Archive for March, 2014

Whirlwind

March 30, 2014

My thoughts seem to be coming in song fragments. Some are personal. One asks to be shared.

“Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where you ought to be. To turn and to turn shall be my delight, and in turning, turning to come down right.”

My life is being turned upside down, and I’m simultaneously riding on the whirlwind and standing aside, watching the wind (up to 60mph outside my window at the moment) figuratively shred the golden chains that have held me trapped in patterns of thought, belief, behavior that appeared to be good but which were nonetheless ensnaring.

How subtle is our mental training to be “good”, to think in dichotomies, to turn away from what John Eldredge, in Wild at Heart, calls our God-given nature. In order to be “a good Christian” (Eldredge) or to be a responsible partner, or a good family man. Or so as not to be labeled “bossy” as a young girl, or called that other “b” word when, as a mature woman, I speak up, speak out, speak my truth.

“Be a good girl and…” do whatever I’m being asked to do, whether or not that something is good for me.
“Good little boys don’t…” do whatever it is the adult is unhappy at seeing happen.

It’s called socialization, and it’s what good parents do when raising their children to fit into society – and what not such good parents do when projecting their own malformed views onto their children. In both cases – and all the variations in between the two extremes of positive and negative parenting – the resulting imprinting takes a lifetime to understand and clear away, if one is even capable of understanding and clearing it.

What my Master calls iron shackles and golden chains – the imprinted concepts from upbringing and karmic bonds – are what his students work to become aware of, and to release. The shackles are usually obvious – habits like addiction, that limit and restrict opportunity, or behaviors that can be labeled anger, greed, attachment, pride. The golden chains are much more difficult to recognize because they come disguised as positives like responsibility, or being a good ______ (fill in the blank).

Remember What You Are

Remember What You Are

I’m not suggesting one shouldn’t strive to be good at whatever one sets as a goal – developing and using skills is a satisfying and fulfilling effort. Being good at is not the same as being good. Active little boys, expressing their inborn nature, may be good at stirring things up, exploring and challenging and daring to try, all behaviors that can get them labeled as disruptive by a teacher who wants them to sit still for school lessons. A bright little girl with natural leadership skills will hear that she’s being unacceptably bossy when she tries to take over direction of a playground game.

Breaking golden chains, then, can be considered as learning to distinguish being good from being good at, and giving oneself permission to simply Be… good at certain things, not so good at others, but acceptable and accepted and loveable and loved, nonetheless.

Because you are Soul, perfect and beautiful, warts and all.

‘Tis a Gift

March 23, 2014

I have only a little time this evening, set aside for writing, but without any strong motivation regarding a topic. There are four or five essays I’ve started at various points in the past few months – none of them grab me just now, asking to be completed and posted. Too abstractly intellectual; too much social commentary when I don’t feel particularly engaged; too removed from my current state of being… Too, too, too.

The only immediate concern that engages me in this moment of relaxation, is how to keep my present calm acceptance and contentment going when I am bombarded by Saturn’s powerful strictures, or the draining needs of others. I’m sure you’ve encountered people whose sense of deprivation, or overwhelming pain, or just plain exhaustion have turned them into emotional black holes, sucking life force from everything around them. I’m not referring to those who have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder – the ultimate in black-hole-ness. Working effectively with these fragmented people requires professional training and a great deal of practice.

No, I’m referring to people who mostly manage to make their way in life, but lean extensively on anyone and everyone around them in order to function. They hold jobs, they raise families, and they suck up the energy, the enthusiasm, the very vitality of those around them. I’d forgotten how many such souls draw on our health care system for portions of their support. I’d forgotten to what an extent I have to develop mechanisms to balance myself out, after spending days working with these needy individuals.

Some of the exercises in my weekly Ba Gua class draw energy from the earth and bring it up through the body and out the fingertips. After a particularly challenging work day recently, I rooted myself in the standing tree pose until I felt a resurgence of chi in my body. The technique is effective, but not one I can practice easily in the car, traveling between clients.

Checking in with my Master helps, always.

So does the company of friends, though I feel cautious about relying on the energy of others, not wanting to become, myself, the sort of leech that I am seeking to recover from.

