spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
Smashed glass at Starbucks/Alison R.
Until the police release their final report, we won’t know how the glass was broken, if it shattered from multiple kicks, a brick or the intruder used a hammer.

As I crossed the Safeway parking lot on my way to the Starbucks on Fillmore and O’Farrell, Doug, a regular who sits next to me at the counter, met me in the Safeway parking lot and said don’t bother going to Starbucks. Go to Safeway instead because Starbucks won’t open.

I could have done as Doug suggested, but I wanted to see for myself why my usual morning routine was spoiled, if the store wasn’t open and wouldn’t be open and if not, why not. So we walked over and I read for myself the handwritten sign on the front door: “Closed because of an incident.”

That could have meant anything. I had watched April earlier in the week stare down a potential thief and order  her to get in line if she wanted to buy something. The woman had been standing near the sandwiches for some time. I have no store smarts so didn’t guess the woman had anything on her mind but ordering a tall coffee and gazing at the glazed donuts. To me, abberant behavior means customers are probably off their meds.

But April sees her job as protecting the store, so she sees loitering by the open food displays while yelling out an order for a drink from a distant coffee spigot as a theft in the making.

Based on having witnessed the shouting match that ensued between the polite yet firm April and the enraged would-be thief, I imagined a payback kind of incident wherein April is possibly accosted and Chang or Kim have to subdue the angry interloper, etc. etc.

But I put that story on hold after walking around the building and seeing the shattered glass. Half a door remained. Through a side window I could see a policeman dusting the counter for prints. When I caught April’s eye, I raised my shoulders to ask what had happened, if everyone was all right and when were they planning to reopen.

She shrugged in response but gestured that she would make my usual beverage for me and bring it outside the front door. By this time, quite a crowd had gathered, and I had become a spokesperson on the basis of exchanging shrugs with April and having seen for myself the smashed glass.

Pretty soon the entire Starbucks crew came out the front door with trays of coffees for everyone, saying it’s free and we are sorry for inconveniencing you. April handed me my double short soy latte.

When one of the other regulars reached into his pocket to pay, April said, “Derrick, your coffee is free.” That she knew his name and fixed him what he liked impressed me because Derrick is homeless and sleeps in the vicinity of Fillmore and O’Farrell. Moreover, he hasn’t always come into the store medicated. 

Meanwhile Kim, the manager, brought out creamers and an assortment of sugar and sugar substitutes plus stirring sticks for anyone who didn’t take their coffee black.

We learned that besides a showcase of coffee blends in disarray, nothing was taken, not even the few dollar bills from the tip jar. In the back, boxes had been thrown, as if the thief or thieves were looking for something.  April said because too many people who worked in the store touched objects and surfaces, fingerprints would yield no clues.

And I learned what I already knew, even if Starbucks does not have the best coffee and the décor of every store is basically the same, this particular coffee shop is a community. No one working for a paycheck is required to treat other people with kindness. Whether biblical: Do unto others or Buddhist: practice loving-kindness, or just good business sense, the result that cold morning was the same.

By the following morning, the door had been boarded up and the store opened at its usual 5:30 a.m. When I showed Chang, part of the Saturday crew, pictures of the shattered door and the trays of coffee set out on tables for those of us who couldn’t be regulars that morning, he was impressed. “Not many businesses would do that,” he said. And though no expert, I had to agree.

World seen thru the eyes of April Fredrikson
This posting is rated “M” for meditational content.

I had in mind for today, “Waking Up is Hard to Do” and while that is still true and could be what most of this is about, I swerve from the path.

It happened like this. Just as I adjusted my earbuds to drown out Starbucks’ musical choices with a Tara Brach meditation podcast, I swerved from my intended path.

Swerving in this case means that given the chance to practice dana (giving or generosity), I took leave of the dharma (study of Buddhist principles) and made a mini-sangha (community of likeminded people).

Because I was at my usual Starbucks on Fillmore and O’Farrell, my sangha was young barista, April Fredrikson. Her intention in that moment was to mop the counter at which I was sitting, and when my phone got knocked and began to fall, and I grabbed it and she helped retrieve it, she saw Tara’s face on the screen as I was 26 minutes into “Unconditional Love for the Life Within.”

