The Undertow of Thought

When I started meditating, nothingness was my goal. I wanted to sit in the peace of living, determined to eliminate my every thought for at least one hour every morning. Upside down and inside out thinking, of course, and utterly impossible.

Big thoughts announce themselves by snatching up space as if it only exists for them. They don’t stay long, for they require too much attention. It’s the undertow of thought, subtle and inviting, that is a constant thief. *

And what it steals in meditation, it steals in life. I miss my life when I wander with the thief, creating scenarios for existence elsewhere. In other words, nowhere.

Meditation does not jail the thief for like the undertow, it will not be defeated by brute stubbornness. Awareness is sufficient. It does not take more than that, which is not to say that mindfulness is not without effort. It’s just that it’s worth it. It’s the real deal, not a scenario.

Authenticity does not abide thieves selling snake oil, the positive thinking of nary a cloud in the sky no matter the storm raging. Mindfulness delivers life as it is and stays the would-be thieves of rose-colored glasses.

There is nothing quite like that first clear-eyed view of acceptance. Nothing. Equanimity seems not the stretch it once was. Regard for the undertow reveals more of life not less.

And nowhere in my life has that been truer than in adjusting to the various levels of chronic illness. Disease is a robber only if viewed through a lens of loss. There is no shortage of lenses in life; there is one for every moment.

It’s a matter of looking at what I have rather than what I don’t. It is how I stand in my truth, my power.

This does not happen without a bit of mental wandering with the undertow but there is a magnet to mindfulness, a groove of practice. The less that I am physically, the more I am mentally. Less function equals mindfulness magnified, more prowess with the would-be thief.

Mine is the life that many fear is inevitable in aging. Nothing is inevitable. It’s about choices. I haven’t always lived mindfully. It only matters that I do now, swimming with rather than against the undertow.

An hour’s meditation alerts me to my body’s strongest signals, setting the agenda for the day. A body in stillness is my way of stripping the drama from pain and listening to its signal, going to its core. So often, I would rather steal away but going nowhere is always a disappointment.

Both physically and mentally, I have places to be–the kitchen, the shopping, and the writing, which is increasingly tedious. My fingers cannot seem to select the correct key the first time but readily (and constantly) my hand palm finds the space bar or even caps lock.

No matter the type of voice recognition software, my word structure exasperates, especially if I consider the poetic or commit the greater sin of passive voice. There is constant correction on my screen of words trying to become sentences.

Some days, I persist just because I can but my mind tires of the stop-and-go writing and finally forgets what it was trying to say. My hands stay asleep, tingling.

I’ve had to recognize and actually appreciate that it takes me two to three times longer to write an initial draft, some days more than that. It’s a lot of additional hours.

Clear-eyed acceptance is not an easy lens but it offers options. Real ones. Should I struggle with the undertow, I am only out to sea, aimless. Best to be in the life I have, as it is, exhausted and frustrated, but not so far from equanimity.

Every Time He Shakes His Tail

I was in my late 30s, finishing my Master of Arts thesis, when I finally understood writing as a process.

Admittedly, it sounds silly but in 1986, the “how-to” of writing was threatening an academic tradition once thought unassailable, at least in the English department at a small university in the Rocky Mountains.

It was the invincibility of that tradition that drew me to academia and it would usher me out. We would both find out of what we were made. Different stuff.

For the first time in my life I was consumed by my work, in complete awe of writing. It was alive, no longer an academic exercise in research. And for that matter, neither was I.

My thesis advisor, Jeanne, was having none of “my new process” and rejected the initial draft of my thesis after reading the first two pages. No matter what I said, she would not read more.

Jeanne was a friend, ever patient with my enthusiasm, but her life was the academic tradition. She railed against the canon of “white male fact” and was integral in establishing a women’s studies program but she knew her parameters.

So, stalemate.

In response, I drank my way to sobriety and an eventual decision. It seemed I was fine with not graduating. Writing was what mattered and that has never changed.

But no story ends without a twist or two, if we are true in the telling. We cannot be part of a tradition and simply pull away without consequence for others or ourselves.

So it was that my hands were in dishwater when the telephone call came.

“It’s Jeanne,” my then partner said, stretching her arm toward me, cordless white phone in hand.

“No.”

“She just wants to talk to you.”

I shook my head and looked down at my hands in the dishwater, a master’s graduation ring on my fourth finger, left-hand, gold in suds. My mom had it sent to me. She was coming for graduation. I would not cheat her out of this degree ceremony as I had for my bachelor’s.

Other than my partner, few outside my academic life knew about the thesis stalemate or a tangential twist, my formal charge of sexism and breach of protocol against a tenured professor.

It began with a question, as these things often do. The graduate level course was American literature, 1930s-40s, and I asked why there were no women writers included. The professor told me there were no major women writers. His words reverberated throughout the department.

