Moments That Change Everything

Perhaps on no other day is the nature of fear and fearlessness more apparent than on the winter solstice, the celebration of dark during a season given to light. Tonight, the quarter moon reveals the yin and yang of life, its phase equally light and dark.

A rather somber opening for a solstice celebration but these days are darkened by a pandemic that kills thousands—incredibly, thousands—every day. No sentence is darker than that. Yet, there is the promise of a vaccine; like the solstice it is the promise of lighter days. The science of stuff gives a glimmer of hope, and the rest is up to us.

Too given to fear, we often stay in the dark much longer than we need, not only at a high cost to ourselves but to the planet. We too soon forget that fearlessness is not being without fear but facing what scares us the most, the light of day, revealing who and what we are. Transformation. The winter solstice marks its beginning.

For over 30 years now, the winter solstice is inextricably intertwined with a quarter moon night, both black and bright, in a southwestern Wyoming town that has become known to me as Fossil. No such place really exists but the land of the fossil fishes does. There, life is in layers with occasional interruptions in the laminae—the moments that change everything—it’s a place I lived and then later it became its own story, and every December, I return to begin anew. Sometimes, I actually do.

Jillian drives west on Interstate 80, searching the brittle, white Wyoming landscape for highway marker 189. Unending waves of prairie snow-crust keep her from locating the lone highway marker, but the broad, green-and-white exit sign that reads “Fossil” is not to be missed. She turns onto a narrow, two-lane highway that looks and drives like a one-way street. This is the high plains desert, 6,900 feet, covered in glistening snow crust that will not melt until June is the last thought she allows herself before arriving at the house on Ruby Street, on the night of the winter solstice quarter moon.

In the clear cold of midnight, Jillian looks at an Independent Realty photograph that had been taken the previous May when burnt orange poppies surrounded the once white clapboard Ruby Street house now covered in a false, red brick front that sags. Nubs of native grasses dotted the wind worn grounds; seven aging cottonwoods bordered the back and sides of the corner lot. Sweeping, broad limbs of a lone blue spruce provided perpetual shade for the front porch. And facing the eastern scallops of Oyster Ridge, with its fumaroles from long abandoned coal mines, was a cherry tree heavy with blossom, magnificent in its breadth.

But this is the winter solstice and there are no blossoms, poppies, or grasses, nubs or no; just the fumarole gas plumes in the moonlight, somewhat like Yellowstone’s geysers, as they start to signal their burst. But this is not the fantasy of Yellowstone. It is life at timberline, a harsh cold beauty for the very few. The fumarole plumes will fade with the night but the gas is ever present if not always seen.

In the -2° crystalline landscape, the snow beneath Jillian’s boot all but shatters with her every step. Everything looks and feels cold enough to break at the touch of her glove so she is careful as she turns the key in the front door of the first house built in Fossil at the turn of the 20th century, the Madam’s home. Standing on its threshold, there seems a sliver of possibility Jillian has found her way home. Maybe it is the magic of the solstice with its yin and yang moon, yet in the stillness of the dark, the light swirls as she lets a life lived end and a life she has not, begin.

“Transformation always involves the falling away of things we have relied on, and we are left with the feeling that the world as we know it is coming to an end because it is” (Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening).

An Ounce of Compassion

Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object (Albert Camus).

Mount Rainier Len Huber Photo

I. An ounce of compassion is all I need.

While Trump was in the hospital those first 24 hours, compassion dominated social media (in word and meme). If we could feel for him, there might be a way through this time of Trump but that would’ve been too easy.

Before the election, I had a brief exchange on Twitter with a young woman who was wondering whether Donald Trump would gain her eternal soul. As a disabled, newly unemployed, young black woman, she had lost pretty much everything so it was to her soul she clung.

The very fact that she was asking, I offered, showed she could still feel for another being, regardless of circumstances. Compassion doesn’t require much. An ounce will do. She had this I assured her.

Compassion does not live at the surface of our emotions but at their core, an inward journey, fraught with detours and maybe requiring a dark night of the soul—or two—for truth, like light, blinds….

In almost unfathomable numbers, Americans are dying as Trump ignores COVID, desperately seeking his next gig for the money he needs almost as much as the power he craves. Republicans stay complicit in their silence. They fear life with him as much as they fear him gone. They do not seem to fear for their souls, however.

