a blog by Margaret Bendet

Category: Day by day (Page 1 of 3)

Homing In

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to create a home for myself. This is something I have done, on my own and from scratch, ten times in my adult life. I’m not talking about simply moving, as I did from California to Oklahoma at age ten with my parents and younger brother. This did present difficulties, but creating a home was my mother’s bailiwick, not mine. Nor am I talking about going off to a state college at seventeen or transferring to a school in Chicago two years later. In both of these instances, I was entering new cultures, but I did so with hordes of other young people. I wasn’t alone in my adventure; we were all in it together.

At twenty-one, however, when I traveled to Honolulu to be in my college roommate’s wedding, I actually was on my own. The wedding covered a few days, but then Barb went off on her honeymoon, her family returned to California, and I was in Hawaii by myself—learning my first big lesson about security and self-care:

  1. Make sure you have sufficient resources to survive.

When I flew to Hawaii on a one-way ticket, I had only a hundred dollars in my pocket. Barb had told me I’d have no trouble getting a bread-and-butter job as a cocktail waitress in Waikiki, but two days after I arrived, an airline strike started. By the time I was looking for work, the tourist places were laying off staff; they were not hiring. It was a little scary. For a while I was eating Carnation Instant Breakfast powder because it was cheap and living in a room I’d rented for twenty-five dollars a week in the Waikiki Jungle—a slum that existed beside the hotels. This was a spectacularly unsatisfactory “home,” and my first night there, I discovered I wasn’t even living in it alone. The minute the lights went off, the room came alive with hundreds of cockroaches—and in Hawaii they’re flying cockroaches. Hawaii itself is magnificent, but my first place of residence there left a lot to be desired.

Immediately, I put my energy into finding work. After an eye-opening stint as a cocktail waitress in Kalihi—which is Honolulu’s factory district and, thus, not reliant on tourists—I landed a job as a reporter on the largest of the two local newspapers. It was a relief, but, truthfully, I don’t feel I began putting together a real home for a couple of years. That’s when I married. The marriage didn’t last, but it was good for me. While I was with Ed, I learned how to cook and came to understand my second big lesson for home and nurturance:

  1. Home is where you feed yourself and the people you love.

For some reason, my mother had never taught me how to prepare food. One of Ed’s friends gave us Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking as a wedding present. I would get home from my job at the paper, prop up the book on the kitchen counter, and endeavor to make something, taking my lessons from a real chef. I started drawing up weekly menus with colored pens and posting them on the refrigerator. I thought of it as homey.

I sometimes say that I was married for five of the happiest years of my life, and then I have to add that, unfortunately, the marriage lasted for seven years. Basically, the last year and a half Ed stopped speaking to me. There were reasons, of course. I understood this, even at the time. It wasn’t my fault, but my husband was in pain, and I was right there as the person he could close himself off from. This served, for me, as a vital lesson about what a home is not. Now people ask me how I can be happy living alone. So easily! What’s impossible, I found, is to be happy while living with someone who doesn’t want to live with me. Leaving my husband was a way to care for myself, and I learned something about home from it, too:

  1. Don’t allow your sense of home to depend on another person.

So, I left our home and went off on a great adventure. I traveled on the staff of an Indian master of meditation, starting my life all over again. For the first year, I was living out of a suitcase—three weeks here, a month there. Finally, I realized that even though meditation is amazing, even though I spent at least some time every day in a state of unconditional love, I was not truly happy. It came to me one day with the force of revelation that if I was going to live out of a suitcase, I had to make that suitcase beautiful. It was an understanding of what I needed to feel at home.

  1. You have to make your home beautiful—as beautiful as you can.

I started working on that, consciously, and within a month, the swami’s tour came to stop for a year, in an ashram on the West Coast. Then, instead of having just a suitcase to work with, I had a whole bottom bunk. And, understanding that beauty is a need of mine, I did make it beautiful.

I spent years in ashrams, but I also moved between ashrams in different countries and sometimes from an ashram into a community that was new to me. Each of these times, I was entering a new space and creating a home for myself.

When I was living in Washington, DC, for instance, I shared an apartment with the daughter of the congressman I was working for. She was a government lawyer and a sweet young woman, but she was completely utilitarian about our living space. She had a huge running machine set up in the middle of the living room. I couldn’t do anything to make that room beautiful, so I focused all of my energy on fixing up my bedroom and let it go at that.

The following year, I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I was working again for a newspaper. I had moved to Knoxville knowing no one, simply for the sake of the job. My first evening in my new furnished apartment was bleak. What I’d hoped for was an A-frame in the woods. What I’d found was a shotgun apartment behind a pizza place on Chapman Highway. (A shotgun apartment, by the way, is a small, rectangular residence where the rooms connect with no hallways. The idea is that if a gun were fired at one end, the bullet would pass through every room before going out the other side.) That first day after I’d made the bed with my new sheets, put the towels into the bathroom, and unpacked my clothes and the bargain dishes given me by my brother, I opened some sparkling water to drink with dinner, thinking this might make the meal special. It was pathetic. It all felt so flat. That was when I figured out another of my truths about home-building:

  1. For a place to feel like home, you have to live in it for a while.

Before long, I adopted two cats… I put some art on the walls… I had friends over to dinner…I watched Miami Vice (that year’s cutting-edge TV)… I set up a little puja, an altar, in the bedroom… and there I had a life-changing meditation that I will remember forever. And, yes, by living in that space, over time and in my own way, I made that shotgun apartment my home.

