a blog by Margaret Bendet

Category: Re-entry (Page 1 of 2)

Another Re-Entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Actually,” she said, “I say sorta.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorta.

 

Cross the Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me, in my hat, 45 years later.

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

 

 

The Dark and the Light

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

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

I think, “Kill him!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Looking at Light

"Together and Apart" is Asian ink, gouache, and Japanese watercolor. For more, here is a link to Angie Dixon's website.

“Together and Apart” is Sumi (Asian ink), gouache, and Japanese watercolor. To see more, visit Angie Dixon’s website

I work part-time at the Whidbey Island library that’s in a double-wide, a cozy space where we have interesting conversations. One day  we convinced a library patron to bring in her art portfolio from her  car. This artist, Angie Dixon, showed us glorious pictures—horses, a friendly orangutan, and one I’ll never forget: a window with rays of light coming through it. Nothing else, just the light.photo-4

As a child, Angie said, she’d read a read a book whose story entered and took up residence in her, even though the book itself disappeared from her life and its title and author’s name were forgotten. Here is my telling of the story she outlined:

A child enters a light-filled room that has two floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto a lovely sunlit garden. A large gilt-framed mirror hangs between the windows, and it is this mirror that interests the girl. She walks up to the mirror and looks into it. It’s herself she sees, of course, and what she notices first is that she is becoming quite a big girl—a fine girl!

Of course, there’s that funny thing about the way her hair curls in the very back. She turns around, with her back almost to the mirror, and peers over her shoulder, looking critically at her reflection. Perhaps the hair will change in time. Her mother had suggested that once, and the girl had only dared to hope that it might, because her mother obviously didn’t like this tendency toward unruly curls.

The girl turns to face the mirror head-on. This is better. She looks much better this way. But she’s having trouble making out her reflection now. Why?

There is no light. The windows are like slits on the wall. They’re tiny! These windows were huge when she came into the room. How long ago was that? The girl isn’t sure.

She looks back at the mirror, and the minute she does that, the windows become still smaller. Horrified, she realizes she’s in almost total darkness. She walks over to the window then—if you could still call it a window—and reaches her hand toward the tiny ray of light that remains. Her finger won’t fit in the crevice. No, you wouldn’t call this a window at all. But it had once been a window.

Is there something she can do to make it a window again?

Angie doesn’t remember what happened at this point in the story. The girl had to do something to get back the light. “It was one of those fairy tales,” she said, “you know, where the heroine undertakes a mission or passes a test. The girl gets the light back, but I don’t remember how.”

If it were my story—and for this moment, why don’t we call it my story!—I would have the heroine pay attention to the light.

The girl looks intently at the window, willing it to expand. There is just a sliver of light now—and the light is extraordinary, the girl realizes; it’s beautiful, that light.

 Once she notices its beauty, there is more light. The girl laughs then. It’s the first time she’s laughed since she walked into the room, and with her laughter, the slits in the wall become windows once again.

 But they’re are more than just windows. These are doorways. The girl realizes she can do more than just stand in this room and look at the light. She can walk through the doorway. She can go outside, into the beautiful garden. She can be in the light.

 So that’s what the girl does: she steps into the light.

Giving something our attention for the sake of delight—that is the magic key that expands anything in our lives. So, if it works for the rest of us, surely it would work for this girl in a fairy tale.

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Smoking

When you pull together memories into a cohesive piece, like a book, some of your favorites won’t fit. One of these for me is about how, after the death of my first spiritual teacher—whom I refer to in the book as the swami—I went back home to Honolulu, got a job with a small local publisher, and took up smoking again. When my book finally comes out, this anecdote will not be in it. So, I’ll share it here. Continue reading

The Blackberries Are Coming On!

IMG_0227It’s time to celebrate blackberries! It was blackberry season when I arrived on Whidbey Island. A friend showed me a culvert cache in her neighborhood where I picked a plump berry half the size of my thumb and popped it into my mouth: juicy and sweet and warm from the sun. Within a few minutes we filled a recycled plastic container with berries and, after dinner, we ate them on ice cream.

Later, I scattered blackberries over cereal and pancakes and grilled salmon; I baked them in cobblers and muffins; I boiled them down into syrups and jams . . .

These nutritious berries—high in fiber and vitamin C—are a boon to anyone who eats on a budget, and arriving on Whidbey, I considered them a personal welcome gift from the universe, my new universe. On Whidbey blackberries are, really, everywhere: on vacant lots, between driveways, beside the highway, lining neighborhood streets, climbing walls, growing up through the middle of other bushes, hugging not the shoreline perhaps but the thin, sandy soil that’s just one step away. The bushes grow thick and tall; they’re tenacious, wickedly prickly, and absolutely aggressive—a bit like our own weedy species, I think, except that humankind doesn’t come to fruit so easily and predictably between early August and the autumn rains.

