Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Anticipation, Disappointment, and Non-Attachment

Horseshoe Curve Today
About a dozen years after my mother died at age 94, I visited my sister Dorothy who is ten years older than I am. We started reminiscing about our mother: the conversation was a mixture of funny or sweet memories and sadder things showing me that some of my sister’s wounds had not been healed. My mother had a pattern of imagining some future occasion or interaction in considerable detail. If one little thing went amiss, she would declare that the whole day was ruined or the whole dinner or the whole event. Dorothy felt that she or some member of her family was often singled out as the “ruiner.” Mother had little or no tolerance for these perceived flaws and lacked the capacity to have a good time in spite of them. Even as I child I never could understand the concept of a seemingly great time had by all that was somehow ruined for Mother by a small imperfection.

I was reminded of that conversation last week when I had an initially strong reaction to a disappointment: something I thought would happen isn’t going to. However, I quickly realized that it was only important because I had made it important and, with that flash of insight, it was possible to let go. The religious faith of my childhood—which continues to be my lodestar—has much to say about surrender and letting go, I really gained the understanding of non-attachment to outcomes from another spiritual tradition. By the time my chronic, severe cough was finally diagnosed in January 2004 as an atypical form of TB called MAI, Bill had been dead less than four months. The whole structure of my world had turned upside down. I was seriously ill and still grieving. The 18-month course of treatment was onerous; it involved a lot of rest and three prescriptions that all had serious side effects. Once the drug regimen ended, it took another six months to recover from those side effects, and some are permanent. I seldom left the house except for medical or therapy appointments. It was an arid, difficult time; however, out of it came a life-changing experience that gave me an understanding of suffering and some tools to deal with it. It set my spiritual feet on a path I am still following.

At the urging of a friend, I signed up for the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class that Jon Kabat-Zinn had developed as an adjunct program to Dean Ornish’s work with heart disease. It is now more widely available and is applicable to many kinds of disease, disability, and pain management. There are four main elements: mindfulness meditation, yoga, body scans, and stress management. I had already developed a meditation discipline based on the Centering Prayer workshops and retreats I had attended through the Episcopal Church. In my fragile condition, I was apprehensive about the imposition of another philosophy or doctrine. Instead, the class presented a non-religious, although spiritual, approach to managing stress, and I was comfortable within the first ten minutes. My own meditation practice improved greatly as I developed a clearer understanding of the intention and the result when we offer ourselves what is sometimes called rest for the soul. Anyone who has had serious lung issues will understand at once why it felt so right and so comforting to spend forty-five minutes with my whole focus on the dependability and grace of my own breath: in and out, in and out. My attention jumped around but I learned to bring it back to my breath.

I was the oldest person in the class; most of them were in their middle years. As we talked together or read aloud what we had written, I realized that most of them suffered because their plates were too full: jobs, divorces, other marital problems, financial issues, adolescent children, and other major stressors were compounding whatever physical issue they dealt with. My plate, on the other hand, was too empty as I struggled with grief, loneliness, lack of meaning, and the necessity of self-quarantine (as my doctor called it).

When Bill and I fell in love in our early twenties, we began talking endlessly about everything. We placed a rather large emphasis on our own childhoods, our parents, and the things we were beginning to learn and understand on our own.  We had both had the epiphany that expectation is the breeding ground of disappointment. Unfortunately, it is a lesson I had to learn over and over until I finally began to enjoy anticipation while knowing that things can change in the blink of an eye.

