Red Herrings

A good mystery keeps you guessing up until the end, or at the very least, leaves you satisfied when you figure out who done it before it’s revealed. It does this by throwing out red herrings, clues that are intended to be misleading or distracting. Typically, several prime suspects are involved. Seemingly innocent people connected to the crime or murder by association with the victim become prime suspects by having no alibi or witness and by unexpected behaviors–the local priest having an affair, the quiet elder shopkeeper who has a dark, secret past. That doesn’t necessarily make them guilty, but it does make them intriguing and persons of interest. Shadow sides are brought to the fore in mysteries.

We all have them. Regardless of the level of self-awareness with which we’ve lived or tried to live our lives, we can still be caught off-guard by our shadows. A trigger, a mood or too much stress–all can cause us to behave in ways that surprise or disappoint us. In fact, we can become like red herrings, confusing not only people around us but also ourselves!

What ensues when the shadow is triggered is not always a pleasant play of shadow and light. Depending on the situation and the depth of emotion attached to it, it can take days to put the shadow to rest. For most of us, this is a delicate dance, whether we’re wrestling with our own shadow or have been caught in the crossfire of someone else’s or both. Examining the darker side can be like solving a mystery.

If we lived in a world that was made up only of light or of darkness, we would never see one another, much less our own reflections. Complete light is blinding, as is total darkness. Forgiveness is of necessity wrapped up in examining our shadows, as is tenderness. Love, especially of self, is what allows us to stay with the mystery, to let go of the red herrings and focus on the light in the mirror.

New Pajamas?

When I was about five-years-old my mom made me a pair of pajamas with a waistband that was too big. I strutted around the kitchen table at breakfast modeling them for my father and brothers until they fell down around my ankles. In that moment I learned the high of making people I love laugh. Naturally, I had to repeat it, pulling my pajamas up and letting them fall down, until I wore out the effect, and my mother made me stop. But it was done. I was a certifiable goofball and proud of it.

Humor is an elixir with the power to break tension and soothe what ails, if only temporarily enough to keep us buoyed and balanced, especially in these hard times. And hard times they are. Heightened environmental and socio-political ills coupled with whatever we may be carrying personally provide a seedbed for anxiety, pain and stress making us more susceptible to illness.

Laughter releases endorphins, the opposite of anger, fear and panic, which release adrenaline. It boosts our immune systems, protects our hearts, and burns calories, among many other things. It’s also a great leveler and can be the magic gateway to ending a stalemate when other means fail. Laughter is a master matchmaker, fostering likely and unlikely alliances.  Click here for more benefits of laughing.

You might think you can’t manufacture laughter but not so. In 1995, Dr. Madan Katari founded laughter yoga theorizing that the body doesn’t know the difference between fake and real laughter and it experiences benefits either way. Journalist, professor and peace advocate Norman Cousins famously treated his illnesses with laughter, vitamins and diet.

So, seek it wherever you can find it–through friends and family, funny movies and books, comedy clubs and shows, whatever works. There is nothing to lose in trying to be a little lighter, because there simply can’t be too much light right now. Me? I may have to buy some new pajamas and invite some friends over for breakfast.

The Wonder and Work of Christmas

Somewhere around Thanksgiving I start to feel uneasy about Christmas and my increasing lack of connectedness to it. The relentless bombardment of advertising for endless sales feels like psychological warfare, an assault reinforced by the inescapable ambient noise of tinny carols. I worry about people who do not have much, the financial pressure they live with all year mounting to a crescendo at Christmastime. My heart is always with addicts and people suffering from mental illness and those who love them. Christmas does not necessarily bring a break in abusive situations. Holidays can be stressful for so many.

Yet somehow, some way, the wily wonder of Christmas will woo me.

This year I am awed as I follow the Facebook page of a friend of a friend, parents who have a two-year-old battling cancer. Their courage, faith and strength make me marvel anew at the boundless capacity of love.

My colleague routinely updates us on a refugee Afghani family he and his congregation are journeying with: finding them an apartment, taking them to medical exams, lining up ESOL classes and helping to find employment, welcoming the stranger.

On a favorite annual trip with friends to Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, DC, we are delayed for a moment by a homeless man selling copies of his book, Homeless Lives Matter. Indeed, they do. After a delightful hour or so inside, as we prepare to leave, one of my friends witnesses the bartender refusing another homeless man’s money, handing him a beer on the house, restoring my faith in the generous, compassionate heart. Everyone deserves dignity.

I love decorated trees, the smell of holly and greens. I am enchanted by the lights that deck the streets, the halls and just about everything in sight. I relish traditions with friends and family. And I confess I cannot make it through a verse of Silent Night without crying. It’s not Christmas I am not connected to–it’s the commercialization of it. But I should know better by now; wonder cannot be short-circuited or smothered.

