Friday, December 30, 2011

New Year Wishes for 2012

This time, between celebrating Jesus' birth at Christmas and the New Year - in this case 2012 AD, is a time of tender celebration and quiet reflection within my soul.

I am grateful that the chaotic mess that I call family showed up and celebrated Christmas Eve with food, conversation and simple gifts this year. A few friends came which added a richness to the mix. We had folks from age two years to eighty-four years. What a blessing.

And, how can I not be thrilled that my little grandson spent Christmas Eve with us and then woke up Christmas morning here? Nothing is better than a four- year old's wonder and joy!

As the New Year fast approaches, I am struck by the tension in the air - cultural, economic, political, down to family changes and unknown results of seeds being planted by decisions made where all that I can do is acknowledge the action and pray.

My own vantage point as a woman in a family, community of friends and neighbors, counselor - give me pause. No matter where I sit, I have to ask: What are we doing to our environment? our culture? our democracy? ourselves? our children and grandchildren?

This morning I took a walk. A different kind of walk. This one was about getting off the meditation cushion and doing a walking meditation outside. In the cold. Feeling winter. Listening to the birds. Seeing the naked trees with broken branches everywhere from recent winds blowing through the tops.

I tell my clients that there is consciousness that abounds in every living thing- that it doesn't just reside in the brain. Every cell has consciousness. Every cell resonates to create harmony or let us know when things are out of balance (hence, illness, disease, etc.). The heart is connected. The gut is a part of this. Our legs and arms also have their own consciousness and part to play in living out the great Mystery.

We are not alone. We are not separate from each other.

This consciousness is easier for me to imagine when I walk in the midst of the lush green during the moist heat of summertime. However, I'm standing outside on a winter morning wrapped in several layers.

As I walked, I wanted to melt into the frozen ground and fly with the birds. I wanted to sing out a beautiful song into the crisp air. I wanted to breath deeply and release myself to it all. I wanted the airplane above to be carried along on unseen clouds of love in the blue sky.

Mindfulness means holding these thoughts lightly in the heart.

For a brief moment, I connected with the word "embodied." Yes, consciousness embodied in me, in you, in the trees, the birds, the hills, the river. Just as the Buddhists talk about a tree's treeness or a frog's frog nature, I was feeling my heartgarden-ness and my heart was pierced with joy and sadness.

After a few moments, my consciousness was back to just walking, feeling my feet on the ground, my heart beating, the breath breathing. The birds were the ones singing. As much as my flight of fancy and consciousness was broadened just a few minutes before, I was now back to chronos time, ordinary time.

It's best this way. The expansive beauty and quiet joy from touching something bigger than one's physical experience isn't very practical. Back to the laundry, the dishes, writing notes, practicing the harp. But the heart is lighter for it.

My prayer is for sanity, beauty and grace - for you and your family, for the world. May it be so. May all be well with your soul this coming year and in the years to come.

Monday, December 12, 2011

In my field of pastoral counseling, there is a concept called counter trans ference. This is when the counselor's personal stuff gets activated and they am not emotionally present for the other client. This can cause big problems in the counseling relationship.

I am in the midst of one of those times.

I recently was working on returning to a part-time counseling center where the clients struggle with poverty, violence and addiction - in addition to their mental health issues.

It is a tough place to work at. The last time I worked there, ten days into the job, the office building was set on fire. It is believed that it was an act of arson from a client's family member. Thankfully, the fire took place in the middle of the night and no one was hurt. Needless to say, staff and clients carried on in cramped quarters nearby until new space could be found.

I often lost sleep worrying about whether a psychotic patient would act out on their delusions; or, I would go over the details of a case to sort out what was likely true and what might be drug-seeking behaviors. It was a pretty common pattern to come in on Monday morning to a voicemail message stating that a client had been hospitalized over the weekend.

Last week, I learned of a new and damaging piece of news in my family that reactivated deep grief and fear. I call this part of my family life, the gift that keeps on giving. Don't know when or how it will show up; but somehow, it never goes away. This traumatic aspect of family life sometimes seems dormant. Yet, I can never trust that it will be resolved. Because, it hasn't.

This most recent news created a crater of grief, a death of sorts. Something I had hoped had been put to bed turns out to have regrouped in a more disturbing form. I had a gut feeling that this might be perculating, so it wasn't a total surprise. It is just that it continues to ravage any sense of normalcy I keep wishing for in my family.

After deep reflection at my Quaker meeting for worship yesterday, I knew that I needed to call this job and ask them to find someone else to take the position that I was to start this week. There was no way I could responsibly serve these clients who have had so much trauma already in their lives and be any good to them or me.

I called the director and explained as best I could that I had a countertransference issue that had been activated. I couldn't see my way past this at the moment. She was very understanding and encouraged me to call back when I was in a better place.

My voice was trembling by the end of the brief conversation. I need the work; I need the clinical hours. How am I ever going to complete my licensure requirements?

After several years of dancing around the path that has lead down the pastoral counseling track, I am seeing more clearly that this work has been largely about coping with my own family. Now the question becomes: can I do this work; and if so, under what conditions? Or, do I need to find something less raw?

Is this even possible? I don't know.

During this Advent season, I am having a hard time connecting to the message of hope from my own personal story to the big mess our world is in.

Somehow Mary was able to muster a YES to God and accepted the responsibility of bringing the miracle of Jesus into the world. Did she know what she was saying yes to?

In the Book of Luke, Simeon recognized the baby Jesus at the temple and then told Mary that her heart would be pierced. Is this the lot of all mothers?

Now what, God?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Holiday Stress

It happened again: I stayed around for the Thanksgiving holidays and got sick. As it turns out, I made it through the dinners before coming down with a virus. That's progress.

The good news is that this time it wasn't as debilitating as I have had in the past.

Therapists and healers in the past have helped me connect the dots between stress and the body.

What's the deal this time? We had one meal with my partner's people and another meal with our kids/grandson two days later. (There was a time when we did three meals in a day for major holidays.)

This year I had told my mom that I wasn't planning on going to my maternal grandmother's place for the dinner that mom prepares. But mom called the eve of Thanksgiving to make sure that my youngest daughter knew that she was invited (which she did) and then added that my foster brother was going to be bored with just old people at the dinner. (Sorry bro.)

The guilt flooded me for hours afterwards. I didn't want to let them down.

But here is the thing, the form of celebration with my parents isn't anything to look forward to. In fact, it feels like a dead form of something that no longer works.

Mom seems to be trying to revive memories of when my grandmother had 40-50 people from the family and neighborhood over for dinner. For this Depression Era set of grandparents, Thanksgiving was a big deal.

My grandparents ran a general store that was open 363 days a year - with Thanksgiving and Christmas being the only days the store was closed. They were hard workers and enjoyed celebrating the abundance they did not have in their earlier years.

Grandma had a stroke 10 years ago, which has severely limited her abilities. She's been in decline for so long that she's been in hospice for the past year. She has not been moved from the bed because of bedsore problems for the last six months, except when my mother comes over for Sunday or holidays meals. Then she is propped up at the table and fed - even if she is asleep.

None of my mother's siblings come nor their kids to these "celebrations." And, my two sisters don't participate either. This is not to say that my mom and her siblings are not heavily involved in her care - they are.

We are now at the point where eating at Grandma's is like trying to relive a past that no longer exists. I feel for my mom.

A few years ago, I couldn't take it anymore and found people to visit over the holidays. No illnesses those winters.

