Monday, September 26, 2011

Multiple Choice

Although many things have changed since I was in grade school, some things stand the test of time. One such phenomenon is the Scholastic Book order. (In fact, Scholastic has been around for about 90 years!) Even though the venerable educational publisher has expanded its offerings to include a variety of video games, electronics and accessories, it's nice to see the colorful Scholastic newsprint catalog still promotes good old-fashioned books. And it's equally nice that my son, Jack, is as excited as I was to bring home the latest flyer.
  Just as I did at his age, Jack pours over the catalog, circling the items on his wish list. Scholastic does offer quite a few items that—in my opinion—stretch the boundaries of the definition of "educational." (I mean, what exactly does the Hello Kitty Fall Fun Pack teach children?)So although I love being able to let Jack order a book—one, and one only—from the catalog, I draw the line at shelling out dough for anything that's clearly just a toy.
   On Thursday night, we sat down to look at the catalog together. Jack narrowed his selection to about a dozen books—and one cute puppy poster. When I quizzed my dog-averse son about his desire to purchase a puppy poster, he shrugged.
   "I want to order that for a, uh, my friend," Jack said, trying to sound nonchalant.
   "That's nice," I said.
   Jack often wants to buy video games and such for his buddy Colton, usually because he wants to play with them himself, but I thought it odd that he'd want to give an image of three little white puppies in a basket to his Medal of Honor playin' buddy. And then it hit me. He said the word friend with the same lilting inflection I use when I'm describing a guy who I hope might become more than a plutonic pal.
   The concept of having a girlfriend is not new to Jack. In first grade he took up with a darling girl, Meg*. For years they'd been playground compadres and quite loyal to each other. In fourth grade, a lot of kids were pairing up in an innocent way—at least I hope it's all innocent.
   "So, who's the poster for?" I asked, trying not to sound like a nosy Mom.
   "A girl in my classroom," replied Jack with a quiet grin.
    "Cool," I said. Meg wasn't in his classroom this year. "But what about Meg? Isn't she your "friend" anymore?"
    "No," Jack said, without a hint of sadness. "This is for Caroline*!"
     "So Caroline's your new girlfriend?"
    "Well, I'm going to give her a note to ask her if she likes me," said Jack. "I hope she checks "Yes."
    Jack took out some paper and a pink marker and proceeded to scrawl the note that would determine the nature of his friendship with Caroline. "Do you like me? Yes or No? Please circle one and return."
   Forty years ago, I sent and received notes at school just like this one. For all our technology and innovation, the handwritten note of affirmation still remains the gold standard for blossoming friendship and romance. I also recalled the feeling of disappointment when a note such as this one was returned with a negative response. How would Jack react if his request was denied?
   "Jack, what does it mean to like someone?"I asked.
   "It means that you're special friends."
   "And how is a special friend different than your other friends?"
   "It means you like each other and want to help each other, and you play together."
   "I think that's a great definition," I said. "What if Caroline says she doesn't like you, will you still be her friend and give her the poster?"
   "Yes," he said confidently.
   "You know you should never give someone a gift if you expect something—even a thank you—in return," I said. "You should only give for the pure joy of giving. Does that make sense?"
   "Sure," said Jack. "I know Caroline will like that poster. I want her to have it."
    We talked for a while about the nature of giving unconditionally and how it's important not to have expectations of others. Jack seemed to understand. At the end of our discussion, he filled in the Scholastic book order and gave me a dollar for Caroline's poster.
  The following day, Jack bounded into my apartment, grabbed his DSi and a juice pouch and settled in to conquer Pokemon Heart Gold Level 102. I had been thinking about his note to Caroline all day. Had she answered affirmative? Or kicked him to the curb? He seemed happy, but I didn't want to make too big of a deal about it, so I waited until after dinner to ask him the outcome. Jack was sprawled on the bed, contentedly pitting Pikachu against a Slyduck in battle. I brought a basket of warm, clean clothes into the bedroom and began to fold towels.
   "So, did you give Caroline your note?" I asked, trying to sound like I wasn't that interested.
    "Yep," said Jack without looking up from his game.
    "Did she say yes?"
    "She said she wanted to think about it for two weeks," Jack replied. His tone was very matter-of-fact, without a hint of disappointment or resentment.
   "Oh, that's cool," I said.
   "Yeah, she said she just wanted to think it over," Jack said.
   I thought about how I should respond. Perhaps this girl didn't want to be Jack's special friend, and this was a way to let him down easy. Or maybe she just wanted to think about her answer before making a commitment. Either way, she had given my son a mindful response.
   "Well, I think that's very smart to take her time to answer," I said. "I mean, a lot of girls might just jump right in and say yes, but she wants to get to know you. Sounds like she's being very mature."
   "I think she got held back a grade," Jack replied. "So she's older."
   "Caroline sounds like very nice girl," I said, smiling. "Two weeks isn't that long to wait for a nice girl."
   "Yeah, she is nice," Jack said. "And I don't mind waiting. I'd wait five years for her if that's what it took!"
    I shook my head, and began to sort the socks. Maybe these kids were onto something. If someone is worth a puppy poster, she's certainly worthy of a delayed response.

