Tuesday, December 31, 2013
When Ann and I visited Little Brother Matt (LBM) and his family after Christmas, my sister-in-law Kristin chose the film Happy for us to watch. The whole family watched with us: LBM and Kristin, Hayden, Lucie and Gretchen, the dogs Dixie and Maisie and the visiting Burmese Mountain Dog JoJo. She and LBM had seen it before, and she thought we would like it because she saw similarities between the film and the book of interviews that I’m writing. She was right. We loved Happy. I think we all did: especially the dogs. (It seems that they understand happy like humans cannot, though they don't need a film to explain it to them. What fools we mortals be!)
Two profiles in the film stand out to me: one is of a woman, maybe a little bit younger than I am, who had been a beauty queen before she fell and was run over by a truck. She survived the accident with scars and a crossed eye (much like mine, one eye looks towards her nose while the other looks forward.) She says that the irony of her situation is that she’s happier now than she has ever been. I often feel that way, too. My brain tumors were not tragic: from them I have learned to live my life more slowly and intentionally with a persistent gratitude. It's not such a giddy happiness for me. Perhaps it's a deeper happiness.
In the other profile, a man who lives in India’s slums talks about the joy in his life. His story introduces the film’s concept of flow, which seems to mean living in harmony with life. This story echoes the exploration of Lao Tzu that I am reading, in which Osho, who speaks as Lao Tzu, argues that happiness comes by living in balance: not too poor and not too rich. (As Osho/Lao Tzu says, “Remain balanced. Too much poverty is bad. Too much richness is bad—too much is bad. In fact, for Lao Tzu too much is the only sin. Don’t do too much. Don’t overdo. Then life is a flow. And life is moral.”)
Max Erhmann implies that being cheerful and being happy are different at the close of his poem "Desiderata" when he says, "Be cheerful. Strive to be happy." This line has caught my attention since I first read it in high school. I can be cheerful, mostly. I know cheerful. It is external: a smile and a laugh. Can I be happy, I wondered? And what is happiness anyway?
Sometimes the concept of happiness seems to me a bit fluffy: a smiley face with a heart as the dot over the "i". Jejune (a good word meaning naive and simplistic in case it's new to you or you haven't seen it in a while, as I hadn't when I ran across it in the book Little Brother Matt's minister wrote: Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul).
As a teenager, it seemed to me that happiness was part of "The American Dream" as defined in the excesses of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Even when I was a teenager, however, this dream was not my dream and perhaps this happiness was not for me. I'd go deeper for the melancholy of so many poets I loved.
Don't worry: I'm not going to spoil your happy new year and make it all melancholy. So stick with me.
I've been reading Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul by Little Brother Matt's minister David Anderson, and the book has me thinking about this New Year differently than I have thought of others. The book's central argument (so far--I'm about halfway through) is that for our adult faith to be born our childhood faith must first die. And in this death there is grief and loss.
Previously, New Year's has been for me primarily a time of looking forward: wash my hands of the old year and set my goals for the new one. No looking back. No loss. No grief. No death. After all, look at the pillar of salt that Lot's wife turned into when she looked back. And when Orpheus tried to retrieve Eurydice from Hades, he looked back against orders, and she faded back into her afterlife. The message is clear: Don't look back.
This year, however, I'm thinking that I need to look back, notice what I'm losing as I embrace a new time. As you may know, this has been a difficult fall for me, a fall of grief and loss that has sometimes overwhelmed me, so it may seem odd for me to choose to look back, but this pain has become a part of me, so I'll look back to its birth and I suspect that in time—maybe already—I’ll embrace it as I've embraced so many hard things in my life. (Not that I want to relive them. Those times? Most notably coming out and living through my brain tumors: painful times where I sensed that I was drowning, losing myself, times that I would not trade and hope not to do again.)
