Motel Dharma.

Dear Friends,

Neon Motel Sign and Arrow

I met a Buddhist monk last week. The encounter made me laugh, it made me think, it made me feel heart-full.

Like Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) in “As Good As It Gets,” I believe the highest praise you can give a person is to say he or she makes you want to be a better person. I left my conversation with the Venerable Pannavati aspiring to do so much more in this world, to radiate her kind of warmth and wisdom on all souls in my orbit.

The part that made me laugh: Pannavati was traveling through my town on her way to a larger city for a meditation retreat she is hosting this weekend. I mentioned to you a while back that I recently joined a local Sangha (a sanskrit word for a Buddhist community) and our leader was kind enough to arrange for several of us to have individual consultations with Pannavati at a local motel. The motel is on a busy thoroughfare and is more than a little “tired.” (I’m being kind. It’s the biggest dive in town.) Anyway, I showed up for my midday meeting, dressed to the nines because of an important work engagement, and ended up having to stand outside one of the rooms for several minutes while the monk finished a previous appointment. I’m pretty sure the heavily tattooed man in the parking lot who complimented my sports car and my clothes wondered why the person I was meeting didn’t immediately let me in the room. I’m also pretty sure a drug deal went down in the parking lot while I stood there. And, I feel quite certain at least a handful of townsfolk drove by the cheap motel, saw me standing outside one of the rooms, and felt sorry for Mr. Mom thinking I have a thing on the side. The whole scene was like something out of a Cohen Brothers movie and was NOT the kind of setting in which I expected to seek enlightenment.

On the other hand, it was probably just the kind of place Jesus would have gone to minister to the needy. In fact, I think he would have consorted with the cast of Motel Dharma so — in the words of my favorite Pope — “Who am I to judge?”

The part that made me think: Our entire conversation. I can’t explain it except it was like reading and absorbing five different holy texts in less than a hour. Actually, it was more like chugging all the wisdom in the world, if all the wisdom in the world could be poured into a beer gong and you could gulp it in a matter of seconds. (Disclaimer: I have never drank from a beer gong but I’ve observed the activity in my younger days and can appreciate the “intensity” of the experience.)

I wish I would have taken notes but I didn’t and so I’m still remembering and reflecting on many parts of our conversation. One thread of our discussion that still has its grip on me has to do with the nature of blame and forgiveness. I’ve spent a good bit of my life contemplating forgiveness (what it means, how to cultivate it, how to make it sincere) and yet it never once occurred to me that blame is a necessary antecedent to forgiveness. No blame, no forgiveness.

That little nugget rocked my world for a minute. (Or several thousand.) As Pannavati put it — and I’m paraphrasing liberally here because she was way more eloquent than me but my mind was too blown to capture it all — in any given situation involving two or more people, we each come to the intersection of our encounter with our “stuff” (where stuff equals our fears, anxieties, anger, desires, aversions, etc.) And we may think our stuff is really the other person’s stuff, but it’s not. It’s ours. We can do with our stuff what we will, but we only control our stuff, not the stuff of others. We may think the other person’s stuff is the root of our problem, and that of course causes us to blame the other person and their stuff, but the root of our problem is our stuff. If you own your stuff, meaning if you acknowledge it and deal with it, there’s no need to cast blame. And if you’re not blaming, who’s to forgive?

During a subsequent meditation on this theme, I thought of it this way. Does the flower forgive the clouds for stealing its sunshine?  Of course not! Therefore, can I approach the next situation where I might be tempted to assign blame and instead conclude that just as I am a flower striving to bloom, the clouds of unfortunate circumstance are merely trying to move along their path?

Yeah, it’s deep. I’ll let you know how I fare.

The part that made me heart-full: By the way, heart-full is my own made-up word because there was no other way to describe how overwhelmingly grateful I was. I am.

I live in a small town in a rural part of a flyover state. (Not so different from the small town in the rural part of the previous flyover state I lived in.) How I came to this moment, in this place, with this Sangha, to this intersection of earnest souls and wisdom and love and openness, Lord only knows.

It’s a gift like no other.

With gratitude {for what is},

Joan, who will never be venerable so she’s shooting for practiced

 

 

 

An Easter story.

Dear Friends,

It’s Easter morning and I am up early, drinking coffee and contemplating the day ahead of me. At my age, Easter isn’t what it used to be when I dressed my children in pastels and we hunted for eggs and ate chocolate until our tongues turned a creamy shade of brown. I’m a mother who no longer marks her life in the change of the seasons but in the change of family gatherings and rituals. Now that both Kate and Parker have flown the nest, they can’t always make it home for every holiday, major or minor, so I’m recalibrating what it means to celebrate Easter without my chicks ’round the table. Instead of dying eggs or preparing an elaborate family meal, I spent Easter Eve cooking for a new family that moved nearby. They’re vegans and, having transitioned to a vegetarian diet several months ago, I know how difficult it can be for a family on-the-go to find healthy, meatless meal options in our community. Cooking for others is a small act of neighborliness that perked up what has otherwise been a melancholy weekend.

For me, for now, Easter represents the last holiday I spent with my mother before she died. I still miss her so much it sometimes takes my breath away, and this time of year my mind often turns to our last Easter together. In April 2010, Mom was frail and I knew it, but as I contemplated the spring and summer ahead of me, I had no idea she’d succumb to her final illness on Independence Day and die before Labor Day. I remember in vivid detail the meal I prepared (of course I do!) and her utter delight in my menu and my table. She talked about how talented she thought I was and she said my lemon meringue pie was so good it was “outrageous.”