Historic Photo of the Curve
When I was eight years old, my mother, my sister, and I took the train from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to visit my Aunt Margaret, my Grandfather, and any number of cousins. It was the occasion of my first encounter with that essential truth about expectation. The train ride took all day and included the marvel of the Horseshoe Curve. If you were lucky enough to get a seat in a car near the front or the back, you got to see the whole long train as it curved around on the horseshoe track. We were at the back. Since we couldn’t afford the dining car, my mother had packed a lunch and thought we should eat before we got to the curve. The sandwiches were wrapped tightly in waxed paper; she had tucked in little slips of paper indicating what kind they were. I wasn’t interested in egg salad but I was torn between roast beef and peanut butter and jelly. At last I opted for the beef. Mother always put a little horseradish in with the lettuce and mayonnaise and the meat was sliced thin and salted a little. My mouth was so ready for those tastes as I opened the wrapping and, without looking, lifted the sandwich up and took a large bite. “Oh no,” said my brain as peanut butter stuck to my teeth and the sweet taste of grapes replaced the expected flavor of dark, salty beef and the tang of horseradish. My mother had mixed up the labels, and I was disconsolate. As usual I got no sympathy, although she did apologize, adding that I should be grateful I had something to eat unlike the starving children in China. So many times since, I have thought in the first flush of a disappointment, “This is like that peanut butter sandwich.” Finally, heralded by the creaking of the train car connectors and the echo of the train’s whistle in the valley, we pulled into the curve. The long train stretched out around the track, and the Horseshoe Curve did not disappoint.

Two years later, my father gave me a little different view of imperfection when I was moaning about a little knitting mistake in a Girl Scout project. He told me about the Muslim belief that only God is perfect, and so they put a deliberate flaw in the Persian carpets they made. As a recovering perfectionist, his words comforted me many times, and still do occasionally.

Moments of sadness are a poignant companion as life nears its conclusion. In recent weeks one of the Schleppers (a group of elderly neighbors who all want to age in place) began to receive the support of hospice, and another died just a few days after her condition was declared terminal. Several of my friends are dealing with cancer or are facing major surgery. I have written recently on this blog about moments of exultation, moments of grace, moments of mystery. Our sadness is an important part of living and often is the gateway to one of those uplifting moments as we move around our own emotional curve. The message of my work with Kabat-Zinn’s classes, books and CDs is chiefly about moments. Being mindful of each one, to the best our ability, enables us to love, to anticipate with joy, to grieve, forgive, apologize, give thanks, and let go of our attachment to specific outcomes. Moments of sadness and the acceptance of imperfection both have the power to help us to live fully in the present moment.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Keeping the Economy Going: Celo Job Creators

Isak at Work
After the March jobs report came out showing a slight decline in unemployment caused in part by an increase in the number of discouraged workers, I heard a radio call-in show on the subject. “I was probably counted as one of those discouraged workers,” said the voice of a caller, “but I stopped looking for employment when I decided to go back to school. During my senior year in college, the counselors kept telling us if we couldn’t find work, we should get more education or create our own job.”

The next caller also thought she might have been one of those labeled as discouraged; she had decided to quit looking for work and bake cupcakes, which she delivers to nearby offices in time for mid-morning coffee breaks. Not finding a job turned out to be a good thing because now she is doing what she really wants to do and hopes to open a little shop very soon.

When Bill and I moved to this rural mountain community, our Winston-Salem friends kept asking us what we would do for a living. We said we didn’t know, but we’d figure it out. People rarely move to Celo for job opportunities, they come to live the life they want to live. Therefore it has long been a small incubator for entrepreneurs, usually starting with something they love to do. While the recovery has dragged along, I have noticed an increase in Celo job creators and want to introduce you to a few of them.

 As the woolly adelgids continued to find victims in our hemlock grove, Robin decided that we needed to take down a number of sick trees that might come crashing down on one of our houses in a windstorm. In addition Robin wanted to take down a gigantic old oak tree that was mostly dead. He decided to call Isak Pertee, a young man who grew up in Celo and recently launched a tree-work business he calls High Lonesome Timber. When I heard the sound of voices and a chain saw, I walked down the road to watch as Isak carefully climbed the large oak trunk with protective gear and a chain saw to remove some branches. As he moved slowly and deliberately upward, it felt to me like a meditation. Just after a branch crashed down, and I could see he was resting, I called out a word of praise and added, “I could never do that.” He responded, “That’s what keeps the economy going.”

When Robin asked Isak how he learned to cut down trees, Isak replied, “From books.”  He had also gained experience in some other jobs that kept him outdoors. After high school, he attended Deep Springs College and obviously learned how to learn. He’s an excellent worker, his knowledge is evident, and the results were perfect.

