A Modest Practice

Everyday write down three things for which you are grateful.

So say the self-help folks, creatives, going strong entrepreneurs, and positive psychologists.

It’s a powerful practice, with research and science backing it.  (Shawn Achor and Martin Seligman come to mind.)

The idea is that focusing on the positive and writing while focused strengthens your neural pathways, a cognitive exercise that builds the mind’s ability to see beyond its constructed walls and limitations, allows you to open into possibility.

Gratitude opens imaginative doors, and memory and writing are gratitude’s empowering exercise.

I’ve practiced this off and on during my years of journal keeping, but I’ve only felt a conscious shift the past few years.

Way back when, I practiced gratitude for five minutes a day in my journal, yet fretted most of the remaining 23.95 hours.  Not consciously, but habitually.

I’m finally getting it.  It’s about taking your gratitude with you, seeing each new day through a supple world view imaginatively reborn, not relegating your “gratitude” to five minutes a day while never removing your anxiety blanket.

But five minutes a day is an important start, and no doubt those five minutes everyday helped me get closer to a better pace.

***

Sometime in January, maybe February, I listened to an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (hyperlink to her TED talk, not the podcast I heard) and she described her gratitude jar.  Every day, she writes down three or more things for which she is grateful on a slip of paper, then puts them in the jar.  Come the New Year, she has a ritual around reading and remembering the year’s many gifts and joys.

Every January, she begins again.

After listening to Gilbert, I grabbed two mason jars — one for fears and worries, one for joys and gratitudes.

I decided to experiment with the fears jar.  Though I haven’t read much on this practice — I think it’s important to name fear, label the gnarly monsters, write them down, and shove them in a jar.

I’m not yet consistent with this practice, but it’s good for now, and getting better.

What I’ve discovered is that by writing down my fears, and putting them in the jar, I’m symbolically giving them to my higher power, even if that Power is my imagination. Some days I refuse all fear and boldly write: NONE!

By writing down incidents, people and things for which I’m grateful, I’m documenting what I otherwise forget, no matter how small or big, small and large ultimately being arbitrary distinctions.

I try to include things otherwise invisible, to go deeper into my daily experience, try to ferret out the things I take for granted.

For example: a random encounter that shifted my mood, allowed me to be a better person after someone else’s kindness.

A couple of times I’ve accidentally seen older entries from the jars, slips of paper falling out and waiting for my eyes.  I’ve noticed a trend:

1) the same fears tend to rumble about, and they rarely happen;

2) I quickly forget how many beautiful surprises fill my life everyday.  Experiences, circumstances, people that turned a day, a week, a month around, happenings too quickly swallowed by life’s activity.

My life deserves better than fear, and it deserves better than for me obscure its Beauty with necessity.

So I have two large mason jars sitting on my living room floor — one filled with some psychic chaos and rumblings, and the other with beautiful memories and everyday happenings.

Life is an art, this is now one of my modest practices sustaining that art.

I look forward to my first New Year’s ritual this year, unfolding slips of paper wearing my unfounded fears, and rediscovering the wonderful moments that I too quickly forgot.

 

 

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Eclipse

Image copyrighted.  All rights reserved.

 

 

We’re all golden sunflowers inside.” — Allen Ginsberg

 

A friend took a woman

thirty-five years younger than himself

to see the eclipse.

 

He made sure to tell me

that her small frame had

huge titties.  Because that’s

what he needs,

a young woman

with a small frame

and big tits.  Wanting

to impress the titties,

he rented a luxury motor-home,

parked in Wyoming’s wilds,

then he and the tits sat

in the eclipse’s

path of totality.

 

My friend never talks of beauty

or wisdom or poetry or

immanence or transcendence;

he has no regard for nature,

as he’s been so long married to work, money,

and titties.

 

When he returned from Wyoming,

he told me the eclipse changed him;

he felt connected to something larger,

an experience he’d never had before.

 

I did not see the eclipse

in its path of totality, didn’t

firsthand experience the best eclipse view

money could buy.

 

Rather, the eclipse

happily grabbed me

a few days after,

in a sunflower’s center,

a moment again

connecting me

to life’s mystery,

in a single, magnificent  bloom.

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Taking The Knee

Our local Methodist Church has an American flag standing parallel to the alter.

Not only is this flag an eye-sore, neon-light like in a small church decorated with sweet stained glass, and simple Protestant decor, it’s wrong theologically and wrong in our Constitutional Republic.

Our congregation doesn’t worship America — or at least I don’t, nor do I believe any Methodist worth their salt would so worship.  And I suspect I am not “worshipping” as many of theses folks, for I use imagination to shape and bend the words to my meaning, while not alienating the community.  It’s a practice.

The most mportant thing about this flag is that it smells of nationalism, and there’s a little thing called the wall separating church and state.