Mom had asked me earlier in that week if I would consider inviting my sister to my Easter meal. Without much consideration, I quickly declined. Mom came to my house anyway — she wanted so badly to spend Easter with Kate and Parker even if I couldn’t find it in my heart to include my sister, P. For the life of me I can’t now explain why I was so thoughtless. It’s a regret I’ll carry with me forever.

The one thing that cheers me from being too plaintive on what is arguably the most optimistic of all holidays is that I recently had lunch with P. I traveled to Oklahoma to celebrate Kate’s birthday last month and, while there, visited my sister. When Momastery published this post that I wrote about my relationship with my sister, a few commenters asked what became of Kate’s planned visit to P’s house. (P cancelled, saying she wasn’t feeling well.) Another asked about the nature of my relationship with P now. (It’s still complicated but improving.)

I had texted P a few days before my trip to ask if she would join Kate and me for lunch. She gladly accepted but then called a few hours before to beg off, saying she felt bad because she didn’t have a birthday gift for Kate and she didn’t have any nice clothes to wear. I encouraged her to come anyway. I told  her Kate didn’t care about gifts and neither of us cared how she looks. For the life of me I can’t now explain why I possessed benevolence on that day and so few others.

P decided to join us and surprised both Kate and me. She looked well, relatively speaking. (I had braced for the worst after hearing her say she looked terrible.) She was upbeat and funny and generous. Often, her conversation can be hard to follow but, on that day, she was mostly cogent. She was kind and I responded in turn. I can only think Mom had something to do with that. And I can only wish Mom had been present, but then in so many ways she was, moving our hearts even if she couldn’t sit at our table.

P gave Kate a small grocery bag filled with trinkets from her home, a sweet if makeshift birthday gift from a woman who has little to share these days. Because we were going to see my father later, she pulled an old photo from her purse to show us. The photo was of my father and me on a hotel patio. I didn’t recognize the occasion but my father later explained we were on a trip to New Orleans, his favorite destination. I also didn’t much recognize the long-haired young girl dressed in purple. Sometimes when I see old photos, or hear my family tell stories about us, it’s as if I am a victim of amnesia and while I can clearly see I’m the girl in the photo, I don’t know her.  So much of my childhood is lost to memory — a result, I think, of trying to forget the people and their addictions that threatened to swallow me.

When I think of the Easter story, though, I can’t help but contemplate the notion of redemption as it’s played out in my life. I can’t help but think of the resilience of families, even as circumstances threaten to shred any semblance of kinship. I think about how fragile the ties are that bind, and yet still bind. I think about two “half” sisters with different fathers whose mother desperately sought to knit them together and who must have died thinking she had failed at the task dearest to her heart. I think about deliverance, not from evil, but from dissolution, from each other and from God, which is surely as injurious to the soul.

I think about P. And me. And our next lunch.

With gratitude {for sisters and second chances},

Joan, who wishes you Easter blessings in abundance

photo

Easing into the year.

Dear friends,

hand2

I’ve been away from this space for a while.

It’s been nice in some ways, the extra time, a bit of cocooning, figuring out new ways and adjusting to evenings at home alone now that Mr. Mom has gone back to work.

(By the way, despite my invitation to my readers to rename Mr. Mom, I just can’t do it. He may be working outside the home now, but the care and attention he gives our family will always be worthy of the “Mr. Mom” pseudonym.)

I normally launch myself into the new year with a long to-do list and at least a couple of well-considered resolutions. This year — I pretty much skipped it. Or maybe I should say I was a little kinder, allowing myself some time and space to ease into 2015 without rigid expectations.

Part of it was by necessity. I came down with a dreadful upper respiratory bug right after Christmas and spent five feverish days in bed. Then just as I was getting into the swing of January, I threw out my back and was sidelined for another week.

Perhaps there’s nothing as leveling as health issues, even minor ones. I think the universe wanted to remind me that it’s okay to slow down, even when our culture screams “New year, new accomplishments!”

But here’s the thing I really wanted to tell you: I have been meditating regularly. I started back in November after attending a “Mindful Leadership” conference. Then I joined a local Sangha. Now I am taking an 8-week course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.

I want to say so much about my meditative experience but that will take time and more than one post. For now, just this: A couple of weeks ago I felt I was having trouble adjusting to evenings on my own. I even chided myself for too much time in front of the television and the laptop. “Good Lord,” I thought to myself. “I’ve got to do something more productive with my evenings!”

Then last night, I came home from work and in less than three hours I made a homemade dinner, cleaned the kitchen, completed two homework assignments for my class, read the mail, and sat for a 30-minute meditation. As I readied myself for bed I caught myself thinking “Good Lord, that was a fast evening! I’ve got to slow down and enjoy myself.”

Which is precisely why focusing on mindfulness is a very good thing! Our busy, busy minds play all kinds of tricks on us. One minute Mind is scolding us for being lazy; the next minute Mind is screaming slow down.

The irony of a busy, busy Mind — that quite literally can’t make up its mind — reminded me of a beautiful verse written by Martha Postlewaite:

Do not save the world

or do anything grandiose.

Instead create a clearing in

the dense forest of your life

and wait there patiently

until the song

that is your life

falls into your cupped hands

and you recognize and greet it.

Only then will you know

how to give yourself

to this world

so worth of rescue.

With gratitude {for anything resembling a clearing, no matter how modest},

Joan, who invites you to tell her what tricks your Mind has been up to lately

Oh so merry.

Dear Friends,

IMG_2902

I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit rigid when it comes to holiday routines. An improviser I’m not. I fastidiously plan all our family celebrations, from birthdays and anniversaries, to major holidays like Christmas, to even lesser holidays like Valentine’s Day. If there’s a celebration on the calendar, you can count on the fact I will have an associated timeline, to-do list, menu, and shopping list (organized by sub-categories for “groceries,” “gifts” and “supplies”) that I carefully create and monitor. I would argue my planning is a hallmark of the diligent, but truth be told, it’s probably just a hedge against spontaneity, which has never been my strong suit.

