Questions Are the Helpers

Seeds of doubt disturb. What else their purpose other than to poke and to prod? Only life’s discomfort opens my eyes.

I’ve lived most of my life without that appreciation but as John Muir said, “the clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” I’ve walked my years. Mine was not to waste experience but to live passionately, which is to say rarely did I look before I leapt.

I may not have been averse to risk but I missed its potential, the fluid intelligence that is life and its infinite supply of questions. With few exceptions, I walked passed the gold. In a flurry of abandon to answer I didn’t realize every answer morphs into a question, again.

That’s the gold.

And then one day, I stopped running around the forest, in and out of life’s caverns, to experience it in daily doses, appreciating the uniqueness of every dawn and its dusk, each day fraught with doubt, eventually evening out.

It’s fluid, that evenness of energy, and there are days it seems impossible another sun will rise but so far…. That is the power of the present, never absent, even in rage and the time of Trump.

If I watch the world through his lens, I have the perspective of a pinhead, ego run amok, a desperate need for attention at any cost. At his rallies of like-minded MAGA hats, all are assured of answers as if they are forever.

Perhaps they would hide the sun–control its narrative–if they could, but that is not the nature of life, no matter the determination of mere men. I do my best to remember that and view them through the broadest lens I can find.

And that means questions.

What is it in me that brought them to the world stage? It’s an intimate question, a BREAKING daily dose, but I don’t have to go deep to discover my own egoic need for attention and what feeds it. Fortunately, mine isn’t magnified by the office of the presidency. Ego loves a circus, the more sleight-of-hand the better, but the question is, why do I pay the admission of distraction?

I do, far too often, and it is a high price to pay. Trump cannot exist in a world that doesn’t hear him as a human being or as president. True as well for his followers. All oligarchs need a platform in addition to a puppet president or the like. As I say, it’s a high price to pay.

Like the forest wild, I look through a glass darkly. Every day. Awareness grinds my mind, broadening my life lens. How else to clear my way to the universe? Certainly not by looking behind me or holding onto a way of life already gone.

I’ve tried that so many times, expecting different results by doing the same thing over and over. That’s paying the circus to go away which it won’t. It is always here but each time I face it, it loses a bit of its attraction and thus its attention.

That is the power of the present and what a gift it is. Always available, every event a teacher, ultimately one a traveling professor. For me it is a chronic disease whose assured outcome cannot be changed but everything else can. How’s that for empowerment?

Any circus, no matter how many monkeys, just doesn’t compete, which is not to say I ignore the tenor of the times. Far from it. I just won’t go to the circus. My attention is elsewhere, a freeing of the narrative from any who would control it.

Fear is quite vulnerable. It’s the minutia, every day details, even a single sentence, that chips away at control. The pause for thought is the stuff of change. It interrupts the flow. Like I said, it’s an intimate experience but its effects are external. Anyway, that’s what I do.

It is not mine to tell any human being how to live. Life is constant choice, one question after another. My beliefs are not sacred but fluid, alive with potential. I look to the questions for they are the helpers.

“There is a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen).

Live With It

If there is no solution, then it’s not a problem. It’s a regrettable situation. It’s a boundary condition. It’s something you’ll need to live with. Seth Godin

Live with it? For how long? It feels empty when I have debunked a problem as a boundary condition.

Mine is a love-hate relationship with boundaries. My boundaries are sacrosanct and everybody else’s, not so much. That’s the history of humanity, battles about boundaries, most of which were never problems but  regrettable situations.

I have a framed poster of the Little Big Horn Battlefield hanging in the entryway of my apartment. It’s hard to miss. Those who have noticed might wonder why but no one says anything.

It’s a view of a lone, white granite, military marker shadowed in golden grasses. Distant mountains purple under the haze of an azure sky. A Montana native, many times I walked the ground where a yellow-haired white man made a stand.

In my years as a middle manager for the state of Florida, I preferred the grasses of the Little Big Horn poster to the parking lot view from my corner office window. It is hard to see the horizon in Tallahassee, land of longleaf pine and live oak but it took me years to see the forest.

I believed everything was “figure-out-able.” What was not working would–no matter what–a solution was available, if I just looked long enough. And search I did but not always with distinction, regrettably. Years later, boundary conditions are not so hard to recognize.

