a blog by Margaret Bendet

Author: Margaret Bendet (Page 1 of 5)

I’m Margaret Bendet. I left a journalism career to live in a spiritual community and, after several decades, left that community to become, once again, a professional writer. That’s the nature of my re-entry. The question is, how to do it gracefully. How to return while remembering where I’ve been and why I was there.

Spaces and Flow

On an impulse, I asked a friend who had stopped by for chai one morning what she would change in my living room if she could. Eva hesitated—as any intelligent person would do in that situation. “I really mean it,” I told her. “I may not do what you suggest, but I would love to know what you’d tell me.”

“Well, as a matter of fact,” Eva said, “it seems to me that those four paintings are fighting with each other…”

A half-hour later, I was so glad I had asked. Eva suggested changing the placement of just three paintings, and the difference this makes in the room is breathtaking. There is now space in two places that needed space, and the result is that the paintings appear to flow across the walls. One small, intense piece is in a spot I never would have imagined for it, and a large gold-framed painting of my own is back in my bedroom, where it belongs—and where it looks perfect.

My first thought was that the value of an artist’s eye is unimaginable, but as I consider this further, I think it’s more to the point to say that what cannot be imagined is the value of our friends.

That afternoon I had a Zoom conversation with my friend of longest standing. I had to think of how to put that because Pat is not my oldest friend; what she is, is the only friend I’ve known since the sixth grade. We were both new in the school that year. We didn’t connect with each other then, but the following summer our families both moved to another neighborhood, where we were two blocks apart, and at that point Pat and I began to bond. For years, we hung out at each other’s houses. We were maid- and matron-of-honor in each other’s weddings, and we’ve kept loose track of one another in the years since. It’s always a joy to talk with her. Now, she’s the only friend I have who knew my brother, Geoff, and who also knows that he had a daughter, Heather.

Pat asked about Heather, and after a while I was telling her that Heather was the daughter my mother had always wanted—“She’s little and cute,” I said; “she’s sparkly.” Because Pat knew my mother, she understood.

When she learned that I hadn’t been in touch with my niece recently, Pat said, “You should write to her. Family is so important.”

That was how it happened that, for the second time that day, I followed some excellent advice from a friend. I emailed Heather even though I didn’t feel I had anything special to say. I simply told her that I often think about her. Heather wrote back to say, “I think about you a lot, too.” Her words warmed me.

These threads of love knit us together in a way that I find unutterably beautiful. We’re all individual creations, pieces of art. We have somehow arranged our lives so that there is a great deal space between us, but the flow—the connections—are the very heart of life itself. They’re what matter.

A Moment’s Inattention

It’s been said that we’re most likely to be in an auto accident when we’re close to home. We’re less attentive. One day recently, I’d just gotten back to Whidbey after a medical appointment on what some people call “the other side.” I was listening to an audio book as I maneuvered my car through Langley’s block-long business district to pick up my mail before going home. As I pulled into a place in the Post Office parking lot, I noticed that a police car, lit up like a Christmas tree, was coming to a stop right behind me. Something must have just happened! I opened my car door, swung my feet around, and heard a commanding male voice roar—he seemed to be yelling!—“Do not get out of your car!” My goodness! Was this about me?

Yes, it was.

I sat back on the seat, my legs still sticking out the open door while a red-faced policeman strode toward me. “Are you aware that you just ran two stop signs?” he asked me.

I looked at him blankly. Could I have done that?

“You didn’t even look around,” he said. “I was standing right there, waving at you to stop, and you didn’t even see me!”

No, indeed. I had not seen him. I didn’t argue with the man. What I told him is that almost three years ago one of my closest friends, Yvonne Palka, was killed when she was hit by a car while crossing a street—not in Langley, but it could have been. It could have happened anywhere. A moment’s inattention, that’s all it takes.

That very evening, I attended a presentation at the Unitarian Church by Johnny Palka, Yvonne’s bereaved husband, and their two daughters, Rachel and Tanya, both of whom have children of their own. Shortly after Yvonne’s death, the three of them were approached by the public prosecutor in Minneapolis, where this tragic accident happened, and asked if they wanted it to be treated as a crime. In other words, did they want the driver to be tried in a court of law on a charge of vehicular homicide.

“We said no,” Johnny explained that night at the church. “It was already a tragedy that one person’s life was ended, and it would be an even greater tragedy for still another person’s life to be ended—or ruined—as well.” Then he added, “It is not what Yvonne would have wanted.”

What happened instead is that this family and the driver to whom they were now linked embarked on a process known as Restorative Justice—a structured and counselor-led series of lengthy discussions, explorations, and contemplations to ascertain the harm that had been caused, any ways this harm could be repaired, and how the repair might be put into place. This is why the process is called “restorative.” What we usually do in our courts comes under the word “punitive”; we think of it as retribution. As a Restorative Justice pamphlet says of the US court system, “We look at what has been done, who did it, and what punishment they deserve.”

“I think what made a big difference to me,” one of Yvonne’s daughters, Tanya Thomas, said, “is when I realized that the driver of this car was nineteen or twenty—the same age as one of my own children.”

“And she took total responsibility for what happened,” her sister, Rachel Lochtefeld, added. “There was never any hint that she felt this was anything but her fault.”

