Friday, August 14, 2015

Waiting for the world to become sane

I keep waiting for the world to become sane and remember that seems similar to wanting to be God. You know, idolatrous, wanting the world to be in my image, not the way it is. Which doesn’t compute, really. Why can’t it be like I want it?

Dad's Bible was always somewhere near one of his many thrones around the house. I got my own Bible for confirmation in 5th grade and still have it with those underlined scriptures, so important to an achingly searching- to-be-okay-with-herself teenager. It was in those texts that spoke of love and kindness and a kind of utopian Kingdom of God that gave voice to what I hungered for.

My own life is anything but a utopian KoG.

Monday before last, with the clinical director out of town, I got a call in the morning from the church administrative assistant: You might want to come in early. A van drove into the side of the building and knocked a hole in the foundation.

Sure enough. Everyone was huddled around the side of the building as the van was being towed and the police were leaving. The building inspector said the building was safe enough. We had power, phones, and water. I leaned over to the administrative assistant and said, “I’ve always told folks that I could counsel from the back of a truck.”

I remembered a picture that I took of a crack in the church parking lot just a few weeks before. Two rogue marigold blooms defied the odds by planting themselves in the ashalt.

I’ve been in worse situations. One counseling job that I had gave me no notice of a problem. The building had been burned overnight and I pulled into the parking lot that morning and wondered why it looked like a fire drill. Building to the left; people on the right side of the parking lot huddled. Next client in a few minutes. Nothing like taking a seriously paranoid schizophrenic to the local McDonalds for coffee and "counseling." 

The fire/arson was related to a recently discharged patient. I was nine days into this particular job. I lasted 10 months at that counseling center before deciding my life was important enough to honor my fear and sleeplessness.

It’s been ten days and the hole is still there with a piece of plywood covering it. Anyone could break in. I found a shoe on the outside steps this week. Staff thought a homeless person had probably been sleeping on the landing and lost their shoe. They kindly placed it nearby, in case the person returned.

This past Monday before leaving for a family funeral, I heard sirens galore near my home. I looked to see if the highway was backed up, but no sign of any problem there. I left the house and drove down the road only to see two police cars and police tape around a popular parking area. A car looked like it had wrecked. I couldn’t make out any people in the car.

A friend texted me soon afterwards and throughout the memorial events. News reports of a possible double homicide – people in the car didn’t die from the “accident.” And, a nearby apartment fire burning out several families was also the home of one of the "accident" victims. It seems likely that the female was murdered by an estranged husband. They were supposed to be signing divorce papers that morning. Other reports surfaced of the male running from the apartment building shortly before the fire.

Relief was my first response when I learned that the victims weren’t on my client roster. This might sound selfish, but I think any reasonable therapist would be worried for their clients. It might be considered one of my worst fears on behalf of my clients.

This week has been a no-radio news and definitely a no-TV news week. I can barely stand the ridiculous political shenanigans while people of all kinds are suffering in ways that are not being addressed in any serious way.

And then there is a weirdness to my own poor timing. Partner and I finally got it together to agree to see Jimmie Carter give one of his famous Sunday School lessons at his church in Plains, GA. I literally booked the flight on the same day it was announced he was having surgery. Since then the news reports indicate he has advanced cancer and is getting treatment. It is highly unlikely he will be giving a Sunday School lesson for the public in September. Sorry Dad. This was a Dad bucket list event that neither of us will get to fulfill.

There was a time I imagined myself a politician or a minister or a lawyer or a social worker or a musician or an artist. Maybe even a teacher or a writer. In all those roles, there seems to have been a desire to create a better world through an idealistic lens. But, I am not sure how sane that would have been. I don't have the juice to save the world anymore, let alone save myself.

But, I seem to be learning a different kind of sanity through the harp as a spiritual practice. It is building on my meditation practice by applying the arts in a way I don’t entirely understand. To be sure, the beautiful and sonorous sound of the harp is a deceptively alluring and challenging partner to master. Do we ever master anything?

In an age where talk is cheap and harsh, I am looking for another way. Perhaps, I am applying the Buddhist concept of the middle way, somewhere between silence and noise: music?

The best part of playing the harp is that talking is optional. Mostly, I let the music speak for itself.

