Monday, June 20, 2011

Update on my dad

This is a post I do not want to write. It's like an assignment hanging over my head, given by some cosmic English professor -- "Write about your father and the influence he has had on your life*" (*now that he is seriously ill). I dread writing it, but here goes.

Here's an update on my dad.

He went in for an MRI last week to check his back more thoroughly, because he has been having chronic pain that is getting quite severe in his back. His chiropracter, an amazing man, ordered the test. When the results were in, the chiropractor, Dr. Silva, called dad and set up a home appointment with him. A home appointment! As dad said, he suspected the news would not be good. But what a wonderful doctor to have. Dad says he treats every patient like a family member. This is a great blessing in dark times, and something I will always cherish. (I just wrote him a thank you note, one of the little things I can do in this situation where I feel so completely helpless. We will never forget your kindness, Dr. Silva.)

There is some sort of mass alongside dad's spinal column, and the chiropractor says it is possibly cancer, though more tests will be needed to determine for sure. Dad also needs another MRI to check an area of the spinal column that the first one missed.

We met for dinner for Father's Day yesterday. My dad is aging before my eyes, turning into a frail old man. He has become gaunt, his skin a sickly pale, and he could use a handicapped sticker and cane because it is so hard for him to get around. He moves more slowly every time I see him, the last time being about 2 weeks ago. He hardly ate -- he did finish the tomato soup, but took only a few bites of the grilled cheese sandwich. The way he looks, and moves, and eats is what alarms me more than anything else.

When he and I talked on the phone about his latest medical news, I was quite composed. This is the way he wanted me to be, and I could only honor his expectations. I felt the same, strangely calm, when I talked to my sister. Two reasons come to mind: mindfulness practice, and also, this is a deep pain that will take time to surface.

I am struggling with a new way to handle my emotions and reactions, rather than allowing them to take me for a wild roller-coaster ride as they have done throughout my life. I am finally learning it does not help anyone to be out of control during a crisis. It's also a sign of spiritual immaturity. It sure doesn't make Dad any better or improve his situation in any way. My new attitude about bawling is that it is usually self-indulgent. Sometimes necessary, but I need to discern whether the thing behind the tears is a completely honest emotion or whether it is just the same old excess nerves trying to stir something up, generate some excitement around here.

It's hard to just let emotions be, just let them arise and not manage them or repress them or say, this is an appropriate time to cry, or an inappropriate time, as if emotions would respect that sensibility at all. It's hard not to label them, as I have done above.

My dad is one of the stiff upper lip -- "Everything's fine, I'm just dying but it's all OK." The worst thing, for him, would be for one of us to break down and cry in front of him. That would challenge his way of dealing with feelings: just don't have them, banish them forever. It works for him most of the time, though the things he must do to compensate can be quite extraordinary. How do you feel, emotionally speaking, that everything is just fine when your back is so painful that your body cannot move, and you can't eat?

My mom was a different type. She felt that the best expression of love was to worry deeply, fanatically, and often about her loved ones. This involved a constant output of emotional energy that was doubtless exhausting to her, but also to the objects of her affection, me and my sister.

Now that I becoming am a grown-up myself, at the age of 45, I am trying to find my own way.
My former approach to feelings was to wallow in them, luxuriate in melancholy like a rich, deep bath. Everything has its sad side, even the hum-drum of ordinary life. Let me tell you, I know this. I have lived it. I could always spice things up by finding the hidden sadness in any event. The happier the occasion, the greater its shadow side would loom, because all this happiness was just a big loss waiting to happen. Just a few ticks of the clock and the wonderful moment would be lost to history, would die if you will, and I could grieve because it was over. Or I could grieve because I knew we'd all die one day. It didn't matter how many minutes, or weeks or years or decades away it might be, death was a certainty for us all. (Still is, by the way.) So I could focus on that and taste the bitter in every wonderful, small moment.

I still can see that there is an amazing truth to just how double-edged our lives are. Every moment contains complete joy and complete sorrow, and one could not exist without the other. I feel that sharply right now, when I am with my sons, and my husband. How precious every moment is. Reality is a grand drama all by itself, and I don't need to embellish it with excess emotional fluff. But it's not nearly as sad as I always thought, somehow, when you see the completeness of it.

