A Recent Letter

In my role as a communicator – all creatures, animals, your forebears, mine – I sometimes receive a letter. Since most are not handwritten – or written at all – I don’t have much trouble with interpretation. This most recent missive is from a dog.

By the way, I was going to write about the world situation, politics, ethics, (now, there’s a word that hasn’t risen its head for quite some time!) the beauty surrounding us this autumn, but I kept making draft after draft, never getting it quite right. And then, when I was looking up, I got this letter. I’m not sure whose dog it might be. I’m doing some research on that. In the meantime, see if it strikes a chord.

Dear my Now person with whom I live and to whom it might concern,

Why did you bring me here and what do you want?

Who are you? Perhaps I should have asked that first. Perhaps I should have had you fill out a form but I don’t know how to make one. If I were you that’s what I would do, I would make you fill out a form and then I would teach you how to sit up straight and beg and roll over. I wouldn’t show you off to anyone, that’s too embarrassing for anyone, even a human being. But first I would have you fill out a form. Now, back to you, why did you bring me here? Why weren’t you better prepared? Didn’t anyone tell you what it was like to be with a dog? I know you would use the expression “have a dog” but I don’t like being had. I like being with. I don’t know what you like. I don’t think it’s being with because you leave me all day and ignore me all night so, back to my question. Why? Why am I here? Why did you put me on a plane and drive forever to get me and drive forever to put me in this place you call home. I don’t know what home is. I never had one before. I always heard they were what every dog wanted. A home was what we dreamed of back in the kennel. We never thought of it in the wild, on the streets of the wild. We only were told about its existence when we were taken to the kennel. We thought it would be better than the kennel, we didn’t like the kennel much because it smells bad and the light is harsh. But we didn’t have to fight, that’s a relief, and we got food. When I think about it now, from this place you call home, that I have to call home – whatever that is – the kennel had some nice parts. People for one. People who were cheerful and I could tell they were doing their best, whatever that is. But I learned from those who were doing it that “best” means a smile even though it switches to a worry face as they go by. When they see me they smile and sometimes I smile back. I’m big on sharing, it’s something we did in the Pack. Being here, I’ve learned to appreciate that. Even though it’s not so smelly here and the light is better. I miss the smiles in the kennel. I don’t even know where the kennel is or whether I’ll ever see it. I don’t know whether I’ll ever see the happy face on the counter or the bowl of what I learned to call treats by the desk where people talked on the phone. I found out the phone is very handy. You can do all kinds of things with it and if you use it enough all sorts of things happen. Is that how I got here? Back to why am I here? Was it the phone? Back to my question. What do you want? Why did you come to get me? Why did you make such a big deal, drive hours and hours with that determined look on your face. I assume you looked like that before I was in the car. You certainly look like that now! Maybe I caused it all. That’s a terrible thought. This is truly a bad situation. What am I doing here? Why do you want me to be here? What do you want me to do? What do you want to do? How are we going to manage this? Didn’t they train you before you came to get me? Didn’t anyone tell you anything about what it would be like. They treat you like a saint, but you’re not. I won’t say I like the smell of the street wild or the lights and I won’t say it wasn’t confusing, but I learned things there. I learned where to go and who to trust – well, for the most part. I don’t know who to trust here and there is no place to go, no place to learn the ropes and no one to learn them from. Let me repeat, “Why am I here? What shall I do? Where is there for me to go? I saw you writing on a form they gave you to fill out at the kennel, what did you say? What do you know? How does it relate to me? What do you want? Why am I here? Why did you bring me here, all those miles, in that traffic, how did you decide to do it? Why did you decide to do it? What did you decide to do and what can we do about it?

