Friday, October 28, 2011

The Scarer

I promised Jack he could have a house-warming party as soon as we settled into my new-old house, and there was no holding back as soon as our belongings had been deposited there. Boys, of course, don't care if there are window treatments up, or that there are still unpacked boxes. Jack had been planning this spent-the-night party for months. His menu: Chick-Fil-A nuggets, Mr. Pibb, Fritos, Crunch bars and Shipley's donuts for breakfast. We blew up balloons and decorated the foyer and stairway.  On Saturday evening three 10-year-old boys descended upon my home for the duration. 
   Jack had some activities planned as well. First, they would play with their respective Nintendo DSi's or other handheld electronics, then hold a few Nerf-gun battles. But once the boys arrived and explored my lovely two-story home, a new game was created: "Scarer." 
   One boy, "The Scarer," went upstairs and selected a hiding spot. After giving him time to conceal himself, the other three boys cautiously climbed the stairs and started poking around the darkened rooms. I'd hear whispering and false starts. "You go in ! No YOU!" And then, screams filled the house as all four boys came flying downstairs. Their shouts and laughter, interchangeable. 
   This ritual went on for about an hour, and then they began to quarrel about who would be The Scarer when the clock stuck midnight. They could not agree and their words became heated, so Mom (that would be me!) stepped in. 
   "I'LL BE THE SCARER!" I said, dramatically. 
   For an instant the boys looked stunned. Then, they cheered, and I threw my head back and effected my most convincing maniacal laugh—the kind the cartoon villain lets loose when he hatches a diabolical plot and thunder booms and lightning flashes in the background. 
   Since they had already discovered every good hiding place in the bedrooms upstairs, I decided to take an obvious position, one they would never expect. Jack's bedroom was dark, so I simply laid down on his bed and covered myself with a sheet. I lay there very still, trying not to laugh. When I could hear all four boys poking about the room, whispering, "She's not in here," I rose from my spot with a ghostly moan. The screams that ensued were classic, and as the boys retreated post-haste from the room, running for the light and safety of the downstairs, I sat on the bed laughing—not a maniacal laugh—a true, deep gratifying laugh of the kind inspired when someone does or says something truly funny. It was an odd juxtaposition of emotions.
   Fear is funny like that. Is there a part of the human condition that wants to be scared? Scientists have shown that thrill-seekers gravitate towards horror movies, haunted houses, riding roller coasters and extreme sports (such as bungee jumping) because of the adrenaline rush caused by fear. Another theory is that the relief felt after being scared "to death" releases a hormone (phenyl enthyl-amine) that causes a sense of euphoria—similar to the feeling of being head of over heels in love.
   In this way, experiencing the sensation of fear in a controlled, safe environment allows us to explore an emotion that can be debilitating in otherwise less-than-safe circumstances. But what is it that most of us fear most? It's not that a crazy chain-saw killer will pop out of the dark. Realistically, how often would that happen? No, the fears central to the human condition are the ones that we fabricate entirely in our minds. Our fears are varied and have a root in some perception or experience. We might be afraid of not having enough money to pay the bills, or fear getting sick, or we might fret that something bad will happen to our children. We fear rejection. We fear death. In essence, like the boys climbing the stairs to look for The Scarer, we fear the unknown. We fear the future. 
   Buddhist practice prescribes staying in the moment as an abatement to fear. Fear is an illusion, so why seek it out? Yes, we can recognize that "bad things" (also our perception) can and do happen everyday. But when we allow our fears of what might be take over our present condition, we are creating our own suffering. 
   Too often our fears separate us from the joys that are present within this moment, this day. We worry and fret over circumstances that are beyond our control. And yet, sitting with our fears can help us gain a better understanding of ourselves and our motivations. If, for example, I'm afraid I won't be able to afford the mortgage on my house, I can objectively look at that fear and source it back to long-held anxieties over financial stuff. But I can also dismiss this fear with the knowledge that, although I'm a freelancer, I've been able to sustain myself for years without missing a payment, let alone being put out on the street. So, I can embrace that fear and compassionately dispel it. Yes, the economy sucks and no there are no guarantees in life or securities in the workplace, but worrying about what might happen serves no useful purpose. Instead, if I feel that fear bubble up, I can spend more time cultivating new business leads, pitching stories, honing my skills, networking, or just enjoying the flexible schedule afforded to me by a freelance schedule.   
   Too often, we sit in the "dark" and conjure ghosts from future, like Ebenezer Scrooge. We fly down the stairs seeking the light. And yet, if we could sit with our fear, we'll discover that the ghost is just an illusion (or Mom under a sheet). If we can allow ourselves to see that our fear itself is what separates us from communion with the present reality, then there is there is really nothing to fear. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Dharma of Sleeping Beauty

