spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
A Life Lived Well / By ZeePack
Friday, I took a call from Romy, my former hairdresser. She sounded distraught. “Are you all right? Are you depressed? I have not seen you since September.” There was urgency in her voice. I reminded her that the message I left on her answer machine told her I had cut off all her colors.

As I admitted in my February 11 posting “Hair: My Croning Glory,” I knew Romy’s intent had always been to make me worthy of what she called my youthful energy. Yet I felt I had acted cowardly when I hadn’t respond to Romy in person and told her my reason for not scheduling a cut or color since September. I was afraid to tell her outright of my aim to be less vain. I failed to say I wasn’t willing to have her commandeer my head, deciding what style and colors would suit me best. After all, she was the professional, and when I sat in her chair I belonged to her from the neck up. Although on several occasions she had strong ideas about necklines, jewelry, and shoes. I thought that my voice mail response to Romy’s initial call meant that it was over.

When I saw her name on my phone on Friday, I took a deep breath and bravely took the call. I could hear the disdain in her voice when she referenced the fact that someone else had cut off her creation. “What did you pay for that hair cut? Twenty dollars?” I told her the cost of the cut. But what I didn’t say was that not arguing or defending myself against pressure from a self-assured, aggressive hair stylist was priceless.

While I would gladly have paid less — I am on a fixed income after all — I had not searched out a different stylist to save money at Romy’s expense. “You still need a good haircut no matter what color your hair is,” she said, seeming to dismiss the worthiness of anyone else’s scissor skills. “I’ll cut your hair for nothing. I miss you.”  “I miss you too, Romy,” I said. I did not say I was not in the mood to be pressured. Instead, I did what I often do when clearly outmatched in aggression — I demonstrated canine courage by cowering submissively. “I have become a recluse,” I lied. “I knew it,” she said, a potential triumph clearly in view. Romy to the rescue!

I heard and appreciated her worry and felt her relief that neither hate nor error on her part had contributed to my disappearing from her appointment book. She sounded eager to see me soon, insisting in the course of our conversation I book an appointment. If I heard her clearly, she would not sleep well until I let her look at me. I assured her I would definitely drop by. I did not say I would make an appointment. With deep sincerity she promised that she would not, definitely not, try to talk me out of the way I chose to look. Indeed, her last words before the phone call ended were “I promise (with a special emphasis on the promise) not to try and talk you out of your decision.”

Within seconds of our heartfelt goodbyes and her repeated reassurances, the phone rang again. It was Romy. “But if I want to put in one streak, one silly streak, would that be all right? I won’t charge you for it.” After a long pause, I answered her.

My Web Sighting


Spider web / FranceHouseHunt.com
In last Monday’s post I complained about my meditation coach wanting me to sit still with an empty mind and forego studying dharma. There was no avoiding the defiance that followed.

My negative reaction to being told what to do on Tuesday continued into my Wednesday therapy appointment. I spent most of those 50 minutes kvetching about people who tell me to do things I’d prefer not to do. Yet even as I smote my breast and berated authority figures, I longed for the therapist to tell me to stop. I was disappointed with both of us. Didn’t she know I was wasting our time. 

By the time it was Wednesday again, I arrived at therapy with a useful image in mind, an image that provided  a paradigm for the purpose or purposes of meditation teacher Tuesdays and therapist Wednesdays.

I imagined my life as a spider’s web in the making; attaching to different trees, each anchor becomes essential for supporting the ultimate interconnected creation. (See www.haworth-village.org.uk/nature/how/spider-web.asp.) But unlike the spider and her trees, I attach to people. Thus my web symbolizes the life I construct, the life I live in. One anchor is a meditation coach, another is a therapist, a third is a personal trainer, another is my friend and editor, Kate. There is the Kalyana Mitta (dharma friends) group that meets on alternate Thursdays, the sangha in the East Bay, the Civic Center Zen Center, the women’s group I facilitate one morning a week, and the meditation group that meets in the chapel at the San Francisco Unitarian Universalist church on Wednesday nights.

