Tuesday, August 25, 2009

George Harrison Update

The good news is: George used to eat his poop.

The bad news is: today there was a pile of it on my favorite oriental carpet, the one my grandmother gave me as a wedding gift.

The good news is: camels probably gave birth on that carpet and it seems to be none the worse for the wear.

The bad news is: maybe George has been pooping on the carpet for months now and I only know about it today because the spice Tom's been putting in his food makes him not like the taste of his poop anymore.

This is not the first time George has proved less than the perfectly behaved $20,000-worth-of-training-therapy dog we inherited last March. He eats anything and everything not locked in or on top of the refrigerator. Last week, while shopping at our co-op with my two kids, I realized that I had left the frozen catfish to thaw on the counter and that Tom's colleague was dropping George off as I shopped. I thought, "Should I just go ahead and buy more catfish now? Nah. He won't eat it. It's frozen." I came home to a litter of white fish-wrapping paper on the kitchen floor.

Elle went exploring and came running back. "Mama, see what George did on the music room!" she shouted.

There, on that same oriental, was the catfish. Not even eaten, just kind of massaged by George's gums and left in the 90 degree heat. I was so mad, not because he'd deprived us of our dinner but because HE HADN'T EVEN LIKED IT!! Ingrate.

So I'm trying to find the lesson in George's annoying behavior. I firmly believe that bad things can lead to good things. To wit: last spring I had such nagging awful back pain that I posted about it here. A wonderful reader suggested I watch Esther Gokhale, so I did. Then I bought her book and began using my hunched shoulders as a bell of mindfulness to get into my body and improve my alignment. This lead me to finally pursue a lifelong dream of taking yoga teacher training. This had lead to massive joy, newly discovered physical strength, a dear new friend in my teacher, spiritual insights, befriending my body in a new and deeper way, and not least, no more pain in my shoulders.

Not bad. All from chronic pain.

So I don't know what will come of the George situation. Something good, I am sure. I just ordered the Dog Whisperer series on Netflix. And no more than an hour after I woke up, he'd redeemed himself. Elle and Jay and I were cuddling at the bottom of the stairs, along with Elle's favorite blanket, pillowface and about a thousand of her stuffed animals. After ten minutes of heavenly cuddling, I looked at my watch and said, "Sweetie, I have to go for my run now."

"Noooo!!!!" she cried.

So we snuggled some more. Then she popped her head up and said, "Oh, I'm going to go cuddle with George Harrison now. You can go, Mama." And she and Jay both crawled over to the dog, who was lying on his side, and proceeded to climb him like a mountain, rolling all over him, Elle covering him with her blanket. George Harrison lolled his head back and exposed his big silly belly to my children's hands. He'd definitely earned his keep for the day.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Church of 80% Sincerity

Note: During this period of time while I write our forthcoming book All Together Singing in the Kitchen: How to Create Family Harmony, while I intend to update this blog with current posts, I also will from time to time post old pieces. This one is from the 2007 Life Composition Creative Day Planner series.

Via David Roche and Anne Lamott:
David Roche is a monologist whose face was badly disfigured in a childhood radiation treatment. He has created a wonderful program in which he shares his unique and inspiring take on the world. Read more about him at www.davidroche.com or read the chapter about him in Anne Lamott’s wonderful Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

"We in the Church of 80 Percent Sincerity do not believe in miracles," says David. "But we do believe that you have to stay alert, because good things happen. When God opens the door, you've got to put your foot in it.

"Look, 80 percent sincerity is about as good as it's going to get. So is 80 percent compassion. Eighty percent celibacy. So 20 percent of the time, you just get to be yourself.

“God, it's such subversive material, so contrary to everything society leads us to believe -- that if you look good, you'll be happy, and have it all together, and then you'll be successful and nothing will go wrong and you won't have to die, and the rot can't get in.”

Anne Lamott writes: “In the Church of 80 Percent Sincerity, you definitely don't have to look good, but you are supposed to meditate. Following David's instructions, you sit quietly with your eyes closed and follow your breath in and out of your body, gently watching your mind. Your mantra should go like this: ‘Why am I doing this? This is such a waste! I have so much to do! My butt itches ...’ And if you stick to it, he promised, from time to time calmness and peace of mind will intrude. After some practice with this basic meditation, you will be able to graduate to panic meditations, and then sex fantasy meditations. And meditations on what you will do when you win the Lotto.”