Two years ago, I thought I needed to support my mom and attend. I got sick for the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Maybe I was just exposed to particularly virulent germs when this happens. Just bad luck.

In talking with women whose families are grown and whose elders are dying or dead, we are all grappling with how to create celebrations or be with celebrations that serve us and our families.

I'm getting sick and tired of trying to get this right. As a beloved friend has been reminding me for the past year, each moment is precious. Let's find the joy and celebrate that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Gratitude Day

As my closest family and friends know, I struggle with the major holidays. If I had my choice,... I have no idea what I would actually do instead. Hide? Go away?

For the past several years, I have tried to figure out how to engage in holidays without stressing out too much. I think I have come from such an intense family that working my way through the years of three major meals on a holiday and all the family dynamics that went with it, created such a headache and indigestion. And, that was before we left for the first home.

Sitting in meditation this morning, there was such a nourishing element to the practice today. I bow to the group and our little sacred space. May we each show up as we are and be fully awake to the basic goodness that is already there.

With deep gratitude, I thank my fellow meditators for continuing to show up and share in the silence that breaks through my drama and stories. Goodness knows my family has given me plenty of grist for my practice. Peace be with you. And my family? May peace be with every last one of you, too.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Heroic Walk Into Life

Yesterday in the midst of everything, my youngest daughter sat down and told me a wonderful story of the human spirit.

Last month, my daughter kept telling me that she had been having thoughts of a mother of a student who attended school with my children. This woman was always a spiritual ray of sunshine, but her life was a mess.

She developed Lupus way back in the 1980's and her husband left her for another woman as the disease progressed. The stress that followed caused many more health problems, including many hospitalizations. She even lost her eyesight at one point. Ever since I have known her, she has had the moon face of someone on Prednisone or steriods.

In a way that only God knows how these things connect, my youngest had a flat tire two days ago. So off to the garage on the spare she went yesterday. The tire shop was busy, so she decided to go to the community park nearby. It was a beautiful and exceptionally warm day for November. As Youngest Daughter walked down the street on the way to the park, she recognized it as the street where this woman had lived.

Youngest Daughter decided to see if she could figure out which house is was. Ruling out the house with the iron work, she focused on very elderly couple leaving a nearby. She saw a woman on the porch with a walker, who looked a little like our friend. As she walked by, she saw into the doorway where a banner stated: S., Welcome home. Youngest Daughter approached her and asked her if the woman was S. and then identified herself as a now 25 years old young woman.

Sure enough, it was our friend, S.

Our long ago friend and Youngest Daughter sat on the sunny front porch and talked for two hours. They shared hopes and dreams and caught up.

But this was no ordinary catching up.

S. had balloons in her home that said, "Welcome Home!"

Indeed, she was back from a very, very long journey.

She had just returned from a nursing home stay. One of many.

However, there was a time before where her return was less planned.

She had ran away from a nursing home in town that she felt was abusive and neglectful. This was one of the several nursing homes that she had lived in the past few years. She had also spent time - one full year - in a coma which atrophied her muscles. The nursing home staff were insistent that she could not go home.

After a year-long coma and even longer recovery, she took her walker, packed a small suitcase, grabbed her pillow, and started walking. The staff followed her in an uproar. The police were called. She said there were probably 20 people following her and trying to stop her.

She kept walking.

She made it seven blocks from the nursing center before police began threatening to arrest her for some trumped up charges and hand-cuff her. They tried to say that since she had no home, they would consider her homeless and take her to go to jail.

She kept saying, "I have a home." But no one believed her.

She kept saying, "Call my daughter. She lives and works nearby." But no one did.

Only one of the police officers took her seriously. He found the daughter's number and so the daughter was called. Soon afterwards, she came and picked up her mother. She took her to the mother's home which was just a few more blocks away.

She said, "Only a handful of times have I felt such intense joy as when I got home."

As my daughter tells it, our friend cried as she relived her experience in sharing her story. She told my daughter that the police had broken her by being so threatening to her. Yet, somehow she picked up enough of the pieces to make her way home.

Thank God that S. found the courage to own her life, her freedom. Her life has never been easy since I have known her. There were many times, when no one would have imagined her living this long. Yet, she has! She hasn't be able to do this alone and currently has a team of in-home aides to help off and on. But she is living a heroic life on her terms.

I am so glad that there is a Divine energy in the world that pierces our consciousness. I am so proud of my daughter for following that hunch and being the sensitive person that she is. She was the perfect person to hear such a tender story.

When Youngest Daughter returned to the garage, the car was just being backed out of the garage, and ready for pick-up. We noted a sense of karios (eternal time, not just clock time) operating. Youngest Daughter also said that she realized that it was about the time that S. came home this time, that she was thinking of her.

In addition to prayers and love wishes for S., my heart goes out to all others in neglectful homes or institutional care who feel that their souls are being broken. A better way cannot come fast enough for them.

I am reminded that institutional residents and care receivers at home have choices and should not tolerate abuse or neglect. In Maryland, call 1-800-243-3425 for nursing home abuse/long-term care ombudsman; or 1-800-91-PREVENT or 1-800-917-7383 for community or home-based neglect, exploitation or abuse concerns. In Virginia, call 888-83-ADULT (888-832-3858); Out-of-state: 804-371-0896. If you are reading this and have concerns based in another state, contact the National Center on Elder Abuse , 202-898-2586.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The gift of silent retreat

During a meditation retreat, a woman came up to me and mouthed how much she liked a particular jacket I had on because of the colors.

It was an awkward moment for me. If there is such a thing as a visual mumble, I am pretty sure I did that when I tried to smile and move on.

In strict retreats, even eye contact is considered a break in silence. One might even say that the loud colors on my jacket were inappropriate. Most people wore plain dark clothes.

In silent living, it is hoped that an environment is created that limits our stories or neurotic tendencies, because less is apt to get activated when we minimize the external stimulus. Then we just have our own minds to deal with. Except, people are still people.

I had a roommate at the same retreat who kept breaking the silence to ask permission to do things in the room or try to figure out how to minimize her discomfort with the silence.

Then there was the man who felt he had to tell me that the etchings on the metal lamppost were from squirrels gnawing at it and that perhaps they were meditating while doing this. I didn't see the connection, unless they were simply living out their "squirrel nature." But he was determined to tell someone and I was the nearest someone.

I was amazed and frustrated by how many people could not contain themselves.

Looking back, I had hoped to glide through the retreat in my own bubble. Yet, something about the woman who made her way through the crowd to express herself, broke through and pierced my consciousness in a particular way.

Pema Chodron talks about our attachments to stuff. What would it be like if someone liked our favorite red sweater, she asks, and we gave it to them. Right then and there.

Earlier this summer, I attended a Vipassana retreat with Ralph Steele who said, "Don't take what isn't given. What if you depended on your livelihood by receiving only what was offered? Now that is a radical idea."

I am struck by my own fears and tightness around money. If this doesn't squelch soulful living, I don't know what does. Yet, I don't want to be stupid about money and other resources either.

While my "story" includes periods when resources were very limited, I am not destitute. It was time to stop thinking of myself as impoverished and to let go of the grasping of material things. This is just one jacket.

My sense of this woman's delight moved me to give her the one-size-fits-all jacket at the end of the conference. She nodded an "ah-hah" as she remembered our intersection a few days earlier saying how much she loved the colors. It was the end of the retreat and time to go.

Who was this woman? She is the woman who liked bright colors and who expressed so elegantly in a non-verbal way something that brought joy to both of us. And, that is all that I need to know.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The universe came together in a wonderful way last week. As my 50th birthday was being marked, I celebrated by attending a weeklong silent meditation retreat. This was the first time I've gotten to spend that much time in silence and I didn't know how it would go.

