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italy! 2007 010

The wise ones, self-proclaimed

and otherwise,

extol the gems

we’ll find tucked in the jagged places

of our lives.

 

They profess the riches we will

meet spelunking

in caliginous caves

of personal pain and diving the deepest

wells of our grief.

 

Starting with a broken heart

makes the trek

more meaningful,

the sages say, as if they know

we will not break

 

from anguish of the broken world

we darkly dwell

in every day,

but find, instead, an unobstructed oculus

to light the way.

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I’m thinking about food. This is nothing new. I have always spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about food. Historically, my food-centric thoughts include grocery shopping lists, menu planning for weekend meals or special occasions, inventing recipes for more delicious versions of various things, anticipating upcoming restaurant or vacation meals, and remembering especially scrumptious things I’ve eaten in the past.

I can admit that there is a part of me that is pretty food obsessed and I don’t believe I’m alone. Eating is a basic survival need and carries a heavy cultural weight. Many people have varying degrees of food-focused thoughts and feelings every day. Fortunately, I’ve mostly enjoyed my relationship to food. I love to cook and bake. Feeding people nourishing and delicious meals has been a source of great joy for my entire adult life. (Take my word on it; you want me at your pot luck!) And I have happily entertained myself for hours by reading cookbooks, watching food related video, and simply thinking about food in various ways.

But during this time of the coronavirus global pandemic, I’ve become aware of a painful shift in my thoughts and feeling about food. I know that there are large swaths of the population that live with food insecurity every day and that for many the fear is real, but for the first time in my life I’m feeling afraid that I will not have the food that I need. These fearful thoughts are profligate in my mind these days.

I know that this fear is not based in today’s reality for me. My larders are stocked. My freezer is full. I have more than I need and yet I can feel a panicked part of me that believes I can’t survive without everything I want. That part cannot seem to stop thinking about how to get continued access to fresh greens without going to a grocery store. These thoughts are often followed closely by a wave of shame. Shame that I, as a privileged, working, home-owning person with a fully stocked fridge and resources to purchase more, is feeling fear about not having enough food. I hope that by sharing my experience and what I’m learning about it, that I might help anyone who can relate.

Growing up, my mother’s day to day meal offerings were generally based on a combination of cost and calories. She was always on a diet so anything considered fattening was only for special occasions or company. Most name brand food items were considered too expensive so we either went without or ate the discounted brand. I was too regularly served food that was totally unappealing to me. Sadly, I spent many an hour at the kitchen table in front of a slice of dry meatloaf or a pile of canned peas until I cleaned my plate because, “There are starving children in China.”

But then there were holidays and company. My mother would cook and bake an incredible array of special treats for the extended family. I looked forward to potato latkes at Hanukkah and macaroons at Passover and a whole meal of my choice on my birthday. I watched her prepare fancy dinner parties for friends where she served spectacular food that was never offered to me but it piqued my interest in cooking. I went to the grocery store with the paycheck from my first job and bought fresh broccoli and ingredients to make cheese sauce and chocolate chip cookies.

When I began to cook and bake for myself, especially once I had children of my own, food became a point of connection between my mother and me. I came to understand she had her own obsessive thoughts about food and we bonded over menu planning and cooking magazines. For the rest of her life we spent many pleasant visits conversing about and sharing food. In her last years, as dementia made her world smaller and smaller, food was the only thing she could really talk about. A few days before she died she said, “You know I’m really sick when I’m not interested in food.”

My mother was born in 1933, the last year of the depression era. Her mother escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe at the age of 13, traveling alone to the United States. My grandmother’s mother lived in fear and poverty in a Jewish Shtetl somewhere near the Russian border. Generations and generations of Jews, my ancestors, lived under varying degrees of oppression and it’s not a stretch to imagine that real food insecurity was a part of daily life.

I am coming to understand that the food insecurity that I am experiencing at this time is related to my childhood experiences around food and also a legacy burden that I carry from my mother. And her mother before her and likely every generation back to biblical times. There is no need for me to feel shame about it. In traumatic times, childhood and ancestral traumas are often re-stimulated.

And make no mistake, these are traumatic times. Even if you are currently safe and have resources, this is an unprecedented time in terms of dealing with such a huge, worldwide unknown. Now, more than ever, we are being called to self-compassion. We are being called to connect with and support each other. We are being called to explore our own inner landscapes and walk that ground with reverence.