It may seem like the stuff of our lives is so ordinary and commonplace until a crisis like this happens, but that is an illusion. Life and death are happening all around us, every moment. The more tuned in we are, the more we can become aware of this epic story being played out at every level. The most mundane activities take on a new importance when you can see that life always hangs in the balance, on the edge, of its opposite.

This week brings new doctor's appointments and more information. It all takes so much time, and meanwhile the disease keeps gaining. If you are the sort to pray, please pray for my dad.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Fighting with the kids is more satisfying in person

This is the first summer I have truly been away from my kids for long stretches of time. It's difficult, though they really are (or should be) self-sufficient by now, having attained the grand old ages of 17 and 15. However, since they have been my personal projects for so long, it is tough saying goodbye to that phase of my life. Bittersweet, with a heavy emphasis on the bitter part at times.

It is a strange feeling, not knowing just what they are doing all day long, trying to keep them busy with errands and housework but not so overloaded that they are resentful. Complicating efforts is that Austin is the new greaseboy at Sonic and is working 5 days a week, with nearly all his shifts starting at 5 pm, right around the time we get home. So we hardly see him. He's certainly not up when I leave to go to work at 6:30 am. However, he is home during the day to keep Andrew entertained/in mischief!

This is a good thing. Andrew has hermitlike tendencies and I envision him in bed, in his underwear, with his iPod, all day long if he were left to his own devices. (Or, possibly, curled up with a good book and his trusty dog, Mimi, sleeping at his side.) He would forget to eat, lose all track of time, abandon personal hygiene, and generally be an unproductive (not to mention stinky), wild-haired and wild-eyed drag on society. He might actually completely withdraw from human society, lose his ability to communicate except with grunts and hand signals, and so on, if allowed to continue this way. Oh yeah, I forgot -- that's pretty much how he communicates right now. This is Andrew's shadow self, which we get to see at home from time to time. In public, he is always quite presentable and fussy about his appearance.

OK, so 1) Andrew and I are two peas in a pod in this respect (my secret desire is to be a hermit too), and 2) I greatly exaggerate (or, well, a little bit anyhow). I'm really not trying to embarrass my son! So now you can imagine us both, in bed and in our underwear all day long. I'd be reading books and blogging, two activities that don't require dressing up, or even brushing of the hair or teeth. So long, makeup, panty hose, skirts and blouses and uncomfortable shoes!

I was shocked, stunned, amazed and confused to learn that my sons had not done as I instructed them, had not gone together yesterday and gotten Father's Day cards and water shoes for a tubing trip tomorrow. I had left a detailed note yesterday morning about running these errands. I had called and reviewed the plan of action with Austin, who sounded like he was completely on board with it. (Yes, my 17-year-old fooled me with a display of interest in something he had no intention of actually doing! That only happens every day.) Despite my note and phone call, something happened to derail the plan. Or maybe, more accurately, nothing happened and inertia prevailed. The mission was unaccomplished, aborted in favor of something more exciting or easier -- perhaps the Wii or Xbox, or a nap.

So I called Austin today around noon to talk about how the plan could have gone so badly awry -- noon being the earliest time of day that he is likely to be awake and fully alert. Here's the problem when you hardly ever see your teenager. Chances are, there are some areas of friction in your relationship already, and it isn't a pleasant feeling to be calling with the express purpose of getting after him about something. Austin would say all my calls are of this nature -- to check up on him, remind him to do this or that, "have you taken your calcium pill today?," "How about those chores?," nag nag nag -- in fact, the regular Jewish mother, I guess!

What I learned was not reassuring. Austin had stopped after his shift ended (at approximately midnight last night) and bought Dad's Day cards to Dad and Grandpa for both him and his brother. And this was supposed to be superior to my plan? I took great offense to this. His brother should have picked out his own cards! I just don't understand Austin's priorities right now at all. The conversation ended with him saying abruptly, "I have to get off the phone, Mom. I'm driving." (I imagined the conversation continuing: "So then why are you answering your phone?" "Because then you'd really be mad, if I was ignoring you!")

I should have gotten into an actual fight with Austin -- we had all the right ingredients -- but he has learned that the best approach to an upset parent is to just say, "uh-huh," in varying tones of sullenness, until we get distracted or run out of time, whichever comes first. Then he goes on and does whatever he wants anyhow. Why? He's 17, that's why. One foot is out the door, and his head is up in the clouds somewhere.