The driver was a part of the church presentation, participating by Zoom from Minneapolis with two Restorative Justice counselors. There was, as well, a video on the process the whole group went through. So, the accident took place almost three years ago, the video was recorded about a year and a half ago, and this presentation was held in the last couple of weeks. The reason I’m being precise about the timing is that I was gob smacked by the change I perceived in the driver—from the shy, restrained individual interviewed for the video to the radiant young woman I saw on Zoom. Someone speaking straight from the heart. Someone so open and tender that she moved a roomful of complete strangers fifteen hundred miles away, many of us to tears.

“Of course, I never knew Yvonne,” she said, “but I feel I know so much about her from her family…. The first time I met them, afterward my friend and I couldn’t stop talking about how close they were. I’ve never seen a family that was so together.”

Participating in programs like this one is part of the service this young woman is offering—making the point that inattention behind the wheel of a vehicle can bring heartbreaking loss of life.

It certainly came across to me. After that presentation and the policeman’s personal message in the Langley Post Office parking lot—delivered in his booming voice and punctuated by the pulsing lights of his official car—I have been driving with the care and consciousness that driving truly deserves.

I just keep reminding myself that I could have been the one to kill Yvonne. It could have been me. As someone shared near the end of the program at the Unitarian Church, “It could have been any one of us.”

For anyone on Whidbey Island who would like to further explore Restorative Justice locally, you can contact the man who was host of church presentation: Tom Ewell, at

[email protected].

 

Another Re-Entry

When I take a vacation, the big question is how it will change me once I’m back home again. Some might find that an odd measure to take. Yet I feel it’s implied in the word itself. Vacation—to “vacate” one’s workaday world, to be free from duty, to take a respite from work. It traces back to vacare, “to be empty,” “to be free.” And what’s the point of freedom if it’s followed by precisely the same sort of captivity that preceded it?

Not that I see my life as enslavement, you understand, but there are habits my mind has created, and letting go of these for even just a couple of weeks gives me the option not to pick them up again when I come home. The vacation itself is a chance to evaluate—to truly see—what I’ve been doing.

And my most recent vacation had a second aspect to it. Not only did I vacate my life for two weeks but also someone else stepped into my home to take care of the cat, Mira, with whom I share that home. I got to return to my space and see how someone else had changed it in my time away—replacing, for instance, the broken tray my dish drainer was sitting on; the tray I had been meaning to replace for months, possibly years now, but hadn’t because I wasn’t sure what kind of store sold it or what to call it in an online search. That information is knowable, I see, because Laura was able to resolve this unfathomable issue in the space of just two short weeks.

She also bought a sponge and a sponge holder for the kitchen sink—I hadn’t known of the existence of sponge holders—and she put to the side the handknit dishcloths that I’d bought at the last Nordic Fest, the November before the pandemic, and which I probably should have retired at some point within the following year. In addition, Laura bought a plush bathmat, replacing the frayed towel I had been using for this purpose.

It always helps, I guess, to get a new set of eyes on your living quarters—especially after two years of Covid-inspired solitude. It was humbling, however, especially since I had spent some two weeks cleaning to make my home ready for her. I’m grateful she didn’t see it before I prepared!

The main point of the vacation, of course, wasn’t bringing someone else into my home; it was my going off with an old friend, Ganga Stater—a woman I’ve known in several different circumstances over the last almost fifty years—on a trip to Hawaii, where both of us had spent many years living through various incarnations.

Ganga’s particular genius is to create beauty—not just physical beauty but also experiential beauty. She initiates adventures and explorations. Ganga had brought about this very trip to a house in Kailua, trading the use of her own home in Sedona and also finding Laura, a mutual friend, to cat sit for me so I could go.

My favorite part of this vacation was that, on most days, breakfast involved our packing some food off to Kailua Beach by seven o’clock, sitting in our beach chairs under a tree to eat, and then my going off barefoot on a long walk along the pristine packed sands of this particular shoreline—possibly the best walking beach in the world. I found it to be an absolutely sparkling way to begin the day—moving my body, watching various dogs ecstatically playing in the sand and water, watching the ocean, listening to the sound of the water lapping the sand, walking through the tiny waves, letting it all be play…

Obviously, I couldn’t bring Kailua Beach back to the Pacific Northwest. Whidbey Island is beautiful, but the beaches are rocky, it’s been raining some mornings, and even when the weather is sunny, the air isn’t usually warm. But I’ve been going to bed two hours earlier than I used to so that I wake up with time to meditate, to eat breakfast early, and then to do something where I can move my body first thing. This may mean visiting my vegetable garden; it may mean weeding in my backyard (there’s a lot to do!); it may mean going for a little walk along the bluff overlooking Saratoga Passage. That’s a nice change right there.

I’m also re-evaluating the way I dress. I’m seventy-seven, and living as I do on rural, forested island, I had been drifting into a wardrobe that was jeans, jeans, and more jeans. Well, I can wear skirts, too, and shorts. Why not? In Hawaii I was introduced to some colorful boho tops under the label Johnny Was, an LA firm named after an old Bob Marley lyric. Buying a few of these tops means looking for sales and saving my pennies, but, again, why not?

