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

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

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

The Veteran’s Cemetery

The sun is shining but my thoughts are dark today.  It might have been the Sunday drive we took to the Veteran’s cemetery.   Who goes for a Sunday drive to a grave yard?  Yet, I’ve always found cemeteries interesting.  The first time I went to Europe I lost my passport wandering in a cemetery outside Exincourt, a little town in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France.  The cemetery was on the quiet outskirts of the village, as French cemeteries often are, and full of granite tombs and statuary.  These kinds of resting places are called “monumental” cemeteries, this as opposed to our American “lawn” cemeteries.

At the VA cemetery my eyes scanned row upon row of the same simple, white headstones (government issued).  I thought about the difference between soldier grave sites and civilian cemeteries.

Civilian cemeteries are cities of the dead, and like cities of the living, they’re filled with all kinds of colorful characters.  You can see this easily just reading through some of the epitaphs on the headstones: “I told you I was sick,” and “I was hoping for a pyramid.”  A gay veteran buried in a civilian cemetery had engraved on his headstone: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran, When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Names, birth/death dates, and rank are basically the only thing carved on military tablets.  I stood in front of a “Stephen” and a “Rita,” both corporals at one time.  Neither appeared to have died in combat.  I wondered what made them join the military.  I don’t think many young people dream of becoming killing machines.  Rather, they see being in the military as serving their country, or a way to get training in a specialized field without the expense and headache of college.  Perhaps they like all the benefits military service offers, i.e. free funeral, burial, and memorial.

Though people buried in the VA cemetery must have some military experience, it’s a mistake to think this time period of their life defined who they later became.

I know a man and his wife who plan to be cremated and have their ashes scattered over the Memory Garden at the VA cemetery.  And though it’s true the man served during the Viet Nam War era, after that his life took an entirely different path, marrying, moving to the West, and experiencing a long career in education.

Still, those early years of our lives and what happens to us does seem to have some lasting significance. My son is a software developer, but every year or so he gathers together with a few of his Marine buddies to remember those crazy times at Camp Pendleton or stationed in Hawaii—just like college friends do when they look back on dorm life.  I don’t know if my son’s even considered where he wants to be buried yet.  People younger than fifty rarely do.  No one wants to be accused of having a morbid fascination.  But he has the option of a veteran’s burial—an option, by the way, I don’t have.

Memorial Day is almost upon us and with it the VA cemetery, like cemeteries everywhere, will be covered with bouquets of irises, lilacs, and peonies.  The flowers are beautiful and smell good, but I prefer somber, sedate lawns of green grass and hushed breezes, the cemetery—sans holiday. As we slowly drove out of the VA cemetery on Sunday, I thought of an old verse I saw once engraved on a colonial-era headstone in New England.  Apparently, this poem was a popular Puritan epitaph, the words carved right under the skeletons and imps decorating the top of tombstones:

“Remember me as you pass by,

As you are now, so once was I,

As I am now, so you must be,

Prepare for death and follow me.”

 

Image credit:  Veteran’s Cemetery

 

Splendor in the Grass

It’s a spring evening, cool yet warm.  The grass in the yard is still slightly damp from the rain last night and there are small mud puddles in the drive way.  Watching the neighbor girl, Mylie, and her little sister running barefoot across their yard I think, spring is a great time of year to be a kid.

“Hey!” I holler across to them.  “Don’t you guys know you can only go barefoot on months that don’t have the letter “R” in their name?  What month is this?”

“April! It’s April!” they giggle and jump up and down on cold, red feet. “But it’s almost May and May doesn’t have an “R” in it,” says the shy little sister (I can’t remember her name).

I watch them awhile sitting on our porch step.  The lilac bush next to the house is breaking into bloom and there’s a whiff of perfume in the air.  What game are they playing now?  Mylie’s trying to hit her sister with a big ball.  They must be playing dodge ball. I think about all the ball games my brothers and I played growing up (besides softball). We played “kick the can” using a ball instead of a can, and ball tag, where you didn’t touch your opponent to tag them but instead hit them with a ball.  We also played “cigarette” tag (it was the smokin’ 60’s after all).  If you squatted down quick enough and named a brand of cigarettes, you were safe.  Amazingly, we knew all the brands of cigarettes:  Marlboro, Winston, Pall Mall.  We had a harder time playing “car” tag.  After Ford and Chevy, we had to resort to generic vehicle names like “pick-up” and “station wagon.”