The wall that the theocrats are always trying to tear down.

Truth be told, it’s the only wall conservatives don’t like, the one between church and state.  Every other wall, they love, but the one between church and state: “Tear it down!  Tear it down!”

A few months ago, our pastor made a few veiled swipes at Obama, but he’s moved away from that.  I’d like to think that my vocal influence helped.

But apparently, muddying the boundaries flies in theses parts.  Given that we’re hearing so much about respect and flags as strong people of good conscience put themselves in the line of fire for the greater good, my mind was dazzled with an idea this morning:

Take the knee this Sunday, during prayers.  As I always sit in the front, and nearly opposite the flag, it would be an easy move.  If the church has the audacity (or unmitigated gall) to bring the state into its walls, than as one devoted to love’s justice, I should take the knee in solidarity with my sisters and brothers who need me, wherever I am.

It’s a small act, but certainly if we’re going to get all messy with our boundaries, then messy boundaries are to be embraced and used.

Moments of rebellion, here in rural Maine.

 

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Pears


(Image copyrighted)

You like soil,

barn smells, and

making music.

 

When you put

your fingers to keys,

heart and soul

find beauty

in your skill.

 

You love God,

your faith is literal,

and your love is strong and

wise enough to feel my heart,

no matter how its faith

differs from yours.

 

This week you played piano,

we sang old Appalachian spirituals,

I danced and clapped,

and we made holy merriment

from our hearts.

 

Late Sunday afternoon,

you delivered fresh, succulent pears

to my front door, picked from your trees,

because you learned that

pears are my favorite.

 

A basket of friendship,

peace and joy given

in juicy, sweet, fresh pears,

the gift of of an overflowing heart,

where all things are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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9/11, Revisited

My mother called me that morning and said “Turn on the news, they are blowing up those towers!  Those towers in New York!  Turn it on now!” I then owned a television, a 13-inch in the living room.

Mom always woke early, but given the three-hour time difference between California and Cambridge, her call meant she’d not slept well, and she had too early turned on to the morning news.

It was a little before 9:00 in Cambridge.  I was in the hallway when the phone rang.

I picked up the cordless sitting in a bookcase.  With Mom on the phone, I walked to the living room and turned on CNN.

Within a few minutes, we saw the second plane go in.

Mom had talked about an impending terrorist attack for a few years, believed one was coming, and that morning she preached about what we saw together, 3,000 miles apart, and before any information was known.

Terrorism, no question. She invariably voted Democrat — and loathed Cheney in particular for being “a liar from hell” — but that morning she blamed what we watched on CNN as resulting from lax national security policies during the Clinton years. “The Democrats got lazy, they didn’t pay attention to national security. I knew this was going to happen, I knew it.”

(I later pointed out that the attack happened on Bush’s watch.  She somewhat revised her opinion, given her hatred of Cheney & Co.)

Terrorism. She knew it with the first plane, and she unconsciously knew that more than one tower would be hit, her use of “towers” when she called me was clairvoyance not simply sloppy speech habits.

After we hung up, I stayed glued to the television the rest of the day, hypnotized by the unfolding that poured through 13 inches, a reality larger than any screen could hold.

***

Classes started that week. I was numb, a stupor exacerbated by hypnotizing news scrolls, and cable television’s drama pandering.

I showed up for the first day of one class as it ended, something I’d never done.  I obsessed about my class schedules, book buying, supplies, and all the rest two months ahead of the first week.  But in that week’s daze, I showed up for this one class as it ended.  I  apologized to the professor, offering her only my lame 9/11 excuse, “I’m sorry, this has never happened before. I guess I’m shell-shocked from everything.”

When I write “I was numb” to describe my stupor, this does not mean I mourned lost American innocence.

We’ve never been innocent.  Ignorant, yes.  Innocent, no.

In those days, I held an unpopular narrative: I believed that American imperialism dictated we had this coming. Wasn’t a professor somewhere fired for saying that?

Our collective hubris, greed, and violence meant that karma waited patiently for us to change, to do better by others and the world.

Even at Harvard, or perhaps especially at Harvard, calling out American hubris meant knowing your audience well.  I rarely spoke so, because A-M-E-R-I-C-A. As socially awkward and defiant as I am, even I knew better than to speak this criticism to many, especially those in collective grief.

America, a deity unto itself, the Great God who bears consumerism’s gifts, the safe salvation of dogma, and all wrapped in the comforts of white, capitalist Christianity.  We still burn heretics in this country, but not with fire.  We oust them from universities, or diminish their right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness by ostracizing them.  At the very least.

The great God of Christian American Exceptionalism must be serviced like a Golden Bull.

I never understood, nor do I understand now, the need to fetishize the tragedies of 9/11.  I’ve never understood the need to trot out this day every year, wear our victimhood like a shiny ornament, and decorate it in crying eagles, waving flags, and Jesus memes.

