Friday, July 28, 2017

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

It's been a good long while since I've posted here. In the meantime, I've published a book of poetry, Thoroughfares to Love, finished another, and am digging into a third volume. The third is slower going, because it's presenting itself as metaphysical. Writing about love and nature is much easier. It's really a matter of describing from the inside what I see on the outside. This spiritual stuff is all about the inside. All indications are that these poems will emerge from depths I'm only just discovering.

As I wait for this crop to grow, my essayist voice is clamoring to be heard again. Like love and nature, politics is an obvious target.

Before last fall's election, Trump/Pence signs started springing up in the well-to-do neighborhood where one of my friends and yoga clients lives. I asked her, "What's up with all the Trump signs?" She shook her head.

"For some people, it doesn't matter who the president is."

Since 45's election (using his name only adds dignity he doesn't deserve), she and I have often shaken our heads at his antics. I'm searching for adjectives to describe the spectacle of this week's health care legislation votes. The fairest characterization is to call it a natural disaster that was forecast to impact our country in some way, and ended up being, for now, all sound and fury signifying nothing.

It seems to me that a lot of the Republican party's ideas now consist of only sound and fury and not a lot else. I'm old enough to remember the anti-tax fervor that swept Ronald Reagan into the presidency. Cutting taxes seemed like a great way to give individuals more decision-making powers. Plus, those who succeed financially would create ripples of opportunity for others.

Nearly 40 years of lower taxes are proving that individual power has come only for a few at the expense of the government's decision-making powers. It is hard-pressed to provide what all civilized societies strive for--great jobs, roads, schools, national parks, national security and healthy communities. Much of what I hear from the so-called conservative party is that the country should only be in the business of building an infinitely powerful military and further enriching already fabulously wealthy people who are still making vague promises to give us peasants good jobs. We're told we really can't afford nice things--great schools that lift people from cycles of poverty, affordable college, a fair justice system, sensible environmental regulations, and a health care system that insures people and ensures they don't lose everything because of a tough diagnosis and expensive treatment.

I see the health care debate as basically a tax argument. The individual and employer mandates that fund part of the Affordable Care Act seem to be the biggest bones of contention. This should be an easy problem to solve--invest in our businesses and our people with tax money. But taxes have become a sacred cow.

Some of the resistance is spite. Leaders and pundits object to anything the nation's first black president accomplished or tried to accomplish. Spite is a strong term. It is also the right word to use when there are so many people, included elected representatives, who publicly say health care is a privilege rather than a basic human need.

We also have lost common understanding of how insurance works. For instance, my husband and I have paid our auto and homeowners' insurance premiums for more 30 years without making more than a couple of claims. My insurance agent would laugh at me if I made the argument that I only expect to pay for what I use, because that's not how the business model works. We pay our premiums to hedge our bets--knocking on wood--against accidents and natural disasters that damage or destroy our property. There was a major flood in Boulder County in 2014, and though our property sustained no damage, many neighbors' did. Our premiums rarely decrease. I trust that our insurance company is investing our premiums wisely to take care of claims other customers make. Like a good neighbor, I also trust they'll be there for us if we need help.

I know people get this. But why in heaven's name do so many not seem to understand that health insurance works on the same principle? Surer than many of us will ever need natural disaster relief,  all of us have needed, need and will need health care.

We all need to take some deep breaths and ask ourselves some serious questions. How much do we really want this thing called the United States of America? Do we want to live in healthy, thriving communities, or have we become so tribal we care only about the health and prosperity of the people we love? Is it just too hard to fight for it and for ourselves and each other, or do we want a tough-talking president to just take care of everything for us? Or not. Mostly not.

The repeal and replace jive--and it's all been jive, and even former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor admits it--won Republicans three consecutive elections. It's a lot like the No New Taxes slogan--a bunch of bullshit. And no, the fact that our infrastructures are crumbling is not solely due to fraud, waste and abuse. Quite simply, more money is needed. That means more taxes. Those of who can afford to pay more will barely miss it. It's a small price to pay for living in great communities.

While we're at it, let's lobby for paying people more so they can pay their own bills. That's one reason why people voted for 45--he told them that under his leadership, they would not only have better jobs, but the dignity of paying their own way. Who would need Obamacare under these conditions?

