spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
PictureOngoing construction on Gough / Alison R.
If we weren’t related, we might never see each other again, at least not in San Francisco. He might be willing to travel as far north as Pacifica or Daly City, but enter the city and county of San Francisco? Probably not.

This last visit to Grandma Alzie ended a day early, for the very good reason that my son couldn’t expect his six-year old to sit amidst the  glass of a shattered rear window, a feat done in full daylight just minutes after he had parked in front of the condo I call “home.” Whoever did the deed took the six-year-old’s clothes off the back seat, left the golf clubs and the gift box of white dishes just purchased from Bed, Bath and Beyond. The clothes must not have suited because the sad soul scattered them in a nearby bush.

My son blamed himself for failing to hide his belongings. No doubt, he did not expect in daylight with street traffic whizzing past, people on foot, and within mere minutes of his leaving the car, a crime could be committed. Unfortunately, it was really just the icing on the crap cake of this his most recent and perhaps last visit to Grandma Alzie’s condo in the Civic Center.

Consulting his many contacts up and down the coast, he located a fellow in Salinas who could replace the window if they got there before 4 p.m. Thus son and granddaughter had to leave immediately. Their untimely departure meant I would not be taking my granddaughter to the Van Ness AMC to see Earth to Echo, a film for which the little reviewer-man didn’t move an inch in his chair. Of course, I would have endured any film to be with her, her popcorn and slurpee. 

On the positive, their early leave-taking prevented our dealing with the problem of getting her to the movie. She is not permitted to ride public transportation since she and my son last visited this city. Near Christmas time, taking the 5-Fulton from the Disney Store on Market, we were in the company of an inebriated, urine-soaked soul doused in Old Spice. The wafting odor caused the little girl to become nauseated. And as we moved to get off that bus, it lurched and she lost her footing. Dad prevented a fall, but she was frightened. No public transportation for her. About Muni, she is as adamant as a six-year-old can be. And I can’t drive her because the car seat doesn’t fit.

The day before, when my son arrived he hoped to get in a few holes of golf at Lincoln Park in outer Richmond, taking advantage of Grandma Alzies’ glee at alone time with her six-year-old granddaughter. Tired but with an open mind, my son headed west. But within a mile or two, congestion, construction and destruction discouraged him, and he drove back to circle the block for another spot to park. In lieu of driving anywhere that day, we walked to Hayes Street so my granddaughter and I could climb the ropes in the park. Navigating crowded streets with Foxibeau in tow wasn't all that easeful. And while I fervently wished for his happiness, I did not further annoy him by encouraging a rosier outlook toward this city, his life or his mother.

What my son won’t know unless he reads this and right now I imagine this will not happen is that his vehicle was ticketed for parking over-night on the street-sweeper side of the street. On my early morning foray for coffee, I took the ticket from the windshield. I will pay the fine. At the time I thought his not knowing would buy me future visits. Unfortunately, this was before the broken window. Now, telling him seems unwise and pointless. 

Oh urban woe. I wonder if moving away is the only solution to the problem of being a caring, present grandparent. Can I afford to move? Could I acclimate to the peace of a street near their home? Would I ever again be within walking distance of both a Zen center and a UU church? What do I really need to be happy? What about old age? Now, I will post this blog and then sit with these thoughts. After all, they are just thoughts.

PictureGrael in the Goddess Temple / Alison R.
Of course there were the nine plays Corky and I saw in the five days we stayed at Sabine’s cottage in the city of Ashland, Oregon. Many of those plays were outstanding and if a play had its flaws, it always had something astonishing to experience. Pink and yellow lighting for an all-female cast of Two Gentlemen from Verona performed at night in the Allen Elizabethan Theater. Marvelous character actors surprising us in multiple roles, skipping flawlessly from tending a gentleman in Verona to muddying the love interest in The Cocoanuts, Marx Brothers foolishness set in a Miami hotel on the verge of bankruptcy.  The actor who was Richard III orating with such clarity that he was understandable as well as despicable. So much to like!!

