1997 - 2008
Most pet owners can tell you about their once-in-a-lifetime pet. Ours was named Cupid.
He came to us as a five-month-old street cat. Wild in spirit, with an intelligence that rivaled a human's, he was loaded with personality, good looks, and a sleek muscular body that allowed him to bat tennis balls over a net, leap from the kitchen floor to the top of the cupboard, and survive being hit by a car.
I could go on, but I won't. Leave it to say that for eleven years we savored his magnificence in physical form, and then one day he was gone. He disappeared on a Friday evening late in October 2008, slipping out the back door, off on one of his nightly jaunts. On Sunday afternoon a neighbor found him in his side yard. We're not sure what happened, but we suspect an attack from an owl or hawk. We buried him on our property.
We left our homes at midnight Friday night to meet up with fellow travelers. By 1:30 a.m. we boarded one of 80 buses leaving Connecticut. We rode through the night to arrive at RFK stadium in Washington, D.C. before dawn. We walked two miles to the march. By the end of the day, we clocked nine miles on our feet. The crowds were tremendous, the numbers so much greater than the organizers expected. Two hundred thousand were anticipated; by the end of the day, the number was reported to be over a million in Washington alone, with several million around the world. A sea of pink pussy hats filled the eye in every direction, along with creative and provocative handmade signs.
This is what democracy looks like:
I have never been in the midst of so many people, nor felt so much like a sardine as our group of six squeezed through the crowd to reach a spot where we could see and hear the rally projected onto a jumbotron. Yet, in spite of being mildy claustrophobic, I never felt afraid or threatened.
And this is what free speech sounds like (click on names for links to YouTube):
Feminist activist and icon Gloria Steinem called it an outpouring of democracy that she has never seen before.
California junior senatorKamala Harrisconnected women's issues to human issues.
Filmmaker and activist Michael Moore gave us our to-do list for activism.
Civil rights activist Angela Davis spoke eloquently about social justice and inclusive feminism.
Actor and activist Ashley Judd electrified the audience with a bodacious performance of the poem "Nasty Women," written by a 17-year old feminist from her home state of Tennessee.
The rally continued for five hours, two hours longer than planned. By hour four, we were all tired. The chant to "March, March, March" had begun. We were packed together so tightly that people around us were having panic attacks. The crowd made room somehow as friends helped them move to a safe space, which in our case was the CNN van parked on the corner. I maintained my calm by practicing yoga breathing. My friend told me later she used her Lamaze breathing techniques to keep her cool.
Finally a volunteer marshal appeared and directed us to turn around so we could march a different route. We shuffled down the street and the march began. Then, at last, we had a chance to sit.
After a long trudge back to the bus, and a wearying ride back north, I walked in the door twenty-seven hours after I left. I felt inspired, energized and, exhausted. The experience of being among that many who share your outrage and disbelief as well as your values is deep and profound, both comforting and energizing
All the speakers emphasized that this march was the beginning, that we all needed to go home and become active in our communities. A few weeks ago I tweeted: "Am I REALLY going to have to call my senators every day for the next four years?" It appears the answer is yes.
I stopped crying three days after the election. I decided I would not sit by and do nothing. The change that had occurred was huge and scary, unlike anything I'd seen in six decades. The antidote for feeling powerless is action. I signed up for the Women's March as soon as I heard about it.
On the day after the inauguration, something bigger than the election happened. People all over the country, all over the world, made a statement that cannot be ignored. As Gloria Steinem said to the marchers, "You are putting your bodies where your beliefs are. Sometimes it's not enough to hit the Send button."
Women's rights are human rights. It's up to each one of us who believes this is true to take whatever steps we can to ensure the progress that has been secured is protected, and that further progress toward an equitable society is established.
Which means we have to get to work. Progressive change has never happened without a fight. Sometimes a very long fight.
Because that is what democracy looks like.
>>> Want to know what you can do? The Women's March website is one place to begin. Find it here.
>>> And check out Indivisible for a practical guide, written by former congressional staffers, for resisting the Trump agenda.
The New York Times recently posted this three-minute video which contains a compilation of recordings from Trump rallies. (Reader be warned: this is not easy to watch.)
I made myself watch it. The Trump phenomenon is disturbing to me. I have a hard time viewing videos of the candidate, let alone his unrestrained jeering crowds. As a citizen I've never seen anything like the spectacle of Trump's triumphant and unlikely march to presidential nominee.
