Sunday, 25 February 2007

The surprising virtue of laziness

Ask anyone who knows me to describe me, and the term energetic will probably come up. Or maybe hyper, or unable to sit still, or always running somewhere...the meaning will be the same. I have a very hard time sitting still. And being indoors and sitting still is the worst. I twitch, I wiggle, I wander, I pace. Since I moved back to the sunshine, I spend every free moment outdoors at concerts, art shows, festivals, the beach, or just out for a walk. If I go to a restaurant that offers indoor and outdoor seating, I will inevitably choose the outside table. I have been trying to devise a way to get my employers to move my desk and computer outside so I can work in the breeze under a palm tree.

Today was a beautiful February day. Warm, breezy, and once some morning clouds passed, sunny and clear. So where did I spend this beautiful day? Outside at a festival? In the pool? Walking on the beach? No, I spent almost the entire day indoors. Inside Barnes and Noble, and then inside my apartment, sitting on my bed reading Mohammad Yunus' book "Banker to the Poor" and drinking tea. Doing Yoga. Talking with my daughters. Talking with friends on the phone. Watching television (okay, it was PBS, but it was television!) Even grabbing a few minutes of power-napping. Indoors. All day. I didn't even touch my computer until now.

And I discovered something amazing. I feel really good. I feel as though I had a weekend, for the first time in I don't know how long. I am rested and not dreading the Monday a.m. alarm. I feel refreshed. I am amazed.

I think one of the reasons I run so incessantly is that I have a fear that if I ever stop long enough to rest, I won't be able to start going again. Life as a single mom is tough, and the stress can be overwhelming. So I keep moving. I sleep 4-5 hours a night. I come from 9 hours of work and do 4-5 hours of cooking and homework-helping and housework. On weekends, I run around getting everyone where they need to go, and try to make as many memories as possible. I never stop.

But today, I did. Oh, I still cooked three meals, but they were simple and easy. And I did some laundry, but that mostly involved throwing handfuls of things into a washer and then a dryer, then folding them while watching Wayne Dyer talking about intentional living on PBS.

I boldly went where I had never gone before as a single mom...I rested. My car rested. And although they complained about it at first, my daughters even rested.

Next weekend, I will probably return to my outdoor lifestyle. And I'll enjoy it. But it's nice to know that it is possible to spend a day doing nothing much at all. And to enjoy every minute of it.

Friday, 23 February 2007

The helper gene

What is it that makes some of us helpers, problems solvers, fixers? Why can some otherwise good, caring people say no to a request for help, overlook a need, or say "enough" when others begin to detail their problems and challenges, while others of us cannot? I'm not talking about selfish people...I mean people who are able to distinguish between what they can and cannot do without taxing themselves too much.

And most all, who's right?

Is it better, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, to do all you can do to help anyone in need who asks or who comes to your attention? Is that, after all, what we're here for?

Or is it better to consider one's own needs first, and then help as much as one can without being stretched too thin?

One of my personal heroes, Mother Teresa, seemed to take the former route, sacrificing everything to help as many people as she possibly could. I wonder...did she ever say "Enough!", even for just a few minutes? Did she carve out some time just for herself to tend to her own needs?

What makes someone choose one route or another? Is it upbringing? Education? Religious belief? Or is it something much more basic -- a helper gene than opens us to the needs of those around us in a way some of us cannot ignore.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

When it's time to let go and move on

The concept of bersheit or bashert, soulmates, is basic to Judaism. To find the one G-d has selected for you is the ultimate assurance of a love and compatibility. After all, G-d doesn't make mistakes.

Unfortunately, we mere mortals sometimes do. We fall in love, sometimes for reasons we can name, and sometimes without a single reason we know of. We find the partner of our dreams, and they return the feeling. And all is well with the world. We have found our true love.

