Two Words: Not Always So

The secret of Zen is just two words: not always so.
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

I don’t know why I feel drawn to this particular quote today. Perhaps it’s its anticness. And that I could use the two forms of “its” side-by-side in one sentence.

I feel sad about Ted Kennedy. He was flawed – I still don’t know where to put the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in the tapestry of his life. Perhaps I should assign it to that part of the Kennedy men that was careless – much like the male characters in Mad Men.

It makes sense that he went off the rails, given that he had two brothers who were assassinated – whose assassinations defined much of an era in my life. And, that there was this expectation that he should pick up the mantle where they left off. And that he was part of an Irish American family in an era when Irish were still working their way up that social ladder that supposedly doesn’t exist in America.

What I like about Kennedy is that I think he had a heartfelt and soulful understanding that fits my view of America: an idea and an ideal for which we are always striving. As he said of Bobby in his eulogy, some ask why, he asked why not.

I think Obama’s election represents change, just by the nature of his complexion and complexity. He is, I think, a man who can simultaneously have more than one idea. I think it was Jung who said that Americans don’t trust a man who has more than one idea.

It’s time for that to change and I think Obama represents that.

Change is scary. I think that’s why there is such vitrol being spewed at the so-called town meetings. What concerns me is elected officials who stir up that pot.

If wonder if they believe that government is an evil because they are so incompetent at governing – don’t understand the difference between governing and ruling over.

Twisting the concept of advanced care directives into death panels is at best absurd and at worst cruel. We sound incredibly ignorant when we talk like that – as if we are so lizard-brain driven that we are not capable of compassion.

Maybe we aren’t. I read yesterday that compassion is much more difficult than loving kindness because with compassion we have to be willing to experience pain – the pain of others – so we might see our connection.

Deborah Saunders, a pundit I find particularly annoying, derisively refers to “our European betters” in her column. Well, you know what, in many ways they have a bit more wisdom than we do. They know, for example, what it means to have war on their doorstep. They have had limited resources for a long time, so don’t seem to think they have a God-given right to have whatever they can afford to buy.

I think that it would serve us well as a country if we were willing to look at our own shadow instead of projecting it onto others.

So, now I need to bring this back to the quote I cited at the beginning of this blog. Two words: not always so.

Ted Kennedy accomplished so much more by being a Senator than I think he could have as president. Born to a life of privilege, he worked to open doors so merit and not privilege granted entry. And why not?

I hope that we start over with Health Care Reform and that it be done in his honor.

I hope that Senators and Congresswomen and men tell their constituents to leave their guns at home when they come to a political rally.

I hope they tell their constiuents that we are a government of, by, and for the people and the only thing we have to fear is fear itself because it is fear of the other that makes our hearts black – and turns a government to evil.

Two words: not always so.

Maybe that’s the mantra we need to use to tame fear and calm the waters. I think that mantra might have a way of opening the heart to other possibilities.

Try saying it.

Two words: not always so.

See what it does for you.

Bombarded by Coconuts of Wakefulness – An Animal-Wise-Tarot-The-Places-That-Scare-You Blog

“In other traditions, demons are expelled externally. But in my tradition, they are welcome with compassion.”

Machik Labdron

The new tree in the yard

The new tree in the yard

I’ve developed a pretty good habit of at a minimum writing morning pages. Then I draw three cards from the Animal Wise Tarot deck. Today I drew the Raven (as I did yesterday but in a different order), then the Loon, and then the Eagle. Raven and Eagle are higher trump cards, Loon is from the Winged Ones suit, which in more traditional Tarot decks is Swords.

The first card I draw represents what’s come before; the second one represents my heart – the emotional center; the third has something to do with action. I’m kind of making this up as I go along, but then I do see living my life as an improvisation.

So the meanings today were:

Raven: Light in the Dark: Shapeshifting (wrote about that yesterday)
Loon: Answers and Hopes in Dreams
Eagle: Vision, Power, Healing

Loon is the one that struck me the most. Here’s what the book concludes: “Loon’s appearance tells us when we deal with the past that haunts us, we open doors to fulfilling our greatest dreams and imaginings in the future.”

I like that. Especially that bit about dealing with the past that haunts us. And that what haunts us are the dreams, wishes, and hopes we tucked to the back of our hearts.

What an interesting way to look at a ghost. Not so much the undead, as something that doesn’t die because its spirit transcends.

Our hopes, dreams, and wishes.

View of new tree from my writingshed

View of new tree from my writingshed

My parents were haunted by their hopes, dreams, and wishes. They’d tucked them away in their hearts so they could endure a Depression and then a War and then an era defined by the search for security. They even had security clearances – my dad worked at Lawrence Livermore Lab and my mom at Sandia.

