A REAL STINKER

noseWhen is it that we begin to understand the difference between right and wrong? When does our sense of sin develop? For me, it happened when I was about four years old. It must have been a holiday because the whole family was gathered at my Aunt Anna’s house.

I was born ‘between generations’ and at this time was the only child in the family. The adults ranged from my cousins in their late teens to my grandparents who were in their sixties. I remember a number of them were sitting around in the tiny parlor that housed the floor model radio console on a sunny afternoon.

Suddenly, unexpected, unbidden, unwelcome, I emitted a little frrrp! The adults in the room threw accusatory glances at each other. “Who farted?” said my Uncle Vince. “It wasn’t me,” countered my cousin Mary who began holding her breath.

In unison, everyone began sniffing the air seeking to identify the source of the noxious odor that now permeated the small room. My Aunt Anna waved a hand delicately in the air and edged the window open a bit higher.

“Whew,” said my father, “that was a real stinker.”

My cousin George the Clown grabbed his throat and gasped, “I can’t breathe,” then tumbled on the floor. Uncle Rocco batted him along the side of his head and said something in Italian after which George shuffled into the other room.

My mother, whose olfactory sensors were keen, swiveled towards me. “Marie, did you make a noise?” This was our family’s euphemistical reference to passing gas.
A hot flame of embarrassment shot from my toes to my head, providing a rosy backdrop for my white blond hair. Eyes wide and stricken, I was stung to retort, “No!”

Above my head I could feel the smirks and smiles forming and I sat down covered with confusion – which is a lot heavier than it sounds – and considered what had just happened.

I had not only broken one of the basic social taboos but had then lied about it. I could no longer consider myself courageous and all hopes of one day joining the Texas Rangers were from that moment dashed.

What had started out as a mere embarrassment had quickly escalated into guilt which was followed by shame. I wondered if this was the original sin I had heard discussed recently. Were Adam and Eve evicted from the Garden for aromatic reasons? After all, they had lied too.

This small event was my first introduction to guilt and shame, two of the real ball breakers of life. I was only to learn the painful embrace of remorse in later years after I had had more opportunities to be selfish.

But this early experience would serve me well until I could start catechism at the local Catholic Church and learned what real guilt was all about from the professionals.

The psychologists say that shame is just one step above despair on the ladder of negative emotions and since I can still vividly remember that day of more than sixty years ago I find I must agree to its power.

As someone once said, “Life is one long lesson in humiliation.” Now if I could only stop buying whoopee cushions.

SPRING LANDSCAPE

flowering treeInch by inch the sun climbs higher requiring adjustments to the tilt and angle of the cloth fishing hat I wear to shield my eyes from the light. I position my chair beneath the pine and observe the landscape of the park.

The evergreens which have stood faithful through the winter’s frost and rains provide a dark background for the first of the flowering trees whose pink and white blossoms declare the arrival of spring.

The sea gulls, responding to some mysterious seasonal signal, have recently departed leaving the big field flat and empty except for the young girl who sits cross-legged and with head bowed, secretively rolls a joint.

From the naked oak trees, the crows practice cries of indignation in rehearsal for some future occasion when intimidation will be required.

A dark-skinned man pushing a white-haired crone in a wheel chair stops to chat with the bouncing woman with dreadlocks whose big voice carries easily over the pathways.

The creek, still frisky from the weekend’s rain, tumbles over banks and curls around roots in its eagerness to reach the river that will in turn carry it to the great sea beyond where it will, for the first time, encounter the giant migrating whales of legend.

In the distance the fountain on the lake spews jets of water high above the cruising ducks and migrating Canadian geese, the small lake an inn along their silken road north.

The muffled thump of car doors presage the arrival of young mothers with small children and restless dogs who want to walk faster and roam further than allowed.

“Howdy,” I say to the young man walking by whose glittering blue motorcycle helmet has “Pilgrim” stenciled in white. My cowboy welcome throws him off stride and as he slews left to the parking lot I hear the jingle of the metal clips of his leather boots.

Beneath the laughter and the calling birds and the swish of passing cars, the large hands of Silence cradle the park gently as it swings into the afternoon.

WHEEL OF FORTUNE

wheel of fortuneThe other day a friend of mine stopped by to show me his new 2013 Dodge Challenger. It sported heated leather seats, keyless ignition, a speedometer that easily climbed to the triple digits and comfort that only an expensive car can offer.

