The mooks in the back of the room

Some semesters it seemed as if the registration gods conspired against her and five or six young men would fill the back row of my friend Karen’s intro to philosophy course. Slouched in their seats, baseball caps pulled low, wearing letter jackets—just the sight of these students propelled Karen back to her student days—these were the jocks who had her treated her love of learning with disdain.

When Karen told me how she felt about these students she called mooks, she was ashamed. Many professors were outstanding students and can be a bit indifferent to all but the best students in their classes. Not Karen. She sees past superficial differences to reach the learner within. But when a group of hulking athletes took over the back row it reduced her to her smallest self and she believed there was no way for her to connect with them.

She wasn’t proud of how she reacted and she knew she couldn’t just stuff her feelings down and move on. She’d tried that and it hadn’t worked.

Karen began an inquiry process when she admitted to herself that she was reacting to these students from her younger self. In accepting this she could finally notice the tension she felt throughout her body, especially in her face when she looked at them. She realized that her arms were often folded across her chest in a gesture of self-protection that also shut off her off from them. She saw that her contempt was written all over her body and even if she doubted their love of learning she knew they were smart enough to feel her dislike. As she made a conscious effort to relax her body, her mind began to follow.

Over time, she came to see them as she saw other students—with openness and compassion for them as individuals. She was no longer surprised or suspicious when they participated in class discussion or performed well on assignments. When they struggled, her compassion for them overcame any lingering doubts about her ability to help them.

Who are your mooks? Who are the people who reduce you to your smallest self? When you see them ask Tara Brach’s perfect question, “What in me is disturbed by this?” When you find the answer, I urge you to act with compassion toward yourself, as that is the first step toward behaving with compassion toward them.

Dropping stitches

My friend Aurelia and I recently learned that we both knit. That’s not entirely accurate. Aurelia is a freestyle knit artist who makes beautiful garments combining patterns and techniques with joy and confidence. I knit row upon row of even stitches and produce scarves. Reading patterns, purling, knitting and then purling these things fill me with dread. My eyes glaze over when I try to learn from knitting books but my bigger problem is that I panic in the face of mistakes. I stare and stare at them and finally rip it all out and start over. If that doesn’t work, demoralized, I give up and shove the piece in a bag.

Whether I’m knitting or meditating or writing, once I have a basic understanding of a practice I experience mistakes with a deep feeling of failure and the conviction that I won’t be able to recover from the setback or worse that I’m simply not capable of succeeding at the task. Is it absolutely true that I have no experience of recovering from mistakes? No. But in the moment of error my experiences of being resourceful and resilient flee my conscious mind.

Aurelia invited me to join the Thursday afternoon knitting group at our local yarn and yoga shop. I took my bag of damaged projects and with a teacher’s soul she went through each item praising my even knit stitches and patiently explaining how to correct problems. The phrase she used several times was “learning to read my knitting.” She taught me how to make sense of each stitch, to understand its function and therefore how to retrace my steps and make it right.

While I continue to struggle in the face of inevitable mistakes, thanks to Aurelia’s kindness, I am learning to read my life as well as my knitting. I notice how I feel in my body—tight chest, clenched stomach. I pay attention to what my mind is doing—racing with fear or withdrawing in defeat. I acknowledge those feelings and understand that they are only trying to protect me. I allow them to move through me and find myself in a calmer place. Panic recedes. Resourcefulness and resilience flow. I pick up my dropped stitches and move on.

What I want

I like to hang out at the intersection of Byron Katie (loving what is) and Marie Kondo (does it spark joy) and instead of always asking myself, “Do I have everything I want?” and I ask, “Do I want everything I have?”

Daily life is filled with subtle and not-so-subtle messages to survey our life, find the gaps, and fill those gaps with stuff—food, sex, clothes, technology, etc. We rarely pay attention to how all that stuff makes us feel. Our stuff—emotional, material, interpersonal, and cultural—is drowning many of us in affluent America.