I am feeling more and more like the KoG exists in our heart. I am just one person. Jimmie Carter seems to have mastered many of the things I'd hoped for. (Although, I haven't heard anything about his musical talents.) Dad really struggled with his lessons in failing and failing greatly.  The harp isn’t a substitute for hugs or food or clean water or health or housing or justice. But I can let the harp’s resonant voice sing a song that promotes love and sanity.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Turtle Mountain meditation

Turtle makes annual trek.
Little Turtle carries home with her. No matter where she goes, there she is. How beautiful. 

There is a turtle who seems to cross from south to north through our property about this time each year. It goes from one small creek to another. We put up a fence for Finn last year in the back yard where the trek usually took place.
What will happen this year? Will the turtle return? Will is get confused or just go around the fence?
Apparently, the birds and trees must have warned the little turtle. It crossed our property in front of the house this time.

The anxiety was all mine.

I am reminded of a week-long silent meditation I was on in March of this year. The words "Turtle Mountain" kept coming up for me. It had something to do with the quiet silence of being with oneself no matter where I was or what is going on.

In Chinese lore, the back is the human body part connected to mountain energy. Unlike mouth that speaks or ears that hear, back is just there supporting activity. The symbol of back as earth's mountains is that one can experience them as easy such as coming down the mountain or resting on a boulder, or taxing as one climbs up the mountain. Sometimes effort is called for; sometimes rest is required. 

Back/Mountain is always there in a self-contained way. It is deeply sacred space and unknowable. You cannot take it all in, yet there are glimpses of its grandeur.

On this day of the turtle crossing, it feels like we have our own little sacred Turtle Mountain. In the silence, we exchange gratitude for this intersection of human and turtle on earth's back.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

You can’t unring a bell.

I awoke at midnight. It had been a busy day. By the end of my time at work, I was having word-find difficulty. Counseling looks easy, I think to myself. But right now, it feels like a kind of marathon.

It is rewarding to see clients express new-found epiphanies, others continue the hard work of moving through difficult content.

Coming home, I was hot and tired after sitting in a small stuffy room  on the second floor of a mid-1900's Cape Cod-style house. The bathroom is probably bigger than my counseling room. I bring my own water because the kitchen sink's plumbing doesn't want to drain.

Dinner with Partner was at 8:30 p.m. A blessed time of eating on the patio before the mosquitoes started nibbling at our ankles.

Maybe I need to pray for a client or my family or the world. Maybe I should go outside and meditate under the night sky. Maybe I could roll over and go back to sleep. But I can’t.

The night before last, Partner and I were tired when we finally caught up with each other. Another late night. Struggling with the confluence of past decisions and the repercussions now, we tried to talk it out. We are old enough to know that at 10 p.m., nothing good is going to come out of this attempt to problem solve. So we headed off to bed.

This led to difficulty settling down. We couldn't keep our hands off each other. Soon childhood memories were expressed  - of the times we slept with our respective siblings and got into trouble. For Partner, mom would holler from her bedroom. For me, dad would holler from his bedroom. But our memories diverge from there. 

I had a strong memory of terror once the Daddy Dragon had been aroused. He would get up, march/stomp angrily to our bedroom. The covers would be ripped off. We would get  pulled around or half-lifted out of bed and received his rage-fueled spankings. No Daddy, we would beg. I would beg. Wouldn’t it have been great if I could have kept my hands to myself?

I kept this to myself, but asked Partner if his mom ever got up and punished him. Sure, and I deserved it, he said.

Is this one of differences between mother/son and father daughter relations? Mom’s punishments weren’t so threatening? Dad’s force could tear you to shreds. I kept these thoughts to myself, too. But I couldn’t shake the embodied memories of dad’s spankings and the terror.

Partner rolled over and went to sleep. I got up and journaled – about other things. But not that.

Lately, I’ve noticed I have been shuddering. You know, the involuntary sudden shivering that has nothing to do with being cold. Partner said I’ve always done that. But I am more aware of it right now. My colleague noticed me doing it while talking about a family situation. She was encouraging – good, get it out. Shaking helps move energy through the body.

