Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Grandmother's Words


     Fairly recently, I listened to a Fresh Air interview with John Mellencamp by Terry Gross. I’ve never followed Mr. Mellencamp’s music very closely but I certainly will be making up for lost time after listening to this interview. Unlike some of our popular musicians, he has made a wonderful transition into his 50’s. He no longer holds up the iconic image of youth and teenage angst as some cultural ideal. He talks with wisdom and a respect for life.

The part of the interview, that struck me most, was when he spoke of his grandmother’s words as being the inspiration for the following song Longest Days:

Seems like once upon a time ago
I was where I was supposed to be
My vision was true and my heart was too
There was no end to what I could dream
I walked like a hero into the setting sun
Everyone called out my name
Death to me was just a mystery
I was too busy raising up Cain

But nothing lasts forever
Your best efforts don't always pay
Sometimes you get sick
And don't get better
That's when life is short
Even in its longest days

So you pretend not to notice
That everything has changed
The way that you look
And the friends you once had
So you keep on acting the same
But deep down in your soul
You know you, you got no flame
And who knows then which way to go
Life is short even in its longest days

All I got here
Is a rear view mirror
Reflections of where I've been
So you tell yourself I'll be back up on top some day
But you know there's nothing waiting up there for you anyway

Nothing lasts forever
And your best efforts don't always pay
Sometimes you get sick
And you don't get better
That's when life is short
Even in its longest days

Life is short
Even in its longest days

     The song so poignantly describes the cycle of life, and the reflective process our autumnal years bring. Also, underlying these words, is his real respect and gratitude for his grandmother. In the interview, he describes the incident that inspired the song. He had gone to visit his grandmother who lived to be 100 years old. She had always been quite healthy but when she reached 100 she began to get some dementia. He used to visit her in the afternoon, and she would ask him (she called him Buddy) to lie down beside her as she rested. While they were lying there she said, "Let's pray." Her grandson agreed, and she said "God, you know, Buddy and I are ready to come home." Mr. Mellencamp laughed when recalling this, and remembered that he responded "Whoa. Wait a minute Grandma. You're ready to come home. Buddy's only 45. He's not ready." She then turned and looked him right in the face, suddenly looking like a little girl, and says: "Buddy, life is short even on it's longest days."

     His story describes such a beautiful intimacy between a grandmother and her grandchild. He carried her words in his heart, and it still informs, and carries him throughout his creative process, and his journey through life. It got me to wondering which of my words will be remembered by my children and grandchildren. Will they think of me as kind and wise? It is not for me that I wonder, but there's a growing longing to leave them with wisdom and humor. That is the only thing that makes separation from our loved ones bearable. There is no escaping that final day where all that we've loved, and clung to, will be taken away.

     I remember my own grandmother. Her consistent humor, and vulnerability has carried me throughout my life. She wasn't perfect but she loved me unconditionally, and even when I got the occasional perfunctory spanking from her, I never doubted it. It's a mystery, but I never felt unloved by her for even when she made a mistake, I understood there was love behind it. Her words come to mind now and then, I remember one day when I was complaining that I wasn't as pretty as so and so, she simply said: "You're always going to come up short if you compare yourself to other people. Just be the best you can be."At the time her words weren't very consoling but it planted a seed in me to understand myself rather than measure my self worth by comparing myself to others. It's taken me awhile to appreciate her words, but still they stay with me, as do the words of other wise elders I've met. There are so many things that have been said to me that have stayed with me to both haunt me, and  guide me throughout my life.

      I wrote a lot of this blog entry a couple of months ago, but the question of what words I wanted to leave my grandchildren with has really been pressing to me. I even made a few changes in my life to help me restore some integrity to my word. I began the process of fulfilling a life long dream of writing a book for children. I started brushing off the dust on my books on spirituality, and actually take time to read them every day. I started eating better, and I even got a life coach to help me keep on track with some of my goals. 

      There is an urgency to writing this blog, a need to express  gratitude for all I have been given. So much of my life has been spent feeling sorry or bad about the content of my life, that somehow, the gifts of having a "normal life" had passed me by, and that I would never measure up to my more successful friends. I now see that it has all been a perfect reflection showing me what I needed to learn. I have a growing appreciation for all those around me, even those who test my limits, and "bring out my Irish". I will remember John Mellencamp's grandmother's words: " is short in its longest days." but I want to hear them without fear and regret. I also want to honor my own grandmother's words to "be the best I can be." but even more pressing is to be rested in what is true and real so when that final day comes that there is the ability to do so with humor, clarity, and gratitude.

