Garden Of The Gods

This morning I went to the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. It was a deeply moving and spiritual experience. I don’t use that latter word lightly. I have rarely been to a more aptly named spot. I expected to find the rocks beautiful. I did not expect to find tears in my eyes at the sight of the first one, and I did not expect that experience to be repeated over and over.

It’s easy enough to come up with relevant adjectives: staggering, overwhelming, glorious. But talking about strong emotion, expressing with words that sort of feeling is very difficult to do.

I have always thought of myself as a water person rather than a rock/earth/mountain person. It’s my dad who likes to climb mountains. I always want to go to the sea. But I think various things, some obvious and some not, have been shifting in my 40’s. And part of that is developing new appreciations, new understandings, new loves, as well as new sources of renewal, both physical and spiritual.

I remember when I was a pretty little kid thinking that compared to the lifespan of the stars, my life was insignificant, and my sadnesses a passing blip in the stream of Time. That perspective did sometimes help me take the urgency of the moment down a notch or two. Now, at the advanced age of almost-47, I find that perspective has softened and broadened. The rocks, the earth’s spiny exoskeleton, have seen the passage of more time than my human mind can actually truly comprehend. But I can feel an energetic exchange between them and me and whatever undefined thing there is in the ether that I currently name Spirit. My life, no matter how short, matters. My experiences and feelings matter. All lives matter. And I honor the ideals and intention of the donor of the park to the city of Colorado Springs, who wished that, “it be kept forever free to the public.” And the public comes there, in all its diversity of raucousness and reverence.

I am not sure I can name the reasons that I cried upon sight of the rocks. But they seemed to me to be meaning made solid. They endure, and yet they change. They are affected by wind and rain, by ice, and by people. People have carved names and hearts and initials on their surfaces. I find this outrageous, though I understand the impulse to leave a mark on something so everlasting. And I accept as the cost of freedom that people will make unconstrained poor choices.

But I do think we need to teach and model reverence. We humans are very capable destroyers. Along with availability of affordable consumer goods seems to have come a casual disregard for the materials, work, and energy that have gone into the making and selling of those items. We need to remember and communicate the value of craft, persistence, longevity, and consideration for those who will come after us. And we need to remember our history, as well as allowing real history that has been suppressed by the powerful to reemerge when it is presented to us.

My experience today at Garden of the Gods reminded me of two of the questions I need to keep fresh in my mind in my daily life. And those are: “What is the most compassionate thing I can do for myself (and others) right now?” and, “What is the highest option?”

I am very glad I had that time by myself with no need, perceived or otherwise, to filter my experience through anyone else’s presence or perspective. I want to bring my children there when they’re a bit older. And I’d love to go back with my friends. But this morning’s solo visit was a real gift. I hope to keep the memory of it fresh so I can continue to receive its blessings.

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The oversimplified Law Of Consequences under which we operate

The Law Of Consequences. It sounds so straightforward, reasonable, linear, just, doesn’t it? We like to think it makes sense. We talk of natural consequences, i.e., my kid forgot to turn in his homework, and so he’ll learn responsibility by finding out that means he’ll fail this assignment and get a lower quarter grade. It is comforting to think that the universe apportions out an appropriate result for every wrong choice, exactly calibrated so the individual so afflicted can learn from his/her mistakes.

It so doesn’t work that way. The god of consequences is fickle, unpredictable, inattentive and hyper-focused by turns, and not at all run by the linear thought patterns of which we are so fond.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of measuring our responses by the magnitude of the consequence we have felt, instead of by the mistake we feel we have made. And so consequences can be experienced as terrible, sometimes life-altering punishment (which, in shame and guilt we can feel we deserve) or, if there is no perceivable negative outcome to an action, we can feel justified in what we’ve done since “nothing bad happened”. (This is a common aspect of unexamined privilege: the guy who pushes his unwilling girlfriend to have sex, but doesn’t think it’s a problem, because she doesn’t complain, for example. He’s focused on the outcome he sees rather than the value of consent, and he misses truths about himself and her, as well as the pain he’s caused, as a result.)

