Sunday, February 28, 2021

THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE: Searching For Light in February

         Almost every morning, I sit down and perform the Quaker ritual of holding people in the light.  Although I am not a Quaker,  I have made this practice my own. In my version, I acknowledge the light of the Divine that surrounds and imbues us, hold my hands apart, and picture one person at a time bathed in this light.  I do this for people I love and for people I like, and, in particular for people who are struggling with illness or other challenges. I do it for people I don't know personally and, on good days, I do it for people I struggle to like or accept.  I conclude with a general holding of all who suffer in body, mind, or spirit.  This, of course, covers pretty much everyone.  

         Lately, though, I have struggled to find the light. The short, grey, and drippy days of February affect me physically, psychologically, and spiritually.  So, today, I’m going to share an edited and much-truncated version of a talk I gave at my Unitarian Universalist Church a few years ago.  I share it because I need it now.  Maybe it will help to pull you out of your February doldrums.  I hope so.  


 

         I am sure that many of you have sung these lines:

 

         This little light of mine

         I'm gonna let it shine
         This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
         This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
         Let it shine, shine, shine
         Let it shine!

         As a child, I sang this song with gusto.  I knew I had a light.  As an adult, I often find this hard to remember.  

 

         There is, I believe, a light within each of us.  We know this light when we see it in others. I can see it, for instance, in the Dalai Lama.  His light shines brightly, despite the hardships he and his people have suffered.  I can see it in someone who is fully engaged with a person or animal or activity that is dear to her. It is often visible in the faces of parents upon greeting their newborn for the first time.  And I sometimes see it in the dying people I visit as a hospice volunteer.  Everything else is falling away, burned off by the light within.   

 

         I like to think of the light within each of us as a pilot light—a small flame that is used to light a larger flame, such as the pilot light on a gas stove. The important thing about a pilot light is that it is always burning, always available.    

 

         Because a pilot light burns low, it is possible for us to go through our days without noticing this light within. We may entirely forget that it is there. It is lost in busy-ness, worry, and distraction.  We may forget that we are part of, and carry a piece of, something much larger than ourselves.  We may forget that there is much more to the mystery surrounding our lives than our separate egos and the stories they tell us.


         The poet William Wordsworth addressed this forgetfulness in his Ode on Intimations of Immortality.  There, he wrote that at birth we come “not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory from God who is our home.”      

 

         He went on to describe how we keep sight of the light during our childhoods: 

 

         Shades of the prison-house begin to close     

            Upon the growing Boy, 

         But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,     

            He sees it in his joy;

 

         Following this hopeful image of youth resisting the prison-house of adult cares and the concerns of the world, Wordsworth sadly observes:

 

         At length the Man perceives it die away, 

         And fade into the light of common day.

 

         And yet, even as he laments the prison house, the loss of the Divine light, Wordsworth sees cause for celebration:

 

         Oh Joy!  That in our embers

         Is something that doth live,

         That nature yet remembers

         What was so fugitive!

 

         So how do we recognize and remember that “something in our embers” that always burns within us?  I think that for most of us, this requires quiet and stillness.  If we sit in meditation for a few moments and imagine the light, maybe we will be able to find it.  And if we can find the light in stillness, maybe we will be better able to remember and find it in the middle of the noise and busy-ness of our lives. 

 

         After we have recognized our pilot light, the next step is to figure out how to use it to ignite a larger flame within us. I have a friend who ignites her flame by climbing mountains.  For me, it is immersing myself in my garden. Writing.  Spending time alone.  I don’t know what it is for you.  Maybe it is hang-gliding.  Or prayer.  Or meditation. Whatever calls to you, I believe that when we fully engage in activities where we feel most ourselves, we are both feeding the light within and feeding from it. 

 

         And not only does our pilot light keep our flame alive, it also acts as a pilot in another way, guiding us forward on our path, if only we will follow where it leads.  And I am pretty sure, that it will often lead us in the direction of others, asking us to share our flames.

