spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
Cappuccino made for me/A. Rittger
When I am truly at one with the universe, having silenced all the spiky “shoulds,” I will be luminescent like an orange, with pits to spit out and juicy with gratitude. 

Once I am at one with the universe, I won’t brag about reaching bliss. But should I become one with the universe, I will note it in my gratitude journal or text it to my gratitude buddy, Kate, as one of three gratitudes of the day we have agreed to exchange.

As for daily gratitude, I doubt my data plan allows for the number of text messages I would send to recount all for which I am grateful. Better to journal it and be okay with running out of pages.

Religions and philosophies have long trumpeted gratitude as a manifestation of virtue, and a component of health, wholeness, and wellbeing, while scientists are latecomers to recognizing gratitude’s salubrious effects.

Happiness researcher at UC Davis, Dr. Robert Emmons, calls gratitude the “forgotten factor”. They’ve designed a long-term research project to create and disseminate scientific data on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its potential consequences for human health and wellbeing.  A Harvard study showed 94 percent of depressed people reported feeling less depressed after 15 days of keeping a gratitude journal.

I will leave proving the efficacy of gratitude to the experts and do only what I can do which is, as the poet Rumi says in “The Zero Circle”: “… not be sure of anything besides ourselves, and only that….”

Left to my own devices, take my gratitude journal for Friday, February 24 for example. And then up pops “por ejemplo,” and I feel the big “G” for the ability to remember one of the few expressions I have mastered in another language. The “G” becomes the first letter of Google because I instantly check the spelling on an English-to-Spanish dictionary on my smart phone. Major gratitude for mastering the complexities of my particular portable go-to for almost everything, podcasts, the calendar, music, mail, etc. Which takes me to the earbuds, an alternative to Starbuck’s musical medley. Sometimes it’s okay and sometimes it’s not. I feel gratitude this morning as the voice of Mahalia Jackson pours from the speaker an upbeat gospel tune. The Christian coffee drinker at the end of the counter points it out to me. “Praise the Lord,” she says.  “And in Starbucks, of all places.”

If you read me, you know I give all props to this particular spot in the Fillmore Center for the kindness of the young men and women who greet me on mornings I am there and worry when I’m not. This morning Rob does an unusually good job with my usual. I am grateful.

Gratitude to the 1997 Corolla that started this morning although the ignition switch is reluctant to turn over when prodded by the key. I feel grateful for not doubting that eventually the car will start even when the first two turns of the key are click, click nothing.

But worry and dismay cause pain. And I learned in meditation practice and through dharma talks that the stories I tell myself are not reality. Better to just wait until the car starts or doesn’t. Highest gratitude to that lesson. When I need to remind myself of the reality of reality, I just say iiwii (pronounce it the way it looks, like eerie without the “r.”). This shortcut helps me remember that It Is What It Is. I’m grateful for acronyms. 

So the car started this morning. And eventually it took me to the drop box at the Main Library. I paused there for a moment, grateful that libraries hold my requested books until I come to get them, and if I’m not on time, send the books to the next avid reader. I am especially grateful for the drop box I access down Grove and then left on to Polk. Due on Friday was “The Great Night” by Dr. Chris Adrian, novelist and hematologist/oncologist at UC Berkeley. I loved both the book and the email reminding me to bring it back or pay a fine. All joy to the reader next on the waiting list.

It’s not yet noon, and the gratitude journal is filling. I will go to Patricia’s Green at Hayes and Octavia, carrying my own artificial sweetener because Royal Grounds coffee is the best and wouldn’t offer artificial anything with their wonderful coffee. I will enjoy a cappuccino made just for me and drink it, watching dogs romp in the park. Gratitude, Gratitude and Shanti, Shanti.*

Cupid's Span / aaron_anderer
At a performance workshop last week, I meet my self-righteous self. She calls herself AmNasty, which she thinks is clever because it sounds so much like Namaste, which we know means “I see the divine in you.”

Sure, sure, clever. I get it. And if applauding her cleverness were enough, problem solved, but when she surfaces, she wants much more. Sometimes she is actively aggressive; sometimes she is passive aggressive.

AmNasty comes out when she feels she isn’t getting her due. She thinks the performance coach should compliment her for what she already does well. He wants her to twist her body, strain her legs and back and burble nonsense like “rubber baby buggy bumper”, but she’s already a good speaker and performer, thank you. Is it unreasonable to want affirmation?

Had AmNasty chosen to speak up rather than act out, she would have said, “I am not liking to do this, but might be willing if someone would acknowledge my abilities,” but finding no kind way to say so, she could only sulk, be surly and leave early, exeunt stage left.

