a blog by Margaret Bendet

Category: Memoir (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!

 

Now, You’re Mine

Certain memories are like touchstones. I come back to them again and again, in the same way I once would run my fingers over a lucky stone I used to keep in my pocket. This particular memory is a reminder that I am blessed.

It was a statement I heard, but heard in my own mind, from a deceased holy man I had never met in person. He told me, “Now, you’re mine.” It was like an initiation.

This took place on my first visit to my guru’s ashram in India, after I’d been there for some months. I had arrived there from my guru’s international teaching tour, he being identified in the memoir I published only as the Swami. I had met the Swami on that tour, interviewing him as a newspaper reporter, and I had then spent the next two years as part of his staff, a traveling party that went with him on that tour around America. When we got to his ashram in India, I was deeply happy to be there. On tour, we had lived in student’s homes and in short-term rentals… in a repurposed flop house… in a former Borsch Belt hotel. The Swami’s ashram in India had only ever been an ashram, built next to the site of an old but still-functioning temple to Gavdevi—the goddess of cows—with a stone idol so primitive that it seemed to have taken form spontaneously from raw rock.

The first three rooms of the Swami’s ashram in India had been built for him on the instructions of his own guru, a village holy man of such stature in that part of India that the Swami had never, after that, had his authenticity questioned in his own country. This is how deeply revered his guru was.

When I first arrived in the ashram, I spent some time visiting the samadhi shrine of this grandfather guru in a nearby village, meditating in the ashram where he had lived, visiting a local sanatorium where he’d spent his final days. In the Swami’s ashram, I meditated before a huge photograph of this grandfather guru in the meditation room—called the Cave— and I also meditated in another room in the upper garden, where there was a life-size, full-body oil painting of this grandfather guru that was so chaitanya, so full of life, that it seemed to breathe. My meditations in India were sweet and quiet and wholly satisfying.

One day after I had been in India for a while, I received a letter from my former husband, who wrote that, rather than sending our property settlement in installments, as we’d arranged, he had decided to give me the remainder now, in one large payment. He didn’t send the money to India, of course, but he’d made a deposit to my bank account. With this payment, I realized that my ties with my husband were now effectively ended.

The next morning, Thursday, I was awakened early. I say “I was awakened” because that’s the way it felt. I had been getting up at three o’clock, but on this day, I was suddenly wide awake a bit before two. I got up and walked to the bathhouse for a bucket bath. This is a lovely way of bathing. You get half a bucket of warm water, take it to a stone enclosure in the women’s bathhouse, and there you kneel and, dipping a cup into the bucket, you sluice your body, bit by bit. It’s as if you yourself are a murti, an enlivened idol, and you’re giving yourself abhishekh, a ritual bath. I’ve never felt that way in a shower or a bathtub; I always did with a bucket bath.

I then dried myself, put on a cotton sari, and walked back to the main courtyard, where I noticed that the temple at the front of the ashram, the temple honoring my grandfather guru, was fully lit. That surprised me. It wasn’t yet two-fifteen.

I entered the temple then and realized it was the day when the murti of this holy man would be given a ritual bath by the temple priests. These particular priests were all young Indian men who were swamis, monks.

One of them smiled at me, and nodded, and so I knew it was fine for me to be there. I walked to the geographic center of the temple and performed what is known as a full pranam—a full body bow—with my hands and arms stretched out above my head while I lay flat on the floor, belly-down. It is an enormously satisfying posture, one where your head and heart are at the same level. As my head touched the floor, I heard in my inner ear a man’s voice saying, “Now, you’re mine.”

That’s the touchstone, those words: “Now, you’re mine.” I knew it was my grandfather guru. It was his murti to whom I had been bowing. It seemed as if because the material connection to my husband had been severed, I now truly belonged to God—and the form of God speaking to me in my mind was this grandfather guru, this holy man from an ancient and primitive tradition.

What did I know about this grandfather guru? He had left his body in 1961, when I was sixteen. He was known to be an avadhut, which means that he was completely indifferent to the world, both its riches and its rules. He would have been a naked fakir, but his disciples put a diaper on him every morning. When it was chilly, he would also wear a shawl. The Swami, who traveled in the West wearing lungis with shirts and sweaters and even tailored jackets called himself “a gentleman yogi” in comparison with his own guru.

My favorite photograph of my grandfather guru shows him lying on his side in his diaper and nothing else. He had a rotund belly. In America, a man with a belly like that would be said to have a beer belly, but this holy man’s belly was khumbhak, which comes from breath being held inside the body. When a person becomes an advanced meditator, which I myself have not yet done, they can retain their breath either inside or outside their body. If the prana, the breath, is held inside, then the person’s belly becomes round and full. Either way, such a meditator can sit for a long, long time without breathing. Think of it. You would be taking nothing from the world around you—not even air! You would be one with the consciousness that is the foundation of everything.

