Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mary was a Real Mother

I was talking yesterday with a woman whose son died in a carelessly started cabin fire when he was 12. That was twenty years ago. She told me her story after I commented on her brilliantly colored tattoo featuring a name, her son’s name, surrounded by turquoise rays of light emanating from an eagle, his favorite bird. One ray embraced a heart with a piece missing. She recently got the tattoo after all this time to honor his memory. And to let go, in a way.

As I listened to the story, I was struck by several things. First, you can talk to someone for a long time without having any idea about that person’s deep story. The story that matters. Second, tragedy is both personal and universal. I have grieved and still grieve over my son’s autism. Chronic grief. It is not the same as her grief which was heart-exploding catastrophic. I can’t imagine hers. She perhaps can’t imagine mine. But we share a mother’s grief.

I have often felt guided and protected by Quan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy and compassion. But when my heart has been torn apart with pain that seems unbearable, I turn to Mary. As a therapist once said to me, "She was a real mother." Quan Yin is always serene, never born as a human being, never suffering as a mother. Mary is so often portrayed with a serene, radiant, sublimely loving face, a Quan Yin face. But I don't think that is what her face really looked like much of the time.

What did her face look like when her wayward preteen disappeared, only to be found days later teaching in the temple, shrugging his shoulders at his parents’ worried consternation? Or when he refused to acknowledge her in front of the crowd, instead claiming the people around him as his family? (I remember telling my mom once that I wished the next door neighbor was my mom. She promptly told me to go see if Mrs. Beasley wanted any more children and locked me out of the house.)

What did Mary’s face look like when her son was being ridiculed and hated? Not a mother’s proudest moment. What did she answer when all the moms got together to brag about their kids and asked her, “And what does your son do?”

But I’m sure none of that compared to what her face looked like as her son was arrested, tortured, and killed right in front of her. I don’t care how strong your faith is. That is not something any mother should have to endure. And yet so many have. Before yielding to God’s will, Jesus asked for the cup to pass from him. How many times did Mary pray this prayer? How many times have I?

I don’t pretend to understand the meaning of such suffering. Or of any suffering for that matter. But I know that some of my most fervent prayers have been to Mary. The prayers I pray when I don’t know how to cope, where to turn, how to face another day, or even another second. No, I’m not Catholic, but I think that’s okay with her. After all, Mary was a real mother.

The heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe. –Joanna Macy

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Open the Door

I called my friend Greg today to see how he was doing. As I wrote before, Greg is dying (You Have to be Present to Win, Our Appointment with Life). Today is such a beautiful day. Sunny and breezy. I was hoping that he was getting some pleasure from the perfection of this late summer day.

But Greg’s son answered the phone and told me that Greg died a few days ago. How could that be? I just saw him last week. Yes he was dying, but did not seem that close to death. The laughing, meandering, remembering conversation we had did not seem like a last conversation. I thought I would see him again. I thought I had time to say goodbye.

But perhaps last week’s conversation was a perfect last conversation, full of smiles and friendship. Relaxed and easy. With hugs and promises of future visits.

When I asked him about dying, he said he thought he would go to sleep and wake up in a better place. And so he did.

Goodbye, my friend.

Open the door of your treasure today, for tomorrow the key will not be in your hands. –Sa’di

Friday, August 27, 2010

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

I had one of those one-finger-pointing-at-someone-else-three-fingers-pointed-at-myself experiences this morning. And for reasons I don’t understand and would like to resist, I feel moved to share this tale which does not make me look very good. Humble pie, force fed.

A colleague sent an email complaining about his teaching schedule this year. Because he thought my schedule was part of the unfairness (to him), I was copied on it. As it turns out, my schedule was not the one putting him at a perceived disadvantage; it was someone else’s. Then in the series of emails, he questioned the “POWER” of this other person to claim the coveted time slot.