I say “exeunt” because it means more than one character is heading into the wings. In truth, a myriad of Alisons walk out. AmNasty, my self-righteous aspect, surfaces when affirmation is in short supply. And faster than you can say Namaste, my inner critics rush in to join her in the conversation.

Birtha is chief among these inner critics. For as soon as I assert my self-righteous self, she swoops in. Swiftly and invariably, self-hate follows self-righteousness. Sudden and ruthless, Birtha rides in astride the second arrow.

Buddha teaches that the second arrow is the suffering we cause ourselves after we are struck by the first arrow, pain from the outside. Such pain may be criticism, rejection, death of a loved one, even failure to feel connected. You did not cause the pain of the first arrow. But pain from the second arrow comes from the story you tell yourself. Shoot, don’t shoot. It’s your call.

I actually see Birtha manifest the morning after a workshop on Transforming Inner Critics. I see her at my bedside when I wake up. She stamps her tiny patent-leather tap shoes on my bedroom floor and fires at me, “Are you really better off today than you were yesterday? Do you think you can do without me?”

But I am prepared to greet her. Welcome, I say. Let’s go for coffee and talk then. She is surprised not to be rejected but rather invited to go on an outing. I dress quickly. I take her down the stairs, showing her how I pause mindfully at the top so as to be fully present in the descent. We enter the parking garage and I pull out the car. Then she gets in, and I make certain we both buckle our seat belts.

At Starbucks, we sit where we can see everything, and I take out my journal. I am aware of her silence and am so grateful that I push the other chair closer to the table so she doesn’t feel excluded and shoot from the hip. The music is rhythmic and bluesy. She wants to dance. I feel optimistic, so we go around the corner and dance. When the barista Chang comes by the table, I ask him, after the fact, if dancing is permissible in Starbucks. He says he guesses so and doesn’t see why not.

But Orville, another inner critic is not so sure that dancing in Starbucks at 6:30 a.m. is okay, even if the store is empty. As the arbiter of appropriate and inappropriate, he says I have gone too far, done too much and taken up too much of Chang’s time. 

Next time, I’ll invite Orville to surface prior to the fact rather than after the act, when it’s about the arrows and the pain. And there will be a next time. For inner critics, there will always be a next time. For self-righteousness too. So Namaste to all the selves that I am as well as to the performance coach, who wants to do the right thing, for himself and for others in that group who may need and appreciate his help. Namaste, Namaste, Namaste.  

A Temptation Story


Apples not on aisle three/Alison R.

Then the serpent said to the woman, “Behold the apples on aisle three.” And she did. And lo! the apples were not low in price. But being thus sorely tempted, her desire grew as the serpent well knew it would, and lo! the serpent spoke again. “Mmmm, Red Rome, your favorite.” And she was sorely, sorely tempted and did fill up the plastic sack with apples though they cost more than she had budgeted, and she abhorred plastic.

The serpent sent her forth to check out by herself, hissing these instructions: “Placeth the apples on the weigh platform but key in a code for lower priced produce such as the red onion which looketh a lot like an apple yet costeth a dollar a pound less. Or put to memory the five digit code for organic Delicious apples which are rippling from age and, as a result, cost less. Lo! You saveth money and haveth apples. And the woman was sorely, sorely, sorely tempted.

I have recreated (desecrated?) a portion of the Hebrew Creation Myth as a mature alternative to subverting the San Francisco Unitarian Universalist Worship Service on Sunday. My role in the service was limited to reading the story of Adam, Eve and the serpent rather than telling stories from life that allow me to exchange energy with the congregation as once we Worship Associates did as a regular part of Sunday service.

That role is now closed to lay persons because the interim minister wants worship to be a performance of ritual and story rather than a confluence of sharing and relationship. Nothing amiss with that. Every minister wants to do what he wants to do. (He in the case of this congregation.) But it is not what I want to do. For me reading the Hebrew Creation Myth as part of a celebration of Charles Darwin’s 203rd birthday is interesting but not heart-engaging. In worship I want to feel heart-energy flow between speakers, be they minister or lay, and “the beloved community”.

That then is background and the inspiration for this  retelling of a “true” story of my experience in the Safeway at Webster and O’Farrell.

When God saw the woman had been seduced by a slithery serpent, He caused the check out machine to balk mid transaction and sent forth the checker in charge of all self-check out to wave her card across the face of the machine and lo! the transaction was null and void.

Driven from self-check out, no longer under the sway of the serpent, yet chafing under the unfairness of a free market economy, I queue up in the fifteen-items-or-less line and don a face of good will for Gail or Audrey as they perform the early morning check out ritual.

Waiting for the line to snake forward, I grapple with the many minor injustices I suffer. Take microwaveable popcorn. If I want to purchase microwave popcorn in boxes of four small bags at a discount, but can only get that discount on three-baggers with really big bags, then my needs are not met. Where’s the fairness in that?

