Owning the Outrage in a World of “Hold My Beer”

(Note: For those who prefer my posts that are more Zen than bite, you might want to give this one a pass. Then again, stay. We cannot keep walking away from one another, especially here in the United States. So, sit a spell. Have a beer or a coffee, and at the end of my say, I’ll hold your beer, your coffee—whatever—while you have your say.) 

In her book, Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World, Pema Chodron writes that there is a group of resilient people who never give up on the world.

Hold my beer, Pema.

I doubt even Margaret Mead would think that a small group of thoughtful people can change what is coming to fruition in the United States. It’s well-thought out and the result of decades of planning, pretty much religion wrapped in a flag. I suspect the truly thoughtful (and no doubt resilient) have left the planet, having hijacked Elon Musk’s SpaceX for other worlds.

Not being among the most thoughtful, Musk is too busy enjoying “former guy” status as the soon-to-be—or not—war lord of Twitter. Of course, there are so many brilliant billion-dollar distractions for Musk that nothing is a loss or maybe it’s all a loss.

We have met the enemy and it is us. In an increasingly fascist world, democracy seems too hard. And anyway, how bad can a fascist regime be? That remains a legitimate question for far too many people in America, old and young. In our classrooms, the already whitewashed US history is being replaced by snow white fairytales. Will this bring back knights in tights and chastity belts?

Hold my beer.

The fencing is up around the building of the United States Supreme Court, in anticipation of the court’s archaic ruling regarding reproductive rights for women:   they have none is the majority opinion of the court. In response, some state legislatures, eerily echoing one another, are enacting laws making any abortion for any reason a criminal act. In Louisiana, they wanted abortion to be considered a homicide but the bill died in withdrawal.

The leaked court opinion sets aside precedent, opening the way for aborting all civil rights—sexual orientation, interracial marriage, voting. What woman wouldn’t wear a chastity belt (modified for sex toys because girls gonna have fun). Minnie Mouse is leading the Disney charge.

And speaking of Florida, any sexual orientation or skin color other than white cisgender cannot be mentioned in elementary education, which also abstains of any meaningful sex education. Governor DeSantis calls special legislative sessions as often as the former guy twerked at his rallies. Yeah, those knights in tights.

Hold my beer.

As in a Dar Williams’ song, I am viewed “like my country in the eyes of the world.” Forever the ugly American, it seems. From sea to shining sea we are either privileged or poor, partisan or bi-partisan, and owners of the biggest arsenal of destruction on the planet to ensure the American way, which is a democracy dying, because we cannot be bothered to vote in Every. Single. Election.

Here’s to the Ukrainian people who know democracy is worth being fire-bombed Every. Single. Day.

It is coming to pass that authoritarians/oligarchs are owning all of America much like they once “owned the libs,” who have spent far too much time jousting at the outrage windmill. Witness the recent symbolic vote in the United States Senate to codify abortion. What do you get when you own the outrage? I’m old enough to remember when Don Quixote was required reading.

There is no majority of Americans, in any poll, that agrees with the soon to be rendered Supreme Court opinion regarding Roe v. Wade but will the American people storm the 2022 primary season demanding to know every single representative’s stand on women having the right to make their own decisions about their bodies? It’s a yes or no question, needing no muddled meandering. It’s not a Left or Right answer, just a yea or nay on a human right.

If people who can get pregnant do not have control over their bodies, there is no freedom in America for anyone. Every civil right is at risk with the striking down of the Roe v. Wade precedent. Every. Single. Civil Right. And every American owns this failure. Maybe we never deserved our republic for we are certainly doing everything we can to lose it.

If I am wrong, I will lead the cheer, loud and long, for I have loved my country, and I am old enough to remember those halcyon days, idyllic and ill-informed as they were.

Hold my beer.

So, now that the bite is out of the way, here’s the Zen I have left—to live in the eternal present. Of course, that is what we all do, aware of it or not, but it’s not what we believe so it’s not what we do. Like living in a democracy and keeping a country from going off the rails, maintaining a Zen practice is hard. What to do is basic but it won’t work without commitment and dies in complacency.

We must meet each moment as it arrives. It’s not ours to control but to stay open to what it reveals. The moment is all we ever have, and we are not guaranteed the next, and in that is incredible power, the energy to effect change rather than owning the outrage windmill in protest. Want peace of mind, enlightenment?

Hold my beer.

Here is a Zen hack: peace is not a location or a destination. Peace exists in every moment if we stay open to what is occurring, doing the best we can with the options we have, immersing ourselves in what must be done. Moments are met completely or not at all.

My emotions are all the tools I need so a Zen practice is cost free. Mostly it’s remembering to immerse myself in what I’m doing, that and only that, rather than going along with my mind’s suggestions, which are myriad. Life is a lot of facts with sharp edges but even on my worst days of staying present, it’s better than jousting at a windmill grinding.

Now, I’ll hold your beer.

The Flipside View of Life’s Turning Dime

I am in the throes of physical therapy for my lower back, specifically a right side L4-L5 disc herniation. This is not my first rodeo (but my fourth) that the disc between these two vertebrae has spilled onto the nerve root. So, yeah, we have history.

In 2010, this same disc spilled over on the left side and sent me screaming to the Emergency Room (ER). A dear friend was good enough to drive me and let me lie down in the backseat of her car, leg straight up, foot planted on the car ceiling (I’m short).

