Monday, December 26, 2011

All that nonsense, done for another year

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night, and thank God that's done with!

I sit here dressed in one of my Christmas presents. It's called a "Forever Lazy." My hubby knows me too well -- he bought it. Another way to describe it is that I look like a cross between a giant Smurf and Teletubbie. (Sorry, no pictures are forthcoming!) I'm dressed in a sort of blue fleecy onesie for adults, complete with a zippered behind and hoodie. Needless to say, this outfit was made with someone like me in mind. I may actually keep it on hand to wear, year-round, after showers.

We have decided to go skiing in a few weeks (as in snow skiing -- *first time ever*), and I really wanted to wear this outfit under my ski pants and jacket, but Dwaine forbade me to. Wouldn't it be delightfully ironic to be secretly wearing a "Forever Lazy" while learning to ski?

So anyhow, I was sitting in this outlandish gear, doing my evening meditation practice (10 minutes is what I can manage, most days) and feeling grateful for how our holidays were this year. My Dad is still alive, not in the hospital, and the strongest he has been since June, when all this really got bad. (Though he does have a deep-sounding cough that he insists is getting better.) In fact, the doctor was urging him to get more physical activity, and we were talking about him getting out to walk the track at the gym just before he came down with this mountain cedar/cold. Getting out is something he doesn't do enough. I think he has a lack of energy, but also a lack of interest.

Other people we know through church have been hospitalized over the holidays, or have a loved one hospitalized or in frail health. Then, of course, there are those people in so many places around the world where there is never a sense of security, either for food or health or personal safety. Do we know how very blessed we are?

The 10 minutes of stillness has revealed quite a bit of wisdom to me. You wouldn't think it would be enough to make much difference. I had been feeling angry at Dad about things I won't go into -- now, that's a typical feeling that I have had toward him, off and on, my whole life. Somehow, I was able to get past that and also see my deep-seated need for him, and the bond we share. I realized what a terrible loss I would suffer if he died (a problem not too fantastical to contemplate, these days).

I have been able to sit with this most recent experience of cancer, the third major episode in my life where it has ravaged a loved one, with Mom being first, and my mother-in-law second, where I have seen what cancer can do to a person up-close.

Many of my thoughts over this holiday have been of Dad, and just wanting to tend to him and really demonstrate my love for him in simple ways.

I am making progress reading "The Seven-Storey Mountain" by Thomas Merton. It's sort of like scaling a mountain, reading this book. Not an easy read, but I know this is a book that I must read. I can't get by without it, anymore. He has an uncanny way of taking the spiritual pulse of whole countries, and time periods. He certainly got around in his younger days. Much of the description is of taking various freighters back and forth across the Atlantic from America, to England, to France, along with detailed descriptions of various places in each of these locales.

A note on the 10-minute daily practice: Practice is a way Buddhists describe their approach to life, including meditation. I like this description, because it implies you never graduate to something better, or best. You never have to rate yourself, and worry over whether you might get a B-, or even an F. Meditation, while simple, is not easy, and it defies easy characterization. I suspect it is a highly individual experience, just like faith in God. So you just keep practicing, forever. Like life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Zen moment

There's something very Zen about skimming our little pond of fallen leaves.

Skimming off the leaves is like breathing ... a task that has no beginning, no end, no concept of success or failure. It is a task that is smooth and flows gently over the surface of life.

I leave the pond, and more leaves blow in. This is not a good or bad thing, it just is.

Without the leaves, I could not skim the pond. Without this work that I can do in my leisure time, my joy would diminish. I bow to the leaves that continue to fall! May my joy be in finding them, and in all that action implies -- no urgent crisis, a pause from other work, and the desire to be outside.

(This is a manmade pond with a liner in the front yard, just to toss in a splash of cold reality. No natural pond would survive during this drought, the worst one-year drought in Texas this century, according to the newspaper.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Quick Survey (please take)!

How often do you think a blogger should publish a new post? A lot of serious bloggers do so every day, or even several times a day. Let me know what you prefer. What are the advantages of more posts? Fewer posts?

