Two pieces of paper

There are so many ways to get to know a new city when you move. You can drive yourself places, even when folks offer to pick you up. You can get a post office box and learn multiple routes to the same location. Or leave your car parked on the street and attract someone who smashes the window thinking a blanket in the backseat of a 12 year-old Toyota Corolla is hiding something valuable. It wasn’t but auto glass replacement services are in a part of town I had yet to visit. Fortunately, the service was fast, competitively priced, and, as I’ve observed, like so many businesses in Tacoma, conveniently located next to a coffee hut.

I’m not going to say I hate moving. I’m going to say it’s a challenge to my equanimity. Also, it reminds me of living through the aftermath of a tornado. When an F3 tornado blew through the college town where I once lived, my department colleagues and I were moved, along with three other departments, to a FEMA trailer for the final weeks of the semester. And the summer break. And the first several weeks of the fall term as windows and ceiling tiles and carpets were replaced throughout our building. Despite my ability to see the big picture and know that I was one of the fortunate ones, I found myself struggling to accomplish the simplest tasks as the feeling of a world turned upside pervaded every aspect of life, particularly in the FEMA trailer. Holding two pieces of paper with no greater desire than to find a way to keep them together, I could find staples but not a stapler, tape dispensers but no tape, binder clips but not paper clips. There were no small tasks, familiar routines, or easily fulfilled needs.

The memory of those weeks has been my near-constant companion in the wake of our recent move from West Central Illinois to the Pacific Northwest. I knew from previous moves what it feels like to try to learn names and faces, places and routes, as quickly as possible in order to connect with others, pick up the mail, and replace a smashed car window. But I’m a few weeks in and still feel as if I have either aged 10 years or returned to infancy—taking naps, going to bed early, and sleeping late. My brain is overloaded as, to quote Miss Carly Simon, “even the simple things become rough.”

After the tornado, my apartment building was condemned and I moved into the second bedroom in my mother’s apartment. I was grateful for her generosity but had no intention of staying a minute longer than necessary. I was excited when a nice apartment became available. But I made no move to move. This went on for several weeks. My mother and I finally realized that the disruptions caused by the tornado had taken a toll on me. Despite the shared bathroom and tiny bedroom, I was having a hard time leaving the safety and comfort of her loving presence. Living with her made at la east few aspects of my life simple, familiar, and easy. These many years later, I seek to be my own loving presence—kind, patient, and compassionate toward myself, and others, here in my new world.

Thanks, Mom

I noticed two women walking ahead of me into the yoga studio and once inside, I recognized my classmate Denise but not the other woman. Overhearing her conversation with the instructor, I decided she must be Denise’s daughter. One look at Denise and I knew I was right. She gazed at the woman with unabashed joy. I know that look. In the last twenty years of her life, I saw it on my mother’s face every time she introduced me to a neighbor or friend, and in her final years to every staff member at her independent living and later assisted living facility. She’d take hold of my hand, look at me and then at the other person and say, “This is my Mari.” Watching Denise beaming at her daughter the way my mother once beamed at me I felt a little dizzy and suddenly alone.

Like many mothers, mine was not the “Angel in the House;” no meek, passive, sympathetic woman. She was angry, thin-skinned and judgmental. Being treated with disrespect or unkindness made her furious but she also believed herself to be so deeply damaged that she deserved whatever pain life brought her way. I had an epiphany about her when I was a teenager. It dawned on me that what I had always seen as her towering anger was actually fear. For most of her life she felt overwhelmed and overmatched by her enormous responsibilities and she never believed her efforts were adequate. I was grateful for this insight because it lessened my anger towards her but it didn’t make it much easier to live with her. In my twenties my independence created much needed space but her relentless self-doubt, critical attitude, and anger about the past still created a toxic environment when I visited. I remember hoping that someday I would know her as a person not ruled by fear and insecurity.

