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

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.”

React or Respond


Cerrado / Valerie Everett
This piece still speaks for me although I gave it in 2009 from the lectern at the San Francisco Unitarian Universalist church because I got caught up in a familiar pattern of lashing out at my then girlfriend, Corky. And recently through meditation I have come to realize that between react and respond, it’s the pause that counts.

I’m guessing it would be better for everybody I know if I could see the light of reason before getting hot under the collar. I’d like to give myself a choice between reacting and responding rather than defaulting to react. I don’t want to be the queen of bounce back and jab, more apt to react than respond.

 “React”- to do back.  You point out a flaw, so I find a shortcoming.  You act like you don’t know what I’m talking about, so I pretend you don’t make sense to me either.  You yell at me, so I yell back.

On the very morning I ask the universe to provide me with a lesson, it arrives just as I lock the door to our place of business on Buckingham Way at about 10:30 a.m. and slide the closed sign into place. The receptionist begins to process the Weight Watcher meeting and because the computer program is new for us, we want to work without interruption. But two women are standing outside our locked door and appear to be staring at the door. I take in a deep breath, remembering what our trainers call “The Service Vision” and open the door. “Hello,” I smile warmly, wishing they would go away, prepared to tell them with the next deep breath that they can’t come in but are welcome to attend the next meeting. But before I say anything, one of the women explodes with, “Do I look like I need to lose weight?”

Ah ha, I smile to myself. Clearly, this is a reaction. For a minute I say nothing. What do I say now? Certainly not, “What is wrong with you?” That too would be a reaction. Perhaps she thinks she is being funny the way I sometimes think I’m being funny. So I ask her, “Are you being funny?” She says that she isn’t and then apologizes. Seems, she is super sensitive about appearing overweight. As for whether or not she is carrying a few or many extra pounds, I wouldn’t know because she is covered by a heavy coat. I continue to smile and introduce myself. She responds with her name. We shake hands. No harm. No foul. As we say in sports.

What makes “reacting” so much easier and quicker than “responding”? One theory has it that we have had every original experience we are ever going to have by the age of 19. From that time on, much of what we anticipate in the way of experiences will be based on memories of what went before. If you think 19 is a little young for every experience, the idea of recalling early experiences still has validity and helps explain to me why while watching a movie, my girlfriend, Corky, twitches, flinches or shudders at every loud screen sound. She doesn’t wait to find out if the plot warrants the flinch. Maybe movie scares were big in her childhood, and loud screen sounds continue to act as a trigger.

It sheds some light to think of reacting as reliving the past while responding is experiencing the present and thinking about how the future may result from how we behave. No wonder reacting is so much faster and familiar than responding.

For me, the difference between react and respond is more than just a powerful concept based on etymological differences. It’s an opportunity to see the light before reaching the end of the tunnel and having to look back at where I’ve been and what I’ve said or done and then having to apologize or regret that I didn’t make something new of the experience. Unless, of course, there is a train coming through that tunnel and my best recourse is to react. It’s usually not a matter of either/or, as much as it is of knowing the difference and choosing the wiser course of action. So here’s to less cursing the darkness and more lighting of candles    

Geese at Montour Preserve / Audreyjm529
It’s easy to see why we Unitarian Universalists, among others, connect with Mary Oliver’s poetry. The nature people love the specificity of her connections to nature – geese passing overhead in Massachusetts, irises growing wild in nearby fields, her dog, Percy, eating books. Human nature people, and that doesn’t necessarily exclude nature people, love her insights and the comfort she offers us about being human.

Among her wise words that I try to live by are these: “Instructions for Living a Life” “Pay attention, Be Astonished. Tell about it.” So let me tell you about me and Carlos and how we came to translate “Wild Geese” into Spanish at Starbucks. It is my habit to walk somewhere early in the morning and often I stop at a Starbucks for morning coffee because they open at 5:30. After I moved onto Gough Street, I walked through the civic center to the Starbucks at the intersection of Polk and Market. I would place my order and tuck myself into one of the big chairs near the window. Soon I was joined by a young man from Nicaragua named Carlos. I learned that sometimes when he did not come, he was in the hospital because he was, he told me, diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and felt safe there. Most of the time he lived in a residential hotel on 9th St. He told me he had a sister living in the Mission who wanted him to live with her, but he was afraid because Cubans in the Mission glared at him. He suspected they knew he was from Nicaragua and had been tortured by the FSLN. He told me many stories about his past in military service, former marriages, girl friends, fears. Sometimes, he would meet me in the United Nations Plaza at the farmer’s markets on Wednesday and carry my produce.

Once, I suggested we go to the movies, a terrible mistake because it was in Spanish and about wife-beating and he said it dropped him into a hell of remembering how he beat his wife when he suspected her of being unfaithful. I thought, oops, I have been unwise. And then, unwisely, he hugged me. In no way was I encouraging more than a friendship, so I hoped his hug was just friendly. But I knew we would see no more movies together and there would be no more hugging.

Yet I wanted a comfortable way to be with this Spanish speaking Nicaraguan on Thorazine and Haldol who yearned for a female other than his sister to help him in his life.

And I did find a way to relate to him – with a table between us. He would teach me Spanish by translating poetry I would bring in, and for his being my teacher I would pay him.