In a prior relationship, my boyfriend had a cat I thought was sick. I put all my energy into trying to persuade him to take the cat to the vet; so much so, that it literally didn’t occur to me that I could do it myself. That was a mistake. The ultimate result was that the cat died, despite my trying desperately, via forced feedings and fluid injections, to save his life. The guilt I felt was astronomical. Such pain. And in the extremity of the moment, I turned my mistake into a gigantic crime of moral dimensions, and beat myself up with it. It took me such a long time to grow and move through that. The little cruel god in my head told me, sneering gleefully, that I deserved the pain, because I had done something so stupid and unforgivable. My therapist gave me the gift of seeing how very small that god is, no matter how vindictive, and that I could look beyond it to other realities and other ways of seeing.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t help our children to help themselves, to learn for themselves, to experience and experiment with life, and, so importantly, to allow them to fail, repeatedly. I fail repeatedly in ways large and small. But one thing that I have been learning is that my life doesn’t have to be defined by my failures or my successes. I don’t have to interpret their existence as proof either that I am a Bad Mother, a Bad Person, a criminal deserving of the universe’s retribution, or a Hero, a Special Snowflake, or a model citizen deserving the universe’s praise. The picture is a mixture. It’s complex, multi-faceted, not a matter for measuring and judging.

In fear, in grief, in anger, it is so easy to slide into making judgments about the actions of oneself and of others (particularly those closest to us) based on their perceived consequences. But when we do that we run the risk of not adequately assessing the impact we have and/or that others have on us; and also, of assigning blame and guilt inappropriately rather than viewing people and situations through the lens of compassion and love and looking for positive solutions.

And doing so makes it very hard to tolerate limbo, transition, or uncertainty.

Had I actually had something malignant in my breast last week, I would have assigned greater weight to my procrastination in the matter of scheduling a mammogram. Since it turned out to be nothing, it would also be easy to sweep the experience under the carpet, close my eyes, and pretend nothing had happened. I am going to opt for the middle course, and have a yearly mammogram from here on out. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to learn this lesson without the pain I could have experienced.

Getting older, I have been gradually learning to step back from the, “Well, you should have known/what a stupid mistake; of course x thing happened/I deserved to be punished” responses. I am trying to focus instead on truth, compassion, and understanding as a way to see clearly and act lovingly so as to find positive ways to move forward. It’s a life-long spiritual task. But as I make progress down this road, I start to feel better; at once more accepting of my lack of control, and aware that I have more mastery and choice available to me than I have believed to be true.

My first mammogram, another life milestone

I just had my first mammogram. Ever. The reasons that I’ve not had one before are multiple and sort of embarrassing, but as I am attempting to practice compassion for myself, I add this to the list of things to treat gently.

So, I was afraid it would be painful. It wasn’t. Slight discomfort was the extent of it. Also, I have a family history of breast cancer, and have been convinced since an early age that that history inevitably means that I will get and die of that disease. And so investigating the possibility freaked me out enough that I buried my head in the sand. I will get the results later on today, and it is extremely likely that they will be fine. Nonetheless, I am experiencing some anxiety while waiting to hear back. I have so many friends or acquaintances who have struggled with this disease. At the same time, I am glad that I have finally gotten myself to and through this experience, post pregnancy, birth & breast-feeding.

The tech told me about a new ultrasound-based device that I might want to try next time. It’s so cutting edge that insurance sometimes doesn’t pay for it. But, she said, it would be a good choice for me as apparently I have dense breast tissue. As my friend M said, “Then why do they still sag?” Heh. Isn’t getting older so much fun?

And yet, my earnest answer to that snarky question is, “Yes! It’s so much better than the alternative.” I want to live. I want to be responsible for myself. I want to be alive and healthy for as long as I can manage it, for myself and for my loved ones, especially my kids.

What is obvious is still not always easy, straightforward, or simple. But engagement, moving forward, accepting challenge, learning, growing are all better than resistance and denial (though of course, as human beings, we all find ourselves in the middle of the latter state).

Life sure is full these days. And for that, even as I writhe about in the middle of my own personal stew, I am grateful.

The conditions for compassion (or, Personal Manifesto #3,594)

While I was walking to the park with the twins today (after purchasing them new boots, a froggy pair and a blue “explorer pattern” pair), I thought about the oft-used phrase, “You did/are doing your best” which is a reason given for why one should extend compassion to oneself or other people. The thing is, that sentiment often doesn’t help me particularly, because my internal response to it is, “No I didn’t/am not.” To a certain part of myself, that is indisputably true, because it is always possible to be doing better. And thus, as became clear in the two conversations that followed, I never rate my own self-compassion, because I’m never doing my best. In this frame of mind, all I can see when I look at my life is a string of failures which constitute incontrovertible evidence against me.

What I am finally coming to, at the ripe age of 46, is that this way just simply doesn’t work. Endless self-flagellation is ineffective as a path to or method of self-improvement. It is not practical. It is born of fear. And it is the opposite of love.

I think I’ve finally arrived at a genuine desire to love myself, and thus, I need to give myself the gift of unconditional compassion. I must allow for a learning curve, for mistakes, for basic human nature. And so when I find that I am being harsh with myself, I have to try to remember that forgetting to be compassionate is a pattern that also requires a compassionate response. And if I can’t find it in the moment, I need to cultivate trust that I will later.

One mistake I’ve made is to assume that certain (critical/impatient) behavior patterns define me, who I am, what kind of person I am, what worth I have. Partly, that’s because those patterns have their roots in my very early childhood, and so have been with me for almost my entire life, and can therefore seem to cover the entire sky. I have to remember that I possess both imagination and will, and can look beyond these patterns to see other possibilities, as well as looking right at them to understand and move away from them. I can make choices. I can make changes. And that capacity, rather than robbing me of any eligibility for compassion or love, is something to celebrate.

If I can offer myself compassion, I can also have more flexibility, more margin, more understanding, more love, and more happiness, both internally and in relationship to others. That seems both practical and desirable.

Compassion doesn’t require justification, reasons, or any particular circumstance. It is the love of the universe, and I hereby choose to receive it.

And that is the heart of the Sufi mediations I have been getting back to, “Ya Ghaffar,” and “Ya Ghafur”. From the book, “Physicians of the Heart,” here are relevant quotes.

The form of al-Ghaffar in the sound-code of Arabic grammar gives it a quality that is both continuous and repetitive. You may make the same mistake over and over again, a hundred or a thousand times a day. Every day. But such repeated errors never place you outside the realm of divine forgiveness. Repetitiveness is no problem for al-Ghaffar. Its nature makes it repetitive. Al-Ghaffar’s forgiveness is continuous and repetitive.

and

Both al-Ghaffar and al-Ghafur have this same root meaning of covering over in a healing kind of way. One of the physical plane variations of the root of these Names refers to covering over the cracks in a leather water skin using the sticky substance that bees use to repair their hives. In a desert culture, a whole tribe could die of thirst from a leaky waterskin. This is a very earthy image that helps us understand the importance of this basic kind of forgiveness.

By calling on these two sacred Names we can actively moisturize and heal the cracks in our being that allow the water of life to dissipate and our hearts to dry up. Repetition of Ya Ghaffar, Ya Ghafur brings a pliability that allows us to overcome brittleness of character. It is a soothing balm to our woundedness. It begins to ease the pain that has caused us to isolate ourselves in our relationships in life.

In order to receive love, I must also believe that I deserve it. I am deeply motivated to continue making progress with this life lesson, partly because I’m frankly tired of all the flogging, and partly because I don’t want to pass this along to my kids if I can help it. Let them pick up their own burdens rather than taking on mine!

I am so grateful to have all the resources I do; friends and family who love me, excellent people to talk with and learn from, people who reflect back to me and help me right the ship when I need that.

Life is a rich tapestry, indeed.

Compassion and convictions; toddlers learning new things; food and communication

Last night’s thought: “Life is a dance in relationship between the comfort and clarity of adherence to one’s convictions, and the spiritual challenge in one’s surrender to compassion.”

Convictions and compassion are necessary partners. If you focus on convictions absent the lens of your heart, you can fall into the trap of becoming rigid to the point that being right is more important than being human. If you allow your compassion to slide into sympathy that then becomes an over-identification with someone else, you can lose your perspective and connection with boundaries and principles, and then you’re not helpful to yourself or to anyone else.

—–

This afternoon, Emily started running back and forth between the living room and dining room. She began to happily yell, “Go, go, go!” as she did so, in enthusiastic self-exhortation. That was infectious, so Joanna joined her for a while. Joanna is clearly feeling better. She’s still a bit croaky and wheezy, and still coughs, but she has her energy and smiles back.

Joanna has started to add the “k” on the end of the word, “book”. She’s also expanding her word repertoire. I can’t think of examples right now, but she’s naming more things when we read books, and I just notice her verbalizing more.

This afternoon Emily did something new, too: she got the play orange hard hat out of the dress-up bins, carefully placed it on the floor, stepped up onto it, and then jumped off. She’s been able to jump up with both feet for a couple of weeks now, but this was the first time I’d seen her jump off of something. She then followed that up by stepping/jumping/falling down onto me from the back of the couch. I’m glad she’s not yet 30 pounds.

—–

Food. We are learning. Slowly. I had the idea of having proteins around that Hazel likes so that if she doesn’t like the entrees we cook in any given week there are other options, either in the pantry, the fridge, or the freezer. So this week we’re going to cook an extra batch of the turkey pesto meatballs she loves and freeze them. We’ll get some pesto tilapia and freeze that too. We’ll get cans of tuna and salmon.

Of course, in the conversation I had with Hazel about it, I became irritated that she didn’t perceive or appreciate how we were working to meet her halfway, and instead greeted my suggestions with words like, “yucky”. And then I got started down the guilt-tripping path before I was able to pull back.

I am learning these ways of communication slowly, partly because I have internal resistance to making the changes I know are necessary, because my inner child just wants my kids to do what I say, dammit.

And this is where I need to be aware of adding compassion to my convictions, and continue to forgive myself for messing up. One step at a time…

movies, feminism, identity

Movies have such power. As my feminist convictions and awareness have grown over the past couple of decades, it has gotten increasingly harder for me to watch movies, as steeped in patriarchy as most of them are. Seeing stereotypical gender roles portrayed over and over, seeing evidence of our societal addiction to a view of men and women, girls and boys, that is so limiting, so damaging, and can in fact lead to violence and death, is draining, enraging, depressing.

The data (at least some of it) is out there: Hollywood designs crowd scenes with 30% women, and we think it’s normal. That’s what we see as normal. It is not. And yet, if we were to manage that percentage in our national government, we’d be doing well. That number is an important benchmark, a percentage at which governments start to take “women’s issues”, ie the human rights of their female populations, seriously. Then you get movement on issues like pay equality, violence against women, etc. We are far from that place in the US. I won’t go into the whole soap box now, but that is part of why I was a Hillary Clinton supporter in 2008, and why I found the erasure of the historical significance of her candidacy while that of Barak Obama’s candidacy was trumpeted to the skies, unbelievably maddening and depressing. The way so many men who found out I was a Hillary supporter treated me, with arrogance and condescension, amplified those feelings.

Edited from first draft: I just went to look up the link to that 30% crowd scene number, and it turns out that my memory was wrong. In fact, crowd scenes are also only 17% women. Just like Congress. And it matters.

Davis said the media we consume not only inform our worldview, but help shape what we think of as normal manifestations of gender representation, adding that the more hours of television a child watches, the more devastating the outcomes. For male children, more television viewing corresponds to more sexist views. For the average female child, the more hours watched, the lower her self esteem.

But movies have an ability to transport the viewer to a different world that has an intensity, an immediacy that has the power to offer another lens through which to view one’s own life, or to take a step toward understanding someone else’s. Books, of course, have this power too. And I am a lover of books, of fiction, of my own mind’s ability to create scenes and people them, to engage with the author in the creation of my version of his/her world. Movies have a related but different magic, and I miss it. I had almost given up on the idea of ever going to the movies again, so unhappy and angry I find myself at watching the bullshit patriarchal narratives every single time. The stereotypes are so tired and so ugly and so uninspiring.

Lately, though, since I’ve got Saturday nights off, I’ve begun to go back to the movie theater, because it helps me go somewhere else more thoroughly than anything else, while also offering me an opportunity, sometimes, to consider myself and my own life through a different frame. And it helps me stay in touch with that part of me that has been me since birth, the pre-kid me. I really value that.

Tonight I saw, “The Skeleton Twins”, a movie about a twin brother and sister who suffer some serious tragedies in their lives, and whose ways of coping with them and the aftermath have meant a decade of separation and distance between them. The movie is about their personal histories and their relationship. And it does something that movies can do so well, which is to invite both a clear-eyed view of the messed-up-ed-ness of humanity, as well as a generously compassionate response to it. It reminded me of something I’ve thought about lately, which is that every person is the protagonist of their own tale. Everyone struggles with his or her own demons, everyone makes mistakes large and small.

Short, somewhat related version for my kids: just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. It just means you don’t like it. You don’t have to. But don’t make that person feel bad about it. Don’t judge other people for what they wear or how they look, what they like to eat, what music they like to listen to, whom they love. But do call people out for those judgments, call yourself out for them, treat people right and notice injustice. (Ok, we’re out of the short version.) Don’t assume you know what’s right for someone else, but really think about what’s right for you. And be ready to be wrong. A lot. Work to understand other people, to offer them the same compassion you need to offer yourself.

And that doesn’t mean that it’s all ok, that forgiveness means that anyone who does shitty things is let off the hook, is not responsible for the shitty things they do. It just means, we’re all human.

But at the same time, our world will be a better place when women occupy at least 40 percent of the seats in our governments and boardrooms, Hollywood crowds, and scripts.

Sleep training, parenting class, new words, communication, love

We’re doing another modified round of sleep training. The basic idea is that instead of spending a long time, sometimes hours, soothing the twins until they’re asleep or just about there, we’re soothing them and then putting them down and leaving the room until they are worked up again and/or out of their beds. Then we go back in, pick them up, (well, really it’s Emily, so at least for now it’s “her”, not “them”) shh and reassure her, put her back down, and leave again. Lather, rinse, repeat. This afternoon it took 45 minutes. It was literally a matter of seconds between when she stopped crying and Joanna woke up. It was something like a miracle, really, that Joanna’s waking sounds didn’t awaken Emily again. I took Joanna into our room and she was wonderfully willing to just snuggle with me while I vegged for a while, so I did get some very appreciated down time while Emily slept. Tonight it only took 20 minutes to get Emily down for the last time, so I am feeling pretty relieved.

At last night’s parenting class there was a lot of good modeling just in the conversation and relaying of information about how to talk to kids, how to encourage them while also holding solid boundaries. That helped a lot tonight. Instead of just repeating the mantra, “It’s time to relax and go to sleep,” as I have done several billion times before, I started to say to Emily, “I’m sorry this is hard, I hear that you’re sad, I know you can do this, I know you can calm down.” I was able to stay more calm myself, I think because I was empathizing with her rather than just telling her what she had to do. And she calmed much faster this way. And walking out of the room helped me to feel that I was doing something proactive and not just being trapped in the room by Emily’s emotions. Walking back into the room when she got upset helped me to feel that I was taking care of her and not just ignoring her emotions. So, progress for her and progress for me.

I thank all that is good for the parenting class, and for the wonderful resources we have.

Joanna said please today! Well, ok, she said, “Peee” very quietly, but she did it! And when she shared a toy with Emily this afternoon, Emily said, “Sank oo”. This brings happy tears to my eyes. Not because my two-year-olds are uttering politeness words, but because we are communicating! And they are communicating with each other. We talked with the parenting class leader last night about the trouble I’ve been having on nights when Ted isn’t there, and in the conversation I was reminded that just because the twins aren’t saying a lot doesn’t mean that we can’t communicate with them, doesn’t mean they don’t understand and can’t indicate that at least to some level. It was a good reminder. It helped me today.

Love leads us into profound vulnerability, through challenge and conflict, fear and anger. We risk because we love. But the rewards of communicating with love, being open to feeling love and willingness through the hard emotions, are enormous. Love is not safety, but when we communicate lovingly, we can help ourselves and those we love take greater risks because we have a solid foundation of trust and security. Words matter. I am turning myself upside down and inside out because I love my children, but perhaps even more importantly, because I choose to love myself enough to hold myself to the highest standard I can, to challenge myself, to choose compassion first.

And oh, this path is hard!