Monday, January 26, 2009

Right Here, Right Now

"Discovering real goodness comes from appreciating very simple experiences. We are not talking about how good it feels to make a million dollars or finally graduate from college or buy a new house, but we are speaking here of the basic goodness of being alive--which does not depend on our accomplishments or fulfilling our desires. We experience glimpses of goodness all the time, but we often fail to acknowledge them."--Chogyam Trungpa, from The Sacred Path of the Warrior

I live in my head. I think about what I need to do tomorrow, and what I accomplished (or didn't accomplish) yesterday. I think of what I'll wear to work, how thin I was at 25, who was I dating then? What was his last name? I think about past slights but also past pleasures--those that get magnified so they're even more brilliant now than when they were actually happening.

Because I live in my head, my real life passes me by, like reality is an old friend passing on the street whom I fail to acknowledge. I find myself tripping a lot, not paying attention to where I'm going or remembering why I went into another room (what was I looking for?) I've been misplacing things, leaving my eyeglasses at my friend Alina's in Brooklyn, my "fashionable ladies with cocktails" umbrella on the "T," my leopard-spotted gloves on the train (luckily a kind older lady noticed them before I left without them.)

Right before Christmas, my mother gave me the assignment to take one picture every day of something that I noticed. It didn't have to be a great photograph (a good thing, too, because I'm a lousy photographer) just a moment captured, something noted and appreciated, even for a fleeting moment. I ended up taking a lot of pictures of my office because I like my new job and my parents had never seen where I worked.

I think I'll try again, though. I have an unused disposable camera, and more importantly, the desire to see beauty in an otherwise cold, drab January.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Go straight to jail, do not pass go

"Ego is like a room of your own, a room with a view, with the temperature and the smells, and the music that you like. You want it your own way. You'd just like to have a little happiness, you know, just gimme a break!
"But the more you think that way, the more you try to get life to come out so that it will always suit you, the more your fear of other people and what's outside your room grows. Rather than becoming more relaxed, you start pulling down the shades and locking the door. To begin to develop compassion for yourself and others, you have to unlock the door."--Pema Chodron

This holiday weekend I've spent a lot of time reading, ignoring the vacuuming and dusting I should be doing. Last night I finished a book of essays from women in prison called Couldn't Keep it To Myself: Testimonies From Our Imprisoned Sisters by Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution. One of my worst fears (and I have many fears!) is going to prison, either for a crime I didn't commit, or for a crime that wasn't intentional (like getting distracted while in traffic and crossing a median.) I'm not saying this fear is rational--I don't even drive except for the few times I've gone out with M. riding down clear country roads in Maine. My fear is being confined, unable to make choices or walk away from bad situations. The women in York Institute's creative writing program manage to talk so eloquently about a place that's designed to stamp out any individuality and any notion of personal space. They are able to capture the dread and despair while managing to rise above it.

Normally I'm very black and white in my thinking about crime and punishment. "An eye for an eye!"I say, thinking of the harm I would want to cause anyone who harmed me or any of my loved ones. But these women's stories touched me. Not only were the essays articulate and honest, but they were never justifications for what these women had done, even though from my view, women who kill their abusive husbands don't deserve a 10-20 year jail sentence. So many horrible crimes had been committed against these women before they ever picked up a gun or a 2x4--from incest to physical and mental abuse, abandonment and betrayal--it wasn't really surprising that the women had snapped. I'm not saying it's OK to kill someone, but reading these women's stories made me more sympathetic toward them, people who I might otherwise simply dismiss as "bad," and never try to get to know or understand. It's easy to be compassionate toward your mother or husband or best friend, but try feeling compassion for a stranger in jail. I've questioned many times if I ever could dare feel compassion for "those evil people."

I also kept thinking how grateful I was to be on the outside of prison, looking in from the safety of my livingroom. I had a normal, happy childhood. I've never been abused or neglected by people I loved. There were small hurts here and there, but overall I would say I've been very fortunate. But as cliche as it may sound, I am aware that in some ways I've built a prison of my own making, and right now, with my attitudes and predjudices, I'm serving a life term if I don't do something to change.

My desire to make everything turn out right for me, my insistence that I only be surrounded by the things I like, the people who care for me, the setting that suits me--my desire to always be comfortable, comes at a cost. I've become more socially isolated and less open. Even a whiff of rejection sends me scurrying away to my self-imposed box. This is not a good way to live, this shutting down that I do. Things are not always going to go my way, people won't always agree with me or praise me; in fact, I have no control over anyone's reaction to me nor do I have control over my environment unless I spend the rest of my life hiding behind closed blinds. In order to let some light in, I need to open the curtains, let sun and let the rain come in.

