Amidst the Rubble, Flowers Grow

When we’re quarantined with one person, together day in and day out, what happens or can happen between us?

 

The pandemic, magnified by the negligence and mismanagement by the DT administration, has led to isolation and anxiety; it has cost almost one-half a million American lives and over 10 million jobs. It has upset the entire way millions of people live. And losing jobs, losing homes, losing in-person in-school instruction, for example, is not just an inconvenience. It is an unquestioned loss, of stability, of hope, and of income.

 

But can we, at least with our loved ones, re-imagine our time together? Many of us have already begun to do so. Our lives have been simplified. I’m retired and live with just my wife and pets and this is clearly true for me. Are we “stuck” together while quarantined from others? Or are we privileged? If we have less to do and fewer distractions, maybe we can get closer to those we live with instead of taking our fear out on each other. Frightening as it has often been, maybe we can learn to see ourselves and each other more directly and kindly.

 

D. E. Harding, in his book, On Having No Head: Zen and the Re-Discovery of the Obvious, proposes ways to directly encounter our true self. Many of us imagine we are our memories, habits, a self with a head and body standing at a distance and separate from what we see. But one day Harding saw himself differently. He was actually walking in the Himalayas, the sky and air absolutely clear, and suddenly “all mental chatter died down.” Just looking around was completely absorbing. He forgot who he was. Past and future disappeared.

 

And when he looked internally, where he thought his head should be, he instead saw the clear blue sky, the outward scene where his eyes were pointed. He realized he “had lost a head and gained a world.” Or where a head should be situated, he carried the mountains and sky.

 

Imagine looking through a tube, one eye on one end, and our spouse, best friend, lover looking in the other. Eye to eye. This is a startling way to lose a head and gain an intimacy. (The exercise was inspired by Harding but created by Richard Lang, who led workshops worldwide on Harding’s teachings. See the article in the Spring 2021 Tricycle Magazine by Michael Haederle.)

 

There are similar meditation exercises. In sitting position, face another person, eyes to eyes. Breathe in. Breathe out. Together.

 

What do we see when we look in the tube or we face another person directly?

 

Every morning when I get up, after I put on my pants, I go downstairs to look for my wife. 90% of the time she is up before me. I find her in the kitchen or den. And I greet her cheerfully. It’s a promise I make to myself. No matter how well or poorly I sleep I am happy to see her. “Good morning. How are you? How did you sleep? What a day this is!” Being happy with her, I am happy with myself.

 

It’s almost a ritual, or a song we sing to make our house a home. No matter who any of us live with ⎼ children, parents, friends ⎼ or we’re alone, we can adapt the lyrics to fit the situation. But as best we can, make the tune loving, so we wake up to what’s most important ⎼ the nourishment love and kindness give us…..

 

To read the whole post, please go to The Good Men Project.

Freeing Our Minds: So We Don’t Feel Caught in A Place We Don’t Want to Be

In every life, there are moments (or months) that feel endless, when we don’t like where we are but fear we can never get to somewhere other than here, sometime other than now.

 

This is the nature of fear. It can hold us so tight in its embrace that one moment can seem eternal, and we forget all but a tiny fraction of who we are and what we are capable of being.

 

One such moment happened years ago, when I was hitch-hiking in Europe. Today, during the pandemic, it seems incomprehensible that anyone could have traveled so openly. At one point I was hitching from southern France to Sweden with Ingrid, a Swedish friend I had met in Nice, France. I was actually escorting her home, as she had run out of money to fly or take a train and I didn’t have enough to lend her⎼ and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. The fastest and easiest route was through Germany. We decided to stop off in the capitol, Berlin, and found a ride to take us there.

 

It was 1966. Germany was divided into 4 zones: one controlled by the Union of Soviet-Socialist Republics, one by each of the main Western allies⎼ the U. S., Britain, and France. Berlin was similarly divided but was located in the East or the Soviet zone.

 

When we arrived at the border between East and West Germany, we found it to be a scene out of a war movie. It was heavily fortified. On the Eastern side, not only were there East German troops but Russians. An American troop convoy, with several truckloads of soldiers, had arrived just before we had, and the border guards were inspecting the vehicles before letting them through. This was the height of Soviet-American tensions from the Cold War. Just four years earlier was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Five years earlier, the Soviet-Russians ordered the wall between East and West Berlin to be built to stop people from escaping Soviet oppression.

