Sunday, March 27, 2011

It's just my body; it's not me!

My body is feeling fatigued these days. Fatigue of the mental sort, which I haven't experienced in recent years, as well as physical. Luckily, I am not my body! I am reminding myself more of this fact as I experience these little difficulties and physical limitations. My shoulder blade area, I use the possessive loosely, has been aching recently, with the pain radiating into my arm, and my fingers on that side are tingling with possible nerve issues, but this seems to be the biggest casualty of the extra hours I have been putting in recently. (I haven't been completely ignoring this problem. The chiropractor worked on me once and helped, but it's lapsing back.) So long as I don't get sick, I really will be fine! THREE MORE WEEKS!!

When you really contemplate that this body, this shell you have been assigned for this earthly existence, is not "you," it is such a freeing thought. It is why people feel the same inside as they age. I have spoken to people in their 80s who expressed the sentiment that they were still the same person, inside, as they had been as children! Of course, older and wiser, but essentially just the same inside. That is why it comes as a surprise -- a nasty shock, at times -- that the body continues to age. I am not becoming a different person, so why is my body?

It will be so nice if I can remember that I am not my body as I age, if I experience real physical limitations of the sort most people bump into as they get old. This is "heaven ringing the doorbell of your life," if I can paraphrase the Zen podcast I was enjoying today. Funny thing how life can strongly urge you to stop clinging. When your kids become teenagers, they become temporarily so obnoxious (so the myth goes) that you can't wait for them to be gone. Similarly, if you are fortunate to live a long life, your body wears down to the point that you should be glad of the chance to finally leave it in the dust! Literally!

Speaking of "obnoxious" teenagers, Andrew and I have a running joke. He's my 14-year-old who just recently sprouted way up and is now taller than I am. We share the joke that he is my bull elephant. It's because he often is running into me, punching me in the arm, stepping on me, or otherwise assaulting me in his affectionate way, sometimes leaving bruises. I remind him that if he were in an elephant pack, the women would have kicked him out to go rampage through the brush on his own and get his hormone-packed energy out, no longer in the company of the female elephants who raised him, because he is too rough for them! This actually happens when the male elephant turns about 14, so it matches up perfectly. I feel like I've mentioned the "bull elephant" story here before, but it bears repeating.

The dinner bell chimes, and bed won't be far behind (if I'm lucky). Good night, and good luck.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A shout out for "Golfing with God"

I got through three books on my little vacation, short though they were! The one I enjoyed most was "Golfing with God" by Roland Merullo. It's just what it sounds like. There is a lot of golf in it, and the sport is written of with such enormous love that I found it quite enjoyable, though I know little about golf. (With Tiger gone, I rarely watch anymore. Yes, I was one of those fickle fans.)

It turns out that golfing is a metaphor for many other things. The book is written with a light touch and plenty of humor, and I agreed with nearly everything written about heaven, which made me enjoy it all the more, of course. (Lots of the book takes place in heaven, where there are many golf courses, but many but many other things for all of the rest of humanity as well.)

So, to summarize a few of the major premises of the book: We continue to work in the afterlife (we are made for work, and that is where we find our highest fulfillment). We continue to mature (grow) spiritually. As we grow spiritually, we become more disciplined and able to take on more tasks and to recognize that is what we are made for. The book speaks of each person having a mission, his/her own deepest spiritual purpose, which is the essence of being and does not change.

If we have unlearned lessons, they stay with us in the afterlife, and we keep having opportunities to learn them. God has many names and is quite large enough to accommodate them all. Time is an earth-bound phenomenon.

We can still eat, drink, and be merry in heaven, and love others in every sense of the word. And there is a bodacious amount of humor in heaven, though the author seemed to have it in for practical jokers, saying they didn't make it into heaven! Hell or eternal punishment is of human creation, and if it occurs, it is during our lifetime, and it is always self-imposed. The devil did make an interesting appearance in the book, playing a high-stakes round of golf with our hero, the narrator.