His breach of protocol was reading the student evaluations before submitting his final grades. The professor all but grabbed them out of the office secretary’s hand, saying he knew “they would be good.”

I was the only graduate student to challenge him in class and in my written evaluation of his course. Accordingly, I was the only one to receive a B, everyone else an A. It is the only B on my graduate school transcript.

Confident in his tenure, the professor never denied any of the charges and a committee of his peers ruled against me, which proved to be the catalyst for a department showdown.

A number of professors threatened to bring my complaint before the entire department for a vote:  to overturn my grade (copies of my coursework were made available); to end the exclusion of women writers from all courses;  to censure the professor for breaching University protocol regarding student evaluations.

The vote never happened.

The head of the department removed that course from the professor’s teaching roster. He never taught in his area of emphasis again. The student evaluation procedure was completely revamped and finally, there was a review of department courses, something many members had been fighting for, including Jeanne.

My grade remained a B.

“You can appeal this decision, of course,” the department chair told me. Very carefully, he explained the process.

I nodded, hoping my tears would not spill over. Some part of me knew my grade was no longer the point, although it had been the initial pain.

“What you need to remember is that whenever he shakes his tail, this issue will make itself known for years to come.”

And it did for the rest of the professor’s life or so I am told.

Jeanne was not among the professors who outwardly supported me but for all of us there is more than one bridge too far in life. At least that has been true for me.

Of course, those were not my thoughts as I stood at the sink with my hands immersed in what was left of the soapsuds. Mostly, I thought about the many differences between my mother and me, specifically that 1986 MA class ring.

I took the phone call from Jeanne.

I did not really “defend” my thesis but ours was a lively discussion regarding writing and women. Some 25 years later, a thesis committee member told me there was some concern about my not defending the thesis.

KMHuberImage; oneness; St. Mark's Refuge FL

Jeanne knew I would travel a road not hers but she sent me with love (and a degree) nonetheless. As firmly, she stood in her truth, too, a world of the Venerable Bede, tawny port, and women finding their own way.

In the year of Jeanne’s death, she asked me to teach a session of her graduate-level women’s studies course, the one that gave me the idea for my thesis. It remains one of the greatest honors of my life.

The last time I sat with Jeanne was in the dark hours of a Wyoming winter morning, selecting the music for her funeral, her singing “this little light of mine.” She thought it a good choice.

Me, too.

I have now lived longer than the lifespan that was Jeanne’s. I cannot imagine her in the time of Trump. She thought the 80s impossible, “the me generation.”

Not surprisingly, that last year of graduate school was on my mind as I listened to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony. Like so many other women I knew how it would end but I also kept hearing, “every time he shakes his tail.”

That, I know to be true.

How Not to Become a Zen Master

“That’s right. Blame it on Zen,” my neighbor, Grace, says.

With Zen, I just don’t hold onto names or nouns anymore was what I was thinking, aloud it seems.

Grace is a Zen master not because she is 90 but because she is contemplative in all ways. She was born to it. And she attends tai chi twice a week. Her whole life is a practice. She would never label herself a Zen master.

We were in the middle of a project that began simply enough but soon involved another neighbor. Specifically, I opened a package that was not mine.

The package was one of four I was expecting but as you can see, there are five packages. The shocking pink garment stunned but it was the thank you card that intrigued–one American meme of gratitude after another, the length of a paragraph.

I read the card aloud to Grace.

“Which company?”

“Doesn’t say.”

All these packages were dumped in the mailroom of our apartment complex on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. They were there for the taking and so I did.

It was not until I straightened the cardboard boxes Grace had so beautifully broken down with her seriously sharp knife that I saw the name on the box of great gratitude was not mine.

And now I was writing a card of explanation to a woman whose name I kept forgetting. Grace selected the blank note card, rejecting the polar bear in favor of the fir of a mountain. Appropriate for any occasion.

“Well, when you decide to get dressed, I’ll take you.” Grace was sitting on my leather loveseat, waiting, with her small knife lying next to her.

She wasn’t taking me anywhere in a red polo shirt so large and so long it was more skirt than shirt, nearly covering my khaki shorts. The logo read Elder Affairs.

I finish writing the card and read it to Grace. “That’s classy,” she says.

“I want her to know what I did in case she’s not there when we return the package.” And with that, I pick up the flat cardboard box that is not addressed to me.

“You’re not going to tape that back up, are you?”

“Trust me, Grace. Perception is everything. I’m admitting my guilt but I’m returning a taped package.”

Just another of the many ways I avoid becoming a Zen master. I was born to it.

