Thursday, February 24, 2011

A poem that struck me


What is the vitality and necessity
of clean water?
Ask the man who is ill, who is lifting
his lips to the cup.

Ask the forest.

--From Evidence: Poems by Mary Oliver

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

We're all heroes and jerks

"Compassion brings us back to dealing with the world as the only way. We have to work with people. We have to work with our fathers, our mothers, our sisters and brothers, our neighbors, and our friends. We have to do that because the people with whom we are associated in our lives provide the only situations that drive us to the spiritual search. Without those people, we would not be able to look into such possibilities at all. They provide irritations, negativities, and demands. They provide us with everything.
"So, after all, our spiritual journey is not such a romantic thing at all. It is connected with our ordinary, sometimes irritating, everyday life."--Chogyam Trunga, from Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness

I surprised myself the other day when I was walking home from volunteering. I was in a perfectly good mood, which is usually the case after I see Linda, the older, disabled woman I visit once a week. Though on paper we don't have a lot in common--she doesn't like reading, watching movies, or cooking, for example, and I am not a fan of John Denver or Pillow Pets--we still find plenty to talk about and there's hardly a moment of silence when we get together.

Going to see Linda makes me feel good--I come away knowing that I brought her some companionship (and snacks!) and she got me out of my own head, which is usually a bad place to linger.

And let's face it--there's also that little glow of the do-gooder that we all experience when we volunteer or commit some random act of kindness. They say there are no unselfish acts, that in some way everything we do has some self-serving dimension. But who wants to acknowledge that when we're busy congratulating ourselves?

So this kind, caring, and compassionate woman (me, after volunteering) is crossing the street a few blocks from my house when a car drives across the pedestrian lane without stopping to let me cross, even though I'm in the middle of the road! In response, I stick my middle finger way up in the air and scowl at the driver through their driver's side window. I surprise myself with this jolt of anger over such a minor infraction. But in my head I'm thinking, does that person have so much disrespect for me that they risk running me over just to avoid the inconvenience of stopping? What's wrong with people today?

About five minutes later, I'm feeling shame mixed with fading anger. I know I overreacted, and the image I have of myself is not pretty.

The same thing happens when I'm home and my downstairs neighbors--Boston University students--have their stereo blasting dance music. Here I am trying to watch a sensitive, low-budget documentary about coffee production in Columbia or some place, and these jerks are making my floor shake like there's a Jersey Shore nightclub below me. I start to seethe and clench my teeth, wondering how they can be so completely witless and still be in college. Various neighbors (not just us) have asked them to turn it down (usually on a Sunday night at midnight) and yet it happens again the next night and the next. They are so disrespectful! Don't they know that I prefer 70's soul and disco?

It's easy to find fault with the world around you--and especially with the people around you. It's hard to consider their point of view. Maybe the person in the car who didn't stop for me was distracted with thoughts about work or his girlfriend. And the college guys--how many times in your early twenties did YOU blast music in your apartment without thought to your older neighbors who might have preferred classical over the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack?

I live right outside the city, in an apartment building that's close to another apartment building. The guy on the roof chipping ice and dumping it in the alley is not intentionally trying to flood our basement--he's probably not conscious of that possibility. He's just trying to stop the flooding in his own apartment. Even when people are intentionally rude or thoughtless doesn't mean they're incapable of also being a nice person.

Yesterday, I got a box of artisan chocolates in the mail from one of my authors, along with a card thanking me for helping to promote her essay collection. It absolutely made my day, this small act of kindness. I hadn't known she felt that way about my work. I started thinking about how I encounter people doing kind things almost as often as people doing rotten things. It does balance out in the end.

And that kind, caring, compassionate woman trying to cross the street? She's no saint. When Linda indirectly asked me to take her to a podiatry appointment early Monday morning I hesitated and made excuses--even told her to reschedule the appointment so someone else could take her. Not that I wasn't aware that it would be the right thing to do. I wanted to sleep in.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mindless Humans

"Mindfulness benefits from the ability to concentrate attention but is not the same as concentration. It is a quality that human beings already have, but they have usually not been advised that they have it, that it is valuable, or that it can be cultivated. Mindfulness is the awareness that is not thinking but is aware of thinking, as well as each of the other ways we experience the sensory world; that is, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling through the body. Mindfulness is nonjudgmental and openhearted (friendly and inviting of whatever arises in awareness). It is cultivated by paying attention purposefully, deeply, and without judgment to whatever arises in the present moment, either inside or outside of us. By intentionally practicing mindfulness, deliberately paying more careful moment-to-moment attention, individuals can live more fully and less on "automatic pilot," thus being more present in their own lives."--Jeff Brantley, from his essay Mindfulness FAQ in the essay anthology The Mindfulness Revolution:Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists, and Meditation Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life, edited by Barry Boyce and the editors of the Shambhala Sun

It's hard to pay attention. I took the puppy out for a walk and figured I'd also pick up my dry cleaning since I was going out and coming back anyway. Carmelita wanted to sniff around at the yellow snow in front of our apartment building. Apparently, dog urine and other smelly substances are like a message board between dogs. Carmelita was just trying to get to know her neighbors. But I was already running late for work and nudged her to move on. Dogs can be as stubborn as cats, I've discovered. She just sat there and refused to move, probably sensing that I was too soft-hearted to pull too hard on the leash. Finally she finished reading the urine and followed behind me, then sprinted ahead of me. The sidewalks were covered in slush and ice and I'm surprised I didn't break a few vital leg bones.

We were halfway to the dry cleaner when she stopped again to watch the recycling truck pick up the bright blue containers filled with mixed plastic and paper. It must have sounded formidable to her--this metal monster creaking and screeching as it stopped in front of house after house. Or maybe she was just captivated by the smell of soggy milk cartons and cat food cans and their remnants of meat. Then Carmelita wanted to know what the girl walking toward us smelled like, and if she was open to being jumped on and then licked many, many times in the face. The girl looked like she was heading to class, and not wanting to break the invisible barrier between us, I swung Carmelita way to the right of her.

Then there were the birds. Had she even heard birds before? Their sounds captivated her; she looked all around her for what was making that sound she didn't recognize. The smells, sounds, tastes (there always seems to be something delectable in a dirty puddle)--she was taking it all in. Meanwhile I kept hurrying her on, feeling guilty but wanting my clean and nicely-pressed clothes. How could I be so selfish that I'd rush her when she was so engaged in nature?

No time for that. I picked her up and carried her away.

It's been a learning experience living with a puppy. They say that married couples can bring out both the best and worst in each other. Well, so can dog ownership. Having to take care of a puppy and give her our full attention has been harder than I anticipated, no matter how cute she is when she wrestles with her stuffed hedgehog toy, giving it the death grip and shaking it while making escalating "grrr" sounds, like Frankenstein when he gets increasingly angry about something. We have discovered how undisciplined we can be and how we both itch at the thought of a set schedule. We're both easily distracted and have always had to work hard to show up on time. But a set schedule is what is needed. That, and lots of play time and walk time--time that we didn't think we had enough of even before we brought the puppy home.

But when I do let myself relax and enjoy a walk around the block at night or a long game of tug-of-war with the chewed-up-meat-twist, the automatic pilot I'm on goes out, and I'm back to actually being engaged in the world. I'm not missing it all by walking too fast to some destination or being in such a thick cloud of thoughts that I don't notice my surroundings because I'm busy worrying over something abstract. Carmelita doesn't know that she's mindful. But I do. And I can actually choose to be more mindful.

Mike bought me a pink oval sticker with a drawing of a dog with a halo over his head. It says "Dog is good." Yes.