A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Monday, August 26, 2013

She Had a Dream

Before Sunday’s church service, Deborah, who would preach a sermon titled "She Had a Dream", gathered a small group of untalented actors to act out Luke 13: 10-17. She needed four parts and at first there were just three people who offered to play the narrator, Jesus, and the self-righteous head of the synagogue. We needed some one to play an old woman in great pain, but none of us volunteered for that part.

In the Narthex, we sighted Tom, who is like Mikey and will do anything, and called him over. As he walked towards us, Ann said that she would be the old lady in pain and Tom could be Jesus. She thought that would be more convincing.

When Tom reached us, we told him, “Tom, we need you to be Jesus.”

“Okay,” said Tom.

Our friend Pea commented later that the ease in finding someone to play Jesus and the difficulty in finding an old woman in pain shows that people would rather be Jesus than an old woman who has been in pain for 18 years as we weren’t acting out the crucifixion part.

In the service, we “acted out” the scripture reading, the story of Jesus healing an old woman on a Sabbath and the self-righteous head of the synagogue criticizing him for doing this work on the day of rest. (That was me being critical. I’d like to think we weren’t type cast.)

When the narrator said that the old woman had been in pain for 18 years, three year-old Calvin shouted out, “Wow! Eighteen years!” Yes, Calvin was paying attention. That’s a long time to be in pain.

Ann borrowed my cane and hunched as if with severe osteoporosis. She approached Tom, who played Jesus. When Jesus “healed” her, a typically quiet Ann rose up, threw her arms into the air and shouted “Praise God!”

The congregation seemed to exhale and laughed heartily. Ann had been convincing in her part, and several told us afterward that when she stood hunched at first, they had thought, “Oh no! What has happened to Ann?”

In Preacher Deborah’s sermon on the subject, Deborah compared this old woman in pain to so many in our world who have suffered: people living in wars, friends in El Salvador, so many people in too many prisons in the U.S., too many African-Americans—and so many others—not yet living Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.

Just as on the Sabbath Jesus healed a woman who had suffered too long, Preacher Deborah pointed out that there has been too much suffering for too long, and we should allay pain as soon as possible with all the power we have. Like Jesus, we should not wait to be asked: we should notice the pain and take the initiative to do something about it.

Preacher Deborah’s sermon was the right call to action on the 50th anniversary of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Preacher Deborah asked, “Will we now see those still bent over around us?”

I looked around the congregation and thought of those among us who are bent over, something that Robbie Sherman’s Children’s Sermon emphasized for me.

Robbie told the children that Jesus called us to pay attention to those who hurt, like old women who are bent over, people with crossed eyes, people who are not very smart, and others in pain.

Because Ann played the old woman and we both remember the pain of her mother’s severe osteoporosis, Robbie seemed to be speaking of Ann as a woman in pain. Because my eyes are crossed (from nerve damage during brain surgery), Robbie seemed to be speaking of me, too.

Our friend Pea was the next person on our pew, but Pea’s super smart, so I don’t think Robbie was talking about Pea when she was talking about someone not being smart, but the parallels on our pew made the story much more real for me.

We were not learning about the old woman allegorically, as a person in pain who is only a symbol of all people in pain: we were called to notice real individuals.

During the prayers of the people, Will reminded us of our friend Lori’s pain that is very real. Will is the head of Lori’s care team, a team that helps Lori access the service and other church events because Lori has advanced cerebral palsy, and as a person in a wheelchair who communicates with difficulty by responding to two choices by looking left or right, she needs help.

I know that sometimes Lori experiences physical and emotional pain; so do Ann and Pea and I; our friend Kathy’s husband would have surgery that day for a second cancer; so much pain; the list goes on, and I don’t even know everyone who’s on it. And that’s just in our church.

There is also the pain of poverty and addiction, of discrimination and prison, of alienation and illness. The list does go on.

How do we as a church invite people into a loving community, and how do we stay in and go out as healers, not as people to judge or condescend, but to help ease our pain and the pain of so many in our world?

Perhaps this is what the prophet Micah was saying when he wrote, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy 
and to walk humbly with your God.”

