Posted in Poems

I drowned…

Photo by Tim Marshall

I drowned in my dream last night
in a tidal wave that
crashed
over me, and I can remember
every vivid sensation
and struggle.
I woke, gulping for air,
wandered to the bathroom and back,
slept again.
And in the strange manner of dreams I
replayed the tidal wave,
only this time I saved myself,
and isn’t this a metaphor for life?

Posted in Big Questions

What is Renaissance Life?

This is the transcript of the introductory speech I gave for my Communications class at Motlow State Community College, March 19, 2019, on being a polymath or multipotentialite.

I’m 48 years old and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. When I graduated high school in 1989, I was at that time a Jehovah’s Witness and I thought I knew what I wanted to be. JWs don’t encourage their young people to go to college, so despite being a very good student with a 3.65 GPA, after high school I became what they call a pioneer, spending 90 unpaid hours a month preaching, and for a while I even went to help with less-served congregations in rural areas.

As it turned out, a pioneer was not what I wanted to be, and in fact a Jehovah’s Witness was not what I wanted to be. Since then I have had many different jobs — I’ve done cleaning jobs, worked in retail, I’ve been a veterinary technician, a medical transcriptionist, a mom, a homeschool teacher, a vacuum cleaner salesperson, and I now make my living creating artisan wire jewelry and some other kinds of art. I don’t want to give you the impression that I can’t stick with a job; some of those things I did for 10 or 20 years. And, of course, here I am in college after 28 gap years, embarking on a new journey entirely.

I struggled with not being able to focus on one area of expertise, for years. Partly, life got in the way. I got divorced at age 27 and found myself the single mom of a 3yo. In those situations, you do what you have to, to pay the bills. But also, I struggled with anxiety when I thought about anything big. I considered going to vet school for a while, and for a while I thought it might be fun to be a history teacher and teach history in a way that students would actually enjoy. But those things involved college, and money, and that spelled COMMITMENT. If I spent thousands of dollars learning how to do something, I really ought to make it my LIFE’S WORK. I wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I settle down and pick something? I’d been convinced in high school that I should be a writer, because I’m pretty good at it. It felt like a calling. I wrote a lot of poetry. I got some of it published. And then I realized that poetry pays in copies of the magazines it gets printed in, and I got depressed. In our society we tell young people that they have to pick something, starting at around age five. What do you want to be when you grow up? Not only do you have to pick something, but once you get to a certain age you’re judged on the respectability of whatever you’ve picked. This felt like a life crisis to me, and a terrible weight.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who gets fascinated with one thing after another. Some names for this have been around a long time: Renaissance man. During the Renaissance it was expected that you’d have a wide range of interests. More recently we’ve been called Jack of all trades, master of none, which is not very flattering and reflects the Protestant work ethic we have now that says, pick something, show up every day, suck it up. Today Renaissance people are speaking up, and you can find self-help books and TED talks and the endless information the Internet provides. The names for people with a wide variety of interests include scanner, polymath, multipotenntialite.

Polymaths continually get distracted by learning or trying a new thing, getting bored as soon as a new thing is mastered, struggling to choose a major or a profession because you hate the idea of being stuck doing the same thing for the rest of your life. But, I’m really good at picking up new things because I do it constantly. When my husband and I were taking a pottery class he said I was good at everything — not true, I’m just good at faking it at the beginning — and he also tells me if I could just pick one thing, I’d be amazing at it. Maybe. I’m sure I’ll never find out.

Twenty years ago, I met a man at a craft fair who made furniture for American Girl dolls. He excitedly told me about all the things he’d done and shared his list of things he still wanted to try, at age 70. Something resonated in me. I wanted a list, too. And when I heard the voices of other people who feel the same way I do, I settled down, and I started looking at the positive aspects of being the way I am. Trying to fit yourself into someone else’s mold for you never works. I decided I had to find my own strengths and capitalize on them.

Not only is there nothing wrong with being a polymath, but it’s a unique way to be wired that really is a gift if you embrace it. I have learned a wide variety of skills from my various occupations and interests. According to polymath Emilie Wapnick, who gave a TED Talk a few years ago titled Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling, polymaths have 3 superpowers.

  1. Idea synthesis. When you have skills in a variety of fields, you make connections that people who specialize deeply in one field may not see.
  1. Rapid learning. We are used to being beginners, and we get really good at it.
  1. Adaptability. We have the ability to take on different roles in different situations because of our broad list of skill sets.

Last year I stopped working for someone else, took a chance, and moved to doing my own business full time. I make Chainmaille and wire-wrapped jewelry, and I often incorporate other skills into my work. I love watercolor painting, so I painted tiny original watercolors on bisque porcelain and wire wrapped them. I wanted to learn glass working, so I took a couple of workshops on that and made my creations into jewelry. My years as a pioneer have been very helpful in being able to talk to people at craft shows. My work as a transcriptionist has given me computer skills that I regularly use in marketing. My passion for writing means I can write convincing item descriptions when I sell online.

