Looking back and thinking forward

Month: September, 2013

Of gratitude and me

There are often suggestions on Facebook about gratitude and forgiveness as ways to heal our soul or make our life worthwhile. People post them in the form of quotes, sayings, and lists, mounted on backgrounds in black and white or vivid colors. I don't read all of them – no time. But now and again one jumps out at me. And so, recently after reading just such a helpful list of ideas on how to improve my attitude, I decided to try out being grateful for different or all aspects of my life.

Here's how it goes: It begins, perhaps, with voicing a complaint about one thing or another, and then I swing me into action, either saying out loud or thinking it to myself:

I am grateful for: my home, cats, Life Partner, car, work, food, garden, son, a friend, beautiful day, the ability to take walks or do yoga and meditation, colleagues, students, presentations, conferences, flowers, coffee, neighbors, weekends, summer, fall, winter, spring, Rosh Hashanah, my blogs, books, music, plants, the Wissahickon, Weavers Way Coop, Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, Princeton, children, the still-flowering orchid, 1,620 bulbs planted for spring, movies, or notes received from students about how much I have helped them become teachers, who now know how to interact with young children …

… so much to be thankful for it seems … I could go on and on …

It works! before long I am breathing in and out, and feeling peaceful, even worthwhile. It becomes like a soothing lullaby. At times I speak my list out loud as Life Partner and I are driving to do chores, take in a breakfast or evening meal out at a restaurant or local cafe. We both start laughing, allowing our intellectual cynicism to ground us in reality. And yet, it still feels comforting – a relief almost – to realize that my life is not as bad, in the grand scheme of things, as I thought it was moments before I recited my list. 

Am not sure how long it will last. But for now, it helps during those moments when I start to tumble down into my learned, habitual, emotional abyss.


There is nothing I like more than sitting at my desk in my study typing away while the two cats lay curled up asleep together on a blanket on the windowsill next to me. I look over at them and a sense of peace and contentment fills me – body and soul. Companionship does not have to be about talking or doing. It is especially meaningful just sitting side by side – experiencing the moment together, breathing in and out, thinking and feeling our own thoughts and feelings. We don't have to be alike or think alike. Just experience the moment together. 

I do love going for walks with others, but don't always feel the need to talk while walking. Just experiencing each step as we plod along, or sensing the physical environment together as we pass by is often enough for me. Being in the moment together is companionship enough. Indeed, sitting in silence with others have been some of the most meaningful experiences of my life. It is probably why I enjoy meditating in a group as much, or sometimes even more than sitting alone. 

I wonder if I have always been like that. After all, I have always found that when I am in a group of people, I prefer to stay silent and listen to others, rather than to "share my smarts!" I used to think there was something wrong with me – that I was less intelligent, or just boring. But, lately, I think that I have always been this way – since a child. An observer and listener. Of course, this has sometimes gotten me into trouble, for my silence can be misinterpreted as snobbish or superior, and I have been accused of being that way a number of times. As I get older, I understand that others are transferring their own insecurities and anxieties onto me when that happens. I know that because when I am feeling confident and secure, I don't take personally all sorts of weird behaviors or things that people say or do "to" me. On the other hand, when I am vulnerable or hurting about something else in my personal life, I tend to feel excluded or insulted whatever others are saying or doing. 

Lately I have come to realize that some people are sensitive to another's vulnerabilities. And, depending on their own early, emotional memories, or ways they were treated when they were young, they will either hurt or heal those more vulnerable than themselves. It depends on if when they were young they learned to kick others when they were down, or gather them up with compassion.

Companionship is complicated. 

As I start to think about wrapping up this post, I notice the cats have started tumbling and rolling around in play. Our soft, together moment has passed. I need to get on with the day – they have decided to battle for turf.

We move on …

… together.

A year ago at Mining Nuggets: Opened to love & Immigration anniversary

The look.

Last November I brought home a pair of kittens. They were four months old. The last of a litter of six, who had all been adopted before I found them in a large cage at the KAT's pet store. In retrospect, I probably acquired them too soon after my beloved Ada's death that October. I had not even begun to grieve her, and yet the house felt so lonely without her, that one morning all of a sudden I found myself on the way to the pet store. After looking at the choices of paired kittens in different cages, I settled upon Oscar and Mimi. Little gray Oscar seemed fragile and vulnerable, and I loved him instantly. His sister, Mimi, was strong and healthy – lithe and sharp-eyed. My love for her would come later. As I drove away from the pet store, I had noticed that Oscar's eye was becoming milky but that did not deter me. I decided that with a few eyedrops and a lot of love, he would be cured quickly. I had also observed that he was especially quiet and quite inactive for a kitten that young, but still I soldiered on. 