Walk humbly. Don’t just sit there. Walk.

I felt a lot of hope about this walking as I read my niece Isabella’s most recent draft of a college entrance essay. Isabella wrote about a mentor from Ecuador and a Latina child in Harlem and the humble gift of speaking Spanish as a way to connect with people of different backgrounds, and of less power, than she has.

Isabella reminds me of another inspiration, Clarita, who grew up in our church and connected so beautifully with children in a small town in El Salvador. Clarita has now graduated from college with a degree in International Relations, has worked in Central American communities, and Tanzania, and now works in Laos.

Clarita speaks Spanish, Swahili, and Laotian, so her passion for connecting with people has led her to learn new languages, as Isabella is just beginning to do. These young women, too, have a dream.

And I dream, too. For years I dreamed that I would make a difference in our education system, especially for poor children, children of color, and children who are immigrants or children of immigrants. But since brain tumors made my work in schools less effective, I have been trying to find my new way in the world.

I’m seeking my new dream now. What is my dream? I’m not sure. I’m seeking to discover a new dream.

My church, too, seeks a new dream. It was on the forefront of the GLBTQ Civil Rights movement before there was a movement. It has been performing gay and lesbian marriages since 1975. (I think I have that right.)

We are a congregation committed to healing, what we call reconciliation. A fair number of people in the church are GLBTQ, and we have—or at least I have—been surprised by what seems to be a sea change of civil rights and even church inclusion for GLBTQ people.

In fact, at the annual Pride Parade in Seattle, there are now so many churches represented that perhaps we seem a little dull to younger people who have not experienced the kind of oppression and discrimination that was common just a few years ago.

With so much progress, many in our church are asking, “If we’re indeed (in deed) a church about radical love and social justice, what is our work now?” There’s much work to do. There’s no doubt about that. But how do we focus so that we can make a difference in our world? I think many of us are asking this now.

And in her sermon Deborah reminded me that it’s time to dream and to walk humbly with our God. Thanks for your sermon, Deborah. We need to find our dream, and though for me the vision is still blurry, perhaps you and the old woman are pointing the way.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dedicated to Isabella

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you---
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it's that simple?
Langston Hughes, “Theme for English B”

My oldest niece, Isabella, let me help her with a college application essay last week. She was struggling to come up with an essay that she believed in. Before my brain tumors and having to leave teaching, I worked with hundreds of students on this kind of essay, so it was a treat to get to know Isabella better AND to get to teach again—especially without having to grade the essay. I am guiding her through a writing process, and I can see already how much truer this draft is than her previous one. (Well, I only saw one. Apparently, there were 25.)

Isabella’s an amazing person. Her younger girl-cousins eagerly await the attention of Princess Isabella. She’s an exceptional student in a challenging school and, like her mom, has the gifts of receiving A’s AND being socially popular. (I haven’t talked to her friends. I’m guessing here.)

Isabella’s kind, responsible, and smart, but she seems afraid of this essay that seems to have so much riding on it: will she get into the University of Her Dreams? I hope so. I told her that I can’t guarantee that she’ll get into her dream university, but I can promise that she’ll have a good essay.

I thought of her during the dharma talk at yoga on Monday morning. My yoga teacher, Dawn, talked about Isvarapranidhana, a Sanscrit word that she translated as “surrender.”

Dawn said that in Isvarapranidhana we commit ourselves to full effort and release our attachment to a result. I thought of my own mantra when I was teaching, a mantra that I arrived at after years of not being able to make the difference in public schools for changes that I felt needed to happen, especially for our poorest students: “Do the right thing even if it doesn’t make any difference.” This is hard. I worked weekends and nights and rose around four in the morning to teach my students about skills and, I hoped, to help them see hope in their lives.

Sometimes my students did see hope, and when I could see them grow hopeful, my heart, like the Grinch’s heart, grew three and a half times that day. When they didn’t see hope, and they went to jail or to “juvie” (an affectionate-sounding term for what is essentially jail for juveniles), skipped class to do drugs in the nearby park, cut themselves or died a violent death, I had trouble surrendering. When I read about or witnessed poor kids receiving poor educations, I had trouble surrendering, too, and I felt a lot of sadness and anger, emotions that sometimes overwhelmed me.