At Upaya, a Buddhist retreat center in Santa Fe, there will soon be a workshop on compassionate caring, subtitled how to be engaged without being entrapped. It sounds like an answer to the challenge of my present situation. I will have to absorb the lessons by osmosis, however – I can’t take that much time off from work just yet.

Nor do I think such a workshop will guide me in dealing with the most serious source of leeching energy – the brutally frustrating, inefficient, too often non-functional data software system with which I must interact on a daily basis at work. I’ve learned that my employer is threatening the computer system contractor with a breach of contract lawsuit – and cancellation of the contract for failure to perform. One part of me is cheering wildly at the thought of becoming free of the monster. Another, though, cringes at the idea of having to redo – in a new data base – all the work already completed since the first of the year.

You’ll get some idea of how awful the data system is, if I say that keeping paper records and duplicating multiple entries by hand would be far more efficient and user friendly than the program we are expected to negotiate, when it works – if it works. I had set today aside for data entry – and couldn’t even get into the system until almost 1PM, effectively losing half my work day. To keep up and not feel totally overwhelmed by unmet obligations, I’ll have to work on Saturday – again.

I can work on Saturday. I’m free to work on Saturday. I have paid work to do on Saturday. I have a good paying, mostly enjoyable job being of service to others, after many long months of being turned down for every sort of work I sought.

No, I’m not practicing affirmations, just reversing a possible spiral into negativity that could begin with today’s frustrating failure, yet again, of a system that is supposed to be an asset in my work my life.

Giving attention to that which uplifts, enjoying the company of friends, sharing a bit of my daily life with these words – these are activities which allow me to regain energy, to move forward into my next day of interaction with whatever sentient or mechanistic black holes cross my path. Outstanding astrologer, Eric Francis of PlanetWaves, urges that we face the coming months of a unique and powerful astrological grand square by daring to trust. For me, that translates to moving forward with confidence that my inner sun is strong enough (provided I remember my Source) to keep shining despite any loss of energy or sapped strength.

To have the opportunity to experience this constant regeneration is a gift for which I am most grateful.
CIMG1281

Japanese Rituals and Tea

March 16, 2014

A dear friend commented on my essay on English tea, that this elaborate meal is very different from an Asian tea – leading me to consider my experience with traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The first time I benefited from participation in this ancient ritual I was not quite thirteen years old. My mother and I were traveling from the U.S. to Vietnam by ocean liner, a zigzag course from San Francisco to Hawaii to Osaka to Manila to Hong Kong, where we were to land and meet my father for the last leg by plane to Saigon. My mother got bored with life on the ship and decided we should get off in Osaka, and spend a week in Japan before flying to Hong Kong.

Not one to enjoy noisy, busy cities, I found Tokyo interesting but overwhelming. In particular, an hour spent inside a large department store left me feeling frazzled, and as though I were picking people out of my hair and off my skin. Near to the store was a public garden and within the garden a large building which proved to be a cultural museum. Just at the time my mother and I arrived at the entrance to the museum, a young woman in a beautiful kimono announced that a tea ceremony would begin in five minutes. Joining the group that followed her, we walked into a spacious central room where we were invited to be seated on cushions on a tatami floor. In rows, facing an open area, we waited, some talking quietly until the hostess politely shushed everyone.

The walls and ceiling were carved wood, decorated sparingly with niches containing a vase, or a statue, or a calligraphy scroll. The impression was of richness but also a quiet simplicity. Despite being part of a relatively large group (we must have been thirty people) I felt as though a space had opened around me, allowing me to relax and expand. Perhaps it was the size of the room, or its dimensions that created the sense of airiness which I found so soothing.

The tea master entered silently, gliding to his place facing us, a low table and a brazier arranged so as to be within easy reach, yet artistically angled to present to us, his guests, a broken line reminiscent of waves breaking across the tatami sand. The master bowed to us, and we somewhat raggedly bowed back. That is, the Japanese in the group bowed gracefully and in unison – we few Westerners belatedly realizing what was expected, followed as best we were able.

