Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Unplanned

August 30, 2014

No promises as to resuming a regular posting. As today’s essay reflects, my life is unfolding in such an unplanned way that I know better than to commit yet to any regular writing schedule. I have missed the connection to my readers, however so let’s see…

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I walked two miles in about 40 minutes, before breakfast this morning. That activity is one of the several things I have been doing with my limited free time, instead of writing blog posts. My walking place is a dirt country lane, straight and well packed, through unfenced plains used for grazing by a herd of black Angus cattle, and occasionally also by a small group of antelope. Heading out – east – the sun is in my eyes so I keep them lowered and shaded by the brim of my hat. I see bugs scuttling across the road, and jeweled colors as the sun glints off shards and stones beaten into the hard clay by the passing of cars. Heading back – west – I can look around to appreciate how incredibly green my surroundings have been painted by our summer rains.

We’ve had as much rain these past three months as in the last 4-5 years of summers combined. Which means before I walk I douse myself in a home concocted mosquito repellant that works quite well. Oils of lemon grass, cedarwood, peppermint, citronella and a bit of lavender added to water and sprayed on. Sounds a bit wild but actually smells rather pleasant to me. I wonder why the mosquitoes don’t agree – but am glad they do not.

My walks – I try to do at least two a week – are about the only unscheduled, reflective time available to me these extremely busy days. Today I contemplated the saying that “life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” In my case, life is what has virtually overwhelmed me when I had no particular plans at all. So much has changed, so radically, from a year ago this time. I had, then, just been hired by Presbyterian, with a start date in October so I engaged with the projects I wanted to have completed before the new job took over my days. I also wrote quite a few blog posts, to have a supply stored up for weeks when it would be challenging to write. As you must realize, I ran out of that supply several months ago.

The job has turned out to be pretty much what I anticipated but far more demanding of my time than I imagined. We’ve had a good bit of turnover among the 70 some of us across the state, mostly people burning out from the constant demands and deadlines, the 60 + hour weeks, and the aggravations of a profoundly user unfriendly computer data system we are obliged to keep updated. There is, now, a bit of light at the end of the tunnel – or enough light to perceive that the tunnel does have an end. Rather like my sighting in on my car, parked at the head of the lane, waiting for me to make my way back the return mile of my walk. I know a cool beverage awaits me there, so I keep up my pace. There IS an end to this madness, really there is!

Meanwhile, I’m busy living each moment, day after day. It’s an interesting change for me – from a good deal of time for reflection to virtually none. I feel stripped down to an essential core, deciding and acting without conscious planning for what will be done when, or how. For someone raised to believe she must organize and plan in order to achieve, living so immediately in the present is a most curious experience. Surprisingly pleasant and freeing. Productive, though not in ways I have previously measured productivity. Most of all, I feel relieved of a weight of responsibility that I’ve carried most of my life.

And that’s perhaps the most novel aspect of this new way of being. Looking back at the past six months, I have behaved responsibly, honestly, as reliably as ever – but I feel as though I’ve been gloriously self-indulgent. I am certain of one thing – I’m not going to analyze that good feeling. I’m simply going to enjoy it, like I enjoy my two mile walks, the people I’ve met through my work, my new marriage and the process of living my life rather than making plans.

Join me? Try it, you might like it as much as I do!

Instead…

January 5, 2014

The adage that misery loves company bothers me. I’m all too aware of its accuracy, seeing it manifest in my recent work days as an easing of tension when I discovered that others are having the same problems with computer malfunctions that I have been experiencing. I’m glad for the reduced anxiety that accompanies not being the only one facing this problem, but embarrassed, nay ashamed of feeling relief that the problem is widespread. There is nothing appealing to me about knowing other people are facing challenges!

In my defense, I can also attest to feeling elated when a co-worker “got” a concept she’d been struggling with, thereby joining the company of those of us who were trying to help her understand and apply it. She was happy with her success, but she admitted some of her happiness was relief at no longer being alone in her lack of understanding.

One of the pleasures of my new employment is that the company ethos is very positive and supportive, the antithesis of “misery loves company.” Carping, impatience, brusqueness are not acceptable despite highly stressful work circumstances that have had some of my managers putting in 65 hour weeks for the past six months. The consequence is that all of us slightly befuddled, confused, easily overwhelmed “newbies” are quickly learning to express our uncertainties in the form of positive questions. By seeking guidance it turns out that we have also been identifying glitches in the data systems with which we are expected to work, becoming part of the solution and, in the process, feeling better about ourselves.

I come from a prior work environment which was very different. Above me (fortunately in another office in another city) the ethos was one of jealous attention to any perk awarded to someone else; a pervasive fear of being randomly called on the carpet for perceived faults never previously identified; a daily manifestation of what I recall being told is a military belief that the way to deal with recruits is to keep them complaining. “If they’re distracted with complaints, they won’t notice how miserable they are.”

Within my own domain, I tried to set a different tone, one of teamwork and all of us pulling together to meet the expectations of my out-of-town supervisors. For the most part I was successful, less so in my last few years when tensions associated with the many changes in health care translated to increasingly frequent “audit” visits by staff from the main office. They rarely found problems. They did leave behind the unpleasant taste of their “gotcha” approach to our work.