For some reason, though, this year I threw caution to the wind when I decided to ditch my typical Christmas plan by decorating before December 1. And, gasp, I even decorated before Thanksgiving. Normally I’m a real Grinch when it comes to pre-emptive Christmas displays. And, if you read this post, you’ll recall I have a veritable ritual related to my children’s involvement in tree trimming. But Sunday, November 23, was a cold and rainy day in my corner of the world and – with nothing better to do – I decided to deck my halls a full four days before Turkey Day. Mr. Mom was busy and my kids were at college and it just seemed like the thing to do for a sentimental old woman with time on her hands.

Of course when my children arrived home for Thanksgiving they were shocked to see the tree (in an unusual spot, no less), and the garland, and the bells, and my grandmother’s vintage Santa mug collection, and enough twinkly lights to fill a Target. “Wow, what got into you?” Parker said. “Oh . . .” whimpered Kate, “I was looking forward to helping.” I was stung by an immediate and familiar pang of maternal guilt, which was intensified when I arranged our Thanksgiving table a few days later and contemplated the clash of competing holiday décor on display in our dining room. I clearly had jumped the gun.

Despite my second-guessing, I felt a lightness about my decision and wondered what it would be like to have the Christmas season commence without the most time-consuming holiday chore hanging over my head.

A few days later, I was talking to a new friend, an older lady I recently met, about my early decorating spree. Dixie mentioned she just didn’t have the energy for such things. She said ever since her husband died a few years ago, she found Christmas decorating difficult. She recollected – sadly I thought – that she especially missed setting up her extensive Dickens village that used to bring her so much joy. “It’s just so much work,” she said, “and I can’t do it anymore.”

In any other year, I would have rushed to commiserate with Dixie. “Oh, I know EXACTLY how you feel,” I would have said. “I always feel so overwhelmed this time of year. There’s too much to do and sometimes I just want to skip it all!” But instead of this reflexive reaction that I’ve shared so many times with the similarly harried, a mindless statement borne of a working mother’s guilt and anxiety, I paused to listen to her words and, though I said nothing, Dixie’s sense of longing stuck with me.

I emailed her a few days later and offered to go to her home and do her decorating for her. She was gracious enough to take me up on my offer and that’s how I found myself in the midst of the most joyful and rewarding Christmas decorating spree ever.

Dixie indeed has a beautiful Dickens village, with every building and village amenity imaginable, including tiny carolers and dogs and electric street lamps and park benches and more, each carefully tied in bubble wrap and stored in their original boxes. When I was a young mother, I dreamed of collecting a Dickens village, but I couldn’t afford it. Unpacking and arranging Dixie’s village was like a Christmas dream come true. I felt like an 8-year-old girl who had just unwrapped Santa’s best dollhouse ever and – best of all – Dixie gave me full creative license to display the village however I wished.

While I “played house,” Dixie brought me tea and cookies and turned up the holiday music and told me about her life over the last 30 years in our community. After I finished assembling the display (and promised to return in January to put everything away), I couldn’t help but linger over another cup of tea, enjoying the scene before us and soaking up the unexpected joy of helping a friend, no matter how modest the task. It was a magical moment in time, one I will always treasure, made possible because I dared to step out of my comfortable routine and open my heart to the potential of something even more wonderful.

As this Christmas season offers its joys and challenges to you, as you deck your halls and bake your goodies and wrap your gifts and attend parties and otherwise seek holiday cheer in your own ways, I wish for you a moment of whimsy . . . a sparkling instant in which old expectations melt away and new memories – perhaps tiny but oh so merry – fill your heart with the love and joy of the season.

With gratitude {for holiday gifts of all kinds},

Joan, who loved her some Barbie back in the day

 

Half-assed Buddhist.

Dear Friends,

buddha-lotus-flower-symbol

Today I read this essay by author and LGBTQ activist Dan Savage about the Duggar Family and enjoyed it so much I shared the link on Facebook and Twitter. Fair warning: if you are queasy about matters of sex and religion, don’t read it. Dan is an openly gay man and the Duggars are a conservative Christian family with a reality television show  on TLC (“19 Kids and Counting”), and these two polar opposites mash up in Dan’s essay about like you might imagine. The essay is simultaneously funny and crude and thought-provoking and reminded me that this wild soup we call American culture is indeed fascinating.

As much as I was tickled by the humor in Dan’s essay, I couldn’t help but be bothered by his assertion that families like the Duggars (and, by extension, their beliefs) are “actually pretty scary.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m almost as far removed from the Duggars’ point of view as is Dan, but I’m not frightened by their particular strain of patriarchal theocracy (Dan’s words). I’d just as soon bite off my tongue as advise my daughter (or son) according to Duggar philosophy, but the fact they believe what they believe and live how they live doesn’t frighten me. To each his own, I always say. And, yeah, I get Dan’s point that the family is proselytizing their beliefs, but so is he. Heck, what is this blog but propaganda for my world view?

I could write an entire post about how the temptation to be scared by people unlike ourselves is the root of our world’s problems, but that’s not my point today. My point today is that Dan’s essay reminded me of a season in my life when I spent considerable time examining the issues at play in Dan’s dispute with the Duggars. Many years ago, I wrote an essay on the topic which was published in a now-defunct online forum for female writers, and so I was inspired to pull it out of my archives and share it with you today.

Consider this another fair warning: I write about sex and religion with considerable candor and if that’s not your bag, skip this one. I promise I won’t be the least bit frightened.

