Posts Tagged ‘parental conditioning’

Patience and Attention

January 31, 2017

The two new members of our family are Akirri, a now-four-month old Akita/German shepherd cross puppy and Miss Kitty, also about four months old and now to have her name enhanced to Miss Patience Kitty.

As the picture posted a few days ago clearly shows, she’s a fraction of Akirri’s size, but in little over a week she’s established ground rules for their interactions and is “on top” of the relationship.

Akirri, which means Christmas in my husband’s tribal language of Ngie, is smart and learning to sit, and stay down (not jump up on me with muddy paws) but has not yet made much progress with ‘come’. Particularly not when the chickens are clustered to be fed and it’s such fun to run through them and watch them scatter.

Miss Kitty, on the other hand has already successfully trained me to have her breakfast tin of food open and ready for her no later than 7:30 AM, and her evening dry ration on her plate by 5:30. Her added name of Patience does NOT come from her attitude toward being fed. Rather, it’s a reflection of the way in which she tolerates being turned into a play toy by Akirri, emerging often from the encounters wet from doggy kisses, and looking slightly chewed over. When she’s had enough, she freezes in one place, hunkered down beneath Akirri and no longer fun to play with. Indeed, it’s as though she’s recognized that being boring is a sure way to cause Akirri to turn elsewhere for amusement. Looked at from a slightly different point of view, Miss Patience Kitty clearly knows and implements the basic lesson of disciplining – ignore the misbehavior and reward the good behavior and you’ll fairly quickly have a well behaved… animal or… child… or person?

I’ve been considering whether there isn’t a parallel to be drawn between the training going on just outside my front door (on the enclosed porch and the larger yard and pastures), and what might be effective on the political scene. Not that unconstitutional edicts can be ignored exactly, but they can simply not be followed, as has already happened with the scientists who will not be gagged, thet acting attorney general who determined to follow the Constitution, and the federal judges who have countermanded the recent “barred from entry” immigration edict.

Patience Kitty has other means to dominate Akirri. She easily achieves heights that put her out of Akirri’s reach. And she’s able to fit into or thorough small places where Akirri cannot follow. When she’s ‘had enough’ she slips through a narrow opening into a large enclosed area under the porch, and clearly enjoys taunting Akirri from her impenetrable safety zone.

So far, neither of the two has used her “weapons of war” – sharp doggy teeth and strong jaws, or equally sharp and lightening quick claws. Hopefully, they’ve already formed enough of a bond that this ‘nuclear option’ will not be called upon.

A line in a book I just finished (Deborah Crombie’s “A Finer End”) resonated with my concerns for “the times we are facing”. The story is set against the sense of ancient powers that pervade Glastonbury England, and how that elemental energy can interact with human failings to produce violence. An historian and expert on paganism, Goddess worship, and their integration into very early Christianity was asked in the narrative, why anyone would want to upset the balance of the powers of light and darkness. The line that caught me was her answer, “I am a Jew my dear. During the war I lost every member of my family to the camps. If you ask me what I believe, I can tell you that those atrocities were an incontrovertible example of the power of chaos, magnifying and abetting a very human evil.”

Akirri charging at the chickens generates chaos. Their fluttering panic encourages her to charge and charge again. Patience Kitty sheltering in place quickly stops Akirri’s rough-housing.

Strident panic, and flurries of media attention, in response to every new use/misuse of power would seem, similarly, to lend authority to their author. Calm counter measures akin to sheltering in place – standing witness, standing up for truth and our constitutional values, walking out of a hearing to prevent it going forward, would seem to be appropriate responses well worth pursuing.

My spiritual teacher tells us that “attention is food”. Give your attention to what you want to manifest in your life, and take your attention away from what you want to diminish and disappear. Our present national fearless (fearful? fearsome?) leader has made it plain how essential attention is to him. He must have his daily, even hourly doses of it.

So, in addition to taking steps to de-fund what we do not support (and pay for what we want – money=attention=food) should we not also be insisting that the news media, which most immediately direct our attention, give that attention to the actions, events, people and values we consider important? They contributed largely to the present chaos, giving undue attention to every showy bit of bluster in the name of reaching a wider audience and hence making more money. They surely have a responsibility now to introduce some balance, to try to undo some of the damage they were active participants in creating.

I can only imagine the tantrums that would be thrown if, for merely a day, there were a total media black-out on everything originating in the new presidential regime. I would love to imagine the tantrums being thrown because the press (and the social media) did indeed have the patience and courage to impose such a blackout!

Trump et al are doing their best to muzzle all opposition. How would they behave if given a taste of their own medicine? I’d love to find out.

I Went for a Walk

August 14, 2016

Cleaning out unneeded documents in my computer files, I came across an essay I wrote for myself about eight years ago. I don’t recall writing it. Rereading it now, I recognize that I’ve integrated the essence of it into my self, my life, my philosophy of living, my spiritual path. I choose now to share it with others, offering a bit of my beloved grandfather’s wisdom to those who honor us both by reading my words.

A Walk with My Grampa

I Went For a Walk in the Forest was the book title and first phrase I learned to read, precociously at age three, sitting on my Grampa’s lap as he read the story over and over to me. The book was paper bound, about 6 inches high and 10 inches long, with a black and white cover sketch of the forest surrounded by a pumpkin-orange border. If you opened the book out flat, so that the back and front covers made one whole picture, all the animals met on that forest walk could be seen hidden among the trees. In the delightful manner of children’s fantasy, the animals collected in that forest ignored the habitat restrictions which would normally prevent them meeting, except perhaps in a zoo.

From the safety of Grampa’s lap I learned about lions and horses, a giraffe, an elephant, deer and antelope, and a monkey. When the reading walk was done we rested. He smoked, and I trapped the smoke rings he blew into a wide mouth bottle, where they magically retained shape until the genie who also lived in the bottle stirred them into a fog to give himself shelter.

I went for a walk at the zoo, with my Grampa, most Sundays from when I was seven until I was twelve. He would come down on the train from Baltimore to spend the day with us, and would take me for ‘our’ time. Not always to the zoo, sometimes to the park or just for a walk around the neighborhood. He would ask me about my week in school, what I had learned and what I was reading, and he would tell me about the poem he was working on, or the article he was writing (in Hebrew, or Yiddish) for The Forward (which he pronounced as though a “v” began the second syllable). It was important to him to pick just the right Hebrew word from among several choices for his poems, to convey mood and spirit, as well as meaning.