Sadly, when a serious problem was uncovered and I took responsibility for not having detected it myself, those who initiated it chose to deny culpability and were resentful of being expected to pitch in and make the necessary corrections. Our office did get things put right, but the atmosphere had become one of misery, loving company, dragging everyone down to the lowest unhappy level. Finding myself not strong enough to boost the prevailing mood up again, I resigned.

My new employer is advertising supervisory vacancies, and several people have encouraged me to apply. I have no intention of doing so. If possible, I never again want to be responsible for anyone’s work product other than my own. Twenty years of ‘growing’ employees, helping workers uncover and develop their potential, seeing them move out and up to better paying positions – I’ve served my time as an administrator. I do not believe, now, that just because I have a skill I must use it. Instead, I think I’ve earned the right to only do work I enjoy, which translates to only being responsible for my own work outcomes.

Yes, I mentioned helping teach a co-worker; I’m still oriented to bringing everyone’s skill and success levels up and doing all that I can to reverse misery loving company. I choose to do so voluntarily, not as part of the responsibilities of a defined supervisory position.

What is it about having a responsibility that converts a satisfying “want to” into a burdensome “have to” activity? Is the mechanism the same, when an acquaintance expects you to provide a form of support that you might willingly offer, but which you mind – maybe even resent – having to provide in response to the imposed expectation? What causes the same action to be, in one case a gift, in another an onerous duty?

Perception, a label, a naming of the action, an attachment to the idea of freedom of choice – any or all of these can and do change how we feel about what we are doing. Seeing others “similarly situated” changes an experience of vulnerability to one of “I’m not alone” and we feel better.

The challenge, as I see it, is to shift one’s perception away from “alone with this problem” without needing to find others who are similarly unhappy. I expect of myself that I will minimize occasions where I am manifesting the true – but very negative – “misery loves company” adage. I expect, instead, that I will remain sufficiently focused on the inner spiritual joy I know to be my true Self, that I will not feel alone with any problem. I expect to practice my daily contemplation, to stop and “check in” many times during the demanding and busy days ahead, so that I function in a space of shared pleasure, shared accomplishment, shared cooperation, banishing misery not just from my own space, but from the space and lives of those around me.

Joy loves company. Joy expands. The Soul is a joyful entity. I am Soul. Therefore I AM – joy.

Warm Furries

November 30, 2013

Five doves are fluffily hunched on the gate to the long pasture, seeming to emit waves of discontent because their bird food plate is piled high with snow rather than seed. I will probably succumb to the pressure shortly, and wade around the house with a bowl of feed for them. I doubt that my steps will imitate my Shih Tzu’s curious snow shuffle, though. I’ve been watching Shian Shung coming toward me down the drive, each front paw’s forward motion initiating a wave of snow rippling slightly sideward. It is the strangest looking movement, suggesting he has suddenly acquired the widely feathered feet of a nun pigeon. Or as though he is swimming his front legs through the fluffy white stuff that is belly deep for him.

De-iced

De-iced

My Min-Pin, Doodles, being a short hair, seems able to bounce through the same drifts, almost as though he’s walking on top of the snow instead of wading through it. Not any taller than Shian Shung, he has more of his minimal height in his legs, and an overall springier step. When excited, he can easily bounce to shoulder height on my Lab/Collie cross. And does so frequently, trying to get Blackjack’s attention away from the food bowl, gnawed deer bones, or the treats in my hand.

Aw, please...

Aw, please…

Doodles survived in his earliest life as a dumpster diver – he was about six months old when I collected him from a distant ranch and brought him to live with the rest of my motley crew. Eighteen months of ample and regular food has not yet broken him of the need to be in charge of any edible in the vicinity. Fortunately, Blackjack has a tolerant demeanor, only rarely exerting his considerable might to retain possession of a favored goodie.

Blackjack in Charge

Blackjack in Charge

The fourth member of my canine family is an elderly toy poodle – like Blackjack and Doodles also a rescue – with more serious personality issues. I know nothing about his earlier life, but it cannot have been easy. He was found at death’s door, totally dehydrated, his fur invisible beneath a matting of burrs, his belly distended and sagging to the ground. He growled and snapped at every attempt to care for him, requiring sedation by the vet before medical attention and a total body shave. Damaged intestines, causing the sagging belly, seems likely to be the result of being hit by a car; the injury continues to cause him intermittent constipation.

Warrior newly clipped

Warrior newly clipped

If left by himself, Warrior whimpers ceaselessly, or barks non-stop for an hour or more. Six months after arrival, he began to let me pet or groom him. Diametrically opposite to Doodles, he is reluctant to accept treats, which he requires be set down in front of him, to consider at length, before he will venture a nibble. Consequently, he loses them to Doodles unless they are offered when the other three dogs are off exploring. Which happens reliably enough that Warrior does get treats, but is also unhappily alone for periods of the day.

Blackjack shows remarkable patience with the littles. He lets Doodles and Shian Shung play out attack strategies, his legs and ears the more common targets. He makes sure Warrior has the warmest spot on the porch, and tolerates Doodles’ determination to be first at the food bowls. I remember to give him an extra rub around the head and muzzle, and to tell him he is the senior, and most essential, member of the pack. His calm demeanor, his defining of the boundaries outside which the others should not roam, his lessons about what is and is not fit to eat, and his manner of greeting – or guarding against – visitors to my acres all combine to transmit the expectations I have set about tolerance, respect, and appropriate behavior.

