Final Exam

Last night I had the mother of all school anxiety dreams. I dreamt I was taking a final exam for a college class. President Obama was the instructor. It would be an essay test with only a few questions, so each question was worth many points; the stakes were high.

As the President started dictating the questions, I noticed that people around me were speaking so loudly that I couldn’t hear. Then I noticed with alarm that I had nothing to write with, or on. I frantically searched everywhere for a writing instrument, asked fellow students, left the room in search of the proper tools. All the while, the other students had written down the questions, and were starting in on their answers.

I searched in storage areas—every pen I found didn’t work; every pencil melted or snapped to pieces when I tried to use it. I found my favorite pen, but someone who was drunk had messed with it, and it just left ink on my hands. I wandered the streets, getting farther away from the classroom, desperate to find what I was looking for, frantically trying not to get lost. I needed to be able to find my way back. Someone showed me an enormous display of high-quality art supplies, extolling their virtues. I grew frustrated and impatient, and bellowed in exasperation: “I don’t need to create a work of art, I just need to find a PENCIL!”

I am aware that most of the students are finished taking the test, and not only have I been unable to find anything to write with—I STILL DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THE QUESTIONS ARE!   I know there’s no way I’m going to finish this test on time—maybe I can take an incomplete, finish the test later, and just mail it directly to the White House?

I had really hoped to do well on this test. I respect the President, and getting a good grade from him would mean a lot to me. I start to wonder—was I even registered for this class? I don’t remember ever going to any of the lectures. I’m not even sure what the subject was.

Mercifully, I finally wake up, stumble downstairs for coffee, and remember too late that I forgot to buy half and half, so coffee is pointless. Against my better judgment, I let myself get distracted by the morning news—I don’t know what makes me feel worse—Hurricane Sandy’s swath of destruction, or the thought of another awful week of mudslinging prior to the presidential election.

I eventually wander back upstairs, glance haphazardly at my email, google Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”, realize I haven’t left enough time for breakfast, dress quickly, and head out–late again–for therapy.

I am still out of sorts from my dream, and mad at myself for getting distracted and arriving late. My therapist encourages me to take a few deep breaths and settle in, but I’m having none of if. I recount my dream in great anguish, and find myself crying in the middle of the telling. What is wrong with me? I come to the end, and finally get a glimpse of insight—about running around in circles and never getting anywhere, about how painful it has been to watch the world run by me this year, while all I could do was sit on the couch watching out the window, or take long naps.

I surprise myself by stating firmly and unequivocally: “All I want to do is read, and write, and teach and heal.” Perhaps this is the greatest benefit of psychotherapy, giving ourselves the gift of time, a safe space and a captive listener where we can hear our soul speak up from time to time.

It isn’t until much later in the day that I remember my reading from the night before. In “Hands of Light”, Barbara Brennan discusses her pathway into the field of energy healing. “I had never heard of such a thing, nor was I interested in illness. What I was interested in was the way the world worked, what made it tick. I looked everywhere for answers. This thirst for understanding has been one of the most powerful agents guiding me throughout my life. What is your thirst? What is your longing? Whatever it is, it will carry you to what you need to do next to accomplish your work, even if you don’t know what that work is yet.”

 So there were the questions I couldn’t hear for my final exam—“What is my thirst? What is my longing? The answers—“I want to read, and write, and teach, and heal.” And what do I need to do next to accomplish my work? Apparently it’s as simple as finding a working pencil.

 

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Two Hands Full of Dust

I am at the Garden of a Thousand Buddhas, just north of Missoula, Montana, where I have come to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. My mom, my sister, and I have taken a day trip to see this sacred place, carved out in the middle of nowhere. When I first heard of this Buddha garden, I envisioned lush green grounds, with a thousand different Buddha statues spread throughout a labyrinthine Eden.

Like much of the rest of my life, the place I now find myself in no way resembles my preconceived notions of where I thought I would be. This “garden” is flat and arid, stark and dry, surrounded by mountains, with very little greenery. It is much more open and unobstructed than I had envisioned, somehow simultaneously desolate and beautiful.

The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas is designed in the shape of an 8-spoked Dharma Wheel, and the one thousand Buddha statues are placed along the spokes of this wheel. According to the written summary we received at the gate, “each of these handmade concrete statues contains prayers, mandalas and blessed substances.”

