Friday, September 28, 2012

"Right to life"

This phrase started spinning in my mind this afternoon, driving home from work. What was the fragile stream of thoughts that brought it up? Thinking is such a fleeting activity! Especially good thoughts -- they alight for a moment, like a shy forest creature, then they bound away. The bad thoughts, on the other hand, the worries that keep me up at night or memories of petty conflicts -- those linger! (I'm getting better at telling them to get lost, though!)

I was remembering my best friend's dad, who died of Lou Gehrig's disease, surely one of the crueler ways to die. The mind stays intact while the body disintegrates and stops functioning. Eventually, the person cannot swallow or eat unaided anymore. This man, Paul, and his whole family, were pillars of Christian faith. His daughter led me to the church, where I remain today. But the end of his life was a great struggle for Paul. He wrote a letter about it, which his family distributed to friends and family when he died. He said that where he was going, we all must go, but he did not go there willingly. He was kicking and screaming the whole way to the end!

So it seems that whether or not we are people of faith does not necessarily change how we face death. There was Henri Nouwen, who had a near-death experience and an encounter with his Lord and savior, and did not want to come back to life, the great vale of tears, ever again! But there are many people like Paul, who cling to life until the last breath is drawn.

The attitude of the faithful toward the plight of Terry Schiavo always confused me. If deeply religious people believe that we go to heaven when we die, why would they want someone to remain here in the lowest condition, force-fed, possibly against her will? The crux of the matter in that case was that no one knew the will of Terry herself, just what her family desired. Different family members wanted different things, and we all got to watch the drama unfold in our living rooms.

The religious right have a "culture of life" they want to promote to give everyone the "right to life." I dispute that we ever have a right to life. If that's true, why do so many people die young? What happened to their rights? Someone trampled them! Was it God, or Satan, or some merely secular force at work? Some die before ever being born, some in the process of birth, others soon after, and on and on.

There is no right to life if you are living here on earth. It's a ludicrous idea. People in African countries have even less right to life than the rest of us, apparently, given the younger average age at which they die. Having a "right" to anything is a particularly human concept, I think, not helpful but clinging to the illusion of control (as Buddhists would say, the root of all suffering). Life is never a right. It's a precious and fleeting gift, and there is no guarantee that you will have it for any particular length of time.

I wish that the outrage directed at abortions could also be directed against the atrocities that full-grown people commit against one another all the time. If an unborn child is deserving of that much respect and attention, what about people out of the womb? I don't like to think that some people may be using the emotional attachments that babies command to manipulate people's emotions, and their beliefs, and their vote. And what about all the causes of a shortened life that we could control or end -- malaria, AIDS, poverty, disease, violence, lack of access to clean water and food? While we sit in relative luxury in the U.S., most of us hoarding our money and other resources, people are dying around the world. These are our brothers and sisters. What are we doing about it? I don't have the answers. I'm as guilty as anyone else of having my blinders on, so I can continue doing the things that are comfortable for me in my little insulated box that I call a life.

Honestly, I don't sit down with the intention of ending up here, but I always seem to get to this big question -- it's the BIG one, honey! -- why so much suffering? Why can't we end it?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

On change, again

I've got two "Great Courses" lectures I have been listening to. One on Buddhism (what else?) and the other on Communications. The second topic is addressed in a more scholarly way than I had expected, talking about our subjective unconscious mind vs. our conscious mind and a number of experiments that help shed light on the way we perceive and communicate with others.

The Communications lecturer spoke briefly about self-fulfilling prophecies in the context of other people living up (or down) to our expectations of them. Here's a link to Professor Dalton Kehoe if you are interested.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are especially at work with our own children. The conscious and subconscious expectations we place on our children helps determine who they become, so watch out for them. That's not the whole story with children, by a long shot. I think that who children already are (even at birth) is the biggest determinant of who they become, and that is completely outside the control of parents.

It's easy to see the effect of our expectations on our interactions with adults, as well. If we act abrupt and condescending, we receive a much different reaction than if we greet another person in warm, positive ways. Look at the way that old grudges just never die, both between people and groups. It's because people treat one another in the same ways and anticipate the same problems and conflicts, year after year.

I notice the way we box other people in to the "schema" (mental preconception) we have formed and don't allow them to change over time. I guess it is the way our brain avoids hard work, but it's beneath the level of intelligence and compassion that we are capable of. Think of someone you dislike intensely, and the way you view that person. Do you leave room for that person to grow and change in significant ways? Do you look for that kind of change in others, anyone at all?

I think one of the most inspiring messages of Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" (which we watched last night again -- Andrew picking it out and seeing it for the first time) is that people can change in dramatic ways, at any age. Look at Eastwood's character, a bitter old racist who is transformed by the end of the movie. How realistic is that? Yes, it's a legitimate question. I think that the people who change are the ones who first, believe they can; and second, work very hard at it. It can take years -- but it also can happen in a moment of decision. (I think of Thomas Merton's decision to become a monk. He had the sudden conviction that he should become one, though he did have to go through his own spiritual desert to get there.)

Too many people receive the message from our society (parents, teachers, authority figures, their spouses, etc.), that they will never change. Period.