With gratitude {for my friends from varied faith traditions — Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Bahai, — including those with no prescribed faith, all of whom accept me just as I am, which is exactly what I think Jesus would do},

Joan, who’s been half-assed at far more than Buddhism but hopes you aren’t keeping track

***

Half-assed Buddhist

I first tried my hand at proselytizing the summer after sixth grade.  I had just spent a week at Vacation Bible School sponsored by our town’s First Baptist Church.  Full of the kind of evangelical zeal one experiences after singing 10 rounds of “This little light of mine” and chugging five Dixie cups of Cool-Aid, I announced to my two best friends that they were going to hell.

“Really? Why?” one friend, a Catholic, said to me as the three of us climbed the high-dive ladder at our city’s swimming pool.

“Because you aren’t Baptist,” I replied matter-of-factly.

The thing is – neither was I.  Oh, sure, I had been baptized months earlier but it was at the First United Methodist Church, which I attended regularly under the watchful and approving gaze of my paternal grandmother.  I don’t recall why I was two-timing with the Baptists that summer, but it wouldn’t be the last time in my life I summarily traded teams.

My other friend, a non-denominational, looked really hurt and simply said “That’s not nice.”

“Well, it’s true,” I retorted, and sometime between leaping off the edge of the diving board and surfacing in the middle of the deep end, I forgot the topic entirely – including the fact that I was going to hell, too, by my own definition.

By the time I was 17, I spent considerable time contemplating damnation.  Still a regular church-goer, I had heard enough sermons to realize I was a sinner.  And the worst part was, I enjoyed every minute of it.  My senior year of high school, I discovered sex . . . glorious, immoderate, sweaty, teenage sex.  Usually in a car, but sometimes in the park or even a bed if my boyfriend and I could score an unoccupied house, sex became my favorite diversion.  Such wanton behavior made church attendance a tad uncomfortable, especially given the mere hours that typically separated fornication from communion. Plus, I was still more than a little confused by the seemingly intractable divisions between Christian denominations – divisions that just a few years earlier had led me to declare my best friends hell-bound.

It just didn’t make sense to me that one group of Christians could be so certain that their path to salvation was absolute while their brethren down the street were damned.  If the jury wasn’t in on this thing, why should I waste my time? So, one Sunday morning, I announced to my mother that my church-going days were over.  “Why?” she asked, stunned.  “Because I don’t enjoy it.  And you don’t go.  So I don’t really think it’s fair for you to tell me I have to.”  She said nothing and I went back to bed where I stayed every Sunday morning for approximately the next five years.

My sophomore year of college I briefly contemplated returning to the fold.  I had my eye on a really cute guy in English Lit and I started finagling ways to talk to him before and after class.  It didn’t take long for him to invite me to his place. When I arrived, he offered me a Coke and we sat down at a cramped table that served as both his eating and study space.  He shoved his textbooks aside, pulled out a black flip chart, and announced he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He told me he liked me a lot, that he thought I was really smart and pretty, and that he wanted to share his faith with me.  I was thrilled.  “He thinks I’m pretty and smart!” I mentally gushed as he opened his guide to the Mormon faith and launched into the most earnest testimony I had ever witnessed.

Somehow – despite the fact that I was imagining him making out with me with the same conviction he was delivering his salvation appeal –his lavishly illustrated flip chart slowly caught my attention.  I wondered how I could have grown up in the Bible Belt and yet never have heard the extraordinary story of Joseph Smith and his golden tablets.  I was mesmerized, and more than a little moved by Joseph’s words:  “So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was . . . to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.”

“Oh my gosh,” I exclaimed, “I know just how he felt!”  I talked about my lifelong distress over conflicting absolutes.  “How do I know what’s true?” I asked, as sincerely as one could while discussing religious beliefs with a hot new crush.  His eyes gleamed as he continued his story and I was momentarily lost in my imagined future with this guy.  I just might find the remedy to my existential angst and the man of my dreams at the same time!  So eager was I to convert (and cavort!) that I interrupted him before the punch line.   “So where are the golden tablets?” I asked.  “Can I go see them?”  Joseph Smith’s golden tablets were just the kind of confirmation I’d been waiting on and I was ready to sign on the dotted line if I could just glimpse these magnificent and holy relics.

Then my Mormon friend dropped the bomb: the golden tablets had been spirited away by a heavenly messenger.  Faith was required of me to believe Joseph’s testimony and to receive God’s grace through Jesus Christ.

Damn.  I’d been down this road before.  Crushed, I said thanks but no thanks, and Elder Sexy and I parted ways forever.

A couple of years later, I graduated from college and moved as far away from home as a small-town girl could imagine – Boston’s Beacon Hill.  I roomed with two pot-smoking boys my age and explored a fascinating world where old money, new immigrants, and liberal politics were the ingredients for an alluring blend of cultural goulash.  One Saturday night while hanging around Harvard Square, two polite and clean-cut men struck up a conversation with my girlfriend.  I was ready to catch the train home, but my friend was really getting into these guys.  By the time we finally boarded the Red Line back to Boston, she told me she had their phone numbers and had agreed to meet them the next morning.  “For coffee?” I asked.  “No.  For church,” she said.

I would soon learn this was no regular church.  A year later, my family would call it a cult.  Ten years later with a little more perspective and a lot less bitterness, I called it an extremely effective marketing machine.  The Boston Church of Christ (BCC) was the precursor of what is known today as a mega-church.  Insidious, ingenious, infatuating – BCC was a Venus flytrap of spiritual misfits and its church leaders saw me coming.

The Church of Christ claims to be just that – Christ’s original church, free from denominational strife and dogma. This was no “mainline” Church of Christ like the one in my hometown, I was told. This was the Boston Church of Christ – the one true church and a spiritual beacon to the world’s lost souls.