Here is my fervent wish for us all: May all beings be safe; may all beings be healthy; may all beings have ease; may all beings have food.

COVID-IMAGE

There is so much coming at us about the novel Corona virus. There is important, well researched information and good best practices along with false news, opinions stated as facts, and advice of all kinds. In this digital age, where so much of all of it is in our faces whether we want it or not, I’d like to share something that can be truly helpful no matter where you are in the process of coming to terms with this current pandemic.

If I carry only one message, I want to encourage us all to be practicing compassion. We must practice because it is hard and we need to get better at it because it will help everyone, no matter what is happening in our lives or in the world today. We need to practice compassion for others, but just as importantly, compassion for ourselves.

The definition of compassion is to hold pain and suffering with loving kindness. Having to cancel your vacation or be deprived of attending events you were looking forward to is painful. Trying to help your kids deal with canceled sporting events, social gatherings, and school closings is painful. Forced or self-imposed social distancing creates suffering of various kinds for people of all ages. Losing income because businesses have to close down for a time surely creates suffering. And of course fear of any kind, especially fear of the unknown, can be incredibly painful.

This current situation is one where so much is unknown. New things are unfolding constantly and we are all required to adjust, day by day, to changing circumstances. Humans don’t do so well with fear of the unknown and we have many different coping strategies; ways to try to help ourselves feel safe. These can range from denial: “This is all nothing, no different from the flu and everyone is over reacting!” to the fear driven hoarding of everything that might be helpful to prevent or treat the virus. Sometimes it’s anger that helps manage our fears: “What’s wrong with those horrible people buying up all the toilet paper?”

These kinds of reactions are in response to the suffering; the pain of how the spread of this virus is, or might impact us. How can we hold our own and other people’s feelings and behaviors with kindness? When we get to the store and find that all the bleach, and Lysol, and toilet paper is sold out, can we notice our fear about the possibility of not having what we need? Can we notice how quickly that fear turns to anger at the people who over-bought, depriving us of a sense of safety? Can we hold ourselves with kindness in all our feelings? Of course we feel this way. Can we remember that the people who are cleaning out the shelves are also feeling fear? Probably the same fear we have?

This sense of common humanity is one of the most important elements in the practice of compassion. To remember that we’re all human with human responses and the human drive to try to feel safe. We reach for a feeling of safety in many different ways, but we’re all doing it all of the time. And we’re all suffering, especially now. How can we hold this suffering, this fear, this annoyance, this disappointment with kindness?

If you’re disappointed that your plans to travel or to go out with friends have been interrupted, can remember that there are thousands of other people with the same disappointment? Maybe you can connect on the phone, Face-time, or Skype. If you are losing income because of the outbreak, can you remember that the financial fallout of this pandemic will be shared by many others? Can you reach out to someone else in a similar boat and commiserate or get support? If you’re terrified that you are your loved ones will get sick and die can you remember how many people are afraid at this time? Maybe you can take a break from reading the news, scrolling Facebook, talking about the situation. Find something good to watch on Netflix or escape into a good book. If you are feeling annoyed and inconvenienced and think people are over-reacting, you are also not alone but can you recognize that many people are very scared and trying to make decisions for safety? Can you remember a time in your life when you were scared and then try to act in ways that would have helped you in your fear?

In our fast paced digital world many people are already struggling with varying levels of emotional and psychological challenges. The current push for social distancing, along with the financial pressures many are facing can greatly increase feelings of isolation which can lead to depression and even more anxiety. In these times it’s ever more important for all of us to be practicing compassion. How can you make space for whatever you’re feeling and be kind to yourself and others? How can you reach out and ask for support or offer support to someone you know is suffering? How can we use out technology to be closer to people as opposed to create further distancing?

I believe that how we respond to what is happening will have a larger, longer lasting effect on us all than the corona virus itself. Let’s respond to the suffering, other’s and our own, with loving kindness as much as we can and we’ll get through this time together.

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Life falls apart. That’s what it does on a regular basis for all of us and yet, every time it happens to me I’m shocked and dismayed. I’m launched into the groundlessness that part of me knows can be a huge opportunity for growth but most of me is simply scared of. The unknown is such a boogieman!