And store-brand flavored carbonated water is advertised as on sale at a price ten cents higher than it was yesterday. Moreover there’s a California-added tax that will appear at checkout. But I need that flavored no-calorie water to drink Naked or Odwalla. Without the carbonated water to dilute Mighty Mango or Very Berry, each glass is expensive and again, I cannot get my needs met. Where’s the fairness in that?

As for apples, Red Rome, though high in cost are less desirable than Fuji apples, which are plentiful and often on sale. Don’t I deserve a break for clearing the shelves of unpopular apples before they ripple and no one buys them even at a reduced price?

And as Gail or Audrey scans my Safeway card, I sigh, forgive myself and remember that ours is “a world full of unruly impulses.”* It’s certainly so when I consider how tempted I am to cause harm when the world doesn’t meet my needs. The minister with his own agenda, and the Safeway with its profit motive. Luckily, I avoided the temptation of cheating the market or subverting the Sunday worship service to demand “Meet my needs!”

*Avivah Zornberg is a celebrated author and Torah teacher who reads between the lines of sacred stories to uncover deeper layers of meaning. Listen to her discussion “The Genesis of Desire” with Krista Tippett at On Being. 

milli-question/Ian Hughes
Was it really asking too much to want my partner to be as interested in me as I was (and am) in myself? The way I saw it and continue to see it although I am not in this relationship today is if she had been interested, she would have asked more questions.  Here’s what happened.

Me: I feel taken care of because you’re paying for my dinner tonight.

She: I’ve had a lot of old girl friends pay for my dinners.

I felt slapped when she said that. There I sat with my heart on my sleeve, right after Valentine’s Day, and she didn’t recognize vulnerability when she heard it. But now almost a year later, I know what was wrong.

Truth is, neither of us was really there in that restaurant, which was Dosa on Fillmore across from the Sundance Kabuki.  

Had either of us been truly present to each other, that exchange might have sounded more like this:

Me: I feel taken care of because you’re paying for my dinner tonight.

She: What does that feel like?

Me: I feel vulnerable yet safe. Thank you for giving me this dinner and this feeling.

She: Wow. I didn’t know that. I’ve had a lot of old girl friends pay for my dinners.

Me: And how did that make you feel?

Let’s assume for a minute that for her, there was some seed of sadness, loss or confusion still unexplored about those past experiences with all those old girl friends paying for dinner.  So I ask her more questions.

She: I’ve had a lot of old girl friends pay for my dinners.

Me: Wow, did you feel really good about that, the way I feel now?

I’ve read books about relationships, love, and nonviolent communication, so I know questions aren’t the only way to show interest in someone you care about, but for me questions are big.

I have asked myself questions over the years, but they have changed considerably. Early questions were profound but unanswerable. Like Why was I born? Why isn’t my mother as interested in me as she is in herself? What is the meaning of life? What am I meant to do with mine? If I’m supposed to be Jewish, where’s the impulse? But maturity and eventually meditation shifted me, and I began to pose questions that I, and others, could answer.

How important are questions? Influential Enlightenment figure Voltaire said, “Judge others by their questions rather than by their answers.” And despite preferring not to judge at all, I once asked writer, Francine Prose when she spoke at the Jewish Community Center, a question I wouldn’t object to being judged by.

I asked her “What do you feel for the characters in your novels?” And she said she always found something in their humanity to value whether or not she approved of the actions she had them perform in her fictional worlds. Isn't that a good answer? I could ask myself the same question about people in the real world. 

Questions have value when their potential answers invite surprise and point toward truths.

So far this year I have posed mostly practical questions: For example, there’s the question of my art phobia and if the least painful entrée into creativity would be a watercolor or a figure drawing class. How can I approach collage without hyperventilating?

How shall I upgrade my cooking now that I can’t afford to dine out as often? If I do take a cooking class, should it be beginning knife skills, sushi or intro to charcuterie?

Do I want to put videos and podcasts on my web page or rent a barn and do a one-woman show, which my oldest son suggests I call “The Angina Monologues?”

Though I tackle the practical, I wouldn’t mind knowing why I was born, if there is life after death and what’s my life’s purpose. Answers to those questions start to glimmer as I practice mindfulness meditation and stay present.

I think mindfulness will help me answer the question of how one attains what Dr. Howard Thurman* calls “a new and creative relatedness.” Actually, the answer he gives asks an even more profound question. He says, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive."

People who have come alive are people who are awake to their interconnection with all living beings and who see and honor the dignity in all. No question about it. Namaste

*Dr. Howard Thurman was an African-American minister who, in 1944, established with a white minister, the first racially integrated, intercultural church in the United States in San Francisco.