It wasn’t security from fear; in fact, it was quite the opposite. Security was quite tenuous. If you signed the wrong statement, were a homosexual, belonged to the wrong organization, they believed, you would lose your security clearance. And then you would starve.

Fear was the sovereign emotion. Not a nourishing environment for dreams, wishes, and hopes.

The phrase “bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness,” comes from the book The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun.

My books are a mess right now, strewn about my writingshed because I don’t have enough shelves to hold them all. So after looking on the shelves for a book I go through the piles on the floor, and often am surprised by what I find. That’s how I came across The Places That Scare You.

As I said, my life is an improvisation.

Compassion, Chodron, says is more emotionally challenging than loving kindness, because “it involves the willingness to feel pain.”

I think that’s what welcoming our demons with compassion means. Listening to what the demon is crying out for, which might be our dreams, hopes, and wishes yearning to be freed from where they have been tucked away.

My parents never really got the chance to do that. My dad got possessed by Alzheimer’s. My mother got closer to releasing them, but never really trusted that it was okay to do that.

And yet, another view of the new tree in my yard

And yet, another view of the new tree in my yard

I wonder if times are so difficult right now because that which has been tucked away for generations needs to be released. Maybe we are being bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness so we’ll wake up and smell the coffee, feel the pain of compassion, and yield to the yearning of our hopes, dreams, and wishes to be free.

Maybe the ghost that has been haunting us is Casper the friendly ghost.

So, here’s to finding light in the dark; answers and hopes in dreams and vision; and power and healing.

And may each of our days start by being bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness.

The full quote, by the way is “In the garden of gentle sanity/May you be bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness.” Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
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About the new tree in the yard: One of the trees in my yard died. It was called a redbud. Apparently new soil got added to it and adding dirt to the base of a tree can suffocate it. I did not know this could happen.

I felt very sad about the tree dying. Really quite awful. And then this morning, as I wrote this blog, a new tree joined my yard. It’s a crepe myrtle. And gloriously red. Life continues.

The Light in the Dark

Time for an Animal-Wise Tarot blog.

I’ve been rewriting my story. Not the novel I’m working on, though I’m writing and rewriting that as well.

I’m talking about the story that is my life. My family tends to live a long time, my great grandfather married for the third time at 90 and lived to celebrate his 16th wedding anniversary. My grandmother lived to 99. I’m about to turn 60 (51 days and counting). It’s possible that I could still have forty years more. But even with that amount of time, I get it that time is limited. Our lives are limited. Limited to the time we have here in these bodies.

Okay, let’s say there is such a thing as past lives and that one day this life will be a past life for a new incarnation. That incarnation still will not be me in this life time.

So the question I have been asking myself is – what is my story? I’ve tried several on for size in the past. They didn’t fit. It’s interesting that I wrote two short stories for which the critique was, “This is really a novel.”

I resisted that. And now am working on making one of the short stories a novel (I will probably do the same with the other one). I’m finding that it was true. I was trying to compress something into a form that didn’t fit the story.

This is definitely not to dis short story. I’m still not sure how to write one. I hope to master that eventually.

It’s just to say that there’s more to my life story than I was allowing room for.

So today, I pulled the Devil card in my reading. The animal is the Raven and the meaning is Light in the Dark: Shapeshifting. The book says this, “We must be our own light in the dark.” And “Raven teaches us how to shapeshift our lives, but it also teaches us that how things shapeshift may not be exactly as we imagined. Regardless, we must take our responsibility for those changes.”

So here’s is what my shapeshifting is about, at least today. I have come to understand that I have expected to be turned down. To be thwarted. To be silenced. To have my head lopped off (figuratively) if I tried to rise above what others expected of life.

I can point to events that happened between the ages of ten and eleven that cemented my commitment to that particular shape – that particular belief system. What those experiences were is not important. What I think is important is to recognize that those experiences reinforced belief, not faith.

And I have come to define faith as the willingness to take action in the absence of certainty.

So I am in the middle of shapeshifting, tossing out antiquated rules and banishing fear from my workshop (thank you William Faulkner). It doesn’t mean I’m not afraid – I’m just treating fear as a friend for whom I need to set some boundaries.

I guess shapeshifting is improvising with life. Being willing to go with something to see if that really is the place you want to go. It might very well be the light in the dark.

Note: my name, Karen Lucille, means pure light. I probably should remember that.

Also, I think the saying goes both ways: “God is in the details,” and “The devil is in the details.” I suspect both are true.

