Monday, December 23, 2013

suffer the little gerbil

Lucy the gerbil in her nest/cage

Lucy is the second gerbil we've cared for. Our first was Oreo, a boy gerbil who loved shelling sunflower seeds and biting our fingers every chance he got. Lucy is much gentler. She had never bitten me before a few days ago, and that's only because she's recently had an ordeal.

Lucy's nest (I prefer to call it a nest rather than a cage) is in our son Patrick's room. I was in there Saturday before last hand feeding her some seeds when I noticed she was moving funny. I immediately thought the worst, as Oreo had a cancerous tumor in his abdomen. I inspected Lucy the best I could, and though I didn't see a tumor, there was clearly something wrong with her back left leg.

Our kittehs, Bear and Yoda, love each other in between fights
I took her to Long's Peak Animal Hospital where we take our cats, where I met Dr. Andrew Boal for the first time. He palpated her leg, and she didn't as much as squeak, leading him to believe she was experiencing little to no pain. He X-rayed her leg--don't ask me how you get a gerbil to sit still long enough for that--and returned with the image on his laptop. A clean break of her leg. He offered me several options, one of which involved taking her to the Colorado State University Veterinary School for possible orthopedic intervention. That's too rich, even for my blood. We love the little rodent and all, but really?

"To be honest," Dr. Boal told me, "I'm going to have to do some reading on this." He'd never seen a gerbil with an injury like this. After doing some reading and consulting with CSU he decided to try to splint the leg. I immediately imagined Stuart Little wearing a cast. Unfortunately, it didn't work. Like all rodents, she's got Houdini-like powers. She simply slipped out of her tiny cast.

E.B. White is still one of my favorite authors.
Since there was no way to stabilize the joints above and below the break, Dr. Boal offered the best case scenario--amputation. Otherwise the limb would become gangrenous. Though we didn't discuss it, euthanasia was an option.

Meanwhile, I did some reading on my own. It turns out that her nest/cage, with its narrow wire mesh floors and running wheel, were probably the cause of her injury. She probably caught her foot, and when she couldn't free it, she yanked it and it broke her leg. We removed her wheel and the multi-level flooring as she recuperates and will replace it.

The morning of her surgery, Dr. Boal reiterated what a learning experience this had been for him. "It's really great that you're doing this," he told me. "It gives her a chance at a couple more years." The fee wasn't as much as I was expecting. Well, OK, it was about $285 for everything. When I volunteered at Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, I had especially enjoyed caring for the squirrels there, who really aren't so very different from Lucy.

Mother squirrel with a newborn, affectionately known as "pinkies." I fed many a pinkie squirrel with the smallest gauge syringes, very much like the ones we're using to administer pain reliever and antibiotics to Lucy.

Dr. Boal removed the leg and simply stitched the site. Any bandage would meet the same fate as the splint. Originally the vet tech had fashioned a miniature cone of shame so that she couldn't play around with the stitches, but she immediately wriggled out of that. Next they stitched it to her neck, and she got out of it, too. I regret not having a photo of her in her tiny cone of shame.

Four days after the surgery she seems to be doing well. She's not thrilled about me washing her amputation site with the pink baby washcloths I bought just for this, nor does she care for the tiny drop of pink antibiotic I give her once a day. She does like the pain reliever--maybe it's like Vicodin for gerbils--and she enjoys chewing on the tip of the syringes afterward. I see no signs that she's chewing on the amputation site, and it appears to be healing well. She's two and a half, middle-aged for a gerbil, so I'm hoping she has a couple of more good years, eating sunflower seeds from my hand and running on her new, safe wheel.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"Dick Cheney Is My Spirit Guide"

An amiable photo of the vice president

Football fans may recall Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Bill Romanowski. He was one of the most aggressive players in the NFL, fined numerous times for illegal hits and unsportsmanlike conduct. Romanowski was universally known as a dirty player. He was the guy you wanted on your team, not a guy you wanted to play against--except that being his teammate didn't exempt you from his brand of mayhem. In training camp, he broke his teammate Marcus Williams' orbital eye socket during a fight. Romanowski played dirty off the field, too. He was implicated in the BALCO steroid scandal, although he and his wife managed to wriggle out of any legal consequences. Romanowski did admit later to having used steroids throughout his career.

The week after 9/11, a friend who had recently received a peacemaker of the year award from the United Church of Christ told me he was glad Dick Cheney was in office. "We need someone really mean to fight these people."

Mr. Cheney is the guy some want on Team America. I'm not going to turn this post into a Cheney-bashing session. Critics far better equipped to skewer his record have already done so.

A few months ago, I attended a meditation intensive at the ashram where I receive my yoga training. In discussion group, one of the teachers said, "Dick Cheney is my spirit guide." Everyone burst into laughter.

"No, I'm serious," she said. "He is always teaching me things about myself."

Vajrama is one of the most benevolent people I know, obviously devoted to spiritual practice, and also a medical doctor who heals peoples' bodies. I could not imagine that this spiritual master would have anything at all in common with Mr. Cheney. There wasn't much discussion beyond that, which is the teaching style there. Teachers will frequently make provocative statements with very little explanation, leaving students free to puzzle over them.