Upon arrival, the ER attendant said, “Why didn’t you call us?”

Money is the short answer but more importantly, I had no clue about pain, going to its core and stripping away all the drama to reveal the root cause. I didn’t know life turns on a dime and voila! A new life lens whose view is nothing like the flip side.

That night I was remembering what had happened in the emergency room in 2003 when the disc squirted a bit more of itself onto the nerve root. I was given a hefty pain medication injection and sent home with enough pain pills to get me to the orthopedic surgeon who did the same surgery as he had done in 2000.

The 2010 flipside view proved a new life lens is just that, new. For reasons not clear to me or to my friend, the ER attending physician decided I didn’t have a disc herniation so I had no pain. After a while, I think he offered me a tramadol, something I scoffed at because I had tried that at home.

To be fair, I don’t think there’s any medication that stops nerve pain at its source, and the physician may have said something to that effect but I was in full fight/fear mode, and we were there for hours while my fear raged. I have since discovered that heat and a hefty dose of prednisone helps most but a nerve on fire, pinched in a disc spill over, will have its day.

At some point it was decided I would have an x-ray. I wasn’t about to let any ER personnel help me onto the x-ray table but, of course, I couldn’t do it. To this day, I remain grateful to the radiology techs who were quick to help. I would lie on that table for quite some time after the x-ray was taken.

In the radiology tech booth there was a lot of repetitive discussion.

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Yes, she does.”

And then more of the same medical jargon before the attending physician shouted, “What do you mean there’s a (medical jargon with swears)! There can’t be!”

And the radiologist explained the X-ray results again to the attending physician who responded, “She can’t have!”

“Yeah, she does,” the radiologist said.

After I had been returned to my ER cubicle, the attending physician stuck his head around the curtain and said, “So, you’re Huber?” Neither my friend nor I could have anticipated that question; one or both of us agreed that I was.

Immediately, it was apparent that the attending physician thought I was someone else. It would be another emergency room physician who would explain about the herniation and provide me with a prescription.

Before we left, the initial attending physician made a bad situation even worse by kissing my hand and offering a groveling apology. I’m still amazed that I did not go off on him but my friend and I were tired and hungry, and my pain was better—maybe because I was vindicated, maybe because my fear subsided, maybe because….

Within a few days, I would have my third surgery, and the pain would be gone. I do remember the neurosurgeon saying “no wonder, no wonder” regarding my pain, and he cleaned up the mess the orthopedic surgeon had left in 2000 and 2003.

In 2022, the jelly has spilled out of the disc doughnut yet again. I am needing the same surgery by the same neurosurgeon, a 40-minute procedure. However, he’s also offered that “about 87% of these” (herniations) resolve themselves.

The pain did not send me screaming to the ER—just a lot of stay-at-home F-bombs—so impossible to ignore, and in the beginning so severe, I had to use my wheelchair any time I cooked or did the dishes. Standing was almost impossible so getting into my tub/shower was out of the question. It was bathroom sponge baths and washing my hair at the kitchen sink, while sitting in my wheelchair for about two weeks.

Still, I am reluctant to pursue a fourth laminectomy so I am playing the neurosurgeon’s percentages but without Sue, my favorite physical therapist who has seen me through two hip replacements and a fractured pelvis. However, she did do the initial physical therapy (PT) intake.

Ours was a long conversation, and the flipside view of this turn of the dime was once again not what I expected.

Sue all but said I should have the surgery followed by physical therapy (PT) rather than PT and then surgery.

“I have history with laminectomies, remember?” I start to tell her the 2010 ER story and she waves me off.

“This pain once sent you screaming to the emergency room, and with you, that’s saying something,” she says, and then checks off boxes on her tablet.

“But then, I did not understand the nature of pain,” I start to explain and stop. Zen is… otherworldly to her, so I say, “I have a neurosurgeon who is suggesting physical therapy and a physical therapist who is suggesting surgery.”

Sue doesn’t disagree before she explains, “We don’t really know how to fix backs—not medicine, chiropractors, physical therapy, or acupuncture.”

I nod. I have tried them all, even naturopathy but I keep that to myself.

“We treat symptoms with a 50-50 chance for success. In comparison, the success rate for knee or hip replacement is 96%.” Sue throws up her hands as if to say, get it?

She knows I have wrapped my head around that 87% figure of this herniation resolving itself with physical therapy and the few yoga poses I can do. As in 2010, I’m not seeing that the dime has turned but Sue has.

In what appears apropos of nothing she says, “You know with myelopathy all bets are off.”

I nod. My spinal cord is short circuited— it has dead spots in places—a daily mystery as to what nerves will fire when or if at all.

“At some time, whether it’s today or years from now, you have got to get a power wheelchair,” Sue says. And I know she says this with 30+ years of experience as a physical therapist who truly loves her profession.

Using the manual wheelchair is exhausting and not a good fit with the nerve damage in my hands and arms. And it’s heavy for my friends and Lyft drivers to maneuver. A lightweight, foldable power chair would take me to my apartment building lobby to get my mail, allow me to take my recycle items to the bins, keep me out and about without the constant concern of falling.

My gut tells me Sue’s right but her words land with a thud. I didn’t think I was “there” yet and why does that bother me so much? It feels ableist because it is. It is eerily reminiscent of the ER attending physician only this time, I’m the one with the attitude.