The Littles

The Littles

Over the 40 years I’ve lived in rural settings here in northern New Mexico, my one consistent rule for all pets has been that they must get along with one another. Not like, not necessarily interact, but tolerate and make space for all who wind up calling my home theirs. As a result, I’ve had a dog who let newborn kittens nurse on her while their mother took a break from the constant demands of parenting. I have photos of a cat cuddling with a Bouvier de Flandres large enough to squash her if he’d rolled over. That same Bouvier encircled an escaped rabbit and kept it safely between his paws until I got home and returned Mr. Bunny to his cage.

Guarding the rabbit cages

Guarding the rabbit cages

The coincidence of Thanksgiving with the first day of Hanukkah – an event apparently not to reoccur for an enormously long time – allows me to celebrate my two favorite holidays in one. Favorite because both encourage not just thankfulness, but also appreciation of freedom, joy in new beginnings, and the pleasure of connecting across boundaries.

In a heap

In a heap

I am grateful to have observed these same feelings played out amongst my four-legged family members.
I am grateful to be reminded by my furry friends, each time I hunker down to pet and play with them, that I don’t have to wait for Thanksgiving or Hanukkah to participate in a demonstration of tolerance, respect, and appreciation.
They keep me sane, they make me welcome, they direct me back to balance when I start to tilt off center, they define home.
For all this, a lower reflection of the inner beauty being shown me by my spiritual Master, I am thankful.

Small World

November 24, 2013

Have you ever swapped “small world” stories?

Some are simple, like the appearance in the training class for my new job of a woman who lives barely five miles from me in the rural area denoted by a dot on the map called Sapello – a woman I’d met once briefly before, but did not know until we were paired, during the training, for motivational interviewing exercises. Turns out we have a number of common interests, and a shared love of living “on the frontier” as our employer labels the area we serve.

Other small world stories are of more surprising meetings (Coincidences? Fated encounters?)

Two of mine have their roots in my stay in Vietnam, from 1956-1958. I was in my early teens, my father assigned as the economic officer at the U.S. embassy in Saigon.  Ingrid, a few years younger than I, was one of my friends. Both of us were socially awkward, neither of us fully aware to what extent the stresses within our families contributed to that lack of ease. We – in modern parlance – hung out together. After Saigon, Ingrid was sent to a boarding school in Colorado and I moved with my parents moved to Paris. She visited once, briefly, during those three years I lived in France. Then we lost touch.

Blaufarb Family with My Mother and Me Behind Them

Blaufarb Family with My Mother and Me Behind Them

Skip to four years later, my junior year in college, and a trip to New York City.

With my then boyfriend Ray, I was on a date that included a meal at the Russian Tea Room. We walked into the dining area, and saw before us a large family group seated at a round table. Ray started forward to greet one couple and their daughter Pamela, a former girlfriend from his high school days. I started forward to the same table to greet Ingrid’s parents. Ray and I looked at each other. “You know these people?” he quizzed me.

“Yes,” I replied. “Those are the Blaufarbs, parents of my friend Ingrid.”

“Pamela’s aunt and uncle. I’ve been told about them.”

I didn’t share with Ray how immediately I felt transported back to the tropic heat and teenage anxieties of Saigon, where I’d heard too much detail about Ingrid’s socially popular cousin Pamela!

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My second Vietnam-based story begins at its end, tying Saigon to Sapello. One of the people working in the office of my vet is a tall, energetic woman a few years older than I, named Susan. She is the sister-in-law of Louie, who trained my younger mare, and with whom I became friends when I first moved to Sapello in 1990. At some point in my on-going  conversations with Louie, it came out that his sister had “run off with a Frenchman” when she was in her late teens, and that the siblings had only reconnected many years later, when they both settled back near their mother. in the Sapello area.

Louie told me that Susan had gone to work for “our” vet when he set up practice about three miles from my home. On my next trip in with an animal in need of care, I met Susan. Remembering what Louie had told me, I mentioned that Susan and I had a connection of both knowing French. The next few sentences revealed that we both learned our French, not in Paris, but in Saigon. We had both spent leisure time at the Cercle Sportif, the “club” where we swam, played tennis, and in my case took classes, and performed the French Can Can at one of their “spectacles” – shows put on for the enjoyment of the members.

Contemplating a Plunge

Contemplating a Plunge

Susan’s time in Saigon preceded mine – she left in the spring before the October that brought me to Vietnam, just in time for my 13th birthday. Susan’s Frenchman, whom she married at seventeen but divorced just a few years later, was the older brother of Marie Claire, with whom I became friends in the dance class, and with whom I performed that Can Can.

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Ingrid now divides her time between New York and Maine; her son went briefly to Swarthmore, where Ray and I attended college. Looking through a Swarthmore Alumni Bulletin sent to her son, Ingrid found an essay I’d written. Through the college, she obtained the information to once again contact me, some forty years after our last encounter in Paris. I’ve since traveled to the East Coast. We met for an afternoon. Ray recently traveled west, and we also met after a parallel forty year gap, as I recounted in a post this past summer.

