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.

An Interlude…of Sorts

This post appears a bit late. It is an interlude of sorts–an interruption of my usual posting schedule—to revisit St. Mark's 0215some recent travel along the north coast of Florida, beginning the first weekend in February.

For me, the first weekend signals the promise of spring. If nothing else, this first weekend is the WHO festival–Wildlife Heritage and Outdoors–at one of my favorite places, St. Mark’s Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge.

Each year, spring’s promise seems a bit soggier and maybe even a bit colder but  my memory is less sharp. I always remember the previous spring as warmer but then, I seem to A Winter's Day 0215require warmer temperatures.

This year’s WHO festival kicked off a week of exploring. A dear friend had come to visit. It was a true vacation, our visit of north Florida, its Gulf coast, its rivers and an occasional inhabitant.

We enjoyed winter temperatures—I complained; she did not–but the promise of spring never left either one of us.

It is one of the many treasures of long friendships that in seeing new lands, old lands are remembered, different as each is. In the discovering, memory relays moments long forgotten. In the creation of new memories, the old is perhaps even more golden.

We grew up knowing rivers of the Rocky Mountains, clear and chatty, sometimes white in their rapids. In north Florida we visited blackwater rivers mostly, their own southern brew of organic acids and tannins.

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On a particularly brisk day we “went down upon” the Suwannee River; she is deep enough that steamboats once paddled her strong currents. In these days, wooden gliders afford the visitor a comfortable seat for reflection.

The Ochlockonee River (“yellow waters”) intersects with the Dead River, perhaps so named because its movement isWho Has My Back 0215 barely perceptible. Together, the two make their way to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Ochlockonee State River Park is one of the most pristine parks I have visited in Florida and is particularly rich in wildlife, some whose existence were unknown to me such as the white squirrel.

The “history” of the white squirrel is rich and varied, sometimes involving King Charles of Spain (1499) while other explanations are more scientific and involve gene mutation. We enjoyed all the brochure stories and went in search of the white squirrel.

After some time on our own, we decided to ask a park ranger. Memories of past searches reminded us we might not be in the right location but we were among the live oaks, prime squirrel territory regardless of color.

What we did not have was a bag of chips to shake. Yet, we are a resourceful duo and are not given to giving up. While I rested, my friend walked among the live oaks, crinkling a bit of cellophane from a tissue package.

It was only as we began to drive away that we spotted a bit of white at the base of a live oak. It did not move—we almost did—before it did. While the squirrel snacked on acorns— aware of our underwhelming presence—we worked with the digital overload of our cameras.

For me, focus is always a challenge. Mine is the “aim, shoot, and hope” philosophy of photography. That may be why I prefer shots of the sea for no matter where I focus, there is always a wave.

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On some days the Gulf chopped, white capping in stark contrast to its tannic underbelly. Near the lighthouse of St. Mark’s, spring seemed a distant promise.  Off the shores of St. George, a barrier island, the clear Gulf waters lazily made their way to shore as if to say spring is on its way in its own time—as always.

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On Monday, February 23, this blog is participating in the Beauty of a Woman BlogFest, which my next post will feature. On March 1, regular Sunday blog posts will return. For now, let’s enjoy the interlude.

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Testament of Friendship

The past ripples round me. It is a time of reflection—one last look—before I let go. In reflection is the unchanged past but looking through the eyes of the present, I am changed.

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Sometimes, it feels like we are not remembering as fully as we might those loved ones who have died. It is the nature of life to evolve, one experience after another, changing us as we learn to live with the love from loss.

We cling to our memories. Our reluctance in letting go is as physical as it is emotional. It is a mind and body hold. Our cells store the emotion of a memory, often as pain. In letting go of the emotion, we release pain. The cell is changed.

Our body and mind are what we eat and how we meet each moment we live. In letting go, it is not that we love less but that we love completely.

My recent blog posts have been awash in memory. One post was about finding anger long forgotten; the other remembered the Zen master who taught me acceptance. That the anger has been denied longer than acceptance learned does not surprise me.

Both posts lead me to this one as this week marks one year that my beloved friend died of endometrial cancer. Our friendship spanned more than half a century. We grew up in the Rocky Mountains and eventually we both moved east, she to the north and I to the south.

I still think of her as frequently as I did when she was alive. Often, I have to remind myself there are no more conversations for us. I search my memory for the conversations we did have. They are a comfort and sometimes, I learn something new.

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I was not able to be at the celebration of her life service but her partner sent me a DVD of images and music that completely captures her life. I have lost count of the number of times I have watched it, especially in the early months.

Always, I stop the DVD at one particular image. It is a long quotation, in her handwriting, regarding friendship. It is the opening and ending sentences that stay with me. It opens as:

Never cast aside your friends if by any possibility you can retain them. We are the weakest of spendthrifts if we let one friend drop off through inattention, or let one push away another, or if we hold aloof from one for petty jealousy, or heedless slights or roughness….

This was not how she talked but it is how she lived. It took me a while to locate a source for the quote. The words have changed a bit over the centuries—language evolves with us–but the meaning is unchanged.

We accept our shortcomings and our strengths, knowing that sometimes one becomes the other. We lean less on distinctions and more on acceptance.

And while I never knew the quote before Maurya’s death, it is what I have now, a testament of friendship for the life I still have to live, as the closing line of the quote reminds me:

It is easy to lose a friend but a new one will not come for the calling nor make up for the old one.