And puzzle over it I have. I thought a spirit guide was supposed to be helpful and kind, like a fairy godmother getting you ready to meet your beloved. Definitely not Dick Cheney's MO. I think of him as a spirit guide of the underworld, leading to the heart of darkness.I am painfully aware that this says more about me than it does about him. In rejecting him as a fellow human being, I am denying my own capacity for inhumanity.

My favorite photo of Rudi. I pray to be so relaxed and joyful.

Swami Rudrananda, the root guru of the ashram, wrote, "The expression of hate, negativity, or any unhappy thought, feeling or state results when you reach a level of resistance and do not work through it. Any tool that is effective cuts through the material it contacts. Any hesitation in cutting through negative material, any verbalizing or other indulgence in negative feelings, takes force from your work."

I'm embarrassed to admit how much time and energy I've wasted in enumerating Mr. Cheney's sins.(And not just his. I'm often so busy removing the speck from the other guy's eye I barely notice the log in my own.) I do so to forget about my own troubles for a while. It's my resistance to Mr. Cheney that needs amending. None of my bitching has made any difference whatsoever in Mr. Cheney's conduct, nor, for that matter, in mine. He is nothing if not irritatingly consistent. In fact, he seems like he's just fine with the way he is. That is, I hasten to say, exactly like me. It's not that I actually think I'm OK the way I am now, but as soon as someone complains about one of my personality quirks or something I've done, I defend my right to stay the same.

Now I'm beginning to see one of the things Vajrama was pointing to. Dick Cheney has a brilliant talent for self-justification. Just like me. How many times does conscience, the ability to know right from wrong, fail me? I know when others are wrong, but I have little to no insight into my own wrongdoing. I work from a premise that my decisions are correct and justifiable, even if a decision was ill-considered and hurt others. I show no sign of wavering, as if that were a solid declaration of strength, when it is only the worst kind of stubbornness. Apology and other expressions of conscience weaken me. At the root of self-justification is a fear of appearing weak.

The tool I take to my egotistical fear of appearing weak is courage--the courage to admit when I'm wrong and to take corrective action. It's not just a mental exercise. I meditate and pray and put myself in the presence of people like Vajrama and Baba, who have been crafting their lives with tools that cut through negative material for far longer and more effectively than I have.Being in the presence of masters is the most important piece of my practice. I have received numerous graces from each of my teachers there.  

Our beloved Baba

While I stop short of claiming Dick Cheney as my spirit guide, I feel more kindly toward him. I'm glad he got a new heart and a new lease on life. May he use it well.

Monday, October 7, 2013

What is Essential?

"You know what they call a group of non-essential employees that get together on Sunday? The New York Giants."--Jay Leno

Oxford English Dictionary definition of non-essential: not absolutely necessary. Non-essential is the adjective some are using to describe my husband's employment as a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Actually "exempt" is the term used to describe his employment status. Non-essential is a name some commentators have long attached to government employees. This wouldn't be so insulting and scary if the definition of non-essential extended to paying our mortgage, buying groceries and paying our son's college tuition.  

Commentators like libertarian writer Nick Gillespie are pouncing on the furloughs of some 800,000 government employees as evidence of what they've long suspected: "DUH! I've been saying that government workers are non-essential for years!" This is a lame argument. Just repeat something often enough, and it becomes fact. Schoolkids throughout the generations have created similar epidemics of certainty as they almost universally complain about their teachers and going to school in the first place. Yet they learn valuable lessons and meet and learn to work with people from diverse backgrounds with diverse viewpoints. School's a great gig. So is gainful employment.

If the non-essential government shutdown goes on for much longer, my husband and others might be forced to look for other employment. That would be a a good plan, if the overall job market weren't so measly. Many of the so-called replacement jobs are part-time in the service industry, offering low pay and no benefits.String two or even three part-time jobs together and maybe you can scrape together an existence, if not a living. Going on unemployment and food stamps would be cheaper for the government than my husband's salary, but then Mr. Gillespie and others like him, who have so much insight and knowledge into what my husband and other government employees do or do not do and do or do not deserve, would be calling us freeloaders. No win-win in this scenario.

A non-essential pet rock. More than one million sold in six months in 1976.
All this talk of non-essential is confusing. We Americans practically invented the non-essential. Shopping malls are filled with tape stores and redundant boutiques and restaurants, and there is no pretense of a line between need and want. Much of our economy runs on making things that are nonessential, things that are nice to have, but expendable. But these are products, objects of choice and desire, not people and their life's work and livelihood.

I might be imagining things, but the only thing that counts any more are emergencies, real or manufactured, like the way this government shutdown has been manufactured. Only when the house is on fire, or the house under water, are we considered "essential." But as I said, I might be imagining things. There are many representatives in Congress who voted to deny aid to those caught up in the floods and destruction of Hurricane Sandy, including Rep.Cory Gardner, who represents the district in Colorado where Don and I live and have raised our family. Notice his website, still spiffy even during the government shutdown, as opposed to the NOAA website above. Of course, during the recent floods in Boulder Country, Gardner graciously accepted government aid for his constituents, just not for those folks out there in New York City.