One significant change in my life is that I’ve been a bit more adventurous—more likely to be the one to say, Yes, let’s do that! More likely to meet a friend for breakfast. More likely to invite someone to bring her twelve-year-old granddaughter with her to dinner. More likely to reach out to a sick friend… It may not sound like much, but it’s been only a week and a half.

I suppose the biggest change is my increasing awareness that life is precious and that my having this body and being able to be in it with friends—with people I know and love—is a gift that has a “use by” date, though I have no idea when that may be. I didn’t need a vacation to tell me this, of course, but it was a huge focus for the two weeks I was away. Everyone I got together with—including my dear ex-husband and a delightful woman with whom I used to work—was dealing with frailties we’d never thought about in our callous youth. One friend didn’t get back to me by email; I had to track him down. Finally, he texted me: “Don’t worry, I’m fine. I was in the hospital, and now I’m in a care home in Kalihi.” Blindsided by a sudden ailment, he hadn’t even told his friends! As we age, such conditions seem to come up in the space of a breath. Ganga, the woman I was traveling with, couldn’t walk on the beach—her all-time favorite thing to do—because in the previous month she’d broken a bone in her foot just by standing in her garden.

During this trip, one morning, early, Ganga and I participated in an online Shree Guru Gita recitation on behalf of Shanti Gaskins, a mutual friend who had died thirteen days before. “She had a super-power for love,” Shanti’s daughter said about her mom, a woman so full of life that you’d never have thought she could possibly die.

But we all do die, and along the way we’re very likely to lose most of the life powers we take for granted—things as basic as digesting food, driving at night, driving at all, walking, remembering…

So, I came home from vacation with an increased awareness that my life is a gift, and that the only sane response, minute by minute, is to reach toward gratitude for what I’ve been given—and an increased sensitivity for what I might be able to give to those around me. It won’t always work out as I’d hoped, but I’m taking a lesson from the license number on the car Ganga rented: TRY. There were some numbers with that, but it was the TRY that sang for me. This, at least, I can do.

Words

Words have immense power. They paint mental pictures and weave meanings. They convey information and make promises. They also stake territory and set forth identity. This last I’ve been thinking about a great deal in the few weeks I have been working with a group of twelve- to fourteen-year-olds. It’s my first foray in a long time into communication with another generation. I just recently turned seventy-seven, and in just about any culture, I could be the great-grandmother of these young people. I’m discovering that, in some ways, we speak different languages.

One of the students, the granddaughter of a friend of mine, explained to me last week that in her world ish is a word. It means “kind of” or “almost like.” I could see this. I am accustomed to ish as the ending of a word, the suffix. I might say that someone is smallish… or hawkish… or unselfish. In books I read, people describe themselves to be peckish. If I refused to accept the word ish, I could see that I might be schoolmarmish, textbookish, or even mulish. So, I did open to it. Language is alive, after all, and to say otherwise would be cultish.

But then another student wanted to use sorta instead of the original sort of.

I dug in my heels. It had been a bad morning. “Sorta is not a word,” I told her.

“It’s not?” she said. “You would never use sorta?” She knew, of course, that there are definitely instances in which one would write sorta.

“If you were doing dialect,” I said. “But then you would set that up in the writing. It wouldn’t be just the one word that sticks out.” You would also be using words like coulda, shoulda, woulda… There would be more than just this one dropped consonant, this one running together of letters.

“Actually,” she said, “I say sorta.”

In fact, we all do—most Americans do, anyway. We speak what I think of as potato chip–English, with careless pronunciation and no thought of syntax. But shouldn’t we have standards for our writing?

So, I asked her, “What if you were writing a note to a friend whose mother had just died? What if you were writing a college entrance essay?  And right now, what you’re writing is a paper for a class in school…” In other words, is this a time when you want to write sorta?

On reflection, there is much similarity between the question of sorta and ish. For one thing, it’s generational. It’s young people saying, This is the way I talk. I don’t want to follow your stuffy rules of grammar. I want my language to reflect who I am and how I speak. Funny, too, that both words have the same meaning. Sort of. Kind of. Approximate.

What they remind me of is the conversations I had with my mother and my grandmother sixty years ago—the 1960s, another time when there was a chasm between the generations. My parents were certain that their music was better than mine, that rock’n’roll was just a flash in the pan. And when I married, my grandmother knew that I would need sterling silver cutlery and not the stainless steel I’d told her I wanted. She was wrong. They were wrong, all of them!

I thought my forebears had made a mess of things; I wanted something different for my own life. And that is what I did: something very different. Truthfully, it’s satisfying.

Now, young people are insisting on that for themselves, and I think their reasons are the same as mine once were.

Probably the most profound language issue I’ve faced in these recent weeks is gender neutrality. I had a conversation with a lovely girl—these young people have all been lovely, every one of them—about how a huckleberry would not know the gender of the deer he was looking at and so, naturally, he (the huckleberry) would refer to the deer as they. After some thought, I agreed.

Again, looking back sixty years, the default pronoun, the pronoun that was used universally at the time, was he. The feminine was obscured, and there were no possibilities for shades in between masculine and feminine. I must say that they is an improvement.

What I asked this huckleberry author to do is to use the word deer a bit more than she otherwise might and the pronoun they a bit less. “Because they is plural,” I told her, “and there’s only one deer, readers could be confused. You want to help people follow what you’re saying.”

It’s a question of being kind to your elders. Who, with encouragement, could come around.

