Lullaby.

Dear friends,

www.pinterest.com

I’ve been quiet for some time now, leaving this space empty of my reflections even as I’ve missed the solitude offered by writing and the friendships nurtured in this forum.

I had surgery two days before Christmas. It was nothing very serious, an ailment common to women my age, but it sucked the wind out of my sails in a surprisingly fierce way and I’m only now beginning to lengthen my stride.

While recovering at home for two and a half weeks, I did little more than sleep, watch television and read. Mr. Mom kindly fussed over me and many friends sent greetings (and flowers and chocolates!), but I’m exiting the experience with a new appreciation for the fortitude required of aging. No wonder, I thought to myself many times, that old folks fail after surgery. The isolation is real and discouragement easily sets in when both mobility and workaday distractions are in short supply. To be honest, I had a bit of a frightening glimpse of my future. (And while it may be, God willing, two decades my future, it’s still sobering to have tasted the bitter pill of senescence.)

Once my doc gave me the thumbs up, I rushed back into the world at something very close to full speed. I’m running again, a lick faster than I was before surgery just because I’m determined to beat back the crone that seeks to claim me. I’m traveling quite a bit for my job (three weeks in a row this month). I’m filling my weekends with quilting and classes and dinner parties and decorating projects, all in an effort, I think, to deny my age.

But I’ve also sat in the stillness quite a bit, too. And the most surprising revelation of my quietude is that my parents weren’t crazy after all. I think of my mother in the last 10 years of her life and, for the first time, I understand her.

I understand her heightened indecision and her anxieties and her sudden tears and her longing for more time with loved ones. I understand her careful step and her anxious questions and sleepless nights and seemingly endless need for reassurance. I understand the lines of her face, pulled downward by gravity but also by apprehension as the uncertainty of her adult children’s futures weighed heavily on her. I understand her heart, so eager, so full, so ready to give its all even as her energy lapsed.

And I wonder what it would have been like to have had this understanding in her presence? To have held her hand as one who knows, rather than as one whose love is strong but whose discernment is impaired by the ego and impatience of middle age?

I don’t dare ask why because that is a fool’s errand, but I do wonder, and then hope my ponderings lead to at least a snippet of hard-earned wisdom I might share.

In the mean time, I sit with her. In my meditations. In my dreams. In the quiet of my mind. I hold her hand. I tell her I love her and miss her. I tell her how wise she was. I marvel at her courage and generosity. I ask her about my children in the hope she’ll reassure me as she did when they were babies and I was the most tentative of mothers.

I write her name, Colleen, in every corner of my heart and sing the song of her devotion as my lullaby, trusting her love to lull me through this night.

With gratitude {for understanding that is better late than never},

Joan, who’s looking forward to Spring and every form of rebirth that goes with it

 

 

 

The Magpie Manifesto.

Dear friends,

breathenoticelove

Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s a sign of the times, but some days I am tempted to jump headlong into the pit of existential despair and allow myself to be swallowed by irrevocable disheartenment.

I know. Not exactly the maxim of the Gratitude Girl.

This week I was grievously buffeted by the news around me. One corporate leader is going to jail for 28 years for knowingly selling tainted peanuts that sickened and killed people; one corporate leader admitted his auto company created an emissions system meant to defraud consumers and evade environmental regulations; one corporate leader defended his “market based” rationale for buying a life-saving drug then increasing the price 5000%. Meanwhile, many of our presidential candidates are appealing to the basest human instincts, including an exclusionary, belittling, deceitful and winner-takes-all doctrine. And if that wasn’t enough to discourage us, millions of human lives are at stake as Middle East conflicts continue to escalate and those seeking refuge are literally washing ashore.

Really, how does a tender and seeking soul find its way in the midst of all this?

The other night, Mr. Mom and I discussed at length the Syrian crisis. Mr. Mom said he’d be willing to “adopt” a refugee family, where adoption means bringing them into our home and sponsoring them financially. He asked if I would be willing and I said yes, but our conversation went nowhere because how does one do that, anyway? I even spent some time researching the topic, seeking out online information and resources about the United State’s program to accept (in my opinion, far too few) refugees. I found no path for taking concrete action beyond contributing to various charitable organizations, which seems like my reflexive action far too often when I am moved by the need around me. I work in philanthropy so I will never disparage the role it plays in improving our world, but so often I’m yearning to do more than write a check or endorse a cause but am somehow stopped short of translating my passion and my compassion into something that feels more like direct action.

Yesterday I heard a newscaster say one of the Pope’s messages during his US visit will be to encourage others to “serve people instead of ideas.” This hit in me the gut in a way only a moral authority can provoke. I’m not Catholic and I’ve never looked to the Pontiff for guidance, but I’ve found Pope Francis to be the kind of leader our world desperately needs. His words made me ask myself how many times have I served ideas instead of people? (Maybe just as importantly, how many times have I reduced people into mere ideas, especially people I think represent ideas I find distasteful?) How have I actually, tangibly served people beyond my family, friends and colleagues? Honest answers elude me, as does the conviction that I am one person who can make a difference in the midst of so much human suffering.

In times like these, I look inward. I examine the roughest clods of my intentions, determined to unearth bits of beauty and grace that only the divine can inspire. I seek solace in what I know to be the kindness and love that live within all of us. I face myself and the universe with a tenderness that is both terrifying and necessary to take another step, to wake tomorrow, to confront the world and my place in it with hope as my shield against the outrage and cynicism that dog us all.