After this week's legislative storms, here's what I would like to see: our representatives working together to improve the American way of life. For instance, the interstate system is the pride of our nation. It needs maintenance and expansion and gets it. I look at health care as infrastructure that similarly needs maintenance and updating. If you don't like where the ACA is going, that doesn't mean it needs to be destroyed. Repave it and add more lanes.

In the process, we might actually make America greater.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Practicing Forgiveness



 A few years ago, the youth group at our church went on an international work camp. My oldest son, who is now 24, attended every work camp when he was in high school. I trusted the youth minister and the team of volunteers she assembled to keep the kids safe and on track.

During the international trip, that my youngest son did not attend, a large group of the kids sneaked out of their rooms to party offsite. This, despite the fact that they all agreed to abstain from alcohol and drugs during work camp. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The kids involved kept the party a secret for a few months, until at least one confessed to the youth minister.

At the time, I was a member of the lay leadership council. This event was obviously a topic of discussion at our monthly meeting. Though neither of my children had attended, I knew others who had. I wanted to know how this could have happened and expressed how this damaged my trust as a parent whose child was eligible to attend future work camps.

What I wanted to hear was this: Staff and church leadership are mortified that this happened, we take full responsibility, we're taking steps to ensure this doesn't happen again, and your child and all attendees will be looked after properly.

Instead I was scolded for jumping to conclusions when I didn't really know what had happened. I was also told no one can stop sneaky kids from doing nefarious things. Those "sneaky" kids were themselves church members--and their parents were, too.

Your next question might well be, did you stay at this church? You may be surprised to read that I did. I am a woman of faith, so I finished up the last two months of my term, and took an indefinite break from the church.

During that time, I missed the church and the people there. I thought about the many, many ways the ministers and others had cared for me and my family, how generously they gave of their time and expertise to the community's benefit. Why would I throw all that away because some leaders had made some mistakes? Hadn't I myself blundered?

Two of the people involved sought me out and apologized. With their help, and God's, I concluded this was forgivable. As the minister of the church had often taught the congregation, the church is about forgiveness.












This memory arises as I watch the presidential campaign unfold. As Donald Trump's antics dominate the news, there is also discontent about Hillary Rodham Clinton's candidacy and record after a contentious primary campaign with Senator Bernie Sanders. Some criticize HRC for calling African-American juveniles "super predators" during a speech she gave during President Clinton's 1996 re-election, pointing to how welfare reform and policing tactics instituted during that era negatively impacted communities already suffering from institutional racism.

I won't pretend to know what it's like to be African-American or a minority growing up in a country that has not sufficiently healed from its history of enslaving Africans and the civil war fought over it, or to be a policy expert. What I did do is watch the speech in question. She spoke for half an hour, laying out initiatives President Clinton was proposing for his second term--environmental protection, education, economic inequality, health care, family issues, peace and freedom and community policing. This last was where she made the super predator comment. She made it in passing, and moved on to her next remarks.

I'm not making any excuses for the racism inherent in such a remark. I will say HRC did not invent racism. She used a regrettable term to talk about other peoples' children, children growing up in very difficult environments--similar to the terms some church leaders had made about kids in our community. HRC's remark was also made more than 20 years ago, and it seems to me that she could be forgiven, given her years of advocating for educational opportunities and health care for all children.

Because after all, who hasn't been ignorant and insensitive? On top of that, most of us don't have every dumb thing we've said in the public record. That same public record also contains domestic and foreign policy progress Secretary Clinton has forged.

Nor have most of us crafted policies that affect a lot of peoples' lives. I know someone who served on the Boulder City Council who says that nearly every policy she helped develop and implement had unintended, sometimes negative, consequences. A lot of them also never saw the light of day, because of opposition, and some did not survive beyond her terms. The same is surely true for HRC, and certainly every other public official.

I am learning not to expect perfection from leaders. What I do want to see is leaders who learn from their mistakes, who assemble advisors with wide-ranging perspectives to ensure that all decisions minimize unintended negative consequences. When these arise, they are prepared to address them.