So for this week, I invite you to meditate like this. Also, to journal about some areas in your life where we might be liberated if we could just accept 80%.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Arnold Westwood

Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.
-- RW Emerson Series I. Self-Reliance

Arnold died on Sunday night. He was wrapped in the healing quilt Annie Kner made for the church, a gorgeous tapestry of reds, blues, greens, in a black window-pane design.

He asked to be taken off his ventilator/life support so he could talk to his four children who were around his bedside. He asked for a flashlight and was holding it, lit, when he died.

He was 88. I know he lived such a good, rich, full life, and still I am greedy for more. I can only imagine how his family feels. I am so grateful we knew him. I am so grateful we let each other know how much we loved each other while he was still alive.

Arnold invited himself to our wedding. We'd only known him a few months and we were not yet the good friends we became. It was so like Arnold to invite himself. He came up to us the Sunday before we got married and said, "I'm coming to your wedding. The rule is, if the wedding's in our church, you can't turn away a member. Did you know that?" Then he chuckled slowly and shuffled off in his Arnold way.

Whenever Tom or I preached on a lay Sunday, he would embrace us afterward and tell us we should be Unitarian Universalist ministers, which is what he was up until he retired, some twenty odd years ago. I believe he encouraged every lay minister in this way, and it was so affirming; kind of the highest compliment you could get from an ex-minister after you put yourself out there like that.

He came to our post-election party last November and moved everyone to tears with a story about how he had voted for the first time for FDR. He had been a very early Barack Obama supporter, with a big O poster in his front window at his house way off in the hill towns. In January '08 we went to his house for a church potluck and he told me, with that same chuckle, "I love the man. I give him money whenever I can."

Yesterday, when I got the news via a voice mail message, I felt all my own energy drain out of my body. It was midday, and I was home alone with Jay. I had a huge list of things to do, and I abandoned it to sit on the couch and just hold Jay, stare out the window, cry, sit, remember, feel sad, laugh when Jay laughed. Arnold had been the youngest in his family, and he told me on several occasions that he was well-loved as a baby, and that his mother's unconditional love carried him through his whole life. So that's something I can do: love my own son as hugely as Arnold was loved.

I wish we were Jewish. I think sitting shiva is one of the greatest ideas of all time. All I want to do is get together with other people who loved Arnold and cry with them and sit still and be quiet. And when someone has a story to share about Arnold, she shares it.

After a few hours, I connected with Tom and we cried together on the phone. Then I called my dad who knew Arnold just from occasional visits to the church. Toward the end of the conversation, someone beeped in, and I told my father I needed to take it, thinking it might be news of a memorial service. Instead, it was someone calling about the president's health care initiative wanting a contribution. Ordinarily I would have declined since I don't really know anything about the initiative other than that the Republicans are making up a bunch of scary death stories. Honestly, I have been one of those Obama supporters who, though well-meaning and intending to serve my country, has kind of put her head in the sand post-election. I'm not proud of this, but it's the truth. So without letting the guy get through his schpiel, I said, "How much do you want?"
"Well, a hundred would be great."
"I can do fifty."
"Oh, thank you!" he exclaimed. He asked for some information, including my profession.
"Musician," I said.
"Huh," he said. "You're the third musician to contribute today. And believe me, that's saying a lot. People are not exactly forthcoming these days."
"Yeah, I can imagine," I said. "We musicians are self-employed types, and we really get that there needs to be change." Then I said, "Can you put this contribution in the name of Arnold Westwood? And make it a hundred after all." Because he loved the man.

I posted about Arnold here a few months ago after he preached. He was delighted to have his words on the internet at that time, so I am taking the liberty to post more of that sermon. Here it is:

...Now, generally, when one receives a great gift, you want to give something back in return. Perhaps you are expecting me to share some wisdom. I find it hard to fit into the mold of the wise old man. After all, there is nothing so special these days about being 88 – the number of keys there are on a piano – still at 88 most of the people my age are already dead. The rest of us are struggling to keep up with the pace of you who are so much younger than we.