At the beginning, we were asked to set our intention. I hadn't really thought about setting a goal for the retreat. But as I sat on my cushion, it occured to me that "integration" was my goal. I wanted to integrate the whole 50 years of my life on earth and make peace with it.

As it turned out, little things along the way arose that reminded me of past wounds or difficult experiences or wonderful life events. The important ones just showed up like they do whenever I have the time to reflect. Some memories that came to mind surprised me because I had forgotten them. The beauty was that I had nothing else to do but tenderly hold whatever arose and let it go. It was like a non-linear life review.

The week basically was a typical meditation retreat with sitting and walking meditation scheduled from 6:15 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. everyday. Scatterings of yoga and meditation talks were offered. Meals changed up the rhythm of the walking and sitting meditations, but were also meant to focus on ways of being present to the moment.

The practice of lovingkindness meditation was particularly soothing and supportive. What was so helpful was that the stage was being set by the workshop leaders for opening the body, heart and mind in a tender and safe way. First we practiced lovingkindness on ourselves, then others we love, then strangers or people we are less reactive to, followed by those we have experienced difficulties. Finally, we ended with focusing on loving the world and all that entails.

I don't know what the conditions were that allowed me to be so open, but I was able to work with a most difficult relationship and bring that person into my heart in a non-reactive way using a method I have found difficult in the past - Tonglen.

Tonglen is a method that focuses on breathing in a difficulty or suffering and turning it around to a positive energy or releasing it to the universe on the out breath. I typically find my body resisting this practice. Drawing in pain and suffering intentionally usually adds to my own sense of physical and psychological restriction or resistence. It just didn't work in the past.

To experience my difficult person and the suffering they caused without resistance or reactivity is huge for me. Usually, I would try to force loving this person and my heart would be in such pain or I'd feel sick. But after an adulthood of working on my issues, years of meditation practice, and being in the right place and time for this work, I was surprised by this awareness of non-reactivity. I could breath in the suffering and let it go without resistance. What a concept!

More than that, by the end of the week I came to view that what I was really experiencing was equanimity.

Equanimity is the idea that we hold all experiences and beings with lovingkindness - all of it, no matter what. It had been such a confusing concept to me. I'd get all tied up in imagining what is was supposed to look like, but could not understand how that actually worked. I was not able to think my way into this awareness.

In that past, I would try to love everyone else with all their flaws, but I could not fathom anyone loving me for who I am - you know, if they really knew me. At the end of the retreat, I gained a gentle, but revolutionary understanding of equanimity as my heart softened and I loved everyone else... including my difficult relationships... and finally was able to included all of me, too. What a sweet and tender revelation.

At the age of 50 years, I am finally getting a taste of equanimity. And, it was surprising that I had to include me. Wasn't that what the beginning of the week practices were about? How many times had I done this practice and had not had the ability to bring all of me along?

I was also reminded that these Buddhist practices are all inter-related. One practice leads to another; and, one never knows why the path is a little different for each person. What is so great about Buddhism is that people are given permission to explore and test for themselves to see what works or doesn't work.

Who knew that I'd experience such wonderful things after living 50 years on this earth? It is a bit like finding ripe fruit for the picking. How delightful!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

There are times when words fail me and the body steps in.

I'm sure it happens more than I know. As a mother, my facial expressions, hand gestures, or the way I walk potentially signal something to my family. These are actions that I don't always think about, let alone know what they are projecting onto me.

On the other hand, I totally stepped over a line when I literally put my hand over a fellow meditator's mouth as she kept talking and my other hand on her back after a meditation session.

I vaguely remember saying something about I love you, I am sorry, but I can't stand it anymore. My experience was at once painful, sorrowful, tender, and blinding.

Let's just say this was not skillful communication.

I was growing increasingly overwhelmed by a growing inability of people in this familiar group to practice what we were learning through meditation. They were talking about their own anxieties, problems, and the political divide. The 10th anniversary of 9-11 probably jacked everyone up with its missed opportunities or it could have been the failures of our leaders in an economy where our families are struggling. So many things were stirring in that room.

All this angst and division. I found it hard to sit with and let it arise and fall. But, I was trying.

Yet, it was our self-righteousness about shared political values that was disturbing me. We kept trying to make our point no matter if another was talking or to keep it going by recycling back to our usual points.

We had just finished our meditation practice with the idea that we bring that experience into our everyday lives. We were demonstrating our state of mind externally. The group mind was looking a little unsteady.

As I apologized to the person and the group for this outrageous breach of trust, I was asked to speak about this division. Basically, I said that I had no words at the moment except that at a recent Buddhist retreat on diversity, the experience of silence illuminated the value of living in the space beyond words, beyond the stories, and beyond our ideas of self.

A website about polarizing speech offers a history of the manipulation and misuse of words for ill. The following webpage offers the blogger's own story as to how she has came to understand Germany's path into darkness in the last century. (Cut and paste web address into browser to read.)

My experience of the event was an attempt to lovingly and gently quiet my friend. While it wasn't a good feeling to break through the noise in this way, my hope is that we speak lovingly and carefully with each other to the best of our ability.

Afterwards, I wondered if this was more like taking a sword and cutting through the crap. It felt horrible. My friend is still unhappy with me. Things are not perfect. There was a rupture that needs attending to.

Perhaps, at that moment, my actions were the most compassionate thing I could do for my friend, the group, and my self. Because of a sense of responsibility to the group and past tendencies, I resisted walking out.

More importantly, it erased any illusion that somehow by meditating I am better than who I really am. It got me out of my head and into the world - warts and all.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

There is an old saying: Life is what you make of it.

When I think about my current situation and the general state of the world, I find there are times when platitudes are frustrating.

At a basic level, we can all understand another saying: If life hands you lemons, make lemonade.

I once gave my then-toddler lemonade that was made for my diabetic grandfather. It was a hot summer day. She was thirsty. She loved the stuff and drank lots of it quickly. On the way home, she began to complain of a headache.

By the time we were home, she was very sick. Tylenol didn't touch the pain. Nothing seemed to work.

This was back in the days when our young family couldn't afford health insurance. I waited to see if her illnes was temporary or if we needed to go to the emergency room. This was the sickest I'd ever seen her and I was scared. She came out of it a few hours later. There is something unnerving about watching helplessly as your baby lies in the dark, not even wanting to be held because any movement hurt.

This was back in the 1980's when aspartame first came out. I now think that this was the toddler version of a full-blown migraine. We learned the hard way that she cannot tolerate aspartame. Soon afterwards, I learned that several other children in the family also could not tolerate aspartame. The government and corporate culture at the time were busy denying that there was any problem with this chemical sweetener.

With a family full of diabetics, our choices for sweetening lemonade was getting more restrictive.

What does this have to do with making lemonade out of lemons? In this case, not much on the face of it. Usually, this saying is used to help a person dealing with a difficult situation by encouraging them to make the best of it. But when the story is applied to a more nuanced, person-specific story, you can see the flaws.

Lemonade isn't just about taking lemons and squeezing them. Something is added. Hopefully, the sweetener is something that adds value to the bitter juice. In this case, it did not.

A friend recently watched a movie with other religious leaders in the community about the shared core values of the world's major religions. Afterwards, this friend stated his frustration with the movie's use of various religious texts being used as platitudes to, in his opinion, make everyone feel better while denying the power of religion to separate or demonize others.