My favorite Christmas poem is Howard Thurman’s The Work of Christmas. May we all know the wonder and light of this season and remember the work of it always.

The Work of Christmas
by Howard Thurman

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and the princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brothers,

To make music in the heart. 

 

Grateful for Grace

On the eve of Thanksgiving here in the States, naturally I am thinking of gratitude. That said, gratitude is not just for Thanksgiving. Many people have a daily gratitude practice, either journaling what they are grateful for or taking time to reflect on gratitude. This practice is said to have numerous profound benefits, including making us happier, healthier, more spiritual and better sleepers. For a complete list, visit the Happier Human website.

That’s good news, but a few other things caught my attention on the subject recently, including a suggestion from an online astrologer–yes, an astrologer–“to give thanks for what once may have seemed to be a liability or problem.” Now that’s something to think about.

Elizabeth Briel, in A Book of Grace-Filled Days (2013), for November 23, writes:

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with all my heart – Psalm 9:2
Note how often the whole heart is referenced in Scripture. This implies that nothing is held back, that no part is hidden or kept to oneself. Are there parts of me I am trying to hide and control? Are there aspects of my life for which I resist God’s healing touch?

Could it be that the parts of ourselves that we most ignore or try to hide or control are the parts that most deserve our attention, gratitude and perhaps our forgiveness? That requires an openness, an invitation to grace. Grace is a mysterious gift, never unwelcome, often bestowed when we least expect it. It is not the nature of grace to always be direct or obvious; sometimes it is the opposite of what we think we know or what we expect or desire.

I am thankful for much, including and especially medical professionals and caregivers, and for the grace-filled people in every single service industry. But I am also grateful for the grace that has come my way in unexpected packages, for sorrows that I hope make space for deeper compassion and for a light that somehow refuses to be snuffed regardless of the weight of our world.

The Sound of Silence

Growing up in the Midwest, I learned at a young age that eerie outdoor silence is nature’s harbinger of severe weather–calm before the storm. The wind might kick up a little, but the birds and animals are keeping quiet vigil in their safe houses. Recent events have me asking myself, why didn’t I hear the silence before the storms?

Silence, it could be said, has a multiple personality disorder. Silence can be a warning, yes, but it can also be an emotional weapon—the silent treatment—a passive aggressive punishment. And silence can be a sign of depression, ennui or a certain kind of impotence—an inability or unwillingness to take action. Silence exerts power, significance and solemnity when she walks or sits in silent protest.

I’m a big fan of the good silences. I know that when I practice meditation it makes me calmer and clearer. There is peace in silence when you can find a sliver. I also believe an intentional moment of silence alone or with a group holding vigil is holy, and a way of radiating peaceful, positive energy to salve the crackling rage and violence that is smoldering just below the surface all around us ready to conflagrate anywhere at any time like it did in Las Vegas.

It has become a tradition for US lawmakers to hold just that kind of moment of silence after a major tragedy. Some of the Democratic lawmakers refused to partake in the ritual after the mass murder in Nevada stating it was not enough anymore. Several social justice groups and individuals also made that declaration. What we need is action, not silence, on gun control and not just on bump stocks and other similar devices, though that’s being touted as the first step toward “real” gun control legislation.  How long will that take? And how many more silenced lives?

Gun control is a particularly divisive issue in the US; the UK took further legislative action in 1997 after the Dunblane massacre of the previous year.  Here we have massacre after massacre and still cannot kick our addiction to guns and violence.

We need the silence of contemplation and the rational, just action that arises from it en masse.  Because more storms are coming, and we have run out of safe houses.

Some sites to check out if you wish to become more involved:

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

Women Against Gun Violence

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence

Every Town for Gun Safety

 

 

I See You

Many of John Kingham’s words give me pause. We live in vastly different worlds, he and I; John is an inmate locked up in Florida, while I am living freely in New Jersey, too often taking for granted the privileges that come with my freedom.

I was first introduced to John when he wrote to Sister Sheila about Living Peace, among other things. He is a subscriber to Living Peace through Sisters Janet and Rosalie, mentors and companions to him. I shared that first letter to Sister Sheila with the Living Peace editorial board, and we decided to invite John to write an article about his experience of starting a Zen sangha in prison.

When I sent him the proof copy of his article, he wrote back to tell me how excited he was to see his words in print. He was grateful for the opportunity to be heard, mentioning in a matter-of-fact, not complaining way, that life in prison reduced one to a dehumanizing anonymity where the inmate is not heard, seen or noted. “One of the more potent insults is I don’t see you.”

