Category Archives: Spirituality

Four crows

I saw them this morning as I looked out past the deck of my father’s house to the water beyond, as I admired the filtered light of early morning, the faint mist obscuring the far shore. I was washing dishes, and the crows landed on Dad’s boat, which was on the deck right outside the wall of windows fronting the main room. There they stood, quarreling, on the boat cover, and then they flew about, two up to the trellis on the side of the deck to stand side-by-side and squawk at one which finally flew down to the deck. The fourth, with blowsy, ragged feathers, stood droop-headed on the boat, looking back and forth between the two scolding birds and the one on the deck, and then flew to the deck railing. The two on the trellis flew after it, dancing and jigging, ruffling feathers as though to make themselves look bigger. There was a scuffle. The bird on the deck joined in. They scolded and leapt back and forth, and whatever they were saying to each other was hardly affectionate. I wish I understood Crow.

After a while the three sleek crows came together, rounding on the ragged one, and the ragged one hopped back and forth from foot to foot, cawing rapidly, before launching itself up into the air and flying off. The three sleek crows talked amongst themselves for a moment, and then flew up, one by one, in the opposite direction from the ragged crow, until the deck was deserted once more.

How did they know, these four crows, to act out their little drama on my father’s deck, in front of me, who would see, of course, the four girls in the family and their eternal family roles?

Encouraged

Can’t say it. Don’t know how. Ghosts float about the room, not dead yet. I imagine them, my readers, what they might look like, how they might sit beside me and reach out to touch me. They might stand back, and purse their lips. They might turn away. I want to bat them off, chase them out. I want to open the windows and send them off to mingle with the clouds. Here it is again, that embroilment, that fear of being seen.

Push-pull. To expose. Not to expose. I could tell you that making l*v* hurts, that it always has, that there is a physiological reason for it, that if I can hold tight and let it happen, then let go, relax into the pain, let it fill me, there’s a place beyond it where bliss waits. Pain and ecstasy are inextricably entwined.

I can tell you that my life is mostly mundane, and it’s OK. I wake and eat breakfast and let out the dogs while I water my flowers and my lone yellow plum tomato plant, and then I go to work and teach for three and a half hours, and spent some time prepping for the next day’s class and reading papers (I say “reading,” not “grading,” for a reason). And I come home and eat lunch with Nada, and sometimes we play chess. And I drive Zeke here and there (or rather she drives me, because she’s in driver’s ed and has a permit, so I sit in luxury while she finds ways to go the long way to her friends’ houses, gas prices be damned). And when it cools down I go to Nada’s and we kick a soccer ball around for a while because he quite smoking eight weeks ago and he needs something to distract him when the cravings hit. I thought, at first, I was doing it for him, that I would hate kicking a soccer ball around because I’m ball-challenged, with no coordination, but actually it’s fun. I bought soccer shoes, and he’s showing me some tricks and drills, and I can’t do any of it well, but we laugh a lot, and sweat drips into my eyes and I run under the sprinklers to rescue the ball when I send it sideways into his brother’s yard, and the cool water challenges the heat, sends it away into the rich blue dome above, and I feel like a kid again, as if I’ve found something I knew once but forgot — or maybe I never really knew it.

When we’re tired we go inside and read. He reads cognitive psychology books, his current intellectual interest, and I read papers for work or scribble all over a manuscript for a future developmental writing book that I’m reviewing. Sometimes, if there’s time, we’ll read together for a few minutes, these days from Chuang Tzu’s Inner Chapters, and he’ll be happy. So will I. I don’t mean to exclude myself. I was going to write “we,” but I realized that he in particular loves being read to, and I love to read aloud — but it gets tiring, and there’s never enough time. So we read a little from the Inner Chapters, and then I have to rush out to pick up Zeke, and cook her and her friends something. There are always kids sleeping here: right now her friend J is in her room with her, and B is on the couch downstairs, so I’m writing in my bedroom, with Sadie and Bridji snuggled up against me.

And then, finally, it’s night. I open the windows and the wind blows through, carrying cool from the mountains. I water the plants on the patio again, beneath stars, and listen to the world hum. The ghosts gather again, and they don’t purse lips or turn away. They are friends. I can write to them.

