spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily

Lit From Within


PictureBirthday gift from Corky / Alison R.
No candles. No birthday cake, but lots of greetings on Facebook. Family, friends, former students witnessed that on 9-21 I was born and they were glad. It’s joyful to think I touched some lives and wasn’t too heavy handed in the process.

To kick off my birthday, dear friend Kate treated me to breakfast at Toast at the end of Church St., near where the car tracks curve. I valued this time with Kate because, as usual, I didn’t need strategies to feel safe in her company; I trusted her affection for me. Such a feeling on my birthday opened the possibility that this will be the year I feel more trusting in general. This year I might feel safe in the world, be more present and less judgmental.

Over breakfast, Kate and I had one of our talks about a big subject. Goodness. At first I reacted to “goodness” by deflecting the notion that I was good.  I often act with good intentions and sometimes even veer into very good behavior like when I take the initiative with those with less than I have. Kate said that personal goodness is good and from a Buddhist perspective, goodness is basic to all. As we talked about experiencing this general goodness, I imagined what it would be like not to have strategies to make my world feel safer, but to trust this goodness we are feeling in the moment. In the morning on my birthday over breakfast with a good friend contemplating goodness, I felt lit from within. Happy birthday to me!

My birthday included gifts from my second son who is visiting from his home in the Philippines. Of course his being here was the best gift, and I loved hearing that he felt at peace, finally. Around noon, my girlfriend, Corky, brought over a birthday gift. I mused that it might be a plant. Indeed, it was a selection of viola, nemesia, and alyssum in a jade-green ceramic container. Moreover she gifted me with tulip bulbs to be stored in the refrigerator and planted in winter. Such thoughtful additions to my patio garden! And she left blank the lavender envelope that contained the birthday card so I could reuse it. More useful thoughtfulness. Happy birthday to me.

As much as  friends and family made for a happy affectionate birthday, I also felt grateful for Foxibeau, the dog. He is a constant reminder of unconditional love and definitely a source of stress reduction. Every dog person said it would be so, and every dog person was right.

In this 75th year of my life, I plan to let Foxibeau help me get past whatever in childhood has kept me strategizing about staying safe. It really feels like this will be the year I get free. Over the years I have relied on talking to ameliorate pain; now I plan to take a more silent, body-oriented approach. Foxibeau gets to be the warm weight that lies on my chest as I follow recommendations made by trauma specialist, Bessel van der Kolk in his interview with Krista Tippett about treating trauma. He makes the point that language can deflect a person’s ability to really get to the body where trauma is stored. No point in discussing my issues with Foxibeau; I will just be comforted by his furry warmth. Of course I will continue qi gong at the YMCA and Stern Grove, stay faithful to my zazen sitting practice, talk or not to therapist Jennifer and get me to a rolfer for deep tissue work. Add loving and being loved by family, friends and former students and I am lit from within on this most happy 75th birthday!

PictureFoxibeau meditates / Alison R.
In my previous post I wrote about replacing irritation with pleasure via a pint of coffee ice cream. I said the kindness of neighbor Matt perked me up the next weekend at a birthday party and put me in a happier place. But neither bingeing on ice cream nor the kindness of a stranger is a reliable source of happiness. Both incidents brought to mind the words of a friend who said that having another heartbeat in the house is happy making and contributes to a long life.

Last Thursday, I decided on a dog. A four-legged friend could be a more regular source of happiness than  ice cream or a short visit with a friendly former neighbor I might not see again.

Despite not having a dog of my own, I had daily been aware of the alternate universe located down around people’s knees and comprised of four-leggeds, although one friend with birds swears her heart health has improved. It has long been apparent that more reliable good will exists between four-leggeds and two-leggeds than between us two-leggeds ourselves.

Although I wasn’t thinking whimsically at the time, I did head for Animal Care and Control, the first spot for lost or stray creatures. It is one of the shelters from which its neighbor, the SPCA, can choose animals to put up for adoption. Muttville is nearby as well.