Not sure if he was joking (I don’t know him very well), I deflected the issue with some weak humor. Afterwards, I pondered the email exchange and gifted what I labeled as his petty ego trip with some condescending compassion. Condescending, I say, because I saw myself as quite above such a silly fray. Way too spiritual, too serene, too wise. Concerned more with REAL suffering in the world rather than whether I would be coming home an hour later after work.

Basking in my moral superiority as I condemned his sense of workplace superiority (you see where this is going), I suddenly “saw” a mirror in front of me. I remembered years when an hour in my schedule meant the difference between being able to pick up my kids after school or needing after school childcare. I don’t know anything about my colleague’s personal life. That hour might be very important. Indeed, I remember times when I was practically apoplectic over being kept waiting 10 minutes. When I thought I was entitled to something better than someone else. Who am I to judge him?

Disappointed that my enjoyment of being more-enlightened-than-thou was so abruptly cut short, I started wondering if there was anything I could judge someone for that I wasn’t guilty of myself. Surely there is something I could point at and say with confidence, “I never have done and never would do that!”

It is now several hours later, and I’m still thinking. Well, I have been mean and selfish, and all that. But I’ve never stolen anything. Hmm, yes I have. I’ve never cheated anyone. Yep, done that, too. Lied, yes, more times than I can count. Got it – I’ve never killed anyone. Up close and personal, that’s true. But have any of my actions, thoughts, words, or lifestyle habits contributed to anyone’s death somewhere in the world? Maybe. Probably. In that six-degrees-of-separation kind of way, is there anything I am not at least partly guilty of? Nothing I can think of.

Humble pie, meekly eaten.

We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are. --Anais Nin

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Breathing or Being Breathed?

Do we breathe or are we being breathed? (I’m not sure who first asked this, but I ran across the question recently and it caught my attention.)

What images or feelings do you have about breathing? About being breathed? Think about this for a few minutes. What is the difference? How do the different concepts affect our view of our world and our interaction with it?

If we breathe, then we do that as individuals, taking oxygen from the air and using it for our own benefit.

If we are being breathed, then we are all linked by the energy that is breathing us. That energy fills all the space we think of as empty. We are receiving rather than taking. And giving, for whatever is breathing us inhales what we exhale. There is a flow back and forth. Connection rather than separation.

Just a thought.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ego Knickers

Don’t fight a battle when you won’t gain anything by winning. Guess who said that. General “Old Blood and Guts” Patton. Surprised? This is the week of wisdom in surprising places. Out of the mouths of babes, generals, and televangelists (Speaking the Blessing). You never know.

The quotation is a good reminder to pause and do a quick cost/benefit analysis before jumping in to assert your rightness. Being right isn’t a reason in itself to let everyone know you are, although it is tempting when our egos get their little knickers in a knot (I’m Right – So What).

Do you know someone like that? Are you someone like that? Sometimes I am. I was at a business meeting recently. Someone was wondering about something that happens to be my area of expertise. When I offered the correct information, the speaker disagreed with me. I pressed. He pushed back. I was poised to pull out my expert status and crush all opposition, but I paused. The resolution of the issue was not relevant to the meeting topic.

I let it go. My ego sulked. My spirit smiled.

Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. –James 1:19.

Friday, August 20, 2010

You Have To Be Present To Win

I spent yesterday afternoon with my friend Greg who is dying. He’s not up and about too much anymore, so we just lay on the bed and chatted. Thanks to the miracle of morphine, he is not in a lot of pain. He is very matter of fact about what is happening. His body is slowly disappearing. He has always been slim, but by his own description, he is now bony. Auschwitz bony, is what he said.

I asked him what he thought would happen next, that is, what would happen after he died. He said he thought he would go to sleep and wake up in a better place. He said he thought it would be cool. He was excited about getting there, but a little anxious about what he still has to get through between now and then.

He seemed at peace with his life, no big regrets. He is staying with his son and daughter-in-law, whom he calls his angel, and their three children, who call him Grandpa. An early divorce led to an estrangement with his son. And yet, many years later, the son moved his family here and a relationship was built anew. Greg marveled that in spite of years of no contact, here he is being cared for in his final days by, and surrounded by, family.