We have others with whom we are linked spiritually and may share many eons of existence together. In the book, there are spiritual siblings, and spiritual parent-child relationships. If someone is a parent to someone else on earth, they aren't necessarily in that relationship in the spiritual realm.

There was quite a bit of the Buddhist perspective in the book, which delighted me. The narrator got to golf with Buddha, as well as God and Jesus, Moses, and Mary (the mother of Jesus). There were other great prophets around as well. The book talked about our many lives, and how millions of lives could be lived as an insect, an animal, and then eventually thousands more as a human being.

I just adored this book, and it was fun to read as well. There was a lot to ponder, and plenty of gems of wisdom about human nature.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Status report

What I'm reading: Stephen King's first Dark Tower book, the revised version. I enjoyed reading the introduction and foreward possibly more than even the book so far. He's such a self-observant writer and generous with his insights about the world of writing.

Where we are: at an undisclosed location. Possibly home, possibly at South Padre Island.

Things I've learned when I was vacationing at South Padre Island: Austin, my 16-year-old, explained the significance of a woman wearing beads. My coworker (also a woman) kept telling me, "Now Julie, don't come back wearing a bunch of beads! My opinion of you will change!" I confess I really didn't get this till Austin explained it all yesterday. I'd like to buy some beads for all my coworkers and boss. Let's see, there are seven of them, four of whom are also CPAs.

So, am I the only grown woman (or person over 12, for that matter) who didn't know, guys give girls beads in exchange for being flashed?

I also learned I don't like Snoop Dogg's language. The concert, across from our RV Park at Schlitterbahn, was billed for "over 18" but we could hear him clearly, as the sound probably traveled at least a mile from his set. But, hey, this means I was at a Snoop Dogg concert*! (*as an unwilling bystander) Can't wait to tell Kyle, my coworker who warned me about beads.

I also discovered I am quite unusually scatter-brained. I ran off without packing any extra bras, and not enough shirts, which is just not like me at all. I think I've been trying to cram in so much new tax knowledge, and some of the more basic stuff has leaked out of my head.

I learned I sometimes have a woeful lack of common sense. Not really! That is, I already knew I somehow have survived for 40-some years while mainly lacking this ingredient in my life, this "common sense" as you people blessed with it like to call it. On a recent evening, one of the wildest on the island, the boys wanted to ride their bikes out to the beach. It was after 10 pm. Dwaine and I both allowed them to. Why? I couldn't say. About 10 minutes later, I panicked and said, oh what have I done? (not for the first time) and then Lord, please give me my boys back and let me have another chance! We both contacted them --meaning my hubby and I, not the Lord and I, though he may have been in touch on another channel -- and told them to come back. Which, mercifully, they did quickly and safely.

So, I officially have the best boss in the world because I hinted I wouldn't mind having one day off over Spring Break, and a few weeks ago, he told me to make it two. That's one of many reasons he is Best Boss. Sure beats Dwaine's last few! He's had a string of bad luck in the work world lately.

I could stay on the beach forever, it seems. The water is mesmerizing. On a recent night, I was watching the surface reflected by the moon from the causeway while we waited in a really bad-a** line to get back on the island (we had gone off it to eat at Pirate's Landing in Port Isabel and then Andrew fished, unsuccessfully, from the pier there while I read "The Old Man and the Sea" -- a must-read while at the beach, BTW, which can be done in about an hour). I thought the line would have died down by 9:30 pm, but it was as bad as ever. The entire causeway was stacked with cars and RVs and trucks, end to end, for many hours. Dwaine swore the island couldn't possibly hold them all, and he said law enforcement should start turning them away! But somehow, they all made it on the island (though there was no place to park), and this morning, there is no line. There's never a line for anything in the morning.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, the water. The surface is never still, and the ripples are endlessly complex, all that visible energy symptomatic of what is happening at the cellular level, and way beneath that, all the way to the atomic level. The ocean describes the enormous energy that is in and all around us, so much of it deceptively locked in place to our unseeing eyes. The motion, and the sound, that rhythm of the waves, when did it ever start? And when will it stop? Even on the stillest day, the bay still swirls and the waves still break. Stillest, yet never still. What would it take to stop the water from moving? Water is the most destructive element, also so beautiful to watch, and essential for life on earth. We are so much water; most of all space, then water. And we are all in constant motion. What is a body at rest? Is there such a thing, anywhere at all?

