Push/Kristina D.C. Hoeppner
We all have buttons. Mine is red primarily because the pain is intense. It is the color of danger and detonates (from Latin detonare, to expend thunder) when pushed. This button is hooked up to shame. I can’t think of anything good to say about this button except that it is mine as a gift of my upbringing. For me, shame is a hundred times worse than having the rug pulled out from under me. It is me as a child, reaching out for love and seeing my mother’s frowning face and instead of being held, I am told I smell bad. Feeling shamed undoes trust.
My shame button packs a wallop bigger than any event in the present might warrant. And the resulting blast can blow back the deliberate or inadvertent button-pusher at the same time as I am reeling. Eventually I recover and the pain abates, but the button-pusher may take longer to recover, maybe never. When “never,” a friend is lost.
I had occasion to share an impromptu drawing of this big red button with Corky a day or two after we got back from our Wednesday through Monday trip to Ashland. I wanted her to visualize what got triggered when she responded to my joke about my parking by reacting angrily, bringing up similar moments from our trip. I felt blindsided. I had been imagining we were getting along well.
Blast! Off went my button. I am sure Corky had plenty of reasons to find me annoying and to get her own buttons pushed during our seven hour ride to Ashland, the six days we were together seeing theater and the long ride back.
But the time she chose to air resentment was days after the offending behavior. We were on our way to a movie in the city when I remarked on her choice of a parking place. True, it wasn’t smart and she does drive her own little Mini quite well, but rather than limit her objection to my present remark, she hooked her rancor to all the days we were in Ashland behind the wheel of her son’s car. Oops, the rug was being pulled out from under me. I felt shame that I hadn’t been aware of how she was really feeling.
Larry’s car, the one we drove to Ashland, is a manual shift car. It is fairly new and in pristine condition. Thus both Corky and I were hyperaware of driving carefully, and we were both inclined to be always behind the wheel regardless of who was driving. Needless to say, many suggestions were made, some in voices of alarm. Under the circumstances, I welcomed her help because I don’t usually drive a manual car.
Two years ago I fled the scene of a red-button pressing. This time, I stood on the street and breathed mindfully, hanging out in my prefrontal cortex and not running, although I could hear my reptile brain calculating the distance to the nearest bus line. Meditation practice has made it possible for me to pause and feel miserable for shorter periods of time without trying to flee from the pain.
Don’t get me wrong. Corky’s complaint was legitimate. If she has trouble with comments on her driving, as many people have when their loved ones backseat drive from the passenger’s side, I get it. It’s the older complaints that push my button. I know I can be annoying. And I don’t mind being told in a timely way so I can apologize and make amends. I even thanked Corky once when she told me I was annoying, minutes after she was annoyed. I like knowing where I stand and hate thinking I’m on solid ground when that isn’t the fact.
As Buddhism teaches, holding on to certainty is going against the truth of life as it is. So I am wondering if a time will come when with continued practice, this big red button will shrink or fade even further. No one will need to be different and I will not seek solid ground. Losing my footing will not trigger shame.
Happy Mother's Day / aussiegall
Mother’s Day. Forget Hallmark sentiments! The nitty gritty of Mother’s Day is far more poignant, replete as it is with loss and weariness as much as it is with gratitude. Sunday, 6 a.m.
Personally, I am grateful that each of my three sons would Friend me on Facebook if that mattered to them and let me look in on their lives. By the end of the day, all three will have checked in with news and the always welcomed and reassuring, “I Love you, Mom.”
As for what will be in the hearts of others on this day of compulsory love, my guess is it’s mixed.
I know that one son and granddaughter have had a week of missing mom. My little one will have shed tears and had tantrums of wanting mother who, having died a year ago, won’t be there to ooh and aah over a crayoned card with lace made in the classroom just for her. This child will carry the loss of her mother throughout her life. And each Mother’s Day will be more and less than a card could convey. I hope she will love herself.
The wife of another son will probably receive cards from her preteen daughters. Her love for these girls can’t be questioned, yet it is work to be their mother as each girl struggles to take her place in the complicated family that the mother’s divorce and remarriage have created for them. Mother will be tired. On this day, I hope she can rest and feel gratitude. I hope she will love herself. Sunday, 10:00 a.m.