Tonight, I know that I want to meditate outside, but I am afraid. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of snakes. I saw two dead black snakes on the road today. A copper head was killed last week at my parent’s farm. The snake in my mind is all wrapped up in reptilian fear.

I’m not excited about the healing metaphor of the snake’s regeneration and shedding of the skin, etc. It’s the bite I’m afraid of. And, I wish it weren’t so.

I am remembering another ringing bell.

The sweet chiming of the beginning and end of the sangha's (meditation group) time together. We ring the bell to start our practice time together. We ring the bell to end our practice time together. We ring the bell before we dedicate our practice time to all living beings - no short-cuts, no dividing into good/bad, important/insignificant, no splitting or mincing generosity.

No matter where I am, they are with me, too. And, it has been the causes and conditions of my life that brought me to them.

And, may my father and all aggressors including me, be a recipient of that merit, too.

This is a bell I don't want to unring.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Teacher and Friend Moves On

Written mid-January 2015:
I am not a person short on words or ideas or images. However, I am struck by the uselessness of them sometimes.

It has been like that in trying to write over the past year.

After continuing struggles over the past years, it is quite a show to watch stunning tragedies unfold. Last year's pain had a lot to do with family members with mental illness and/or addiction. I got to experience Nar-Anon's love and support - the 12-step program for families with a loved one with the illness of drug addiction.

In the middle of all of this, Finn developed a neurological problem. We thought we were going to lose him in August. His vet changed medications and put him on a drug that bought him time.

As we upped his medication with each backslide, there was a point in January of this year where he could no longer tolerate the increase in medication. He was incontinent, in pain, and having difficulty with getting up.

Partner and I learned about ourselves as we each dealt differently with Finn's decline.

I could see the pain, dealt with the incontinence, and overheard the vet staff talk amongst themselves about how a dog owner they'd seen before us was keeping a dog alive inhumanely, selfishly when it was in terrible pain. I felt a knife cut through my own heart as they were talking. Were we doing the same thing?

Partner was often the person who fed and got Finn up in the morning to go outside before leaving for work. He also played and talked with the dog after work. He had hoped that Finn would just die in his sleep (isn't that what we all want?) and that we wouldn't have to make a decision. But, who knows how long this could go on?

After Finn had several bouts of incontinence of bowel while I was on a medication that made me nauseous, I felt I couldn't keep this up. Partner and I spent time talking, processing our thoughts separately, and coming back to talk some more. There were tears. I spoke with the vet. They had difficulty getting him up and dealing with his incontinence when we left him with them during a visit to friends between Christmas and New Years. The decision was up to us. He had a good life with us. He wasn't going to get better.

Conversation with Partner also revealed a need not to have to bury him. Our new property is basically a crust of grass and trees over rock. Partner had buried our other animals for the past 30 years. Not this time. Okay, I'll have him cremated. Partner also didn't know if he could emotionally go with us to the vets. Okay, just help me get him into the car. The staff and I can get him out.

In the end, Partner did go with me to the vets. He came home from work, took Finn around the property to his favorite spots, loved on him, and cried the whole time. When it was time to go, he went in with me and stroked Finn lovingly. We both did. The vet gave Finn a sedative first. This is when Partner really got how much pain the dog had been in.

When we first got Finn, he was very anxious and panted for the first 3 days, puked from anxiety, etc. The way he responded to the shot was similar to his relaxation response when we got him to settle down. Pain creates anxiety and tension. Our beloved Finn never barked and was true to his nature of not complaining.

The vet came back and gave the final shot. Almost immediately, the breathing ceased. He looked asleep and relaxed. We sat with him a little while longer. But truthfully, we had been given plenty of time with him in the room while he was alive. We couldn't stand to be there much longer after the death.

We walked out into the snowy night and cried.

Finn got me through some tough times. I'd gotten him before the year of some big deaths: my last remaining grandmother, my dad, Partner's dad, extended family, friends and neighbors - over 20 deaths that year.

Losing Finn was like losing a spirit guide. He soaked up so much grief and anxiety. There is nothing quite like collie fur, so soft and fluffy. He was an easy-going friend who shared our home with us during his last years.

Thank you, Finn. We miss you.

On Finn in August 2014

Written mid-August 2014:
Finn is on his last legs, his last dog year, his last days. Our family is saying their good-byes to our sweet canine friend.