And I walked each morning before 6 a.m. to the Starbucks near Pioneer Street on the main drag, called E. Main. Every morning streets were cool and empty in what would shortly be a bustling tourist town. As always, I ordered a two shot short soy latte, even paid full price without complaining, and met new friends, one a dancer and choreographer with a show full of acrobatic children playing at the Armory. We talked theater or some subject interesting to each of us every day of my stay. And quietly at another table was a man with a two-letter name who was a church of one person. On my last day, he handed me a small card with a quote from poet James Russell Lowell: “Fate favors fearlessness.” I asked him, “Is this what you do?” He told me he had been a Marine in and out of mental institutions until he understood the meaning of life and now he was at peace. I turned my face so he would not see my tears.

Corky had in mind that while we were in Ashland we should visit a nearby Mikvah, a formal Jewish site for ceremonial bathing, cleansing and ritual. So we drove the few miles north to Jackson WellSprings to visit this historic religious ceremonial soaking pool. Unfortunately, the only day we could schedule a ritual, a reggae festival co-opted the facilities, and we didn’t like the idea of sound checks and the possibility of strays wandering through the grounds during the concert set up. Nevertheless, we did ask to be shown the Mikvah and were guided through the surrounding trees by Grael, the young woman in charge of all things Goddess at Jackson WellSprings as well as a yoga instructor. We were able to see the Mikvah, which is located in nature in a pool that captures artesian warm water springs surfacing at 90 degrees. The site is full of orange dragonflies and butterflies as well as rocks and foliage. Pretty impressive! We did not have robes or slippers nor had we showered first, so we said we would not go into the water although Grael urged us to strip and submerge right then and there. Easy for a goddess, but for us modesty prevailed. Moreover, we hadn’t scripted a ceremony, so the ritual wouldn’t have been more than a hurried splashing.

In a resting moment, after I reset the modem at Sabine’s cottage, Corky and I watched the first episode of season two’s “Orange is the New Black.” I was disappointed because it seemed that Piper hadn’t learned anything since the conclusion of season one.

As for Foxibeau, he stayed with two gentlemen from upstairs and their dog. He was happy to see me when I got home, but seemed a little reserved. Perhaps I read too much into his doggie responses. I wanted to tell him about Picasso, the large white dog that played a supporting role in Two Gentlemen from Verona, but didn’t. Somethings are best kept until later.


PictureThe Letter F / Kevin H.
No second chance for Foxibeau. Foxibeau blew it. We went to one class together, and he was told not to come back. Should Foxie be afforded a second chance? A chance to redeem himself, to show how much he has improved in one week? Apparently not. Off leash among other small dogs, Foxie growled and jumped at the pant leg of a preteen boy rushing past him. Any sign of aggression just isn’t acceptable, the instructor said. She gave us a week to improve, had second thoughts and emailed me not to come back to the class.

Faced with this disappointment, I truly appreciate how the teachings of the Buddha and my sitting practice have increased my equanimity and willingness not to blame. Naturally, I continue to love the dog, and I can continue to appreciate the young woman who teaches the class even as I wonder about her decision to let the small dogs off leash so soon. It seems to me instructing people who came with the dogs not to run might also have been a good idea. At least Foxie would have benefited from the suggestion. As she is SPCA and I a novice, I bow to better judgment.

For the most part, I am not disappointed with Foxie’s performance during his first class among other small dogs.  He sat, touched the palm of my hand with his nose, turned toward me when he heard his name. If only he hadn’t growled and heaved his 11 lbs in the direction of a kid’s pant leg as it raced past him in pursuit of its own dog. If only the instructor had said follow your dog and don’t run. Be mindful of the other small animals that may be in your path. There might have been a different outcome. Oh well. We won’t be suing or asking for a reprieve. Probably we will be assigned a private trainer from the SPCA. And we will get a refund.

Feeling apprehensive on the morning of class, I met with friends who told stories about their own small dogs, their success or lack of success with trainers and dog classes. I really appreciated hearing that the small animals of these perfectly delightful people weren’t 100 percent successful in meeting socialization expectations. But as the day went on, my apprehension increased until I had to go a movie to redirect my mind.

By the time Foxiebeau and I got to the SPCA training room, I was equipped with a kong stuffed with kibble and Dogbutter. (I could not risk buying peanut butter because it’s a challenge for me if there is a spoon anywhere, or a fork, or knife.) I bought a bathmat for Foxie’s comfort on the cement floor. We also purchased an attachable pouch and filled it with tiny treats to ensure happy outcomes.    