The Flatirons in Boulder, frosted in show and swaddled in cloud and mystery, taken last Friday by my friend Andrew Nicholson

I turn away from the rage and the sadness at a government shutdown that has accomplished as little as the 113th Congress is accomplishing, to return to the subject at hand--what is essential? So often it's not the things we buy. It's what we give, what we enjoy, and what we're grateful for. These are essential to me: My family's happiness. Sunlight. Reasonable amounts of rain. Good food prepared with love and shared with people we love. Something to share, a smile, an encouraging word, a caress. A yoga mat. A good pair of walking shoes. Good books. Kindness. Natural beauty revealed, as in Andrew's photo. A giant pumpkin.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Honey and Meditation

Don's beehive earlier this summer, as Buddha looks on
I finished reading "Meditation and the Art of Beekeeping" by Mark Magill. While it was gracefully written and helped me understand beekeeping a little more, I was hoping it would focus more on meditation, and specifically his own meditation practice. For instance, he listed what the great teachers say are the stages of meditation. Never helpful. I find myself trying to fit into one of the stages and can't, so I conclude I'm not making progress at all.

I am always grateful for what others meditators share, because many don't share much. I'm not sure why. Maybe they think it's unseemly to speak of something so personal and so individual. Maybe they thinks the Wisdom Source is so vast that everyone connects to it uniquely, and therefore it's unhelpful to talk about experiences others are not likely to have

In my experience, the early years of meditation are a lot like watching paint dry. Thirty years ago my tai chi teacher Sherry Seidman (now Shoshanna Katzman) addressed the topic of commitment to the practice this way. "It takes a long time to progress in the forms. We Americans are not accustomed to waiting for things. We want them now. When we don't get them we move on to something else that promises more immediate rewards." She went on to say that all good things are worth waiting for, and that after ten years of consistent practice my life would be change in unpredictably wonderful ways. To a twenty-one-year-old, there was little that was consistent in my life, so my practice fell by the wayside more than once over the next ten, and even twenty years. But I always remembered her promise, and it is turning out to be true.

The progress in meditation is so slow, so gradual, our nervous systems so delicate, that I can understand why so many people give up and move on to other things.Yet this is precisely the reason why it takes so long to make progress. We want it, but we are not ready for it on so many levels. I started meditating because I wanted to have transcendent, mystical experiences, where I would be transported from my mundane existence to, I don't know, the Meditation Hall of Fame.

It was not to be.

I have, however, begun to transcend my limited, mundane self through meditation. All I've ever consistently done is put my butt on a cushion for a half hour every morning. It's been like putting half pennies in a piggy bank. The change (please pardon the pun) has been so small you hardly think anything has accrued, until one fine day I noticed I felt calmer, more stable, more present in situations that usually freaked me out. Meditation had gradually become a haven for me, a place I can return to, whether I am harried by life or celebrating it.

Most people are dealing with huge amounts of stress. Stress is in the air, yes, but most of it is self-generated. Martha Graham used to tell her students, "The body does not lie." Neither does the way people drive or push shopping carts or move through amusement park crowds. They may be perfectly lovely people who care for their families, but the way they move betrays the hurry sickness that plagues so many. Power of Now author Eckhart Tolle writes, "Most people treat the present moment as if it were an obstacle that they need to overcome. Since the present moment is Life itself, it is an insane way to live."

When people find out I teach yoga and meditation, they often tell me they've tried to meditate but it doesn't work for them.Perhaps they're right. Perhaps their long-held tensions are different and more intractable than mine. I'm also willing to bet they're not. It seems to me that we hold on to our stress because it differentiates us from others. I'm here to tell you your stress isn't special. It's killing you, just like it's killing everyone else.

When I find myself getting edgy in traffic, my investment in a meditation practice has helped me develop ways to soothe myself. Deep belly breaths are a great way to tame stress. At least ten of them in a row are said to reduce the amount of cortisol in your system. One of the most effective ways is to repeat loving kindness meditation to the driver in Friday afternoon traffic who is weaving in and out of lanes. When I catch myself thinking, What a jerk, who does he think he is anyway? I remind myself that he is trying to be free of the traffic jam, just like the rest of us. So I begin repeating loving kindness, "May he be safe. May he be happy. May he be healthy. May he live with ease." I repeat until I begin to believe that he really needed to be somewhere five minutes ago. Better yet, his compulsion to be first doesn't even enter my mind.anymore.

Wishing for his safety, happiness, health and ease is the very least I can do for him. These are what every person needs. What kind of ogre would I be if I can't offer others these basic goods? If you're not convinced, consider how you hurt yourself when you persist in withholding safety, happiness, health and ease from others, or worse, allow your anger and resentment to wish the worst for them. You know the truth of this as surely as you know that certain foods and habits are bad for you.You know that bowl of grapes is better for you than the bowl of potato chips, and sometimes you just want the chips anyway. Don't beat yourself up, whether you eat the chips or catch yourself hating on that guy in traffic. Just don't let that choice be the last word. I mean, really. Isn't that guy always in traffic? Why are you letting him and his trip yank your chain? This is where a meditation practice comes in to slow you down and keep you in contact with what's best and most real in your life. Start intoning loving kindness, even directing it at yourself. May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.