Mylie’s little sister stops suddenly at the side walk edge, and does a cart wheel.  Ah. I enjoy seeing how gracefully she executes her cartwheel, lithe arms and legs rotating in a perfect half circle.  I used to do cartwheels when I was a kid—and round-offs, which were half cart wheels and half flips.

Could I do a cartwheel now?  If I physically survived the attempt, I can see myself swinging through the air, all hips and stomach.  It’s not a pretty picture, and I find myself laughing even considering it.

The neighbor girls begin to chase each other.  It used to be fun to run—when I was little.  Adult running is usually a morning jog, which ironically, we do for our health but end up hurting either our knees or our back.  A jog though, might garner us a small endorphin rush, something besides a martini to beat back the mid-afternoon blues.  Jogging is nothing compared to the absolute joy of running when you’re an eight-year-old.  At that age I never walked anywhere—I ran.  And lovely spring evenings were custom made for running and playing.  We didn’t stop until the last light of day was gone.  Then I’d throw open the screen door and fly into my mom’s kitchen, my nose dripping and my body all chilled from the night air.  Mom would say, “Shut the door! It’s getting cold outside!”  And I’d whine, “It’s hot in here, mom. I’m hungry.”

William Wordsworth, the early 19th century British poet, wrote many poems with childhood and nature as their theme.  He believed in reincarnation and thought that young children, being closer to the event of birth, were more aware of other existences, other lives before birth. As I watch Mylie and her little sister, I’m reminded of a particularly beautiful passage in one of Wordsworth’s poems.  A line in this passage became the title of an old movie, Splendor in the Grass:

“That though the radiance which was once so bright be now forever taken from my sight, Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower.  We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”

Image credit:  Girl Running through Grass

 

 

 

Freedom is Coming

I was looking over the produce selection at the supermarket yesterday and I found myself whisper-singing: “Freedom is coming, freedom is coming, oh yes I know . . . “ I stopped singing when I caught the eye of the construction guy in coveralls checking out the bananas. I smiled. He smiled. Hopefully, he realized I wasn’t a homeless person looking for attention. He probably said to himself, “Oh that lady’s just got a tune in her head and it won’t let go.” And he’d be right. One of the songs we’re singing in the choir I belong to is: Freedom is Coming.

But I’ve had other songs stuck in my head before. For a few years, at odd moments, like when I was boiling eggs or sorting through my book shelf, I’d hum this weird little melody I didn’t know the name of. It sounded vaguely classical to me, a little like that song Flight of the Bumblebee. The melody builds relentlessly like Bumblebee, toward its last notes. Finally, I approached one of the members of my choir and asked:

“Hey Carolyn, do you know what the name of this song is?” Then I stood in front of Carolyn and hummed it, my eyes wandering up toward the ceiling as I tried to get the pitches just right.

“Oh, that sounds like (she paused thinking)… well, it has something to do with a mountain king–no wait!” she snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it. It’s called In the Hall of the Mountain King. Yes, that’s the title.”

I had to look the title up and make sure this was the song I couldn’t get out of my brain. And indeed, it was In the Hall of the Mountain King, a song composed by Edvard Grieg, a Norwegian composer in 1875. In-the-Hall was the music played in a popular play of the time, Peers Gynt, about a troll king threatening a young man who’d ravaged his daughter. Where in the world did I hear this song before? I certainly have never seen the play, Peers Gynt. Then it hit me. I got hooked on this classical piece of music at the same time I became familiar with most of the classical music I know: Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1960’s. Not only was I introduced to In the Hall of the Mountain King playing as a background track for Bug’s shenanigans, but I also first heard The William Tell Overture in a cartoon where Bugs was being chased through the forest by the mighty hunter, Elmer Fudd.

Is there a reason certain music catches our attention and erupts out our mouths over and over again as if we were broken bots? Whenever I’m around my mother and we’re driving together in the car both she and I have been known to break out into that old Baptist hymn: Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine. I’m not sure whether it’s the melody or the lyrics of various pieces of music that burrows so deeply into our psyche. But I think I know why I’ve been so stuck on Freedom is Coming the past couple weeks. Not only is it a beautiful, hopeful melody, but I think it has special meaning for our family just now. My 97-year-old father-in-law finally passed away this past week. Unsurprisingly, he’s wanted to die for some time now. He’d been imprisoned in a frail, sick body and it was time to let it go. For Wes, freedom has come—oh yes we know.