“Maintaining my independence is based upon my not falling,” I say, as I look at Sue who clearly has nothing more to say.

A power wheelchair will mitigate the risk of falling just as my three-wheeled walker still does but myelopathy is progressive so it…progresses. A disc herniation is a distraction, a weakness with no spinal cord involvement, but nonetheless a signal of the flipside view of life’s turning dime.

Where We Are All Alive Always

Recently, I was reminded I have been blogging for 10 years as of this month. It doesn’t feel that long any more than it feels like I am in my 70th year. Once I would have been world weary with the passing of a decade and getting older—I would have put it in a box and labeled it—agonizing over the passing of time, as if I did not live in the eternal present. But that’s fear for you.

When I began blogging I was terrified of putting myself out on the Internet, especially my writing. What did I have to say that had not already been said (and no doubt much better than I could). I was trying to define what was possible, as if I had that kind of power, when all I had to do was wake to the world as it is.

Despite all the fear, I was determined to have a post published on January 1, 2012 so I posted Andrew Marvel’s poem, “To His Coy Mistress”; the opening line is “had we but world enough and time.” It was not me actually writing but it was a blog post published. I had to begin where I was as I was, not that I knew that at the time.

And there was something else about 2012 that was important. It was the year the world would end, according to popular Mayan calendar conspiracy theorists. After all, it was on the History Channel so it had to be true. So, it could be a short blogging experience—there was that—but the Mayan calendar possibility worked neatly into yet another version of a book I have yet to finish. So many signs, so little time.

Early on, I found the structure of the blogging challenge, a Round of Words in 80 Days, quite helpful. I had to publish my writing goals, whatever they may look like—daily word count or number of writing hours. I tried all the strategies but what worked for me was blogging regularly. Still does.

About seven or eight years into blogging I added another blog, aimforeven.com, because I wanted to explore, specifically, the idea of living evenly, not to settle for mediocrity but to live with an open heart, constantly mindful of life, digging deep into change and what it offers.

I thought I might write a book about aiming for even, if it worked for me. It has. As for the book, I have shelved it for that other book that never goes away and is making yet another appearance. My 70s feel like the years I will write my books, and I put that down to blogging, the constant flexing of the writing muscle. It’s not about the fear of finishing or self-publishing that stalls me.

In these last seven years, there have been so many new health scenarios. First there was one hip replacement then another, some of my cervical vertebrae needed to be fused, I fractured my pelvis, and now I am dealing with what appears to be a herniated disc in my lumbar area (I’ve had this happen three times), and I cannot stand long enough to take a shower.

I have ordered some durable medical equipment for the bathroom, and I am now outfitting my wheelchair to accommodate my package and mail pick up in the lobby of my apartment building. This is the stuff of getting older, being offered new lenses through which to view life, and the adjustment takes awhile. In the meantime, awareness is key.

And yeah, I aim for even. Living evenly gives me space no matter how little there may appear to be. It’s great for the tough stuff in life, those moments that take the breath away, especially when it involves the ones we love most.

My 90-year-old father is living with stage four pancreatic cancer. It’s been hard waiting for the diagnosis that the early scans made obvious. Dad says, “Well, the first day I blubbered, but then I decided to get on with it.” He knows there will be more days of blubbering, as he calls it, but he also knows that no one is guaranteed tomorrow—not a one of us—so we might as well dig deep into today to see what it offers. And that’s what he does and has done all his life.

Being 90 is just a number to Dad for he has always been so much younger than his years but he rather likes the idea of living to 100. There is something to be said for having lived all the days of a century and staying curious about life, as my dad does. At 88, he decided to retire to do other things beyond being part of the everyday work world. Not surprisingly, Dad was onto something.

A New England Journal of Medicine study, published in 2018, revealed the years of 60 to 80 as being our most productive. My father has certainly proven that to be true so it may be that that 90 to 100 are our prime retirement years, whatever that may look like. I remember reading about a writer who thought his most productive writing years were in his 90s. He was 104 and still writing.

In a sense we have “but world enough and time” if we live in the moment we have, immersed in what the day offers, unconcerned about the past or the future, for no one lives there. No one. The eternal present is where we are all alive always.

Zen Meets a Boojum with Snark

Alan Watts tells a story about translating Zen texts into English and the selecting of those books. He consulted a Zen master who found the translation idea pretty preposterous, particularly the selection of certain books. After all, any and every book is Zen, be it Alice in Wonderland, the Bible, or a dictionary for “the sound of rain needs no translation” is what the Zen master had to say on the matter.

There is no separating Zen from being alive.

The first time I came across the Alan Watts story was some years ago, when I was on my own quest for anything Zen, wanting to capture and analyze Zen so I could keep it as a constant companion, completely oblivious to the fact that everywhere I went, there I was, in the eternal presence of Zen.

For everyone there is a way but there is no one way for everyone. I get that now.

But then, I explored quotations and Zen memes to suit any occasion, read books about Zen, and listened in rapt attention to Pema Chodron offer Zen just as it is as. And from her lips to my ears, the sound of rain needed no translation but only when she whispered it.

So, still translating with no Zen of my own or so I thought.

It may have been in the fall or spring. In Florida it is the color of the leaves that distinguishes those two seasons, so similar in temperature. It was raining with a constancy and clarity I have come to know of early morning rain, steel rod straight without wind.