I love finding new meaning in things familiar. Many times these revelations are right under our noses.
   When I moved into my new house, I unpacked boxes and boxes of items that I had not seen in a year. The possessions I most missed were my books. One book in particular was a treasure rediscovered: an old Big Golden Book of Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty. It is over-sized and features illustrations from Disney's 1959 animated version of the centuries' old fairy tale.
   The first recorded version of Sleeping Beauty dates back to Charles Perrault's 1697 "Tales of Mother Goose." Of course, Disney made the story G (in the original 1700's version Sleeping Beauty is raped—perhaps the first recorded use of Roofies) and added woodland creatures and co-dependent fairies hovering about. Disney also gave the tale its hallmark and pat "happily ever after" ending since Sleeping and the Prince tied the knot before the finale. But Disney kept in two very important details: the menacing kill-joy/jealous femme fatale and the spell that sent the heroine into a very deep slumber, only to awaken at her "true love's kiss."
   The power of true love and, in particular, true love's kiss are recurring themes in fairytales, especially as retold by Disney & Co. I'll spare you my rant about how Disney single-handledly perpetuated the illusion of romantic love for the Baby Boomer generation. (You can read my previous blog post for more on that.) Yes, I had dismissed the saccharin tale as having no spiritual benefit whatsoever—until recently when I unearthed my faded, well-worn storybook, and it occurred to me that maybe I had gotten it all wrong. Maybe there was something to being awakened by true love? What if Sleeping Beauty was really a Buddha?
   Like Siddhartha Gotama (the man who-would-be Buddha), Sleeping Beauty was of royal descent. In both stories, the royal parents are visited by fortune tellers who predict that their royal offspring will follow a path that is less than ideal in the eyes of their respective parents. Siddhartha's father is told that Sid will either become a great king or a great spiritual leader—and the proud papa doesn't want a guru in the family. Sleeping's parents are warned that she'll prick her finger on a spindle upon her sixteen birthday and perish—clearly not what any parent wishes for their child. So, the good parents shelter their beloved children from the woes and suffering of the outside world, thinking that if they protect them and give them everything their little hearts could desire, Sid and Sleepy will stay content within the castle walls. Of course, we know there is no containing the desire of human longing. Siddhartha eventually walks outside the castle walls to experience life, and Sleepy creeps into the forest to sing and frolic.
  Siddhartha sets off on his vision quest to end suffering and the causes of suffering—ultimately to find happiness. Sleeping Beauty doesn't really have such a lofty motive, she simply wants to be happy.  Despite their parents attempts to change their karma, the prophecies come true for both Sid and Sleepy. Siddhartha becomes a great spiritual leader; while Sleepy manifests herself into a coma-like slumber. This is where the two tales take a departure, and where I believe the Sleeping Beauty tale is more reflective of the contemporary human condition.
   When most of us "come of age"—go away to college, get married, start our careers, have children—we think we are entering the bliss of the "real world," but like Sleepy, we often do not see reality...yet. We fall under enchantments of attainment, achievement and attachment; and we often spiritually check-out. We're alive, but not functioning on a deeper level. The problem is—like someone who is asleep and dreaming—we don't even realize our delusions. We often sleepwalk through life, sometimes perceiving that "something is missing" but not able to pinpoint what that allusive missing item might be. So we pull to us anything that might fill that void, and too often, we push away the one thing that would provide us with a sense of wholeness: our sense of spirituality.
   The tale seems to indicate that Sleeping Beauty is passively waiting for her awakening, but what if she—like Siddhartha—is experiencing her own version of deep meditation. Siddhartha fell into a deep meditative state under which he encountered Mara (or the devil) who tormented him (ala Jesus in the dessert) with all sorts of pleasures, fears and self-doubts. Only when he dispels the demons in his head with clarity and conviction, does he gain enlightenment.
   And so it is for Sleepy. Sure, the Prince comes along at the opportune time, but one might argue that it is her inner-beauty and goodness that draws him to her. Sleepy—like most of us—requires human relationships to test her convictions. By interacting with others we often discover what is missing in our lives. So, contrary to popular belief, Sleeping is not helpless. She effects her own karma and thereby her own redemption. She has made herself lovable, and thereby able to accept the kiss of true love—not romantic love or the fluff of Disney, but unconditional love without expectation or attachment. And the Prince who bestows the kiss of clarity is not a noble hunk, but the inner faith and acceptance that there is a Source of Love and Compassion that connects us all. When she is able to perceive reality, she—like the Buddha—awakens. And yes, then and only then, does Sleeping Beauty indeed live happily ever after. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Three Answers