Meanwhile, Susan is retiring from the vet’s office for a combination of reasons, including the fact that the vet is introducing a complex new computer system to the practice. Susan “does not get along well with computers” and decided the stress of trying to do so would be an unacceptable strain on her health. I’m feeling vivid kinship with her now, as I try to understand the complexities of the several computer systems I must master in my new job. I don’t share Susan’s aversion to computers, indeed feel fairly comfortable with them – or thought I did – until I encountered the multiple encrypted layers of security that must be understood to navigate around a health provider’s regulation-compliant system. Thank heavens, Presbyterian’s tech support is a seven-days-per-week operation!!!

I expect I’ll still see Susan occasionally, as we live quite near one another and have overlapping interests. I’m in intermittent contact with Ingrid, and with Ray, by email. If the occasion arises for me to introduce them to Susan, will that somehow close a loop that stretches over fifty-five years and around half the world? Linkages through the Internet, which enable me to “chat” simultaneously with a friend in Singapore and one in Norway, have already made the world much smaller, but enjoyable as they are, those conversations don’t have the same feeling of “oh my, how amazing” that accompanied my encounter with the Blaufarbs in New York, or with Susan at the vet.

Is it just me, or is it something to do with the life experiences of my age group, that makes the face-to-face connection of a small world encounter more precious than even the most globe-encompassing Internet link?

Ba Gua Lessons

October 12, 2013

As I count down the days until the start of the intense training period for my new job, I find myself in yet another dichotomy. Do I laze about as much as possible, wallowing in the freedom-to-do-nothing that is about to vanish from my life? Or do I begin a disciplined adaptation to going to bed earlier, getting up early, and organizing my days to accomplish tasks that it will be hard to fit into my upcoming schedule? Or, more practically, do I aim to achieve a balance of both tendencies?

My acupuncturist/friend/wise-teacher commented that it is often the case that moving to the extreme of yin (doing nothing) pushes one into yang (activity) so that resting instead of participating in activities can be an excellent preparation for the burst of energy that will be required of me. I liken this approach to the one I’m learning from the same friend and teacher when we practice Ba Gua, wherein movements are designed to “coil” muscles like tightened springs, until the point of release. The force of the release may serve as the attack (the martial part of the art) or may be contained and redirected into intensifying the next coiling movement.

It’s difficult to consider what Western culture calls laziness and idleness as appropriate preparation for a required, new and busy schedule. In that mentality, I definitely should already be adhering to the new (yang) schedule of waking, and filling my days with tasks, accustoming my body to delivering energy and clarity of mind across the ten or so hours of an upcoming busy day. But what happens if I rename the preparation period (the yin) in an Eastern fashion, and say that I am practicing stillness and emptiness? Then I am setting up a powerful contrast, with the potential for sustained energy emerging from the containment being practiced this week.

What a difference a few words make! Try them out. Spend a chunk of time playing solitaire, or just sitting and watching the wind blow the drying grasses of autumn.

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Call yourself idle and lazy for failing to do something constructive with your time. Then, rename that time as allowing yourself to be still and mindless, outside your usual sense of yourself. Which set of terms weakens you? Which seems to relax and yet energize you?

To a large extent, even when I’m not engaged in writing, I live my life through words. My grandfather taught me the importance of choosing the right ones, when he talked to me about his poetry. His choices were in Hebrew, and constrained not only by the meter and rhyme of his verse, but by his dedication to purity of the language. (Words created for items that did not exist in ancient culture should, in his opinion, follow the traditional structural frame as to number of consonant sounds).

My experience of parents whose behaviors were often in contradiction with their words led to my dedication to accurate and clear communication. A lonely and isolated childhood built my desire for connection with others, and to the understanding that communication is a two-way street. I do not communicate when I talk (or write); I only communicate when what I say is heard and understood by another.

For others to hear and understand me, I need to understand them – hence my choice of psychology as a major in college, and my continuing interest in neurology now. Also my engagement with the several programs I lead or teach (including Alternatives to Violence Project and Chronic Disease Self- Management), both having to do with learning concepts that help one direct and control behavior.

Which brings me back to Ba Gua, teaching my body new ways of moving, and simultaneously reinforcing flexibility of mind. And back to the importance of just the right words – stillness and emptiness creating a vacuum which attracts energy, to be stored and contained until it explodes into action. So much more sustaining than to label my down time as idle laziness that should be filled with doing.

The first time I attended a feast day dance at one of New Mexico’s Pueblos, I observed a dancer carrying an old-fashioned alarm clock, the sort that is wound with a key, ticks loudly and has a clanging alarm. The dancer teased non-Native observers with the clock, shaking it in our faces, setting off the alarm suddenly and startling visitors with its discordant noise. Eventually, he tossed the clock away and joined the line performing traditional steps in a mesmerizing, repetitive pattern. Time did then disappear, as spectators and participants focused totally on what was happening in the moment.

I suggest that much that we like, whether a good book, a particular hobby, an activity, or a piece of art or music is liked precisely because it has the capacity to capture our attention strongly, and thus to eliminate our sense of time and ego. Being present in the moment with the object of our attention creates a satisfying energetic stillness, and an expanded sense of connection, of capacity, of self.

