Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Gratitude Day

Jack's Gratitude List
I have so much to be grateful for this year! A wonderful son, three awesome sisters, a terrific family, a great boyfriend, a kind ex-husband, an abundance of amazing, loving friends, good neighbors, fulfilling work, good health and a strong spiritual practice. Of course, I've always had a lot for which to be grateful, but today I'm aware of all the good in my life. 
   Sometimes it's not always easy to find the good. But I firmly believe (call it Faith) that I am given what I need when I need it, if only I will be willing ask for help and then (very important) to accept that help as it is given by God. Yes, I'm a Buddhist who sees the workings of a compassionate and loving Presence (call it God) in the world. 
   Last week a wise friend shared the following story, and it expresses perfectly this sense of willingness to accept, to be open, to be aware and non-judgmental. With this in mind, I can also be grateful for the difficulties I've faced, for the losses I've suffered, for the plans (my plans!) that didn't pan out the way I wanted them to. Without these seeming problems, opportunities for learning and growth would not have occurred. Turns out my adversities are gifts as well—I just have to shift my perspective...and be grateful for all the storms and all the helicopters I am given.

A terrible storm came into a town and local officials sent out an emergency warning that the riverbanks would soon overflow and flood the nearby homes. They ordered everyone in the town to evacuate immediately.
   A faithful Christian man heard the warning and decided to stay, saying to himself, “I will trust God and if I am in danger, then God will send a divine miracle to save me.”
   The neighbors came by his house and said to him, “We’re leaving and there is room for you in our car, please come with us!” But the man declined. “I have faith that God will save me.”
   As the man stood on his porch watching the water rise up the steps, a man in a canoe paddled by and called to him, “Hurry and come into my canoe, the waters are rising quickly!” But the man again said, “No thanks, God will save me.”
   The floodwaters rose higher pouring water into his living room and the man had to retreat to the second floor. A police motorboat came by and saw him at the window. “We will come up and rescue you!” they shouted. But the man refused, waving them off saying, “Use your time to save someone else! I have faith that God will save me!”
   The flood waters rose higher and higher and the man had to climb up to his rooftop.
   A helicopter spotted him and dropped a rope ladder. A rescue officer came down the ladder and pleaded with the man, "Grab my hand and I will pull you up!" But the man STILL refused, folding his arms tightly to his body. “No thank you! God will save me!”
   Shortly after, the house broke up and the floodwaters swept the man away and he drowned.
   When in Heaven, the man stood before God and asked, “I put all of my faith in You. Why didn’t You come and save me?”
   And God said, “Son, I sent you a warning. I sent you a car. I sent you a canoe. I sent you a motorboat. I sent you a helicopter. What more were you looking for?”

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lesson from the Farm: Hot Wire

My Dad and me (age 3) on the farm. At a young age, my
sisters and I learned to respect the "hot wire."
Growing up on a small, family farm had its perks. For one, we had our own pony named Butterball. In the summer, there were always fresh tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, okra and blackberries to pick. We had a creek running through the property, which—aside from the occasional Water Moccasin—was a great source of fun. And we got to ride in the back of our Dad's pick-up truck through the cattle pasture. (Ah, the good ol' days before seatbelt laws were enforced!)
   On the downside, the spindly rabbit-ears atop our black-and-white TV set picked up only two stations, NBC and CBS. There were no fast food joints within 10 miles. And, since we had cows on the farm, when you walked through the pasture, you had to be careful where you stepped.. In that way, farm life also afforded many lessons not found in the city. One very important lesson we farm kids learned that our citified counterparts did not was this: Do not grab onto an electric fence wire unless you know (ie: have seen for yourself) that it's turned off.

   Dad contained his small herd of cattle by means of this highly portable, inexpensive and almost invisible fence. When the cows ate down the grass in one part of the pasture, he'd string electric fence around another portion of land and move the cows to a fresh arena. Because we could never be sure where Dad had live-wire strung, we learned to look for the fence, squinting to discern a piece of bright green rubber garden hose strung through the wire as a handle, or by finding the slim metal rebar poles that tethered the fence to the ground.
   Of course, every now and then, I'd forget the pasture change and run smack-dab into the wire and its current. Although not lethal, it was a shock, to say the least.
   The electric wire released a zolt that would deter any critter from rubbing up next to it more than once. But if you happened to be a human critter with hands instead of hooves or paws, and you grabbed the wire full-on, you could not let go of the wire until the circuit was broken. Thankfully, the current wasn't steady. The charge burst on and off so as to limit electrocution. And yes, more than once I grabbed the hot hire thinking it was turned off and met with a jolt of electricity that sent an unpleasant shock up my arm and throughout my body. The voltage wasn't strong enough to cause damage to a kid, but the hurt was sufficient to produce gushes of tears. And for that split second, although I knew the current would break, I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to let go and I'd be trapped there unable to loosen my grip, the electrical current flowing through my body, exposing my very skeleton like a cartoon character with its finger in a socket. Of course, the current did break and I was released. Lesson learned. Or so I thought.
  There are times today when I still feel like that child grabbing onto the hot wire. But now it's an emotional current that I clutch tightly before I realize it's charged. Aversive emotions—fear, anger, loathing, resentment, etc—create an emotional electric fence that, once grasped, can be very hard to let go. When I'm pissed off, it's quite difficult to loosen my grasp. I want to be right. I want to be acknowledged. I want people to do what I want them to do. And I want them to do it RIGHT NOW!
   Only self-awareness and compassion can break the circuit. Self-awareness is the "safety," the circuit breaker, for anger and frustration. When I can allow myself to stop and sit for a moment with my aggression, I can defuse it. But I must be willing to let it go when that moment of neutrality comes along. Because if I don't loosen my grasp, the next jolt of anger-infused electricity will grab hold of me again, just like the electric fence on my Dad's farm.
   It's unpleasant to hold onto the hot wire of anger but sometimes we just can't get free of it. It keeps us transfixed and stuck. We can even grow so accustomed to feeling uncomfortable that the feeling becomes the norm. In other words, sometimes it's hard to know that I'm stuck because being stuck is all (I think) I know.
  But when accomplished, the relief that comes from letting go of anger is as tangible as the relief of letting go of the electric fence. There might be fall-out of tears or upset because I—once again, stupidly—walked right up to the wire and grabbed hold, but the more I learn to be aware of my emotions and the reasons for their existence, the more I see that I do not have to be ruled by these temporary storms of the mind. Awareness is the break I need to get away from that which would destroy me.
   And what is this "awareness"? To me, awareness is the realization that whatever it was that I thought was against me, or holding me back, messing me up, dissing me, keeping me down, may actually be something set out there to protect me—or like my Dad's fence, to keep something else in—rather than to keep me out.
   Awareness is the realization that everything that happens is not "all about me." Awareness is the ability to not take things personally. Awareness is realizing that the offending person (my friend or family member or a total stranger) is completely clueless to what's happening in my head and most-likely didn't intentionally aim to offend me. Awareness is realizing that even if he or she DID intentionally aim to offend me, their action or words are most likely due to factors in his or her life that have nothing to do with me. (This is where compassion comes in.)