When I’m not busy shaking in my boots, it can be fascinating to observe the various strategies that the different parts of me employ in the service of trying to protect me from the feeling of terror. While I can intellectually identify that the level of fear I’m experiencing isn’t commensurate with the event that’s causing it, the feeling of extreme danger persists so my system goes to work to try to get me feeling safe.

My inner personal growth junkie has collected many pithy little pieces of wisdom designed to counter the fear. I mantra: “this too shall pass” and “pain is the touch stone of spiritual progress” along with, “everything is fine right this minute.” I employ lots of deep breathing and regularly attempt to shift my focus to what I’m grateful for. These things do help but I still feel the undercurrent of deep anxiety.

In the face of this fear I feel the part of me that longs to be rescued. The little girl inside who just wants someone to tell her that they’ll take care of everything, that I don’t have to worry about a thing. She cries, “Where is my knight in shining armor – my Mommy and Daddy – my benevolent powerful God to save the day?”

My inner critic generally jumps in around now. “That’s enough whining. You need to be your own knight – your own parent – your own deity. Get over it and grow up.” I know the critic thinks she’s helping – that she can shame my little girl into piping down – but it’s not a helpful strategy and I try to practice self-compassion when my critic makes an appearance. That scared little part of me that wants to be saved needs love and understanding, not criticism. Of course she wants someone to provide that for her!

At some point the practical part of me jumps in and begins to strategize. I gather information. Knowledge is power and this part of me knows that the more intel I have about what I’m facing, the better I can determine what I can control and what I cannot. The serenity prayer is a strategy that is best applied with lots of information that helps me to know the difference between what I must accept and what I need to muster the courage to try and change.

As you can imagine, all these competing strategies can be so exhausting so let’s say hello to the part of me that thinks that the best way to get everyone to relax is to eat something delicious. A lot of something delicious, preferably while watching a soothing show on Netflix like The Great British Bake Off or Anne with an E. It’s a surprisingly effective game plan and works for as long as I can keep the inner critic from reappearing to shame me for escapist behavior, “unhealthy” eating habits, and oh yes, fat. She will always tell me I’m fat. Fortunately, her body shaming has lost most of its power (with the help of my personal growth junkie!) but she can still successfully nail me about being a coward or being “unhealthy”. Sigh. It’s time for more self-compassion. It’s hard to be a person.

My parents were not particularly present or available as I grew up so I developed a fiercely self-sufficient part that doesn’t ever want to ask for help. She’s there to protect me from feeling rejected or abandoned. If I don’t ask, I can’t be told no or even worse, receive a begrudging yes. It’s much safer to figure everything out on my own and the side benefit to this strategy is that I’ve become an extremely competent person. I’m good at many things and generally available to help others with a wide array of issues. But it can be so lonely and when the shit hits the fan, as it is wont to do every now and then, going it alone can feel like a very heavy load. Wise mantras, mad skills, a can-do attitude, and cookies and TV don’t really help that scared little one inside of me. For that I really need other people.

Self-compassion is such an important practice and can calm the inner critic and curb the urge to sink into anxiety or depression but receiving compassion from others is what really helps. To allow another person to really see me and to have them hold my pain with loving kindness is the most valuable gift. My decision to be vulnerable and the other person’s decision to respond with compassion creates the intimacy that I believe we all crave in our deepest selves and what truly heals.

I can only echo the words of my incredible teacher Pema Chodrin: “The human experience is an experience of nothing to hang on to, nothing that’s set once and for all. Reality is always falling apart. In this fleeting situation, the only thing that makes sense is for us to reach out to one another.” Thank you to the people I have reached out to and those who have reached out to me. My heart is filled with gratitude. May we all hold each other with love and compassion as we make our way through these difficult times.

 

 

 

 

 

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I’m wondering if any of you have seen this meme going around that says: “My desire to be well informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane”. I don’t know about you but I’ve been feeling that way since the beginning of the last presidential campaign season and it’s only been getting worse. My desire to be well informed is most definitely at odds with my desire to remain sane.