It was just an hour or so into the light of day, and I was in the middle of monkey mind meditation. I have long forgot the pressing issue of that day—so important it was—or it may have been the frustration of yet another monkey mind day of meditation. Agitation has such an array of possibilities.

And then I was one with the rain. Just like that.

I don’t know when it started. All I know is that once I realized what was happening, it stopped, and I was back watching the rain with an awareness, an evenness of mind, that would stay with me for at least a few hours. I was completely present to each task but soon my mind started wandering and trying to explain that which does not translate.

I have had this happen to me three times in the years I have been meditating and it is much the same each time. I am aware of returning but not where I have been—that is a complete blank. And for the next few hours in the day, there is a heightened awareness, which I do my best to make stay, but I think too much about what was and not what is.

The moment is all I have and I don’t let it be enough.

Twice this meditative state has involved nature and once it involved what I can only describe as a feeling of knowing I was going somewhere. I was particularly tired that morning and quite low on energy yet I remember thinking “Oh, this will be good.”

And it was.

It was the longest time I have been “gone”—two to three hours—the heightened sense of awareness stayed with me for some days afterward and has never completely left. I turn to it when I find myself moving away from the moment I have. There is nothing back there and everything right here.

I questioned whether I had simply fallen asleep and maybe I did. It was some time before I told a friend, and she said Eckhardt Tolle had described a very similar experience and wondered the same thing about falling asleep. We always know when a moment changes us. And that is enough. The sound of the rain needs no translation.

There is no way to analyze or translate what is beyond our knowledge of the physical dimension. And considering human limitations, not the least of which is our penchant for labels, I have no doubt we deny what we know to be true. We have words but they are not always what they once were.

Consider the Snark in Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark.” The poem might be about the unanswerable theological or philosophical questions or simply nonsense, without meaning at all. (However, the idea makes a very interesting episode of Inspector Lewis [Series 5, Episode 1]).

In the poem, there are nine tradesmen and one beaver who go in search of the Snark—and if this reminds you of a snipe hunt—when they find the Snark, it “gently and softly vanish[es] away [to] never be met with again.” And to this end, the episode of Inspector Lewis offers an interesting twist.

Detective Constable Hathaway tells an anecdote from the late 1870s about a young girl who writes to Carroll, wanting to know why he didn’t explain the Snark to which Carroll responds, “Are you able to explain things you can’t yourself understand?” It works well with the script but I can find no tell of such tale.

Reverend Dodgson, an early Carroll biographer, writes in 1876 of a young girl who loves the poem so much that she recites it at will, whether or not she has an appreciative audience. Her favorite venue, it seems, was the carriage ride. She knew a captive audience when she had one.

Lewis Carroll, writing to an American friend about the Snark says “I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them” (The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, 1899).

The last line of the poem is “for the Snark was a boojum, you see,” an animal of the imagination and in 1922, Godfrey Sykes would name the Boojum tree found in the Baja Peninsula for it is like no other. Even in physics, there is a geometric pattern on the surface of helium known as a boojum. At the moment, there is a brewing company in the Carolinas with the name of Boojum Brewing.

It seems to me that once again, everywhere we go, there we are, in the eternal present defying definition. All we have is awareness, preferably heightened.

And somewhat tangentially related is a “what would you choose” scenario of two choices: a.) $1 million in cash, free of any taxation burden; b.) returning to my 40s, knowing everything I know now, as I approach 70.

Even if this were a multiple guess question my answer would be immediate and the same. (In full disclosure, forced into either or, I chose returning to my 40s but life is neither this nor that. It is on its very good days, a Boojum).

Money has never been an attraction, much to the chagrin of those who love me. I am not good with money because I just don’t care about having more than enough to meet my needs, and only this has been true in the last act of my life. For most of it, I followed the magical thinking form of finance, of which the worry was harder than maintaining a monthly spreadsheet.

And I have to admit that I enjoyed my 40s but mostly, I became comfortable with each decade as it revealed itself, a series of leit motifs in the overarching experience of life, not that revelation is always pleasant. Each decade has required adjustment but I have no wish to return to any time, even the past nanosecond. Been there, experienced that.

Only the eternal present offers what is new under the sun.

A Beagle, a Scale, and the Weight of the World

I no longer mark my weight as a number. It’s no longer a measure of who I am. So, I have gone “scale-less,” and it is not easy for me to give up my scale. For these past ten years, my weight as a number, whether it went up or down, was a constant in my life—my scale all but a friend yet not all relationships last a lifetime.

In 2010, I was physically, emotionally and fiscally bankrupt, living with a diabetic and visually impaired beagle named Gumby. I had no idea what I was going to do other than face the world as who I was with what I had. No big pronouncement about a healthy lifestyle, no new writing schedule or exercise plan that would last as long as a New Year’s resolution.

Mine was a new life lens, a broader perspective, come with may. Oh, and three-to-five-mile daily walks that Gumby led. Putting one foot in front of the other is so much harder than anyone ever says and scarier, too. Looking through a new life lens is basic but demanding.

When I looked back to how I once lived, I didn’t turn into a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife but I lost so much ground. And I fell hard, really hard. I will always be grateful for Gumby taking the lead as I finally found my feet, and somewhere in the process, I learned Zen.