The next time you're pissed off or feel that electric jolt begin to flow through you, the next time you feel (in the words of Pema Chodron) that "you're hooked" by anger or resentment or envy. Try to stop the flow of the current by letting go of the thoughts that fuel your crappy mood. Let go of the live wire. Take a breath. Catch yourself. Focus only on the present. Try to see what is happening right now. Become aware. I swear this works.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Grass is Always Greener (when it's properly mowed by someone other than me)

If there's one chore I dislike more than dusting, it's yard work. Actually, I'm okay with weeding, but I don't enjoy mowing the lawn. There, I said it. I've never enjoyed lawn mowing and I'm not sure why. Maybe because it's loud and just a little bit scary. I have a girlfriend who loves mowing. She finds it therapeutic and downright meditative to get out there and push her mower around the yard, snipping her Bermuda to a neat, uniform length. That's just not me. For a long time, I've wanted to enjoy mowing and other yard work, but I think I'm finally ready to accept the fact that it's just not my cup of tea.
  One of the reasons I like my house is because of its diminutive yard. Back and front, it should take about thirty minutes to mow, trim and weed—tops. And even better, I haven't had to mow it once in the past 10 months since I took possession of the home! In fact, I don't own a lawn mower. And yes, I have real grass. And no, I did not hire a lawn service.
   You see I live on a street where the houses all have very small front yards that adjoin each other. My neighbors all enjoy the same lawn deficit and therefore, if one of the owners of the three houses adjacent to mine is out mowing his or her lawn, he or she tends to just run the mower over all of them for good measure. I don't own a lawn mower, so it's rather convenient that other people freely elect to mow my yard for me. I've never even had to ask! I would simply come out into my front yard while this one or that one was mowing and before I'd know it, yard karma would take over and the Mower would ask me if I wanted him/her to cut my grass while he/she was at it.  Once—and only once—my boyfriend mowed my lawn, borrowing a neighbor's mower after offering to cut her lawn as well.
  But recently, in a true testament to impermanence, my lawn karma changed. On Saturday morning, one by one, my neighbors revved up their mowers and cut their lawns. By nightfall, my yard alone was unkempt. The site of the tidy lawns up and down my block made me feel guilty. The gig was up. It was time I take on the task myself. I still had to borrow a mower, but I determined to cut my grass sans help. My boyfriend, Jason, offered to do the job, but I waved him off. "I can do it myself!" I said with that Helen Redding I am woman hear me roar tone in my voice. How much time and effort could it take to cut such a small patch of green? I'm rather new (again) to this relationship business and I felt myself becoming defiant about mowing the lawn. For all these months, I'd let other people do this chore and now, for some strange reason, suddenly I felt I must prove my mowing prowess.
   On Sunday, I approached my friend and neighbor Emily and her husband Michael as they worked in their own (lovely and large) yard. They agreed to let me borrow their mower to complete my task. Michael even primed the engine for me a few times to make it easier to start, before I pushed the mower down the alley to my front yard. (Let me state right now that I have mowed yards before. Big yards, too. It is not as though I am a yard-work-a-phobe or a lawna-prima-donna.) 
   Standing on my front walk, I held the handle bar down and yanked the starter cord. The mower roared to life and I pushed it from the walk up a (very) slight incline to the my urban jungle. The mower spit out a mouth-full of grass...and then...choked.
It doesn't look like much, but when behind the
mower, my lawn turns into the Grand Canyon.
(Note: The line of demarkation between my lawn and
my neighbor's lawn is roughly parallel to the
 largish brown spot, upper left.)
   For the record, my lawn only appears to be perfectly flat. It is actually as curvaceous as Dolly Parton. Seriously. There are peaks and valleys in my postage stamp of a yard. And I realized that the grass (Bermuda? Zoysia? Don't ask me what kind!) had grown so thick and tall it overwhelmed the mower's blades. I tried to adjust the wheel-height, but the wheel-adjustment-thingy was stuck in place.
   I started the mower again. This time, I lifted up the back end of the mower ever so slightly so that only the front wheels were rolling through the thick grass. My technique worked but my arms and shoulders soon began to ache. I pushed the mower for a while and then, it chugged, became overcome by the abundance of green stuff and stalled out again. I pulled the mower back to the pavers to restart it, but the beast wouldn't budge. The blades were stuck in the newly cut grass clippings. I tilted the mower onto its side to clear the blades and then righted it again. Handle bar down, I yanked the starter cord and voila! the mower started. This time I pulled the mower onto the lawn and made a small path before the blades clogged again. And so, the slow, grueling process continued.
   By this time, it was 11 a.m. and the cool morning air had turned sticky and hot. I was sweaty and thirsty and miserable. My lawn looked like the head of a child who had cut his own hair with a blunt, safety scissors. And then, there were bald-spots where I felt certain grass would never grow again.
   I gave one final attempt to push the errant mower across the overgrown yard. Only when the damn thing sputtered to a stop (again) did I realize that I had worn a blister on the inner side of my thumb and it had burst. It was all I could do to not plop down right there in the middle of the crazy hair-cut yard and cry. Instead, I did what any sane woman would do when faced with a surmountable task that had become insurmountable: I gave up. 
   With only words of thanks, I returned the mower to Michael. Then I went into my house, ran a cool shower and stood under the flow of water until my face returned to its proper color. After I cleaned up and dressed, I came back downstairs. I glanced out the window at my front yard, hoping it wouldn't look as bad as I thought it did. Nope! It looked worse.
  That evening Jason came over. I'd already warned him about the yard. By then I was laughing at myself and my crazy determination. He shook his head and (wisely) kept his mouth shut, except to assure me that my lawn was very overgrown and it wasn't as easy as it looked to mow, even for him. Then he offered to finish cutting it for me and, this time, I gladly took him up on the offer.
  One of the nice things about getting older is realizing one's limitations—and preferences—and not feeling vulnerable because of them. Sometimes simple tasks are not simple at all. And if you have a nice man who wants to do your lawn work, why not let him?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dust Collectors