So then I got into a texting argument with Andrew, who started complaining about how he and Austin have no money. (This was all taking place during my lunch break.) By this time I was just itching to get into a fight, and apparently, so was he. That's a 15-year-old for you. At the precise moment Andrew was complaining about being poverty-stricken, the kids were at a restaurant getting ready to eat -- one of their favorite ways of spending money. The irony was rich. Then I called Austin once more to tell him they'd better get those water shoes today, by golly, or else. Then I added, "And tell Andrew that if he's so concerned about his money, he shouldn't be eating out!" So there. Humph.

I hung up and burst into tears, because it sucks that the one time you can talk to your kids, over the phone, it's to argue. So I got it out of my system, expressed my inner drama queen for a moment before morphing back into my better-known self -- the utterly composed, cool as a cucumber Julie Smith, CPA. Fortunately, my office is quite private and no one was around to wonder about my little tantrum except my plant, Maxwell, who wasn't offended at all.

As far as the rest of the summer ... Austin is busy with his new job, and Andrew will be busy in a few weeks with the usual culprits -- VBS helper, mission tripper, zoo naturalist (just two weeks scheduled for now), and as my travelling companion to go visit my sister in Virginia the end of July. So right now, they can sleep late and laze around the house -- but just a bit! Otherwise, my Puritan work ethic gets offended.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

We are all dancers

Yet another perspective on life ... We are all beautiful dancers. We dance together, we dance apart, and we each have our own instinctive sense of rhythm. Our dancing influences and changes the entire world all around us. We co-create with everything else. This dancing, the patterns and rhythms, is art, and it reflects the beauty of all creation.

There are many facets of reality. As much as we are hamsters spinning in our wheels, so we are graceful and talented dancers as well. The gift is being able to discern reality at these different levels and not becoming stuck in one point of view.

I have started exploring podcasts on philosophy. Those on religion and spirituality seem too confined and perhaps dogmatic, trying to prove a particular point of view rather than discover what is going on here.

One new podcast I tried is called "Philosopher's Cafe." I just downloaded one episode, with guest speaker David Kirk. He introduced himself by describing what he is NOT -- a teacher, or a philosopher, or a particularly wise or enlightened individual, with any recognizable qualifications to speak of. He then played the trump card: as a member of the human race, he is eminently qualified to speak on our human condition. He had me hooked!

Yes, philosophy is the great equalizer. It acknowledges that our view of reality is completely subjective, despite our belief that our senses provide us rock-solid evidence of the world around us. Kirk (or should I call him "Captain Kirk," boldly going where no man -- err, no one -- has dared to go?) was starting to explain how quantum physics indicates that we are all part of the same global "organism" or energy bundle, not separate at all, and we are connected so intimately that there can be no actions that do not affect the entire organism ... which is at least global, and possibly cosmic. He also launched into the curious question of why we all seem to share an equal and opposite propensity for creation and destruction. And why we aren't all aware of how interconnected we are. We are supposed to be these great sentient beings who have achieved a high level of consciousness, and yet we continue to rape and pillage our earth and each other.

My response? I-love-it! Not, certainly, the rape and pillage part; but this man has filmed documentaries of horrifying manmade disasters, and he had earned the right to talk about it. To talk about how he could just walk away from these enormous tragedies, because he was on a deadline, and that was what his producer and other business cohorts expected, and he had to do it to save himself, finally, from being dragged down with all the other victims. (Again I embellish somewhat the words he actually spoke.)

 I was getting into a bit of a rut with my other podcasts. Even "This American Life" was wearing on me (how could that be, I know).

Then there was another short but enjoyable podcast, Philosophy and Pop Culture, where the two speakers were talking about the conflict between freedom (as in free will) and God's being a predictive, all-knowing sort of deity. For instance, let's say that you decide to have a hamburger for lunch tomorrow. God already knows you are going to eat a hamburger for lunch, as well as every other detail of every present, past, and future life of everybody. Unfortunately, his knowing that you will eat a hamburger seemingly precludes you from making any other choice tomorrow -- even if you see the grilled chicken salad on special and realize it's much healthier, not to mention a great price, less greasy, more nutritious, etc.