I went for a walk on the beach – alone now, a world away from my Grampa, he still in Baltimore and I on the sand at Nha Trang, picking up tiny pink and black and pearl-colored shells which elderly Vietnamese refugees from the north collected to string into elaborate necklaces. I wore a small gold pendant my Grampa gave me, with the Tree of Life etched into it. A link, he said, that would stretch from Vietnam back to Maryland, to keep us sharing our walks. Those were harder years, without his immediate presence and gentle wisdom to balance the emotional stresses of my early teens.

I missed him still, when I went for a walk in the Bois de Boulogne during my high school years. I wrote to him, sitting on a sarcophagus in Pierre La Chaise cemetery, one of the few places in bustling Paris that I could find solitude and quiet. Those were very hard years, for both of us. He was no longer working in his dental practice and had fewer places to publish his essays and poems. He was no longer as able to care for himself, and not very aware of time, so his replies to me were intermittent, and rarely responsive to the questions I asked.

I went for a walk in the Crum Woods on Swarthmore’s campus, during my college years, and felt his presence through the guitar in my room, a fine instrument I’d found in a pawn shop, which he gave me the seventy-five dollars to purchase. I’d asked my parents for the money, but my mother had responded in her usual fashion. “Why don’t you prove your interest in playing guitar by learning on a borrowed one before you ask me to spend my money on something you may not pursue?” Fifty years later, that guitar stays easily in tune and its tone is admired by everyone who plays it.

I went for walks by the Chicago shore of Lake Michigan, and along the Charles River in Boston, after helping my mother to settle Grampa in Miami, where the better weather and the presence of a few close friends made it easier for him to manage. We talked on the phone since his eyes had failed to the point that he could not write, nor easily read. With a metal-bound, rectangular, hand-held magnifying glass left from his collection of dental tools, he would slowly read the daily Yiddish press, sharing his opinions with me on the events which he didn’t trust TV news to present fairly. He worried, after the Six Days War, that while its outcome improved Israel’s security at the time, there would come from it a negative turn in world opinion toward the Jewish state. He would, I know, be distraught over the actions and decisions taken recently – the wall, and the West Bank settlements which have become symbols of oppression rather than statements of freedom.

I went for one last walk with my Grampa, along the path beside the railroad tracks in Lamy, here in New Mexico, after he could no longer live on his own. My mother and I moved him into a nursing home outside Santa Fe, where I visited with him several times a month, and brought him to my little converted boxcar house for an outing, the one weekend he was strong enough to come. I told him the story of looking out the train window, age twelve and on my way to Vietnam, seeing Lamy as a strange, wild and western place – missing him desperately and never imagining that we two would walk together there. He answered that it was good to walk with me, though he didn’t really grasp where we were, and complained to me that there were people in his nursing home whom he could hear speaking Yiddish from a distance but who, when he came close and spoke to them, would not answer. I tried to explain that they were speaking Spanish, not Yiddish. He was by then seriously deafened, hearing just enough scraps of language to know when it wasn’t English being spoken. Like most speakers of more than one tongue, with advanced age Grampa’s communication abilities lasted longest in his first language, or in his case his first two, Yiddish for everyday and his beloved Hebrew for poetry and praise.

My grampa died within days of his official 91st birthday. Official, rather than real, because he had to transfer a birthdate from the Jewish (lunar) calendar used in what he called the “dot on the map village outside the dot on a map town” where he was born in Russia, to the western calendar he encountered when he entered the US as a twenty year old man in 1907. Knowing Shvat to be a spring month, he arbitrarily called it March. He equally firmly rejected the proposed Americanizing of his name to Hill, insisting that “no, my name is Domnitz, Aaron Domnitz.”

I go for walks now, often a brisk measured mile by Storrie Lake, or a leisurely stroll along Bridge Street, and realize I am just the age my Grampa was as my parents prepared to take us (his only close family) across the world to Vietnam. After 14 or more years of weekly trips from Baltimore to DC (he began them when my mother became pregnant with me), how great a change – and loss – that must have been for him!

I wonder – but obviously have no one to ask – why my parents didn’t bring him with us? Perhaps it was discussed and he refused? More likely, I’m afraid, my mother determined that she ‘didn’t want the responsibility’. That was her standard reply with which to block everything from my having friends for a sleep over, to helping host visiting dignitaries whom it was my father’s job to entertain. Blessedly it was also her response when Grampa needed nursing home care, so that I got to have him close to me for those precious last 18 months of his life. We went for so many lovely walks, in our talks, during my on-my-way-home-from-work visits with him!

Because life in his natal village had gone virtually unchanged for centuries before he left it, his awareness bridged nearly 300 years. Thus, we talk-walked streets of the 1700s in Russia as readily as those of Santa Fe in 1975. He shared the concern of many, that our technological skills so far exceed our ethical advances. “Will we now bring war to the moon?” was his question after that ‘one giant step’ for mankind.

Grampa’s dental cabinet, filled with a fragile, gaily decorated porcelain tea service from Vietnam, sits in my dining room. I use his magnifying glass when I need stronger eyes. The guitar provides music from many cultures, when I entertain students from the United World College. I pick my written words with care, respecting the importance he gave to nuances of meaning.

My Grampa started me reading about a walk through a forest to meet different animals. He continues to guide me on my walk through life, meeting its varied challenges. Some of that guidance arises from one of the last things Grampa said to me, shortly before he died. I’d asked if he had his life to live over, what he might have done differently. His answer was that he had only two regrets. The first was that he thought perhaps my mother might have been a happier person if he had remarried (he raised her on his own), but he’d never found the right woman. The second was that he wished he’d learned to play the mandolin. No wonder he supported my learning the guitar!

However long my own life walk turns out to be, I hope that when it ends, I will have as few regrets as my Grampa did. With his gifts surrounding me, and his ethics a part of me, I have every reason to succeed.

Rooster Knows

June 12, 2016

You know you’re in the country when… your rooster lets you know not just when it’s morning, but when the hens are wandering farther afield then he thinks right, or the goats are butting each other away from their food, or the dark clouds of summer afternoon rain are looming and the flock should take cover. I’m told that chickens in Cameroon only get under cover when a serious rain is impending. For a few drops they will continue their foraging undeterred. I’m waiting to see if the same applies here in high desert northern NM.