  Last week, I invited my book club friends over for dinner. (We loosely call ourselves a 'book club," but reading a book is just an excuse to get together and compare notes on life. ) Not having had the chance to entertain much lately, I was excited about hosting a dinner-party in my new house and I set aside the better part of the day to prepare. I love to grocery shop and to cook, so that aspect of having friends over is always appealing. But in readying my house for guests, I found myself facing the one household chore I like least in this world: dusting.
   What is it about taking a clean cloth and wiping it over what appears to be a clean surface only to discover that it's filthy? The process is at once fascinating and disgusting. Fascinating in that dust is a total mystery to me, a world unto itself. (Think "Horton Hears a Who.") I can easily imagine an alternate universe living on my sideboard. And then again, the thought  that my sideboard—and every semi-flat surface of my house—is slowly accumulating an ever-thickening layer of detritus that might contain the particles of God only knows what—Skin flakes? Dirt? Bug shit?—is more than a bit disconcerting. Honestly, I don't want to know the true composition of dust. The fact that it appears unbidden is disturbing enough. Many a mess I conjure and bring upon myself, but dust just exists with the insistence of the tide. I know as soon as I wipe a surface "clean," the specks are reconnoitering. There is no reprieve.
   One way of staying the war on dust is simply to possess less stuff upon which it can settle. Downsizing my collectable collections upon moving into my new house helped. When I separated from my husband, I only took the things that I felt had use or meaning. I did not want a lot of unnecessary clutter in my new life. But I did take care to retrieve my books; and books, of course, require bookshelves—which, of course, require dusting.
   To dust bookshelves properly, one must remove their contents to get down to the bare, dusty surfaces. Plus each item must be dusted as well. It is a time-consuming task. As time ticked down until my guests' arrival, I wondered if I could avoid the chore altogether. With the lights turned low and enough delicious food on the table, perhaps my friends could be distracted from the dust-covered copy of The Riverside Shakespeare and my dust-glazed framed photo of Baby Jack on a (faux) bearskin rug. Maybe they wouldn't look too closely at my collection of manuel typewriters or the vintage Barbie (the model that required wigs.) Dust isn't so discernible as long as the layer of detritus is evenly frosting the surfaces. But a casual finger-swipe reveals the truth. Whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not, a fine layer of dust existed.  I had to clean my bookshelves!
   I donned my trusty dust mitt and got down to work. At first I moved quickly from shelf to shelf, removing photos and brick-a-brac to one side while I dusted the surfaces beneath. I'd wipe each object clean, then replace it and dust the other side of the shelf. My instinct was to work quickly. Get it over! But when I came to the shelf that held the collection of tiny, white porcelain cats that once belonged to my mother, I slowed down and gave the task my full attention.
   These cats have been in my life for as long as I have memory.
   There are six of them, each wearing a bright orange jacket and little black slippers. (Apparently, musical cats are not required to wear pants.)
    Together they create an orchestra with a bass drum, banjo, cello and French horn and saxophone.
   There's even a conductor leading the band, but some time long ago, he took a spill and lost an arm. (I don't recall how it happened, but there's a good chance that I—at a young age—was responsible for his amputation.) When friends questioned his appearance, I tell them he was a war veteran. His remaining hand  stretches up high and there's a hole in the center of his fist where a baton should be. 
   The baton had long-ago been lost and from time to time my sisters and I fashioned a toothpick into his hand, but it never stayed and made him top-heavy, so he ran the risk of falling (again). At some point I gave up trying to find a baton to his scale and just let him lead the band without it. His players don't seem to mind. 
   Suffice to say, the cats were very old and precious to me. I was always a cat-lover. My Mom had given them to me long before she became so ill with dementia.
   With exquisite care, I gingerly held each cat and wiped it clean of dust, noting the details of the shiny gold accents and the subtle expression on each cat's minuscule face. This little band had played together for decades now without missing a gig. Their beady-black eyes steady on their leader, waiting for his emphatic gesture to strike up a new tune. The drummer bore a stamp on the bottom of his drum, "Made in Japan."
   As I examine the cats, I wandered whose hands painted these little cats so long ago. The precise placement of pigment of little pink noses and shading in the ears shows a careful, loving hand. I imagined a young woman, who worked in the china factory creating these little pets, dreaming of becoming a great artist someday. I wondered where she is now? Did she use her talent? Did she follow her bliss? Is she still alive today? I will never know.
These shelves hold a lot of memories.
The sign on top of the shelves was painted by
my Mom for the produce stand she and
my Dad had decades ago.
   I moved the band to one side of the shelf and wiped, clearing the dust patterns left around their little feet. Then I spent not a little time placing them back together as an orchestra. Should the horn section be positioned on the left or the right of the drummer? The banjo-player was always a little off balance due to some error in the factor long ago. He teetered and fell, but fortunately was not injured. I position him so that he could lean against the side of the shelf. After all, he's more than 60 years old and deserves to take it easy.
   As I shifted my focus to clean the next shelf, I was no longer hurrying through the task. I was actually relishing the process and the proximity in which is placed me with things I cherish: the old family photos, the handmade Mother's Day gift from Jack, the wooden animals my Uncle John made for me, and, of course, my books. On the shelves were my worn editions of The Norton Anthology (from Freshman year in college); collections of poetry and essays by Naomi Nye, a wonderful writer whose house I "sat" the summer after I graduated from college; and Tom Wolfe's seminal 1980s work, Bonfire of the Vanities, signed by the Man himself at a luncheon I attended on one of my first forays to New York while working in my first publishing role. There's an entire shelf devoted southern fiction, and another loaded with self-help and spirituality, including works by Thomas Moore,  Joseph Campbell and M. Scott Peck, most of which I amassed after my first divorce. And there are two shelves packed with cookbooks of all shapes and sizes, many given to me as gifts, some spattered and worn with use.
   As I dusted, I recalled Nye's essay entitled Maintenance, which is about housework and I thought,  "I need to read that essay again, maybe I'll even share it with my not-a-book-club-book-club friends." Naomi knew a lot of things then that I am only learning now.*
   I cannot say I will look forward to dusting now that I know how to turn a chore into a meditation. But I do appreciate that "things" can have a spiritual meaning, and that my bookshelves aren't just dust-collectors but rather a time-capsule of my life.

* "I'd like to say a word, just a short one, for the background hum of lesser, unexpected maintenances that can devour a day or days—or a life, if one is not careful. The scrubbing of the little ledge above the doorway belongs in this category, along with the thin lines of dust that quietly gather on bookshelves in front of the books...I am reminded of Buddhism whenever I undertake one of these invisible tasks: one acts without any thought of reward or foolish notion of glory." 
From the essay "Maintenance" in the collection Never in a Hurry by Naomi Shihab Nye (University of South Carolina Press, 1996)

Friday, August 17, 2012


As far as I know the esteemed Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn has not written about the meaning of driving one's Honda Civic smack into a ditch. Perhaps he has, and I just have not gotten around to reading it. 
Walking meditation is a daily practice at
Magnolia Village.