There I go again.

Reading "The Old Man and the Sea" was not a carefully hatched plan. It's the book Andrew is reading for pre-AP English right now, and it happened to be the only book in the vehicle at the time, so I read it. Again I marvelled at Hemingway's clean, spare use of language. Every sentence in that book is beautifully expressive without using excessive words, as I am doing here. It's quite a difficult feat, and he was the master. But his genius haunted him. Is it the genius, I wonder, that is the undoing of so many of the best artists, or is it being able to see the darkness so clearly? That's a thought to end on.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A dream about oceans and families

By the way, dear reader, I posted here yesterday too. Don't overlook that one if you're interested!

I want to document a dream I had last night, before the tide pulls it back into my subconscious mind.

I was with my dad, mom, and sister, visiting them as an adult -- or so it seemed. We were at a beach somewhere, likely someplace exotic. I was spending time with them while the thought of my other family, the one I have now, was on my mind. I was thinking I needed to get back to my other family. There was some confusion in the dream -- where were my sons? My husband was there, later on, but without them. At that time, I was concerned that he had left them behind in some unfamiliar place in this exotic locale.

My dad, mom, and sister all decided to go swimming in the ocean, while I went to have lunch (possibly with Dwaine), and then we would all rendezvous and say our farewells before we parted and they went their separate way. So they went out into the ocean together, and I could see them in the shallow water, drifting near one another.

Later on, presumably after lunch, I was searching for them from above, from some coastline perhaps. There were a lot of people in the water. I was looking in a shallow pool-like area that was more enclosed, buffered from the ocean by a large sand brake (?)  in the water. It was hard to see anyone from the distance, but I thought they sure had been gone a long time. It was unlike them to swim for such a long time. I couldn't spot them; they were gone, somewhere in the deeper ocean, beyond my reach.

I can't tell you how sad this is, reflecting on it now. I never got to say goodbye to that family. It wasn't a neat, happy ending, the way we all thought it would be. Truthfully, we never thought of an ending at all.

Today in church I started bawling (silently) when the pastor, at the start of his sermon, decided to read "Where the Wild Things Are" -- all of it -- to the congregation, complete with pictures projected on the wall. For one thing, I adore this book. It's on my "bests" list. Then also, my mom must have read me this book, is what occurred to me. I think I was very young when she did.

I'm just glad I had the two oblivious family members with me. If Austin had been there, he would have been checking my reactions -- he knows I cry at anything, especially in church -- and he would have teased me to no end about breaking down over a children's book. How lame is that, to sob at the phrase "And they Roared their terrible roars, and Gnashed their terrible teeth, and Rolled their terrible eyes, and Showed their terrible claws ..." But ... it's just so beautiful! Literary, even. (Note: Austin goes to the Saturday service these days, where he plays guitar and hangs out with his girlfriend.)

Speaking of "Wild Things," whether teenagers or children's books -- the book is amazingly symbolic. That's why our pastor chose it. He called it scriptural, even. I want you to read it again and think of it as life's journey, in a sense. Have you faced your wild things and then returned home, to the place where someone loves you best of all?

My mom has been dead for 12 years now. To have her pop up in a dream, with no interruption or hiccup, with it seeming perfectly natural, is uncommon these days. But she was the most important person in my life for many years; arguably, she still is. She and I were together on the planet for 33 years, whereas I've been with this second family (complete with kids) under 20.

