Archive for September, 2012


September 30, 2012

Richard removed two clogs from the left downspout on the front porch, one in each of the two elbows, yesterday morning.  (This Richard is the guy who cleans out the gutters and oils the wooden one in front.)

He tried to explain the difference between a gooseneck and an elbow — the downspout configuration has both — but I’m not sure I understood it.  We’re talking about the curved pieces, in the downspout configuration, that my carpenters used to track the porch architecture closely, in any event.

Clogs in a drainage system resonates for me strongly, and needing someone to remove one and then, it turns out, two, resonates, too.

I think we have drainage systems for dispelling our emotional burdens.  I think we try not to just pass them off to someone else who can’t handle them either.  When we can’t process them ourselves, sometimes it’s as if there’s a clog.  Bitterness can be a clog, I think.  So also can be self-pity and those mutations of hurt feelings that some of us wrap around ourselves like a cozy blanket.

Somebody recommended Al-Anon to me years ago.  It’s for families and friends of alcoholics.  The first meeting I attended — two blocks away from my house the next morning — brought such relief.  It lifted both my sense of responsibility for the alcoholic’s behavior (and not being able to control or cure it as society seemed to be telling me I should be able to) and a sense of self-pity that was getting in my way.

Clogs can re-form.  I have to work at not closing up, at letting things go, at keeping on moving, at not spinning a web of self-pity or bitterness or blame.  The hardest thing for me at this point is dealing with more loss, with trajectories that don’t seem to change.  Sometimes I can’t make a situation or someone better, and I can make things worse by trying, and my first reaction is “I can’t stand this.”

There’s fear in that reaction, I know that’s part of a clog in there.  I was asking for help on that the other day while I was praying, and I heard help from somewhere or someone about treading more lightly and in the moment, trying to float and not press down so hard on things (the way I do when I write with a pencil or ballpoint pen — I get rough patterns like Braille on the reverse side of the paper) and wait and see.  I don’t like to focus on the concept of “patience” — it helps me to re-frame that as this floating lightly in the moment and keeping in sync with the pace.

Richard said he’d just add the work to the bill he’ll send after he or one of his crew does the gutter cleaning and oiling later next month.  When I reflect on that, while it’s not remarkable, I enjoy his trust that if he does the work first and even forgoes immediate payment after he’s done, I’ll be good for the full amount later.  I’ve been stiffed myself in that situation, and finding an alternative to fulfillment of the promise has proved difficult and challenging, although not without benefits.  I guess, to go back to the theme of this post, I need to experience that pattern without reforming clogs in my emotional drainage system.

I’m going to end with what I see as the humor in the universe.  One of the people I’ve helped spiritually I associate with wearing clogs.  He was Dutch by birth, I don’t actually know if he wore clogs, but I associate him with them at least as a symbol.  (This had led me to thinking about magic shoes, witches’ shoes, red shoes, papal shoes, antique Chinese clogs, etc. as possible points through which I might find conceptual insight into the problem.)  The representation of a concept — difficulty with a drainage system — through the situation with my downspouts makes me want to say, “It was that kind of clog, not something about footwear, that was the problem.”   At some point, the image and focus apparently shifted from the shoe to the downspout, through which the problem could be addressed, and the problem became resolved.

Black turtlenecks

September 30, 2012

I found myself writing about black turtlenecks in a comment to Maureen Dowd’s column on little black dresses.  (I got there because of her apparent surprise that black in fabric is not a uniform color.  I’ve had black turtlenecks from a particular brand — Talbots –that have a brown cast to them.  And that got me writing about the impact of Steve Jobs’s fashion statement on my own choices — it has for me taken away some of the carefree quality I associated with grabbing a black turtleneck and a pair of jeans sometimes because it’s easy.)

Someone (LiveLoveHealth of San Francisco) correctly, I think, pointed out that it was black mock turtlenecks that Steve Jobs wore as part of his uniform, not a high or fold-over collar.

This helps.  It provides a distinction (since I prefer a high or fold-over collar).  It also gave me another point of contrast, doctrinaire and eclectic.