While we were talking, I thought of that contest rule “You have to be present to win.” Greg has been present in his life. He showed up (Our Appointment with Life). At a time in my life when I am caught up in new things and nervous about transitions, spending an afternoon with Greg was a gift. I have so many things to do right now (don’t we all!), and I almost put off going to see him. But a small voice said that waiting was not the right choice.

Thank you, small voice. There is nothing like spending time with a dying friend to remind you about priorities, about living each day like the precious gift that it is, about not wasting time, about showing up, about being present to win. Greg thanked me for stopping by, but it was I who was grateful for the time with him, to laugh, to remember, to ponder, to appreciate our friendship, to rest in the present moment together, this holy instant.

Life is short, and we have but little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel this way with us. Oh, be swift to love. Make haste to be kind. –Henri Frederic Amiel

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Christmas Spiders

When James was three, he helped me decorate the Christmas tree one evening. The next day while he was at preschool, I realized that we had forgotten the tinsel that we draped over the branches to make it look like icicles. (This was back in the days before we knew that this was not an environmentally friendly decoration.) I quickly tossed a couple of packages of tinsel on the tree and called it good.

When James came home that afternoon, he went about his business, not really paying attention to the tree. But that evening when he walked into the dark room after I had turned on the blazing, multi-colored tree lights, he froze and stared in wide-eyed amazement at the long silvery streamers glittering in the soft air currents. “Shh. The Christmas spiders have been here,” he whispered.

That is a happy memory. This morning I was reminded of it when I encountered several spiders of the summer variety. They seem to be everywhere these days. When I woke up, there was one suspended from the ceiling in the middle of my room, floating like a levitating yogi in the air. I got a cup from downstairs and gently scooped it up and carried it outside to the garden.

When I opened the car door, there was a perfect web stretching from the steering wheel to the driver’s seat. The builder was sitting in the center, ever hopeful in the locked up car. I found a piece of paper and with some regret, destroyed the magnificent creation and carried the spider to the bushes where I thought it would have better luck.

I drove off and had only gone a few blocks when I noticed another web connecting the driver’s side rearview mirror with the car door. The web was already battered by the wind, and the poor little spider was holding on like a bull rider at the rodeo as the web remnants violently vibrated . I tried to ignore it, but after a few more blocks, I sighed and pulled over. I found another scrap of paper in the car, onto which the traumatized little cowboy gratefully clambered. I carried it to the curb and eased it onto a lovely rosebush.

I was briefly annoyed at all the interruptions in my morning, but then I remembered the Christmas spiders. Sometimes when I think back over James’s childhood, my heart sinks with memories of all the challenges his autism presented. I forget that there were also magic times of childhood wonder and delight.

Shh. The angel spiders have been here.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Speaking the Blessing

Just a little while ago, I was putting clean sheets on my bed. (Now that makes my bed a happy place!) I turned on the TV while I was making the bed. I happened to surf across a preacher, Joel Osteen, just as he said something about “speaking the blessing.” And although I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I listened to a televangelist, the words caught my attention and I paused on the station to hear what he had to say.

He was talking about the power of our words to bless and bestow favor, especially when we speak to those over whom we have authority or influence. For example, our children, our spouses, our students, our employees.

It reminded me of something I wrote to my children several years ago in a Mother’s Day letter.

God has blessed me beyond heaven by entrusting the five of you to my care. All of us have come to this family from other families. This is a family God made. We are together because He brought us together to love one another. As He has blessed me, I bless all of you. Thank you for the honor of being your mother. (My Plan B Family)

I would like to say that this is how I speak to my children all the time. But it isn’t. I too often speak to criticize, to demand, to nag. Especially to nag (Roger That, Sparky).