Vacancies and Writing and Buddhism and my favorite Sister

“What are your vacancies?” Bethany wrote in her blog, after writing about the voids she feels in her life sometimes. I don’t like thinking about mine. Most of the time I ignore them. If I’m to be honest, I realize my actions have disqualified me from karmic goodness. I abandoned my horse, essentially. Something has shifted in me, over the years, to feel a personal distaste at the idea of buying and selling horses. They connect with us humans, and then we sell them. They move into a life absent from us, and they could be abused or neglected, starved or overworked, and we don’t know.

Sometimes I wake to find I have been dreaming of my horse, and I wonder if he ever misses me. Does he wonder why I just disappeared? I know where he is, but I can’t bear to go visit him, although I know he is well treated. I didn’t sell him, either, though perhaps I could have made some money doing so. I just couldn’t do it. I gave him away to someone who loved him, and then turned away.

Another absence: I shared some writing with a writer friend who has been increasingly successful over the years. She gave me excellent advice, the kind that is at once helpful but also leaves one feeling somewhat down: “Why didn’t I see that? I should have known that.” But the advice was doable, reasonable, well framed. What silenced me was her comment about not really liking my style, although I have suspected for years that she would not choose to read anything I write if we weren’t friends. She has encouraged me as a writer, but she and I write differently. She doesn’t like my “Latinate” word choices, prefers simplicity and straightforward sentences composed with Orwellian transparency.

After her review, I couldn’t write. I sat down to do so and found myself silenced. No matter how much I understand intellectually that writers differ in their styles, and that one can appreciate a writer’s ability without particularly liking the style, I can’t emotionally move past the disappointment of my friend’s comment. And I can’t help but think of my mother, who didn’t like my style either. “It’s too flowery,” she said, every time she read something I wrote, and then inevitably turned to grammar. “You’ve ended this sentence with a preposition. You can’t do that.” Grammar and style. I could never get either one of them right.

I suppose there are other absences, but right now I don’t have time to think of them. I’ve been trying to write this for three days. Every time I start, someone interrupts me. It’s summer. I should have time, but I realize I’m busier than ever. I’m teaching two classes, and Zeke has driver’s ed, and her friends spend as much time here as at their houses, and the dogs need walking, and no matter how much I want to write, something holds me back.

And now, hours later, I return from an evening at Sister A’s house, where we talked about “I am the way and the truth and the light” and about Buddhism and Hinduism and her neighbors in the shelter house next door who bring her the raspberries they grow in their garden between bouts with alcohol. A homeless man stopped by for a sandwich, and the breeze blew the heat of the day away. “OK, I’m going to do my Buddha thing,” I said once, to prepare her and the others for another off-the-wall connection with Eastern religion — Buddha nature in this case. And she laughed and recommended a book by Diana Eck, and said, “You’ll like her, Adah.” This Saturday is her 60th Jubilee, and I’m going.

Right now, right this moment–long may it last–I feel no absence at all.

Her name is Lloyza

She is seven, will be eight on the 16th. She stands against a stone wall, in a pale pink top, hot pink jeans and matching pink flipflops. Her black hair is pulled back into two pony tails on either side of her head, and a few stray hairs fall over her forehead, wispy dark. She looks directly at the camera, not smiling, a probing, serious look.

I saw her photograph as soon as I walked through the main doors of the cathedral. A priest I didn’t know stood behind a table on which stacks of folders bearing colorful pictures waited. I scanned the pictures, and stopped on Lloyza’s. I reached out my hand, touched the folder, and heard the cantor name the opening hymn. No time. I turned to enter the nave and find my spot in the pew, leaving the folder behind with all the others.