Sorta.

 

Speaking from the Heart

Last week in my writing group, I burst out at one point with a bracing, “Shut up!” This isn’t the way I want to communicate with my friends—or with anyone else, for that matter—and so afterward I gave some thought to what I’d said, why I’d said it, and how I could avoid such outbursts in the future.

One of the things I did was telephone the woman to whom I had addressed this unfortunate command and apologize to her. After I let her know that I didn’t approve of my words or my tone, I asked her, “Could I tell you why I think this happened?” She was interested in hearing what I had to say… which was, in itself, a big lesson for me. Obviously, I could have said it to her at the time. It wasn’t necessary for me to remain silent while my inner steam built to the point of explosion.

What I’d like to say now is something about speaking from the heart when giving feedback in writers’ groups.

To a great extent, what we’re doing in our group is telling personal stories, reliving parts of our lives. These stories can bring up emotions for us as we’re writing them or reading them aloud, and they can also bring up emotions for others as they hear them.

My suggestion is that when we feel emotion as we listen to someone read that we recognize this and acknowledge it in our feedback. The woman I yelled at had been—to my mind—haranguing the person who had just read. She didn’t know how brilliant she was; she should be writing more; she should organize the stories she’d already written; she had stories that other people needed to read…

It is a litany that has been going on between these two for years now. And one thing that I have long felt is that this woman’s irritation with her friend is a huge projection because the woman making this complaint has her own brilliance, doesn’t write enough herself, and has just recently gone through some compelling and universal experiences that other people would truly benefit from hearing about.

But what was happening inside me, as I listened to her in the group was something else entirely. Suddenly, this friend was my mother, talking to me, complaining to me. I didn’t write to her enough; I didn’t call her enough; and when I went to see her, it wasn’t often enough, and I didn’t stay long enough. No matter what I did, it wasn’t enough—and, it seemed, it wasn’t going to be enough, ever.

In the moment, it felt like self-defense. But of course, it wasn’t. This had nothing to do with me, and if I had spoken up earlier, I would have known that at the time I spoke.

I think we need to try to be crystal clear in our communication and to take responsibility for our reactions. There is no earthly reason for us to be heated in our responses to somebody else’s writing. We are not our sister’s keeper. We might disagree with someone’s political views. We might think someone doesn’t have the best handle on an exchange they describe. Or we might think she’s the most brilliant writer since Virginia Woolf, we might not understand why such a genius would want to hide her light in the forests of Whidbey Island…

But why should any of this bring up emotion?

The fact is that most of us in this particular group are what the writer that day so perspicaciously admitted to being herself—lazy. None of us writes as much as we could or perhaps should—anyway, not as much as we want to. The youngest of us has been on this planet for more than three-quarters of a century; most of us are dealing with serious physical challenges; and those who aren’t now know that we could be in any moment. We know that any of us could be gone in the blink of an eye. We all like our rest, our reading, our entertaining films and TV series, our phone conversations, our delicious dinners. We also like to write, but I don’t think any of us is driven to write. We don’t necessarily want to relive every pertinent moment of our lives—even if it might benefit someone else to read our story.

And that’s just fine.

So, I’ve promised myself that next time, I’ll speak up sooner. I’m pretty sure if I do that, I’ll be using gentler words and delivering them in a warmer tone. I might say something like, “You know, for some reason, Donna, your feedback to Micky is painful for me to hear…” And then I’d begin my exploration of why that might be.

I am committed to doing this.

And if I do speak in a way that feels brusque or harsh, I’ve asked the members of this group, as friends, to call it to my attention. Actually, I’d appreciate that feedback from anyone–since we are, all of us, on this journey together..

 

Reciprocity

At the height of the pandemic, I was adopted by a cat—a blue-eyed, probably part-Siamese female who had been left with my next-door neighbor. The cat’s name was Marie, but this didn’t seem to suit her, so I began calling her Mira—which is close in sound but quite different in association. Mira is the name of one of India’s poet-saints, a sixteenth-century Rajasthani princess who left her husband to join the company of other devotees. That’s the way I see what our Mira did. I’m not sure how she sees it. She and another cat, a male named Roy, were parked at my neighbor’s house last summer by one of his ex-wives, who told him she was going on a two-month vacation to Hawaii.

Shortly thereafter, one day in July I was sitting, just as I am right now, on my couch writing, with my laptop propped in my lap. The front door was open but with one of those magnetic, semi-cloth screens that discourage flies from coming in but not cats. A cat with artful markings in silver, black, and gold crept in from under the screen, walked quickly and stealthily past me, through the living room and into the kitchen… and just as stealthily back through the living room and into the bedroom and bathroom… and then she ran out the front door.

It was odd. Anyway, I thought it was odd. This whole time—maybe a minute in total—I was trying to encourage the cat to come to me on the couch so I could pet her. But it was as if she were on a mission. The next day, the cat came back, and this time she approached me directly; she was happy to be petted—a bit. Once again, she didn’t stay long. But I realized then that the first day had, indeed, been a mission, a reconnaissance mission. She’d been checking out the whole area, making sure there were no nasty surprises in store—a dog or another cat hiding somewhere, ready to ambush her.