 

         But maybe you think you have no light to share.  You have been wounded, physically or spiritually.  You think your pilot light is out or is too dim to ignite a flame worth sharing.  It is true that there may be times when our energy is so low that it is all we can do to wrap ourselves around our pilot light and wait. But I don’t think it is ever true that our pilot light goes out. And I don’t believe that our woundedness prevents us from owning and sharing our light.

 

         The late Leonard Cohen famously sang:

 

         Ring the bell that still can ring.

         Forget your perfect offering.

         There is a crack in everything.

         That’s how the light gets in.

 

         What if the light goes both ways?  What if the crack is also how the light gets out?    If you think about it, isn’t it often our woundedness that opens our hearts and gives rise to the compassion that will lead us to shine our lights for others?   None of us gets out of this life without being tested and pounded by our experiences.  But it is this very pounding that softens us and allows our light to shine through our thinned and cracked exteriors and outward to others.

 

         Wounds or no, our little lights can and will shine.  

 

         In seeking the courage to find and follow our little lights, we might remember that, in the middle of the last century, This Little Light of Mine was an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.  When we sing the words of this song, we would do well to hear it for what it was for those who made up this movement:  A song of radical defiance and courage.  The people in this movement refused to hide their lights.  Indeed, they shone their lights in life-threatening situations.  

 

         If they could do this, so can we.  

 

         Spring is coming, friends.  

 

         We can find and shine our lights. 

          

    

                  

                                             Photo by Paul Bulai on Unsplash 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

WHEN DID MY BODY BECOME A SCIENCE PROJECT?

When I was pregnant with each of my two daughters, I felt as if I had loaned my body out to science.  Overnight, it changed shape and demanded strange food.  Buttons didn't button.  Coats wouldn't stretch far enough to keep me warm.  During the early, seasick weeks, one of the only foods I could tolerate was Campbell's tomato soup. (Does that even qualify as food?) If I had ever been in control of my body's size, shape, and general behavior, I was no longer. 


Following each birth, apart from the addition of a few (in my case, much-needed) pounds, my body resumed its former shape and behavior.  And so things remained for a couple of decades, until menopause reared its body-changing head. 

Ever since, I have been watching with fascination (sometimes bordering on horror or amusement) as my body has, once again, left my expectations behind. 

 

Here are a few examples:

 

I still have facial features, but they are getting soft, as is my belly. 

 

I haven't gained much weight, but what I have gained has settled around my middle. This is what my friend Karen calls "trunking" - the inevitable thickening around the waist that comes with age, due, in no little part to the loss of height.  (Yep, daily yoga stretches notwithstanding, I have lost over an inch.  I was 5'5 1/2," but always rounded it up to 5' 6." Now I am 5' 4 1/4" and am hanging onto that quarter inch for dear life.)

 

My hair is still stick-straight and I mostly wear it short, but now when I do try to grow it out, I have wings in the back.  I call this look “winged victory.”

 


Said hair is graying - sort of.  The gray is mostly around my ears.  I wish it would just all turn gray. When I grow it out, I have scary hanks of gray hair next to my face, backed by brown hair on the rest of my head. (No, I’m not going to color it – too lazy, and anyway hair dye turns my gray orange.)

 

Is my nose getting bigger?


My mother keeps showing up in my mirror.  Or sometimes it is my Aunt Pat. And not the youthful version of either of them . . .

 

I am not alone in being surprised by changes.  A friend recently reported that she was startled to find vertical lines along the outside edges of her eyes.  

 

 Another friend has this to say about losing height:  "I hate it.”

 

 (And why are we surprised?  Did we not think we would grow older?)

 

Here's the good news.  Karen, who is very wise, reminds me that no one is looking at us anymore.  Yep, women of our age are largely invisible.  Although this sometimes leaves me nostalgic for my youthful self, I mostly find it strangely comforting.  If no one is looking at me, I can wear and do whatever the hell I want. Of course, it would have been nice to feel this way when people were looking at me, but I am sorry to say, I was not that evolved.  