I wasn't sure about taking a 10-year old boy who values Minecraft and Left Four Dead and all things zombie to a Buddhist monastery in remotest Mississippi in the middle of the hottest summer on record, but it was (sort of) on our way to a Fourth of July family reunion in Little Rock. At the end of the retreat there was the promise of swimming pools and fireworks and fishing awaiting us in Little Rock. Honestly, I just hoped to stay at least one night at Magnolia Grove. But now it was Day Three and we were leaving on schedule without so much as a eye-roll of complaint from Jack. Remarkable.
   Thich Nhat Hahn's monastery in Mississippi is a remarkable place. Thirty Vietnamese monks and nuns welcome visitors throughout the year. The 120 acres of rolling forest and farmland are the perfect setting for a simple kitchen/meditation hall, dormitories and a few small, private huts. (Camping is also an option.) Retreats are open to all ages, and I was so impressed by the presence of children during my previous visits to Magnolia Grove that I determined to bring Jack with me. What I had not foreseen was the excruciating heat of one of the most interminable summers in recent history, which turned even the slightest effort into perspiration.
   So by the time I loaded the car with our clothes and snacks and Jack's menagerie of stuffed animals— including a very large Panda—my face was flushed and my sundress, damp. Unseen cicadas droned their endless lament from deep within the nearby oak glen. Once the car was packed, I collected Jack from the shaded playground and he wedged himself beside the large Panda in the backseat and buckled his seatbelt.
   "Next stop Wendy's!" he cried.
   I admit it seemed odd going so abruptly from dharma to deep fried. Magnolia Grove serves some of the most wonderful, fresh, healthy food in the world—but it's strictly vegan and my son is strictly a chicken-nugget-avore. For three days, he managed to survive on fruit, rice and fresh baguettes baked by the monks and nuns, along with peanut butter crackers and Chips Ahoys and granola bars that I smuggled in to supplement the monastery menu. Wendy's was to be our first stop upon reentering the Western world.
    I slowly edged out of the gravel driveway and turned my wheel to enter the country lane that runs in front of the monastery. But instead of easing onto the pavement, my car lunged downward. Too late, I realized my mistake: I had not cleared a four-foot-deep ditch adjacent to the drive. We stopped with an abrupt jolt. The nose of my bright blue car planted its front fender's "Loving Kindness is My Religion" sticker in terra firma. The rear spoiler tilted up to the heavens. I heard the sickening crunch of fiberglass. There was no going forward. There was no backing out. I was stuck.
   But you'll be happy to know I reacted in the manner one might expect of a good, Buddhist practicer.
   "Oh shit!" I muttered.  (To my credit, normally, I would have said something much, much worse.)
   "You owe me a quarter, Mom!" Jack said from the backseat.
   "Are you okay?" I asked.
   "Yes," Jack said. "But holy crap, Mom, you wrecked the car!"
    The car was wedged at an awkward angle, making the passenger door impossible to open.
  "C'mon, get out on this side," I said, adding "Be careful" when I realized that we were in a rather precarious position and I wasn't sure the car was stable.
   I leaned my weight against my door. It took more effort than I expected to get myself out of the tilted vehicle. Jack scrambled over the console and out to safety. I shut the car door. We stared at the car for a moment in quiet disbelief.
  "Wow, Mom," he said, "You really wrecked the car!"
   "I didn't wreck it..." I said slowly. "The car just...went...into the ditch."
   I crouched down to examine the nose of the car. The driver's side looked hideously crunched. The sound of cartoon cash register bells sounded off in my head. Cha-ching! And for a moment, the familiar feeling of wanting to blame this mishap on something or somebody—even myself or Jack—welled up inside of me, but only for a moment. After three days of rising at 6 AM to chant and prayer, eating in noble silence, walking in contemplative meditation, listening intently to Dharma talks and experiencing the sublimeness of "Total Body Relaxation" sessions, I couldn't muster my usual, "If only I had..." regrets or frustrations. I had not been distracted by worrisome thoughts or the desire hurry to our next destination. One minute Jack and I were turning out of the driveway, the next, we were stuck. I had miscalculated the turn. It was an accident. And certainly it was karma—but not necessarily "bad" karma or even karma in the sense of destiny.
   At other times in my life, I would have followed that karma down the proverbial rabbit hole trying to wring out meaning. (ie: "We weren't meant to leave at this time. I still have something to learn.") But today, driving my car into a ditch was simply driving my car into a ditch. It was life. It happened. I made a conscious decision to set aside the "why's?" and focus on the "what now?"
   Then a happy thought crossed my mind: I had road side assistance through my AT&T service! This realization cheered me until I recalled that, out here in the middle of nowhere Mississippi, AT&T didn't have reliable service. I walked around the grounds of Magnolia Grove holding my iPhone up in the air as if it might attract more more satellite waves from the heavens. Finally, I found a spot that could manifest enough bars to complete a call, but although I could hear the customer service representative, he could not hear me. This would have been completely frustrating had I been anywhere else, but screaming into my iPhone at a person who was in no way at fault for my dilemma, while standing by the lotus pond that surrounds the large marble statue of Shakymuni Buddha hardly seemed appropriate. The truth is: I didn't have the urge to get upset. My car was stuck. I was not.
    Without my car, I would have to ask someone to drive me to a hotspot—and every someone who had a car at this retreat was still seated in the large meditation hall listening to the conclusion of the dharma talk entitled, "Beginning Anew." We would have to wait until the talk was over to ask someone to help us. I explained the situation to Jack.
  "But Mom," he said. "What if we're stuck here FOREVER!"
   I could think of much worse fates that being stuck at Magnolia Grove forever. In fact, the tranquility and simplicity of this remote haven held hypnotic appeal. I understand why young nuns and monks are drawn to a lifestyle where happiness is the chief objective.
   The monastics of Magnolia Grove beautifully demonstrated the practice of mindfulness in everyday life. Visiting here was like touring a working farm, except instead of seeing how a person might, say, milk a cow by hand, the monastics give example of how to apply the practice of mindfulness to all actions of life. Washing dishes becomes a meditation. Walking becomes a prayer. Talking with friends becomes spiritual communion. To live each day with this sense of heightened awareness is, indeed, joyful. There's no conflict. No anxiety. It's strawberry fields forever. But let's face it, how difficult can it be to maintain inner peace when you're living a simple life that does not involve deadlines, mobile phones, e-mail, mortgage payments, entangling romances, or children who don't comply with your no-dirty-clothes-on-the-floor requests? Yes, in many ways, leading the life of a monastic seems easy compared to applying the Buddhist principles outside the grounds of Magnolia Grove. Now that's a trick. And as it happened, I was given a "wonderful" opportunity to "practice" even before I left the grounds!
   "We won't be stuck here forever," I said, smiling. "I promise we'll be on our way as soon as possible. Why don't you go play while I wait."
The damage was remarkably minor.
   Without further complaint, Jack ambled over to the playground and contented himself to sift through the cool, smooth stones that covered the ground beneath the swing set. The retreat had a calming effect on him as well. I knew he was hungry. Now fast food had to wait for the dharma talk's conclusion. It would be at least another hour before we could call a tow truck. And there was no telling how long it would take a wrecker to get here so we could be on our way. Of course, that was assuming Honda would be drivable once it was dislodged from the ditch. An un-drivable car meant a day's excursion in the nearby town dealing with wrecker services, repair men and rental cars. Our next destination was my sister's house in Little Rock—four hours away. And although we didn't have to be there at any exact moment in time, our hope had been to arrive in time to get in a swim and relax a bit before dinner. Now my hope is that we could get there. Period.
   The dharma talk concluded. Helpful retreat-goers offered their cell phones (with equally bad access), and the use of the monastery's tractor (a good idea unless the tractor lunged and yanked the bumper clean off my car.) One of the elder nuns looked at my car nose-down in the ditch and—after being assured no one was hurt—smiled in a knowing way that said, "There's another good reason to NOT own a car." Then, she insisted I join them at the picnic tables for lunch beneath the oak trees.
   After the bell rang concluding the noon meal's noble silence, Pete, a Magnolia Grove regular,  offered to drive me to a hot-spot. About that time, Jack came running up from the playground.
   "Mom! I found an arrowhead!" he shouted.
    He held out a flat, triangular stone that appeared to be honed to a point. It did indeed look like an authentic Native American weapon. I marveled at the find. Had we zipped away as planned, Jack would not have turned archeologist. You never know what treasures are to be discovered in mishaps.
   We hopped into Pete's car and drove toward civilization until I had four bars and my 611 call could be completed. (I'll spare the details of how I then discovered that AT&T roadside assistance did not cover the tow-truck charge..) The truck was summoned. For $125 the tow service would remove the Honda from the ditch. I was told it would take at least thirty minutes for my rescuer to arrive.
You've gotta look closely to see the dent.
   Waiting at the monastery in the mid-day heat, I still didn't know if I could drive the car once it was righted. And yet, there was no use jumping to conclusions or getting upset. The tow truck would arrive and pull the car from the ditch. We would either drive away in the car or we'd climb into the truck cab with the car carried on its winch and make our way into town to continue our misadventure. Either way, getting upset would not change the circumstances or outcome, nor would it get us anywhere any sooner.
  As I thanked Pete for driving us to the hot-spot, we heard the sound of a diesel engine changing gears. A truck was just down the road, but heaving closer to us. Was it possible? Yes. In Thich Nhat Hahn's world, Hal, the friendly tow truck driver, lives just down the road from Magnolia Grove. And he just "happened" to be sitting in his kitchen finishing his ham sandwich when he received the dispatcher's call.
   Thanks to Hal's expertise, my blue Honda was unstuck in record time and was remarkably unscathed mechanically, and just slightly bruised cosmetically. (The little dent adds character, don't you think?) In no time, Jack was happily eating chicken nuggets and french fries and sipping a large Dr. Pepper—very, very mindfully.

