Monthly Archives: March 2011

Down to the Core

Scattered post, scattered life right now – in transition, halfway to somewhere, life in boxes, random observations.

At times like these, awareness has to be pulled in from the details, withdrawn from the chaos of the surroundings, and held safely in one’s core, or else sanity will be scattered to the winds.

Do you have any tricks to keep a focus, to stay grounded, to be centered, when all around you is swirling in a disorganized cloud?

I’ll write in list form – a structure to hang my life on right now:

  • Having a cell phone makes me feel like I have one thing under control, one thing that won’t change – even though I know this is an illusion, I cling to it like a rock in the rapids
  • My dear friend Teresa has offered to give me as a housewarming present the two plants I most want: a lavender and a rosemary to put beside the front steps.  When I think of the years of joy that will come from her gift of loving friendship, it gives me tear-filled relief.
  • I am constantly imagining how overwhelmed I will be to bring all this stuff from the old house and the storage unit to the new house, go through it all, be organized, develop a new relationship to stuff and cultivate a life of purposeful possession (as opposed to fearful hoarding, lazy squirreling, nostalgic clinging…)
  • The Habitat meetings and classes have got me so beyond freaked out about money.  The constant fearmongering reminds me of bringing home a premature infant hooked up to an apnea monitor, and how fear sucked the joy out of something that should have been beautiful.
  • March 30th may mark a new era on paper, but I am still me and I will still have the same struggles, neuroses, anxieties…

I don’t know that I will write again in this house.  I feel like can’t promise anything to anyone from this space in my head.  I am using this event as an excuse to break off my usual path, and I’m not entirely sure where the trail will pick up again. I cannot think, therefore I am not.

I realize this all sounds overly negative, but I actually feel pretty neutral.  Negative is still my default mode, I think.  Just trying to ground myself in words, and this is how they came out.  Thanks for reading, and please share your thoughts, experiences or philosophy about moving, space, chaos, the core of your being, or anything else you are inspired to contribute!

Any African Film Aficionados in the Crowd?

It’s tax return time, which means that my husband and I get to spoil ourselves just a little bit before we spend the rest on things we’ve needed forever, then put the rest into savings.

My husband spends his share of fun money on his passion for woodworking: tools, how-to books, wood for projects.

I generally spend mine on books or movies.

But not just any old movies.  I buy foreign films that no one else will want to watch unless I beg them, or that I just end up watching by myself.  My reasoning is, if I ever get the chance to teach French or Spanish, I’m going to be able to use film clips to grab the attention of my students and have some good conversation starters as well as snippets of culture for them to experience.  Of all the foreign movies I’ve seen, I African cinema is dearest to my heart.

I studied a lot of foreign film in college, which is where I got turned onto the genius of the director and writer Sembène Ousmane (read my tribute to him here).  He is well-known as the father of African film, a reputation which any one of his movies will back up.  I’ve purchased everything of his on the market, so this time around I had to find something else.

I settled on Madame Brouette, which turned out to be a bit of a detective story centered on male/female power struggles, which is a common theme of movies of all genres and regions.  I think one element that makes many African movies accessible to Americans is the recognizable themes that can be compared and contrasted to movies they are familiar with.  This link is vital because there are so many differences in style as well as cultural content, not to mention the language barrier which inevitably leads to the annoying lament, “But there’s subtitles…”  As though I’d asked the spectators to consume raw warthog entrails as they watched.

A Sembène film it is not, but Madame Brouette is nevertheless a good example of West African cinematic storytelling: lots of music tying the plot together with lyrics acting almost like a narrator, recurrent use of proverbs as a way to provide motive to and reveal inner thoughts and feelings of characters, the use of many languages to give information about plot and character.

It also contains enough language that Americans consider inappropriate that I wouldn’t be able to show the whole thing to a high school class.  Hence, my idea of carefully chosen snippets.

But the main result of watching this movie is a re-igniting of my desire to share my passion for African film with others.  I really like movies in general, but I feel like audiences are liable to run across the other kinds, maybe even French or Spanish-speaking, on their own.  These others are like hidden jewels, of infinite value to the project of understanding our fellow humans in order to participate in the world in an informed and compassionate way.

I wish I knew how to go about hosting a film series.  I’d love to gather people once a week for a few months and show many different films, get people’s reactions and help them see what’s been going on in the rest of the world.

Do you have to ask and/or pay anyone for permission if you’re not charging to show the movie?  How can I get anyone with a large enough venue to agree to donate the space?  How can I cheaply (or at no cost!) spread the word to the right people, and by that I mean, people who would actually consider taking a gamble on something they’ve never seen before to show up and give it a whirl?

