The Mote and the Beam

What matters is what I am thinking, not what others are thinking. That’s really what it all comes down to. I can’t change what is happening, necessarily, but I can change what I think about what is happening. I make the choice, every moment.

 ∞  ∞  ∞

Verily, from one perspective it is bullshit for me to say it matters not what others think. Especially coming from myself, who has been the most flagrant simpering sycophant in her time, gasping for approval as if it would keep me alive for a moment and then a moment longer.

I make fun of myself, but I’m serious. Everything is better when I’m getting along with people. This goes for my mate, my kids, yes of course…my coworkers, people I am regularly in close contact with. But also my next-door neighbor–who is probably the best neighbor I’ve ever had: she’s down to earth, friendly, not uptight, and mostly leaves me alone, as I do for her. Because home is a refuge from having to make small talk. I like to see her though and have our friendly exchanges; I like knowing she’s doing well. I also feel better when I have a friendly exchange with the grocery cashier or the convenience store clerk instead of an impersonal or uncomfortable one. I feel better when I have a commute where everyone seems to be cooperating instead of herding you or driving 60 in the fast lane or weaving onto the rumble strip while texting….

People are integral to my existence, and whether I get along with them or not affects my well-being in deep, deep ways.

Truly, I’ve been saved in both small and large ways by people who have (knowingly/purposefully or not) given me their positive attention, made me feel seen and recognized. Made me feel that it was worth continuing through the muck of my psyche because something is there that should come into the light. I still remember walking on the bleak east side of Binghamton twenty years ago, coming round a corner on a sunny, cold day and passing a stranger–we looked right into each others’ eyes and exchanged love and a smile, then passed by. It’s still there, and it still gives me chills.

I remember once, too, back in dark times when I felt poisonous and unredeemable, pushing my grocery cart through a crowded produce section and seeing a mother be thoughtlessly mean to her child sitting up in the basket. I was passing at just the right moment. The boy and I looked into each others’ eyes–his bewildered and mine suddenly full of compassion, wisdom, and humor. I reached out my hand and gently poked his knee to say, “Everything is alright. You are alright.” And I knew he got it. And I passed on by, his mother completely oblivious. Still there. Still gives me chills.

We humans give to each other all the time. A lot of the time we give each other shit–deserved or not is not the point, but probably usually this shit is undeserved and mostly the product of our own convolutions. Our meditations on what “is”: the facts as we see ’em. Or maybe simply passing the shit along that was given to you earlier–in the day or in your life.

And this brings me to my point. Our thoughts. Matter. They matter more than anything else to the person who is thinking them, because they are the basis, the foundation, of how we interpret, and thereby experience, the world.

Three things happened to me in quick succession this past Saturday morning that illustrate this point. First, I was getting dressed in the dim morning light for a ramble in the woods. I reached for my jeans–slung over a chair back from the night before–and I noticed a spot on them, so I reached out to take whatever it was off…and it moved in my fingers! And I immediately knew it was a tick! AAAAAH! Flung it back onto my pants (still hanging on the chair) and ran to get a tissue, all the time saying, out loud, “Ugh! Ugh! A tick! Ugh!” Then grabbing it with the tissue and squeezing it up tight in a ball, saying out loud, “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry but I have to!” while running downstairs to flush it down the toilet. Then shuddering back upstairs, still apologizing to the tick, still saying “Ugh!” out loud. Now, I really am not a squeamish person, and I actually think bugs are cool, but ticks–something about them affects me viscerally and if I encounter them without any warning–especially touching me, I lose control. I mean, I allow spiders to flourish in our house–they inhabit the bathroom mostly, and I regularly save them from drowning in the shower. But ticks? Ugh. I shudder. But if I have a little lead time to gather my wits, I can deal without freaking out. I still will flush it down the toilet, but at least I won’t go running through the house in my underwear talking out loud to myself. Point: I have a bias against ticks. I know this, and even though I haven’t overcome it I can control it if I have time to put myself in the right frame of mind.