My other constant was my scale. I did not set a weight goal. I wanted to see what my body found sustainable, and I became curious about food because I wanted to like what I ate—all of the time—it seemed to me if I learned what is a starch and a fat and a carbohydrate and how I might mix all of these up with some protein, I could enjoy my food.

I experimented with every facet of my life with spectacular failure and more than one dark night of the soul but it is the joy that sustains. The thing about exploring different viewpoints—new lenses—is finding possibility in the least likely places and giving it a try, no matter what. It didn’t take long to broaden my perspective beyond total weight loss.

One day in February 2012 I weighed myself and was shocked that I was now in the 150’s after being over 220 pounds. I wrote a blog post about it, of course, and for the next nine years, maintained a weight loss between 60 and 70 pounds, except when I was quite ill and the weight loss reached 75+ pounds for a short period of time.

Did I give up some things? Absolutely. Inflammation is the biggest issue with my autoimmune disease, and I have reduced it considerably. Does that mean no processed sugar? Yes. Was it hard? One of the hardest things I’ve ever done but I fell in love with apples and blueberries and vegetables, so many vegetables.

Of course, it’s easier to look back on these years than it was to live them, and it was challenging to eat gluten-free but unless I wanted my face to break out in blisters and live with gluten belly all my life, my scale and I had to find another way. Ten years ago, gluten-free eating was a lot more expensive with fewer options and most of them tasted like cardboard. Now, not so much.

During my early childhood, between four and six years, one of my dearest friends was my cousin Larry, who was “skinny as a rail,” and I was a chunky kid called “fatso” by a favorite uncle. I can still hear his laughter and see his huge smile. He was just joking and jokes about fat people, women in particular, were pretty commonplace during the 1950s.

But context is everything. Was the nickname kind? No. But my uncle was a good and kind man, exceptionally thoughtful. If I had ever shown that it hurt me, he would’ve never said it again. He liked to tease, maybe because he spent most of his life as “sonny boy.” But that’s another story I will never really know.

We are not that far removed from fat jokes. We have evolved in our language, if not necessarily in our thoughts or actions. We’re not quite so quick with those fat labels but they are not without their euphemisms. So, we have not moved the needle that far from appearance is everything.

Fast forward 70 years later and nobody calls me fatso but my BMI tells me I’m overweight, if it had a voice with my physicians and so far, it does not. My scale and I have maintained a 55-60 pound weight loss but in the last five years, I have added three prescription medications known for weight gain—prednisone, methotrexate, and gabapentin—also, as age increases so does the waistline spread.

Not surprisingly, the idea of going scale-less provides purpose and a new lens, a way of living I’ve not tried, and the older I get, the more I enjoy the view through a new lens, perhaps the quality of “staying young” as I see in my own father, ever appreciating a new perspective with the gusto of wanting to know what comes next.

There are many ways to measure my weight such as the fit of my clothes, especially those that are form fitting and a bit tight, the shape of my face when it is more round than oval, and as I have been doing for the last ten years, being aware of the inflammation of my joints. In any moment, I know when I am carrying extra pounds without the weight of the scale. I do not lack for lenses.

Weight is a number and numbers are not nothing but neither they nor weight are the total measure of a human being, and sometimes that’s the biggest load to lose.

“We don’t eat to live; because we are alive, we eat. We usually think it’s the other way around, that we eat and breathe so we’ll be or remain alive. But no, because we’re alive, we breathe, we eat, we do.”

(Bernie Glassman, Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen, pages 9-10)

When Zero Was Not a Number

In the woods outside my window, it seems like nothing will stop this growing of green and the flurry of flashy red cardinals as they prepare their nests with their olive brown mates, who blend beautifully with the firebush, sparkleberry, and mesh of the passionflower vine. 

In spring, every day is endless.

I am not immune to all this wonder of squirrels munching on the tender leaves of a wax myrtle, a treat seemingly worth the trek from the hole in the leaning Live Oak across the longleaf pine and down the passionflower vine.

Frankly, it makes the human world pale in comparison but then, nature usually does. 

Here at the Apartments in the Woods, we have replaced watching the murderer among us with having to deal with mandatory online rent payment. Checks are no longer accepted. Not amazingly, emotions run high as if life itself, again, was threatened. 

Quite the welcome for a new manager who had been assured the online payment system for our 55+ community of 144 apartments was in effect, one of many untruths she will discover for truth is not always what it appears.

I don’t know the percentage of people who pay rent online but I imagine the majority of residents use the convenience, which was not true just a few years ago when the majority cohort was more like 75+ but no one lives forever. Nonetheless, their numbers are still sizable, including my 93-year-old neighbor, Sybil, who somehow still maintains her flip phone, despite threats from everywhere and everyone that it can’t be done. 

Although we have been neighbors (sharing a common wall) for 11 years, and true friends for the last five, I often forget Sybil is Sicilian and have to be reminded, which she does with pride. Round faced with a slight rosacea on her high cheekbones, Sybil is a clear-eyed beauty with flowing white hair, agile yet fragile as her petite body begins to fail her. 

Sybil is prone to one point of view on any subject (until she’s done with it), no matter the cost. She traces this to the island existence of her Sicilian ancestors who were faced with one invasion after another. Hers is a kind of reticence, which some have called stoicism, and with this visage, she faces all weathers.