The news these days feels traumatizing in a way that it never has before. It seems as if things have just never been this bad. However, a quick glance back through time actually shows that things have been much, much worse at numerous periods in the history of our evolution. Looking back, David Barker, the author of A Crash Course in Big History reminds us that somewhere around 72,000 BC there was a volcanic super-eruption that exploded with the force of 1.5 million Hiroshima-size bombs. The skies darkened and global temperatures fell. Food sources died off, and the number of people left alive was reduced to around 10,000.

And of course there was the year of 1348, when in the space of 18 months the Bubonic Plague killed at least a third of the population of Europe.  Parents abandoned their sick children. Cadavers were left in empty houses and dogs tore at the bodies of the dead that lay unburied in the streets. That’s was a pretty bad time.

And what about the major famines in Asia and Africa, or the start of the extermination of native populations in the Americas or the trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves, the rise of European imperialism and Hitler?  1919 alone was a year of political chaos, social unrest, economic disasters, health epidemics, bloody race riots, and brutal government overreach. Much worse than today.

History is full of horrendously perilous times where crazy, egomaniacal, people have wrested most of the power and money for themselves and wreaked havoc on the rest. Ghengis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Napolean, Idi Ahmin, Stalin, Kim Il Sung, Pol Pot, the list goes on and on. So with all the progress we’ve made toward eradicating disease, more rights for more people, better financial security for record numbers of people, longer lives, etc. Why does it feel to so many of us as if things have just never been this bad?

I know there is a contrast effect, in that when things are so good, bad things feels much worse than they would if things were hard to begin with. We here in the US generally have a very high standard of living and most of us have freedoms that are unheard of in other places or at earlier times in history. But I’m pretty clear that my own sense of despair and feeling that this must be the worst of times is much more related to the level of exposure that we’re subject to.

Back in 1348, no one was Tweeting about the Black Death. There was no minute by minute, breathless, edge your seat coverage of the 1919 Influenza epidemic, or the massive labor strikes of the Indiana steel workers. No one had yet figured out how news could be entertainment or a huge platform for selling soap. One needed to be to be literate, which was far less common than it is today, and to seek out a newspaper to have even a small chance of knowing what was happening in other parts of the county, never mind the world. Folks in rural Kansas didn’t generally know, and frankly didn’t care that much about news in other parts of the world that didn’t directly affect them. It was easy to keep your focus on what was directly in your own sphere of influence without being unduly upset by things you had no control over.

Today, it’s almost impossible to escape the news. Facebook feeds are filled with petitions to sign, phone calls to make, articles and arguments about everything. My gym has televisions all around with CNN, MSNBC, and FOX news running at every hour.  And, that so much of the “quote unquote” coverage isn’t even real news just adds to my distress. Much of what is so excessively accessible is slanted, biased, bought and paid for coverage. Or it’s totally fake news. Fear mongering and alarmist messages being used to try to control people’s opinions and beliefs.  It’s all become too much for me to weed through to try to separate truth from truthiness. In case you’re not familiar with truthiness, it’s a term coined by comedian Steven Colbert that means: The quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like. There’s a lot of truthiness flying around.

So I’ve decided that because my desire to be well informed is at odds with my desire to remain sane, I have to make a choice and I’m choosing sanity. If I’m feeling traumatized, sad, stressed out, and terrified, and convinced that this is the worst of times; I can’t possibly hope to show up in my life in any meaningful way. I need my sanity to do my work in the world. I’ve decided to make a conscious effort take some distance and to shift my attention away from all the bad news onto what’s good. Not to deny what’s happening in the world but to have my sanity at the expense of being a little less well informed. Like the song says, from a distance there is harmony and it echoes through the land. From a distance we are instruments marching in a common band, from a distance even though we are at war, you look like my friend.”  Right now I think many of us could use some of that perspective.

As I wrote previously, one of the ways I’ve taken that distance is by disabling my Facebook account. I miss the intermittent feelings of connection I used to find there, but taking a break from Facebook has helped me enormously to get my focus off all the political strife.

used awareness. It’s important, because whatever one focuses attention on grows in our minds. Most of the news today is begging for us to pay attention to the horror. To what divides us. To what incites us. I’m trying something different. Fred Roger’s, of Mr. Roger’s neighbThere is a mountain of research looking at the role of attention in our lives. Attention is focorhood said that when he was a boy and would see scary things in the news, his mother would say to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” That’s a beautiful example how we can shift our focus of attention away from something awful to something uplifting

If we look for it, what is good and beautiful and uplifting is all around. One of the things I did to help me to shift focus was to sign up for a daily email from the Good News Network and Positive News organizations that collect stories of good and uplifting news from around the world. I read there about a man who for years has been going through the drive through at his local Tom Hornton’s muffins several times a week and always pays for the order of the person behind him.  Recently he was found and told that one of the people he had bought coffee and a muffin for had been planning to kill herself later that day and that receiving his anonymous act of kindness changed her mind. Wow. That’s good news.