Birthers, Deathers, and the Sparkly-Starred Flip-Flop Wearing Plastic Pink Flamingo

flamingo3I would really like to be a Zen master. To receive nonsense with love and compassion and let it pass by with an Akido-like attitude.
 
I usually succeed at this – after my first reaction, which is like a Celtic Warrior who rides into battle with blue war paint smeared across my face, the head of the enemy dangling from my horse, and a blood-curdling warrior’s death-defying cry of ruthless pursuit for the righteous cause springing from deep within my throat chakra.
 
It is not easy holding both approaches in one human body. But there you are.
 
I had an encounter with a deather/birther on Thursday. He is running for Congress – as a Republican – in a special election for my district.
 
The Zen part of me decided to give him a chance.
 
“I’m not really fond of Republicans these days,” I said to him as he offered his card. “Tell me why I should vote for you?”
 
“I understand why you don’t trust Republicans,” he said, which I thought was a good sign. “You can trust me because even if I disagree with you, I’ll vote as you want me to.”
 
Why did I not believe him?
 
flamingo2His views on health care are that private sector is more efficient. At denying health care claims, I thought. I pointed out that I pay $750 a month for insurance and if I can no longer pay it, I lose all benefits. Nothing carries over.
 
I could go on Medicare, he assured me.
 
Not too bright this one. Or, he thought I was older than I am, which might also not be too bright in terms of wooing a constituent.
 
Still, I thought, I should be reasonable.
 
He was pro life. Which of course in my mind means he thinks women are incubators, but I didn’t get into that.
 
But, before I left his booth, I exercised the nuclear option. “Do you think Obama is a legitimate president. Is he a citizen of the United States?”
 
“Well, he hasn’t produced a birth certificate.”
 
And, thus was my Celtic Warrior awakened.
 
“You’re a racist,” I said to him,
 
And moved to the next booth. Then thought to ask, “And are there death panels?”
 
“Yes,” he replied.
 
I spat something else at him (I’m sure I did it with love in my heart and peace in my soul).
 
“I don’t want your vote,” he said. And the cool, I’m-just-a-nice-guy-with-an-opinion gave way to his lizard-brained true self.
 
He didn’t want to represent me. Had no intention of representing me. He just wanted to make the world safe for his the-earth-is-flat-and-the-sun-revolves-around-it point of view.
 
I’ve been angry with him ever since. And I’ve finally figured out why.
 
We need bright people with a vision of the world that are not threatened by life experiences that are different than their own.
 
What we do not need is more fear mongering. Fear is perhaps the basest of human emotions. Particularly when it is used to organize. Fear does not empower people. It empowers mob behavior.
 
I did not expect Obama’s election to unleash such an ugly side of this country.
 
I’m hoping that Obama finds a way through. I’m hoping that he isn’t just a slave to interests that are short-sighted and self absorbed.
 
But mostly, I’m hoping that as a nation we can rise above this ugliness. I have never voted for a Republican, but I usually at least respected them. But I don’t respect bullies and that’s what they have become, with a few exceptions.
 
flamingo1You’re probably wondering what a plastic pink flamingo, wearing pink sparkly starred flip flops and adorned with glittery blossoms has to do with all of this.
 
Well, I came across it on my recent walk downtown. It is in the yard of an Irish couple with whom I exchange greetings when either is in the yard.
 
I don’t know why, but the plastic pink flamingo gives me hope. Especially after it started wearing the pink sparkly-starred flip flops.
 
It somehow soothes the Celtic Warrior in me, and raises the question for the Zen wanna-be master in me: “If a plastic pink flamingo wears sparkly-starred flip flops in the garden and no one but you notices . . .?”
 
Ommmm…Aiyeeeeee!

So There is Time Enough

Today’s New York Times has two op ed columns (Frank Rich and Timothy Egan ) that talk about Mad Men, the AMC series that follows Madison Avenue ad men in the Sixties – the Sixties that start in 1960.

So far it has covered the span of history that includes the 1960 election, birth of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), death of Marilyn Monroe, and Cuban Missile Crisis.

Racism, sexism, drinking while pregnant and/or driving, and smoking like a chimney were deeply embedded as cultural norms. Perfectly acceptable.

Tonight’s premiere begins in 1963. Should be an interesting season.

Note: Spoiler alert follows. Although, if you haven’t been watching the series, I don’t think it will spoil anything if you start to watch it.

The protagonist, Don Draper, is who he says he is, though only after assuming a new identity. He lifts the dog tags from his dead compatriot after he is burned beyond recognition in a scene that takes place in Korea.

