Looking Back and Seeing Now

I am pulling together all my journals and blogs over the last 4 ½ years with the thought that, with editing, they might be worth something to someone. I have done all the copy/pasting into one document, 153 pages single-spaced initially and now am deleting what is not so relevant. Today is Monday, March 24, 2014, and I am sitting in the living room listening to Brahms’ Requiem and reading those entries. Back in the first year or two, I listened to this piece over and over every day. It is so beautiful and searching that I seemed to find an expression of what I was enduring in the music—beyond expression to a momentary redemption. As I listened I heard angels singing and believed they were embracing Casey, and perhaps in doing that, embracing us.

I think about how much I enjoy pictures of my friends with their loved ones on Facebook. Latoya posting a picture of lovely Omni in her spring dress, holding the skirt out in its fullness. My colleagues with their movies and pictures of kids they adore and are bursting with love for. My other friends with their animals, funny, touching. Me with my pictures of birds at our feeder. Friends’ artwork, showing how they’re reflecting on what matters, marking their way through material and movement. I know we laugh at how superficial Facebook can be, but I am touched by all we share there.

I revived this blog back in 2012 with the intention of making time and space for the little things that matter—and looking back over my posts I see how meditations on pink and spider webs and wrinkles and icicles. I look up and see a glimpse of my neighbor who walks up and down our street and around the circle, trudging along with her little dog Scooter. She is looking more hunched in the last few months than before, and I wonder about their bond—he with his little jacket in the winter, she bent over but looking up to smile and greet. What do they do when they go home? Does she watch TV? Sew? Read? Clean? Is it just the two of them? I know nothing about my neighbors’ private lives and yet I see them day after day, just as they see me: heading out for work, returning, walking sometimes, our three dogs racing around or trotting amiably beside us. In the summer, they see me mowing. Our connection is so tenuous, even if so predictable. What would happen if it all blew up?

I wrote a poem a couple of weeks ago (the last post) and it was the first poem in a long time. I’m not doing so well marking the small things that mean so much, am I? One poem in the last two years, or is it three? Where have I been?

In reading my old Family Blog—the one I did back in 2010—I find myself face-to-face again with my mother at 19, 20. I stumble on the interview I did with my cousin Bette about her growing up. What determines the kind of life we live, how much love we are lucky to have showered upon us, what evil confronts us? So much luck, ill or good. So much unknown. Is it any wonder we hang on to the familiar and resist change?

My uncle and mother were raised by the same mother and father and yet how differently they found their paths in lives strewn with intermittent joys and sorrows, failures and jubilations. What I know of their two lives rises and confronts me: my mother with her short marriage resulting in me and then just the two of us for the rest of our time together, my uncle was blessed with a beloved wife and two children. Then somewhere along the way disappointment marked their lives. He began drinking—how much did this cause or reflect his disappointment? My aunt pulled back, pored her love into her first-born, her son Bobbie, probably protecting him from his father’s harsh unforgiveness when he did not measure up . . . while my uncle turned his hopes on his daughter. She tells the story of hating to play piano, but forced to, her dad banging a rhythm with his fist on the edge of the piano as she struggled to keep up. Threatened, she tried to save herself.

Who wouldn’t reach out to hug the girl she was, hiding in the bathtub, and for the woman she has become—generous to a fault, hard-working to the bone, so hard on herself. Funny and fun-loving, my one and only cousin. The only one in the world still alive to share being the generation after the children of Isabel March and Lyman Hiatt. Whatever happened between her father and her and her brother, my loving, love-hungry cousin took care of her dad for over 15 years until he died last year (she asked me to write the obituary, which is here).

I remember her daughter, my Uncle Bob’s granddaughter, calling me to say that he was going fast and would I like to talk to him by phone. He might not hear, but I could try. I’m so glad Niki gave me the opportunity, and I poured out my gratitude to him—how honored we all are to be related to such an intelligent, unique and ground-breaking man. I told him that I was glad that my boys had gotten to know him and how they always speak of him with affection and pride. I don’t know what else I said, but in the end my voice was breaking as was my dear cousin-once-removed Niki’s.

I read about my camping trip out west when I wanted to run away from WKU, so disappointed in myself and in my colleagues who didn’t want me for the job I thought I wanted. How I came home in early September, not knowing that I had a little over a month to cherish my youngest son. How I complained about this or that (while acknowledging that I was glad to be home), glibly oblivious to the coming tragedy that would gut me and Ken and Casey’s older brothers, his tiny daughter. Our world completely rocked and knocked.