I’m also reading the bi-monthly newsletter from Future Crunch another online media source that focuses on good news, specifically news that shows hope for our future. They ended the year by collecting 99 stories illustrating why 2017 was actually a great year. It was an incredible year for a serious rise in global health, and there were some stunning victories for global conservation as well as rising living standards for billions of people. And it was a terrible year for the fossil fuels industry and an amazing one for clean energy. And there are so many stories from this past year that reminded me, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” It’s so easy to forget that when we’re only focused on all that is happening that is so unjust. On all the things that divide us.

One of my favorite stories from the Good News Network was about a young aspiring rapper from Harlem who became friends with an 86 year old Jewish woman from Palm Beach Florida through the online game “Words with Friends.” After a year of the online connection, his pastor flew him down to visit her as part of her project entitled “Relationships Change Us.” And they do.

Research shows that regular feelings of connectedness lead to higher levels of happiness, lower levels of depression and anxiety, and enhanced physical health outcomes. Back in December, guest minister Kathleen Green talked about the human imperative for connection in her service “Connecting the Dots.” She told us that research professor Brene Brown defines connection as:  the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; Facebook is designed to mimic true connectedness but I don’t think most of us really feel truly seen, heard, and valued in the virtual realm. I’ve found that taking a break from Facebook has led to my reaching out more to really connect with my beloveds and that’s what really helps me feel sane. To really feel the interconnected web of life that we are all a part of. I do actually believe that  “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.”

Along with connectedness, a growing body of research is showing that gratitude, kindness, and self-compassion all contribute to better health and a sense of well being. These are all keys to noticing what makes the present moment the best of times. To practice gratitude, I like to write down one or two things, every day, that I appreciate and then I put the scraps of paper into a jar. Every month, I take them out and read them. It’s amazing how gratitude for my public library, or for my access to quality food, or the wifi connection that allows me to skype with my sister in Boston, can lift me right out of the black cloud of despair that threatens to overtake me when I think too much about the world’s bad news. I’d like to invite you to take a moment right now to remember something you’re grateful for and then turn to your neighbor and share it.  Doesn’t that feel great?

It’s so simple; just as kindness and self-compassion are simple; simple, but not always easy. When I’m caught up in my own stressful life circumstances and I’m feeling terrified about what’s happening in the world it’s hard to remember to be kind to others. My survival instincts kick in and my natural ego response is me me me. But when I make the effort to remember to be kind, to reach out and help someone, smile, hold a door, ask the grocery clerk how his day is going, maybe even pay for the person behind me in the Dunkin’Donuts drive through, not only do I feel better but who knows how it might lift someone else out their hard place. And I also want to be kind to me.

That’s the self-compassion piece. Compassion is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. So self-compassion is recognizing your own suffering and then being kind to yourself and perhaps taking action to relieve your own suffering. Shifting your focus away from what is horrible and outside your realm of control to what is uplifting and good is a practice of self-compassion. Seeking true connection with others is a practice of self-compassion. Paying attention to what you’re grateful for is a practice of self-compassion.
I have come to truly believe that these practices are the way for me to live in the present as it is and recognize that it is not the worst of times. It may not be the best of times either, but it is the time we are in. I can make choices and while I might not be the best informed person in the room, at least I’ll have my sanity.

 

As my 40th high school reunion approaches, I have so many mixed feelings. I’m looking forward to being with so many of the people who grew up alongside me; people who shared the experience of living in the “All American” town of Bloomfield during the same period of history. These are people who I went to Hebrew school with; people who had the same developmental milestones at the same time as me; people who listened to the same music, wore the same style clothes, and went to the same local restaurants and movie theaters that I did. And yet, these were not my friends.