I, personally, find daily posts overwhelming, because I'm not here in blogland that often. I can't keep up with the dailies, although I admire their perseverance.

However, I think I need to do better than a post every few weeks, so I have developed a plan of action. For now, anyway. I pre-write several posts when I have the time, then I post them every few days. That way, you are not overwhelmed with thousands of words in one post (not to mention, hundreds of changes of subject!) Sneaky, huh? You think you're reading fresh material, when it's actually recycled from a week ago! (This one is fresh, though, I'm typing it in right now, live.) There are advantages to having a post sit for a while, one being that it is generally better edited before going to press.

I am planning to produce new posts more than once a week, for now. From January through April, though, I won't be able to be so faithful.

Update on exercise -- the holidays get everything out of whack! I didn't follow my own exercise advice very well this past week.

When I got up this morning, my hubby invited me to go see a tuba band perform on the River Walk, etc., etc. I politely declined, because I really had missed going to the gym. Plus, I don't enjoy being out and about so much when I haven't been home and the chores are stacked in mountainous piles, just waiting! It's actually rather stressful for me. I am naturally a homebody (or if not that, a gym rat, I guess). So, yeah -- which would you rather do? Go out enjoying the holiday spirit with the family and do a little shopping, or have a marathon gym session and then catch up on chores at home? Weird, right? (It turns out both boys went with Dwaine -- a holiday miracle, that!)

I hadn't exercised at all for four days, so it felt like such a gift to go to the gym for an hour and a half today. I gotta tell you, an occasional long workout session is so refreshing! Wow! I felt  limp when I was done, and could hardly walk as I finished up the third set of everything. My limbs had gone to jelly -- that's the sign your muscles have been challenged! Whoo-hoo! I oozed my way out the door, like a slug, and into my car. It was great.

We are going to a holiday potluck this evening, so I am not a total stick in the mud about getting out! I do recall, last year around this time, posting how much I sympathize with the Grinch around this time. All that madness out there interferes with my nice, organized little plans for my life.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Exercise regularly, in moderation

Here’s a post on one of the loves of my life, exercise. On the scale of my personal must-do’s in my life, exercise comes above writing and reading (which I love). Exercise is my most important leisure activity.

The holidays are a good time to keep exercising, or to add some regular exercise into your day to offset the abundance of food. Here are some rules I live by when it comes to exercise:
A short workout is better than no workout at all.

Choose a a type of exercise you enjoy!
There is no such thing as “too little” when it comes to adding daily activity.

If I am too tired after a workout to enjoy the rest of my day, then I worked too hard.
About 30 minutes, most days, of moderate to vigorous exercise keeps me feeling great. If I have less time, I make the workout strenuous (for me, that means dripping sweat by the time I finish. Forget the expression, “Women glow!”)

Do check with your doctor, of course, before starting a new exercise program!
There are some really enjoyable ways to get a good workout and get closer to your spouse/significant other, at the same time.

Don’t go all out the first day in a gym. You will be sore for a long time, you will not want to go back, and you may really hurt yourself.
Don’t compare your progress, or your exercise program, with anyone else’s. Your body is unique. One of my favorite expressions that one of my personal trainers used was, “Listen to your body.”

No excuses!
If you think you’re too busy to exercise, multi-task. While you walk, catch up on phone calls.

The more complicated it is, the less likely you will stick to an exercise routine. Ditch the special equipment and do something that is simple and fits your schedule, like brisk walking or jogging.
Use your body weight to build muscle: squats, pushups, situps, pull-ups, and planks are a few examples. These are things that we can all do at home.

Stretch after working out, when your muscles are warm. Skip the stretching before a workout unless it is dynamic (moving muscles) and also serves as a warmup.
Don’t skip the warmup! Injuries happen when you demand too much of cold muscles.

Even seasoned athletes don’t love every minute of exercise. It’s supposed to be hard, and tiring, and frustrating too. When I jog, one of my favorite activities is checking my watch – “Can I be done yet?”
Cross-train to burn more calories and keep yourself challenged. Your body quickly adapts to new workouts and becomes more efficient (thus burning fewer calories). One of the ideas touted by the insane workout, P90X, is “muscle confusion,” where your muscles never know what to expect from the next workout and don’t have time to adapt.

