A lesson from my husband . . .

What’s so great about mindfulness?

It seems like almost every day I see an article online or in my news feed that has something to do with mindfulness.  I’ve read so much media hype about the idea, it may as well be called McMindfulness, and sold to the public with the slogan: you deserve a break today.  For a long time I didn’t even know what mindfulness was, guessing it had something to do with Buddhism or meditation.  Several years ago though, I experienced a very potent object lesson on mindfulness.

I was a high school debate coach at the time, and much more interested in Western competition than Eastern thoughtfulness.

Late one afternoon long after school was over and my teaching duties finished, I found myself still working, supervising about 30 of my debaters as they practiced for an upcoming tournament. 

I can still hear the metal scraping along the floor tiles as students shoved desks together to arrange their debate stage.  In the back of my classroom, Robert, a 17-year-old policy debater, stood over his partner’s desk and started yelling at her.

“This is not Lincoln-Douglas debate! Its’ called Policy, Chrissie, and that counterplan won’t work!” Robert stabbed an index finger into the paper Christina was holding in front of him.

Izak, my top debater, rushed over to make peace between the two, and stop Robert from bullying Chrissie (who happened to be Izak’s girlfriend).  That problem taken care of, I walked away to check on other debaters working in the hallway.  Ally was out there kneeling on the floor rifling through her big plastic tub of debate evidence.  Apparently, she couldn’t find what she was looking for so she began dumping papers by the handful on the hallway floor.  The janitor passed by with his wide-headed broom and just shook his head as if to say, “Don’t ask me to clean that mess up.”

Just then the take-out pizza arrived and everyone took a much-needed break, but I was too stressed to eat.  I began picking up some of Ally’s scattered papers when I glanced up and saw my husband, Dale, standing just outside the glass exit doors of the school.  It looked like he had a bag of hamburgers in his hand.  I opened the door and told him I couldn’t stop yet, there was still work to do.

But he took one look at my disheveled appearance and grabbed my hand, pulling me outside with him. That’s when I got my object lesson on mindfulness.

After setting the bag of burgers down on the cement steps next to us, Dale took my shoulders and pivoted me to face him.  He said, “Close your eyes.”

“What?  I can’t close my eyes.  I’ve got to get back inside!”

“Your students will be okay.  Just close your eyes.”  So I did.  I decided to humor him, hoping we could get this little game of his over—quick.

“What do you hear?” he asked me.  What do I hear?  Debaters debating of course.  But no.  I was outside the school now.  What I actually heard was a car engine down the street, and the wind blowing the tree branches above the sidewalk.  So I told him this and opened my eyes.

“No.  No!  Keep your eyes close.  What do you smell?”  I took a moment.  Someone had just cut the grass around the school and it was so pungent.  I inhaled a big breath, and surprisingly, smelled a color:  green.

When he asked me what I felt, I’d fully given myself over to the game by then, and told him I felt the coolness of the coming night.  I could feel humidity against my skin.

Then Dale asked me to open my eyes.  He surveyed my face and lightly tapped my chest, “Now.  What do you feel there?”

That’s when I discovered mindfulness—awareness—and how it can take you away, take you out of the chaos of whatever situation you’re in, and into the moment.

“Better—I feel better,” I smiled back at him.  After that we walked back into the high school and sat down, munching our hamburgers as my students finished up debate practice.

 

Image Credit:  Students debating, Image Credit:  Debate coach, Image Credit:  Mindfulness

Rape in a Religious Community

I went to a Mennonite college and have friends and family members who are Mennonites, so I was particularly shocked to read recently about how nine Mennonite men drugged and raped 150 women and children.  They were all members of an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia when the rapes occurred over a period of five years, 2004-2009.  The men used a powerful sedative, an exotic plant derivative, which the local veterinarian employed to render livestock unconscious. When the women woke up in their beds, they were nude and disoriented, and their bed sheets were dirty and smeared with bodily fluids.  They believed they’d been attacked by ghosts or demons.

My first thought was how could this happen?  This was a respected religious community.  My second thought was why didn’t the women go to the police, the authorities with what was happening?  According to Time Magazine, British Broadcasting, and Vice News, many of those attacked (ages 3-65) had experienced repeated assaults—and nothing was ever done to stop the perpetrators.  The Mennonite colony was essentially a self-governing community in Bolivia.  Church elders dismissed the women’s complaints as female hysteria until finally, two men were caught in the act.  They ratted out the rest of the gang, and all eventually confessed, providing lurid details.  The rapists were given 25-year sentences in a Bolivian prison.