This is a project that’s been in my heart for a long time.  If anyone has any helpful ideas or experience with any such venture, please tell me how you did it!

Identity Crisis

All of me…
Why not take all of me?
Can’t you see?
I’m no good without you.
Take my lips…
I want to lose them!
Take my arms
I’ll never use them!

I’ve always loved this song.  Best of all when Lily Tomlin sings it in the movie by the same name.  I like it as much as when Tony Bennett croons “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”  I guess I’ve always enjoyed the idea of parts of me being lost to passion.

But somehow the passion of greed doesn’t enter into that fantasy.  Like, say, losing my identity to the lowest kind of white collar criminal.

My husband and I went through the local program called Citizen’s Police Academy, which was quite fascinating.  Especially when you get to wander around the evidence room at the police station and peek at the prisoner toilet (don’t worry, no one was making use of it at the time.)

Our lecturer one evening was in charge of the Investigations Department, and during his talk he highly recommended that everyone have identity theft insurance.  This got my drawers in a twist, but I managed to shrug it off and focus on his presentation, which covered the number of violent crimes committed in our community last year and how one might go about solving them.

FYI- if you need to bludgeon someone to death but are unable to procure yourself some gloves, use a bumpy rock as the police will be unable to lift your fingerprints off of it.

On the way home though, the thing that sprang to my mind was not the crime scene photo of a decaying corpse but my irritation at the suggestion of identity insurance.  I still cannot precisely articulate my emotional position (my intellectual position is something along the lines of: “Sigh.  What else.”) but I realize that I am getting closer to complete awareness of where I stand on this important issue.

In my brain it goes something like, “You have to be freakin’ kidding.  I’M going to pay YOU so that I get to maintain control over the ONLY G.D. thing in this world that TRULY belongs to me, during my life and beyond the grave?  I’m going to hand over wads of cash so that I get to continue being me instead of some lowlife immoral a$$ being me?”

Only I’m a lot angrier about it in private.

The idea that I would have to fight to re-establish the fact that I am me and that I’ve only done the things that I’ve actually done, only bought the things I’ve truly bought… this conflict strikes me as fundamentally absurd.  I’m not denying that it happens; I know that the threat is real.  I am sickened by the fact that we all carry on every day even though it happens, that many of us choose to submit to insurance sharks, that an authority figure in the police station would recommend that we pay to protect ourselves, INSTEAD OF TURNING THE SYSTEM UPSIDE DOWN SO THAT THERE IS JUSTICE.

Sorry, didn’t mean to yell.

I don’t have a whole lot in this world.  I have my kids, and they are the greatest thing I will ever have, but I don’t truly possess them because ultimately they are their own individual selves who will grow up to steer their own destinies.  Someday when they are big something will “steal” them from me, whether it is a spouse or a career or their own kids, and that’s how it should be.

I own a few cool toys, like a computer and a van and a few shelves full of books, but I recognize that all the physical stuff is ephemeral and I have to enjoy it while I can because it could disappear at any moment, and anyway, I can’t bring it along.

All I really have is my reputation, my integrity, my identity.  How have we evolved a system in which it is possible for this basic unit of selfhood to be stolen?  And how is it that we allow it to be so inhumanly difficult for someone who has done nothing wrong to prove that they are actually the victim?

And how can we allow people to PROFIT off of this absurd situation?

Your goodbye left me with eyes that cry.
How can I go on, dear, without you?
You took the part that once was my heart,
So why not take all of me?

But leave my ID alone, thanks all the same.

Meditation on Breathing

I wrote this ten years ago- luckily breathing is still in fashion, so it isn’t too terribly dated!

There’s one thing I know about you, even if I’ve never met you: you have just taken another breath.  And so have I.

This air we inhale exists as one atmosphere stretching from where you are to the plains of the Savannah where a giraffe even now exhales with a bad case of leaf breath.

Approaching storm clouds lighten the atmospheric pressure on our knee joints almost imperceptibly, though some people “know” when rain is coming.  I whistle “Camptown Races” and sound waves of “doo-dah!” vibrate into my son’s ears in the other room.  As I write this, the carbon dioxide I exhale is enriching the air for the aloe plant in my living room, which might someday return the favor by healing my skin the next time I accidentally burn myself on the toaster oven.

In countless ways, every second, we swim through a sea that encompasses us all, bringing us new things on its diverse currents while carrying the energy and bi-products of our own selves into another’s space.