It’s the moment that Dick Whitman changes his story and become Don Draper.

Story, Robert McKee, says is a metaphor for life.

I have become fascinated lately with rewriting the story. Not a short story or novel I’m writing. But my story. The story that I’m living.

Perhaps the best birthday present I am giving myself as I turn sixty (still two months away, but nonetheless), is to recognize that the story I thought I was supposed to live is not my story.

And so I have started rewriting my story.

Compassion, I believe, is at the base of all good story writing. That means compassion for myself for having tried to live a story that wasn’t mine; compassion for those who wrote the story I thought I was supposed to live; and compassion for the human condition.

And today, at least, I think the human condition is that we do the best we can with what we have. At its highest, the human condition allows us to learn that the best we can do can be really quite extraordinary – once we learn compassion.

In the old story, I was a monster. Monstrous because I asked questions; monstrous because my questions provoke the possibility of change.

In my new story, I understand that I have been given gifts: the gift of asking questions, the gift of being willing to embrace change; the gift of uncertainty. I have come to believe that faith is acting without the benefit of certainty.

And so I have faith in story: to allow story to unfold, reveal character with compassion, and let it end in ambiguity if necessary.

I have come to look at safety in a different way. I don’t think we can make ourselves safe from the unexpected, from the event that pulls the rug out from under us, from losing people we love, or even our own lives.

Now I think safety is more about living life fiercely so when it comes time to face my own death I can say that there was time enough.

Mad Men is good story. It shows the wages of living a life of quiet desperation. What it’s like to live a story that isn’t yours.
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As a coda, there is also an op ed column about the American poet Marianne Moore. Ford Motor Company asked her to come up with names for a new car it was getting ready to sell. They turned down all her suggestions – and named it the Edsel.

If You Start to Die – Don’t

I read that quote in Gail Collins’ New York Times column today. It was 108 year-old Frank Buckle’s secret to a long life. Frank is the last surviving veteran of World War I.

I read it this morning after spending a fitful night of maybe-sleep worrying about how I will pay my bills. Not an unusual concern these days. Nor is it the first time in my life that I have worried about this.

I have been a freelance technical writer for 24 years; and never have I had so much trouble finding work. Some of the problem is that I was distracted for a good five years with taking care of my mother’s and father-in-law’s descent into declining health and eventual death. My mentor also died over this time period. As did the wife of a friend of ours. And my cat.

I say I was distracted by this. Actually, work would have been a distraction from that. As Willie Loman’s wife says in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”

But those four or five years took me out of the loop. My Linkedin profile is practically anorexic. I don’t really know how to take advantage of the maybe-there’s-a-three degree-of-separation between me and someone who is hiring.

I have begun to think I am unemployable.

But, when you start to think something like that – don’t.

I think in part, the workplace has changed. Companies want to hire temporary employees, but ask that the temporary employee commit as if it (the company) was offering a marriage proposal without a prenup.

I remember from my dating years that what they are really offering is a one-night stand.

So I can rant about this change (which I am quite capable of doing), or try and retool myself. Much as I did when I finally decided that if I was looking for a committed relationship, I shouldn’t settle for one-night stands with the hope it might be more.

I still have no idea what the answer is or where to go. I just know that taking a job that requires twelve-hour days, four of which are taken up in a commute, is like death to me.

Someone said to me, “Anyone can put up with anything for six months.” She said this right after I visited a friend of mine whose life is waning. He will probably not be here in six months.

So my choice was, “When you start to die, don’t.”

And my challenge is, how do I pay the bills?

Don’t know the answer yet.

But, I think it’s important for all of us in these weird, rocky economic times to put our lives first, and don’t put up with one-night stands – unless you both agree that’s what you want.

Comments and suggestions are welcome. If you know anyone who needs a writer (technical, business, etc.) let me know.

Oh, and I love Gail Collins. In a recent column she said that the Republicans were afraid that if Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court that she might become untethered and commit empathy. Her writing takes some of the sting out of losing Molly Ivins.

Through the Doors of Compassion

I’ve been on blog silence for close to three weeks now.
 
When I was a kid I watched a lot of naval war movies because my older brother was fascinated by them and because my dad had been in the navy during World War II. In the movies, the submarine would go on radio silence when it wanted to be undetected.
 
That might be why I’ve been on blog silence. I wanted to be undetected because I didn’t want to turn into a ranting blogger. So, hopefully, I’ve emerged from my lizard-brain fueled rage enough that I can start addressing the lizard-brain fueled brain activity around health care.
 