As it turned out, Oscar was very ill with Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), and within a few months would die. He became weaker, blinder, more unstable on his legs, and unable to run, climb and play with his sister. Mimi, on the other hand was becoming larger, stronger, and more robust. She had a healthy appetite and would eat almost all Oscar's food, especially since he would leave his bowl after one or two bites. For the few months of Oscar's life, I hovered anxiously by their food bowls trying to coax him to eat more, while keeping Mimi from gobbling up what he was unable to digest. It was a constant battle, and watching little Oscar become weaker and more ailing was excruciating. I tried to hold onto his life, all the while blaming myself for not being able to help him more. 

During this time, I started to notice how I would stare at Mimi: When she hid from Oscar and then charged out pouncing on him in play, take food from his bowl, prevent him from sitting on any chair in the living room, and finally, even when she would simply walk into a room. Sometimes I whispered under my breath about her to myself, "The beast." Or, "that greedy beast." I began to dislike myself around her, feeling guilty and ashamed for unkind thoughts toward her.

One day, as Mimi tussled with Oscar on the carpet in my study, I became disturbingly aware that I was glaring at her with hatred. The feeling came from somewhere very deep inside me. I held still trying to understand what was happening to me, when suddenly I understood to the very core of my being, that when I was a young child, my mother had glared at me like that. Indeed, I knew that look intimately. I had seen and felt it like a knife, cut into and through me, countless times growing up. At first, I felt nauseous, as if I was about to throw up, and then I started to weep. Tears poured down my cheeks in torrents as I sobbed for what seemed like forever. I experienced pain in my chest, and joints in my arms and legs, and burning sensations in my stomach. My head started to throb. I was in agony remembering those looks from my mother – terrifying and rejecting. Her anger, and what felt like hatred, of me penetrated to the core – heart and soul. 

When I was done crying and the pain began to dissipate, I left my chair, and sat limp and exhausted on the rug close to the two kittens. I picked Mimi up in my arms and buried my head in her soft fur, shedding just one or two more left over tears. I whispered into her ears, "I am so sorry, Mimi. I am so, sorry." She lay quietly purring as I realized I was apologizing to little Tamarika (my father's nickname for me) from all those years gone by, that young-me-child, who had never heard that apology until that moment. I felt released and relieved, and a peace came over me. 

From that moment I have not only looked at Mimi differently – that is, like a typical kitten who needs to play, eat, grow and develop – I have grown to love her. I was able to comfort her when she searched and pined for her brother days and weeks after he died, and for the following four months, I loved her with every fibre of my being. I thought I was healing her from my hateful glares, but, in fact, all the while I was healing myself. I took the story of that incident to my therapist, and from then on have experienced a shift in my own psychological development and awareness. Indeed, I started to allow myself to really experience my early childhood pain – so necessary for shedding ancient shame and fear in my present life and relationships. Recently, when we acquired a new kitten, who coincidentally was also named "Oscar," I was happy to see Mimi gently and kindly take him under her wing in a playful, yet nurturing way.

More importantly, though, once again I had reinforced and reconfirmed my theory that our own early, emotional memory of punishment affects our feelings and interactions with children around discipline. For while I understand cats and children are very different, I realized that if I had not allowed myself to confront the agony of remembering fear and rejection from my own mother's glare, I might not have prevented myself from hating and even perhaps, abusing a small, innocent kitten …

You can never go home again …

This morning's Yom Kippur revelation …

Two events were influential in my leaving home, and becoming who I am today: the death of my father, and my son's bar mitzvah.

And once I left home, I could never go back …

The Nooksack “tashlich”

Yesterday afternoon, Nelle and I drove alongside the Nooksack river toward Mount Baker. It was the Jewish New Year eve, a reflective time for me, and one whose rituals and significance were not well known to my husband's family. I was pleased to be spending a few days with Nelle, my step-mother-in-law, while life partner had gone away fly fishing with his father and brother. We like to take walks and talk – gab away – about, oh so many things – all of them real, meaningful, deeper than the usual superficial type chats that so many people seem to prefer. We get down through the meat to the very bone of things. Mostly I love being with Nelle because I feel validated, supported and accepted by her, and because of one thing and another, this was the very best of times for me to be spending my New Year with her. 

It also being a month before a milestone birthday for Nelle, I had asked to take her out for a special luncheon. That way we could celebrate Rosh Hashanah and her pre-birthday at the same time. Nelle being the avid hiker she is, chose a trip to Mount Baker. She wanted to show me a spot where she knew I could walk and experience the magnificent mountains up close, without my burdensome fear of heights getting in my way. She had been there some years before and hiked much more challenging trails at the time. On the way, Nelle had planned that we stop for a late lunch at Milano's, a small, but popular Italian restaurant in the tiny town of Glacier. She remembered once having a very tasty butternut squash ravioli during her last visit after hiking with her daughter. We chose a table in the small outdoor patio and perused our menus, finally choosing a tomato, eggplant, mozzarella and basil salad, as well as linguine with clams, shrimp and squid, and wild mushroom risotto. 