I received that letter just a few days after the eclipse. Someone I was watching with commented on how that event was so uplifting and unifying here in the States. Indeed, while nature is screaming her pain through hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, droughts and wildfires, her beauty and rhythms go on (so far) in spite of our abuse. Apart from being a spectacular natural event, the eclipse was a reminder that the most important things–the sun, the moon, the stars, our essence, our center, our strength–cannot be taken from us.

I doubt John or his fellow inmates were out in the yard viewing the eclipse with a pair of special glasses.  But  it took a lot of dark hours locked away for him to shed light on his spirit and then learn how to stay centered in unforgiving circumstances.

It’s easy to forget about the populations we cannot see, convenient to judge or dismiss them. There is no requirement that we believe in the ability to transform, but so much that is worthwhile and gratifying is born of an effort to change or to help others do so. A heart permanently eclipsed by an inability to see might just be a heart in need of some special glasses.

You can read John’s article, “A Field of Future Buddhas Waiting to Bloom” in the latest issue of Living Peace.

Go Ahead and Gorge

When inspiration and creativity seem like close friends who have moved far away, my world can get a little gray. I’ve learned, however, I will eventually find my way out of the Chinese box through art in one of its many forms.  After five episodes of David Gelb’s captivating series, “Chef’s Table,” I can feel my close friends returning. Gelb profiles some of the most renowned chefs in the world who share wonderful life lessons garnered on their journeys to becoming who they are–not necessarily new lessons–but refreshing reminders with a twist from world-class chefs. You do not have to be a foodie to appreciate what’s being served here.

Niki Nakayama is a master at modern kaiseki, a Japanese multicourse meal rooted in ancient eastern philosophies of being in harmony with nature. Nakayama fought long-held gender biases in her country and her field to reach her level of success. Not comfortable making loud, bold statements in her life, she values those expressions in her cooking–breaking rules, aggressive flavor combinations, carving her own path. She learned the importance of trusting herself, knowing when to let go in order to regain the spark of passion in her work.

All of the chefs have experienced failure. There is a common understanding that growth does not take place on a secure path, hence there is a willingness to take risks and to reinvent and change course in order to succeed. Dedication, perseverance and being true to oneself are common themes among these master chefs who create dishes that not only look like works of art but carry appellations like the Industrious Beet, and King George Whiting in Paperbark, and Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart.

Respect for ingredients is both mandatory and part of the joy of the art. Dan Barber of Blue Hill, a restaurant in New York, has devoted himself to sustainable cooking, working with growers to provide the most flavorful ingredients, while tending to care of the planet.

Teamwork is another echo in these profiles. To a one, these culinary geniuses value her or his team and the symphony of collaboration in the making of something amazing.

Stating the obvious, creativity is more than a required riff among these chefs. It is the essence of everything they are doing. They draw inspiration from other art. There is talk of cooking being soulful, as well as rooted in childhood experiences and memories, evoking scent, flavor and comfort from those years. The chefs strive to create unforgettable, unparalleled experiences for their guests, conjuring magic in explosions of joy and flavor.

As the imagination runs wild and the mouth waters seeing these chefs’ delectable dishes, the spirit is quenched and awoken by their passion. I am reminded anew that creativity is where life meets the divine and where we live in the moment. Inspiration is sparked by curiosity, our experiences and the amazing creation all around us, including that which feeds us, literally and figuratively. The supply is limitless. So go ahead and gorge; it’s also calorie-free.

Wonder Woman

I write this the day after another terrorist attack in London that left seven dead and over 40 injured. The country has not had time to heal from the Manchester bombing a few short weeks ago. On the way home this morning I listened to a discussion on the radio about the racially motivated stabbing attacks on a train in Portland, Oregon. The two men who tried to intervene were murdered. It’s three days since President Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change agreement.

In his New Yorker article, “One Hundred Days of Trump,” David Remnick writes: “For most people, the luxury of living in a relatively stable democracy is the luxury of not following politics with a nerve-racked constancy.” Indeed, I’m not the sort who relishes politics. I try to pay attention and do my civic duty, but I confess I’d much rather stare at a drifty bunch of puffy cumulus clouds and ponder imaginary worlds populated by fictional characters, characters whose actions I can control.

Alas, as Remnick suggests, the times we are living in do not allow for many breaks from the news. And yes, this is different. We are in deep, uncharted waters. While the temptation is strong to look away, numb-out or cocoon ourselves, left unchecked, those actions can be dangerous. With 55% voter turnout in the last US presidential election, passivity is part of what got us here.