* Not her real name

Sunday, September 18, 2011

My Son the Pagan

Buddhist mediation practice teaches that
thoughts are like clouds, which can be
gently pushed away to clear the "sky"
of the mind.

I was raised Catholic, and taught to believe that anyone who as not Catholic was going straight to the big broaster downstairs. The souls of unbaptized infants had a special place to go, called Limbo, where they could float in the ether until someone prayed them into the Pearly Gates. But everyone else, who had a conscious, had two choices: Catholicism or Hell. Even as a kid, that didn't play well with me. Growing up in the country, I had a lot of non-Catholic friends. Where they all going to Hell just because they weren't born Catholic? Sure my Baptist playmate, Christa, was a beast for taking the doll with the best hair when we played Barbies, but did that really buy her a ticket to the eternal inferno? Even then, it seemed harsh. I couldn't imagine that God was that judgmental. (And for the record, I believe the Catholic Church has backed down from this doctrine and anyone who is Catholic should feel free to bring me up to speed.) And yet, this is how I was raised. There was a comfort to feeling I was a member of an elite club for all eternity, but as I became older and started questioning other things, my Catholic faith fell away to softer, more yielding universal truths, which were a little more wishy-washy.
   As an adult, you can get away with a lot, but once you're a parent you find yourself faced with your beliefs—or lack there of—all over again. According to a recent article in Parenting magazine, almost one in six adults is not associated with any particular religion. Many parents are hit with the question, "What do I teach my kids about religion?"and come up short. I've struggled for years with what kind of spiritual practice to impart to Jack. When he was born, we did not have him baptized because we weren't attending a church, and it felt wrong to join just so we could appease a tradition and throw a party. 
   But when I began attending Buddhist services more than a year ago, I felt I had finally found the right fit. No, I didn't buy into all the more esoteric aspects of Buddhism, but the principles of loving kindness, of mindfulness and meditation all resonated clearly with me. Plus, there was incense and that reminded me of Catholic services held on Holy Days. Even if the icons were very different, Buddhism provided a sense of comfort that I hadn't known inside a more formal religious structure. Imparting Buddhist principles to a child is fairly easy because it's all about being mindful of others, thinking before we act or speak, looking outside our own limited viewpoint, and demonstrating compassion for all. For example, walking home from camp can provide opportunities for Buddhist practice—for both of us.
   Recently, I read that the Dalai Lama was about fourteen years old when he began his spiritual practice. Of course, he was groomed to be the Dalai Lama from the time he was recognized as such, but he didn't start his Buddhist training until later in his life. And according to Biblical Scripture, Jesus was twelve when he was found teaching in the temple. So there's some precedent here for a person embracing their sense of faith, not at birth, but at a time when they can make a more concerted decision about this very important aspect of their lives. So with this in mind, I decided that, by age 14, Jack should be ready to make a decision about a spiritual practice. Not that he has to choose a team to back for the rest of his life, but by age 14 I want him to hunker down and really learn about a religion—any religion—as part of his education.
  About a month ago, Jack accompanied me to Buddhist service on Tuesday night. I didn't expect him to sit criss-cross-applesauce on a big pillow with the Sangha, or read the prayers or meditate. I simply wanted to expose him to the practice I've embraced. He sat in the little vestibule, where we leave our shoes, and worked on his computer, writing a story called The Water Panda. When we left, we headed to Target to buy school supplies for the year. 