If you'd like to hear more of John Mellencamp's interview with Terry Gross go to:
Thursday, July 1, 2010

My Death/My Life

                                                 Surrender/The Emergence and the Departure

     This last weekend, I attended a consideration on the Death process in the Way of the Heart. The speaker was a long time practitioner of  Adidam, a way of life  founded by the spiritual master Adi Da Samaraj. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. I felt enlivened (ironically perhaps) by this consideration of human mortality, and while not free of the fear of my mortality, at least moved to make my death an easier transition, not only for me, but for my family.

     For many of us when we  get into our fifties, things start to fall apart. I've started to notice that I'm not at all where I expected to be at this point in my life, and the need to prioritize has become very key to my day-to-day existence. I have to take better care of my body and mind. I can't waste as much time on negativity, or trivial pursuits, without suffering the consequences. My body needs more rest, and my mind needs more refreshment. My heart needs to feel openness.

     Last year, I was rushed to the emergency room by my son-in-law with extreme gastrointestinal distress. I had to carry a basin around with me, because I couldn't stop throwing up. Turns out my "huge-ass gallstone" (as one doctor referred to a few years before hand) had created acute pancreatitis. Surgery was required, and on top of that, I managed to catch a viral form of colitis that manifested after the surgery. A surgery that should have been an hour was four. A hospital stay that should have been a couple of days, turned into almost a couple of weeks. I had no idea, that the body could suffer so much, and still not die. My fear of death started to take on enormous proportions, just as my gallstone had. I felt defenseless; powerless to control my situation. Being in the "sterile" hospital environment is a kind of sensory deprivation. While there were some wonderful people who were helping me along, I could not seem to control the wild mind that was terrorizing me, and my body could not be consoled. I somehow developed an allergy to the pain medications, and while they helped with the pain, they didn't help with my growing foulness of spirit. I was quarantined for the last week of my stay, and I began to panic. They would not make my release easy until my tests clear that I was free of the colitis, but I felt like I was dying of shock. I had to get released. I wanted to feel the fresh air on my skin again.  I almost snuck out one night, but being so weak, I couldn't really do it on my own, and in all good conscience, I didn't want to expose anyone to the virus I'd been exposed to.

     Previously, I had maintained a good attitude during the first week of my stay. Getting bodywork, walking to keep my strength up, and even visiting other patients to cheer them up, but the quarantine and the painful colitis on top of the surgery,  was more than I was equipped to deal with. Finally, my test came back clear of this particular contagious inflammatory illness. I was released from the hospital with a warning that this didn't mean it was gone, but still it was enough to send me on my way. My surgeon joked that I had experienced enough problems for two people during my stay.

     The day I was released, it just so happened to coincide with a time that my family couldn't pick me up. A friend came, and helped me gather my things. The nurse wheeled me down to the front of the hospital. It had just rained. It was an early spring day, the sun was now shining, and I sat in front of tree full of pink blossoms still wet with the rain,from the previous day. Each blossom reflected the light like small magenta crystals. The fragrant smell of earth caressed me. I sat there and wept uncontrollably. My friend asked why I was so sad. I simply said, " I didn't think I'd see this again." It was true enough, but really the truth lie more with the fact that was that I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I saw that this was the tree of life before me and my connection to life's inherent divinity was always present. It was I who had abandoned "God." My friend was his usually abrupt self, but he was patient enough and kind, but still I felt very aware of how different our perceptions of the reality around us was. I felt raw - exposed and sat gently unto myself on the ride home.

     It is only in laying this story out today that I realize the profound gift of that moment. I was given the gift of insight into my relationship into life and death. The tree before me reached to the "Bright", and the roots to the underworld of existence. The "Bright" is a term used in the writings of Adi Da Samaraj to describe complete spiritual enlightenment. The paradox of human existence branched, literally and figuratively out before me. Also, I was able to see that even the suffering, although unbearable at times, was a necessary experience for me at that time. It was necessary because it showed me where I was limited, and that I still had a lot of work to do to transcend my fear.

     In exploring this experience, I see that I must give myself to preparing for this process much like I prepared for the birth of my children. Searching out a midwife, reading books that helped me prepare, and giving time to others to help them in this process of preparation. As the old adage says: "No one gets out of here alive.

