Sunday, August 29, 2010

Noble Silence

I was on a retreat last week. It was held at the Rocky Mountain YMCA near Estes Park, Colorado and led by nuns and monks from two monasteries in the United States. They practice the form of Buddhism taught by exiled Vietnamese priest Thich Nhat Hahn.

There were elements of the retreat I thought I might have problems with.

First was the fact that we were to rise at 5 a.m. and be dressed and participating in group movements by 5:30. That was to be followed by a walking meditation, observing the sunrise, which was in turn to be followed by sitting meditation. Then, finally, about 7:30 a.m., breakfast. I am not a morning person. This schedule did not appeal to me. But I did it. And liked it.

Then there was the fact that we were to eat a vegan diet. I am a diabetic omnivore. I thought I would perish. I didn’t. In fact, I enjoyed the food.

But most frightening of all was that we were to spend great portions of each day and evening – and all meals – in absolute silence. I had done this once before, at a similar retreat five years ago. I knew I could do it, and could learn to be comfortable with it. What I did not know, or had perhaps forgotten, was that this pervading silence was quite powerful. As it begins to settle itself around and in you, you find yourself paying more attention to facial expressions, sunrises, and food. Most important, the stillness begins to pervade your being, clearing out the monkey-mind thoughts with which we tend to distract ourselves and allowing us to discover the pains we try to avoid acknowledging and the solutions that we have within us.

That last sentence should have been written in the first person. As the silence stilled my thoughts, I could feel my mind clear. It was an almost physical sensation, quite pleasant, beginning on the inside of my forehead and extending back about 1.5 inches. It opened my consciousness, making me aware of some unresolved pain. Then, in meditation and in discussion groups (where we could talk) and in the teaching (Dharma) sessions, I found within myself an answer – a way to heal.

It occurred to me that such silences are essential. We can create them in our days primarily through meditation. I’m bringing that practice home. I may never regularly arise at 5 a.m. but I now will regularly enter the silence that helps me get in touch with who I am and what I have to offer. They call it a Noble Silence. I recommend it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Peruvian Confetti

Littering is against just about everything I value but, quite recently, I was guilty of doing just that.

Preparing for a retreat at the YMCA of the Rockies, I dug out a Sierra Club backpack that I thought I had never used (it was a ‘gift’ for a donation). The retreat’s crowded schedule seemed to require carrying all that I might need when I left my room each morning and a backpack seemed a good idea.

When I opened the backpack to fill it with the necessities for the retreat’s first full day, a sprinkle of yellow confetti fell to the floor. I was puzzled. Where did that come from? Then I remembered. When I was in Peru in December 2007 and January 2008, yellow confetti was part of the celebrations for both the Summer Solstice and New Year. It was a good luck blessing. I did not think I had taken my backpack to Peru so was a little mystified about how the confetti got there. And a little embarrassed to have littered my dorm room. I picked up as much as I could but left the rest. Good luck blessings are good things.

That night I tried to clean out the backpack but was unsuccessful. Throughout the retreat, whenever I extracted a jacket or mug or notebook, a small flurry of confetti followed. In the dining room, in the meditation hall, on the trails around events, I left tiny little polka dots of litter. [I did pick them up when I could.]

Each time I saw them (I almost wrote ‘spotted’) I thought of my 22 days in Peru (described on my website: Our group of eleven had stayed in the town of Yucay in the Incan sacred valley. We traveled to ancient sacred places throughout the valley and near Cusco as well as spending a full day in Machu Picchu. At the end of my stay I had a better understanding of ancient civilizations and of a living people. And a better understanding of the relationship of the sacred and the every day.

Perhaps not so coincidently, that was what the retreat was about.

Sometimes litter is appropriate.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Funny thing about deadlines. They are good discipline. They keep us ‘on task’ and help us track accomplishments. Now that I’m mostly working for myself – creating manuscripts, writing essays, posting blogs – I have found it necessary to create my own deadlines. No one told me, for example, that I needed to create a new post every three days. It is not required by any cyberspace deity. But if I didn’t set that schedule for myself, a week or more would wander by and nothing new would be added. Whatever interest there may have been would fade and I would lose my connection with my unseen audience.