So I am come to this point, looking back, considering now—not so interested in whatever tomorrow has in store, because what I seem to have is then and now and nothing more. I am listening to Brahms and in honor of this recollective moment am going remember some of the haiku conversations we had, when all I could post on Facebook was my heartbreak. How people responded, with love and creativity. Thank you, from me now to you then……

In Honor of Our Haiku Conversation….from 2009, when my reaching was a raw call to touch something reciprocal (they’re mine unless indicated):

I’d ride to find you
(if love were a big strong horse)
and bring you back home.

Kathryn:
Do not walk in pain.
Stay positive in the light.
Embrace your true friends.

Monday morning now.
Someone should make me coffee.
Guess that would be me.

Here’s another day
low as dirt and bleak as dun
12 hours till bedtime.

Susan:
Where emptiness dwells
may love take root like peach trees
bearing newfound fruit.

Linda
Delight in small things
New Merrell sneakers arrive
Walking feels so good.

I got new sneaks too!
Mine are gray with lavender
We are soul sistahs!

Kathy E
think of you daily
and how much the heart can hold
sending haiku love!

Melanie, when I said I was trying not to wallow:
Let’s wallow away
together today, white flags
poised, almost unfurled.

Kathryn
Wallow but don’t wail.
Unless wailing eases pain.
Sleep to wake anew.

If haikus annoy
stop reading my posts today
I can’t stop myself!

Tim
Jane’s haikus are great
They make me check my facebook
And then I chuckle

Wow. Now I’m chuckling.
I wonder where this will lead—
More hilarity?

Susan
I love Jane’s haikus
I love Jane and Kenneth too
I admit bias.

You are Ken’s sister
You are my sister-in-law
More now, you’re my friend.

Life goes on . . . and on
Death, too, does not go away—
These two [=] mindfulness.

Susan
Nothing is the same
it will never be the same
yet still, morning breaks.

my hands grasp at air
everyday the tear widens–
will I split apart?

Susan
No, you will not split
even if we don’t know how
we’ll hold together.

Nightmare or sweet dream?
You wake me with a whisper.
Stay and tell me more!

Yesterday Ken and I found a place for the beautiful urn that Laura Bain-Selbo made for Casey’s ashes. They have sat these 4 long years in the box we were given, in the plastic bag—except for those we spread under the peach trees. I said to Ken, “I feel a stab just thinking about where to put this.” We talked about how many stabs a day we still feel. I asked if he wanted to keep the original box and was not surprised when he said he did, though it is “just” a black box made out of very think plastic with a lid that doesn’t close. On the side is a white sticker marking what’s inside.

We are now past the mother’s Part V of Brahms’ Requiem and approaching the “death, where is thy sting” Part VI. Every section of the great work has spoken to me in different ways, which is why I wrote “Requiem for the Bristlecone Pine at Lake Haiyaha,” each of its seven parts in honor of its antecedent in Brahms’ Requiem. This part, the most dramatic conversation between the chorus and the orchestra, reaches higher and higher, deeper and deeper, with every iteration of

Behold, I shew you a mystery;
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump:
for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
…then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written,
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is they victory?
(1 Corinthians 15:51,52,54,55)

Whatever else I might believe, I know that Casey believed in the trumpet, the incorruptibility, the transformation through God. And so when I hear this, I hear angels singing, taking him under their wings, transporting him. I believe in something, for him, because he did. And why not? Can you think of a better reason to accept the possibility of redemption and transformation? What alternative does not leave you on your knees in a dark night with no end?

As powerful as Part VI is, it is Part VII that I love most. At our one-year reckoning of his death we had a second memorial at the church where some of his ashes lie behind the marker that reads, Casey Stewart Olmsted, February 10, 1989-October 26, 2009, at the Columbarium above the labyrinth at Christ Episcopal Church, where he used to attend, with his dad, and where people still remember him fondly. We closed our memorial with Part VII, an image of him reading on the porch at Gethsemani Abby.

I hear the tenors singing, calling him home, their voices so exquisite that all that is ugly shudders to a silent awe. The lyrics are simple for the nine minutes of repeated refrain:

Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth:
Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours;
and their works do follow them.
(Revelation 14:13)

So, my darling, your works, your life, do indeed follow you—and everyone else taken from us when we are ill-prepared. What the Spirit calls forth, is. It’s the tenors—oh, the tenors singing—that I have always heard calling him. They are his spiritual brothers who lift him with their strong arms.