Below is a slightly modified version of a letter to a friend who asked how Finn was doing:

Talked to the vet this morning. We are in "doggy hospice" mode. I'm trying to be home during the day with Partner here in the evenings. Somehow, the Universe provided a light work week for me. 

Finn's having difficulty getting up. He walks in circles. Head is pulling to the left side today. Twitching eyebrows on both sides, but more on the left. He stopped eating from his dog bowl yesterday and stopped drinking today. He'll take his medicine tucked in a chunk of cheese from the floor while lying down or eat cooked chicken given to him yesterday from the floor; but otherwise, is not interested in eating.

Bowel movements have gone from solid to diarrhea this morning and this evening to mucus. He's been somewhat incontinent for a while now, just more so.

The vet tried to prepare us for some kind of progressive neurological degeneration a few weeks ago. 

Looking back at our most recent visit, I had asked for a six-month refill on heart worm medication and flea/tick coverage. They didn't give it to me. I thought they forgot and asked again. But still didn't give it to me when I picked up the first pain med.

Partner and I had our cry yesterday as it became clear that Finn is really sick and dying. 

I am so going to miss this dog. He's been such a gentle soul and companion. He has gotten me through so much. 
We are glad we could provide some safety and solitude for him these last 2 1/2 years after what appears to have been a very hard life.
Since the letter, his pain medication has changed and he is more animated. We are told this is temporary, but I'll take it if it means he feels better.

I hope our efforts are what you need. 

Blessings as you journey from here to the Great Outdoors, Finn. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Six-month Delay: Happy New Year!

Originally written January 3, 2014:

I can remember thinking: boring is good. 2013 almost delivered.

We were on our way to Quaker meeting on New Year's Eve for a 7 p.m. service when Partner got a cell phone call from one of our neighbors.
You might want to come home. Your next door neighbor's home is in flames. Don't know if your home is involved. The wind is blowing in your direction.
We made a U-turn. I took the back way home since the other road already had traffic problems due to a doe that had just been hit. No need to sit in traffic as everyone slowed down to look at a dying deer.

As we drove closer to the house, two fire trucks carrying water were going toward our home. Rather than take the main entrance, we took the back road to (hopefully) bypass what we expected to be either a closed or busy road. As we drove on the highway near our home, we could see the orange glow and sparks. My stomach, which had been churning, now sank. A cold chill ran through my body.

As we drove towards our driveway, cars, trucks and fire equipment were lined up on both sides of the road. The orange glow shined above the woods near our home. Large sparks glittered in the night sky.

As we pulled up to the house, large pieces of ember and ash were falling from the sky. They came down in the yard and on the house. They seemed to go out pretty quickly. No fires were seen.

Partner noticed someone walking across our yard. What were they doing there? Maybe, they were serving as a guardian.

We went inside, changed our coats and shoes to something warmer and more durable. With no sign of fire on our house or yard, we walked the path between our two homes towards the activity.

We could hear the firemen and sirens. But the most amazing thing in the cold, dark winter night, was the embers falling from the sky into our woods and around us. The wind was up and sharing the fire with us. What a show! They looked liked big glowing orbs turning to white flakes. I'd never seen anything so enchanting and shocking.

As leisurely as they landed, they fizzled out.

We had a heavy rain just two days ago. The river was high, so we didn't take a much anticipated canoe ride that morning. This fire shed new light on what had seemed frustrating before. The precipitation had seemed unfriendly and a douser of good times. Now we were grateful for the sogginess of the woods, the house, of the ground, as it was beginning to freeze in the dark.

As we came out of the woods into the opening of our neighbor's buildings and yard, the realization that the house was almost gone hit us. Somehow, there wasn't much going on. The fire department had been trying to keep the fire from expanding, but was letting the house finish burning out. It wasn't much longer and the house was pretty much reduced to a few brick pillars.

The fire that had been blowing in our direction was calming down. In Partner's quiet observation, he noted that the fire department would likely need to come back to tamp down re-igniting fires over the next few days.