I’ve noticed that many folks who rarely do politics as public service coupled to policy and governance always manage to show up to “Never Forget.”

This does not honor those who died, it validates the victim narrative of those who need their nationalism served rare with a hot side of Christian values, while stoking Islamophobia.

Victimhood, a privilege.  A source of extremism, with The Book beside.

This victimhood has nothing to do with those who actually lost partners, parents, children, friends.

Many of these folks actually started projects to create interfaith dialogues on community healing and outreach, September 11 Families For Peaceful Tomorrows being one of the most inspiring.  Their motto comes from Dr. King, who wrote, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.”

9/11

I remember.  And it’s possible to recognize one’s privileges, and still be stupefied when horror and fragility bombard you through 13 inches of televised narrative. Our shared existential fragility shone clear to me that day and in the weeks following, perhaps because I owned no blanket embroidered with Exceptional Eagles or Easy Christian Morals.

I believe that life’s preciousness is not meant to breed fear or loathing.  It’s a call to deeper living, and creates a drive to carve respect and understanding from ashes.

Fear or love.

Too many chose fear; many who lost more than they believed possible chose love.

***

I no longer believe we had 9/11 coming.  But actions create ripples, and America resists looking at the many demons lurking in her closets.  In last year’s powerful essay, “The Falling Man,” Tom Junod discusses the iconic photo by Richard Drew:

 

Junod offers us another unspeakable crime:

” . . . the pictures that came out of the death camps of Europe were treated as essential acts of witness, without particular regard to the sensitivities of those who appeared in them or the surviving families of the dead. . . . They were shown as the photograph of the little Vietnamese girl running naked after a napalm attack was shown. They were shown as the photograph of Father Mychal Judge, graphically and unmistakably dead, was shown, and accepted as a kind of testament. They were shown as everything is shown, for, like the lens of a camera, history is a force that does not discriminate. What distinguishes the pictures of the jumpers from the pictures that have come before is that we—we Americans—are being asked to discriminate on their behalf. What distinguishes them, historically, is that we, as patriotic Americans, have agreed not to look at them. Dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of people died by leaping from a burning building, and we have somehow taken it upon ourselves to deem their deaths unworthy of witness—because we have somehow deemed the act of witness, in this one regard, unworthy of us.” [bold added]

We refuse to look at what would most teach us.

The falling man could hold us in his surrender to fragility as a powerful spiritual testament.

But we refuse to look, and we refuse to see.

If the terrorists hated us, it’s not because of our freedoms, it’s because U.S policies in the Middle East dictated by Saudi oil inevitably spawned a hatred born of poverty and ignorance.  It takes little leadership to join fear and ignorance into violence, as we should rightly know.

But we refuse to look, we refuse to see.

***

Many years ago, I had a class at Harvard Divinity with James Lawson.  A Methodist minister, after receiving his Ph.D., he went to India, trained on Gandhi’s ashram, came back to the states, and then accidentally met Dr. King in a coffee shop (a too easy summary).  They talked, and King told Lawson he needed him in the movement.

Lawson ended up leading King’s civil rights nonviolent resistance training.

(It was a privilege to study with Dr. Lawson, and visit him during office hours.)

Lawson once said to us during a lecture, “America is addicted to violence.  And it will never get over that addiction until it confesses and repents its original sins of genocide and slavery.”

Perhaps that’s what we’re witnessing now with the horrifying drunk uncle sitting at America’s helm, this grotesque caricature of our worst selves televised and tweeting in our faces 24/7.  At some point the addict must admit her addiction, must look in the mirror.  Perhaps we’re dealing on deep levels with our privileged stupor, facing our collective functioning alcoholic in the drunk-uncle-in-chief’s face.

But will we look?  Will we finally see that we have arrived at our United States of The Lost Weekend?

I don’t know if we’re at a defining crossroads.  I doubt it.  Change isn’t that easy, rarely comes in tidy packages.  But the unmitigated violence of Screeching Eagles and white Christian racist misogyny cannot hold.

Will we look, will we see?  Like “Families For Peaceful Tomorrows,” will we remember better?

 

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Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

Autumn arrives too early, after a mild Maine summer.

Here and there a dead maple leaf finds its way into the still ripening tomato plants, a stray littering promising the death of all green.

I harvested parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme from the garden today.  My fingers were soaked in their fragrance, a jubilant olfactory mix testifying to my garden’s opulence — an ebullient patchwork of herbs and flowers and vegetables.

What quiet joys these marigolds and petunias and eggplants offer the world.  They ask for nothing, and give freely to bees and wasps and all kinds of critters whose worlds exist in their leaves, petals, roots.

I brought my harvest up the stairs, then chopped the herbs, added a peppery olive oil, and bottled a few oil infusions.