My first impulse is to develop that into a compare and contrast of those two styles, including how I use them and how Steve Jobs did.  I don’t actually know how Steve Jobs used those approaches.  Which helpfully keeps me from taking that route and instead allows me to muse on why I feel vaguely irritated when I do read about Jobs.

I think it’s like, for me, reading Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, or standing next to someone singing a different harmony — I’m trying hard to hang onto my own sense of things, and people who have their own close but not the same sense of things I tend to push away so I can hear my own sense without importing some of theirs into mine.

With some other “senses of things” I easily visit and discuss them, maybe learn from and use bits or pieces of them.  With (these) others I react as if they are threatening to brainwash me into an unhelpful airtight belief system that will prevent me from doing what I need to be doing.  I am not sure what I’m reacting to, whether it really is dangerous for me to try seeing things this other way.  I recognize that I avoid thought systems that insist on black and white thinking and the existence of “Evil,” for example.  Maybe these “senses of things” strike me at some level as participating in that.

I can see many of us making our individual art projects of belief systems and lives and senses of things using the same set of supplies but putting them together differently — I think it’s part of the kaleidoscope of humanity.  What’s at the base of why, when I sense another’s project is close to mine in some way but different in some significant way I turn away, I’m not sure.  Do I worry I will feed or spread something unhelpful or damaging?  Do I not want to revise my own belief system in certain ways?

I do know that space and looseness can be conducive to understanding and helpful behavior.  Maybe I find myself tensing up in the presence of systems I feel a need to distinguish from my own understandings and it’s that tenseness and not the system itself I’m trying to avoid.  That seems to be a better match with what I’m feeling.  So it’s not their senses of things per se that I find problematic but my reaction to them.  Looking to see whether I can develop a different reaction makes more sense to me than allowing myself to become very negative about what someone else is doing.  In the meantime I can politely “take space,” as people are advised to do when an interaction is threatening to escalate unhelpfully.

Getting past the initial thrill

September 29, 2012

There’s a phenomenon, I’m not sure it has a name, of realizing that one has accomplished something one desired but/and now one has to do something with it.

It could be “getting into Harvard” — okay, now what am I going to do with that educational opportunity?  (I was reading Joe Nocera on college rankings.)  Or getting a particular job or kind of job.  Maybe for some people it’s getting married or having a child or learning a particular trade or being signed to a record deal.  I’m sure there are a lot of fact patterns for the same phenomenon.  What will I actually accomplish, now that I’ve gotten where I’ve wanted to go?

When I began to develop spiritual gifts, it occurred to me pretty early on that they’re not parlor tricks or things to be used for material advantage.  On the other hand, it’s also become pretty clear that sitting on a mountain top in contemplation is not where my path seems to lead.

So what do I do now that I’ve gotten to this point in my life?  I can recite the Jewish blessing for thanks for having been brought to this point (actually, I would have to go look it up somewhere, but I could express the concept from my heart in prayer), but what this point actually is remains something of a mystery to me.  Relating it to the “getting into Harvard” phenomenon helps me think about it in a more concrete way.



September 28, 2012

“’We are not going to let people who deliberately attack and kill our people get away with it.’”

I read this quotation from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in a NYTimes article about the obstacles to the FBI’s investigation of the torching of the consulate in Benghazi and killing (“Security Fears Hobble Inquiry of Libya Attack” by Kirkpatrick, Schmitt, and Schmidt).

So what makes Panetta think other people don’t feel the same way about the killings of their people?  By our drones, for example?

We got rid of violence as the means to settle individuals’ disputes (we use words and courts), in my opinion we need to keep working at it at the level of nations, too, and to see it there as similarly barbaric.  One of my concerns is that our nation’s fascination with guns reflects some kind of an appetite for violence, and that in some way at least some of us really don’t want to eliminate violence and war.

Rainbow, courtesy of Washington, D.C.

