Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hello! I'm back. At least for today.

It was pure joy to have a week of such intimate time with my little granddaughter, the experience of this year old child. She climbed the stairs for the first time under my supervision, and did it with such eager joy. She stood on her own for a tentative moment for the first time while she and I were playing. And in my arms she saw a fawn still wobbly on its legs, it was that new, and identified it with her excited, "oof! oof!" because she identifies every four-legged creature as a dog.

We played and played and played and then, like her, I needed to rest, take a nap, have some food. I got to see her go to the window on her own initiative and ask for "Daddy?" without anyone having mentioned her daddy in the course of that day. And I got to see her back in her daddy's arms, after he returned from his travels, together again with both her most dearly beloveds, her parents.

Here at the end of May it's hot and humid with code orange/code red air-- suede-like air, thick, almost nappy-- and I'm so thankful for air conditioning. But I took my normal walk yesterday and this morning. Early, while it was still cool enough.

I walked with Giulia in the front pack while we were together, and now I miss being tummy-to-tummy with her, noticing what she notices while she's awake, feeling her soft and relaxed against me when she sleeps. Simultaneously, I am thankful to be so light-bodied and free.

Her empty blue swing seat with the red restraining bar, yellow harness straps and yellow rope looks forlorn and lonesome to me without her to sit in it. I will likely take the swing down, bring it in where it is protected from weathering, where I am not constantly reminded of her absence. I miss her, yes, yet also I am happy to be back to my own quieter routine.

How will I find myself changed by the variety of experiences just passed?

The Japanese honeysuckle that vines all around here in such an invasive, smothering way is also blooming everywhere right now, and has a sweet, sweet smell.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Teacher

In her book Hand Wash Cold, Karen Maezen Miller tells of seeking a teacher, and of discovering what she now knows about a teacher:

"A book may teach, but a book is not a teacher.

"A teacher may find fame, but a teacher is not a celebrity.

"A teacher comes from a line of teachers and completes a length of training that he or she freely admits is never complete.

"A teacher is rarely found and yet astonishes you with his or her complete availability.

"A teacher doesn't ask much of you— not your life, not your loyalty, and not a high fee for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"A teacher waits." (52)

"A true teacher is likely to be the most ordinary person you'll ever meet." (53)

"Choosing the wrong teacher is worse than having no teacher at all." (54)

Miller is speaking specifically of a Roshi, an "old teacher" of the Zen tradition. I've looked at the list, though, and by its standards I know I've had a few good people as trained teachers in my life.

And then there's every daily life experience that comes to me, each with its lesson, every day full of newness and things to notice in ways I never before have noticed. The natural world, the objects of my life, and all the pets and people, when they are predictable and when they are unpredictable. Again and again I am learning to laugh and otherwise just learning.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I know I share in the essence of this green, green world, how it glistens, how the green burns so intensely in this rainy day. I am aware that I know nothing except what I know through the slime and mud and mush of this sensuous world. All of it.

Thomas Moore writes, in Original Self, "What would it be like, I wonder, if we were born in some dramatic spiritual way. Say the soul like a sheet of silky gauze fell down from the heavens in a soft flutter? Would that be preferable to the birth of a human being at the fork in the legs amid blood, excrement, and waters? I don't think so, because we are given life by the green mama as well as the angel of fire, and the green mama doesn't think much about what she does. She loves and gives birth and then takes back to herself everything she has birthed.

"The mystery of green life can be trusted because it is not self-conscious. By some magical transformative power, the green of the mother's trees and plants overwhelms us with its beauty." (82)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Everything Matters

"The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection
The water has no mind to receive their image."
~a Zenin

Those two lines capture the essential way that Lao Tzu's words are true, that if we will have peace in the world, the nations, the cities, the family, then we must find the ways to create peace within our own hearts. Retired and tired, both, I live so quietly that I sometimes can imagine that what I do in a day doesn't count for much, that my choices and small needs and contributions no longer matter. But I really know better.

Everything matters.

