Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Spiritual Simplicity

The way that can be told is not the eternal Way.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

–Tao Te Ching

When people come to the United States, they are often overwhelmed by our mega supermarkets. And the most overwhelming aisle is the cereal aisle. Heck, I grew up here and I get heart palpitations just thinking about it. I did a quick search to see how many kinds of cereal there are. Would you believe that I found a list that named almost 100 ... just under the letter C?!

Simplicity is a buzzword these days....

[Please click here to read the rest of this article at The Bridge Maker]

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Plan B Family

My most influential spiritual teachers have been, without a doubt, my children. I have three adopted children and two foster children. All my children, for various reasons, did not end up with their birth families. Being raised by your birth parents is what I would call Plan A. When that doesn’t work, then you have to go to Plan B. I am a Plan B parent.

People say to me, Oh, what a wonderful thing you have done for these children. No, I am the lucky one. My children have been God’s greatest gift to me. Each one has given me a gift like no other. On Mother’s Day several years ago, I wrote a letter thanking each one. What I said to each child is private, but I will share the gifts.

James gave me the gift of motherhood. The night before I got James I kept thinking, This will be the last night of my life that I am not a mother. The next day I would become a mother and I would be a mother for the rest of my life. Being a mother broke open my heart.

Mia gave me the gift of connection. Before her arrival, I lived a very isolated life. But Mia never met a stranger. A trip to the grocery store became a social event. Through her, I became connected to the world around me.

Dan gave me the gift of acceptance. Dan joined our family as a 14 year old autistic teenager. I had to accept him just the way he was. Because of Dan, I learned to accept James’s autism as well. And to accept other people, too, just as they are.

Grace gave me the gift of ... grace. Grace is God’s invitation to us to experience His unconditional love. To receive God’s gift of grace, we must have faith. Faith that God loves us even when others don’t or when we can’t love ourselves. Faith that God’s angels hold us in the light when all we see is darkness. Grace taught me to trust God.

Lily gave me the gift of peace. Her presence radiates serenity and calms the air she moves through. Because she is my last child, my heart feels full and complete. Through Lily, I have learned to rest in God.

To others, my family might appear, well, complicated. When my adopted daughter and my foster daughter both had babies this year, a friend asked me who I was to these babies. Was I their grandmother? At first I was angry at the question, which seemed at best insensitive (especially with respect to an adopted child, as any adoptive parent can appreciate). Of course I am their grandmother. And yet, I have to admit that the relationships in our family are not always so easy to identify.

For example, my foster son Dan joined our family after his parents died. Although he has been part of our family for almost twelve years, I have never tried to replace his mother and he has never called me mom. But I claim him as my own and he and James are brothers.

Although I rarely use the labels “adopted” or “foster,” or even think of them, sometimes I do when it seems important to explain the various connections, as I have in this post. The kids do the same. For example, Grace will sometimes call me her mom, but other times her foster mom if she is distinguishing me from her birth family with whom she is still connected. The labels are fluid and used when useful.

But sitting around the table at Thanksgiving, there were no labels. My heart was full as I looked at all of us – all five kids and two grandkids, plus Mia’s boyfriend, and Grace’s dad and two little half-sisters. We all came from different families of origin, different ethnicities, even different countries. Yet here we were, a family, not made by blood but by God, bound not by genes but by love.

Thank you, God, for blessing me with my Plan B family.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Who's the Turkey?

Since several readers enjoyed learning something about the Thai language in the last post, I thought I would repost this story about my first Thanksgiving in Thailand.

I had the good fortune to live and work in Bangkok many years ago. I was the only American in my office, and of course Thanksgiving is not a Thai holiday, so when Thanksgiving came, I took the afternoon off to go have dinner with other Americans.

That morning at the office, I was chatting with some colleagues. In an attempt to bridge cultures, I joked, “Even though this is an American holiday, we can all take a moment to think about all the things we have to be grateful for. For example, you can be thankful that the pilgrims didn’t land in Thailand!”

Everyone laughed politely and I was congratulating myself on the success of my cross-cultural humor, when several people asked at once, “What’s a pilgrim?”