 

Two border guards stopped our car and told Ingrid and me to get out. We were led inside a cement block building where we were searched and asked to take out our passports. When Ingrid opened her passport, her photo fell from the page to the floor. At that moment, everything stopped, and we froze in place. A large female soldier took Ingrid’s arm and led her to a back room. I was told to stay put.

 

While I was waiting, the driver came in with our back packs. He said he was told to continue on without us and left, wishing us luck.

 

Here we were, stuck at the East German border, with no ride, my friend being questioned in a back room, the authenticity of her passport now doubted by authorities hostile to both our nations. Any attempts by me to ask questions about Ingrid’s status were rebuffed.

 

And it was getting late in the day. Hitch-hiking across the border was difficult anytime, but at night, it could be dangerous….

 

*To read the whole post, please go to the Good Men Project.

The Cold of Winter, the Heat of Summer, and our Neighbors are not Abstractions

It’s snowing again. It has snowed heavily for a day or two, lightly for over a week. More snow. More cold.

 

Yet, it’s beautiful. White flakes fill the sky. When the wind speaks, the flakes whip around, the air itself excited.

 

How can we look at the snow and simply enjoy it, see only the white flakes, and see no other time but this? Back in November, the first snowfall was exciting. I couldn’t help but let my eyes delight in it. But now?

 

The snow and cold is what we mean by winter. Winter is not just a date on a calendar and time not just an abstraction. Dogen Zenji, a 13th century Japanese Zen teacher said, in reference to spring, “The time we call spring blossoms directly as an existence called flowers.” The time we call winter falls directly as an existence called snow. If we don’t like the cold, we can’t suddenly decide to love it, but we can love the fact that we can feel. Then, although we won’t suddenly warm up, rip off our winter clothes and run naked in the snow, we can be naked in our response and dress accordingly.

 

When we feel something we don’t like or that threatens us or is hurtful, we turn away. This is crucial to our survival. And when the threat is ongoing, we might want to turn away from anything or everything that reminds us of the danger. This can give us needed relief whether we’re facing immediate danger, trauma, or a malignant political administration.

 

But also crucial is noticing⎼ are we protecting ourselves from the threat, or from feeling the threat? Or from both? It’s awful to fear our fear so much we can’t see clearly what frightens us. We then don’t take needed action. As much as we are able in each moment, we need to see clearly enough to act.

 

Even though it was cold and snowing, I shoveled the path from my house and then took a walk up our hill. It was tough going. My wife and I live on a fairly steep rural road. A neighbor, who I had gotten to know slightly since I started taking daily walks during the pandemic, was out shoveling. After greeting him, he said to me, “Where is global warming now?” I thought, at first, he said it as a joke, but then realized it was a barb. We had had discussions about the climate before.

 

He said natural events, like volcanic eruptions, magma and the clouds they cause are warming the earth, not humans. I replied that global warming did not mean there would no longer be snow or cold. It meant there has been a raise in average temperature all over the world and an increase in destructive weather events, all happening too fast for it to be explained by volcanoes or other non-human processes.

 

I realized he wasn’t really listening to me and, distressingly, I didn’t have all the facts at hand. So I tried what I thought was common sense. “Isn’t it logical that all the air pollution caused by human manufacturing, fossil fuel energy, etc. would cause problems? That the released gases like carbon dioxide would create a sort of hothouse effect over the earth? And that we bear most of the responsibility for this increase in global temperature?”

Vocanic eruptions

He didn’t seem to know or want to know anything about carbon dioxide. So we switched gears. I wished him a good day and continued on my walk, resolved to go online when I got home to update my knowledge of global warming….

 

To read the whole piece, go to The Good Men Project.

Stories of Crows and People

If We Knew How We Dug Holes in the World, Maybe We Wouldn’t Fall in So Often.

 

 

Two crows come to feed in the yard where my wife scatters food. They sometimes seem to be living metaphors or myths, so black, as they sit on a limb, they’re a hole in the canvas of the sky.