KMHuberImage; St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge; Florida; USA

And so, we began our journey to Grace’s car. I with my three-wheeled walker and the re-wrapped package tightly cornered into my walker’s lower bag, and Grace with her walking stick in one hand and under her other arm, four cardboard boxes now flat.

Grace decided who took what. She is Sicilian. We do things her way.

We drove halfway across the apartment complex before I told Grace, “I forgot the card.” We look at one another and then, Grace turns the car around.

Again, we drive across the apartment complex and we score the nearest accessible parking spot, the one near the elevator. As we ride to the second floor, I try to channel Grace, but I am who I am. Still, my focus remains mountain.

I tell the woman what happened, as it happened, all the while holding her package. She does not take it from me.

“Do you know how many people would not even bother to do this?”

I wasn’t clear. She doesn’t realize I opened her package. I should not have taped up the box.

As I look into the kind face of the woman accepting her package, I am determined not to burst into her life but I tell her my story, again, with profuse apologies and my concern about the boxes being left unattended.

“You’re an angel,” she says. I assure her I am not and introduce Grace who smiles and stays silent. We leave.

As we drive back, Grace says, “You know, I think she would have difficulty getting to the mail room.”

“I’m no angel.”

Grace laughs.

On this day I have Grace, and for that, there are not enough expressions of gratitude in any form.

Courage in Every Size

 

 

Today’s #DailyDose features a favorite place of mine, Second Chance Farm (SCF). Regular readers may remember SCF as the sanctuary of Cooper James and Emma Rose. It lies deep in my heart as do the people who live there.

At the farm, courage comes in all sizes, shapes, years, and species; love seems to persist no matter what. To me, that’s magic. I’ve never known what really led me to the sanctuary, and I probably never will. It doesn’t matter. I found it.

I’m sharing Aim For Even’s post because I want you to meet Phoebe Louise Dooley, a true profile in courage. Hers is a story about what is best in us, so here’s the portal into “Where Magic Lives.”

Of Arugula, Alarms, and Available Lenses

Mostly, I meet the energy of the day. What other lens is available? It’s not always what I want, the energy or the view, so sometimes, I look elsewhere.

These are the moments I am the center of the universe, as if I were a match for the energy of any day. Sometimes, the reminders that I am not are fierce.

Like my apartment filling with smoke or my garbage disposal clogged with arugula, sprouts, and spinach gone sour. Who wants to be present then?

I ignore the mundane at my peril. I set myself up.

KMHuberImage; Wood Stork Fishing

The “smoke” in my apartment is a slight exaggeration, more like opening the freezer on a summer’s day. So, vapors. Enough to set off the smoke alarm, which did get my attention. Some of it, anyway.

I opened my front door, certain it was the fire alarm for the building. No one else was in the corridor.

“I wonder if anyone else hears this,” I say, realizing I am the culprit, as my smoke alarm continues to go off. Quickly, I shut my front door.

It is true the vapors were only in my living room, not in the bedroom where I work. There was nothing to notice other than the faint aroma coming from a small saucepan cooking pasta (gluten-free because I must not because I want).

And I had set a timer for the pasta. It had not gone off, just the smoke alarm. Nor was the pasta burned. There were drippings in the burner pan, obviously oil from?? Fresh so perhaps from the morning’s baking. Cleanup was quick.

No memory for moments I am not present, and sometimes, absentia becomes a boomerang. Something starts, and I am unaware, ignoring the energy I am. Mind elsewhere makes for thoughtlessness, fertile ground for boomerangs.

Such as arugula, sprouts, and spinach meshing with a green scrubber in the garbage disposal. Rarely, any of my food meets the garbage disposal but again, awareness.

This time, arugula getting shoved to the back of the refrigerator, along with the sprouts. In my mind they were still fresh–I had plans for them–alas, that was not the energy of the day. The handful of spinach was sour.

Nor was I particularly present as I shoved the greens into the garbage disposal. Promptly, the sink filled with swirling, green water, a whirlpool. What was to clog? Arugula, apparently.

I have battled with this garbage disposal so my kitchen has its own plunger. Such force in suction, the clinging and the letting go. So it was to be with the arugula, finally separating from the green scrubber, indisposed but not yet disposed, only drained.

In some past moment, the green scrubber found its way down the garbage disposal. What choice for the arugula except to wrap itself round the scrubber? The disposal was doing what it does. Same for the plunger.

Not sentient beings, those things, but all at my whim, like the energy I bring into the space of every day. Will I look through the lens available or stare elsewhere in longing? And when I look away, what change will I effect?

No doubt, it will find me.

KMHuber Image; St. Mark's Refuge, FL; mirror

Shoving My Snark Elsewhere

There was a time I whittled my wits for social media, a kind of  “computer warrior” as a friend calls them. I sought battles that may have not been there. Seizing on one word or phrase and letting go of context.