For the second example, a bit of back story is necessary. When our beloved dog died five years ago I could not stand the pain of it and rather recklessly went out and adopted a two-year-old Labrador retriever just a few months after. We brought her home, she immediately gave chase to our cat, and hasn’t stopped since. After five years we still have to go through this whole thing of keeping the dog and cat apart–they take shifts being downstairs with us. Saturday (and Sunday) morning is cat time to be queen of the house for an extended period, because dog and I go to the woods instead of Bob and I piling into the car for work. But Queen Eleanor the Fuzz Face just went back upstairs to lay on our bed after I’d cleared the way for her, and I felt consternation and bewilderment. It was her time to be free–why was she giving it up? Behind this, too, is always guilt at being the one who introduced the black terror dog (we love Lucy, we do–goofy dog) into her peaceful life. Bob walks in at this point in my mental machinations and asks where Eleanor is, and I look at him with this consternation and bewilderment still in my eyes and face, and I say rather forcefully, “She went upstairs!” and I see it hit him–that force–before he shrugs it off and goes on out the door to have a smoke. Then I’m thinking he might have thought I was pissed off at him or something, so I follow him out to clarify why I may have seemed a bit intense–and he totally got it, said he understood exactly the emotion that was coming from me and why. This is one of the most wonderful side effects of being with someone for almost thirty years: you get stuff intuitively, no words necessary. But we’ve had some rocky times, and that’s why I went out to clarify: because moments like that, interpreted wrong, can build up and become the basis for bigger, broader interpretations that can lead to bigger, broader chasms. So, moment by moment, you clean the connection.

The third thing that happened was a conversation with my nineteen-year-old son about breakfast cereal. (It takes me a long time to get out of the house on Saturday mornings.) Aaron’s getting cereal but we’re almost out, so we start talking about what to buy. Something not too sugary but not too healthy, he says, and we somehow get on the subject of Sugar Corn Pops and Rice Krispies. He says Rice Krispies might be good. And I start wondering how they get the kernels of corn and pieces of rice to do that–puff up like that–and he says, totally cool and unperturbed, “Oh they make them just like anything else. Just like this” (showing me his bowl of Life). I’m like, “No, they are puffed-up rice and corn.” And then it dawns on me that what I am saying is really silly–of course they are made of some batter or something pressed through a mold and cooked. And I’m just blown away by the fact that I believed these things were really kernels of corn and rice. Aaron said, “It’s a belief from when you were five or something.” Bammo. That was totally it. I had formed a belief about Sugar Corn Pops and Rice Krispies (which by the way were not a regular occurrence in my childhood household) when I was very young, and that belief had never been challenged until now, so it remained a belief–a belief upon which I built my worldview about breakfast cereal.

It is also in my mind

“I know what it is you saw, for it is also in my mind.”
~Galadriel, in Fellowship of the Ring (the movie)

And it’s really this last example that blows my mind. Because our lives are filled with beliefs like that–formed when we had very little information to go on about the world, and about ourselves. It is scary to think that upon this flimsy foundation we live our lives as though we know, and that determines to a large extent what we actually see. All experience is run through a filter of our thought habits, our beliefs, so in a very real, literal sense we experience what we think. Until something happens to call our beliefs into question, and we have a chance to change our minds, and our lives become larger.

It doesn’t have to be big, like having a kid or getting into a car accident–it can come daily, moment by moment, by paying attention to your life, what you are thinking and what is happening. And hallelujah if you were raised in a stifling environment and survived, if you are in a stifling environment and want to survive, if you are unhappy with your habitual thoughts you can still your mind in meditation, get to the woods, or you can meditate on good books, stories, or poetry; listen to good music; watch good movies–feed yourself new experiences and thoughts, and thereby change your mind. You can feed your mind more shit, too, and see how that works out.

The point is, it is not primarily what others think about us, or what the majority seems to think about the world, that controls what we experience. At the last it comes down to what we think, about everything, every moment, that determines our experience of the world.