When Byron Katie talks about loving what she’s challenging us to examine each feeling, emotional entanglement, financial decision, core belief and love it. It’s not enough to tolerate it, or make excuses for its presence in our life, or accept it because it can’t be any other way. No, actually look at it, see it for what it is and love it.

What’s the outcome of loving what is? We don’t know. Outcomes, especially those based on human interaction, are by their nature uncertain. So we don’t love what is because it promises a happy outcome but because it is the only path to a happy present.

What does loving what is look like in daily life? Maybe like Marie Kondo holding a well-folded t-shirt to her chest and asking if it sparks joy. In my own life, I’m doing this with the things I say to myself, my beliefs about myself. “Self-criticism,” I ask, “do you spark joy?” “Hell no,” it says. “That’s not my job. My job is to get you to move your ass and get something done.” Well that’s interesting because I notice (finally!) that all that self-loathing is a piss poor motivator and rarely leads to my best work.

Shopping, binge watching tv, sniping, controlling, and limiting beliefs about myself and others—this is stuff in my life that no longer sparks joy. Because I want to cultivate an attitude of loving what is and of self-acceptance I don’t toss these aspects of myself out with the holey underwear and chipped vases. I seek instead to examine this stuff closely, to understand the role it tried to serve in my life. When it tries to take over my psyche, I acknowledge it and, following Tara Brach’s sage advice, I invite it to tea and feel its grip on me loosen.

Day by day, I am coming to want everything I have.

Of tomatoes and entanglements

Life didn’t give me bushels of tomatoes. My partner did. She’s compelled to fill our garden and will never cull a healthy plant. Our neighbor Jim plants by the same rules.

In past years, my amusement at so many tomatoes eventually gave way to frustration at the amount of energy I spent trying to find things to do with them. I didn’t expect this year to be any different.

We started out with cherry tomato and mozzarella salads. We added chard as it came in. When the big plants began to produce we gorged on BLT’s. We made sauce for pasta—ate it for dinner and froze the rest. We made and ate or froze ratatouille adding our homegrown eggplants and peppers. Our neighbor gave us a loaf of tomato basil bread (homegrown basil, of course). By that time we’d made several jars of tomato jam and gave him a one in exchange. The cherry tomatoes just kept coming so we cut them in half, tossed them with salt and pepper, cooked them for several hours, and voilà “sun-ripened” cherry tomatoes. Jim went out of town at the height of the season and begged us to pick his fruit. Now we had bags of them to give the folks attending the local community dinner and our friends down the street. I took several when visiting family in Ohio (they have tomatoes in Ohio but my brothers don’t grow their own). Late in the season, we found a recipe for tomato paste. Simple but time consuming, its virtues include the large number of tomatoes it requires, the ability to freeze it in an ice cube tray, and its fantastic flavor.

The tomato rush has ended and our freezer is full and so is my heart. In other years I’ve asked myself, “Why isn’t it Laura’s problem to figure out what to do with all those tomatoes and why agree to pick Jim’s when we already have too many?” This year I saw myself differently; not a passive observer but a key player in a system of entanglements formed by myself and my partner, our neighbor, our gardens, and our community. I didn’t use my energy to resist and resent reality, so I had as much as I needed for a creative and joyful tomato season.

 

 

 

Making the bed to make the bed

“Young lady you are making me dizzy,” snapped the nun who was supervising my mother as she raced from side to side making a patient’s bed. She was a 17 year-old trainee in a nursing program at a Catholic hospital. My grandmother was a strict housekeeper but it was the nuns who demanded tight hospital corners and economy of motion.

Years later my mother tried to teach me but her bed-making lessons didn’t stick. As a modern, thinking woman her solution was to close my bedroom door.

When my partner and I first lived together simply pulling up the covers satisfied our minimal housekeeping expectations. After our first big move I had more time. Often, too much time. To fill long days I kept house with the energy I’d once reserved for teaching. I started making the bed every day but I refuse to fold the corners under—just the thought of hospital corners makes me feel trapped.

Although Laura admitted that she liked the peacefulness of a tidy house, she worried I’d gone around the bend when I said I was convinced there’s a way to fold a blanket to make it look like a swan.