Before very long, Mira took to staying the day with me. When my neighbor returned home after work, she’d go to his place for dinner—and then come back to me again to sleep. I got some cat treats for her, but that was it. She ate with him and lived with me. I hadn’t been ready to take on another animal. Having lost a beloved pet a few years back, I didn’t want to make another commitment. But this was just for two months, right? So, in this way, Mira snuck up on me.

When autumn came, I surmised that the person who’d dropped Mira off was not coming back to get her. By this time, the bond was forged, and there was no going back. I started feeding her, my landlord put in a cat door, a friend installed a ramp on the deck, and I got one of those multi-level cat environments, which now has pride of place in my living room. I became a cat lady.

It would have been hard to go through the isolation of the pandemic without Mira curled up and sleeping in a ball in various places throughout my home, leaping to the top of my bookshelf, sitting in my lap when I chant, looking over at me with her enigmatic blue eyes, making those deep-throated cat sounds that I cannot replicate even though I try.

A few months ago, I got a hint that Mira’s moving in was, in part, a way for her to escape from some form of domestic abuse next door. Late one night I heard her making distress sounds in her penthouse suite. I got up and walked over to her. Mira was sitting erect in the dark, staring out through the sliding glass door to the deck outside. I couldn’t see anything in the dark, but I turned on the deck light—and there he was: a stocky male cat looking up at Mira. “Roy!” I thought. I stood next to the window and tapped on it, close to him. Roy hissed at me, and then he turned and ran off the deck.

That night Mira slept in bed with me, rolled into a tight ball, pressed against my heart. So, perhaps I did something good for her as well. Which is as it should be.

 

The Non Sequitur

A few weeks ago yet another big man was being accused of sexual harassment, and I was talking this over with some old friends—“old” in two ways: women I’ve known a while and also women, like me, of a certain age.

“What he did was nothing,” one of these women said. “Anybody our age who has ever had a job has dealt with things like this.”

“Actually,” another put in, “in some contexts it would be considered a compliment to have a man come on to you. It’s what we used to call flirting.”

Flirting? The anger that came up in me was utterly disproportionate to the company, to the topic, to what was called for in the moment. Still, I was mad, and I jumped into this conversation with both feet. In an I-am-not-kidding voice, I observed that kissing a woman twenty-five years younger than you on the mouth at a party is not flirting—and is especially not flirting when she neither expects nor wants that kiss.

“And an older man asking a young woman how she feels about having an affair with an older man?” I said, “That’s just creepy!”

Well, perhaps it is, but why was I so angry about it? Where did that reaction come from?

It’s not that I’ve been the recipient of so very many salacious moves in my life. I’m tall, bespectacled, flat-chested, and I have what someone once described to me as a Modigliani face. I’m not the sort of woman who inspires such advances—yet they frighten me. I think that’s because I’m also not the sort of woman who handles them well. As the child of alcoholics, I’m grateful for attention. Yet having grown up with the double standards of the 1950s—men can do anything; women have to handle whatever comes at them—and a certain kind of attention scares me.

And when the man throwing out loaded compliments to women isn’t some movie producer or sports star or blowhard talk show host, when he’s a state governor and a liberal politician, when he sponsors egalitarian legislation and says all the right things from a podium, when he’s the kind of person you want to trust—it’s all the more horrible.

I don’t have a really pithy and incisive wrap-up for this. The other day I was in the Costco parking lot, trying to figure out what exit to take so I would end up traveling north on the road my GPS had identified as the route home, when I stopped in front of some workmen who were obviously taking a break. I rolled down my window, and asked, “Can you tell me which of these roads is ____ (whatever the name was)?”

“Hi!” one of the men called out. “Nice hair!”

It was a bit of a non sequitur. “Thanks,” I said. I asked again about the road, but the compliment wedged in me. There’s no other word for it. Getting my directions, I drove away, thinking, Nice hair. Well, good. The fifteen minutes that morning with a hair dryer and brush had been worth it. I turned onto the right road. Nice hair. I patted it… and then I groaned. What was wrong with me! How could it matter—at all!—that some guy in a Costco parking lot had approved of my hairstyle. Miles on and minutes later, I was still thinking, Nice hair! By then I had to laugh.

It’s one of the things I like the very least about myself. I am so hungry for praise that the odd compliment, a little personal attention, is like manna for me—especially when it comes from a man. When I was growing up, it was a man’s attention that mattered.

I remember the first time I ever received male approval. I was fifteen. I was at a football game with some girlfriends. I had just gotten contact lenses and that day I was wearing a padded bra. A group of boys from the rival school walked past our little clutch, and I heard one of them say, “Tall one, mmm,” and I knew he meant me.

I also knew that the impression I’d made was artifice and that if we’d had even a ten-minute conversation, his interest would probably dissipate. Still, the feeling of receiving that superficial approval was so sweet that I remember it even now, sixty years later.

Last week in my Zoom hatha yoga class, the teacher spoke about what a challenging time this year—and perhaps especially this winter—has been for so many people. “We’re not at our best,” she said, “any of us.”

Then she added, “You know that wonderful feeling you get when someone accepts you just as you are? Wouldn’t it be liberating for us to give that kind of acceptance to ourselves! We could feel that kind of security all the time.”

I’ve been playing with that suggestion, considering that radical self-acceptance might be the only solution to my feeling of vulnerability. What would that even look like? Maybe a first step would be to look in the mirror once in a while and tell myself, “Nice hair!”