Something like 30 or 40 years ago, Sybil decided the Internet was a passing phase and only last month did she admit that had “probably been a mistake.” 

To their credit, Sybil’s family is proceeding at her pace, in their completion of the online payment process, relying on the information Sybil provides, such as the documentation sent out by Apartments in the Woods Enterprises (AWE) for the online payment portal. 

AWE is to be commended for a streamlined and simple process. Residents who had never made any kind of online payment completed the process in about a quarter of an hour. It feels rather worldy, this being on the web, writing electronic checks for rent. 

Sybil is not so sure, although some days she sees its truth, yet when it comes time for her son, Paul, to complete the process, Sybil lies awake at night worrying about hackers, for she is well read and has an amazingly accurate understanding of the World Wide Web for someone who has only looked upon but never browsed or received an email. 

“It seems that there is still a problem with the rent,” Sybil tells me. “Paul is exhausted by all this.”

“There is no problem with the system, Sybil.” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop myself, clipped and cold. I’m tired of the conversation before it begins yet again, but I do better with “what’s the problem Paul is having.” 

“There is no place to put the routing or account number,” Sybil pronounces this as fact. “I don’t want Apartments in the Woods to have access to my checking account.” 

We have been having this conversation two or three times a day for the last two weeks, and I know where it’s going, but I also know Sybil vets her ideas with me before she shares them with her family, for reasons understood only by Sybil, but there is a lot of fear, too, always a tough subject, which is to say that I, too, sometimes get the wrong end of the stick. 

“Sybil,” I say, wincing at my tone of voice, not quite terse but close. “If Paul enters your routing and account numbers into the AWE system—

“The WHAT?” Sybil begins to talk over me, thankful for the tangent. “I don’t even know—

“Sybil, stop. Just. Stop. Talking. Over. Me.” And finally, she does. “When you write a check for your rent, isn’t the routing number and the account number on the check? Yes or no.” 

“Yes.” 

“So, Paul is going to enter that same information into the online system. It’s an electronic check rather than a paper one. That’s it. Nothing more.” 

“Okay. I’m fine with that. But we’re going to use a credit card.” 

“You do you, Sybil, but know there will be at least a 3% charge for using your card. That’s about $30.” 

“Paul says five or 10 dollars,” Sybil fires back.

“He’s wrong, just wrong.” 

We are both so over this conversation, but we both know it’s not yet resolved. Sybil is upset at herself, not for the first time, for refusing to have any kind of online presence over all those years. So many missed moments, those, but I’ve made that kind of mistake, too. It hurts.

At 93, both Sybil and her family are doing everything they can to maintain her independence. Increasingly, that means more to do for them and less for her. They love her deeply and do not mind, and Sybil is grateful, but with each task, there is one more thing out of her control. It’s such an uneasy balance for all of them.

Somewhat similarly, my body is far older than my almost 69 years, and I am ever adapting to maintain my independence. So, Sybil and I are each at an age where decisions close a door and not always does another window open.  

My heart is a bit sad that my tone of voice has been firm with Sybil—well, terse at times, if I am honest—Sybil, too, is a bit sad that she can’t write a check to pay her rent as she has always done for the last 17 years. For her generation, loyalty and consistency were just about everything in life. I get it.

As usual, I turn to Pema Chödrön to see if I can find something in her words for my frustration. I don’t want to repress it or reject it. I want to go to its core to see what I can learn from it and maybe help Sybil look at hers. In other times, Sybil has done it for me, in her own way, which is not mine.

Turns out Pema has a friend who talks about this very thing.

“As a way of working with our aggressive tendencies, Dzigar Kongtrül teaches the nonviolent practice of simmering. He says that rather than ‘boil in our aggression like a piece of meat cooking in a soup we simmer in it.’” 
Pema Chödrön

Not exactly the imagery I was seeking but I get the metaphor.

“We allow ourselves to wait, to sit patiently with the urge to act or speak in our usual ways and feel the full force of that urge without turning away or giving in.” 
Pema Chödrön

I am aware of the energy in “edginess,” or what Pema Chödrön refers to as “groundlessness,” and I find it attractive, that unknown. How to manage when I don’t have my feet on the ground, when what I know is not of worth to someone else or is not what they can yet receive, and I must be patient and listen in acceptance. 

“Neither repressing nor rejecting, we stay in the middle, between the two extremes, in the middle between yes and no, right and wrong, true and false.”  
Pema Chödrön

Most of my life I was a “fixer,” offering the obvious solution only to have it rejected because the choice was not mine to make. Not everyone comes to change the same way or at the same pace. Patience in every moment—to sit and simmer—although easier with age, it is no guarantee.

There is only one solution for Sybil no matter how many times we talk through what must happen. What is not an issue for me is a game changer for her but we offer what we have to one another, although it doesn’t feel like it’s what we need. I don’t hear anything about online rent payment until the fifth of the month, the last day before rent is late.

“I was going to have to pay almost $28 if I used my credit card!” Sybil has never been a stranger to umbrage. 

“So, Paul found where to enter the routing and account numbers?” I just have to know, which feels a bit unfair but somehow, it feels important. “He received a receipt by email, correct?”

“Well, if you can call it a receipt. It says, ‘Dear Sybil’ and then gives only my apartment number without which building. There are at least four different apartments with the same last three numbers.”