I passionately believe that no learning is wasted. My bucket list isn’t a list of places to go, but things to learn. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know that I haven’t definitely picked a major yet, but I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to fix the biggest regret I had, not going to college. If you are young and don’t know what you want to do yet, I say, do a little of everything, look for the connections between the things you love and use them to create something new. And don’t let them tell you that you can only be or do one thing.

Posted in Sermons

Blessed Are the Tree Huggers

This is a sermon I gave at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville on March 24, 2019.

<Read The Giving Tree>

Do you think this is a healthy relationship? If this was a human relationship between two adults, what would you think of the boy? What would you think of the tree?

I loved this story when my son was young so much that it was one of two children’s books I kept after he got older, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t think about it much. It’s good to be giving, right? It’s good that the tree was happy, right? The telling words are after he took her trunk to go far away: “The tree was happy… but not really.”

The boy might have loved the tree in his own way, but would you call him a tree-hugger? Really, he was exploiting her in every way imaginable. Would you call him an environmentalist?

Now, when I look at this story, I see it a lot different than I used to. I see it as a metaphor for humans’ relationship with the earth. The earth is our Mother, and she gives us everything we need to live. But, not content to accept her as as place to climb branches and play and eat apples, we plunder all of her resources with no regard for her well-being, or for what she will have left to give us when we have taken it all away.

The earth is so perfect for human habitation that altering things in the slightest way would make her uninhabitable by our species. There are so many ways that this is true, but since we’re talking about trees today, here are ten ways trees make your life better, or even make your life possible:

1. Trees produce oxygen. Two mature trees produce enough oxygen in a year for a family of four.

2. Trees filter the soil they are planted in, cleaning it of pollutants and toxins.

3. Trees and forest ecosystems support biodiversity, creating habitats for creatures, some of which we depend on directly.

4. Trees reduce the greenhouse effect. During photosynthesis, trees take in carbon and store it in their wood, so the more trees there are, the slower global warming affects our planet.

5. Trees produce fruit and nuts.

6. Trees prevent soil erosion. Their networks of roots keep the soil intact. Without this, we lose the vital top layer of soil where other plants grow best. When land is stripped of trees, often very little else will grow, producing deserts or barren wastelands.

7. Trees provide shade and reduce evaporation. If your house is in the shade of a tree, you’re probably using less energy to cool it, another way they help with global warming.

8. Trees filter the air. They trap particulates like smoke, ash, and dust that can damage the lungs of mammals. These things then wash to the ground at the next rainfall, and can then potentially enrich the soil.

9. Trees add beauty to our life. Here in the first breath of spring, I probably don’t have to tell you this. You’re probably as excited as I am to see the flick of spring green on the end of branches, the flowers on deciduous magnolias, redbuds, and dogwoods. It’s like an old friend returning. And of course, they are beautiful not only in spring, they are beautiful year-round, in so many different ways.

10. Trees improve mental health. Studies have shown that spending time in nature and in the company of trees improves cognition and memory, and reduces stress.

So, and you knew this question was coming, I want to ask you: when was the last time you hugged a tree? If you’re feeling stressed, depressed, or anxious, have you considered forest therapy? They don’t charge by the hour.

There is a tree on the farm where my horses live, a huge, ancient pear tree. The horses stand in her shade and as often as I can, I take advantage of one of her gnarled roots to use as a meditation cushion, closing my eyes to just listen and be. Often when I do this, the horses come to me and lower their heads and half-close their eyes to meditate with me. Do I hug her? Yes. I thank her for the embrace of her gnarled roots and for taking care of my horses with shade in the summer and pears in early autumn.

Today I’d like to introduce you to the original tree-huggers. They belong to a Hindu sect in the arid northern Rajasthan region of India, called the Bishnoi. The sect was founded in 1485 by a man who came to be called Guru Jambheshwar or Jambhoji, and even back then, it was caste-neutral.

Jambheshwar witnessed the clear-cutting of trees during times of drought to feed animals. You see, the region is mostly desert, subject to cruel dust storms. The local Khejri trees are a marvel, with deep roots that access water that humans and animals can’t get to, which is stored in the wood and leaves of the tree. So when drought is severe, sometimes the only way to get water is from the trees. But in Jambheshwar’s time, people were clear-cutting the trees to feed animals, and the drought went on so long that the animals died anyway, and then the trees were gone.