     A few weeks ago, I started making a series of collages. I had photographed myself, with the appearance of death. It wasn't my intention to be morose, but to bring light into that inevitable experience. Also, the "me" who "I" think to be is no more than an abstraction really. I can no more really know what "I" am in total than an ant can describe it's work ethic. It exists for the whole of its clan. We humans want to live under the pretense of being separated individuated egos as if there is some ultimate fulfillment that will immortalize us. For the most part we want to be like rock stars famous for our contributions. The truth of it is, perhaps our contributions may be more humble. Even those of us have more monumental contributions, face the unknown realities that death brings. I won't pretend to have mastered any great yogic skills that will lift me out of the painful aspects of this process, but it is my heartfelt wish to turn to my greatest help:

"Death is a necessary, purposeful, and ultimately benign psycho-physical process. It is similar to the process of giving birth, except that it happens to both males and females. You must study the death process bodily and through observing others. Above all, tension and fear must be relaxed during the death process (as it must be by a woman during childbirth). You must relax and release, as when going to sleep, in a feeling of deep trust, love and surrender to the Divine Reality on Which the process depends."
                                                                         EASY DEATH / Adi Da Samaraj

      By no means, is my exploration here, a kind of suicidal ideation. It is more a way of holding my life closer. By admitting my death, I can embrace my life as is.  As they say in 12 step programs; "Gratitude is the attitude."

     I'm including another collage here that I initially entitled "Forest Goddess". I realize now that my unconscious was pointing me to that experience outside the hospital where I briefly looked inside the door of the Divine Reality, The Tree of Life.

                                                           The Divine Reality/The Tree of Life

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Loss For Words/Loss of Face

     Sometimes I'm at a loss for words. Throughout my life I have realized that when I feel verbally challenged, it's better to get prolific in other ways. I'm posting a couple of digital collages that show a beginning of a process emerging in the past couple of weeks.

     When I feel stuck, I do self portraits, or collages. I have joined the two this time.  It's not because I'm so in love with myself that I engage in this practice of self portraiture, but because first, I'm the only model around that will sit still for a couple of hours, and secondly it's been a way to access unconscious feelings I have about myself, or unfulfilled dreams. Believe me, as I get older, it is more of a desperate act than one of vanity, but I do find that I start to love that image. It's not because it is an icon of beauty in the conventional sense, but because I begin to feel the inner beauty. I begin to embrace this realization, and treat it accordingly.

     I think most people at some point just accept the hand dealt to them in life. Every human vehicle is a gift. Whether we think we're too ugly, too fat, too skinny , too hairy, too bald, or even just too beautiful (some people actually complain about that). Every incarnation, every human possibility has its gifts, and cost. The best way is to receive the gift, and pay the cost, is to stay spiritually aware. Being a  humble servant of the truth is the best option for staying happy in this world of endless possibilities.

     Much love to all of you my friends.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Lonely Race Car


Recently I've taken to archiving old family photos. I'm sure my father was rather proud of this one. It's a picture of a midget racer that he built himself from scratch, but I can't help wondering if he shared some of my feelings about it. I've named the photo "Lonely Race Car." The car built, after he lost all custodial rights to my brother and me, is a symbol of all he'd given up, as well as being his achievement. It's hard to even remember how I got the pic because we weren't able to see him during this time. I imagine my grandmother sent us a copy trying to bridge the chasm of our alienation. 

For many years when I looked at this picture. I felt a sense of pride at my father's accomplishments. Not only was my dad a top race car driver, but he raced motorcycles, and in his younger twenties a Golden Glove prize-fighter.  But in revisiting this photo I still feel an underlying sadness. Not only does this car represent the loss of my father, but the end of him being able act as my father. The car was actually named after his girlfriend. His friend Donny, told me that the name "Chris's Cross" was given, because it (his race car driving) was her cross to bear. Truly, the name "My Family's cross" would have been more accurate. I remember Donny laughing as he told me this story, but I remembered the heartbreak of feeling forgotten and passed over. It still stings a little after all these years. It's not there hasn't been forgiveness,  and it's not that there hasn't been acceptance, but the loss of a father affects a person over a course of a lifetime. I know some people have felt it terribly romantic to have a race car driver/boxer/motor cycle racer/all around sports enthusiast for a father but the passion and drive it required, took its toll on all of us. 

My father died at Westboro Speedway during a race. He wasn't in "Chris's Cross", or the usual one he drove for the man who sponsored him (Eddie's Deuce). The brakes were bad on that car. Turned out that the car that he finally chose to drive that day had bad brakes as well. I wasn't there. I had just seen my 12th birthday. The raceway has since been torn down, and replaced with a shopping center. I am grateful that my father died doing what he loved, but there is not a day that goes by, that I don't think of him, and wish I had a few more years. 

 It is odd having a father that died so young. I'm coming very close to doubling his life span now and I have had my way of taking risks. My dad never knew what it was like to become a grandfather, to deal with aging, or losing his parents. He preceded both of them on that account. It was just his time for whatever reason, and the lesson of loss learned early for my brother and I. That's just the way it works out for many of us.

My dad's memorial site.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Delicious Song

My heart swells; 
a dark crow
flitting from branch
to rooftop
to branch
occasionally balancing
on a wire above.
by the glitter.
Light floating everywhere
in the darkest of shadows.