My son in the Philippines says my grandson who lives in the East Bay has called him to say he is pleased with his life. Sometime during the day, this grandson may call me, as well. If he doesn’t, that is all right too. My son tells me my granddaughter who lives in the Philippines now has a pit bull she calls Kaito. This strikes me as good news. Sunday, 6:00 p.m.
My former daughter-in-law took me to lunch today. Although she and her mother have a warm relationship and see each other often, today it is my turn. Two years ago when she was no longer married to my son, I promoted her to daughter and love her as my own. I hope that she can befriend her loneliness.
On this Mother’s Day I imagined myself again in a family’s sunny front room, sitting in the glider by the window, rocking their two month old, as if he were my own. I held him Saturday and will hold him again Monday. The soft sprawl of the baby boy’s body in my arms, the dream breath that catches in his throat and comes out in tiny sounds and the dampness of our touching cheeks is a gift I have been given that makes every day I hold him another Mother’s Day. He lives in my heart as do his mother and father, as if I am mother to them all. Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
It was Mother’s Day. And while I said to forget Hallmark sentiments, I did welcome the love expressed to me. I welcomed every moment when I, too, could express my love. Mother’s Day has been one more day to encourage those I love and who love me “…to touch the place of oneness within our common heart.”*
*Writer, peace activist, Danaan Parry
Fallen / unpolarized
I have a history of depression. Yet seeing Brian Copeland’s one-man show, The Waiting Period, about how Copeland dealt with his depression-induced desire to die, did not depress me. Though the show is sad, it is also funny and kind. He tells us that his real agenda has been to reach out and say to anyone who is depressed or knows depressed people that depression is an illness. With help, he understood that it was not his fault his life had suffering in it. We applauded, grateful he was willing to tell his story.
From the front row in the darkened theater, I reflected on my own relationship with this illness and on my own story. Doubtless, I had always been depressed, as a little girl, adolescent and young woman. Yet I first felt the full force when I married and had two sons within 19 months of each other before I was 24 years old while trying to graduate from college. Grief and disappointment – self-hate – exhausted me. I had so wanted to be special, someone the high achievers in the family could admire. This no longer seemed possible, at least not in a good way.
When finally, many years later my psychiatrist prescribed antidepressants, I felt life out from under depression. Ah Prozac! For the first time I could draw two complete deep breaths; tension let go of me. But about five years into Prozac, depression returned bringing with it suicidal thoughts. We switched me from Prozac to Paxil.
The nadir came in 1995 when depression really flattened me. After years and years of excelling as a high school journalism teacher and sort of feeling special, I took an illness leave. A student’s accidental death at the hands of another student and the administration’s inept handling of the event had made me too angry to be in the school. I left Southern California to live with my sister and her 16-year-old daughter in Willits, a tiny town two-and-a-half hours by car north of San Francisco. Thinking incorrectly that my sister’s life had something to teach me, I went off my medication. Attempting to fit into the life that worked for my sister, I tried to think and act in ways that didn’t suit me. Nothing I turned my hands to worked for me. I could not get hired by the Willits community newspaper. I did not get cast in a play, a role I believed I could do well. In short, I was at loose ends, lost and purposeless. Depression rose up strong with this feeling of being nothing special. I compared myself with my sister and felt myself even more wanting. I couldn’t breathe.
I could do nothing but trudge through this rural community memorizing Rumi’s poem, “Zero Circle.” Eventually, I got in bed and couldn’t get up. My sister sat a suicide watch with me and helped me to make it back to my psychiatrist in Southern California.
Once again, he put me on an antidepressant, which happened to be Zoloft because that was the sample the salesman had left him. He told me to go back to teaching as soon as possible. So I joined a staff at a year-round inner city high school in Southern California, advising the practically nonexistent newspaper and the yearbook that used three staffs, one for each of the three tracks of students that make up a year-round high school. The job was depressing, but I was not as depressed as I had been with nothing to do. Doing was what I did best to hold off depression, doing and medicating. And actually producing a yearbook was a feat of specialness, especially coupled with preventing the theft of all the cameras and computers.
In 1999 I retired to San Francisco to live upstairs above my son and then daughter-in-law. For a while, a low dose of Sertraline, a Zoloft generic, kept the illness manageable until two years ago, when again depression threatened to pull me under. But rather than increase medication, I turned to meditation and a new therapist. The work has been to befriend this part of myself, a part I have spent a lifetime pushing away. Befriending depression is not easy, and I limit its visits whenever it threatens to overstay its welcome. I have also lightened up considerably on the need to be any more special than anyone else.