September 27, 2012

I am in the midst of multiple family medical difficulties, trying to locate my gratitude to the universe for the challenges to develop my (coping) skills.  I was thinking about how there’s always spiritual help, I just need to reach down deep enough with my heart.

As I was thinking that, I turned from the kitchen sink and there is this beautiful rainbow cast against an old cast iron stove on the other side of the room.  I spent a few minutes trying to figure out through what the light is being refracted, and it’s the Lucite block encapsulating the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument in a little souvenir on the windowsill that my kids brought me back from a trip down there.

I could use the hopefulness of a rainbow today.  That it comes courtesy of Washington in a way is kind of interesting.

“Marry that woman”

September 26, 2012

That was what the man heard from the fortune teller when he asked how to go about treasuring up all the riches he could for eternity.

Well, that woman was a mirror and the eternal riches were enlightenment, but he didn’t know that.  And he was so unready for a mirror that when he saw himself in her obesity and bad humor and selfishness and greed and profligacy and misuse of power and the like that he broke her instead of working on those characteristics in himself.

And reincarnation after reincarnation he asked for a replay.  Until finally they sent a decoy to play her role and that decoy had the ability to maintain perspective and call him out while still participating in the drama.


I’ve got nowhere to go with this one, no ending to this spiritual story, no tying up of loose ends with reconciliation between the man and the woman and a happy ending.

This lack of resolution is related to a post I wrote yesterday, in which I elided the issue of asking for spiritual help to furnish help to another, with the declining to be pulled into trying to furnish that help oneself when one can’t or won’t (the request for a substitute and the declination are actually two components to a single transaction).  People without functional faith don’t do the former (ask for substitute help on behalf of the other person), I don’t think it ever occurs to them in their unexamined belief in their human self-sufficiency, and it makes a huge difference.  The mirror woman in the story couldn’t resolve the drama herself without the man engaging in faith (what I am seeing is that from an objective point of view she actually needed help in order to survive), even after the story action lost some of its roughness after many iterations of it.  The man had gotten to the point where he was trying to finish the story by “faithfully” adhering to codes.  But that’s misplaced faith.  Functional faith is through love, not superficial behavioral responses.  The difference becomes very clear when you’re faced with a situation in which you can’t act, in which you yourself can’t accomplish what needs to be accomplished.

And so the circle of the storyline can’t be completed without functional faith.  The man was unwilling to do what it would have taken to access his, and that was his choice.  He may have had his good reasons, but the woman did not have to be a sacrifice to them over and over.  Eventually she understood that.

As long as I’m editing the previous draft of this for clarity, I will add somewhat more charitably that I also see that the man in the story couldn’t figure out what to do.  What the decoy resolution allows is for him to work that out on his own time.


September 25, 2012

I came upon a beautiful calendar (for 2013) with photos at the Arlington Reservoir (around which I often walk).  Not only are a Great Blue Heron and a Red-tailed Hawk pictured, but a Bald Eagle — who knew?!

I don’t know whether it’s available by mail, but I thought I’d post a link anyway (by the way, the little pictures on the front cover of the calendar are not the photos inside the calendar itself).  There’s a list there of local stores that are carrying it.  It’s $10.

Flying leaves

September 25, 2012

Shortly after I wrote the post “Against the grain” this morning, in which I mention aeronautics, lift, and leaps, I was staring out my window while brushing out my hair, and I saw two yellow leaves swirling upwards above the telephone and electrical wires outside.  For a moment I wondered if they were butterflies, because they were definitely and firmly going UP, but no, I think they were leaves from the tree next door.  Bright golden yellow.

In addition to the synchronicity of sorts, I had to laugh, because when I was quite young, a preschooler, I had what my family seemed to think was an imaginary friend, and I referred to him as “The Man on the Flying Leaf.”  I said he spoke to me in “Milk-bottle Language.”  My family derided the whole thing, and at some point it stopped.  So I liked the leaves swirling upwards this morning, as a symbol of faith, and also because I like the idea that it would be wrapped up with my Man on the Flying Leaf imagery.