Being able to differentiate mild from major disruptions may be an inherent skill for Cameroonian chickens. It does not seem to be so for humans. Rather, we can spend a lifetime learning to “not sweat the small stuff”. Finding one’s way to feeling happy with oneself and one’s life – a goal most of us strive toward – requires not only relaxing about those small irritants, but also accepting that it’s okay to be happy.

From several sources recently, I’ve been reminded of how much more readily we identify with loss, pain, difficulties and challenges then we do with being “temples of God”, the home of Soul, or inherently divine beings entitled to feel happy and fulfilled. Many years of spiritual practice can increase the ease and frequency of identifying with one’s highest Soul essence, but still we can (or at least I find that I can) be tripped into the pit of unworthiness by surprisingly small stuff.

Why is it so easy to identify with negatives, to point always to what’s missing, and so hard to embrace being loved, appreciated, fulfilled, happy?

Believers of some religions would say it’s because we are born in sin. I think rather that the concept of being born in sin originates in a mind’s effort to explain our propensity to see imperfection rather than perfection. Yes, this is a cart and horse debate, one that cannot be decisively resolved. But in my experience, looking for what’s right rather than poking around in what’s wrong makes for a much happier and more satisfying life. It does take persistent attention and regular refocusing, to not let past experience of lack distort present enjoyment of wealth. I’m including within wealth all the tangible and intangible benefits one can enjoy – supportive relationships, worthwhile employment, a sense of purpose, relaxed ease of emotions, meaningful spiritual practice… a comprehensive list would run many pages.

Research study after research study reveals that negative behaviors of adulthood originate in childhood – abusers were bullied and abused as children, jealous spouses never learned to feel worthy of love, rage-aholics had explosively angry parents, etc. We hear much less about how good childhood experiences with positive role models produce happy and successful adults. Just as news of disasters sells papers, it seems explanations of negative behavior result in academic publication. Would that it were otherwise!

My favorite feature in The Week is entitled “It Wasn’t All Bad” and cites (usually) three stories of generosity, (a fire fighter who bought a month’s groceries for a citizen whose kitchen fire he had been called to help extinguish); achievement (a 101 year old great-grandmother getting her high school diploma alongside her great-granddaughter); or heart-warming connection (a dog lost for over a year being found and returned to the developmentally disabled child who was its original owner). I wish that fully half the weekly magazine’s content could be similarly summarizing positive stories – but it’s a magazine devoted to reviewing the “top” stories in the world press, and most of those are less than heart-warming.

About our bodies, it is said that we are what we eat. About our minds and emotions, it is also true that we become what we give our attention to. Looking always to the negative, we cannot help but feel unworthy. I prefer to “count my blessings instead of sheep, and fall asleep counting my blessings” – at least until the rooster thinks I should be aware and alert to one of his small concerns.

Cock Calls

Cock Calls

Time to Look Back

May 15, 2016

“Work should not be given priority over relationships.”

Quite a challenge for perfectionist, Type A workaholics but a very pertinent statement made by Pastor Katie at Las Vegas’ First Presbyterian Church in the course of her first sermon as the new leader of this congregation. She spoke movingly about the spiritual lessons that come through mundane daily events, such as those surrounding her recent transplant from Colorado to New Mexico.

One of these lessons was about the need we all have, to have persons to whom we can vent our toxic thoughts, persons who will listen and help us clear our spirits without judgement. I recognize this to be my primary role with some of my clients at work. Not as part of my formal job description, which only talks about assisting them to access the services and supports necessary for them to achieve and maintain the maximum of health and quality of life. We include mental health in the range of services we Care Coordinators support, and many of my clients do have counseling or psychotropic medications included in their service plans. They manage the scheduling of their services and their overall health maintenance with little input from me beyond completion of the mandatory assessments which enable them to become eligible for those services.

Some clients, however, cannot accomplish this self-management without an outsider to their daily lives to whom they can express their frustrations, fears, angers or constraints – and they have elected me to be the receptor of these toxic thoughts and feelings. I’m glad when I can provide this service, sometimes also having a suggestion or insight to offer that helps the client move past the blockage. In rare instances, I’ve been used as the means for two people, each with a need, to connect and jointly resolve their separate concerns. I know, when that happens, that I’ve been what I aspire always to be, a “clear channel” for the Divine to work through.

Why is it so much harder to be a similarly clear channel when the issues are not someone else’s but my own?

Why can I “speak truth to power” on behalf of a client but find it so difficult to speak up for myself appropriately in my own relationships and my daily interactions with the various manifestations of power, such as erroneous charges on a bill, or petty tyrants who take pleasure in making me wait unnecessarily before fulfilling their job duties providing service to me?

Is it because I’m female, of “a certain age” and therefore raised before feminism brought out the extent to which women have historically been taught to accept the denial of their right to dignity and respect?
Or is it just my own personality, resultant from an upbringing in a less-than-positive or supportive family?

Does the reason even matter?

I would like to be able to maintain a clarity and simplicity of day-to-day existence such that I can be aware of the spirit flowing through me in service of my own needs, in the same way that I’m able to let it flow through me to serve others. Instead, it seems that ego, or the rough edges of my personality, or both or neither but something else altogether, create blockages and I end up feeling drained and exhausted.

“Too much outflow without enough inflow” my MasterPath teacher would say. Or, as Pastor Katie also shared, not enough quiet time taken to process what is being left behind before new experiences are presented to be taken in. She recognized the need to grieve leaving behind a home where she’d raised her family, and planted iris given her by her mother-in-law.

We have in common that we have both worked in Hospice care, and understand the need to grieve losses, including ones less dire than loss of a loved one to death. A training program I attended for grief counselors emphasized that seemingly small losses can become the triggering event for previously unexpressed pain over the loss of a family member – the man who seems to handle the death of his wife but collapses a year later when the family pet dies, for example. One of the exercises in the workshop required that we attempt to catalogue all the losses we have experienced in our lifetime, to help us recognize things we should give ourselves permission to grieve. Also to help us hear what is implied but not clearly stated when a family member of a deceased client expresses extreme anger at a factually minor loss of respect or status on their job, six months after the death.