Even though family gardens keep me supplied with many vegetables, I signed up for Goldfinch Gardens, a vegetable-farming endeavor started by Ben McCann and Cedar Johnson. Their excellent business model is perfect for an older person living alone, who likes fresh vegetables in quantities that do not overwhelm the produce drawer. Every Tuesday their weekly list of available produce arrives on my computer and gives me the opportunity to provide more variety to my meals. When Ben and Cedar set up their business, they combined elements of two different models and leased a software system from Local Foods Marketplace. Their goal is good customer service and flexibility, and they achieve it with the online ordering system and a central delivery on Saturdays in coolers outside Celo’s food co-op.  

Cedar, like Isak, grew up in Celo; she met Ben at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, where she completed her studies. Ben left school early to finish his gardening education through internships, an opportunity he now provides for others. They maximize their space with greenhouses, and each year they keep one-third of their acreage in cover crops, which are eventually tilled under to replenish the soil. Future plans include chickens in moveable coops and sheep to mow the grass and fertilize.

Another Evergreen alum, Anna Vislocky, majored in art and education, studying ceramics, printmaking, painting, and drawing. She also learned how to develop school programs, such as garden design for elementary grades and creative writing for middle school students. She has worked with the Kids Camps at Penland School of Crafts. This summer she is offering a program of pre-school childcare and outdoor activities including bookmaking, clay, drawing and painting, music, dance, stories, and walks to explore nature. Anna does this at her home, which enables her to care for her own two-year-old at the same time. Art programs enable her to use her experience and provide a service for other parents and their kids.

Self-taught entrepreneur Todd Kelley has created a music-electronics business called Endangered Audio Research (EAR). He designs and manufactures electronic equipment, like pedals that create electric guitar effects. At first he was splitting his time between Celo and Asheville where he had a shop that combined sales and repairs of new and old guitars on the first floor with the workspace for EAR on the second. Eventually he closed that business and settled in Celo full-time where he now has an office/shop and an employee (taking “job creator” to the next level). His sales and distribution are largely through the Internet. Todd has high hopes for the future; but don’t look for an IPO anytime soon. His plan is not to grow too fast at the expense of quality or sanity.

Polly Lorien, my granddaughter-in-law, is a glassblower and has worked in that field for many years. Glass artists were hard hit by the recession and slow recovery, and for now she has made a decision to invest time and energy in other interests. A singer/songwriter, she’s worked with other musicians in a variety of venues, performing quality live music, and is now working on her first album. During the daytime hours when she’s not practicing or composing, she’s been honing her copyediting/proofreading skills, even taking a correspondence course, in preparation for launching a word management service. She refers to herself as a Word Nerd and is offering her penchant for perfection to those who need assistance with web-content, resum├ęs, artist statements, press releases, catalogs, or advertising materials.

A few weeks ago, my old eyes were complaining as I re-read my weekly post for the tenth time, trying unsuccessfully to achieve my goal of one last reading with no needed corrections or changes. Frustrated, I asked Polly if she would read it for me. She found a couple of typos I had missed and made some helpful comments about the copy. After I entered those changes she read it again, and then I posted it with confidence. Now I’ve hired her to do my final proofreading every week and have invited her comments on the copy as well. I think of it as assaying my essays.

The author Michael Lewis gave a graduation speech at Princeton this spring where he asserted that many successful people do not like to acknowledge the role of accident, luck, or coincidence in their lives. He believes that while successful outcomes are not entirely random, they do involve a large amount of luck: where you were born, who your parents are, your education, and the environment of your childhood. I think a lot about the people who have been out of work or underemployed for years; clearly not everyone can start a business felling trees, manufacturing sound gear, or perfecting prose. In 1992, I shook Hillary Clinton’s hand on a rope line when her husband was running for president. I said, “Good luck,” and she responded, “I think you make your own luck. So we’re asking for your vote.”

Whether it takes the unmerited grace of pure luck or the successful synchrony of one person’s skills and another person’s needs, I wish success for these young adults—and all those in the work force who are not too discouraged to take a chance on their own passion and ingenuity. They have my vote.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Eyeball to eyeball with a Raccoon

 Those of you who have been reading my blog posts regularly are familiar with my brother David and his wife Anne, who are currently visiting me. I had planned to write my next post before they arrived, but was interrupted by a close encounter with a raccoon that I am certain was trying to kill my dog Nigel. In a moment of high adrenaline, with no other tool at hand, I grabbed its leg and swung it up into the air with Nigel still in its mouth. The 'coon quickly let go of the dog, curled up its body, and bit my hand as we locked eyes—I didn't look away. Then I threw it down the steps and it turned and ran off.