Jambhoji preached ecological responsibility. He gave his followers 29 principles, from which their name comes; the Bishnoi, which means 29. Eight of these principles preserve biodiversity, such as prohibitions on killing animals, sterilizing bulls, or cutting green trees. Ten of them deal with health and hygiene, and four have to do with daily worship. The Bishnoi’s proscription on cutting allowed shrubs to grow in the desert, protecting it from wind erosion, and they also developed, hundreds of years ago, water harvesting systems to preserve life. Jambhoji also called for tolerance during discussions, and 120 Shabads or sayings are recorded in which he preached love for all living beings.

In this region of Rajasthan there is a town called Khejarli for the groves of Khejri trees nearby. These trees became particularly sacred to the Bishnoi, because of their remarkable endurance and ability to help sustain life in the desert.

But in 1730 the king of Jodhpur sent men to cut the Khejri trees for construction of his new palace. The Bishnoi protested, but their protests fell on deaf ears and the king’s men continued with their plans to cut. One young Bishnoi mother, Amrita Devi, threw herself upon the trees, wrapping her arms around the Khejiri and hugging them, telling the king’s men that they would have to go through her before they could harm the trees. She said “To lose one’s head to save a tree is a good bargain.”

She lost her life, as did all three of her daughters. The king’s men killed them, and felled some of the trees. Aghast, Bishnoi from all over came to protest. In the end, 363 of them, from 83 different villages, lost their lives as they wrapped themselves around their sacred trees to try to save them, perhaps the world’s first ecological martyrs.

The king heard of this and ordered his men to cease logging. He was so impressed with the bravery of the Bishnoi that he declared Khejarli off limits for logging and hunting, and to this day it is illegal to cut one of these trees. Khejarli is beautiful and verdant in a region that is mostly desert, and it is preserved today as a heritage site. In 1988 it was named by India’s government as the first National Environmental Memorial.

In addition, the actions of Amrita and the Bishnoi prompted what is known as the Chipko movement, from a word that means “to hug”, a nonviolent movement to protect other trees in other places. This is a successful nonviolent protest in India almost two hundred years before Gandhi’s protests.

For all of us, it is not a stretch to say that trees are life, but for poor people in rural areas and less developed countries, it is much more true. When the environment suffers, they are always the first to feel the crisis. <slide> I’d like to introduce you to another tree hugger who has lived in our own time, although as she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, perhaps you have heard of her.

Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya and educated in the US. She became the first East African woman to hold a Ph.D. When she returned home from America, she was distressed to compare the affluence here with the terrible poverty in her homeland. Women around her native Nairobi would often have to walk miles and miles to get firewood because the forests had been clear-cut to make way for building. This was having effects on soil erosion, water supply, and so much more. Wangari worked with the National Council for Women, and in 1977, she had an idea to enlist poor women to plant trees, to provide fuel, prevent soil erosion and desertification. She gave the women a small stipend to do the planting. She said in an interview, “I started simply to meet the needs of women.” But in so doing, she was meeting the needs of the environment as well.

The response shocked her. She discovered that Kenya’s corrupt government and a few powerful people controlled these resources, and they did not like a woman defying traditional gender roles, speaking up, and empowering the destitute. She was arrested, imprisoned, and bullied. But when the government changed, she was given a place in its environmental department, and continued to make a difference up until she died in 2007.

Her?? Green Belt Movement has to date planted 51 million trees, gave people a voice in standing up to their government, employed people who desperately needed help, and trained 30,000 women in forestry, food processing, bee keeping, and other skills. The movement has since expanded to teach women in many other African nations how to steward the land.

Over their lifetimes, those 51 million trees will capture and store the carbon dioxide emissions from burning 25 billion pounds of coal. This is why trees are critical to slowing climate change. In areas where trees are sparse, climate change wreaks havoc. And, as both these examples have shown, planting and caring for trees can have a positive influence on the lives of people, especially on the lives of people who desperately need help.

In addition, I want to point out here at the end of Women’s History Month, that both of these stories highlight the courage, ingenuity, and tireless work of women environmentalists, and of course they are only two examples among many. In an echo of the Bishnoi protest, in 1997 Julia Butterfly Hill lived for some 700 days in an old-growth redwood tree to save it from being cut by a lumber company, raising awareness for the importance of old-growth forests, and she continues to stand on the front lines of environmentalism.

Russ and I went for a drive yesterday, through forests just beginning to flicker with green, punctuated with purple-garbed redbud branches. Where I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, for the most part, forests existed where they were protected. We are so fortunate to live in this green land full of trees everywhere, not just in parks. So I ask you to consider planting a tree or two this spring, and even if you can’t, consider hugging one and offering it your thanks for the hard work it’s doing on your behalf.

In the midst of an administration that is anti-environment, it’s easy to lose hope or give up. Don’t do that. I offer you quotes from two of the women we talked about today. Julia Butterfly hill said, “You, yes you, make the difference.” And Wangari Maathai said, “We cannot tire or give up hope. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk.”