The homily, given by the visiting priest, reminded us of our responsibilities to others less well off. He was speaking on behalf of poor children and aging people worldwide. “Sponsor a child or an aging person,” he encouraged us. “For $1 a day, you can make a huge difference in the life of an individual who is barely surviving. That person will receive health and dental care, food and clothing, an education.” The association he was speaking for, The Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, spends more than 94% of the money it raises on the people designated to receive it. Less than 6% goes towards administration and fund raising. I listened harder. For years I had wanted to sponsor a child somewhere in the world, but had always hesitated, afraid that the money would go to some millionaire CEO and to glossy advertisements and solicitations. No. Not according to Father D. The foundation has received an A+ from one charity regulating board, four of four stars from another. He speaks of the seven children he has sponsored and watched grow up. “I can’t have my own children,” he says, “So I made a family for myself.” He names them, their ages, what they are doing. He has visited them. The foundation arranges trips to the countries where they provide sponsorships. I imagine visiting the little girl in pink, wherever she lives. I’ll look at her folder after Mass, I think.

But after Mass, Father D asks the servers to bring in packets to hand out to interested people. I raise my hand. A man walks over and hands me a folder. It’s the girl in pink.

I sponsor her. Her name is Lloyza and she lives outside Manila, in a small village, in a hut with a sheet metal roof. She sleeps on the floor, and cooks on a charcoal fire. She has two little brothers, and she helps clean the house and wash the dishes. She is “diligent in schooling.” Her favorite subject is Filipino. I wonder if she’s like me, an English-speaker whose favorite subject was English. She loves to sing.

Soon I’ll get an address for her and I’ll be able to write to her and send her a photograph or two. I hope she writes back soon.

Snippets from the weekend

“If we’d grown up now instead of 30 years ago,” Leah said, “We’d probably have been put in foster care.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah. With all her food allergies she acted crazy sometimes. She was out of control.”

“I always thought she was really controlled. She was almost cold when she spanked us.”

“She dragged you by your hair down the hall.”

“I suppose. But that kind of thing didn’t happen very often.” I look at her. “Thank God we grew up 30 years ago!”

“Yeah. Thank God.”

______

The logs were still there. And I like chopping wood. My dad wielded the chain saw, and Leah stacked the triangles I split off from the rounds Dad made. The ax was heavy, and sometimes the wood was balky, but most of the time it split cleanly, and this time I didn’t get sore afterwards, even though I chopped a lot more. It’s amazing how the body adapts to physical activity. The last time, my left hand ached for three days afterwards, and my back and arms were stiff. This time, nothing.

______

On the way home, I looked out the window at the unfolding scenery. I thought of how I hadn’t seen the heron in too long, and how I missed it. Leah, Ruth May and I all bought heron prints at a gift store on a tourist trip we took on Sunday. We’ll frame them, a reminder of Mum, but the living heron didn’t come to visit.

“Show yourself, Mum,” I said to myself as I sped down the freeway. Then I looked left, without any real reason to look left, and there was a heron, flying over the car.

May be coincidence. May be the spirit of my mother flying overhead. It doesn’t matter. I know it made me happy.

On being happy

“You’re the happiest person I know,” he said.

I laughed. “Except when I’m not.” I suppose it’s true. I’ve been terribly unhappy at times, but realistically those times have coincided with pretty serious stresses — losing babies to miscarriages and getting cancer twice is not quite as easy to overcome as a hangnail might be. And most of the time I recognize how lucky I am to live this life of relative ease and comfort, to have a stimulating job that allows me to set my own schedule within certain parameters, to have a funny, smart, loving daughter who is dealing remarkably well with the challenges of being a teenager in these difficult times, to have a vet who gives me discounts when the littlest dog gets dental surgery (yesterday), to have a new car with decent gas mileage and the income to buy organic food and fresh produce — even to indulge Zeke in her love of pink lady apples at the outrageous price of $2.99 a pound. I have a window in a quiet condo that looks out onto a patio, a patch of grass, and flowering trees in shades of pink. Tulips line the fence in vibrant red. Pansies turn delicate purple faces towards the light. Everything glows in the resplendence of spring sunshine. I feel the sun even here in the shade of my living room.

It’s dangerous, of course, to think about it. It has taken me years to recognize the transience of both joy and sorrow. When my mood darkens, I know to breathe deep, take a walk, wait for the change. When I feel happiness lifting me, I know to enjoy it but not to become attached. There will be another storm. The mood will shift.