And as person who is committed to a decades-long avocation of spiritual growth, I needed to know if my personal beliefs could hold up to the vitriol I witness in the campaign, expressed both by the candidate and his supporters. My baseline belief is that, on the ultimate, mysterious level beyond the knowing of both scientists and theologians, we are all one. If I am "one with everything," can I be one with Trump supporters, too?
As I watched the video again, three things struck me:
1/ The strong language used by the Trump supporters, such as:
F**k Islam - on a man whose t-shirt caused him to be ejected from a rally
F**k that "n word' - about Obama
As upsetting as these are, the worst are three chants about Hillary:
Unsettling: "Hillary is a whore:
Disturbing: "Hang the bitch"
Chilling: "Kill her"
Can I relate to any to these? I have known anger, even rage. I've said the words, "I could kill her," but it's been a long time since I've uttered that phrase. The only time my father slapped me was when at age nine I shouted at my mother "I hate you." I learned an early lesson on the power of those words.
2/ The cathartic glee in the expression the young man repeating "F**k political correctness" outside a rally. He looked so happy to finally be able to say, shout actually, what he had been thinking, out in public, in the sunshine of acceptance.
As a writer and musician, I understand the delight in being able to express myself freely. It is exhilarating to speak my authentic truth, and to be heard. I know how that feels. Can I find a commonality in this man's happiness?
3/ The older gentleman at the end (2:51), who says:
"He's the last candidate to preserve law and order and to preserve the culture I grew up in."
This was the poignant moment, the one that gave me a glimpse of what may be driving support for the unfathomable choice of Trump. Perhaps supporters are yearning for a past that cannot exist again, or didn't exist at all. Perhaps the inevitability of change is just too hard to come to terms with. I've heard many spiritual teachers say: Change is hard, especially when resisted.
Can I gaze with neutrality upon these people, their reactions, their anger, their frustration, their willingness to follow, in what seems a blind fashion, someone who I consider not only mentally unstable (see these two links below for more on that) but downright dangerous to our country?
The Mind of Donald Trump (The Atlantic)
Could Donald Trump Pass a Sanity Test? (Vanity Fair)
What I'm trying to reconcile is this: if we are all one, then what I am seeing in this video is also in me, and I am looking at my shadow. I am capable of these feelings, too. If all I do is push it away and refuse to look at it, or allow it to widen the gap between Trump supporters and myself, then aren't I perpetuating the divisiveness that Trump is touting? Isn't that the same attitude that has led the human race to a history of war, rape, and violence against "the other"?
If I believe in a different future for this world, if I still carry hope for the evolution of our species to a more peaceful, harmonious coexistence, then I cannot avert my eyes.
When my father was dying, I grieved in the car. As I traveled between piano students’ homes, I cried and wailed, then wiped my eyes before leaving the car. During the lessons, I never could chastise my students for their poor practicing. At night I woke my husband up, grinding my teeth in my sleep.
My father was diagnosed in 1990. It took two years for the cancer to move from his prostrate to his bones. During that time I made one of the biggest decisions of my life, one I knew would not earn his approval.
I was 38 and had worked for IBM for twelve years. He had retired from IBM several years earlier, after a 40-year career. In my favorite photo, he is at work, white shirt sleeves rolled up, papers covering the surface of the desk, smiling, relaxed, in his element. He had helped me find my job there, yet I was always looking for a career that would satisfy a restless need for more meaningful work. In 1991 the company initiated its first wave of downsizing through a voluntary retirement program. I was one of the first to enroll.
I waited two months before saying anything. At 8:30 on a Monday morning, an untouched bagel sitting on my desk, I made the call. My father picked up, then my mother on the extension.
“I’ve got something to tell you.”
I could picture him sitting up in bed with the breakfast tray beside him on the quilt, her standing in the kitchen, wrapping the phone cord around her fingers.
“I’m leaving IBM.”
“I want to teach music – piano. They’re offering a retirement package.”
“Are you sure?”
We said goodbye. When I hung up, I thought I would feel relieved, but my gut was hollow with disappointment.
The next time I saw him, he said, “Did your piano teacher put you up to this?”
“No,” I said. Did he really not know me?
Later, my mother said, “Your father’s worried about you, about your future.” Yes, I thought, the security, the retirement, the insurance, the paid vacation and sick days. And the part of me that would never be fulfilled in the corporate world.
“I will be successful at this,” I told her. Her response was a worried look.
What neither of my parents understood was this was not a willful decision. In fact, I was following the advice on the poster in my office, which showed a cliff, with a quote from Goethe underneath: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” I took the leap off that cliff because my soul required it.
