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Deep Conversations in Cool Pools

The medium-sized college town in the Northwest where I live could be described as homogenous. It’s a “cookie cutter” kind of place, which is to say there’s not a whole lot of racial diversity. A few years ago I was a part of a gospel choir led by an inspiring African American campus minister who had been raised in East St. Louis, where the cookies were a different color. It took him a year to teach us to sing, sway and clap at the same time. I called it a remedial choir for white folks like me.

I caught most of the news about last Friday’s fatal shootings in the airport as I was on my way to Austin, Texas, just an hour from Dallas. Like most of the people around me, I felt sad and powerless, confused, a little angry and deeply tired about all of it, from mass shootings to racial violence to hate crimes. It felt more poignant somehow as I landed in a community that seemed to have more racial spice than my own.

So on Sunday I started searching for a way to connect with a local Austin black church or a gospel choir the next day. I may have missed it, but nothing jumped out at me. I assumed I was out of luck, so I headed for the hotel pool. The only other people there were an African American couple. In my segregated childhood I wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to share a swimming pool with the black people in my community. It was a few years more before I learned to have conversations that transcend the racial divide.  This was several decades ago, and yet images contrasting the past and present popped up in my memory as I slipped into the water.

I asked my pool mates where they were from. Dallas. Much went unsaid as more disturbing images, from the north of our country to the south, crowded into my mind.

“Just a getaway,” they answered. I got it. They knew I had. We began to talk about many of the deep gaps in understanding and fissures of misinformation that lead to the violence of gangs, to fearful police, and to psychotic gun toters.

I told them about all I had learned in my remedial choir, and we all laughed at our fumbling attempts to understand each other.

When they left, the gentleman of the couple turned his head back and said, “Praise Austin. You can find it on the radio.” It seems this local cathedral offers a weekly gospel service called Love. With my limited vision, I hadn’t even known where to look.

My heart landed at home again, a little expanded from the exchange. And I realized I needed to share this experience, which I think has been happening throughout the country this week. None of us can truly get away from the suffering brought by misunderstanding and bigotry, but we CAN have deep, kind conversations in pools and lakes and rivers all around the country this summer. We can let the coolness wash over our fear and mistrust, heal our hearts and bring us clarity; as we continue the difficult work of learning to sing, sway and clap together. This is how the world changes.

Seeking the Jewel of Memory

My mind is unfathomable, and becoming more so as I age. Not just when it comes to the words or names that I used to be able to access instantly. This is happening to all my friends. We have learned to continue with the conversation and wait for the words to pop up. This works. More or less.

Seldom have I applied this principle to objects. Until last month.

When I returned from vacation, my very favorite jewelry (two pair of pearl earrings, a beloved bracelet, a hand crafted necklace) went missing. I didn’t notice for a long time, since I hung out with the flu for a while. With no occasion to dress up, and severe flu-related memory gaps, it was nearly a month before I started missing them.

But once I did, I became a creature obsessed…going over and over the moment I last saw them, searching and re-searching my drawers and my bags, my hidey places. Not just once. Again and again. I imagined the splendor of my pretty pretties. I felt very sad.

I decided this was a problem I could solve if I just tried harder. I started imagining every possible place they could be hiding. On and on. The more fruitless the search, the harder I tried. I have no idea how many times I repeated the superstitious and hopeful pattern. After a few days of ongoing hyper-focus, I surrendered.  I went to local shops and shopped Etsy, for the first time, hopeful again. But nothing compared to the memory of my faves. At this point, the only reasonable choice was to surrender to the loss, if only to make peace in my mind.

Then I went away for a short trip. While I was there, gazing at the enormous mountain outside my window, meditating on the glories of nature, surrendering to the power of the scene, up popped a clear picture of a traveling jewelry bag. I recognized it as my own, one I had seldom used. First thing when I arrived home, I tried one more time searching in my new suitcase. A hidden compartment!  My treasured items!  Waiting for me safely all along.

Along with missing words, now even my treasured things are playing hide and seek. Apparently good focused attention and determination don’t work like they did, with objects as well as words. I’m just now starting to love it. Just as I’m discovering I can’t always count on the verbal skills I’ve taken for granted in my life, I’m now offered the opportunity to surrender even more deeply to simply not knowing. I’m discovering some other mysterious part of the mind that I can count on. To be able to trust the reliability of my own intuition and guidance to find what is mine what is mine to find in life: this is my pearl of the very highest value.

Worry Beads, Worry Dolls, Worry Worry

What comes to you when you see this guy? A denial based on ignorance? A cultural symbol for the naïve? For stupidity?

An excuse for burying your head during an election year?

I’ve been wondering: Why is it that “worry” is such a universal?

I’m not against taking life and the big decisions seriously. Trust me. But sometimes Worry seems to be a force unto itself. Without noticing, in a nanosecond, a fearful thought becomes a clench in the jaw, a knotting of the brow. A tightening of the gut, of the world.

