Things Not to Worry About

I don’t know about you, but I catch myself worrying far too often, and usually about inconsequential things. If it is true that our brains can only hold one thought at a time, then why do I spend precious moments worrying about all sorts of improbable scenarios rather than focus on the joy, and light, and beauty that is right in front of my eyes?

At this very moment, for example, I am writing from my dining room, where the sun is shining brightly, warming up my back and neck, a balm after the chilly weather we’ve been subjected to this week. I can see my outline reflected on my computer screen, and in this outline, (which is gentler on the psyche than a real mirror), it looks like I’m having a good hair day and am wearing some pretty cool earrings.

My silhouette is framed by a bright blue sky and the nearly-barren branches of my favorite backyard tree. This tree fools us every year. We think it’s dead, and then, in its own way, in its own timing, it suddenly bursts into bloom and fills the yard with fragrance. Even in the winter when its leaves are gone, it stands tall and reminds me of what strength looks like.

The light gradually shifts, and suddenly a rainbow illuminates the paragraph I’m writing. (The light also illuminates all the fingerprints and smudges on my screen, but today I’m choosing to ignore them.) The furnace kicks in and I raise a mental “thank you” for a warm house and enough money to pay the heating bill.

Stephanie Pearl McPhee, in her book—“—“Things I Learned from Knitting…Whether I Wanted to or Not”, gave me a good laugh today. In her chapter, aptly titled: “Don’t worry, be happy” McPhee lists “5 things WORRYING NON-KNITTERS HAVE WARNED ME ABOUT” :

  1. Knitting needles are very pointy. I could put out my eye at any moment.
  2. If I were knitting while in a car and there happened to be an accident, I could be impaled or even killed by my own knitting.
  3. If I am not very careful, I or someone else could become entangled in my yarn and be unable to elude or escape danger.
  4. If I am a victim of a crime or terrorism, my knitting needles could be grabbed and turned against me as a weapon.
  5. If I’m sitting and knitting in the presence of children, one of them could run into my knitting while playing and be impaled, have an eye put out, become entangled, or, heaven forbid, all of the above. “

When I read the above list of worries, it puts my own mental loop into perspective, and I just shake my head and laugh at my silly old self. I don’t need to shame her, she’s just doing the best she can, and old habits die hard.

Speaking of habits, did any of you make new year’s resolutions? Mine were pretty simple this year: Honor my gifts, and …something else that I can’t remember at the moment. Maybe the worry got in the way again, I wouldn’t be surprised. But I’ll choose to be amused. I’m sure it will come back to me when the time is right.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

Theology in a Box of Crayons

“When was the last time you were really happy” read the writing prompt. And I was immediately transported.

Five years old, a box of round crayons from my grandma–was she there for my birthday? I don’t remember. But the crayons were many, more than the eight or sixteen usual ones, and the container was round, stiff and sturdy with a lid.

Something about it was magical. It stretched my idea of what was possible. Forty-eight magnificent colors, so much unencumbered possibility. What might I draw with these? What fun might I have? Who would stop me?

And they were mine, just mine, for me, not to squander over other people’s needs and feelings, nor to hand over indiscriminately out of pity or martyrdom or knee-jerk caregiving.

To use or not. To color my own life, so that I wouldn’t just be left with dreary shades of beige or gray, dusty, muted tones that never captured the depth of my own beauty. At five I somehow still knew that the colors were all mine and that that was ok.

It wasn’t until later that I started giving all my colors away. Or having them taken by force.

At seven I wrote my grandma a letter. The pictures, I said, were drawn in pencil, since my dad had taken our crayons away until Christmas, still three months away, after my three-year-old sister made the mistake of being a normal toddler and drew in crayon on our shared bedroom wall.

In an angry meting out of punishment I was made to pay for her “transgression”.  And we both paid a price. An early reason why the idea of substitutionary atonement no longer rings true for me.

At fifty-seven, I again own my own crayons, sixty-four this time, and they remind me that while it’s nice to share, it can be ok, necessary, in fact, to hold back something for yourself.

Jesus’ well-known commandment, to love our neighbor as ourself, holds out self-love, rather than self-hatred or self-sacrifice, as the gold standard by which to measure our love for others.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but perhaps it is true, that the surest route to a peaceful world is to learn to truly love ourselves first.