In this time of looking back AND looking forward, I think of the Roman god Janus, the god for whom January is named. He's the guy you see in statues with two faces, a beard on each face, looking in opposite directions: presumably with one face looking into the past and the other into the future. Earlier images of the god have one face bearded and the other face without a beard, which Micha F. Lindemans on Encyclopedia Mythica says were symbols of the sun and moon, but I think of them as a young face looking back at youth and an older face looking ahead to adulthood. To me the image symbolizes the moment in moving from childhood to adulthood. (A couple of centuries later, Janus had four faces, but that's too much for me to fathom right now.)
To me, the image is about the present, that unseen time between the past and future. (My History professor, Morna, closed our fall class saying, "The present is not real. It is too ephemeral. Only the past and the future are real." I thought I was speaking in my mind and then realized I had spoken aloud when I said, "Or the opposite." I still have to ask her about that. My Death and Dying professor, Bonnie, closed with, "The past and future are not real. Only the present is real." Yes. This is what I believe. But what does this contradiction call me to consider?…)
I first learned about the present, the concept of being fully in a moment, what Happy and Osho would call flow, from Annie Dillard in her chapter "The Present" in her memoir An American Childhood. In this chapter, she's sitting on a hillside looking out over the mountains, patting her puppy while the man at the service station checks her oil. She is completely in the moment until she recognizes that she is in the moment. Then consciousness returns, and its good friend analysis, and she's lost her moment. But she was there.
At times, I too have been lost in a moment. Or maybe the phrase should be "found" in a moment, as at those times I'm found by some great spirit that connects me with the universe…or maybe is the universe. Perhaps you've had those moments, too: moments of such joy that make me question why I'm so distraught by the idea of losing myself to death or illness.
Yoga has been my greatest teacher of living in the moment. I stretch and breathe deeply and just am. (I have begun meditation, but my mind is really all over the place right now, so I don't think I have it down.)
Poetry, too, teaches me to be in the moment. The lovely Mary Oliver carries me with her. Ann is reading one poem a night now from Oliver's Why I Wake Early (something Oliver and I don't have in common--I could write a book called, Why I Wake Late). Last night, we loved "This World," ("So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe the stars sing too…"). The night before Ann read "Look and See" which closed, "Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we / only look and see."
The poem, of course, reminded me of Denise Levertov's poem "O Taste and See", which my student Shannon introduced me to 26 years ago (I still thank her for that.):
The world is not with us enough O taste and see
the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning if anything all that lives to the imagination’s tongue,
grief, mercy, language, tangerine, weather, to breathe them, bite, savor, chew, swallow, transform
into our flesh our deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince, living in the orchard and being
hungry, and plucking the fruit
The poetry and the yoga stream go on of course, but they all mean--to borrow from another soulmate, Walt Whitman--
...there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
So how do I stay in the moment in this time of transition, this day that turns into a new year, this year that will mark me at half a century, the passing year that touched me with my own death? How do I stay?
I have been thinking that my writing helps me stay with this time of change and keeps me anchored in the moment, but Osho/Lao Tzu says no: "It is not by saying things you communicate--no. It is by saying things that you unburden yourself. In fact, through words communication is not possible; just the opposite is possible--you can avoid communication. You can talk and you can create a screen of words around you so that your real situation cannot be known by others. You clothe yourself with words." I suspect that Osho/Lao Tzu would say that just as through my words my real situation cannot be known by others, it cannot be known to myself. I suspect he would call me to silence.
That's a bummer. Here I am trying to figure myself out, trying to connect with you, and maybe I'm just cloaking myself in words, words, words (to quote Hamlet, another one of many words.) And words are the tools my mind uses to try to figure things out. But Osho/Lao Tzu tells me to stop trying to figure things out with my mind. I suppose he and the poets and the yoginis and the meditators would say to just be.
But how do I just be, especially in this day that symbolizes the passage of time, the change from the old to the new? If I keep talking about it on this page, will I figure it out? If I follow the poets and the yoginis, will I taste and see and forget all of this analysis, this pondering? Will I just be in the present, whether or not it exists?
Or should I just chill. Maybe that's what Osho/Lao Tzu would say: Just chill and then you'll have a happy new year. You don't have to think about it so much. Thinking is like a dam in the river of flow.