Sometimes it’s called Anxiety (or panic). Even without a real reason, the mind can become totally crazy when it has the playground of an imagined future to worry about, especially when it’s got proof from the past that bad things will happen.

At that point thoughts begin to cluster. The YouTube of the past offers movies, either real or imagined. Catastrophe. Once there, all the thoughts that scare you come out to have their way with you. This is what I call worry.

Some situations just bring it on. Accidents or illness can set off a worry cycle.  Today I’m reflecting on my time with my son at the Burn Center when the entire staff was surprised he survived. And on and on through the litany of family crises.

The last couple of years we’ve had more than our share of auto accidents, and the physical injuries seemed to land me right back into my worry-go-round.

Now I’m remembering those ubiquitous worry beads called kolikoi that I noticed every man fingering while backpacking through rural Greece forty years ago. They originated with monks, much like the mala beads of yoga.  I’ve discovered a half-mala is just about what it takes to manage the inner worry wart when I’m meditating. Why not some kolikoi to jazz things up?

Mala beads also bring to mind my daughter. She’s a yoga teacher and chant leader. After being hit head-on last December, she’s still struggling with post-concussive symptoms. She’s an adult and doesn’t live with me, but she’s needed a check point as she goes about her normal life, as well as her musical career, these last few months. This keeps me busy enough that I’m not so likely to worry.

Sometimes to keep from worrying about worry, I look at it with a magnifying glass to discover its true nature. And my initial theory gets confirmed again and again. Worry seems to be an act of imagination. In a perfectly lovely present, my mind races forward to the future and imagines a frightening outcome. If I don’t believe everything I think, I’Worry dollsm way ahead of the game.

But just in case, I have some little helpers. Did I mention Worry Dolls from Guatemala? These tiny figures listen to our worries, take them off our hands, and go under a pillow to work their magic and dissolve those worries while we sleep. There’s nothing like tucking my worries away like they’re ultimately that little. They usually are in the greater scheme of things.

Two Kinds of Wordlessness

For many years now I’ve thought a button that could switch off thinking would be a most excellent idea. Often I meditate with the hidden goal of slowly letting go of the thoughts that cascade through my mind. With the attendant hope of dropping into the peace below, into wordlessness.

And then along came the month of March, which took me and turned me upside down and shook me until my pockets were empty of words and most thought. During the last two weeks of the month I unwillingly discovered a new route to silence. This body put on quite a show: coughing, shivering, fevering its way back to health. It was my first flu in years. I had forgotten how stupid the mind can get when the body’s resources are needed for another battle. Becoming wordless was the least of my worries, and it was happening without doing anything, or at least anything my body could control.

The first half of the month, before the flu, I had sought and found a more desirable kind of silence when I was on vacation in Maui. I spent vast stretches of time staring at the ocean from my perch on the hill above. Gradually the mind slowed down, stunned into silence by beauty. With mind confronted by the beauty of clouds and rainbows and whale-spume fountains, words seemed less and less important. This was the wordlessness of awe, the stuff of poetry:

 

Tropical Awakening

Wanting a profound reflection to speak from the tropical sea,

I search for a Venus of meaning

emerging from the froth,

the dark deep source of watery mystery

And what is here is

Just this:

White dove calling, Minahs preening.

Goats bleating and chickens strutting.

Beneath the ecstatic shiver of palm fronds.

 

Eyes shift for the long view,

And there’s the proof that a line once went for a walk

And etched a silhouette: a perfect island just across the bay.

The sun slowly exposes her reclining form

Lanai shelters my head and calls my soul.

Then the rose gold slowly fades

As the day picks itself up from the chaise lounge,

Stretches, yawns,

And moves into itself.

 

Now, here in the world of apparently ordinary reality, as body heals, I’m still steeping in the quiet hangover of peace, finding once again that it is available any time, any time I remember.

Navigating the Twilight Zone of Caring

It’s 4 A.M. The phone rings.  Your mind jumps into hyperspeed. Do you know where your child is? Your ailing parent? Your spouse or best friend?  Although you get to the phone before the answering machine picks up at ring five, the trip seems like slow-mo underwater ballet. You receive the dreaded news. This is bad. Real bad. Maybe you go to the room at the hospital with the puffy couches before they tell you how bad. But at some point soon it’s clear that someone will need to be fully available to manage the emergency for the foreseeable future.

You have just entered the Twilight Zone of Caring (TZC) that most of us will visit in our lives more often than we like to believe. Your world suddenly has nothing in common with the mild-mannered life you had been navigating only the day before.  All you know is that, for a time, you will need your best wits about you, perhaps served up with a little divine intervention, to be able to do truly help someone you love.

I’ve been to this netherworld more than once in my life. In fact, I’ve found myself there way more than you want to know. And in the process I’ve discovered amazing pools of reserves, a deep and calm wisdom, and a lot of good news in the middle of crises. The last time I made the trip was just this year, when my single twenty-something son was badly burned and lost everything in an apartment fire. When I first talked to the doctor at the Burn Center, he said we were about to begin a marathon. A marathon? I thought. Don’t people usually train for those? Read More>>