Why not! It couldn’t hurt.

Cross the Line

It’s been a hard month. I’m not entirely sure why. A few weeks into it, snow fell, and I let that cold white blanket covering the ground keep me in my house for maybe four days. I had heat. I had food. I had work and entertainment. But I felt as if I were allowing myself to succumb, to lie down in the face of life.

Then mid-month, on Valentine’s Day, two people came to my door and left wrapped treats for me. It was like two hands reaching out—one of them holding homemade chocolate chip cookies and the other gaily wrapped chocolates. Have I ever mentioned my love for chocolate? At one point, when I was living in the ashram, my spiritual teacher observed that I came to the facility where she lived only when I thought I would be given chocolate. It’s not the way I would have put it, and what she said has always given me food for thought.

This Valentine’s Day, each of the wrapped chocolates had a legend inside. I’m a suggestible sort, but I usually rise above the maxims that come with candy. Somehow this was different. Twice I opened chocolates that were wrapped in the words, “Cross the line.” Even the first time I saw these words, they galvanized me. “Cross the line” could mean lots of things, but immediately upon seeing these words, I took a specific meaning from them. To me it was about stepping up to a challenge. So often I will do the needful, the necessary, but I won’t do it with the verve, the commitment, the passion that it takes to break a boundary. I won’t truly cross the line.

And then I looked around my house—was I stepping up to the challenge offered me now? There were piles of papers on my dining room table—all the paperwork from the taxes I hadn’t finished yet. The coffee table was messy as well—ashes from the last few days of incense, the coasters askew. The rug needed vacuuming. I hadn’t exercised that morning. I hadn’t been using the Water Pik at night; the extra five minutes it took to truly clean my mouth seemed too much to do. And I didn’t have food for breakfast the next morning. I’d been planning to make muffins, but I hadn’t done it yet.

What was it going to take to inspire me to support my own life with enthusiasm? To cross the line. I don’t know who said this phrase or what they had in mind with it, but for me, in the dark of this winter, it became a clarion cry to inspire me out of my sloth.

“Cross the line,” I told myself. So, I did. I finished my taxes. I vacuumed the living room. I made some muffins… and then, when friends stopped by with an extra helping of dinner or some dal a neighbor had brought them that they’d found they couldn’t eat, I had something to hand to give to them in return: homemade blueberry muffins. It’s a tiny thing, two muffins, but I could tell that, just like the wrapped chocolates and homemade cookies had made a difference for me, these muffins made a difference for two other people. So, it matters when we cross the line.

It led me to think about a time that was much, much worse for me than this month, a time when I truly felt like I wasn’t crossing any beneficial line. Let me tell you that story because it came up recently in a way that surprised me.

It was 1976, and I had been following my first teacher for a year and a half. It was my birthday, and I had, the previous year, come to the understanding that, as an ashram tradition, on your birthday you think in terms of what you can give to others and not what they can give to you. I was on a very pared back budget, saving so that I had enough to make the trip to India in five months, and I decided that the one thing I would do for my birthday was to make an offering to my teacher. I happened to be in town, and I stumbled onto a knitting shop, where there was some glorious yellow mohair yarn and knitting needles on sale. People made hats for my teacher, and, though I’d never successfully knitted anything in my life, I decided that this was within my budget and that I should do this.

This was something like two days before my birthday, and the night before, I was working on this stupid hat. It really was a stupid hat. Why had I thought that I should make him a hat. I had never made a hat before in my life. And this one was not working. Not at all working. I was going to stay up all night making this stupid hat…

And then suddenly I was exhausted. There was nothing more appealing to me than the thought of bed. I wasn’t going to be able to make the hat. It wasn’t even the right color. Yellow. My teacher wore orange or red. He didn’t even wear yellow.

So, I went to bed. I did not stay up all night knitting a hat—something extremely difficult for me to do; something I wasn’t even sure I could do—as a way of demonstrating my love for someone who had transformed my life in so many ways. But not in this way, obviously, and not in this moment.

The next day I woke up feeling terrible. At one point in the day, I was about to cross the street, and I saw that there were cars coming, one from each direction. “Let’s just see what fate has in store for me,” I said to myself. I stepped into the road, and I crossed it without looking again in either direction. Obviously I didn’t die. I didn’t get hit either.

That evening my teacher walked into the meditation hall resplendent in pale yellow. He was dressed in yellow from head to foot—exactly the same color and shade as the mohair yarn that was still sitting in my room. Had I been willing to cross the line, the hat would have been a triumph.

I got in the line for darshan, and as I moved closer to him, I kept seeing myself stepping into the road. I understood then that this particular form of crossing the line—crossing the road in that fateful moment—had been wrong, wrong, wrong. It was the act of a petulant child who was unwilling to live with what life was giving her.

When I got up to my teacher’s chair, I knew he would give me hat. He gave hats—the knitted hats given to him—to people who were celebrating their birthday. I could have not told him it was birthday, but I knew in that moment that I needed to offer myself. I bowed. I looked up. I saw the stack of hats on the table beside his chair, and as my eyes moved up them, the embarrassing thought formed in my mind, “Anything but the brown and orange one.”