   "So what did you think of Buddhist practice?" I asked.
    "It was fine," Jack said.
    "Your Dad and I have never made you go to church, like a lot of your friends do," I said. "What do you think of that?"
    "It's fine," Jack said.
    "Well, I think by the time you're fourteen you should decide on a religion to study," I said.
    The backseat was silent.
   "You can choose any religion you want," I continued. 
   "I don't want to be a Buddhist," Jack said.
   "Why not?" I asked.
   "Because I don't want to shave my head and speak a foreign language," Jack answered.
   "You don't have to shave your head or learn Sanskrit!" I laughed. "I'm not shaving my head, and I certainly can't say all those chants yet either. So what religion do you think you might want to study?"
   "I think I want to go for Jesus," said Jack, in the same tone he proclaims that he's an Auburn fan.
   "Okay, that's great!" I said a little too brightly, trying to prove that I would honor his choice. The backseat was silent for a moment and then Jack piped up again.
   "What's the religion where they have a bunch of gods?" Jack asked.
   "Hmmm, do you mean like Poseidon and Zeus?"
    "Yeah! I want to be for them!"
    "Okay, so that's Greek and Roman mythology," I said. Jack has read the Percy Jackson series recently.
    "Yeah, I want to study mythology," said Jack. "I think that's what they do in Harry Potter."
   I smiled and shook my head. There's no telling what spiritual practice Jack will land upon in the next five years, but I feel quite certain my dear son will not turn out to be a pagan.
   Last week, Jack accompanied me to Buddhist practice again. He now likes to go because we have dinner at Dairy Queen beforehand. It feels a little like bribery, but I recall being enticed to attend Mass with the promise of donuts, so I suppose it's an age-old tradition. It would be difficult to force Buddhist practice on him anyway. I think he just likes being let into my world. So after he stuffed himself with chicken fingers and fries and a cherry flurry, we went to the Dharma center for service. 
   This time Jack came into the mediation room with me and he built a fort in the leftover pillows in the back of the room. He had his trusty Nintendo DSi turned on mute and was content for the duration.
   The service began with chanting a prayer in Tibetan. Since I can't form these words yet, I close my eyes and listen to the Lama's resonating voice. Many of the members of the Dharma center chant along, and as they prayed I heard Jack's little voice trying to incant the prayers along with them. After the service, we stayed for a while and ate cookies and drank tea—Jack content in his fort. When we got ready to go, Jack asked if I would buy some prayer beads for him and he picked out a little bracelet that was just his size. (Maybe he just loves bling but it was still sweet.)
    Back home, we got ready for bed, and he asked, "Mom, can we meditate after we read?" 
   Now, I know that, in part, this is a stalling tactic. The kid will do just about anything to stay bedtime. But how in the world could I tell him no? 
   I turned out the light. "Do you remember how to meditate?" I asked. 
   Jack's tried to meditate with me before. One night when he couldn't sleep and he came out to the living room and "sat" with me. 
   "Yes," he said, "You just try to clear your mind as thoughts come in." 
   I talked him through a basic method, "Your mind is like the sky and your thoughts are clouds. When a thought comes in, you just blow away as if it were a cloud." And then I explained to him why it's important to learn this practice, how he can use it when he feels anxious or upset. We "sat" quietly in meditation for a few minutes...until I heard him breathing evenly, sound asleep.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Do You Hear Me Now?