No one was hurt. The children had been at a grandparents' home for the New Year. The adults in the house got out just in time before the house imploded with fire. They left with the clothes on their backs and a purse. One of the dogs ran away frightened, but came back later that evening. Everyone accounted for. In less than an hour, our neighbors lost everything, except each other.

 How does one bless the last year and look forward to the next in the midst of this? Relief. Life was spared. That pretty much sums it up.

Yesterday, an expected snow came early. As I looked out of the window, rather than feel excited by the beauty, I was initially struck by the large flakes looking like the ash that fell. I wanted to cry.

Later in the night as the winter storm switched from snowing to high winds, my mind would not turn off. Remembering Partner's words, I felt I needed to "sleep" in the back room to check on the woods, in case the now-empty property was on fire again.

At 5:30 a.m., Partner got up to turn off his alarm. I had recently dozed and had a nightmare where I awoke with a vocalization that feels more like a scream stuck in the throat. I seem to be underestimating the depth of the recent events.

We are okay. Nothing was even scorched that I know of. I reflected on the possible trauma my neighbors and others might experience given such a rapid and complete loss of belongings.

Pema Chodron talks about how our own troubles provide the ground for empathy when connecting with others. This little taste of a close call is so much closer to the bone than I originally thought. I can't think about it too much or I'll get lost in fear. How can I be available to those in much greater pain? fear?

On this fiery end of 2013 and wintery new beginning of 2014, may all beings (including you) be safe, happy, well, and at peace.

5/31/14: An update. Our neighbors have a rental for the year and are rebuilding while trying to work and raise their children. The community came together. Lots of love was expressed. It's been a tough and tender winter and spring. Life.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Winter and the Rising Morning Star

What happened to 2013?

I'm not sure. I think I spent the year trying to be present to the moment. And now the end of 2013 is here.

Zen flower arrangement
18 months since Dad died; Grandma before that. 12 months since Father-in-law died. So many other deaths in 2012/2013. How does one adjust to such loss?

I got to hold a friend's newest grandson this fall. He was just a few weeks old. So much love. So much beauty. What gorgeous new life. I didn't want to hand him back. But that would be an old person's greed.

There are new grandchildren from an emerging blended family. We got to spend a week's vacation at the ocean. It was the family vacation that we had been planning but weren't ready for until this year. Fishing, swimming, playing, eating, sleeping, watching the moon and ghost crabs on the beach at night. Adjusting to the newness on a land with shifting sands.

Work is settling into a nice rhythm. I have long-term clients with whom I cherish the opportunity to nurture. I feel very fortunate.

Music continues to be an important part of my life.

Home life is interesting with assorted friends and family in and out (human and other sentient beings). Loving the flow and companionship. Grateful for a patient partner.

A few visits with cherished friends. So important for perspective from what one friend once called me -  provincial for having lived in the same area my whole life.

Going on seven years now, I continue to sit with a meditation group loosely affiliated with the Vipassana tradition (loving-kindness practices). I tell people I've ordered my life around this group. They meet on Wednesday mornings. It's the glue that holds me together throughout the rest of the week. The depth of meditation, the tender and humor-filled sharing afterwards, all point toward loving kindnesses that expand the heart and mind.

We spent the first half of the year going over Gil Fronsdal's The Issue at Hand on meditation concepts. (You can download a pdf file of this book at ) The second half of the year, we've been reading Stephen Levine's "Healing into Life and Death."

As we continue to deal with those three unavoidable pains in life of aging, illness and death, this practice becomes so real. We lost our first member the summer of 2012 - just 6 weeks after my dad died. We continue to have close calls. I only half-jokingly say that we are in graduate school for living in this group.

Each one of us is watching the grains of sand slide through the hour glass quickly.

This sense of time and timelessness was evident when I had been accepted for a Rohatsu retreat scheduled for the first week of December just a few weeks prior to the event. Rohatsu is a Japanese Zen celebration of who we think of as the Buddha, the man Siddharta, and his awakening after trying out all kinds of ways to seek enlightenment or realization.

The story goes that Siddharta was sitting for 40 days under a bodhi tree and as he saw the morning star, realized the interconnectedness of all beings and things across time and space. From there, he did what he felt called to do, help others seeking a better way of engaging in life.

There was an open slot just a few weeks prior to the retreat. Yes, I would figure out how to get there.