The scent of olive oil, thyme, and sage caressed the moment, kissed it in olfactory passion.

A singular delight in an increasingly fragile world.

I surrendered myself this afternoon to parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, affirming life as change again swallows green, as change swallows a transforming planet.

 

 

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Mauna

A mauna is a practice of silence.

A fast of words, no utterances, no speaking.

According to Wiki:

In Hindu philosophy, Mauna (Silence), which has a voice of its own, refers to peace of mind, inner quietude, Samadhi and the Absolute Reality. The Hindu texts insist upon proper understanding of silence by experiencing it through control of speech and practice.

I read about this practice in Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth following my nervous break down — in my case, breakdown is best understood as a necessary dissolution that allowed a new understanding to emerge.

Gandhi practiced a weekly mauna. One day every week he wouldn’t speak, and anything that he needed to communicate he wrote on a piece of paper or blackboard (as I remember from the book).

I decided to do the same, though I am not certain why.  Perhaps it had to do with the work, feeling I needed silence after listening to so much during the week.  But I vaguely remember thinking that a mauna was something I could and wanted to try, without expecting anything other than silence.

Not understanding the power or efficacy of this decision, it surprises me that I chose such an odd practice — but it seemed the thing to do.  No retreat, no getaway.  Every Friday, sometimes Thursday, I turned off the phones, changed the business voicemail to say I was out, and took a day to read and meditate and practice being with not a word spoken.

Makeshift monasticism, you might call it.

It was easy, like drinking water.  I now believe the practice facilitated a psychic healing, and managed my mood in a way that the obscene surplus of medications never could.

Those days of silence healed, but they also stabilized me while living and working in the single room of a Cambridge boarding house.

I practiced the weekly mauna for a year, maybe two, until I returned to classes, and a new life chapter began.

I’m reminded of that practice these days.

The world becomes noisier, even in technology’s soundless spaces, it’s filled with voices growing louder and louder.   “Hear me!  Look at them!  Horrible!  Guilty!”

Screaming voices that distract, and we too often give our power away when joining the chorus.

In the U.S., both political sides, and those who claim no side, fear that we have lost our way, or never had one worthy, and that fear pushes deep against love.

Radical love.  Real love.  Not love wrapped in emojis, but the love emerging from dignity, worth, and practices connecting us to our awareness.

The purpose of fear is to create more fear, and fear is an adroit creature, ever happy to keep us occupied and diverted.

In Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, there’s a scene in which a Hindu man confronts Gandhi, and he tells the Mahatma that he’s going to hell because he killed a little boy by smashing the child’s head against a wall.

Gandhi, pained, asks the man, “Why?’

The Hindu answers, “They killed my son, they killed my boy.  The Muslims killed my son!”

“I know a way out of hell,” Gandhi advises, “Find a little boy, and raise him as your own.  Only be sure that he is Muslim.  And make sure that you raise as one.”  (Paraphrased.)

The scene is stunning storytelling.  Powerful. redemptive, piercing in its human and spiritual implications.

I have no idea if it’s true, though it’s consistent with the public life and ethos of Gandhi. And its historic veracity is less important than Attenborough catching this luminous wisdom and letting it shine through Kingsley’s Gandhi.

In our fractured political atmosphere, reactivity oozes from our fears and uncertainties, and this scene gives me an important reminder: be centered in your strength and dignity and love, it’s more powerful than the “facts,” because facts don’t change people’s minds as the research constantly shows.

Imagination is more important than facts in healing and creating the world.

For this reason, the Gandhi inspired advice on how to transform hell into heaven is timeless: it’s heart wisdom.

Creative, humane, coming from our brightest, most radiant self.

In these [relatively speaking] uncertain times, there’s an ancient mystical teaching getting traction again.  Ancient truth, modern teachers.  Some might call it the next evolution of the Christ Consciousness, or the awakening of awareness, or whatever name the teacher assigns to it.  Its core remains consistent.  It teaches that our presence in Love is enough to shift the world, and that holding our inner spaciousness [Kingdom of Heaven within] and connection to the source of wisdom, understanding, and enlightenment is the world’s transformative vehicle.

Not what you say, but holding a lived experience of faith in who you are and what you do.

Beyond belief into deepening awareness.

That’s why silence matters.

The more you practice it, the more you take yourself with you, and the more fear, its stories, and its distractions fall

Although a regular meditator, I’ve only practiced a full day of mauna a few times over the years.

Now may be a good time to revisit it, a day of silence as vital and transformative as political activism, or a word’s currency in the world.

At one time, Gandhi also stayed away from all newspapers and radios for over three years, because they took him away from his inner peace.

Three years.  No information. No opinions. No commentary.

Yet he led a rebellion that overthrew British rule with a force more powerful than guns, bombs, and warfare.

Another idea worth considering.

 

 

 

 

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