It’s still bizarre to me that I’m “friends” on Facebook with so many school-mates that were not my friends during my high school years. I see photos of their lives, and their kids, and grand-kids. I celebrate their successes and feel compassion for their struggles. I “like” their posts and they “like” mine but I’m always aware that these virtual relationships are far deeper than any connection I had with any of them when we went to school together.

In 7th grade, the first year all the elementary schools came together, I struggled to fit in, wanting so much to be part of the “popular” crowd. I could never understand why some kids seemed to be accepted, invited to all the parties, clustering together in the hallways and sitting together and laughing at lunch. I spent most of the year sitting at the popular kids’ table with no one even acknowledging my presence. I was lonely and sad but I remember thinking that at least the rest of the kids in school would think I was part of the “in” crowd since they saw me at their table. Was I wearing the wrong clothes? What was it about me that made those kids decide that I just wasn’t going to be accepted? And what was it about me that made me want it so badly that I couldn’t seem to let it go and make an effort to find a group where I would fit in?

I eventually dealt with my feelings of rejection and loneliness by deciding I just didn’t care. I would march to the beat of my own drum and numb any feelings about it by smoking as much pot as I could get my hands on. By the time we got to high school, I had a boyfriend who was 6 years older and I wanted to be just about anywhere other than at Bloomfield High.  I was the classic under-achiever, getting A’s in English and Art and C’s in almost everything else. I can remember sitting in the back of Mr. Cunningham’s math class and reading a novel while he taught algebra. I skipped more school than I attended and I almost didn’t graduate because I had missed so many gym classes I didn’t have the PE credits I needed.

While I had one Bloomfield friend that I occasionally spent time with and there were a few people I partied with if we happened to run into each other at Penwood Park for sunset, I was basically friendless and without any real social life with my age peers during high school. I didn’t participate in any extracurricular activities, didn’t attend my prom, and was not once invited to anything by fellow students at BHS. Everyone else seemed to have tons of friends and a group where they belonged. If you had asked me, I would have sworn that I really didn’t care but still, I felt like there was something wrong with me, always on the outside looking in. I suspect that I didn’t appear that way to others, but the truth is I have no idea what anyone else thought about me if they thought about me at all.

Happily, I’ve grown from that wounded, lonely, angsty, teenager into a secure and confident woman. I understand myself at very deep level and carry deep compassion for my own painful experiences and know that there were others who also felt lost during that time. In my life today, I have a close-knit circle of friends, rich and satisfying work, and a loving family. I like and accept myself just as I am.

As our 40th reunion approaches, classmates are posting old photos and reminiscing about the halcyon days of friendship, fun, and feeling like family at our school in our very special town. But for me, those were not golden years and I’m not going to the reunion to re-connect with old friends.  I’m going to meet up with some new friends and to reaffirm to myself that these are the shining years and that the best is yet to come.

 

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We must not lose hope. We must believe that we are having labor pains and it hurts like hell and sounds like murder but ends with the birth of something amazing and new.

ON THE 2016 ELECTION

When my daughter was growing
inside me, my belly big as a boat
barely navigating the narrow waterways
of life, I remember the terror
and joy I felt from her amphibious
flutters, tiny feet and hands
that seemed to swim upstream,
deeper into the dark of my womb,
as if she knew that soon
she would have to face the vast landscape
of our magnificent, mutilated world

where wars blaze like late summer wildfires
whipping in the wind and we wander
lonely, so many homeless, hungry, fighting
to survive beneath the dark canopy
of an endless sky of stars so bright
we cry out in awe to see one fall.

When my water broke, the flood
tide of life’s liquor pooling at my feet,
I bellowed like a wild animal caught;
howled as I fought to expand
into each agonizing contraction,
the tender skin tearing jagged
and wide, a bloody new avenue from
inside me to this spectacular earth.

I cradled the tiny babe, spilled
out with that last push, still slippery
and shining from the swim. Drinking
in the deep blue of her new eyes
I listened to her crying voice
raised in greeting
and in protest
of all that would follow.

Penny Field

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Today’s big news is that Britain votes to leave the European Union. My first reaction: Where is my opportunity to vote to leave the things that I no longer want to participate in? Sometimes I think I would like to separate myself from almost everything happening in the world today. I know this thought is rooted in fear; of course I want to just escape everything that scares me. I suppose I could leave Facebook, as I am so often tempted to do. At least then I wouldn’t constantly and instantaneously have in my face every little piece of horrible news (true or not) when I’m simply hoping to see something that will make me feel a little closer to my many beloveds who live far away; but I’d miss all those adorable cat memes.