So after seeing The Waiting Period and curious about my own current relationship with depression, I took diagnostic tests for the illness featured on various websites. I achieved low marks. Low marks on these tests are very good indeed! Kudos to the two of us.
The Human Condition-Homage to Rene Magritte / [piXo]
Not a week goes by that I don’t wonder if this will be the week I have nothing to write. Sometimes there’s not much to talk about and sometimes a lot happens. My original reason for writing was to encourage myself to search for the holy in the daily. But it wasn’t long before I focused on my own transformative moments. I sense there is risk in all the introspection; not risk like running naked through a flower-show but more of a “ho-hum” risk. What could be worth reading about this ordinary life?
Luckily, I often find someone else’s insights to justify doing a weekly self-disclosure. In his forward to David Shield’s Enough About YOU, Notes Toward the New Autobiography, documentary filmmaker, Ross McElwee writes “ …each of us plumbed deeply enough and from enough angles contains the entire human condition.” I like that justification for these weekly explorations – “the entire human condition.”
This week was filled with exciting options that included a day at the Zen Center learning about satipatthana, the framework for establishing mindfulness, with Gil Fronsdal; attending Acid Test, a play about Ram Dass, followed by dinner with Corky; a meeting with my meditation practice teacher who told me “no” and I didn’t cry; and being with my darling therapist, practicing asking for an apology. But I choose to spend the remaining paragraphs playing with a moment of truth from early in the week when Corky said something to me that hit home. I trust that this will speak to the entire human condition.
Corky and I needed to talk about what had happened a few nights earlier when we went to hear author Mary Roach at the Jewish Community Center. Before the lights went down my feelings were hurt, and rather than express anger at Corky, I chose to weep silently in the dimness of Kanbar Hall as Ms. Roach burbled on about flatulence and gastrointestinal juices. When Corky asked me on the ride home if something was wrong, I acknowledged feeling disrespected by what felt like her disinterest in what I was saying about myself. We set a time to talk it over. Good idea. Resentment rarely serves relationship.
A few days later we met in the patio of ‘Arlequin, sat in the sun and looked back at the incident at the JCC. In cases of hurt feelings I like to say to myself: “Hurt people hurt people.” So what had hurt Corky?
I will say here only what I understood from what she said. Her complaint was that I seem so self-absorbed that she wonders if there is any room in me for anyone else. She made a valid point. Hers is the same plaint one might make of a fishing enthusiast who chooses to spend most of his waking hours on the water. Such preoccupation tends to leave little room for anyone but a fellow enthusiast. And it is clearly irrational to expect anyone else to be as caught up in my insights and exhalations as I am. Or as I hope, on occasion, you are, keeping in mind “The Entire Human Condition.”
Anyway, I took to heart her lament. It is true. I do love to examine being me. And yet, I remember reading Pema Chodron about “self-cherishing” which is not so much about loving the self as it is about preoccupation with self, with fixing. I am grateful to Corky for saying my self-absorption made her feel left her out, much as I had, in the past, found her affection for old movies and audiobooks sometimes tiresome and excluding.
And yet what seemed called for on this occasion was less looking back and more thinking forward as to how to create a “we” space and time to be about and for each other. So I proposed a plan whereby no day goes by without kind words for the other, and emails don’t count. Kind words and time together is key, time during which we pay attention to each other. Of course, I have no control over how much attention I get. But that is not a problem. I am notoriously good at being attentive to myself.
Thus with the help of everyone who wants to be in relationship with me, especially Corky, it will be my practice to be at home in self-awareness while holding the door open to others. Welcome to my human condition.
From a collage by Susan Miller / Alison R.
To make a susan shaped space is to mark off in your heart those parts of you that would be different or less had you not had a friend like Susan Miller in your life.
Sunday, the Mothertongue Feminist Theater Collective put on a celebration ceremony honoring Susan (Shoshanna) Merilyn Miller for women who knew and valued her friendship. As part of the program Lori Rillera sang “my miracle,” a song she wrote to express her deep affection for this woman who had been old enough to be her mother.
”I’m thinking of you
susan shaped space
filled in my heart
when I sing
and make art”
Lori said that Susan would say to her that she was the same age as the daughter she gave up for adoption.
Alhough I did not know Susan well, I had been to some of the same gatherings and had followed the progression of her illness through postings by her good friends Corky Wick and Lori. They, with Susan, were members of Mothertongue with whom she had performed her written pieces about women’s experiences for more than 25 years.