I do my best to fold forgiveness into my spiritual practice, because I realize how easy it is to hurt others just by being me and living my life. Because of this, I can afford to be more tender hearted and forgiving with others, including leaders who really are trying to do their best to serve.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Art of Giving





When I was 17, my mom turned 40. I had just recently graduated from high school, and I was earning money from a summer job. I thought about a gift for her and decided on a book I liked, Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She was polite and thanked me for it, but I doubt she ever read it.

This is no slam on her. It's all on me. In this case, it truly was the thought that counted. My mom is a reader, but this book of essays by a writer I admired is not her cup of tea. I had violated a rule about the giving of gifts. I had not bought the book with her in mind. I had bought it with me in mind. I had a vague idea that my mom would read the book, and we'd have discussions about it. In other words, I wanted her to give me something, her time, her thoughts, her attention. Any gift I gave should have reflected that the occasion of a milestone birthday was all about her.

I am not alone in my mistaken notion about what constitutes good gift-giving practice. I see it happen all the time. A well-meaning relative insists on giving you a piece of furniture, when what you really need and want is help paying your child's college tuition. Or a new sweater, or almost anything else.

On a larger scale, some presidential candidates say they'd give low-income families tax breaks, when what they really need are better jobs, child care, schools, transportation and health care. 

To be a good gift giver, first of all take what you want completely out of it. Instead, pay attention to what interests the recipient, and what they love. When in doubt, ask them what they need and want. These, and your own love, will guide you to finding a gift that suits them.




Monday, December 28, 2015

Year in Review

Ever since I can remember, I have had vivid dreams. Some I remember for years afterward. I have come to see my dreams as stories that are telling themselves to me, often having some bearing on my waking life.

Last night I had two dreams. Both were with Don, my husband. In the first we are in what seemed to be the eastern part of Colorado, a few hundred miles away from our home. He had bought a car. But this isn't just any car. It is shaped something like a car, with the aerodynamic lines of a race car, and a small passenger compartment. It also has absolutely no leg room, and no wheels. Even stranger, Don is expecting me to drive this contraption back to our house.

I envision myself being poured into this vehicle, like gunpowder in a bullet, my legs sheathed in its nose. How am I supposed to operate this thing? Where are the pedals and the ignition?

I protest, "I'm going to have to stop every five miles to stretch my legs! This is going to take forever!"



A cenote in the Yucatan

The second dream takes places on Hugh Jackman's ranch in Australia. Don and I are doing a self-guided tour of a pumpkin patch that Hugh (yeah, because it's my dream, and I'm on a first-name basis with the hunky Mr. Jackman) and his sons planted. Like the car in my previous dream, this is no regular pumpkin patch. It's planted in the bed of a cenote, an underground river found in the Yucatan, and pictured above. As if cenotes aren't spectacular enough, this one has sandstone ceilings swirled with gaudy desert reds and oranges that loom at varying heights. The pumpkin plants are growing lushly in the bed of the river, in water of varying depths, the vines, stems, leaves and fruit undulating together to resemble elephant heads. Don is riding alone in a vehicle without wheels (similar, but different, from the contraption in the previous dream), and I am on foot, making my way from one patch of high and relatively dry ground to the next.

It is all so weird and beautiful, I think to myself.

This sums up this year pretty well. First, the weird and the disorienting. In February, Don got a diagnosis of intermediate grade prostate cancer that he ultimately elected to treat with Cyberknife, high-intensity, external beam radiation, and Androgen Deprivation Therapy, which is exactly what it sounds like: lights out on the male hormones, to starve any remaining cancer cells of fuel. Every cancer treatment exacts its tolls, many of which are visible to others, like hair and weight loss. Don has had neither. The tolls of his treatment are largely invisible to others. They are of such a personal nature, it has been difficult to speak of them with family, friends and acquaintances. During the most stressful period of our lives, we have had to lean on each other more than ever before.

Even with the numerous side effects, Don has been a trouper. One of the worst moments of this process was watching him walk for the first time into the room where the radiation would be administered. In his baggy surgical pants, he looked so small and vulnerable. But this is just one moment of so many. I am learning so much from watching this man navigate the toughest experience of his life with so much courage and grace.