So I sense this great symbolism in the dream, in the fact that the ocean is where I leave my first family. They return to the deeper sea, not in a frightening way, but a way that naturally follows from the storyline. I often dream of the ocean, of its amazing power, and how it can be frightening and overwhelming, but when you get past that, it's so much like the raw energy of life. It's always taking you somewhere that is beyond your control, but it's a great adventure. I remember swimming with the sharks in one dream; realizing I should be afraid, but somehow I had gotten past the fear and was just swimming.

We have an upcoming trip to the coast, and I know I will reflect on my dream there while watching the waves, and the surf. And then there are those piercing images of the tsunami in Japan that I saw yesterday online. That tragedy is too big for words.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

On exercising well

The title, incidentally, is a play on the book "On Writing Well" by ... someone who knew what he was talking about. I think I have that book in my closet somewhere, and look what it's done for me! (Oops, dangling preposition in the first sentence.) 

I haven't written about exercising lately, and it's time for an inspirational post, one that I've been ruminating on as I jog or do the elliptical, lately. I am so very pleased with myself because I have finally, after several years, gotten to the point where I can jog 3 miles and not feel that I've stressed my body! I can finish the workout and seamlessly resume my life as usual, even with significant housework or yardwork, which is fantastic. Yippee! I take a bow.

There are several ways to look at this achievement. From the standpoint of a serious athlete or a Zen master, it's not much! In fact, it's nothing. I see that and I appreciate this insignificance in all its beauty and wisdom. Sorta like taking the measure of each human being -- a mere grain of sand. Equally tossed by wind and waves, finite, constantly changing.

So from one standpoint, I've taken a few steps up a long, challenging staircase. I may not take many more steps above this, but I'm quite pleased to see progress made. I see, too, the marathoners, the triathletes, the Ironmen and women, and I know I have no desire to join their ranks. That would require a level of sacrifice that I do not wish to undertake.

Then there's the perspective of this achievement compared to all those couch potatoes out there, my fellow Americans. I'm probably in better physical shape than 85-90% of this population in my age group. Ha! I'll take it. Are you ready to throw an apple at me yet?

I'm spending a little time crowing about this because I've earned it. I've gotten through quite a few huffing-puffing, sweaty workouts. Some were harder than others. Some were quite difficult. None were actually intensely painful, though. I don't do pain! If I'm feeling a pulled muscle or my knee is really sore, I stop.

These workouts have become an integral part of who I am, and I don't think I could do without them. In fact, I might be a totally different person if I had not fallen in love with exercise a number of years back. I might even be depressed, I mean in a clinical sense. Sorta like how I suspect my mom was, during most of the time I knew her.

Exercise is as high a priority for me as writing. If you said I had to give up one or the other of these -- well, don't ever make me do that. It would be like saying, you have to stop either breathing or eating. Your choice. Or, sacrifice one of your children. Just one.

Last Saturday, I ran the local 5K, the Power of Pink put on by the Women's Service Organization to benefit the Alamo Breast Cancer Foundation. It was perfect running weather, the temperature starting in the mid-50s and climbing perhaps to 60 by the end of the run. So I felt fabulous, even with limited training leading up to this event. I was happy just to be able to run the whole way. I use the term "running" loosely, being about an 11-minute miler and maybe pushing 10 at my best showings. And then, I just walked away. (After stretching and a snack, of course.) No lingering aftereffects, which have been known to happen when I'm all excited and push a little too hard at a 5K.

I have been even more motivated to keep working out regularly these days. First, because I have a full-time desk job now and I sit. All day long. It's been very challenging for me. Second, this is tax season and my hours are longer. Then there are all the other stressors life throws out, like Austin's possible gallstone attack and the fact that my husband is really miserable at his job these days. I really need the release of a good workout, at least several times a week.

I want to tell everyone that it doesn't matter where you are now, you can achieve a fitness level that will make you happier and healthier. (I feel a strong urge to say, I guarantee it!) But this is not a commercial or even an informercial. Shake that image out of your mind.

I know you can achieve fitness, because I did, and I'm no athlete. I was the uncoordinated one throughout school, the last to be picked to be on a team.