Posted in Big Questions

Free Write on Being a Woman

I used to free write as a way to spark creativity, and I ran across this old one (14 years, what?!) and it spoke to me again. I thought I’d share.

I am woman in all my denied raging femininity, full of unexpected curves to get lost among, full of — just full. I touch beyond myself unwittingly, drawing close and pushing away in the confusion of clashing hormones and post-menstrual tenderness, lost in my own gestures of grace.

Know that I must protect myself from my own curse of giving ness, lips unwilling to form one syllable No, one wide to an advantage-taking world. And yet I am selfish. But I am warm and soft and my breasts form as good a pillow as any, and if child-bearing hips were the criteria for a good woman I win, hands down.

The small things of admitting my womannness I flatly refuse; I will not migrate to lavatories with the herd, and I am not what you would call a domestic wonder, and I carry a wallet instead of a purse. How lost am I between estrogen and testosterone, and when will I admit that I bleed? Somewhere in this curse and Lessing I will find my way, and you will see i m y eyes the generations that shall call me Mother.

Posted in Poems

Falling

Photo by Bruce Christianson

Sense and Nonsense

Given the scope of my Truth
and the fact that i have been getting to know it
all these years,
I wish for a promise
that I cannot fall,
cannot fail,
but here I am

Spread-Eagled

in infinite Space
and I have been falling for years.
Not only is there no safety net,
but there is no ground.

At first you panic, flailing,
looking for ground that you are certain
will be The Death Of You
but it spins out of control.
There is no control in this
Space.
Nothing to push off of,
no orientation, no trajectory.
When you realize that,
when you settle into the space
between Beingness and Unbeingness
and enjoy the ride,
you realize that this
is not a fall to your Death
but your First Flight.

Posted in A Day In The Life

Where I’ve Been

On February 2, I was at an event and had an attack of acute pancreatitis that was, I can tell you, among the most pain endurable. My doctor said, it’s like the alien in Aliens bursting out of you. Pretty accurate. I was in such agony that I was writhing, moving constantly, trying to find a slightly more comfortable position, to the point that I was sore the next day. My husband called it “agony aerobics.” Also accurate.

As it turned out, I had acute cholecystitis too — gallstones, causing the pancreatitis. My gallbladder was full of them. They took it out on the 7th. I stayed in the hospital until the 11th, and I’ve been recovering since then.

Why do doctors tell you some crazy conservative estimate of how long it is going to take you to recover from surgery? Two weeks, they told me. Maybe some people recover from having their gallbladder removed, but I am not one of them. Here I am, a month later, still struggling.

To literally add insult to injury, on the 25th I got a call that one of our best friends, Joe, had collapsed on his sister’s lawn and was life-flighted to Erlanger, and the next day, he was gone of a massive stroke. Joe gamed with us every week and was best man at my wedding and was just a light to everyone around him.

Needless to say, February has not been kind. I feel like I’ve been gone, on another planet, and am coming back to a world that went on without me (because of course it did), and am struggling to remember how to fit in and function. I have a month of course work to make up when I return to class on Monday. I haven’t worked in a month.

So this is me, tentatively stretching my muscles, writing something because despite everything, this is still the year I write. I still don’t know what, exactly. It doesn’t matter, so long as I am writing. I couldn’t even focus enough for several weeks to write in my journal, and that is really remarkable. It’s strange how pain makes it impossible to focus on anything but yourself, and I guess that’s true of emotional pain as well as physical pain. I’m struggling with both, but both are getting better.

I hope that life has been much gentler with you, and if not, please remember to be gentle with yourself. Cherish this day and the friends and family who inhabit the wonderful places in your life. Take nothing for granted. Love and light to you. ❤

Posted in Daily Writing

Restless

This is a screech owlet I rescued. My neighbor cut his tree down and asked me to save him.

The following did not happen. Since 2019 is the year I write, I need to write, and this is where I’m starting… fiction that is more truth than fiction, and the person in the story is very much me, doing things I do, but this particular sequence of events is out of sequence, and fictional. But I guess I’m hoping there are struggling Polymaths out there who, like me, struggle with rotating obsessions and wondering at midlife or later what they want to be when they grow up.

I was sitting in a coffee shop, sipping a double latte, extra cream, and nothing much was going on. I felt like I was sitting in a bubble of voices, carried on them, but not really understanding them, not part of them, not even looking at their owners. I was looking out the window at a glorious blue day, but I wasn’t really part of that either.

Being a polymath is a long string of triumph and frustration with yourself. You get really, really good at learning new things, and at failing and being cool with that. The next thing will get better. If you do a next thing; you might just as well decide that you’re done with that activity and obsessed with something else today, and sometimes it’s like a switch flipped and you’re just not in love anymore. Thanks for the good times, Photography, but I’ve met Poetry and we’re… well… in love. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s always me.