As my first dream intimates, I have struggled to keep up with the pace of this challenge. How am I supposed to operate this new vehicle? Where are the controls? I'm being squeezed and molded, like a newborn making its way through the birth canal. Whatever trip I'm required to take in this vehicle is probably going to take too long and be very uncomfortable, with numerous starts and stops.

Don in his new Ganesha meditation shawl

During walks, Don and I often reflect on this journey we're on. Like so many things in my life, contemplating the future makes it seem more difficult than it turns out to be once underway. So now for the beautiful. After years of watching me meditate, he asked me to teach him. He's taken to it like a duck to water. Last summer he took a four-week meditation course at Eldorado Mountain Yoga Ashram, and the group jelled so well it's continuing. He's making friends there, and he often accompanies me to Monday night services led by my beloved Babaji Shambhavananda.

As for me, the vehicle is operating just fine, without me needing to know where the controls are, or even where it's going. At the moment, the trip is taking as long as it takes, and I have plenty of leg room. Along the way, Don and I are growing, separately and together, just as it has always been with us. Plus, there are beautiful sights along the way--an underground, underwater pumpkin patch/elephant herd. It's all so good I'm looking forward to what the Dream Maker has in store for me. Who knows? Maybe Hugh will make an appearance.

Yeah, baby. Because it's my dream, that's why.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"It"s Always Ourselves We Love the Least"


A great line from Bruce Cockburn's Song "Burden of the Angel Beast


A few years ago an intuitive healer noticed my Vitamin S deficiency--self-love, that is--and recommended a remedy. As I put lotion on my body after bathing, I would repeat, "I love myself, and I support myself."

I grew up in a family, like many in the United States, that prizes humility. No one loves a braggart. Telling myself I love myself was not only counter to my conditioning, it felt embarrassing and, frankly, ooky. Loving other people and making myself loveable was my job, and in exchange, presumbably, others were supposed to love me back. Only sometimes they don't. More often, I find loving others to be difficult. 

I had nothing to lose by taking Kelly's advice. After all, feeling high on others wasn't helping me feel better about myself. The first couple dozen times I did it, I practically had to hold my nose it felt so unnatural. What if I became a narcissist? I continued for a few months, without noticing any perceptible change, before dropping it.

Within the last year during an Ayurvedic consultation with my friend and sister yoga teacher Heidi Nordlund told me I am very good at loving others, and not so good at loving myself. I was still deficient in Vitamin S. Heidi recommended repeating as often as possible, "I love me," like a mantra.

I chant mantra every day to celebrate and summon the qualities of the deities. But really? A mantra devoted to loving myself, ala Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"? Again I was resistant. I let Heidi's advice go without even trying it.

One dark day a few weeks after my husband's prostate cancer diagnosis in February, I let myself imagine what being widowed would feel like. [Update: he is undergoing treatment, and all indications are that it is working. His PSA dropped from 4.5 to 0.56 this month. He will definitely survive this. Weird states of mind like mine are all part of the process of coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis.] My first question was, "Who would love me?" I didn't want to think about that any more than I wanted to repeat "I love me" a couple hundred times a day.

But a few days later as I was meditating, I got a two-word message: "Love yourself." There it was again. I didn't think of the means Kelly and Heidi had offered me until a consultation with Heidi last month. She again suggested repeating "I love me." Same resistance on my part. How could that work, and so forth.

After a couple of weeks of stalling, I tried it on a particularly rough day. I kept beating back my doubts about its efficacy as I hiked with my family. All the way up I felt I no sense of uplift, much less of self-love. Instead I felt annoyed by my lack of progress, and with myself. 

But as I approached the summit, the thought came to me, It's acts of faith and daring that constitute love. I was expecting too much too soon from the practice of repeating "I love me." I need to keep at it, in the same way I persist with my yoga practice, the same way I keep at it with writing, and all the other things I enjoy doing and/or am good at. Not many of us actually make the effort to love ourselves. The belief is that it will take care of itself. In 54 years on the planet, I can tell you it will not. I could free myself from a whole lot of angst and co-dependency, if the person I'm with always loves me always. It's a radical proposition that so far has yielded only this modest realization. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Alert to Growth

I have a history of killing houseplants. It's not that I set out to do so. I sincerely want to be surrounded by leafy, blossoming things, as I was growing up in my parents' house. I am an inconsistent plant parent. I alternate between overwatering and underwatering. I have better luck in the garden. Under the sun and sky, my efforts matter less. 