It was 7:00 in the evening, and I had been shocked to see a raccoon in my yard by daylight. My feisty miniature poodle also saw it and raced toward it, barking loudly. I started screaming Nigel come; he turned and ran toward me with the raccoon in hot pursuit. It pounced on Nigel as he ran up the steps to the deck. It may have all happened in a few seconds, certainly not much more. My reaction was not thought out and could have been disastrous; but with the help of my guardian angel, the damage to me was minimal, and Nigel is fine.

Because it was a raccoon and the behavior was suspect, the doctor said we had to assume it had rabies. Three years ago I had the rabies serum series after a bat crawled out from under my pillow so this time I only needed two booster shots. Even though Nigel was re-vaccinated just a month ago, he was also required to have a booster shot. There was paperwork for the Health Department to do, and visits to doctors, mine and Nigel's. I have four small puncture wounds to tend, and I don't yet have full use of my left hand.

Although the incident was brief, the stress of the trauma continued. It has been a hard process for me as I wrestled with fears of going outside after dark, of taking my daily walk at dawn, and even of letting Nigel have free run of the yard by way of his dog door. I haven't, however, stopped taking walks. Two days later my route took me past a community garden where friends of Robin's were working. Jeff asked me if I was freaked out, and I answered in the affirmative. He then told me that he had a way of dealing with near misses when something could have had disastrous consequences, but didn't. If you almost fall off a ladder and don't, he told me, you will then have information that can help you avoid problems the next time you're working on a ladder. He told a story about getting caught in a rip tide. He fortunately didn’t drown, and when his father was commiserating with him, Jeff told his dad that now he had learned about rip tides and would never get caught in one again. So he advised me to focus on what I had learned. He kept repeating the word information, like it was an intellectual buried treasure. But the biggest boost came from his wife Margot who told me that I was a regular old mountain woman.  I have always been a great admirer of the older mountain women I have known here in Yancey County and back in Kentucky when I worked there. I have also been drawn to the older female characters in Appalachian literature. I don't feel tough or brave, but if I was at least strong enough to earn Margot's praise, it's a big step toward healing.

My brother and I have been close since we weathered the stresses and maximized the joys of our childhood. Our relationship has deepened over these years that I was a caregiver for my husband until he died, and David has been a caregiver for Anne, who has Alzheimer’s. We are sounding boards for each other, but the surprising thing to me is the email correspondence we continue to have about things we have read or are pondering.

David had scarlet fever when he was eight and developed mastoiditis as a secondary infection. He's been hard of hearing ever since, and it has gotten worse as he aged. About three years ago he acquired new hearing aids with the best technology available. Now we can have phone conversations with the sound being transmitted directly into his ear. At eighty-three, he is healthy; plays tennis nearly every week; follows football, baseball, and tennis; and has a very active life in his community. This is all in addition to caregiving, cooking and tending to household chores. David and Anne are curious and eager to have adventures and explore new ideas. They are enthusiastic and love to laugh. Anne does quite well with living in the moment, even though she doesn't remember much of the present anymore and there are many things she cannot do.

When we are together, David and I can have face-to-face conversations that range from reminiscing to old age, politics and religion. I want to spend, as much time with them as I can. Therefore my essay on some local entrepreneurs that I planned for this week, will be on hold until next week. Y'all come back and check it out.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Mystery, Metaphysics and My Mother

 My mother loved the words metaphysics and metaphysical. She used them often, and I gathered that it stood for things unseen and equated it with something spiritual but not necessarily religious. By the time I was a young adolescent, she had started an unusual business with an emphasis on books related to spiritual healing. She continued the work until she was eighty, selling books through the mail and in person at non-denominational summer family camps, known as Camps Farthest Out. In addition, she had a book table at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia at their weekly healing service. Mother had read all those books and, at the church before and after the service, people talked to her about themselves or family members in need of healing. The bulk of the problems were physical, and often intractable. Some were emotional or involved addiction. Mother would discern the core issue and say, “Here is the book you need to read.”  It would be one particular book out of hundreds and usually a different one for each person. If someone hesitated because of the cost, Mother would say, “I’ll lend it to you.” People would come back to see her, write letters or phone to thank her and tell her their stories, often saying that the book had changed their lives. It was a form of counseling that was both effective and amazing.