I do not know what happens after death. But I do not accept that Casey’s spirit is utterly gone. Beyond his family’s memories or our expressions of loss, however we find our way to make them, some part of who he was lives on—perhaps it’s in the air we breathe, the air he once exhaled, perhaps it’s in the light he gave to some of us, lifting the darkness of our doubts just enough to allow us to continue, with awe and affection, and sometimes a little grace.

Meditation 101: empty phenomena rolling on

I am preparing myself for another post, which I intend to offer on Casey’s 24th birthday. It’s a commentary I’ve known is coming since last July, when Casey’s parents (me and Ken) sat down to hear The Apology. So this might be considered my little practice session for what I’ve been avoiding for over six months now, but which I must contend with, for Casey.

So I call this one of my “meditation 101″ posts, though I’m not sure where it’s headed. I’ll sort of jump in with some of the comments about Buddhism that my favorite commentator, Sharon Salzberg, and her partner-teacher Joseph Goldstein, have inspired. I am too much a rube to speak on my own about Buddhism or about meditation, though I am convinced enough of the truth of the lessons to plow ahead. For instance, here’s one notion that rings true, that “the great awakening happens when we realize that everything is empty phenomena rolling on.” I don’t know if that’s a better song title or bedtime mantra, “everything is empty phenomena rolling on.” Can you hear “Proud Mary” in the background, “rollin’ rollin’ on the river”? or the sound of the waves hitting the dock, “Sittin on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away”?

When I think about these “empty phenomena rolling on” in the context of “great awakening,” it’s not the sound of “rollin’” or “sittin’” that I hear. In fact, in Disc 9, Goldstein is teaching about the content of “the self.” What we think of as “I” is really a catalog of repetitions that have stiffened into something we think of as solid. We are “empty in the sense of empty of self, no one behind the experience to whom the experience is happening. Everything is arising out of conditions.”

In reality (as opposed to the illusion in which we live day by day, beginning, for instance, with the idea of “time” as something we can “pass” or “buy” or “budget”–isn’t it crazy how many of our metaphors for time are related to money?) . . . as I was saying, In reality, our selves are as mutable as the ocean waves. What’s good about me, or annoying, what constitutes me as “a personality” depends on repetition, basically. I can think of a number of examples, but one comes to mind especially, and that is defensiveness, that knee jerk tendency to react, to metaphorically protect our vulnerable parts, when some judgement comes down. I remember my high school counselor telling me I was being defensive. “I am not!” I said immediately. Right.

“What we call self is a constellation of changing experience, of elements–elements of body, elements of mind, and each of these elements is insubstantial. . . . We rely on a superficial understanding of experience.”

What strikes me over and over as I listen and reflect on just how superficial our understanding (mine) might be is how similar these ancient (or at least old) Buddhist principles are to post-structuralist thought. Ever since Old Freud denied us the truth of our own feelings and Einstein denied us the reality of time, we’ve been struggling to reclaim our old certainty about our purpose here. . . .

Which, according to the Buddha, is simply to be happy. “All beings just want to be happy.”

I think a lot about that when I hear some more disgusting piece of news–another war, bombing, rape, attack, lies covering up abuses: how did that person get from “just wanting to be happy” to this or that violation? I think about this at odd times, riding in the car, listening to NPR. Or when someone acts out in a rage and we are stunned with the magnitude of what just got revealed.

It probably explains why I don’t like the news, why it doesn’t feel like a dereliction of my responsibility to feel ambivalent about knowing what’s going on. Not that bad things are just “empty phenomena rolling on” at all. They’re “reality,” some persons’ reality, and they’re hurting. There’s a lot of bad phenomena rolling on, and increasingly I want to respond by thinking instead about what great awakening might bring a little peace here, close at hand, a little peace, far away. Am I numb? Is this avoidance? or does reckoning with the reality of bad things mean in part recognizing that there’s “no one behind the experience to whom the experience is happening,” no one fixed statue of a person. “Everything is arising out of conditions.”

Another way to think of it is to consider who it is we finally are, in that last moment, when in the next we are no more. Did we find happiness? Did we give it? If yes, then maybe we are finally “empty” of self, but “great” with awakening.

Okay, time for night-night.

Meditation 101.3 “release it”

In Sharon Salzberg’s guided meditation on breathing, she begins with “take several deep breaths and release it.” Now she is not one to confuse “them” and “it,” and yet it always strikes me that after one takes several deep breaths, the logical thing is to release “them.” But it’s “it.” So what is this “it” that we need to release?