I also thought about my students. I teach graduate students at the beginning of their graduate education. They are often insecure as they start this new chapter of their lives. I have heard through others that my students appreciate the way I encourage them and make them believe they can be successful.

I’m glad I do that. But I wonder if my kids would say the same thing. I often praise them when I speak to others, and I frequently thank God for them, but do I speak the blessings directly to them? I hope so. And I hope the words I heard today will make me more mindful of opportunities to voice my love and pride and confidence in them.

Truth comes to us from some unexpected places sometimes!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Small Mercies

My 18 year old daughter likes to watch reality shows. I know, don’t even get me started. However, in truth, I don’t mind her watching the ones about teen moms because the shows do not make teen motherhood look like a good idea. At all. (If you have a teenager, watching a few episodes of “16 and Pregnant” together will do more good than hours of lecturing!)

Anyway, she walked into the kitchen this morning and told me she had watched a reality show about parents who embarrassed their children. Oh oh, I thought. Maybe she sees her 15 minutes of fame opportunity here. “So,” I asked cautiously, “are you planning to get on the show?” She looked at me, momentarily puzzled, and then exclaimed, “Oh no, Mom, you’re not THAT bad!”

Whew! I’m grateful for that!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

New Best Friend

I wrote a few days ago about paying attention to what our minds are up to (The Hidden Life of Minds). One way to pay attention is to label. By labeling, I mean gently identifying what is going on inside. I’m not talking about labels that carry judgment, as in “Boy, was that stupid.” I also don’t mean complicated descriptions, as in “Pondering quantum alternatives in the space time continuum.” I mean neutral, simple observations.

For example, here is what labeling would look like for me right now – thinking, rehearsing, anxious, breathing, relaxed, distracted, remembering, talking, loving....

Labeling helps us gain insight. If you are motivated to do a little puppy training with your mind, as I mentioned in the earlier post linked above, insight can help. Understanding our minds will help us train them rather than traumatize them. When my mind is being particularly unruly (most all the time), I sometimes picture it as a little puppy. Labeling helps me get its attention. Then, as Pema Chodron quotes from one of her favorite cards, I can say gently, “Sit! Stay! Heal!”

If we can refrain from our tendency to judge (if you can’t, you can even label that – judging), we can make friends with our minds. As James Baraz writes in Awakening Joy, “There is a huge reward in learning to make friends with your mind: you discover the exquisite experience of just being present.” Lovely.

Making friends with your mind can also get you through some scary times. Tara Brach describes the following example in her book Radical Acceptance. An elderly Buddhist teacher named Jacob continued to teach even though he had mid-stage Alzheimer’s. He sat down to teach a large group one time and suddenly couldn’t remember why he was there. His training kicked in and he started labeling out loud what was happening – afraid, confused, shaking, lost.... Gradually, he relaxed and he labeled that, too. The students were moved to tears by this deep teaching. By simply labeling, he stayed grounded and didn’t get sucked into his agitation. He didn’t make his feelings an enemy. He stayed on friendly terms with his mind.

That story inspires me so much, I’m going to go get the puppy treats.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Silence is Golden

Those who know do not talk.
Those who talk do not know
–Tao Te Ching

I teach in a graduate school. The best class I ever taught was when I had laryngitis and couldn’t even squeak for several days. We couldn’t afford to cancel class and get behind, so I spent some time planning the class around group work. I typed out a series of steps that I wanted the groups to follow. When I walked into class, I smiled and silently handed out the instructions. At first, everyone just looked at me like maybe it was a joke and I would begin class in my usual way. Using hand gestures, I communicated that I wasn’t kidding and urged them to begin.

As they worked, I walked around the class and eavesdropped. I was amazed at the creativity and productivity generated by the students as they set themselves to the task. It was like a treasure hunt for learning. The instructions were clues, and the students had to interpret them and find the treasure. There was laughter and furrowed brows. Ideas flew around the room like dragonflies. The students challenged and helped each other. At the end of class, they had accomplished more than assigned, and they were excited and pleased with themselves.