I removed my earbuds, paused Tara, and explained the Dharma talks and she exclaimed, “Oh! Have you ever heard of Eckhart Tolle? He changed my life.” I said I had, having read one of his books and written about breaking up with myself based on his, “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.”

At 27, April is years ahead of me in her renunciation of dhuka (suffering), but we are on the same wavelength because Tolle’s premise is the same as Tara’s, to become aware of identifying with and believing your thoughts and feelings and thus getting stuck in the self. This condition is called the human condition and talking about it further complicates it.

Anyway, it wasn’t complicated in Starbucks that morning as April and I exchanged web addresses and promised to visit each other’s web sites. She’s a photographer and said if I saw something I liked at lirpalife.com, I could use it for this blog.

Having swerved for the awakened, energetic April, I now reboard my original train of thought wherein I grapple with mindfulness and “waking up” and ponder why I am not yet a wholehearted meditator.

Oh, I love the idea of meditation. I like allotting time throughout the day to set my timer app and sit, allowing whatever happens to happen and noting it. The form of meditation I am following is the Vipassana or mindfulness form.

In sitting, I get to calmly watch my mind, awaiting insight into my behavior. The goal is to wake up, that is, to be so vibrantly aware I will detach from what I have called “me” all these years to be present in the moment. At least that is the premise of Vipassana meditation. And I wholeheartedly like it.

My problem is believing the very basis of all meditational practice, that reality is a universe of love, wherein it is natural to be kind to self as well as to others. Wisdom leaders describe this truth as like golden light.

Having lived these many years resorting to self-protecting feints and strategies, of directing anger against myself to “succeed at all costs” “come hell or high water,” I have had no personal experience that a kinder, gentler way is the better way. I like thinking so, but for me kind and gentle are still unembodied ideas.

It is possible that Tara Brach is one of those people who has mastered kindness, but I have not met her, so lack personal proof that she is who she sounds like she is. And there is my good friend Kate, who is kind, and sometimes when I’m not sure what might be a kinder alternative to the thoughts I’m thinking, I ask “What would Kate think?”

Right now, my meditation practice brings to mind a brass frog doorstop propping ajar a heavy door so in can stream a thin ray of gold light. The frog is me in my meditation posture, my elbows slightly out, my palms up, creating a rounded feeling. By sitting, I hold open the door through which I hope will flow that gold light, the basic goodness of the universe.

But first, I must believe it is a universe of basic goodness and then practice faithfully enough to create the space of awareness into which will flow the golden goodness. Not yet, but maybe soon? Meanwhile, I swerve from the path to greet the divine in April. Namaste.

Fixer upper / Tup Wanders
As a believer in stories, my advice for my niece is based on personal experience. I want her to know that the stories we tell ourselves can change our outlook and alter our self -image. And as an award winning comedic choreographer and dancer, Turquoise can concoct a story with ease. 

Everything is falling into place for her trip to Los Angeles. She has sublet a studio apartment in an ideal location for taking improv classes, and because getting around in L.A. is no snap, her Dad has offered her a not-so-pretty minivan.

She knows it’s petty, but that car does not fit the image she wants to project. It’s clunky and larger than a Scion or a Fit or a Mini-Cooper and bespeaks ordinary and safe whereas she wants to say cute, snappy, cutting edge. It’s a minivan, after all, a silver Ford Windstar of indeterminate age previously owned by a food bank in rural Northern California, and the roof is peeling.

First of all, I’m not faulting her for having this car image problem. It’s healthy to think she’s entitled to a positive view of herself. And if she follows my advice, no matter what car she drives in LA, she will see her bright side.

Yet it is important to acknowledge what marketing research has shown about the effect on one’s self-image of car and clothing brands.  According to University of Minnesota researchers, one group of women was sent into a mall with a plain pink shopping bag and another group with a Victoria’s Secret bag. Those carrying the branded bag rated themselves more feminine, glamorous and good-looking.

Researchers also found that people who used a pen with the MIT logo rated themselves higher as leaders and smarter than others.

So it goes to show that brands have real power because, as researchers say, from the clothes we wear to the cars we drive and the bags we carry, they all make statements about who we are or who we want to be. And my point is that the stories we tell ourselves have that same power over us. They can enlighten or mislead, inspire or discourage.  

