Welcome back to our blogger Q & A series! Today we have an interview with Jeanne Desy of the “Dalai Grandma” blog, whose guest post, “Zen Out in the Cold,” we published just last week. Jeanne, also known as the Dalai Grandma, is a Zen practitioner from Ohio who writes about her daily life with a Buddhist spin. Although she frequently blogs, unapologetically, about difficult topics—dealing with old age and sickness, for example—I always find reading her blog to be a calming, softening experience. Enjoy our Q & A and make sure to check out the “Dalai Grandma” blog for her recent thoughts on the nirvana fallacy, Chogyam Trungpa, and her poetry (she’s a published poet and author).
Who were you before you were the Dalai Grandma? Tell us a bit about your pre-blogging life. I have always been a writer. When I was younger I published poetry in literary magazines. Ms. magazine published some of my personal essays and the feminist fairy tale, “The Princess Who Stood on Her Own Two Feet.” This has been anthologized and is taught in high schools and colleges around the world, which pleases me very much.
I did not devote myself full-time to writing until I had breast cancer in 1997; writing poetry then helped me survive. I have won grants and awards for both my poetry and fiction, but I am bad at marketing it. I’d rather spend my time creating than marketing, and am often satisfied to share a poem with someone.
As a young person I worked in a soda fountain (that’s how old I am), and as a secretary. After I got my Master’s in English I went on to teach, then to work as a writer and researcher in an educational research center. In 1990 I went back to school and earned a PhD in critical theory at Ohio State, thinking I wanted a career as a teacher. By the time I graduated, I knew I didn’t—it is a very stressful, competitive life. But by pursuing that dream to its end, I got over my desire for that life and my illusions about its power and glamor.
What do you think in your life has been most challenging to your spiritual practice as both a Unitarian and a Buddhist? Early in my years of Buddhist practice I led meditation groups and day retreats and so on through my church, which is exceptionally open to lay leadership. I loved sharing the dharma in this way, listening to a tape series for instance with a number of other people, and quietly discussing the dharma. But the administrative work that went with that seemed to constantly conflict with my basic nature; a poet needs space to wander, to waste time. It was hard for me to understand that about my nature. (What was your original face?)
How many challenges do you want? My biggest challenge now is my bipolar disorder, which was reactivated by enormous doses of steroids during my kidney transplant in October 2011. After years free of psychotropic medications (which I largely credit to my zazen practice), I’ve had to return to them, which has affected my creative flow. These medicines only mitigate the symptoms; they don’t do away with them for me (and other bipolars I know). I found it is simply too painful to sit when I am deeply depressed. And after many years of daily discipline, I lost my motivation. I am still finding ways I can practice in those times, such as walking meditation, contemplative photography, and lovingkindness meditation.
I really need to add that the other big challenge is the fact that we don’t have a resident Zen teacher here in Columbus. It’s an awfully nice city. That’s an invitation.
Your blog tends to “tell it like it is”—it seems like you write what you want to write and don’t worry about the rest. Are you like this in person as well? I love being able to write what I want. Blogging falls between writing for publication and private journaling, and is often my way of thinking out loud about my life.
As for telling it like it is, an older friend at church once said to me, “Every time you open your mouth, you shock me.” She did not mean to be criticizing me. But it did surprise me—I’ve never set out to shock or hurt people. I just say what I think. Perhaps because I come from an alcoholic family, I seem slow to pick up the unspoken rules, what you can and can’t say. I am often surprised by the humor that others see in my writing.
As a private person, I had to work through quite a lot before I came forward as a bipolar on the blog, though I realize now that many people probably knew I am. I knew that label would affect the way some people saw me. But I felt that openness was something I could offer the world, that you can be bipolar and still have a productive, happy life. And also, I like to affirm that it is difficult to live with this, that there is no cure, despite what celebrity autobiographies always say.
I am working now on a paper or small manual on the subject of Buddhist practices that have helped me live with this disorder. But of course, I only work on it when I’m not too depressed or agitated. That’s life with this kind of illness.
You describe your blog as being “The reality of old age in America, deeply influenced by a Zen cat.” How would you sum up that reality in a few words? I have a very good life with the middle-class affluence of secure pensions, good medical insurance, and a sweet, understanding husband who is a Zen practitioner, too. But even in the best of circumstances, aging isn’t easy. Friends and loved ones die, we get sick and lose abilities. I try to share my experiences and struggles as an antidote, perhaps, to the fantasies of youth and control that are marketed everywhere, especially to women.
This month at Tricycle our theme is “Aging as a Spiritual Practice.” What’s been your experience with approaching aging as a spiritual practice? Do you find yourself relating to Buddhist teachings differently as you grow older? Aging has demanded constant adjustment to the changing reality of this body. It is a ruthless teacher about impermanence. I’ve found that I often turn to The Five Remembrances. I know them by heart, but still need to convince myself.
Every day a good day? Oh, how I work that koan. A recent day: I had an infection that would not respond to oral medication, so a home nurse came at noon to put an IV in me. In four tries, she failed, getting more and more stressed. After much telephoning, they sent me to the hospital to get a PICC installed (a longer, more permanent kind of IV access). Much confusion there for hours. Then the first attempt failed, and it had to be repositioned. We were there till 9:00 at night, a medical mess that did not need to happen. How do you see this as a good day?
I just remember one roommate I had during another hospitalization. She was in the hospital flat on her back with a catheter and a colostomy for two months following a complex illness. She told me she just said to herself, “I’m still alive.” That reminds me that, after all, being alive is precious.
You often write about your pet cats on “Dalai Grandma.” What do you think, do cats have Buddha-nature? I asked Tashi, my cat, to comment on this. Of course, she said, “Mew.”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.