The hostess knelt to the side of the tea master, again gracefully angled to enhance the pattern presented to us. She passed items to the master in perfect rhythm with his movements, and without any visible requests. I concluded that she knew the ritual as thoroughly as he did. Each gesture of each of their four hands was controlled, graceful, careful and complete – a dance of fingers wiping bowls, rotating the tea canister, positioning the kettle, showing off the items used to scoop the tea powder, to stir it, and finally rotating the bowl of tea to present its most beautiful face to the guest for whom it was intended. In turn, the hostess brought a bowl of tea to each of us, then returned the drained vessel to a row behind the master. When we had each had our few sips of thick, bitter, refreshingly energizing, green beverage, and all our bowls were lined up facing us, the hostess and master bowed to us and we – this time collectively, no laggards – bowed back.

The master rose and left the hall, and the hostess signaled for us to also stand. The Japanese rose gracefully while we Westerners found our own, often inelegant ways to our feet. We were escorted back to the entrance hall of the museum, and quietly invited to tour the rooms, which included ancient tea ceremony implements, and gorgeous kimono. I did my best to carry the silence, the stillness, the ritual formality and peace of the ceremony with me as I studied the displays. I still remember how tempted I was to scold the few Western visitors who burst into conversation near by, criticizing the tea as not being what they expected, barely drinkable, not something they would ever willingly have again.

Unlike with English teas, which I’ve enjoyed many times in many lands, I have only experienced that one fully formal Japanese tea ceremony. An acquaintance who married a Japanese, and lived many years in his family home, recently invited me to a tea ceremony that she arranged for a small group of friends at a lovely gallery in Albuquerque. The rituals of turning and admiring and wiping the bowls, of slow-moving hands doing a dance with the tea implements, were familiar despite the many long years since my visit to Japan. At the same time, I was aware of the difference between the formality of the museum ritual, and the “welcome to my home” informality of the ceremony in New Mexico. What they had in common was the creation, through gesture and tradition, of a sense of peace, harmony, stillness, contemplation.

I left the museum on that long ago day, better able to exist within the rush and burble of humanity surrounding me. The ceremony created within me a place of quiet and privacy to which I could retreat, and which I could to some extent then carry with me out into the rest of the day. I’ve learned in later years that other cultural customs also developed in Japan, to provide a sense of privacy to people who live in close proximity, in rooms divided only by paper. For example, the occupant of a room must acknowledge someone who enters before the latter may speak. If unacknowledged, the visitor knows to silently withdraw. Only if the reason for entering the room is of grave importance will the visitor remain, still and silent, until an acknowledgement is offered.

Living most of my life in a very different culture – one that seems to rush to fill any silence with words or music or some sort of noise – I’ve chosen to live in a rural location, in a small house with many large windows that minimize my separation from the trees, grasses, birds and wind surrounding me. Within this retreat I enjoy tea, sometimes green, often strong and black, which I drink from a hand crafted mug. I have my own rituals – the water must be boiling, the tea of good quality, the pot a pretty one. Neither English nor Japanese, nor the Russian of my father’s tea preference, but a blend of all three and a link to cultures and countries and lives I’ve been privileged to encounter.

In Full Glory

In Full Glory

Dayenu

March 9, 2014

Have you noticed how subtly, but pervasively, some of us become conditioned to be happy with crumbs, accepting far less from the banquet of life than we may want, or even than may be available?

In my case, I recognize that this training began in my earliest childhood, as the result of my mother’s severe psychological problems. Anything I looked forward to, anything I really wanted, she found a way to make unpleasant or to turn into an unhappy experience. You think your birthday should be special, maybe a few playmates over for a small party? Think again. “I don’t choose to accept responsibility for anyone else’s children in my house.”

If I admired some small item in a shop window, wishing someone might think enough of me to buy it for a present, I might very well find it at home – on my mother’s dresser, after she bought it for herself and preened over her lovely new figurine. Primary school graduation, all the girls dressing up in pretty new clothes and patent leather party shoes? “It’s a school day. You wear your sturdy Oxfords, no buts and no arguments, do you hear me!”