 

Now, though, as I have written about before, I have less ego involvement in my looks. (Of course, my ego hasn’t entirely shut up, but on good days it’s mostly muzzled.)  In general, my current goal vis a vis my appearance can be summed up as don't embarrass the kids.

 

It can be fun to surprise them, though.  A few years ago, I decided to wear a dress to a family brunch. (Mostly, to leave plenty of room for the food.) A granddaughter, who was four at the time, looked me up and down and said "Dama, I haven't seen you look this fancy in years."  Given her age, "in years" was easily translatable to "ever." (One of the girls couldn't say grandma and grandpa when she was a toddler, so we became dama and dapa.)

 

And if no one is looking at us anymore, this is even more true during the current pandemic.  Almost no one except my husband gets to see me without a mask and, I am happy to report, he thinks I am young and cute no matter how I present.   (And I do present badly at times.)

 

Not being looked at can be a blessing.  Last spring, while salons were closed due to the pandemic, my hair grew to a point that could only be described as Captain Kangaroo on a bad day.  For those of you too young to remember, here he is:


Happily, I did not grow a mustache.  As the pandemic drags on, my hair has again reached that alarming half-grown-out state.  This time, I am calling it my Julie-Andrews-in-The-Sound-of-Music look  – only straighter and messier. (Here's Julie - possibly looking concerned over the state of my hair . . .)

 


In any event, there are ears to tuck hair behind and baseball caps to cover growing-out woes.  So, hair is the least of it. 

 

In my last post, I wrote about Forrest Church's admonition to "want what you have." This seemed pretty reasonable as I applied it to the wonderful bounty that is my life. But, can I want this body?  I think I can. At least, most of the time. The soft belly is the result of bringing two amazing beings into the world.  The surgical scars are the result of operations, one of which saved my life, and the others of which brought me relief from pain or discomfort.  All of the changes and marks in and on my body are signs of what it took to get me here.  And it’s glad I am to be here. So, I will want what I have -- a body that has carried me this far.  

 

And I will remember that no one is looking at me, anyway.

 

 

 

 

Friday, January 1, 2021

WANT WHAT YOU HAVE: Words of Wisdom for the New Year

Want what you have.
Do what you can.
Be who you are.

-       Forrest Church

    

    On this New Year’s Day, I look forward to a rebirth of kindness and civility with the next administration, along with a waning of the pandemic.  Still, I know that things will not improve overnight, and so, as I wait to see how the next few months will unfold, I take comfort in the above words from the late Unitarian minister and theologian Forrest Church.

    

    I'm not exactly sure what these words meant to Church, who used them as his mantra, or maybe I have forgotten, as it is a number of years since I came across this quote in one of his books. I have pondered them on and off, though, and here is what they have come to mean to me.

    

    Want what you have.  These words call me to appreciation and acceptance.  Let's start with appreciation. Often, we are so busy thinking about what we don't have, what we want to acquire, that we don't appreciate what we do have. And, often, we don't appreciate someone or something until we lose them or it. Or, in the words of the old blues song, "You don't miss your water 'til your well runs dry."

    

    And, oh boy, during this pandemic, have I come to appreciate and long for what I had taken for granted.  Hugging my family and friends. Lunch indoors with a friend.  Dinner at a restaurant with my husband.  Swimming.  Walking through a store without a mask.  Going to the movies.  Traveling to visit someone dear to me.  My volunteer work with hospice patients.  In-person gatherings with my book group.  I will never take these things for granted again. 

    

    So, What do I still have that I would be loath to lose.  What is the water I would miss if my well were to run dry?  There is too much to list, but here is a start.  My husband.  My daughters and bonus sons and their families.  My friends. My health.  My home.  My garden. Hot, running water.  Central heating.  A full pantry.  Weather-appropriate clothing.  Books.  Puzzles. Writing projects.  Socially distanced walks with friends.  Noting and appreciating these things looks like "wanting what I have" to me. 