 

Instead of getting domesticated and rushing to the area when she feeds them, the crows come to the yard at unpredictable times, remain independent and constantly alert to us, not quite trusting. Even from inside the house, taking a photo of them is impossible. They know where we are. They are too smart to drop their guard for a payoff of a few seeds.

 

Maybe they don’t want us to observe them too closely, or they refuse to be captured even in a photographic image. Maybe they are just shy. Or maybe they know exactly the dual nature of human beings, how compassionate and yet dangerous we can be.

 

When they spot us inside the house with a camera, they quickly fly off, a mocking tone in their voice, “Not this time.”

 

These crows reflect back to us different shapes of ourselves, show us who is doing the watching as well as what is being observed. Anything can do this service for us, be a crow in this regard. The rain, the wind, thoughts and memories⎼ all crows and mirrors. Maybe we are the black hole. And if we recognize this, we can more easily step through the mirror, Alice Through the Looking Glass, not into Wonderland, but into what’s real in our perceptions. If we know how we dig holes in the world, maybe we won’t fall in so often.

 

In 1970 I was living in New York City. But despite having, at times, three jobs, I had no idea how to make a living. Every job threatened to demolish whatever understanding I had of myself.

 

One day, I was standing towards the front of the old Eighth Street Bookstore in the Village, in the psychology section. In the back were two older people, a man and a woman, dressed in clothes elegantly dark with age and possibly homelessness. The woman seemed almost regal, certainly dignified, the man more like a retired professor, his clothes not as rich and old as hers but equally distinctive. They were holding books in their hands while talking spiritedly. I moved closer, wanting to hear what they were saying. They were in the philosophy section discussing the French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre. Their accents were Germanic.

 

Over the next few months, I ran into one or both members of this friendship at least three times. I don’t know if I should use the word ‘couple.’ One day, on 7th Avenue, she was alone, with a bowl in her hand, asking people for money. I was surprised to see her. If anyone tried to pretend she wasn’t there, or anyone obviously rich, she’d follow and berate them about how capitalism turns people blind. The third time I saw one or both of them was uptown at a lecture on Thoreau….

 

To read the whole post, please click on this link to The Good Men Project, where it was first published.

Vaccination Frustration: Holding Accountable Those Who Deserve It

Do you want to be vaccinated but can’t even get an appointment?

 

As we hear about friends or neighbors who are the same age as we are and in the same priority group getting vaccinated before us, it can feel like we’re in a competition and losing, or we’re repeatedly doing something wrong.  Because potential relief is so close, we can feel the threats of the virus even more strongly.

 

We had grown almost used to wearing a mask. It had become weirdly “normal” to stay home or stay at a distance from anyone not in our pod, and to think of other humans as potential carriers of an infection that might kill us if we didn’t take precautions, including washing immediately after leaving their presence. For many of us, a compulsion to wash our hands has become a life-saving aptitude.

 

But now there’s a vaccine. Not a cure, but a preventive measure that could protect us from getting sick or dying. Or protect us from some of the strains of the virus. We had grown accustomed to the restraints. Now, the wounds are raw once again.

 

And the new strains add another level to the threat, another unknown. Who knows if the preventive measures we have used in the past will protect us in the future?

 

Last week, I spent hours trying to get a reservation for an appointment. I have spent more time on getting a reservation for a vaccine than I would have, in pre-COVID days, spent on planning a vacation.

 

I was on the website for a local pharmacy for hours and was so excited when I finally found an open appointment. I had just finished filling out the online form and had pressed submit, only to then be informed that the time slot was no longer available.

 

Then my wife and I were able to reserve a time slot at a state-run venue. After doing so, my wife received a recorded message on her phone saying she wasn’t eligible for the vaccine. We are the same age and in the same priority group. We answered all their eligibility questions to their satisfaction⎼ or so it seemed. Now, we will have to call to object or keep on searching for new appointments.

 

How many of us are experiencing the same frustration?

 

It would be easy to try to blame someone. But who do we blame? Biden has been president for less than two weeks. DT and his administration totally mismanaged the pandemic for a year. They put our lives at risk, often refused to take any responsibility for the pandemic. They  undermined this nation in a great variety of ways as well as undermining the incoming administration, so it is DT and his followers who we would blame.

 

To read the whole piece, please click on the link to The Good Men Project who first published it.