After the unexpected delightful circumstance of meeting the current Buddhist abbott at the entrance, my mother, sister and I decide to go our separate ways, exploring in our own manner, at our own pace.

I take some time to sit on a bench and just take in the scenery, do a little writing, breathe out some of the tension I’ve brought along on my trip west. This fall has seen me take on a new endeavor–teaching Spanish to middle-schoolers–an unexpected bend in the road that is my life’s journey. I’m sure there are lessons I’m learning, am supposed to learn, at this stage of the game. But do they have to be so difficult, so taxing, so painful? I feel like I’ve been doing nothing but whine for the last two months. Even I am tired of hearing my constant litany of complaints.

And I think about family. Families can be so complicated sometimes, I think.  Or maybe we make them more complicated than they need to be. Maybe families are just everybody doing the best that they can on any given day, and sometimes getting it right, and sometimes missing the mark. Sometimes it’s about learning to find your voice and saying “no’. Sometimes it’s about learning to say “yes”. Sometimes it’s about “I’m sorry”, and hopefully it can be about “I love you.”

And if you weren’t born into that kind of a family, sometimes it’s about saying “I’m sorry you can’t see my beauty, and I deserve to find people who do”, then finding a place where people love and value and respect who you are, and claim you as their own. That can be family too.

After breathing out my teaching stress, and my family stress, and my rushing from the classroom to the airport and making it through the security line stress, I finally relax into my bench, and become aware that there is a prayer wheel some twenty yards to my right, making a rhythmic ringing noise as it spins. It is a large brownish metal cylinder, which rotates continually, covered by a triangular “hat” and a larger protective canopy. The prayer wheel has symbols carved into its surface, symbols whose meaning I don’t know, but can only guess. And I am finally restored enough to explore.

I meander back and forth through rows of seemingly identical white Buddha figurines, and discover that some of them are marked at the base with small nameplates. These list an individual’s Tibetan name, followed by an English name, such as “Protected by Dragons”, “Pinnacle of Wisdom”, or “Best Intellect”, and seem to describe the breakthrough moment when these individuals (are they perhaps the equivalent of Catholic saints?) “first generated the mind of enlightenment”. Now I am intrigued. What great deeds or prayers, I wonder, might take one from the realm of the daily, the ordinary, to the “mind of enlightenment”?

I read the inscriptions on the plaques, several of which mention people doing grand deeds, but more often than not, point to very kind and simple deeds and offerings. One, I read was “a hunter who offered to point out the way on the road.” Another, “the daughter of a prostitute, when offering a mirror”. A third was inscribed as “a seller of dried cow dung fuel who offered it so that the Tathagata known as Praised by the Wise could wash his begging bowl.”

The one that finally stops me short, strikes me to the core, and brings me to tears,  reads: “he was a young boy who offered a double handful of dust.”

For weeks I have felt desperate because my knowledge and meager attempts at teaching have seemed so woefully inadequate.  I am constantly overwrought, insecure. Never mind that everyone tells me that this is normal for first-year teachers. It doesn’t feel normal to me. Those murky demons named “never good enough” and “not ok to make mistakes” have reared their ugly heads and are battling mightily for possession of my soul. Many days they win.

And yet, I read, one boy first generated the mind of enlightenment by humbly offering a “double handful of dust”. Even I, woefully inadequate as I often feel, can offer that much, I am most certain. And some days, that’s the very best I have to offer.

Could it be that I am not called to do an exceptional job, to be successful, even to feel like I know what I’m doing? Every day I go to school, I am in relationship with friends and family, I cross paths with strangers. Can it possibly be enough to simply offer what I have available–a compassionate heart and two willing hands, full of joy, or hope, or some days, simply dust? Somehow, I think it can.

The prayer flags posted around the perimeter of the garden are tattered, weathered spirits holding sacred intentions. As are we. And in the distance, the prayer wheel is still ringing, and the prayers continue to rise.

Labyrinth

Once again I find myself at the ARC retreat center, with a comfortable pen, a familiar chair, a well-worn journal, and a spectacular vantage point. Here I give myself permission to just be me, allowing myself time to simply sit and breathe, to let the accumulated layers of worry and exhaustion and stress drop away one by one by one. This place reminds me to let my body relax, convinces my mind to step out of its self-imposed hamster wheel, and frees my spirit to float ever-so-gently to the surface.