    

    And, yes, I have a lot to appreciate -- more than many, maybe more than most.  There are plenty of people who do not have all or some of what I listed above.  And who could want, for instance, homelessness, a scary diagnosis, a pandemic?  This, I think, is where acceptance comes in.  And by acceptance I do not mean resignation.  I mean not wasting energy on railing against what is, on why-me-ing.  Of course, we will have these and other reactions to awful events, but after a while, we will notice that the awful thing is still a reality, no matter how much we rail. And while we are busy railing, we are not acting. 

    

    Let me hasten to add, I am not suggesting that I am good at acceptance, just that it is something to aspire to.  Here is how the spiritual teacher Ekhart Tolle puts it:  "Accept - then act.  Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.  Always work with it, not against it.  Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy.  This will miraculously transform your whole life."

    

    Ok, so I may not be spiritually evolved enough to accept a pandemic as if I had chosen it or to make friends with injustice, but I get that accepting what is clears a path to try to do something about it.   Which brings us to the next part of Church's mantra.

    

     Do what you can.  Here is where we tackle the diagnosis, the pandemic, or whatever challenges the world presents. Church's mantra reminds me of these words from the Talmud:  "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief.  Do justly, now.  Love mercy, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."  I find this so encouraging.  If I think about the enormity of the work that lies ahead to heal our nation, to bring about racial and social justice, I am paralyzed.  But if I think about one step that I can take and then another, I have the strength to move forward and do my small part.  Same goes for personal challenges.  Find an action.  Take it.  Then find another. 

    

    Be who you are.  This is the trickiest of the three lines for me.  I guess it boils down to doing what is congruent with my own values, to--following Polonius' admonition, being true to myself and avoiding being thrown off my path by the judgment of others or by shiny, distracting things.  Of course, being true to myself means knowing myself, and this has been the work of a lifetime.  I am getting closer, but the work is ongoing.    


    I think an important part of being who I am is not comparing myself with others.  This is an easy trap to fall into, the place where self-judgment gets in the way of peace. There will always be someone doinmoreof something or doing it better than I can.  But, this takes me back to "do what you can."  If I am doing what I can, there is hope for contentment.

    

    I will leave you with this little story that reminds me of the dangers of comparison.  Once, years ago, when my daughters were young, I left my house to take a walk.  A neighbor stopped me and said, "You work.  You have a beautiful garden.  You are a good mom. And you exercise?!  I thought for a moment, and then said, "What you don't know is that I don't cook."  She looked relieved, and I got on with my walk while my husband made dinner. 


Photo by Dmitry Schemelev on Unsplash




Sunday, December 20, 2020

SOME DAYS : Notes on Pandemic Life Nine Months In

Some days I feel like I am holding my breath.

Some days I breathe easy.

Some days I don't want to answer my phone.

Some days I don't want to look at my email or texts.

Some days I avoid the news.

Some days I just want to watch the birds at my feeders.

Some days I miss my family and friends so much my jaw aches.

Some days I am grateful for Zoom, Skype, FaceTime.

Some days I wish they had never been invented.

Some days I walk with a friend.

Some days I walk by myself.

Some days I get lost in a book or a jigsaw puzzle.

Some days I write.

Some days I knit.

Some days I can't settle to anything.

Some days I try to do some good.

Some days I can't think what that could look like.

Some days I know that my cup runneth over.

Some days I can't feel it. 

Some days I am grateful.

Some days I pray for those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit.

Some days I remember that is everyone.

Some days I want to weep.

Some days I want to sing.

Some days I wish I were a frontline worker doing some good.

Some days I am (selfishly) glad I am not.

Some days I grieve for those who have died.

Some days I rejoice to still be here.

Every day I wait to see what will come next.