As for happy outcomes, I fear Foxie caught fleas and he doesn’t like the kong or the Dogbutter, which I won’t eat. The pouch could be flatter as it sticks out when attached. Did I mention we get a refund? And finally I send sympathetic joy to all successful small dogs in the basics class and give compassion to Foxibeau. Much gratitude to those who know more than I for their advice and for making hard decisions. Happiness and peace to all rescued animals and to those who care about them under all circumstances.

PictureMothers Day Libation / A. Rittger
So Mothers Day came and went. Each of three sons checked in at some point and each was appreciated. So much more than a day, this motherhood business! Being a mother to these men is no less meaningful than when they were little and going about their development in disparate ways.

On Mothers Day, again a vivid reminder that women are not the only significant caregivers to small children. Two years ago, my youngest son became the responsible parent for my granddaughter after his wife, the mother of their four-year old, died in an accident. I thought of him on Mothers Day. And I thought about my granddaughter and the kindergarten class that would be making cards for their mothers. Was it hard this year?

On Mothers Day my ex-daughter in law from my oldest son's second marriage called, making me happy. They have been apart about four years. At the break-up, I promoted her to daughter, but couldn’t expect to continue in a mother role as she has her own wonderful family. I wondered if maybe this would be the year she moved on. But no, and we arranged to meet later this month. And I will meet the man she is seeing. I love that our relationship continues to matter, and I can share in the life of this special woman.

On Mothers Day my second son who lives in the Philippines called with affection and reassurance that his son, Elison (named for me) arrived from San Francisco safely for a vacation and all was well. All is well, even for one day is good news, especially when it comes from so far away that a mother couldn't easily rush over and fix anything broken or wounded. 

On Mothers Day morning’s Starbucks stop, with Foxibeau on his leash, I giggled with Joanna, the barista, as she shared pictures of her baby son who can roll over and who smiles all the time. She is such a proud mother, though sometimes too tired to be at the store by 4 a.m. I remember weariness and childcare issues  and offer equanimity to the world and others waiting for a 5 a.m. opening.  My habit of walking the dog around the Fillmore Center while drinking a double short soy latte before 6 a.m. isn't all the world is about. But on this Mothers Day, she was there, a proud and happy mother.

On Mothers Day a friend had a party to celebrate women and their mothers. About 20 of us would speak about our mothers. I wrote a poem but didn’t read it because when we paused to eat, I grew restless and went home. I did stay long enough to hear six or seven women speak of their mothers, mostly with fondness, occasionally with bitterness and grief. Some had written poems; others told stories. Corky, my special friend with three sons about the same age as mine always tells good stories about her mother, Nettie. Nettie's recipe for chocolate “Dream Bars”  became part of Corky’s families’ must-have treats. Corky brought some, and I ate three before going home.

Here is the poem to my mother that I didn’t read on Mothers Day. I call it “To My Mother With Gratitude.”

I’ll bet my mother never knew
what she did or didn’t do
to make me who I am today.
Nobody special in any way
except for a sitting practice
of self-recovery
and strong urges toward discovery
of how to live, let live, and then let go.

I read it to Corky and I believe she was relieved to hear I had moved on from recrimination and regret. Indeed, who would I be without my mother-wound! Recovery and discovery do seem healthy and worthwhile pastimes. Indeed, all of my family seem thus engaged.

PictureDog with toy on rug / Alison R.
I’m experiencing some unexpected fallout from the first class of the SPCA course on Small Dog Basics.  Dog, what dog? Foxibeau was my friend, a perfect companion, thoughtful, intuitive, attuned to me, a super listener. Sure, he had some unpleasant habits when we strolled the streets, but I overlooked them and never kissed him on the mouth. When he raised his voice at other animals or lunged at strangers, I attributed his behavior to fear or protective instincts.

The gist of the first SPCA class session, a session we two-leggeds attended by ourselves, was that dogs are animals. We were told that our beloved creatures don’t think as we do and don’t know English, or any language for that matter. In fact, their behaviors are entirely about pleasure in whatever shape that might be. Treats, toys, food, walks – these are the kinds of outcomes dogs expect. They will learn words if the consequences result in obtaining any of the above coveted.