We're so lucky as human beings to have the chance to experience this world, it's a shame when we limit ourselves because of fear. It's the toughest challenge I've ever faced to tear down those bars. I feel like I don't know where to start. This blog entry is a small step, I guess.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Reading is Fundamental

"A second area of craving is the desire to know more, accelerated by the information technology now widely available to the general public...There is indeed a certain satisfaction in the acquisition of new knowledge...If we dispassionately survey our contemporary world, we cannot help but notice the stark contrast between our ideal of universal happiness--the expected outcome of more knowledge and mastery over nature--and the actual realities of our global situation...All this indicates that we have not been able to harness our knowledge to provide the wisdom we need to live well and be genuinely happy as a global community."--From "The Inner Pursuit of Happiness" by Ruben L. F. Habito, an essay in Hooked! Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume

When I die, I'd like my headstone to be in the shape of a book, and for the inscription to read "She loved, she lost, she read lots of books." Or something like that; hopefully I have many years to perfect the quote.

I love books. When visiting a new place, some people barhop; I bookstore hop. The acquisition of new books is a thrill like a tingle down to my toes. But it's not just book collecting--I want to read as many books as I can. I lament that I'm not a faster reader. There is so much I want to know about, and fictional places I want to visit (with the exception of science fiction & fantasy. I'm not into spaceships or hobbits.) When I was a teenager, books were my refuge from a reality that included braces, frizzy hair, angst, and Geometry. As an adult working in publishing, reading is one of my favorite parts of the job--except that time I had to read The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, what schlock!

But I know I can't find all the answers in a book. I don't want to be Owl from Winnie the Pooh, always espousing knowledge (sometimes questionable) that I haven't learned from true experience. It's like what I was talking about when I referred to the man beating the dog, and how I didn't understand how sending lovingkindness to the man and dog would help the situation much. Knowledge is not always power. Knowledge + action is power. Otherwise, I'm afraid I'm guilty of what Chogyam Trungpa refers to as spiritual materialism, the collection of knowledge as part of ego's display.

That doesn't mean I'm negating in any way the value of reading. I first learned about Boston from reading Lois Lowry's Antastasia series. I learned proper grammar could be fun from The Elements of Style. I learned where to get the best burritos in San Francisco from Lonely Planet San Francisco (La Taqueria on 24th and Mission). And I learned what it's like to be a Macy's Santa, a struggling alcoholic, a spirited governess, and an anorexic sorority sister from books (all things I wouldn't necessarily want to learn from experience.)

Now I'm learning, among other things, Buddhism. Yes, I'm starting out by reading, having not tried meditation again in several months. But I'm hoping to use what I'm learning in my daily life--in how I treat myself, how I treat other people, and how I respond to the world I'm lucky enough to be living in.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Can I get a witness?

"Life's work is to wake you up, to let the things that enter your life wake you up rather than put you to sleep. The only way to do this is to be open, be curious, and develop some sense of sympathy for everything that comes along, to get to know its nature and let it teach you what it will."--Pema Chodron

I haven't talked about my new friend, Linda, the 63 year-old woman who I was matched with for friendly visits. I was at first apprehensive because 63 seemed too young to be in a volunteer program for seniors. There are 63 year-olds sailing on yachts, climbing pyramids in Mexico and mountains in New Hampshire. For the less fortunate, there are even 63 year-olds who work because they can't afford to retire.

But when I met Linda, I understood. She has legs that are swelled up like buoys, and her eyesight is poor (she told me she was once declared legally blind but then her eyesight improved slightly.) Linda is on disability and I was surprised to discover that she lives in Section 8 housing, which I didn't think even existed in my town. She has groceries delivered every other week and a woman comes once a week to check in on her and to clean the place. Otherwise, she mostly stays home alone.

She seemed very happy to see me, which put me at ease. She talked about her love of cats (her own cat plus the many stuffed cats and cat paraphernalia with which she surrounds herself.) We didn't hit on any touchy subjects like religion or politics, although it eventually came out that she had voted for Obama (phew!) Her apartment is a small studio--just one main room, a bathroom, and a kitchen. She asked me if she thought she should move her stationary bike (which she wasn't using because she had broken her foot--another story) into the corner so she'd have more space in the main room. She debated back and forth about the virtues of moving the bike versus NOT moving the bike (It would get it out of the way and I don't want to lose my space by the window) I offered to move the bike for her to see what it would look like. She agreed and once the bike was situated in the corner, she seemed pleased. However, she later called and spoke with my husband, asking him to tell me she had moved the bike back because she missed her window view. She just didn't want me to be surprised the next time I came over.

And this is how it's gone with each of our visits--a quick decision to me becomes a major conundrum for Linda, worthy of a senate debate. Yesterday I visited and she was telling me about a duvet cover she had ordered from LL Bean. She said she couldn't get it to fit over her quilt. I told her I would help her, knowing full well that I too have a hard time with duvet covers. Throughout my efforts to put this darn thing on, she kept saying I don't think it's going to work. Oh, it's never going to fit like she was Eeyore watching the rebuilding of her house of sticks. Sadly, she was right. I told her if she didn't like it, she could always return it. This thought had evidently not occurred to her, and for the next 1/2 hour I was on the phone with an exceptionally chipper LL Bean customer service rep who was happy to go over the return policy with me. This brought another round of questions: Oh, it's probably too much trouble to return it. I'll need to buy a box. How much will that cost? Maybe I could just give it away. Do you want it?