Vulnerability is what wakes us at four in the morning.

It’s what causes our hearts to race and panic to rise in our throats.

It’s where our skin wears thin, where our armor and our self-contained walls cannot withstand the truth of what’s happening.

And because of this, it is the exact place we can recognize our interdependence with all things.

This is how we become free, and it is where deep hope is to be found (Diane Eshin Rizzetto)*

Len Huber Photo

II. So, now I have a Eureka robot vacuum. I have been saving for it, initially because I truly loathe household chores of any kind but in particular, vacuuming and sweeping.

Both have become if not impossible, very risky chores to do while using a three-wheeled walker. So, I saved for “Euri,” as I have come to call him, and although I was certain I must supervise, it turns out I’m not needed. In fact, it’s best if I’m not in the room at all. Like the recliner, I am an obstacle.

It is true if you live long enough, some chores will become obsolete. Who knew there was that kind of joy.

Euri favors what I can only describe as a horizontal pattern of cleaning, not exactly a zigzag but always on alert for the most efficient cleaning angle. Sometimes his pattern is an isosceles triangle, while other times an obtuse one but always the angles are acute. There is little to none of the mundane up-one-row and down another. The corners and edges I avoided he favors.

Euri’s sensors are exact and his patience everlasting. No matter how many times he bumps into obstacles, he adjusts and adapts. And when he reaches 20% of his battery power, he returns to his docking station and recharges. He beeps to let me know he’s “home.”

The other day, Euri discovered the area under my bed. I had hoped that would not happen but he is not to be denied when he’s in the room. It wasn’t too long before Euri stopped, the signal for me to empty his dust cup and clean his roller, which I did and then returned him to duty. But he’d had enough and returned to his docking station. After all, it is dark under my bed, the dust is deep, and sometimes, monsters be there.

The intelligence may be artificial but its application feels human. Our interdependence with all things…is how we become free, and it is where deep hope is to be found.

Perhaps I will yet find that ounce of compassion.

Kristin MacDonald Photo

 

* Excerpt from Deep Hope: Zen Guidance for Staying Steadfast When the World Seems Hopeless by Diane Eshin Rizzetto, pages 13–14.

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.

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.

Spreadsheet Zen

Each year is a workbook of 12 monthly spreadsheets with columns and rows by category. That is how I account for my life. It does not escape me that what it orders most in my life matters least, money.

From time to time, a friend and I talk about the carryover on our credit card, having paid the monthly amount but not having quite enough to pay the entire balance. We might pay no interest but the sheet is not clean.

Yet, if I look beyond my current expenses, I project balances that do not exist. I cannot know next month so I confine myself to the columns and rows that I can complete. But this spreadsheet is not without its Zen.

Every month I mine my finances, drilling down to every penny, as I record each receipt. It’s not that time-consuming as I don’t have many receipts. There are advantages to being “almost poor.”

Not the least of which is letting go of living in lack. That in itself is quite a discovery, having enough, and exploring all that I might do with it. Working within my labels, and looking forward to it, something I used to dread.

It was not the actual labels of personal care or household supplies that confined. It was lack. Before I looked at what I had, I was sure the month would outlast me, as if it were a contest, which it never was. It was a spreadsheet of columns and rows, choices.

Sounds like spin, and it may be, but living in lack is wandering a wasteland with no way out. Life in an infinite loop. Everything is never enough.

When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you. 
Lao Tzu

I dive into each budget category, to its bottom dollar. It will always be 100 cents but shifted here or there, it becomes a receipt paid. It’s expanding the category, understanding that in some months the label of household supplies pays for personal care.

Rent remains rent even when it increases, like utilities, phone, and Internet. Bandwidth and a roof over my head are among the first paid. And then, food.

Life is not constrained by any label, and every time I try to make it fit, all I find is lack. It’s not the label, it’s my attachment to it. Best to roam the range of labels, keep my boundaries loose. That seems the Zen of it.

Inside Hopelessness Is a Bit of Badass

What I return to, time and again, is the sliver of hope slipped inside hopelessness. It’s so easy to miss–it’s like a well-kept secret–for without hope, hopelessness does not exist. That is so badass.