Once again, leaders of the Republican Party are tapping into fear, ginning it up, and using it to grab power. What they want to do with the power, other than to have it, isn’t really clear.
 
Ginning up fear is not community organizing. It is inciting mob behavior.
 
Let me say that again: ginning up fear is not community organizing. It is inciting mob behavior.
 
Community organizing is about empowering. Inciting mob behavior is about wielding power to suppress others.
 
I’ve been a hospice volunteer and the designated spokesperson for advanced directives for two people: my mother and Jeanette, an older friend I met through the Gray Panthers.
 
My mother ended up dying in an ICU. It’s not so much that she wanted to die, as that she was ready to. She had end-stage emphysema when her hip broke into four pieces. She decided to have her hip repaired, but then got pneumonia three days later. That’s when they took her to the ICU.
 
The ICU is no place to die. The purpose of it is to keep a body alive. There is no intimacy to the place. That’s not a judgment – it’s simply the way it is. When intensive care is required for the mechanics of the body – it’s the right place to be.
 
My mother worked hard the last three days of her life to decide whether she was ready to let go of her body. What she feared more than death, was losing her life. And the future for her was grim. She would have had to go to a skilled nursing facility to recover from the hip operation. Here health was already very fragile, so she faced the prospect of dying in the skilled nursing facility – which is a nicer name for a nursing home.
 
My father died in a nursing home. He had Alzheimer’s so the skilled nursing facility was where he had to be given that my parents did not have the financial means to have the twenty-four hour care a person with dementia requires.
 
It was a good nursing home. Staff was caring. And, my father was less isolated in there than he had been when he still lived at home with my mother. The social network falls away when dementia sets in. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just hard to maintain a circle of friends when one becomes a widow or widower before their spouse dies.
 
But a nursing home is a hospital. It’s for people who are too sick or frail to go home, but not acutely ill enough to require the care needed in an acute care hospital. Or, it’s for people whose minds are no longer their own. Who require the care and monitoring associated with that of a child. I asked my mother if caring for him was like caring for a child. She said no, because a child grows while my dad declined.
 
My dad forgot how to swallow. It’s what happens with end stage dementia. Pneumonia set in. My mother made the decision to withhold antibiotics. And so he died of pneumonia.
 
It was not a question of prolonging his life – but rather prolonging his death.
 
She opted, as my father had asked while his mind was still lucid, to not prolong his death.
 
My mother was adamant about not wanting her death prolonged. So when she said to me in the ICU, “I thought I was dying last night,” I asked if that’s what she wanted. She said yes.
 
I intervened on her behalf. It took a bit of convincing the staff that she knew what she wanted, and by then, her advanced directive had shown up in her hospital records.
 
We let her life come to the end she wanted.
 
With my friend Jeanette, it was slightly different. She had asked me to take the power of attorney on her advanced directive because she said, she trusted that I loved her, and that my decision would be based on loving her. When I asked her what she wanted, she said, “I want you to pull the plug.”
 
I came to understand that she kind of meant that literally—she wanted me to tell her when enough was enough.
 
And that’s how it ended for her. She had end stage Parkinsons. Against her will she was taken to a nursing home. The woman who had been her long time caretaker, and who had become her genuine family, was put in the awful position of being falsely accused of taking advantage of her. Jeanette, an old time lefty who fought passionately against injustice was so far gone with Parkinsons’ that she could not stand up for her.
 
The thought of Jeanette lingering in a nursing home along with the injustice with which her longtime caretaker was enduring was what helped me act on Jeanette’s wishes.
 
Pneumonia set in.
 
“Pneumonia used to be called the old person’s and cancer patient’s best friend,” her doctor, who knew Jeanette very well, said to me when I sought his advice about what to do.
 
Within a week of her entering the nursing home, Jeanette died.
 
Her dying honored the way she lived.
 
End of life is one of the most intimate of moments. It is not something you want to lose control over. Advanced directives give you the opportunity to articulate what your life means to you – and the difference between living and merely keeping your body alive.
 
Compassion. That’s what’s called for in those moments.
 
And what the Republican Party leaders are spewing has nothing to do with compassion. It is a raw attempt to grab power by playing on people’s fear to incite mob mentality. They provoke the lizard brain.
 
The lizard brain is incapable of compassion.
 
We do not want these people, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Senator Grassley, et al anywhere near the power they want to seize. They have shown their true character.
 
They are willing to sacrifice compassion on the altar of their egocentric need for power.
 
Power without compassion is dangerous.
 
Putting the lizard brain in control of mobs leads to genocidal horrors.

We cannot let these people prevail.