Each point of connection serves a different and valuable purpose. I did not realize just how separately significant to my life each person is until I imagined my constructed life in the shape of that spider’s web. Until I realized that time with a Zen teacher is not a warm and cuddly encounter with a therapist. The role of this teacher is say outright what she sees as blocks to my awakening. And if I have hurt feelings as she asks me to open to understanding, I better not expect her to apologize. And though I have no future as a monk, by taking a teacher, I am learning what it means to trust her, to allow her to be my “dangerous friend” as a teacher is called in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

On the other hand, I need to know my therapist likes me. I want to know it over and over again. And with her, I work with the paradoxical discomfort of needing love and finding it difficult to tolerate being cared about. Apparently in that encounter, what I wanted on Wednesday was what irritated me on Tuesday. Perhaps I need to learn to trust the therapist’s process as much as I am leaning to trust the Zen teacher’s work.

The spider’s web I envisioned brought clarity. It showed me to pursue one goal in one place and the second goal in another place, much like Tuesday is not Wednesday nor vice versa. For if the spider attaches all her anchor strands to one spot, the construction will be pretty lopsided and not too many bugs will land. That would not be a skillful web.

I have connected to my life with other strands such as to communities of like minded people at the War Memorial Opera House, Opera Plaza Theater, Davies Symphony Hall, etc. I often ride strands to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Aurora Theatre and sometimes to the Marin Theatre in Mill Valley.

Although I didn’t envision a spider in the web of my mind’s eye; nevertheless, a stretch of imagination shows me at the center of such a web. I am okay with this because spiders are considered ancient symbols of mystery, power and growth. “When we see our decisions, choices and actions as far-reaching, effective tools in life - we can see how we weave a web that can either serve us or enslave us. The Spider symbol meaning beckons us to be mindful of our behaviors - be smart about the life we weave for ourselves.”*

* http://sherryandrea.com/symbolic-meaning-of-the-spider/

Ginna Rosewarne at Regular Exercise
Can Ginna be believed?  She assures me if I keep to our exercise regimen, eventually, I will look like her.  Personal trainers, especially fit and fabulous trainers who specialize in older adults, may exaggerate to convince their older ladies that sweat and a pounding heart are worth the effort.

Much as I like Ginna, her looks and her powers of persuasion, I don’t like gyms, never have, even classy gyms like the gym in the Jewish Community Center. I was there a couple of times when I had a girl friend. She generously offered me a guest pass. At no cost I could take advantage of JCC cleanliness and order. And I could watch my own TV as I pedaled or ran. No thank you.

I lean more toward people places like the YMCA in the Tenderloin. Briefly I had a personal trainer, but she had a nervous breakdown. I don’t think it was my fault. I did the routines she prescribed without too much resistance and showed her loyalty by walking to the Y on days I didn’t feel well just to say I wouldn’t be there. But once she opted out of training me, I opted out of the Y. It’s a wise woman who knows her limitations. And then the Y shut down temporarily, and I shut down more or less permanently.

But inactivity and lax self care go against my beliefs. As a Unitarian Universalist, I take to heart these words by Henry David Thoreau, “We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.”

 And as a Buddhist-leaning learner, I might just prefer to sit in meditation. But the Buddha said: “Our body is precious. It is a vehicle for awakening. Treat it with care.”

I am in no position to ignore the body-mind-soul connection or to take false refuge in inactivity, which has, as I remember, led to neglect and overeating. 

When I taught weight-loss classes, I promoted exercise, pretty much ordering members to take care of themselves, their bodies, their minds, their spirits, the whole gestalt. And what about me? I couldn’t just be walking to cafes. Not that walking isn’t wonderful. But upper body strength matters too.