Was this the same man who just a few years ago had struggled through a divorce, job loss and the short sale of his home? It was, and in the interim he has obtained a high paying job he loves and has an active social life.

Life goes in cycles. In the medieval world they called it the Wheel of Fortune. One day you’re up and the next day you’re down. Usually it has little to do with whether you deserve the good/bad fortune – it is the nature of life to go through changes.

I first noticed this in my own life when I was fifteen and my father had died. We lived across the street from the church and on Tuesday morning when I looked out the front door I saw his funeral procession forming. On Wednesday morning when I looked out the front door I saw the hearse drive up bearing the body of the father of a girl I knew at school. I remember thinking, yesterday it was my turn to grieve and today it is her turn.

Everyone has to take their turn experiencing hard times – there are no exceptions, even in the most wealthy, influential, intelligent, gifted families. Loss and sorrow, plenty and joy come to us all at one time or another.

I did not learn the second lesson about the Wheel of Fortune until I was in my thirties. I remember having a drink with friends while we discussed what our plans would be when ‘things settled down.’ By this we meant the time when we had the time and the money and the right circumstances. Something always seemed to be out of sync – we were either having a problem with money or jobs or relationships or creativity or something!

And that was the second lesson – you never get it all at the same time, or if you do it doesn’t last very long. Life, by its changeable nature, is also by nature unstable. We all seek to balance our lives but balance is not a real possibility; instead it is a process that requires continual adjustment.

Nothing that has form will last. Relationships will change or end; jobs will be taken up and left; health will come and go; fortunes will be made and lost. Life, because it is life, is slippery and fluid and malleable, like the pellet of mercury that cannot be grabbed.

We are asking for trouble and heartbreak is we expect life to be other than it is. Life is not meant to be controlled or stable or directed or overcome, it is meant to be experienced and that includes what we call good and what we term bad.

While we can bemoan this unpredictability it is more productive to celebrate it because it means that the bad times do not last forever, what goes up will come down – and go up again. It is a matter of being alert to the times and acting accordance with them. That is part of the great philosophy behind the Chinese classic work, the I Ching, or Book of Changes.

If we can identity what part of the cycle we are in we can accommodate ourselves to the current, take advantage of its direction and be ready when the next period of beneficial forces come into play.

When we can fully realize and understand this principle we remove any reason for despair or depression. Nothing bad lasts forever, – unless we allow it to. Likewise, nothing good lasts forever – so we must be ready for change when it comes. It’s like Joseph’s dream of the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine.

So this morning the sun is shining, the coffee is hot and the bread is in the oven. A day to eat, drink and be merry!

THE PHONE CALL

phoneA dear friend of mine is going through the hell of waiting to hear if she has cancer. There was a funny spot on her chest x-ray – that was a few days ago – and since then it has been a series of doctor visits and tests and sleepless nights.

She is the same person she was two weeks ago but now the knowledge that she may have a serious illness is always present in her mind, never leaves her heart – and all because that fearful thought has been planted in her mind.

We have all experienced that kind of anxiety. We hear in our mind the words that will bring comfort or terror. We review what we did or did not do to create this condition. We imagine all the scenarios and outcomes.

In any crisis, the worst part is the waiting, the not knowing. It may be as simple waiting for news about the pet who is missing and has not been home for two days or as complex as the final days of a relative. After a while, just to end the excruciating pain of waiting is enough – whatever the outcome.

At one time or another we all get that phone call – it may come in the middle of the night or late in the afternoon. It is the call that tells us about an accident, a death, a diagnosis – and when we hang up the phone our reality has changed and will never be the same again.

When the loss of the known is threatened, the mind can be filled with terror. How to react, what to do, where to go, who to turn to?

We are told to … pray for a miracle, heal our inner child, exorcise our demons, be a vegetarian, lose/gain weight, take vitamins, exercise, have our chakras balanced, get our aura cleansed, be more positive, be more humble, be more determined, fight harder, start envisioning, try to surrender, stop smoking, stop drinking, start meditating, fast, have our colon irrigated, do drugs, don’t do drugs, etc.

When it comes to serious crisis everybody has an opinion but nobody has an answer – because there is none. I know people talk a lot about the power of positive thinking and the healing power of prayer and I believe that both are true – but it doesn’t happen all the time for everyone no matter how much they want it or deserve it.

