Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Feline Felicity

I know there many good reasons to like dogs. In fact, some of my best friends are dogs. However, I feel compelled to testify to some of the ways my two cats give me great pleasure.

-- Companionship. On good days, I spend a lot of time at home – writing and doing chores and writing. Inevitably, one or both cats is (or are) nearby (sometimes in front of the keyboard). In the case of chores, I feel gently supervised. In the case of writing, gently encouraged. In the case of making my bed, I am unquestionably ‘assisted’ by the one cat who pounces on seen and unseen objects as each layer of bedding is applied.

-- Welcoming. I know people tend to anthropomorphize animals' antics and I know cats are not famous for this (and probably have a greater tendency to do so when they are hungry) but it feels really quite nice when they both come trotting to greet me when I return from errands and meetings.

And above all

-- Trust. Complete trust. One of my cats (the same one who helps me make my bed) throws himself across a stair as I am descending. He absolutely trusts that I will not only not step on him but also – once I have reached a step lower than his ‘barrier’ – turn and scratch his tummy and rub his back. The other (less neurotic and more affectionate feline) finds me whenever I am in repose and curls up close placing his head on my hand. Think about it. Would you put your head in the hand of someone ten times as large as?

And finally, you could anticipate this one:

They purr.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Holding Peace in Our Hands

I never go to a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh without buying a lot of books (mostly his). This year I found in one of those books a poem that he wrote during the war in Vietnam after the U.S. Air Force bombed an entire town 'to save it from Communism.'


I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I am not crying.
I hold my face in my two hands
to keep my loneliness warm --
two hands protecting,
two hands nourishing,
two hands preventing
my soul from leaving me
in anger.


When I sent it to a friend, she responded: “This is sort of how I feel every day in our violent, isolationist, emotionally armored culture.”

She is right, there are many reasons to feel anger, fear, despair. Still, if we can but be still; breathe into calmness; hold our faces in our two hands, it may very well be possible to restore peace and compassion at least within our own spheres of influence. And, possibly, let that peace gently ripple out to the very edges of the cosmos.

May it be so.

Friday, August 26, 2011

the Zen of a Torn Meniscus

It may not have been too bright but even though I was told I had a torn meniscus in my left knee, I went to the mindfulness retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh and the nuns and monks from his corps of caring followers.

The retreat was held at the Rocky Mountain YMCA outside of Estes Park, Colorado. The Y is in an alpine valley, altitude circa 10,000 feet. Other than the floors of various buildings there are probably no flat walking surfaces.

This is not ideal for someone with a torn meniscus.

I had brought my cane and often would be able to get from place to place with no problems. But occasionally, with no warning, my leg would freeze in excruciating pain.

Whenever that happened, there was someone nearby willing and able to help. For the first few days the pain attacks were relatively minor and I could, with minimal assistance, could begin walking (very slowly) again.

One evening toward the end of the retreat, my leg gave out with more emphasis than before. Although it was a time of community silence, I told the woman standing next to me that I had a problem. She immediately moved to my left side and provided support as I tried to move. It took a while. When at last I could walk again, the walking was very tentative – small steps taken in slow motion.

We moved out of one building toward the path to my dormitory room. My assistant saw a friend coming the other way. The friend immediately grasped the problem and when assured that the two of us could continue on our own, offered to find some ice.

The distance from the meeting hall to my room was close to half a mile. We may have set the world record for the slowest half mile in history. But we made it. Ice bags were created. Both assistants told me the best way to use the ice and elevate the leg.

I listened attentively. It turns out that they were both occupational therapists.

How extraordinary. And how predictable. All those participating in the retreat had coalesced into a vigorous, peaceful community that, literally, emanated healing energy. Even if I had not heard Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom, I would have learned the power of compassion.

Monday, August 22, 2011

More Thich Nhat Hanh

While I am at a retreat listening to Thay (a Vietnamese honorific that means 'teacher') and the monks and nuns who have learned from him, I'm sharing some of the things he has said:

-- "People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar." ~

~ "Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive—that you can touch the miracle of being alive—then that is a kind of enlightenment." ~

~ "Many people are alive but don't touch the miracle of being alive." ~

~ "It is possible to live happily in the here and now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don't have to run into the future in order to get more." ~

~ "People suffer because they are caught in their views. As soon as we release those views, we are free and we don't suffer anymore." ~

~ "Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes." ~

~ "Life is available only in the present. That is why we should walk in such a way that every step can bring us to the here and the now." ~

~ "When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?" ~

~ "To be loved means to be recognized as existing." ~

~ "Every thought you produce, anything you say, any action you do, it bears your signature." ~

Friday, August 19, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh

We have to understand in order to be of help.
We all have pain, but we tend to suppress it because
we don't want it to come up to our living room.
The most important thing is that we need to be
understood. We need someone to be able to
listen to us and to understand us.
Then, we will suffer less.
-Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s so simple. Like all of things he writes.
And so true.
And so helpful.
Today, I’m going up to the YMCA of the Rockies to start a five-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and the nuns and monks of his spiritual centers.

