Thank You.

Thursday is Thanksgiving. It’s been a very full week already. We buried my Dad on Monday, in New Jersey. This afternoon, we will drive three and a half hours to my friend’s house near Woodstock, New York, to celebrate the holiday.

 

I am lucky. For the last forty-two years or so, my wife and I have joined with my friends from College, the University of Michigan, to share the holiday together. When we were younger, we all stayed in one house, like a small community. Now, we need to rent an additional place to sleep. This was always one of the most important events of the year for me, the time I could let go of demands and just be with people without the need for any pretense. They were part of my family.

 

My Mom and Dad had a similar relationship with some friends. I had an Aunt Matilda and Uncle Murray, and Beatrice and Jack. They weren’t blood relatives but our families would celebrate holidays and go on trips together, along with my actual aunt and uncle, Sylvia and Jonas. They would all support each other. Jack, who owned a gas station, would help with the car. Murray and Mat, who sold blinds, would help with covering windows. My real uncle, Jonas, would help if there were electrical problems. My Dad, the accountant, would help with financial and tax matters. My Mom, the historian, would fill in the historical context. Etc.

 

And on this past Monday, representatives of all these families and more came or called. After a death, it is truly helpful to realize all that you are grateful for. Mostly, I am grateful for the love, support, companionship, advice—the central presence of my Dad in my life. I am grateful for all the people who were touched by my Dad’s life and who helped us say goodbye to him. I am grateful to my brother and sister-in-law who were so reliable and caring, who had to deal with so many of the arrangements, for the funeral, for my Dad’s hospice care, and all the times they had to rush to his side when I was too far away. I am thankful for my wife, Linda, for her steady wisdom and love and that look she gives me to remind me to focus on what’s most important in life. Thank you to the Rabbi and others who helped with the funeral and the hotel staff who helped with our Celebration of Life afterwards.

 

I could go on and on. I could thank other relatives, friends and neighbors from New York, Virginia, Atlantic City and other parts of New Jersey, California, and Colorado.

 

And for people I know and don’t know, who take the time to care for other people and our world. Who, despite fear of retribution, speak out, take action to oppose the abuse of powerful men, or the greediness and stupidity of this political administration. Without thousands, millions of people speaking up, the economic and other resources of this country will be ripped off by the powerful and the lives of most of us made more difficult, if not oppressive. My Dad opposed such rip offs and so all those who join together to speak out are, in some way, also family.

 

So, thank you. Enjoy the holidays.

Mom

Last week was Mother’s Day and I forgot—or, believe it or not, I tried to forget, until I read some touching posts on Facebook. My Mom died 8 years ago, yet every Mother’s Day I still have that urge to do something for her. I feel she is alive and have to remind myself she is not. She even talks to me sometimes in my dreams. Maybe we all have similar experiences, not only with our Moms but with anyone dearly loved. I usually mistake that Mother’s Day urge as a habitual reminder built into time to buy a card, call or visit. Then I realize what’s happening and I tell myself to forget it. Until this year.

 

I now think that urge to remember is just that, a reminder of how important it is to remember and a realization that I can remember. It is not forbidden and not too painful. I can partly thank two women I know for this realization. Elaine Mansfield and Robin Botie wrote deeply and beautifully about what could be learned from loss. Life, love and loss are woven inextricably together. To live well you must love. To love well, you must be willing to be torn apart by loss. “Love and death are a package deal,” said Elaine.

 

My Mom often reminded me to be aware of other people’s feelings, not just my own. She was able to take people in, to see who a person was and embrace them. When I first brought Linda, who is now my wife, to meet my parents, my Mom accepted her right away. There was no mother-girlfriend conflict. The same with my brother, Gene, and sister-in-law, Mimi. My Mom even helped bring Gene and Mimi together. Before they even really knew one another, they were on a flight together home for the holidays. They both attended the same university. My brother had noticed Mimi when exiting the airplane. She was knitting a scarf and he commented on the length of it (long enough for a giant) and my Mom witnessed the brief exchange. As my parents and brother were about to leave the airport, my Mom noticed that Mimi was standing alone; her ride never arrived. So my Mom went around trying to find Mimi a ride home. Mimi was greatly impressed by my Mom’s actions.

 

My Mom modeled what it is to love. She did this in the way she took care of me. She did this with my Dad in the way they cared for each other. My parents showed me what relationship was about. They showed me what life can give you. Whatever or whoever I love carries their influence. Luckily, I still have my Dad. My Mom lives in my ability to love.

 

It’s weird that I must learn and re-learn these basic realities of life over and over again. It’s important to appreciate and thank all those people who have shaped and loved me. It’s important to notice how, when I feel pain, I wish that it will be the last pain I will ever face but fear that it’s just the beginning. I feel joy and don’t want it ever to end. I love and don’t want it ever to end. And maybe it doesn’t.

 

What would any of us be without those who love us and our ability to love? Teaching children about love, appreciating others, and the importance of grieving, are basic necessities for a good life and a good education.