The story doesn’t end there though.  This past year, pressure from church elders in the colony have resulted in several of the female victims sending letters to Bolivian authorities requesting their rapists’ be given early release. 

Church leaders told the women that in order to be forgiven by the Lord themselves–and assured heaven after they die, they must forgive and support those who have wronged them.  Still, some in the colony worry that if the prisoners are released, the cycle of abuse might begin again.  The Bolivian judge who tried the case noted the women were living in such a male-dominated, “patriarchal” culture, they had little power to go against church fathers.

I thought of the plight of these Mennonite women when I saw on the news that Jeffrey Epstein, a man who had engaged in sex trafficking for at least fifteen years, molesting underage girls as young as 14, was finally facing a possible conviction.  Jeffrey Epstein is a billionaire hedge fund manager and would seem at first to have little to do with simple-living, hard-working Mennonite men.

But both Epstein and the Mennonite rapists are examples of male privilege, where their respective cultures, one religious and one economic, freely grant their gender the appearance of authority and respectability.  They were given the benefit of the doubt repeatedly, and in the face of all the damning evidence provided by lesser mortals: women and children.

The Mennonite males in the Bolivian colony had so much power their women were not allowed to take the stand and testify against those that assaulted them.  Instead, male relatives acted as their representatives before the jury.  Epstein schmoozed and paid off those in the largely male judiciary of south Florida, judges and lawyers who should have sent him to prison long ago.  Epstein insulated himself further by making friends with powerful, male political brokers like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.

Many in the international Mennonite church are appalled by what happened in Bolivia.  Those of us that still believe in the rule of law are sickened and sad that a predator like Jeffrey Epstein could molest young girls for so many years protected by his money and influence.  Lord Acton, a British historian, observed in the 19th century that a person’s sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases.  His words still ring true today:  “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

 

Image credit:  Mennonite school girls ,     Image credit: Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump

 

Buying Fireworks at the Reservation

 

We drove through the Duck Valley Indian Reservation on the Idaho-Nevada border this past week, and I thought about the many times my husband and I took our sons to the rez to buy fireworks for the 4th of July.  As a couple of rowdy, growing boys, my sons loved going to the reservation to get “real” fireworks.

Going to Duck Valley, the home of the Shoshone-Paiute tribe, was like crossing the border into another country—and in a way, reservations are other countries.  As sovereign nations, tribes are answerable only to the federal (not state) government.

My family would watch out the car window searching the sagebrush plains, hoping to be the first one to spot a wickiup—a sure sign we’d entered reservation territory.  Someone in the car would soon say, “There’s one.”  Then we’d all look to see a conical-shaped structure made up of branches and sticks sitting in the backyard behind a house.  Wickiups look similar to the tipis of the Plains Indians, and like tipis, their original purpose was to be a temporary camp dwelling.

I remember one of our first 4th of July trips to the reservation.  Down the main drag of the little town of Owyhee, Nevada, the only town on the reservation, we saw a hand-painted fireworks sign that signaled with an arrow to make a turn.  The fireworks stand sat in front of a run-down cinderblock apartment building.  I saw a blanket used as a curtain over one window and a screen bent and hanging from another one.  My sons jumped from the car as soon as we stopped, racing to the stand to see what kind of fireworks were for sale.  The door to the apartment opened and a young man stepped out wearing a baggy pair of jeans and a T-shirt.

“How-gh!  Yá’át’ééh!” he smiled toothily and held up his hand in greeting, Indian chief-style.

“Hello!  We want to buy some fireworks,” my husband told him.

George (he introduced himself) asked us if there was any particular kind we were looking for.  Before we could say a word, both my sons offered, “M-80’s.  Bottle rockets.  The good stuff.”

George was very genial and seemed more than happy to accommodate us.  I asked him if he got a lot of firework customers way out here on the reservation.

“Oh sure.  Quite a few.  You’d be surprised.  They’re like you, looking for the kind of fireworks they can’t buy where they live.”

Everyone wants more bang for their bucks on the 4th, but I had some hesitancy about buying “real” fireworks, something I’d vocally expressed many times to the rest of my family with little success.  I’d heard enough stories about people losing fingers lighting M-80’s.  Call me sentimental, but I had this wistful hope that my sons might grow up with all their digits intact.

“Anything special happening on the reservation?” I asked George conversationally.

