I started drafting this post by writing, “This year didn’t go exactly as I’d planned.” Then, as I wrote, I realized just how far I’ve come. Wow. It may not have unfolded exactly according to my directive, with the outcomes I wanted, but it’s still been a miraculous, transformative year.

Last December 31, I set out all kinds of positive intentions. I followed through with actions, and still… well, the lesson learned is that I’m only one part of the equation.  I can choose how I perceive situations, but what Life brings to me is exactly what I need in order to grow in each moment. At least, that’s my take on it. We can’t know for sure why things happen, and all our guesses are just stories we weave to make sense of it. My goal is to make the stories I tell myself as useful – propelling me towards spiritual growth – as possible. I spent decades creating negative interpretations of events around me and in my life, and all that accomplished was to make me supremely depressed.

A year ago today, I was behind on rent, had no work on the horizon and yet was determined that 2014 would be a year of “growth through joy and positive experiences.”

The universe had other plans.

During the first six months of this year, I earned less than $4,000. That wasn’t even close to enough to cover rent, much less utilities or food. I’ve been through several freelance ‘famine’ episodes before, including stretches where I had to rely on a food bank or went days without food, but this was by far the most extreme. Because I’ve been paying off a large debt for the past several years, I have no savings or assets. In early 2013, I applied for partial relief of the debt based on financial hardship. Sixteen months later, In May of this year, I was granted partial relief – which is apparently almost unheard-of, because one has to be completely in ruins financially to qualify. Well, um… yeah. The universe did kind of conspire to help me ‘achieve’ extreme financial hardship, and that ultimately lowered my bill considerably. (Note to the universe: Let me be more specific. Please bring me the money to pay the rest of this debt.)

Between April 2012, when the last ‘chapter’ of my life changed and my regular work fell away, and June 2014, when it picked up again, was a massive lesson in staying fiercely present. If I allowed my mind wander into the future even an few moments, I would spiral into panic. I listened to Tolle nearly every day, especially The Journey Into Yourself, in which he goes into detail about ways to view financial challenges and how to stay present during difficult times.

There’s something in Buddhist teachings about how, in moments of despair, we’re one step away from enlightenment. I would lie in bed at night, sometimes in tears, begging for enlightenment. Based on my experience in 2010, if I could truly see this life in perspective – if I could see a glimpse of the love that encompasses and connects us all – I wouldn’t be so caught up in worry.

But I’m not enlightened, and I did worry. A lot.

My mind hijacked me by constantly trying to strategize how I was going to keep a roof over my head. That’s one good thing about the intellect: The mind can strategize. But it can also take over, lording its (presumed) usefulness as strategist to push aside things like meditation and contemplation – which are key for inner peace. And inner peace is a far stronger place from which to take action (not to mention that it feels better than panic).

Maslow had a really good point. It’s almost impossible to find inner peace, or even to be creative, when dealing with survival issues. I didn’t have anywhere I could move, much less money to pay for movers (or y’know, rent). There was no one I could stay with. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t asking anyone if I could borrow money – in part because I didn’t want to get into (any more) debt, and in part because I didn’t want to be that person again. Besides which, I had no idea if or when I’d be able to pay anybody back. I felt utterly alone and was terrified of winding up on the street.

Most of the time, I was able to stay present and to focus on the things that were good in my life – the beauty around me, my beloved cat, my writing and a particular connection in my life. I walked and walked and walked (some might call it pacing, but fortunately, I can walk along a 2-km stretch of waterfront, so it doesn’t really look like pacing). I continued my giving practice to the best of my ability, though most of the time, I simply wasn’t able to give financially. That, at least, got me out of my head – if only for a moment. During the summers, I spent as much time as possible in an ancient-growth forest, because the healing power of nature is truly awesome.

Although it sometimes felt like I didn’t have everything I needed to meet my obligations (because I was so far behind on rent), I did and still have incredibly compassionate landlords, and because of them, I had a roof over my head. I was able to barter for some food. When my cat became suddenly ill, a friend sent me money so I could take her to the vet. In the most dire moments, just when it seemed I wouldn’t make it another step, something unfolded. I’d get tiny pieces of work here and there, and just enough income to put $5 or $10 towards each bill. I’d find a coupon for an item I desperately needed, like toothpaste, or get a sample in the mail. My sisters chipped in to cover a month of my rent. One sister sent me enough to keep gas and electricity connected when I couldn’t negotiate with the companies any further.  When I was so far behind on rent I feared eviction was imminent, a woman I barely knew quietly stepped in and helped me catch up. The experience of living that close to the edge, though, was terrifying. That Buddhist prayer, “May this serve to awaken compassion”? Compassion, awakened.