My Dad often told—and retold—tales of growing up
during the Great Depression.
My father was a great raconteur. He could spin a tale better than Garrison Keillor. I feel quite certain that he taught me how to be a storyteller, and that's what I am today, although I choose to write my stories down.
   I grew up listening to his stories about how he rode his horse, Joe, to school, how he was so small in first grade that he played Baby Jesus in the Nativity play, and the best way to raise a baby calf when it's momma wouldn't give milk. But his most memorable tales were, of course, about his tour of duty in the Pacific during World War II.
   Over the years, we heard a lot of the same stories told again and again. At times, I admit, I tuned him out, already knowing the punchline of the joke or the resolution of the drama. But often, if I'd really pay attention, the story would take on new meaning. The saga of a near-miss in battle was really a story about trusting one's instincts. The well-worn tale of why Dad remained a Sergeant, was the story of a man accepting his strengths. I wish I'd listened closer now because I'm sure there were a lot of points I missed. Sometimes it just takes a while for the real meaning to sink in.
  I recently attended a Kabbalah class with my friend, David. No, I'm not converting to Judaism, and I know nothing about Kabbalah. (Nor am I jumping in on the next hip spiritual craze just because Madonna thinks it's cool.) But David invited me to attend, and after doing a little research, Kabbalah sounded intriguing and definitely worth learning more about. Before the class, David warned me that the Rabbi tended to repeat himself a lot. "Sometimes it just feels like he says the same things over and over," he explained. (He neglected to explain that it isn't kosher for a woman to shake the Rabbi's hand...oh well.)
   That morning there were about a dozen people attending Kaballah and Coffee in a very informal classroom. The Rabbi produced H&H bagels—a miracle right up there with the Red Sea parting since the class is held in Atlanta and the nearest H&H is at 94th and Columbus in the Upper West Side. I was a little nervous because it was my first time there, but I knew I wouldn't be called upon—and there was no need to know Hebrew. Like my Buddhist group, everyone's there because we want to learn how to be better people.
   We read the text out loud and it was obtuse, but the Rabbi translated it for us into terms we could grasp. The gist of this lesson was that we think the soul as a higher order than the body, but what Kaballah teaches us is that without the body, the soul could not do its work on Earth. Therefore the body is really of a greater, or at least of equal importance to the soul. Just as food is as important as a human being, because without food, we could not live. And the Rabbi made this point several different ways, using various analogies. A wick can't exist without the oil, although the light emanates from the wick, etc. I saw what David meant about the Rabbi's teaching technique, and it reminded me of a sermon I heard recently at a Baptist church in Knoxville.
   It was Pentecost and the preacher explained the meaning of this feast day. (Catholics call it a feast day, I don't think Baptists do.) He said this was the day the Holy Spirit came down among the apostles, who were hiding out after Jesus died on the cross as a criminal. They were scared they'd be next, but the Holy Spirit came down, kicked their buts and said, "Get out there and preach!" And they did. But the problem was these guys could only speak Aramaic or Greek, and a lot of people didn't understand those languages. So the story goes that the Holy Spirit allowed those who heard them to hear the words in their own native tongue. (BTW, this is the origin of "speaking in tongues.")
  I had forgotten that story (sorry, Sister Brenda) and funny that it would take a Baptist minister and a Rabbi to bring the meaning home for me.
   Often we have to hear stories over and over before we grasp their true meaning in our lives. In the same way, we often come up against the same challenge or emotional ruts many times before we discover the most compassionate or appropriate way to respond. But I've realized that, like my Dad, God is a great raconteur. (And yes, I'm invoking the G-man here.)
   When there's an important lesson to be learned, you can bet God will keep feeding it to you in different ways until you're ready to accept it—until finally, you slap your forehead and say "Ohhhh! Now I get it!" He's good like that. And I've only learned this after being met with the same challenge over and over again with romantic relationships. This week, I finally got it. The lesson was finally delivered in Dolby Stereo, loud and clear. It only took me 30 years to get it, but what the hell—I've always been a late bloomer. But the bigger lesson is this: When themes in one's life recur, it's best to give them a closer look because chances are, it's something you need to learn. In Buddhist practice, that's part of karma. Not sure what term the Kabbalah has for this phenomenon, but I bet the Rabbi could explain it to me in words I'd understand.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Good Bones