“Yes!  It’s time to make some money,” he grinned, taking my husband’s twenty dollar bill to make change.

“I meant to celebrate the um . . .  well, Independence Day?”

Suddenly it hit me.  I’d just realized the obvious and sad irony in celebrating America’s independence from Britain—by buying fireworks from people who’d sought their own independence from America.

But George didn’t seemed fazed by my question.  “We got a big pow wow going on, food and dancing—probably do some handgames, some sticks and bones, you know?”

I didn’t know.  But George patiently explained that handgames were an old Native American tradition.  He said the games were like small-time gambling.  Any age and any number of people could play.  We talked a little more and when we finally left the rez, our backseat was full of fireworks contraband.

Our sons are grown now, and with the West increasingly a tinder box just waiting for the match, my husband and I have little interest buying anything with the word “fire” in it.  As I write this blog though, I’m remembering George.  I wonder if he went on to bigger and better things.  He was so bright and charismatic.  I hope he’s no longer selling “real” fireworks, but instead, has found a real job—or at least something that’s enabled him to move out of his shabby cinderblock apartment and into his own home, a home of course, with a wickiup in the back yard.

 

Image credit:  Diana Hooley,  Image credit:  Diana Hooley, Image credit: wickiup

 

Becoming a Hindu

We might know our height and weight, even our blood cholesterol levels, but do we know our life stage?  Or do we even care?  In my late 30’s I didn’t care.  I was busy raising my children—and what felt like everyone else’s—teaching history at a junior high school.  After work, like many teachers, I took night classes to keep up with the profession and get yet another degree, this one in English.  It was in one of those night school classes that a professor, an Indian man, spoke about the ancient Hindu teachings regarding life stages.

He told my class we were all in the “productive” stage of life, building families and careers.  Yeah right, I thought, when do I get to move to the next stage

I was stressed and tired from overwork and too many commitments.  I couldn’t see beyond where I was—to where I was going.  I felt swamped.  Interestingly, an older couple in our neighborhood, Joe and Margaret, told my husband and me, “Oh, you’re at the best time of life . . . when your family is young and growing.  Enjoy it.  Time passes so quickly.”

My Indian professor also spoke, rather eloquently I thought, about the last stage of life.  Maybe this was because he, himself, was an older man and close to this stage. He said near the end of life we turn into ghosts; we are still in our bodies, but our hair becomes white and our skin, more translucent.  We’re walking spirits, he said, waiting for the next life.

The professor had a name for this Hindu teaching, but I quickly forgot it.

Last week though, I picked up a copy of The Atlantic magazine and read about Hinduism and life stages.

Arthur Brooks wrote about growing older. He said he left his job as the head of a Washington think tank to go to more humble pursuits—teaching at Harvard (not quite as humble as being a Walmart greeter).  He noted professional decline was all part of aging, and said that the Hindus called the teachings on life stages: ashrama.  There it was.  That was what my Indian professor was referring to in my night class.  Ashrama is about the order of life.

There’s some comfort in understanding my current life stage: I finally get to lower my expectations of myself.  Maybe I’m not dancing until dawn or knocking down Pulitzer’s—but neither are my peers. We’re all on this galactic ship heading toward the unknown—and we’re nearing three-quarters of the way there.  At this stage, a good day is a peaceful day filled with small projects and reading and music.  What more could I ask for?

Yet Ashrama also teaches that at each life stage a work must be performed—and, as Shakespeare noted: there lies a rub. What if you don’t follow the ashrama pattern?

In ashrama, spirituality is work set for the last stage of life, but I was more spiritual as a young girl when I found myself praying many nights on my knees. 

Fortunately, the life span is only chronological in some ways.  This is another thought that comforts me. In some sense, we are all we’ll ever be, no matter what our age.  In youth there is the potential, and in old age there is the experience: two sides of the same coin. I’ll not claim this as an ashrama teaching—but it does sounds vaguely Middle Eastern.

 

Image credit:  adult education  Image credit:  The Atlantic  Image credit:  Hinduism

 

 

Country music is great for everyone, even dogs . . .

 

The big discovery this week is that listening to country-western music is like taking the drug, Ritalin.  For adults, it revs them up—but for kids, country music calms them down.

Who’d have thought that honky-tonk bars and cheatin’ hearts could be so sedating?

I happened on this “aha!” moment driving my grandchildren to YMCA camp last week.  On the way, Clara, my granddaughter, wanted to listen to a radio show for kids called “Radio Lab” on National Public Radio (NPR).  Always ready to keep peace in the car while driving with my grandchildren, I dutifully pushed the radio search button looking for our local NPR station.