I find that my daily rituals of living matter enormously, and that holiday rituals matter too—birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day. I especially love the winter holidays. This year, I put up my tiny artificial Christmas tree the day after Halloween. Why wait! It’s all so festive: the lights, the ornaments, the wrapped presents. All of this holds such a lovely sense of celebration. And this is my final understanding to share on this topic:

  1. Home is where you celebrate your life.

I have come to realize that this challenge of creating a home is vital for me. Astrologically speaking, my north node is pointing toward Cancer, a water sign associated with nurturance, compassion, security, and home. In Latin the word cancer means “crab,” a creature who carries her home on her back. In my chart, Cancer appears in my first house, the house of self, and sitting squarely on top of Cancer is Saturn, a planet known as the taskmaster, the disciplinarian. Whatever is indicated by Saturn is something you absolutely must do—and is also something that’s not easy for you. So, my life direction requires steps that are particularly difficult for me to take.

On reflection, I can see that I have come some distance in this endeavor. I’ve been living in the same one-bedroom apartment in Langley, Washington, for more than dozen years now. I don’t even like the idea of travel anymore. Stay in a hotel? Why would I want to do that! It’s not home!

 

The Next Step

A woman in a writing group I’m in recently read a letter she wrote to a friend who had ended her own life—not a suicide, you understand, but a conscious and self-generated ending to avoid putting her family through days or even weeks of watching her in excruciating pain. This woman had a peaceful passing, a dignified death. “It was perfect,” one of the women in our group said. “This is the way death should be.”

Perhaps. But the drama of departure is only part of the story, and it’s not the most important part, either. What happens after death? What is the next step? A lot of people—my ex-husband among them—are fairly certain that there is no next step. They say that the body dies and the consciousness that was this individual dies with it, merging with the energy of the universe in a way that is both material and predictable. This is not my view, but I don’t like to get into yes/no discussions about death because no matter what side of this debate you take, it’s a hard argument to prove—impossible, I would say.

I have noticed, though, that there seems to be increasing attention given to this question—anyway, more than at any other time in my own life. There are magazine articles, interviews. My most recent editing client has written a novel about what happens after death, and it reads like science fiction. And just last week on one of the streaming services, a friend and I watched a romantic comedy the premise of which was that the heroine, a seventeen-year-old, is able to talk with the dead. She helps them complete any unfinished business they have with the living so that they—the recently departed—can be ready to move on to the next level.

All of which proves nothing, of course, except to show that we, as a culture, are giving “the next step” a little more thought than we did a few decades ago.

Unlike the heroine of that movie, I am not a psychic who has a dependable relationship with the departed, yet I will say that everyone I have ever cared about who has died has gotten some sort of message back to me from “the other side.” I receive these messages in my mind’s ear, usually when I am chanting or meditating—in other words, at some point when my mind is quiet. Though, come to think of it, the first time this ever happened was right after the death of Yashoda Duffy, a friend of mine, and the message came as I was going to her memorial service. In the moment I walked through the door of the ashram temple, where we were just about to have Yashoda’s service, I heard her voice, clear as a bell, say to me, “Hi Honey!” It was so sweet, so Yashoda.

I know that many people would say, “But that was just your mind; it was your own mind doing that.” I don’t think so, and my reason is this: I have always been surprised by these messages. They were communications I wasn’t thinking about, wasn’t expecting to hear.

Several years after that, my friend Govinda King died. I was planning to recite Shri Guru Gita for him, but I kept putting it off. Then I heard Govinda say, “I want to send blessings to you, but I can’t do that if you don’t send blessings to me.” It was a sweet, brotherly correction—and not something my mind would ever have come up with.

Shortly after his death, my father told me, “I was weak,” and that was the last thing I expected to hear from my sweet dad. it was a long time before I understood what he meant by that. He was referring to something that had happened in a past life, something I once uncovered while working with a therapist.

Then about six months after her death, my mother told me, “We’re finished.” It sounds quite intense and harsh if you just look at the words, but that wasn’t Mom’s meaning. She meant that the tricky and sometimes painful karma between the two of us was finished; it was cleared. I understood this because my mother’s concise message came with a stream of pure love.

My main point with all of this is that, though their physical bodies were gone, these individuals still held sufficient psychic power to send me a communication. I also have to say that none of them conveyed information about their after-death experience. Nobody said, “Wow, wait till you see these sunsets!” or “The music here is wonderful!” Mostly, they gave me information or observations about me; mostly they said things that might help me on my journey or help them on theirs.