So to you: Chill. Flow. And Happy New Year.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Yesterday, my friend Pea and I visited our friend Lori. Lori was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant, and now that she’s in her late forties, the degenerative disease makes it impossible for her to have much muscle control, so she uses a wheelchair. She also cannot speak, so for conversations, Pea and I ask her binary questions ("Is it an elephant?" gesturing with the right hand, "or a petunia?" gesturing with the left hand. She moves her eyeballs right if it's an elephant, left if it's a petunia, and up if it's neither. I'm not sure what it means when she moves them back and forth: either she's tired or she's giving us a hard time.)
These conversations are slow. We formed a little triangle in Lori's room yesterday, and Lori decided among many conversation topics that she'd like to tell us about herself as an artist. Two of her paintings were pinned to the wall, and through a long series of answering binary questions, she told us that the darker of the two is about a time when she was in elementary school and a boy made fun of her for her disabilities. She was angry. She is still angry. The other painting, with more yellows, greens and blues, is about the hope she feels when she's in nature.
In this slow conversation, Pea and Lori and I built our friendship a bit more deeply. (That’s how the Ethiopians in Lalibella built their temples: by digging down…slowly, as the work was done 900 years ago by angels and slaves. )
This slow conversation fits my way of living in the world now. Since my brain tumors and resultant disabilities, I move slowly, and I have been thinking about moving slowly lately, about the ways that it has changed not only the ways that I move in the world but also the ways that I see and live.
Sometimes, it's frustrating to move so slowly. When the bus that I had hoped to catch whooshes by and I'm still at the curb, I wish I could run, but instead I will wait in the cold and the rain for the next bus. When I'm crossing the street and the white man changes to a red hand while I'm still in the middle of the cross walk, I look anxiously to my right and wish I could move more quickly. When class is over, and everyone else has gone while I’m still packing up, I wish I could move faster.
Mostly, however, moving slowly is a blessing. Before my tumors, I would dash from place to place trying to get as many activities into a day as possible. I was unlikely to stop to say hello if you were walking by. I was unlikely to notice the particular curve of a cherry bud. I was unlikely to notice the gift of my breath.
When I left my job at one school and fretted over how I could make a difference in public education, my friend Declan asked me, “Why are you in such a hurry?” The question caught me off-guard: I had thought that I was racing about because I was passionate about improving public education and hadn’t realized that my racing about was about time and anxiety.
In the months preceding my diagnosis with my first brain tumor, I fell running from the parking lot to the classroom and from the classroom to the Xerox machine (the one that worked: in another school). There was so much to do and so little time.
Even before my tumors, from reading poetry and listening to poetic lyrics of some of the sixties' songwriters, I recognized the violence in such a panic. The narrator of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” for example, gets so worked up about not having “world enough and time” that he sounds like a frenzied rapist, telling this mistress that “worms will try that long-preserved virginity…” Simon and Garfunkel sang to me, "Slow down, you're moving' to fast. You've got to make the morning last…." In “Keeping Quiet,” Neruda’s wise narrator invites the reader to slow down, to be still, and to be quiet:
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
we might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
we might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Though I raced about before my tumors, I had begun learning about the gifts of moving more slowly. Poetry and yoga were my teachers.
As I taught poetry to my high school students, I tried to teach them to slow down and notice, to read the same poem over and over, to slow at a phrase or even at a word. I didn’t like recipe-like lists in textbooks that trained students to read a poem, so I created my own list. Read the poem to yourself. Read it aloud. Several times. Ask someone else to read it aloud…Step four: Notice what you notice. (My yoga teacher Victoria says this, too, thus supporting my theory that yoga is body poetry.)
With my students, I didn’t make explicit the instruction to slow down: I merely taught them techniques for slowing down, hoping that they would see the value in the experience. I was not yet conscious that slowing down was what was key: because I didn’t know it for myself, I didn’t know to tell them about the importance of slowing down. Indeed, everything else in the world seemed to tell all of us to speed up.