How do I solve my no-cable dilemma?
That's why God made Apps.
I know it's shocking, but I am not subscribing to cable television in my new house. When I moved into my apartment a year ago, I decided not to get cable because I was afraid I would spend my days (and nights) watching endless episodes of CSI, Iron Chef and House Hunters. Previously, when things weren't going well, I could sit for hours with reruns, but in my Do-Over Life, I made a conscious decision to "do," and watching TV is decidedly passive.
   It was easy for me to give up Everyday Italian with Giada DeLaurentis and Cooking at Home with Ina Garten and even Mad Men (although I did download last fall's finale from iTunes.) But for my nine-year-old son, the absence of the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon and Disney was a little distressing. Last July, while visiting my family in Little Rock, my brother-in-law took Jack to buy fireworks, and checked-in with him about the recent changes in his life. "What's the worst thing about your parents getting divorced?" he asked in his typical cut-to-the-chase manner. Jack thought for a moment and then answered honestly, "My Mom doesn't have cable."
   As the move into my new house grew closer, I gave a lot of thought to whether I should subscribe. I don't think television is evil. I'd just rather live without its constant drone. And let's face it, there is a lot of crap on TV. I think I can happily live for the rest of my life without watching an episode of Hillbilly Handfishin' or Real Housewives of New Jersey. And yes, there's a lot of good stuff on TV, too, but most of it can be selectively downloaded. I don't live in a vacuum. I receive news through daily email delivery of The New York Times and The Washington Post and via radio on NPR—oh yes, and from Facebook. Yet, Jack has different needs and wants.
   I remember tumbling out of bed on Saturday mornings to watch Scooby Do and Josie and the Pussycats. I never missed an episode of The Brady Bunch or The Beverly Hillbillies or Carol Burnett, so I understand how television is central to a kid's culture. The good news is, he has access to all his favorite shows at his Dad's house. It's not as though the child is cut off from civilization and Sponge Bob indefinitely.
   Yet I felt the tug to conform, to provide Jack the one thing he said was missing in his life now that his life had changed, but I felt a harder tug to stick to my convictions. I just don't like mindlessness, and mindlessly watching cable television because it's available, didn't sit right with me. When it came time to order my internet and phone service for the new house, I made the executive decision not to include cable in the bundle. It was very difficult to convince the Brighthouse representative that I absolutely did not want the full cable-phone-internet bundle. He thought I'd lost my mind, but I stuck to my guns no matter how seductive he made the bundle sound. would I break the news to Jack? Then the solution hit me: I would answer Jack's request for cable in the same way God answers our prayers.
   You see, my friend David recently told me something that shifted my perspective in many ways. He said, "God only has three answers to our prayers: 'Yes.' 'Yes, but not now.' or 'Here's something better.'" I know I've heard this before, but I never considered what it meant, which is that God only gives us good things in our lives, even when we might not recognize them as such right away. (Who knew? God's  Buddhist!) And I do think of God as being the best parent ever. Why not borrow some parenting tips from the Expert? How could I say 'yes' to Jack, but still stick to my principles?
   I soon realized my solution. By not subscribing to cable, I'd save $50/month. Why not use some of that money towards a game system that Jack wanted? I could control the content (no violent games!) and the time he spent on it; and a game system, although mesmerizing and somewhat sedentary, at least encouraged mental engagement.
   As my move day approached, I took a deep breath and let Jack in on my decision.
   "I've done a lot of thinking about this, and I'm not getting cable at the new house," I said.
   Jack moaned. "But Mom!" he cried. "I thought—"
   "I've made up my mind," I said. "No cable. But, here's something better..."
   Fast forward to last Tuesday night as a very happy nine-year-old boy named Jack proudly selected his game system: An iPod iTouch. It may sound indulgent at first, but the iTouch cost less than a new TV (which I would have had to purchase so Jack could watch cable or play games on an Xbox)—not to mention what I'd spend each month to subscribe to a bunch of junk I didn't want in my house. Although I don't know how God feels about App games like Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja, I'm pretty sure he'd approve of my application of His parenting strategy.