Saturday, November 28, 2020

I DIDN'T THINK IT WOULD BE SO HARD: Reflections on a Covid Thanksgiving

I didn't think it would be so hard.  I thought I could do a quiet Thanksgiving. I did all right for a while. And, then, without warning, the melancholy set in. All it took was the placing of two (and only two) plates on the table for me to become sad.  Very sad.  

I think I have tolerated the pandemic pretty well.  I am good at entertaining myself.  I like to spend time alone.  Sure, there have been bad days, but it wasn't until Thursday that the loss of human connection due to the pandemic really hit home. 

I don't usually like big gatherings - I prefer to take people one-by-one or, at most, a handful at a time.  But Thanksgiving - Thanksgiving is different.  It is my favorite holiday.  No presents - just lots of food and a jigsaw puzzle and beloved people.

This year we had the food and the puzzle, but there was no need to set up a card table for the puzzle--it fit just fine on the dining room table.


Sitting there, just the two of, it felt like my husband and I were surrounded by ghosts.  Yes, we said our gratitudes, and there was and is plenty to be thankful for.  But, then we found ourselves naming those who have sat around the dining room table over the years - always some combination of our kids and their families, extended family, friends, even ex-spouses.  (They are always family when you have kids together.)

And then there was the fact that we had to do all of the cooking.  In recent years, Mara, my youngest, has taken over the kitchen while I have followed her around doing dishes.  And those who have joined us have always made contributions to the groaning table.  

Even in years when we have not hosted at Thanksgiving, we have always spent it with others.  Never alone. 

And, yes, I know, that many have suffered much greater losses. There are those who have lost loved ones or jobs or homes to the pandemic.  There are those who live alone and are unable for a variety of reasons to get together outside with others for a walk or a visit.  There are those who can't visit loved ones in hospitals or nursing homes.  There are also exhausted health care workers who are putting their lives on the line for us every day, even as people refuse to wear masks and insist on gathering. 

So, on this day, two days after Thanksgiving, with Christmas just a few weeks away, I offer thanks for health and friends and family and a warm and comfortable home.  And I pray that we will find a way to come together as a nation to take care of those who are suffering the most during this challenging time. 



Sunday, November 8, 2020

ON KINDLY UNCLES AND BREAKING GLASS CEILINGS

Ok, I'll admit it.  Biden wasn't my first choice.  And yet I have spent the last 24 hours awash with joy and relief.  Here's the thing.  I have come to believe that Joe Biden is just the kindly uncle we need right now. Sure, he knows his way around the White House and has lots of experience working across the aisle and, sure, he will work on the issues that matter to me - addressing climate change, striving to make  the American dream available to those who have been left out and left behind, getting everyone health care, conquering the virus.  But, really, the best thing about him might just be his avuncular manner.  

Yes, that comes with him telling long-winded stories about his youth and, well, being old.  But, so what?  He isn't unhinged.  He won't be throwing tantrums in the White House.  He won't be calling women pigs.  He won't be calling Mexicans rapists.  He won't be whining and poor-me-ing when he doesn't get his way.  

We all have a crazy uncle or grandfather or friend.  The one who comes to Thanksgiving dinner and won't shut up about every divisive or embarrassing topic he can come up with.  Or the one that comes to the White House and stays for four years.  

We have traded in that crazy uncle for a sane one, one who will at least try to calm things down and bring us together.  And that would have been enough for me today.

But there's more.  He has invited a woman, a Black and Asian woman, for Thanksgiving dinner.  And to the White House.  

People - I am a nearly-71-year-old woman who did not think she would live to see this day.  Women's suffrage was not quite 30 years old the year I was born.  The idea of a woman in the White House was not even on my radar during my childhood.  Men were Presidents.  Women were homemakers.