   Later that day as Jack nodded off in the back seat, clutching his prized arrowhead, his head resting on the giant stuffed Panda, a feeling of wonder settled over me. Something remarkable had occurred. I was grateful for my dented car, and for a story that I would share with Jack for the rest of our lives. Had we departed Magnolia Grove as planned, I might not have realized just how much we learned there.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

When Gummy Bears Go Bad and Other Nightmares

Long ago I accepted I would never be the perfect Soccer Mom or Carpool Mom or PTA Mom, but I thought Quirky-Fun Mom was a title within reach. I could be known as the Mom who keeps bags of Gummy Bears in the car. And not those cheap, knock-off, malformed Dollar Tree Gummies. No! I would proffer premium, Black Forest Gummy Bears forged deep in the lush jungles of Germany from whence all finely-crafted fruit-flavored gelatinous chewables hail. In our increasingly complex world kids should know the pure joy of simple pleasures.

  "Who wants to stop for an Icee?" I ask.
   It's a foolish question posed to the three, hot, tired ten-year-old boys who are sitting in the backseat of my car. For a good three minutes, I bask in the gleeful shouts of appreciation. For less than four bucks I am transformed into Super Mom—at least until the last draughts of coke and cherry flavoring are slurped up through the red, patented stroons. In my new life I am: Benevolent Mom, Laugher at Jokes Otherwise Not Funny to Anyone Over the Age of Ten and Buyer of Treats for the Treatless. I'm not trying to replace guilt with 16 ounces of carbonated, high fructose corn syrup. (Really, I'm not!) I am simply being Present for my son who is quickly hurdling beyond ten-year-old-dom into pre-pubesence. One glass-half-full aspect of divorce is that I now when I'm with Jack, I am more keenly aware of how precious my time with him is. Often those moments are filled with joy. Other times, well, truly paying attention to the situation can be down-right difficult. Today is a mixture of both.

   Jack and his friends, Marcus and Dane*, have been playing in the park. They're hot and sweaty and it makes me happy to indulge them in a classic, cold treat. Just as I'm waiting to make a left turn into the Shell Station, buoyed by the general joviality of the moment, Marcus pipes up.
   "I have a riddle!" he cries. "A black millionaire, a Mexican doctor and a unicorn are all trapped in a burning building, who would survive?"
   Distracted by the oncoming traffic, I'm still processing the joke when Dane shouts his answer.
   "No one! 'Cause they don't exist in real life! They're ALL imaginary!"
   The boys—including my beloved son, Jack—shriek and laugh loudly. Now in the Shell station parking lot, it's all I can do to stop the car.
   "WHAT did you just say?!"
   The boys stop laughing. Jack looks down.  I'm sure he wishes he could sink through the floorboard and disappear. Dane looks at me and shrugs his shoulders.
   "Do you really think that?" I ask. "Do you really think that black people can't be wealthy and successful and Hispanic people are uneducated? Really?!"
   Marcus shakes his head no.
   "Why would you tell that joke then?"
   "I dunno," Marcus shrugs.
   Dane, who has had his hand over his mouth since I stopped the car, begins to giggle.
   "Stop laughing, Dane," I say. "This isn't funny. Don't you boys realize how evil prejudice is? It may seem like a harmless joke, but that joke keeps alive stereotypes that are mean and hurtful. You boys have friends and teachers and coaches who are African American and Hispanic! Why would you tell a joke like that? Why!?"
   Dane looks down.
   I take a deep breath. Am I overreacting? Under-reacting? Teaching a lesson? Making matters worse? All that's certain is the overwhelming feeling of disgust and frustration I feel over this insensitive racist joke.
   "Listen boys, I'm not mad at you, but I can't tolerate bigotry. You know what that means, right?"
   The boys nod, but I suspect they would nod at anything I said right now.
    "When I was your age, schools had just been integrated. Before then black children couldn't go to school with white children. Black people weren't even allowed to vote! A lot of people fought and died for equal rights. People were killed because they looked different! That was in my lifetime. I don't want to go back to that time, do you?"
   Jack stares at me. Sorry, son, I think. I can't be Benevolent Mom today.
   "Here in Birmingham, little children were killed by people who hated Blacks just because of the color of their skin," I continue."You may think I'm getting too upset over this, but when I hear you tell a racist joke like that, it scares me. We can't forget what happened."
   The boys are really listening now.
   "We studied Civil Rights in school," says Dane. "I wrote a report about Martin Luther King."
   "That's wonderful, Dane," I say. "So you see how a joke like that is wrong?"
   "Yes, Mam," Dane answers and Jack and Marcus nod.
   "Okay," I say. "Okay."
   "Mom," says Jack quietly. "I'm thirsty, can we still get an Icee?"

   By the time I return Marcus and Dane to their respective homes the boys are contrite. But there was something wholly unsettling about a ten-year old telling a racist joke. Marcus didn't make it up, of course. He heard it from an older sibling, or a parent or grandparent. Jack is quietly slurping his cherry-Coke Icee in the backseat.
   "What did you think of that joke Marcus told?" I ask.
   "It was dumb," Jack says.
   "Did I embarrass you by getting so upset?"
   "Well, a little. I mean, Mom, you kinda went off!"
   "Did I? Yeah, I did, didn't I? Do you understand why that joke was so bad?"
   "It was racist." Jack pauses. "Besides it didn't make sense. I mean, our principal is black and what about President Obama? He's black and rich. The joke doesn't even make sense."
   "I don't ever want you saying things like that, okay?"
   Jack nods.
   "And I don't want you hanging out with kids who say things like that, okay?"
   Jack nods.
   "Okay, Mom," says Jack. He pauses and then adds,  "Can we stop talking about this now?"
   "Sure," I say.
   I take a long sip of my cherry Icee and flinch at the ensuing brain-freeze. So much for Fun Mom. I'm handing in my crown.

* Names have been changed.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Chick. Chick. Duck.