As a preacher, he wanted everyone else to share his vision of not just the optimistic views of religion, but their problems. Years ago, I'd taken a workshop that helped me understand the importance of how religious texts could get used, manipulated or abused. So I could understand his desire.

My friend would like everyone to confront the wrongs that he sees and to act non-violently to stop aggression and greed. But the way he wanted to go about it was like picking a tender wound. I'm sure the other religious leaders at that movie felt like they have their hands full trying to be positive and holding together a loving, harmonious approach as they very carefully and bravely reach across interfaith lines.

I am sympathetic with his perspective. I'm tired of platitudes and the same old games that keep people spinning, but don't work on underlying problems. I see scriptures and religious text as ways of trying to grapple with important human issues and as guideposts for moral and ethical lessons. But the test for whether or not they are working for a particular situation for me is: Does this promote health and wellness (physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually) in individuals and the community? Does it bring them into a deeper way of living a loving life?

This is where teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh come into the picture. His perspective is that it does no good for burned out people to engage in social concerns without first attending to oneself and cultivating their own peace of mind. It is the natural sweetness of compassion that gets overlooked by angry people and mobs.

Martin Luther King, Jr. appreciated Thich Nhat Hanh's perspective and nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 after being moved by the power of his work. Yet, it is King who has a statue that was unveiled this past week, a man who gave his life 40 years ago in the pursuit of equality and justice using non-violence. His own work was built on faith and a vision of something sweeter for all.

If I only could believe that life is what we all make of it, then I wouldn't have to concern myself about war, refugees, malnourished children, vulnerable adults, the sick, those in prison, people who have lost their homes, the mentally ill, and all the other problems of the world. Everyone could just make their own juice from their own lemons.

What seems like a simple act: making lemonade from lemons becomes quite the challenge when we use our hearts and minds to engage in the situation. How do we create something that is tolerated by and helpful to the person or people we intend to serve? How do we help quench a thirst that may be asking for our love and attention?

As people gear up for the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks next weekend, I pray that we listen to each other with the heart's ear no matter what the religious flavor is that we bring to the table. May we pour out our hearts' deepest desires, the desire of the Beloved that flows through us and into the world. May we taste the nectar that quenches all thirst.

Friday, August 26, 2011

TP Holder Teachings

This morning I was all set to write about my first overnight meditation retreat or the east coast quake. Instead, my experience of dropping a toilet paper holder in the toilet while the toilet was flushing is the thing that immediately rose to the top.

Today started off delightfully enough. Partner was off for the day. We had a very sweet time eating breakfast on the patio outside and sharing a meditation session outside together under a beautiful blue sky – the calm before Hurricane Irene’s schedule visit tomorrow. I cleaned off the counters and he was washing dishes. I got recycling organized and suggested we could drop it off at the center together.

Before leaving, I used the bathroom. I had just used the last of the toilet paper. As I flushed, I took off our wooden toilet paper holder and reached in the cabinet over the toilet (who thought this was a good idea?) for more paper. We were out. Partner was at the doorway by then as I mentioned this. And then, it simply dropped from my hand and fell in as the toilet was swirling.

I remember thinking very clearly: I am not putting my hand in there to fish it out. I probably even said this out loud, as Partner stood off in the distance watching.

I watched as it bobbled near the drain in the bowl, hoping, hoping that it would not go down. Don't do it, I kept saying to myself.

Alas, it went under and beyond the bowl.

In a split second, all of my disbelief coalesced into some kind of garbled version of shame and guilt. In my childhood, my father would rant over accidents that us kids did.

Partner was there looking at me: Now what? It's got to come out.

Looking under the kitchen sink, I thought I had a set of those yellow rubber gloves. But none were to be found.

I went to the drawer with lots of recycled plastic bags and looked for a large sturdy one. I put it over my hand/arm. Good, it went up to my elbow.

I marched back in and plunged my hand into the toilet and tried to feel as far up as I could go.


Shit, this is bad, I thought. I felt sick as Partner looked on.

He said quietly, you may want to call your friend.

I had no idea who he was talking about. He said: You know, the plumber.

Just like Partner uses certain trades people that go back generations with his family, this one was mine in our relationship.

Plumber has deep connections with my family and remembers a time when he stayed over in the home I grew up in and looked out the same window facing the barnyard and mountain behind that I saw a generation later.

The thing is, I could not make the call. I was all choked up with humiliation. I wanted to run away, but there was nowhere to go. I wanted to throw myself on the bed and cry, but other housemates were still in bed. So I walked out the back of the house and into the woods where there is a fire circle.

My childhood fears came flooding forward. Fears of worthlessness, fears of causing trouble, fears of stupidity, fears of costing money, fears of..., lots of stuff came up and out from various childhood stages and situations.

I thought, maybe some of my clients' issues are getting to me. When I came home last night from work, I had picked up the wrong item at the grocery store. Partner mentioned it without blame. I felt a little emotional over that. At the time, he asked if anything had happened. No.

Sitting on the wood bench, I wondered if the jittery financial and political situation in the world and the tremendous change that is taking place is affecting me. I left a troubling part-time job with the plan of building my business. My last paycheck from that organization comes today. I have some work, but not enough. I'd gone to a local Chamber of Commerce meeting yesterday morning and was disheartened as I witnessed small town struggles and small business challenges. I also witnessed people with a huge commitment to bettering the community.

Then there was the east coast earthquake earlier this week. It really rumbled and shook the house. The floor moved, the windows rattled. We thought everything was okay. But the next day, the water was yellow. We boiled water and used bought water for two days. But it also shook to death our old air conditioning unit and finished it off. The repair man came out and would be giving us an estimate on replacement. Insurance doesn't cover this stuff.

My Achilles heel is accidentally doing something that costs a lot of money. We have generations on my paternal side that live so small it hurts. They prefer to read or write or go on little side trips like little scraps of bread. They don't do traditional 8-5 work. They farm, they teach, they mine, they cook, they make art, play music, go to church. They lived their lives close to the bone.

As the fear and tears subsided, I made my way back inside.

I called Plumber. He said, don't worry. If you want, get a mirror and a flashlight and see if you can see it. Otherwise, go ahead and use it. If is stops up, then we will do something. If not, it can function the way it is until it stops. Or, the roller may even move on.

Partner and I discussed the options. We will continue to flush until it backs up and we need help.

No one blamed me. No one laughed or teased me.

My mind's wild ride with its rolling emotions submerged me temporarily. But the power of mindfulness practice is that it allows me to see things a lot more objectively, feel what is going on, and see what comes up. This offers the opportunity to practice kindness for myself and the generations before me who also dealt with those same patterns.

It's good to flush the mind.

As a curious person, this kind of research is so helpful. Now I will be wondering where my teacher, the little roller, is and where its final destination ends.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Skink teachings

After four years living at this place in the woods, I am enjoying the variety of critters that visit and their habits. One such friend is a Five-lined Skink.

When I first met her in 2007, she was hiding out in early June behind a flower box under my kitchen window. At first I was weirded out because they are pretty long with a length easily stretched out to 8 inches or so. But what really struck me was the shock of a snake-like face and little legs that stick out from the striped black and brown body with a tail that shimmers in a vivid beautiful blue.

Each year this little lizard visits in late May, early June, always by the flower box under the kitchen window.

This year, I was concerned that something happened. It was getting later and later in the month and still no skink. Then at the end of June, she showed up. At first I saw her run across the patio to hide out in the perennials. Later I saw her head stick out from behind the attached flower box.