As with friends, I found it’s important to pick the right berries, the truly ripe ones. Blackberries come to maturation on individual time frames, meaning that two plump berries growing on the same twig so close together that they touch can be at varying stages of ripeness: one sweetly succulent and the other mouth-puckering. The early warning sign is this: if a berry is ready to be picked, it comes off the bush with just the slightest prompting from the picker.

When a blackberry offers any resistance at all, it’s not ready; move on to another berry. This means you can pick the best berries, the ripest berries, without crushing them. It took me a while to master this light touch, and so the first year my fingertips were stained dark purple throughout the season.

The blackberry’s prickles—often incorrectly called thorns because they are capable of ripping denim and drawing blood—have provided me many other valuable lessons. One of the more obvious is the importance of appropriate attire: old clothes, long sleeves, covered shoes. Because opportunities for berrying can come up unexpectedly, I began carrying the right clothes and some plastic containers in the trunk of my car.

But dressing right isn’t the whole story in dealing with blackberry prickles, and also with the huge spiders that take refuge in those prickles. That’s right: huge spiders. You never want to thrust your hand into a blackberry bush. You need to see beyond the berry the question; you need to take in the berry’s immediate environment. Otherwise you may receive a nasty surprise.

What you cannot help but notice in picking blackberries is that the best berries are just out of your reach. This will be true even if you are tall, as I am, or if you expand your reach, as many do, by bringing along a step-ladder, a long-handled fork (to pull branches down) or a even a plank (to lay across the front of the bush and allow you access to the inner branches). I don’t do any of this because I’ve found that no matter what I do, always, just beyond my fingertips are gigantic berries, tantalizingly fat berries, berries that are heavy with sweet juice.

There is only one solution here: Get over it. That’s life, isn’t it!

And my life is so much sweeter, I’ve found, when I allow myself to be satisfied with the glorious berries that are within my reach.

Dollars and Sense

IMG_0214So many people send me opportunities to make and save money. I have to remind myself: what’s great in life has no price tag, but nothing—no thing—is ever free. Like the message I received from the credit union that holds the loan on my car. They’ll give me $150 if I refinance my loan. It sounds good. I’m sure they’d lower my monthly payments. But what would they charge me in added interest over the course of the loan? Much more than $150!

Recently I had an intriguing offer from the car company as well. They’re offering to take my 2011 model on trade for a 2014 model—with no money down and no change in the monthly payments. Of course, I would end up making those monthly payments for a lot longer. If I did this every few years, I could pay them forever.

And invitations to change my insurance come almost daily. Everyone knows about insurance companies. They’re lovely to deal with while you’re signing up or sending them money. When, however, an event in your life might require them to send you money, the honeymoon is over. That’s when you find out the true nature of your relationship—have you aligned yourself with a company you can trust or with the corporate equivalent of Bluebeard?

When I made my recent life transition and was in the market for medical insurance for the first time ever—I’d always had an employer-based plan—I did something truly foolish. A friend told me that if I joined this particular organization, the group would provide me with medical insurance, and because of the large numbers involved, the price would be half the market rate.

I called and talked with a representative, a charming woman who told me she’d signed up for this insurance herself—and weren’t we both clever for finding insurance so inexpensively! I loved that insurance—until I fell, broke my left arm, took an ambulance to the nearest hospital for an X-ray, and learned that I needed surgery.

The medical drama was over in about six weeks; my negotiations, machinations, frustrations, and, ultimately, condemnations involving the insurance company went on for years

Initially, there were issues about the medical procedure itself: the insurance would cover my surgeon and the surgical facility but not the anesthesiologist employed by that facility. (They had the anesthesiologist’s name but at another address. “They have to match perfectly what’s on our list,” a polite voice on the telephone told me: “both the name and the address.”) The insurance would pay for a pin to be put into my elbow but not the medical apparatus the surgeon recommended.

I did have the surgery I needed and, yes, I was anesthetized. Then I dealt with the insurance company.

I would have a clear, focused, friendly conversation on the phone with one of the company’s representatives, a woman named, say, Shawnee. I would take careful notes, fax Shawnee the paperwork she said she needed, and feel that everything was taken care of. Nothing would happen. Months later, I would call and be told that Shawnee no longer worked at the company, no one there had a record of my fax—and I needed to send them certain paperwork before anything could happen at their end. I went through this a couple of times, and then by chance heard the company’s personnel listed in a voicemail recording: one of the names was Shawnee. How many Shawnees could there be?

It was two years after the original accident that the company sent the final payment: $500 for the ambulance—a fee I had long since paid myself. In that time, the company had changed its name twice and, more importantly, I had changed my insurance.

Now, I sign up only with an insurance company recommended by a friend—a friend who has collected from that very company. I figure it’s common sense. And when I hear complaints about Obamacare, I remember what medical insurance was like for me before the passage of the Affordable Healthcare Act.

 

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