Some two-leggeds in the class seemed to know this already. Probably because their newest creature isn’t their first, and they have experience or have taken this course before. I take the class wide-eyed with nothing much to go on, not ever having actually chosen or bonded with a canine companion of my own choosing.

When my sons were young, they would introduce various rescued creatures into the household, and I would not have a voice in whether or not the animal became a family member. Once, when we already hosted Onyx, a dog so big he could sit on the couch from a standing position, Annie came to stay. Shortly, she birthed seven puppies that ate their way through cardboard and cushions. Eventually, friends of my sons gave them fine homes.

On another occasion, a son brought home a pitbull named Susie Creamcheese. That dog roamed the backyard for some period of time. If this all sounds vague, it is. I must have been a pushover mom not to have been consulted about our animal borders. Later, Otto and Leeloo, my oldest son’s pitbulls were dear to me, however, they did live downstairs when I lived upstairs.

But Foxibeau! I chose him! Saw him in a cage at Animal Control, liked the looks of him and picked him out as the one! Doubtlessly, I have imputed to him kindness, sincerity, and other positive human characteristics. I have appreciated his noncritical gaze, his accepting silences, and his willingness to wait in a comfy crate when I have to leave the house – something I do less often than I once did. I have passed on social events to cuddle with Foxie of an evening and watch multiple seasons of “Inspector Foyle” on my iPad.

Signing up for the SPCA class means I acknowledge my new best friend is actually an animal for which I am now responsible. Once he is socialized, others will like him as much as I do. And what a bonus it will be if this training socializes me so well that other two-leggeds like me as much as Foxie already seems to.

PictureBooks I own but haven't written
Whenever I feel the urge to write a book, I sit until a title arises. The book for which this blog entry could be a chapter goes by the title Full of Vowels and Consonants: Signifying Nothing. Perhaps it is my Masters Degree in Style and Rhetoric that obliges me to undertake this close reading of the first line of the Beatles’ song “We Can Work It Out” – “Try to See It My Way.”

Unlike the paper I wrote for my Masters in S & R, a solo act, if you want to play along, you may. To get started, speak the line aloud as if it matters. You have some choices in how the words get said.  If you can move your head outside the song itself, you could adopt a querulous tone, like it’s not the first time you have suggested this. Emphasize the “try,” dragging out the word until it sounds six to ten letters longer. Let your voice be whiney. You might mentally add an exasperated “please” in front of the “try.”

For an alternate reading, place the emphasis on “my,” implying that in the past you did your fair share of listening to the one or ones whom you now address and, with some expectation of fairness, you rely on an unspoken hope for reciprocity.

To continue, I am assuming a relationship between the original speaker and the significant other(s); ergo I locate the nexus of the problem with the pronouns, both present and missing.

Of the four sentence types, this one under consideration is an imperative sentence. It gives an order to someone unnamed but open to hearing it. I assume so because the song continues, suggesting that whoever received the first line hung around to hear the next 31.

The unincluded “you” at the start of the line is a big mistake, relationship-wise. As another song suggests, “It takes two to tango.” And to omit the necessary other  indicates to me that the other doesn’t matter as much as the intensity of the asker’s need to get his needs met, regardless of the feelings of the “unnamed” other.

Consider “Roxanne!” by The Police: “Roxanne/ You don’t have to put on the red light…. The first line shouts the woman’s name. The second line shouts “You.” It doesn’t assume she knows to whom the words are addressed. Roxanne has to know the words are for her. The intensity of that energy signifies deep almost “I-Thou” intention, ala Martin Buber. Roxanne hears herself named about 25 times. There can be no mistake!

From the get go, then, without a named recipient, the Beatle’s line “Try to See It My Way” reveals itself to be hopelessly self-centered, uttered by one whose desperation is directed toward relieving private angst, pain that results from not being understood. This resonates with me. I don’t like it one bit, myself. It seems to happen often.

Now let’s consider the pronoun “it”. Somewhere is the referent, the situation or meaning that “it” denotes. Do the two in this one-sided plea understand what the “it” is that needs to be seen “my way”? I doubt it. This lack of specificity strikes me as purposefully vague and intended to put the other at a disadvantage as her or his mind searches for what exactly is “it”. Her or his “it” might not coincide with the singer’s “it.” A more relationship-savvy person would have clarified “it” and dissipated the surrounding vagueness.