Somehow, in honor of my father, I found myself taking the train out to the retreat in New Mexico from the eastern seaboard. Heading west,  I listened to people's stories of suffering and could offer a listening ear, a prayer, a kindness. Also, unknown people kept asking me: why are you going to this particular center. Even when I got to the Zen center, I kept running into people asking me why I was there. It seemed to be a question that I couldn't shake.

Why was I there? I was interested in a particular zen teacher. I loved how she embodied the stories she told. Tone of voice. Pithy, concise stories. Laughter. Hand gestures. Her whole body spoke the message.

Soon after arriving, I realized that there was something at this point and time in this retreat center that was off. The teachers had been jet-setting and were exhausted, running on empty. This was also a very important celebration/retreat - almost like a homecoming for long-time students and priests. The week was filled with lots of ritual practices, including practices saved for special occasions. This was a retreat for insiders. The very first night, the lead teacher announced that they would no longer offer the retreat on a first-come basis. It would be by application only.

As a newbie, I was tested in a multitude of ways. No problem. I can clean toilets with Bon Ami and no gloves. Why did you wait until I cleaned them before telling me where the gloves were? Oh, the women's dorm's heater is broken? No problem, I brought a wool shawl, a blanket and warm socks. But why aren't we allowed to use the space heater when everyone else has heat? Two elderly women from the local community dropped in to meditate. They were rudely asked to leave. On and on. If this is zen practice, yuck.

Of course, this could just be more material to work with. Yet, at the deepest level, I could hear the story of Joshu and the request to come in for refuge at the gate, eat if one is accepted and needs nourishment (including spiritual teachings) and then wash the bowl and break it (clean out residue and break old thoughts/containers about how one believes about their spiritual tradition). And then, go out and back out into the world. For what other purpose is there except to be oneself in the web of interconnectedness?

I decided that while I could stay and experience the retreat as it unfolded, that the realization was that I was awake - or awake enough - or awake now and later would fall asleep, as is the rhythm of life. No matter where I am or what I am doing, I have a community and network of friends and teachers. Every moment is a teacher.

So I took the train back two days after arriving and washed and broke my bowl.

As a result, I got to listen to and help others with their joys and sorrows all the way back home. I gave away my sleep on the first night back to deal with an ill elderly woman sitting beside of me. The train car's heating and a/c was broken. It was either extremely hot or frigid. The next morning I gave away the blanket to an underdressed blind man going from sunny California to wintery upstate New York. Over the period of the next day, I gave away food from my backpack and two lucky pennies to a mother of five children in shock from the realization that she would be on the train for three days and that she didn't have enough money for food for the trip.

I listened to stories of sisters living together in their later years, either during or after caring for an aging parent. I heard people shut down when they heard something unfamiliar or didn't jive with their world view. I saw a drunk man removed from the train after passing out and missing his stop, only to awaken enraged. Several individuals and couples were traveling east on vacation and to visit family. I got to sleep the second night after my seat partner got off the train late at night and got to spread out across two seats until I awoke the next morning.

And an amazing thing happened, when I got home midday about 48 hours later, a friend picked me up from the train station while another fixed soup. The three of us got to share a meal together in the most ordinary and sacred way that seemed to be both in the moment and across time and space.

We carry "home" within us. No matter where I was, I felt both at once at home and a visitor. It seems to be something I am training in.

Someone from the meditation group later asked how all of this helped me connect with my father, knowing that my dad's ashes had been scattered at the train station where I departed and returned.

I responded that he was both a troubled and a generous man who reached out and connected with peoples of all kinds. He specialized in talking with outcasts, but would talk to anyone. He took the scripture literally in the section that asks of us: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” The response goes like this: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The journey, it turned out, revealed that I am awake enough. I was given the opportunity to connect with the goodness in my father on this trip. Coming to terms with my dad was like landing on the moon and seeing the earth. Beautiful. How sad that we have all these geo-political-interpersonal conflicts on such a beautiful globe in the universe. And yet, that also seems inherently human.

It is my wish that each of our own great awakenings be realized. That no matter how dark the night, the morning star is revealing more than we know. It is this message that the best of all winter spiritual traditions point towards.

Dad, where ever you are, thank you.