Taken from venues where Susan is said to have read them animatedly, about 30 pieces were arranged to be read and filmed on Sunday. They were varied – childhood recollections of her love for her sister, her memory of lying on the bathroom floor begging god to help her breathe so she would not have to disturb her parents on a night they seemed to be getting along, her ongoing battles with asthma and eczema, her yearning to be loved, her sexuality, and her bisexuality, a fact she liked to make clear by speaking and writing the word in all capital letters.
From among her writings, I chose to go to the microphone and read “A Good Day,” a piece I picked because on that day everything had gone well for her, even her doctors’ appointments. I knew from Corky that Susan’s life had been filled with illness, so I felt glad and less intrusive to share in a day she felt free of pain, a day spent with her sister joyfully. I did not feel entitled to read intimate accounts – her playful musings about masturbation, or her yearnings to have someone make love to her – not that I haven’t known both.
Robin Song opened the program by lighting a candle against a backdrop of collages and drawings Susan created. These art works clipped to twine by tiny clothespins were for friends to take as were pieces of her jewelry, her scarves, jackets and other clothes.
Robin included a ritual dropping of smooth and lovely stones into a translucent bowl of water after each woman read one of Susan’s writings. These stones, Robin said, remind us that what we give of ourselves ripples out. Our lives invariably touch other lives, whether or not we think so.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, music for dancing played through the meeting room at Strawberry Creek Lodge in North Berkeley and the women who knew and loved Susan moved as they were able in body or spirit, waving Susan’s scarves or sharing with each other the clothes they wore that had once been hers.
“i was waiting for you
holding your place
till you got well
a susan-shaped space
no other dancer
Happy New Year, Grandma / AlisonR
It got to be the new year. At 12:03 I jumped up from the couch and greeted the year in the usual way. My grandson, who had worked overtime until 11 o’clock, bolted upright from the recliner where he had fallen immediately to sleep, pulled out his ear buds and distractedly said, “Happy New Year, Grandma,” only to fall back into sleep.
Rather than resolve to make changes or noticeably improve, I began this year by taking stock of the past year’s faits accomplis
. Although I did not actually read How to Win Friends and Influence People
in the past year, I figured out for myself what Dale Carnegie meant when he wrote, “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.”
Last year I took Carnegie a step further by realizing it’s not what I think as much as that I think. Through the preceding year, sitting in meditation helped me separate from thoughts enough to see them come and go. With this increased awareness, I noted the extent to which I practiced self-aversion throughout the year. Although the past year was not the first time shortcomings took center stage, it was the year I began to treat them with curiosity and loving kindness. I took to heart the words of Albert Einstein
: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” So that’s what it has been about. It’s easier to imagine that I simply misjudged myself and have been harsh to no purpose.
Moreover in 2012, I played with the practice of limiting my inner conversations to all words except personal pronouns – subject or object, singular or plural. Each try filled my head with haikus. An interesting experience.
Tree-high fish most strange
Not meant for height, needing depth
Lies to nature’s face.
I expect the new year, like the last one, will see me getting older. Knowing how aging begets forgetfulness, I have these words from Friedrich Nietzsche for consolation: “The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.” That is great because I did read Lord of Misrule
by Jaimy Gordon, as if for the first time and suddenly remembered liking the book a lot the real first time I read it. Each experience was different
This is not to say that forgetting didn’t carry a price tag in 2012. I missed the Dec. 10 deadline for property tax and had to pay the lateness penalty. Good idea to attach to the refrigerator along with tickets to upcoming theater performances, everything that needs remembering. I know I didn’t remember commitments just as I didn’t remember the myriad passwords I created on the spur of the moment for each new phone app or website requiring a password. But as the year came to an end, I learned to count on the calendar in the cloud. This year, every commitment I make at the moment I make it will leave a calendar trace.
Less double booking
Aloft in the cloud.
I lived an unplanned year in 2012 and still managed to learn and accomplish enough acts of random kindness to consider the year successful. In 2013, I anticipate more faits accomplis
to contemplate at the end of the year. I have my bits of wisdom from last year to look at, a head full of haikus, useful information in the cloud, intentions to sit in silence and stillness. And there are always clever people expressing wisdom I can learn from. For example, Charles de Lint, who writes science fiction shares this truth: “It’s all a matter of paying attention, being awake in the present moment, and not expecting a huge payoff. The magic in this world seems to work in whispers and small kindnesses.”