IMG_0917

LET’S GET REAL

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not change the world of the black men and women – the grandparents of the men dying today and yesterday and the day before – who were alive in that year. But it did put the possibility of equal rights in our minds if not our hearts.
In 1963 I was traveling with my husband and four month old baby daughter across a vicious ice storm in the Oklahoma panhandle. We were freezing cold in the night of slanting sheets of ice, our VW Bus only heated with acceleration and we were hardly making any headway to bring on the heat.
Kennedy had just been assassinated and nothing felt sure or clear in our young lives. We were heading to Monterrey California to the Army Language School where my husband would learn French and probably be sent to Vietnam. (He ended up not going to Viet Nam – in its wisdom the army sent him to Germany because he already spoke German fluently.)
We saw in the storm ahead a glowing motel sign, it was late, our daughter was crying, we were bone tired after driving since four that morning. We walked into the office, there was a black couple ahead of us. The man behind the counter told them there were no more rooms. I pulled my husband’s sleeve. “Let’s go,” I said. He said, “wait,” without looking at me. I hesitated and stayed behind while he went to the counter. The man smiled, “last room, sir,” he said.
I wish I could say that I got the other couple and we shared the room but they were gone and I was shocked into numbness. In that moment I didn’t understand. I looked at my husband and was about to say something like, “but I thought they had no room.” Maybe I did, I don’t know. I only know my own confusion, my distaste for the experience and my wish for change.
There are thousands like me, who want change and who have ideals about how “things could be better.” But the walls I ran into, run into are like the ones from my childhood where I had to sit through movies like The Robe and others of that genre, scared, in a seat alone because the people who brought me could not sit with me. They were taking me on their days off because my parents were neglectful but they could not take care of me by sharing my space – or me sharing theirs. It would take me years to figure that out by myself, nothing was ever said and now I know they could have gotten arrested if someone had noticed. I’m glad children were not “seen or heard” while I was growing up.
This has not gone away.
Yes, there is progress, but the opportunities of the races are not the same, not even close. You know it and I know it. The difference between 1963 with no Civil Rights Act and after its signature in 1964 and years following, was none. Twenty years, thirty, forty – the motel manager – depending on where it was located – probably wouldn’t have gotten away with what he did. But I am very cynical about what people can get away with. The disadvantaged are targeted at the same rate they were when I was growing up, the banks, the realtors, the school districts are little different. How could we have so much “no change” if things were actually enforced? Why would we still need busing if we have equalized our neighborhoods? We haven’t equalized anything. We are awash with bullets now, then we had ropes and we still have the attitudes of the men, and the women behind them, in white sheets holding their ideas, their customs, their entitlements as shield and sword for their intolerant righteousness.
We need better. Too long have we looked upon most of what we see around us as “other.” Whether an animal or a tree or the earth itself, we think, doesn’t have sensations, feelings, intelligence.
Do yourself a favor, don’t name. It’s the first step in separation. We know enough now to have discovered that there exists communication – communion – all around us. Look for communion. Take it when you feel it. Let your nascent or sophisticated vision of your universe expand. Expand with it.
John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he[sic] finds it attached to the rest of the world.” And don’t be looking to be right or smart, Muir walked through miles and acres of American Native cultivation thinking it was “wild” land. It was, we all have different ways to cultivate. Get to know yours.
DSC03121

Beginning At The Beginning

Work on the creator of duality rather than the creation,” goes the opening line to a meditation session. This is the “practice.” This is about you. This is about me. This is how we live our lives, with integrity – and I notice as I write, the “grit” in integrity – or with excuses. There is a video circulating of Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts, asking questions of John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo Bank who was in office during that company’s scam on its clients.
Her inquiry is unusual in its demands that Mr. Stumpf own up to what happened under his leadership and make restitution. This is not what we have become used to. We are inured to details of horror and no body in charge taking that responsibility.
As usual, the minor employees are being blamed and losing jobs while the policymakers enjoy their unconscionably bloated salaries and bonuses. This is the creator getting off. Perhaps the bank is one of those labeled “too big to fail.”
I’m still figuring out what that means. But I know what not taking responsibility looks like. It looks like any parent not investigating what their child is doing or where they might be going because we don’t have time. It looks like anyone who is “above” the law. The visions of horror we see over and over of treatment by “public defenders” against citizens of this country who do not fit the criterion for equal justice is an abomination. There is no justification for our national racial conduct.
Our minds are the cause of confusion. That we insist on believing what we think and missing the point of how we got to that thought has become a national disgrace.
We hold onto our reactions without restraint. Never questioning what responsibility we have in whatever we see is wrong. From racial profiling to who is trustworthy and who is lying, we loose sight of truth in our avoidance of our own responsibility.
We can laugh at the Trump supporter whose ignorance is being exploited by a reporter asking him to explain why Obama did nothing about 911 – or any factoid manufactured for the occasion. But we don’t hold ourselves accountable – or the reporter – for telling the truth and asking questions that might inspire thought. It wouldn’t sell “likes,” or whatever the going coin is.
We don’t demand of ourself our own “truth in advertising.” Well, we can say, “advertising’s been corrupt for years.” It’s not that it’s not true, it’s that we are unlikely to believe anything and we don’t expect truth. Of ourselves even, which leads me to the “creator.”
We are the creator. No matter what you believe about how we got here, we are here, and we won’t do a good job of it until we take responsibility for ourselves and our lives. Until we stand up for what we believe – which takes knowing what we believe, which takes knowing ourselves – we are the problem. We are the projector and director. By not choosing our best selves, our greatest truth, our good hearts and holding the line there, we are the problem. When will you be ready to see what will benefit the most people, when will you act on that while you let go of your fears, your prejudice, your racism, your elitism, your advantages, your favorites, your indifference. When will you let your good heart have its path to your brain? There are more pathways from the heart to the brain than the other way around. Use them!
IMG_1343
DSC_0078