Some of the things I do have their own deadlines. I write an occasional service for my local congregation and supply information on all our services to our newsletter.

If you’re doing a service on Sept. 5, it is absolutely necessary to have all the components prepared by Sept. 1 (or 2nd). And come Labor Day Sunday morning, you had better be prepared to ‘go on.’ [I will be.]

The newsletter item for which I’m responsible is created after those leading or coordinating each service relay descriptions to me. I then compile these descriptions into one coherent document with parallel structures for each service. It’s not rocket science. Not even close.

This month, the editor gave us five extra days. Instead of the 15th, we had until the 20th to send our news to her. Funny thing about extra time. When it is given, we take it. And, sometimes just let the later deadline pass us by, unnoticed.

If you have gathered that I did not receive the needed components for one little newsletter item, you have gathered correctly. It’s not a big deal. The congregation and I will survive. But it’s interesting to notice what happens when more time is given. All of a sudden, it isn’t enough.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Getting Lost

This year, for the first time, I planted dahlias. Now I feel a little like Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk. I’ve never grown anything so tall, with flowers so big you can get lost in them. They keep growing and blooming and one is enough for a table and yet there are more.

I am not complaining. In fact, I have decided that getting lost in a dahlia blossom is a very good thing to do.

Try it some time. Try it now.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In Memoriam

Saturday I was sitting outside with friends when I noticed him – a perfectly round robin … just a youngster, with telltale freckles across his chest. I pointed him out to my brother because the bird just sat there, on the edge of the garden. We moved. He didn’t. We walked back to check the raspberries’ progress. He still didn’t move even though we were only inches away.

Our attention turned to other things (like my opening presents!) and the three of us forgot about him. Later, I looked out my back window, just checking. The fat little bird was on the lawn, pulling up a worm I think. I didn’t see him that night.

Sunday, I was showing my giant dahlias to a friend and there he was again. This time he was on the cement sort of patio. Not as many worms there. We tried to scare him back onto the lawn but he didn’t go. Instead, he seemed to follow us. Little hops toward my friend, then little hops toward me.  Protestations to the effect that neither of us was his mother did not faze him. His focus remained on one pair of feet, then the other. We tried to lead him onto the grass but, I guess, it was too far away. My friend had to leave. I had chores to do. For a while the robin was forgotten.

Around 6 p.m. one of my (indoor) cats, Guinness, demanded his dinner so I came downstairs to fix it. While waiting to be served, Guinness looked out the back window and froze. Every fiber of his feline being was focused on something outside. I guessed it was the robin. I was right. Guinness barely touched his dinner then returned to the window, intent.

It occurred to me that his pose would make a good picture. I almost got my camera but was distracted by indoor cat number two, Herbie. His dinner. My dinner. Dishes. The evening slipped away.

The next morning a quick scan of the backyard revealed nothing in particular. It wasn’t until I went outside that I saw the scramble of feathers on the concrete. The flies around the feathers and a smear of brown, the little white spots that dotted the patio seemed clear. The robin had been eaten.

As I hosed everything down, I thought of a million what ifs – what if I had lifted him onto the lawn, or into the tree or something. Even taken a picture. But I had done none of those and now there is nothing to mark the little robin’s existence -- our momentary, tangential connection.

Nothing except a little essay on my blog.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

New Moon

Driving home Thursday night, my friend and I spotted a beautiful crescent moon. To millions of people around the world that sliver of light signaled the start of Ramadan. To me, it signaled the start of another year of my life. Thursday was my birthday. No need for you to know which.

Over the years I have learned to initiate celebrations if I suspect that others might not remember. So I had asked a friend to go out to dinner with me (dutch) at a wonderful restaurant with great food served on a beautiful patio where we, and others, would be serenaded by great jazz.