I knew then I had a lot to learn!

No matter where you are in the world, count your blessings and Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 21, 2011


I’ve heard that the native peoples who live in Arctic have many words for snow. Whereas I would have to describe snow as powdery, slushy, icy, and so on, they would have a distinct word for each of these. This makes sense. If you live in an environment where snow plays a central role, your vocabulary would reflect that so that you could communicate more fully about what was important to you.

When I lived in Thailand, I learned enough Thai to carry on a simple conversation. One thing that struck me about the Thai language was how many words they have for feelings, many more words than we have in English. I might say I feel annoyed, but in Thai, there could be different words for the annoyance you feel when someone is late, when your cable service is interrupted during a key play in the game, or when a mosquito is buzzing around your ear.

The key role played by feelings is reflected in the typical Thai greeting, Sabaay dii mai kha? Loosely translated, this means, Are you comfortable? But the word sabaay means more than physical comfort. It includes the more subtle level of emotional comfort or well being. There is no adequate translation in English.

This concept of sabaay permeates everything and is central to communication. In a language that has no word for a simple, blunt “No,” Thai communication is geared to creating and maintaining an environment of sabaay. This can lead to some misunderstanding with Westerners such as myself, who value directness and depend on the technical precision of words, without regard to, or even awareness of, the subtle levels of emotional communication going on beneath the words.

I carry many treasured memories of my years in Thailand. If you came to my house, you would see my love for that country reflected in the artwork and furniture. But nothing I brought with me is more valuable that what I learned about paying attention to sabaay. In English, we might think in terms of courtesy, empathy, compassion.

If we take sabaay into account in our words and interactions with others, we will surely create a more open space for connection and genuine communication.

May your day be filled with good sabaay.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Grace Did It!

I stared at the red paint stain on the pale carpet. I knew how it got there. I had asked Dan over and over not to paint in his room. I had done more than ask. I made it a rule – spread newspaper on the table in the dining room and paint there. Only there. Dan does well with clear rules. They speak to his autistic brain. But apparently not to his artistic brain. How interesting that these two words are so similar. But I digress.

Dan creates beautiful pictures by painting the background and then gluing on intricate origami figures. For example, he might paint a landscape background and glue on flowers and birds. But I digress again. Back to the paint stain.

I called Dan over and pointed to the floor. “Dan, how do you think that paint stain got there?” Dan looked at the stain. I waited. Then he looked me in the eye.

“Grace did it,” he boldly announced.

I tried not to laugh. Dan had chosen a poor target since Grace didn’t live with us anymore. Even so, I was secretly pleased that Dan was able to mentally process the situation and divert blame with a lie, a sophisticated maneuver that many autistic people could not master. Still, it was a lie.

“No, Dan, I don’t think Grace did this.” Dan paused for a moment. “James did it.”

No, not James either. Dan persisted until he had named everyone in the family, including the dog.

Finally, I said, “Dan, I think you did this.” Dan looked at his feet. “Dan did it,” he confessed.

How strong is the urge to shift responsibility away from ourselves, whether it’s for something we have done wrong, or for something that seems burdensome or scary to us.

Grace had a hard time graduating from high school. At the end of her senior year, she had one paper left to complete in her English class. In spite of numerous extensions from the teacher, she continued to stall. After many frustrating and perplexing conversations, Grace admitted to herself and to me her fear about graduating. If she graduated, she cried, she would have to grow up and be responsible for her life.

Somehow we have developed a society (in the United States anyway – I won’t speak for other countries) in which responsibility has become a bad word, at least when it applies to ourselves. “You are responsible” or the more generic “They are responsible” is enormously more appealing than “I am responsible.”

But what price do we pay for abdication? Nothing less than our freedom. The phrase “freedom from responsibility” is an oxymoron because if we are not responsible, then we can be sure someone else is. We give our power away and then become dependent on whoever has it. That is not freedom.

A more accurate phrase is, I think, “freedom of responsibility.” In my own life, learning to take responsibility for myself was liberating. Scary sometimes, yes. Burdensome sometimes, yes. But infinitely freeing and full of joy.