Every thing, large or small, matters. One's presence or absence, one's silence as well as one's words, the way we eat, the way we talk, walk, what we notice and what is outside our consciousness entirely. All of it. Everything matters.

We set our plans, and work to carry them through, we stay busy in our days, spend our resources to reach the goals we set for ourselves. We strive for all sorts of things we imagine to be desirable. We look around the rooms and hallways of our lives at all we have done. We judge our contributions. Of some things we're proud, of others not so much, but we can think about and observe the results of who we've been, what we've done.

We also can not know how our influence echoes out. We are the geese, we are the water. We also cast and reflect an image in the world without any thought or mindful intention.

This afternoon I planted seventy-two impatiens and two trailing coleus plants, and moved the impatience that had overwintered indoors to try them where we'll see them from the front door. In addition, today I did a whole variety of small things in an effort to make the house a safe, comfortable place for our not quite one year old granddaughter who will visit next week. Simultaneously, I want the house also to be safe and comfortable for our blind and arthritic eighteen year old cat. I relax into the certainty that this, too, matters, every detail matters, for I deeply trust the truth that in the way of the Zenin above, everything matters.

The poplar trees have begun to drop their large, lovely tulip-like flowers, yellow petals each with an orange base, and with cream stamen and pistils at their heart. Lao Tzu wrote, "Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished."

[I found the opening Zenin on page 43 in Thomas Moore's 1981 book Original Self, but he cites his source as Nancy Wilson Ross, from page 258 in her 1960 book The World of Zen. A google search did a less-good job of indicating original source, original author, than Moore did, so I'm trusting Moore, and HarperCollins.]

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"You can't be suspicious of a tree, accuse a bird or squirrel of subversion or challenge the ideology of a violet." Hal Borland

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The cat and the deer

"As important as it is to believe, it is even more important not to believe. Pure belief is too thick. There is no room for movement and no motive for reflection. When belief is rigid, it is infinitely more dangerous than unbelief. And belief becomes thick and rigid so frequently that it is often difficult for a thoughtful person to want to believe or admit to being a believer. ....

"...a person of no belief lives an unconscious existence as though he were in a river that he has never observed from the banks. Belief gives daily life the hesitancy of reflection and a little air. Maybe just a dot of belief would save the secularist from absorption in his culture, and a dot of unbelief might save the devotee from drowning in his faith." (34-35) So writes Thomas Moore in his 2002 book The Soul's Religion.

We have an insouciant orange and white cat who loves to go outdoors and explore around the environs of her home. On Mothers Day I'd let her out into the sunny, mild morning, and was then sitting in the window seat, listening to Krista Tippet's program OnBeing and observing the world, when I noticed a deer browsing at the edge of the yard. Then little Miss Yuengling (our pale ale cat, and the companion black-with-white-trim one is Guinness) pranced into the picture, too. The deer, which had been casually looking about between bites, turned to this other creature rustling and bounding about. The deer's jaw and feet stayed very still, but it swiveled and focused it's ears directly at the cat, and craned its neck a bit, and even it's nostrils quivered. The cat bounded and bounced along, oblivious.

A few minutes later I went to the kitchen and from a different window saw that the cat had pranced and circled her way around to where two other deer were ambling along. She appeared so suddenly in their domain that one of them raised its white flag of a tail and jumped a few leaps away before stopping to really notice who caused the startling movement and noise. There they were, these timid, large creatures and the small, unconcerned one commanding all their attention, the little boss of the scene.

Yuengling was, perhaps, foolishly fearless, and the deer were unnecessarily fearful; she seemingly certain of her position, they quite uncertain. Certainty and uncertainty, faith and lack of faith, belief and unbelief. I find myself in both camps, believing in all that is seen and unseen, and also full of questions and distrustful of those who have such definite, certain sureness that they have answers to the whys and ways of the now and hereafter. Seems to me that wisdom writings present wise questions along with wise instructions for my life. Let me be some combination of both the cat and the deer.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

I like to hear another's point of view on an issue I care about. It is that kind of other-opinion against which I can test my position— push back, perhaps, or at least test the choices I am making, test what I want and do not want.