Cardiovascular exercise, which raises your heart rate over a period of time, is just as important as weight training. One supports your heart health and circulation. The other preserves your muscle mass as you age and helps with strength and balance.
Exercise is more important, the older you get.

You are never, ever too old to exercise! Exercise is for everybody.
Your health is important enough to make a financial investment, if that’s what it takes for you to exercise. If you have enough money to eat out, you have enough money to join a gym.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Eating mindfully over the holidays

Here is a faintly obnoxious holiday suggestion post, along the lines of eating more mindfully! I hope to add another free advice column on the importance of exercising regularly and in moderation at some point. Enjoy!

Eating mindfully
It just so happens that I am wearing a mouth appliance for the next three weeks. Over the Christmas holidays, to be precise. I am having my bite (as in, how my teeth fit together) adjusted in early January, before tax season madness, and as soon as we have a new pot of medical money available.

The particular device I am wearing is called a "deprogrammer," and it prevents my teeth from touching together at all. I wear it around the clock, except for eating and brushing. The idea is that my bottom jaw can now float freely, not bound by the fit of my bottom and top teeth, till it finally rests at its preferred place in about 3 weeks or so. It needs that time to be "deprogrammed" from its habitual position. If my jaw is happily realigned, the theory goes, it might also stop me from grinding or clenching my teeth. This all sounds a bit new-age, but it is the latest dental fad -- which is to say, it's completely new age! But I'm a firm believer in living by faith, as well as by reason.

In January, after my jaw finds its happy place, the dentist is going to gently shave off some jutting peaks on the tops of my teeth that are preventing my mouth from closing together very well, and encourage my teeth to fit together at that jaw position. As I explained to my sister, my problem right now is I am unable to bite off hangnails, or anything else in that size range, because of a small gap between my front teeth. I can still bite an apple, or carrot. Just no fine nibbling, and I do miss that.

I've decided that everyone should try wearing a mouth appliance -- a retainer, or something similar -- over the holidays. It forces you to eat more mindfully! You can't just stuff things in your mouth unaware. No food is going to sneak in, unaccounted for, when I am wearing this thing. Why? Because I have to take it out in order to chew. The procedure -- check for clean hands, reach inside my mouth and unhinge, and dig out a special container to store the deprogrammer -- is lengthy enough that I could actually change my mind, and decide not to eat whatever it is, assuming it's not a meal. (Not that it's happened yet.) In theory, it could become inconvenient enough that I would pass up some snack freebies here and there.

I've worn the deprogrammer before, this being the second go-round of dental improvements. Each time, I forget I'm wearing it when I go up for communion on Sunday morning and then have to walk back to my pew seat, juice-dunked bread in hand, and remove my mouth appliance before I can partake of the Lord's supper.

On a side note ... for possibly the first time in my life, I have experienced the bliss of eating movie popcorn mindfully. Usually I'm like most other people -- shovel it in, chew, chew, then go get a free refill! I really love movie popcorn, and I know it's absolutely X-rated food, which just makes it that much more thrilling to enjoy, in a furtive rapid-fire way in the darkened theater. (Don't think about Pee-wee Herman.) If you eat anything quickly enough, there aren't any calories!

What caused my mindful chewing was the fact that my sister and I arrived to the movie theater about 45 minutes early yesterday, in the middle of an unusually wet and dreary day. We went in and bought our snacks on autopilot, before it dawned on me that we could have dodged the raindrops to do a bit of nearby shopping. So there we were, popcorn and drinks in hand. The theater was empty, warm and dry (though playing overly loud commercials). I wanted to save my popcorn for the movie, but I didn't want it to be old and cold by the time I started eating it. The dilemma! What to do? So I took one or two kernels at a time and enjoyed the delicious, crispy, salty and buttery finish. Let's face it, popcorn is a food that is almost inedible without seasoning and some kind of fat added. (Have you ever tried plain air-popped popcorn?)  But add the gloss of fat (coconut oil is to die for -- probably literally) and salt, and wow!