My sisters and I grew up on a small farm just outside Little Rock, Arkansas. My father raised cows and pigs and we always had a few chickens and ducks. The ducks liked to swim in the stream behind our house, which we called "the creek. The chickens had the run of the place and there was usually a rooster in the mix to wake us up in the mornings. In the spring, we often had baby chicks and every now and then, we had ducklings. 
Life on the farm. Me at age 2, feeding the chicks.
(Note the designer patch on the bottom of my romper.)
  Ducks, being water fowl, like to make their nests near the water whereas chickens tend to find a nice dry spot in a barn. So, by comparison, the mortality rate for duck eggs was quite high. Duck eggs were an in-demand delicacy for a number of critters, including snakes, opossums, raccoons and turtles. And the soft mud near the bank of the creek made these prized eggs easy pickings. 
   But our Dad knew a sly way around this predicament. If he had a mother chicken go "broody" (ready to sit on and hatch off her fertile eggs) and he found a clutch of duck eggs in the tall grass near the creek, he'd take matters into his own hands and transfer the duck eggs into the chicken's nest. Of course, duck eggs are somewhat larger than chicken eggs, and the gestation period of a duck egg is 28 days as opposed to a chick's 21 days, but sometimes the hen wouldn't mind the addition of a very large egg beneath her and the timing would be such that the chicks and ducks would hatch off together. As remarkable as it sounds, this really did happen—at least once.
   One fine spring day, a proud little hen strolled out of the barn with a half dozen fuzzy, butter-colored chicks bobbing behind her. Bringing up the rear: one waddling, gawky duckling. 
   First the hen showed her children how to peck at the ground to find choice morsels of bugs and seeds and grains. The chicks had no problem mastering this task with their sharp little beaks. The duck did his best to imitate his Momma, but his funny, rounded bill just could not find purchase in the hard ground.
   Then the hen marched her brood down to the shallow edge of the creek and demonstrated the ginger art of drinking water. The lesson was going fine until one of her babies walked right into the water and began to swim away! 
   The mother hen squawked and chided the duckling. She even boldly stepped out into the very shallow water near the bank, demanding that he return to dry land. When this didn't work, she boldly hopped onto the flat rocks that served stepping stones, trying to coerce him out of the water. Of course the duckling had found his element and was not going to return to dry land anytime soon. Swimming was a blast compared to waddling around on dry land. His "siblings" chirped and called to him from the shore as if egging him on (sorry couldn't resist that pun) to keep swimming. The further out he swam the more irritated the mother hen became, but there was nothing she could do to change her strange child's nature. 
   As a parent, I have a new perspective on this barnyard drama. I wonder if this is how my mother felt when I went off to college, diving into the strange pond of a liberal arts education, and then into the even stranger waters of media and marketing. It must have been scary to see her chick leave behind the familiar life I had known on the farm. And yet soon enough, I'll be there too, standing on the shore frantically watching as my own little duckling swims off into his future. I wonder how I will feel ten years from now or so when Jack makes his own departure from the safety of the shore to find his element?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Gods & Pokemon

This is the tale of two road trips...

Road Trip #1: Gotta Catch 'Em All*
Jack's been collecting Pokemon cards and toys since he was about five years old. I shutter to think how much money has been handed over for the sake of finding the elusive "rare" card. But there are worse hobbies, after all Pokemon, which originated in Japan, does possess a nod to Buddhist philosophy. Pikachu, Piplup, Chimchar and the rest of the cute, cuddly critters evolve into bigger, better, more powerful creatures as their trainers help them become more adept in using their unique powers. These "rebirths"also carry with them a sense of acceptance of impermanence—if you care to draw that correlation. Pokemon, no matter how adorable, inevitably change.
   In December, Jack begged me to take him to a Pokemon tournament. He found one listed online in Ozark, Alabama scheduled for late January. Ozark is a small town about three hours southeast of Birmingham. Did I really want to spend six hours driving Jack to and from this tournament?  Jack showed me the list of other upcoming tournaments and the Ozark event was the closest geographically. 
   "Can we go, Mom?" Jack asked. "Please, please, please?"
    He widened his eyes in a plaintive fashion reminiscent of those forlorn cartoon puppies and pressed his hands together, pulling out all his cute-kid tricks to win my favor.
   "We'll see," I said. "Ozark is three hours from here. That's a long way to drive to play Pokemon. I'll have to talk to your Dad about it."
   The website listing said the tournament was being held at the public library in Ozark and provided a contact email for the event organizer, Chris. Since we'd never participated in a tournament before, I didn't know the rules and wasn't sure if a kid could just arrive on the scene and play or if he had to have some type of ranking as a Pokemon master. Several emails later, I was assured the competition was just for fun and that if my son knew the basic rules, he'd have a good time. All good, but the question remained: Did I really to embark on a six hour round trip to watch Jack and a bunch of kids play a card game? The answer: Yes.
   We considered taking one of Jack's friends with us, but I decided I didn't want to be responsible for driving someone else's child all that way to an unfamiliar place for an event that could be a total bust. On Saturday Jack loaded his collection of Pokemon cards into a backpack. As we headed south on I65, I warned him to not carry too many expectations.
  "I have no idea what this is going to be like," I said. "But no matter what, we're gonna have fun. It's an adventure!"
   Jack seemed to agree, but I feared that he had a grandiose idea of what a Pokemon Tournament might  would entail. Ozark, Alabama is south of Montgomery, off state highway 231. Population, 15,000. I knew it was possible that we could drive three hours to discover a half a dozen high school drops outs, sitting around a table in the basement of a library located in a dilapidated municipal building. Well, no matter, I thought, Jack and I would have fun together regardless. Despite the outcome, I felt certain this would be an outing that we'd talk about for decades to come. 

Road Trip # 2: God Will Catch 'Em All
The following weekend, I set off by myself on another three-hour road-trip into equally unknown, but adventure-promising territory. 
   Over New Year's weekend, I picked up Rabbi Rami Shapiro's book The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice, and when I put it down, I went straight to my computer, googled Rabbi Rami and found, among many other resources attributed to this spiritual raconteur, information about a interfaith conference in Nashville, TN, which he was hosting called the Big I, Conference on Inclusive-Theology-Spirituality-Conciousness. Without hesitation, I decided to attend. Like Jack with his Pokemon cards, I'd been collecting my beliefs for a while. I was finally ready to step up to the table as a Buddhist Catholic. 
  I emailed Rami (his preferred handle) with a few questions and received a prompt and reassuring email in reply. I didn't need to be a seasoned player. The weekend of talks and discussions was open to anyone interested in spirituality, and promised to be educational—even fun. Although none of the names on the list of presenters—save Rami's—were familiar, it included what seemed to be an impressive roster of spiritual thought-leaders representing the major spiritual and religious traditions. Over the two-day conference there would be twenty 18-minute presentations about diverse topics on spirituality,  interfaith ministry, meditation, Scripture, theology, the arts and education. That all sounded good, but the question remained: Did I really want to make a six hour round trip to hear a bunch of people talk about their religious beliefs and spirituality? The answer: Yes.
   I loaded my favorite books on Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness practice and set off for Nashville. As I headed north of I65, I warned myself not to carry too many expectations. I had no idea what to expect, accept that it was going to be an adventure. I decided to go alone because I didn't want to be responsible for driving someone all that way to an unfamiliar place for an event that could be a total bust. For all I knew, I might drive three hours to discover a dimly-lit conference room with twenty so-called spiritual visionaries sitting around a table, holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Despite the outcome, I felt certain; however, that this would be an outing I wouldn't forget.
- - - - 
Returning from Ozark, Jack proudly examined his 80 new pre-release EX-Series Pokemon cards, including a rare hologram card that he claimed was worth $60. The community center where the tournament was held was a dimly lit, tired annex also used for Zumba classes and AA meetings. Jack was nervous at first, but won two out of three matches. What pleased me even more was that Jack quickly befriended some of the other players in his age group. (And yes there were more than a dozen twenty-somethings—from the ultra-nerdy to tattoo-grunge—playing in the "senior" player division.) 
   The tournament was well-run and Chris, the organizer, kept order and civility in the room. There were many other ways I might have spent a Saturday with Jack, but I was glad we traveled this quirky, off-the-beaten path. Heading north to Birmingham, we relived all the excitement of each match, marveling at how the tournament was much better than either of us thought it might be. Although Jack was enamored with his new cache of exclusive cards, and bragging rights for his win record, for me, the tournament was not as significant as the journey there and back again.  
- - - - 
Returning from Nashville, I reached into my purse for my sunglasses and pulled out a dozen business cards collected from attendees and speakers at the weekend Big I event. The Scarritt Bennett Centerwhere the conference was held, was beautiful and reminded me of the campus where I attended college. And although one of the speakers did lead us in a round of Kumbaya, the brightly lit theatre-style room where we met was filled with inspiring community leaders from around the world who contributed his or her Truth to the spiritual melting pot. (There were many brilliant minds in the room.) By lunchtime, I had befriended a Rabbi from Colorado, the director of the Muslim Women's Institute from New York, two women from Huntsville and a woman from Nashville. Like me, these three women were there just to listen and learn.
  The conference was well-run and the organizer (Rami) kept order and civility in the room (which was a remarkable feat given the differing spiritual traditions.)  By following my instincts and staying open to the possibilities, the weekend far exceeded my expectations as a significant stop on my journey. 