If I seek a man's point of view, my adult sons are often among the most honest, thoughtful people with whom I can test myself. They know me in ways no one else does, nor ever can. They are kind, and will engage with whatever issue is on my mind, whatever issue I bring forward to discuss. They are true to themselves, and, also, they love me.

And I love them, forever and ever. I think Mother love is the closest I've observed to unconditional love. In relationship with my sons, it seems important to me to notice the experience of how very complex the deepest kind of love actually is as it takes on the forms of flesh and blood in this world. Knowing my own depth and complexity of feeling for (and relationship with) my sons informs me about who my own mother was, as well.

I do not comprehend in any way the mind of a woman who claims she does not love her child. But I do comprehend the infinite variety, the perfect imperfection, of Mother love, and the helplessness and power that are not mutually exclusive in that relationship.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On a Sunny Day, Rain.

Life experiences are additive as well as singular and in the moment. Some memories just walk with us. This one I wrote years ago, now. It was a year when Easter was early. The feeling, the experience, is still true; for me, it's likely one of those forever truths, part of the largesse of life that I carry at this time of year:

It's been many years— decades— since Mother's death. Easter three weeks past, Mother's Day coming soon, the earth is wild with new growth. I'm supposed to be done mourning. But it is her birthday.

I walk alone through steady rainfall, my shoulders squared and my chin tilted up, intentionally allowing the planes of my face to accept the full impact of each small hit. My brows protect my eyes, but the ping of water on my lashes where they extend causes me to blink rapidly, and finally I settle for arranging my face in a squint. The first overall effect of the rain had implied a steady fall. Now I sense the varied sizes and forces among the individual drops. They come at irregular intervals, unpredictable for any given moment and nerve ending. Some droplets feel minute and piercing, like needle pricks. Others feel plump and soothing as balm spreading, comforting as a goodnight kiss. Still others feel thick and sweet as a drop of held-up-and-laughing-baby's drool. The wetness gathers and chases in rivulets to drip off the end of my nose and the edge of my jaw. I touch my tongue to the wetness on my lips, and find it salty. It is then I realize my tears have joined the raindrops.

I feel a lonesome sadness as if it hangs above my right shoulder, as if it were a chasing shadow. I recognize but refuse to perpetuate its presence. Instead I focus on the even swing of my stride, the coordinated rhythm of inhalation - exhalation, and the clean, cool rain falling on my face. The air smells of turned earth, of musty rot, of lily-of-the-valley. Grasses bow down beside the road, obedient to the weight of collected water. Here are fragrant, creamy blossoms on a wild olive tree, so sweet and fleeting as I pass by.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Politics and Poetry

Once more I turn to ideas found in the writing of David Brooks in The Social Animal. Brooks observes that the liberal movement believes in using government to enhance equality and the conservative movement believes in limited government to enhance freedom. "But historically, there had been another movement that believed in limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility." The history he refers to starts with Alexander Hamilton's ideas of government. (Italics added.)

Brooks writes, "Social Mobility reduces class conflict because no one is sentenced to spend their days in the caste into which they were born. Social mobility unleashes creative energies. It mitigates inequality, because no station need be permanent." (332)

As members of this difficult democratic republic, how do we come to our own political attitudes? I think it is by life experience, which is the totality of one's education. Life experience depends, in part, on formal education. A well rounded balance requires-- well, roundedness. That is, exposure to the full range of humanity, and that includes math, science and technology, the social studies and also the arts. For example, I want a doctor who practices the art and science of medicine.

Consider the role of poetry, one of the arts that sustains me. "Let us remember... that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both," writes Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry. (www.PoetryMagazine.org)

There was a time, perhaps, when the great majority of the citizens in our country were, at least a bit, familiar with the poetry of the King James Bible: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes... What kind of poetry do we share now? The poetry of rappers and other pop vocalists?

