I love to go thrifting. But unlike certain famous television folks with the same hobby, I'm not out to find a real Monet on sale for $12 (mostly because I probably wouldn't recognize it) or a genuine dinosaur tooth from the Jurassic era...although that would be pretty cool. Nope. Mostly I'm on the lookout for a pair of last-decade's jeans that might actually fit my this-year's booty, or perhaps a 50-cent book I am eager to read that inexplicably isn't available through our local library system. Last month I made just such a find when I wandered through a thrift store in my new neighborhood and a tiny black-and-white graphic of a whale caught my eye. "What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage," the title read. I gathered from the graphic that the Shamu in question was none other than the famous killer whale (actually several performing killer whales who have been given that same name over the decades). Since I make it a habit to learn as much as I can about life, love and at least partnership (legal or otherwise), and I've never had a killer whale as a mentor before, I decided I had to have it. I coughed up the 50 cents and sped home to begin learning.
About a month and a half ago, I packed up all my stuff....and my parrot's stuff....and my turtles' stuff....and we moved to a new casa halfway across town. It was very hard work - packing and unpacking all those boxes. What made it even harder was that a good portion of everything that came with us had to end up at Goodwill - our new space was literally half the size of the one we left behind. The moment I finished unpacking the indoor stuff that made the cut, it was time to build two outdoor enclosures for my unbelievably patient shelled sidekicks. Malti had been waiting more than two years, and Bruce, my more recent rescue, several months, to return to the natural outdoor lifestyle (and the mounds of mud and dirt) they loved. What I'm getting at with all this is that, while on the outside I was very busy, very focused, oh-so-goal oriented and productive and all that good stuff, on the inside I was a WRECK. I was a mess. A hot, anxious mess. A depressed, mid life crisis-ing mess who was getting very good at freaking out. Recently, when even my mentor stopped responding to my frantic emails, I decided it was time to take myself in hand.
In our household, Clint Eastwood, Louis L'Amour and John Wayne are lifetime honorary members of our extended family. In fact, I was raised on tales of the gritty Wild West in film, print and song (with nearly all of my childhood summers spent visiting hot, dusty fairgrounds to listen to bluegrass music, I learned early on the Wild West wasn't for wimps). For instance, let's say you went out west in hopes of striking gold and getting rich quick. But instead of actual gold, you discovered fool's gold. Then imagine your surprise when you went to the bank to cash in your fortune, only to learn your "gold" wasn't actually gold at all. This is what I feel like every time I encounter another one of my own assumptions. Unfortunately, given that I am 45 years old and counting, I have had quite a lot of years to practice constructing plausible-sounding assumptions. Clearly he doesn't love me because... I can tell my box turtle, Bruce, is very unhappy because.... She is obviously mad at me on account of how she said this.... Well, just LOOK at that sky. Obviously it is going to rain today.... Yup. My assumptions tend to sound pretty darned factual. But they are rarely ever correct. I suspect this is because they are based on only the data I have in my own head, which is only about half the data I need to predict any current or future event with any degree of accuracy. For instance, I don't have information about what the other party (human, tortugan, atmospheric, global or otherwise) knows or thinks or feels. More often than not, I don't even really have accurate information about my own part in any assumption I may be cooking up, because I am too busy reacting to my fears or my laundry list of so-called "evidence" to tune in and pay any actual attention to myself. Yet making assumptions is proving to be a very hard habit to kick. One of my favorite mentors, Don Miguel Ruiz, Sr., names "assumptions" as one of the four key things that can make the difference between a hellish and a heavenly life. Specifically, in his book "The Four Agreements," Ruiz states: Don't make assumptions. This is a very clear statement. Planning on making any assumptions today? Don't do it. Then, just in case there may still be any ambiguity, he goes on to outline what you should be doing instead: Ask questions. Express what you really want. Communicate clearly to avoid sadness, drama and misunderstandings. And of course, each of these three alternative activities sounds oh-so-reasonable. Ruiz even adds in one final carrot as extra incentive for those who are still on the fence: With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life. Life transformation. Sign me UP. Yes, I would like one (1) order of "life transformation," please - and can you put a rush on that? Yes, I'd be happy to pay extra for the rush. And yet I continue to churn out assumptions so chronically I rarely even know I'm doing it.