Looking back, I know I was drawn to BCC by its followers. Young and old, American and immigrant, highly educated and blue collar, the 2,000-strong membership reflected Boston’s diverse demographic mix that I so loved.  I worshiped alongside Harvard Ph.D.s and Somerville laborers, all equally fervent in their conviction that BCC offered a panacea for all spiritual ailments.  As much as I had abhorred pat answers in the past, I literally jumped in with both feet, agreeing to a second baptism when church elders suggested my first, administered by Methodists so many years ago, wasn’t valid.  It seemed God wanted me to punch my membership card one more time.  Always a good sport if not a devout parishioner, I said what the hell and gave it a go.  Maybe this one will stick, I thought.  Most religious experience is nothing if not contradictory, so I ignored a personal paradox to satisfy my spiritual wanderlust.

What distinguished BCC from all other churches I had previously experienced, indeed what drew me in, was the devotion of its followers.  Unlike the Methodists I had known back home, these guys were serious.  I once attended a revival service where the faithful contributed more than one million dollars.  It still astonishes me today that some 2000 followers put cash, checks, and deeds totaling seven figures in passed collection plates.  I don’t recall how much I gave that evening but I know it wasn’t sacrificial in the way church elders had been encouraging all week; nor in the way that my friend did when she sold her condo and gave a check to BCC for more than $100,000. Long before “What Would Jesus Do?” became a ubiquitous bracelet, the leadership of BCC exploited their version of the concept by encouraging asceticism for the sake of church coffers.  By the time I left the church and moved home, I realized I had mistaken fervor for truth.

In later years, I would approach truth as a human construct that is ever-shifting. I would qualify truth by asking “Whose?”  I quit worrying about the afterlife in favor of the here and now.  Not surprisingly, my focus on “the moment” led me to Buddhism.

A basic Buddhist premise teaches that dualistic thinking – the categorization of the world in black and white terms — is the source of all human suffering.  We self-torment with categories that are sharply drawn and that leave little room for the ineffable. Buddhists see that good and evil are shades of the same color.  We can draw an arbitrary line in the sand if we wish, but perhaps it would serve us well to look inward, to understand why we’re drawing that particular line, grasping for one kind of outcome and afraid of another.

I recently tried to explain this notion to a longtime friend who is as devout and earnest a Christian as I have ever known. I probably seem like a libertine to her  (or worse, a relativist) and she couldn’t understand why – raised a Christian – I couldn’t now continue to play along.  I struggled to provide an answer in her terms, and I finally offered, “I guess I needed a God who’s more expansive than the Christian God I was taught about in my youth.  I needed some new tools and different perspectives to confront and examine the notion of my soul.  And I find that the Buddhist teachings are helping me . . . helping me see myself and all religious thought in a new, more accepting light.”

My friend paused for a moment while she considered my answer, then finally she looked me in the eyes and said with a surprising dose of consternation, “Yeah, but you’re a half-assed Buddhist!  I bet you don’t even go to temple.”

I laughed heartily and hugged her and told her she had no idea how perfect her label is.  My god, what is a Buddhist but one who embraces the haphazard, the unsatisfactory? Her proclamation would be a badge of honor from that moment on, I told her, because it beats the hell out of the skeptical and cynical Christian of my youth.

Yes, my journey inward is sublimely half-assed; but for all its insufficiency and incompetency, it is still magnificently, reverently a journey into me, into the shadows of my heart where I am connected to and commune with both humanity and divinity, in all their definitions. For whatever reason, I never could seem to follow Jesus to the Kingdom of God inside me, but I can’t help but think it’s a good place to end up now and I’m grateful for the tour guide that got me there.

Mr. Mom, Emeritus.

Dear friends,

sinkfix

I dare you to find a maintenance technician with better legs.

In my world, when a distinguished colleague retires, he or she is awarded the title of “Emeritus” if — in fact — the individual’s service and achievements have been exceptionally meritorious.

It’s an honorary title, bestowed infrequently, to only the best.

So imagine my great pride — and melancholy — in telling you Mr. Mom is becoming an Emeritus Caretaker.

In other words, he’s retiring. From Mr. Mom-hood.

Which, in a weird sort of way, really means he’s going back to work. Outside our home.

The transition, which begins today, is more than bittersweet. I’m happy for him because he’s happy for him. He’s been toiling as our caretaker for nearly a decade and with Parker off to college now, there’s only me to care for.

(Not to make light of this. Everyone knows I require a lot of care. And feeding.)

But the last three years in particular have been difficult for him with the Mountain, and he needs both a distraction and an intellectual challenge that doesn’t involve case law or laundry stains. And there’s no denying that with two kids in college, the extra money will be great.

But neither of us made this decision because of money. We made it because — like the last time we transitioned our roles and lifestyle — our careful consideration led us to a mutual conclusion.

We both agreed if we hate it, he’ll quit. I don’t expect him to hate it. I’m not sure about me.

We live in a small town with a first-rate university, a well-respected medical system, and our fair share of manufacturing and scientific industry. It’s a great place to get a job if you’re highly educated. Not so great if you’re a highly skilled tradesman with no desire to work for yourself anymore. So Mr. Mom will be joining the millions of Americans who commute far outside their community to serve as a maintenance technician with a food manufacturing company located an hour away. He’ll be working second shift with a good deal of overtime, which means our evenings watching re-runs of Gunsmoke while enjoying a cocktail are coming to an end. In fact, it means a lot of his free time is coming to an end.

And I’m no dummy, but I think it means some of my free time is coming to an end, too, as we figure out how to divide up responsibility for things like laundry and housekeeping and grocery shopping and all the things he used to handle solo.