Some people recommend making your bed as soon as you get out of it in order to feel a sense of accomplishment at the start of each day. I understand the principle but it’s not for me. And unlike my mother and the nuns, I don’t prize speed and efficiency of movement. I make the bed to make the bed.

Each day I hold a firm intention to think of nothing but the act in which I’m engaged while I make the bed. I don’t make to-do lists or review the morning’s conversation with Laura. I don’t look for dust bunnies under the bed and think about when I’ll have time to vacuum. I focus all of my attention as I remove each item from the bed—pillows, comforter, and sheet. Smooth the fitted sheet, re-tuck as needed. Return the top sheet and straighten it from the top down and then check that the sides are even. Return the comforter and straighten it from the top down, checking for even sides. Fluff the pillows and return them to their place.

How many of us long for a quiet moment during the day? But what are we imagining? An afternoon, an hour, 20 minutes? For some people even ten minutes would seem difficult to come by. How about 2 minutes? Do you have them? Will you find them?

In two minutes you can enhance the sense of peacefulness and order in your life. But more important you can quiet your mind. Focus on one thing and one thing only for those two minutes. No thoughts of the past or the future. No reviews or revisions of conversations you have had or expect to have. Focus only on the task at hand. Make the bed to make the bed.

A history of compromise

Surely one of them said, “Now that we’ve put the addition on the house, the window in the half bath opens to the screened-in porch. That seems awkward don’t you think?”

When they installed the tall cabinet above the toilet. One of them must have noticed, “We can only reach the bottom shelves, the others are a waste of space.”

The next owners ripped out the old linoleum and replaced it with vinyl. Doubtless, one said, “That’s an improvement but using a porch lantern as a bathroom light? I don’t know about that.”

And didn’t one of them ask, “Shouldn’t we replace the mirror over the new sink with one that doesn’t rattle every time we close the door?”

On the walk-through I said, “We could make this half bath into a tiny sanctuary.” She said, “What a great opportunity for repair, reuse, and recycle.”

An old cabinet with unreachable shelves and new door pulls, walls painted the color of morning sky, a delicate light fixture, and a mirror that rattles when we close the door.

Eclipse

It was not the ideal experience. We struggled to find a good spot and as a result, were frazzled and a little annoyed with each other when we made the sharp turn, pulled up to the crest of a small rise, put on our special glasses, and leaned against the car to watch the sky.

Our goal had been a town 45 miles south where the cloud cover was thinnest but at one point we opened the car’s skylight and Laura donned the fashionable glasses. “It’s started” she said and urged me to find a place to stop. We’d committed to an unfamiliar, two-lane country road. There were no parking lots or rest stops just driveways and the occasional side road that came up too suddenly to make the turn. With one eye on the rearview mirror and no cars behind me I slowed from 50 to 30 and Laura spotted the gravel road between the cornfields.

A couple of 18-wheelers turned up the road while we stood there. Must have been headed for grain silos further down the unmarked road. The cabs were too high for us to see the looks they gave us. We heard cars continue to whizz by on the county road and thought about the folks who were too busy to be able to stop and take in this wondrous sight.

We watched for about 30 minutes, from the little bite out of the sun to the 90 totality percent expected in our area. When clouds thickened and the special glasses no longer penetrated them we headed back down the road. In the next town we found a parking lot and sat in the car watching through the sunroof as thinning clouds allowed us to see the sun reemerge from the moon’s shadow.

I long ago accepted that life offers no ideal experiences, there’s bound to be glitch or two in any situation. But it’s only recently that I’ve come to a deeper understanding of that truth. Experiences are as good or poor based as the interpretation I bring to them.

So for the eclipse, I focused my interpretation on gratitude. Gratitude to my sister-in-law who urged me to buy the special glasses when the opportunity arose rather than wait and hope I’d find them nearer to the event. Gratitude to live near the path of totality and country lanes that rise up around every bend. Above all, gratitude for a life that gives me the time to go outside and stare at the sky with the one I love standing next to me.