It’s always a choice, live mindfully or stir the pot. One is so much easier on the heart–and head–the choice is ever obvious if not easy. Equanimity helps. No, seriously, it does.

Staying curious opens me to the world as it is, such as it is, knowing I won’t figure it out, and that’s okay. Nothing stays forever, boundary conditions or the real problems of the world, for which there are too few solutions. It’s just easier to get pulled into boundary conditions, the minutia of existence. That is figure-out-able.

KMHuberImage; writingI really need just one boundary condition: compassion, delivered firm and kind. I cannot think of one situation existing outside that boundary. It is a response for all occasions and sometimes, silence is the best wall of all.

My life is less the Little Big Horn battle than it was 30 years ago, and I have a Virginia Woolf poster that would fit its frame nicely. She, the woman of the transcendent sentence in a room of her own.

I can live with that.

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.

The Peace in Thinking Bigger

Who is not looking to live with peace of mind, to rest in the reality of every day, to frustrate the frenzy in favor of calm. No one wants to ride the roller coaster forever. It’s exhausting.

My way is Zen, which provides perspective but not escape. I don’t get to detach from the chaos–create an echo chamber–mine is to sit in the middle of life, to “think bigger” as Pema Chödrön says.

It is more than sitting in meditation or feeling the prana of yoga. Those are powerful, pristine moments, truly a touch of peace, but like Heraclitus’ river, each experience is its own. No do overs.

Yet in the experience is the yen to return.

Some days I sit on its banks, having finally found my way around a horseshoe bend or oxbow but it is to the river I return, always at peace, a place to think bigger.

Where I accept that all of life is an experience. I trust it. And each time I drink in these waters, I am slowed, as if in the sip I experience life to no exclusion.

Every time I go off on another meander, yet another promising tangent, the river does not slow for me but trusts my return. Of course, the river is endless but my experiences are limited to one life.

I begin at the river, mind and body balanced, but soon one is ignored in favor of the other, leaving me vulnerable and impatient, probably defensive, which is what I bring to the world.

If I am not feeling equanimity, I’m not giving it. No amount of positive thinking/action will make it so. If I promise what I am not certain, offer words people want but I doubt, the river will wash out those bridges.

I am back where I began. My mind pulls up similar events and while memory is not 100% reliable, I am reminded I do not step in the same river twice–not ever–no matter how similar the results.

I add to my experience bank as I sit at river’s side, purposefully not moving, to still the body’s sensations, even the ever-present numbness/tingling in my hands. They who never quite wake appreciate the stillness of meeting the dawn as an act of breath.

It is a recent revelation for me, having my body still my mind rather than the other way around. It is not that I didn’t know, it is that I did not do. My mind is more cooperative because it doesn’t have to fight for its turn. No more meandering…well…less trying to step in the same river twice.

We are living impermanence on a grand scale, and it is not always what we would choose, but the river is not selective in its offering. How we accept experience defines us. Do we meet the dawn or run the meander only to return where we began?

 The main question is, are we living in a way

that adds further aggression and self-centeredness

to the mix, or are we adding some much-needed sanity?

Pema Chödrön, Taking the Leap:

Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fear, page 2

Are we thinking bigger?

 

Monday Morning 9 AM Social

Grace and I talk a lot about community (or lack thereof) within our apartment complex. There are four buildings, perhaps pockets of community within each, but together, we are factions.

Management sends out a monthly calendar of clubhouse events. Every Monday, there is a 9 a.m. social and has been for as long as Grace and I can remember. Her memory is encyclopedic.

Grace and I share an apartment wall. As she says, “it makes a difference if you know who is on the other side.” So, we decided to find out what a Monday morning social is rather than just surmising.

We meet outside the clubhouse, telling each other how nice we look, and we do. We have brought our own beverages, mine a lime-green insulated cup and hers, a silver thermos, which she raises as she whispers, “community coffee,” a flash of the ironic in her smile.

Ruddy-cheeked and wide-eyed at the world, she is captivating at 90, 20, 50, or 70. Tai chi three days a week. At 66, I am the one with the walker and “black tea,” now conspicuous in its lack of a label for the occasion.

“What does that say about me?” I ask both of us.