They learned a lot, but I learned even more. I learned that the less I spoke the more they learned. It changed the way I taught.

Of course, I couldn’t talk at home either, much to my children’s delight. It meant that I had to do a lot of listening. It is amazing what your children will tell you when you can’t talk back. When you can’t correct or criticize or interrupt or command. Again, I learned. And it changed the way I parented.

Over the years, my voice has become more fragile. I get laryngitis from time to time. And if I yell, I quickly get hoarse and lose my voice. Although I missed cheering at my daughter’s sporting events the last few years (I did lots of thumbs up waving instead), I’m sure the kids don’t miss getting yelled at.

And while I am still prone to talking too much (Roger That, Sparky), I hope I have become a better listener. I know I have learned more by biting my tongue than by spouting off about whatever I think I know.

The more you talk and think about it, the further astray you wander from the truth. Stop talking and thinking, and there is nothing you will not be able to know. –The Third Zen Patriarch

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Hidden Life of Minds

I read a book years ago called The Hidden Life of Dogs. The author followed her dog around the neighborhood for some months as he went about his doggie business, sniffing, marking, and impregnating. Nowadays you can buy little digital cameras that you can put on your dog’s or cat’s collar and sit in the comfort of your living room watching Fido and Fluffy do what they do. The idea is that by watching them, we can gain some insight into their lives. We can understand them better.

We can do the same with our minds. My mind seems to be busy all the time, but I spend little time really paying attention to what it’s up to. So I followed it around for awhile. This is what I observed.

Mostly, I couldn’t keep up. In a very short period of time, I caught my mind rehearsing, reliving, planning, judging, complaining, criticizing, worrying, regretting, thinking, anticipating, wishing, hoping, missing, enjoying, caring. And feeling anxious, content, happy, tired, angry, sad, excited, lonely, resentful, loving.

After this brief exercise, I came to some conclusions. My mind wastes a lot of time and energy. It does not know how to rest. Harnessing it to focus is understandably challenging. It is like a wild horse. In fact, it is very much like a young horse I once trained. Instead of training the filly to accept a halter and lead when she was very small, we waited until she was an adolescent and very strong, and not at all keen to being directed by anyone else.

I wonder what the Dalai Lama’s mind is like. His mind has been trained since he was a toddler. He meditates for hours at a time. What must it be like to have a mind as powerfully focus-able as that?

I have made reference before to training our minds like we train a puppy – with gentle repetition and time for play and rest. My mind is long past the puppy stage, but I am nonetheless motivated to make some effort to train it. I hope old dogs can learn new tricks! I think they can.

This 10 Steps program is my way of trying to train my mind to develop habits that will grow a joyful spirit. The first step of changing any bad habit is to become aware of it, so I hope that attaching the digital camera to my mind and watching from time to time will help me understand what my mind spends so much of its time doing. My version of reality TV.

Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Spinning Straw into Gold

Just as the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin was called upon to spin straw into gold, we often have opportunities to turn an unfortunate thought or circumstance into good. While I was on break the last couple of weeks, I found myself in a warm climate surrounded by several thousand people in bathing suits. I confess I often reacted with less than charitable thoughts.

“You should not be wearing that bikini, girlfriend.”

“That Speedo is not doing you any favors, bro.”

After a couple of days, I realized that I was poisoning my own spirit with these thoughts. All those folks were soaking up sunshine and having a great time without any regard to my opinion, and rightfully so. I decided that every time I had a judgmental thought I would turn it into something positive.

“That’s a great color on you.”

“I admire your self-confidence.”

Everyone continued enjoying their vacation in blissful ignorance of my alchemical feats. And my mood improved so much that I started passing out silent compliments regardless of judgmental thoughts.

“Love your accent.”

“Nice smile.”

It seemed that everywhere I looked, there was something or someone to send a pleasant thought to. I found myself humming a familiar tune.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
–Johnny Mercer