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

Being Held


Thuya Garden Path in Maine/Kate Kukro
We’re lunging around the room at Regular Exercise – it really is a step up from a gym – and Ginna, my personal trainer, and I are not talking. Perhaps she assumes I am depressed because I don’t complain or make excuses. I follow instructions but stop to stare out a window whenever I feel like it. She wants to know what is the matter. ¿Estás bien? I confirm I am depressed.

A good thing about Ginna? None of that “Come on, you can do it” crap. Of course we will do some of “it.” I pay for an hour of guided physical activity for the sake of endorphins and serotonin. This intermittent lunging will have to do even though vigorous exercise actually works better.

But I’m not sure I want Ginna in this current welter of confusion and sadness. Depression doesn’t need  reasons. Could just say it’s chemical or blame it on Dad’s genes.

I’m lucky there is comfort and trust with Ginna. Often between lunges, when neither of us is especially depressed, we share our very different lives. And despite our differences, her youth, my age, her one young son, my three grown sons, her fairly recent arrival from Bolivia and my very long teaching career on the west coast, we have developed a rapport. She says our relationship is like hamaca, (hammock in English) in which we are held and comfortable, trusting the other. I feel the same.

But I can’t hang out with Ginna all the time. She is responsible for muscles and joints, not confusion and sadness. Plus she is trying to build her clientele, and I can’t be endlessly exercising to make it worth her while. In addition to the hamoca we have together, I need my own place of safety, of comfort, and trust.

In those moments, with partial sun streaking Clement and 15th Ave., with the sounds of digging up the street and the backward beep, beep beep of road maintenance, I don’t want to think or feel, just move and move, allowing calf muscles to ache and my sore shoulder to unstiffen.

For the year has had me deep in thought and feelings. This December, a daughter-in-law gets hit by a car and dies instantly. A grandson goes back to the Philippines from San Francisco. In February, my oldest son packs his pitbulls in the car, loads up his computers and leaves his wife (and me) to live on the East Coast. About the same time in February, I opt out of a relationship to see a therapist rather than travel to Mexico with my girl friend on an Olivia cruise she paid for. Lots of confusion, sadness, and loss this year.

Wanting that place of silence and safety, I turn to meditation. As a beginner, each day I set the timer on my meditation phone app to 20 minutes until the muffled singing of the sangha bowl says times up. I came to meditation through a link to the website of Insight Meditation teacher, Tara Brach in Bethesda, Maryland. Tara’s Dharma talks and meditations can be listened to at no cost. I’ve downloaded all the podcasts.

In one of her talks, entitled “Equanimity,” she shares  the concept of Querencia. It’s a Spanish word that connotes a haven and a sanctuary, a place of renewal and safety; it is the place in the bullring where the bull goes to gather his strength, to be renewed. And it is the matador’s job to keep the bull out of that spot.

Multiple times I listened to “Equanimity,” wanting to hear again and again that word so I could begin to truly understand querencia as a place where I too could feel secure, a place within from which I might draw strength of character.

 It’s a powerful concept. And at this time in my own life, more than ever, I seek a place in the self where I know I am safe. Resting in that haven, I can allow feelings of sadness and fear. In silence I can accept that my son and four-year old granddaughter will cope with their loss together, even as I cope with mine. And I can breath into kindness for my daughter-in-law’s mother who has lost her only daughter and not judge or compete with her for “baby” time.

Thus meditating, either sitting or walking, I  experience querencia and strengthen my intentions to make relationships in which all are held in hamaca. I have yet to tell Ginna about adding querencia to her word, hamaca. Next time, between lunges, I can tell her.

The Road Not Taken / Wildxplorer
It’s Monday again and I like to post on Monday. Because of a recent loss in my family, I have not adventured into new writings. But this piece, although written about two years ago, talks about how things come into our lives and go from them. I still believe what I read when I wrote this piece that “we must hold everything lightly” while we give our experience our whole hearts and full attention. By the way, the girlfriend I mention no longer plays that part in my life, though she is certainly a fine person, but that’s yet another story I will tell.

Any reader of poetry probably knows that Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is about life choices. The poet mentions two roads diverging in a yellow wood; however, from my perspective, Frost was lucky to have discerned a mere two roads in the undergrowth, considering how often two ways to go understates the dilemma of actual life choices.

But before perambulating into my past to make a point about roads, the present compels me to say that no ruling or law should prevent some people from traveling a road they would choose if they could.

As for Frost, who am I to say that two roads did not diverge; I wasn’t there, but as metaphors for my life, two roads is too few. Many more options often presented themselves, and at times the road I actually traveled didn’t lie peacefully in the undergrowth but came up and hit me before I had time to figure out which path was covered by “leaves no step had trodden black.”

And it would be nice to say I always took the high road, but sometimes I trod the path of least resistance, and maybe like Frost’s road not taken that made all the difference, though maybe not.

Occasionally, someone would point me in a direction and say go that-a-way and I would go. That’s how I became the adviser for the Locke High school newspaper at the inner city school where I taught in the 70s. My department chair said do it and I did and that made all the difference because as a result my work became my play and I found a passion for picas, pixels, sports, a band director and a coach or two.

In college, before I even imagined teaching high school let alone sports writing, I thought I would be a writer like Joyce Carol Oates or Joan Didion. I would graduate from Occidental College, if I wasn’t suspended first for refusing to attend compulsory chapel. I thought I would go to Breadloaf School of English in Middlebury, Vermont. But in my sophomore year, the actual road I was traveling in the form of a freeway offramp in Pasadena came up to meet me as I was thrown from the car on a rainy evening returning to campus and broke in several places, requiring months of recuperation at home with a boyfriend carrying school work to my house and back again. The car accident itself, however, didn’t doom Breadloaf.

For weakened in spirit by my injury and feeling guilty for dating a fraternity brother of my boyfriend, I made it up to him for all his fetching and lack of kvetching about my treachery and was “with child” my junior year.

And so I married, a rut frequently fallen into in the early sixties. While I was tempted to make it on my own as a single mom, as a junior in college, told I could not attend classes pregnant and unmarried, I yielded to pressure.

I just have to interject that I wish marriage was a rut everyone could fall into.

Now, three sons later, and much later in life ambling hand in hand with Corky, also the mother of three sons, I marvel at our hidden worlds. Neither wholly rational nor irrational, with not every thought or impulse great or noble or coming from a calm center, we are teachers to each other.  And I look at the roads that lie ahead, wherever they go and see they are incredibly precious.

Moreover, as the roads ahead become shorter than roads behind that led to now, I aim to avoid the dead-end of coulda/woulda/shoulda and cultivate instead an urgent delight because aging, a road we all travel, has taught me to calculate the value of experience not by how long it lasts, but how deep its impact. 

So it was when our Monday Small Group Ministry met for the last time, we extinguished the chalice with these words from Buddhist and UU minister James Ishmael Ford: “We must hold everything lightly, for everything passes. But . .  . such a holding is enough—when we give it our whole hearts, our full attention.”  Traveling each road with “Whole heart and full attention” transforms the ordinary, reduces regret and turns every road into one that makes all the difference. It was not Robert Frost but James Ishmael Ford who said, “Our appreciation of even the smallest things in our lives is the very majesty and magic of our human existence.” Let it be so.