Moreover, I don’t feel so very wise. Actually, a lot of the time now I feel like a kid – sometimes like a teen-ager. Nonetheless, please let me share a few thoughts.

I was talking with a group of friends the other day about aging, telling them that I had lost my fear of death. My dad certainly had prepared me. One day when I was quite little, when bandaging my finger, with the usual twinkle in his eye, he declared, “You know, you’re going to die after this.” We laughed. He made it easy.

Since then I have had, of course, many encounters with death – at a roadside after an accident – at a hospital beside – quite a few precious times in the last days at a parishioner’s bedside preparing for the funeral, picking out music, readings and hymns and what needs to be said – finally, of course, being with Carolyn as she slipped out of consciousness in the midst of a conversation – never to return.

It is mostly we, the living who endure so much of the pain and the loss.

Aging is an altogether different matter. Since the beginning of April I’ve been trying three days a week to work in the fitness room at the Dalton Recreation Center. In addition, I’m getting weekly coaching from a Pilates teacher. Neglect exercise at your peril! Believe me, even after a few weeks of not moving enough, at 88 you start to waste away. And drop off for a year or more and you really have your work cut out for you!

What else can I share with you?

You’d better understand your own temperament.

I need people. I’m not a very good alone. Solitude doesn’t work for me. When I was active in the ministry my life was full of people. Afterwards, in those 17 years that Carolyn and I had the Bed & Breakfast business – those years between my retiring in ’84 and just before her death -- we had all the people we wanted around us.

When you’re elderly and widowed, or younger and divorced, the world does not come to you. If you want company it’s up to you to find your own friends. Emerson tells you how to go about it in his incredible essay – his thesis – “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” – The essay tells us very well how to go about it.

The hard part is loving...

I pose as no expert on how to be a good lover, though I sense I am a loving person and am sometimes perceived as such.

Emerson’s rule, I believe, also applies. The only way to become loving is by being loved.

I was certainly loved as a child. My mother’s only child, I was born when she was 43 years old. And she loved me totally, unconditionally, almost, if possible, too much. My dad loved me, too. My older brother and two sisters loved me. [Brief explanation: Dad’s first wife tragically drowned. My mom was her first cousin and available as dad’s second wife.] So, little Arnold grew up in a home surrounded by the attention and affection of 5 loving older ones, cuddled yet, unfortunately, over-protected.

First Grade was a different matter. Entering the world of neighborhood kids, wearing glasses, not knowing how to throw a ball or hit one with a bat – always the last one picked when choosing up sides – a good student yet devoid of the social skills ordinary kids gained through peer experience – so elementary school bordered on devastation.

Then, for 6th and 7th grades, dad & mom went on the road and had to place me in a boarding school. There I experienced the whole bit of an abusive housemother and sexual molestation.

Redemption slowly began in California where I rejoined my parents. High School was OK; college was great; graduate school was terrific; meeting Carolyn was bliss.

Now, don’t get the idea that all my adulthood was easy. Whose is? I have no need to recite its ups and downs. You’ve had or are having your own. During the last year of my therapy was not so much about losing Carolyn as about my childhood and my father. Simply put, I now feel myself still bathed by my mother’s love.

But, believe me, I have still more to do.

The really, really hard part for me is to truly begin to love myself. I’m discovering for me it all has to begin there. It’s sort of like being retooled. The amount of being loved by family and friends doesn’t do as much as what you have to keep on loving yourself – and it runs all the way from accepting all the complications and embarrassments that come with an overactive bladder to my no longer needing to call attention to my petty virtues and several accomplishments. I know I’ve done a lot. I just don’t need to tell other all the time. My chorus to myself is: “Westwood, leave it alone, you’re OK.”

So, at 88, I still wrestling with my ego needs and expect I will be until I die. And as death approaches I hope they will pretty much disappear. That will be heaven.

In conclusion, I suspect unconditional love must be akin to what so many others experience as the love of God. Love to draw upon when it’s the only love there is.