∞  ∞  ∞

 

How I thought Rice Krispies were made:

How Rice Krispies are actually made: “Rice Krispies are made of crisped rice (rice and sugar paste that is formed into rice shapes or “berries”, cooked, dried and toasted)” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice_Krispies

 

 

Communion

Emma is on her knees digging in the garden as he sleeps, and she can feel when he dreams about her. Their hands press together, palms open. The bottoms of her feet burn with an intensity of feeling that suffuses her body. A world away he is loving her, and she barely breathes, allowing him to linger. It is exquisite and maddening.

How like the pain it is, she thinks. For over a year she felt pain ebb and flow through her body—tides and undertows in an ocean of tears. As despair deepened, so did this pain. She felt it in her palms, the insides of her arms, her chest, her forehead, the bottoms of her feet. It led her to assume mental, and sometimes actual, postures of supplication—bare knees on naked earth, head bowed, palms up, arms held out toward…what? She didn’t know. She only knew that her life had fallen away and nothing was left except this fluid pain and the supplication it demanded.

Over the dark months she learned to siphon it off into drawings, desperation pressing her back to the familiar processes long ago abandoned in favor of practicalities. Pencil to paper, concentration on form, seeing. These grounded her and drained some of the pain away when it was unbearable; when she did not think her body would survive otherwise. It was how she limped through winter, and as light returned to the world she realized the pain had led her back to her life.

Now, here, in the garden, Emma is not surprised to discover that this delight is the twin of that pain. It is indistinguishable, in fact, except in its effect upon her emotions, and the knowledge of whom she kneels to in supplication. For although the air appears empty between her outstretched arms he is there, meeting her gesture with his own. Time and space cannot bind this.

The highest value of art lies in its creation. It is an act of love.

∞ ∞ ∞

I wrote this little picture a few months after I had gone through an experience of pain like this–after loss upon loss, both in my personal life and in the outer world, finally acted to break me open. Emma siphoned the pain off in her drawings, I siphoned my pain off in writing. But it is very much the same–the quality of attention that goes into seeing what is there and accurately rendering it on paper….

I was caught by my need to please people, to live the life I thought everyone expected me to. I thought if I gave people what they wanted they would finally leave me alone so I could do what I wanted. But it doesn’t work that way. The fact that writing was the only thing that got me through that dark winter, that it took me until I truly felt I would die if I didn’t write…well, it is something that makes the tears well up inside my chest with tenderness for my young self and gratitude for that pain.

You see, my young heart and hot head made a vow never to write again, after my writing was instrumental in taking me away from my friends and my freedom when I was sixteen. I threw everything into a hospital trash can and vowed never again. Then I took up drawing, which is a second language to me. Not as fluent.

So twenty years later–twenty years of trying to fit what was or what I imagined was expected of me–I broke open and couldn’t do it anymore. I stopped believing I could ever in a million years give everyone what they want. And then I started writing again, and I started to come to life again.

And twelve years after that, it’s still hard to get myself to write regularly, the way I know I should.

Vows are potent forces in the psyche. But some vows must be broken.

What if…

It is like it was before? What if it isn’t as good as it was before? I’m afraid of experiencing or not experiencing what I’ve previously experienced. But the fact–the fact— is, it is never like it was before.

So stop it.

Brookly Daily Eagle

Walt Whitman was here.

A Story for Mothers’ Day

My mother and I have not been a part of each others’ lives for 13 years, and I think we both agree that this is for the best. However, for a few years, when I was in my twenties and early thirties, we were actually quite good friends and shared some good times together. This is what I like to remember, and that is why I am sharing this story today. It still makes me laugh.

∞ ∞ ∞

In June 2000, my mother and I flew out to California to check up on my grandparents. I was also to buy my grandfather’s car, as he could not drive anymore, and we would drive it back to Boston–taking Route 66 through the Southwest, detouring to see the Grand Canyon. In other words, an adventure. It was exciting to go west again after so many years in the northeast, and we were both feeling free–she from the health issues of her husband and me from my daily routine.