My first thoughts usually are: is this a snake? I get an instinctual shiver. But then I remember how in my late teens, I worked at the National Institutes for Mental Health in a lab studying various animal brains. One job I had was to care for lizards being hatched while the paleontologists were on a research trip for a month.

I was "mother" to a few dozen baby lizards for a month. I hated it when one would get out of the cage as I opened the lid to feed and water them and how I would have to chase this fast little guy around the lab until I got him. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving him run in the lab without access to food or water, or worse, hanging around and scaring the daylights out of me when unexpectedly running into him.

As a student of Buddhism, these thoughts are something to investigate. I am learning to appreciate "sentient beings" in all their forms. I am coping with my own insensitivity and patterned ways of being.

There is guilt from growing up on a farm for the purpose of raising animals for meat. We raised mostly hogs and sheep. My first bedroom suite was purchased as a 9 year old who showed Yorkshire hogs and won prize and auction money. The pair of "market-weight" show hogs were sold to Esskay for meat.

The Dalai Lama isn't making my reflections any easier when he responded to someone about leading an ethical life. He basically said make sure you don't work in a slaughter house. I was part of that business as a child, teenager, and then later as an adult consuming meat.

My work on the farm was what got me into this fortunate position as a lab assistant. A post-doctoral student "interviewed" me and had me go through the work of the lab. When she invited me to watch her do research-surgery on a rat, a man walked in, asked me if that bothered me. I said no. He said good and walked out. He was the lead research doc. I later learned is that another student lab tech had issues with the research on the animals, and he didn't want any of those problems with a new student.

As I worked with those lizards, and rats, and hamsters, and mice, and turkeys, and monkeys, and alligators, and....

All sorts of animals were used at this facility to study the brain, I believed that they were necessarily sacrificed in order to map the brain and its biochemical circuitry for the health and wellbeing of humans suffering from neurological and mental illnesses. A lot of the modern mindfulness research that many people point to as a reason for practicing Buddhist meditation has its basic understanding built on the work using the brains of these critters, living beings. Researchers still do this for all kinds of studies.

As I attempt to make peace with this, I think of my "beingness" as a human. Is-ness or the nature of things as they are is a big Buddhist concept. I used to tell my kids not to think that humans were particularly special. We are mammals, too. I grew up in that animal family, watching animals do amazing things. Pigs are really pretty smart.

I wish I could say that I am reformed, that I don't eat meat or that I don't kill other beings. But I have squashed stink bugs, tried to get rid of groundhogs (no friends to my garden), and eat meat. Some of these actions have been accidental, some intentional.

Planting the wax begonias in the flower box after the pansies croaked from the heat a few weeks ago, I dug out the old flowers and started planting the new. As I dug, I noticed what looked like a piece of blue-coated electrical wire. I moved the dirt a little more to make room for the flower plug, and noticed that the wire didn't feel so stiff. I flicked it a little more and noticed that the tip was tapered. My gut instinct was to want to crawl out of my own skin. Ohmygod, a skink!

I carefully placed the plant and covered the roots and finished planting the rest of the flowers. I left to get the hose so that I could water these newly planted blossoms. As soon as I got to the place where the tail was, a skink ran down the wall and across the patio to the shade of the perennials.

Whatever the nature of the skink is, this little feeling being is teaching me in small doses how to be with life that I don't understand. But I like knowing that it let me play with its tail. I feel privileged to experience a child-like moment of curiousity where I got to touch this beautiful blue thing in the dirt, to realize with a thrill that it was a skink, and, then respectfully, to leave it alone to do its skink-thing.

If there is such a thing as karma, I thank this little teacher and hope this is a turning of the wheel, a new beginning with life.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Recently I had the privilege to attend the DC Buddha Fest. It is the second year for this film/talk/meditation festival in the area, but my first time there.

All of it was inspiring. But I went to hear Enkyo Pat O'Hara talk.

I was not disappointed. I have only heard her twice before, but what draws me to her is her pithy storytelling and gentle firmness. I felt like I was witnessing the best possible combination of Zen starkness and clarity with Vipassana loving-kindness. No matter how complex life is, compassion and simplicity are really the point.

My first sitting with her was at a retreat that the Philadelphia Meditation Association (PMA) held a few years ago. Her message was to just show up and breath.

She taught me that centering and returning to the breath is a fundamental practice one can use when one gets lost. And one is often lost.

I can do that. And, that was about all I could do for several years. Everything else seemed too complicated.

The next year, I attended the PMA retreat again. She was the invited speaker. She taught the story of the spiritual seeker who showed up at a religious center. The spiritual teacher asked if the person had their breakfast. If not, get your breakfast, nourish yourself. If so, then wash your bowl and break it. Clean it out, and break away from your past spiritual forms. Truly become empty, free.

The next year she was unable to attend.

That year I attended Jackie Erskine's retreat on joy. Everyone else either had a direct experience of joy to report or sounded like they were trying to force some notion of joy on their experience. I could only say that I showed up and breathed.

But somewhere along the line since then, two year later, my practice has grown just a little. Quiet, simple joys show up as I also became more present to emotions, sensory data, and thoughts.

All of these teachings have come in potent doses: short talks with lots of meditation and reflection in between. This is taking years. This is the work of an older person. I could not have imagined commiting to such slow, deep work as a younger person.

At this recent event, I experienced one of the sweetest teachings, but probably the most challenging. It was on compassion.

Enkyo talked about the bodhisattva of compassion, Chenrezig, the one sometimes personified with a thousand arms and hands. In some cultures it is portrayed as male or as female.

As the story goes, Chenrezig vowed to liberate all beings from suffering. Eventually as she looked out over the problems of humanity and suffering, she exploded into thousands of pieces. The gods put Chenrezig back together with many arms and hands. In the middle of each hand an eye was placed in the palm to see the truth of the matter.

In some forms there are a few arms and hands, in others a thousand. In some versions, it was given eleven heads, which signify the sacred number of infinity, seeing in all directions the suffering that takes place in the world. In some versions, the hands are depicted with tools to help deal with each kind of suffering: right action for the right situation.

This kind of seeing is at its core about witnessing suffering and not turning away. This most holy way of being, open and able to be with the suffering no matter what, is the core to being compassionate.

Enkyo made one further point about the personification of compassion. Chenrezig energy is in every cell in our body. We have the capacity to be and see with those compassionate "eyes" and act with those compassionate "hands" when we are fully present to ourselves and the world.

Then Enkyo told a story of two brothers talking about this ancient story. The younger brother talked to the older brother about his understanding of compassion. But a question was raised that had to do with burnout.

The older brother responded that being compassionate was like the natural act of sleeping and adjusting the pillow behind your head. You reach back and make a slight shift. In this simple act, an open-hearted response is freely given. A small thing really. You know, just a little readjustment and ahhh.

As she told that part of the story, I could feel the release of so much tension I'd been holding. A realization of how much I hold my breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop, always the other shoe. The "what-if's" that hold me back, fearful, withholding, calculating.

In this story, there is no shoe to drop. Just a simple reaction to discomfort, and moving on.

Thank you, Enkyo. Blessings to you and your zendo.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I'm keeping myself busy. I have work to be done. But today, I really have to keep focused on what is in front of me.

My youngest daughter is out of town on behalf of the family to attend to a childhood friend. This childhood friend, now a young woman pregnant with her second child, lost her husband's side of the family due to a domestic violence tragedy at the end of last week. She lost her mother-in-law, sister-in-law, brother-in-law and the step-dad, who took his life after taking their lives. Her sister-in-law was one day from making her high school graduation after a lifetime of struggling with learning disabilities.