In our class’s discussion on Isvarapranidhana, my fellow yogi Tiger commented on the importance of paying attention to an honorable process and not becoming attached to outcome. Easier said than done.

I wondered that morning if Isabella can surrender the results of her labor, years of outstanding academic work. I wondered if she could see what I can see: that she’s much more than a smart teenager who grew up in privilege and has worked hard for her accomplishments. I’d like her to write an essay that reveals the fine person that she is to the University of Her Dreams. Heck, I’d like for her to see the fineness that I see in her.

Isabella is unusually aware of, curious about, and respectful of other people. When she was quite young, before elementary school, and being gay was much more controversial than it is today, she would corner my partner Ann or me at any family gathering. She would find us in a quiet space and ask questions like, “Why aren’t there any boys in your family?” and “Why don’t you have rings?” (We do now but didn’t then). 

Isabella never got to the end of her questions, but eventually we would be noticed, and she would have to release whomever she had captured for this time. The next time we’d see her, maybe six months later, she’d again find one of us in a quiet space and pick up right where she left off. There was no end to her questions. She could see that we lived differently than her family. She wasn’t judgmental. She was loving, and she was curious. She was figuring out her world.

Throughout her young life, she’s also been close to, curious about and respectful and loving toward the service people who have worked in her parents’ suburban home with its own pool and tennis court. Many of these service people are Latina and have come to the U.S. with green cards or maybe no cards. (I don't know. I'm guessing.) She and her family have visited Ecuador (a testament to her mother's kindness as well) and met their families. She loves them: that is clear. She seeks to speak Spanish, recognizing the power that speaking English holds. 

As Isabella and I brainstormed what she might write her essay about, she told me that she loves to argue the more difficult side in a debate. She loves the intellectual challenge. She doesn’t necessarily argue what she believes, but there are three things she won’t argue against: gay rights, immigration rights, and one more very important thing that I can’t now remember.

Isabella is diligent and smart, an academic superstar: those gifts mean that she will be able to live in the world and work for the call of her heart. They may make her successful, whatever that means.

Isabella is also extraordinary, whether or not the University of Her Dreams sees that. She is heartful and soulful. She is kind, compassionate and creative. She is a curious, independent thinker. Her heart is why she’s extraordinary.

As I thought about Isvarapranidhana and Isabella, my teacher Dawn invited us to dedicate our practice to someone or some ideal if we wanted to. I usually dedicate my practice to something like peace or gratitude. This time I dedicated my practice to a person for the first time: for Isabella.

May both of us live from our souls, with an awareness always of the Divine.

This morning, the dharma talk continued with my teacher Victoria. Susan, who was on the mat next to me, talked about how hard it is to age and to see people she loves lose their abilities to do the things they have always loved: she mentioned hiking several times. Because I, with my brain tumors, have experienced loss, including hiking in the mountains that I love so much, I listened intently.

Susan talked not so much of her friends' struggle; in fact, she spoke of their strength and wisdom in their time of loss. She spoke of her own struggle. Her voice tightened as spoke of a close friend with MS.

Susan is not at a place of surrender right now, and I told her that after my brain surgery, I thought that surrender was more difficult for the people who love me than it has been for me. My choice seems to be either to surrender and to find new ways of living or to be miserable. And with only this life to live (so far as I know), I’m not going to choose misery.

I hope that Susan will introduce me to her friend with MS and that she and Ann will go on a lovely hike that I can no longer do. I hope they’ll show me photos and tell me what they saw and smelled. But I'm not attached to that hope. At least I don't think I am.

As Susan I talked, our teacher Victoria joined us, and the three of us talked about surrender and our lives. We each spoke vaguely of our connections to addiction, and I was thinking about the people I love who are learning to live sober, and about the second step (if I remember right) in Alcoholics Anonymous:  Come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 

Perhaps as humans we are most addicted to control and that in this life we are learning that we don't have control. I imagine that in some learning place in the universe, my soul performed poorly in this concept and I was sent here to learn. My soul must have been a particularly poor student to have required that I learn from brain tumors.