Anyway the blank page sits before me again, and I feel like this is where I live my life, on the edge of the greatest idea I’ve ever had. This is it, I think, my life’s mission. Only when I’m not on the edge of that eureka, I’m worried that I don’t have a life’s mission.

I sighed and put my too-hot latte down. How do you know, you know? How do you know what you’re supposed to do when one day you’re so fired up you can’t sit still and the next day you’re bored out of your mind with the same thing? In my mind I am having this conversation with a meet-me-at-the-coffee-house friend that I don’t have today.

I clapped my poetry book closed without so much as a new mark on it and trudged back to the counter. “On second thought,” I said, “I’ll take this to go.”

“Sure thing,” the barista said cheerfully, and dumped the cup into a styrofoam (ugh) mug with a cardboard cuff and a plastic lid. I’m part of the problem, I thought glumly as I accepted today’s contribution to the local landfill enveloping that sweet, milky, caffeinated addiction, and walked out into the street, which seemed quiet after the buzz of coffee house conversation. The poem about conversation buzz and caffeine buzz lands in my head not ten steps out of the door, naturally. Should I find a park bench and write it anyway? Nah. It’s not that good.

I wonder sometimes how many of these ideas I let go might have been The Epiphany if I gave them time and nursed them. I just know for sure that I’ll see a bald eagle sitting ten feet from me in a tree, or a perfect rose, or some other thing I’ll curse myself for not having my camera for. Any one of them could have sent me running back to my photography obsession, if I caught the shot, if I was focused on one thing.

Sometimes I’m here, in flux, in between obsessions and worried I’ll never amount to much because I’m all over the place. On the other hand, I know something about a lot of things, and we need people in the world like that, too, right? Right?

It turned out, after all, not to be an eagle or a rose, but a baby bird, in the middle of the sidewalk, its paper thin, translucent throat stretched out in supplication, its peeping faint but audible half a block away. I stopped close to him, peering up into the just-budding branches of the tree above me. The nest was a mess and there was no putting him back in it.

Luckily, feeding baby birds is on my long list of things I know how to do, because I once worked for an avian veterinarian, fostering baby birds and syringe feeding them. I am not a certified wildlife rehabilitator, because that would have taken focusing on a thing for a long time and it’s not that high on my list of obsessions, but I know some things, and I know some people. I dumped the remains of my latte, carefully wiped out the inside of the cup with a pocketed napkin, lined the cup with more napkins, and scooped the little fellow into the cup while his head bobbed, hoping mom would find it and regurgitate him some food. “Sorry, my dude,” I told him, wrapping my hands around the cup to warm him against the spring chill. “I haven’t eaten any worms today.” I’d take him home, get him some food to syringe-feed him, and then find someone who could legally raise him. I get questions like this all the time, from my friends. I rescued this baby bird, what do I do with him? I just got a new crock pot, you have some good recipes I can make in it? I need photos taken for my son’s first birthday, would you do it? I rescued this kitten, I’m planning a protest, I’m painting my bedroom, what’s a good app to meditate…

“You know, Harold,” I say to a baby bird newly christened Harold, “maybe being a Jill of All Trades isn’t the worst thing in the world.”

If I’m willing to find a way without a crop, gizzard, or worm breakfast to regurgitate for him, he could not agree more.

Posted in Sermons

Manifestation and Letting Go

The following is a sermon I gave yesterday for Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville‘s Burning Bowl ceremony. This is a ceremony in which each person writes on a piece of paper something that they would like to let go of, that is no longer serving them. Then we light a candle in a big ceramic bowl and ceremonially burn the papers. I really wanted to use flash paper this year, or flying wish paper, but I didn’t get the Amazon order in time. Maybe next year.

Burning Bowl Ceremony

The only constant is change, said Heraclitus of Ephesus.

Question: how do we bring more of what we want into our lives, and let go of the things we don’t want in our lives? In other words, how do we direct the change?

In Pagan and New Age and other spiritual circles, this concept is discussed using the term “manifesting.” This language entered the mainstream about 15years ago with the popularity of The Secret and Abraham-Hicks’ message about the Law of Attraction. The concept is this: If you ask for something, and you focus on it without fear about it not happening, without framing it in a negative — “I don’t want to get sick” — then it will happen. Because of your focus, you are attracting what you wish to you. By doing this you can heal your sickness, you can be rich, you can have whatever you want.

Needless to say, this concept is wildly popular. It got celebrity endorsement, and its proponents made millions explaining to people, sometimes claiming to channel otherworldly entities, how to ask for things so that you get them. The problem is that when the wishes fail to come true, people who prayed for God to make something happen or expected the Universe to provide wonder whether the fault might be in them. So, Is it true? Can we wish our futures into existence?