This family lives in the St. Louis area where powerful storms have been rocking through there, damaging their car just a week or so before with baseball size hail.

My partner and I were trying to come up with how to talk about it. Tragedy seemed to be the only word that worked.

I was left feeling like I wanted the old days back with this young woman. I have images of free-spirited play with my daughter and her friends on our go-cart wearing swim goggles and laughing hard. I have delightful memories of these girls (a trio) dressed up for Halloween and going trick or treat.

None of these kids had a utopian childhood. But something has gone wrong really wrong.

I want to restart the tape from about the mid-1990's, when these girls were still girls, when I thought that if I was a good-enough mom, then I could protect them and innoculate them from suffering, from evil.

My hope, now, is that my own daughters and their friends have the reserves and resilience from which to draw upon for their own relationship with the divine, their deepest, most loving selves, and to be there for each other. These women are now in various stages of adulthood, complete with children, lovers, pets, work, and life.

To this young mother, may your family grow in love, peace, and wisdom no matter what comes your way. And may you know that you are being held in the light by our family and the larger Quaker community. May you be free from harm.

Peace to you and yours.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

This morning my youngest daughter sat at the kitchen table and asked me if I remembered A.B., the kid from her little elementary school class. I thought, and said, sure. His mom was the artist.

Well, he is missing. He worked at NASA and a bunch of his co-workers went sailing on the James River Thursday night. One was dead, 8 managed to stay alive, and Tyler has yet to been found. She learned about all of this through her friends on Facebook.

My heart sunk. He was less than 25 years old, had been a world traveler attending college in Australia, hung out in Hawaii and built his own canoe in high school. He loved the water and the natural world, and apparently, space, too.

Mother earth took him back, swallowing him up.

My mind immediately went to the pain his mother must be feeling. There must be a hole in her heart. I said this out loud.

My daughter said, everyone will be missing him who knew him. I had to agree, but still, his mother carried him in her body, she nourished and cared for him, she watched him grow and move into adulthood. And now, he was gone.

My daughter made some reference to an apocalyptic novel that takes place under water which also has something to do with outer space and aliens. She lost me, but as I write this on the computer, real live astronauts are beeping in and talking about what they are doing. (She has a live feed from the space station on my computer.)

I have another friend whose son-in-law died recently from an asthma attack. He was about 30 years old and her daughter and he were trying to have a child together. This mother loved her son-in-law and was so supportive of their bi-racial marriage. This young family had been enveloped in loved, but it could not stop his death. Her daughter is now a widow.

Yesterday I was with both of my daughters at my grandson's 4th birthday party in a very noisy setting. There were no real conversations, just hand gestures and smiles, when we remembered to smile. His mother is leaving her marriage and my grandson will be primarily living with my son-in-law. They live several hours away from me and my biggest fear(I have several)is losing access to this precious little guy.

My grandson received a NASA baseball cap last year that was supposedly flown on a space shuttle. I wonder what his experience of family is, how he copes when all that he wants is his mommy.

I want the mothership to bring us all back together, in our best selves, whole, never taken from each other. I want time to not just stand still, but to be in those photographic, family-memoried places where even though we were anxious about the future, I could at least rest easier because at least we are all together.

That's what a mother does. We make sure the peeps are all together and accounted for. When one is missing, crazy terror arises until they are found. Our beating heats are frantic until we know where they are. Please God, know where they are. Every mother experiences this, whether it is the child who got lost in the mall or the kid who misses curfew or the teen who ran away.

This is not very useful imagery when your adult children are trying to figure out their own lives. Life is risky business. What's the matter with you, mom. Get over it.

Nobody ever tells us this when we make love, when we are so young ourselves and can't imagine our own aging, when we only know the potential of something more than ourselves as we hold these little bundles of joy or play with an energetic toddler.

Nobody ever told me. And, I wouldn't have been able to hear it. I thought that those sufferings belonged to the old people, because in the old days things were harder. Don't we have technology, an easier life? Aren't we forever youthful?

Lost innocence isn't reserved for youth. We get to know it more deeply in ways we could never imagine.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Hummingbird Summer

I just have to share some good news... My sister-in-law alerted friends on Facebook that the hummingbirds were back.

I thought they didn't return until the first weeks of June. But I was home today and put out the sugar mixture. The day has been perfect: temperatures in the upper 70's, blue skies and puffy clouds, a nice breeze.

By late afternoon, I still hadn't seen anything. But because the day was so nice, I practiced the harp outside.

The birds and the bees were flying around. Tiger swallowtails were lighting on my blue music tote.

Something buzzed by. Ahhh, as in awesome, a hummingbird. It first sat on my metal patio chair. Shiny jewel-like tones shimmered as its rapid breathing moved its little body.

I continued to play the harp. It sat only about 8' from me on that little chair rim. A breeze kicked up and it flew to the trees nearby. Soon a few more hummingbirds were flying and dive-bombing each other.

Technically, summer isn't for another month. But with these warm-weather friends back, life feels more vibrant and beautiful.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Just when I think I've had enough

It's been over a month since I showed up to blog.

The good news is that the flowers are blooming and it is warming up.

The tougher news is that a close family member is leaving a spouse. There are all kinds of issues wrapped up in that scene. I think that the main thing is that because I love everyone involved and a small child is in the middle, I have been grieving.

I don't know of any other way to tell it.

The good news is that my youngest sister and I have been calling each other on Sunday evenings for the past 12 weeks while working on a Julia Cameron book called, "The Art of Perserverance." My sister's creative streak is so original and fun that I love listening to her talk about what she's up to.

I wrote, I attempted to walk and make a weekly artist date. But mostly, I wrote. The harp practice has barely been taking place. Too much work to do.

That's the other rotten news. I'm a therapist trying to piecemeal several jobs while developing my private practice.

A job that I picked up this winter for a regular paycheck is making me wonder if it is worth the challenges.

I love the clients. However, working for a county facility that is being used to test the government's public/private initiatives and radically changing the work environment isn't what I bargained for.

The very first week I started work, the local paper ran an article that the local government had put our little assisted living for the poor at the front of their agenda for major changes. In addition to the overwhelming human needs at this place, it has been a challenge to cope with staff upset and worry since I started. Not to mention, my own reaction to the way this is being handled leaves me struggling with the best way to respond.

This past week there has been more about "cutting us loose." They are hiring a new CEO position (at goodness knows how much money), but cutting wages for staff - mostly aides, kitchen and maintenance help. Some will completely lose their jobs and have to reapply for those jobs at lower rates/benefits. These are the people who can least afford this.

I just want to cry. Really, God?! What is wrong with people?

The Board president keeps stating that he was elected to balance the budget and that he's just "a numbers guy." What is missing is the rest of the statement: and I don't care about the human consequences.

My partner reminds me that in this economic environment, one has two choices. I can ride it out or develop an exit strategy.

The problem is that when I returned from a public hearing, one of our aides said that she was disappointed that no one spoke for the assisted living staff. She talked about how they don't feel safe enough or empowered. She reported that staff felt that the board has already made up their minds, so why bother. Yet, she had hoped that one of our senior staff would speak up. She was afraid that they were being forgotten.

There is one more public hearing. Can I collect comments and present them? Should I coach staff on public speaking? Will I still have a job? How can one approach this kind of challenge?

On this Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, I am feeling like Jesus has died, but hasn't been resurrected yet. I'm feeling the hopeless grief of death without renewal. I await the sign of new life.