Silent moments of wisdom
Happy New Year!!
Two wolves / Tambako the Jaguar
“Silent gratitude isn’t very much to anyone.”
Once I agreed with Gertrude Stein that someone else had to hear the words if gratitude were to mean anything. I know I quoted Ms. Stein in a Thanksgiving talk given from the chancel at the UU church in San Francisco several years ago. In that talk I expressed appreciation to many in my life, human as well as four-legged and furry. To some extent I still concur with Gertrude Stein about gratitude out loud, and I now see how silent gratitude has its own worth and beauty.
Must be that meditation has altered my perspective. Indeed, silence has become an positive presence rather than an absence of sound. I have an adverse reaction if in any gathering a speaker says we will now pause for a moment of silence and snaps it off at 30 seconds. I feel short changed. I actively need silence.
This is a wish for stillness to cover more than the noise of the city – the cacophony of construction, the urgent high-pitched scream of police and fire vehicles. It’s also a desire for inner stillness rather than the noise the mind makes reliving the past, imagining the future, or solving problems. In some cases the mind’s noise can be the clamor of indecision and warring mental states.
A week ago Sunday I chose to skip the UU church service. I did not stay away to protest the return to the pulpit of the interim minister accused of misconduct. Rather I chose in favor of inner silence. I chose to avoid a familiar inner conflict. It’s a lot like the conflict I experience when approaching a car wreck pulled off to the side of the freeway. As I see the flashing warning lights ahead, I am torn between minding my own business out of respect for the pain and suffering of others and gawking to feed my curiosity. Often, gawking prevails.
Possibly gawking is no grave offense; certainly curiosity has merit, but conflicting arguments get set in motion as to the purposes served by investing in a disaster where I can't ameliorate suffering. In the case of the car wreck, the skillful response is to drive carefully and offer compassion. As for the church service, the skillful response is to cause no harm, to myself and to others.
Staying away from the service was in the spirit of choosing which wolf to feed as related in a Cherokee Legend wherein an old Grandfather tells his hurt and angry grandson the story of two wolves. He says to the boy that in the past he also felt a great hatred for those that had taken so much with no sorrow for what they did. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. He said he had struggled with those feelings many times.
“It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense is intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. But the other wolf is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing. Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.” The boy asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather?” The Grandfather smiled and said, “The one I feed.”
I know that some UU congregants welcomed the return of this minister. They like him very much. For these people I am happy. For those pained by his appearance on the chancel, I feel compassion. But because I chose not to gawk, I avoided feeding the fierce wolf. Rather, I opted to feed the wolf who wants to live in harmony.
For choosing anew and making a good choice, for stilling familiar mental noise, I offer gratitude both silently and aloud.
cross / benefit of hindsight
“… it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” Rick says to Ilsa as they part at the airport in Casablanca.
I know that against the backdrop of Sandy Hook Elementary School and those dead school children, the murdered school staff, a dead mother and the dead shooter, the issues of one person seem inconsequential. With this in mind, I dedicate whatever increased awareness I may experience in my life to the welfare of all beings, and may my knowing and growing in awareness add good to the world and reduce harm.
A day or so ago, I found a short writing by W.H. Auden on page 121 of Charlotte Joko Beck’s Nothing Special, Living Zen. It’s part of the chapter “Experience and Experiencing.” It goes through me like electricity, and I have to do what I do with thoughts that resonate. I memorize them. These are Auden’s words: “We would rather be ruined than changed./We would rather die in our dread/Than climb the cross of the moment/And let our illusions die.”
For me to live with those lines skillfully, I need to alter the lines to read first person singular. And because I would not rather be ruined than changed, I say no to being ruined and yes to being changed. Then I tiptoe to the line that has me climbing the cross of the moment. There, I stay and feel deeply what it would mean to let go of these thoughts that have created the world I live in, a world not always the same as the world as it is. Auden’s last line “And let our illusions die” spells out the consequences of being present to reality rather than deluded by familiar patterns. This letting illusions die is scary.
To live free from illusions, I can’t just grab the nearest weapon and lash to the right and thrust to the left to kill them. What’s required are patience, awareness and kindness. Through meditation, I practice moments of each.