I learned to be grateful for a day without being repeatedly slapped, for an hour alone with my grandfather, just going for a walk around the neighborhood (“You haven’t earned the right to go to the zoo with him this week, you’ve been far too much trouble to me”). I learned to accept that only grownups got new clothes from the store; mine were roughly sewn together from one of three basic patterns and handed to me with, “I worked hard to make this for you, don’t you dare complain that it looks like all your others. It’s a different color. That’s more than enough. The children in Africa are lucky if they have any clothes at all!” Those children in Africa were lucky if they had food, or a warm bed, or a place to get out of the rain, or…

I wanted to visit those children in Africa, to see if their lives were really so bad. Somehow, even at only five or six or seven years of age, I suspected that many of them had loving parents and enough to eat and maybe they even got presents sometimes, and hugs and kisses instead of punishments.

If we’re diligent about maturing, about taking responsibility for ourselves and who we become, we grow out of a variety of early conditions to become decent, engaged, thoughtful people. We stop blaming our bad decisions on our parents’ inadequacies, we learn from our mistakes, and we move forward. But underneath, all too often, we retain a fundamental attitude that we must feel satisfied with crumbs.

Don’t misunderstand – I fully support approaching each day with “an attitude of gratitude” for the many small positives to be found in it. I’m amused by the antics of the rabbits in the pasture. I smile at my confused (or misnamed?) Christmas cactus which stayed plain at that holiday, but is now flowering for Easter. I’m quietly, inwardly thankful for the opportunity to work once more at a job I enjoy, after years of toil in a less rewarding environment.

At Easter

At Easter

At the same time, I recognize that I spent many more years in that previous, stressful workplace than perhaps I “should have” done, because I was (am still?) conditioned to accept a small salad plate from life’s banquet rather than grabbing a big dinner plate and seeing that it is filled. The latter behavior is so often called greedy, selfish, and thoughtless of the needs of others.

If what one is going after falls in the material world – money, possessions, power – then yes, trying to get as much as possible for oneself may well be greedy and selfish. Lord knows I can’t comprehend how people already making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year can think they are also entitled to bonuses! Some, like Bill Gates or Michael J Fox, turn around and give back a generous portion of what they acquire, and thereby help the rest of us. I am thankful for them, and their charitable foundations. Too many others grab for, demand, and keep outrageous salaries, even insisting they be paid after they’ve been asked to resign. The public face of this activity is labeled “buying out a contract.” I think it is purely obscene. We working folks who don’t perform to standard get fired, not paid to leave. Why should it be any different just because one has an exalted position with an already very generous pay rate?

But I’m not talking about the material world, when I say we’re conditioned to settle for less. I’m not even talking about the emotional world, or the necessity of accepting that very few relationships are perfect, that we cannot count on another to “make me happy.”

I’m reflecting instead on the extent to which we cut ourselves off from fulfilled happiness by telling ourselves we do not need, are not entitled to, don’t have the right to, should not want or expect that fulfillment. In a portion of the Seder, the Jewish celebration of Passover (and the ritual being observed by Jesus at the Last Supper) a litany of blessings is recited, and after each step in the path to freedom the sentiment is expressed “Dayenu = It would have been enough.” If God had done just X, it would have been enough. If God had done just X+Y it would have been enough. If God had done just X+Y+Z it would have been enough.

I learn from this ritual that being grateful for what I have need not prevent me from welcoming more into my life. That I want more does not say I don’t value what I have. Only the subtle, pervasive, underlying conditioning of unworthiness so many of us have absorbed dictates that I should not try for gold, now that I have silver in hand.

I have silver, and rubies, and ambrosia, a wealth of gifts of the spirit. Dayenu. I appreciate how much that means to, is sought after by, people who have less. I happily share my blessings as best I can. And I’m going for more.

Reaching for a full platter does not mean I appreciate my present plate any the less. It does mean I’ve decided not to hang back, not to duck and cover, not to “settle” before I must do so. Maybe I’ll trip. Maybe I’ll fail. Maybe I will, in the end, have neither gold nor silver. But as a former prisoner and student of mine once wrote, “Mighty Casey, he struck out. What does it feel like to get into the game?”

I’m going to find out! And whatever the outcome, it will be enough. Dayenu.