I mentioned earlier how I wanted to have transcendent, mystical experiences in meditation. I'm still waiting, though what I'm receiving is already really good. Occasionally I experience the sweet taste of the Wisdom Source's limitless love and appreciation. Maybe this is a subtext of Mark Magill's book, that the sweetness of honey and of meditation are one and the same. It is enough to keep me coming back for more.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Prepare to Waver

Several times I've started to write about the George Zimmerman case, but I realized I had nothing to add to the conversation, except to say that I do not think justice was served. A 17-year-old boy lies dead, and he is not only accused of using concrete pavement as a weapon, of being a pothead, but of causing his own death. If only he hadn't tried to defend himself against a guy who was following him because he was stranger and he was black. I'll leave it to essayists who have more considered opinions, like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jelani Cobb.

An excellent demonstration of Salamba Sirsasana, Headstand

Every writing teacher I've ever had has advised me to stick to writing about what I know. Who'd a thunk I'd  ever be more qualified to talk about standing on my head than about criminal justice? For years I've been tentative about headstand, known as the king of the yoga postures. Headstand has wonderful benefits: clearing and calming the mind and strengthening the arms, shoulders, neck, spine and abdominals. In yoga we balance on our feet, sometimes on only one, on our sitting bones, our hands and knees, our forearms, and the backs of our shoulders. All of these seem very doable. I might not be great in arm balances, but I knew if I got stronger through my arms and abs I'd be able to do them.

But balancing on my head? I had the idea that only people who had attained some kind of physical empowerment could do it. My teacher Shar Lee teaches headstand between two chairs. Below is a very good demo of the technique, similar to Shar's.

I've done it this way many times because it puts no strain on the neck and head. But then another teacher pointed out you don't get the crown chakra stimulation that only Headstand and Rabbit provide. Sirsasana was one of the poses I learned in teacher training. There I learned it without props. To my amazement I was able to get into the posture, under my teacher's careful direction and observation. She correctly pointed out that success in Headstand is predicated on pressing the forearms into the floor so that the crown of the head is only very lightly touching. Stabilizing the shoulders and engaging the abdominals is also part of the formula. Put them all together, and you have lift-off.

I haven't felt comfortable doing it in my practice until recently. It kept calling to me. Primarily I've had to work on overcoming my fear. I was afraid of falling and breaking my neck. That is a legitimate, material fear. My underlying fear was more subtle. I discovered I just can't stand instability, and headstand is all about finding equilibrium within instability.

I don't know anyone who loves instability. I'm not alone in wanting to know where my next meal is coming from, where my next kiss is coming from. I like knowing where I stand with the people I care for most. I like knowing that the Earth is spinning on its axis, and the earth is solid beneath my feet.

What I'm discovering in my current explorations of headstand is that stability is at best a wavering presence. Stability can't last, though it is a field we can play in.When I'm in Sirsasana, it's a constant interplay between swaying and stabilizing. Just as your mind never completely stills in meditation or at any other time, your body never stops moving. In the posture, I'm continually reminding myself to press my foreams more firmly into the floor. As soon as I do that, the structure stabilizes. But then I have a slight form break somewhere else, either in my side waists or in my shoulder blades. Then it's back to lengthening through my sides, and sending my shoulder blades toward my sacrum. Some days I can't stabilize at all.

Achieving stability, in Sirsasana or in life, is not a market to corner or a deal to nail down. It's very much about practicing skills and making adjustments that support your being, whether you're upside down and balancing on your head, or right side up and giving your children their independence.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Which Dog Do You Feed?

The puppies next door, Packer and Harley

I love animals, cats (we have two), gerbils (we have one), dogs (none yet, but I think I'm wearing my husband down :D), cows, horses. Even these guys (sorry, Jo Hansen, may you rest in peace, but I'm still crazy about raccoons):

Awww--isn't he cute?

Everyone in my family thinks I'm crazy to spend time watching the puppy cams on Watching puppies grow up and receive training to become service dogs for wounded veterans opens my heart. I overdose on their cuteness.

Unfortunately, some of the puppy lovers bring along their ambivalent attitudes about human beings. I admit to this myself. Some days I like animals better than people. It's easy to love someone who doesn't talk back, and who looks at you with huge, soulful eyes. A few of the commenters on Dog Bless You have forgotten that the primary attraction is the pups and their moms. Instead they want to make unflattering comparisons between the different organizations Explore features on its website. I find that as offensive as comparing the child-rearing abilities of parents. Raising young things is the most creative work people can do. There are better practices than others, for sure. But if you're going to appoint yourself judge and jury, make sure that you're seeing and hearing everything in 3-D, not from a computer screen, before you make any decisions.

When people on the Dog Bless You comment section call out the critical folks, they reply that they have the right to express their opinion. OK, fine. So open up a Blogger or Wordpress account and express away. But don't bother me and the others who simply want to love on the pups and the people, many of them volunteers, who are raising the babies with your critical, unflattering comparisons. No one who's watching a computer screen can seriously believe that they can see the whole of the operation, and therefore have the right to express an uninformed opinion. Because they don't. This is rife in political discourse as well. People go straight to trash talk before they even have a clue about the subject. This highlights one of the reasons I sometimes prefer animals to people--an unattractive tendency to seek, and to inevitably find, what is wrong in any given scenario.

When I was in teacher training, one of my professors was fond of pointing out how no one needs any training to notice students' disruptive behaviors. Looking for these same students' positive behaviors, or as he called it, "to catch 'em being good," requires much more finesse. Some students are conditioned to act out because they consistently receive attention for it, whereas their good deeds are taken for granted. "Which behavior do you want to reinforce?" he would ask.