So to digress from the actual discussion on the podcast for a moment: the problem with free choice/predestination seems to be with our sense of time. The only things that can be known with certainty, in our world and from our perspective, are the things that have already passed, whereas the future is completely subject to change. The pivot point is always the present moment, where we supposedly have free choice. But one minute into the future, we can no longer change what we did one minute ago, and so forth. I doubt the evidence of our senses, though, that time dictates this change in such an ironclad way. It seems to be a localized constraint, born of our existence on this physical planet and our limited ability to perceive ultimate reality while in these carbon-based lifeforms.

So, notice this podcast made reference to Pop Culture? Well, midway into the podcast, the speakers suddenly launched into an enthusiastic review of "The Matrix" like truly rabid fans. It seemed that they had been biding their time, pretending to talk about philosophy until they could get to the really good stuff -- like who on earth thought that Keanu Reeves was a good choice for the main character of Neo? (Was that really his name? So it said when I Googled it.) The discussion went on in this vein for some minutes (Kevin Spacey and Will Smith were rumored to have been in the running for the characters played by Lawrence Fishburne and Reeves, respectively; the narrators tossed about the idea of Spacey and concluded he would have been good, but not as physically imposing as Fishburne. Smith was hands-down seen as a much more exciting choice than Reeves).
I hadn't been paying close enough attention, it seemed, and I had completely missed the segue from philosophy into Matrix matters. I backtracked, and it went something like this -- where in pop culture is this philosophical issue mentioned? Apparently, for all you philosophy fans out there who don't want to work so hard as to actually read the likes of Aristotle or Nietsche, "The Matrix" movies have all the deep philosophical issues, and tangles, and paradoxes, embedded in the movies as various plots and subplots. I recall that it was difficult to jump into a "Matrix" movie without fully comprehending the premise of the entire thing. Otherwise, you just saw a bunch of whirling black-clad people doing improbably rapid-fire kung fu moves. I also recall reading my fellow blogger, Sardine Mama, mentioning that the plotline of "The Matrix" was perhaps impervious to the average person (especially middle-aged type women like myself, notice I didn't include her in this group) and could better be understood by the mind of a juvenile male. Or any male, actually, with access to their inner juvenile male. So perhaps I'm outta luck on that one. Back to the books!
So, I like this podcast too. Fun and philosophy, all together -- who could beat it? Although it's on the short side. I like a good, meaty 30-minute or more podcast that will at least fill up a one-way commute to or from work. Lately, I've been communing with God on the morning drive, so that leaves the return home for my podcasting enjoyment.

Enjoy your dance, my fellow member of the human race!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hamsters spinning on a wheel

This is a counterpoint to the last post, the one that was on The Supreme Importance of Being Me.

I look around sometimes and see each of us, trapped inside our own cages and our little stories of ourselves, each spinning on a wheel like hamsters and totally oblivious to just how small we are. To us, the problems in the cage are huge and alarming. The problems that we sense all around us, inside our cages, are mountains from our hamster-like point of view. Nevertheless, we seek to own them, make them uniquely ours to worry about and try to fix. No one else has had quite this problem, or of this magnitude, we say, and try to glare it down with the force of our personality. Fixing any problems this way is impossible.

It's much easier to see when someone else has become pinned by their story, obsessed with the details of their life that seem impossible to overcome. They have magnified a problem by focusing on it completely, this mote of dust, and are paralyzed by it. It could be anything, family problems to kid problems to things we think of as major -- the end of life, illness, addiction, cancer. It's all dust in the wind, the song says (and so says the Bible). For all the control I have over problems, big or small -- it's as though I am dust in the face of these problems. I can't change them. The most and biggest thing I can try to do is change my own insight.

We seek to have control of this overwhelming thing called life, and to feel the momentum of forward progress, so we climb into the spinning wheel and away we go! And go, and go. It seems like it could be freedom, but our ego-oriented points of view are intact and nothing in our world view has been truly challenged.

This is how life is, inside a human body ... surprisingly similar to the experience of any other life form here in our world. We are constrained by the environment and our physical captivity inside this sentient being. But people want something bigger and better, so we delude ourselves. We make our lives the supremely important thing. People do this in different ways, but we all do it. We are all ego-based and need affirmation to thrive.

The Enneagram, I have been learning, shows some particular ways that people are driven; the character of their particular hamster wheel, if you will, and what motivates them to spin it. I am learning what makes me spin mine.