I understand how terrified people are and that it is a survival instinct to do whatever most quickly allays the fear from anything that seems to be a threat. Anger, denial, greed, blame, and sticking with those who are just like you can seem like the way to security. Separatism can feel safer than anything else. I get it. But still it is horrifyingly shocking to see such a surge in blatant racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, violence, poverty, and corruption in the world today.

The truth is, I have been struggling deeply with what to do with the feelings I have about the state of the world and people’s reactions to it. I feel myself slipping into my own private pool of despair and I’m paddling like mad not to drown. I can get caught in the downward spiral of berating myself for not being more of an activist and getting out there in the world in some kind of major way to “be the change I want to see.” I can think that my way of being an ally to the marginalized and downtrodden or the individual work I do sitting with people in pain somehow isn’t enough. I often worry that I lack the wisdom to know the difference between what I must have the serenity to accept and what I must have the courage to change.

I could get on a soap box about the media or our political system and how we’ve all been bought and sold etc.  I could also go on about the psychology of fear and human nature. But so many other people sell those suds much more articulately than I ever could and I really don’t want to feed into the focus on how we’re all going to hell in a hand basket; in fact, I’m desperately grasping for anything that gets me out of that basket even for a moment.

I am finding that I need to make a conscious effort to attend to what is good and beautiful in the world. I can notice how the late afternoon sunlight is dancing with the shadows on the leaves of the maple outside my window and how my whole house (yes! I have a home!) smells deliciously of the garlic I’m roasting for the dinner I’ll soon share with my beloved. I don’t really want to leave this life, no matter how scary it is, so as the poet Adam Zagajewski tells me, I must try to praise the mutilated world. I need to ignore the screaming sirens of scary news between the picture of my friends’ vacations and new born babies instead of leaving Facebook because I need those connections. And I need those videos of laughing babies.

TRY TO PRAISE THE MUTILATED WORLD  (Adam Zagajewski )

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
One of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion waited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtains fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
And the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

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A few months ago I glanced up at one of the many TV sets scattered around my gym to see a woman on QVC selling a line of “fashion clothing.” The pants on offer were an elastic waist, large pocketed polyester blend model that came in a rainbow of lively colors, as well as faux dungaree material, and whose length allowed for possible oncoming floods and insured the wearer need never worry about tripping on them. And, of course, there were also an array of loose flowered tunics and complimentary vests for mixing and matching on offer.

Suddenly I was overwhelmed by the memory of cleaning out my mother’s closet after she died last year. I found myself crying, right there on my yoga mat in the health club, recalling bagging up her countless pairs of ankle length, elastic waisted pants. I felt such grief in that moment, thinking of my Mom and her later in life wardrobe. When exactly had she made the shift from stylish, well-tailored outfits to what I could only think of as Old Lady Clothes? And why?

In that moment, I swore to myself that I would never ever dress that way. I would wear pants with a real waist band, zippers and buttons until they were patting dirt on my face. I would be the fashion forward forever woman who ages with grace and beauty, holding on to my personal style of the perfect balance of form, function, and comfort. My daughters would never feel the sadness of carting off bags of my old lady duds to the Goodwill, I vowed. In fact, they’ll want my clothes for themselves when I’m gone.

The next weekend I went to visit my in-laws in Rochster, NY. I don’t go with my husband all that often but my mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s; I know that there is a limit to the time when she will still know who I am so I suffered the 6-hour car ride. There is still a brilliant, highly social, intensely judgmental person somewhere behind her ever more confused eyes but she can no longer place herself in time or keep a thread of conversation on a straight seam. A published author, she has heartbreakingly lost the ability to read, although she carries a book and an old New Yorker magazine with her at all times.

I spent a lot of our visit helping her in the bathroom. She has mostly forgotten how to use the toilet (thank heavens for Depends!) and she is befuddled by buttons and zippers. Once fit and trim, most of her clothes are uncomfortably tight on her widening frame. To avoid her confusion, we discovered that she often sleeps in her clothes and wears the same outfit until her 3-day-a-week aide arrives to give her a shower and help her change. Over the weekend, I dressed and undressed her just as I did for my little girls thirty years ago. “Arms up!” as I lifted her shirt over her head and grabbing hold of a foot or a hand to guide it through the appropriate sleeve.