 

Anger, Resentment, and Gratitude

I think some of us can remember hearing the following: “I didn’t choose to be here. My parents chose to have sex; I didn’t choose to be born. I am forced to go to school; I didn’t choose to go to school.” We either said this ourselves or heard some of our students or children saying it. There are many ways to argue with these statements, but for now, let’s just listen to them and take them in. What is going on in us or in any person who has similar thoughts or feelings? What is our response to such statements? They’re not unusual but they are powerful. It’s not just a teenager being a teenager. There is real confusion, anger and/or pain being expressed.

 

So, what do you do when you hear these thoughts in your own mind or when your students voice them? Here are a few suggestions. You could re-direct attention. The thoughts arise from something repeating itself over and over again in your mind.  You can’t tell anyone to stop thinking something. But you can give yourself or your students something else to do or think about. You could read something inspiring, a story of courage or achievement or social justice, or a poem that reaches deep into the heart. Or you could organize an activity together, something physical or in nature.

 

If you have practiced mindfulness, you could lead the class in a meditation to quiet the mind, recognize the sensations that go with the thoughts, and let them go.

 

Another approach is to understand the emotion behind the thoughts by going directly into it and explore all of its components. What emotion are you feeling? What triggered the feeling? What sensations do you feel, where? What images arise? What actions do you feel driven to take?  For many people, the emotion arises from not wanting to go along with the status quo, the present reality, political, social or otherwise. It is pushing back against the world. It is a feeling of rebellion. And there is much to rebel against. I wish more of us were rebelling, or fighting to change elements of our human world.

 

It can be disappointment or anger. The anger might be at a hurt you have suffered. Or you might not realize it, but the anger might be from feeling that your life is not meaningful enough. Especially teenagers, whose brains are growing at such a pace that they want a challenge, they want to save the world and make grand discoveries. Anger or resentment can be a cry for depth and meaning.

 

However, when the thought, “I don’t want to be here,” is rampaging through your mind, it can block out anything positive. It can make the world itself a threat that you must guard against. You need some clarity to determine how much of your thinking that the world is awful or needs changing is based on a real understanding of the situation. And, how much is based on your attitude or not being able to let go of something in the past?

 

So, if students can’t find clarity, you can help them explore their own mind with an inquiry practice. First, they need some calm or quiet. You can start off with a meditative technique like focusing attention on the breath. Or you could just have them close their eyes and take 3 slow, full, deep breaths. Then try one of the following practices. If the sun is shining, you could ask them to: focus on the feeling of the warmth of the sun on your face. If it’s cold, you could say: imagine being wrapped in a beautiful quilt. Imagine the warmth and how comforting that could be, how safe it can feel. (Pause.)

 

Then: Legally, you have to be educated in a manner approved by the state. But you can ask: “What do I want from my schooling? How can I participate in that education so it best serves my deepest needs? What are those deep needs?”  Imagine participating in your education so it serves your needs. What would you do differently? What initial steps would you take?

 

Or: What would it be like to transform resentment or anger by changing your life or the world for the better? How would it feel to have a sense of purpose or meaning? Right now, what instance of suffering or injustice would you like to lessen, what situation would you like to change? What first step can you take to make that improvement and make your life more meaningful or purposeful through your actions?

 

Or, you could explore a mind-state very different from anger or resentment, like gratitude. In school, I sometimes ask students: What does gratitude mean to you? What would happen if you felt gratitude for what you’re learning? How does that differ, emotionally, from being bored, indifferent, resentful, or angry? Which attitude helps you learn better? Which gives you more of a sense of power?

 

I teach Karate to middle and high school students. One part of class is learning Katas, which are prearranged series of movements, each of which has a meaning in self-defense. Before each practice of a Kata, you bow. Some students have trouble seeing the meaning in this bow or understand why they must repeat the movements so many times. I then explain that each of the Katas we learn were created by real people, masters of the art, and can go back a hundred years or more. They are like books of great depth that can be read again and again to find new meaning. We bow in respect and gratitude not just to the teacher leading the class, but to the teacher in the Kata or to the teachings embedded in the Kata. I ask them: How does it change your attitude when you think of the master creating the Kata? When you think of its depth and age? When you think that practicing it might somehow give you the ability to save your life or the life of someone you cared about? What is that worth? What is it like to feel that you are learning something that can save lives?

 

When you feel resentful, you can feel your life is not worthwhile. You are saying “no” to a moment. We all want our lives to have a sense of worth and meaning and deserve the chance to create such a life. Anger wants a target to attack. It can point you towards something that needs changing or it can set you against yourself. Gratitude can take you directly into your own experience. It opens you up to the world. What you feel gratitude for, you value. You feel that your life in this very moment is valuable. So, what is it that you feel gratitude for? For your ability to be aware of your own thoughts and sensations? For the clarity of your breath? For the fact that there is something meaningful that you could work on? What is that worth to you?