The truth is, I, myself, drive an image-challenged car. It’s a maroon ’97 Toyota Corolla missing its hubcaps on the passenger side. In addition, the passenger side has numerous white scrapes, evidence that I have misjudged the parking space to which I have been assigned in my building’s garage. I can remember the loss of both hubcaps, how they bounced off when I brushed the curb on Noe Street.

When I look at the car, I see its unloveliness, its bruises, the unrepaired damage and I see a car not worth stealing, a car not needing to be heavily insured, a car that’s easy to pick out in a parking lot if you’re on the passenger side. To me, the car says I am not concerned with what people think of me or my materialism.  Although I admit I have yet to hand over the keys for valet parking at any social gala.

Part of my comfort with driving an inconsequential car is reverse snobbism. I don’t live in Pacific Heights, Sea Cliff or Nob Hill, I live in eastern Western Addition, northern Hayes Valley, eastern Tenderloin and south Cathedral Hill, at an unglamorous address in this city of splendor.

Should anyone want to know why I drive that car, I have a story. Most queries, however, come from my parking lot friends at Safeway on Webster and O’Farrell, men who perceive me as having more money than they do, but notice that their cars look a lot better than mine. These are friends I don’t try to impress.

It’s when I am giving rides to more affluent friends that I explain the car’s declasse look as an example of urban detailing, as if the detailers offered me a special on denting, removal of original paint, scratching, scuffing, spills and stains.

Telling this story allows me to acknowledge the shamble the car is in but to project an aura of courage, conviction and competency, as if it’s a choice after all.

If Turquoise does drive the silver Windstar with the peeling roof around Los Angeles, my advice is to smile and improvise an incredible story behind this food bank cast off, something about the number of lives saved, skidding under falling branches, swerving through torrential downpours, skimming over frozen rutty back country roads, etc. Actually any story replete with detailing will do.

I have changed my niece’s name so as not to dent or tarnish her self-image.

Dog is Love


A promise kept
 “Somewhere in the universe in the gallery of important things”… a runty brindle pit bull with a white apostrophe over her eye is awaiting death in the arms of my son who is keeping his promise to his love. I will be with you at the last he has told her and though he feared he might not be strong or steady enough to keep his promise, he has. He cradles her as the vet leans toward her with the needle.

Leeloo, the 14-year-old pitbull has inoperable cancer. She has had both ears clipped because of tumors. She has had three ACL surgeries over her years. And always in my son’s life she has been the loved being, named for “the Fifth Element” the most powerful being in the universe required to ignite the four elements and defeat evil as scripted in the 1997 Luc Bresson film “The Fifth Element.”

Despite being what the world needs to save it, the film’s Leeloo, played by Milla Jovovic is also fragile and needs protection and love, even as she gives both without measure. This too is the four-legged Leeloo, giving love but in need of protection.

Before her new family named her Leeloo, the San Francisco Animal Control shelter volunteers had dubbed the small pit bull Sierra. When my son first saw her, she gazed up from the cage; she was 6 months old with large eyes and small by pit bull standards. But something drew him to her, perhaps a combination of her unique coloring, her size and vulnerability.

In the past, my son like many young men, wanted big, aggressive-looking pit bulls, like Suzy Cremecheese, a white pit bull he once owned and to whom he had not given much thought. Leeloo’s small size was probably why there wasn’t a lot of interest in her.

After seeing her, my son went home to 32nd Avenue to tell his wife and to bring her to meet the brindle pit bull.  He describes the adoption process at SFACC as prospective owners waiting to meet the dog in an enclosed room with a bench along one wall.  So there they sat, while a volunteer fetched the dog.  They were on the bench when the volunteer brought her in and removed the lead. She wandered about the room, but in a short time after some initial sniffing, she jumped into my daughter-in-law’s lap and curled up.  There was no question that Leeloo would go home with them.

I entered Leeloo’s life in 1999, when I retired from teaching and moved from Los Angeles to live upstairs in the flat above my family, in a duplex we owned together.  I could hear nails clicking up the back stairs whenever Leeloo visited me.

Leeloo went out most days with a dog walker. Among other dogs, she was definitely the leader of the pack, but trotted around, minding her business, quite easy going as long as she had a tennis ball in her mouth. My son and I would walk Leeloo and later Leeloo and Otto, a stoic black lab, pit bull mix, Leeloo allowed to move in with the family. We walked between 5:30 and 6 every morning.