After I had set up the Thursday event, I received invitations first from another friend, then from my brother and sister-in-law. So I celebrated Friday and will celebrate again later today. That should do it.

During the day on Thursday, I spent much of my time responding to cyber “Happy Birthdays” – from people I had worked with, people I had done ceremony with, and people I had learned from and taught. Most astounding: the South African connection restored. But each had great significance, each reflecting different strands of my adult life. I felt rich indeed.

[It would have been nice if my kids had remembered … but they’re male. They’ll probably think of it next month. They mean well.]

I like the idea that my ‘new year’ and Ramadan started at the same time this year (or about the same time). Ramadan is the holiest of months in the Islamic calendar. By fasting from dawn to sunset, Muslims believe they burn away their sins – clean their personal slates. Obviously with special meals three days in a row, I’m not fasting. However, I am using this particular birthday to think seriously about where I go from here. Wherever that might be, it will be enriched by all the personal connections I have made and will make in whatever time is left for me.

So for me, for all my connections, and why not -- when they celebrate ‘Eid-ul-Fitr’ in about a month -- for the millions of Muslims around the world: Happy New Year!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Christmas returned

A couple of days ago I received a Christmas card in the mail. Yes, in early August. It was the one I had sent to a friend in Cape Town, South Africa. Postmarked Dec. 5, it twice crossed the Atlantic, returning to me with the only notation: P.O. Box closed.
I’d been afraid of that – afaid that I no longer had the correct address for Jane Kennedy, the woman I’d worked with when I worked at the Parliament of World Religions in December 1999.

Both us had worked flat out for months, trying to help ensure the success – the impact – of an event we thought would shift the consciousness of the planet’s people. [We were, perhaps, just a little optimistic.] Actually Jane worked ten times harder than me. She had been part of the struggle against apartheid; she knew that consciousness could be shifted.

When the Parliament ended – in debt and largely ignored by the rest of the world – we were devastated. Not just because our jobs had ended but, even more, because we thought that all our efforts had been in vain.

But they were not. In honest, wrenching emails sent through cyberspace, Jane and I helped hoist each other up, finding new ways to use whatever talent, whatever faith we might have, to make more people more aware of the interconnectedness of all life. And Parliaments continued to be held; weaving together people of disparate faiths but common spirits in work to mend the planet.

She went on to produce films. I worked on my books. The inside note on my Christmas card was funny, reflecting a time when she had visited my Chicago apartment. “Dear Jane: I think of you every time I make toast. (I still have the toaster you didn’t like.) My manuscript will be finished before Christmas. One of the novel’s characters lived 12,000 years ago in northern Spain … so of course I had to go there – what wonders! (There’s a brief report on my website What wonders are you creating? Please stay connected.”

She did. Last March she sent an email with her new address. And the we that we were in December 1999 was confirmed, still strong. Still important. Hallelujah!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Loosen Up!

Sometimes I dip down --sort of touch depression, stay there 24 hours or so, then pick up.

It happened just the other day. I was down … but out taking an evening walk. A neighbor of mine – in the next block but still a neighbor – spotted me and invited me to get in her car and go with her to listen to a local outdoor concert.

I didn’t.

About half an hour later I realized that was a very stupid decision.

Sure my purse was right by my unlocked front door. Sure it was late, I looked pretty scruffy, and there were things I should be doing … but really … why didn’t I go?

Part of it is the (expletive deleted) Puritan work ethic that was force-fed to me as I was growing up: every activity should be purposeful. Every activity should be in its appropriate time slot.


And the rest of it is that no one ever taught me how to PLAY – how to be spontaneous – how to throw caution (and all of the ‘shoulds’ that surround us) to the winds.

I am actually better at spontaneity and having fun than I used to be . . . but, BOY, do I have a long way to go.

At least I ‘played’ a little this weekend. Did things just for the fun of them. And discovered  (for the upteenth time) that I am energized by other people. That’s progress. And it explains why this particular post is more than 12 hours ‘late.’