Auden speaks of illusion. I have heard dharma talks use the term delusion. By delusion Buddhists mean there is a real world, vast, amazing and terrific. And then there is the world made by thoughts. Unfortunately, people, myself included, tend to substitute what our minds have constructed. We rely on our own interpretations of what is real and it’s usually not what is truly real. I know this is so in my case.
When an experience fits a familiar pattern and arouses familiar feelings, no matter how uncomfortable, I know who I think I am. And when I am interpreting my current life from inside that world, created long ago, I am likely to cause harm. To myself or someone else.
Here is an example from a recent experience ushering the Nutcracker at the War Memorial Opera House in the top balcony, second aisle from the door on the odd number side. Instructed by the head usher when to seat latecomers, I held back some stragglers, but the usher at the door told the usher one aisle down to seat them in my aisle. I told her it was not the right time, but still she led the party down the steep, dark aisle. It’s my aisle, for which I am responsible. I, I, I. Yes, I am angry. So familiar. Who did she think she was? Who did I think I was or was not? Not takes precedent when the past repeats. Not enough, not regarded, not responsible. Not happy. So familiar. So many illusions.
What follows then are 10 illusions that help to shape my inner world. These are illusions I am willing to let die:
1. Beings are separate.
2. Self-stories define me.
3. Life as I know it requires hating.
(Maybe not hating but certainly taking an aversion to
anyone who hurts my feelings. This based on experiencing hurt feelings as meaning
I am of no-consequence.)
4. Comparisons are worth making.
5. Information equals wisdom.
6. Being wrong is wrong
7. Not knowing causes intolerable pain.
8. Only pleasant experiences need apply.
9. Being understood feels necessary.
10. Causing no harm is possible.
And finally, this illusion: Voices with small messages should be silent in view of the randomness, unpredictability and delusion that characterize much of this world. Thus, with humility, no Christ, I offer this small insight into one struggle to “become a mighty kindness.”
Tree in Los Osos / Alison R.
Choosing three words that best express my philosophy of life provides endless hours of pleasure. Elizabeth Gilbert entitled her bestselling book with her three words: Eat, Pray, Love. I saw the movie and liked the “eat” part best. Ann Lamott calls her new book on prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow. Until last week, my three as yet unpublished words were “Oh, And, Yes.”
I’m not going to spend a lot of time explaining these words because I replaced them two days after Thanksgiving. My “Oh” sounds like “Oh, I didn’t know that, but it is a pleasure to learn.” “And” means more or different information isn’t a contradiction but an addition. And “Yes” expresses my willingness to acknowledge whatever arises.
But on my way back from my Thanksgiving visit to my son, 28 year-old grandson and five-year-old granddaughter in Los Osos, I came up with a new three-word philosophy. I kept the “And” as crucial to non-duality, and put “This” in the first and third position to produce “This And This.”
To imagine me discovering meaning in these particular three words, two of which are the same, you have to see me behind the wheel on cruise control with inactive feet and legs, traveling north on 101 around 7:30 a.m., arms equidistant from each other on the wheel. Just as the thought of multiple ways of perceiving the world came to mind, I had an “Oh” moment and my arms vibrated. I needed that embodied experience to know that this thought has legs. I was thinking about the other grandma to my granddaughter and contrasting our styles of grandparenting.
In Los Osos both of us were staying in my son’s house, sharing the pleasures and the frustrations of our five-year-old charge. At first, the other grammy’s style annoyed me. Why should the child need her long hair brushed out of her eyes every time it ecaped from its rubber band? She could see well enough, as far as I could tell. Moreover, each time the brush neared her, she screamed and tossed her unkempt hair into real disarray. Faced with such a mop head, I mostly didn’t care enough to press the issue. However, the other grammy approached the problem stealthily, circling behind the couch, grabbing the hair and somehow with much reassurance that it would not hurt and would only take a minute, tying it back again. This gambit gained her temporary control.
I admit I preferred my way of coping with stray hair, the no-way way. I thought that by insisting at that moment, the other grammy needed to imprint the little girl’s experience with her approval or disapproval. That was my way of sitting by and judging. I, on the other hand, sat silent or played with the little girl as if I too were five.
Leaving Los Osos and the other-grammy experience behind, I had that “Oh” moment in the car. It occurred to me that one way of being with this child might not be better than the other. Did both ways have value? Did I think the order-imposing grammy was inferior to the grammy who mostly let the child have her own way?