We talk about unique transaction numbers for a while, which is what is important for a transaction to take place between the two systems.

“But that’s just it. It hasn’t cleared my bank. There is no transaction.”

“Sybil, we just went through the receipt, line by line. You have a transaction number. The receipt says it was sent. That specific transaction was sent.”

“The bank has not received it. I’m going to be late on my rent.” 

“You are not going to be late on your rent because you have a receipt saying you paid it on the 29th.”

“But there is no transaction is what the bank is saying,” Sybil says, with a calm that is surprising.

That is a problem but there also seems to be a solution or maybe she’s been winding me up. I can’t say I might not do the same.

“Paul is working with the AWE manager.” Sybil pauses, pleased with her use of the acronym, and I find myself smiling. She goes on, “The account number was wrong.” 

“Did Paul enter it incorrectly?” 

“No!” Sybil snaps. Her son does not make mistakes. “I didn’t give him the zero.” 

“The what??!!” And for a moment I am as lost, if not moreso, than Sybil was when all this started.

“The zero in front of my account number on my check. I never use it. When I was in school, we were always told that zero isn’t a number. It’s nothing.”

“Let me put it this way, Sybil. Data is made up of nothing but ones and zeros.” I pause before adding, “that’s just probably adding to the confusion.”

“No, it’s not! I understand that. I’m saying that when I was in school zero wasn’t a number.”

“Zero is a number and it has value, Sybil. It may look empty but it’s anything but nothing.” We wait for a moment before I ask, “Didn’t you give Paul a voided check so he could enter the numbers?”

“Yes, but he said he didn’t need it because I read the numbers to him.”

“So, Paul had a check but he entered the numbers you read to him.

“Correct.”

“But he has now entered the correct account number into the system????” 

“I don’t know.”

This time I don’t go there. I look at the woods outside my window and tell Sybil I watched a goldfinch singing this very morning, sitting atop a still bare branch of the fire bush, yet another add to my birding life list. 

And Sybil who has taught me so much about the flora and fauna that is the woods outside my window begins to tell me yet another story about spring in some year before the Internet, when you could believe zero was not a number and not be bothered at all.

*Pema Chodron excerpts from Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, page 49.

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.

A World Away

Some days I live as a hologram of pure light, weightless life walking white sand trails of ancient, longleaf pine forests to sit at the river’s mouth where pirate ships once anchored.

That is my current hologram moment. I have as many as my mind’s eye can conjure but most days my meditative state is anything but light, without the weight of life and its constant questions, and that is how it should be, full of potential and exhausting. Sometimes, I just need to be a world away.

Nearing the end of my sixth decade I “no longer wander lonely as a cloud” with Wordsworth “when the world is too much with me” but rather, I look to video games and holograms. Never would I have imagined my 19th century romanticism–with all its possibilities–giving way to 2020, the year that may never end, but here I am.

Maybe the future is holograms. It has been said before. And it is attractive in a time of pandemic that is revealing every one of us for what we are not, beings of light. We are not burdened by compassion but by its lack. In the United States we are raw by our history of white people taking from people of color, century after century.

Will we finally own our history and tell it all by including everyone who was there so we can learn who we really are? There is no future if we do not own who we have been. The history of humanity is proof of that. History is not about statues being pulled down (or put up), renaming streets/bridges–most symbols have a use by date–slapping on new labels will not bring back the dead or undo the deed. Statues and streets are not history. They mark moments, mostly inaccurately, it seems.

How we live with each other is our history. It is what we pass on to the future, and it has been a heavy load for each generation. There is no reason to pass on a burden. Never has been. Every once in a while, we realize that and decide to do something about it. Once again, we have an opportunity to lighten the load for the future by embracing equality as what defines the social order. There is no justice without it.

I am of that 60s generation that changed so much and failed to do so much more. All I know is it takes generations to change who we are, and it’s worth it to stay the course.

Some days I live like a hologram, light and unfettered, as if I were the outlier branch of a bush, catching the first bit of a breeze–life as it arrives, a current breaking stillness–before it makes its way through every other branch and leaf.

You’d think we make time for such moments, but we are too busy living in the past or the future, ignoring what is possible in the moment we have. We lack the solidarity to wear a mask to keep each other safe. It is not compassion that is the American burden but our exceptional individualism, and it is proving to be a killer.

On Twitter, a woman told me that 28 minutes of sunshine would kill COVID-19. Months long quarantines are the worst thing for the body, she said, so she would be spending her time on the beach, building up her immunity naturally while the rest of us live or die.

I don’t mind wearing a mask and didn’t before I was introduced to the “buff” by my friends at Musa Musala. When I’m not using it as a mask, I wear it as a neck scarf, and in the winter I may wear one as a beanie. On days that I am a hologram sitting by the river, it is my pirate head scarf.

Change offers us a lot to explore when the landscape we knew is no more. We’re given a new life lens for new lands. Life is not as it was. This has been happening to humanity for tens of thousands of years but the world is smaller than ever now and the planet nearly exhausted by life.

I wear a mask because I hope for humanity–still. I may be even more determined than I was in the 60s, not to be in the forefront but to support those who are. This is the time for their ideas for it is their world. I know some of what they feel and why they fight. For me, most of the letting go of life has happened but its image remains, “super realistic” like the hologram, life through light.