 

 

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.

A Jarful of Idiosycrasies

I received a very special birthday gift last week–a glass jar, perhaps cornflower or sky blue, nestled in a lovely metal holder with wooden handles. It’s full. To the brim. Of writing prompts, which my son and his girlfriend transcribed and cut up into individual slips of paper. It’s a homemade gift, so thoughtful, and fits me to a “T”.

This morning as I prepared to write, I pulled out several prompts, settling finally on this one: What are some of your idiosyncrasies?

I think I know what this means–those quirky little habits that make sense to you,(or that you’re totally unaware of) which drive the people you love and, especially, those you live with, a little bit nuts.  I look it up in the dictionary, just to be sure. There I find idiosyncrasy described as “a peculiarity of constitution or temperament; an individualizing characteristic or quality.”

So I pause in my journal to reflect on any one of my many personal peculiarities. I wait for that voice within to speak up and give me a lesson I need to learn, something I should be working on, or subduing, or fixing, but instead what finally surfaces surprises and touches me deeply:

“O how I love thee,

let me count the ways

I love thee more than breadth or depth or height can reach.”

Wow–that’s amazing. I reach for quirks, eccentricities, annoying habits, and find a love letter to myself. It makes me catch my breath. It reminds me, once again, that I have spent an inordinate amount of my life looking at what’s wrong, or what needs fixing, prodding or pruning, and have totally missed the blossoming and blooming.

Maybe spiritual growth can be as much about standing reverently in awe of what already is, rather than simply pointing an accusatory finger at what “should not” be.. Taking a moment to sit still to admire, to embrace and celebrate our achievements instead of always striving for what’s next.

Now can be ok too.

How To Be A Better Parent All The Time At Everything

Loved this post. Hope you will too. Wish I’d read it twenty years ago!

How to be a better parent all the time at everything?? You can’t. The end.

Jess Basson

Dear Parent,

You’re probably thirty-something. You probably have a child or two under the age of four. You never knew you could feel SO MUCH LOVE, but you also never knew it was going to be THIS HARD. There are moments of sheer delight, but they’re often separated by long, mundane hours that range from busy to infuriating.

You feel guilty that you miss your pre-parent life. You wish you never lost your temper as often as you do. You know your spouse is supposed to be on the same team as you but often they feel like The Enemy.

But most of all, there is this nagging suspicion that you are messing it up.

mugIt being Parenthood, Your Child, Marriage, Life.

You used to feel like someone who could manage stress, who knew how to handle, who had a game plan. But between discipline and diet, health and safety, tantrums and tired…

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Touching

The morning started off very sweetly. My daughter, now 29, dropped her son off at school and swung by the house. I was still in bed. In my early-morning stupor, I tried to ask her something, and she decided what I was trying to say was that I needed to snuggle with her before she had to go. I didn’t object. Snuggling felt warm, and toasty and soft and delicious. I didn’t realize how much I missed that feeling. I was very affectionate with my kids–we slept together, cuddled, warm piles of limbs and elbows, tickles, plump cheeks and shinbones, knobby knees and tangled hair, morning breath and morning waking, a messy nest of love.

I first brought my daughter to bed with us when she was several months old, after I nearly dropped her one night while nursing her in the rocking chair, bone-weary from exhaustion. And there was no turning back, but it was mostly a good thing.  The kids didn’t see their dad much during the day, but we’d all be together at night, or at least by morning, the kids trickling in one by one as the night wore on, first the nursing baby, and then the siblings, little feet pitter pattering their way to our room in the dark.

My husband and I gave up our double bed, traded with the kids, pushed their twin mattresses together, and called it a king. I think that was before the bedbugs, but that’s another story.

Years later, as a single parent, the trend continued, my youngest refusing to stay for long in his own bed or his own bedroom. “But mom”, he pleaded with me once “you’re my love connection.”

Sometimes when I dream at night, my children are little again, at least for a while–they come to me unbidden, the memory true and undistorted–solid, clear, precise, in a way that my daytime memory cannot produce.

I wake with nostalgia, a sense of sweetness, wholeness, and loss in the same blurry exhale. And in those just-before-consciousness moments, I savor the knowledge that I wasn’t such a bad mother after all.

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