Like most things, it has a grain of truth in it. What you focus on, you will draw to you, but maybe it’s not because of some universal magic. Or, maybe it is. But most often, you don’t get what you want because you wished for it. That’s much more likely to work for someone who was rich, white and privileged in the first place. But when we give something our attention, it does make us more likely to look for connections, relationships, and opportunities that will draw those things to us. It makes us more likely to put our efforts into making it happen. And if there’s some universal law at work, so much the better, but the need for the work doesn’t go away. You still have to show up every day to make the thing happen.

But sometimes we get blocked. We get in our own way with negative self-talk, or fear of taking the next step or of failing, or lack of faith in ourselves, or lack of support from those close to us, or any other number of reasons. So the first question I want to ask you is this: what do you want to manifest? What do you want to be the focus of your year, what do you want to draw to you or accomplish in 2019? Put another way, I’m reading a book called First Things First and it asks the question: What is the one activity that you know if you did superbly well and consistently, would have significant positive results in your life? And the obvious follow up question is: why aren’t you doing it? Put more poetically, by Mary Oliver, what are you doing with your one wild and precious life?

So ask yourself, what is holding you back? What pain are you holding in your heart that it would better serve you to let go? As you ponder this, bear in mind that not all pain should be let go, just yet. Sometimes we need to hold it, and love it until it is ready to depart on its own.

The Buddha liked lists. One of the lists he gave us was Five Hindrances. He identified them as five mental states that hinder us in meditation and in our daily lives. For some of these things, we don’t have direct translations in English, so I thought I’d give each of them some attention.

The first hindrance is sometimes translated as greed, sometimes sensual desire. I like to think of it as Grasping or Clinging. We humans don’t like change, and yet all things change. Sometimes we cling to things out of habit or fear of sacrificing comfort, but those very things might be what is holding us back. They may even be relationships sometimes. Or they may be attachment to things. Maybe we can’t clear space in our mental lives because we have too much literal clutter in our houses, but we cling to those physical possessions for one reason or another.

The Second Hindrace is Aversion, and it is the flip side of the first. We cling to good experiences, pleasant sensations, and the other side of that coin is, we often push away what we have judged as bad or negative, or things that are unpleasant. In doing this we often lose a valuable lesson. One I like to share is, when I began meditating, every time I took a breath one of the vertebrae in my neck would click. Every inhale. Breathe in — click. Breathe out. Breathe in — click. Breathe out. It drove me insane. I could not focus on my breath or being present because of that damned click. So I went online, because I figured, I can’t be the first person to have dealt with this, how do I get rid of it? And somewhere in the middle of all of my online searching, I suddenly realized… sitting with this thing is no different than sitting with leg pain, or sitting with grief. You allow the experience, thank it for what it has to teach you, and let it be. The crazy thing was, it seems likely that I was causing the click because of some tension somewhere, because when I took this advice, it quite often stopped happening. And that’s true of aversion in a lot of cases… when we push something away, when we are saying to ourselves I HATE THIS, I CAN’T STAND IT, we are giving it attention and still holding it, just in a different way.

The third hindrance is Sloth and Torpor. These are translated pretty accurately, and I think you get the idea. Another Steven Covey phrase is “mind over mattress.” Often we have so much resistance to something, say for example, exercising, or getting started on a cleaning project. And then we get started and realize that getting started was 90% of the battle.

The fourth hindrance is Restlessness, Anxiety, and Worry. I don’t have to explain to you what these are, and if you’ve ever had an anxiety attack or worried about something you know what I mean when I call it a hindrance. For a Buddhist the answer to these things is the same as the answer to all of the others: sit with it. Let it be. In our modern day we often identify too much with things. We say I AM depressed, or I AM anxious. I want to ask you to watch your language and stop BEING things that are hindering you. Say instead, I am feeling anxious, and then, if you can make space for it, sit and ask why you might be depressed or anxious. This is not to say that you should not get help for these things if you need it. If this is a chronic problem for you, professional help might be needed.

The fifth hindrance is Doubt. Hindering doubt is not the same as questioning doubt. Questioning doubt leads us to greater understanding. Hindering doubt is occasionally failing to trust those who have our backs, but most often hindering doubt is self-doubt. Fear of failure, failing to trust ourselves, wondering if we’re strong enough to deal with something. So I want to tell you, not only are you strong enough, but you are Enough in every way.

Returning to our theme of how to manifest something that we want in our lives, and letting go of something else to make room for it, I want to read Thich Nhat Hanh’s words about Impermanence.

Impermanence Makes Everytghing Possible

We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter were not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woma. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence, our sadness and suffering will pass.

Impermanence should also be understood in the light of inter-being. Because all things inter-are, they are constantly influencing one another. It is said that a butterfly’s wings flapping on one side of the planet can affect the weather on the other side. Things cannot stay the same because they are influenced by everything else, everything that is not itself.