We are friends with rhetorical questions, Grace and I; they usually begin or end our conversations. We have little regard for answers, they of the limited run, always replaced by another question.

So on this Monday morning we are open to what we meet in the “kitchen area” of the clubhouse, three women intensely involved in a card game using a star-shaped board with pegs.

Five bid each other “hello,” and three return to their play. Grace and I choose a table in the middle of the room, and I take my walker to a side wall. All other tables are empty.

“Is this it?” Grace asks.

“I think so.”

We had given considerable thought not to arrive early (with Grace, one is never late) but as it turns out, we were on time. We had come to be social, which was not to interrupt the game. Their chatter immediately resumed after “hello” with counting and card shuffling.

Grace and I kept our voices low as we sipped our beverages, telling stories we had left untold during the visits to each other’s apartment, when talking over the phone, or sitting on the wooden bench outside our three-story, white stucco building with red shutters.

It was as if we were meeting for the first time, and that may have had something to do with our age difference.

I look older than my years. Grace is curious but would never ask. That would be rude. Besides, she enjoys putting together pieces of life, moving them around for effect. Until Monday, I had walked around her efforts.

When Grace began, “I am not sure exactly what age span is between us….”

“I am 66 and you are 90.”

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, and she let her breath out slowly, indicating the span with a spread of her arms, her arthritic hands still dexterous. Was it a bridge too far?

“I’m a historian,” I said, wanting worth I may not have.

She tells me a story of blackouts during World War II, of many nights sitting with her bed-ridden grandfather who said, sometimes, he wanted to die. Teenage Grace telling him he did not.

“My mother asked me to do it and I was glad to do it. I loved my grandfather.”

I don’t know where in New York State that Grace’s family lived but it was closed to an air field. With a bit of pride, she tells me how quickly she learned to identify the different planes and wing spans. Hesitantly, she admits “it was all a bit exciting.”

“It is the way of children, isn’t it?” I say, as if I know, but how else to get through a world war. And I think of Grace’s teenage angst buried in the memory of bombing drills and identifying warplanes.

I don’t know that but I have been reading many World War II war novels (The Women in the Castle) and biographies like Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.I tell Grace about them.

“Well, without the women in the war…” Deftly, she drops in an ellipsis and lets it sit. “They did everything. They kept it going.” She sips the last of her coffee. “And then,” she says, as she opens the palms of her hands to the sky.

“It is time for women to come forward again,” I say. “And I think it is beginning to happen. This time, there is no going back.” I offer this with more conviction than I carry most days.

Grace looks at me for a while before offering “Yes,” with the finality of belief that won’t bend with the wind.

And this week’s Monday morning 9 a.m. social ends, much as it began. The players still playing but now in silence and with a smile, they say “goodbye.”

Like Grace says, it makes a difference to know who’s on the other side.

Are We Americans?

I write about change, which I do not find easy nor do most. We resist before we act, hoping not to have to change our lives. It always means some kind of loss but the longer we avert our eyes, the greater the effect.

Many other sentient beings are dying off (or being killed outright), unable to adapt to our immense presence. We are creating our own date stamp. That’s the global effect.

In America, it is our constitutional republic under siege. We are quite fond of that term, as if we understood its layers of complexity, its nature, by attaching to a label.

Currently, I’m reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. One of the characters remarks that America is the only country that is in constant search of its identity. Who or what is America?

It is an ongoing question, and that’s a good thing. A constitutional republic is vibrant as long as its citizens are vigilant. We cannot look away, although we have.

If you have read any Hamilton, Madison, or The Federalist Papers you know whereof I speak. Lots of questions about this new republic and for what it might stand. And there are years of writing, beyond the 18thcentury, about what a remarkable experiment we are.

History reveals some really cool stuff about being American. It’s some of my favorite writing. We can be and have been something good, not exceptional but good. It’s just that we have averted our eyes, and without vigilance, freedom dies.

In less than 250 years this great experiment in democracy is in shreds. Without one country, indivisible, there is no republic. We need to take a knee in defiance to the one who would rule us all, if for no other reason than to defy decree in democracy.

There are no saviors on the horizon. That is fantasy. We can no longer merely man the lighthouses. We are the saviors we seek, such as we are. It gives us pause but we know it is ours to do.

