Courageous waiting

I think of myself as a very patient person, far more patient than many people I know. I attribute it to a childhood spent waiting for others. Throughout first and second grade, each afternoon, I trudged from the elementary school to the high school, sat on the bench outside the principal’s office, and waited for my sister’s school day to end. Our house was across the street from the elementary school but my mother didn’t want me to be home alone. When my siblings weren’t available to watch me, I spent many a school holiday sitting quietly reading or doing homework at the clinics where my mother worked. Years later, as a teacher, I was a champion at wait time—that time after a question is asked and before anyone puts a hand in the air to answer it. I could sit for minutes smiling encouragingly and never betray the slightest impatience.

That’s why I’m dissatisfied with my current state of mind. I’m waiting for people I don’t know to make a decision that could have a bit impact on my life. Regardless of the outcome, I just want the waiting to end. To paraphrase the Pointer Sisters, I’m so impatient and I just can’t hide it. I’m about to lose my mind and I just don’t like it.

When I reflect back on my experiences teaching, I know I truly was comfortable waiting because I trusted the students and believed that most of them were thinking about the topic at hand and formulating their contribution to the conversation. My trust and patience were almost always rewarded. I also trusted myself. I was confident that no matter how the students responded I had the ability to address them skillfully and appropriately.

In a recent meditation talk, Tara Brach discussed courageous presence. She encouraged her listeners to notice what’s happening and allow it. I’m trying to do this by paying attention to my discomfort and anxiety with this waiting time. She also notes the importance of connecting to our feelings of vulnerability with interest and kindness. I realize that, in contrast to how I felt when teaching, I am afraid that I won’t know how to respond to the uncertain future. I’m trying to accept that without judging myself. Finally, Brach advised responding from our wisdom and from our heart. When I do that I observe that I’ve been through many big changes before and I’ve always found my way. It hasn’t always been easy but I’m still here—waiting and trusting myself.

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.

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— 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— 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— 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,

Driftless Café—a great lunch spot,

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

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,

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,

Family treasures

More than a hundred years ago my grandmother found the gleaming cherry bureau that now stands in my dining room. It was covered in a thick layer of red paint but she recognized the treasure that lay beneath.

My grandmother was a woman with a gift for seeing the possible. She was also a woman who raged at those around her. She died long before I was born but my mother told stories of her creativity and strength and wrath. It seems to me her fury was fueled by intellectual abilities that far exceeded her life’s limits.

The legacy of her anger is visible in my thin skin, easy sarcasm, and quickness to blame others for my pain. I saw it in my mother; I see it in my siblings. The anger inhabiting our homes is nearly as tangible as the corner cupboard, the camelback sofa, or the dining room table passed down to us over the years. But like these pieces of furniture we’ve lived with our entire lives, our anger is so deeply familiar to us that we cannot imagine our lives without it. I don’t know how to fill that corner of the dining room without the cherry bureau. I don’t know how to be in the world without my anger.

Tara Brach describes anger as an intelligent emotion. She doesn’t try to talk us out of it but instead urges us to acknowledge its presence with non-judging awareness. And then—take a pause and focus on the inner self, find the unmet need that evokes the anger. Even if the other person is as wrong as can be the anger is mine and paying attention to what’s going on inside, Brach argues, is the beginning of being able to respond with intelligence, empathy, and understanding. While Brach accepts that sometimes relationships have to end, her call to us holds real promise for deepening rather than dissolving them.

My grandmother owned a mahogany teacart and when it went out of fashion she had the wheels removed and a clean-lined table emerged. It’s in my kitchen and I sit at it to eat breakfast or read the mail. I did not know my grandmother but I am of her and I cherish the traces of her I find in the objects she transformed. I’m a catalyst for a different kind of change when I transform the inevitable experience of anger into a deeper understanding of myself and those around me.

The mooks in the back of the room

Some semesters it seemed as if the registration gods conspired against her and five or six young men would fill the back row of my friend Karen’s intro to philosophy course. Slouched in their seats, baseball caps pulled low, wearing letter jackets—just the sight of these students propelled Karen back to her student days—these were the jocks who had her treated her love of learning with disdain.

When Karen told me how she felt about these students she called mooks, she was ashamed. Many professors were outstanding students and can be a bit indifferent to all but the best students in their classes. Not Karen. She sees past superficial differences to reach the learner within. But when a group of hulking athletes took over the back row it reduced her to her smallest self and she believed there was no way for her to connect with them.

She wasn’t proud of how she reacted and she knew she couldn’t just stuff her feelings down and move on. She’d tried that and it hadn’t worked.

Karen began an inquiry process when she admitted to herself that she was reacting to these students from her younger self. In accepting this she could finally notice the tension she felt throughout her body, especially in her face when she looked at them. She realized that her arms were often folded across her chest in a gesture of self-protection that also shut off her off from them. She saw that her contempt was written all over her body and even if she doubted their love of learning she knew they were smart enough to feel her dislike. As she made a conscious effort to relax her body, her mind began to follow.

Over time, she came to see them as she saw other students—with openness and compassion for them as individuals. She was no longer surprised or suspicious when they participated in class discussion or performed well on assignments. When they struggled, her compassion for them overcame any lingering doubts about her ability to help them.

Who are your mooks? Who are the people who reduce you to your smallest self? When you see them ask Tara Brach’s perfect question, “What in me is disturbed by this?” When you find the answer, I urge you to act with compassion toward yourself, as that is the first step toward behaving with compassion toward them.

What I want

I like to hang out at the intersection of Byron Katie (loving what is) and Marie Kondo (does it spark joy) and instead of always asking myself, “Do I have everything I want?” and I ask, “Do I want everything I have?”

Daily life is filled with subtle and not-so-subtle messages to survey our life, find the gaps, and fill those gaps with stuff—food, sex, clothes, technology, etc. We rarely pay attention to how all that stuff makes us feel. Our stuff—emotional, material, interpersonal, and cultural—is drowning many of us in affluent America.

When Byron Katie talks about loving what she’s challenging us to examine each feeling, emotional entanglement, financial decision, core belief and love it. It’s not enough to tolerate it, or make excuses for its presence in our life, or accept it because it can’t be any other way. No, actually look at it, see it for what it is and love it.

What’s the outcome of loving what is? We don’t know. Outcomes, especially those based on human interaction, are by their nature uncertain. So we don’t love what is because it promises a happy outcome but because it is the only path to a happy present.

What does loving what is look like in daily life? Maybe like Marie Kondo holding a well-folded t-shirt to her chest and asking if it sparks joy. In my own life, I’m doing this with the things I say to myself, my beliefs about myself. “Self-criticism,” I ask, “do you spark joy?” “Hell no,” it says. “That’s not my job. My job is to get you to move your ass and get something done.” Well that’s interesting because I notice (finally!) that all that self-loathing is a piss poor motivator and rarely leads to my best work.

Shopping, binge watching tv, sniping, controlling, and limiting beliefs about myself and others—this is stuff in my life that no longer sparks joy. Because I want to cultivate an attitude of loving what is and of self-acceptance I don’t toss these aspects of myself out with the holey underwear and chipped vases. I seek instead to examine this stuff closely, to understand the role it tried to serve in my life. When it tries to take over my psyche, I acknowledge it and, following Tara Brach’s sage advice, I invite it to tea and feel its grip on me loosen.

Day by day, I am coming to want everything I have.