Better late (in learning how to play) than never. Go have fun!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Confession of a Luddite

Down in the right hand corner of this blog is a little box of text about me entitled, “Schizophrenic Luddite”.
You may question that description. After all, someone who has a website and a blog and uses email on a daily basis cannot possibly be a Luddite.


The word “Luddite” describes a person ‘who is opposed to industrialization, automation, computerization or new technologies in general.’ That’s me … selectively.

Anyone who writes anything has to love computers. Remember typewriters and carbon paper and whiteout and the tedious agony of revisions? All gone. God bless computers.

And research? The hours spent in libraries, searching card catalogues and dusty shelves for the specific, tiny reference crucial to whatever point you were making … gone. Or you’re zooming along with a powerful essay but all of a sudden you cannot remember the years when telephones became commonly used. Another trip to the library? Nope. Just a simple Internet search and there’s your answer. Hallelujah.

And email allows you to share news and thoughts and sympathy – or whatever you want to share - knowing that your message will be read at the recipient’s convenience and never cause them to leap naked from a warm bath in response to a ringing telephone or doorbell.

Websites and blogs are canvasses on which you can create a picture of who you are and how you think and what you write.

These are good things. I embrace them. When I called myself a Schizophrenic Luddite, I was acknowledging that I did indeed appreciate the many benefits of certain technologies ... HOWEVER I regard others with considerable trepidation … and awesome resistance.

Like cell phones. Lured by popular culture and the omnipresence of perfectly intelligent people walking around holding one hand over an ear while talking into space, I actually purchased a cell phone. Last October.

It sat in its box nine months. I knew it was there but I didn’t want to use it. I wanted to restrict my electronic (or whatever) communication. Keep it confined to my home/office. I did not want to sit at restaurant ignoring a companion in order to answer a call from someone else. Or any of that kind of thing.

But then I planned a trip the components of which required mobile communications. So I asked my 14-year-old grand niece to show me cell phone basics. And this July I actually used the thing. And I probably will again.

And someday, perhaps, I will master Facebook, and iPods, and even Blackberries or whatever other device someone somewhere – probably in California – is probably creating at this very moment.


One or two things at a time. With great reluctance.

Sincerely yours, the Schizophrenic Luddite.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Passport to the Future

In this country more than in some others, when a child becomes an adult she or he moves out of her or his parental orbit, veers off into the galaxy and may (or may not) create her or his own world.

If parent-child relations are cordial, the parent may get news from this world; descriptions of what it is like, who lives there with the child-now-adult, and (an expurgated version) of what kinds of things go on.

Typically, the child-now-adult may visit her/his parental world and exist there, cordially, on a very temporary basis. What they experience during these visits is polished a little brighter than the parent’s ordinary surroundings, the food substantially finer, and the social/cultural phenomena a little richer than whatever the parent usually experiences (or eats).

None of this is bad but it is constricted. Neither parent nor child really knows the whole cloth of the other’s world – only selected strands.

Once all the perceived traumas and tragedies of a particular childhood have healed, it may become possible for the child-now-adult to admit her/his parent into the world they have created.

It is, in my opinion, the highest honor – the greatest respect – that a child (now adult) can show a parent.

It happened to me just two weeks ago. I visited Chicago – not the sectors where once I lived and worked and had my being but my son’s sectors. I stayed in his apartment in an area of Chicago that before I had only vaguely known about. I walked the streets he walks, ate the food he eats, took the buses he takes. I saw the richness of this formerly foreign neighborhood – its flashes of art and music – the languages spoken, the eddies of community within the general flow. More than that, I dined with his friends – knew them in person rather than by hearsay; met the people with whom he creates musical and visual art; visited his workplace and met his co-workers.

Finally, I was able to piece together a picture of his life; not complete by any means, but exponentially greater that the fragments I had earlier concocted.

It was like seeing my DNA evolve-- seeing the possibilities inherent in a subsequent generation. His generation, making its own world, creating its own values, exploring its own truths.

It is good. I had always suspected it was good. Now I know. And this little essay is a kind of thank you note to my son.