Thursday around noon at the shelter, Susie, friend of a friend and a shelter volunteer met me, and by 2 p.m. we were both at Pet Express to find the right bed, crate, leash, collar, food, and toys for the stray one-year old boy I had chosen. Susie clearly picked up on my elevated stress level and went shopping with dog and me.

Susie was right about the stress. From the moment I began my very short search, I really had no idea what it would take to adopt a pet. I hadn’t been prepared for the paper work meant to ensure the dog will be safe and cared for. Yet everyone working in the shelter, either paid or as a volunteer, clearly loved animals. They treated me as though my adopting this dog was special and important.

Maybe I surprised them by choosing so quickly. I hadn’t asked to sit in a room with the dog to see if we got along. All the barking put me off and it was hard to imagine any dog under these circumstances demonstrating a clear fondness for me. Yes, I could have been less impulsive about my adoptee-to-be, arranged to pat and play with lots of potential pets, even gone to the SPCA or meandered over to Muttville, but I know myself. I may be impulsive or just not do very well with too much information. Better to just decide, trust the universe, and heed those people who work so diligently and lovingly at Animal Care and Control.

So I adopted Foxibeau le chien, the second dog I saw. I added Foxi to Beau, the name they gave him to celebrate his reddish coloring as well as the fox look of him. The French part is an affectation in lieu of his lack of papers. I have alternate pronunciations for his name. It can be said slowly with the accent on the beau as if complimenting the dog or it can be pronounced like placebo, the pill that makes one think things are much better.

With just a few days of living together, I can say he clearly meets my criteria for an animal I can live with. He does well on the leash, rides in the car, and sits with me without growling for my early morning usual at Starbucks. These small acts mattered after some of the experiences I had dog-sitting Chloe. I love Chloe for making me dog-ready, but Chloe didn’t like riding in the car. She quivered a lot when I stopped at Starbucks; she didn’t like walking peacefully with a leash and harness, and she shook at street corners when traffic whizzed by. I didn’t fault Chloe. Her real home had a yard.

And though Foxibeau and I are only a few days in, it is looking good for both of us. We seem satisfied with our arrangements. Shelter people who encouraged me to take home a dog were right. Foxibeau has made my home a happier place. 

PictureSerotonin from the liquor store / Alison R.
I needed love, trust and comfort. Without them, I was willing to settle for serotonin. I dashed across the street to the liquor store and grabbed a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or Dryers, something high in calories but mood altering. Feeling desperate, I didn’t glance at the cost of the pint or consider the almost-certain weight gain.

Clearly there had been but one thing to do. Get ice cream. An act of pure impulse – the body crosses the street, the hands push back the glass case cover over the ice cream and the fingers select coffee ice cream with Heath Bar bits. The wallet comes out, money changes hands, the body retraces its steps, the hands tear open the ice cream carton, and the spoon dips and lifts, dips and lifts. The inner world brightens, pleasure grows and soon the pint container is all but empty and the smile and feeling of wellbeing. Ah, ice cream, that reliable best friend and resource for serotonin.

My downward dip was on Labor Day afternoon when I handed over to her owner, Chloe, the dog I kept in July and then housed for the three-day weekend. It was hard enough letting go of bouncy furry happiness, but her owner handed me a check for less than I thought we had agreed on, and I experienced a double loss. Unleashed were bites of disrespect. I could see the logic of paying for two nights of doggie care rather than three days. In other words the amount made sense except that this was not the amount we had agreed upon. Something must be wrong with me that I could not get what I asked for. And thanks to the ice cream for helping me recover my equanimity

I had cause to think of that mood-altering event on Labor Day weekend after this weekend’s visit to my granddaughter’s sixth birthday party about 240 miles south of San Francisco. Lovely as it was to snag a few hugs from my youngest son’s little girl, I found myself sitting in silence among the other families, despite all the good will I felt for the young people who, with their children, comprise a caring community for my son and his daughter.