It was clear, at the very least, she needed new clothes; ones that fit comfortably and were simpler for her to navigate. That QVC line flashed in my head and suddenly I understood my own mother’s choice of apparel. While her dementia was mild, her arthritis and degenerative disc disease was not. Of course at some point she would choose clothing that saved her aching fingers from the intricate work of buttons and zippers and felt comfortable on her pain ridden body. What hubris for me to imagine that I could somehow choose to avoid the need for ease in my own fashion choices if I’m lucky enough to reach my elder years!

Growing old is no picnic although it usually beats the alternative. It’s especially arduous in the youth and beauty obsessed culture we live in. It’s hard enough to manage the increasing aches and pains and the decline of sharp sight and wit as the years wear and tear at our bodies. Add in the insult that gravity takes on the flesh and the extra pounds that tend to accumulate as time passes and it’s a painful equation. I’ve decided that the best formula for my own fortunate advance towards old age is a combination of regular exercise, a healthy diet, and a large dose of acceptance, even if it eventually means accepting a closet full of Old Lady Clothes for me.

Old-lady-with-cigar-in-weird-clothes1

I was in a busy shopping mall over the weekend and carols were ringing, booming down through the spectacularly shiny stars and golden ornaments hanging from every rafter, urging the masses to buy, buy, buy. Every inch of space was filled with frantic shoppers hoping to find just the right gift for everyone on their list and maybe something for themselves as well. Peace on earth was miles away and stress was running high.

I spotted a young boy, about 4 years, old darting through the crowds followed by his parents who were trying to maneuver a stroller holding a wriggling toddler. The little boy clearly had all the wonder and excitement of the season. He just knew that Santa was coming soon and there would be special treats the elves had made just for him. The loud music and sparkling lights of the mall were all part of the magic since he had no list of relatives to buy for and no bills to pay.

Suddenly he took a spill and landed flat, bursting into tears. “You’re OK!” his dad announced. As the boy continued to cry, his toddler sibling soon joined in. “Give Anna a cookie” the mom snapped at the dad. “It’s OK Billy. You’re not hurt. Do you want a cookie?” Both parents frantically rifled through their giant bag looking for sweets. These parents were convinced that cookies were the magic thing that would fix whatever it was that brought her children’s tears.

Many of us often think that cookies are the thing that will take away the pain. We eat cookies (or cake, or potato chips) when we really want a hug but one isn’t offered and we don’t know how to ask.  We do all kinds of things to avoid uncomfortable feelings. We drink alcohol, watch television, shop, over exercize, over work, gossip, or focus on trying to fix someone else. This last one is usually motivated by an inability to tolerate our own discomfort about another person’s pain. Most of us have been fans of all of these activities at one time or another but I find that none of them really work in the long run.

Life is full of things that cause painful feelings. People we love hurt us or leave us or die and we feel intense sadness and grief. Sometimes we do things we know we shouldn’t and wish we hadn’t and feel embarrassment, guilt, or shame. When things don’t happen as we hoped or expected, we feel disappointment or anger. There is war and terrorism, pollution, starvation, and injustice in the world and we feel fear. When we can’t tolerate a feeling and engage in behaviors that we think will take the pain away, we often discover that we’ve only medicated or distracted ourselves from it for awhile. Those feelings lie in wait for the next time and they incubate and grow. And often, the very things we do to try to avoid the uncomfortable feelings only result in more pain: the guilt of a drunken spree; the shame and disgust of having finished the whole chocolate cake; the embarrassment and regret of hours wasted watching MTV or reruns of ER and Friends.

Many of us are afraid to feel the pain because we think it will be overwhelming and will never go away. But it does pass and we can stand it, especially if we can seek some support while having those feelings. Tolerating the discomfort and exploring what is truly there is the way of getting through it. Hugs from our loved ones can help a lot and usually just talking about what hurts can make it feel better.

Especially in this holiday season when so many uncomfortable feelings can surface, I wish for everyone all the love and support you need and so deserve to get through this time without polishing off all the Christmas cookies yourself!

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