“Get back Millie (the family dog came along for the ride).”

“How come you don’t like Millie, grandma?”

“I like Millie—I just don’t like her licking my ear when I’m driving.”

I finally found the NPR station and sat back to focus on the road.  All was quiet until a newscaster announced tariffs with China were hurting U.S. trade.  Then my grandson slapped his hands over his ears and yelled, “Change the station grandma!”

I hit the search button on the console frantically looking for any radio station my grandkids might like, all the while trying to dodge Millie’s affection.  I scanned through classical music, right wing talk radio, and jazz.  Each time my grandchildren begged, “Not that station grandma!”  Finally I landed on a country-western station: KISS FM.  The call sign said it all.  The DJ’s were definitely kisser-uppers, happily making fools of themselves to please their listening audience.  Before I could press the search button again though, a country-western song came on about a man going through the McDonald’s drive-thru buying his son some Chicken McNuggets.   Chicken McNuggets?  Really?

My finger hovered over the search button as I glanced in the rear view mirror.  My grandkids were strangely quiet.  I saw them placidly staring out the back windows as if they were actually listening.  Even Millie was riveted by this song, no doubt having something to do with those two magic words: chicken and McNugget.

The song went on about how the dad’s son (his little buckaroo) said a bad four-letter word beginning with an “s.”  When the father and his son got home, the dad went to the barn to do some “prayin’” because he realized his potty-mouth had rubbed off on his son.  Actually, I thought the dad was being too hard on himself.  We all slip up sometimes.

When the song finished I reached over to hit the search button again, and cries erupted from the back seat, “No grandma!  Don’t change it!”

It occurred to me then that my grandchildren liked country-western music for the same reason most people do:  country-western songs tell good stories. 

With that in mind we all sat back to listen to the next tune played on KISS FM.  The sage lyrics went:

I got a dog named Waylon
I got a driveway that needs pavin’ …

I got friends in low places
Yeah, life’s what you make it …

 

 

 

Image Credit:  Diana Hooley; Image Credit: Chicken McNuggets; Image Credit:  Country Music

Feeling the Affects of Chernobyl in Idaho

Watching HBO’s miniseries about the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, I thought of my grandmother Verna.  She died of uterine cancer in 1961 at the age of 52.  I remember overhearing my grandfather and uncles discussing the radioactivity involved in the cobalt therapy used to treat her cancer.  How could such a poisonous substance heal Grandma, I wondered?  In the end cobalt therapy didn’t help Grandma and may have hurt her.  Thus began my fear of radioactive poisoning.  Not that my imagination needed any help on that score.  I grew up in the Atomic Age.  Maybe every generation has a dystopian fear.  Today we worry about surviving climate change, but during the Cold War the possibility of nuclear holocaust seemed just as imminently threatening, if not more so.

Many times as a young girl I passed by the bank building in my hometown of Elkhart, Indiana, and saw the distinctive black and yellow “fan” posted on the outside of the bank indicating a fallout shelter in the bank basement. I saw this same sign not too far from where I now live, in the Idaho desert north of Shoshone.  At one time Mammoth Cave, a large lava tube, served as a fallout shelter for Idahoans.  I eventually learned that though a shelter might help, radioactive fallout is a vaporous ghost that haunts long after the initial flash of a bomb.

Late in the 1970’s, the nation seemed gripped by different nuclear fears, this time having to do with faulty nuclear reactors.  In 1979 a movie called The China Syndrome was released and with it, a new term joined the vernacular.   It was said that a reactor core could overheat and melt down so far into the earth, it melted clear to China.  Eerily, not three weeks after the movie came out, life seemed to imitate art when one of three reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania went into partial meltdown. It was the most significant accident in U.S. nuclear power plant history, ranking a 5 out of 7 points on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

The core reactor fire at Chernobyl in 1986 ranked a full 7 on the INE scale.  My husband and I watched the evening news, stunned that day after day emergency crews in the Ukraine were unable to contain the fire and with it, the plumes of radioactive gasses and other material sent skyward.  No one ventured a guess as to the actual number of people affected by Chernobyl’s fallout.  I thought of Grandma Verna.  Sometimes the damage from radioactive poisoning revealed itself only much later with untreatable cancers.