Take A Breath

“If you really could take away the suffering of all the people in the world, taking all of it into you with a single breath, would you hesitate?”

Is that fair? Couldn’t you just donate a few dollars to CARE and have that be enough? Could whatever you are doing now count?
In speaking with clients I get that many of us are overwhelmed and generally feel disenfranchised from feeling helpful when we see something happening in the world we really care about.
So, when someone asks for help, then what? Do we give? Do we feel vulnerable? Maybe they will keep asking and asking. Maybe it will all get out of control. Maybe. Maybe.
Yesterday I was at an outdoor festival sitting with friends. A man my friends knew came up to us – he was going up to everyone – and gave us a slip of paper he’d printed to get help transporting people out West to help with a demonstration/confrontation on Native American land. We gave and it gave us a chance to do something helpful for a situation in which we all felt invested.
I felt elated. How often do I get to do something to help a cause I care deeply about. I’m guessing that’s the popularity of the “crowd funded” participation. It’s effective and we can all lend a hand.
Lending a hand is, I think, our basic nature. It is a source of power for us to see our effectiveness or lack of it.
This sounds decidedly like a transaction. If I feel good, I will be good. If I feel in control, I will be nice to you. If I feel out of control, I won’t.
Sound familiar? Kind of homey, isn’t it? Remember when mom or dad had a bad day and came home to kick the dog – or you? Or had to be alone or had to have a drink or had to do something because.
Small moments of altruism can have a big effect on both giver and givee. I certainly feel better today for my participation, however small, in a larger effort. I love giving small amounts of time and money to join a group of like-minded people.
How are you relating to your altruistic self? Have you updated your version of you? Are you willing to take a breath?
HP0014

Death, Taxes and Rebirth

DSC00034

 

Is a real life perfect? Is your life perfect? Is your life real?

There is no way to know where you will see the most beauty in your life, or have the most profound experience. Battlefields and graveyards are as full of enlightening and profound, happy and beautiful life experience as the playground or, for those of us who love equines, the paddock.

When we are looking around for a life to live we often look to books. When I was a child I read every biography of every famous person I could find. My school had a series of orange-bound books to inspire young readers. They told the lives of inventors, orators, presidents, nurses and many more. I learned so much and could see myself and feel the passion stirring in myself so clearly. I wanted greatness, I wanted to make a difference. And I wanted to be different. These books helped me choose how to be different and make a difference.

That was in grade school. In high school I learned to swallow my pride, to be ridiculed and sometimes to be seen. Being seen was the thing I most wanted and most feared. I wanted to pick and choose, to have total control over other’s opinions of me. It would take a while for me to see that no one had control over opinions of anyone, even the ones we carried inside. We were all reading a script of what was acceptable and what was not and our comfort in our lives reflected our ability to be ourself and what that meant in our wider world.

It amazes me to think of what I felt in second grade. How I saw my world and choices opening up. I felt there was so much room for me, so much passion and verve and I would be able to be so forceful in my life.

In third grade our teacher started to bring the world in which we lived into the classroom. The newspaper was brought in. We read about current events. We were never asked to think about them much. We were told about choices we might have and we were shown what was going on beyond our familiar walls and walkways.

I felt as if my brain were being recreated from a passionate idealist to a pragmatic realist who would be molding myself to the task at hand, not creating that task. It has been a big slow leap to embrace a life that has much promise and much pragmatism.

When making a change, the change has to fit in where we are. Going from nothing to something or something to nothing happens, but for most of us the path is slow and takes its time. Even when change looks fast, it is often because we haven’t been aware of the steps.

