a blog by Margaret Bendet

Category: Memoir (Page 1 of 2)

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.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

Rite of Passage

A few months back, I heard inside my mind my teacher’s voice saying, “It’s not the way you think it is.” That’s all. I don’t know what “it” refers to, and so I have no idea how I am thinking about “it.” What I do know is that something I’m depending on to be a certain way is not that way. Since then, a couple of times a day I’ll recall this warning—yes, I think we can call it a warning—and I’ll wonder about it.

I have known for some time that my life is, like the lives of most of humanity, currently in a state of flux. This involves politics, the pandemic, and for me—at seventy-five—the outcomes of age itself. Life is changing in ways I cannot foresee. My next-door neighbor had his sons and few friends over for a barbecue a few months back, and, amid the conversation, I heard one person say, “It’s the end of the world.” It struck me that he was right. The world, as we know it, is ending.

All of this factored into a decision I made around this time to stop drinking alcohol. I am not an alcoholic. My late brother used to say that he and I come from a long line of alcoholics. I think Geoff was right about this; he was clearly a functioning alcoholic himself. However, my own addictive fallout from our challenging childhood manifests in other ways. It is possible for me to have a glass of wine , or two, with dinner each day and leave it at that. I just really like the taste of wine, a good red wine. (Well, not that good; I don’t have the budget for really good wine.)

I had an early experience to pull me away from drinking, shortly after I arrived on Whidbey. Having lived in an ashram for so many years, initially, I felt freed from constraint. I was drinking a glass of wine and watching a movie every night with dinner. After a few months of this, I had a dream in which I was supposed to retrieve a bunch of beets from a pantry. I opened the pantry door and saw a large angry snake, a cobra, coiled around the beets. In the dream, I was nervous, but I knew I could do this. By the end of the dream, I had the beets in hand, and I hadn’t been bitten. Then I woke up and understood that I had just done something terrible. In my spiritual tradition to be bitten by a cobra in a dream means that you will become Self-realized in this lifetime—and I had successfully avoided it. I was horrified!

The sketch I made of the snake, who I now saw as Kundalini Shakti.

Certain that the snake in my dream was none other than Kundalini Shakti, the goddess of spiritual transformation who is symbolized in India by a cobra, I pulled out my sketchbook and started drawing this snake I had just seen. As I drew, I was struck by how humble the form of a snake actually is. “You don’t have any arms,” I said to the figure taking form on the page.

I heard a voice inside reply: No, I have no arms. I can’t make you do what I want you to do.

“What is it you want me to do?” I asked.

Stop drinking wine every night!

So, I did. For a long time—years—I had a glass of wine only a few times a week. I became aware that wine is an anesthetic, a depressant, a downer, and that I never endeavored anything very interesting with my solitary evenings after drinking wine with dinner.

Then, about three years ago, I broke my back. The pain was, for a time, excruciating and relentless. With all the pills and forms of cannabis I had legal access to, the only thing that gave me relief was—you guessed it—red wine. So, once again I drank wine every night. I think that, following this experience, I was so angry about the pain that I felt entitled to the wine. Of course, I had created the pain myself by ignoring the state of my bones, but that’s another story.

Right now, we’re coming to the end of the world—and my understanding that if there is even a chance it truly is, I do not want to face this threshold with an alcohol-befuddled mind.

It’s been six months now, and in that time instead of roughly two hundred glasses of wine, I’ve drunk three. I enjoyed each of these three glasses of wine tremendously, but I have enjoyed even more the intangible benefits of my restraint. I am now focusing my attention and energy in a different direction.

In this same six months, I have been spending a little more than an hour a day reciting a Sanskrit text, Shri Guru Gita, which has the effect of smoothing out my rough and angry edges—the sparky-ness of my personality—and giving me better emotional balance.

One of the results of this is that my meditations—once an opportunity for me to rise above my emotions—have become auditory. There is a sound, an inner sound, that I hear now whenever I listen for it. I think of it as the sound of silence. When I meditate, I give myself to this sound, and it becomes… not louder but deeper, as if the sound were taking my awareness into the peaceful space from which the sound itself emerges.

I like this a lot. Also, as a bonus, I can now have a moment of meditation at any point in my day. I think this boon has come as a result of both the daily chanting and my cautious approach to wine. So, I would say the result has been worth the effort.

As for “it” not being as I think it is, I’ll just have to wait and see what “it” turns out to be.

My Friend, the Fly

“Can you even trust a person who has a pet fly?” one of my friends commented after the vice-presidential debate last week. She was thinking about the fly that sat forever in the vice president’s snowy white hair. I had a lot of bones to pick with Mike Pence regarding that debate, but the fly was not one of them.

I wrote back to my friend, saying that she shouldn’t knock pet flies. “I used to have a pet fly,” I said, “although I never took mine out with me.”

I had pet flies when I was living in the ashram. We weren’t supposed to keep cats or dogs, but flies there were aplenty. They hibernated through the frigid Northeast winters, and in the spring, when the weather started to warm, they would suddenly appear, trapped in the plastic-ed windows. They’d start buzzing, and I’d let them out. One always stuck around. When people came to see me in my office, they’d complain and ask, “Why don’t you kill it?” I’d say, “That’s Charley, my pet fly.”

I did not have a remarkable relationship with any of the Charleys, but I did once encounter a fly with whom I had a surprising conversation. This happened right after I read a book I still have, some fifteen years later: Kinship with All Life by J. Allen Boone. The book goes into the author’s relationships with various animals: dogs, snakes, ants, and I don’t remember what all. But I do recall quite vividly that the final six chapters of this modest tome describe the profound friendship the author developed with Freddie the Fly, a Musca domestica with whom he lived in Hollywood for a period of about six months. He writes:

“Wherever I went in the house, Freddie would come along too and share as best he could in the activity, often riding on one of my shoulders, sometimes flying ahead of me doing acrobatics. If I were in a hurry and raced through the rooms, he would always shoot ahead and show me how little accomplished I really was in speed and agility. If I suddenly stopped, he would usually make a few observation loops and return to my shoulder.”

One day, immediately after finishing this book, I had taken my lunch outside so that I could sit by myself and think through a particular problem I was facing. I put my plate on a table in the shade of tree, and then noticed that a fly was standing on the table, across from where I had just sat. Images of Freddie the Fly in my mind, I looked at this fly and thought, I came here to be by myself, and I would really appreciate it if you wouldn’t buzz my face or try to eat my food. I then considered that this wasn’t a very gracious communication. I selected a small spoonful of my lunch—a bit I felt would be most appealing to a fly—and put the food directly onto the table close to where this fly was, thinking, This is for you. I then forgot about the fly for a while; I ate my lunch and considered the problem I’d wanted to think about. When I was finished, I realized that the fly hadn’t bothered me once. I looked for him, and there he was—eating the food I had put out for him.

Thank you so much, I thought to the fly, and I added, You’re really amazing. I’ve never had a fly listen to me before.

The response was immediate. I heard, quite clearly: You’re pretty amazing, too. I’ve never had a person talk to me before.

My mind did not make that up. I knew it didn’t because I was truly surprised.

And the other thing I knew, on reflection, is that I would never again have reason to feel alone. It’s just one consciousness out there; we’re all a part of it.

And if someone wants to have a pet fly, more power to him. He still won’t get my vote.

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