What’s the one thing on this day that needs to be released? I don’t know whether to be relieved that I can release this thing today and let that other thing go tomorrow, or stressed that I need to figure out what the one thing is, and get it right. I mean, what if I’m releasing the thing that’s easiest to let go and hanging on to what would really set me free!?

Is it the mind, imprisoned by habit and indulgence? Is it fear? Hatred? Guilt? Regret? In another meditation that I shall return to, I’m sure, the instruction went something like this:

“Imagine a difficult time when you felt bad about yourself. How did your body feel? Now imagine that you are wrapping arms around that person who was you and surrounding her with compassion. What happens to the body, the memory, when you do this? Can you feel the change? Now imagine that same process with someone else, someone who is difficult or easy to dislike. Perhaps the person was unknown to you, and you noted them only because they were yelling or shaking their fist. Can you see that person as something more than the angry action of the moment? What happens to them when they are wrapped in loving arms? What happens to the anger then?”

I started this blog as a way to notice, to slow down and give time and attention to the things that I am accustomed to ignoring or giving just a nodding glance to before moving back to the obsessions of the moment–meeting external demands, granting what’s really least important the status of towering significance.

Tonight I was listening to the Christmas adagios CD, which always make me melancholy. They make me think of my mother, who loved beautiful music, and my son, who always comes to mind when I hear the angels sing. I went in search of him then, going back through the files in a folder marked “Casey’s writing,” seeking something I might have missed or forgotten. . . . The phone records for that day, the letters and journals I transcribed afterwards, incidents I’d written up so we wouldn’t forget. Two things caught my attention tonight. The first was an account of a really bad time, when it was so hard to wrap him in lovingkindness, and the second was a prayer he wrote when he was eighteen and working to change himself and turn his life around, a prayer about forgiveness and healing from “death on Earth.”

When you are the victim of verbal abuse you don’t always know it, and when you are the parent and the perpetrator is your child, you don’t imagine until it’s over and you look back, that those desperate nights when you hid in the darkness of your room in tears were not your fault after all. Not just your failure to protect or love enough or set the example so squarely before him that he’d have no need to turn away, seek comfort–or whatever it was–in drugs. It’s not till later that you come to understand that it wasn’t you he was trying to escape. He wasn’t cursing you, though his finger was jabbing at your face.

It’s hard to acknowledge that he wasn’t perfect, or that I wasn’t. But he would have hated a fake picture. He would have wanted honesty. So, here we are. The year is 2005. He’s 16. Two years later would come the prayer.


It seems to have started when Casey was sitting down in our good armchair at the computer eating ribs. I asked him to go into the kitchen to eat them. He didn’t. A few minutes later I walked by and saw that he had finished the ribs and his hands were greasy and had bits of charred meat on them. He rubbed them on the arms of the chair and refused to go wash his hands, saying they were clean.

This escalated into cussing and refusing to get up to wash. I asked his dad to come help me, since he was ignoring me. A lot of f-word and yelling, saying we were over-reacting. We were psycho for always taking away the video games as punishment.

He knocked over a large cup of water on the desk, which sent water everywhere, including under the protective glass. His dad pushed him and told him to go to his room. Casey slipped in the water and came up spewing more insults and cussing that if his dad thought Casey was “his bitch” he would take him on and kick his ass.

We cleaned up the water, which involved removing everything off the desk in order to lift the piece of glass and dry the water underneath it.

Casey came back and sat down at the TV to play a game. He didn’t talk much anymore. His brother took him to work at 4:00.

Two years later, Casey was well into recovery. It was a long, slow, terribly brave journey. Sometime–I’m not sure of the date–he began reading the Bible and certain mystics, really deep stuff, probably over his head, St. John of the Cross, Edith Stein. . . . But he knew what they were talking about, knew the “dark night of the soul,” and he was returning to the self he’d lost–to hatred, rage, despair, the self he’d used against us, just one desperate plea after another:

From Casey’s Journal, 2007:

I am Casey Lee Olmsted, an 18 year old male, and. . . I want to tell you that life in Christ, for me, is the only way to escape death on Earth. I would like to start out by explaining what it’s like to be Dead on earth. By death, I don’t mean it literally. I mean it by over-indulging in things of this world, for example Drugs, sex, sloth, and trying to avoid the Truth. . . .

Unfortunately, things don’t happen right when we want. So it’s easy to choose life at first, then drift into death when we don’t get immediate results. But by choosing delayed gratification, instead of ME NOW! ME! ME! ME! your wait will be well worth it. . . .