Those fortunate individuals who are able to combine such likes with their means of employment do not describe what they do as work. They are more apt to describe a career as pursuing a passion. Those less fortunate in the choice or conditions of employment go to work, and then try to find free time for pleasures to balance what they have sacrificed for the earning of income.

You may have noticed in previous posts that I have not called my new job “work”. For the past eighteen months, I’ve been able to live mostly in the present moment, doing what is in front of me to do each day. I really like this way of being. My intention is to continue in this manner, acknowledging that there will be more things in front of me to do, in many of the upcoming days, than there have been in the past ones. I have determined not to change my approach to the doing of them. I will find energy for the doing by assuring that I remain centered in being.

As my body improves its stability and strength through Ba Gua practice, so too my mind – and its use of words – expands its capacity to “hold the tension of opposites” and to achieve balance. For important external reasons, I am starting a new job. For vital internal ones, it will not be work. Activities required of me by the new job will be integrated into the pattern of observing, of writing, of being that has nourished me of late.

Please, if you notice that I’m falling away from center, alert me! If my words seem poorly chosen, my posts less reflective, give me a nudge. I need to know that I’m continuing to communicate with you, not slipping into a stress-driven rant.

Thank you for reading, and for feedback.

Older… and Wiser?

August 30, 2013

Have you noticed that the ‘older’ part of ‘older but wiser’ is singularly obvious in wrinkles, aches, and the need for Post-It notes littered over every surface – but the wiser part is much harder to recognize? Especially when the dog mouths one of those Post-It notes, and you have to make an extra trip back to town for the three forgotten items of the six that you need to make supper.

How delightful, how ego-boosting it is, then, when circumstances allow you to recognize that the ‘wiser’ at least occasionally manifests. A recent experience allowed me to feel grateful for whatever passes for wisdom in my brain. I had thought to pursue a course of study which would require me to hold in equal respect two conflicting paths to spiritual understanding. My training directed me along one path, my mental inclination tempted me onto the other. The studies would have meant constantly balancing two goals, two world views, two concepts of self. The outcome of the program would have enabled me to practice in a field I’d like to enter, for which I do not – at least at this point – see another means of qualifying.

So I did all the paperwork, wrote the essays, completed the application – and then was denied acceptance. What to do now???

Here’s where the wiser comes in. I did nothing, just let the fact of the denial settle into my awareness. Within a few days, I had one of those blessed “aha” experiences, a flash of insight that allows me to lay at least passing claim to wisdom. Recognition is enough! Seeing the differences between the two paths, understanding how different aspects of myself are drawn to each of them, and knowing that I am capable of continuing to follow one while learning the other – that is the recognition. And it is enough. I don’t have to also undergo the stress of carrying awareness of the paths and their differences through a two year course of study.

Wiser seems to be at work in my growing ability to move through a mine field of life choices while maintaining a ‘neither for nor against’ mentality.

Older is definitely a handicap in my search for paid employment. I cannot help but believe that the on-line application and screening systems which substitute for preliminary job interviews include an edit that discards all applications with college graduation dates before 1990 (the application isn’t accepted if a graduation date is left blank). No other explanation accounts for a year of denials of my applications for positions for which I meet every criterion, which mirror work I have already done successfully, and which are written using all the key words of the job description included in my work summary. Wiser allows me to keep the constant rejection at arm’s length, not translating it into a feeling of personal inadequacy. The right income opportunity will come my way, so long as I keep an open, explore-everything approach to the search – and all this rejection is good practice for the inevitable “send out twenty stories to get one accepted” that mark a writing life.

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Older is what I will be – starting another decade – on my next birthday in the autumn. Wiser is what I hope also to be by then, having learned the parameters of a new job which I’ve been offered, and having experienced yet again the virtues of patience. I’ve been hired into a position which exceeds every criterion I had set – flexible hours, service to others, supportive and enjoyable coworkers. And I have almost two months to discern how to maintain my established writing pace while fulfilling the job’s requirements. I’m old enough to know that won’t be easy. Hopefully I’m wise enough to know both how important the writing is to my sense of well-being, and how possible it is to “have it all.” With patience, I will see the way.

Choices

August 18, 2013

For the past year I’ve been living in a way most of us are taught not to… day to day, with no ‘life goals’ and few plans that reach more than a week or two into the future. It’s a natural way to be; children wake each morning to a truly new day, one full of possibilities. They have to be trained to ignore distractions and to stay focused on mandates – good grades, keeping a room picked up, personal cleanliness, helping with household chores, thinking ahead.

Oh yes, thinking ahead. You didn’t make your bed when you should have done, so now you have to do it instead of watching your favorite TV show. You should have thought ahead! You’ve been skimping on your homework, now you’re failing 5th grade, though you’ve been warned over and over. You only have one six week grading period left to bring your work up to acceptable level. You’ll be doing nothing but school work from now until the term ends. No trips, no play, no time for fun… you should have thought ahead!

Sorry, Mom and Dad, but I’ve been determinedly not thinking ahead. There is a point, ahead out there somewhere, when I will run out of savings and, without income, be destitute. I’m not ignoring that fact, but I’m not focused on it. My wise teacher instructs that attention is food – what one attends to grows in one’s life.