My grandson and I were the two lone representatives of daddy’s family whereas mommy’s family was, as always, present en masse. Given the active nature of the women in that family, the party was a blow out affair. The other Grandma had even booked a room in a motel at Avila beach and scooted down at 4:30 a.m. to secure the best party spot. The mermaid theme was unpacked, balloons inflated, and it was nonstop party making.

Because I didn’t help, because, because and so on I was feeling left out and out of sorts. And then I spotted neighbor Matt and his son. Neighbor Matt used to live on the corner of the street my son and I lived on in San Pedro when my son was growing up. About four years younger, Matt was a surfer like my son, and I imagine he admired his older friend. Matt matured to be kind, soft-spoken, and clearly still respectful of my son and because of that, caring and kind to me, the mother responsible for such a splendid son. Instantly, I noticed the contrast between how I had been feeling before connecting with neighbor Matt and the relief and release that came once I felt I mattered. Kindness, that source for serotonin!

Neighbor Matt and his son drove back to San Pedro about the time my grandson and I headed back to San Francisco. As we parted, I smiled at this good feeling that came from time spent with neighbor Matt. I knew that whether or not I saw him again, I could re-imagine at will and with gratitude these moments of having felt I mattered. I had needed love, trust and comfort and because of neighbor Matt the feelings had been mine and they were as good as, if not better than, those that came from ice cream. 

PictureAlison acts on her intention / Kate K.
Kate took my picture as we were leaving Lowes. She suggested we go to Lowes mostly because I said I wanted to take better care of my patio and plants. Hose? Got it. Multi-spray nozzle? Yep. Potting soil? Got that too. And the sun was shining, a good omen. Now for some tender loving gardening.

After staying at Susan’s garden sanctuary on Mercer Island, I came back to the noise and drifting dirt of construction sites guilty about neglecting plants that have somehow survived despite me. And it was hard not to contrast Susan’s intentionality with my lackadaisical attitude toward the greenery in my care.

When I consulted Kate, on whose small patio grow marigolds and herbs, she encouraged me to tend my plants right away and perhaps add a few colorful favorites. This advice, my memory of Susan making the her garden rounds each day plus the recent impetus from goal setting set me to rescue a drooping fuchsia, which for some reason had a cactus for a pot mate, to water a gasping tree with more than tears of regret for its neglect. How hard would it be to weed, to swirl the dirt and debris on the concrete toward the drain; or to add Salvia and Kangaroo Paws to the empty containers scattered by a wall?

But this willingness to take responsibility was the result of more than meditating in Susan’s garden and skipping through Lowes with Kate. I intend the garden to be more than a temporary fix-it project. Repotting, feeding, and weeding will be me aligning my actions with my stated values – the interconnected web of all beings, for one. I will take specific small steps to put things right. And my neighbors might not need to avert their eyes from my droopy greenery and muddy concrete.

I see tending the garden as doing what is needed rather than bypassing personal effort to get results that require nothing but watching others work and paying them for their efforts. To do the work myself could be called a step into growth (or undergrowth). If I sweet-talked my grandson into doing the work or appealed to kind neighbors, I would be stepping back into the safety of doing what I have done in the past – taking the easier way.

But paying attention to the patio is one way to become aware of what it means to step forward into growth instead of resting in the safety of habitual behavior, that easier way. For example, it would be no effort to wait for rain to puddle the dirt and debris whereas I feel sore and tired when I sweep and hose down the patio myself .

I admit to having generally preferred the easier way and easily justified my habitual behaviors. But something is changing. Even if the change is being aware that my past choices have been habitual. I know that I have other options than to fall back into the safe and familiar patterns of the past. I want to become conscious of how my future will be shaped by moment-to-moment decisions.

And I admit my small efforts aren’t the same as working in a community garden or raising food on my land as many city dwellers do. Yet I do feel joy in the small responsibility I have accepted for the privilege of a patio of plants that catches the morning sun in the Civic Center.