I have been thinking about happiness since I read Dale’s post on it. When I was younger, I always looked forward to the day I’d have everything I dreamed of. There would be the horse farm in Ireland, the reading tours for my book, the fame and acclaim and steady flow of cash. I wouldn’t have to think, “Do I really need this?” because I would have the money to buy it (and back then, of course, I didn’t even think about the fact that moneyed or not, we shouldn’t be buying things just to have them, just to start them on the path to the dump or the incinarator where they would loose toxins into the air.) And yet. And yet. Somehow I had an inkling. I remember my best friend from Ireland (who is still my best from Ireland 30 years on), not bothering to clean her tack. “One day,” she said, “I’ll have a job that pays me enough I’ll never have to clean my bridle. I’ll just buy a new one when the old one get too dirty.” I never understood that attitude. I cleaned my tack and oiled it and won awards for the “best turned-out” pony. The leather of the reins and the headpiece and the check straps and all the rest of it was buttery soft. And I still have that bridle, though one of my more recent horses chewed on the reins, and it is showing its age.

I have digressed, perhaps because an aspect of happiness for me is the sensualness of a moment, and I remember those reins in my hand, the living mouth at the end of them and the feel of our connection — my pony and I, and then I am drawn here, to this moment with my computer in my lap, the slow ache in my right knee that impinges when I think about it, and then slips away when I look out at the dew sparkles on the grass. Sadie breathes beside me, wrapped in a blanket as is her preference. Bridjy sleeps at the other end of the couch, half toothless and older than we thought when we rescued her, but still happy and a lover of walks.

Surrender, Dale says. He prostrates himself in his Buddhist practice, and I think of the rituals of Catholicism, the genuflection, the grace bestowed in the Eucharist, these moments that are also acts of surrender. I think of Islam, which comes from a word that means love and peace, but also surrender.

Sometimes I imagine myself forward to what might be. Nada and I might get a house together some day. Some terrible thing that I can’t name might happen some day. But I stop myself. Surrender is a surrendering to the moment, to Now.

To Sadie breathing beside me, to Bridjy with clean teeth, to clicking “publish” and heading upstairs to wake Zeke for school. To Now.

Circling

I always seem to miss the important days. It’s something in me, in my mind, that blocks the connection. All this month I thought of her, thought of the day she died, remembered our last conversation, remembered the crow that represents her. I remembered that it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen her, and that I miss her, and that she and my mother hit it off immediately when they met, first in Ireland 17 years ago and later when she and I hired a mini van and drove to the airport to pick up Mum and Dad the day they arrived in this country with two dogs and all their possessions.

I remember the books we shared, the walks, the cups of tea and coffee, the ice cream and whipped cream and hot chocolate. I remember that our dogs tried to kill each other, and then became best friends. I remember the day I called her to ask her a breast feeding question a few days after Zeke was born, and found out she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in the hospital, having a mastectomy. She hadn’t told me because she didn’t want to ruin my joy in Zeke’s birth.

Five years later, she was added to the “survivor” list. If you survive breast cancer for five years, you’re considered a survivor, a statistic that represents life and overcoming. Less than two months later, she was dead. She’d spent five years fighting the disease. She made it past the five year mark, and then she died. I wasn’t with her at the time, but I’d spent days with her, hours holding her hand and rubbing moisturizer into her skin and giving her ice chips and trying to feed her what she could eat. When I hear the theme song from the Titanic, I cry, remembering her daughter (my goddaughter), an accomplished pianist, playing the grand piano in the next room. I remember that her daughter and I went shopping for clothes for her mother’s funeral a few days before my best friend died, because we knew it was coming, and because A wanted it.

Ten years ago on the 21st, Trish passed away from breast cancer at the age of 42. I was going to write about it, but I couldn’t. I watched the daffodils nod on my drive to work — they are her emblem, the brightest thing blooming in the days leading up to her death — and I thought about earth day, a perfect tribute to her love of nature and animals. And I couldn’t write about her.

The next day Loren wrote about loving crows, and I remembered after my mother and I were diagnosed with breast cancer ourselves just a year later, how I went walking in a park right by my mother’s house. I walked the five-mile walk around the park, and a crow followed me, hopping from tree to tree, swooping and diving overhead, and never letting me out of its sight. I heard Trish in its laugh. I saw Trish in its bright, curious head tilt. I took my shoes off and ran on the bare dirt, with the crow flying overhead, and I heard Trish scolding me.