As we waited for the food to appear, Nelle talked a bit about the place we were heading toward, and then proceeded to describe what we would do on the way home. I heard her murmuring something about throwing into a river pieces of bread attached to past hopes and fears that we wanted to toss away. I stared at her as I began to comprehend what she was saying. For, it dawned on me that Nelle was talking about the Tashlich ritual of Rosh Hashanah. I burst into a gleeful laughter. "Oh my goodness!" I exclaimed. "You are talking about Tashlich!" She nodded up and down seeming to enjoy my excitement. "You looked it up on the Internet!" I continued. Nelle nodded affirmingly. I clapped my hands in delight, and tears came to my eyes. My gratitude knew no bounds. She had taken the time and trouble to find out something about my holiday. We slipped a couple of pieces of bread into our purses and pockets, and after a delicious meal headed out and up to Artist Point meadow five thousand feet high surrounded by Mount Baker and Mount Shukskan. The vistas and fresh mountain air took my breath away, and for the next hour or so we walked among the heather and wild mountain flowers, stopping occasionally for me to dip my hands into small tarns, or greeting walkers along the way. All the while I was marveling out loud or in my mind, at the awesome mountains flanked by blue-white glaciers. As we walked Nelle remarked something like, "It gives us some perspective. We are so small in the grander scheme of things."

As the late afternoon turned cooler we set out to drive alongside the Nooksack river on our way home. Nelle had not forgotten our date with pieces of bread and flowing waters. She was looking for the turn-off so that we might come up closer to the river bank. I looked down the ravines at the tumbling, rumbling waters, all the while delightedly murmuring to myself, "A Nooksack tashlich. A Nooksack tashlich." It sounded like a mantra – the best possible blessing for seeing in a joyously, sweet and fruitful New Year. We drove and drove, but somehow were not able to come close enough to the river's edge. The road was still just too high up. So, a little disappointedly, we decided to turn around and head home as it would soon become dark. It was getting late. 

Nelle drove a little looking for an area to turn the car around when suddenly she shouted, "A salmon!" She stopped and we ran out to look down at a stream that was running up aways from the river. There, we saw a huge salmon flopping and flailing among the river rocks. Nelle quickly explained to me that it was a female salmon heading upstream to spawn, who would probably die soon after that – her birth work done. "How amazing!" I cried. For at Rosh Hashanah the head of a fish brings us such good luck. Mesmerized I continued to look on at the enormous salmon struggling in the small body of trickling water. We drove on a little further, and finally as Nelle started to turn the car around I shouted out, "Stop! I've seen the perfect tashlich spot!" 

Out we jumped a second time, and directly, not too far below us was the other side of the stream, which flowed towards the salmon, we had just seen moments before. We hastily gathered our pieces of bread, curled up small chunks, and began throwing them in the water each time one of us calling out a farewell to past behaviors and feelings we wished to discard in order to start the New Year clear and fresh. "Farewell to my longing-to-belong!" I called out as I threw in the first piece. Nelle called out one or two of her own, and we both wished for healing for those we love. My heart was full to overflowing, as we watched the small pieces of bread flow gently down the stream toward the dying, spawning salmon.

We drove the long journey home almost in silence. I felt quite full of peace and gratitude. When we arrived home, I lit a couple of candles that Nelle pulled out for me, and toasted to the New Year with a small glass of wine, as we sat down to a simple repast of grilled salmon, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes from her garden, and a small remaining piece of the cappuccino-coffee cake we were unable to complete at Milano's earlier that afternoon.

I think that I will never forget the Nooksack Tashlich – not only cherished memories, and awesome vistas, flailing, spawning salmon, and wild mountain heather – but mainly because Nelle had made an effort to find out just a bit more about where I came from, and helped me connect my past worlds to the me of now.

Clear morning

Exercise in writing:

1. Make a list:

Clarity, clarifying, clearing, opening, awareness, exaltation, settling, understanding, sensing, feeling, vibrating, hearing, tingling, breathing, noticing, eyes widening, softness, storm abating, surviving, resilience, wonder, awe 

2. 10 minutes … go:

Awaking to a feeling of clarity having survived a storm of feelings prior to today. It is awesome. Even the hazy, horizon looks clear, and I hear the tiniest sounds of starlings and gold finch in the air, even chirping of other unnamed birds. I breathe in and out and find myself settling into the day, eyes widening, fingers tingling and a softness as I open up to the day. Maturity comes when I realize it is all in my attitude and the choices I make. Ten minutes is not enough time to explore all the feelings and sensations that arise with a clear morning. A day to celebrate our labors, the laborers. Picnics and barbecues as we watch summer disappear and leaves start to turn. A day of reflection as the Jewish New Year approaches – always a time of year I embrace with the turn of the seasons, apples and honey, fresh options, second chances, and time unfolds me turning, shifting and tossing me gently towards a new semester, winter, and holidays filled with good will. I am full of good will this morning even towards those who have caused me pain.