In thinking about “growth through joy and positive experiences,” well… I can choose to interpret the events around me as positive or negative, or I can just look at the facts (this is a biggie for me, in terms of staying peaceful). Similarly, “joy” isn’t created by external circumstances; it’s how I respond to those. I found moments of peace in unlikely times – not constant peace by a long shot, not external joy, not always the types of experiences I’d label “positive” – but to the extent it’s possible for any not-yet-enlightened being to be accepting in extremely difficult circumstances… well, most of the time I did okay.

It was by using all the practices I’ve written about (many of which I haven’t posted yet) that I was able to stay even moderately peaceful, rather than out-of-my-mind crazy with panic. I focused intensely on the physical sensations of each moment (presence) and tried to notice when my mind created stories around these. I observed the impact of the weather on my body, and how my mind liked to interpret those responses. I continued my giving practice as much as I could, and I also upped my gratitude practice. In addition to the nightly gratitude journal I’ve kept for four years, I began exchanging emails with a friend each night, listing three things for which I was grateful that day. Even when I was down to less than 50 cents, there were always things I could be grateful for.

The second half of the year unfolded very differently (whew!). I’ve had enough work to cover rent and bills, which is a huge relief.  I hadn’t been sure I’d ever find work again (after a couple of years, my confidence was really, really low). Being able to buy the basics I struggled to afford for so long – shampoo, toilet paper, toothpaste, deodorant (not to mention food and cat food) feels like a luxury. Since June, I’ve drafted 20 posts for this blog, and since 2012, I’ve written a total of 134,000 words on the Living the Mess project, across a dozen journals and notebooks and several dozen documents. I launched this site, though I haven’t yet publicized it at all (and only a half-dozen of the posts are public right now). Every single time I work on LTM, I feel expanded and joyous, almost the way I feel when I’m in nature. I’ve also made progress towards clearing my debt. I’d hoped, prayed, visualized and worked like crazy towards clearing it, but… I’ve come to accept that this is going to be a longer process than I’d originally hoped. For a few days, I was feeling pretty down about that. However, I’m ending the year owing less than half of what I did at the beginning of the year, which is pretty amazing.

I think back to how absolutely terrified I was in March, April, May – mostly of being homeless. Laundry detergent was a luxury I couldn’t afford for more than a year (tip: baking soda works pretty well; it also works for washing dishes and brushing teeth). While I was able to use some of that time to write, creative work was a challenge because my mind was so whipped up about strategizing how to keep a roof over my head, how to keep utilities connected. And when the mind gets busy, creativity beats a hasty retreat. I remember getting a UTI and not having $20 for antibiotics. Cutting my foot and not being able to buy a $4 pack of Band-aids. Journaling to keep myself from falling apart and having my very last pen run out of ink, without even $2 to buy more. And like most writers, I’d had a lot of pens. I remember focusing on what do I absolutely need today – like toilet paper – and do I have enough change to get the cheapest kind? On four separate occasions, homeless people tried to give me money. That sounds like the punchline to a bad joke, but it’s not.

To a large extent, I’ve blocked out the pain of that time, because – as they say about childbirth – it’s just too excruciating to have as a constant memory. But when I think about where I was a year ago, and where I am now, I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

Nothing.

(Don’t get me wrong – there are some things I still complain about. There are some things that haven’t gone my way, and I can get grumpy about that. But the more I complain, the worse I feel. And none of the issues facing me is related to baseline survival needs. Better, then, to focus on accepting what is.)

As for 2015, the past two years make me cautious about proclaiming what kind of year it will be. My goals are simpler: Make progress on clearing my debt (though I’d still really, really like to clear it entirely). Continue to put my words out into the world. Build on my health and my connection with nature. Be as open-hearted and generous as I can, in spirit and in practice. Continue training my brain towards the peaceful and the positive. Accept with grace whatever Life brings (which, admittedly, is a pretty lofty goal).

For two years, I’ve said I wanted to grow through joy and positive experiences, and from an external perspective… uh, imagine a loud buzzer sound here. The joy part, I realize, is up to me. Joy is subtle – not a Snoopy-dance happiness, but a deep inner peace. And if I quiet the mind enough, I can access that peace almost any time, regardless of what’s happening.  

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