So now, I use my days and what energy I have doing what I am able. May I give back something of what has been so abundantly given to me – by this incredible church, by my loving family, by the five congregations I’ve been chosen to serve, and above all, by my multitude friends.

And when I’m stupid enough to get discouraged or feel neglected and sorry for myself, I always have the starry nights we are blessed with here up in these quiet hills and I look up at the heavens and all their shining brilliance and know a joy that passeth all understanding.

Friends, All these eruptions are supposed to strike a familiar chord with you. If they do, God bless you. In any case, God bless us all.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Recipe for Happiness

Recipe for Happiness

1. When in doubt, breathe. Your body is always right and it never hurts to notice that you are still alive. Breathing calms the whole self: body, mind, spirit. Breathe deeply for 4-10 breaths. Don't skimp. Just be with the breathing. Ask your higher self/God/Truth/Krishna/Jesus, etc for alignment.

2. Move your body with love, kindness and mindfulness.

3. Eat whole unprocessed foods from an address as close to home as possible.

4. Do something creative and helpful every day, for your livelihood and for fun.

5. Be yourself in all your relationships. Be the best version of you that you can be, and be kind to yourself when the version you happen to be today isn't as fun as the version you were yesterday.

6. Let everyone you encounter be themselves. Don't bother trying to change them. Bless everyone and recognize everything that happens to you as an opportunity to grow and learn.

7. Drink as much water as you can. You are 70% water, and if you don't freshen the tank...well, just look over at a vaseful of flowers that hasn't been changed in a few days. Enough said. Drink as much water as you can.

8. Catch yourself when you find yourself trying to create problems. (And laugh.)

9. When you feel love, express it! In words, in deeds and with a big smile.

10. On occasion, act As If.

11. Make peace with the past, practice gratitude today, and dream big.

12. Life is hard, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

13. Live the serenity prayer: ask to be granted the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can and the wisdom to know the difference.

14. Give away what you don't need. Notice how you feel as the clutter disappears. Notice how you feel when you practice generosity.

15. Go outside and touch trees, feel your feet on the bare earth, dip your toes in a body of water as often as possible.

16. Laugh.

17. Laugh at yourself.

18. Slow down.

19. Sleep as much as you can.

20 Step away from the computer.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Mountain Climbing

It's raining again. I don't mind the rain so much; in terms of my own comfort level, I actually prefer this gentle weather to 95 degrees with high humidity. But I recognize that the wet is responsible for the blight that's affected tomatoes and potatoes and all sorts of crops all over the North East, and our local farmers have pinned it on climate change. So I am routing for sun and a drier spell.

My kids are both taking a nap right now. My husband is biking, rain or no. I have been tidying the house, cleaning out the nasty drawer next to my bed which contains twenty five different kinds of lotion, a disorganized mass of sewing materials (mostly threads), some dental floss, ear-plugs in various stages of use, barrettes, bookmarks, emery boards and loose band-aids separated from their boxes. Before their nap, my children were both in Elle's room on her "new" big girl bed: a plastic pink toddler bed with a teddy bear's head as the backboard and a crib mattress. We put her other crib mattress under the bed and then pulled it out so it looks sort of like a trundle bed, which, if you are three, is almost a bunk bed, which is the grandest, most excellent sleeping situation imaginable. The bed is completely covered with stuffed animals and pillows and blankets, as Elle like to make a big nest for herself, which she crawls into for sleeping. Jay thought this was the most exciting thing ever, and squealed with delight as he hurled himself onto the top of the pile and then fell over backwards onto the lower "trundle." This made him laugh even harder: huge chortles of pure glee. I sat next to them and just watched and listened. What could be better than your own two kids squealing and snuggling like a litter of puppies? So far, nothing.

Elle is three, and to date, I like three better than two. Either that or I have changed. I look back on last year, the year of Jay's arrival, and I feel like I've come over a tight mountain pass and am now on a smooth level path. Maybe it's the yoga; maybe it's the meditation and journaling. Maybe it's the knitting. I think it's just plain grace. Or mabye it's that three really is easier than two. I'll find out when Jay hits that marker in August 2010.