I, as a sexagenarian, have this conversation regularly with my neighbors. Some are my age but most are septuagenarian and octogenarian. I don’t gain much ground until I remind them about “badass.”

That always brings a smile. It’s a generational thing as to why they grin. I have to cite the Urban Dictionary to remind them badass is a good thing, a powerful, authentic, compassionate way of life. But I know it’s the word “badass” that takes hold as hopelessness finds itself at the curb, albeit momentarily.

A sliver of light lives in unlikely places, no matter how long the darkness lingers or how immense its presence. It is not like hope belongs to only one generation at a time. With historic eyes, hope transcends.

Badass is not an easy sell at any time. Some days, being badass means the right thing to do is way too hard. Being aware is not easy in an existence that is ever-changing. It’s not easy living from the inside out.

Being badass means meeting the storm, knowing that loss looms, accepting all escape routes lead back to the beginning. The only way through is forward. Life gives us hopelessness and within it, hope.

I have learned to lose myself in the rage of hopelessness’ storm. That takes a few badass turns of thought, believe me, but being in its storm is the only way to center myself, to sit in its eye, the hope in hopelessness.

To watch a warbler arrive. My barren landscape brighten with yellow and black, breaking through my black-gray fog. I get a glimpse of the world going on around me, as it should, for no storm is everywhere.

Nor does the winter warbler stay. It is mine to find my way to the self that is still. That journey is never the same nor should it be. It would be pointless to go through a storm and not be changed.

I don’t think it’s a matter of the storm’s rage, although I cannot say I am not affected by its ferocity. I’m just not there to do battle. I let the storm exhaust itself. Rage will do that, when left alone.

And the body adjusts to the ravage that is any disease but it does have a special appreciation for rest in any storm’s aftermath. Being has been through yet another storm and will never be quite the same.

On any day, the body delivers all it has to offer. That may be the best definition of badass yet.

*Badass note:  I’m being quite selective in my definition of badass here, confining it to ethical, authentic, and compassionate behavior. The Urban Dictionary provides alternatives here. 

One Storm at a Time

These past two weeks have been a bit of a hurricane for me, a storm within a storm but today’s post focuses on Hurricane Irma.  She took her time crossing Florida and many parts of the state are devastated and without power.

At times Tallahassee was in Irma’s path but she turned northeast, not before disrupting the city–enough to be under curfew for a couple of days.

Floridians know the hurricane season is far from over.

It may seem quite odd that I turn to the trees during storms but I do. Today’s post, I Talk to Trees, is about just that, specifically the small woods outside my window.

I offer a swinging bench to sit for a bit to read the full post on Aim for Even.

Wherever you are, be safe. There’s only one of you, only one. ❤

 

 

Life as a Perennial Question

As a word, surrender still swallows hard.

Instead, I “crumble”; my “stony” self breaks into pieces–I “try something different” (Rumi). That I will more readily crumble than surrender may be a matter of semantics or more probably, Rumi.

Be crumbled.
So wildflowers will come up where you are.
You have been stony for too many years.
Try something different.
Surrender.
—Rumi

That wildflowers are possible is worth the risk of bursting forth as a bloom, going to seed, and sprouting again. My life is perennial until the year that it is not.

Until then, the crumbling into a wildflower is worth the experience, its seed an idea that will grow into some form of question.

I find myself fascinated with questions, considering them eternal. Answers are more ephemeral. Once accepted, they begin to crumble, not always noticeably, yet break-up they do. They are the feed for the seed—the idea–that will grow into another question.

They have so many facets and yet a familiarity about them, a leitmotif. Familiarity means I must be patient and allow the question to grow into itself. Far too many times, I anticipate—so sure I know what is being asked.

But I do not. It is mine to listen for there are so many variations on any theme. There is nothing new under the sun until life bursts through yet again, and then everything is new in that life.

What will it be like?

There is that question again–a unique seed–an idea expressed like no other. Its flower will blossom as have similar blooms before crumbling, surrendering.

Perhaps that is the promise of impermanence, life playing out against the constancy of Buddha nature, God, the Universe, the web without a weaver, the Tao….

I am the perennial until the year I do not sprout. I have gone on to something completely different