Maybe we get sick because it’s genetic, maybe it’s from our lifestyle or our environment, maybe it’s stress and pressure, maybe it’s poor mental health, or maybe it’s ‘just because.’ We don’t always know the answer, know the cause. Ultimately, the why of it doesn’t matter.

All that any of us have is this moment, this day and the challenge is to live it as deeply and joyfully as possible. I think anyone who is a human deserves a lot of credit just for staying here. Life can be hard and a heart-breaker. It takes a lot of courage to keep on and even those who aren’t living a so-called good life deserve compassion.

Some people say that this earth is a classroom and we are here to learn lessons. If this is true as far as I can see there are only two lessons being taught here; to learn what love is and to learn to have courage.

No matter how well we take care of the body, it will eventually start to fail. Everything of form eventually changes to the formless. Even the sun will die. That is the part we don’t like to talk about, think about, look at, because we are powerless to change the inevitable. Yes, I know I’ll have to die … but not yet!

All of the great saints and avatars have told us that life is eternal but the life they are talking about is not this life on this earth or in these bodies. I think we have another body that some call a soul and that is the part that never dies, that is never frightened, that is the source of this love and courage.

And so my dear friend to you I say no matter what happens in the future you are not alone. All of your friends are here standing with you to lend you courage and to celebrate life.

EATING THE SUN

osiris-sun-worshipBy Valentine’s Day spring will come to Sacramento. There is a tree with white blossoms, I think it is called False Pear, that is the first to bloom and today I see limbs studded with tightly closed, pink-tinged buds.

To celebrate I visit the park and sit in the sun awhile. An older woman using a cane is taking a young terrier for a walk. The dog’s nose is to the ground and the tail in constant motion with his joy at being alive.

A young mother pushes a toddler in a stroller that bumps across the grassy field. The wheels make a clickety-clack sound like a train on rough tracks and the baby cries in counterpoint while the mother chatters to it in Russian.

At the shelter a group of school children enjoy a picnic while in the nearby parking lot, city workers arrive in pick-up trucks and pull out brown paper bags.

In the distance I see the spume of the lake fountain shooting high in the air to the delight of the ducks and geese bobbing tail-up in search of lunch while an old man walks by with an empty fishing pole over his shoulder.

I close my eyes and bask. The temperature is cool, the sun warm, and the air damp with the scent of fresh mown grass and just a hint of skunk. It is a day that encourages the mind to be silent and the heart content. What more could one want?

As I drink in the sun I feel its energy sinking into my skin, into my bones, its rays cleansing me from the inside out. I become a blade of grass, a leaf, a flower, head raised to the sun and feet held by earth.

The sun is the universal food, the cosmic manna. The transubstantiative power of its rays feed the plants that feed the animals that feed me. With each bite I take, I eat sun.

The same fire that burns in its blazing heart is the same fire that burns in mine; the same atomic furnace that produces its light is the same furnace found in the atoms of my being. Is it any wonder that the ancients worshipped the sun for its life-giving power? Is this why St. Francis called it Brother?

I remember stories of saints and mystics of all religions who were said to live for years without eating any food. Had they remembered how it is that plants live on light?

Now that the long nights of winter are tipping towards equilibrium, the seeds we planted on those long dreamy evenings will be breaking ground as Easter with its resurrection arrives. At the spring equinox the life-giving sun begins its climb to the zenith, and so does the Son return to remind us there is no death.

MEMORIES

audrey hepburnI have a dear cousin named Hazel. We are separated by enough years that we are almost in different generations and when I was growing up she was my model of beauty and sophistication. Looking back she kind of reminded me of the Audrey Hepburn of the 1950’s with her short dark pixie haircut and brown eyes. Her favorite perfume was White Shoulders and when I would visit she would let me dab some behind my ears.

When I grew up we became friends as well as relatives and although I moved to California in my 30’s and she remained in Pennsylvania – in fact, except for a couple of trips to New Jersey to the casinos I don’t recall her ever leaving the valley – we have always kept in touch.

I remember about ten years ago when I had flown back home to clear out my mother’s house so it could be sold, Hazel and I were at the small local airport waiting for my younger son to arrive. It was about 11 at night and bad weather had delayed his plane. Now this is a really small airport and at that time of night there was nobody around – not even in the coffee shop or ticket counters.

It was right out of the twilight zone and before long Hazel and I were laughing like lunatics. About 45 minutes later, a mysterious voice came over an intercom saying the plane had landed. Suddenly, magically, people started to appear all around us – at the ticket counter, at the luggage wheel, on the concourse – everywhere but the parking lot.