Speaking of mountain passes, we did a lot of hiking in the Adirondacks last week. All the members of my family are 46rs, which means that we've climbed all 46 peaks over 4000 feet in New York State. This really means that we have a father who is an avid hiker (though his season is extremely limited to one week every summer, and he climbs wearing tennis shoes, eschewing walking sticks and crampons) who thought it was fun to drag his whiny wife and daughters up tall mountains every summer. Eventually we all stopped whining and caught the Fever which compels one to hike in 45 degree rain and cloud cover that erases any kind of view. In 1986 my father figured out that my mother, the most reluctant climber of all time––albeit extremely athletic––was within 15 peaks of 46. My mother, always the historian, also figured out that she would be able to bag these peaks before her 47th birthday, and so agreed to what can only be called a campaign. For the next three years, and then continuing on for our own 46r goals for another three, we Nieldses hiked the most obscure, trail-less, bramble-filled, viewless mountains in the Adirondacks. We were cursed with cold wet weather, but blessed with no injuries, victory, and best of all, the gifts one gets only by climbing mountains.

What are these? Well, for me, this strange thing happens when I hike. I am a middling kind of athlete. I am not fast nor particularly skillful, and I am definitely not strong, but after the initial shock to my body that it's being asked to do something other than play guitar or write, it really is a good sport. It's sort of like my dog George Harrison: it goes along with the program. And after about 45 minutes of slogging, when my heart is pumping nicely and my muscles are working in harmony, my mind lets go of its regular tangle of plans and fears and instead gets creative. It also gets seriously involved with the present moment. This is especially true when it's carrying its son on its back. Paying attention carries a lot more value when to fail to do so would mean slipping on a wet mossy rock and tumbling several yards down with an eleven-month old in tow.

Jay loved hiking. The first day, we felt a little guilty: he's just learning how to walk, and he's so excited about what his own little body can do that he barely wants to sleep. Would you want to sleep if you suddenly figured out that your body could fly? But riding on mama's back is apparently evolutionarily charged with positive associations; after all, for millenia, moms have been carting their tots around in slings and on backs, over the Andes and the Pyrannes and Kilimanjaro and the Himalayas. Babes are used to it. Jay slept peacefully for a few hours, then woke up, singing and drumming lightly on my shoulders. Tom mostly carried him on the way down when I feared that my spaghetti legs would fail. He liked dad's back as much as mom's.

There comes a moment on every hike when I hate it. Usually about an hour before the summit. It's my mind rather than my body that freaks out. "I can't do this for another hour!" my mind protests. "What is the point?" On our last day in the high peaks, my family gave Tom and me the gift of hiking by ourselves with just Jay. Elle was happily playing with her cousins and getting a tennis lesson. (She is definitely my daughter. When my mother, a professional-level player, tried to teach her how to hold her racket, Elle grabbed it from her and said, "No, I'm going to show you how I do this," and proceeded to take the racket and bang it on the court.) Anyway, Tom and I had a fabulous time. We hiked Wright Peak, which is next to my favorite mountain in the world, Algonquin. The two peaks share a trail for most of the trip, and then the trail to Wright veers off to the left and hikers ascend open rock face for about a half hour to 45 minutes. It was a beautiful day, but the wind was blowing at the top. My legs were tired and my boots were wet. I was more afraid than I have ever been in my entire life. I had visions of being swept off the summit, or falling backwards and landing on my baby. At one point, I thought, "This is so stupid. I am risking my son's life. For what?"

I thought about camping out and waiting for Tom to bag the peak. That wouldn't be so bad. But Jay wasn't scared. And I thought of all those mothers who have climbed before me, the mothers of the Andes and Himalayas. I prayed to their spirits, and saw the summit. When I finally arrived, Jay's hair flying around his little head like a halo, I said, "We are at the top of the world." He said, "Nah nah," and clapped his hands. Tom found us a place behind a big rock where we could eat our lunch and gaze at Algonquin, and I remembered that it's not until we walk through our fears that we overcome them. My father carried me up these mountains when I was Jay's age. We risk our children's lives in a much more (statistically) dangerous way when we strap them into their car seats and drive across town. What I gave to my son that day was the model of courage. Not the kind of courage that shrugs at danger, but one who feels it and goes up anyway.