The swami’s hand went for it, unerringly—the brown and orange one, the acrylic machine-made hat—and then it was on my head, pulled down over my forehead.

I wore the hat quite a bit that summer, going through some difficult moments. Having to scrimp for everything. Writing an article about meeting my teacher that was blissful to put together but was not well received. Being told by a poetry professor from Brooklyn College that this article was the worst writing he had ever read in his life (words that will be with me for the rest of mine). Being told in person by the glamorous Gloria Steinem that Ms Magazine did not want to publish my article…

But I did get to India, and the hat—machine-made acrylic that it is—has survived these forty-five years since. I think of it as the kind of garment that can last for five hundred years in a landfill. No self-respecting moth would touch it. But a year ago, at the beginning of the current pandemic, when I was feeling a need for extra support, I pulled out that little hat and I started wearing it to bed every night. The other day, shortly after I got up, my foot brushed something that was soft and radiated love. I could feel the love coming into my foot. I looked down. It was the hat. It had come off in the night and was on the floor.

Me, in my hat, 45 years later.

This led me to think that sometimes we don’t know what “cross the line” actually is. Sometimes when it feels like life is hard, just hanging in there is crossing the line.

 

 

The Dark and the Light

Last week, I was receiving strong glimpses of my mind in vivid shutter frames.

A man is sprawled out on a chair in front of what I am told is U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk, his feet resting on her papers, his face set in bemused contempt.

I think, “Kill him!”

An older woman shows up in this TV footage: a well upholstered body, a self-satisfied face. She looks like a grandmother, except that, in this moment, she is so clearly pleased with herself. She has done something. She has made a statement. She has shown up for a cause she cares about. She is doing her part to storm the U.S. Capital and stop these radical Democrats from stealing the 2020 presidential election.

I want to slap that silly, deluded smile right off her face. This is my first reaction every time I see this woman on my computer screen. She comes up in the news reports again and again and again.

And then there is a man who has painted his face in the colors of the U.S. flag—red, white, and blue—and wrapped himself in what looks like wolf fur with ram horns stuck atop his head. Seeing this image, my mind freezes. This man has demeaned not just a national election and congressional building but also pure, innocent forms of nature—animals incapable of mispresenting truth, animals that know no malice and have no agendas. This makes these beasts better than the both of us, this man and me.

I understand that my rage puts me on precisely the same level as that which I am raging against. We are operating at the same frequency, these sneering insurrectionists and I, the contemptuous political observer. I suppose the one difference might be that in sensing this parallel, I reach for something else.

I take a deep breath and remind myself that there is another way. There is Goddess Sarasvati.

In the spiritual traditions of India, Shri Sarasvati is known as the goddess of learning and speech, of creativity and the arts, of knowledge and wisdom. We are now approaching spring, which in India is the time of Vasant Panchami, a holiday dedicated to the worship of Goddess Sarasvati. This year it will fall on February 16. I think of Sarasvati as my ishta devata, my main god. Besides my spiritual teacher, Goddess Sarasvati is my primary focus of worship.

What should I tell you about Sarasvati? I have never seen her subtle form in my mind’s eye, but the various representations of Goddess Sarasvati that I have on pujas in my home show her as she has appeared to others in meditation. The goddess wears white, for purity. Like many Indian deities she has four arms—so much to do!—and in her hands she holds not weapons but implements of study and creative endeavor. A book, representing holy scriptures. A vina, a classical stringed instrument that makes heavenly music. A container of water for worship and to fill the most basic of human needs. A japa mala, a string of beads to aid in keeping track of the repetition of sacred mantras. Sarasvati’s gemstone is the pearl, which is a sea creature’s creative response to irritation.

There aren’t many stories about this goddess in the scriptures of India. The thought is that the scriptures themselves are expressions of Goddess Sarasvati, and she is not the sort to make a big deal of herself. There is one scripture, the Yoga Vasishtha, that contains an epic tale in which Goddess Sarasvati guides a supplicant, Queen Lila, through multiple levels of existence to the understanding that what she thinks of as her own life is nothing more than a flicker of thought taking place in one corner of sage’s dream. From this profoundly humbling revelation, Queen Lila experiences the ultimate truth of existence and, by the grace of the goddess, becomes Self-realized. As far as celestial adventures go, “The Story of Queen Lila” is quite extraordinary—like Shri Sarasvati herself.

The names of Indian deities are always highly significant. The name Sarasvati is in two parts: the word saras comes from sa rasa, which means “with essence,” and vati is “the one who embodies.” So, Sarasvati is the one who embodies the very essence—the sound in music, the flavor in food, the feeling conveyed in a dramatic presentation, the heart of life itself. Rasa has another meaning as well—”the life waters,” such as the sap of a tree. Those who remember Sarasvati with love experience the flowing beneficence of her inspiration and blessings, which are themselves experienced as love.

The most important thing to remember about Indian deities is that they each represent powers of the human mind. Goddess Sarasvati is within each one of us, and we can call on this divine power, cultivate this power, manifest this power in our own lives—as we wish.

When I think of Sarasvati, the word that comes to mind is numinous. It meanswith awe and reverence.” After invoking the goddess’s presence, as I’ve done by describing her, it is this—a sense of the numinous—that I would now wish for our insurrectionists. I cannot think of them by any other name. It was, after all, my vote they wanted to throw out. But it isn’t just that they opposed me; it is the way they did it. In the film clips I could see that they lacked reverence, they lacked awe, they lacked humility. And this I would like for them to have.