My father asked me to plant a tree in his name before the first anniversary of his death. That was very specific. I did it. I had a tree planted in a holy place. A year later, I visited that tree, and when I saw it, I was washed through with waves of a supernal joy. Later, my father asked me to pray for his own father, whom he had loved dearly. “He’s not as happy as he should be,” my father told me. Now I regularly pray for George Baright Dunsmoor Sr.—and I mention his name now in case anyone who reads or hears this is inspired to do the same.

My teacher once said that, for people who have passed over, having someone on this side—someone living—to remember them with love is more precious than gold. Gold, as we all know, is a kind of wealth we must leave behind when we die. What can we take with us? Caring, compassion, reverence, love, and other such virtues are called “divine wealth” because they are thought to stay with us when we cross over.

And I suppose it’s good that we can’t know precisely what happens then. Whatever death may turn out to be, it is an adventure we all have before us.

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].

 

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.

A Gift from Dad

It can be quite edifying to glimpse oneself from another’s perspective. I don’t often receive such bounty, and when it comes, it may take me some time to welcome it. Today, I remembered my final conversation with my father, our last one-on-one exchange, which took place almost thirty years ago.

This was in 1991, a few months after my father had open-heart surgery. I wasn’t around for the medical drama. I was in India at the time, living in an ashram, and it wasn’t possible to jump on a plane and be at my father’s side. When I got back to the U.S. a few months later, I went to see my parents right away, and only then did I realize just how serious a time this was. My robust, high-color, very-much-alive father was pale gray. When I first saw him, the color of his skin took my breath away. It was as if I were looking at a cadaver. Yet I seemed to be the only one who could see this.

Dad and I both knew that he had very little time left. My mother was in denial. When I tried to hint that her husband could pass on at some point, she balked. I don’t remember how I tried to say this—tact has never been my strong suit—or the specific words of Mom’s reply, but I do recall my certainty that this was dangerous ground, a subject not to be broached. Not with her anyway.

One afternoon, Dad and I were sitting alone on the deck. It was the beginning of spring, and a little chilly, even in the sun. Mom was inside, probably in the kitchen, probably cooking. I told my father that I knew he didn’t approve of what I had done with my adult life. “But because of it,” I told him, “I want you to know that you’re going to be taken care of.”

He nodded. I knew he understood that at least part of my truck with God would come to him when he needed it. Then he said, “You were such a strange child.”

It was true, but neither of my parents had ever said this to me directly. I didn’t say anything in reply. I looked at him intently and waited. I knew there would be more.

“You’d stay in your room for hours,” he said, “all by yourself.” This was true as well. I would read mindless books, little mystery stories with formulaic plots and safe, predictable characters. I would listen to music, or what passed for music among my friends. I’d play the same song again and again and again. I know now that I was numbing myself. I didn’t feel comfortable with the people around me, and I didn’t feel comfortable with myself. Somehow, I never realized that my father had noticed.

“I know that you and your mother have had difficulties,” he said, soldiering on, and at this I felt that I really should say something.

“She tried to kill me,” I told him.

“When did your mother try to kill you?”

It was the summer before the sixth grade, right after we moved to Tulsa. She and I were at the swimming pool, which is where she and my brother, Geoff, and I spent most days that summer. Mom and I’d had a disagreement. I said something dismissive to her. I turned to go down a steep set of concrete stairs, and she pushed me from behind. I felt the push.

Dad listened to my little tale, and then he said, “Your mother never tried to kill you.” I didn’t argue with him. Now that I think about it, I’m certain that this happened but that my mother’s gesture was just the rage of the moment and not some diabolical attempt to end my life. She was probably horrified when I almost fell, catching myself on the bannister at the last minute.

“You may not know this,” Dad said, “but your mother loves you. And if something happens to me…” He paused then, and for a moment we shared a look.

“When I go,” he corrected himself, “your mother is going to need you. I want you to promise me something. I want you to promise me that you’ll stay in touch with her. You call her. You call her every week.”

“Yes,” I said, “I’ll do that.”

Then he said it again: “Every week!”

As I think about it, this was the most important conversation I ever had with my father, much more significant than the one where he made me promise to go to college, certainly more meaningful to me than the one where he told me that now it was time for me to find a husband. I accomplished all of the tasks Dad set out for me, but this, the last one, was the one that mattered most.

My father did leave us a couple of months later, and I started, then, reaching out to my mother—calling her every week and writing to her as well. She liked the letters, she said, because she could go back to them whenever she wanted to; she could reread parts of them. I spent my vacations with her, and when it was time for her to move into progressively smaller homes, I helped her do that, too. I got rid of furniture that didn’t fit, arranged the furniture that did; I hung paintings and organized spices. I sat with my mom and watched sappy love stories from the forties and fifties, her with her vodka and me with a companionable glass of wine. It was by my steady reaching out to my mother and, after her death, to my brother that I forged a bond to my family of birth.

After my brother died, the next time I meditated, I heard him say to me, I never knew… and by this I think he meant that he never before knew how much I had to contend with in my own mind. Then he said, You just kept coming.

Thanks to my father, I kept coming. I kept calling. I kept writing. Thanks to Dad, I came out of my room. I offered myself, strange person though I am. Possibly that’s all any of us can do, and our humanity is the measure of our willingness to reach out of our strangeness, our willingness to try.

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