Recently I read in Street Zen that compassion is not only about being kind, but about being strong enough to set boundaries for those we love.

It was a different slant to my understanding of the word. 

A year ago at Mining Nuggets: Regression recovery

The slippers

This particular
Saturday morning we came into Starbucks early. We had gotten out of bed at four
thirty in preparation for a flight out to Seattle. Our bags were
packed and out on the front porch awaiting the taxi that was to arrive an hour
later, when at five a.m. my phone rang. The airlines called to inform me that
the flight had been canceled, and would I call the number 877 whatever. While bleary
eyed, and still a little sleepy, I sat quietly chatting with the woman on the
phone to reschedule our flight for the afternoon. “What time is it there?” She
asked. I told her it was five in the morning. She sounded sympathetic to our
cancelation woes, and we quickly booked a later flight out. After some
reorganizing, including making a call to postpone the cab service to the
airport, writing an email to family in Seattle, who would be picking us up
later than planned, and taking on other odds and ends that suddenly needed my
attention, we decided it was definitely time for an early morning trip to
Starbucks. A cappuccino was sounding pretty good to me right about the moment
that life partner made the suggestion.

Our usually
popular coffee shop was quiet. A few early morning people like us were
sprinkled around the room, some in armchairs reading newspapers, while others
sat next to small round tables quietly gazing at computer or iPad screens. We
picked up our drinks and a piping hot egg-white sandwich from the barrister.
Comfort food to help us plan the unexpectedly free morning we had received through
the cancelation of our flight. We sank into two comfortable armchairs and
devoured the breakfast sandwiches as if we had not seen food for a long, long
time. It felt good.

After some
munching and slurping, I noticed a man and woman sitting around a table close
by. They were intent on feeding some breakfast items to a young toddler: cereal
or scrambled eggs perhaps. I couldn’t quite make it out. The little fellow
toddled around the table and then ran behind and in between their chairs.
Whenever he reappeared by their table they would hastily shove morsels of food
into his mouth. He giggled and waddled away. By now I assumed that the two
adults were his parents. The child wore pajamas and his feet were covered in
soft, colorful sock type slippers decorated with pale blue floral patterns.
Every now and then he would stand on his tiptoes and then run around again and
again. His fluid movements, and his parents’ pleasure in his joy mesmerized me.
They seemed like a contented trio.

Finally, while they
gathered up their things preparing to leave, the toddling boy stopped by close
to me and stared into my eyes. “Hi!” I greeted him, and he smiled. “I love your
slippers,” I said. He seemed to like hearing that. He shook his head from side
to side, giggled and stomped his feet as if in a dance. His mother smiled at me
as well, and then she said almost by way of apology, “Yes, they are the easiest
things to get on his feet because he moves so quickly. I know they probably are
not the best for his feet. No support and all that. But they are the easiest.” She
laughed nervously. I tried to put her at ease, repeating that I thought they
were a great choice. They all hurried out keeping up with the mercurial rhythm
of their young child. This mother had seemed so joyful about her little
toddler’s escapades, and then this strange older woman (me) came along and, oh
dear, mentioned the slippers – those dreaded slippers. As I watched them
leaving the coffee shop, I couldn’t help but think how constantly guilty
parents are. The young woman had seemed ever so slightly embarrassed – or was
it ashamed? – of her choice of shoes for her child, and I almost felt sorry I
had mentioned them at all. I wondered who had been the first to nurture her
guilt about those slippers as bad for her son’s feet. Was it her mother, siblings,
father, extended family members, or in-laws? Perhaps other woman friends, or
maybe she had read something in a parenting book.

I understood her
of course. I had been a mother of a toddler once. And I remember all too well
those guilty, shameful moments when I felt like the choices I made were the
“wrong” ones. It was usually when I was with my mother or mother-in-law, and at
times accompanied by other woman friends, who always seemed to know how to
parent so much better than me. If only I could have run after that loving
family, with the colorfully slippered, quick-footed toddler. I would have said
to them, “Don’t be guilty or ashamed. Cherish the joy you were expressing right
before I opened my mouth to speak. For, you are really great parents. Full of
care and love for this bright little fellow! And, as for your choice of
slippers? Well … just perfect!”