Snark. You know the drill. I wasn’t any good at it. Zen showed me how bad I was. Embarrassing, actually.

I haven’t given up on social media. Just the opposite. Rather than preparing for battle, I just take a stand when or if it is necessary. Awareness is my armor and suits me better than snark ever did.

I’m wondering if worldwide connection is changing battle and its field. Connection is changing everything else. There is no absence of compassion but in its lack evil lurks, more patient than any of us might credit.

Awareness reveals evil as easily as compassion and in comparison, evil withers, kind of like snark, unable to stand the long light of day. Scrutiny. Either way, we are revealed; our hearts clench and open in response.

We’re seeking the security of the steadfast but awareness is shaky ground, ever shifting. And that is tiring. So why not throw some shade. Maybe give up for a while. Nothing seems to last because nothing does.

I think social media makes that clearer than any doctrine. All of life is an experience, one after another, the coming to and going from any one moment–all on shaky ground.

We’re like tectonic plates, and sometimes there’s an earthquake. And still, there is existence in spite of it all. In that, I am in awe.

So why not, as Pema Chödrön says, “be generous with your joy.”* Why not, indeed. Joy does so much with so little. Sort of like snark in that regard but joy is never-ending. Snark is more of a single position and like evil it evaporates for there is always more joy, and it comes from unusual places.

Just this past week I received a mint plant whose roots were all but bursting from the top and bottom of its plastic pot. Some strands had found their way through air holes. Life searching to stay.

I have not “shared” my apartment since feline EmmaRose left. There are fewer and fewer insects but I celebrate those who pass through. “We are always in relationship” Pema Chödrön once remarked regarding the insect in the room.

And now, it is a mint plant with rust on its leaves and a few shoots struggling for life.

I asked neighbor Grace for her expert assistance. What she teaches me about flora and fauna is such a gift. Within 24 hours, we visited the nursery where Grace once worked to select the proper potting soil, drainage rocks, pot, and tray.

It was a celebration of Grace and her years tending the native plants and the friendships of her life. She gave me the complete tour, including the goldfish pond.

When was the last time I knew such joy in the morning amid native species that somehow make room for me and my kind. Only they know why.

And that is what we brought home to the mint. With the care that comes with years of living, Grace aerated the soil around the squared roots, opening up more life, as we provided the breath of carbon dioxide.

Offering life for life. It’s existence, this joy.

*The idea of being generous with joy is from Pema Chödrön’s The Compassion Book: Teachings for Awakening the Heart, page IX.

 

Sail More, Land Less

Life ajumble, presented in pieces disordered, or at least in an array I have yet to understand. It’s up to me to find what I need. Availability is not the issue. It’s awareness, a matter of rearranging, turning round each piece.

How else perspective, for none of the sides are the same.

I find this in writing as well. Not every story fits a frame, a structure, and some pieces remain snippets but none are without worth. There is no lack unless I write it.

All of this is to say I’m back among my pirates, again. It’s a big story, beyond an essay and larger than a novella. It’s a novel, I am not a novelist, and that doesn’t matter.

So, why go there?

No story is ever wasted, not on me, anyway. What else is life other than stories and questions about stories, which often result in yet more stories. It’s how we live.

A trip to a pirate ship rearranges the pieces of my mind, it’s a new view, but not for long as whether it’s 1865 or 2018, the mandala of human nature is only so varied and quite repetitive.

A dip into the past puts me in the present in a way I never am. The questions I bring from 2018 are outmoded in 1865. How can that be?

The irony of life ajumble, finding new perspective in the past for the present. Maybe that is knowing history. I doubt that it matters how I find more relevance in 1865 than in 2018.

It is like reaching into the future to find my limitations, my biases, and yes, my prejudices, all of which are alive and well on a pirate ship, as I write wrongs that seem to know no death.

It is with a fervor I do not live, disappointing but true. Sometimes I have to stay on the pirate ship to accept truths about myself. Lately, I’ve been there a lot, my questions insufficient, but the lives of the pirates lead me to new ones.

They have few possessions and what they treasure is buried on land, where they cannot stay, no matter how they try. Afloat on the seven seas, they are in constant danger of losing their lives but they never do. It is only on terra firma they die. It lies in wait.

Almost obviously, the working title of this pirate story is “Fish on Land,” as they fly any flag that will get them into a port but with boots on the ground, they get lost no matter how good their map or how well thought out their mission. So often, some die trying to return to the safety of the sea.

That’s how it seems so far. I don’t know all of the pirate perspectives yet, not having looked round or even met all the characters but being human is to know that “it’s always something,” especially in fiction, the world must turn and twist.

Life ajumble, so many pieces, each a unique perspective, more stories than a single lifetime affords. It matters not the vessel, just that we sail and maybe, land less.