I  hope Isabella writes a true essay. I hope she gets into the University of Her Dreams. If she doesn't, I hope she finds her place elsewhere. I hope Ann and Susan take a lovely hike and tell me about it. I hope I meet Susan's friend. I hope we can all have peace.



Thursday, August 15, 2013


Tuesday night I awoke at two in the morning: outside, the wind howled and swirled. Lightening flashed white as the thunder boomed. Inside, the bed shook and the closet door rattled against its frame. I could no longer hear the steady boom of waves hitting the sand in the ocean outside the open window. I expected to see Auntie Em fly by any minute.

Ann asked: "Should I close the window?"

I remembered a sixth grade discussion where my friend Johnny, the smartest kid in the class, knew that in a hurricane or tornado you should open the windows in your house in order to alleviate the pressure on the home.

"No. Leave it open."

Ann noticed I was scared and held my hand. For long minutes, we were quiet, listening to the wind howling, and then I said to Ann, "Are you scared?" She snored. I guess not.

I have faced imminent death a few other times, and I have never been scared. Years ago, Ann and I flew in a very small plane from Costa Rica's west coast to San Jose. When Ann and I arrived at the "airport," we were the only two people in a large grass field. We stood as out of place as pink flamingos in Alaska and wondered what practical joke our taxi driver might be playing when at last other passengers arrived with their luggage.  Once twelve of us had gathered in the field, two small planes landed, and Ann and I were assigned to the plane with a family with giant luggage. 

An overweight pilot hoisted the giant luggage into the plane's tail as sweat poured down his face. He grunted and moaned and rolled his eyes as someone handed him yet another giant orange suitcase. Ann and I worried with one another that he might have a heart attack. The six of us who were his passengers finally loaded into the plane, the father beside the pilot and the mother and two daughters in the middle with Ann, in seats facing one another. I sat in a jump seat in the plane's tail. Sweat continued to course down the pilot's face.

The pilot moved the plane forward and the plane lifted us into the air, but not high enough. We headed straight at a mountain that loomed in front of us and a red light flashed on the dash board. The mountain grew larger and larger and when I could no longer see sky, but just the trees in the hillside that I imagined we would soon crash into, the pilot banked hard to the left and we took a run again, this time lifting over the mountain. The red light continued flashing. 

As the flight continued, the plane repeatedly hit air pockets and went in free fall for a few seconds before rising again. The women at the middle of the plane retched into barf bags as did the father at the front. 

I looked away from all the retching and thought about how glad I was that we faced death at the end of our trip and not the beginning. What fun we had. I'd taken a lot of photos with my new camera, and I hoped that if I died someone would process my film (as this was in the olden days, before digital cameras.) I watched out the window as we dipped close to the trees and then rose again into the clouds. I was serene.

Then there was the time I had brain surgery, and though I didn't want to die, I was not afraid. Life, after all, was fun and full.

Tuesday night, however, I was afraid while Ann (and apparently others in the house) snored. Why was I afraid this time?

Maybe it's because this time I had decisions to make: Open the window or close it? Run outside or lie here holding Ann's hand?  Sound the alarm or continuing listening to the sounds outside? Call 9-1-1 or try rolling over and going back to sleep?

In contrast to the decisions I had to make Tuesday night, in the small plane, the pilot was in control, and I wouldn't have had any idea what to do even if I had a choice. During brain surgery, an anesthesiologist knocked me out and so far as I remember, I just lay there while--I assume--all those people in doctor's scrubs fiddled around in my brain.

I've heard people express fear about not being in control. Maybe for some people fear is about not being in control and for me fear is about being in control, about making a mistake. I wonder if that's just me, or if that's part of growing up a girl in a man's world, or an eldest child's perfectionism or...