My interaction with this obvious, yet invisible, sea is perpetual, eternal in the brief span of my life.  Between my first newborn inhalation and my last, hopefully well-aged expiration, there is rarely an interruption to my breathing.  But unlike our other automatic, lifelong functions – heartbeat, digestion, hormonal function – I can have immediate influence over my breathing with no training or chemical interference; I can hold my breath, breathe deeply or pant myself into hyperventilation.

We can manipulate this natural flow like we try to dam a river or build a jetty into the sea.  We assume control for a while, but still the earth and moon pull the water with greater force; the tide will overcome – the breath will fall back to its own rhythm.  If we pay attention, we can move with the natural forces, ride the wave if it’s the right size or dive beneath it like a surfer who decides, this one is too big!  Inside the breath/wave, we discover the calm below the everyday, where we exist as swallowed by the One.

As well as manipulating my breath, I can choose “not-control.” I can sit quietly, not interfering, just watching my breath come and go. “Inspiration,” according to Webster,  means both “the act of inhaling” and “the act or power of moving the intellect or emotions.” Just as my blood uses the influx of oxygen to give my muscles power and regenerative health, my mind and heart can use the inspiration of energy from all around me to good purposes.

Between “in” and “out,” there is a moment of quiet unmoving.  This space between is the nothing that contains the Everything, like the cold emptiness of space contains the swirling hot star dots.  As the Taoists say, it is not the substance of the cup but the nothing inside that makes it useful.  It is the silence of the room which allows a voice to be distinguished.  The restful pauses of my breath teach me to value what is not there as the context of what is.

“What is” consists of in-out as the bellows of my lungs open-close, air rushing cold-warm past my nostrils, draw-push, my ribcage feeling light-heavy, in seesaw duality.  I am defined by a spot on a continuum somewhere between beautiful and ugly, rich and poor, right and wrong.  The in-out of my breath teaches me that neither pole of a spectrum exists without its opposite, and thus the world is divided by our distinctions.

But my breath does not stop at in-out.  It circles in-out-in like the cycle of day-night-day.  These circles do not meet exactly end to end but spiral into the future so that each inhalation, each sunrise happens at a unique point in time.  To find the special power of the moment, I must be inside it, follow it as I embrace, then let go of each breath, not with effort but attention.

Many of us are not in the habit of paying attention to the Now.  We are always rushing past the present moment, plotting far up the freeway or career ladder for the next strategic maneuver.  Our attention runs on ahead of us as we live out our belief that power and pleasure exist in tomorrow.  When we do this, then the power is truly lost to yesterday, its value already spent like the next year’s worth of paychecks would just about cover the average person’s debt.  Yet, with each breath we can own where we are, right now.  We can accept our daily bread as the pleasure of being alive: of tasting food, of watching today’s sunrise, of taking another breath.

By giving our attention to the breath, even just a few breaths a day, we develop the habit of paying attention to today and all the riches it has to offer.  We remain mindful of the invisible sea that connects us all, of our fundamental Oneness and of the power available to us, you and me right this minute, because of this connection.

Do you pay attention to your breath?  Do you use your breath to connect to Oneness, to find the power of Now?

How Big is Your Heart?

Lately I have been struggling with overwhelming feelings of being hurt by and resentful towards someone and I feel like it poisons not only my relationship with that person but, to a small, insidious degree, the rest of my life as well.

I tried the trick of opening a book randomly (this time I chose The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, which is sort of cheating because every page is brimming with wisdom) and hoping to find just the answer to my question.  Which I did:

If you take a handful of salt and pour it into a small bowl of water, the water in the bowl will be too salty to drink.  But if you pour the same amount of salt into a large river, people will still be able to drink the river’s water… Because of its immensity, the river has the capacity to receive and transform.  The river doesn’t suffer at all because of a handful of salt.  If your heart is small, one unjust word or act will make you suffer.  But if your heart is large, if you have the understanding and compassion, that word or deed will not have the power to make you suffer.  You will be able to receive, embrace and transform it in an instant.  What counts here is your capacity.  To transform your suffering, your heart has to be as big as the ocean.

The Pacific

This resonated as exactly the perspective I need.  When I feel hurt, it does feel like my heart, like the Grinch’s, is three sizes too small.  I feel very closed off and vulnerable, like a little critter hiding wounded under a log.

How to cultivate a heart as big as the ocean?  How to encompass the power, capacity, endurance, the inexhaustible ability to receive and transform without being poisoned in the exchange?  I accept that suffering will return again and again; my focus is not to avoid the hurt.  It is to avoid the carrying around of the hurt in my tiny jar of a heart, where the momentary conflict displaces all the fluid of my emotional self and results in my heart becoming a little cesspool of negativity that I pull from in my interactions with others.