Here's what really sticks -- make lifestyle changes. Those would be small, incremental changes in your life. And -- very important -- stick with them. Don't try to go from couch to Arnie (as in Schwarzenegger) in 6 weeks, or 6 months! That approach is guaranteed to cause a lot of frustration.

Here's what I recall doing. First, I learned to take longer walks and really enjoy them. I tried out a number of different activities, and still do. I was in karate for several years with my boys and had a blast with it. I went swimming when they had swim lessons at the Palo Alto natatorium. Biking, neah, not so much. Then I started jogging. The simplicity just hooked me. No special equipment or clothing, no memberships required. You can pretty much do it any time, though in South Texas the challenge is the heat.

I was weightlifting on my own, then after a few years, tried out the personal trainer offered free of charge at my job at the time, the Wilson County News. She showed me the correct forms and a lot of different routines, which led to a huge improvement in the results.

These days, I have joined Anytime Fitness and I do my own program there, a combination of strength and cardio. It's probably not up to snuff with what a trainer would do -- they push you. But I'm pretty self-competitive and like to work hard. I'm going to start some yoga in a week or two, with the class time being right for the longer tax-season hours and with me needing to de-stress. My hubbie got me a Groupon coupon for the yoga.

When you start a fitness program, don't go into it assuming you have to make yourself miserable to get results. You can do intervals, bursts of moderate to intense activity with frequent breaks in between to recover. Start really slow. Just think, it took me about three years to feel natural about jogging. I think a big beginner's mistake is going all out and being exhausted, or injured, as a result. Or, you think to yourself, OK, that was a lousy time and I felt awful. Why on earth would I try that again? "Listen to your body," as my trainer would say.

Small things can make a big difference over time. Health writers mention taking the stairs at work (which I do, being on the 7th floor) and parking further away and walking. If you can fit in just 5 minutes at a time of exercise, do it! That's what I do at work. I try to take the stairs about three times a day.

A misconception that people seem to have is that exercise magically becomes easy for people who are fit. I'm here to tell you, it's never easy, especially if you are pushing yourself. Maybe you see that as a discouragement. Oh, well then, why bother if it's always going to be work? I actually find it inspiring, though, that every athlete can get sweaty and out of breath!

One example is one of the women pro tennis players, who would start grunting more and more loudly as she got deeper into a match, every time she returned the ball. When I'm starting to breathe harder and possibly even grunt and groan myself while jogging, I think of her. 

My kids were trying out some P90X workouts, which are like regular workouts on steroids, and the leader of those workouts (what's-his-name, which you probably wouldn't recognize even if I knew it to tell you) is always huffing and puffing as he talks. He's ripped as all getout. (Good-looking, too; just thought I'd throw that in.) **Added here: Tony Horton is his name, and he was mentioned on the front page of the WSJ March 16. Some of the young new Tea-party types in Congress do his routine, apparently, wanting to make not just the nation but themselves leaner.

So his being breathless -- not just breathlessly handsome, but a tad winded -- either means he's focusing too much on strength and not enough on cardio, which is a possibility; or it means we all get out of breath if we are doing a really tough workout! Yeah! You should hear me puffing away as I take those stairs. I have to give myself a little break in the stairwell if I'm climbing up from the basement, which is where the microwave and eatery are. Otherwise, I'd be a tad embarrassed returning to the office.

Try adding this wonderful ingredient of exercise to your life, and cheers to you if you already do. I'll be rooting for you!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Wisdom Jesus

OK, here is a plug for the simply wonderful author who I'm listening to:
Cynthia Bourgeault
My friend Karen gave me a series of 8 or 10 CDs with this author's talks on "The Wisdom Jesus" and I am absolutely transported by her take on the scriptures. I listen to them driving to and from work, and then I listen again, just soaking it in. Amazed, rapturous.

