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.

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.

Solemn promises

Although I had some trepidation about attending, my friends’ wedding was a deeply satisfying experience filled with warm conversations where I felt welcome. I appreciated that each element was an expression of the couple’s individual personalities as well as their sense of themselves as a couple. I admired their ability to withstand the pressure of the Wedding Industrial Complex. Their strength and clarity in making the wedding their own included the vows they exchanged. It was not a simple recitation of something handed to them by a religious figure or a wedding planner. They didn’t write their own vows but consciously, carefully, and freely chose the vows of their faith tradition.

I knew going in that we hold different beliefs about many topics. Some of those differences were evident in their ceremony. When people I care about make choices I wouldn’t make because I hold a different worldview, I notice how quickly my mind sees the situation as a threat. I doubt that I’m alone in this reaction. Feeling threatened and defensive I seek safety in disapproval—criticizing or dismissing their decisions, confident that I know better as I seek to substitute my judgment for theirs.

All of that thinking was like a flashing red light telling me to look inward. As I struggled to find a place of non-judging awareness from which to view their choices I reminded myself to stay present to the moment. That allowed me to see there was nothing in my immediate environment that was a threat to me. Truly, their choices have no impact on me, were not aimed at me, were not a condemnation of me. Reminding myself to stay present had another benefit. It made my own deeply held beliefs visible to me. And there it was—the place where my friends and I are in sync.

Each day I seek to achieve what Michael Singer calls, “persistently centered consciousness.” Although I don’t always succeed, I also learn and grow and I’m grateful to be on this path. Making a solemn promise to live each day according to our deeply held beliefs is a wonderful thing to have in common.

What deeply held beliefs do you try to live up to each day?

How do you react when people you care about have beliefs that are different from your own?

Moving and storage

Less than a week after they moved into their beautiful new home I arrived for a weekend visit with my friends C and J. That first evening we enjoyed a delicious supper prepared by J then spent the better part of the next two days opening boxes, removing each item, and finding its proper place. C and J kept telling me I was a great friend for helping them and I accept their praise. However, it’s their behavior I find a true testament to friendship because I can’t imagine allowing anyone to watch my partner and me unpack our possessions. I know C and J love me but now I know they also trust me.

Although our efforts concentrated on the kitchen the things we unpacked were more than tools for meal preparation. There were gifts and inheritances; there were items that resolved a problem and others that remain a point of contention. I was in awe of their ability to lovingly recall the stories, connections, and meanings associated with these objects yet still get everything put away in the gorgeous new blue cupboards or let it go.

In addition to putting things away, C and J were also figuring out how to live in their new ranch style house, which has almost nothing in common with the farmhouse they just sold. For instance, the simple act of entering their home has been totally upended. In the old house they entered through the front door, put coats in the closet to the right, put bags and keys on the hall table in front of them, and removed their shoes placing them to the left of the table. In the new house they enter from the garage and the coat closet wall, rather than door, is to their immediate right. There’s no good place for a table where keys and bags can be dropped and the entire entry area is visible from the living room thus the challenge of dumping stuff but wanting all to remain neat and tidy.

As I watched them confront the challenge of transferring a necessary routine into a new space I thought about how deep our need is for a few taken-for-granted assumptions about how we function in the world. I wondered if craving the ability to put my keys down without deliberate thought, sure in the knowledge that I won’t spend 20 minute searching for them later, is a failure of mindfulness. Our habits, like our possessions, have a story, connections, meaning. Some are gifts, others we inherit. Mindfulness means staying alert to routines that have so hardened we can’t bear to let them go. They will surely cause me more suffering than struggling to find my keys once in awhile.

The only moment I have

Here in the middle of the Midwest it is neither winter nor spring. The days are a little longer and tiny green shoots are scattered throughout our garden beds, and as the temperature rises my shoulders start to loosen after weeks of hunching against the cold. But it isn’t all mild days and flowers rising. The sky is often overcast, sunny days feature biting winds, and those tender green shoots are probably going to get buried under several inches of snow before the month is over.

Although I’m a native Midwesterner, it was the 15 years I spent in Minnesota that made this season of contrasts my least favorite. On a warmish day my spirits lift and I convince myself that spring has arrived. When snow falls a few days later I feel like a fool. But I’m not much of a learner on this topic so for weeks I experience this cycle of hope and disappointment. In Minnesota it lasted until May.

My mother had a friend who snarled at people who complained about hot days in July. “It’s summer isn’t it?” she’d bark at them. One hot and muggy summer I decided to take the implication of her admonishment seriously and vowed I would not complain about the heat. When I noticed my mind moving in that direction I batted the thought away. The challenge I hadn’t anticipated was how often others would complain to me about the heat. Talking about the weather is such a simple way to make contact. But it’s also a great example of routine negativity disguised as interpersonal connection. I didn’t want to snap at people or correct them so I found myself developing a host of responses that featured a big smile and something along the lines of “Oh, but we’ll miss these days come January.” Or, “Yes, but wasn’t it a glorious spring?” I was chipper enough that people didn’t appear to feel scolded as those who encountered my mom’s friend probably did. The one thing I didn’t manage to do, the thing I’m working hard on now, is simple appreciation for what is.