Mother never made a lot of money, but she did make many friends, some of them eccentric and all of them with stories to tell of things metaphysical—which, according to the dictionary, means abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time and space. I began to hear and vaguely understand words like synchronicity, paranormal, telepathy, serendipity, and clairvoyance as my mother retold the stories to me. She developed a theory that people are born with metaphysical gifts, and as they grow and experience life they begin to notice their gifts and eventually they are able to manifest them.  (Manifest has a variety of meanings and comes from the Latin word manifestare meaning make public.) All of this exposure to her friends and their ideas stayed with me and created an openness to the metaphysical world, but as a pragmatist and a problem solver, I could not suspend disbelief quite as easily as my mother did.

Last week after several cups of elegant Darjeeling tea with freshly-baked gluten-free cookies, my friend Peggy and I began to swap amazing stories of synchronous moments in our lives. For over an hour we delved into the same spiritual territory my mother had lived in. I told her about Mother’s theory that people manifest their individual metaphysical gifts.

A Russian emigree named Maia served slightly smoky tea in glass mugs from her native land on the rare occasions when my mother visited her in New York. I joined them once and I still have a hazy memory of the small apartment filled with rugs and drapes and pillows in dark shades of red. My mother told me that Maia manifested money and luxury.

Another friend of Mother’s who lived alone in rural Vermont had endless stories of kind people who would turn up at the moment she most needed help. Mother was traveling with her once when the car broke down. They hadn’t seen another vehicle for hours, but in a few minutes a truck pulled to a stop and the driver said, “What’s wrong?”

Mother’s friend asked him what he could fix. Puzzled, the man answered that he was an electrician. She said, “Well, I guess my problem is electrical.” He poked around, then he got out his toolbox, pulled out a wire, and fixed the problem, which was of course electrical.

Peggy told me that her daughter-in-law who lives in Washington, D.C., manifests parking places. She also talked about her husband’s gift of helping plants grow by spending time with them. My husband’s gift was running into people he knew from his hometown, college, places he worked, or shows he had directed. He rarely came home from places like New York, Venice, London, Los Angeles, or even Mumbai without at least one story of someone he bumped into on an elevator or waiting in a line. Peggy looks at clutter or even chaos and begins to manifest order as she develops solutions for sorting, storing and recycling the excess. When she realized that she had this gift, she started a little business and, like my mother, she has been making or deepening friendships, and her grateful clients spread the word.

I know that I have frequent occasions when I hear from people I’m thinking about or contact someone who says I have been in their thoughts; perhaps that is synchronicity. But the gift that I have recognized in myself is one of making connections among disparate thoughts and events. When I’m dwelling with a particular idea, I am very apt to hear something on the radio or read a passage in a book that exactly fits in or even completes the line of thought.

Last week I wrote about moments of grace and I have continued to think about other kinds of intangible enrichment of our lives that perhaps defy logic or a search for cause and effect. Here are two examples of synchronicity and my metaphysical gift intersecting.

  • An interviewer asked the question, “What is the difference between belief and faith?’ The answer was, “Belief has an object. Faith does not and it usually follows a spiritual awakening.”

  • In the preface to her new collection of essays When I Was a Child I Read Books*, Marilynne Robinson speaks of Walt Whitman and then says, The vision of the soul, all souls, realizing itself in the course of transforming everything it and them, finds expression in many writers of the period… She then lists Emerson, Melville, Dickinson, and more recently, William James and Wallace Stevens. (All were favorites of my mother, which I in turn read, beginning in college.) Robinson sums up her thesis about the soul with this line: To identify sacred mystery with every individual experience in every life, giving the word its largest sense, is to arrive at democracy as an ideal, and to accept the difficult obligation to honor others and oneself with something approaching due reverence.

As Peggy and I parted with due reverence after a three-hour visit, we both agreed that our topic of conversation had been the mystery and we were both grateful for the presence of that mystery in our lives. 

* Marilynne Robinson, When I Was A Child I Read Books. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.