I have a lot to learn.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why Didn't He Cry?

Remember the last scene in the movie “A Wonderful Life”?

There was a point during the party I threw myself for my milestone (there’s no reason to let you know which one) birthday party when I remembered the cake. I could only find five candles so I jammed them into the cake and lit them.

All of a sudden everyone there was singing ‘happy birthday’. I looked around the room, at the mass of friendly, beautiful faces of people whom I genuinely admire and enjoy. I felt like Jimmy Stewart in the closing scene of “A Wonderful Life".

Except that I felt like crying. I was so overwhelmed by my friends’ affection and so grateful for their apparent appreciation. It seemed as if all those people really wished me well, really cared.

Shit. I had angst-ed about not having accomplished anything in my many, many (unrevealed) years but all of those people seemed to think that I don’t really have to do anything but just be me.

What more does anyone need?

[I’m still going to keep working on my novel.]

Monday, August 8, 2011

tiny, tiny courageous act

I know it’s not much but still, it was the first time I did such a thing.

And I did it.

The guys doing some routine plumbing work noticed it -- fastened overhead about three feet from the back door.

It was small but busy; wasps teeming over the incipient nest.

“You’d better get rid of that.”

Well, yes. But how? On my garage shelves there was a can of aerosol wasp killer spray. The instructions said to use it either at dawn or dusk, when the wasps were less active.

I’m not a dawn person – even in summer. So, after dinner, I sat at the table watching the clock as I read the paper: 7:30 (perhaps still too early), then, finally 8 p.m.

Taking the stool from the pantry, I left the house. After checking the wind, I decided to stand slightly to the west of the nest. I shook the can, vigorously. I sprayed. White foam enveloped the nest and globs plopped to ground. I could see writhing little creatures. I left, taking the stool, went inside and washed my hands.

I felt like Lady Macbeth.

The next morning, there was a scattering of bodies and other debris. I saw no activity. I felt neither proud nor secure.

So the next evening I repeated the process – just to make sure.

And yesterday morning, after 48 hours of no nest activity, I hauled my ladder outside. With a spatula, I scraped the nest off the overhead beam onto waiting newspaper.

I’m sure that the nest was one of Nature’s wonders—intricate design, amazing texture. I just wanted it gone. I wadded up the paper and deposited in the garbage.

No one applauded. I had not asked for either assistance or audience. Still I had done something I was afraid to do.

And it was done.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tomato Sandwiches

Yesterday I had a tomato sandwich. I could have had something else but I was afraid the tomato would spoil. The lunch reminded me of my first tomato sandwich, eaten on a pier in Darwin, Australia, 18 years ago.

I had been in Melbourne on assignment. I had read that Kakadu National Park was a great repository of aboriginal rock art and was determined get there. While still working, I happened to talk to someone who had a friend in Darwin who might possibly guide me into Kakadu. During short breaks, I made the phone calls and reservations to get me from Melbourne to Sydney to Cairns (with a brief stop in Brisbane) to Darwin.

So I made my way to Darwin and to the motel that the possible guide – whose name was John -- had recommended. I was just getting settled when he called, inviting me to join his family for a picnic on one of Darwin’s piers. What could be better?

We sat on the wooden pier, arranged ourselves around the picnic basket, and watched the antics of sea birds, fishermen and bungee jumpers. The picnic basket was opened and each of us was handed a tomato sandwich. I had never heard of tomato sandwiches. I thought tomatoes were what you put on other stuff in sandwiches. It turned out to be one of the great feasts of my life.

John and his family were wonderful hosts and guides. The next day John led me through Litchfield Park, telling the Aboriginal stories for every place and use for every plant. Then he arranged my two-day tour into Kakadu (at half price).

In those two days, I saw more kinds of birds and animals and plants than I had in all my previous years: bower birds, prehistoric trees, termite mounds, crocodiles, spoonbills, herons, ibis, water buffalo, pelicans, rainbow bee eaters, lizards, jabirus, lotus, egrets, storks, corellas, eagles, even odd frogs.

And I saw the amazing, millennia-old rock art. At Nourlangie Rock and Ubirr, I marveled at huge cliffs etched with depictions of history and myth and the right way to cook certain kinds of fish. At Ubirr’s Lookout Point, I looked out over a vista that so many others had seen for thousands of years. Woods and billabongs and vast plains. Some vistas velvet with scrub, others shimmering smooth, green and blue. And in the distance, another mesa, that was almost certainly another ancient Lookout Point.

When I returned to Darwin, I reconnected with John’s family before my long trip home. And I stayed connected with them. Hosting his daughters in Chicago and, years later, his widow when she visited Colorado.

I highly recommend tomato sandwiches.