I must have really needed to feel good about myself, even at the expense of the other grammy. Was I hoping the child would prefer me to her? After all, she was also the grammy who snuck gum and candy to the little girl despite daddy’s rules. But aren’t grandparents usually the ones who spoil the child? My son’s beloved Grandma Doris certainly spoiled him every chance she got. Maybe the other grandma had it more right than I did, and I was just trying to excuse being lazy in the grandparenting department.
As I drove north early Saturday morning leaving the other grammy there for two more days, I started to rethink my reaction to all things not me or my way. Oh, what if one grandmother doesn’t have to be better than the other? What if I don’t need to feel right and could accept everyone’s style as representative of what they do because, well just because? And what if I really could avoid judging or comparing my way to other ways. Suppose I did not choose sides, either for my way or against it. What if I could just experience things as they are and not have to grasp after my own way of doing things to prove I am superior, or even okay. What if I really began once and for all to accept that there will always be “This And This.” What if. Two new words to consider.
I expected Election Day to be a day fraught with being fraught. The possibility of political and social disaster loomed. Yet for me the day became surprisingly productive and stress-free. This is not what I would have predicted when I joined my friends for our Tuesday weekly morning women’s group. Like everyone else’s, my check-in included the admission that uncertainty was hard to handle. Only one of us could say she felt calm She said worrying stopped once her vote was cast. While the worriers among us were glad for her, her calm did not seem catching.
But maybe calm is catching. Maybe what other people say about how they live in this world does make a difference. Or maybe just admitting my anxiety made it disappear. It just went. I still can’t explain exactly why. I can’t account for why that fearful Tuesday turned into one of the most productive and peaceful days I have ever experienced. How was it I entertained no useless thoughts? How did I manage to clean out the dresser drawers, sort through the closet, make a collage and usher for hours at the opera house where Tuesday night was four-and-a half-hours of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin? And all this with no angst.
Do you know what it is like for an anxious person to suddenly experience quiet? No voices within to track my positives and negatives. No voices telling me, “You don’t have a plan.” I queried my body and found no answering tensions or restrictions. It was so quiet.
Considering Tuesday from a Wednesday perspective, I see that I focused my energy on those things I could control. And yet my attention didn’t feel forced. Neither resigned nor unaware, I went about my life quiet and focused.
What really stood out about the way the day went was that nothing I actually did was on a “to-do” list, rather the tasks felt close at hand and effortless. Perhaps they required pre-planning like what to do with socks that come up singles, with mittens, or with the tee shirts with logos that represent years of past affiliations or are gifts from friends. Had I thought through the dresser clean-out task as I typically do, I might not have done it.
Without preplanning, the closet was easy too. Everything short over the shoe racks, pants in the middle and coats in the closet closest to the door. What could be simpler?
Because I did not agonize over my “artistic” ability or question my creativity, the collage became effortless. I would have tackled the task eventually, but fear about artistic ability would surely have led me to postpone it. The collage could have remained an unassembled intention to commemorate the life of my daughter-in-law, struck and killed by a car last November. I had been collecting pictures and words, roses and ribbons that could, one day, be part of an artwork to honor her. On Tuesday, without thinking about it, I began to arrange these pictures on poster board, tear paper, glue the black rose, a vampire-related artifact because I know she loved Twilight movies, some black stones, and lace I tore off a girlfriend’s Valentine from years ago. Without judgments or self-talk, my collage took form, and the only effort I needed to control was where to glue, how much was enough and when to walk away.
As for the opera, because ushers need to arrive at the opera house an hour and a half early to receive instructions and assignments, I needed to be on duty and smiling from 5:30 until 11:30 p.m, except in the dark where my assignment was the top of the balcony in the center aisle. From that vantage point, sitting on a high chair marked “Usher on Duty” I watched the opera, except for the top parts obscured by the super titles. My job then was to ensure that standing room patrons, who paid $10 to watch, did not sit or lie in the aisles. With first intermission a little after 8, I went downstairs and passed Julie, who is in charge of the balcony ushers. She was smiling. Obama won the election, she said.
What more evidence could I need that good things happen whether or not I’m anxious. Tuesday, topped with Obama’s victory, turned out for me to be my first fret-free day in a very long time. Since then, anxieties have come back with as much power as before. I have fallen apart again and again, but I have the amazing memory of Tuesday, the day I felt fully present and quiet. Perhaps somewhere in that experience is a template for a life of less stress.