Keep a humble heart so you don’t have to be humbled. Proverbs 29:23. “Pride ends in humiliation while humility brings honor.” A lot of people have it backwards. Some think to admit your faults makes you weak. They couldn’t be more wrong! Admitting our faults brings us up! . . .

What if the Prodigal Son stayed proud? He would have nothing . You can see from this story, a son drifted away from his father and drifted into himself. What did that get him in the end? It got him a little instant gratification. That is an example of death on earth. Emptiness. How did he return to life? Humbling himself.

Forgiveness isn’t something to rely on so we will have a “clean slate.” It’s God’s gift to people so we can strive for perfection. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need forgiveness. We’re human, far from perfect! It’s okay to mess up, but it’s messed up to keep making the same mistakes. . . . Let’s move on, learn from our mistakes, do our best not to make them again.

May God be with us, in everything we do. May we accept his advice, grace, and prosperity, and share it with everyone, especially those in need. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


That’s my son, something of him at least. What a distance we went, from 16 to 18–and then to 20–but that’s another story. . . . I also found this picture, which was taken in 2008, when he was 19 and about to be a father. It’s of him holding his niece Omni, whom he adored. It was a mutual admiration, as you can see. We were at Fort Matanzas, the 350-year old outpost for St. Augustine, and he’d said, “Take a picture of me and Omni, over here.”

Casey with Omni at Ft. Matanzas

Casey with Omni at Ft. Matanzas


“Take several deep breaths and release it.” Every day, if need be.

Meditation 101.1

Developing a habit of meditation is called a practice, even when you have been doing it a long time and have reached states of mind previously unknown. I like that. I have a practice. One of the most important points I’ve learned is that I don’t need to apologize for being a rotten meditator–saying, “I’m no good at it but I like trying,” for instance–in fact, what I thought was “bad me” is really much more the way of the universal human mind. Its nature is to wander. The beauty of meditation is not that you lock on to a particular state, but rather that you return to this moment, this body, this place, from whatever fantasies, plans, rehearsals, recriminations, and feelings the mind has been jutting off to.

As our meditation leader on Wednesday nights says, “Your mind is well trained but undisciplined.”

Because I’m a neophyte, I like guided meditations and have been experimenting with various youtube meditations. Sharon Salzberg is tops, both her books and guided meditations. My favorite is Lovingkindness. I like her voice, which is matter of fact, smart, and calming. In a recent session on mindfulness, she spoke of those flitting thoughts, saying (paraphrasing) that when that happens, notice the thought, and instead of focusing on the object or content of the fantasy or image, consider whether it is positive, negative, or neutral. Doing this allows you to shift from obsessive content to the feeling the image carries.

Our tendency with the positive object is to cling to it. With the negative, to feel aversion and to turn away, label it as bad, resent it. Neutral feelings lead to boredom and thence to fantasy. I must have a lot of neutral images, because my flitting is from this fantasy or story or rehearsal to the next.

Recently I have been feeling bad about a thoughtless act–well not thoughtless, but lacking good judgment–and during meditation have found myself rehearsing mini-speeches that I would offer should this or that event transpire. If I got called into the principal’s office, for instance (so to speak). Since this is not what I’d call a pleasant feeling, I’m not sure why I’m “clinging” to it. I should feel aversion to it. But perhaps, my fantasy speeches are agreeable because I come away looking good in them, thus relieving myself of the memory/feeling I don’t like.

We’ve all been there, done that. A friend says, “I only know how to respond to shame and humiliation,” jokingly, but there’s an element of truth there, right? Why do we cling like slugs to our mistakes, rehearsing what went down, trying out for roles that fix it, speaking in the tongues of oppressors, scolding parents, overseers.

When we spend our internal life elsewhere–practicing, rehearsing, rebutting, planning–we are dead to the moment at hand. The only freedom is in being fully present, noticing the feelings of the body, the sounds around us, the breath. All else slips away, the good feelings of pride and success, the negative ones of failure and arrogance. They are like waves. What is stable is awareness.

That’s part of the point–but mindfulness is the training of a more disciplined mind. That makes sense to me. Rather than reacting to every good and bad thing that hits us, we can recognize it as negative (aversion), positive (clinging), or neutral. Point to it, name it, and let it go. Like a song that gets stuck in our heads, same refrain over and over beyond endurance, the repeated scenarios infiltrate our consciousness and leave us very little space of our own, from which we might practice lovingkindness or simply recognize the beauty of the breath, our presence in life.