....a warning 
 or a delicious song?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Riding The Wave of Depression vs Worshipping The Low Self-Esteem Deity

Recently, I celebrated another birthday.Yes, I'm now 57 years young.  Usually I have a couple of weeks of emotional upheaval before the birthday, but this year, it came after. There has been a lot of foot-dragging for the past week, but also, a lot of gratitude for the many wonderful things I have in my life that keep me going. I'm not quite sure, I could go through these dark times without my loved ones. It's not that they do anything special. It's just knowing they are there.

For nearly all my life, I have suffered from depression, and while I recognize it is a very common experience, I still find I buy into it for a couple of days when it first hits. Many things can trigger it. The wrong food,too many sweet things (alcohol is definitely a no-no), or even a minor argument with a friend....and even though I know many things that help turn it around, sometimes, the hopelessness renders me unwilling to do these things. I get angry. I'm not the type to feel justified in taking it out on others so I internalize. As the days go by though, I begin to step back into sanity, realizing the futility in indulging it. I read spiritual books, involve myself with artwork, throw myself into projects, whether it be cleaning the house, or doing a favor for a family member or a friend. Even writing this blog for my family and friends, is a way to step out of the fog depression tends to create in my life.

I have come to realize that at the bottom of this depression, is an unwillingness to accept life as it is appearing in the here and now. I feel out of control, helpless to change. Part of me knows that I just have to ride it through, and trust that my innate intelligence will find a solution, if I just keep showing up for my life the best way I can.

What triggered the episode this time was being too tired and an incident at a family gathering to celebrate my birthday and mothers day. One family friend, insisted on going over a litany of why he is worthless, and while I am sensitive to his dilemma, I felt once again I was cast as the reluctant caretaker. In short I felt invisible. Somehow the festivity had become about my friend, and not about celebrating my life, and the life of the friends, I had invited to share it with.  And while he may have been insensitive, it is not a criminal offense. I was very strong with him, and told him, that he always had a way of making conversation about himself, instead of an open exchange of ideas.When I finally stand up for myself, and take care of myself, I feel guilt.  If I wasn't so hard on myself, I would have an easier time showing strength and setting  healthy boundaries.  I forget to appreciate the growth it has taken for me to be honest.  I don't want to go into overkill, and give him more fodder for his "all-the-ways-I-hate" myself list. After all, he has a many wonderful qualities too. We all from time to time need wake up calls about being self involved. I think part of what was difficult for me, is that I feel the same way that he does about myself, but the difference is, I know that giving voice to the litany of all the ways I am worthless, digs me further into the mire of self loathing. So when my friend does this, it's like a negative mantra to a false god, and I find it difficult to keep my equanimity worshiping  the low self-esteem deity.

So here, I am taking a step out in the open. Today, I cleaned the house, prepared presents for friends and family, and wrote here, to you, "my dear, and best beloved." (as Rudyard Kipling would put it.) I am so grateful for living in a beautiful place. The trees are that lucid green. The evening is breezy and just cool enough. The people passing the cafĂ©, I'm sitting in, are eating ice cream, and smiling at their children. An acquaintance bought me a latte today just because I laughed with him. My daughter left me two Trader Joe Chocolate bars (unsweetened on the end of my bed). My grandson kissed me this morning, and a friend sent me a heart in an email. While I know there will be tragedies, minor setbacks, dreams unfulfilled, life is good, and worth the pain. Perhaps,  I'll send the old friend I mentioned, my heart in an email.
Monday, May 10, 2010

The Brilliance of Children

My grandchildren awe me. I feel consistently out-shined by their brilliance at times. A few days a week I take care of my grandson. Our mornings are easy together. We visit our games on Facebook, he eats waffles, I eat oatmeal, and sip my morning coffee. As he plays with cars and blocks, I get busy with chores, stopping to answer his questions, and perhaps help him with washing his hands or brushing his teeth.

As I was vacuuming yesterday, he approached me. I turned off the vacuum and said, "What is it, Zane?" He asks: "Meme, can we clean Daddy's room?" Daddy has a closed off porch he retreats to relax in evening. For the most part we leave it untouched for my son-in-law to deal with as far as cleaning and decorating. I was so touched by my grandson's care that his father have a nice room to come home to, that we spent an hour sweeping and dusting. My grandson was present for it for every step of it. His father was so pleased when he came home, my grandson was so pleased that he could do something for his father, and I was so pleased that I could witness this child's generosity. 