There used to be a whole colony of crows in the birch tree by my condo. They’ve gone. Now and again I hear one or two, scolding me for getting too close, but mostly they’re just gone. I wonder if they’ve been taken by West Nile Virus, if the crow that fell from the tree onto my lawn and died there a couple of years ago was a victim of the disease. A woman from the CDC took it away for testing after I called, but I never heard what the cause was.

Regardless, my mind circles and circles, and for three days I couldn’t stop thinking of her, and I couldn’t bear to write of her. I have a dark shadow in my life, my loss of her, my loss of A, which I must explain in the context of the loss of my mother.

I wish I could say I hear a crow outside. But I must wake my daughter for school, and head for work, and remind myself that Trish and my mother simply ARE.

Perfect weekend

Such a perfect weekend just passed. Temperatures in the 70’s. Sunshine and stillness. I planted in my little garden, and filled my windowbox, and cleaned the house, and in between all that I read papers and prepped for my 101 class (It’s a new prep, and I’m on step ahead of my students. I wanted to get a little ahead. No such luck).

On Saturday afternoon I sat in my chair and looked at the neatly swept patio, at the little table and chair set and the flowerpot on the table with its blue and yellow pansies spilling over the edge. The trees along the fence line a few feet away are beginning to bud. Tulips on the verge of opening nodded in the barely perceptible breeze. Happy. Yes. And I reminded myself that I have felt this way before and will again, and in between will be different feelings, and everything is all OK.

Earlier that day, a friend had sent me one of those “Getting to know you” emails, with questions about work and life and TV shows and so on. “What are four places you’ve worked?” “Four places you’ve visited?” “What are four movies you’ll watch over and over again?”

The absence of a question about favorite books struck me. A question about TV shows, and one about movies, yes. But nothing about books. Fewer people read these days. The questionnaire supported the image of a society in which the written word is losing favor. It was sent by an older friend of mine, who didn’t note the absence of a question about reading. When I forwarded it, I said I didn’t watch TV, and added favorite books instead. It felt like a loss, having to configure the questionnaire for me, so much out of the mainstream (for most people except, I suspect, for the readers of this blog, perhaps!)

The last question I also couldn’t answer, but my silence in the face of it struck me as a positive one. “What four things are you looking forward to this year?” Last year I would have said, “Visiting the Azores,” but would have been stuck after that single answer. This year, without a highly unusual trip on my agenda, I had nothing to say. But lest you all worry that my life is without joy, rest assured. My silence settled in me with a sigh of gladness. I don’t need to look forward. This moment is enough. I could say I’m looking forward to the break of the summer (I teach, yes, but fewer classes, and there is no committee work involved). I could say I’m looking forward to everything associated with longer days and more light. But really I see no point in looking forward. I’ve given up on living outside the moment, and when I succeed, I like it. Which is to say that sometimes I slip back into the habit of imagining myself elsewhere, which fuels discontent. In the winter, the dead of winter, when walking the dogs is a frozen chore that even they dread, I find myself imagining a time I might have a fenced yard where they can relieve themselves and chase the birds. But then I remember that in winter I like sitting in my chair and watching the birds eat; I love the pale filtered light and the starkness of the bare branches. I love the the sense of living protected in a small space, while outside the hills stretch away to the sky, and all is austere and silent. And so I remember there is no need to look forward, because right now is enough.

Houseful

The house is full of teenagers — Zeke’s friend, and their two boyfriends, and two gay friends — and they’re boiling eggs for Easter, and the TV is going, and the iPod is plugged into the speakers, and even though I’m up here in my bedroom with the door closed, I can hear the music and the movie voices, and the clink of spoons, and I can smell spaghetti cooking, and I’m trying to write, but I can’t. It occurs to me that I probably seem a bit flaky, switching from one thing to another, abandoning projects and picking them up again here and there. I haven’t abandoned my book on Esperanca, but I’ve run into a snag with it. She wants her name on it, her real name, and her real name is so unusual (and beautiful too) that it is distinctive. If I make the typo-free book available, I will expose her. So I’m trying to decide what to do with it.