But Leeloo and Otto were more than the occasion for morning walks, they helped to heal the relationship between my son and me. Sometimes a son and a mother get lucky and someone or something comes along to do what they were not able to do for each other, form the nurturing bond that allows a child to love for the rest of his life.  For my oldest son, I was not a reliable, responsible parent, so he was never secure and grew older anxious to provide for others what I had not given him. But his own heart was closed. Then Leeloo came home, and the healing process began.

Those who have dogs and love them know the role a dog can play. With a pet, it’s unconditional love, always returned, no questions, no strings attached. Day in and day out, my son was the center of his animal’s world. This was the love that Leeloo gave.

As Leeloo’s life neared its end, my son was aware in retrospect that no dog ever lived up to her name better than Leeloo did. Through the love she gave and took, she softened his unsafe heart and gifted us both with love, the most powerful element in the world.

Dog is Love.

The opening quote is from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl That Lives in the Orchard.”

Don't change a hair for me. Petra Oriskova
It’s a new year. Again. My only New Year’s resolution is to put my right arm over my left arm and hug myself. Then put my left arm over my right arm and hug my evil twin.  She is a teller of stories that prevents me from  experiencing others as they are.

I chose this resolution on advice from Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodrin. I do not know her personally, although I went to a retreat in Richmond when she spoke a year or so ago. Pema said many things and I remember being told that resolving to become a better person could be seen as an act of aggression against one’s true nature. As 2011 ends, that advice recurs.

This non-aggression pact feels right because not only is doing no harm central to Buddhism, and kindness the one true religion of the Dalai Lama, but the pointy shards of my true nature are crucial to creativity.

To do the best hugging possible, because it’s a long line, I will sit like Santa in the mall and let my twin’s creations line up for their end-of-the-year hugs. I recognize them despite disguises or shadowy projections.

First in line for a year-end hug is Melodie de Bouffant. That’s the name my evil twin pinned on a young lady after I was appalled by her behavior at a meeting of the weight-loss company that employed us both. She was, when I hated her, an energetic self-promoting woman who tossed her hair and couldn’t sit still. At meetings she waved both hands to call attention to herself. Whereas I, the good twin, chose to keep a low profile, confident that I was so effective and clever at my work, proclaiming it wasn’t necessary.  As I noted this energetic creature, hopping about, I hoped never to have to work with her, but should such a thing ever come to pass, I guessed I might need to befriend my own inner Melodie de Bouffant.

Let’s face it, I said to myself, you want to boast about your own accomplishments and hear praise heaped upon you. You know that’s part of who you are.  So affecting a French accent, I spoke so fast as to be incomprehensible and hopped abount.

Put my left arm over my right and give Mme. de Bouffant a hug.

Next in line I see my sister, whom I love, but is it unconditional? Probably not until I’m no longer at war with her really good habits like eating totally organic, cleaning stains out of the rug with lemon halves and vinegar and washing every dish immediately after its use. I will have to learn to make fires with wood and not Duraflame logs. I will have to know when the flue to the chimney is closed and how to open it. I will need to waft sage periodically to cleanse my habitat, particularly after the flue is closed and smoke from the Duraflame log stinks up the place.

Twin notwithstanding, my real sister has so much more to recommend her, let me give her a hug.

Close to the front of the line I spy my ex, Corky, in a fiery furry red coat,  a black tutu and mittens.  She was a major player in my life for half a decade.  Of all the people for whom my evil twin is most responsible, besides my mother, she is my star creation. In my mind I wrote her lines when she didn’t say to me what I most wanted to hear and read between the ones she actually spoke. I psyched myself to breach her defenses and willed myself to bang my head against walls and stumble encumbered by blindspots. So many times I didn’t ask the questions most needing to be asked like what are you thinking? What do you mean?  Yet unlike Dr. Frankenstein’s monster,  my twin’s creation sparkles in crinkly fabrics and magical socks.

Finally, as the line winds down and all those toward whom I have felt jealous, resentful or dismissive have been hugged, I turn to myself for the right arm over the left arm hug. I hug the me who reveals her imperfections, no matter how petty, jealous or cruel.

Having embraced my evil twin, I acknowledge a shortcoming, which Pema says can be the source of  wisdom, strength and feistiness.  “The point is that our true nature is not some ideal that we have to live up to. It’s who we are right now, and that’s what we can make friends with and celebrate.” So right arm over left and arm and give myself a hug.