One of the great joys of my life is that I did come to know her when her fears had greatly diminished. Her insecurity never left her but once it was no longer fueled by fear she was able to see her life more clearly and with gratitude. Her immense intellect, her fabulous sense of humor, her compassion all came to the foreground. My friends loved to talk with her about politics, her caregivers sought her out for advice and understanding, but I’m the person who benefited the most. No longer burdened by a harsh, judgmental attitude, she truly appreciated and admired me

Four years and one week ago my mother called me to her bedside, took my hands in hers, and said, “I adore you.” When she died several hours later, I knew the memory of this moment would sustain me even as it reminds me of what it means to lose the person who is your foundation. No one else will ever look at me as she did in that moment—love yes, but more than that a deep understanding of who I have become.

It is with immense gratitude that I tell the story of my relationship with my mother as one where two people allowed each other, and their relationship, to evolve.

Friendly skies

A few minutes after boarding a flight crowded with holiday travelers, I was reading my book when I noticed a woman standing in the aisle beside me trying to get something out of the overhead compartment. I leaned forward to give her more room and just then a heavy, sharp-edged object banged into my right shoulder blade. “Jesus!” I exclaimed. I looked at my partner who was sitting across the aisle and we both looked down and saw a metal water bottle on the ground. The woman grabbed it and began apologizing. The bottle was full and the whack did hurt but it wasn’t anything serious so I said, “I’m okay. I was just really startled.”

She went back to her seat and my partner asked if I really was okay. When I said I was she added, “Oh I wish I’d been quick enough to yell, ‘Is the reason for the season’ after you yelled, ‘Jesus.’” We both started laughing. A few minutes later a passenger was putting a bag in the overhead bin just in front of my seat, and another passenger helping him glanced back at me and said, “Let’s be careful, she’s already had enough trouble.” That set my partner and me into another round of giggles.

About an hour into the flight, I was standing in the aisle to let my seatmate out when I noticed the woman whose water bottle had clipped my shoulder trying to catch my eye. “I’m so sorry,” she said again and explained that she hadn’t realized the bag was open and that the bottle was at the front. She asked if she could buy me a drink. I declined “I’m really okay.” I told her again.

As I returned to my seat, I felt unsettled because I realized she had tears in her eyes when she was speaking to me. I know that in her situation, I might have spent the previous hour berating myself, replaying the scene, imagining how it might have been worse, and taking a trip down memory lane recalling other mistakes I’ve made and generally feeling like a shame-filled, miserable piece of crap.

A few weeks ago a friend and I were talking about shame. She read that some scientists believe shame is the only emotion that doesn’t have an evolutionary function. I can’t speak to its evolutionary value although there are neuroscientists who argue it has one. But if shame is distress caused by the conscious awareness of wrong or foolish behavior, especially when that behavior causes harm to another, my friend and I agreed we want to feel it. We also agreed that where we go wrong is in getting stuck in shame, in seeing a wrong or foolish behavior as the sum total of our identity.

Clearly, my fellow passenger didn’t intend for me to get a bruise on my shoulder. Like all of us, she had a moment where perhaps she could have acted with more caution or patience. But I regret not taking the time to ask her to be at peace, to have compassion for herself, and to stow her backpack under the seat in front of her.

Beating snark into loving kindness

A few weeks ago I read Margaret Renkl’s thoughtful meditation on raking leaves. I appreciated the insight she found in such a simple act. As she writes, “It will help you remember what the wind always teaches us in autumn: that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

While I enjoyed the essay I was a little surprised to see it garnered nearly 400 comments; a number I associate with polemical essays rather than ones devoted to everyday wisdom. It seemed unlikely to me that 400 people took the time to write, “That was lovely. Thank you.” And I was right. Some did express that sentiment. Several others agreed that there is pleasure and peace to be gained from a task like raking leaves but went on to decry rules against burning them since that smell is essential to their childhood memories. I should have known there would be defenders of leaf blowers (“So much depends on lot size.”) and there was the guy called the essay inane drivel because he mulches as he mows. That seemed harsh given that Renkl was clearly foursquare in favor mulching. But the comment I found myself thinking about throughout the day was from Andy in Salt Lake City who wrote, “’Wait, you have a yard?’ says everyone in America under 35.’”

I understood from the structure of the comment that Andy was accusing Renkl of failing him as a reader but I wasn’t sure I understood the exact nature of his criticism. Was it that she didn’t explicitly acknowledge that not everyone has a yard or was it worse, did he think her essay reeked of unacknowledged privilege because having a yard outside your house is something that only people of a certain socioeconomic class enjoy?