Zane turned 4 last November. Sometimes though when I watch him in all his child delight at life, I see this old wizened soul here to teach us all.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Last night I dreamed an old friend was dying. He was lingering, almost trying to pretend it wasn't happening. His spiritual teacher, Samaraj Adi Da (who had just passed on a little more than a year ago) called him on the phone, and said, "Just do it now". He calmly went in the other room and allowed the process. It was a strangely funny and beautiful dream in spite of the theme. Maybe death can be just like going in the other room, and not coming back to the the one you were in before.
Friday, April 30, 2010

No Regrets

I skipped a week on writing in my blog for a pause to reflect on my intent for creating this . I was pondering on the question to myself of "how honest do I want my little online web log to be?" I have started to realize that writing is a clarifying process. It brings issues to the surface, that I wasn't even aware I buried which leads me to the topic of "regret". Believe me, I have plenty of it. Is it useful to dwell in the realm of "regret"? No, not particularly.

The only usefulness of regret is that it points to an area of growth that I need to embrace. When I find myself hanging out in the purgatory of regret I notice it points to several things. First of all, I'm not living in the present moment. Choosing sanity means doing the yoga of attention which means taking a deep breath, looking around, and seeing what is possible to be done in the "here and now." One of the definitions of the word yoga is to yoke oneself to God (aka; pure consciousness). There are many forms of yoga. Hatha is the one we are more familiar with. Usually a series of physical poses we put ourselves in to restore us to equanimity, and a sense of well-being. In Jainism yoga they consider the total of all activities—mental, verbal and physical.

The best I can offer to this blog, is uniting my words with the present moment. It's not my intention to be a "poser". I won't pretend to have any advanced yogic skills, but I can practice telling the truth to the best of my ability. Life has persuaded me that nothing can come from denying the truth, about myself or anyone else for that matter. It is liberating for me to consider this. Even in criticizing someone, I cannot find separation, for the only way I can come to any insight about anyone else is that I have come to see these same qualities in myself. This doesn't give permission for me to hammer others, or myself with these perceptions.

Recently, and old acquaintance contacted me just to say hi. I didn't have particular fond personal memories of our "relationship". As a child they had tormented and scorned me, but I did have other memories of them. The person was a particularly talented vocalist. I remember attending school performances and being completely awestruck by their tremendous gift. It put me in a bit of a quandary. How could these two experiences of the same person coincide. I tended to think as a child it was because I was inherently un-lovable, or they were just being hateful, and not understand that this was just someone who I needed to learn from. My old school chum was a child like myself, just learning how to negotiate in a less than safe world. After all, it's not as if I had never been unkind. I think as children we experiment with all kinds of behaviors. Experiencing pain and regret are ways that show us actions that aren't working for us. Unfortunately, I have often continued this conduct in spite of these signals. I have a strong feeling that this is at the crux of addictive, and self-defeating ways of life. Many of us want life to bend to our whims and not "accept life on life's terms." My point is that I had a lot of regrets about my childhood. Taking teasing too much to heart, and then lashing out with my own cruelties. my relationship with my former school friend was not a comforting one, but one that helped me see that I can not depend on the understanding of others. Finding peace with myself is an inside job.

I have a favorite Jazz song I often listen to: "No Regrets" by Roy Ingraham and Harry Tobias. There have been many singers that have done this song. Billie Holliday being the most famous for it. The tone of the song is so upbeat and lyrical that I always feel my spirit fly when I listen to it. The lyrics go as follows:
No regrets!
Although our love affair has gone astray,
No regrets!
I know I'll always care though you're away;
Somehow our happy romance ended suddenly,
Still in my heart you'll be,
Forever mine!
No regrets!
Because somebody new looks good to you,
No regrets!
Sweetheart, no matter what you say or do,
I know our love will linger when the other love forgets,
So I say good-bye with no regrets!
No regrets!
Because somebody new looks good to you,
No regrets!
Sweetheart, no matter what you say or do,
I know our love will linger when the other love forgets,
So I say good-bye with no regrets!

Now while this is a song about romantic love, there is a sentiment in it that is just astounding. Love without jealousy, without holding on in the face of departure. The lack of taking that departure personally or as an act of un-love is just a beautiful response to the challenge of clear loss. This song has become very iconic to me. At 56 years old, romantic love doesn't hold the appeal it once had. I wasn't one of the ones who found a life partner. I used to think I was unlucky, but now, I'm at peace with what I have been given (and what I have created)". I am looking at an opportunity to take these autumnal years to prepare for the last days of winter, and make them a journey of learning more about authentic love. There are so many kinds of love, so many kinds of relationships that are equally deserving of my attention. Even though the body ages the heart is eternally young. Who knows I may find someone to share the journey with, but I'm no longer looking. I'm not without love, just without marriage. I could regret not learning to let go, be kinder, and more tolerant with those around me sooner than I have but that would be missing the point. If I assumed love in all moments I would have no sense of betrayal, and none of the torture of regret. I could just as easily sing this song to my old schoolmate to open my heart in the midst of experiencing the painful memory of a difficult childhood. Learning this lesson is an ongoing process.