Inevitably we put aside the LL Bean issue, having talked it to death with no firm action item. I found myself eating more and more of the caramel popcorn she'd put out for us, just to keep myself from blurting out something mean in pure frustration. Instead, I put on my therapist persona, sitting quietly and listening, making plenty of eye contact and asking questions. I'm learning patience. I'm learning to listen, with no expectations or agenda of my own. I have to remember that it's her life, and I'm just there to be a witness.

We all need a witness in our lives--my husband is mine. I tell him all sorts of pointless crap and he just listens. Yes, he really does listen--when I accuse him of spacing out, he's able to repeat back to me--verbatim--what I said. That's why he's such a thoughtful gift giver because he actually listens to my litany of wants (and that's a very LONG litany.) But his superb listening skills and uncanny memory can also work against me, like when I make a dutiful promise that I soon forget like "I'll take care of bringing the kitchen trash downstairs."

Before I left, Linda gave me a small package, a belated Christmas present, she said. It was wrapped in paper decorated with dogs and cats opening gifts (as if they could...c'mon.) Inside was a package of four Paper Mate pens. If my mother or aunt gave me a package of Paper Mate pens, I would have thought, wow, put a lot of thought into this, did you? But coming from Linda, I was touched. Not that she would have known, but the pens were the kind I like--black, clickable with soft grip pads. I was touched that she had thought of me after only knowing me a month... a total of 3 hours, really. I brought one of the pens to work and I plan to use it for all my handwritten enclosures.

You never know what unexpected lessons you'll receive from other people. I'm learning to be there for someone else who just needs someone to listen. Don't we all?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Making Our Daily Bread

"If you treat food with care and appreciation it shows the heart of a person who handled it."--Edward Espe Brown

"If people were to do more simple, down-to-earth activities like gardening, sewing, or cooking they would feel more satisfied and fulfilled, more connected. You won't get this from watching television."--Edward Espe Brown

"Select the rice and prepare the vegetables by yourself with your own hands, watching closely with sincere diligence. Carefully protect these ingredients as if taking care of your own eyes."--Master Dogen

M. and I watched "How to Cook Your Life" yesterday. It's a documentary that follows cooking Zen priest Edward Brown as he teaches cooking classes at a buddhist center in Austria and at two California Buddhist centers. Brown is the author of The Tassajara Bread Book, the "bible" of breadmaking in the 1970's.

We were both moved by the film and by the underlying message. You can show your love for yourself and others (and your respect for the food you eat) by taking the time to make your own bread, rice with vegetables, fruit tarts, etc., and noticing the ingredients that go into your dishes. It's important to be respectful of the food you cook with, and thinking about where it came from, who cultivated it for your cooking pleasure. Slowing down and noticing the process of cooking and the sight, smell, taste, and texture of the food is a practice we all should try next time we're contemplating take-out.

I have always liked cooking, starting when I was a child and I'd watch my mother cooking soup, chopping carrots, celery, onions and scraping them off the cutting board and into the pot. I liked how you could make something tasty like minestrone or lentil soup from just a pile of uncooked vegetables, dried spices, and a bag of beans. I'd take my mother's vegetable scraps, add water and a dash of just about every spice from the rack, and declare my "soup" the finest cuisine for dolls. I'd pretend to feed my favorite doll Emily and then cover the rest of the soup with tinfoil and put it in the fridge for later.

In college, I didn't bring ramen noodles and pop tarts to my dorm like everybody else--I brought a marble cutting board, ceramic bowls, dried pasta, and spices. I made spaghetti and handed it out to neighbors as a way to break the ice. When I was home at my parents' house I hosted dinner parties for friends, trying out new recipes and then marking comments in the margins of my cookbook just as I'd seen my mother do. I served potato and almond croquettes (good, filling), swiss cheese fondue (tangy, pungent dip; nice for sharing with friends), and vegetable kebabs with rosemary (Delicious! Leave on grill until almost blackened.)

Living on my own, I fed my roommate my lentil stew and vegetable paella, or I'd eat dishes alone that were meant for four. I longed for a boyfriend for whom I could cook and share meals with. Coming from a Sicilian background on my father's side, I loved to show my fondness for people through food. Unfortunately, what I didn't realize at the time was that guys in their twenties equated me cooking them chicken cacciatore to me auditioning for a ring. They wanted me to be the fun party girl, not a pseudo-wife. I just wanted to show my affection with food.

Luckily my husband loves when I cook for him, and in addition to liking most foods in general (with the exception of brussel sprouts and turnip), he always remembers to compliment the chef.

Which brings me to the point of this entry--cooking does a person good. It may seem like a lot of work at the outset, but like going to the gym, once you start you don't want to stop. I like knowing that I chose the ingredients, I cut and breaded and sauteed the meal, and that I didn't just pop open a can of Progresso, dump it into a pot, and call it dinner. There's pleasure in getting your hands in the food, just like there's joy in working the soil of a garden or touching the seaweed in the ocean. And the feeling of offering meals to people who enjoy your cooking--that's just pure satisfaction.