Speaking of eating, I believe my hubby has our egg salad lunch almost ready to go! Time to pop out the deprogrammer and do some noshing. The hard part is remembering to put it back in again.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Happiness ... grace ... the usual smorgasbord

I finished "The Happiness Project." I feel so much ownership of this book, this project. Like it's a book I could have written or would love to write, except (obviously) I didn't. Like it was my project! I didn't have to modify it to suit my individual circumstances. Sometimes, it was like reading my own thoughts on the page. It was just the right time in my life to read this book, just the right moment for it to have the maximum effect. The last time I felt this way about a book was when I fell in love with Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled."

I guess the main reason for that special synchronicity is that I reached many of the author's conclusions on my own, within the past five years or so, after some deep (and ongoing) soul-searching. The most important conclusion is that it is so very important to be happy, and to show it by being cheerful! And it's not easy, let me tell you. Don't ever dismiss someone who is endlessly optimistic and think they come by it easier than those who are obviously in distress, or that they must be intellectual lightweights. This world is not made to encourage people who are thoughtful and still manage to stay cheerful.

But knowing me, I cannot quite let go of always having a finger on the pulse of the world's woes, somehow. That pulse is often weak and thready. The patient seems to be on life support, and sadly neglected.

I was listening to an old "Speaking of Faith" podcast about a monastic commune in North Philadelphia. The speaker, who was one of the founders of the community, recalled a cartoon he had once read about the "big" questions we all ask about life. One friend asks another, "Don't you ever want to ask God why he allows all this suffering and these bad things to happen in the world?" The other friend thinks a moment, then replies, "Guess I'm afraid to." "How's that?" "Because He might turn around and ask me the same thing!"

That is the point I was trying to make earlier today in a discussion with my hubby about all the tempests-in-a-teapot swirling around at church lately. One member offended (for a very long time, apparently) because people greeted her as a visitor and didn't recognize her as a member; others accusing the pastor of lying; griping about the money shortage, and pointing to decisions the leadership made over the past year as having been to blame. Postings on Facebook about wicked leaders and how people follow blindly like lemmings. Etc., etc.

Anyhow, Dwaine mentioned how he thought the wicked one was hard at work in our church recently. Just to be sure, I asked -- do you mean someone in particular, or the Wicked One, you know, Satan? He meant the one in upper case. He mentioned this to the wife of one of the higher-ups in the bigger church administration, and she rather breezily replied, "Oh, I don't believe in that."

With Dwaine, beliefs are of paramount importance, and he doesn't take well to the liberal views espoused by some in our church leadership. So I quickly mentioned there could be different interpretations of that statement. For instance, espousing belief in someone or something may give it a power it doesn't deserve. But he persisted in thinking she was sticking her head in the sand, and ignoring evil does not stop it.

From there we moved to what does give something or someone power, and I said that people's actions do. We carry out all the good and all the bad things that I've seen in my lifetime, besides natural disasters and the like. We give the power to whatever supernatural powers we throw our weight behind. (Good works, or bad)

Whereas Dwaine said, no, we are very limited in ourselves. We have no power apart from the One who has it all. (Grace)

I'm inserting our arguments from a theological point of view parenthetically. Grace, or good works -- which must we have? This is one of the great paradoxes of Christianity. There are many paradoxes, for those who have the ears to hear. See, Christians have their own koans. That's a cool word, referring to the eastern practice of meditating on an absurd riddle or parable, one that has no solution (such as the sound of one hand clapping). Gretchen Rubin mentioned koans in her lovely book that I referenced at the top of this blog post.

So, back to Christian koans. How about the trinity? Jesus, fully human and fully divine? His mom, a virgin? Look at all the parables Jesus told about "the kingdom of heaven." Some of the parables describe it thus: It's like a mustard seed, like yeast, a hidden treasure, a net to catch fish. I've never completely understood any of Jesus' parables. Some of them are more like riddles. What is he talking about, and where is the kingdom of heaven supposed to be?

My current belief about the kingdom of heaven is that it is here and now, and we bring it into being with our skillful striving together. I'm not so sure whether it is better described as a place or as a way of being.

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