Moving from one community to another is a clear transition that will bring up for any sensitive soul – as it did for the pastor – the need to grieve what is being left behind. Other life changes should also be accompanied by time to grieve, but are less likely to be recognized as such. My own fairly extreme change in life pattern is one such, that I did not see as needing to include time for grief, until the pastor’s sermon brought it to my attention. I do appreciate that I am able to hear the suggestion and receive the input just when I need it. I think I’m not being unduly self-congratulatory when I accept that I must be in a fairly “clear” state to be gifted with just the right input at just the right time, even though I felt anything but clear. Indeed, before hearing the sermon, I was angry, feeling disrespected and as though there was no longer room for “me” in my daily life.

All because, as Pastor Katie instructed in her list of lessons learned during her move, work should not be given undue priority over relationships. Including one’s relationship with oneself. I have been so busy trying to meet, to a perfectionist’s standard, the many demands of my job, my clients, my marriage and my daily existence, that I’ve neglected my relationship with me and, more importantly, my relationship with the Divine.

I have been so engaged with my exciting, rewarding but very busy new life that I’ve also not left myself space to process the loss of the old (semi-retired, leisurely and thoughtful) life left behind two years ago. Nor have I been able to properly grieve the termination or the transformation of some relationships from that old life. Pastor Katie will always have the memory of her yard full of blooming iris, but she is no longer able to walk out of her house into that yard. I will always have my memories of frequent and satisfying visits with distant friends, but I can now see those friends only rarely and under different circumstances. The pastor and I each carry an aspect of the past with us into our new lives, but we each also know a sense of loss that deserves attention and time to be grieved.

So much emphasis is placed on the window that opens when a door closes, that people seem to feel guilty paying attention to what’s behind that closed door. We are urged to move on, look forward, appreciate what is being offered and let go of what is being left behind. Good advice, overall, but sometimes too hastily offered.

Moving forward without reviewing and properly saying goodbye to what is past can have the feeling of devaluing that past, and the consequence of leaving us feeling devalued ourselves.

Taking time to dig up a few flowers and bring them along to a new home helps assure that we give ourselves time to say good bye to the life behind that closing door. It is thus that we increase our ability to be clear, and present, with the new experiences coming in through the window, and – for me – it seems that taking time to properly grieve what has been lost is essential to clearing out the toxins that prevent me from achieving a level of clarity of spirit for myself that at least approaches the level which I try to offer to others.

Added benefits – improved health and easier maintenance of desired weight. But that’s a topic for another day.

Autumn Color

Autumn Color

Making Friends

April 17, 2016

My husband’s current work schedule is such that I am alone on Friday evenings. I’ve been scheduling late client visits for my own work, or a massage or other self-care activity into those evenings, but this past week my appointment was cancelled at the last minute. I found myself, after shutting down work at 7 PM, in that odd state referred to as being at loose ends. Sort of wanting to get together with someone for conversation and perhaps a drink, sort of not wanting to be put to the effort of driving to town (twenty minutes). And I was made aware that I do not have much of a list of people to call to meet with at short notice. In the end I settled on the couch with a small drink and a good book and read the evening away. Enjoyable, relaxing – but not sociable.

Between chapters I guess I also thought about the nature of friendships, and socializing, and the fact that I’m one of those who has a few close friends (not necessarily close in proximity), and so many personally engaging work interactions that I usually want quiet and silence and solitude at the end of my work day/week. Spending long working hours helping people with their health needs seems to use up my quota of “people contact” tolerance, leaving little to devote to building friendships of the sort that can provide either planned or spontaneously arranged relaxation.

Or maybe it’s just my personal makeup?

Being an only child, raised by parents who preferred not to “be responsible for other people’s children” as my mother expressed it, and consequently not free to invite playmates to my home, I think I lost out on learning how to relate easily, happily, casually with others. I don’t “do” party chitchat, and never know the latest gossip.

It occurs to me that my strong preference for writing – as emails, letters or this blog – rather than talking on the phone comes from the same lack of learning to connect in that way as a young person. It must seem strange to those fully comfortable in the current “connected” environment, that I was in my early twenties before I lived in easy proximity to a telephone. There weren’t home phones in Saigon, and only very few in Paris where my father did have a phone in his study, but it was paid by and used only for his work.

To this day, I very rarely spend more than a few minutes on the phone in conversation. The exceptions are those special times when I talk with a dear friend who lives at some distance from me, Washington (the state, not D.C.), Minnesota, or Singapore for example. Our close personal connection is already established, I can “see” the person I’m speaking with, and am able to make myself ignore the discomfort of hanging onto a phone. (Don’t say to put the phone on speaker – my conversation is not for all to hear).

A preference for writing over talking should not be taken to mean I do not enjoy dialog. On the contrary, my close friends know that I take great delight in a lively discussion. One of my clients, an elderly gentleman living in a tiny hamlet in the rural “frontier” of New Mexico, saves up news tidbits from his TV watching, that he hopes will “get me going” on a social or political topic. He’s been known to be intentionally provoking, most often when he has also been shorted on good conversation. We agree more often than not, but both enjoy dissecting the broader implications of some current event. He is fighting cancer now – seemingly successfully – and during a recent celebration of a “cancer undetectable” medical report, he humbled me with his comment that he wasn’t ready yet to leave our debate dates.

One of the measures of self-acceptance is purported to be the ability to be comfortable with one’s one company.  Achieving that status does not, apparently, confer freedom from self-questioning, at least at the “I wonder what/why/if” level. I’ve not just spent time alone, but have traveled, eaten in restaurants, gone to night clubs, to the theater, and camping with only myself for company, enjoying all those activities as readily as I have savored them while sharing them with others. My evening with a glass and a book was no less satisfying than it would have been in the company of a friend. I do wonder what would have to change, for me to have a circle of people whom I could have called to share the evening with me?

I’m not one to say it’s too late to change – especially not with the huge alterations to my personal life that have occurred in the past few years. I do question, in the specific case of my social interaction patterns, whether I’m sufficiently motivated to change. I’ve tried, at times in the past, to participate more readily in casual social events and achieved some modest success, measured not just by people coming out at my invitation but by receiving invitations to join them on short notice for coffee, or lunch, or to go to a party. Those periods didn’t last, largely I must admit, because I don’t fundamentally enjoy what feels to me to be superficial chitchat. And yes, I am aware that my lack of enjoyment is recognized.