Right now I'm in love with half-a-dozen men. There's the plumber who painstakingly placed the fixtures in my bathrooms, and two flooring guys who are pounding down about 1000 square feet of beautiful new hardwoods; a funny guy who's happily scraping 100 years of paint from the built-in bookshelves and two college-age dudes upstairs, listening to Salsa music while painting Jack's room the perfect shade of Resolute Blue. I don't know their names, but I love them all because they are working so hard to complete my new-old home. I could have selected the house two-doors down, which didn't need nearly as much work (but surely had many hidden problems.) Instead I went with the total do-over, because it was the perfect house for me.
  The first time I walked into this house, it just felt right. But more than that, I appreciated the fact that the Builder, who bought the place to flip, had stripped it down to the studs in order to update and repair what ailed it. You cannot stand for a century without a major overhaul. (For some of us, 48 years are enough to require extreme scrutiny.) The beauty of buying a home that has been torn down to the studs is that you see clearly where the damage was, and where repairs are necessary. You are—at least— aware of the problems, and by becoming aware of the shortcomings, you can do what you can to amend or forgive the issues.
   Yet, buying this old home as it went through a total rehabilitation came with a major caveat: Dealing with the Builder. He was known to be temperamental and quite particular about how he worked. My realtor warned me that he might not even want to talk to me until the house was finished. "He's very good," she said. "But he doesn't like people telling him what to do." "Let me meet him," I countered, quite certain I could sway even the hardest heart. "I'm sure if he meets me, he'll see I'm reasonable."
A work-in-progress...July 10
   The next week we met. The Builder walked through the house showing me his floor plan, explaining what he would do where there were holes in the walls and gaps in the flooring. Yes, I could pick out paint colors and light fixtures and flooring, but I was told flatly that he would make no changes to his general plan. In short: As long as I stayed out of his way and let him realize his vision for the house, I could make a few cosmetic selections.
  The realtor was right, he was difficult, but I saw a man who took pride in his work. I also saw a man who had been, frankly, screwed over more than a few times in his career. I have friends who are contractors and I've heard the horror stories of homeowners who constantly change their minds, request additional work and in general complain, and then expect to not pay one cent more than the original amount contracted. I sympathized with the Builder. He didn't know me or that I had no intention of being a difficult client. In fact, I decided I would be the model client, no matter how difficult or brusque the he was with me. Buying this house would be good Buddhist practice!
   Now I'm not a total Pollyanna. I've worked with enough contractors over the years to be wary of their ways. I could throw around questions like, "When will the house be dried in?" or "Is that a load-bearing wall?" Yes, I know enough to get me in trouble, but not enough to get me out. In all my previous home-buying excursions, I've had a man to play the heavy, to defer to, or at least, to blame, but this time I was going it on my own. So I had to just trust the Builder. After all what was my option? To feel cheated at every turn? No, better to put my faith in this guy that he would do all he had promised to do. We made an agreement, he and I. He would do what he does best, and I will do what he required of me—and stay out of his way as much as possible. He's the Builder after all and has the blueprints.

  And no, I can't resist the metaphor: I am this house. I realized about a year ago that a roll of duct tape and a coat of paint was not going to repair what was wrong in my life. It is a most difficult undertaking to consciously let go of the old, worn, useless parts of ourselves—indeed, just to admit that they are old, worn and useless is tough—and take up better materials. And it can't be done alone. Perhaps the Buddha, sitting in lotus position under the Bohi tree, accomplished his do-over without the aid of others, but most of us need help. Most of us need a demolition crew with their cruel picks and saws to tear through the facade; and we need those who come in to assess the damage and make their diagnosis; and then, we need a team skilled technicians adept at placing wires and pipes and duct-work, and engineers who know what walls are load-bearing and those that can be torn out so more light can come in. Most of all, we need a Builder in whom we have faith; Someone who has a plan from the beginning and who will see it through to the end, even when we grow scared of the progress. We need Someone in our lives with vision. Someone who can look at our gutted house and say, "You were beautiful once and you'll be beautiful again." 
   There were times when I've felt quite "gutted" by the process, my very underpinnings displaced. My do-over has come a great cost, and yet, it's a bargain to know that what is being dried-in now has integrity. You see, I realize now that I have had a very good Builder all along.