Another technique was in a youtube by Lori Granger. You are to imagine the fantasy or thought as a balloon that enters your mind. You see it rise, you let it float away, as you return to the field of now. I’m not sure how well this worked for me, because I enjoyed (a little too much, methinks) the image of this individual or that in a balloon. If I blow gently, that person, hands pressed against the convex surface of the inside of the balloon, watches me, “Nooooo, noooo, don’t send me away.” Another sits in the bottom of the balloon hands crossed over his chest. He doesn’t see the pin that suddenly appears in my hand.

My mind has cleverly appropriated the exercise to exact revenge. I turn off the balloon machine and return to the breath.

Meditation and the Great Blue Heron

I am spending the weekend with my friend B, who is nearing the end of radiation treatment. She lives on a small farm on a two-mile gravel drive, which they share with a handful of neighbors, each a half mile to a mile away. This morning I woke up early, unable to sleep–presumably due to repetitive worry over things not all that important that I can do nothing about–but now I think perhaps because I was called from sleep to don my sneakers and quietly slip out the door for a morning walk.

It rained last night and all the blades of grass, leaves, petals, edges of bark, spiderwebs, and globes of fruit dangle with droplets of water reflecting and magnifying the lushness around.

Pine trees lit with rain along the driveway.

Pine trees lit with rain along the driveway.


Since I arrived a B’s I have wanted to see a deer and before I headed off on my walk, I had sat with my cup of coffee in silence on the deck waiting for one to show up. Now, crunching down the road, my footsteps declaring “Stay away,” I give up my dreams of large fauna coming to say good morning. The sky is soft gray, and along with bird song is an intermittent but regular sound of raindrops falling. The colors are muted and I try to breathe them in down to my toes.

Yesterday, B asked if I’d been to the pond and I said not in a long time, so I head up the hill thinking that if my shoes get wet, I can always take them off. This is the kind of random thought that’s easy to brush aside.

First sight of the pond in the misty morning.

First sight of the pond in the misty morning.


Now this is just lovely, I think, then see that there are benches in front of me and a small deck with a ladder descending. Further to my left another 100 feet or so, is another sitting area that B’s neighbors have carefully established for . . . well, I suspect for a place both to sit and reflect and to watch the kids swim safely–I deduce this because there’s a water gun tucked into a bit of siding behind where I lower myself. Will I get wet sitting on the wet bench? Brush that aside, too.

I sit for a few minutes then decide to go ahead and try my meditation, thinking what better place to be mindful and to let go all that clutter that kept me awake last night. I close my eyes, breathe slower, feel the air, begin to focus on the bird sounds in the facing woods, separating them. I move to metta, first myself then my dear friend, “May you live free from danger. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease.”

To my right the softest sound of something walking pulls my attention. I half open my eyes, cutting them to the right, just in time to see a Great Blue Heron pass at my side a mere four feet away. With barely a change in my posture, I reach for my camera and press the lens into an opening in the lattice behind me, just in time to capture the great bird walking away.

Great Blue Heron passes me on its way around the pond.

Great Blue Heron passes me on its way around the pond.


I turn around and tears fill my eyes. I can’t breathe. I don’t know what has happened. Is it a sign from god? A gift from the animal world? An answer to the metta prayer? My cousin would say, “It’s Casey, he came to say he loves you.” I don’t know anymore than anyone else what it means when grace wraps us up, only that everything stutters to a stop and for a moment we are left gasping.

Here’s the call of Great Blue Heron: http://macaulaylibrary.org/video/464905

Meditation 101

About a 6 weeks ago, upon the advice of Alice Walker, I ordered one of Sandra Saltzberg’s books, Lovingkindness, and began trying some of the metta (lovingkindness) exercises. They begin with a focus on oneself and then move outward to include all beings. There are typically four phrases (easier to remember), and you can adjust them so they are right for you. Saltzberg also has a CD series (3) by the same name, which is pretty much the same as the book without the exercises, but I found the repetition good.

The four go something like this: May I live free from danger. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease. You can adjust them–one I like is “May I make friends with my body” instead of “May I be healthy.” For some of us this has enormous (no pun intended) consequences. I like the idea of repeated phrases, mantra like, because you can do them anywhere, anywhere. In the midst of a committee where some ego-stroker is going onandonandon, you can a) get annoyed as hell and begin wishing he’d go jump, or b) practice metta, thus rejecting all the negative energy and focusing instead on his common humanity his internal desire to be happy. As Salzberg would say, “This is an eternal law.” I suppose there’s a combination of a and b, a sort simultaneous hope for happiness while he takes a jump in a cold lake.