“You’re too intense (substitute intelligent, intimidating, independent) for most people” is the feedback I get.

With Popeye, “I yam what I yam”, and it’s okay.

Which doesn’t prevent me from wondering at times what it would be like to be someone different, at least in the area of socializing. Perhaps I’ll find that out in my next lifetime? Meanwhile, I have a good book to get back to reading, a stack piled on the shelf waiting for me when this one is done, and an amazingly compatible partner due home in just a few minutes.

IMG-20160306-WA0007

Theme and Variations

November 22, 2015

After several days of wood-stove heated cold weather, the temperature has soared to cotton shirtsleeve comfort, and an afternoon originally intended for housekeeping has turned into one spent on whatever could be completed outside in the sunlight. For my husband, that has meant washing cars. I, meanwhile, cooked some of his habanero pepper sauce on the outdoor grill (its bite sets everyone sneezing and crying if prepared inside) and re-potted houseplants. Or rather, transferred cuttings that had taken root in water into new pots, and repositioned one jade plant that, for reasons of its own, has chosen to grow so lopsidedly that its pot is highly prone to tip over. Reoriented, the main stem now angles sharply to one side, but seen from a distance the whole plant looks much more balanced.

straighter now beneath the window

straighter now
beneath the window

Why do some natures veer off crookedly? How do several children raised in the same supportive environment take such different attitudes forward into their adult life? Why are some people seemingly constitutionally unable to appreciate what is offered and available to them, while others build wondrous achievements out of little more than scraps and string?

My household greenery includes five different Christmas cactus plants, one of which has begun to bloom in anticipation of Advent. If previous years are any indicator, one or two more will flower before the holiday for which they are named, and one – the largest and oldest – will only flower around Easter time. Each is a different color, one white, one pink, and three distinct shades of red. They all get similar light, water and food, and are exposed to the same temperature variations, yet each takes its own turn to blossom.

If it’s true that no two snowflakes are alike (is it so?) then my examples of variation, where similarity might be expected, become rather insignificant and small. But more people seem to be affected by personality differences among siblings than are concerned with verifying the uniqueness of snowflakes or the reasons for oddities in the flowering cycle of plants.

Discussing one of my husband’s English writing assignments brought me up against the debate about how to treat addiction – as a disease that was not chosen any more than one chooses to have cancer, or as an intentional act with moral consequences. The former position is supported by medical evidence showing that when alcohol or drugs cause the release of endorphins in stressed individuals, their brains process this chemical change as life-saving. Future use/misuse of substances becomes, at a purely neurological level, a matter of survival. There is no longer any choice involved, just as a cancer patient does not have a choice about whether his untreated, abnormal cells replicate. Addicts need to seek treatment to recover from their addictions just as cancer patients need to seek treatment to (hopefully) recover from their malignancies.

Choice – and judgement – enter this scenario when the alcoholic refuses to admit he has a problem, or fails to seek treatment. Choice – and judgement – also enter the scenario when a person chooses not to undergo chemotherapy and/or radiation to treat cancer. The same variability that leads us to ask why two siblings should turn out so differently from one another can then lead us to wonder why two similarly situated alcoholics (married, with children, good jobs and reasonably effective support systems) should follow very different paths. Where one recognizes the harm being caused to family, and seeks treatment, the other dives into denial and eventually loses spouse, family and job without ever accepting the many offers of help being extended.

Is it that we need to believe we have free choice, no matter what? Is that why we insist there is a moral standard that is appropriately applied in all life situations? Two children have the benefit of the same loving parenting. One thrives and succeeds and gains our respect. The other struggles and turns to drink and becomes an object of scorn.

We do not scorn the cactus that fails to flower at Christmas. We are happy to welcome its flowering whenever it chooses to show its colors. I do not blame my goat Storm for persistently worming her way between the bars of the pasture gate; it is just her nature to want to get to that greener grass on the other side of the fence. I can’t imagine anyone blaming a snowflake for not looking identical to its neighbors on the patio. Why, then, are we so hard on ourselves and our fellow humans? Why can’t we simply accept that there is a wide range of individual variation in how people grow and respond and live, that our natures are as different, one from another, as are the many snowflakes that covered my yard four days ago? Then it was icy, snowy and cold while today it’s balmy and delightful outdoors. I don’t hear anyone saying “that’s wrong, that’s bad, Nature shouldn’t be so variable and inconsistent.”

Am I asking too much to wish that people could be as accepting of one another’s variability as we are of flowers, snowflakes, weather and stubbornly determined animals? To do so doesn’t mean abandoning standards of conduct, or being obliged to accept anything and everything as “cool, man” or “whatever.” If I meet someone who doesn’t seem to share my values, I am free to choose not to pursue the relationship. I don’t need to judge them, try to change them, or moralize about how and why they are as they are. And I can hope that they would, reciprocally, let me pass on without being subjected to attempts to change my vibrant red colors to muted pink ones.

Aspiration Accomplished

In Ones and Twos

May 25, 2015

I’m taking my time reading In the Shadow of the Banyon, by Vaddey Ratner. Each section of a chapter is a meditation, a vividly imaged reflection on an aspect of relationships, whether between father and daughter, human and landscape, chaos and sanity, or physical and spiritual realities. Set in the time of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia, it is a marvelously sensitive and mature child’s view of life. The landscapes are familiar to me – Cambodia as described is much like the Vietnam of my childhood. The recounting of emotions stirred up by violence and turmoil, by loving relationships and by subtle but profound parental education of children is flawless, presenting – again – a familiar landscape. How can a story set in what I know to have been a devastating massacre of more than a third of the country’s population seem so quietly normal?

Maybe I’ll find an answer to that question by the time I finish the novel. Maybe I won’t, and the question will join others that I ponder about humans and our treatment of one another.

A discussion at the supper table recently explored a different aspect of the human condition, this one looking into interpersonal dynamics. The participants were, with the sole exception of me, young and not so young men from Cameroon studying here and trying to improve their lives and those of their families. Each of us has had a similar experience of a few people who are supportive of our efforts to advance, to learn, to become contributing partners in business or family – and each of us has been dismayed at some point by the negative response of a sibling, or cousin, or coworker.