But then sometimes, for reasons we may never understand, that perfect union is shattered. It may be financial hardship, a job in a distant city far from the beloved, a devastating illness, an accident, or a heartwrenching betrayal. And suddenly the entire future we expected shifts out from under us and crumbles into a dust too fine to ever be reassembled. We struggle to stay on our feet, to find something to grab onto. Clearly, it would be a good time to seek more stable ground.

The problem is, many of us don't. Or perhaps can't. We stay where we are, clinging to swaying branches and trying to regain our footing in the sand, certain that if we just find a way to stay still and look around, we'll discover a way to rebuild our lives as they once seemed to be, and all will be well.

So how to do we know when it's time to take those first hesitant steps away, and when the earthquake is only temporary? How do we separate the tests from the end? And if we move, how do we ever find the courage to let go and stand beside someone again without tethering ourselves to the nearest escape route? After the big earthquake, is it possible to love without a safety net?

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Happiness is a choice

Last night I was on the phone with my good friend, M, who is currently trapped in the cultural wasteland somewhere outside of Jackson, Mississippi. Our conversations cover everything from sports and films to corporate politics and women's equality.

In the course of the conversation, I happened to mention (somewhere in the midst of a discussion about both epistimology and the changeover in his company from mostly male managers to mostly female managers), that I felt that I had been extremely lucky in my life so far. That stopped the conversation we had been having, as he tried to determine how I defined luck, and what I meant by "extremely" lucky.

After some debating we finally came to an agreement that "luckiness", as I defined it meant fortunate events or outcomes that occur regardless of merit. They are events neither earned nor deserved (nor conversely, undeserved.) He proposed a scale from about one to ten to measure my degree of luckiness, with extremely lucky falling somewhere around an eight. Maybe a nine. Hard to pin it down exactly.

Then he pressed me for why I felt extremely lucky. I recounted a privileged childhood, full of riding lessons and tennis lessons and art lessons and travel and elaborate birthday parties. An easy time in school. Three amazing kids. Very good friends. And now, a job I love. To me, that added up to extremely lucky. These were not things I had worked for or earned. They were essentially cosmic gifts. Thus I feel blessed. The more I thought about it, the more I mentally added to my list. Healthy. Strong. Athletic. Able to read well, with access to great books every day. Pretty good in the arts. I was truly blessed and absolutely lucky.

But then I realized that there is another side to my life. A relationship with my mom that was at best rocky, at worst destructive. A very bad marriage. Years without enough money for some necessities, much less luxuries. Lost dreams of travel and a career as a pediatric cardiologist (organic chemistry took that one away!). Miscarriage. Loss of my beloved as he left me to fight his own demons alone. Lonely nights and too many tears to count. But even as I surveyed this tally of loss and disappointment that could easily put me at the 1 or 2 end of the scale, I could not shake my feeling that despite all of the bad, or maybe because of it, I was indeed very lucky. Extremely lucky. Blessed.

Was it the Yin and Yang, the need for balance in all things that let me see myself as blessed even while acknowledging the problems? I am certainly no pollyana. I am well aware of my weaknesses and my trials and there are nights when I ache for someone to hold me while I cry. And yet...and yet...

When I survey this adventure that is my life so far, I see blessings that stand far taller than the sadnesses that litter the ground. Mother Teresa is quoted as saying that happiness is a choice. Once we make that choice, the world looks different to our eyes. Am I more blessed than my friend M-, who for now, is seeing only the losses and disappointments? I don't think so. I'm just wearing different eyes.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Memories of my friend O's home

Cooking dinner together in the kitchen that always seemed just big enough for everyone who wanted to help with dinner

Watching movies with 6 kids draped around on the sofa

Hot tea after dinner on the front porch in the breezy Florida evenings

Feeling absolutely welcome and at home no matter what time of day or night we happened to be there

All the neighborhod kids coming over to play and swim in the pool...sometimes 10 or 12 kids in the house at once, and all of them welcomed by O.

Dinners around the table with an odd mix of California vegetarian and traditional Egyptian food and everybody enjoying it.