I'm reminded why the New Testament is called the Good News.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Prayers for the Japanese after the Earthquake & Tsunami

I have seen clips of devastation, people in shock, and news reports with images of nuclear power plants either exploding or in serious trouble. I can't imagine what it must be like to be living there at this moment in history. I feel drained and unfocused as the immensity of this seeps into my consciousness.

In the midst of this, our own local streams and rivers have been flooding and NOAA has been issuing statements for days in preparation of such. This seems so trivial in comparison.

Today is Sunday. I attended my Quaker meeting: No one was moved to speak out of the silence today, but we were all thinking about Japan. This afternoon I lit candles, said prayers, and meditated. Part of my spiritual practice is to write. Today seems to be a good day to blog.

I am deeply troubled to be seeing on the internet those who claim to be God-fearing people ranting that this is a warning from God.

As humans are seekers of meaning, this, like any major life event, has a message built into it. We seem to be hard-wired for this kind of thinking. My thoughts have to do more with what is our response in the face of tragedy?

How do we care for each other?

Instead of an angry God, I see a God weeping with us. As a Christian, the Old Testament God's wrath might have been attributed to some horrible natural disaster or plagues or punishing the enemy. But for me, the New Testament is about God's love and compassion, especially when people are suffering.

Who are we as a people if we cannot grieve with our neighbors, or roll up our sleeves to do what we can? How is it that we lift each other up in the face of a natural world that has its own rhythms and cycles?

As a child, I was often blamed for things that were beyond my control. In fact, the adults would accuse me of things that, looking back, were totally unrealistic to expect from a child.

Recently, I shared a difficulty with a superior. What was so helpful, and it has taken almost 50 years to get to this point, was that she was encouraging without judgment in a way that made it clear that I did the best I could. I found that I could accept her encouragement without guilt. Guilt was just confusing the issue. Not only had she encouraged me, but she validated my instincts in the matter and offered ongoing support. It was a rare moment in a culture that is too fast to judge and pressures people to move on without the proper resources.

As the numbers of lost people range wildly and the photos of the northern, hardest hit area show massive devastation, my heart goes out to all.

Recently, science's genome work points to a link in all humans that is believed to go back to a single female nicknamed "Eve." I can pretend that the images projected into my home are unrelated to me and my life; or, I can recognize the oneness of humanity. I choose compassionate oneness.

We all have a lot to learn as those power plants release radioactive gas into the atmosphere. At this point, their own children will bear the biggest burden. After having come through Hiroshima and Nagisaki with bombs named Little Boy and Fat Man 55years ago, one has to wonder what the psychic wounds will be.

As a grandmother with a grandson living near a nuclear power plant, I too worry about the lessons. His home has iodine pills in its medicine cabinet in case there is a radioactive release. We are told nuclear is clean energy.

My prayers are for a people of an ancient culture to do the best they can and accept the help they need without guilt or blame. I would want no less for my family.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Life is hard enough

And then there are those times when I think: Life is hard enough.

Why make things more difficult?

As I watch a painful unraveling of so many things, relationships, ideas, services to the vulnerable, ... I wish for a simpler time, or an easier way of life. Often I find myself caught in the throws of building knots around the very thing I want to make better.

Sometimes, I even think that I can't take the difficulties any more. They are too much to bear.

This week has been one of those weeks. When I think it is hard, somehow there is more to it that adds more suffering. I can easily feel overwhelmed.

My prayer and meditation practices are very useful when I become aware of the constrictions, the fear. This business of cultivating loving-kindness or compassion towards myself, as well as, towards the source of pain has been so helpful.

One breath at a time, one step at a time, one cry at a time, one conversation at a time, one hug at a time. These simple, little motions are all I have to offer.

Moving through these times, I have found openings of love. There is nothing like a hug from a child with an "I love you." Or, a partner who hugs with every cell in his body. Or, a supervisor who really means it when she says that she will do her best for staff and clients. These simple graces pierce the heart.

Love is working like that these days.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Holding the space

I share this little story as a Valentine gift to my meditation group.

On a snowy day this winter, I showed up alone at the little church social hall where we meet weekly for meditation. While this was our regular time and place to meet, the weather and roads were not at all cooperative.
I set up several chairs, lit a candle, and read a short reading on meditating where you are. I said a little prayer inviting all those who couldn't be there and, as we often joke, set aside a chair for The Guest.

After our usual 45 minutes of meditation, I dinged the bell and bowed. Then I said aloud the piece we say about dedicating the merit of our practice:
To all sentient beings,
May we be free from inner and outer harm,
May we have calm clear minds and peaceful loving hearts,
May we know Joy, Wonder, Wisdom, and Compassion,
In this life, just as it is.

Once more, I rang the bell and bowed. Then I blew out the candles, said goodbye to The Guest, and went home.

After a year of watching my fellow meditators bounce back from broken bones, heart attacks, heart aches and hospitalizations, I want you to know there will always a place for you in my heart.

Happy Valentines Day!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The need for creativity

My youngest sister and I started doing Julia Cameron's book, "Finding Water: The Act of Perserverance" (I initially mistyped it as persuasion) together after talking about being in a winter funk. She does collages and mosaic and the jazz sax. I write and play the harp. We were in a creative dry spot, hoping that this would jump-start our langishing projects.

So for the past few weeks, we call each other on Sunday evening: me from the Appalachian mountains and she in Seattle. I call her first. She tends to go for a walk while talking to me from her cell. She calls me back on my land line so that she can hear me better while I clean up from supper before settling into a couch with the writings from the previous week.

Cameron typically incorporates three things into her creative process training: journal three pages each morning, walk at least one-half hour a week, and take yourself out on an artist date alone. My sister is getting her stuff in. I am not.

I'm very good at doing the three-page writing assignment. I often write three or four pages, and then do additional writing during the day. The walk is a challenge because my feet bother me and the snow/ice has been a hassle. The foot thing is getting worse with bunions that started in my 30's. (Thanks, genes.)

The bigger challenge has been to go on an artist date. It should be no big deal. But I can't seem to figure out where to go or what to do. A week ago, I went to Michaels' and Ben Franklin's to look at art/craft supplies for ideas. That counts. Truthfully, it was uninspiring. But as this week was coming to an end, I finally decided to go to the local art museum.

It's a very nice center. But I was already buzzing from a stressful morning at work before heading over.

I got to the center and realized that it had been some time since visiting there. A new parking deck was nearby and all the area parking was metered. I've been so spoiled by free or very inexpensive parking in my neck of the woods that this put me on edge. Besides, my history with this town and parking wasn't too good. I seemed destined to get at least one parking ticket a year because my meter would run out before I'd get back and the town is plastered with parking cops.

I found a spot nearby and entered the center. The good news is that the museum is free. As I walked around, my gut rumbled and my chest ached. Surely, this was supposed to be fun!

Walking, looking, enjoying the abstract brightly colored works over the more traditional scenes, making my way around the walls, appreciating the light on some works of art more than others... up the stairs, I found a small room with a show called, "The Devout."

The artist used gypsum to make religious figures and named them according to their faith. The feminine forms were long, sweeping figures with arms stretch outward, while the masculine forms looked much more like real, literal, if not somewhat exaggerated sinuous, human bodies. The women looked etherial and the men starved. It was the feminine forms that interested me; they were the ones that looked beautiful, graceful.

I always wanted to be that kind of ballet graceful. Hair pulled back. Long and thin, but strong. Beautiful.