And last but not least is the real problem pronoun “my.” Buddhist studies invite me to grapple with confusion arising from being “me” and not being a “me” who is a separate self. I am the “me” of causes and conditions and this “me” is a delusion that will clear up once I get it. In the Beatles’ “Try to See It My Way” line the confusion presents itself. Since all are one and not separate, the singer’s way is the same way as every way or at least not a way to be insisted upon as the right way. Clearly, it is one way and saying so would be a more open way of asking to be heard.  

I hope my exegesis on the first line of the Beatles’ tune helped to clarify issues you might be having with your own communication. Although I am, as always, open to alternate explication, please try to see it my way. Thank you.

PictureTrainer look-alike
Last week I met the man who should have been my father, or had I been a different kind of woman, more submissive perhaps, he could have been the father of my children, probably quite a few. However, his real-life role is to help train Foxibeau. I chose him after viewing a videotape of an aggressive dog that looks like my dog and which, according to the voice-over – “his” voice, had bitten his owner in the stomach. I called the voice, because seeing that aggressive little dog, I saw my dog if someone doesn’t step in and do something different from what I am doing. Of course my dog only growls at me when I reach for his white plush squeaky bone or come near him when he’s eating, but these behaviors could be inklings of aggression.

This dog trainer was not exactly a whisperer but his voice was reassuring and certain. We agreed to meet at Jefferson Park. Foxie acquiesced immediately to being handed over to this clean cut, tan skinned man who resembles Dwayne Johnson, a movie actor and semi-retired professional wrestler who goes by the name of The Rock and always makes the world safer for those he loves.

It was quickly clear that for a pack animal, Foxie has been running in a very small pack, with no other dogs to play with and only one old woman who is inconsistent with any sort of discipline. She tends to give the dog his druthers while walking it on the leash. She incorrectly crosses streets when dogs approach so as to prevent her dog from leaping at large dogs or snapping at any other dog whose scent he finds objectionable. And bicyclist beware, runners move over, men who hop out from behind trash cans in the dark of a morning, I can’t guarantee the safety of your pant leg and god help you if you reach out a hand in friendship. Foxie does have one dog friend, Cooper, who lives upstairs and is always on a leash of his own and keeps different hours. You can’t exactly call the two dogs and three owners a pack.

Immediately Dwayne (not his real name but good for this purpose) suggested Foxie begin to make dog acquaintances. But always, and this is a big always, he ordered, I must ensure the SAFETY of my little creature. I have no objection to safety. I believe in it strongly, especially once Dwayne suggested that my creature’s aggressive behavior grew out of fear. But my nature had me disregarding this possibility and I would have taken chances with Foxie’s wellbeing at the fenced dog park we went to the second day Dwayne came to us for our training hour. I was blithe. I suggested we let Foxie off the leash and see what happened. Dwayne knew it was a bad idea and said so because Foxie is even inconsistent about coming when he’s called. My dog, if bitten or attacked, would suffer a terrible setback in trusting me and his two days of training would be erased.

Immediately red flags went up around me and I knew something was lacking in my own sense of the world. Flashbacks of my oldest son as a baby! An untended iron falls off the board onto his leg and leaves a small triangle burn mark! His foot tangles in the back wheel of a bicycle behind me! He carries a glass bottle back to the store for the refund and trips, slashes his thumb and we spend the evening in the emergency room at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. It’s a moment in which I want to give Foxie to Dwayne and tell him to give my dog a safe home. But the moment passes. Meanwhile Dwayne is checking in with me constantly, “Do you hear what I am telling you?” “Are you paying attention?” “What did I just say to you?”

How different my life might have been with a father like Dwayne whose concern was to ensure safety in his children’s life. Maybe I wouldn’t be living alone, feeling most safe in my living room. Yes, it’s the past, and right now it’s Foxie’s turn to be made to feel safe. And he might enjoy getting along with other animals. With this in mind and Dwayne’s strong voice in my ear, we are signed up at the SPCA for a course in Small Dog Basics. 

PictureFoxibeau le chien asks to go out.
All my activities seem to branch out from Foxibeau. From the soft little red brown creature I venture out, ever mindful of closing the door and leaving behind a crated pliant fellow eager for my return. During my away time, thoughts stray back to him. How long will I be gone? How long have I been gone? Have I been gone too long?