Conversely: ”If you want something to leave your life, take your attention off of it.”

I see no benefit from worrying about a maybe some three years off into the future, so I am attending to what is here with me in the present. I have been searching job boards, applying for everything that seems a possibility. Like many older people in the job market, I get few responses. Experience seems not to be valued any longer. Employers want new young minds to train to their special priorities. They want to mimic parents, who know instinctively that training children to think ahead, plan for the future, and learn habits of daily living is easier when the children are young and haven’t yet had enough experience to question the parental dictates.

So how do I communicate, in a standard application and resume submission, that part of my experience has been learning to be open to new ways of doing things, new goals and new achievements? Do I say that I have been living day to day for a year now, proof of my ability to be flexible and adaptable? Do I use, in a cover letter, another image from my spiritual teacher, of riding a horse up a creek and, at a moment’s notice and for no conscious reason, jumping the horse up onto the bank? Knowing when to listen to one’s inner voice (intuition, or spiritual knowing) can indeed be the skill that saves one, in what turns out to be the nick of time, from a tumultuous flash flood gushing down the creek bed.

Asked what I’m looking for in new employment, I could perhaps best answer by saying I seek the employer who will appreciate the depth of meaning in my teacher’s story. Or one who could read Lesley S. King’s recent post entitled Face Your Inner Mischief, about her yapping mind, and understand it for the beautiful parable it is. I seek an employer who has the ability to appreciate the innovative, the creative, the self-directed in others because that is what he/she is also. Someone not threatened by new ideas, not hearing questions as challenges to authority but rather as the positive contributions of an assistant engaged in the process of achieving goals which, themselves, may shift with time and experience.

Living each day for what it offers, as I have done of late, could be considered a rejection of the values my parents, particularly my father, taught – to plan, to delay immediate gratification for a larger achievement; to save and be mindful of expenses, so as to have financial resources when they are needed; to be cautious and consider all possible consequences before acting. Indeed, much of my life could be seen as a rejection of those values; I’ve left higher paying jobs for lower paying ones on a matter of principle; I’ve spoken out about fundamental rights and been blacklisted; I’ve challenged the status quo in large and also in small ways, living as my friend Jane said recently, when she wrote, “I did what the Holy Spirit led me to do, and I can do no other.”

Nonetheless, there is a way in which I still embody the underlying lesson my father – and most parents – try to teach their children. That silent message is about acquiring the ability to choose – i.e. to have an understanding of cause and effect, an ability to be patient long enough to experience outcomes, and a sense of what information comes from within one’s being and what is imposed from ‘outside’. With these three skills, one can choose – to follow outside dictates or respond in opposition to them; to stick with an unsatisfactory job or to leave it without another already in place to go to; to value integrity more than security, or patience more than impulsiveness.

Ultimately, it is our choices – or lack of them – that define our lives. Lucky is the child of a parent who knows to teach how, but not what, to choose. Blessed is the individual who learns from a spiritual teacher that worlds exist beyond the mundane, and that we all have within us the capacity to manifest Truth, to Hear the Word, to be led by the Holy Spirit, in whatever language or manner of Knowing we choose to embrace.

As I continue to practice not knowing, living open to whatever turns out to be my ‘next step’, I am content. I have made my choices and, again like my friend Jane, I have paid a price, but “I would do it all over again.”

It’s good to know that I’m fulfilling my promise to myself, made shortly before my grandfather’s passing, to live my life so that whenever my time of transition arrives, I will have as few regrets as he did on his deathbed. His nearly final words to me were, “I possibly should have remarried – it would have been better for your mother, but I never found a woman I wanted to marry… and I wish I’d learned to play the mandolin.”

May we all make our choices such that we can sum up our lives as contentedly and succinctly!

Plenty of Nothin’ is Plenty

August 4, 2013

I wonder if the hardest part of getting older is not the challenges of coping with a failing body and mind, nor the inevitable sorrow of losing friends and peers, but the gradual – or sometimes very sudden – loss of illusions, loss of aspirations, loss of hope. At some point we all face the recognition that a cherished desire or goal is not going to be fulfilled. What then?

Psychologists have given labels to the behavior engendered by some of these confrontations – empty nest syndrome and male menopause being the most prominent. Those two experiences are primarily about accepting transitions in one’s life path rather than about loss of a way forward. It may be hard for a mother to accept that her children are grown and must be allowed to live their own lives while she redefines herself – she will still be a mother, but engaged differently in the lives of her family. And just as business managers must adapt their style when a company transitions from growth to maintenance mode, so some men must accept – at some point in their careers – that they have reached a plateau where they may expect to be for the rest of their working lives.

(Yes I’m aware of the sexist, stereotypical nature of the two above examples. Men may indeed have troubled letting go of a familiar pattern of fathering, and career women also have to recognize the point at which their professional lives plateau.)

Except, of course, that creative men and women reinvent themselves, begin new careers, take up new interests and continue to make contributions to their community, their families and themselves, often to the end of their days. Of what is that creativity made? Is it something more than a stark refusal to concede to lost illusions, lost aspirations, lost hope?