To put it more poetically, here is a bit of Native American wisdom: "Inside of me are two dogs. The Black Dog is mean and angry; the White Dog is good and kind. The Black Dog fights the White Dog all day. Which one wins? The one I feed the most."

Monday, May 20, 2013

Becoming like Water

Now that it's spring here in the Colorado Rockies, I hear the song of the western meadowlark every time I'm in the wide open spaces. Their song sounds like flowing water to me. It feels like they're praising its sound in song.

In my yoga classes, I often speak of building the poses from the ground up, whether one is balancing on their seat, their feet, or their tete. Or their front, back and side. Building speaks of solidity, of structure, even of permanence. It's very important to have that sense of structure, of container. Eventually I contradict myself and tell them to become soft and fluid, to pour themselves into the posture.

It's all George Hernandez' fault. George was my tai chi and wing chun teacher. He would tell students we were painstakingly learning the forms, only to throw them out once we mastered them, in five or ten years, depending on how willful we were. Every time he'd say that I'd think to myself, What's the use of learning something we're only going to throw out? He would explain that you would never go into a fight using a form. You'd not only be an easy target, you'd be a laughingstock. You adapt your form and your movements to your opponents' and gain the advantage. Through dedicated practice, your lens becomes bigger than the forms and postures can contain. You see openings, and you thread your punches through them. You're certainly drawing from what you learned in choreographed fights, but the biggest thing you're really learning from them is awareness and improvisation.

Bruce Lee. What a specimen.
The exact same, except for the punches, is true of yoga. It would seem that martial arts and yoga are polar opposites, but they both work with energy, chi, prana, ki, or whatever your tradition calls it. Martial arts and yoga make the best use of the energy each practice generates, for different ends. Wing chun master Bruce Lee famously said, "You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend." It's about inhabiting space to the fullest extent, and being able to move from one space to the next. In both yoga and martial arts, the breath is the catalyst for filling space.

I often feel that certain problems are solid and intractable. Sometimes I dream that the solution to the problem was right in front of me all along. My mind was making it hard. I am not alone in this. I see it in my yoga students' bodies. The chips on their shoulders. Defiant posture. Defeatist posture. Being too hard on themselves. Less often, in go-go, bad-ass American culture, being too easy on themselves. Non-responsiveness. Non-awareness of the unnecessary, soul-sucking tension they carry within their beings. I touch their shoulders, the backs of their necks, their backs, inviting them to let breath and awareness melt the solidity, to find the softness and fluidity that is just beneath, like water beneath hard ground.

I don't claim to know what enlightenment is. It feels like water, letting water carry me where it will, rather than where I will. If I could sing like a bird, I'd sing the meadowlark's song. Yoga is practical enlightenment, in the sense that you are gradually letting go of burdens you never needed to carry in the first place.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"I Need Something to Change Your Mind"

Shortly after voters approved a bond for our local school district in 2002, the school board announced a $13.8 million budget shortfall. District accountants had forgotten to factor in staff salaries for the new schools built in one of the fastest-growing districts in the state.

Around this time I ran into someone I know from church, a physical therapist who contracted with the school district. When the subject of the budget deficit came up, she shrugged. "At least we got a few things we'd really needed for a long time."

Uh-huh. But really? Why were we putting essentials on the credit card? If the district could afford to build schools, and there were more taxpayers moving into the area, why were we in this pickle? My own best, and probably woefully underinformed guess, is that the state's history of skimping on tax collection had finally caught up with itself. There was no evidence of criminal malfeasance on the part of the district accountant. He wasn't embezzling money, but he got fired for incompetence. Chalk it up to human error. SNAFU is another explanation. Mainly because I like to say SNAFU.

The community came through in a big way, as did the state, and the school district eventually climbed out of debt in 2007. Over the last ten years, voters also have voted in favor of two mill levies, something that had never happened in the district's history. People in this community had changed their minds. We got stuff we'd needed for a long time, and not even a budget crisis could stop that from happening. Maybe there's hope for other crises this country faces.

The week of April 15-19 was one of the saddest I can remember. The Boston Marathon bombings. The fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. The Senate's epic fail to do even one thing about gun violence, despite the public's overwhelming support for a variety of measures to address it. This last is the one that hurts the most, because 30,000 people die in gun violence every year in this country.

Twenty kids, six educators, and the shooter's mother dead doesn't change them. Not even one of their own getting shot in the head changes their mind about their position on gun violence.It's all NRA, all the time. SNAFU doesn't even begin to describe the whole sad, pathetic situation.

It brings to mind a Talking Heads song, "Mind," from the band's 1979 Album.

The salient line: "I need something to change your mind," because nothing so far has done it. Not time, money, drugs, religion, or science.

None of it has changed New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte's mind. She voted against instituting background checks and other gun control measures. Watch this exchange between Sen. Ayotte and Erica Lafferty, the daughter of slain Sandy Hook Elementary principal Dawn Hochstrung:

I'm not going to congratulate Sen Ayotte was doing her job to host Ms. Lafferty in her office. Ayotte's votes on the Senate gun control measures were obviously a slap in the face to Erica Lafferty and others who have been affected by gun violence. Sen. Ayotte brings up mental health, as have many other in public life, including NRA veep Wayne LaPierre, who has proposed a national registry for the mentally ill, but God forbid there should be a national registry for gun owners.