What, we were asking, makes an older brother, working and well established in a good profession, refuse to help pay a school fee to enable his younger sibling to continue studies (and to remain in status vis a vis the US Immigration Service)? What makes an older sister complain to parents that the student struggling to survive in an unfamiliar culture has neglected to call her and inquire how she is doing? Why doesn’t she initiate the call? She is the elder, and yes one owes respect to one’s older siblings, but they in turn owe care and support to those coming behind them (at least in traditional Cameroonian village culture).

I have no siblings, so I can’t comment on how/whether there is a similar implicit set of obligations in western families. I can note that we acknowledge certain rights and corresponding obligations that go with seniority at work – and that there are usually one or more coworkers who object to this tradition. The Cameroonians commented that too often in their society, people fail to see the hard work, perseverance and sacrifice that goes into family advancement. They only look at the outcome and attribute the family’s change in status to graft, or black magic, or some similarly negatively acquired advantage which isn’t earned by merit.

Our discussion included the image of crabs in a barrel, reflecting the way some members of a group will not try to join the one climbing up and out but instead collect together and do their best to pull the leader back down to their failing level. I encountered the latter attitude locally, when I first started my role as director of a home health agency regional office. One of the nurses I hired for “as needed” visits had been employed as a clinic LPN for a number of years, attending school part-time to get her RN. When she did achieve it, the doctor heading her clinic gave her roses and I gave her a happy hug and a pay raise. Her several nurse co-workers scorned her achievement and excluded her from their circle.

At the dinner table, we didn’t talk about competition versus cooperation as a societal dynamic – but we could have done. Instead we stayed on a more individual level and came to the conclusion that people seem to fall into two main categories when it comes to achievement. The first group is of people who are motivated to achieve for the group of which they are members (family, clan, work team). They are generally open minded and flexible, enabling them to see and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. They grab their chances, work hard and try to make the best of the gifts that come their way, gifts for which they easily express gratitude and thanks.

The second group is made up of those who single-mindedly think of and for themselves and their own advancement. They often seem to believe that the way forward is by finding an edge, an advantage, perhaps the softhearted person who can be persuaded or manipulated into giving them what they want. They work hard also – but their energy is devoted to manipulating others into giving them the preferment, the promotion, the degree or the job. And they disdain those who don’t cater to their sense of entitlement.

One thing we did all agree on, is that parenting and education play a role in which route a growing child decides to take – but neither parenting nor education explains why in a family of five or six siblings, there will always be at least one who falls into each of the two groups. In other words, nature plays a role, not just nurture. We did not digress into beliefs as to what makes for those inherent, nature-based differences. That is a topic for another dinner, or week of dinners, and another post.

Our conversation instead moved on to how we each (believing and being perceived by the rest as members of the first group) have chosen to deal with our relations who are part of the second group. Here, we parted ways. Some continue to try to engage the disdaining other by placating, by continuing to reach out despite the lack of reciprocity, and by “not sinking to their level”. Others have resolutely drawn a line, stating that “he has my number, when he chooses to call me I will talk to him but otherwise I’m functioning as if I don’t have a brother at all.” Neither route is satisfactory – nor were any of the several balancing acts falling between these two end points. However any of us decided to manage the situation, however comforted we felt that we are not alone in our quandary, however clearly we understood the nature of the differences between ourselves and those others, none of us was satisfied, not having a final answer to the question of “why” our opposites were the way they are. The closest we came was “C’est entre les mains de Dieu.” It’s in God’s hands.

As I write now, I’m aware that once again, as so often of late, I feel I have come up against a limit of rationality, a limit to mind’s ability to understand. Trying to reason my way to a course of action regarding the Group Twos in my life is futile. I need instead to let mind go still, and hear the inner voice of spirit directing me on what to do in this moment of this particular relationship. I need to remember that what is appropriate in this moment may be quite different in another moment of the same relationship.

Mind thinks in abstracts and wants answers that will be good for a period of time. Reality only exists in the moment, so there really are no answers to mind’s questions. It is enjoyable – and creates new and positive bonds – to talk things out with others, but the process does not, cannot lead to answers because the questions are by their nature unanswerable in the mental realm.

Which is undoubtedly why I am finding In the Shadow of the Banyon such a rewarding read – it invokes life as a constantly flowing series of moments of now, wherein questions are asked and answers have at least a possibility of arising. It speaks to the spirit within, more than to the mind. It covers births, and deaths, separations and new bonding. It beautifully reflects life. As does the newest member of our household, born just a week ago, on May 18th. Welcome to our world, Storm.

 

One Week Lively

One Week Lively

New Habits

March 19, 2015

A friend from a very long time ago recently got in touch with me (plus side of online social networks) and we’ve begun to “catch up” on what our life paths have been. She has an advantage over me (or is it the other way around?) in that she’s been following this blog and therefore knows a bit about what causes me to reflect – and to write. She has already given me a different view of my early self – or perhaps more accurately, she has given me an added perspective on that earlier self.

When we knew each other, we were each married – marriages that, for different reasons, did not last. Each of us carried that married name forward, I suspect also for quite different reasons. In my case, I have always said that I became the person I think of myself as being while I was in that marriage, and thanks to the qualities of care and understanding provided me by that husband. I honored those qualities by keeping his surname as my own. My friend has just shared that she experienced some of those same qualities in her friendship with my husband – so strongly that he has remained in her mind over all these years. He is no longer alive, but I’m certain that, wherever it is now, his Soul hears and enjoys her appreciation of him.

My present husband just had a reading assignment which he asked me to review, dealing with the relationship between mothers and daughters. The essay addressed the widely experienced stress that arises between teenage girls and their mothers, as each finds fault with the other. A photo in the paper to announce winning of an important career prize does not produce admiration; instead the mother comments that her daughter should have gotten a haircut before the award ceremony – her bangs are too long. “She never has anything positive to say about me” is the daughter’s criticism of her mother.

Both are correct and both are in error. As the essay suggests, often the motivation for the criticism is loving concern. Unfortunately, only the criticism is heard, not the motivation behind it. Sensitive to being flawed ourselves, we want those we love to be perfect, but in our efforts to perfect them, we accentuate their flaws. It takes an extraordinary sensitivity to resist this urge to perfect, and instead to accept people as they are. But to do so is a lesson well worth learning, not just for improved mother-daughter relationships, but for more rewarding friendships, and happier marriages also.