After Jason loaded his luggage in the trunk, we discovered that there was no one attending the parking check out. The swing arm gate was down and locked and the lights were going out in the terminal. After taking a vote, we decided to drive around the attendant’s booth and gate, through the flower bed, over the curb and on to the exit drive. It was a memorable evening and one that she and I both enjoy reminiscing.

I haven’t been back to Pennsylvania since my mom died but Hazel and I talk a few times a year. In fact, I talked to her last week and told her about my 50th high school reunion coming up this summer. We discussed the possibility of my journeying back but I don’t know that I am able to travel alone any more. During our long conversation, Hazel brought up the proposed trip several times, each time as if she had forgotten we had talked about it.

Yesterday there was a message on my answering machine from her. She said she didn’t know if she had been dreaming it or not and was trying to remember if I had told her I was coming home this summer. If I was I could stay with her. She had to run an errand but would call me back later that afternoon. She never called. I guess she forgot.

It is very poignant to recognize that someone you love is slowly slipping away – in mind if not in body. I am so grateful for the many memories she and I have created, memories that soon I may have to treasure alone.

WANTING

nissargadattaOne of the things I like about You Tube is that I can see old archival footage of now-dead lecturers and teachers. For instance, I happened upon an old film of Nisargadatta Maharaj, an enlightened master from India who died in the 1980’s and was part of the Advaita Vedanta tradition.

He said something which has stuck with me for several days, something which I have struggled with, turned upside down and inside out, my mind trying to rationalize another, more comfortable interpretation. At the same time, from the moment I heard it, I knew that what he said was true, and no matter how I twisted and turned could not make it a more comforting (to the ego) statement.

He said “If people would only want what they have, and not want what they don’t have, they would be at peace. It is so simple.”

There are a lot of things that we may have that we don’t want such as sickness, poverty, poor relationships, etc. And, there are a lot of things we don’t have that we may want such as recognition, companionship, wealth, peace of mind.

I considered a friend of mine who is always complaining that she does not want the home she currently has and she will not let go of wanting the home she does not have. She is one of the most anxious, unhappy people I know right now. It is easy for me to say that if she could only accept her current circumstances and stopping wanting a home she could not afford, she would be more content. But what about the beam in my own eye?

I continued to contemplate Nisargadatta’s statement. What did ‘wanting what you have’ really mean? Was it tolerance, acceptance, resignation to the present? What did ‘not wanting’ really mean? Was it indifference, neglect, repugnance to what was not?

The other day a well-meaning friend sent me an article about how someone with Rheumatoid Arthritis undertook a radical new treatment and eventually went into remission.

Before reading the article I had been thinking about RA in a non-personal way and coping with the footprints it leaves in my life.  After reading it I felt doubt about my current approach and pondered whether I should try this treatment, what might be the results, etc. Before I knew it my mind was filled with unhappy thoughts- reviewing the history of my own experience with the disease and projecting possible futures.

I wrote back and thanked her but said that I was more interested in learning how to accept and cope with my situation than I was in changing it. I don’t know if that was the right response or not but I do know that I immediately felt more peaceful in not wanting something I did not have now. In addition, I had to acknowledge the many insights and benefits I have received as a result of experiencing this disease so it hasn’t been all bad.

I realized that wanting is closely associated with thinking. When you want something there is a lot of energy put into thinking about it, envisioning the desired object or condition are constantly in the mind like a carrot in front of the donkey. On the other hand, when there is no-wanting, there is no thinking and no energy spent– it is non-present.

I caught myself the other night lying and bed and thinking how I wish I had a better relationship with a family member. This went on for several hours and then I remembered Nisargadatta’s statement. I was wanting what I didn’t have. If I stopped wanting it what would happen? I was instantly more peaceful.

Illness, a death in the family, financial hardship – all the catastrophes that life can bring, all those events which cannot be changed no matter how much we pray, cry, implore, sacrifice; all those events which remind the thinking mind and ego that there is a greater power that cannot be bribed, coerced, blackmailed or brought into line; all of those hard things in life strip away the nonessential.

Hardship shows us we do not have the power to bend life into a convenient or comfortable form if it is going in a different direction. If we want what we have, and don’t want what we don’t have, there is extraordinary energy available because it is not being burned up in futile thinking and desiring. This energy exists in a great spaciousness that some call peace.