Friday, October 7, 2011

My Other Mothers

My homecoming. I needed Mom then, and I
still need a Mom—or two—today.
First let me say, that God gave me a wonderful Mom from the start. We had our differences, as all mothers and children do, but I firmly believe—as in all relationships—that we were given to each other because we were uniquely suited to help each other evolve in this life.
   My mom was a wonderful baker of cookies and sewer of prom dresses. She showed her love for my sisters and me in many, many ways. When we lost our mother to dementia, and later to death, a big void opened up in my life. Even though I'm 48 years old, I still need a mother from time to time. In fact, right now, I need a mother's compassion and wisdom more than ever. I might even need TWO mothers, and actually, that's what I've been given: One Jewish Momma, and one Baptist Momma. Between them, they have my sh*t covered.

I've known both of my Other Mothers for almost 20 years, since my days at Turner Broadcasting. Kaye and Jenniffer came into my life when I worked in marketing for TNT. Although very different, they are both wise in their own ways, and for some reason I can't even fathom, they've accepted me as a friend.
   Kaye, my Jewish mother, is a few years younger than I, tall and gorgeous and outrageously funny. At first glance, you wouldn't take her for a maternal type. But she's one of those true-friends who will tell you that you have spinach souffle between your teeth, or toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe. At times this can be annoying because I don't want to know that I am not perfect.
   In 1995, when I left Turner to launch my career as a freelance writer, I planned a three-month road trip to begin my new writer's life. Momma Kaye gave me a thoughtful and practical gift: A year's membership to AAA. She might as well have given me clean underwear. I did appreciate the guarantee of roadside assistance, but it struck me at the time as a less-than romantic send-off. She could have given me a new journal or a sexy beret, but she chose a gift that would save my butt if my 13-year old BMW (with over 200K miles logged on it) broke down on some dark Mississippi backroad. There were times when I begrudged Kaye for her maternal ways—just as I resented my own mother. "I can take care of myself!" I'd say. "Don't worry about me!" But being a good Jewish Momma, Kaye gave me what I needed, not what I wanted.
   More recently, Kaye has become my emotional Triple-A service as I've stalled out on the dark backroads of my Do-Over Life. When we reunited last summer after almost 15 years of radio silence, she never questioned my calls for help, nor did she let me wallow around in self-pity or doubt. Sometimes she would provide advice I did not want to hear, and I would ignore it—just as I ignored the advice my mother gave me as a teenager. For example, when I started dating a guy a few months after my separation, and claimed that I was falling in love, Kaye simply said, "I'm so happy for you. Don't forget to buy condoms." (I'm surprised she didn't send me a gross of Trojans. And BTW I did not ignore this advice!) When that relationship tanked after a few weeks, she was there to listen to my rantings about how incredibly stupid I had been for thinking the guy was so special. She never said, "I knew he was a rebound guy." She didn't have to, because she let me figure that out for myself.
   Jenniffer, my Baptist mother, is about my age as well. She's African American, beautiful, quiet and gentle and never reprimanding. She has a wry sense of humor, and a twinkle in her eyes. In Jenniffer's kind countenance is wisdom that surpasses her years.
   Jenniffer and I were neighbors in Atlanta, as well as colleagues. We bonded over glasses of Merlot and long discussions about our spiritual beliefs. Once we volunteered to cook for a homeless shelter together and decided to make ham because it sounded like an easy entree that could feed a lot of people. We went to the grocery store and picked out what we thought was a large ham. Only upon opening up the package did we realize it was raw pork and in need of many hours of roasting. The scene that ensued as we baked the beast in her small apartment kitchen was something worthy of Lucy and Ethel. (It turned out delicious, by the way.)
  Like my bio-Mom, Jenniffer has great faith in God, which I admire. Over the past year, as I've shared the heartaches and confusion that my Do-Over has wrought, she's been there for me with warmth, compassion and love. And like a good Baptist Momma, she's prayed for me every step of the way. She has been a life-line in my darkest times. Almost every night she sends me a text saying, "Good night friend. I love you."
  Since my own lovely Mother is no longer here to guide me, thankfully my Other Mothers are there to step in to provide me just what I need. Sadly, many people never received what they needed from their biological families. Finding appropriate surrogates, who can offer unconditional love, goes a long way towards healing and forgiveness. Sometimes a friend is just a compadre, but sometimes a friend turns out to be a sister or brother or mother or father or even a child. (Neither Kaye or Jenniffer have children of their own, so perhaps I am that role for them. Goodness knows I often exhibit the emotional range of a toddler.) Yes, only through the miracle of friendships, could a 40-something year-old Black woman have a 48-year old white girl for a daughter.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Somehow it is October. Softly, summer has faded into fall. The humid mornings and tepid nights have melted into a crisp, coolness that will soon bring leaves cascading from the oaks and maples. Everything changes. There is comfort in the seasons because they bring with them the familiarity of a rhythm that is inherent in all of nature. The seasons remind us that time does pass, no matter how difficult or joyful the occurrence. We need not look beyond our own yards to see the impermanence of all of life.