In a typical metta meditation (as I understand it), one begins with “I” then moves to a series of others–a benefactor, a friend, a neutral person, a difficult person. Then to groups: all female beings/all male beings, those enlightened/those not enlightened, and I add my own depending on where and what I’m doing: everyone who lives on my street/all who do not live on my street, all people who are healthy/all those who are dying. When I think of all the males and females in the world, my mind goes to boys and girls beaten and threatened and violated, and usually I think of someone on the other side of the globe, or down in Peru, where I have been and love the people there. When I think about anyone else, it’s just a group, a conceptual entity of beings. Only the little boys and girls leap into my mind with faces and smiles and tears. What you are doing with metta is eliminating the us/them separation, you are seeing the life force in all, recognizing that all beings “just want to be happy.”

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving to work, approaching the light at Veterans, when a woman in a van cut in front of me. I saw her looking at me in her rearview mirror, so I made a gesture–raised my hands in a wtf way or like I was throttling someone’s neck. She returned the gesture to me, and I said, “May you live free from danger. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease.” It was automatic, and I found myself saying it out loud and then, as I drove on, thinking, so what was that all about (meaning me throttling her nonverbally in the mirror), and then laughing a little, because before I started metta, the last word, so to speak, would have been the gesture. Somehow that seems an ominous way to begin a work day.

Since then I’ve continued to try to meditate–I won’t say I’m bad at it, as that’s not the point. Instead, as Salzberg says in another book on mediation (28-day plan), the magic of meditation is the coming back. Everyone’s mind will wander, it’s impossible for it not to. But whether we get lost in it or pull our attention back (to breathing, metta, or whatever) is the distinction between mindfulness and monkeymind.

At a retreat last week, our outstanding retreat guide suggested that given my tendency to analyze, metta may be too “heady” (my paraphrase) and that I need to go for the heart. That gave me pause. I am still practicing metta, but I am thinking (analyzing?) what it might mean for me to also get down and dirty with the heart. It’s not like my heart isn’t in my mouth a lot of the time, because it is, but it’s just possible that this one on occasion uses her mind to restrict access to certain truths or realities that it might be good to embrace or feel or whatever the right heart-word is. And, I’m guessing, so do most of us. May I be happy. May I make friends with my body. May I live with ease. As the Dalai Lama says, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Retreat, “re”treat

Is this retreat a turning back after defeat? An opportunity to “re”-treat the self? Or, a turning inward to the hidden self, there always, but not always accessible–or perhaps, there always, but waiting for the time it’s safe to (re)emerge? Or, there always but unseen, unheard until the gaze settles just right, a gaze not judging or harsh, a more loving kind of gaze, recognition. There you are.

I’m here with my cousin Bette in Yellow Springs, Ohio, starting our second day at Creative Explorations, a women’s retreat led by the wonderfully talented Jenny Horner. The first day we drove for about 7 hours, including stops, and I was weary of the interstate by the time we pulled into Yellow Springs. Yellow Springs and I have history, good history, so it was a good feeling to pull into this little town with its vibrant main street (Xenia). Jenny was standing in an available parking spot saving it for us, so I stopped, did a perfect 2-move parallel park and clamboard (how the hell do you spell clambored) out. A couple was passing by and the man called out, “Nice parking job!” I laughed and hollered back, “Yes that’s one thing I CAN do.” Then greeted our host, grabbed our bags, and followed her into the old house, snugged between neighboring businesses.

We settled in, got the tour of the serenity-designed apartment–one bedroom for each of us–and fairly quickly got started with a shared session. (I had my private session last night and Bette will have hers today.) Our session focused on our drawing with a piece of art crayon, eyes closed, with our non-dominant hand. She guided us a little, but mostly we were to let the hand do the work without our left brains judging and guiding. Then we thoroughly explored the images that emerged in our drawings, through writing and explaining. We helped each other see more that was going on, animals, symbols, patterns. Fascinating and surprisingly revealing. Both our drawings seemed dead-on for each of us, and seeing more through their eyes helped make the whole process very collaborative. I didn’t have to see what they saw, but often I did and then it would seem so obvious.

So, what am I doing here? What kind of “retreat”? On the one hand, I wanted to do this “for Bette,” my hard-working always-giving cousin who just lost her father, my uncle, after a long slow decline. He was 91. Alert and brilliant to the end, but oh so hurting from arthritis and old age, he wanted it to be over. After 10 or so years of care-giving, her house now feels empty. Loud with his absence. I know that feeling, have heard that silence. But even though I wanted this for her, I also wanted it for us, and for me.