When we think about manifesting things in our lives, it’s important to spend some time thinking less about I want this NOT that, and more about How can this become that? Our lives are not a series of switches to be flipped, I no longer want this, I want more of that, but instead, we are all living on a continuum of inter-being and inter-becoming. Going back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching:

Conditions

Looking deeply into a box of matches, you can see the flame. The flame has not manifested, but as a meditator you can see the flame. All the conditions are sufficient for the flame to manifest. There is wood, sulfur, a rough surface and my hands. So when I strike the match ad the flame appears I would not call that the birth of a flame. I would call it manifestation of a flame.

The Buddha said that when conditions are sufficient you manifest yourself. When conditions are no longer sufficient, you stop manifesting in order to manifest in other forms, with other conditions.

— Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death No Fear

I encourage you to sit in silence and meditate on these things, especially the concept that what you want to manifest is not a thing that doesn’t yet exist, but something that the conditions have not until now been right for. What would it take to make the conditions right? Perhaps, light a candle to gaze at, as you think on these things for at least a few minutes, or however long it is comfortable for you to meditate.

Following the meditation, if you want to do the ritual portion of this exercise, take two pieces of paper, perhaps different colors . On one, write whatever you think you need to let go of, in order to make room for more of what you want in your life. On the other, write whatever you want to call to you. Light a candle and have nearby a large ceramic bowl or perhaps a large clay flower pot. I find this ceremony most powerful to do near dusk. You can fold the paper in some way that seems significant to you. Carefully light the paper with the candle, and drop the paper into the bowl. You might spend a moment watching the edges curl, blacken, and become something else: ash, embers, a chemical reaction, carbon dioxide, and then dissipate to become part of something else. After our congregation’s Burning Bowl ceremony, I took the ashes and put them in my compost pile, so that they literally could become part of something else, so if that feels right to you, you can do that too. Some people empty the ashes into a running stream of water to be carried away symbolically, again.

What you do with the other sheet of paper is up to you. You can put it somewhere you’ll see it in your house, or on your altar at home if you have one, or you can bury it in the earth or fold it into a paper boat (please use environmentally friendly, degradable paper) and release it into that stream of water with the ashes of the other paper. Or, do some other symbolic act of releasing your desire into the universe.

My friends, may your goodbyes be gentle.

Posted in Big Questions

Write Your Friends’ Eulogies While They Are Still Alive

A Single Rose

A few days ago I had lunch with a friend. Because we are both pretty deep thinkers (and maybe a little morbid), we started talking about death. We both knew, we said, what we didn’t want at our funeral, something we’d seen too many times at the funerals of friends and relatives: a minister of a religion the deceased belonged to only nominally, someone that didn’t know the person or only barely knew the person, giving a sermon that was more proselytizing than celebration of an individual’s life. We talked about friends doing readings, no sermon, just a swirl of memories capturing what we had been and what we meant to those dear to us.

You’ve thought about this, right? I’m not sure why our society thinks it’s strange and morbid to think about death, but I think planning for your death is as important as planning for your life. You’ll be dead a lot longer. You’ll leave an onerous financial burden on your family if you don’t think about it and plan for it. They’ll argue about what belongings you leave behind. Seriously, think about it. Think about end of life decisions too. If you need a guide in this process I highly recommend you check out Five Wishes and that you purchase their workbook for end-of-life-decisions. Don’t leave them guessing what you would have wanted at a time that is very stressful anyway.

The friend I was having lunch with said, “I’d like for you to say a few words at my funeral.” Obviously we can’t both speak at each other’s funeral, but that got me thinking about what I would say. There’s as lot to say: she’s as unselfish a person as I know, deeply involved with and caring about her family, and when you speak with her you know you have her full attention and she is interested in who you are and what you think, where you have been and what you know. She is easy to talk to and easy to be with, and I think it would be difficult for me (introvert me, even) to spend too much time in her company.

You hear, sometimes, “make sure people know you love them while they are still alive.” But really, it’s one thing to tell your friends they are loved and appreciated, and another to tell them all the things that you love and appreciate about them. And I thought, it might be awkward to hear that, and anyway, I could do a much better job of it in writing. I imagined myself at a funeral, saying “I wrote Heather’s eulogy in 2019, and handed it to her the following week.”

In a eulogy, you celebrate memories of a person, bits of ephemera like snapshots in a photo album gathered as commentary on the wonderfulness of the life they lived and the energy they brought to your life. “He was always doing things for others. There was the time my car broke down and…” It’s the essence of a person, or at least the essence of the ways their beingness intersected with yours, distilled into an essay.