In our family, “Grace did it!” has become the catch phrase for those times when we recognize the temptation to shift blame, to abdicate responsibility, to avoid our own power. Even Grace uses it!

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. –A Course in Miracles

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The 11th Step

I began this blog in February 2010. Through that first year, I posted randomly on the 10 Steps (and on anything else that caught my fancy). Towards the end of the year, I realized that if we really want to change our habitual patterns, it would be better to focus on one Step at a time. So this year I highlighted one Step a month, beginning with Step 1 in January and ending with Step 10 in October.

So now what? After reflecting in the last post on my journey through the 10 Steps this year, I have been contemplating this question, waiting for clarity. Clarity does not seem to be a happening thing right now, which has resulted in a few anxious moments. But mostly, I’ve decided to see this as an opportunity to practice being, in the words of Pema Chodron, comfortable with uncertainty.

This pause has given me a chance to reflect not only on my journey through the 10 Steps, but also on my journey through blogging. Two years ago I didn’t even know what a blog was. I had a concept, which was captured in a title about 10 Steps, but no plan about what to do with it. Write a book? Teach it?

Someone suggested I start a blog. A what? A friend showed me how to get started. And soon I was hooked. I remember the first follower I got who was not a friend or family member. I was fascinated – how did she know about my blog and why did she want to follow it? It was all so mysterious. Like magic. And I remember the first time I realized that someone from another country was reading my blog. I reveled in being part on an international community once again, albeit a virtual one, something I’ve missed since my years as an expatriate.

Meanwhile, I was of course meeting other bloggers on their blogs, finding a cornucopia of information, wisdom, inspiration, and humor.

There inevitably came a time, which I think happens to many of us, when I had to make some choices. To advertise or use other marketing methods? To add Facebook, Twitter, and other connections I still don’t even know about? I had to look deeply at my motivations – what was driven by true passion and what was driven by ego? And more importantly, was I living my life, or living to blog? I found a balance that was right for me and kept it fun.

That seems like a good guiding principle as I move forward in directions yet to be determined. Fun. Because, as we all know, fun is good.

PS – Thanks to Irving at Han of Harmony for inspiring the post title!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Reflection on the Journey

It isn’t the end of the year yet, but today seems like a good time to reflect. The end of October marked the end of our focus on one Step per month. 10 months, 10 Steps. Before deciding where to go from here, I thought we might look back to see where we’ve been. Each of us has had our own journey. Here are a few thoughts about mine.

January – Step 1 – Give yourself permission to be happy.

January, the beginning of the year, a year I thought would be highlighted by my retirement. A quiet year of reading and writing, spending time at my cabin, sitting in my back yard, training for my black belt test. Then, mid-month, my daughter Mia blindsided me with the news she was pregnant. She moved back home. Everything changed. I did a lot of belly breathing! The focus that month on shadow beliefs and counter beliefs helped me stay grounded, recognizing that I was responsible for how this news affected my life. I had the power to choose.

February – Step 2 – Decide if you want to be right or happy.

This was the month of truly understanding how much I don’t know. My daughter Grace stunned me with the news that she was pregnant, too. Good grief. And grief was the word. I grieved over disappointed expectations and lost dreams. I begged the cosmos to help me learn whatever I needed to learn before my third daughter, Lily, brought home similar news. (She didn’t, and she became known as “the one who’s not pregnant.”) Dan and James, my two sons who both have autism, reacted in their own way. James had a hard time grasping that these were not MY babies. He kept saying I was HIS mother. Dan, who has a more mature understanding of the ways of the world, but no self-censorship, announced to everyone, “Mia had sex.” I let it all go and decided to be happy.

March – Step 3 – Give up the delusion of control.

By March, you can guess that I didn’t have many delusions of control. Even so, I still made some feeble efforts to direct Mia’s and Grace’s choices as they looked toward the future. By the end of the month, I gave that up, too. And it was good.

April – Step 4 – Feel your feelings.