My challenge during these days between seasons is that a warmish day sends me hurtling into the future where the daffodils are out and the days are predictably mild. Right now, this moment, the sky is clear, the sun is urging the flowers to rise, the temperature is below freezing, and the furnace is working just fine. This moment, I remind myself, with all of its contradictions, is the only one I have.

Through the fog

This fog is settling in. I feel chilled to my bones as I struggle to see the road ahead. Yesterday I felt wonderful. Today, I’m ready to collapse at the first cross word or sidelong glance. I think the world is out to get me, so I set about to get it first.

As the fog swirls around me, I curse bad drivers, slow shoppers, and indecisive friends. My partner’s complaints about work, the talkers in the yoga class, the relentless bad news over which I have no power—large or small, local or global—the world is my enemy.

Lower and lower I sink beneath the fog. I try to regain my equanimity. I remind myself that when everyone else is wrong, it’s time to look inward. But my ego’s too fast for me. If I’m not going to blame the world, then I’m going to blame myself—I am impatient, and weak, and adrift.

The fog stays all day until one small decision rescues me from its gloomy clutches. I put the laundry away. I devote my mind to each item in the basket and its place in my home. Finally, as I put the fresh towels into the bathroom cupboard, a small space opens inside me. The voice of my higher consciousness reminds me that I am loved. With relief and gratitude I face the world with compassion and kindness.

There was gratitude in 2017

I am grateful for my friends and family above all. But we all need all the help we can get so below are some people, places, and things I followed, listened to, read, visited, and watched in 2017, and probably will continue to in 2018, because they improved the quality of my life

Tara Brach—tarabrach.com I access her work through her profoundly compelling book, Radical Acceptance, and by watching and listening to her weekly meditation talks posted on her website. She writes and speaks with clarity and compassion. Her voice is a genuine invitation to transformation.

Michael Singer—untetheredsoul.com I read his book, Untethered Soul, soon after reading Radical Acceptance. Both Singer and Brach are Buddhists. Brach’s work deepens my knowledge of Buddhist thought which I greatly appreciate. Singer does not provide that kind of context in this book. Instead, his is a voice of that just tells it—I laugh out loud in surprise and embarrassment as I recognize the limits of my thinking in his words. His clarity gave me the confidence to change.

Hend Amry—@LibyaLiberty She shares with followers a lived experience that is unlike my own and yet continuously resonates with me. She is hilarious—I hesitate to emphasize that because the news, the perspectives, the geographic points on the map she references are vital and challenging to me. But she also makes me laugh out loud, often.

Alyssa Harad—@alyssaharad She is a writer who tweets and retweets about culture and politics. She takes the occasional break from Twitter (which I admire) but never on Sundays when she produces #FlowerReport–photo after photo of flora and fauna from front porches to furthest frontiers, it will improve the quality of your right now.

Philip Lewis—@Phil_Lewis_ He is a front page editor at @HuffPost. He answer to a recent twitter question, “What’s your earliest memory of a news story?” was “9/11.” I thought, “Oh damn! I am old.” My answer is Vietnam on the evening news (Huntley/Brinkley–my mom, the cultural contrarian, didn’t like Water Cronkite). Also, many of his popular music references go over my head—I know it’s important and I know I’m way behind. His generational perspective is especially valuable to me.

OpenCulture—@openculture Books, music, art, culture, archives, interviews, the past, the present, the future. It’s all here. It’s the best rabbit hole around.

Al Jazeera English—@AJENews It’s not the only site I follow that offers information and perspectives I don’t see in mainstream US media but it is surely the best.

Jonathan Foust—jonathanfoust.com He produces podcasts of his meditation talks every few days. His typical talk focuses on a single topic (anger, anxiety, equanimity) and provides a way of thinking about that issue more clearly so that I come to my next experience of it from a mindful rather than reactive place.

Viroqua, WI—Highway 14 in southwest Wisconsin Imagine you need to drive from somewhere near Iowa City, St. Louis, or Chicago to Minneapolis/St. Paul. Make sure your route takes you through Viroqua (even if it adds a little time). When you get there go to:

Kickapoo Coffee Roasters—buy a pound of beans and order the world’s best cold brew coffee, kickapoocoffee.com

Driftless Café—a great lunch spot, driftlesscafe.com

Viroqua Food Co-op—not a great co-op for a small town just a great co-op,             viroquafood.coop

Driftless Books and Music—the building itself is worth a visit and the selection is fabulous and so are the very nice people who work there, driftlessbooks.com

FYI The word “Driftless,” as you noticed, is all over this town. It refers to a region in Wisconsin that the most recent glaciers did not touch. As a result there’s none of the residue in the area that is typical of the glaciers (gravel, boulders, etc.). So Viroqua is not only a great town it’s in a geologically unique place, driftlesswisconsin.com