I have no strategies yet, other than my new awareness of my feelings, and how I imagine I might someday, ideally, handle them better.  I visualize mentally and emotionally what an oceanic heart would feel like, and it feels wonderful. 

How big is your heart?  Do you find that the smallest drop of hurt fills your cup?  Do you receive the hurt, embrace it and transform it into something loving?  Do you have any advice to share from your experiences in expanding your capacity to love?

What Kind of Neighbor Are You?

I was raised to keep to myself, and I’ve been searching ever since to find some kind of community in which I could participate and feel a sense of belonging.

Civil War Reenactment - Hickory, North Carolina - 2009

The representation in film and literature of tight groups, whether composed of soldiers, medieval villagers, gangsters, prisoners, or some other version of interdependent coexistence, I find irresistible.

Here in cyberspace it’s easy to be the perfect community member (although it’s near impossible to find the perfect community); you can edit your posts and comments before anyone ever sees them, you can show your best face and even avoid the internet altogether on those days that you know you would just be a bear on a rampage.

But in a real neighborhood, you will see each other on your worst days.  You will see each other chasing the dog across the yard in your p.j.s, you will run across each other on that day that you just wish the whole world would be vaporized, you will have to make nice when you just wish everyone would shut up and go away.

Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina - 2007

Our impending move has me pondering — besides thinking ahead to where to put the furniture, how to decorate, what to do with the yard, and all the physical details, I have to wonder, what kind of a neighbor will I be?

Now certainly this depends partly on what kind of neighbor everyone else is.  Everyone will be part of the Habitat for Humanity program, so we will have at least one thing in common, some sort of foundation for introductions.  Almost all of us have kids, and since I have a whole age range myself, I should certainly be able to relate to most people on that level.

What makes this really different for me is, I’ve never owned a home before.  I’ve always rented, and been around mostly renters, in which case, there is a lot less pressure.  You can think to yourself, maybe one of us will move soon, so why even strike up the first conversation with that weirdo over there?  You have the luxury of tolerating the temporary.

But we will all be there as homeowners in our Habitat neighborhood.  Not to say people won’t sell and move someday, but the possibility exists to a much greater degree that we will all be neighbors for the rest of our lives.  Like marrying someone you’ve never met, only it’s not even an arranged marriage where your parents see some kind of merit to the relationship, but an almost purely random wedding between complete strangers.

San Francisco, California - 2006

But we Americans are used to dealing with strangers, especially out in the Wild West of California, where we know just how to treat neighbors – like the suspicious strangers they are.  Don’t get me wrong, I did have a few good neighbors over the many years and in the many neighborhoods I resided on the West Coast.  I got a taste of what it might be like to live among friends, or at least comrades, or perhaps just among other individuals that you’ve established a polite civility with.

But it has to start with me.  What will my attitude be?  How will I present myself and my family?  How open or guarded will I be on a day-to-day basis?  Will I encourage bonds between my own children and the neighbors’ or will I try to be a barrier to keep my kids safe against the unknown?

Snow day for the neighborhood kids at Family Student Housing - Eugene, Oregon - 2007

Will I give in to my idealistic desires for community and try to be everyone’s great friend, or will I give into my ingrained fears of people and hold everyone at arm’s length?  Or will I walk a wise way balance somewhere in between?

Tell us, what is your neighborhood like?  Have you dealt with much conflict?  Have you developed techniques for dealing with the more unpleasant aspects of being a neighbor?  What kind of neighbor are you?

Whose Baby?

We helped paint the interior of what will soon (fingers crossed) be our house.  (If you haven’t figured it out by now, I tend to be a bit superstitious when it comes to making announcements about things.)  It occurred to me later that my time spent there today was, emotionally, a much milder version of the experience I had when my firstborn was a premature infant in the NICU:

  • The dear one that supposedly was “mine” was under the total control of someone else who was calling all the shots
  • This someone else was doing all kinds of things to my dear one that were completely beyond my expertise and I could only observe helplessly
  • This someone else knew my dear one better than I did
  • This someone else directed my interactions with my dear one and evaluated me on my abilities
  • I felt emotionally distant, like I wanted to be in love and coo and snuggle with my dear one, but the someone else was standing there watching

I realize that I sound like an ungrateful wretch, making the someone else sound like some kind of tyrannical monster.  The Habitat construction folks we worked with, as well as the staff at the NICU where my daughter was cared for, are all very kind and warm individuals.  But this is all just my knee-jerk emotional response, so it’s not going to be reasonable or appreciative.  It is going to be, by nature of being an emotional response, drama-queen and over-the-top.