So, I ambled across the street and joined a gym in the shopping mall, though unhappy with the blasting rock radio stations – not so much the music as the commercial breaks, and the pounding feet of exercise addicts running at breakneck speeds on treadmills, then pedaling noisily on stationary bikes.

Of course, I paid for a personal trainer, otherwise it would be a no go. My first trainer, an upbeat young man let me lie around a lot if I complained. Then he disappeared. No one at the gym could explain his disappearance. Ginna was his replacement. and I was satisfied. Her body-side manner pleased me, and she practiced a gentle form of coercion.

What really irked me for Ginna’s sake was the money the gym took and the little she got for doing all the work. It didn’t seem right, so I championed her move to independence at Regular Exercise on Clement and 15th. It’s a lovely gym and there she rents time and keeps what she earns as a trainer. We can choose our own music.

Yes, my body, soul and mind approve of working out with Ginna, but sometimes after heaving a ball at the wall, hefting a Viper or crumpling in and out of yoga positions, body, soul and mind are content to walk with Ginna to a coffee shop to sip cappuccinos, compare philosophies and rest comfortably in our companionship. I bet Ginna will agree when I quote Walt Whitman. “If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.”    

If you want contact Ginna go to ginnafit.com.

Is That a Tattoo?


Alison's arm candy
As she waved me through the security-check gate at SFO, the lady agent pulled up her pant leg to show me the scaled dragon tattoo curling up her calf.  And the other morning a youthful barrista at the West Portal Starbucks took time to explain why he wasn’t sure about getting tattoos though many of his friends had them.  He wondered if it hurt. Of course, it hurts. That’s hardly the point. It’s pain that can be put up with, especially if, like me, you orchestrate your pain to the strains of the ‘Buena Vista Social Club.’

Something about seeing the tattoo of an intricate green vine with pink flowers that looks like a fuchsia and runs from my elbow to my wrist on my right arm of a “woman-of-age” encourages that kind of show and tell. But not everybody, seeing the decorative plant, responds with admiration. Some express indifference, disdain and/or disbelief. Yes, responses have been mixed, but basically they divide between “Wow, what inspired you? And “Good grief, what possessed you?”

My first “good grief” greeted me immediately following my first two and a half hour session, when I came into the lobby of my condo on Gough street with my arm wrapped in plastic. The lady who lives on the floor above me expressed shock and wondered where I planned to park my motorcycle. “I’m the same woman you saw this morning,” I said to her, “and I still have one parking place like every one else in the building.”

My favorite “Good grief” occurred at the opera one evening when the glittery lady sharing the armrest to my right looked at my vine and said, dismissively, that it’s all very well for now, the fad and all but since it is permanent what will you do when you get older. I smiled and pulled up the sleeve on my unadorned left arm.

I’m not sure why I waited 67 years to get ink, perhaps it was the proximity of the tattoo parlor to my home. At some level I reasoned that carting me home if I succumbed to pain or paint fumes wouldn’t be difficult.

But the desire to mindfully decorate and commemorate the right side of my body goes back to being the three-year old whose arm went into the old-style wringer of a washing machine, got stuck and was dreadfully injured, requiring more than a month of hospitalization in traction and skin grafts from my right leg to the arm in the hope they would make the resulting scar less visible.

The tattoo was to be my conscious tribute to childhood pain and perceived ugliness, to the helplessness I felt in the hospital, the awful pain, fear and loneliness. Doctors used to blurt things out in front of children, such as she will never have the full use of the arm. The scars on her leg will never fade, but no one will notice them.

Additionally, I wanted a tribute to plants because as a docent-in-training at the San Francisco Botanical Garden and Arboretum, I learned that plants just do what they do to continue the species, and I admired that unemotional purposiveness. No mood swings in the arboretum as plants coexist without jealousy or vanity. Admirable, don’t you think?

And finally, I chose to make a statement about aging, to say that regardless of what we endured early, life continues full of surprises, and much joy lies in being a late bloomer