We had a layover at O’Hare, but the plane we were to board there was grounded so long they gave all the passengers vouchers for lunch and told us to come back later. We walked all over before settling somewhere with salads and V-8 juice, which we spiked with vodka from my mother’s purse. (She doesn’t regularly have a stash of vodka in her purse, mind, but she’d filled a few airline bottles to save money and why not?) Well, they were potent V-8 Bloody Marys on top of green salad, and we were a little tipsy and actually late arriving to board our plane. The last ones on, in fact: grinning and happy to finally be moving on our adventure again.

We find our seats and sit for a long time while two or three flight attendants struggle to close one of the overhead compartments a few rows ahead of us. This is one of those big-bellied jumbo jets with the middle seating, and in my tipsy state, given the whole grounding-for-mechanical-repairs thing, the shoddiness of this giant contraption that we are willingly bound to fly in strikes me funny and I can’t stop smiling so I look down, pretending to be busy with things. Mom and I fool around with the earphones they gave us free for being patient customers: Hawaiian music is on one of the channels, and again it feels really good to be going West.

A female flight attendant starts talking to us over the loudspeaker, but it isn’t the usual fluff about welcome aboard and know your exits–instead we are made privy to her extreme annoyance with the airline and their planes. She calls our attention to the buttons on our armrests. “See that one with the human figure on it? If you press that button, one of us will come over to you and step. on. your. fingers.” Mom and I look at each other to make sure we’d just heard the same thing, and burst out laughing. Tears are rolling down our faces before we’re done. Oh, we might die in a plane crash, but we’ll at least have had a damned good laugh first.

The pool at my grandparents' condominium complex. Very complex.

The pool at my grandparents’ condominium complex. Very complex.

A Main Theme

It’s only when we try to twist ourselves into unnatural (for us) shapes in order to conform to some perceived expectation that we go bad. Or crazy.

It matters not what others think of you, because they will not be there when you die. They may be beside you, but no one but you can be there when you die, so you should be the first and final authority on how you live.

Secular, or No-cular?

When I was five, I found out my best friend, Felicia, was Jewish. I was a WASP in the first degree, able to trace my roots back to Captain Miles Standish and the Mayflower (though I didn’t know that at the time). But I had been told about my privileged place on this earth, as one of the Saved. I had been baptized, and I would go to heaven when I died. When I found out that Felicia was Jewish, I asked whether that meant she would not go to heaven. I was told that she would not, unless she accepted Jesus as her savior.

At the tender age of five I faced my first conscious existential crisis. Unable to abide such injustice, my heart closed to a god who would shut his door on my friend. Thus began my wandering life.

Goodwill Hunting

Warm weather has me searching for clothes~
Loose, cool, natural fiber,
Cotton is best.
I walk in slow meditation,
Hand outstretched,
Gently playing duck, duck,
duck, duck, duck
Through the whites
Yellows
Oranges
Reds
Blues.
I smile at azure, cerulean, indigo,
Eyes drinking in the shades.

Green Tags 50% Off Today.
I have in my hand a find:
A blouse,
Gauzy cotton,
Made in India.
Tiny green butterflies hover among tinier leaves,
And I can feel their breath on my skin.
Fifty percent off for perfection.

I can’t stay here too long;
I am sensitive to the atmosphere.
It is the last stop before oblivion,
Harbor of the unwanted.
Sorrow sings through my veins~
The resonance of recognition.

I can’t stay long,
But I return every few weeks
With my faith in redemption intact.

Vessel

What does the bear carry on her back?
Me.  She  carries  me.

We are looking for my soul.
We     are     gathering     bones
And watering them with blood and tears.

Grandmother carries me on her back,
Out my front door and to the stars,
Into the cold northeastern night

Where four brothers dance
And the world is remade.

Foreplay

Bartleby the Scrivener

“I would prefer not to.”

We’re in the bathroom performing bedtime ministrations–he’s brushing his teeth, I’m sitting on the toilet. I wonder aloud, “Has anyone ever written a song about Bartleby the Scrivener?” and he grunts, talking toothpaste like I understand.

Then I’m brushing my teeth and he’s on the toilet, and he says, “Barbeque This Prisoner?” and it’s lucky I just spit because I start laughing uncontrollably. I manage to say, “No, Bartleby the Scrivener!” and then we both are roaring.