In elementary school I took piano lessons with a retired music professor down the street. By age eleven I was playing popular movie themes from “Exodus”, “Camelot”, and “Man of La Mancha”, music that made me feel powerful and known. Here I wasn’t criticized for being too emotional, a phrase I heard growing up not just from my parents, but also from my three siblings.
When we moved from New York to Connecticut, the piano didn’t come with us. Perhaps it was too ugly for our new suburban home. A few years later I told my mother I wanted to play again.
The morning of my sixteenth birthday, I was downstairs when I heard a commotion above me. When I came upstairs, sitting against the wall was a new spinet piano, walnut brown, with a curved music desk and scrolled legs.
“Happy birthday,” my parents said. I walked over and brushed my hands across the keys.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
I started lessons, climbing a long set of concrete steps to my teacher’s house, where I tackled challenging classical pieces and lush movie themes. I played Haydn and Beethoven. My favorite was the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, the most recorded piece of piano music. It became the music I always returned to when I sat down at the piano as an adult. My teacher encouraged me to consider music school, but never mentioned it to my parents. Neither did I.
After a year I stopped lessons.
“I’ll still play,” I told my mother. “The piano will be my therapy.” I wonder why I thought I needed therapy.
In my mid-thirties, I moved that piano to my new house in North Carolina. In the evenings after work, I played all the music I knew. It was still in my fingers. I entered a world I had abandoned, a world where the notes on the page answered the need to express emotions I couldn’t find words for, and where the beauty of the sound became a physical space I could inhabit, separate from the world of work. When I relocated to Connecticut a few years later, I found an accomplished teacher and took on beginner students in the evenings. Then came the offer.
I knew my father was perplexed by my life decisions, and his disapproval was implicit in the lack of comprehension. I dated boys he didn’t approve of, became a vegetarian in college, left school in the middle of my sophomore year, married a hippie musician when I was twenty, and walked out on him a year and a half later for an older man. I jumped from job to job, working as a waitress, a secretary, a vet’s assistant. As I floundered through my twenties, I wrote my father a letter attempting to explain myself to him. The letter received neither response nor mention. I never asked why.
After dropping out of college, I came home to live for nine months. Whenever I needed to think, I followed the steep path behind our house down to the Rippowam River. One Saturday morning my father asked if he could come with me. We sat on a boulder, just south of the arched stone bridge where cars whizzed by on the Merritt Parkway, and watched the skate bugs move across the surface of the water.
When I felt his hand rubbing my back, I tensed. He rarely touched any of us. I remember seeing him hug my mother only once. Now he was trying to reach out to me, his youngest. I wish I had been able to respond.
When I was twelve, he said to me, "No matter how well you do, there will always be someone better than you.” Although I'm sure he meant well, at age twelve I took that advice to mean I would never be good enough, especially in his eyes.
One of my favorite childhood memories is of him reading “Winnie the Pooh” to me as we sat together in the wide red armchair, my fingers rubbing the nubby fabric. He helped me with my homework, and taught me how to drive in his new 69 Volkswagen bug. Whenever he and my mother came to visit me when I lived in North Carolina, where I was finally settled in their eyes, working for IBM and owning a home, before they left he would hand me an envelope containing a generous check.
During his illness, I was living an hour away, and I stayed overnight at least once a week. Every time I visited I played the piano, for my own pleasure as much as to show them the rightness of my decision. The last Easter he was alive, a month before he died, most of the children and grandchildren had gathered together. I flipped through a songbook of music from the thirties and forties, and played some selections I thought he would enjoy. He sat at the dining room table, watching us, and asked me to play “Thanks for the Memories”. Everyone stopped talking. Afterward the room was filled with the sense that it would be soon.
I wasn’t present when my father died. Starting on a Monday, the entire family held vigil, taking turns sitting at his bedside since Monday, as he lay unresponsive. On Thursday morning the hospice nurse said he had at least thirty-six hours left, so my husband and I headed home. I stepped out of the shower when the phone call came. The regret of not being there at an irreplaceable moment dogged me.
I didn’t touch the piano for three days. Mid-morning, four days after he died, thinking I was alone in our house on the lake, I sat down and played the Moonlight Sonata.
When I finished, my husband was standing in the doorway, looking at me with a raw expression I’d never seen on his face.
“Nice Moonlight,” he said, before turning to leave the room.