   Last night before bedtime, Jack took a bath in my new garden tub. "Look, Mom!" he shouted. "I can practically swim in this thing!"
   He dunked his head underwater and held his breath. Then he splashed for a while and chattered about swimming. But when it was time to get out of the tub, he grew sullen.
   "I wish I'd spent more time at the pool with Dad this year," he said.
   His wistful statement surprised me. This summer, Jack repeatedly declined his father's standing offer to take him to the pool after summer camp. There were varying reasons for his disinterest in the beloved community pool: he had boo-boo he didn't want to get wet, he wanted to play with his friends at home, he just didn't feel like going. But the pool has been closed for almost a month. Somehow splashing in a foot of tub water triggered this sense of strong regret.
When you're nine, summer seems
endless..until it's over.
  At first I played it off light heartedly. "Well, there's always next year," I said. And Jack took that advice and dried off without complaint. But ten minutes later, as we sat on the sofa preparing for bedtime, he began to sob full-force.
  "What's the matter?" I asked.
   "I don't want to say," he moaned. "You won't understand. It's nothing."
   "Jack, if there's something the matter, you can tell me. Perhaps I can help." I figured he just now remembered a homework assignment that was due tomorrow, or he'd forgotten to save his latest win on his DSi.
   "There's nothing you can do!" he wailed. New tears formed in his reddened eyes. He choked back a sob.
   I thought for a moment. Sometimes when your child is inconsolable, it is best to not indulge the mood. Jack can usually be distracted from a funk, but this seemed more serious.
   "Please tell me," I said, gently. "When I'm sad, it usually helps if I just talk about it, even if there's nothing that can be done."
   "No!" Jack countered. "I don't want to talk about it."
    Jack burrowed a nest in the sofa cushions, heaving sobs as he sunk deeper into the pillows and his funk. Whatever was bothering him, he obviously wasn't ready turn it loose. Why is it that we cling to our sorrow as if it were some treasured prize? There is a strange comfort in discomfort. To let go of the hurt means giving up the ideal or allusion of whatever it is we lost. Then it hit me: This was a job for Buddhist Mom!
   I'd just returned from a four-day retreat at Magnolia Village in Batesville, Mississippi where Thich Nhat Hanh imparted his wisdom to about 800 southern Buddhists. Hanh spoke of how emotions—adverse and positive—are like seeds that we water with our thoughts, words and deeds. If we take the time to observe the emotion when it arises, we can choose to allow it to grow and manifest—or not. I decided to put Master Hahn's lessons into practice and help Jack keep this seed from growing.
   "Okay, sweetheart," I said. "It's fine to just sit with your sadness. Feeling sad or mad or scared tells you things you about yourself that are important. But you can't stay in that sad place. Can't you just tell me what's making you sad? I promise I'll understand no matter what it is."
   Jack raised his head out of the pillows. It was edging past his bedtime, but I didn't want to send him to off to sleep in this state of mind.
   "Do you promise you won't say it's silly?" he asked.
   "Yes, absolutely."
    "Well, I feel bad that I didn't go to the pool with Dad more this summer. I played with my friends instead. Now the summer's over and we can't go again for a long, long time!"
    Fresh tears followed his dramatic conclusion. I smiled and took a deep breath. How many times had I mourned the loss of an opportunity, regretted what I had not done? It is a bitter sense of disappointment in oneself that can eat away at all happiness. Yes, I knew this feeling well. And that first nip of fall air can inspire nostalgia in the most stalwart soul. Here's my sensitive child, crying over a precious summer wasted. For a moment, I wanted to cry myself, but I knew a better answer.
   "Jack, we can't undo the past, right? It's gone. But we can make the most of what we have right now. What can we do right now to make you feel better?"
   "Nothing!" he sobbed.
   "I know, why don't you talk to your Dad about it. Would you like to call your Dad right now and talk to him? We could do that."
   Jack peered out of the pillows and shook his head no.
   "Okay, then, well, it's late and you should head up to bed. You're tired and you'll feel better tomorrow."
   The threat of bedtime worked it's magic. Jack wiped his eyes.
   "I want to call Dad," he said.
   I dialed the number and handed him my phone.  I heard Jack say, "Hey Dad, I'm sorry we didn't go to the pool more together this summer..." and then I walked from the room discretely wiping my eyes.
   Ten minutes later, Jack was back to his old, cheery self. He and his Dad made a plan to watch a movie together the following night. There was no more talk of the pool. After all, summer was over.