was that I was the mother of a special needs daughter whom I cared for through all the challenges that role demanded.
As I aged and circumstances changed, I lost nearly all of the labels and trappings of my former identities. My father died of lung cancer. My younger brother died of multiple myeloma resulting from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam 40 years earlier. My daughter suffered brain damage from radiation treatment for a brain tumor at age 13. It finally took her life 30 years later. My mother died from pneumonia, dementia, a broken hip, osteoporosis, and I believe, lost hope. My husband and I moved to the desert to care for Mom in her last 4 years, to the dusty, Mojave Desert town where I grew up. My younger sister resented my taking over. We became estranged with reconciliation unlikely.
My son has broken with me. I wrote a book about caring for my special needs daughter until her death at age 42. In the book, I included the story of her childhood sexual assault by her stepbrother, the teenage son of her dad’s new wife. As a result of my including this story in the book, my son said, “You are selfish and vindictive.” He accused me of wanting to take revenge on his father, step-mother and step-brother by “outing” the stepbrother as a pedophile. Except for this one chapter, the book details my efforts to give my daughter a life as full as possible given the limitations she faced. I also wanted to stand as a witness to her difficult yet remarkable life, that I felt only I could see. More importantly, writing the book was my way of healing from losing her. After she died, I said to a long time friend, “I don’t know who I am now that Tiffany is gone.”
I inherited my mom’s house, so my husband and I remain here in the desert. I’m no longer an urbane city dweller, no longer among liberals and people who share my sensibilities and politics. I am no longer a participant in the social and political groups in which I was known and recognized and enjoyed the status of belonging.
Now I am an orphan. Most of my family have left me; four by death, two more by choice. I have three grandchildren who are young adults, just starting their lives. Although I FaceTime with each of them once a month to stay in touch, their trajectories are taking them farther from me. When they were little children, I was a constant in their lives and they in mine. My identity no longer contains a “grandmother” aspect.
In 1986, after my daughter’s surgery for a brain tumor, she and I joined a New Thought church that had a metaphysical bookstore. I began to study Buddhism through books by Thich Nhat Hahn and Pema Chödrön. The same year I joined a sitting meditation group and began a daily meditation practice. In 2003, I studied for a short time at Thubten Dhargye Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Long Beach, CA, and soon received Refuge from Ven. Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen, the Abbot, in the Gelugpa tradition. Not long afterward, I met and became a student of another Tibetan monk, Geshe Lobzang Tsetan, who became the Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in South India. He visited the U.S. several times a year, and I continued to study with him for the next 7 years. In 2009, I met Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo and attended the 11th Sakyadhita International Conference on Women in Vietnam. Upon returning home, and at the request of Ven. Tsomo, several of us from the U.S. formed the USA national branch of Sakyadhita (SUSA). We have continued to meet monthly for the past ten years via video conferencing. As members of the board of directors of SUSA, we have become dharma sisters, spiritual friends, and a sangha while doing the work of SUSA.
I have continued to meditate daily for more than 30 years. I have continued dharma study through books from all traditions, the abundant resources on the Internet, and occasional retreats. Most productive has been the laboratory that my own daily life has provided. I could gauge improvement by the cessation of my own suffering around particular patterns of thinking and behavior. I had a keyhole, a porthole and sometimes an entire bay window through which to clearly see these patterns. My equanimity meter reminded me to breathe. Dharma practices of meditation, study, and application have sustained me through all the challenges of my life, relationships, money, work, and care giving. I am still far from a realized being, but I suffer less than in the past. And I try to cause less suffering to others. In my current identity transition, the teachings likewise have much wisdom to offer.
Of course, intellectually we know that identity is only a construction. But it presents as solid a monolith as the Northface of Yosemite when it gets messed with. For example, as an old person among younger people, I seem to become invisible. Being aware of this, watching it happen to me, I watch myself attempting to subvert or prevent it. I insist on telling young people about how it was in the past or what “I” was or did in the past. Because of my hearing loss, I speak too loudly. Destabilized by their wandering gaze and absent attention, I feel hurt or angry. I try not to act on it, but I feel diminished. I don’t want to feel this way. One way to view it is that this is craving. Identity may be vaporware, but I crave it nonetheless. Finding a way to detach from it would be liberating. A teaching from Ajahn Chah offers an approach.
When we undertake to train the mind to be at peace with every situation, please understand that in the beginning when a defiled emotion comes up, the mind won’t be peaceful. It’s going to be distracted and out of control. Why? Because there’s craving. We don’t want our mind to think. We don’t want to experience any distracting moods or emotions. Not wanting is craving, the craving for non-existence. The more we crave not to experience certain things, the more we invite and usher them in. ‘I don’t want these things, so why do they keep coming to me? I wish it wasn’t this way, so why is it this way?’ There we go! We crave for things to exist in a particular way, because we don’t understand our own mind. It can take an incredibly long time before we realize that playing around with these things is a mistake. Finally, when we consider it clearly we see, ‘Oh, these things come because I call them.’
Craving not to experience something, craving to be at peace, craving not to be distracted and agitated – it’s all craving. It’s all a red-hot chunk of iron. But never mind. Just get on with the practice. Whenever we experience a mood or emotion, examine it in terms of its impermanence, un-satisfactoriness, and selfless qualities, and toss it into one of these three categories. Then reflect and investigate: these defiled emotions are almost always accompanied by excessive thinking. Wherever a mood leads, thinking straggles along behind. Thinking and wisdom are two very different things. Thinking merely reacts to and follows our moods, and thoughts carry on with no end in sight. But if wisdom is operating, it will bring the mind to stillness. The mind stops and doesn’t go anywhere. There’s simply knowing and acknowledging what’s being experienced. (Ajahn Chah, The Teachings of Ajahn Chah.)
In meditation, I see I am devising ways to hang on, to hang on to the past, to hang on to comforting identities, to hang on to my life which I perceive is slipping away at an ever faster pace.
I have a house full of possessions that I feel compelled to sort into “keep” and “don’t keep” piles. But why either? Both piles are aimed at holding onto the past or to an imagined future. The “don’t keep” (donate) pile is part of a past I attempt to control by imagining it has an afterlife with new owners. The “keep” pile is for a future I try to control by imagining myself using that stuff again: the books, the sewing fabrics and notions, the projects, files, and papers. All of this stuff is detritus from past conceptions of myself, past entanglements, relationships and preoccupations.
Recently I wandered into the literal desert, back to the place where my life began some 70 years ago. Unlike the city, the desert accumulates no trash. In the city litter collects against every structure, road, curb, and building. In the desert, the nightly wind sweeps it all away. Nothing sticks. The desert is a very clean place where each day is a fresh start. The eye surveys the spaciousness that the guru describes as the aim of meditation. The emptiness seems filled with possibilities, but the challenge is to let one’s visions blow through without grasping at any one thing, like the wind sweeps away all the trash from past attachments.