It’s weird when I think back about how personally challenged I was by our transition to the lifestyle I now relish. I wrote about it in this essay and, at the time, I really was confronting an existential crisis. (Giving up control of the laundry was a big deal for me, which I’m not proud to admit.) Now — it’s not that I dread stepping back into the role of housekeeper/errand runner, it’s that I’d be lying if I didn’t admit my life is comfortable and I enjoy having Mr. Mom’s full attention and energy. I’m pretty sure evenings at home alone will be lonely until I adjust.

On the flip side, I’m so proud of my mate. Once we made up our minds, he embarked on a job hunt with great enthusiasm, careful research, and impressive results. After being unemployed for what feels like a lifetime in today’s fast-changing world, he found a good-paying job with solid benefits in less than a month. He impressed his new employer on day one, while touring the plant for an interview, when he made several suggestions to improve production efficiency based on just a few tweaks to the equipment.

So . . . that’s my big news. I don’t know what to think yet. Like everything else we’ve tackled, we’ll play it by ear and adjust as necessary. I have butterflies in my stomach, which after 23 years of marriage ain’t a bad thing.

Oh — but there’s this! What in the WORLD will I call Mr. Mom now that he’s not Mr. Mom?

Maintenance Man? Hunk o’ Husband? Hot Legs? I’m at a loss for worthy pseudonyms and welcome your suggestions.

One thing’s for sure. He’s more than deserving of the title Mr. Mom, Emeritus.

With gratitude {for a life that unfolds just as it needs to, just when it needs to},

Joan, who loves that man of hers more than you can imagine

A new kind of foodie.

Dear friends,

I’ve been happily tucked away, these days of late, cooking and empty-nesting and enjoying the transition to cool weather and shorter days. My acid-reflux is almost entirely under control, without medication, which in the (modified) words of our Vice President, is a big freaking deal!

I’ve been meatless since Sept. 8 and I haven’t missed it once. I bought two new cookbooks and it’s been a culinary wonderland in my kitchen. If you follow me on social media, you know I’ve posted endless photos of my new, healthier approach to eating.

Despite having dabbled in vegetarianism for years (actually, I’ve called myself a flexitarian many times), I’m still a little surprised how good food can be without meat when you put your mind to it. Let me be clear, though: I haven’t given up all animal products. I still eat yogurt and cheese daily, and I eat eggs a few times a week.

I’m pretty sure it’s not just the meatless approach that has improved my reflux. I’ve also cut out most processed foods (except for the occasional saltine). Once again — this is a big freaking deal, giving up packaged snacks. A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Mom and I were watching television and he mentioned how much he wanted a snack. “Just think,” he remarked, “a month ago I would have said that and we would have finished off an entire bag of chips while watching the Daily Show.”

You won’t be surprised to hear that my partner in crime, who’s always been more than happy to follow my lead in the kitchen, has lost 20+ pounds. Don’tcha just hate men and their metabolism? Still, I’ve lost half that amount, without trying. I didn’t set out to lose weight, though I certainly needed to. I set out to cure myself, and I seem to have hit upon the recipe: meatless meals + much smaller portions + no eating at least three hours before bedtime, which for me means no food past 6:00 pm. I’m also taking a probiotic supplement and digestive enzymes with each meal.

Take a look at just a few of the beautiful dishes I’ve made in the last few weeks:

blackpeppertofu

This black pepper tofu was Asian-restaurant quality.

leek

These leek fritters were filling and comforting.

parsnips

These roasted parsnips and sweet potatoes with caper vinaigrette were a platter of health and beauty.

onions

These stuffed onions were mild and sweet and reminiscent of stuffed shells — a perfect alternative to a heavy, baked pasta dish.

pita

This pita sandwich with black bean hummus and veggies was a perfect lunch on the go.

polenta

This creamy polenta with slow-baked Roma tomatoes and a poached egg is a perfect weekend breakfast.

I’ve also made black-bean burgers, Indian hash, tofu enchiladas with green sauce, lentil/quinoa pilaf and salads galore — all of which delighted my culinary sensibilities while protecting my GI tract.

But — by far — the best vegetarian recipe I’ve made to date is this spectacular rice dish:

ricechickpea

It’s called basmati & wild rice with chickpeas, currants and herbs. Even Mr. Mom, who’s been a big fan of my new concoctions, took one bite of this dish and said unequivocably “This is the best vegetarian recipe you’ve made!”

The combination of two kinds of rice with chickpeas (spiced with curry powder), sweet currants and fried onions is unbeatable! If you’d like the recipe, click here. I’d recommend you triple the amount of curry powder in the recipe as I did. You won’t be sorry. By the way, if you have a well-stocked spice pantry, I also recommend you make your own curry powder. I used this recipe, with the only modification being I doubled the amount of ground chili pepper. I guess you can tell by now I’m not afraid of a little heat in my food. I have two dear Indian friends and their culinary influences and tutoring have definitely rubbed off on me.

In eight days, Mr. Mom and I are heading to one of America’s culinary meccas to celebrate our 23rd anniversary. I planned our vacation to New Orleans before I turned over a new leaf, but I’m confident I can eat well there while staving off reflux. I plan to indulge in my favorite treat — oysters on the half shell — hopefully without incident. Whether I can spend an entire week in the French Quarter without succumbing to the allure of beignets remains to be seen. I’ll no doubt take a ton of photos and let you know.

In the mean time, Kate’s coming home for Fall Break, I’m working a 60-hour week due to a flurry of special events, and we’re celebrating Parker’s 19th birthday (with Kate as Executive Chef for our family dinner Thursday night!). I’ll circle back around when the dust has settled to catch you up.