One evening during the Chernobyl disaster, television news anchors reported that traces of radioactivity had been found in milk and dairy products as far away from Ukraine as Western Europe.  Even more frightening, they said Chernobyl fallout had penetrated the jet stream, and radioactivity had been detected in Hawaii, with the expectation that it would soon reach the western edge of the U.S.

I tried to dismiss this ominous news, thinking what were the chances that a nuclear accident in Russia would ever affect me and my family thousands of miles away in Idaho?  A day or so later I walked out to my garden in a light drizzle to cut some spinach for supper.  Then, per usual, my husband and I sat down to watch the evening news.  The newscaster announced the Chernobyl fallout had officially landed in America.  The area of heaviest radioactive concentration (though nothing to worry about, he assured his audience) was somewhere northwest of Salt Lake City, Utah.  The light rain this area was experiencing seemed to be bringing traces of fallout with it from the upper atmosphere.

I looked at Dale and knew we were both thinking the same thing:  we’d probably just eaten a radioactive spinach salad.  Of course, I thought miserably, Chernobyl fallout had to land here and not in some god-forsaken stretch of Nevada.  Maybe Grandma Verna’s long ago cobalt treatments were a foreshadowing.  Dale though, had a decidedly lighter view of the situation: “Let’s turn off the lamp and see if we light up in the dark.”  Not funny, I shook my head at him, not funny.

 

Image Credit:  Fallout Shelter  Image Credit:  Chernobyl

In the hospital . . .

I knew a man once who said the only reason to go to a hospital was to die.  I thought about what he said when my 86-year-old mother was admitted to the hospital this week due to shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate.  After spending some time with my mother there, I thought this man was completely off the mark about hospitals. Hospitals are more like gas stations than eternal rest stops.  People are mainly here for tune-ups and repairs. Then they go on their way.  And this hospital, like any good vehicle shop, was full of young, smart technicians using complex, computerized equipment, to do their repairs.  I was impressed, and more than a little intimidated.

Jack, a tall, slim nurse, probably close to thirty, tapped the veins in my mother’s arm looking for a good one to attach an IV.  Though his hair needed a wash and cut, his hand movements were quick and efficient.  He apologized when he had to stick another needle in mom’s arm to add an additional IV line.  Mom sighed and I patted her feet where they lay at the end of the bed, gently reminding her, “A feint-hearted warrior never won the battle field.” Jack didn’t look up from his work, but I saw a smile cross his face.

When Jack left, another young nurse with blue streaks running through her hair came into our room, and placed what looked like water wings, flotation devices for beginning swimmers, around my mother’s forearms.  Then she turned to a mounted computer and began rapidly typing.  Occasionally she glanced at the monitor above mom’s head, filled with line graphs and blinking numbers in different colors.  Mom’s “vitals” were all there: heart rate, oxygen level etc.

“Is my mother taking a swim?”

“Pardon?” the blue-haired girl turned to me.  I pointed to the water wings.

“Oh?” she nodded understanding. “Those are blood pressure monitors.”

I watched these highly skilled professionals wistfully, with their youthful flair and swagger.  I’d love to know what they knew, and be a part of the kind of energy that was everywhere apparent in the hospital.  I looked over at mom lying in her bed.  She once was a nurse.  Did she have these same thoughts?  But mom was quiet and seemed more relieved than anything else.  She’d been sick for a week or so, and was glad to be in a place where people could take care of her.  My brother and his wife came, and then the doctor, a petite woman with iron-grey hair and tiger-striped eye-glasses hanging from jesses around her neck.  She was one of the few doctors on duty this Sunday afternoon.  I saw her constantly checking on the status of her other patients using her cell phone.

“Mrs. Holland can you tell me a little bit about your shortness of breath,” she asked mom.

“Mom has terrible allergies . . .” I began to explain.

Without looking up from the old-school note pad she was scribbling on, the doctor waved her flat-palmed hand at me. “Thank you, but let’s let your mother speak for herself, shall we?”

I shrunk back in my seat becoming the observer I was meant to be in this tableau.  Overall, my sojourn at the hospital with mom was a humbling experience.  The man who told me the only reason to go to the hospital was to die—was wrong.  Yet in another way, he had a point.  Confronted by such a large complex institution, even one with a mission of compassion and healing, a patient (and their family) must in some sense, die to themselves.  They must give over their will in order that the hospital staff might help them.   It’s not really a devil’s bargain; it’s one of mercy—and that of course, makes all the difference.

 

Image Credit:  modern hospital room