It took second-wave feminism to make the idea seem plausible, although it soon became clear that there would be many obstacles thrown in the path of female candidates.  I watched Shirley Chisholm run in 1970 and cheered for Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.  But, after Hillary's defeat in 2016, and listening to Trump and Pence express their troglodyte views of women in front of cheering crowds, I figured we wouldn't be seeing a woman in the White House any time soon.  

So, today, I celebrate not just the repudiation of mean-spiritedness and purposeful divisiveness, I celebrate the first female Vice President. The first woman of color to serve in that role. 

Last night, I had tears in eyes as I listened to Kamala Harris.  Women my age have waited a very long time for this day.  Today, my daughters and granddaughters have a role model. And little black and brown girls can look at the White House and see someone who looks like them.  

The 1950s called and we said, uh uh, we aren't going back.

So, tomorrow we can resume the hard work of making this an America for all Americans.  Today, let's pause to rejoice. 

                        Gif by Kaho Yoshida


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

DESIGN FLAWS: SOME THOUGHTS ON SLEEP AND OTHER ANIMAL ODDITIES


I have in in some past posts looked at my fellow humans and asked, "why do they do that?"  This time, I want to ask, "Why did Nature/God/the Universe do that?"  These are questions we rarely ask because they involve the given ground rules for our being.  This, however, does not stop these questions from arising for me, so here I go.  


SLEEP.  Let me begin by saying that I love sleep.  I love crawling between clean sheets and arranging a nest of pillows.  I love leaving the waking world for a while and, on a good night, waking up refreshed. But last night as I got into bed, adjusted my pillows, and put earbuds in to listen to a podcast that would, hopefully, ease me into sleep, it suddenly occurred to me how odd it is that we willingly lie down and make ourselves defenseless and vulnerable for 6 to 8 of every 24 hours.  (And, mind you, we humans generally do this when the world is in darkness, adding to the vulnerability.)  


If you were designing say, an electronic device, would you create something that was incapable of functioning for one-third of every day while recharging? 


SEX.  Yep. I like sex too.  I like the intimacy. I like the pleasure.  And it is a good way to leave behind the petty annoyances that can wear on a relationship.  But, face it, there must be a less-complicated way to reproduce.  I think my eldest came up with the best response to the oddity that is sex when she was four.  After asking her father how a baby gets into "the baby tummy," and being told the daddy has a seed and the mommy has an egg, she waited exactly one day to ask me how the seed got to the egg.  When I told her, she responded, "Penis in vagina--that's too silly for me."  And so it is, when looked at from the point of view of one who has yet to experience its pleasures.    


FOOD.  Again, I like to eat, although I don't much enjoy preparing food. (Click here for a description of my freakish cooking jag early in the pandemic.) I love Mexican food.  And Italian food.  I love chocolate. And I have missed gathering with family or friends over a meal during this pandemic.  But would you drive a car if it required you to spend hours every week shopping for and preparing its fuel?  


ELIMINATION.  This inevitable aftermath of eating food as fuel is a very complicated process, requiring (for humans) toilets and sewer systems in order to avoid disease.  And then there are our pets - We need poop bags for dogs and kitty litter for cats.  I can't believe that Nature could not have come up with a better system.  Couldn't she have set us up with the equivalent of an oil change every six months and left it at that?


CLOTHING AND SHELTER: How come we are the only animal designed with a need for multiple garments to protect our skin and keep us warm?  And don't we win the award for elaborate shelters?  Perhaps the Universe wanted to give us something to do with our time. (As if the food thing weren't already keeping us busy enough.)  And, yes, there is creativity here -- fashion design and architecture, for starters.  Look, I love my home and am willing to clothe myself, but couldn't the powers that be have provided us with the basics -- kind of like a minimum income, only in this case it would be minimum bodily protection, so that a huge swath of humanity wouldn't have to suffer during temperature extremes?


It would seem that Nature has set us down without protection and with a whole bunch of complicated needs and let us have at it to see how we would fare.  


How would you say the experiment is going so far?  

 

                                      photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash