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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Aging with Grace

New Eyes

As I get older, I get smaller. I see other parts of the world I didn't see before. Other points of view. I see outside myself more.”
Neil Young

This is how aging should be. As we move through the decades of our lives, we tend to take one road or the other—either we become more entrenched in our ways, and refuse to allow any other perspective to change us, or we take the more expansive but less traveled road. Our ego becomes less prominent, and we grow to appreciate differences. Even if we don't agree with an opinion, we have enough respect to listen. We may even learn something in the exchange that changes our mind. My take on this is quite simple—people who do their soul work, that is, who look at themselves deeply and honestly, take that road less traveled.

Honestly, I wish I could say that learning the Bible and being able to talk the talk is sufficient, but it isn't. If we don't also walk the walk, it means nothing. And it's not easy to walk the walk. Following the example and teachings of Jesus is extremely difficult. It has nothing to do with memorizing Bible verses; it has everything to do with ditching our ego along with our certainty about our own righteousness. Loosing our camouflage-persona feels exposed and dangerous, but that's what we are asked to do. We are asked to become smaller in our own eyes and to see outside ourselves more. Who knew that Neil Young would turn out to be a spiritual teacher!

Young said, “One new feature or fresh take can change everything.” There is a crack that lets in the light. It's the crack in our certainty of our rightness. Once that chink in our armor is made, things begin to happen. We may try to patch it up and pretend it's not there, but patches rarely stick. Once we look into the eyes of our soul, we are forever changed—there's no going back. It will pursue us and not let up. It takes courage to turn and face it, and to ask, “Okay, what do I need to learn?” Learning soul lessons can be a frightening experience, but one that, brick by brick, gives us a solid foundation. The soul is deep and wide and encompasses all that is. It is a road worth taking.

                                                               In the Spirit,

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Green Brothers and Sisters


It's been proven by quite a few studies that plants are good for our psychological development. If you green an area, the crime rate goes down. Torture victims begin to recover when they spend time outside in a garden with flowers. So, we need them in some deep psychological sense, which I don't suppose anybody really understands yet.”
Jane Goodall

There will be less than spectacular fall color this year in Birmingham, AL. We had a wet spring and early summer, but beginning in July, the rain stopped and the temperature went up. When it's this hot (90-98 degrees) for this long, you just can't water enough to keep things hydrated. The leaves are already beginning to droop. If you've never been to Birmingham, it's not like you might imagine. It's green, with lots of old long-leaf pine and hardwood trees down sloping valleys and topping a series of ridges—the tail-end of the Appalachian mountains. (People here call them mountains, but truly, they are sandstone ridges.) The first time I came to this part of Alabama in the late 1970's, the coal fired power plants and steel mills spewed out so much ash and smoke that the city was covered by a black cloud. It reminded me of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. All of that is gone now.

I think the deep green of the trees in the river bottoms and on the “mountains” keep us from killing each other at an alarming rate—they calm us when the heat has penetrated and commandeered our brains. If you want to experience how heat breeds violence, spend a red-hot summer in New York City. When the heat rises, the streets get mean. Too much concrete and asphalt, too few trees. Green is a “cool” color; we experience it as cooling even when the temperature is 98 with equally high humidity. I give the trees credit for standing between us and the world's worst homicide rate.

If you haven't appreciated a tree lately, it's not too late. We old hippies used to hug trees just on principle; now we need to do it in self-defense. Go outside and thank your green brothers and sisters for protecting your psychological well-being and give 'em a little love. If your neighborhood is anything like mine, they were here long before we humans, and they'll likely be here when we're gone. As elders, they deserve respect.

                                                   In the Spirit,

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Hexagram #37: Jia Ren

The Family

Jia Ren literally means 'house people.' It refers to all the members of a household...The basic theme of the hexagram is that when all of the members of the family have their appropriate relationships to one another, the family is well ordered and will be at peace.”
Jack M. Balkin (The Laws of Change: I Ching and the Philosophy of Life, p.390)

It is not surprising that when I randomly opened the I Ching this morning, the hexagram was #37—The Family. I spent yesterday in outpatient surgery with my son, Jake, while he had sinuplasty—the second of two planned surgeries. Everything went well until his lungs didn't want to clear fluid after the airway was removed, and his blood-oxygen saturation was too low. Also, one eye was dilated and non-responsive. We spent all day with a very concerned and involved medical team, and went from there to see a friend, John Owen, who is an ophthalmologist, to make sure the eye dilation was a product of medication and not because he'd had a stroke. To say the least, it was a nail-biter of a day. Just so you know, Jake's doing well this morning—still zonked, but up and moving and breathing normally. Our families are both the best thing we have in our lives, and the one thing that can stomp us flat in a heartbeat.

According to The Laws of Change, “family is a metaphor and model for virtually all other forms of social organization.” Each member of the family has specific duties and relationships. In case you are getting your hackles up thinking I'm talking about gender-based role models, take a breath. I'm not. It is simply that we all have strengths and weaknesses; for instance, some of us are more adept at care-giving than others. All of us have skills that are much needed in our home, and in our community. In ancient Chinese society, everyone, male and female, was subordinate to someone or something else—yin to someone else's yang. When we refuse to live from our strengths, we have less to offer to the family, and to the community. In essence, we operate from a position of weakness, which automatically places us in a subordinate position. If what I have to offer is excellent care-giving skills, whether I am a man or a woman, then to withhold those is not only a loss to my family and my community, but puts me in a deficit position.

“If you want to have a positive effect on others, you must lead by example. Trust and reciprocity must be established by your actions as well as your words.” (Balkin, p.393) If you know what your strengths are and use them, and you will always have something to offer. If we encourage others to function from their strengths, we will always have something to receive. This leads to peace and contentment in both family and community.

                                                               In the Spirit,

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Staying Power

Who's Got Grit?

Talent, it turns out, is overrated.”
Andrea Downing Peck (“Grit” in September issue of Costco Connection magazine, p.46)

Angela Duckworth, winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant, researched what makes children fail or succeed in school and in life. Rather than genius, or even unusual talent, she found that “grit” was the true indicator. And, by grit, she means perseverance, self-control, passion, purpose, deliberate practice, and character. Who knew that so much could be packed into that four-letter word.

I think immediately of great athletes, and how they practice for hours every single day, through injuries and fatigue to gain even a slight edge in competition. When you ask, they deny that they are trying to be better than everyone else—it's always themselves they are competing against. “I want to better my time,” they say.

Passion is an important ingredient in mastering any skill. You have to love what you do enough to get up at five o'clock in the morning to be at the pool, or the gym, or the practice room, before school, or work. I remember a young man who grew up with one of my sons. He played cello, and his parents wanted more than anything for him to be the next Yo-Yo Ma. So he went to lessons and practiced everyday whether he wanted to or not, and he was very good. He received a scholarship to a prestigious college and continued his work, but his heart was not in it. When he graduated, he didn't go to a great symphony orchestra, or become a soloist. Instead he joined a little-known blue-grass band and traveled around the country in a bus doing shows in small venues. Blue-grass was his passion. Orchestral music was not. After a while, he went back to school and earned a business degree. Accomplishment cannot be dictated by someone else's passion.

Right now, we are watching horrifying scenes of people being rescued from flood waters in North and South Carolina, in the Philippines, and in China. When the path of Hurricane Florence was finally decided, the Cajun Navy headed out from Louisiana to be in place for the aftermath. They are not professionally trained in search and rescue, but they have become experts at it because of the multiple natural disasters in which they've assisted. They just get up and go. They love the work, they persevere in the face of hardship, and they enjoy being together in such a heroic effort. In short, they have grit. We saw it, too, in the fire fighters in the devastating California fires this summer. To jump out of an airplane into a massive fire zone requires true grit, plus more than a little bit of crazy courage. These people succeed because they don't give up. It's a lesson to us all.

You don't have to be a genius to succeed in this life. You just have to know what you want, and then pursue it with all you've got. Perseverance, courage, self-control, character and passion; these are the ingredients. Why, you could even play in a blue-grass band if you set your mind to it!

                                                   In the Spirit,

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Want to be a great teacher?

Learn by Doing

Suddenly I understood their boredom. I was teaching from memory, drawing on images of plant lives that I had witnessed over years. The green images I thought we shared as human beings were not theirs, thanks to the supplanting of gardens by supermarkets...”
Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass, p.135)

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She learned quickly that if you want students to be on the same page as you, you have to give them the experience of doing whatever you are teaching. It is not enough to convey your experience to them in words. In her field, hands in the dirt is the best teaching tool.

I started out my adult life teaching elementary school. My first classroom was in Rio Linda, California, and I was a student teacher. My master teacher was Deana Machiavelli, and my students were not privileged in any way. Many of them were children of migrant workers, so the classroom population ebbed and flowed. It was also designated “Special Education.” Most of the kids were nine or ten, knew English as a second language, and because they were transient—moved with the crops—they performed below grade level. Deana was a brilliant teacher. She taught by doing—if we were working on a nutrition lesson, we cooked and ate, with students doing all the shopping, preparation, cooking and serving. We entered a float in the Camellia parade, designed by our kids around a history lesson on ancient Greece. We covered a “chariot” with camellia blossoms, made togas out of bed sheets, and strung ivy garlands for our heads. Being her student teacher helped me appreciate that everyone learns best by engaging as many of the senses as possible, and when you can, doing the hands-on work that will show rather than tell. Integrating the sensory experiences makes the reading, writing, and arithmetic involved in any lesson more palatable and understandable. Especially for children who do not read well, and are not well grounded in vocabulary, doing is essential to learning.