Many times I reiterate – sometimes to myself, sometimes to others – my values. Doing so sometimes makes me chuckle as I think I sound a little like Aibileen Clark in “The Help.” “You is kind, you is smart, you is important,” I mentally shout to myself and to the unseen broken hearts around me. Inevitably, I end up meditating on the two pieces of wisdom I find most centering: the Buddha’s “Do no harm” and Jesus’ “Do unto others.” I wonder if earnestness counts in the face of human frailty as conspicuous as my own as I seek a path lit by altruism and look for even a single hand I can hold along the way.

I don’t pretend to have answers, dear friends. Some days I ache with the knowledge that my time is short, my focus too self-serving, and my reach barely beyond my nose. I struggle to find substance in the paucity of my effort. Some days I even shake my fist at my God-given sentience, an existential ingrate prone to irritation by the spiritual chafing of an examined, some might say privileged, life.

And then, just when the despair threatens to swamp me, I somehow quiet. I remind myself to trust in all that is larger than me. I let go of the corporal and rest in the discarnate, in the mystical psalm that connects you and I to each other and sings the praise of a love that is universal and unending, even as I struggle to understand it. I offer three words of encouragement, to myself first, then to whoever is closest.

Breathe. Notice. Love.

Breathe. Why do I forget this simple instruction, which is the easiest way to reboot, to extend myself a kindness?

Notice. I will not sleepwalk through this day. I will take note. I will acknowledge. I will honor that from which some turn away. I will praise and affirm those who inspire it; I will grieve for and hold those who need it. If nothing else, I will bear witness.

Love. Because that is the beginning. And that is the end.

With gratitude {for three simple words, the best I can do in these times},

Joan, who got some very good news yesterday and so is reminded the sun will come out tomorrow

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

 

 

 

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

On balance.

Dear friends,

ballet-dancer1

I saw a Tweet today that said “You can have it all — just not at once.”

It was immediately followed by this blog post from my friend Sizzle, who was reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the purchase of her first home, which prompted my own reminiscing about the four houses Mr. Mom and I have called home. Each of our houses was in a different city; each holds unique and special memories for our family; and each was perfect (despite its particular deficiencies) for the season of our lives in which we dwelled under its roof.

We have lived in a big-city, post-War cottage with loads of charm; a plain-Jane, suburban 70’s special; a majestic, turn-of-the-century “mansion” on a brick-paved street in the center of my beloved hometown; and a modern and spacious Ranch situated on a scenic Midwest acreage. We’ve clearly had it all (or most) over the course of 20+ years and I’m reminded that all of life is lived “on balance.”

Not long ago I counseled a young colleague who was fretting about “work-life” issues. I shared with her some of the lessons I’ve learned as a working mother and wife and I advised her not to think she could find equilibrium on any given day. I told her that over time I’ve learned to look for “balance” only when contemplating the entire span of my life because in any given hour, any given month, even in periods as long as a year or more, my life has been decidedly off-kilter.

I think about the many years I spent ungodly hours at the office and commuting long distances. I think about the three-year period I completed a Master’s Degree and did absolutely nothing but go to work and go to class. (I even “cancelled” Thanksgiving the year I wrote my thesis. Mr. Mom was a saint during those years, by the way.) I think about the years I fretted I would never again pursue a personal interest beyond raising my children and I thought “Hobbies? What are hobbies?”  I think about the entire year I selfishly focused all my energy on losing weight and getting fit for my impending marriage. (I did look ravishing in my wedding dress, only to get pregnant and gain 50 pounds six months later.) I think about the weeks I spent lying on the sofa eating buttered crackers in a depressed state because Kate had left for college. I even think about recent weeks when I’ve become a crazed and obsessive quilter, rushing home from the office each evening to pursue my latest project into the wee hours of the morning.

Maybe you’ve got a secret for achieving perfect (or even relative) balance on any given day. If so, please share your wisdom! I suspect, though, that most of us do what we must do in the moment we must do it, and find our search for balance fruitless unless we set our gaze on a very long horizon.

And you know what? I wouldn’t change a thing about my life. (Except maybe I would save more and spend less, but good lord, who wouldn’t?) I’ve been blessed with so very much and I suspect so much more is coming my way, including interesting and invigorating new friendships in our (still) new town, new hobbies, new career opportunities, new family members (grandchildren some day?), and certainly new opportunities to grow and learn through the pain and challenge that inevitably beset every soul on earth.

On balance, life’s been good to me (and apparently Joe Walsh) so far. Why crave it all when every single bite is so uniquely flavorful?

With gratitude {for discovering that perfect balance is a rather silly notion except in bike-riding and ballet},

Joan, who invites you to leave a comment about the season of life you’re experiencing right this moment

A Saturday meditation.

Dear friends,

breathe in

I’ll be doing my job today. And maybe some quilting. And reading. And dreaming. Topped off with a dinner out with Mr. Mom.

What more does one need on a rainy spring Saturday?

Exactly.

With gratitude {for weekend meditations},

Joan, who as the former Mayberry Magpie is still stuck on bird motifs, so she added one here and plans to make a paper flock very soon for flight to friends everywhere

PS: PicMonkey is my new favorite photo editing software. If you’re no pro with Photoshop and are looking for something easy to use, give it a try here.

Taking notice.

Dear friends,

With gratitude {for glimpses of wonderful whenever or wherever they may be found},

Joan, who loves all verse,  free or rhyming, simple or eloquent, abbreviated or epic, and the poets who dare put words to paper