Last night I dreamed that a woman I didn’t know told me she needed some space–that she needed to break up with me. I was slightly anxious, but even more confused. Had I been married to this woman? And if so, why didn’t I recognize her? I looked around the house to see where she’d been a part of my life, and there was no evidence of her anywhere—she’d never lived at my home, so how could I have been married to her?

Obviously, this woman represents an important part of me, one that’s been underfed and unattended to. She’s my soul, saying to my ego (who thinks SHE’s all there is of me): “I need to separate from you and be my own person.” I’m sad to realize there hasn’t been room for her at home. She’s the one who has brought me to the ARC. She’s the one who urges me to take a nap.

After napping, I decide to walk the labyrinth. For this short journey, I bring along a glass of water and a piece of chocolate cake. I enter the labyrinth with the intention of letting go, of leaving behind everything that isn’t useful anymore, of unloading old habits and messages, as well as other people’s baggage that I seem to carry, whether they’ve asked me to or not. As I wind my way inward, I notice a small feather, and nearly stoop to pick it up. I catch myself just in time—I don’t need to add to my load.

I reach the center, stand still for several moments, and visualize myself removing a heavy backpack and laying it to rest at my feet. My, that was heavier than I realized. I sit cross-legged, rest awhile, and eat my sumptuous repast. I am reminded of Elijah under the broom tree, ministered to by ravens and angels. I breathe deeply, taking in the crisp fall air, and imagine sending my roots down deep, far to the center of the earth, down to the world’s well of deepest wisdom. “Is there anything else I need to let go of?” I ask. I wait. The still, small voice answers: “Self-doubt.” Again I ask, “What do I need to take with me on this journey?” There is a long silence, and I finally get it. This part of the journey is about letting go, not about taking on more.

A song runs through my head. It starts faintly, and I recognize it from “Pinocchio”: “I’ve got no strings to hold me down, to make me fret, or make me frown. I’ve got no strings, so now I’m free. I’ve got no strings on me.” I laugh and resume my journey.

I wind my way slowly out of the labyrinth. Again I see the small feather I had noticed on my way in. This time I choose to take it with me. I have room for it now. It’s a lot lighter than the heavy burden I left behind, a reminder of the weightlessness of letting go. As I approach the gateway at the end of the labyrinth, I take my shoes off. I tread more lightly now, aware that, back in the “real” world, in my everyday life, I’m treading on holy ground.

Walking back up the hill toward the retreat center, enjoying the feel of the rough ground and crunching leaves beneath my stockinged feet, I receive the answer to the question I asked earlier, “What do I need to take with me on this journey?” The question that was previously met with silence. “You already have everything you need for this journey.” You just have to remember to stop picking up things that aren’t yours to carry, and to make use of that most important instrument of all—your own inner compass.”

Blessedly, I’m no longer afraid of dying, but I am afraid of never having lived, so I direct my compass to take me home, back to my heart’s desire, where my long-lost soul has a fire burning in the hearth, and a kettle on the stove. She is watching for me from the window so she can be the first one to greet me and welcome me home.

Guitar Lessons

They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will come.

In my case, you were there waiting.

I stumbled into my first guitar class, noting the “repair shop” sign in the window. “Good thing, “ I thought. “Maybe they can fix me up here.”

I was hanging on by just one thread. I played a single note on my guitar, and felt that thread unravel; my last coherent thought was “holy sh*t, my sister was right—I need music therapy.”

You gave me my first song.

I spent a week in the psych ward. They tell me I spent a lot of time singing.

I couldn’t get wait to get back to guitar class.

And there you were–gentle and steady and affirming, not treating me like a freak of nature for flipping out just two minutes after we’d met.

Somehow you could still see the real me. You have no idea how powerful that was.

I decided to take guitar lessons because I’d put myself on hold for a very long time.

I expected to learn how to play some music.

You taught me how to learn something new without beating myself up.

You taught me how to not expect perfection when I’m just getting started.

You taught me that learning something new doesn’t always have to be about pushing myself, that having fun can be a way of learning too.

You created a space where it’s safe to make mistakes and fun to learn.

And when you accompany me in that tiny little room, and I sing, it feels like my soul is starting to come out of hiding.