Tell me, would you not want to hear your own eulogy? Wouldn’t you love to hear the way you’ve made the lives of your friends and families better? I’m suggesting you tell the people whose lives have impacted yours, before it’s too late for them to hear it. If it’ll embarrass them or you for you to say it out loud, write it. At the same time, let it be an exercise in mindfulness for you. When you’re with them, really listen to them,really hear them. Be hearing their dreams and motivations. Don’t just enjoy their company, really think about why their company is so enjoyable.

And then tell them.

Posted in mindfulness

Now Is a Gift; That’s Why It’s Called the Present

Different geese, prettier day.

My eyes snapped open at 6:18 this morning. I’d considered, last night, maybe I’ll get up early and try for some sunrise photography. Then I thought, nah, it’s after 11 and I probably won’t get up. But I got up. I glanced at the slate blue light coming in my predawn window, then checked my phone, when is sunrise? 6:52.

If I thought that was photographic destiny, I was wrong. Bandit and I packed up in the van and I headed up Spencer mountain, hoping for a vantage point to overlook the pretty farmland below, lit by a sky-blue-pink sunrise. Instead, it rained a little, and the sky was an undulating grey, and three minutes to sunrise there was no hint that I was even going to see the sun. My confused dog was looking at me with deep concern.

We ducked down a road or two marked “Dead End”, hoping for a view off the mountain anyway, for future reference and more attractive mornings, but mostly what we saw was a lot of trailers and some country that would’ve done Deliverance proud, and teaser glimpses of distant registers of mountains (there wasn’t even a decent mist this morning!) through trees silent, gray, and shorn of leaves. Bandit put his paw on my arm. “Fine,” I said, “we’ll go home. I want to look at one more thing.”

I’d seen a blip on my kayaking app that said you could put in at Spencer City Lake, a place I hadn’t known existed before that. I thought I’d check that out for more future reference and as a potential place to put the kayak in, before we headed home. The road was in fairly poor repair, ending in gravel-mud that looked like the denizens of Spencer had used it for mudding (driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle through wet mud). The put-in for the lake was gravel, not a bad spot to put a kayak in, but it didn’t look like there was much to see on a paddle. I may try it for a quiet drift some time anyway.

There was a gaggle of Canada geese not far from my van as I grabbed my camera and hopped out. Maybe, I thought, I can at least get a few wildlife shots. My wildlife lens, a 75-300 mm for you photography geeks, is okay but really woefully inadequate for wildlife photography. At least, it’s not the $9000 camera-dwarfing zoom that I’d really love to try out some day. I don’t expect to ever actually buy one unless I somehow strike it rich on a picture I take with this one. The geese were uncooperative, paddling to the other side of the lake with honky geese-chuckles. They’re awfully shy, I thought, remembering the noisy, gregarious flocks that shat all over my elementary school playground with little to no regard for the small, equally noisy humans who coinnhabited it twice a day, sliding on goose guano while trying to play hopscotch.

Bandit bee lined out of the van for a pile of leaves and promptly did his business. Ohhh, I thought. That explained his look of concern. Poor dude, I rushed him out of the house in the dark and into the van before he’d even had a chance to let his bowels wake up.

Once that was taken care of, since there was no one around, I unhooked his leash and let him explore. I must say, it is a glorious thing to have a dog who will come when he is called, that I can trust him to enjoy himself in the woods. He zigzagged from smell to smell, and I wondered if he was searching for other dogs or small, interesting, furry thing smells. There was a trail up the bank and around the lake, and I thought, what the heck, let’s stretch our legs. Maybe I’ll even get a critter to take a picture of.

Sometimes, when you are looking for The Photo (or, really, anything else), you forget to just be present. I found nothing photo-worthy at 6:53 a.m. today, but there will be snapshots in my mind. Bandit, still not really awake but joyfully exploring the smells in the woods. I heard a noise and stopped in my tracks, looking up. The tall cedars above me nodded their heads at one another, discussing the gray dawn, perhaps, making delightful creaking noises that called to mind other forests, other evergreens. I stood dwarfed by them, admiring them, for several minutes. No photo could hold them, or their voices. I walked on to a different edge of the lake and stood, listening to the lap of waves against a reed-forested shore. A kingfisher called in the distance, teasing: I’ve never been able to get a satisfactory shot of a kingfisher. I never saw him, but by now, I had come back to the present and it didn’t matter. Bandit gazed over the water with me, and eventually, we made our way back along the little trail to the canoe ramp. The geese called excitedly to one another and I knew they were going to take off, but my camera settings weren’t ready for flight speed and I missed that, too. I have’t looked at the pictures yet but I think the only photo I’ll probably bother with is an abstract one of the reed patterns in the water, distorted reflections dancing on the surface. I don’t mind. There are other mornings and this one reminded me how exquisite quiet mornings can be, in full living color or in grayscale.