Change is recognized and happens first in one place: our mind. Our mind is the body’s expression of our experience. Habits and personality make up our experience. The story that we tell about ourselves creates our personality and is our main influence in how we live our life.

There is no such thing as “hard-wired” when we speak of the brain. Our brain is 75% water and the consistency, in most of its structures, of a soft-boiled egg. In this blubbery environment there are over 100 billion nerve cells, neurons, wonderfully arranged and suspended and ready to be at our beck and call.

It’s easy to change the brain, it changes all the time. Unless, of course, you do the same things all the time. Tell the same story. Sleep the same way at the same time, function hurriedly through your hour, day, month, year – your life. Without changing anything you will not change – unless the world changes you, which it is prone to do.

Then what do you do? A cry for help is a good start. Back to the books you read in second grade, good too. Get someone to help you stick to what you want to do for yourself or help you find the goals you want and the will to achieve them.

Your brain is capable of processing enormous quantities of data. You have more RAM sitting in your brain waiting for your use that in any computer you couldn’t possibly afford and isn’t made anyway. There is nothing so flexible as your lovely brain, so willing and able to do the work for you.

What does it take to turn it on? What does it take to change your life for the best? Keep the good and pare away the not-so-great parts? A few new habits acted on with the passion of a second grader. Every start is a new beginning, nothing can’t be made better. Every neuron in your brain is ready and waiting for new paths to open up. Give it something to do, start the next moment of your life.

A Word From My Teacher

As I sit in the midst of boxes for moving (not too far – 20 minutes south, to Kent) I receive a newsletter from my teacher Narayan with whom I have sat many a retreat.
She is somewhat younger but when I first met her fresh, always robed in white, aspect I realized she is peer to all. She spoke of staring at a candle in her bedroom when she was twelve – driving her parents mad. She spoke of what she saw in the world and what seemed, from my point of view, she knew without experience. Some are like that and the rest of us, more like me, paddle the streams of experience – whitewater rapids to backwater sloughs – with and without grace, but paddle firmly in hand.
I share this with you now and in my practice (life – whatever you call it – the living of life) there is a deepening, a tangy spritzy pungent scent to the life I’m living. I feel older and more permeable, more focused, enjoying the ride.

Here’s Narayan:
Practice Over Time

by Guiding Teacher Narayan Liebenson

The forms of practice sometimes need to shift over a lifetime, but the essence of practice can burn even brighter as we come fact to face with the fathomless treasures of old age, sickness, and impending death. These are the most human of experiences. As you lose everything without choosing to, and accept the natural limitations of this body-mind experience, it becomes ever more possible to live with greater love and wonder and with less clinging and attachment. This is the sign of a true contemplative, not just a person who can sit endlessly on a cushion.

It is easy to get lost in concepts of time and age, believing in conventional messages that encourage a reverence for youth and a fear of death. However, older people with a lifelong practice are the lights of a sangha. Some older yogis have been practicing for decades, giving them the chance to meet physical and mental limitations from a completely different perspective than the ordinary one.

A rich arena of investigation is to ask whether one’s practice has to weaken with age. In times of change, there is often a sense of loss as well. In opening and allowing the grief that accompanies loss, a deeper dignity can emerge. What are our ideas and concepts about what practice is and what it means? Is practice something separate from the rest of our lives? Is it possible to open our hearts to things as they are, whatever way they are?

There is experience, and there is, as well, one’s relationship to experience. The awareness of this relationship is what makes all the difference in the world. With an orientation of openness and acceptance, we are alive to life itself and come to see that it was never ours to control. In this way, we deepen our understanding of patience, surrender, and grace.

Older yogis with a lifelong practice have a wisdom that is hard won. They are the visible signs of the humanness of life as well as the possibility of transcendence. We practice for others as well as ourselves; older practitioners need more commitment and diligence than ever before as they age.

Whatever posture you now need to support your practice is the best posture. This is the time to adjust your practice in a way that works for you. I encourage you to practice with an open mind, free from expectations, and to embrace without compromise the aspiration to awaken.

IMG_2426 IMG_1334

The Messenger

whiteP5_whiteP5-R1-E029

My photo is just one of the many items named “The Messenger.” In my experience the concept of the messenger – as in don’t shoot – is the most consistently salient theme encountered. I was the messenger in my family – there were others before me – I don’t know if that’s why not many of them speak to me. I don’t know because they don’t say. There is no message.
Pema Chodron states that.. “feelings like disappointment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us whenever we are.”