With gratitude {for the bounty of God’s green earth and great chefs, distant and near, who’ve helped me make the most of it},

Joan, who has a whoppin’ big announcement to share with you when she returns, not to be all sneaky or anything, but a little bloggy anticipation is a good thing

PS: If you’re as smitten by these dishes as I have been, I highly recommend you buy these two cookbooks by Chef Yotam Ottolenghi: Plenty and Jerusalem

Acid: 1. Joan: 0.

Dear friends,

soup

Joan’s Miso/Soba/Tofu Soup. So simple, so clean, so comforting.

A few months ago, I had a vivid dream I was having a heart attack. I woke up groggy and fairly suspicious I was having a real heart attack instead of a dream about one. I even awakened Mr. Mom, but after a few moments of assessing my symptoms, I realized I really was suffering from a wicked case of heartburn.

I had been waking up miserable for a long time — bloated, gassy, and nauseated but without the tell-tale “burn.” It wasn’t until the heart attack dream that I bothered to Google “heartburn,” after which I figured out I had all the classic symptoms of acid reflux.

My first instinct, of course, was to load up on over-the-counter medicines. Surely a cocktail of Tums, Pepto-Bismol and Zantac could quell the fire within, I reasoned. It wasn’t until Labor Day — when an excessive platter of barbeque chased by beer and pie resulted in 24 hours of misery — that I was finally prompted to consult my physician.

The prescription-strength Zantac my doc prescribed did nothing to calm my symptoms. I went back to my doctor and ended up with a prescription for a popular proton pump inhibitor, although I was more than a little unnerved by the two-page list of possible side-effects.

I had been joking with colleagues that food is my only joy in life, so I wasn’t about to declare my diet the enemy. But there was something about the warnings on my medicine bottle that persuaded me a lifestyle change might be advisable.

Thus, I’ve spent the last two weeks keeping a detailed food diary in an attempt to identify possible culinary modifications.

It may be a little too soon to go all Sherlock Holmes on my case, but it appears that cutting back on meat (where cutting back = eating vegetarian) has helped quite a bit. It also appears that with the exception of chocolate (to which I have an immediate reaction), various foods and spices aren’t the triggers as much as timing and quantity.

For example, I ate yellow curry three times with no reaction. (The curry was plenty spicy and oily, the combo of which can be troublesome for many folks.) Then I ate spicy Mexican twice, with painful results. The difference was that I ate modest amounts of the curry at least three hours before bedtime, while I consumed far too much Mexican food not long before turning in.

Big meals or regular snacking after 7:00 pm are a recipe for middle-of-the-night disaster, it seems. So far, making a few timing adjustments and eating far smaller portions appears  more manageable than what I feared would be the wholesale elimination of all joy in my life.

I’ve always been a fan of tofu, so switching from meat to soy has been easy-peasy. And loading up on vegetables and whole grains has been similarly effortless. The biggest adjustment has been staying out of the kitchen/pantry after 6:00 pm, when every snack known to man calls my name.

Acid Reflux may have gotten the first punch, but my footwork is improving and I wouldn’t count me out yet.

With gratitude {for a new emphasis on culinary diversity and moderation},

Joan, who, after months of acid-reflux insomnia and 4:45 am wake-up calls to run, spent somewhere north of 15 hours in bed on Saturday and finally woke up heartburn free and well-rested, praise the Lord

 

Kitchen therapy.

Dear friends,

yellowcurry

Whenever life beats me up, I retreat to the kitchen. There’s nothing like a day spent puttering over the stove to help me find my center. Chopping, measuring, blending, sauteeing, frying, tasting, stirring . . . all are a form a meditation for me. Eating my creations afterwards is my Zen moment.

I spent a good portion of Sunday making a shopping list and visiting the grocery store to restock my empty pantry. I cooked chickpeas, which I later turned into hummus, and quinoa, which I turned into this yummy Asian salad I found on Pinterest. I chopped bags and bags of veggies, then I fried up some firm tofu in order to pack “Super Bowl” lunches next week. (By the way, if you like tofu as much as me and don’t have a tofu press, get one now. I love, love, love mine!)

But the highlight of my day was a yellow curry that surpassed the one Mr. Mom and I ate at a new restaurant last Thursday. We’re longtime fans of Thai food so we were thrilled when a new Thai restaurant opened up in our town. Their yellow curry was so good I was inspired to make my own.

I consulted several recipes on the internet but couldn’t find a single one that was precisely what I wanted. So what follows is Joan’s adaption, culled from a variety of sources. It’s not difficult, and it doesn’t have to cook long, but it does take time to prep. The payoff is totally worth it, though, so I hope you’ll give it a try soon and let me know what you think.

And you don’t even have to wait until a bad day.

***

Joan’s Yellow Curry

1/2 recipe yellow curry paste (see recipe below)

1 cup cooked, chopped chicken (I used leftovers from a rotisserie chicken)

1 medium potato, peeled and chopped small

1/2 medium white onion, cut into thin slices about 3″ long

2 carrots, shredded and chopped

1 7-oz jar of pickled baby corn, drained and rinsed

2 TBLS vegetable oil

1 cup chicken broth

2 13.5-oz cans of coconut milk

Chopped fresh cilantro

Hot cooked rice, I prefer Jasmine

Put vegetable oil in large saucepan and heat over medium high heat. When sizzling, add onions and carrots and saute until tender. Add coconut milk, chicken broth, and curry paste and stir well. When mixture is almost boiling, add potato and cover until mixture boils. Lower heat just a bit and cook about 15 minutes or until potatoes are nearly tender. Add chicken and corn, cover again, reduce heat to low, and allow to simmer for another 15 minutes or so. Taste and adjust flavors as needed. If not salty enough, add salt or fish sauce. If too sour, add brown sugar. If not hot enough, add cayenne pepper. I made several adjustments while cooking my curry, adding salt, sugar and cayenne until it was “perfect.”