He’d listened to me play it a hundred times before and had never commented, but that day he heard everything I was trying to say, everything I was feeling, without a word being spoken. That sums up what music can do: communicate the inexplicable, the inexpressible, and provide comfort and understanding where words fail. It was then I realized that death and grief saturated this piece, which ends with three minor chords I've come to think of as the death knell. My father’s death was the first I had experienced of someone close to me. This music helped me to accept it, and to place it in a larger perspective.
At his memorial service a tenor with a rich voice sang the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings”, at my father’s request. It seemed fitting, for my tall, clear-eyed father reminded me of the nobility of an eagle.
And He will lift you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of his hand.
Two years later, I received what the Native Americans call a visitation. I dreamt I was on a snowy mountainside, shoveling a path. As I lifted the blade, one of my gloves flew off. I spotted an eagle above me, and thought he would catch the glove. Instead he flew toward me through the trees and landed on my shoulder. I could see the vivid contrast between his white and black feathers. In my dream, I thought, “Oh my God, oh my God”. As I calmed down, I tuned into how he was seeing the world. My perception shifted into a deep tranquility. Everything looked the same, but there was a layer of stillness between us and the world.
When I woke, I knew this was more than a dream. It was an offering from the spirit world, and it was a gift.
St. Michael's Episcopal Church
Recently I attended an evening service - a compline - at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Litchfield, Connecticut. A compline is the final church service of the day, in the Christian tradition of canonical hours.
It was dark and rainy that night, so I left home earlier than usual, planning to meet my friend. When I arrived, I entered the church through narthex (foyer), framed by two sets of wooden doors with cast iron latches. People coming in behind me spoke quietly, or not at all.
Inside the sanctuary, stone pillars marched up the side aisles, offset by a vaulted ceiling. Along the pews stood candles on tall candlesticks, leading my eye to the front of the church, where a large, round stained glass window drew me in. The Gothic design of the window filled the space with its symmetrical intricacies. I sat down on a cushioned bench along the rear wall and waited for my friend, happy to have a moment to absorb the beauty and hush of this place.
No one spoke. The silence filled me with a spacious calm, pulling me backwards in time, to centuries past, to a recognition of the importance of silence. To sit down and be still, taking in the peace of the church, was a blessing in and of itself. The quiet, like a silent wave, seeped into my body.
My friend arrived and we found a place to sit in the nave (body of the church). She directed me to a compact book, The Common Book of Prayer (1547), which was King Edward VI of England's attempt to unify the Anglicans during the break from Rome known as the English Reformation. We marked the compline section with an index finger, then watched as the choir, led by Music Director Marguerite Mullee, proceeded in from a door at the side of the altar. The singers, a group of women completing a six-week chanting workshop led by Mullee, were dressed in black, accented by scarves of their choosing. They lined up in two rows facing each other, perpendicular to the congregation. The priest followed, his upper body in a forward motion leading the rest of his body, as if in permanent supplication.
The service was short, less than a half hour, and those in attendance listened, and responded at the appropriate times, as indicated by the liturgy. The choir sang unaccompanied; a capella means literally "in the chapel". Their voices rose in the space, filling it with a sound that seemed ancient.
The compline is the "good night" service, an opportunity for the faithful to feel safe before they head off in the dark to their beds. When it was over, I remained seated while others immediately began to move, and to me even more disturbing, to chat. It broke the spell woven by this brief entry into reverence and inwardness. I wanted to sink into the vibration of the silence, drawing it into my body and mind, allowing it to work its soothing renewal. Although others moved out of the pews, I continued to sit with my friend.
The sanctuary was nearly empty when a man and a woman emerged from the side door carrying long-handled candle snuffers with large bell-shaped ends. They walked up the center aisle together, coordinating their arrival at each candle. As they lifted their snuffers, their movements matched, so the flames were extinguished simultaneously. They glanced at each other before moving again. As they passed us, I gave a slight nod to acknowledge their ritual. I don't know if they noticed.
When they were done, I said a quick goodbye to my friend, then left, turning once on the way out to take in the glorious church. As I walked across the damp lawn, the couple in front of me was chatting. I kept my silence all the way home, not even turning on the radio. I felt sad, and cheated of the opportunity to experience silence in a place that was designed for it.
Our society has never been comfortable with silence, and even less so now, when it is so easy and tempting to fill our minds and ears with chatter, busyness, and distraction. We avoid being with ourselves, avoid going deeper, avoid knowing ourselves and, if inclined, knowing God, or whatever you care to refer to the mysterious force that animates life.