And so once a week at Starbucks we would ask the barristas to turn down the music and for an hour, work on translating into Spanish a poem I loved. The poem we worked on was: “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. Ganses Salvajes in Spanish.

 Here is what the first lines of that poem sounded like to me. Tu no tienes que ser bueno. You don’t have to be good. Tu no tienes que caminar sobre tus rodillas.  You don’t have to walk on your knees por cien millas otra ve del desierto, arrepindiendote  For a hundred miles thru the desert, repenting. Tu solo tienes que dejar el animal suave de tu cuerpo amar lo que el ama. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Dime acerca tu problema, y yo te dire el mio. Tell me about your despair, yours and I will tell you mine. Mientras tanto el mundo sigue. Meanwhile the world goes on

Yes, meanwhile the world goes on. And one morning, Carlos did not come for our lesson. And I waited. I came back the next morning. None of the other “regulars” who often sat with us in the window corner knew where Carlos had gone. After a while, I stopped waiting for him and went other places in the morning. Perhaps, he stopped being afraid and went to the Mission to live near his sister and he is having coffee with the Cubans. I hope that Carlos finds his safe place “en la familia de cosas,” in the family of things.

And so far regardless of which early morning Starbucks I wander into, I have not regretted any time I have spent listening to lives far different from the “safe and sane” one I am living. I believe that Mary Oliver got it right when she wrote: "Ten times a day something happens to me …- some strengthening throb of amazement - some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness."


Pedro at the Fillmore & O'Farrell Farmer's Market
The strawberry man is setting up. It isn’t 9 a.m., the advertised time for the start of the Farmers Market at Fillmore and O’Farrell in San Francisco, but the strawberry man is happy to see me, although I’m not certain I’m the me he sees. Whoever he thinks I am, he is happy, declaring he greets me every Saturday and for this reason he will sell me $7 worth of strawberries for $5, which is all the pocket money I have. I accept his gracious offer, choosing to be whoever he thinks I am because he wants to accommodate the me he thinks is me. He says my early morning money will go directly into his 10-year-old daughter’s college fund. Already she plans to go to college when she grows up. This makes me happy, because the me who is me taught high school for 31 years. I appreciate pledges of education, particularly when the future graduate will be an under-represented minority.

Having spent all my pocket money, I head back across Fillmore to my car in the Safeway parking lot where Doug, my morning coffee-drinking companion at Starbucks, is smoking a cigarette and talking to a friend. When I get to my car, I am unable to leave. Part of me wants to take the strawberries, all the strawberries, and drive away fast, but another part says I got a deal because I am not who I think I am, at least to the strawberry man. And when I imagine myself someone other than me, I am not a person who drives away fast, but a person who shares what comes to me, especially by mistake, with someone else, in this case Doug. I hesitate. I try to pack my strawberries and leave, but I can’t, so I untie the yellow plastic bag and rearrange the berries to fit their three plastic containers. I take one of the baskets to Doug and hand it to him. “For me?” he asks. I nod. Then I get in my car and go home.

I am making the most of my mistaken identity to be someone I really like. Rather than a woman besieged by self-doubt and frequent bouts of self-loathing, I am a woman who is at the strawberry man’s stand each Saturday at the Farmers Market on Fillmore and O’Farrell. This is not a bad person to be. Certainly she is enough on this Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m.

And while to myself I may have been the woman with a surprisingly decent cholesterol level leaving the St. Mary’s Hospital building on Shrader and Fulton, to the blind man trying to go in on Wednesday, I was a godsend. I saw him tapping against the side of the rounded front of the building, unable to navigate the confusing steps. He heard me and asked if this was the building and I said yes and went to him. He positioned himself at my arm, explaining it was his first visit to this doctor and no family member could go with him. We went in and he asked me to find his doctor and I did, checking the listings in the lobby while he waited inside the entrance. Suite 400, right near the door. I reconnected with him and guided him into the office and to the admissions desk, leaving him there as he thanked me with profound gratitude.

And that gratitude was reciprocated because I am pleased to be the person I have just been. This identity is a gift from him. And when I tell my therapist that this encounter has been the high point of my week and she rephrases my words as therapists do, saying I had helped him, I said no. “Help” is not the word I want to interpret what transpired between that blind man and me. The word Help sounds too unequal. For in that transaction between us, I felt given a gift. Let me hear her words reflect that fact. Let me hear her understand how that blind man allowed me to be my best self, an unquestioningly kind person who expected no benefit from right behavior. He allowed me that experience of compassion, an experience I can apply to myself. He knew nothing about the me I think I am. He saw me not at all.

When it comes to self-love, I tend to apply an altogether different standard than the one I use for blind men, strawberry men and coffee-drinking companions who may or may not be homeless. Over the years, in and out of therapy, it hasn’t seemed to matter how many reasons buried in childhood I have accepted as plausible explanations for why I judge myself so harshly and am so unkind to the me I think I am. But examples of compassion do make an impression. Because a blind man needs me, whoever that is, to get to the urologist’s office I know the look of compassion. And I benefit because the strawberry man sees me as someone else. And his daughter is $5 closer to college while Doug goes home with strawberries.

Clearly, expressions of love and compassion don’t rely on identity; they don’t need you to know who you think you are.