You might notice that I’m not specifically saying they shouldn’t also experience pain. Some pain comes inevitably as a result of an indulgence in thoughtless and violent behavior. But I am not now wishing these people pain because I want to hurt them. It’s because they need to go through the consequences of their actions, they need to learn from what they have done. We would all benefit by their being in a more exalted frame of mind.

More importantly, I am benefitting from being in a more exalted frame of mind. I am no longer thinking, “Kill him.” The life-giving waters of love are flowing through my veins once again. I know Sarasvati, and I am at peace.

Whatever means works to bring you to this state, I implore you to discover it and to apply it as we move forward at this extremely difficult juncture.

 

Christmas

I do like Christmastime, and I hate to admit it, but I think part of the reason has to do with the lights, the sparkle, the surfeit of cookies and candy, and all those wrapped presents. My favorite image from Christmas is the tree with presents around it.

My experience has almost always been that the gifts themselves are bittersweet—not quite right, if you know what I mean. I don’t think I’ve ever unwrapped a Christmas gift and been utterly thrilled by it—but I am happy to see presents in their paper and ribbons, and I love to wrap the gifts I give other people. It’s an art form, which at the least half the time I create with paper and ribbons salvaged from earlier gifts. Something happens in the wrapping of a gift. A simple expression of one’s affection becomes… a mystery, a sparkling symbol of the season, a sign that this person is loved.

My mother had a real thing about having a lot of gifts under the Christmas tree. Money was always tight in our house, but Christmas had to be big. My senior year of high school, when we were shopping for school clothes in September, I absolutely loved a particular jacket called a car coat. It was stylish and cool… the coat that everyone at school would be wearing. My mother said, “I’ll buy it for you, but it has to be a Christmas gift.”

“Can’t you let me have it now?” I asked her. “You’re paying for it now.”

“No,” she said, “because then, when Christmas comes, you’ll forget. The car coat will be old then. You’ll have been wearing for months. And you’ll feel badly that you aren’t getting enough for Christmas.”

So, for four months the car coat sat in my mother’s closet. It was then duly wrapped and put under the Christmas tree, and I wore it to school in January—when that very car coat was on sale for a fraction of what it had cost in September and when, truthfully, at school it was no longer considered “in.”

With a history like that, you’d think I’d despise Christmas gifts, but no. Perhaps I’ve become my mother. I like wrapping the gifts, having the wrapped gifts sitting out.

My brother was the same way. After Mom died, I spent a few Christmases with Geoff and his family, and one year, I realized that he and his wife had wrapped underwear—not special underwear, just underwear that they were going to get for themselves anyway—and put it under the tree with their names on it. “It’s nice to have a lot of presents under the tree,” Geoff said. He wasn’t even embarrassed. Why would he be? He was raised by the same mother I was.

I will say that my focus long ago shifted. Almost nobody is coming into my house in this year of social distancing, so the presents I’ve wrapped and have sitting around my tree are not for show. And they’re certainly not presents for me. Truly, I no longer think of Christmas as time to receive gifts. It is a time to give—and the wrapped gifts that sit around the tiny tree on my dining room table give me enormous pleasure because they’re a sign that I’ve grown up, that I have a family of my own—my friends—and that within my always-somewhat-limited resources, I can create shine and sparkle and mystery to share.

Absolutely the best gift I gave this Christmas was to Mira, the Siamese-and-something cat who is now living with me. She is named after a 16th-century Rajasthani princess, a poet-saint who is celebrated for the ecstatic love-songs she sang to Lord Krishna. Our Mira has not manifested this particular trait, but she does sit in my lap purring while I recite holy texts, and I take this as a sign of her potential for elevated consciousness.

I couldn’t help but notice, however, that this cat was actively seeking elevation of another kind. She liked to jump from my computer desk to the top of a five-foot bookshelf in the living room, switching her elegant tail in front of a picture of my Guru that hangs there. Once she leapt—I know not how—to the top of the seven-foot bookshelf in my bedroom and knocked to the floor the stuffed animals on display.

I decided that what Mira needed was her own seat, and one day last week, on a whim, I went to a sort of pet emporium just north of Freeland and purchased a four-foot-high contraption fashioned by a local artisan from Whidbey Island driftwood. This piece involves two stable steps to an upholstered perch, where Mira now pretty much lives. It took her a day to try it out—as sometimes happens with gifts—but once she’d achieved that penthouse level, she clearly knew that this was her place.

I have seen friends enjoy, and sometimes even cherish, gifts I’ve given them. But I have never before had the satisfaction of watching someone inhabit their gift. It was as if I had bought Mira a home. I found the experience quite fulfilling.

It reminded me of a conversation I had some three decades ago with a Hawaiian kapuna, an “elder”—who was probably the age I am now—about the nature of aloha, which in its broadest sense, means “love.” This woman said, “If I give you a papaya, it isn’t that I wouldn’t enjoy eating that papaya myself. I would enjoy it. I like papaya.” She paused. “But I would take a greater joy in your joy.”

So, that’s my new understanding of the Christmas spirit—it’s about the greater joy of giving.

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