Living without regret, without resentment is a choice we make everyday. This doesn't require me to live a life being a doormat or expecting that I am going to live up to some lofty ideal of perfection. I just need to be willing to take the time to connect with the bigger picture whether it be through meditation, or embracing an art form. I think there are many ways to connect with reality. For now, the practice of writing and art, and remembering to carry the beautiful simple song "No regrets" in my heart.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Freedom from Anger

This weekend, I had a breakthrough with my anger at my workplace. I have been praying a lot relative to my anger, because several months ago, I encountered a situation that revealed some darkness that still had a hold on me. It was a big wake up call, and showed me the consequences of settling for being comfortable rather than investing time into my spiritual and emotional well being.

My story starts, at my storage place in a neighboring town. I go there periodically to pay on my storage unit, and also to continue my process of down-sizing. Ever since an accident I had a few years back, I've had to learn how to live simply. It's been a continuing process of letting go of all kinds of excess baggage on both the material and emotional level. I had decided to move all my things to a smaller and cheaper storage area. I had done all the preliminary work of throwing away, and sorting, the day earlier. Being that I was dependent on my daughter giving me a ride, I wanted to make the transporting as efficient as possible. I didn’t want to impede on her time anymore than necessary. Finishing my work, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a young man moving quickly towards us. Something in the way he was moving signaled danger (full of swagger, and energy that seemed more than the usual caffeine lift), but I figured I'll just keep working and get out of his way quickly. Suddenly the young man was right in front of us. "Can you make room on that elevator?" It was actually more of an accusation than a question own. At first I didn't react, thinking maybe he worked there, and was assuming some authority over the situation to finish some work for the building. I tried to make room, but finally said " no, it won't work, I'll quickly unload it upstairs, and send the elevator back down." He was very agitated, and barked, "Well hurry up then." I turned a little red at then. I almost walked away, but I asked: "Do you work here?" He said "No I don't." It was then the force of my anger slipped out with this next remark: “Then don't tell me what to do!" This was mistake number one on my part. The appropriate response to someone telling you what to do, is not telling them what to do back, but hell, I was really at a loss for words here, in my enraged condition. "Fuck you, lady!" he yelled. By this time, I was livid, but the sight of my little grandson, waiting in the car next to me curbed my tongue. I said to myself “just walk away." When I got upstairs and unloaded, the temptation to make him walk upstairs and push the down button for the elevator himself was very strong...but I continued to "try" to take the high road here. I emphasize the word try, because when my emotions take over, I'm like a loaded gun just waiting to go off. My daughter confessed to me after the "gentleman" said "Fuck you, lady!" she knew all too well my pistols were cocked. So, I walked on quickly, determined to put my boxes in my unit as quickly as possible. I heard this man loading his stuff onto the cart quickly while I rushed to put everything of mine away in an orderly fashion as possible without being frantic. I didn't want to give him the satisfaction. I also thought the likelihood of him coming in my direction was somewhat slight, but of course that was an incorrect assumption on my part. This part of the storage building was like a maze of several hallways, but of course my adversary bee-lined for the last possible hallway (the one I was in) to make his turn. Perhaps this was accidental, but it just seemed the collision course was already in motion. In order to not make a short story longer and cut to the chase (we don't need to get into the "he said, she said" of it) things escalated, push led to shove, curse words were exchanged, and I did not go lightly. I will say that my parting words were not kind, and my daughter had to come to my rescue. You may think that I gained some satisfaction for calling him, a "wimp" and a "worm", but I felt horrible.

Although my anger felt justified, I saw my failure to keep myself safe, and to keep my family safe. I had no idea what this man was capable of; it very well could have escalated into, an even more out of control situation. I saw that in my anger, I mirrored this angry self righteous young man. I wasn't behaving in a way that represented the wise older woman I wanted to become. I really felt embarrassed, but at the same time, I felt determined to really understand what had transpired. It wasn't the first time I had found myself in this kind of conflict. I wanted to see what my part was. I wanted to stop being part of the equation of violent communication.

Over the next several weeks to follow, I did a lot of reflection on my behavior. I began to see that it was really fear that was at the bottom of my anger. I felt disrespect-ed, and cornered and as usual, I was letting my emotions rule me. I took this young man's behavior personally. I wasn't able to stay in equanimity and diffuse the situation. I saw that I was letting my un-healed self meet his un-healed self rather than teach him something about real strength. Recently, I heard somewhere, that anger is the hot truth. Feeling anger is one thing, but to act on in a way that compromises happiness or understanding is another. One of the central teachings of the Buddha was:

Hatred never ceases by hatred.
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law.

I carried on with this kind of thought over the next few weeks. I became more and more aware of the way I responded in situations I could not control. I saw that while my anger was not always overt, it was always right there below the surface.
I work in a small shop in my town. It's an even paced store, but still I have plenty of interaction with others, and plenty of opportunity to see how my anger works, or more accurately put, doesn't work. I began to pray each time before I went to work, that I would treat everyone in the store with utmost respect, and to see them as allies in my becoming a more self-aware human being. It wasn't that I acted out on my anger in the store, but I turned it inward. I simply endured it rather than really understand my reactions to others. Over the weeks, I started to notice, that I wasn't so thrown off by people being rude or thoughtless, and often times, I was more readily able to respond with real humor and kindness, I noticed I didn't react so much to people just being people, and saw myself in them more. I had more energy to give, because I wasn't simply suppressing myself, but breathing more understanding into the present moment. 

The real test came this weekend. I was feeling very creative and balanced (another discipline I took on to help me with my anger was regular evening walks to help me with feeling stronger). I prepared myself for the day, even remembering the aforementioned prayer ( you could just call it my statement of better intent). I was busy in the store, and I felt relaxed at the same time. The store was full of customers. Suddenly, a regular customer came in the door, and walked right up to me at the counter. She's a very challenging woman, because she has some kind of mental illness. Many times I have wished I could run out the back door when I saw her coming, but I found if I just listen without much response she usually goes on her merry way. But on this day, she was particularly animated. She was complaining that another store clerk accused her of stealing and actually tried to lock the door before she came in. She got very animated. I simply said, "I don't know why he did that. I'm sorry you got hurt." She started to hem and haw, saying that she wasn't hurt...but I just continued to stay calm. "I'm sorry that happened." She left and then again re-entered the store, saying she was going to sue that “motherfucker" for his rudeness. She was loud and animated. All the while I'm thinking "I know very well why this man locked the door, and how can I get you out of this store", but I didn't say it out loud. I simply said, "I am sorry this happened. I'm sorry that you are hurt. I wish I could help you process this, but I have to work right now." I was calm, kind and strong in the face of her emotional reactions. I knew it was grace, and that in spite of myself, I had something to thank that young man I met several months ago in the Storage establishment. He showed me where I was stuck, and in spite of his unkindness, I could move on, and let go of my resentment, learning to behave differently in the midst of an unruly situation.

I apologized for the disturbance afterward to the other customers. One man said; "Yeah that was intense. Obviously the woman is not well. Oh, and by the way, you handled it beautifully." I thanked him, and then added: "I know she is a broken-hearted person. I don't want to do anything to add to that." I have to confess I was a little proud of myself for managing to artfully get this woman out of the store without any unkindness or blame, but really I am humbled, because I very well know how that woman felt, and it's only through being willing to do the hard work of looking at myself, that I was able to offer kindness, and find freedom from my own anger. Just as I cannot afford to invest in a large storage area for my material things of the past, I can no longer afford hanging on to the emotional baggage either.

"A human being is a part of a whole, called by us "the universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

-Albert Einstein
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Kind Heart

Zane, my first grandchild, has a way of leaving me chagrined. Several months ago, he wanted me to get up early to make him waffles. I pretended I was snoring, and then we would both giggle. Later, when we were at the kiddie park, he started throwing a rock around, and there were other toddlers nearby. Whenever he does stuff like this at the park. I make a point of being very direct with him, asking him to look at me. Of course he doesn't want to. Throwing rocks is fun. So I got down on my knees, to be level with him, said his name, and then said, "look at me, please." He turned away closed his eyes, and started snoring. My playful behavior with him, had just backfired, but I couldn't help but feel a proud of my little perceptive mockingbird. Zane has always had a little trouble finding his words, but not his humor.

Just a few weeks ago, this kind of shadowing happened again. At first it started with him repeating things that I said. He would even have my intonations down to a tee. But then he took it to a new level, and started imitating behaviors. One night, after coming home from work, I was a little stiff from being on my feet all day. Slowly moving around, doing my usual evening routine, I suddenly noticed something out of the corner of my eye. My grandson was mirroring me. I had to laugh, thinking perhaps he will actually learn tai chi from imitating his arthritic grandmother.

Observing this kind of behavior in both of my grandchildren has made me very aware of my presentation. It's not about what I say; it's about what I do. I see that they are watching the adults around them very closely to see how they negotiate in the world. After all, like the old adage says, "actions do speak louder than words." I'm not saying that words don't have power, but it is the understanding behind them that informs the wisdom, or lack thereof.

Loving my dear grandchildren makes me want to be a more thoughtful person, a more awake person. After all, the quality of their lives will be greatly influenced by the lessons they learn from the adults around them. I want my grandchildren to see me joyful, and to see me, behaving with clarity and compassion. I found a quote today in a book written by Pema Chodron. She was quoting a prominent teacher and author of Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism named Patrul Rinpoche:

"To make things as easy as possible to understand, we can summarize the four boundless qualities* in a single phrase "a kind heart". Just train yourself to have a kind heart always in all situations."

I realize that I will not do this perfectly. Having a kind heart is a lifetime vocation. I will still come across people that will be difficult to practice this with. When I see my grandchildren mirroring my behaviors I become more sensitive to the reality of my influence. I can choose to be a light out suffering for them by demonstrating, to the best of my ability, equanimity, and tolerance in all situations. Humor, as my dear grandchild so brightly showed me with his gentle mocking is key. Yes, he is my light too. I'm obliged to return the favor.

* Four Boundless Qualities
May all sentient beings enjoy happiness
and the root of happiness.

May we be free from suffering
and the root of suffering.

May we not be separated from
the great happiness devoid of suffering.

May we dwell in the great equanimity
free from passion, aggression, and prejudice.

Monday, April 5, 2010

My Elephant Friend

On April Fool's Day of this year, I did something daring. It was something of a rights of passage for me. I wore a piece of jewelry that I had been gifted over 15 years ago. It was a birthday present from my daughter, and while I had chosen the gift, I could not bring myself to wear it until recently. It is a hard piece to wear because it has such power. It's a huge pewter piece of an elephant. It is not a profile view, and it is hinged so it has a very puppet like quality which makes it almost like a hologram of it's real life counterpart.

I remember when I first encountered this special item. I knew it was more than a trinket for me. Everything about it felt magical to my eye, but I wasn't one to make bold pieces like this part of my wardrobe. The salesperson said I could put it on the wall, but still I wasn't sure. I couldn't seem to justify it, but I left it there thinking if it's meant to be it'll still be there when I come back. I mentioned it to my daughter, and she decided to get it for me for my 41st birthday. I was so pleased, but still it was merely hung on the wall in my home.

For years, I would go to hang this piece around my neck, but I felt self conscious, almost as if I wasn't worthy of this kind of adornment, or maybe it was that I felt a little funny about any humorous associations that might be made between myself and the elephant (always been insecure about my weight issues). But suddenly I found myself picking out clothing to showcase this piece. I chose a beautiful tan, and brown print shirt with a charcoal gray cardigan. I put on a comfortable pair of jeans, with my Merrell slip-ons. It was a humble outfit, but it carried the piece well. It wasn't too flamboyant, but had just enough humph to let the piece sing a little on my chest. For some reason, I knew this elephant was a teacher. I got so many compliments, so many stares, and they were sincere, respectful and thoughtful responses. I told the story of the piece to a young woman on the street who inquired about my necklace as I passed by, and she congratulated me. She too recognized the significance of my finally being able to wear this beautiful object.

I was always compelled to wear it, but on this day, I was finally up for it. When I came home I looked up what the elephant stood for as a totem: "An Elephant totem gives you ancient wisdom and power to draw upon. It embodies strength and power". I needed a dose of this kind of talisman. I think as we get older, it is wise to look to this kind of help. Beautiful objects that don't just adorn, but connect us to the natural world, and to the world of spirit. On this day, I felt like a grandmother, who was learning to own her age, to command respect for the wisdom gained, and let go of the girl, who has long disappeared.
Friday, March 26, 2010
Recently, I have made an interesting discovery; I've caught myself enjoying looking at "bad" photos of myself. I realize that some of the judgment about not being thin enough, "good-looking" enough is starting to subside. For one thing, I'm finally able to grok that that even if I had the "perfect body" it's still going to die. Do I want to bemoan my lost youth, and physical beauty, or do I want to live the balance of my years being radiantly happy? Which would lead me to inquire, what would being radiantly happy require. Certainly something more than cosmetics, wonder bras, and plastic surgery. The cost of plastic surgery is not really an option for me, eyeliner and lip gloss seem to be the extent of my make-up application routine, and shopping for the perfect bra can be a tedious endeavor. Should I let these things sadden me, or should I look at the impossible task of avoiding the changing appearance of my body as a blessing? For me, looking at it as a blessing is the way to go. Perhaps the secret of aging gracefully lies in this acceptance.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look as good as you possibly can, to establish routines that provide better health contributing to more longevity, but at the end of the day, I have to face that I am aging. Eventually everything, I'm familiar with will disappear. I look in the mirror sometimes with disbelief, but sometimes, I find myself just falling in love with the silver haired plump form before me. I see in my own visage a reflection of all those that I have loved, and hated in the past, and I am moved to compassion, not only for myself, but for the condition of all of my human family.

Here's a great link to an essay Kathy-Piper Lally wrote on aging.


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