I learned later that in many monasteries it is the custom to begin the "Great Silence" after compline, during which the whole community observes silence throughout the night until the morning service the next day. What a relief that would be.
Then a friend shared this quote:
"In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: "When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?" Angeles Arrien, The Four-Fold Way
I love this description of silence as a "sweet territory", as a place, a space to inhabit, when I give myself the opportunity to stop skating across the surface of my life.
So my question to you, dear reader, is where and when do you find the "sweet territory of silence", and how does it serve you?
I wish I could have bottled the air and brought it home with me. The beautifully maintained 110-year old Elizabeth Park in West Hartford, Connecticut hosted its Rose Sunday on June 15. Here are some images from that day. Inhale.
Can you smell them?
Recently the stomach flu that’s been making the rounds hit me. Being ill for three days gave me an opportunity to practice dying, (yes, you read that right), and to cultivate a more Buddha-like temperament.
On the first day, I am pinned to the bed, unable to lift my head. I have to surrender to what my body demands: total rest. Since I’m a healthy, productive woman living in the go-go-go, connect-connect-connect twenty-first century, it’s a complete change to be barely able to make the necessary phone calls and emails to cancel my day’s work schedule. But I’ve learned that the quickest path to feeling well again is to allow my body to do its natural - and miraculous - healing.
I usually take my body for granted, although I do occasionally have moments of appreciation. The pulse of its natural, unerring urge to life was demonstrated when my mother was dying of lymphoma. During her last few days, I watched her twitch and toss, under the influence of morphine, as her body slowly gave up its grip on life. The only thing she was able to say when conscious was “I know, I know”, which we took to mean she knew she was dying and she was alright with it. But her mind accepted before her body was willing. The need for surrender does not come easily to our physical vehicles, which cling to life with ferocity.
I think about my attachment to not just my physical existence, but all the things in my world which form my identity and which I rely on to bring me comfort and beauty. I consider what it’s like to say goodbye to my home, to the people I love. I wonder about the moment of death, will I be aware and step willingly into the mystery of it? These are thoughts I usually don’t ponder, and I touch the freedom - and fear - of letting go. Maybe death is like taking off a tight shoe, the soul sighing with relief.
Untethered from my daily routine, I become more present. I take in the view out the window, which I’ve seen a thousand times, with new eyes, eyes that don’t breeze over details. I notice the shape of the trees, the branch that was torn off in the last storm, the way the tops of the pines are loaded with tiny pine cones. And I tap into a well of gratitude for the world I inhabit. On the second day, I wake up with a little more strength. I stare at the blue walls of our bedroom. The blue paint - Windmill, it’s called, although I wonder if the windmills in the Netherlands are painted blue - appear alive to me, so alive I consume it through my eyes. It travels into my body like ephemeral nourishment. I experience the energy of color in a new way and I promise myself I won’t forget.
Later that day I feel able to step outside on the porch and sit in the sun, or rather lie in the sun on the long porch step, while I lazily toss a tennis ball for the grateful dog. I cover my eyes with my arm and allow the sun to warm me. It feels like a gift. The dog is happy, and I’m content with this simple moment. I’m not thinking about what I need to do next.
When I return to bed, which has become a cozy nest, with pillows surrounding me and the afghan my mother knit me while I was in college covering me, I am thankful. I finger my mother’s handiwork and wonder how many times she ripped out rows to achieve the perfect result which, four decades later, still warms me. Some of the fringe was braided by one of my college roommates, and here is her hand, too, which I now have time to remember. I recall something endearing about her, how she didn’t know how to finish her laugh. One evening we taught her how, practicing the tapering end of a good laugh. I wonder what her laugh sounds like now.
On the third day I venture into the yard. In the garden, last night’s rain is puddled in the umbrella-like leaves of the Lady’s Mantle, the rain drops nestled symmetrically in the leaves’ folds. I see the world anew, stop to examine the buds on the dwarf cherry tree, listen to the hum of the bumblebees, notice their number - hundreds - turning that tree into a hovering hub of activity. I experience the world with the sense of wonder and innocence of a three-year old and although I know it won’t last, that within a day or two the spell will wear off, I appreciate it and want to retain it. Decades ago my first meditation teacher counseled his students to let death be our counselor. He introduced us to the the idea that in welcoming as companions the impermanence of life and the unpredictable nature of death, we could become more awake, aware, and alive. Being temporarily sick can be an opportunity to step closer to death, and to life.