So how do we detect that we are nothing more than hamsters, spinning on a wheel, going nowhere? It's difficult when we are so accomplished at fooling ourselves, and helping others keep the deception intact, both of their lives and in ours.

I think this is where contemplation/meditation comes in. It is quite difficult for a person to break out of the egocentric point of view. It takes time ... silence ... reflection ... and emptiness.

Something in me runs away from these things, still. I'd rather be busy! Stillness ... something in me is terrified of it. What might I discover? That I am really nothing, nobody, unimportant, an empty shell? Maybe.

I'd rather do something, anything, else. Even if it's just spinning on the wheel. You and I can commiserate, or each of us share the amazing insights our personal wheel has provided us. That's what I have been doing here, after all. Are there any glimmers of true revelation? It must be up to the reader to decide that. The author cannot know with certainty. At least, that's how I see it from here.

How does the story go? (This was going to be an epithet on a tomb, but once I finished writing I realized the sucker would have to stand about 20 feet tall to fit all this verbiage, so never mind!) How about something printed on a funeral bulletin instead?

 I started my life off trying to change the world. This world is full of misery and sorrow, a vale of tears, and I could improve it. I set out to do just that.

Then life wore at me over a span of years. I looked around; things were as miserable as they ever had been. Nothing had changed. I came to realize, to my sorrow, that my goal was too lofty. So I turned my efforts to something more modest: Changing my country. Equally too hard. My community? My family? My husband? My child?

All proved immovable objects, impervious to my control. So I took up the task of changing myself.

And here's where it got me! Something changed, all right. Just not in the way I had planned.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Great expectations

From the time I was little, I knew that I was destined for greatness. I would be an important person and do something special. God had a mission for me, something that was particular to who I am.

I still think that, even though those words don't mean the same things anymore that they did to a child. Amazingly, there are -- apparently -- many other people like me who feel this way. Well, no doubt! With names like Einstein, Shakespeare, Dickinson, ... (kidding)

Many people feel this special sense of destiny, is the revelation of the Enneagram. Yes, it is suspiciously like a horoscope ... or zodiac ... which, the Chinese version printed on those paper placemats in American Chinese restaurants, has always sounded a lot like me (the sign being the snake). "Wise and intense, with a tendency toward physical beauty. Vain and high-tempered. Your best signs are the cock and ox. Avoid the rat." (Not sure that is an exact quote, but close) (Sorry if I already quoted that here; so annoying if I am repeating myself)

So, my type on the Enneagram, one of nine, is the one with "the need to feel special" or unique. It's not a need so much as a statement of fact. I am special!! Unique!! But so is everybody.

The person I envy the most, I suppose, is John Milton. I was rereading his poem, "On His Blindness" again (no, I don't envy the blindness) and thought, how wonderful that he had a mission statement in life; he knew what it was; and he accomplished it so magnificently with "Paradise Lost." While here I am ... "They also serve who only stand and wait." Yep, that's me. Standing, waiting.

One of the tough things I am working on these days, spiritually speaking, is ramping down my expectations of life. I am only one person! I cannot save the world, even when I feel I should. I can't even save my Dad, I'm learning. What my Enneagram adviser, Bonnie, told me though, is the critical point ... I can change the way I show up. My presence in life is the way I can fulfill this sense of destiny. Everyone has a potentially huge trajectory in life that they leave, even just from their offspring, if you study genealogy at all. We are all enormous ships leaving a huge wake in our path.

I have observed that one of the most difficult ways to show up is as a mature adult, all the time, in every situation. It gets tough for me when I am tired, or hungry, or both. Those are great weaknesses for me. Or, how about when people are pushing emotional buttons?

I heard on a recent "This American Life" a story of a girl who was attending college and was continuing to live with her parents, and how difficult the relationship can be with a grown child living at home. In her case, her mom would pick these fights with her constantly. I listened to this broadcast on national radio as she described what her mom would do, which is essentially throw little tantrums about her daughter's imagined failures, while her daughter would try to be reasonable. Unfortunately, this kind of relationship is quite common between parents and children. In those cases, the children wind up having to deal with their parents' neuroses, and failure to grow and mature. Here is an area that is ripe for spiritual work for every parent. Do we always act like the adult in our relationships with our children? I know I don't.

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