Last summer we inherited a banana tree plant from one of Don's co-workers. We left it on our patio, which gets the hot morning sun, and promptly forgot to water it or to pay any attention to it at all. Eventually Don rescued it by putting it in a larger pot and setting it on the hearth inside. It began to thrive, growing taller and sprouting a new stalk within the first few weeks. At Christmas time, I decorated it with sock monkey ornaments.

Who doesn't love a sock monkey in a purple tutu or a Santa costume?
Earlier this summer I noticed the central stalk's leaves were getting brown. I figured I was performing my usual involuntary plantslaughter and tried to ignore it. 

Last week I took a good long look at that plant and decided to do something on its behalf. With kitchen shears I cut away a few dead leaves. It still looked like a dead plant, but with a few less dead leaves. It needed stronger medicine, so I took a sharp knife to the central stalk and cut it almost to the top of the potting soil.

Remember the new stalk that sprouted after it was transplanted and brought inside?

There was already a whole new healthy plant growing alongside the dying part.

The plant was now two healthy, thriving, green-as-could-be stalks that were apparently waiting to be recognized as the replacement plant. So captured was I by the plant's withering leaves, and my part in this failure, I was not captivated by the fresh growth.  An unfortunate part of my temperament gets so caught up in grieving what's lost, I forget to be alert to new growth. 







More new growth


On closer inspection yesterday, I noticed a new shoot sprouting out of the stump of the central stalk. This is a good plant. It has survived neglect, transplantation, my clumsy care and an amputation. My yoga training teaches that death and rebirth are happening simultaneously, in life writ large and small. This is not a matter of faith. It is a fact of life, illustrated beautifully on my hearth. It happens in its own time, of its own accord, independent of me and my efforts.

Monday, June 29, 2015

If You Really Want To Help



Don't get no better than this. This postcard from my friend Rhonda is the best example of what the bewildered caretaker of a loved one going through cancer treatment needs to hear. Simple, sweet, telling me how valued my friendship is.
Heading into the sixth month after my husband Don's diagnosis of prostate cancer, I'm just now coming out of the numbing shock of it all and heading straight into choppy waters of hope mixed in with depression, anger, gratitude--well, hell, the whole spectrum of emotion. He has made it through radiation treatment, and started a six-month course of hormone suppressant therapy. We're hoping for a good outcome, while knowing with certainty that the future is uncertain.

Many people have been very kind and asked me what they can do to support me and my family. Some, like Rhonda's postcard above, have hit all the right notes. Nothing complicated, simply offers of support and a personal message of appreciation. Before Don's diagnosis and treatment, I am sure I said and did some things that were intended to be supportive, but fell short of the mark. I wish I'd known then what I know now. I wish someone had told me, for instance, that, "Keep your chin up. It's going to be OK," is probably the most superfluous thing to say. Yes, I'm on an emotional rollercoaster, but overall I'm taking care of the usual business. How does anyone else know that it is going to be OK? Not even the radiation oncologist offered such certainty. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook whose 47-year-old husband Dave Goldberg died suddenly in May, writes much more poignantly on the topic of "It's going to be OK" than I hope I ever will.

Here are two other ideas for how to support someone who is squarely facing mortality issues.

When you ask me how my loved one is doing, also ask how I'm doing. As Don's spouse and caretaker, I appreciate the attention. I'm not going through what he's going through, but I'm going through it with him.

Please let me be honest about what's going on in my life. I have gotten the message from some that going into the details is not what they want to hear. Before Don's treatment, I was the kind of person who will tell you exactly how I'm doing. I'm even more that way now. Yet I have gotten the distinct message from some that going into the details is not what they want to hear. Fair enough. But remember, you asked. I now ask people if they want the spruced-up PR version of how things are going. I can certainly do that. Know you're not really supporting me, though. I'm actually supporting your illusion that everything must be sailing smoothly along.

I truly hope no one reading this ever goes through this kind of ordeal. But surely we will all experience losses and will need comfort, and have already. In the meantime, there are plenty of people out there in need of a safe place to share their doubts and fears. Offer a little piece of your shoulder for them to cry on.