There have been and still are remarkable human beings whose lights are brilliant and whose hearts are so compassionate that all of humanity benefits. These beings have always walked this earth and that they still do is a tribute to the human spirit.

We have many in America, right now, but they are not faces we readily recognize. Too often, we avert our eyes still. Old habits, ours, are dying very hard. We are at our tipping point.

There is “nothing more exhilarating than saving yourself by the simple act of waking” (Junot Díaz). Fine words but what to do? We do know. Awareness is basic to human nature.

It’s not difficult to discern the right thing to do. It means do no harm, and in response, our hearts open in ways that amaze us. And before our eyes the world is different because we are. It’s the little stuff, every day, that changes the world. It always has.

We want swift change, with a certain outcome, but that is the wand the illusionist waves, diverting our attention from what we are, a constitutional republic, a unique experiment with layers of checks and balances. The web we weave is catching he who practices to deceive.

No trick lasts for any illusionist, demagogue, or oligarch. That is the story of human history. Life bends back around, like a boomerang, in ways beyond hope. Every. Single. Time.

We cannot be caught wanting. The simple act of waking, being aware, means taking a stand, accepting that it comes at a cost. We take ourselves out of our wants and act for the need of all. Every. Single. Day.

That’s the compassionate response and its ripple effects form the future. Our way of life as a constitutional republic is revolutionary and always has been. That is America. Are we Americans?

 

 

Of Bombs, Washing Machines, and Missions

In the early hours of Saturday in Syria, bombs fall, a first world response to do as we say and not as we do or else. Mission accomplished, whatever that means.

Later that same morning, my washing machine fills with water and stops, refusing to start the wash cycle no matter what I say or do. Sometime later, the repairmen (it takes two) tell me it is a Monday problem, at which time they will return to empty my washer of water and clothes to see if the machine is worth fixing.

I know a bit more about washing machines than bombs but not enough about either. Although I am at fault in evaluating one with the other, I can no more afford to replace a washing machine than I can offer a solution to world peace.

Why is that?

Somewhere in the truth of that false equivalency is an answer on whose surface I skate every day, hoping it will hold until it doesn’t. Like Saturday.

Prior to the arrival of the repairmen, and perhaps coincidentally, I meet one of my neighbors in the hallway of my apartment complex. I am on my way to guide the repairmen to a parking place. In actuality, none are available for all are assigned, some to people who do not live here but occasionally visit.

I am among the lucky who have an assigned space, by virtue of being among those who have lived here longest but I know that assigned parking does not mean having a place. Freely, the phrase “parking Nazis” is bandied about but no one is quite sure who they are. Just that they are.

In my cell phone conversation with the repairman I do not explain everything but I do mention parking Nazis in hopeful emphasis, for I have yet to be a cause of parking concern and don’t want this to be that day, too.

As is, mine is not to meet the repairmen in the parking lot.

“Aren’t you a Buddhist?”

It is Vicky, hers is a smoker’s voice, husky and helped by tubes attached to the oxygen cylinder lying in the basket of her walker. Her dog, Teddy, tethered to its handlebars.

“Well, I see myself more as Zen.” Why I never just say “yes” to being Buddhist, I do not know. I just won’t.

“What does that mean?” Vicky asks, wary that I might actually try to explain. I can all but see the amount of oxygen increase in her transparent nose tubes.

KMHuberImage; oneness; St. Mark's Refuge FL

She is not looking to understand the many schools of Buddhism (as if I do) much less the distinction of labels. Just like me, she has only her kind of love to give, and on this day she is offering it, doing her best to ask about something she knows nothing about other than it is important to me.

“It means open to everyone.” And for once, I stop there.

“So, do you do tai chi?” And we find our way to conversation.

If I hear her, I will find something to give in response. Nothing magical, just helpful. She’s in so much pain, much of it physical, and I tell her about my gentle yoga practice. It does not take much to begin a practice, just a DVD I tell her, and she is relieved. Maybe it will be a way for her. Maybe.

While Vicky and I talk, the repairmen are in my apartment examining all the parts of my washing machine, where distinctions matter. What began on Saturday must be met again on Monday. As always, mission ongoing.

Only later do I remember the parking Nazis.