I know I felt implicated in his criticism of Renkl because within seconds my inner college debater was on the case. “Everyone in America under 35 huh? Are you including those, many of them children, who live at home with their parents? A lot of them live in houses that have a yard and trees. And if you’re only talking about adults living on their own what’s your point? I didn’t own a house until I was 38. I knew and know many people under 35 who live in rental houses with yards, just as I did growing up. Where do crappy rental houses with yards fit in here? I also know people who live in a loft, condo, or townhouse and are thrilled not to have the hassle of yard work. Maybe you’re pointing to student loan debt and implying that no one under 35 can afford to buy a house. Maybe in Salt Lake City but where I live it’s cheaper to own than rent. If you really want a yard, maybe you should move to a different housing market. And you know, there’s research that suggests home ownership, like car ownership, is less highly valued by people under 35. And it’s true that the average age of first home purchase is up but people are also getting married and having children later too. Of course, some of that is due to crushing student loan debt but that’s not the whole story nor is waiting to engage in some of those things necessarily an act of sacrifice. People make choices Andy. And another thing, not every essay is for every reader.”

I genuinely believe that my energy is precious and that what I do with my mind in each moment matters therefore, I was irritated with the choice I kept making throughout the day to spar with Andy. Eventually, I managed to stop and ask myself why I was so bothered by his comment or as Tara Brach might ask, “What in me is disturbed by his comment?

It disturbed me that I didn’t know the precise nature of his criticism. I felt out of touch, possible old. That’s when I realized that I neither want to snark back at a comment like this nor do I want to dismiss it. What I hope for is the ability to feel loving kindness toward the writer. I’m grateful to Andy because his comment challenged me to examine what I take for granted and what don’t I know about the lives of everyone in America under 35.

From my window

I didn’t take a hiatus from writing my blog on purpose. In fact, after a year of posting two or three times a month I have come to crave the writing process. With demons of self-doubt shrieking I hold Anne Lamott’s advice in my heart each time and write a shitty first draft. It is liberating. As I continue to write I feel so much pleasure (usually accompanied by frustration, self-pity, and/or despair) watching my thoughts evolve on the page. I particularly enjoy figuring out when I’ve come to the end of a post. I expect to know it in my head but always feel it in my gut.

I started writing the blog because I had embarked on a journey toward greater self-awareness and writing is the particular truth-finding practice I know I need to use. And I want to share my experiences in the hope that others will find aspects of their own truth in my words. The writing process has helped me gain self-knowledge and when I figured out people other than my closest friends were reading my posts, I felt additional encouragement to continue.

Initially, my biggest challenge was the writing demons that have always plagued me. But as the year progressed and the posts piled up, the fearful voices grew fainter. Unfortunately, several weeks ago the critically important events in our country and around the world swallowed my attention. I didn’t want to address them directly in the blog because that’s not its purpose. At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if I wasn’t going to address them then why was I writing at all?

During these weeks I thought a lot about other times when I’ve felt hopeless in response to the injustice, fear, and misery that plague our world. In middle school I told a friend I was sure a third world war was imminent. When I was on the debate team in college I learned so much about mutually assured destruction, systemic inequality, and cultural hegemony that what little youthful idealism I possessed was nearly extinguished. These memories don’t convince me, nor are the intended to convince you, that the world is no worse now than it’s ever been. What these memories do is remind me that I have resources now that I didn’t have then.

As I wrote in January, my word for 2018 is “presence” and taking that seriously means noticing what is true in this moment: my life is not spinning out of control or filled with injustice, fear, and misery. What can I do with this truth? I can find space for compassion—wanting others to be free from suffering. As I focus on compassion in my meditation practice I direct it first toward those closest to me, then those in my wider community, then to all beings including, especially, those with whom I disagree or whose actions I find abhorrent. Finally, I seek compassion for myself. As my capacity for compassion grows I recognize that none of us are gods or monsters. We are mere mortals, broken and damaged and capable of change.
Tara Brach offers several resources for developing your capacity for compassion.

https://www.tarabrach.com/compassion-others-self/

 

 

 

 

Everyday hate

I learned to stop saying I hated anyone after my mother scolded me. “We don’t hate anyone. We might dislike what they do but we don’t hate other people,” she said. Being a good girl, I thought it instead. I hated kids who teased me, mean teachers, and even my siblings. Learning that I was free, in the privacy of my own mind, to have such thoughts was a great source of liberation for me as a child.