A Piece of a Past

March 2, 2014

Dear Much Appreciated Readers:

I have driven something over 600 miles between Wednesday morning and Saturday afternoon of this past week, reflecting a busy-ness that has left me no time to write. Please accept as this week’s post, a short essay I wrote last year and stored as a back-up piece, to be used in just this sort of situation.

A Memory of Tea

The first English tea I remember having was on the lawn of an elegant house in Victoria, British Columbia. My mother and I were on our zigzag way from Washington DC to join my father at his post as an economic officer at the U.S. embassy in Saigon, Vietnam. Back before anyone in the U.S had even heard of Vietnam. Just after that country’s successful fight for independence from France. I was twelve.

We children had just finished up a game of croquet. Tea included jam tarts and my first encounter with scones and cream. I remember the tea cups had roses on them, and were of such delicately thin china that the late afternoon sun shone through them. My mother gloried in experiencing a scene that could have come from her favorite Jane Austen novel. I gloried in the fact that she was, temporarily, enjoying herself, with her attention distracted from its usual petulant unhappiness with everything, including me.

My next English afternoon tea was in steamy Saigon, at the home of the British ambassador. His wife had taught her Vietnamese cook to make the pastries and scones, but there was no cream available. Tinned milk did not substitute. We ate the scones with a thick, rich marmalade instead.

I don’t recall having a proper tea again until some five years later. A friend of my father’s (both left Germany as young men, my father to settle in the U.S. but Eric to establish himself in England) had become a successful surgeon heading a hospital outside Sheffield. My parents were taking a driving vacation through southern England, from my father’s posting in Paris. I needed an operation on my wrist. “Uncle” Eric and his wife Hilda came down to collect me, welcoming me to their home with a full high tea served in their lovely back garden. How quickly did I learn not to insult the flower-filled space by calling it a yard (as it would be in the U.S.) And how quickly I also learned not to insult “Aunt” Hilda’s special face flannels by calling them by the American term wash cloths! I remember the Sheffield tea was served in pottery mugs, and the meal which accompanied them had a meat and cheese pie and salad, in addition to its pastries and scones with jam and cream.

Returned to the U.S. for college (university, to a Brit) and graduate school, I eventually settled in northeastern New Mexico, over 7000 feet high up in the foot hills of the Rocky Mountains. High plains desert landscapes, mostly brown – especially in the past ten years of drought – fit better with rodeo cookouts than English tea. Until my friend Anne Bradford arrived in town, to open The Carriage House Bed and Breakfast and offer afternoon tea. She made them fancy, a multi-tiered sandwich and pastry tower for each table, choice of at least three different types of tea, sausage rolls and cucumber sandwiches, scones with cream or jam, and strawberries. Her collection of teacups decorated the public rooms of the huge Victorian house, when they weren’t part of the meal service.

Anne grew up in Ardingly, in Sussex, and managed an elegant hotel in San Diego, California, before moving to Las Vegas, New Mexico (the original Las Vegas, the old one dating back to the 1600s, not the new gambling center in Nevada). Obviously adaptable herself, Anne succeeded in making traditional English teas seem perfectly appropriate to the old Southwest. They became a popular way to celebrate a birthday, graduation, or other special event. And they became a taste of home for the students from Great Britain who attended the United World College (UWC) located in nearby Montezuma.

After Anne closed the B and B, and went to work for the Plaza Hotel, she continued making teas available. For the birthday of one of my staff, we all dressed and celebrated in the hotel’s Victorian elegance.

Tea at the Plaza Hotel

Tea at the Plaza Hotel

We were among the last groups to enjoy the event before Anne left the hotel – which subsequently changed ownership.

Now, when I welcome UWC students, I fix tea in my own home. The atmosphere is far more casual, and the meal is possibly less authentic. But we do have pretty china cups, sandwiches, and plates of scones and cream. And we share my memories of a tradition that continues to span the world, linking anglophiles in jungles, in deserts, in vintage homes and in commercial hotels. Linking Sapello, New Mexico with Sheffield, England and all the far flung places where afternoon tea has been – and often still is – enjoyed.


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