The morning after the storm, I said to my brother-in-law who had just arrived, "Welcome to Oz." He looked at my blankly, and I explained the connection in my mind between last night's storm and the tornado in The Wizard of Oz.  "What storm?" he said. "I didn't hear the storm."

I guess he snored, too. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Wisdom in Laughter

During yoga yesterday, the yogi next to me, Rebecca, shared that she's been laughing at herself instead of getting angry with herself when she disappoints herself lately.

Her comment reminded me of when I saw His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, in Seattle a few years ago. His Holiness is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, a country occupied by The People's Republic of China where its government and many of its people are in exile. With such a painful history, I expected profound words of wisdom from His Holiness, words that would help me think newly about some important thing.

Instead, I do not remember a thing His Holiness said. I don't even remember the topics he addressed. I only remember that he seemed to giggle throughout the presentation.

Like many other teachers, I had taken a group of students to this presentation, and I had hoped they would be inspired to act on the wisdom we heard together. I did not know what to do with this giggling.

Perhaps my fellow yogi Rebecca is teaching me now, though I could not understand the words of this wise man who was so far on his stage from my seat at the arena's top. 

I think now that there may be wisdom in the giggle. What does that wisdom tell? I don't know. Maybe to see myself and my smallness in this universe of space and time. Maybe with such perspective I can giggle at myself and my world, because maybe with that perspective I can see that I am such a small part of a large whole. 

Maybe with that perspective, I gain some humility about my power in the world and even over my destiny, and I won't take myself so seriously.

This giggling is not about making others laugh, as I so often try to do: a dolphin jumping among so many other lives in the sea, some giant like a whale, some vicious like a shark, others small with pretty colors, or bizarre with two eyes on one side of a flat body, some gentle giants like the turtles I saw laying their eggs with such hope in Costa Rica's sand. 

I imagine now that this giggling is an overflow of joy that's available if I can see myself with some humility. 

Right after Rebecca's comment, our teacher Victoria asked if there were any focus that students would like to request for our movement. As always, I repeated my chicken yoga mantra in my head: "No balance poses. No balance poses."

I have struggled with balance over the past six and a half years since my first brain tumor was extirpated (good word, huh?). I need to do balance poses: they are good for me physically, and through facing the fear of falling, they help me center spiritually.

But still, for me balance poses are more like broccoli than ice-cream. They're good for me, but I don't dream of them.

In response to Victoria's question, Ellie said she'd like arm strengthening, and for a moment no one else spoke. I relaxed my "no balance pose" mantra, and then becoming-wise Rebecca spoke: "Balance poses."


So we worked on arm strengthening and balance poses. As the class proceeded, Victoria invited us to try a modified moon pose, the pose where one knee was on the floor, a hand on the floor under my head, and the other hand and foot held aloft.  I have been working on this pose at home, and I can now do it on my stronger and more coordinated right side, the side less affected by damage to my cerebellum during surgery. 

First we tried the pose on my strong side, and I could hear Victoria's delight as I was able to do it. (I learned the modification in this class, but this is the first time since I've been working on it at home that I've done it in class.) 

Instead of the self-talk of joy, I said to myself, "Wait 'til she sees that I can't do it on the other side." We moved to the other side, and nope, I couldn't do it. 

This is the story I tell myself: I cannot balance on that side. Maybe the story's true; maybe not. I haven't told Victoria this story, so she tried to help me move into the pose on my weaker side. Nope. Wasn't happening.

If I were wise like His Holiness and like Rebecca is becoming, I might have laughed, but I am not, and I did not. I rolled my eyes at myself (figuratively: with nerve damage I can't roll my eyes).

Nope. Can't do that. I reinforced my story. And I did not laugh. I don't know if I'll ever do this modified version of moon pose on this side. It's not really a goal for me right now. 

Giggling at myself and my world. Maybe one day I'll do that. I haven't made this giggling a goal. If I giggle, maybe that will be evidence that I have grown wise, and growing wise (to tell you true) is my goal, though I have no idea how to work towards it. 

How funny that though I think I have little to no chance of ever doing moon pose on my weak side, I think I have a chance of becoming wise.

Funny. Giggle.