We all learn best by doing, especially when we make mistakes that have to be corrected. That year in Rio Linda, when my class made ice cream, we didn't beat the eggs well enough before adding them to the cream mixture. We ended up with lumps of yellow egg in our vanilla ice cream—not very appealing. Lesson learned. When we say and do things that intentionally, or unintentionally, wound others, apologizing for that mistake is also part of leaning. We learn to take responsibility for our words and deeds. There is no more important life-lesson to teach children than that. And, of course, to practice what we teach. One lesson I learned from Deana that I have never forgotten is that kindness and happiness go together. You can't have one without the other.

                                                        In the Spirit,

Friday, September 14, 2018


Growing Ripe

Ripeness is
what falls away with ease.
Not only the heavy apple,
the pear,
but also the dried brown strands
of autumn iris from their core...”
Jane Hirshfield (“Ripeness”)

I pick the last ripe tomatoes—the sweet little grape ones—from yellowed vines. They peek shyly out of pink and white flowers still in mad bloom, volunteers from the compost soil I used to fill the pots. These are far tastier than the heirlooms I purchased from the farmer's market. Like orphan children, they have found home and are giving back whatever they can muster. When serendipity produces such sweetness, we are surprised and delighted, but we shouldn't be. This earth is designed to provide, and so far, it has.

Always in autumn, I think of my grandmother, Mayda, who became melancholy when the leaves began to tinge brown, and acorns littered the driveway. “Everything is dying.” she would say, even though she knew that spring would come again. Red-ripe tomatoes on yellow vines reminds us that the harvest will be followed by the darkness of winter. Death of a sort. The great wheel turns, and we turn with it.

Autumn should also remind us that, if we do our soul work, all the unknowns we face will be met with equilibrium—at ripeness we will have trust in the wisdom of the cycle of life. There is ease in the falling away. I met a friend on the street today as Liza and I walked. He has just visited a bankruptcy lawyer to see what his options are in the face of losing his job. He's in the ripe stage of life, and in the calmest of voices told me, “This doesn't scare me like it used to. I know everything will work out.”

All living systems have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Fortunately for us, we have the option of consciously living each of the moments we are allotted. We can grow ripe with contentment, even joy. We know the green blade will rise again, and so will we.

                                                             In the Spirit,

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Just Walk Away

Myth of Perfection

Don't tear up the page and start over when you write a bad line...”
Garrison Keiller

Part of the myth of perfection is getting rid of anything that isn't perfect--like tearing up the page because you wrote a bad line. For so many years of my life, I tried to reinvent myself in the image of other women. As a teenager I ate nasty stuff like “Weight-On” and went the Dairy Queen for a banana split everyday trying to put some flesh on my bones. The boys called me Olive Oil, and teased me unmercifully. I can relate to kids today who are bullied and shamed on social media. I dyed my hair, painted my face, and tried to dress like everyone else. This search for perfection seeped into almost everything I did, even into adulthood—I never felt good about who I was, or how I looked, or what my abilities were. I saw only what I did not have, what I was not. I wonder whether you can relate to those feelings.

The notion that there is a “perfection barometer” that measures us is a widespread and felonious belief. No human being is perfect. Some people are more beautiful than others, some are more accomplished, some more intelligent, but even they have their weaknesses. And all the measurements change—when I was that skinny teen, voluptuous Marilyn Monroe was the standard of beauty. When I was a young adult, Twiggy stepped into that spotlight. Small mouth became puffy lips and short spiked hair changed to long straight. We can never get ahead of the constant change, so perfection is never achievable. What we can do, however, is figure out what makes us happy, and do that. Where are we comfortable in our own skin? That's where we need to be.

The myth of perfection contaminates our personal lives, our work lives, and every other facet of our existence. If we think we don't measure up, neither will anyone else. We will compare them to a mythological standard and find that they, too, come up short. Our work will never seem good enough. We will feel anxious and insecure. It's time to take a deep breath, and lay all that nonsense down. As Bishop John Shelby Spong would tell you, “Process down to the river and throw it in.” The only thing that is absolutely perfect is you, exactly as you are.

                                                         In the Spirit,