(Mother’s Magazine)

I do not know that she ever lost a friend. And yes, the diversity of her friendships is a rich legacy. I am changed by her death but more so by the way she lived. I hold close this testament of friendship for the years left to me, for the life I have yet to know.

We meet today.
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.

Thich Nhat Hanh

In letting go, I find forever.

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Facing the Past Tense

Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sunlight on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die. (Mary Frye)

Fifty years of friendship feels like only a moment yet it has been a lifetime.  It cannot be over. Not yet. I want Laziness 010514the conversation to continue but mostly, I want the past tense to be the present.

In death, the past tense looms. My mostly Buddhist self believes the past tense is a series of images always available for viewing but never again for experiencing.

I am not used to the past tense. I am not ready to live with my friend as mere memory.

If I think of my friend as dead, there is a hole in the sky that is my heart. I want to tell her how that feels, how that hole is now my world. The telephone that connected us as we aged from teenagers to sexagenarians is no longer in service. It is past tense.

In the last couple years, this blog provided yet another connection for us.  Sometimes, my posts sparked conversations, and other times, our conversations created posts. On this blog, my friend is eternally present.

Discussion was our way for five decades, not a daily occurrence or even monthly, but whenever there was a hole in the sky for either one of us we seemed to sense it. There would be a phone call or an email when least expected and most needed.

My friend was not one who labeled but one who listened. Her innate compassion and loving-kindness opened her to the world wherever she was. And the world responded to her light.

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Along the wend and way of our lives, we each explored Buddhism and over the decades offered our experiences to one another. In these last three years when illness once again marked my life and then for the first time hers, we found ourselves less concerned with outcome and more with exploring the energy of raw emotion.

We were less interested in questions so we had little use for any answer that might appear for we recognized all outcome as temporary. It kept us curious, this being in the moment. We explored eternity as a web without a weaver, its vibrations animating humans, blades of grass–lifetime after lifetime–perfect in its impermanence, forever coming and going.

She is gone in a way I knew and exists in a way I am yet to know.  She is in every breeze, blossom, and glint of light in a night sky. She is. The past tense is no more.

My thanks to Diana J. Hale for her recent post, In Memoriam, as it led me to Mary Frye’s poem, which I could not seem to locate.  Also, thanks to all of you who have sent personal messages. I will respond to each one.

Walking the Walk of Friendship With Pema Chödrön

Recently, I “Walked the Walk” with Pema Chödrön at an online seminar offered by the Omega Institute. Chödrön has the ability to make you feel that she is speaking only with you; I have found the same in reading her books. In my mind, she and I converse frequently.

Chödrön is anything but pretentious—no transcendental soaring with Emerson’s oversoul or escaping into the ether—she is often pithy, adept with any koan, softening much of what she says with anecdote. Frequently, humor is the connection with her audience.

Warning us to beware of “spiritual people” dressed in special clothes to draw attention to their spirituality, she directed our gaze to her own Buddhist nun clothing of burgundy and yellow. Then, she looked up and smiled, eyes twinkling. Laughter filled the room. When all was quiet, the two-day retreat began.
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In walking with Chödrön we explored “making friends with ourselves” unconditionally. Kindness, compassion, and a deep love are what true friendship offers. Why not become friends with the one we know best?

Being friends with ourselves does not mean that we will not know disappointment or concern for in all relationships there are times of confusion. Yet, at some fundamental level we trust the confusion will pass for deep friendship is worthy of unconditional reflection.

Reflection—specifically self-reflection—is found in all of the great spiritual traditions for it is in reflection that there is transformation. In making friends with ourselves, we learn who we are. The transformation comes with accepting who we are unconditionally. As our biggest supporter and ally, we show up for life.
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“Don’t speak, don’t act” is what Chödrön offers as a way of meeting the moments of every day. It means we embrace the feelings we have about what is occurring—we receive what we are given–without the reaction of a label, judgment or opinion. We experience the rawness of the moment.

In embracing the emotion of each experience without acting or speaking, we are practicing what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche calls the “reference points of nowness,” gaps between experiences that allow us to strengthen our minds as we meet the moments of life.

The reference points are the practice, and the attitude is one of developing an unconditional friendship with ourselves. With gentleness and kindness we become fully aware of all of our traits. The key is to accept them–give ourselves a break— for that is what we do for friends.
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Chödrön suggests dissecting F-E-A-R as a specific way to examine those darker characteristics that are in all of us. In revealing them, awareness begins and transformation is possible.

F— find it in your body

E— embrace it

A—allow the thoughts to dissolve; abide with the feeling

R–remember or recall that other people are also feeling it (Pema Chödrön , “Walk the Walk” seminar).

Pulling apart fear creates an atmosphere of kindness and compassion. Unconditional means that no matter what we are there for ourselves.  It is not a matter of condoning behavior but viewing it with an open heart. We see and feel with our heart; we listen and experience with our head. It is our heart that leads.

We make choices to cease our suffering. We remember that temporary gratification is unconscious thought, a repetition of old behaviors, following old patterns with the same results. “We do not have to bite that hook” (Pema Chödrön).

It takes courage to be vigilant, to live with an open heart, but the reward is a life of compassion and kindness with ourselves and thus, with the world. It is experiencing life as friends. “Show up for life as it is and drop your preconceptions of how it should be” (Pema Chödrön).

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