Looking at how challenging I’m finding it to accept doing less than what I consider to be an adequate performance at my job, I can trace my tendency to self-criticism directly back to my early teens, and my own deeply inculcated negative judgments arising from my mother’s (loving?) intention to perfect me. The fact that my supervisor is more than pleased with my performance does not enter into my self-analysis. Rather, I recognize that accepting others as they are is easier than accepting myself as I am. There remains a deeply embedded need to improve to the point that I will finally hear from a parent that I’ve done well, succeeded, met expectations. Not possible, given that both of my parents are long gone from this world, neither of them having ever said those soothing or supportive words.

I do know, in other ways, that my father was proud of me. And I understand, with an adult’s hindsight, that my mother was not emotionally healthy enough to be other than she was – fear driven to the point of psychosis. Knowing these truths helps – but knowing does not immediately translate to feeling whole, nor healed. The habit of self-criticism is deeply embedded. The habit of self-acceptance must be acquired by diligent, persistent effort.

Fortunately, friends old and new bring their perceptions and appreciation into my process of converting from the old habit to the new one. I may never feel fully at ease with what I do not complete in my 50-60 hour work weeks, but I am learning to set the undone aside without guilt. What needs to be done is getting done, and what needs my attention outside of work is receiving that attention in a timely manner. I do not ask more than that of others – now I’m learning to not ask more than that of myself.

Hmmm… What will I do with the freed-up energy that I have been throwing away on self-judgment?

I do not know the answer to that question, but I do know that I have learned the patience to wait and see what the Divine has planned. I’m delighted that we do not have to have answers, only be open to asking questions which allow answers to present themselves.

Life is so much easier, lived that way.

Impartial Light

Impartial Light

To Heal a Tummy

January 11, 2015

The weather has been on a crazy whirl this past week – sunny and a spring-like sixty-five one day, icy twelve degree fog the next coating everything in sheaths of white rime. Then another warm day melting it all, to be followed once more by ice rime and black-ice accidents on the highways. We’re projected to have several more of these mood swings in the next week, around which I am trying to plan my work-related travel.

I regularly go up over the mountain (part of the Rockies) from my home to Taos. I have to accommodate my planning not only to the fluctuations of weather as I experience them where I live, but also as they manifest quite differently on “the other side.” Just last week, I spent a warm and lovely day seeing clients in Taos, and did not know it had been a fogged-in and icy day at home until I came back over the ridge in the late afternoon, and looked down onto clouds.

Above the fog

Above the fog

Bodies react to these unpredictable changes in climate. Old injuries begin to ache, remnants of bronchitis flare, sinuses swell and congest, even tummies become sensitive and refuse to function properly. There is a very direct cause and effect for the bone and joint aches – heat soothes and cold aggravates these types of reminders of past incidents. To the extent that the warmth releases pollens, chest and sinus irritations can also be understood as directly related to weather. But tummies?

I’m one of those who are most sensitive to what affects tummies. Mine has been – my husband sweetly calls it fragile – since infancy. I’m more inclined to use harsher words, like irritable, aggravating, infuriating. It’s definitely where any and every stress lands. My mother complained to all who might sympathize, that the only formula I could tolerate as a baby was one which required a great deal of work – a complicated process involving twenty-four hours of advance preparation and multiple periods of cooking. I also had many food allergies, and did not outgrow them until I was well into my teens. Some I have retained all my life, in the form of sensitivities I’ve learned to recognize.

Some days I can eat eggs, other days they make me very sick. And I react horribly to the ‘flu vaccine, incubated in eggs. I love fresh tomatoes, but have to moderate my consumption, and must avoid most cooked tomato products, like spaghetti sauce. Thankfully, I can usually enjoy strawberries, and most thankfully I’ve never, as an adult, re-experienced hives from eating hard-shell seafood. I am gluten intolerant, have probably been so all my life but have only accepted and adjusted to that limitation in more recent years… hmm… nearly ten years now.

I’ve repeatedly questioned why, when I mind my diet and adhere to its restrictions, I can still suffer from severe and usually totally unanticipated abdominal distress. It’s too easy to blame the weather, claiming some as yet unrecognized link between storms and digestive upsets. My latest bout was with an actual bug that is going around.

Identified cause, commonly experienced effect.

I treated the episode partially with a special form of deep breathing I’ve learned in Ba Gua, something called empty breathing. The unpleasant symptoms of stomach ‘flu remained present. Empty breathing did not eliminate them, but it did seem to reduce the pain and cramping side effects. And I recovered quickly, for me. Instead of a week of subsequent hypersensitivity, I was able to eat my normal diet by the third day.

Which set me to reflecting further on breathing as a relaxation technique, and breathing helping my tummy recover, relaxation being related to quick recovery… maybe relaxation being related to not being so fragile, going forward?

I’ve begun 2015 focused on doing what arises for me, to the best of my ability, in a flexible way that does not allow for me to berate myself for what is not done – or what is not done as thoroughly as I might like. I’ve even incorporated that goal into the “work-related achievement objective” that I must create as part of my employee evaluation criteria for this new calendar year. My personal achievement objective (another requirement) dovetails, in that I’m committing to a certain number of blog posts, which means committing to a consistent pattern of taking time for myself in quiet reflection.

I’ve learned that if I don’t write, I don’t reflect – and conversely if I don’t take time to reflect, I can’t write. And I’ve also learned that my tummy is less fragile if I’ve reflected more. Because I breathe differently when I reflect? Maybe. Because I release tension when I reflect? Certainly.

Which brings me inexorably to the conclusion that my childhood must have been filled with tensions (gee, I had no idea) and was consequently one of frequent sickness. I learned a pattern then, related to my mother’s fierce dislike of “the sick room”, which was that if I was sick, I was left alone (not harassed, nor subjected to demands). No wonder, for years, when I began to feel overwhelmed, I’d fall ill. Even after I was on my own, and being ill only added to the pressures I was experiencing, rather than providing relief from them.

Then, finally, I recognized that pattern and the need to release it. I came to the realization that if I didn’t take time to care for my spiritual self, I’d get sick several times a year – brought to a halt, confined to bed, enabled to contemplate what had brought me there.