Living Too Close to the Sun

I am too close to the sun, simply by being alive, and I am feeling the burn. It’s a deep heat, a red so bright my eyes are the blue of the sky. At 67, I no longer have bright eye color not that I ever did. Mostly, I remember my eyes being either blue or green on any given day but in living too close to the sun, they have gone blue.

These blue eyes are the best of the burn, although color in my face is a welcome change from the pale, drawn look I have known for years, for all kinds of reasons. Yet in the days of the pandemic that encompasses the globe, I find color. The life lens, no matter its view, never fails to surprise.

Medical personnel are none too sure why I am changing color but they do not lack for theories. As if to impress, I’m told I would’ve been welcome at any emergency room as my face was the size of a pumpkin, albeit a red one. Still, a single corticosteroid injection reduced the swelling and lightened the red from raspberry to watermelon but still I feel the burn and the itching, always the itching.

After 40+ years of autoimmune disease, this is my first burn, which is rare. It’s not hives or urticaria but a burn from everyday sun. It’s not as if I was trying to fly, like Icarus, spreading my wings or as if I found the sun every day. Nope. More than likely, methotrexate triggered photosensitivity but there are other symptoms like difficulty swallowing and muscle weakness so imagine both muscle and spinal cord disease or myopathy and myelopathy. Or don’t.

My mind does not go there and for right now, neither do the blood tests. And after some weeks, my burn has grown pale but I like to think my eyes are still sky blue. Probably they’re not but I’m trying to salvage something from this.

I may never know what triggered the blue sky of my eyes but it’s good to know a face of fire can be a good light. No fever, just fire, which seems counterintuitive but then, this is the time of viruses jumping species and a president talking about disinfectant injections.

It’s a time of contradictions, when what we have known no longer works. We are beyond thinking outside the box because…no box. Burned, probably. And where does that leave us or with what for that matter.

I’m thinking of Pema Chodron’s belief that most of us will not give up on one another, no matter the crisis and no matter how bad the behavior. And it has been bad by many but not by all. There is a common core of good, a love of life larger than the oxymoron of carrying a gun for civil rights–an element of life that knows not the burning of the sun but the light of courage, which is in larger supply than you might think.

Courage does not rouse the rabble but works its way through the rubble of the unprecedented, neither for the faint of heart nor for guns. Civil rights do not move forward behind a gun but with each heartbeat of belief in a better world for all. We can learn to live differently or swagger with guns waving.

We have a rare opportunity to begin anew, maybe the last chance for our species. Change does not mean burning all we have been and rising from the ashes like the phoenix. It just means not living too close to the sun but with eyes the color of the sky.

Stupid Does Have a Darker Side

Some of my days begin with refrains of songs and sometimes the refrain stays the day.

The wood is old

The wood is tired

If the weather holds

We’ll make it fine.

But if the weather holds

We’ll have missed the point

That’s where I need to go. (From “The Wood Song,” Indigo Girls)

The weather cannot hold if we are to become better than we were, different, do more with the life we have rather than wishing our lives away for the perfect day, which will neither come nor stay. We can no longer miss the point, which has been our history.

We have one more chance to make good. Some version of this idea comes through my morning meditation almost daily now but none quite take me where I need to go.

I guess I could meditate for the rest of my life to feel better.

The thing about stupidity is determining whether people are just so dumb they don’t know better or they do, and they are just that evil.

If it no longer bothers me to appear in public with a tampon up my nose, I’m beyond blushing about any of my behavior.

It’s this last thought that doesn’t leave my mind too many places to go, so I jump off in this time of viruses jumping species. This is the world we created, in our own image as it were, and it’s not such a great place, yet here we are.

Our resoundingly resilient planet has pronounced, “Time out!” offering us a moment to consider another way of being, a chance to demonstrate we are better than we appear. Most of us are not evil but a lot of us are easily misguided. There is no longer time to ignore the point.

Which is not expressed in positive platitudes and memes of generality, none of which are about being alive and learning to live, which is messy and full of mistakes, painful but valuable in its daily experience. I eschew the word positive as it has become a way to spin whatever the weather is as–all will be well when it won’t.

I prefer to face the weather as it arrives, leaving the spin to those who brand life with one label or another, a constant commentary about absolutely nothing, utterly feckless (by design). Stupid really does have a darker side.

For me, mindfulness separates the wheat from the chaff, as long as I do the work, which I don’t always. I’m as susceptible to branding as the next person. Some days I want the weather to just hold so I don’t have to do my part (just for a little while) but I’m not alive not to live, not to experience. That’s the point.

During these days of distance from people, I look into the woods outside my window, so many worlds within worlds, where sometimes, too, chaos reigns. Viruses are known to all species but it is also true that some are of our own making. Maybe the world is setting itself right, whether or not we stay in it.

Time is a construct of our creation, meaningless to all of existence except to us. It isn’t that we cannot have routines in which we work and play but we will not pigeonhole the planet. The weather will not always hold. Sounds like a conspiracy theory, I suppose, but regardless, it is mine (with a nod to The Indigo Girls).

We are witnessing the fall of all we believed. We thought it would always hold. Turns out, it was unsustainable, the stuff of branding. It doesn’t mean we will not do better. It means we must.

I could meditate for the rest of my life and probably feel better but one day, the world would come knocking and I would be found wanting. Been there, done that. I’m not missing the point again.