Everything in scripture has so many layers of meaning. This is the richness of a deep spiritual text. It has something for everyone! For the beginner, it has moral guidance and amazing stories of people, complete with their human quirks and imperfections. Take it at face value, or go deeper. For the intermediate audience, there are opportunities to discuss many different interpretations. And for the most mystical reader, there is great symbolism, mythical archetypes, and metaphysical reality which leaps from the page. All in the same scriptures. You can read them as a child, young adult, and older (hopefully wiser) person, and never come away with the same result. It's always a fresh revelation.

It's like the Buddhist practice of concentrating deeply on an object, or an abstract thought, focusing on it to penetrate into its meaning more deeply. It takes work to excavate all the meaning, but it is so rewarding.

Just a few examples of familiar images that The Wisdom Jesus gives as a revelation: the burning bush as a metaphor for living the enlightened life. We are burning from within, but not consumed, on fire with the presence of the divine. The wisdom and knowledge flows through with an energy and light that draws other spiritual seekers (like Moses). We are in-dwellers with God and with other people. The artificial sense of separation has vanished!

She talks over and over again about getting out of our earth-bound habit of duality -- right/wrong, either/or, good/evil -- and becoming unitary (enlightened) in our existence. Instead of judging everything and throwing it into a binary system, transforming our vision.

Jesus's life was an arcanum (not sure how to spell that). Mrs. Bourgeault, whose last name is pronounced "Bour-jhoe," uses lots of big fancy words befitting a true wisdom-seeker, words I don't even know how to spell! Her definition is that his life was itself a path to wisdom, that by following his example, we are led to enlightenment. She infuses her discussion with ideas from all the great religions and talks about the five major religious traditions as a rainbow, each ray with its own specific emphasis and way of illuminating the spiritual path.

Jesus "descended into hell" upon his crucifixion. This is a paradox. If God is perfectly good, how could his son step foot in hell? Yet a strong thread of tradition says he did, and transformed it with his loving presence. Just being present for all the human frailties, evil, shadow side. And looking at it from this perspective, it's no longer just "evil" but a condition of life here on earth. This leaves open the question of what exactly hell is. A state of being in utter isolation from God and the love of others? This is what I believe. Jesus got there when he cried out, "Oh God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Here is what happens sometimes with a great book. It's like the reader's inner spirit and the writer's words fuse and make a new creation. She tells me things that, it seems, I already know deep in my being. I shout, "Yes! Yes!" as she describes some pretty far-out interpretations of the scriptures.

How about: why the disciples did not always recognize the resurrected Jesus. Was it that he looked so different? She gives a radically spiritual interpretation. The disciples on the road to Emmaus were trapped in their old beliefs, enmeshed in their little preconceived ideas and the drama of their own lives and their viewpoint of the historical Jesus. They weren't looking at Jesus with the eyes of faith, of the spirit. It didn't dawn on them who he was until he broke bread at the inn with them, then vanished. Then they said, "Weren't our hearts burning within us as he spoke?" Their hearts had told them what the rest of their body could not accept as true, because it would require a huge change of perspective.

I've wondered this before. When we escape from these fleshly prisons, er, human bodies, and leave this vale of tears, as Henri Nouwen described our earthly existence, how will we recognize one another? I used to think of all the older people I knew at a church in San Antonio, and how each had their own special personality, mannerisms, way of greeting you, habits, etc. If you paid attention and caught on to their spirit, you would recognize them anywhere. No visual or auditory cues needed. And of course, I expected each one of them to kick way sooner than I ever would, so that they'd all be waiting to greet me when, many many years later, I finally would die!

I'm sure you can think of people's spiritual fingerprints in your own life. If you have a close relative who has died, how would you be able to say, for example, "That's grandpa, all right!" If their spirits shone out, your open spirit would know them and respond.

So I guess this means I am a mystic at heart.

Sometimes, traditional Christianity seems so constricting, that I feel the urge to run away to a religion that does not have so many dogmas, and leave behind all the judgment and intolerance that seem to be its hallmarks. So this series of talks is such a reviving breath of fresh air for me. This is the Jesus I know and love, and seek to follow.

I just hope there is room at church for people like me, who will not be confined in narrow pews with rigid beliefs.

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