Oh, and you taught me how to play some music.

Bearing Witness

IMG_1338The more we can bear witness to another’s sacred story, the more we can heal each other and the world.” –Nicole Duenow, Healing House

It was a dark and gloomy night (not outside, but in the very depths of my soul). In the back seat of a car, abducted by strangers with my three-year old daughter, my mind raced to process what was happening and what would become of us. I engaged my captor in conversation to try and discern his motives, our destination, our chances. I knew our lives were on the line. As much as I had faith in God, I knew that many others, far more worthy than we, had perished without divine intervention. Oscar Romero came to mind. If God had not stepped in to save such a saint, I knew we had no guarantee.

Blindfolded, I could not look deeply into my captor’s eyes, read his face, his fears, his intentions, so I searched deeply in my heart, reached depths deeper than I knew existed, and found that place where we are all equals, divine creatures, that place called namaste. From that place I could see my captor through God’s eyes, listen deeply to his own story of woundedness and unexpectedly find these words: “I know why God allowed this to happen to us—it’s because He wanted you to know how much he loves you.” The spell was broken. I had stumbled upon the key that ultimately set us free from our would-be prison. At that moment, my captor’s motivation faltered, and together we began to plan how he could release us.

That experience forever changed me, in ways both powerful and devastating. When it mattered, I was able to connect deeply with love. In the ensuing years, I have also had to contend with panic, terror, fury and depression, all different facets of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. My journey to recapture the pieces of my spirit that were injured in that assault has taken over twenty years, and is not yet complete. My daughter, now a son, struggles with demons of his own, as do his brothers, who have been indirectly impacted by that event through my struggles with mental illness.

And yet we are so blessed. Life continues, and is full and good. My grandson, now four, son of that sweet little child who survived the unthinkable alongside me, is at that stage where he’s trying out new superheroes on a daily basis. He is endowed with infinite superpowers, and is forever engaged in galactic battles, sword fights and other impressive adventures.

“Grandma, what’s your superpower?” he asks me one day as we play together. It takes me a while to find my answer—I don’t usually think of myself as a superhero gifted with magical powers. After a moment it comes to me: “Love”, I tell him, a little bit surprised at my answer.  “My superpower is love.” In a rather disgusted, somewhat condescending voice he replies: “Grandma, you can’t kill with love.”

And suddenly I am transported back to that unforgettable night and remember. Remember and understand. That key that opened the door to set us free? Its name was love. It was love that saved our lives. It has always been my prayer that love may, in some unknown way, have saved our captor’s life too. And it is my greatest hope that love will eventually help my wounded spirit find its way back home.

My Tribe

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us all work together.”

An Aboriginal Australian Woman, quoted in “How Coffee Saved My Life” by Ellie Roscher

Who knew? One of the unexpected bonuses of blogging is getting to read other people’s amazing writing. I found this piece today, and it has left me so much the richer.

http://momastery.com/blog/2014/11/15/meltdowns-fine-softer-melt/

It’s like raising children–that thing that nobody told you, you often learn as much, or more, from your children than you can ever possibly hope to teach. It’s humbling, it’s glorious–It’s the unexpected, and perhaps undeserved, gift.

I write because I love to write, because I can’t not write, I started blogging because I hoped to have something to say that might resonate with others. And, wonder of wonders, after searching for years in all the wrong places, I have stumbled into my tribe, my village. I have found my people. I have come home.

 

 

Spiritual Memoir

“THREE QUALITIES MAKE the genre of spiritual memoir unique: the spiritual writer uncovers, probes, and honors what is sacred in his or her life story; the writing process itself is a means to spiritual growth; and the end product makes the experience of the sacred available to the reader…

Every spiritual memoir reaches into mystery, attempting to place human life in a broad sacred context. Your task as a writer is not to shy from the unknown but to interact with it, to stretch your hand forward into the abyss. This is the second distinguishing attribute of spiritual memoir: The writing itself becomes a means for spiritual growth. Often the writer stumbles on this strange occurrence mid draft, discovering that the writing itself is an avenue for prayer, a means of wrestling with angels, or a form of contemplation.”

From: Writing the sacred journey: the art and practice of spiritual memoir, by Elizabeth J. Andrew

Writing helps me understand my spiritual journey–what tools help you make sense of yours?

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