Serve a cup full of hot curry over a bowl of jasmine rice. Top with chopped cilantro.

Yellow Curry Paste

You can buy curry paste in the Asian aisle of many stores. But I always prefer to make mine fresh. It’s easy, and you can taste the difference.

1/2 stalk lemongrass (this is only occasionally available at my grocery store; they were out this week so I omitted it)

2-4 serrano peppers, chopped with seeds left in (I used 2 but recommend 4 because I had to add cayenne at the end to boost the heat)

2 shallots, sliced

4 garlic cloves

1 thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and sliced

1 tsp coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1-2 TBLS cinnamon (I used 2 but Mr. Mom recommends 1)

2 TBLS fish sauce

3/4 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp white pepper

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 TBLS ketchup

1/4 cup lime juice

1/4 cup coconut milk, or just enough to keep your food processer blades moving

Put all ingredients in your food processor and blend thoroughly. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

With gratitude {for a day spent in my happy place},

Joan, who has no explanation for why it’s taken her this long to cook a yellow curry since Mr. Mom orders it every time we eat at a Thai restaurant

Gathering up all my brave.

Dear friends,

For the last few weeks, I’ve been acutely attuned to the distressing situation that has unfolded a mere 90 miles away from me in Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve followed social media intently, I’ve devoured information on news sites, and I’ve given a lot of thought to what it means to me as a Missourian, as an American, as a mother, as a human who cares passionately about social justice and civil rights.

I’ll refrain from drawing conclusions at this moment about precisely what happened between the police officer and the young Michael Brown. There are ongoing investigations and I suspect we’ll be years down the road before we have anything close to “clarity” on how the particulars of the incident and the aftermath reflect on our system of policing and justice, not to mention our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But here’s what I know. Whether we acknowledge it or not, there are distinctly different realities of life in America based on race, gender, age, sexual orientation, education, wealth and geographic location. What one man calls justifiable force, another calls oppression and discrimination. What one man deems “justice,” another deems “just us.” Socio-economic factors create a unique “lens” for each of us and until we can view the world through multiple lenses, many of them foreign or possibly distasteful to us, we cannot begin to approach “truth.” To say otherwise is to ignore that evil and corruption thrive despite our best intentions, or to fall prey to the myopia that threatens to permanently disable our nation.

***

So it is through this dismaying, nay disorienting, perspective that I am saddened to tell you Mr. Mom and I recently received devastating news. We lost our lawsuit.

Our attorney sent us the judge’s verdict a couple of weeks ago with an email message that said “It will make you want to throw up.”

Not in the “gag me” way you might refer to when something is annoying. In the “fall to your knees and retch” way until you are hollow-eyed and certain the injury is mortal.

I haven’t filled in many of the blanks for you about the condemnation trial we attended in April. I honestly haven’t been able. I felt in my gut it didn’t go “our way” and I guess I wanted a few months of denial between what I thought was the reality of the trial and the resulting ruling from the judge. But reality gut-punched us recently and we still haven’t caught our breath.

Losing our case means our land remains inaccessible (except via a 10-mile hike through the adjoining national forest). It also means our family is responsible for the Unfriendly’s legal fees. If their testimony is to be believed, they have spent three times what we have. At one point in the trial, their attorney referred to one of our claims as “outrageous.” During a break shortly thereafter, our attorney whispered to me “The only thing I’ve heard in court today that’s outrageous are the fees their damn attorney is charging them!”

We will appeal the ruling. It is our opinion, and our attorneys’, that the judge ignored the instructions handed down from the Appellate Court. That she ruled in contradiction to case law. We won our last appeal when the prior judge contradicted case law, so who knows?

***

Late into the night when we first heard the news, when Mr. Mom and I lay in bed, silent, unable to fathom the future, financially or emotionally, I finally said this:

“Listen. I understand. I understand the inclination to become fatally cynical. To succumb to rage. To believe that everything you’ve thought to be true about life is a lie. I feel it right now with an intensity I cannot describe. I am angry and I am disillusioned and I want to hurt somebody equal to our pain.

But here’s the thing. Our loss represents land and money. Land and money. We are not angry or cynical because our child is dead through injustice. We are not suing because some big corporation poisoned our water and gave us cancer. We are losing land and money. In the meantime, we are managing to put our children through college and they are by all accounts thriving. We have a strong and loving marriage.

We are losing land and money. Let’s remember what we still have before we risk sinking with this ship.”

***

So, I’m thinking of Glennon Melton and her words of wisdom. I’m gathering up all my brave and trying to do the next right thing. It ain’t easy, believe me. I’m not nearly as kind and patient as I want to be. I have long stretches of despair and regret and bitterness. I’m clinging to a faith that love and hope prevail in the end, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. I’m limping on tender feet, hurt beyond words, unsure how one keeps from drowning in the tsunami of fear and trouble and worry that rises over us.

Still, I refuse to end with anything other than gratitude. Despite this very big thing that has gone grievously wrong for far too many years, so much has gone right. I know it. I see it. I feel it. And if I can gather up enough brave, maybe I can trust in it.

With gratitude {for, as always, the partner that makes this journey bearable},

Joan, who welcomes your good thoughts and kind words but asks that you not dwell on injustice. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that justice is in the eyes of the beholder and what feels like a travesty to us is heralded as right and proper by the Unfriendlys. Please don’t tell me how shocked you are or how unfair this seems. Life is ridiculously unfair to legions of souls every day, most of them far more afflicted than I. If you have anything to offer, offer us equanimity, in the belief we will rest in it, heal in it, and pass on more than our share to those around us.

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