So, what does it mean to me, this “Now, you’re mine”? It means that I, too, am one with consciousness. This is true even though I have never given myself to God the way that this holy man did—and did from the very beginning of his life. He was one of those holy beings whom no one could ever remember seeing in any state other than total identification with the Divine.

I am so far from that! When I first heard about the meaning of this holy man’s belly, I thought that if I had a choice, I would cultivate outer khumbhak—where the breath is held outside the body—because such a yogi remains slender. I couldn’t bear the thought of having what people would see as a beer belly.

Even with my silliness, my vanity—my ego!—the statement that I heard in my heart from this holy man means to me that I am cherished, that I’m OK. Just as I am.

 

A Matter of Choice

I said recently that I hadn’t had a choice about spending time in an ashram. It was a surprising thing to say, but it was accurate. Of course, you always do have a choice, but there are times when one option is so obviously what you need that you know it would be irresponsible to choose anything else.

Why was this so? I had been consciously “working on myself” for five or six years by the time this option arose. I had begun noticing, for instance, that when people around me seemed to be angry, I ought to look at what I was doing to make them angry. I might be smiling and speaking sweetly, but what was going through my mind? What did I really feel underneath my smile?

So, I was beginning to take responsibility for what happened around me, identifying the cues that all was not as it should be, being honest with myself about my feelings, and letting go of some deep-rooted negativity. It was slow-going, but there had been a little progress.

I have known people who seem to have no understanding of this kind of inner work. Someone once told me that there are two types of people in the world: those who felt safe and happy as children and those who felt afraid. “These two kinds of people can never understand each other,” my friend said. “It’s as if they were living in two different worlds.”

There is truth to this, though I can see now that it’s a question of degree. Most people experienced some fear growing up. I definitely did, and more than a little.

So, there I was, in my late twenties, trying to overcome the omissions of my childhood in a step-by-step manner—talking things over with a psychologist, participating in weekend workshops and what we called sensitivity groups. As I’ve said, it was slow going.

When I encountered the miracle of enlivened meditation and extended periods of namasankirtana—chanting the divine name!—under the auspices of a living saint, it was as if I had died and gone to heaven. I was experiencing and letting go of dreck in my mind so quickly and thoroughly that it felt like magic. It wasn’t actually magic; it was a subtle science of mental and emotional cleansing—with, fortunately, the hardest parts saved for later.

The main point was being in the presence of someone who was himself beyond the various pulls of the mind, someone anchored in a state of love. And how did I know he was? Because I could feel that love. Around my teacher, the love was palpable. It was as if the air itself developed texture; it was as if time slowed; it was as if everything I felt came suddenly to the surface of my being—apparent to me and, I knew, to my guru as well. I trusted that he knew precisely who and what I was, and, still, I could feel love radiating from him. It wasn’t that he loved me; he was love; he was in a state of unconditional love.

It was the most efficacious method of working on myself that I had ever encountered. So, even though following this path meant leaving home, even though it took a fulltime focus, it was what I needed to do. I saw it as a form of training, as a way of investing in myself. I was working with a spiritual master.

I was not, of course, alone in this. I was one of thousands. I have no idea just how many we were, but our numbers were legion, and we came from many different cultures, from all different parts of the world. At one point, years after my initiation, I was in charge of an oral history project, collecting stories from those who had played various roles in this worldwide phenomenon. For some time, I worked on these interviews with a man from South India—which is the area where my guru and his own guru had both been born and reared and which, therefore, was a place where this spiritual path had, at least in part, originated.

One day this man, Sudhakar Mavilapalli, told me that he couldn’t relate to the way Westerners—meaning Americans and Europeans—spoke about our shared spiritual path in their interviews. “They talk about letting go of their anger,” he said. “They talk about becoming more kind. What difference does any of that make? They’re just talking about changes in their personality. It’s all so superficial.”

This surprised me. I asked Sudhakar to tell me how he viewed his own spiritual work. How had he changed after decades of sadhana?

He thought about this for a moment, and then he said, “I would say that over the years my commitment to the path has deepened.”

Commitment? I suppose that’s one way of saying that you don’t really have a choice but to be on the path. So, perhaps my commitment was deep from the very beginning. I did think of sadhana then as a way I could deal with my difficult personality, but I have to say that now I think Sudhakar was onto something. I don’t care so much about my personality anymore. Most of the time I know that I mean well, and that’s what matters to me. “Meaning well” has to do with my commitment to reach for the source of love within myself, however I can touch that love in the moment.

I’m not still living in the presence of a spiritual master, but I do have ways of reaching for inner love that were shown to me on this path. As a friend on the path once said to me, “I have experiences of ecstasy—of real bliss—every day.” As do I. It is utterly fulfilling, and I am so grateful now that I have always felt the need to do this inner work.

This oil painting by Seattle artist Marilyn Webberley shows sunrise over a verdant field in an ashram in India where we both offered service.

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.

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.

 

 

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