Of course, as an adult, my mother was free to openly hate other people. She hated everyone from Richard Nixon to the next-door neighbor. Fortunately, she had a great sense of humor that included the ability to laugh at herself. Here’s one of her favorite stories. She was the nurse at a residential treatment center run by an order of Catholic nuns. Having attended Catholic schools, churches, and nurse’s training, she was very comfortable around nuns. Maybe too comfortable. One day, she drove to a nearby pharmacy to pick up a prescription and one of the nuns, who was about 85, went along for the ride. At some point, another driver cut my mom off and she made a derogatory, profanity-enhanced comment about his intelligence. The nun gently patted my mother’s hand and said, “You know dear, he can’t hear you. But I can.”

Over the years, I’ve perceived my hateful thoughts as a sort of victimless crime because, in contrast to my mother, I kept my harshest thoughts to myself. The trivial transgressions of other drivers and other shoppers, people in yoga class and pundits on television give my ego the opportunity to take me on a wild ride of judgment, criticism, and hate. Matthieu Ricard writes that when we feel wronged by another our vision narrows such that we only see the other’s negative qualities and “fail to see people and events in the context of a much vaster web of interrelated causes and conditions.” Everyday hateful thoughts can are sustained not by being present to the moment but fixating on a particular, decontextualized moment in time.

The more I’ve learned to watch my mind at work the more I notice how little satisfaction I derive from reducing others to a single aggravating act. What starts out as a pleasurable sensation of moral superiority quickly evolves into what Ricard describes as a corrosive force, one that shreds my equanimity and weakens my capacity for compassion.

Getting caught up in hateful thoughts is as useless as shouting at someone in another car so I am grateful when I can reach out to gently remind myself that the only person damaged by such thoughts is me.

What thoughts keep you trapped in a particular moment in time?

Presence absence presence absence

My father died earlier this month while my partner and I were traveling out of the country. My oldest brother tried to reach me by phone but finally sent a text, “Dad passed last night.” I said to my partner, “My father died.” She said, “I’m sorry. Am I?”

Where my father is concerned, I have never known very much about my feelings. Apparently my lack of clarity is transferrable.

When I told my oldest friend my father had died, he listened to me talk for a while then said, “You’re telling me a lot about your brothers and sister and even how your mother might feel [she died three years ago] but I don’t know how you feel.”

There’s a photograph. I am five, wearing pajamas, clutching Raggedy Ann. Grinning broadly I reveal a gap where I’ve lost a front tooth. I’m perched on the edge of the overstuffed chair we inherited from my mother’s mother. Behind me, my father sits legs crossed, also grinning, with a cigar in one hand and a tumbler of whiskey in the other. Less than a year later he left and I didn’t see him again for more than 30 years.

Once, when talking with grad school friends, I made a passing reference to my father. They turned to each other and nodded. “What?” I said. They looked uncomfortable and finally Debbie said, “You’ve never mentioned your father before but you talk about your mom. So we’ve tried to figure out if he was dead or just out of the picture.”

I felt surprised that my friends speculated about my father. I also felt something like satisfaction. To have elided him from my biography such that others couldn’t tell if he was dead or alive gave me hope. If they couldn’t see him, maybe they also couldn’t see the shame and inferiority that hung over me like a shroud because I have a father who deserted his family.

After he left, my mother’s anger and my siblings’ grief filtered every view I had of him. Like a ghostly presence, he was often discussed, but no more than a face in some photographs to me. I could tell you everything my mother ever said to indict him. I could tell you everything my siblings ever said in an effort to rehabilitate him in my eyes. And I still would be no closer to telling you how I feel about him. But I can tell you what I want to feel.

Compassion.

For my siblings caught between a terrified, angry mother and an absent father.

For my mother shamed by family, church, and culture into believing a failed marriage made her a failure.

For my father who did the only thing he could think of to save his life.

For myself struggling to find my truth among people I love whose truth will never be the same as mine.