I believe they're as serious about addressing the crisis in mental health care as they are about addressing gun violence. Not a single Republican in the Congress voted for Obamacare, which includes provisons for mental health care reform. Congressional Republicans have voted unsuccessfully to void Obamacare more than 30 times in three years. Given their history of obstructionism on health care and so many other issues, reforming mental health care in this country would be a lot more difficult than passing laws that restrict who has access to guns.

Which leads me to the question--What will change their minds about gun violence? What has to happen that is worse than a Congresswoman with a life-changing gunshot wound or 20 dead first-graders? This question, to quote David Byrne, "comes directly from my heart to you."

Monday, April 15, 2013

Poor in Spirit

Brennan Manning, author photo in his book, All Is Grace

When Brennan Manning died last Friday, the world lost a champion for the poor in spirit. Though he was a Franciscan priest, a gifted teacher, and the writer of a treasure trove of spiritual books, he would have called himself poor of spirit. His long struggle with alcoholism took him far beyond the holy hush of his vows to the depths of hell on earth. A kind stranger peeled him off the pavement in New Orleans, a step in a process of recovery that lasted the rest of his life. The first beatitude says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." May he be so blessed.

Brennan after his stroke, with All Is Grace co-author John Blase. People who smile that openly, that joyfully, are usually children.

 I would say he earned his place, but there's no earning the kingdom of heaven, no matter what most of the Christian churches in this country and beyond try to tell you. There is only the unconditional surrender of your heart, and I like to think Brennan succeeded. I like the idea of succeeding rather than earning.

Few want to be poor in spirit, or poor in any way. Most want to bless the world with their achievements, their generosity, their sheer awesomeness. The poor in spirit confess their multiple deficiencies without being the least bit proud of them, or even ashamed of them. It is then that the spiritual blessings begin to transfuse in, mostly so slowly they don't notice.

Anuvittasana. This is a tough pose to do well. The model could stand to initiate the pose through lengthening her spine upward and lifting her heart, rather than leaning back and initiating the bend from the low back.

My first and most beloved yoga teacher, Shar Lee, exhorts students to give up their hearts to God in back bends. That's a natural teaching for me, as I often experience emotion and insight through physical exertion. In Anuvittasana, Standing Back Bend, Shar invites students to initiate the back bend through the lifting of the heart and the ribcage, rather than through the low back and hips. For me, this pose is the physical expression of surrendering the heart, and a baby step in the process at that. Through this pose, I gain insight into the technical difficulty of surrender.

Brennan Manning was a master at the art of surrender. He made no claim of being chosen. He acknowledged the difficulty of life, his own and those of all the other ragamuffins he loved and wrote about. Ragamuffins couldn't gussy themselves up in furs and perfumes to go before their Maker even if they wanted to. They come to the feast as they are.

Leonard Cohen says it well, in "Anthem:" "Every heart, every heart/to love will come/but like a refugee."

I highly recommend this book. I love the cover photo. It invites readers to offer themselves, even in pieces.

In "Anthem," Leonard Cohen also sings:

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in."

Rest in peace, Brennan.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Forgiveness Project

Crocuses in snow

There is nothing more hopeful than blooms in the snow. Spring is technically here, but in the Rockies snow respects no calendar. With the drought, I welcome the blessing of this snow. I hope the land remembers this snowstorm come June and July, when the sun is scorching the rancher's fields. We'll all be able to use a little mercy then.

I lost a friend last week. She let me know in no uncertain terms that I had gone straight to the top of her shit list because of my lifelong tendency for faithlessness and fickleness, not to mention a whole host of other undesirable characteristics, like anger and hostility. Guilty as charged.

She forgot to mention a troublesome attachment to resentment. Uncharacteristically, this time I refrained from defending myself, because she's right. She gave me a gift, one that many others before her have given me, but that I have consistently refused--a fresh opportunity to let go of my resentment, rather than giving in to it. At first it's sweet to enumerate my opponent's faults, while denying or justifying my own. But in my experience, this is a lot like gorging myself on half a pillow sack of Halloween candy. Afterward, not only do I have a belly ache, I'm loaded with regret, primarily for falling prey to my own weakness.

Bonnie Raitt is one of my favorite performers, and her version of "Sweet Forgiveness" is right at the top of my list of favorite songs. Daniel Moore wrote the song, after ABC Dunhill didn't renew his contract. The song grew out of "trying to forgive them for putting me out of work," he wrote. "I almost did it."

That he almost did it is farther than most of us get. I fool myself when I say I've gone far enough. To paraphrase Moore, I'm "waiting for the cure." As a yogini, I devote myself to opening my heart more and more, so that a miracle cure presents itself. I confess to being better at teaching this to my students than practicing it myself.

The longer I resent someone, the less likely I am to wait for the cure, to allow the true sweetness of forgiveness to seep in. I want it now. I like the believe that my whole life has been leading up to the moment when I ditch the resentment and open up to forgiveness, of myself and those who so easily offend me.