And I credit Foxibeau for recalculating my time commitments. For one thing, I won’t be an usher at the opera this upcoming season. With a dog, an hour and a half before the performance and possibly a three-hour, or four or five-hour opera just doesn’t work. Probably Foxi could manage, but I don’t feel wholehearted anymore about paying the cost of a ticket with my time. I don’t want to be away from this dog that long. Of course, my decision not to re-up as an usher was reinforced every time a lobby assignment was the “non” job of standing at a door through which patrons were not permitted to enter or exit. This assignment triggered some unpleasant reactions: doubt about my worth and dread that I was being punished for an unknown infraction. Came the thought: Only the lowliest would be assigned a lonely job ushering no one at an unused door. Doesn’t feel worth doing when a cuddly creature appreciates me no matter what. No dog-related chore feels too low, and unworthiness never arises.

And it is because of Foxibeau that I haven’t been and won’t be hopping BART at night to zip over to Oakland to the East Bay Meditation Center to meditate or take a class, much as I appreciate that diverse sangha. When I attended regularly, pre-dog, I left the house early, conscientious about allowing for delays under the Bay. The return trip usually began with a wait after 9pm at the 19th Street Station. Back in the city, I would fast-pace it to the bus stop, hoping to hop the 5 Fulton. But I might face a 22-to-48-minute wait. Because I calculate those minutes as Munits, there was never any real certainty about the wait time. So I would invariably make the five-block walk home. Now the whole endeavor feels too labor intensive. I reason that with the dog next to me on the couch I can listen to dharma podcasts from the East Coast, Redwood City, San Francisco Zen Center, all over the world actually. And I have lots of books for study, and at least eight chairs in which to sit and meditate. All I miss are other people and yet with a dog, loneliness doesn’t happen.

Another sacrifice has been all-day classes and meditations. Twice I have asked fellows in my building to add my dog to their dog and care for them both from sun up to sun down on a Saturday. If I want to continue that convenience, I will need to negotiate with them so it is worth their time. Fortunately, Foxibeau has not bitten Cooper, their dog, and he seems to like Cooper’s men as well.

In the pre-dog past I would join friends for lunch following an early movie, but not now. I liked the Ferry Building after a film at the Embarcadero, but not now.  Now I take activity breaks for Foxibeau.

Clearly, dog companionship has caused me to rethink what I want to do, for how long and where. So far all the trade-offs have been worth making; there have been no real sacrifices.

Yet, my entire social life can’t come to a standstill. After all, there’s the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and although dogs can stay many places in Ashland, I won’t be traveling with my dog. To prepare for his time away from me, he will meet with a dog trainer. Foxibeau, loveable as he is, behaves like an animal. He’s aggressive with other dogs, particularly large ones; he barks at people he can’t see but hears passing by; he has even lunged and nipped at a couple of people who scared him.

Clearly, Foxibeau factors into all my decisions, and I am not complaining. He helps me choose. Because there is so much to do and so many possible choices, I like having this small friendly red-brown reference point from which to consider.        

If we all have Buddha Nature, what’s the rush?

That’s a question I struggle with these days. What faster progress do I think I need to make? By now, shouldn’t I be more peaceful and less identified with the “causes and conditions” which make up the self I see in the mirror?  My uncertainty still brings discomfort. Not knowing feels bad. And I could do with some assurance that it’s okay to be on the way, my way, at my pace.

At this point, I find myself to be a slow-learner, fumbling through written instructions, and unskillful being told what to do, even when I've agreed. I struggle to remember to what I have commited. It’s even an effort to schedule these commitments into the calendar on my smart phone. I’ve come face to face with the unpleasant truth that making and keeping whole-hearted commitments isn’t what I am good at.

Furthermore, I’m finding it hard to confess that I often don’t understand what I am being told. Perhaps, I strive for a “wise elder façade.” Sometimes I fantasize holding up my hand and asking a teacher: “Say it some other way so I will understand." Of course this is out of the question, until I decide to try it.

Even as I look at being a good practitioner, I see how important it is to set boundaries, to value my own beliefs and opinions, and to comfortably stand up for my values without getting defensive. I want something other than anger to empower me. Because knowing or telling my truth is hard, I often feel small or false.