Yesterday, my friend Stephen sent me an article, “The Power of Patience” by Jennifer L. Roberts, a professor who is clearer on the importance of slowing down than I ever was. (You can access the article on the web at http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/11/the-power-of-patience )
Roberts teaches Art History and talked about the importance of taking time to look closely at art: she requires her students to spend three hours just looking at a piece that they will later write about. She writes about all that she noticed when looking at John Singleton Copley’s A Boy with a Flying Squirrel, 1765.
I have always gone through an art museum in this way: whipping through first to choose one piece with which to spend my time. I choose a piece of work, perhaps a painting or a photograph or perhaps a three-dimensional something. I choose something I’ve never heard of, something that crowds do not gather around. (I did not choose “The Mona Lisa” when she was a choice: all that bustling and all of those flashbulbs interrupted my seeing, really seeing.)
My professor Morna read the article, too, and told me about the importance to her of Seurat’s “The Bathers” in London decades ago, the way that she carried its image in her mind all these years, the breath-taking moment of seeing the piece again as an older person. Of course, I looked at the painting on-line, and though I’m sure seeing it in person has greater power, I too spent time with a piece that in its pastels and its ease is calming. One day, I will see that painting in person. And I will slowly dig a friendship with it.
My best teachers, the poems of my heart, teach me to slow down. Roethke wakes like I do: “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow….” Keats’s Grecian Urn, a “foster child of Silence and slow time” teaches him—and by extension me—“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (How great to know all ye need to know!) And of course the contemporary, lovely Mary Oliver, who is all about slowing down, teaches me as she learns in “When I am Among the Trees,”: “Walk slowly, and bow often.” When I slow down, I notice the sacredness of all that is around me, and so I, too, bow.
In a recent ritual of loss and celebration for the changes that the tumors brought to my life and to Ann’s, we listed separately the losses and the gifts that we’ve both experienced. Both of us listed “Slowing down” as a gift. It has perhaps been the best gift of these tumors: Slowing Down and its sisters Gratitude and Connection.
I could end there, but I must tell you this, too. My other professor this quarter, Bonnie, (it was a good quarter, but hard as perhaps you have noticed) told the story of a colleague who runs from room to room. They work on a team in palliative care with people who are dying, and Bonnie moves slowly both because her body demands it and—I’m guessing—that’s the way one moves in sacred space (and when one is wise, all space is sacred). I could see my younger self in Bonnie’s description of this colleague dashing about.
In telling the story of her frantic colleague, Bonnie shook her head, looked down a bit and laughed gently: “Bless her heart.” Now, so far as I know, Bonnie is not a Southerner, but she used this Southern idiom exactly rightly: In the South, we say, “bless her heart,” when we are saying something about someone’s misguided but sweet innocence. The expression is not condescending. We use it when we recognize our own humanity in someone else. When we say, “bless her heart,” we are more wise than the one about whom we speak, but we are also in that moment kind, even affectionate. Perhaps we see our younger selves in that person.
So Bonnie shook her head at this frantic person, and as a class we blessed her heart. And perhaps in that story we learned to slow down. Perhaps. And if not, bless our hearts.
Bless all of our hearts.
Monday, December 9, 2013
Yesterday morning, I grumbled as I got out of bed earlier than I wanted to. Ann and I were going to the adult education discussion on race and spirituality, so we had to get to church earlier than usual. I wanted to go to the discussion: I just didn't want to emerge from my cozy cocoon.
It turns out that emerging from my cozy cocoon was a good metaphor for a discussion about the way that privilege works in informal ways to further the privileges of those in society who are already lucky. We read an NPR interview about the effects of privilege on the kind of healthcare a woman who went to an emergency room in Boston received.
When she told the emergency room doctor that she was worried about the injury to her hand because she was a quilter, the doctor reassured her that he would stitch her up just fine. When, in casual conversation, he learned that she was a Harvard professor, he called in hand specialists. This was no hospital policy. She simply got better treatment because the doctor thought that saving a Harvard professor’s hand-functionality was more important than saving a quilter’s hand-functionality.
The point was that we treat people differently depending on how we view their importance and on how important they are to us. We discussed the ways that people who are in our familial and social circles receive the benefits of our privilege while those persons who are not in privileged circles don’t get as much support in hard times, though they may have more hard times.