I suppose in the end this two-day stay is a bit of all those meanings of “retreat” and probably others I haven’t thought of. And, no, I’m not going to google it. Oh, well, okay. “Withdraw from enemy forces as a result of their superior power or after a defeat.” Thanks, that’s helpful. But let’s see, don’t just dismiss it. If we stop thinking of “enemy” as some national military entity but as something more Buddhist, along the lines of “difficult people” (like oneself?) or perhaps as one of the five hindrances, maybe even this army-sounding definition has some bearing.

But I like the “re”-treat idea better, and the notion of returning to the authentic self that one has been ignoring or has forgotten is even there. So overshadowed by our public must-be selves, our private protect-me selves, our hateful, fearful, hurt and angry selves. A former, eternal self is in there, retreating from the illusions that the public self has embraced, biding time for the right moment to come forth–a hand, a voice, a word. Come back.

Is lovingkindness one word?

For the past few weeks I’ve been slowly reading Sandra Salzberg’s book, Lovingkindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Alice Walker refers to Salzberg in her own We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, and one of my students, Brandi, bought and tried some of the exercises and suggested it to the class. What can it hurt, I thought, and with two such strong recommendations, who wouldn’t put in an order. . . .

Still, it’s not the sort of title I usually rush to . . . “revolutionary” anything sounds over-stated, and especially with “art” and “happiness.” And yet, a simple “are you happy? have you attained it? do you want it?” is enough to stay one’s cynicism, perhaps. Besides, I’d rather give my money to Shambhala Publishers than some others. Shambhala is a mythical kingdom somewhere in Asia, apparently, referred to in ancient texts that pre-date Tibetan Buddhism. In Buddhist Kalachakra readings, Shambhala is a place of peace/tranquility/happiness. A kind of utopia, apparently, with external and internal meanings. The external meaning refers to a literal place. The internal refers to one’s body and mind, and an additional meaning refers to meditation. Much like other prophecies, there is a time in the future (2424) when the world will kill itself with greed and war, and at this time the King of Shambhala will come. I see that (at least according to Wikipedia), he will arrive with a vast army and vanquish the evil side, thus ushering in a Golden Age.

Oh, okay. The good guys will finally crush the bad guys (see my post on why I am not a guy). Sigh. I think I’d like to go back to the internal meanings and find what’s there. Is militarism really the only way to defend our Shangri-las? And by that, I mean what we’ve got here and now, not later, not mythical, not over there.

There’s much of the exotic here, the notion that cultures other than my own, especially those rooted in ancient mysticism, have an answer for us. Hence some white folks’ attraction to Native American spirituality (usually with little attention to actual people or historical and other contextual factors, like tribal affiliation or the physical place of the original peoples). But I read on, trying to tamp down my magical thinking (while secretly wanting to be open to it). And in fact, I do believe “other cultures” have answers–certainly our current worshiping of consumption and image over all else is as bereft and in need of a happy alternative as a society can get. I went to a movie last night–all about magic and image (Now You See Me)–and was appalled at the number of aggressive coke-sponsored ads prefaced the actual movie. I said to myself, “I’m not coming to a movie again,” though I’m unlikely to be able to stick to that.

And speaking of “sticking to things,” I began this reflection with a question and introduction of the book I’m reading. It’s not a new book, published in 1995, the year I was finishing my dissertation on, well, “blood, spirit, place,” and could have used some assistance with lovingkindness. I find myself wondering, why didn’t I know about this book, or give it a try, and why now? When does a suggestion fall across our path like a friendly shadow, leaving it to us whether to attend to it or not? Well, we’re never too late for a little kindness and I suppose we know as well as anyone how our own internal Shambhalas are faring.

I rather like that “metta,” a Pali word, can be translated as lovingkindness. I’m not sure what other kindness there is–kindness seems by its very definition all bound up in (open to) love, but perhaps there’s something else in this context, something tied up with the Buddhist notion of compassion for the self and all others that our consumerist self-loathing, self-aggrandizing, other-worshipping culture needs. And only a deeply cynical burdened self would respond to the notion of lovingkindness with a sneer. I don’t want to bear that burden, and perhaps that’s why I got the book and began reading.

Is is “revolutionary”? Is it an “art”? When I compare what it takes to practice compassion with what happens to me/us when we sit in the movie seat assaulted by and absorbing passively the bright colors and fast-flowing images promising pleasure, relief and urging buybuybuy—given where we are and where I/you might be, then maybe. And maybe for once the “revolution” need not come with a big army.