I am grateful I traveled both of these paths.

* For those of you who have been living in a cave for the past 25 years, "Gotta Catch 'em All" is the Pokemon tag line."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Evil Ball

This year, Santa in His omnipotence left a bright blue Wilson tennis racket under the Christmas tree for Jack. My son never played before, but now on pleasant days you'll find us on the clay courts at the neighborhood park. Santa must have known Jack would have a knack for the sport—and he does. He will happily volley the ball for hours. 
   Although I've never taken a lesson, I love to play, and I've found myself slipping into the role of an offbeat,  Zen tennis coach.  I do not subscribe to the school of learning that insists on throwing babies into the pool to teach them to swim, but I always learn quicker by doing than by sitting on the sidelines. I'd rather play the game and figure it out than participate in mind-numbing drills, and Jack is the same way. I took the kid straight to the court and started hitting to him. I assumed he could hit the ball—and to my delight (and his), he could.
   At first, I praised him just for making contact. No matter that the ball soared thirty feet in the air or bounded over into the other (empty) tennis court, if he placed his racket in the proximity of the ball,  that was pretty darn good. He was so thrilled to make contact that he didn't mind when I showed him how to hold his racket, or how to hit the ball level and flush so as to send the ball in a horizontal direction rather than a vertical one. Pretty soon Jack was lobbing the ball over the net with regularity. After one particularly good, strong hit, I heard myself shout,"Awesome! I want you to remember how that felt and do that again!"
   I have no idea if this is a technique that coaches teach their students, but it makes sense to me. When you do something really, really right—even if by accident—if you can remember how it felt, then maybe you'll intuitively learn to enact that success again. Filled with new confidence, Jack grinned.
   "Okay, Mom!" he shouted, "Serve me another one."
   Moments like these are fleeting. The baby years are all about "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" but at ten, Jack's entering the age when he wants less and less to do with Mom. He and his buddies have hit the South Park phase where everything is an inside joke meant for boys only. And I know, for example, if I ask him, "Hey Jack wanna go hit some balls?" I'll receive a response worthy of Beavis and Butthead. Of course, girls are just as silly. I can recall sniggering about similar double entendre at his age.
    Likewise, being a typical 10-year old boy, there are plenty of times when Jack exhibits the sportsmanship of Andre Agassi. If he completely misses a ball or if he hits it wildly off the tip of his racket, he falls to the ground on his knees, sometimes feigning injury. (The first few times I was genuinely alarmed.) He spends more time on his knees sliding on the tennis court than Otis Nixon did heading into second base.* I encourage him to shake off these bad hits and keep playing, but sometimes he gets into the I-can't-do-anything-right-funk.
   The other night, after about forty-five minutes of volleying the ball back and forth, Jack became tired and repeatedly misjudged the ball, swinging his racket like a baseball bat, missing completely or hitting the ball into the side fence. After the third time he missed, he threw his racket down onto the court.
   "I hate that ball!" he yelled. "It's an evil tennis ball!"
   "Maybe we should call it a night," I said.
    "Noooo!" he cried
   He picked up his racket, retrieved the despicable ball and hit it hard. This time it took flight over the fence and landed in the grass across the street from the tennis courts. As it rolled out of sight Jack began to howl, "I lost my lucky ball!"
   I marveled at Jack's ability to go from aversion to attachment in record time. Now, the once-evil, lucky tennis ball was lost forever. Tears filled Jack's eyes, and his mouth trembled.
   "I'm a terrible tennis player!" he shouted. "And now my favorite ball is gone forever!"
   "Jack! I said sternly. "Calm down. Let's go find it."
    Jack and I exited the court through the gate and walked across the street. I was afraid the ball had rolled down a ditch, but it was in the grass like a prize Easter egg. Jack happily nabbed the ball. As we returned to the tennis courts, I stopped him outside the gate.
   "Wait a minute," I said. "I want to talk to you before we start playing again."
     I wanted to address Jack's overly dramatic behavior in a constructive way that would help him get over his funk.  I didn't want to make him feel worse. I remember feeling that same frustration with myself as a kid. If left unchecked it can ruin what was otherwise a nice experience or even sour you on trying again. How could I help him manage his frustration? It's moments like this when I stop and ask for divine inspiration, but before I could speak, Jack began to giggle. 
   "What's so funny?" I asked, slightly annoyed.
    "Mom!" Jack gasped. "Oh my God, look at that sign behind you!"
    There it was: A sign. A literal sign. It was, in fact the sign wired to the chain link fence surrounding the tennis courts. Originally it stated, "No Skate Boards or Scooters on the Tennis Courts," in black vinyl letters, but some clever vandal altered the message by extracting the top part of the capital "B" and placing it over the top of the "T" in tennis. .
   "Oh my God Mom! It says Pennis," Jack laughed.
   I started laughing too. Jack's funk was broken. After he got over the giggles, I knew what to say.
   "Jack, you're doing really well," I said. "There's no reason to act that way on the court. Okay?"
   "Okay, Mom," Jack said. 
  "Now do you think you can continue playing in a better mood?" I asked.
   "Yes!" he said, grinning. "Oh my God, I can't believe it says that!"
   "If you're tired, we should go home," I said. "But if you want to continue playing you need to shake off that mood."
   "Okay, Mom," he said.
   Jack ran back to his side of the court, and stood there waiting for me to serve.
   "Now, turn around three times!" I shouted. 
   'Why?" asked Jack.
    "It will help you get rid of your bad mood," I said.
   Jack complied. He slowly turned around one, two, three times.
   "Feel better?" I asked.
    Jack nodded.
   "Next time you get mad at yourself, shake it off like that,"I said.
 Then I took his lucky tennis ball and lobbed it lightly into his court. Jack adjusted his position, evenly swung his racket and solidly volleyed it back to me. The next time he missed, he turned around three times before he got back in position to receive my serve. I'm still not sure about my coaching abilities but someday, I might become a decent parent yet.
* For non-Atlanta Braves fans, Nixon shares the single game stolen base Major League record with 6 on June 16, 1991. He also holds the Atlanta Braves single season record for stolen bases with 72 in 1991. And yes, that is a random piece of baseball trivia that I pulled from my random knowledge of baseball. In fact, I was in the stands screaming my lungs out for many of those 1991 stolen bases. (1991 was the Braves' momentous "worst to first" season.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