The facilitator, Sue, told us about a woman who understood this unintended consequence of her privilege and began dividing her donation to her alma mater so that half went to her college and half went to the United Negro College Fund.
The discussion made us think about expanding our circles of friendship, something that by luck has been happening in Ann’s and my lives over the last decade.
Ann and I have both visited our church’s sister community in Guarjila, El Salvador and visitors from that community have stayed with us in Seattle. In this exchange, our circle of friendship has widened. When we see news about mining in El Salvador or the new Pan American highway, which runs through Guarjila, we know that people we love are affected.
Our connections there inspired me to move from working in suburban schools that were mainly middle-class whites to working in schools with children of lots of different colors, many of whom were poor and many of whom were immigrants to this country. I loved these students and the richness of experiences they shared with me.
My tumors and their resultant disabilities required me to leave teaching but have also widened my circles in new ways. I now connect with people in public places like parks and the city bus, people that I didn’t even notice I wasn’t connecting with before: especially African-Americans (who have been especially kind to me, though we don’t necessarily know each other), people with disabilities, and older people. Perhaps now they see me in a way they didn’t see me before—as a person who has struggled. Perhaps I also see my connection to them in a way that I did not see them before. Perhaps we just see one another now.
As the discussion in adult education deepened, our friend Doug, who is an Economics professor at the University of Washington when he’s working, shared the ideas about slow thinking and fast thinking from Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman said that about 80% of our thinking is “fast thinking,” impulsive, non-reflective, unconscious thinking. This is necessary, for evolution and for modern society, or else we’d spend a lot of our time telling our thumbs how to close around a doorknob or determining the safety of each step we take, each person we meet. In this fast thinking, however, we make judgments that we’re not even aware of. We judge by race, age, ability, and so forth.
We need to think slowly in order to arrive at new awarenesses of ourselves and the world around us. If we are to challenge our assumptions and our prejudices, we need to move our ideas into our consciousness. This takes time.
It was time for church, so our group disbanded and moved to the sanctuary. I was still thinking about the discussion. Throughout the church service, I continued thinking about the ways that slow thinking could change me and could change the world. (One of the gifts of my tumors to both Ann and me has been the gift of slowing down.)
When the scripture reader read from the beginning of Isaiah 11, I thought about the scripture’s connection to my society and my life:
You will delight in obeying YHWH [God],
And you won’t judge by appearances,
Or make decisions by hearsay.
You will treat poor people with fairness
And will uphold the rights of the land’s downtrodden….
Then the wolf will dwell with the lamb….
In the spirit of the wolf dwelling with the lamb, and in the spirit of making the impossible seem possible, our pastor Karla began her sermon with the story of a youtube video where a dog and an elk, who began their meeting confrontationally, began playing chase together.
I thought, “Maybe it is possible…” and my thoughts drifted to all of the ways that the world could become more peaceful. I confess that I did not hear the rest of the sermon. I was unaware of time passing, and before I knew it Karla was stepping from the podium.
So this Sunday that began with me not wanting to stir from my cocoon metamorphosed into a day when I was grateful to be stirred.
After a tasty lunch of yam burritos while Ann, Cute Cousin Michael and I watched the beginning of the Seahawks game against the 49ers (the Seahawks would lose the later quarters, but this was the hopeful quarter), I pulled into another cocoon in front of our fire for my daily nap.
Having learned the lesson of the loveliness of the cocoon and the loveliness of emerging, I emerged again to meet our friends Pam and Allyson for dinner before going to the Seattle Men’s Chorus’s concert.
The four of us have been going to these concerts together since Cute Cousin Michael started singing in the chorus a few years ago. This was my favorite concert: it was sweet and sacred and funny. My favorite songs were “Silent Night,” when the whole chorus first sang and then signed the words in silence, and “Finally Here,” a lovely song by church musician Eric Helmeth honoring men loving men. Two men who had married this year introduced the song, sung in gratitude to the audience that had helped pass marriage equality in Washington State.
I know I’ve used “lovely” three times, but that’s just how the day was: Lovely.