Surely, I am not so different from many who end up facing a wall in a zendo. I, too, like those others, turned to the study and practice of Buddhism because of suffering. Often overwhelmed with emotional pain and frequently immobilized by trauma, I turned to gentle dharma talks and embraced the idea of treating myself with compassion.

So with all the positives of meditation irrefutable, I sit. And having heard it said that the self which result from causes and conditions – such as parents who suffered and could not give love – is not reality, I long to discover my Buddha nature, to embrace compassion, sympathetic joy, loving kindness and equanimity. And until someone wiser than I am tells me: “Alison, you can only do it your way” I will say so to myself and perhaps begin to end my suffering. Then I can work harder to end all suffering, the real work of this personal struggle. And because I have Buddha Nature, there is no rush.


The Look of Love


PictureTaken in Halifax, NS / meddygarnet
At almost 6 a.m. it’s still dark in the Safeway parking lot when I drive past the store’s lit windows. Some market decorators have launched red and pink valentine balloons and streamers; though it’s gaudy, it’s beautiful. A vivid reminder of the upcoming Valentine’s Day for which I have no plans.

 Emails for restaurants still taking reservations remain unopened. I am ambivalent about asking to celebrate with my once-lover or trying to spend time with the dear friend who is busy making valentine sugar cookies for her bakery business and who hasn’t a lot of time because she now works two jobs.

Because at the moment we are passing a store full of red hearts and pink streamers and I am cradling Foxibeau the dog in the crook of my arm, I think of gifting him a pink squeaky heart-shaped toy. A present to the dog may be this year’s show of love to another.

This is not to say love isn’t in my heart. It is and not just because store decorations have given me the seasonal go-ahead. The love I call love feels quiet and tentative as if exuberant, joyous declarations might summon a loud “Shut up!” And I really don’t want to hear anyone, especially myself, say something dismissive like: “You love a dog?” As if this means I’m lacking. Or “You love yourself? Shouldn’t you be beyond self-centered by now?” Perhaps alluding to the Bodhisattva vow to save all beings.

If loving myself means I invest energy and money to regulate my nervous system and to plow through parts and pieces of this self I find problematic, then yes, that could be called self-centered. Yet calling it so would be a mistake. Smoothing out and soothing frees up energy to direct toward being present and perhaps even temporarily “saving” a few beings whose lives intersect mine.

Love of the self feels more like appreciating an ally than treating myself like an object in search of approval. This love feels like a best friend, like a pink angora sweater worn with a tuck-in peter pan collar identical to the one my best friend is wearing.

It feels like the plump tufted brown pillow my therapist placed beneath my feet before she guided my imagining to experience being swooped up out of the reach of a barbed-wire swirl of self-criticism by a large monkey lest I be overwhelmed. This protective mother monkey swings my six-year-old self high among tree branches. Once out of harm’s reach, the large monkey cuddles and soothes until my curiosity sends me scampering to the ground amid a swarm of playful baby monkeys who groom and play with each other and with me. I let their brown softness and the feel of the pillow remind me of Foxibeau, who runs into my mind to join in as I rest in the comfort of safety from my critical, suffering self.

I feel love as I listen to a story a friend tells about her habitual morning walk around Stowe Lake before sunrise. She recounts recognizing a homeless man bedded down at the boathouse and calling to him: Eddie, are you okay and warm enough? He assures her: Doin’ just fine, thanks. Then he says no to the money she offers him to buy a warm jacket. Resuming her walk, she and the other morning joggers hear Eddie’s voice yell out her name. I love you, Valerie, he yells. If you ever aren’t married, I’ll marry you!! She yells back her no thanks she’s going solo, as other joggers, older Asians, not understanding his outcries rush to her to be reassured she is safe.

This feeling I call love is gently laced with humor; it is love that giggles at the raspy sound of a growing growl in a little dog’s throat. It’s hard not to smile. Hard not to laugh although shushing is surely required.

It is a gift to myself of comfort and forgiving. In my mind-heart I hold the image of a loving presence fierce to protect the child in me from the pain still aching to be healed. And this love’s authority commands in her kindest voice that “Shut up” be vanished from the heart’s vocabulary. With love and gratitude, I wish those who read here: a happy Valentine’s Day.