Recently I watched a documentary film called Poverty, Inc. It had been in my Netflix queue for a rather long time before I finally watched it. This, to be honest, is indicative of how I feel about the presence of poverty amongst us overall....like it really shouldn't be there, and if I ignore it long enough, it might finally just resolve itself on its own. It goes without saying this approach hasn't been working too well for me or for all the people worldwide who are affected by poverty. And when I say "poverty," please understand I'm not necessarily talking about my own income level (although it has certainly had its moments). I'm talking about the begging men - and occasionally women - who stand on so many street corners in nearly every neighborhood in my home city of 2.2 million people. Some of them have become quite aggressive lately, walking up to our cars and even tapping on the windows if we don't look up. This kind of behavior motivates me to lock my car doors, not open my wallet. A census by the Coalition for the Homeless says we have an estimated 6,876 homeless people (1,525 of which are currently in jail) living amongst us here in Houston, TX. But it honestly seems like there are more than that, which could be true, since another census by the same organization showed that 22,728 individuals requested some type of homelessness service during that same calendar year. I have blogged about this issue before - about how I just can't seem to wrap my head around a way to get involved in helping poor people that doesn't feel like it is simply perpetuating a lifestyle of begging for handouts, while inching me ever close to that same state myself. I say this because I too have had moments in life when I too have had to ask for financial help. Thankfully I have a family who has the means and heart to give when I've needed it (such as after my 2010 abdominal surgery, when I couldn't return to my former profession waiting tables and had to find another job to do while I was still on the mend). But not every person has a family or friends that have the means or willingness to help them if things get too tight. I also remember how it wasn't a good feeling to have to ask for handouts, and how eager I was to begin providing for myself once again. I chose to finally watch the Poverty, Inc., documentary the other night after yet another encounter with a homeless begging man at an intersection near my little neighborhood. When I waved the man away, frustrated at being accosted for the umpteenth time that day, he got belligerent and started yelling at me. I found that scary, of course, and also frankly mind-scrambling. If I go in someone's shop and don't buy anything, it is not typical for the shopkeeper to run after me as I leave, waving his arms and yelling about how I should have bought something.
Last month a similarly noise-averse friend and I were talking about silence. Or rather, we were talking about the frequent lack of it. The conversation came just after we had each moved - both hoping to land ourselves in quieter circumstances in the process. So far, mostly so good. But even as I type this, a neighbor is attempting to guide his power mower over and through the woods that makes up his backyard. There have been a number of false starts, a few audible oopses, and more than one unscheduled stop to extract hidden lawn treasures from the mower blades. In other words, not the quietest of afternoons. My friend and I both have people in our lives - quite a few of them, actually - who wouldn't think anything of my mowing-challenged neighbor. Or a parent or partner who leaves the television blaring or the stereo blasting. I once witnessed another friend's husband fall fast asleep while all of the following still applied: The bedroom overhead light was on and the door was open. My friend was rummaging around in her nearby closet. She then picked up her guitar and sang her newest song for me in full voice. We turned on the television and laughed loudly at a comedy show. Her husband slept through all of this. She said he can sleep through anything and I believe her. He probably also doesn't fret overmuch about loud noises when he is awake. But not all of us are so similarly gifted. Happily, my noise-averse friend, newly returned from a place where all the locals seem to be like my other friend's snoozing husband, had a neat tip to share on how she had managed to survive the noise during her trip:
I have a longstanding relationship with noise. Loud noise, quiet noise, constant noise, intermittent noise, human noise, machine noise, enjoyable noise, intolerable noise.... Just the fact that I can name so many different categories of noise off the top of my head attests to how much noise I've heard (and how much attention I've paid to what I've been hearing) over the years. But it has only been recently that I've begun to do the same with silence. I've craved silence since, well, probably birth. I remember having some silence before the age of 2, which was when my little brother came along. He was prone to colic. And chronic bronchitis. And a whole host of other noisy, nasty problems that never ever seemed to stop. In the ensuing years, as I've searched in vain for a return to silence (while all my neighbors were busy bringing home power tools and personal leaf blowers) all I've found is more noise. Lately, however, I've been trying a new approach. I've been challenging myself to listen for the silence instead of the noise. As I've pursued my mission, something very intriguing has occurred.