September 25, 2012

Someone was asking me about how to pray, especially how to begin.  Here’s how I translated for that person what I do.

First I put on my hazard lights.  That is, I call a little attention to myself, I say “Here I am [, I’d like to communicate].”  While it’s a little like raising my hand in class, the gesture is not important so much as a way of getting others’ attention as its reflection back will make (makes) me ready to hear.

Then I start communicating as if giving a public talk and addressing those in the balcony I can’t see but I know are there.  It’s not that I’m a polytheist but I think there are all kinds of layers between ourselves and the highest levels of the universe, and sometimes I find that talking to some intermediate layer is what suits (and I think the highest levels especially get put into formats we humans can understand, a translation on the other end before we hear it, in a way.)  I throw my internal voice as far as I think it needs to go.

And then I reveal a little of what’s in my heart, as translated through what’s on my mind.  And I listen for what is communicated back.  (It usually feels as if it’s welling up from within.)

I’ll just add two little footnotes in case they turn out to be important to someone.  (1) Some people get a lot of emotion, including crying, welling up through them as part of praying.  It happens, it passes.  I notice it, I may name it, especially as a prelude to my trying not to interfere with its discharge.  (2) I’ve encountered situations in spiritual work when I’ve felt my capacity to tolerate a feeling was inadequate to what I was being asked to feel, and in that kind of a situation I ask for spiritual help.  For example, in one case, I politely but firmly explained that I could not hold that much distress safely and would have ask for that experience to end (it felt like saying I would have to ask a person to leave).  What I found was that the distressful part resolved and the rest of the connection continued — it felt to me as if at least part of the distressful part had been handed off and handled by the universe in a different way, not through me.  I add this note as a reminder of one tool for staying safe — when in doubt, ask for help.  Why we don’t get “help” “automatically” when we need it is another topic, but regardless, in the moment I’d go for the being safe rather than try to test the spiritual dynamics of the universe.

Going against the grain

September 25, 2012

I get a lot out of Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, but I don’t always agree with everything in them, even if I am grateful for them and respectful of his abilities.  This morning’s is an example.

I disagree that God initiates in a relationship with us, unless, of course, we want to split hairs.  What I see is that God’s love is there all the time, what initiates the relationship is when we somehow become open to that love.

While I’m at it, at criticizing people whose work I enjoy and whose presence I am grateful for, I will take this example of where I disagree with Fr. Rohr to show where I disagree with David Brooks and today’s column of his on conservatism.

I don’t think what I said about God’s love always being present is anything new, wouldn’t surprise me if Rohr says it too, I could even have gotten it from him.  Nor is our openness as key anything new, especially to more eastern spiritual traditions, I think.  But overall my approach to spirituality is a little more radical a change than David Brooks would apparently advocate, a little less prudent and incremental and respectful of continuity and tradition — I want to jettison our conceptualization of God as a cranky parent, for instance, and I want everybody to remember that everybody learns, eventually, to merge their humanness with the divinity within them — that everybody eventually becomes enlightened.  Nobody does it for you.  And that the basic tools are the same for everybody, regardless of their stage in the process — willingness, becoming more self-aware, becoming more open, getting out of the way, listening, following guidance.

What I see is, to track David Brooks’s idea that conservatism is focused now only on one of its components, is that to clear the runway and get lift, we need to do more than take baby steps, we need to do something more like leap into space.  (…we/Fling our souls into the/Pitch dark again, and/Wait for the stars/To shine.)  Faith for me is the concept that if we do, we will be borne aloft.  Metaphorically, of course; I am, after all, the daughter of an aeronautical engineer.

Because if we don’t take enough of a leap, we fall back, I think, we revert to a prior stage, even get more stuck in it for having tried to progress beyond it and not accomplished that goal.  There are risks to taking small steps when larger ones are called for.

On the other hand, to end on a more conciliatory note, as I assume Rohr and I agree on the fundamental importance of love and its eternity, maybe my spiritual approach is sufficiently rooted in tradition to pass muster with David Brooks’s notion of what kind of change is helpful.