I had plenty of feelings. Have you ever noticed that when certain feelings are evoked, they churn up memories of previous times that evoked those same feelings? So I was awash that month with feelings new and old. The focus on Step 4 helped me befriend my feelings, cradling them and looking beneath for the underlying beliefs. I gave thought to which wolf I was going to feed. I practiced transforming feelings that did not serve my well being. I made peace.

May – Step 5 – Make haste to be kind.

May was my last month at work before I retired. A career of thirty years, twenty of them at the same place, was coming to a close. It was a month of transition, many goodbyes, laughing over shared memories. It was a month of receiving kindness from others, expressions of appreciation, gifts of gratitude. It was an opportunity to acknowledge those who made my years there so successful – the skillful secretaries, the maintenance angels, the computer geniuses, the people in various administrative positions who always responded quickly to make things happen, my hero at the coffee cart who knew exactly what I wanted, colleagues who have become friends, and of course, the students who enriched my life more than they will ever know.

It was also a month to realize that how I handled this year in my family would set the tone for years to come. Kindness was the guiding principle. It’s as simple as the golden rule, treating others as I would want to be treated.

June – Step 6 – Judge not.

Judging was a theme this year as I watched my daughters grapple with the judgments of others. That was hard. I spent a lot of time in June reflecting on all the ways we judge ourselves and others, and the damage we cause by the resulting separation. I looked more closely at hurts I still held onto, grudges I still nursed, vengeance I still secretly longed for. What violence we do to ourselves with our judging. I saw a reflection of myself in every judgment I aimed towards others.

We also judge our circumstances. I renewed my efforts to be complaint free, recognizing that subtle shifts in perception would brighten my world.

July – Step 7 – Practice compassion.

Compassion was the balm poured out to soothe the raw wounds of judgment from the month before. For every judgment aimed at my daughters, there were many more outpourings of compassion. I found myself full of compassion, too, as I remembered my own youth, and later my early years of parenting.

I found guidance and perspective in the teachings of A Course in Miracles, which characterizes everything we do or say or think as either a call for love or an expression of love.

And I realized that the person most often in need of my own compassion is me.

August – Step 8 – Forgive everyone.

Forgiveness is the most challenging Step for many of us, even though most of us, I think, would agree that it’s a good thing. I was struck by the quote that unforgiveness is like drinking rat poison hoping the rat will die. Reflecting on those judgments I still clung to in June, I saw that forgiveness had very little to do with the unforgiven, and everything to do with me. The key that helped unlock the chains of unforgiveness for me was shifting my focus away from being a victim. Moving towards an even more radical perspective, I began to see the spiritual gifts of many of the wrongs I harbored resentment over.

As with compassion, I realized that the person most often in need of my own forgiveness is me.

And I saw that forgiveness is rarely a one time event, but often requires repetition.

September – Step 9 – Develop an attitude of gratitude.

What a relief to get to this Step after some challenging months. There are so many ways to focus on gratitude, and they are all fun! Gratitude lists, games, and quotes kept this practice in my awareness through the month. And how timely, since Mia’s baby boy was born mid-month. After all the months beginning with my shock and dismay in January, I saw that he was indeed a blessing of incomparable value, and brought joy beyond measure with his every breath.

Gratitude is a humbling gift.

October – Step 10 – Be here now.

The journey brings us back to where we started, where we never left, in the present moment. Grace’s baby girl was born mid-month, and once again I was there, watching a new life begin, awed by the mystery, overwhelmed by the beauty and perfection of, well, everything. More than ever, I appreciate the eternity present in this, and every, holy instant.

When I sat down to write a post for today, I didn’t know that this was what I would write. In fact, I had something entirely different in mind. But as I looked back over the Steps and over this year, each Step seemed to speak a lesson to me, a gift. So I wrote what came to me. Whether you have been reading all year or just a short time, I hope that you have found something of value to your lives in the ideas we have all shared here. If there is something that stands out for you, any reflection or idea or memory, I hope you will leave a comment.

I am going to take a few days to sit with these reflections as I discern where we go from here. I welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

Most of all, thank you for your support, your encouragement, your honesty, your kindness, and your perseverance!