Sigh. I can't handle thinking about it - too much to ask for. It's not my body type for one thing. I like food more than exercise. My hair won't cooperate with the dancer look. Who am I kidding?!

The critical/judgemental voice kept at it.

Many years ago, maybe 15 now, I took a workshop at a Quaker conference and got to collage during a session. One of the images that I chose was of a female Native American figure's carved stone face looking up with rain/tears running down her round cheeks. Looking at those feminine faces tilted toward the heavens in the art museum shook loose that old image from my mental file drawer.

I'm worried that like Lot's Wife, who turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at what she was leaving behind - her family, community, in the midst of great troubles - that perhaps, I am just as stuck in that in between place in the great void between the past and the future. Is this the lot of women who care too much?

Before I scare myself silly, I think: there is only now.

And in this now, I want to be free - to create, to use my hands, to work with clay, to walk fearlessly in the snow along the river, to find my friend the owl, to hang out with my grandson, to keep practicing the harp and get better at bringing out sweet tones. I will keep working at helping people find more peaceful and loving ways of being in the world, because that, too, is a creative act. But I can see now, that I cannot lose myself in the problems of others.

What is the necessary condition for breaking free?

Maybe, I have to save myself. Or, what if I have to lose myself by shattering the old image? I just don't know the difference anymore.

I keep making the mistake of thinking that it doesn't matter, or that time spent on projects takes money and I need to make money, or that if it isn't good enough then why bother before I even get started, or any number of distractions.

But, if not now, when?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A few nights ago, I had a terrible dream. It was announced that nuclear warheads had been activated and that everyone had five minutes to say their good-byes to each other. Everyone was orderly, if not in shock. No orgies, just preparation.

How does one prepare for something like that?

I checked first to make sure that Partner was okay in that dream-like ability to see across vast distances. Then on to check in with my daughters.

One was away, so I tried to reach her by cell phone. With my aging eyes, I could not see the numbers on the keypad very well and kept mis-dialing. An ad popped up on my cell phone that wasted precious time from reaching my daughter. In frustration, I handed the phone to my other daughter so she could reach her and I took my grandson into my arms.

All that mattered was trying to make sure everyone was okay.

What was so heartbreaking was that as I was holding my grandson and thinking about how to care for him in our last moments, I knew that we would be blown into outer space. No air, no oxygen, freezing temperatures.

Grandson was a baby in this dream, not the talking, walking toddler that he has become. He was this chunky little bundle of smiles and potential. Ordinarily, holding him would have been one of my greatest joys, except for the horrifying context.

Awakening from the dream before the blast resulted in a deep sense of sadness and heartfelt pain. Usually, I can shake off dream effects by rationalizing it as a fitful night's sleep or some such thing. But this one lingered.

What kind of future are we offering our children and their babies?

In one sense, we will all pass. But those moments in the dream - when something ominous was looming, not just for myself, but everyone - left me feeling unnerved.

I shared this dream with my meditation group. Several commented on aspects of the dream that spoke to what resonated for them: a communication issue with a daughter, the Tuscon shootings and the senseless loss of a nine-year old girl and others, the constant chatter of more opinion than news in the media, the rapid change in technological advances, the immediacy of decision-making, the clarity of what is or is not important as our time runs out.

A few days ago, a Quaker luncheon was held with a group who has been meeting for the past year. This day's theme was about hope.

Lots of discussion was held about ways to focus on the positive or healing. In many ways, people tended to talk in metaphoric terms: the rising of the sun, the rhythms of the seasons, or the lenses we choose to view the world through.

What they were talking about sounded more like trying to explain their faith rather than how to offer hope. Afterwards, I was reminded of the famous scripture in Corinthians saying that faith, hope and love are crucial for one's spiritual life; and if there is a value that stands out as most important, it is love. Love points to and is at the same time the way in which we are encouraged to embrace life.

My prayer is for us elders to step up to the plate to model love and compassion so that our children and their children can share the kindness and care they have received with the world's family - so that no one is left behind or out.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

No Big Plans

Today I have no big plans. I have no major tasks to complete. Partner is away for the day. The day is my own.

This morning, I took time to set-up my meditation space - in front of a fireplace in the winter - and added flowers, a few candles, and two little books, one on zen and the other on wabi sabi. I brought out Jack Kornfield's book on Wisdom of the Heart: the psychology of Buddhism and read a section on no-self. Then I attempted to meditate.

Eyes open or eyes closed seemed to be one of the first things I got stuck on.
I learned from a Zen roshi to keep the eyes open and cast downward with a gentle gaze, neither hardened in fierce attention nor fuzzy and not aware. I also observed from attending a few Insight Meditation groups, that they tend to be more interested in the happenings of the mind and have their eyes shut.

The Zen approach makes more sense for me since I want to know how to take this work into the world with all of its textures and other sensory data. But I could see where this practice was making it harder to focus on the mind games that I was already doing. Having my eyes open also feels safer since I worry. If something is going to happen, I want to see it. Maybe I can protect myself or control the situation better.

I tried to be kind to myself and quit fighting the either/or of open/closed eyes and settle down. I wound up doing a bit of both and experimenting with what worked.

Then I remembered a quote from Pema Chodron that Kornfield offered: "Being preoccupied with self-image is like coming upon a tree of singing birds while wearing earplugs." Kornfield goes on to say that when we release our ideas about self that we relax and can experience the fullness of the world.

My eyes being open or closed has more to do with whether or not I am doing this right. With no one around, I had gotten stuck in a self-absorbed perspective of being a "good" meditator/person. The reason I want to learn this stuff is so that I can be more present to whatever is encountered. But who was here to pass judgement and label my practice besides some aspect of my "self?"

I was able to observe the judge and allowed it to become a witness. Then the witness wasn't so concerned about how or what I was doing. In fact, it was free to observe what was in front of me or hear the birds outside or feel the mountains nearby.

There is a paradox here. Of course, Awareness is tied to my body and its sensations. But if I died right now, I really don't know if it would matter. It would either exist on its own or it would be extinguished. I figure I'll deal with that when the time comes. But for now, I had revealed myself as a pretty harsh judge and taskmaster when connected to my body and my image of myself - inner life and outer life. Maybe I could lighten up a little more today.

What a relief I experienced when I stopped the struggle. What a quiet, gentle open-heartedness I felt when I realized that my consciousness seeks this kind of freedom from the tangled knots I fabricate. I took a breath and felt ease of being, on a cushion, in my living room, connected with the rest of the world.

Kornfield tells of a Buddhist elder named Dipama Barua of Calcutta. She was known for embodying whole heartedness. When asked about what was in her mind, she replied, loving kindness, concentration, and peace. He goes on to say that these are the fruits of selflessness where presence, connectedness and freedom flourish.

The encounter was hardly there before I grasped at it, wanting more, planning how to keep it, worrying if I'd really experienced it. Maybe I caught a wiff and was offered a deeper understanding of the path to selflessness, a connection to the universe and others.

Just experiencing a little of this spaciousness is sweeter than honey and nourishes the heart. How delightful! A piece of delicious ripe mango was tasted.

My own work has taken on a more open and flexible way. Working at an assisted living for the poor elderly in my community, I find that creating a simple framework of a schedule and showing up to attend to whatever comes my way keeps the work fresher, the people sweeter... And then there is the joy of being a grandmother. No plans needed here either. Just love.

This year there are no big plans. There are no New Years resolutions or platitudes for being a better person or making the world utopian.

With this, may our hearts be open to the singing and the fruits that are right in front of us.