Lesson learned.

As noted above, now I mind my diet, I exercise, I pursue my daily spiritual practice, and I treat myself as respectfully as I treat others. But still there remains that fragile tummy, that I’d like to see be more durable and tolerant, especially when it comes time to travel with my husband to Cameroon.

So it seems I’m being asked to take a next step, to actively and consciously come to recognize the tensions I habitually tuck into my gut, and to stop doing this basically harmful practice.

We all store tension somewhere. If I see my husband stretching his neck, rolling and flexing his shoulders, or holding his head somewhat rigidly when turning to look to the side, I know to ask what family matters are bothering his mind. He quite literally “carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.” I, on the other hand, apparently absorb and “swallow” the cares of others.

People – especially my clients – are inclined to say that they feel better after talking to me. I’m very glad for that ability to help them, and do not want in any way to diminish that form of service to those in need of a listening ear. However, I do want to learn to recognize when I am taking their cares into my body and Being, and to stop doing so, on however subtle a level I internalize their issues.

My Master teaches us about the goal of being “a pure and open channel” for the Shabda, or Divine Soul Current, or Sound, or – to Christians – the Holy Spirit. When one is such a channel, others are enabled to clear their own karmic issues, while the channel remains free of the shadow of those issues. Putting the abstract into a very mundane image, one becomes able to clear the soot from a wood stove without getting that soot on one’s hands and clothes.

I obviously have a way to go, down this new path of understanding. I’m still at a point equivalent to getting soot on my hands when I load wood into the stove for burning. But each time I load that stove, less soot transfers. Each time I notice my tummy being “unhappy with me” I can stop, breathe deeply, and tell it lovingly to release whatever emotional tension I’ve unthinkingly crammed into it. And above all, I can remind myself daily that my job, my busy days, my world are all too big for my puny mind to encompass, let alone control. As soon as I no longer try to control my days, they sort themselves out far more perfectly than I could ever have imagined.

Ice Dance at Sunrise

Ice Dance at Sunrise

THAT is the blessing of not being a human being, but rather “being a Spiritual Being, having a human experience.” (T. de Chardin).

Accomplishments

December 21, 2014

In high school, I was required to complete English to French translations on a weekly basis. In college, minoring in French, the translation obligation continued. I became quite adept at it, even thought about a career as a translator but life took me in a different direction. Over the many long years I’ve lived in New Mexico with minimal occasion to use French, I gradually lost my fluency.

A year ago, I felt that if I did not do something – urgently – to begin using French again, I would cease to be able to express myself in the language. I sought out someone with whom to speak and not only regained fluency but totally transformed my life. Now, a year later, I was called upon last night to translate English into French once more. The task was only a short prayer for Advent, but I found myself able to complete the project easily and rapidly. Few recent accomplishments have given me as great a sense of satisfaction as that paragraph of translation, flowing readily from my pen.

Over the course of a day, I reflected on why I value the resurrection of bilingual skill so much more highly than I do the talents that let me do my daily work effectively. I have been complimented on what others perceive as my unique work skills which they value and appreciate. I don’t exactly take my talents for granted, but – like my ability to cook – they come so naturally as to be simply a part of me.

Is it the perceived effort involved, that affects what I feel to be an accomplishment?

Once upon a time, I suppose, cooking took effort. That was so very long ago that I truly don’t remember not being easy in the kitchen, as I was when recently called up to create a satisfying Asian/African meal for 3 hungry men with only an hour’s notice. It did please me that the meal satisfied my guests. I expected nothing less of myself.

My mother had a part-time job, when I was small, that took her out of the house just before I arrived home from school. She would leave me notes listing my chores for the day, often including the beginning preparations for that night’s supper. I apparently absorbed the basics of cooking and seasoning so completely that, years later, I “created” a chicken dish for company that was a big hit. I later served it to my parents when they came to visit. My mother took a bite, then said, “When did I give you this recipe?”
“You didn’t. I made up the meal when I wanted to do something different with chicken.”
“But I used to cook this same dish,” she insisted.
We compared notes on spices and preparation and she said I had copied her exactly. I was 24 then. The last time my mother could have cooked the meal for me, I was eight.

I cannot so easily point to the origins of my skill with people, and with words, that contribute to the appreciation I have lately experienced in my work. Living in different cultures certainly played a part. So did my parents’ emphasis on speaking correctly. I remember my father walking around the house practicing “around the rough and rugged rock the ragged rascal ran” in order to soften his Germanic r’s. In recent years, I’ve had to consciously undo some of that early language training. It comes across to some people as arrogance or snobbishness, qualities that interfere with establishing the rapport essential to my job in health care.

It still surprises me, that people perceive me as having a unique talent for connecting “with all sorts” in many different environments. People interest me. Understanding them is necessary to assisting them. I’m just “doing what comes naturally.” Which brings me back to the idea that there must be some effort involved in an activity, for me to feel that it is an accomplishment. I had to work, this past year, to restore my comfort with French, so completing the translation feels like an achievement.

There is a caution offered, that one should beware of what comes easily. “Easy come, easy go.” I wonder if it is meant to warn against not taking one’s own easy talents for granted? If one disregards the talents, will one lose them? Certainly, not practicing and using French almost led to that sort of loss. But I cannot conceive of not knowing how to cook, and am now daily making meals pleasing to someone other than myself, using recipes I have not prepared in more than ten years.

My people skills and cooking seem to fall into the realm of habit – like riding a bike, swimming, or driving a car. I no longer need to think about them, I just do them. Habitual skills do not fade (except maybe with dementia or other brain malfunctions) for lack of practice. In fact, it took close to forty years of non-use for my ability to speak French to fade from fluent to almost erased. I’ve been told that my French was not at risk of extinction, only dormant and waiting for the proper environment to cause it to rise once more to a serviceable level. Maybe. It didn’t feel that way last year at this time.

Am I alone in not taking much credit for habitual skills? Is it common to only value that which one has worked to achieve? If skills and talents already developed are sufficiently satisfying, does one then “rest on one’s laurels” and perhaps cease to learn and grow?

Aspiration Accomplished

Aspiration Accomplished

I don’t have answers today, only questions… seulement des questions, pas de reponses.
Merci de me lire et de me repondre.


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