Consider a particular expectation – that of finding someone with whom one can walk life’s path, a partner to share the joys and sorrows, someone to ‘be there’ when support is needed. Some of us are lucky enough to find such a mate. Almost all of us are given the expectation that we will be in that lucky group. We read novels about these ‘good’ marriages and we see – or think we see – examples around us. We may or may not also learn that romantic love doesn’t hold up well to the stresses of married life, but that if again we are lucky, we discover a more stable, enduring form of love that does survive the inevitable losses life brings. Above all, if we are lucky, we find someone with whom we can share (and thereby halve) the pain, and share (and thereby double) the pleasures life brings our way.

But what of those who do not find such a partner? Or who find a partner incapable of sharing in a way meaningful to us? There are many such people, their stories recorded over and over again in country western songs. How do we move past the realization that we have come to a point in life where it is clear there will not ever “be someone to hold me while I cry?”

Those of us who are fortunate enough, wise enough to let go of the demand for a single person to fulfill the human need for companionship often find ourselves with support in unexpected but very meaningful ways. When I cracked my spine in a horseback riding accident, a neighbor showed up daily to do my chores and another took off from her work whenever needed, to drive me to my own work and appointments. And years ago, after the love in my life was yanked away, an acquaintance from the Quakers volunteered herself into my new home to help me unpack and settle, and to hold me while I cried.

My spiritual teacher instructs that attention is food. What we give attention to multiplies. Inversely, the way to remove something unwanted from one’s life is to simply take one’s attention off it. Focusing on what is missing from life (a forever mate for example) will only push the possibility of finding one farther away. Psychologists have used transactional analysis to spell out the emotional dynamics of this truth, and shown how unhealthy, unequal relationships are formed from neediness. Most are unfulfilling and unsustainable. In the end, they rupture and dump the needy person right back where he/she began, in the classic cycle of repetitively marrying an abuser, an alcoholic, a philanderer, et cetera. I love the accuracy of the title of the landmark book in this field, Games People Play.

We have the option not to play games. Creatively fulfilling our needs for companionship, for attention, for support by drawing on a variety of resources – including ourselves – shifts attention away from lack and loss and toward plenty. With attention on plenty, it multiplies in a happy way. Porgy, in the operetta Porgy and Bess, expresses giving attention to sufficiency so well:
I got plenty of nothing,
And nothing’s plenty for me.
I got no car – got no mule,
I got no misery.
Folks with plenty of plenty,
They’ve got a lock on the door,
Afraid somebody’s gonna rob ’em
While they’re out (a) making more – what for?
I got no lock on the door – that’s no way to be.
They can steal the rug from the floor – that’s OK with me.
‘Cause the things that I prize – like the stars in the skies – are all free.

I have so much more than nothing. Most of us do. Whether or not all our dreams are fulfilled, are we not plenty-full?

Plenty

Plenty

Solitude

July 28, 2013

Keeping on, keeping on

I’ve just finished reading Sara Donati’s Fire in the Sky, committing to myself to find the next book in her series about the Bonner family, and life in upstate New York in America’s early years. In an afterward, Donati states that she hopes she has done her work well enough for readers to seek out histories of the period, the War of 1812, which she feels is given short shrift in school history lessons. If my own experience is any indicator, she’s correct. My recollection of what I learned in elementary school about that war is limited to the battle at Fort McHenry and its role in the origin of our national anthem. High school American history class gave me even less about the War of 1812 – undoubtedly because the lesson was taught in a school in Paris, by a British woman who dismissed the entire affair as a “skirmish on the edge” of the important war happening at that time – Britain versus Napoleonic France.

My take-away from Donati’s writing is not, however, an interest in researching the complexities of what U.S. history books also refer to as the ”period between the French and Indian Wars and the settling of the West” (i.e. all the anguish and horror of the Amerindian experience with European intolerance). My take-away from Donati’s well written, engrossing series is far more personal – a profound feeling of loss, and a bone-deep sense of aloneness. Unlike the characters in this novel, who are an extended family with deep interconnections and emotional commitments to one another – unlike these people written into vivid life – I am alone. Profoundly alone. Only child of older parents long deceased, no first cousins, formerly married to a loner whose own small family (one brother and his children) made me welcome but with whom I have too little in common to connect. I have no children of my own, and never had the occasion to adopt any.

Mind you, I am not lonely. I like my own company, indeed find that I need solitude and tire quickly of constant interaction on those occasions when I am in extended social situations. When, with my husband, we went to visit his brother for a weekend, my sister-in-law was first puzzled, then amused to know that if I went missing, she could usually find me settled in the back seat of our car, with a book. Never happy unless surrounded by the noise and chatter of her children, nephews, cousins and visitors, my sister-in-law struggled to understand how overwhelming so many people could be to a person like me. I was raised in a home dominated by the quiet of parents who, because they did not like each other much, spoke little and went their own ways – until my mother would explode in rage. Noisy interaction, to me, means anger, shouting, ugly accusations, slaps, and being punished for non-existent infractions of unstated rules.