Who do you listen to. What are you looking for? Do you see anything? Do you hear the messenger? Are you listening?

And, to make my point, this photo is the most consistently bought and used – program covers, magazines, set designs, in all sizes – that I have ever produced.

The Give Away

IMG_5530

What we create with another Being is not ours to give away.
While looking at a photo of two people I know intimately, I was struck suddenly by what the photo did not show.
It did not, could not depict, their years together. How they met, what they feel like now – yes, what they really feel like – which may not be the smiles shown for the taker of the photo, who is also not in the photo but is very much there.
No children or other travels, houses, books, sex, honesty, lunches or breakfasts are depicted. No loving or nasty moments, no clutching or letting go.
We take them as they are this moment photographed by the person we don’t know, in their lives or not, past and future not here. Only the moment. This moment. This one important moment. And if this photo gets into an album and if the album is shared and seen by present company and future grandchildren and further on, they will think they got something. They will think they know something.
And they will. They will know this moment. And they will make of it what they will in their moment. And nothing will be given away, it will be taken.

DSC09026
IMG_0702
IMG_0132

The What About Love

Lately I’ve been going through boxes. It seems strange to me that in many places I’ve lived, those before me have left mementos. Sometimes special rocks, flowerpots, and more than once, a box of letters. One woman even had me photograph her entire family album and then never wanted it back. Go figure.
This time a letter from a concerned aunt or friend, I don’t think the writer is the parent. Why do I think that? Because the tone is restrained and equanimity is attempted – but then generations past have had more reserve than ours.
It starts, “My Dear One,” and tells current events, the weather, how the river flows as it passes the house and the state (not good) of a tree they must both have loved. Words of love and caring, times shared, but you can tell they are in the past. The writer is not giving her full feelings.
“I know this day marks the anniversary of your marriage. Even as you may experience joy, I feel restraint and I want courage to take the lead from sentiment and self-pity. Even so, the timing and manner of your leave-taking leaves an unbridgeable chasm in my heart. While sorry not to have enjoyed your company these last two years, I wish I thought we could be honest with each other. I question what we had. What I thought, who I thought I knew.”
There is a paragraph about how her choices have affected all family and friends, teachers and ministers and all those whose trust in themselves was shaken by her actions.

Letters are carriers of affect that those around the author do not guess. In a letter I found that my father wrote – and why it was on his desk I do not know, perhaps it was a draft or he never sent it, I will not know. He writes to a friend I never heard of how grateful he was for the presence of my mother. Something he never showed when I was around. He was very dependent on her in his blindness and not all that kind.

Funny what we put out. What we choose to say. What we choose to leave unsaid. What we choose to leave behind and the crap shoot of who will find it. It’s what I love about life – what do you love? What frustrates? What do you want? Do you ask for it? Did you? Did you?
DSC00212_HDR

What We Do When

DSC_0003

I found a short poem by Raymond Carver who is always good to read if you’re feeling a little down and don’t mind staying that way. I love him and read most of what he wrote while he was alive – he died young in 1988 while I was trying to be a writer and looking for reasons to let it go.

I did let it go then, I just couldn’t be where he was, he was so there. When he died a note to himself was found in his shirt pocket – I paraphrase what it said, “just one more day, give me another poem to write.”

It may have been an old note, he may have written that poem, but I know he wanted more, nothing so simple as one more anything would have been enough.
Here’s the poem I found:

I find myself, at last, in perfect silence.
Knowing the little there is left.
Knowing I have to love it.
Wanting to love it. For both our sake.

I looked for something from Carver because I knew I would find a reflection to mirror the particular loss I feel at finding a note my daughter wrote to herself before she left. It expressed hope for love and success and happiness. It was totally the girl I knew. She happens to be the only person who’s loved listening to hits from the fifties with me. A dog or an occasional cat has – but no human in my midst. I say this because while we were listening to those songs, it was enough.

Not having her in my midst goes way beyond the songs, but it isn’t beyond Carver. Whether loss in love, death or trust, he has the phrases and stories that express even beyond my experience of grief. Writing can express a strength that’s there or inchoate, it can be a harbinger or a swamp. I practice writing a lot and I encourage my clients to do the same. Sometimes we don’t know until we’ve written or said something out loud. Joan Didion was known to say she never understands how she feels about something until she’s written about it.

That is quite dramatic. Writers do that for us and to the extent that we feel moved, we can join in.