What are the underlying values that define your attitudes, and mine? If we desire conscious change, where will you look for direction? How will we choose the balance among the values of equality, freedom, social mobility?

I would submit that our politicians do not guide us, we guide them. Might poetry open us in ways that allow us to be less apt to destroy "our lives and the world in which we live them"?

Here's a poem to consider:

Hard Night by Christian Wiman

What words or harder gift
does the light require of me
carving from the dark
this difficult tree?

What place or farther peace
do I almost see
emerging from the night
and heart of me?

The sky whitens, goes on and on.
Fields wrinkle into rows
of cotton, go on and on.
Night like a fling of crows
disperses and is gone.

What song, what home,
what calm or one clarity
can I not quite come to,
never quite see:
this field, this sky, this tree..

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day

"You mortgage your heart for the rest of your life when you become a mother."
~Sylvia Boorstein

I'm so thankful that I committed to mortgage my heart thus. I am not in any way disappointed with the return on my investment. My adult sons decorate my life in the best and most amazing ways. Thanks, guys.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Immortals

Laughter usually happens when a thing is a bit unexpected yet fits in its juxtaposed place and is recognized as also part of how things are. Researchers say that first the puzzle recognition parts of the brain light up, then the pleasure centers, and we laugh.

This first paragraph of the last chapter of David Brooks' book The Social Animal makes me laugh:
"It's hard to know when The Immortals started appearing on the mountains. You'd be hiking or biking or cross-country skiing outside of Aspen, Colorado, and from behind you'd hear this whoosh that sounded like an incoming F-18. You'd turn around and see this little nugget of Spandex. It was one of those superfit old guys who'd decided to go on a fitness jihad in retirement. He'd shrunk as he crossed age seventy, so he'd be four ten and ninety-five pounds of hard gristle wrapped in Spandex action gear. He'd be coming at you at ferocious speed, wearing weights on his wrists and ankles and a look of fierce determination on his small wrinkled face. You'd be huffing and puffing on the mountainside, and this superbuff Spandex senior would whiz by like a little iron Raisinette." (361)

He goes on in this vein for several more paragraphs, and I recognize those of whom he writes. I've met these same superseniors on the pages of the AARP magazine, and I occasionally skim those articles and allow myself to be amazed at the photos. It gives me such a sense of disconnectedness to think this is the ideal held up by the magazine that speaks for the organization of elders. Wow. Not anything close to the ideal I strive for, and quite unrelated to my life and struggles. Thankfully, Brooks goes on, in that last chapter, to describe the actual, real kinds of experiences that I do recognize as part of my life. So for a couple pages, its great fun to recognize this creative, delightful description of a small slice of the population and to laugh.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Scott and I had a lovely convertible ride on back roads to the trail along the Susquehanna that starts at Conowingo Dam. And then an hour of me walking and him running the trail. I was hoping to see some Virginia bluebells, for they grow in profusion there, and silly me, I am too late. The river was high and fierce and muddy. The big rocks where heron usually stand to contemplate life and, oh yes, fish are all under water. So many herons startled from the shore as I passed, and many more were to be seen on the islands. The river-edge is sparkly with dappled shade, water reflections and bird song; the path is already fully shaded. Back home my red (actually, more like a deep crinson, almost maroon) trillium is in full bloom.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Half-fledged leaves twitter in the breeze, light and shadows at play. A male cardinal stands in unmown grass at the base of a tree looking like a late-blooming tulip. In rough, scruffy places, woodland's edge and along back roads, wild Russian olive trees lift their branching arms as if in prayer, their open, creamy, bell-like blossoms releasing their sweet, sweet scent.

Daffodils, jonquils, narcissus all have gone to seed. Actual tulips (ones not birds) are done blooming. Dogwood petals fall.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Day

May, the month of obvious exploding growth in the natural world. Also a collection of days for more subtle individual growth.

Dear heart, what do you want? From where you are in your life, what next? What do you notice? Where will you place your focus? What will you choose to do? What will you choose to not do? Just for now, just for this moment, this hour, this day. This merry month of May.