Years ago, one of those people who easily offended me was a woman in my neighborhood. I had scolded her sons for riding their bikes on the sidewalk, heedless that I was eight months pregnant, and that I was using the same sidewalk to walk my son and a neighbor boy to school. Their mother angrily told me that I should find another way to walk to the school, because her sons needed to ride their bikes to on the sidewalk. I later learned that her husband, and the boys' father, had recently died. I could understand her protectiveness, but didn't my kids have rights, too? From then on, she drove her sons to school. For the next year and a half, she and I exchanged dirty looks. I was waiting in line at the school to pick up some paperwork, when she approached me.

"I owe you an apology," she said. I burst into tears at the simplicity and humility of her apology, and we hugged each other while the other bewildered parents looked on. It was the cure Daniel Moore wrote about. As long as I lived in that neighborhood, she and I didn't exactly become friends, but we stopped glaring at each other and exchanged pleasantries instead.

There is a lot of good advice out there about forgiveness. and not surprisingly, much of it centers on releasing resentment. In case you thought I was going to be condescending and "forgive" my friend for dumping me, I'm going to focus first on releasing resentment. Eventually I'd like to get to the place where my need to forgive. whether it's her or someone else, exceeds my need for her to accept my forgiveness. Or for my need for her forgiveness.

My first approach is to view this situation as, in the words of economist Paul Romer, that a "good crisis is a terrible thing to waste." Let the learning begin.

I pray for the miracle of softening my heart of stone.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Catch Your Breath

A video of B.K.S Iyengar demonstrating Ujaii breathing. Not every pranayam is going to be as deep and wide as Mr. Iyengar's, nor does it need to be. The key is to keep practicing.

Last week I was a student in a yoga class, and the teacher said, "It isn't a yoga class unless pranayama is part of it." I wholeheartedly agree.

Pranayama is designed to calm the nervous system, all 6,000 miles coiled within each being, before engaging in the postures and meditation. My classes almost always begin with it, and it is a thread throughout asana.

Off the mat, when you are stressed and you catch yourself breathing shallowly or even holding your breath, remind yourself to breathe, inhaling and exhaling fully. It takes 10-20 breaths to recalibrate. This is especially good to do when you're in traffic or waiting in line at the grocery store or dealing with angry people. Breathing mindfully will bring you back to yourself.

Here is an easy breathing exercise you can do when you find a quiet moment in your day. Sit comfortably and close your eyes.

I am enough, in this moment.
I breathe into being enough.
Today I am enough.
Today I have enough.
Today I do enough.
There is nothing missing. In this moment, I am whole. I experience wholeness.
I am complete. I experience completeness.
Breathe into your wholeness, through your nose, breathing deeply and slowly to your body base.
Pause to experience this sense of fullness.
Slowly exhale, offering your wholeness to the whole world, blazing a deep and generous trail back up and through your body and through your nose.
Pause to enjoy the satisfaction of emptying yourself of the best you have to offer.
Breathe in again and experience the gratitude that is inhalation, sipping the breath through your body.
Pause to enjoy the wonder of fullness. You are full. You are satisfied. You are whole.
Exhale slowly, offering all that you gained during your inhalation to the people you love, to the people you don't currently love but can now afford to love, to people you have never met.
Pause to enjoy how receiving deeply and gratefully allows you to give deeply and gratefully.
Continue for at least ten more breaths.
Repeat as needed.


Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Too many children are dying"

 Gabby Giffords on Jan. 7, 2011, the day before she was shot in the head:

 Warning: Get out your hankies.

I am enamored with the way Mark Kelly's lips are moving as his wife reads her statement, just as an encouraging parent's lips would move when his child was reading aloud.

How much their lives changed the day Giffords was shot. How little has changed in gun control laws.

Some gun advocates say there's nothing that can be done to curb gun violence, between the current interpretation of the Second Amendment and the sheer number of guns already in circulation. The public is supposed to just "deal with it."

A country that survived a civil war and two world wars, that sent astronauts to the moon, does not just "deal with" problems. It solves them.

Giffords is absolutely right. We must do something about gun violence. Her peers did nothing even when one of their own was shot. If twenty dead children, buried for a month, are not enough to get Congress to act to curb violence, then the leadership of this country has lost its way.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Morality Relocation Program

In happier days

After Lance Armstrong won his third Tour de France, I was conditioned to be amazed. His story of surviving testicular cancer and competing in the Tour would have been inspiring enough, all on its own. Winning a stage would have been a great achievement. Winning seven in a row was the stuff of legend.

Rumors of doping hounded Armstrong, and I chalked them up to professional envy. I wanted to believe his victories were both good and true. If he wasn't using potent Texas rhetoric to swat those rumors away, he was filing lawsuits. The guy was a fighter and a champion. He meant business, on the bike and elsewhere.

On the victory stand after his seventh win, Armstrong aimed directly at his detractors. "I'm sorry you can't dream big. And I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles." No one wants one of the greatest champions in sport saying you dream small and discount miracles. Dreaming big and believing in miracles is what makes champions. So I, along with many millions, continued to believe.

Sheryl Crow, his girlfriend at the time, told CBS Morning News, "[Lance] is a cancer survivor, which we all know. And the thought of him putting anything into his body that could possibly hurt him is not even worthy debating."

Now that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour victories and banned his participation in any competition, news of his appearance and anticipated admission of guilt on Oprah's show has been on the airwaves for over a week. Armstrong and his publicists, with considerable help from the Big O, are still conditioning us to be amazed. He seems to want our forgiveness.