With each eye-popping headline, with each thread pulled that unravels our democracy a little more, there’s a growing and palpable sense of frustration and helplessness about how to stop it all before it’s too late. What can we do? How do we prepare for what will be a long haul? It may sound simplistic, idealistic or twee, but the opposite of fear and hate is love.

Love is bold and fierce. Love is not passive. Love takes action in order to grow, thrive and win the day. She is the most powerful life force, the force we need to deploy. She votes and gets others out to vote. Love stands up to inhumanity and violence. Love does not hide away.  She bands together on the streets with more love. She connects with family, friends and community. She catches her friends who are fearful and faltering and in turn, she allows us to lean on them.  She shows up where no one dares to tread. Love does not give in or give up. No. She doubles down, recommits and turns up the wattage. We are here to be the conduits and bearers of that wattage. Wonder Woman? You bet.

Cain Is Abel

For many years now I have walked through the woods on the cliff along a dirt path to a clearing near the George Washington Bridge where the view turns decidedly urban. To the south is the Manhattan skyline—inviting, intimidating, energizing and enervating all at once. The bridge itself is also impressive. About 500 feet shy of a mile, the double-decker, 14 lane suspension bridge carries over 100 million vehicles a year. From my perch at the west side of the GWB, I can see many of those cars and trucks crossing.

It has long been a silly game of mine to read the signs on the trucks and find a takeaway from the oracle of the GW Bridge. I might get a message right away, or I might have to watch dozens of trucks. Shred It. No. Budweiser: King of Beers. I don’t think so. White Rose: You deserve the best. Yes! More than once, I’ve been captivated by the tagline on a logistics company truck: Kane Is Able.

I saw a Kane truck not long after I read about the suicide of 27-year-old Aaron Hernandez, the once promising pro football player turned convicted murderer. On a larger scale, it made me think of the wars ongoing and those that seem to be looming too close on the horizon, of the immigrants and of all of the displaced and how divided we are in our stances. The erosion of democracy is a real threat in places we never thought it would be. On the heels of the Climate Change march, I think of the ways we have collectively abused and continue to abuse our Mother Earth and how some still don’t believe global warming is real. Civil rights, basic human rights and the sanctity of life all hang in the balance.

It is uniquely human that we have the ability to make choices and to take sides. The danger is in feeling too righteous about the sides we’ve chosen, leaving us stranded on islands without bridges. Each side couches their differences as moral outrage, and I struggle with the idea that the middle ground seems to have gone so far underground as to be nonexistent. We are living in a world of wild extremes. Islands.

The peacemaker George Mitchell said: “There’s no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.”  Desmond Tutu said: “If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” Is Cain able?

 

 

There is the mud, and there is the lotus that grows out of the mud. We need the mud in order to make the lotus. –Thich Nhat Hanh

In the Nick of Time

Though relatively mild, this past winter seemed particularly long. There was much tussling with unwelcome thoughts and feelings, and I found myself a bit desperate for distractions from my jagged, dark edges. Up cropped a familiar longing to flee and the just as familiar resignation that there is nowhere to run from yourself. But a gal can try, can’t she? Let the great escape begin!

Turns out it’s a good thing I missed Sherlock, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes when it aired on PBS several years ago, because it’s now available on Netflix and has been an ace distraction. Sherlock’s cool, observant, fact-deducing personality, void of the messy business of emotions and relationships and the attachments borne of the two, has been like a cool bath to a fevered spirit.

On the other end of escapist spectrum, I tuned into the film Innsaei (in-sī-ā). Innsaei is an ancient Icelandic word meaning intuition. The more poetic and fuller definition is the sea within. The documentary explores intuition and the connectedness of all of life and argues that we have lost touch with the sensory, and as a result, so much more.

The film reminded me that only a small portion of the mind is conscious. Estimates range from between two and 10 percent, leaning toward the low end of that range. This means there is roughly 95% that is unconscious, the busy underground dwelling place of spirituality, dreams, intuition, imagination, synchronicity, and yes, emotions. I wonder what Sherlock would make of that?

Sometimes it’s hard to escape the mighty pull of the five percent. The mind is a fierce competitor, especially in our modern world with so much vying for our attention. And there are times when it is equally hard to strike a healthy balance with the 95 percent, often leading to a tenacious, wincing match of championship rounds between the two. Usually, like the winter, the match does end. We take off our gloves. We find another distraction. We see light. In sashays the lengthening of days crossing through the equinox and not looking back. Up rises the sun like a brilliant orange host breaking through the darkness, casting uneven flowing patterns of sparkling light across the water, beauty and sustenance for the weary mind and the parched spirit. Just in the nick of time.