I am well aware of other types of noisy, social family dynamics. Adults happy to be together, chattering about their shared past and planned future, children busy with invented games that send them chasing among the adults, teens congregated on the porch giggling and talking (now also texting) their secrets to one another… I see all this around me as a positive experience, but know myself unable, now, to become part of it. Know that I was set onto my solitary path as early as kindergarten, where my tentative efforts to join the other children and make friends were undermined by my mother’s belief that it wasn’t safe for me to visit in any of their homes, or get to know them outside of the classroom. I know, as an adult, that it was her own self-doubt, her own fears that she was projecting outward, creating an environment around me that forbade socializing in groups.

I’m grateful that I’ve learned to enjoy people, and have been blessed over the years with companions and close friends. I’m also blessed with the ability to enjoy life as a single person, not needing to be part of a couple or in anyone’s company to eat at a restaurant, go to a concert or play, take a road trip, or vacation abroad. I have seen how family dynamics can become warped, twisted into lifelong animosities and unforgiven grudges. I know that much of the appeal in Donati’s stories (beyond the fact that she is an excellent writer) lies in becoming engaged with an ideal of family caring. The members support each other through their various trials, remaining in the end united despite distance or even death. The appeal of romances is that they portray an ideal, of love overcoming obstacles, achieved in the end. The appeal of traditional westerns is of clear cut right and wrong, an ideal justice achieved in the end.

The appeal of an ideal… Is there an ideal of solitude?

Not noticeably in fiction, but perhaps in religion or spiritual pursuits. The Buddha, sitting alone in contemplation. The Benedictine brothers at Christ in the Desert, living a vow of silence in their isolated monastery. The occasional lone backwoodsman – Robbie, in Donati’s Lake in the Clouds – an exemplar of a character choosing to live alone. Spiritual practitioners of solitude do carry the qualities of an ideal. The fictional characters do not. They are portrayed, even the most positive of them, as missing some important element of life. They are portrayed as strong enough to live alone, but nonetheless in some way damaged and unable to connect appropriately with society.

Why this disconnect between the positive image of spiritual solitude and the flawed one of social solitude? I am happy to have ample alone time for my spiritual practice, during which I feel embraced and held close in the joy of the Divine’s presence. I only question my aloneness when I encounter – usually in fiction, but occasionally in daily life experiences – the ideal of family, and then my emotional self begins to wonder if I’ve missed something important. A co-worker has been diagnosed with cancer. His family – sister and two adult daughters – have come from across the country to visit with him, provide support, and enjoy his company. Who would come if the same challenge were to arise for me?

I am looked after and cared for most completely by my spiritual Beloved. I know in my bones, in my gut, in my Soul, the certainty that I am not alone, not forgotten, not adrift in a life without purpose or meaning. As life challenges arise, the tools to meet them will be provided to me, in ways and forms I cannot invent nor imagine, as has already been proven true when I review my Path thus far. Indeed, my current querying of my state of aloneness, my curiosity as to whether I’ve missed out in some way by not experiencing the ties of family, my observation of the ideal of those ties as presented in fiction – all this reflection is an example of the process by which I am gifted to acquire whatever tools I will need going forward. It is just my mind, like a little child, tugging at my spiritual skirts and whining, “I want a sister, I want a brother, to talk to, to play and share with.”

Maybe next lifetime?
Careful, there. Remember the adage about being selective in what you ask for!

. . . Was the Word

July 20, 2013

 valley viewI wrote my first poem, in my teens, after standing up to a howling wind blowing across the rim of Les Baux, in southern France. Below me was the Val d’Enfer (Valley of Hell), so named, I was told, because it was the site of attacks on merchant caravans whose masters tried to avoid paying tithe to the lords of Les Baux. My poem sought to express a sense of standing up to challenge.

Now, in my so-called golden years, I live in one of the windiest areas of the USA, the foothills of the Rockies in northeastern New Mexico. As I write, the wind swirls around my home, slamming against the house before fading to a conifer-leached sigh. With my eyes closed, the sounds could be those of the ocean, hitting the Maine coast and splashing me with spray or, from even earlier in my life, the rolling tumult of storm-roiled combers crashing onto Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, below where I stand hanging onto the railing of the boardwalk.

Just last month, the wind lifted tin off the roof of my loafing shed (fortunately no horses were around to be frightened into bolting). I arranged to re-roof the cottage to which the shed is attached, so tonight there is no clatter and rattle, only the almost intelligible language of an ocean of wind, once again attempting to tell me all the truths of the world.

Heavenly Wind

Heavenly Wind

The wind, no matter in what spot in the world I experience it, brings change. Sometimes merely a change in the weather, other times a practical change like the needed, but previously postponed, new roof. The wind, no matter in what spot in the world I experience it, always brings me to inner change.

Awareness of a power beyond my small self, clinging to the boardwalk rail.
Awareness of good and evil across the ages of man’s time on earth as I looked into hell’s valley from the heights where I was sheltered and protected.
Awareness of the power in wind-driven, fragile drops which shattered to spray against mica-rich Maine rocks, before falling back into the sea and rising again to the work of eroding those rocks over eons of time.
Awareness tonight that, living amidst frequent winds, I have placed myself in the perfect outer environment to match the pace of my inner spiritual evolution. Washed by waves of wind-sound, like the Maine rocks, I am inexorably cleansed, my ego eroded to allow the bright mica reflections of Soul to shine forth.

Cleansing started, and will end, with the Word, spoken by the lips of the wind, into the ears of those who wish to hear.


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