Abdul Sattar Edhi, or just "Edhi" for short, recently passed away. He had been alive on this planet for 88 years before he died, but I had never heard of him. Recently I moved to a new casa, and my neighbors are from Pakistan. Their son told me about Edhi's passing, which prompted me to learn more. As I read more, it didn't take long to realize that this man was literally Pakistan's version of Mother Teresa. And they had a lot in common too. For instance, both lived very simply and humbly. Both stayed engaged at a grass roots, hands-on level in their work throughout their lives, serving the poorest of the poor with their own hands. Both refused donations from government agencies, fundraising efforts and suspect entities, taking only individual private donations to fund their work. And both received death threats.
I've blogged some in the past about how, sometimes, just every so often, I get this tantalizing glimpse of another me. She is buried (stuck? hiding?) deep inside me. And she is fabulous. She is smart, funny, confident, compassionate, poised, creative - she is just the me I would like to be. But somehow, on a daily basis, most of her wonderfulness somehow remains just out of reach. There is a (sort of) funny story I heard while I was living in India. In the story, a desperate man went to visit a spiritual guru (teacher). He was so unhappy - his girlfriend had just left him for another man. He begged the guru to help him let go of his misery. But the guru said no one could help him as long as he insisted on hanging on to what was now in his past. Sometimes I suspect this is why I only get to experience being the "real me" in tiny little measured doses. What would have happened to that man, if the guru had just ripped out all his memories and all his pain right in that instant just like he was asking for? I don't know, but since gurus in India are reputed to be able to do anything they want (and it is the seeker who limits their powers) there has to be a good reason.
Surrender. For a dedicated meditator such as myself, it is a daily quest. Of course, to read the textbook dictionary definition might indicate such a quest is foolhardy at best. Some examples: ...to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority. ...to yield (something) to the possession or power of another; deliver up possession of on demand or under duress. ...to give oneself up, as to the police. Yeep. This is not the kind of surrender I am personally looking for. In fact, this kind of surrender sounds more like another term that often appears disguised as surrender - giving up. The first definition of "giving up" that popped up when I searched the internet sure sounds like a match: ...cease making an effort; resign oneself to failure. Yup. That's the one. Of course, as I search even a bit further, I find another definition of surrender, this one accompanied by specific notes that it refers to the practice of surrender in a spiritual or religious context:
I wasn't born hating my body. In fact, I wasn't born having any particular opinion about my body one way or the other. Unless something hurt or I got sick, I actually tended not to think about my body at all. My body worked when I needed it to, and that was all that mattered. This happy partnership lasted up until the time I hit puberty. All of a sudden, I discovered there was this whole other body world out there, full of opinions and feedback and measurements and shape and size. It was all quite a shock, to be honest. I remember really struggling to wrap my mind around the idea that someone (specifically, my best friend since kindergarten) might not want to hang out with me anymore because of my body shape and size. To me, my body was just a body. To her, my body was something she called "fat," which apparently was also something a body shouldn't be if you wanted to have friends. But I just hadn't ever thought of my body as a size. If my clothes fit, great. If they didn't, I went to my mom, mentioned this, and requested new clothes. So my initial pain at my best friend's rejection wasn't because I was offended on my body's behalf. My initial pain was because I didn't yet get what the issue was. I just couldn't believe "fat" or "not fat" could be a reason for choosing your friends. Today, I look back at that time with awe and wonder. To realize there was actually a time I didn't understand what the word "fat" even meant....