Time for a confession: Nada fell asleep last week, while I read him a bit from my book about my mother and the heron.  And I stopped writing for several days. My mother always criticized my writing, and now any hint that what I’m working on is not good enough freezes me. How I finished my thesis (a creative one) is beyond me.

But I couldn’t stop writing it. I think it’s a way for me to make sense of what happened, of my role in it, and a way to find my way back to peace with my sisters. So I keep working on it, but when he calls and asks me what I’m doing, I lie. I tell him I’m reading, or just got back from walking the dogs, or doing laundry, because after he fell asleep all I could think about was that my ex-husband wouldn’t read the book my mother and I wrote about our breast cancer experience, and that my life has always been full of people who haven’t really liked anything I’ve ever written. It feels whiny to write what I’m writing, but I’ve sworn I’m going to stop censoring myself. I’ve been censoring myself for too long.

I’m in that strange transitional mood that happens when the quarter ends. It’s been a great quarter, with fun classes, but I’m a bit bummed out because I submitted grades that I know some students aren’t going to be happy with. But they have to learn somewhere, somehow, to read the assignment, to listen to me when I tell them that if they don’t include copies of their sources with their papers they’ll fail the paper — period. They have to learn to read and respond to their emails BEFORE the grades are in. One student didn’t send in her online quiz, and I emailed her twice about it, and then she emailed me after the grades were in and wrote, “If you didn’t get my quiz yet, please call me ASAP at 555-5555 and I’ll send it to you.” TOO LATE!!! Four minutes past the deadline for me to submit my grades. What was she thinking? And I like her. But I can’t — and won’t — change the grade for her even if she does have the quiz and does submit it. There’s some kind of insane epidemic of students who are fun and interesting and just nice to be around, but they don’t pay attention and don’t do the work and then they act hurt when their final grade isn’t what they expect. I’ve been warning them all quarter, but I think they’ve been trained in a high school system that warns them they’ll fail, and then passes them anyway. So that’s what they expect.

I read last night, for Holy Thursday. I wasn’t as nervous as I expected. I went for a walk beforehand, in the Canyon, one of my favorite places, and I felt the fierce, wild spirit of the rocks rising into the air around me. And it was something like the night before Anne Frank opened, when I saw Kuan Yin laughing in front of me, and knew it would be OK. I’m more used to it all now, and the Spanish reader was a former student of mine, so we had fun in the sacristy beforehand, catching up on news, and when it was time to process in, I was calm. It was moving, to be reminded of a year ago, when I was in the front row, getting my feet washed by the Bishop, and I remembered Nada in India, getting his feet washed by his friend, and there’s something about that story, about my memory of him telling me about it, that touches me every time. Afterwards, we processed out with the host to the chapel, and I walked right behind the Bishop as the choir sang hauntingly before us. In that moment the music and the clear sound of the bells brought back memories of China, of that dawn chanting and drumming that so captivated me, and I knew why I could have at home a shelf on which Kuan Yin sits beside St. Teresa, and the temple guardians watch over both of them.

I’m rambling. There’s nothing organized or meaningful about what I’ve written here, except perhaps as a way to capture a moment. I’ve jumped from idea to idea, and not edited or changed anything, though I guess I’ll proofread at least.

One of the lads downstairs has an astonishingly loud laugh, and it bursts out regularly, rising above the general cacaphony of music and food being prepared and kids talking. I’m tired but I probably couldn’t sleep, with all the excitement downstairs. Tomorrow I’m going to visit my dad for Easter, will get to see my little nephew again. Then it’s the break, for a week, and I’ll clean up my office and prepare for next quarter, and find a moment to do some yard work in the little garden. And then it’s spring quarter, and the days are long enough for evening walks, and the cold is gone so I can go outside without my chest constricting, and another year is drawing to a close. (I measure the year based on the academic calendar more than I do the Christian one!)

Three things: Long days; Zeke’s friends; the growing ability to recognize a mood as simply a passing moment, like ripples on the water, and therefore, for the moment, a resulting peace.

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