No, forgive me. Forgive me for not being amazed. Forgive me for being downright cynical about your motives. Forgive me for not giving a damn whether you ever compete in any race ever again. Forgive me for calling you Mephistopheles. Because you sold you soul to the devil for some wins and the glory and fortune that went along with them. You need to tell us, especially the kids who are watching, that selling your soul to the devil is as unoriginal as it is stupid. Because you'll always get caught, and everything you stole will be confiscated. You'll have lost your integrity. All the money in the world can't buy it back. You'll need to create your own Morality Relocation Program, and chances are good you'll be all alone while you're doing it.

Speaking of kids, you need to tell them exactly how you doped. How it looked and felt, so that USADA has better insight into the process for future enforcement. How many people you lied to, how many people lied for you. How unhealthy doping and lying are, despite what your pretty and talented girlfriend said about you on a national news program, and how you never want them to risk their health and their standing with God for a few wins. How it feels to look into the eyes of the mothers of your five children, into the eyes of your girlfriends, and lie to them. How it feels, now that the truth is known, to look into the eyes of your children. And your mother. Please, confess all of it. Because you've always wanted us to believe, right?

Our sons, right around the time Armstrong won his first Tour. They've looked up to Lance Armstrong their whole lives.

And please don't insult us with the kind of lame apology that the disgraced yet unchastened offer when they're caught in a scandal of their own creation. "I'm sorry if what I did made you feel uncomfortable." That ain't an apology. That's going through the motions.

Here's what a real apology would sound like. "I'm sorry I lied to you all about doping. I wanted the wins more than I've ever wanted anything else, and I was prepared to do whatever I could to gain an advantage. All those years I told myself doping was the price of competing at the highest level, that everyone else was doing it, and those who weren't doping were chumps and losers. I knew it was wrong, but I thought the wins and the fame and the money would make it OK. I trusted in my own intelligence, and in the intelligence of my protectors, but it wasn't intelligence at all. It was lying, and it was cheating, and my mother raised me better. It's not worth it. I've lost more than I've ever gained. I'll be spending the rest of my life atoning for it."

Maybe this is how he can feed his kids, by publicly taking that fearless moral self-inventory so many other addicts before me have taken.

Then Lance might amaze me again.

Monday, January 7, 2013

What Tenderizes Your Heart?

"One can never have too many cats." Anonymous

I confess to latent Crazy Cat Lady tendencies. Though this box of cuties is tempting, I limit myself to two kitties, because I love my husband more. I believe this disqualifies me from being a true CCL, because a true CCL likes cats more than people. Don loves cats, too. It's cleaning litter boxes that he's less fond of.

Our two lugnuts, doing what they do best.
I love animals so much I volunteered at the Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, feeding squirrels, birds and raccoons, this last much to the chagrin of my dear departed friend Jo Hansen. Jo lived in downtown Boulder, and as far as she was concerned, raccoons were the scourge of civilization. They pooped and mated and caused a ruckus in her back yard at inconvenient hours. No doubt raccoons are the juvenile delinquents of the animal kingdom. But they have a certain louche charm that gets to me. Years ago, I named one of my cats, a female tortoiseshell with rakish black goggles, Raccoon.

Simply irresistible

Our neighbors adopted a puppy after their dog died. I was looking forward to watching another puppy grow up. Then they got the news that he has a liver disease that will likely be fatal. They are taking it all in stride, especially Harley. He doesn't know he has a fatal disease. He's still playing, running around, being a baby, growing and loving life. The family is committed to riding it out with him. He's lucky to have landed with such a caring family.

Cutest puppy on earth. The name's Harley.

Because unfortunately, not every animals lives with high-quality people like the Prices. I receive Facebook posts from Hearts United for Animals, a no-kill dog sanctuary in Nebraska. One of their rescues has especially touched me and many others who receive these posts.

This is the first picture of Noah I saw. The sadness and weariness in his eyes is devastating.
Noah after a couple of weeks at Hearts United for Animals. Despite all he's been through, he looks really glad to be alive.
When I saw the first photo I thought, What on earth happened to this poor dog? You can read more about the circumstances of Noah's rescue here. Scroll down to the December 20 post for the complete story. His story is tenderizing my heart. I often say that our cats have better lives than many people in the world. Until Noah was brought to Hearts United for Animals, that was not true for him. The people there are literally loving him back to health. I hope you'll join me in making a donation to this worthy organization.

This afternoon Hearts United posted some very good news about Noah's prognosis. The tumors they removed from his abdomen were benign. His other physical wounds are healing, and judging from the photos and stories, he's doing well emotionally.

Gandhi once wrote, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by how it's animals are treated." On the one hand, our country is in great shape, with the angels in Nebraska taking such great care of abandoned dogs. On the other hand, our country is in poor shape, because people would mistreat Noah and other dogs in the way they did.

Another great humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer, wrote, "Anyone who has accustomed himself to regard the life of any living creature as worthless is in danger of arriving also at the idea of worthless human life." Amen to that. I confess there are days when I like animals more than people. Cats don't talk back. They don't tailgate me on I-25.

As I aspire to be even a scintilla of the humanitarian that Gandhi and Schweitzer were, I commit to holding the welfare of people equal to the welfare of animals. Here's to tenderizing our hearts!