Getting 6 kids ready, out of the house and into two cars, along with any of their friends who decided to go along, to go to the beach, a movie, out to dinner, or to the park.

Knowing that we always had a friendly home to visit.

Non-attachment and Starting Over

I've been studying Buddhism for years and years and years. Although my faith lies in the basics of Judaism, Buddhism is an integral part of my daily practice.

One aspect of Buddhism that I've been working on is non-attachment. For those of you not familiar with Buddhist practice, this is basically reaching a point where we can let go of objects, personal goals or even people in our lives with a minimum of regret. More of just an acknowlegement that they were there and now they are not.

It's a lofty goal, and one I thought I was doing well in moving towards. I had given away hundreds of books, calmly swept up the remains of once precious collectibles without a thought of replacement or sadness. Lost books, pictures, mementos and other objects without a backwards glance. I walked away from a big house and moved in a small apartment. Left the relative finaincial security of a troubled marriage to go out and try to make it on my own with my daughters. I still wasn't ready to display this level of non-attachment to people, but I thought I was well on my way and quite frankly, doing amazingly well.

And then my friend's house burnt down. He lost everything. All at once. Only his children and his friends left, he now faces the daunting task of starting over at 54 years of age. With 4 children to care for. And in a instant, I realized that my achievements in non-attachment were zero.

I have been giving away what I choose to give away. Yes, I hold on to far less than I did, but the choices have been mine. And the the few things I lost or swept up in pieces...they were small, one-at-a-time losses. Nothing major. Nothing huge. Certainly not everything at once. I have thus far been spared the loss of everything.

Some people who have been through a devastating loss like my friend's have come out months or even years later feeling that it was the best thing that every happened to them. A re-birth, although they all say they did not recognize it at the time. Nor would they have appreciated anyone trying to tell them that at the time. They needed to work it out for themselves...this was a very personal cleansing.

Perhaps for some, it is a process, this non-attachment. And for others, it is a test...something they have to learn all at once as a fire or flood or hurricane strips away all they believed they owned.

All I know is that there is some order here, somehow. And that I pray my friend will find it. And that I will continue to try to learn, again from scratch, what it means to let go.

Starting Over on $260 --- Thank you American Red Cross

On Friday night, my friend's house went up in flames. Not just an ordinary housefire from something left on the stove or a faulty wire somewhere. This was arson, with accelerant in every room. The contents, the walls, the ceilings, the floors and even the windows are all gone. The metal window frames are melted and hanging in bizaare swoops and angles that make my stomach turn. My friend and his four children are staying in a single hotel room. The Red Cross provided them with a room with no cooking facilities except a tiny microwave and a coffee machine, then gave them $130 for food. Total. For five people. And another $130 for clothing. Ditto. They have the room until tomorrow at 11 am. After that, they are on their own.

Aside from the clearly criminial act of setting this fire, there is another criminal act going on.

The Red Cross, which misses no chance to collect money from the good people of this country, is raking it in by the armful, and giving it out in thimblefuls.

Imagine you have lost everything. An arson determination means weeks or even months of delay for the insurance payments. You have 4 children. And now you have $260 to feed and cloth them from scratch. $260 for backpacks and school supplies and shoes and underwear and food and clothes for school and clothes for work and laundry and personal care things like shampoo and soap and deodorant and ... food. This man probably gave far more than $260 to Red Cross over the years. And yet that is all this good family has to "get back on their feet."

If that is truly all the Red Cross can spare for a family of five, why aren't they working with area and national merchants to gather supplies for families in crisis? Why aren't they showing up with gift certificates for clothing and food, backpacks full of school supplies and a list a rental housing especially for short term crisis housing? A debit card and a few teddy bears and they are on their merry way to the next fund-raiser. Another family helped. NOT!

After hearing a while back how much the director of the Red Cross makes each year, I was hesistant to give them any more donations. After this fiasco, I will make sure I never do. Spread the word. It's time for a change. The Red Cross has outlived its usefulness. Let's make something better...and I'll direct it free.