WBT Tuesdays

Tuesday night is now known in my house as "Wendy's-Buddhist-Target" night. This is Jack's name for the evening that begins with chicken nuggets and often culminates in a shopping excursion, with a nice, hour-long Buddhist service in between. At first, Jack was skeptical about attending Buddhist services with me, but now he looks forward to it—and not just for the pre-service fast food or the promise of perusing our favorite Big Box store (Target is located near Losel Maitri.) My pagan son has created his own Buddhist ritual.
    Upon entering the dharma center, Jack slips off his sneakers without bothering to untie the laces and bounds in to the meditation room. As I'm placing our shoes neatly in the vestibule by the door, I hear Lama Deshek greet him with a salutation he reserves for Jack: "There's the happiest person I know!"
  Jack doesn't quite know what to make of the saffron-robed Tibetan monk, but I sense there's an understanding between them that doesn't require a lot of chit chat. By the time I enter the room, Jack is in the corner where the meditation cushions are kept, building a fort out of large, black pillows. He will happily play there throughout the hour-long dharma talk, prayer service and meditation.
   The first night Jack attended this service with me, he set up plastic soldiers along the pillows. As we sat in quiet meditation, I heard his whispers as he spoke commands to his troops. I was grateful the other meditators didn't seem to mind, but now he knows that when Lama Deshek is teaching or when the brass bell chimes signaling meditation time, he must be quiet. And every now and then as we pray, I hear his reedy voice trying to incant the Tibetan prayers. By the time the service ends and hot chia tea and cookies (Buddhist communion) are served, Jack has forgotten the Promised Land of Target, and begs for more a few more minutes when I announce that it's time for him to abandon his fort.   
   My son isn't exactly a Buddhist, but he does seem to have set aside his trepidations about shaving his head or learning Tibetan. In fact, the other day he hinted at a true sign of acceptance: He asked if his friend Nathan could come to Buddhist services with us. I'm not sure the Sangha of Losel Maitri is ready for two ten-year-old boys setting up a fort in the meditation pillows, but no doubt Lama Deshek would welcome them with the same loving greeting.

   The following is my favorite prayer from the Tuesday night service at Losel Maitri. It invokes a desire for patience and compassion through a shift in perspective about the way we judge others and experience life. He may not understand its meaning, but it is gratifying to know that when we say this prayer on Tuesday night Jack is quietly listening.

Eight Verses for Training the Mind 
by Langri Thangpa

With a determination to accomplish
The highest welfare for all sentient beings
Who surpass even a wish-granting jewel
I will learn to hold them supremely dear.

Whenever I associate with others I will learn
To think of myself as the lowest among all
And respectfully hold others to be supreme
From the very depths of my heart.

In all actions I will learn to search into my mind
And as soon as an afflictive emotion arises
Endangering myself and others
Will firmly face and avert it.

I will learn to cherish beings of bad nature
And those oppressed by strong sins and suffering
As if I had found a precious
Treasure very difficult to find.

When others out of jealousy treat me badly
With abuse, slander, and so on,
I will learn to take on all loss,
And offer victory to them.

When one whom I have benefited with great hope
Unreasonably hurts me very badly,
I will learn to view that person
As an excellent spiritual guide.

In short, I will learn to offer to everyone without exception
All help and happiness directly and indirectly
And respectfully take upon myself
All harm and suffering of my mothers.

I will learn to keep all these practices
Undefiled by the stains of the eight worldly conceptions
And by understanding all phenomena as like illusions
Be released from the bondage of attachment.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Buddhist Book Club: Shantideva

On Thursday before New Year's Eve, I left Jack at Aunt Betty's so I could run a few errands. I meant to go to Publix, but somehow I ended up in the Homewood Public Library. It's a lovely little branch that has a surprising selection of books on Buddhism. I generally rely on my book karma to place in my hands the volumes meant for me to read, and indeed my book karma held true. On the shelves I found a copy of Shantideva's The Way of the Bodhisattva. I plucked the well-worn paperback from the shelf, and as I turned back its cover to examine the table of contents, the distinct aroma of incense floated from its pages. I knew I'd found something very special.
   I had heard of Shantideva and this book.  In The Way to Freedom, the Dalai Lama quotes heavily from this 1000-year-old text written by the renowned Indian scholar. If the DL quotes Shantideva, it's gotta be an honored teaching.
     There are copious introductions and appendixes, but Shantideva's teaching consists of ten chapters, each explaining the attributes required to attain Buddhahood, or to at least live a compassionate and serene life. A bodhisattva is generally any person who is motivated by great compassion to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. In the Mayhayana Buddhist tradition (which is what I practice), the end goal is not to reach enlightenment only to sit on a mountaintop and bliss-out in meditation. The objective is to attain enlightenment in order to return in human form to end the world's suffering and help others reach enlightenment too. On a gross-level, the way of a bodhisattva is the same sentiment as the Soldiers' Creed, "You never leave a man behind!" (And yes, I'm familiar with this phrase because it's one of my favorite lines in the Pixar movie Toy Story.) As long as one sentient (conscious) being is left in the Universe, the bodhisattva will not rest. A lofty goal, yes, but a beautiful one too.

   That night, I sat in my little meditation room and lit some incense to set the mood.Taking a deep breath, I randomly allowed the book to open to a spot of its comfort and choosing. Of course, the fragrant pages offered the perfect lesson for me: Patience.
   As I began to read the words aloud, I was delighted to discover that Shantideva was a poet! And the book was comprised of his wise and witty verse. The words were not foreign or difficult at all (thanks, I'm sure, to a fine translator.) In fact, when read aloud—as was surely its purpose when written—the verse takes on a Shakespearean lilt, although I don't think Shantideva composed in iambic pentameter. Here are the first verses in the chapter entitled Patience:

Good works gathered in a thousand ages,
Such as deeds of generosity,
Or offerings to the blissful ones—
A single flash of anger shatters them.

No evil is there similar to anger,
No austerity to be compared with patience.
Steep yourself, therefore, in patience—
In all ways, urgently, with zeal.

Those tormented by the pain of anger
Will never know tranquility of mind—
Strangers they will be to every pleasure,
Sleep departs them, they can never rest.

Noble chieftains full of hate
Will be attacked and slain
By even those who look to them
For honors and possessions.

From family and friends estranged,
And shunned by those attracted by their bounty,
Men of anger have no joy,
Forsaken by all happiness and peace.

  And so Shantideva goes on for 134 verses, explaining how patience is not a passive sense of waiting, but an active shield against the afflictive emotion of anger. He expounds in vivid example how those who cause us anger or distress should indeed be blessed, because it is through them that we earn a stripe towards becoming bodhisattvas. Each of the other nine chapters are equally as beautiful and profound.
   It is a comfort when you stumble upon a work so old and yet still so relevant and accessible. And this sums up the beauty of Buddhist Practice: ancient, yet relevant and accessible.