One of the freedoms that the Buddhist philosophy conveys is impermanence, the knowledge that nothing stays the same and everything changes. Rather than being a threatening message, this can also be an invitation to enjoy the adventure of life! Our lives and even our selves are a flowing river, constantly in motion. This moment is precious because it is fleeting. Pay attention to it!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Life, outside of work

While Mitt Romney talks, I want to make a short list of things I really enjoy doing outside of work. What prompted this was knowing how hard it is for some people to ever retire from work, especially men! (It's completely unrelated to the Republican presidential nominee.) My friend Carol's dad is 84 and still works several days a week! I mean, bravo for him, but that's not what I want to be doing when I am 84 (if I make it that far!).

Things I love that I can't do at work:

  1. Work out
  2. Read for pleasure
  3. Write
  4. Take a walk
  5. Meditate
  6. Spend time with my family
  7. Travel
  8. Go camping
  9. Volunteer
  10. Spend time in prayer and worship
  11. Visit with friends
  12. Play the piano
I knew I could come up with 10 things easily! Most of these activities are cheap or free (except #7-8).

I know I won't end my life wishing I had spent more time in the office!

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan seem very upstanding, clean cut, and good people, though I'm not voting for them. I detest the Republican platform's black-and-white statements supporting the life of the unborn child as supremely important, and opposing gay marriage. I thought that the choice of Paul Ryan was a great sign that the Republican Party wouldn't get sidetracked from the critical discussions about our nation's debt, military spending, entitlements, and what combination of taxes and spending cuts are needed to bring fiscal restraint without sinking us into a depression.

The president does not control the economy, but he/she can certainly help shape spending and tax decisions. We need responsible politicians willing to make difficult choices and compromise compromise, compromise.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Getting close to Dad

It's always been hard to feel close to my Dad. I think this is a problem for many fathers and children. Dads are encouraged to be emotionally distant, and it's left to Moms to try to allow emotional expressiveness in the family.

I've noticed a change in my relationship with my father, though, as his illness has progressed. These days, we have daily phone conversations, and I see him once or twice a week. Our relationship has become freer, happier, unforced. Dad's wonderful sense of humor has emerged recently as he once again stares down death. I know that he waits for my call every day, and it is definitely an important moment in his day. Recently, I was telling him how busy I've been at work. He said, "I've been quite busy myself today, napping!"

His future, like everyone's, is uncertain. He got a good report from his cancer doctor last week. Good, in that the chemo appears to be working. But bad, that the cancer is very much still a threat and only the chemo will keep it at bay. Bad, given Dad's pale and weakened condition. Bad, that he isn't strong enough at this point for a stem cell transplant, the only road to remission, and perhaps never will be.

Hearing a good report really perked him up and motivated him to do more walking than he's been doing in quite a while. Life! It is possible, again, within his reach.

Dad's started to dream of traveling again! He's showing interest in things like reading via a Kindle app and buying an iPad.

I love my Dad. Having the chance to speak to him every day, and knowing how important it is to both of us -- it is a gift.

Spiritual formation

Since I wrote it, you get to read it! This is the talk I gave at church today. One of a three-pronged "spiritual formation" focus -- I'm all about that!

I’ve been asked to speak about my experiences going on my Walk to Emmaus and how they shaped my spiritual formation.

Here is the scripture that I think is really enacted during the Walk to Emmaus weekend: “I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” The words of Jesus, spoken in John 10:10.

I went on Walk #584 in August, 1997, at the Omega Retreat Center in Boerne. I just saw in the Connections that Walk #1664 is scheduled in October, so there have been a lot of walks to Emmaus since I went!

At that time, my children were 3 and 1 year old! Needless to say, Dwaine and I were a little younger then, ourselves. When I went on this walk, we were attending St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in San Antonio, although we lived in our current home in Floresville.

The walk starts on a Thursday evening and ends on Sunday afternoon. The format for the walks is similar, so once you have been on a walk, you have an idea of what everyone else has experienced if they, too, go on a Walk to Emmaus. This spiritual retreat is ecumenical in nature and draws people from different denominations.

In fact, the Catholics started this retreat format, which according to my online research came from Spain in the 1940s. The Catholic version is the Cursillo, or short course. Apparently, all the early retreats in the U.S. were held in Spanish until the 1960s. That is why there is a Spanish flavor to some parts of the retreat, particularly the greeting you share with others who have gone on the Walk, which is, “De Colores.” (Of many colors) This is the theme song of the weekend, and it describes the vibrancy of life and God’s abundant provision for us. (I forgot to say that the Cursillo has morphed into the ACTS retreat, a fact that a friend gently recalled to my memory afterwards.)

The walks are held just for women or for men, although the musicians and speakers may be of the opposite gender.

When you attend, you have a sponsor. My sponsors were an older couple at St. Andrew’s, Jim and Mary Watkins. They wanted to make sure that I went on my retreat with no worries, and they drove me there. I remember my sponsors telling me, in all seriousness, that they could take care of my kids while I was gone! (Of course, my husband took care of the kids, very capably.)

During the retreat, you have a period of time and space that is truly “set apart” from daily life and devoted to God – a luxury that most of us do not experience in the rush and activity of our usual lives. There is a time of silent reflection, there are daily worship times, a band plays music and you have a lot of sing-alongs, and you work on projects together with a team of other people. You also listen to a series of talks given by clergy and lay people during the weekend. You receive all kinds of small presents that Emmaus groups have made, some quite lovely. You are asked to remove your watch, turn off your cell phone, and unplug for the entire weekend. That alone would probably be a real revelation for a lot of people! No email, no TV, no computers, and no text messages, for 3-1/2 whole days!

One of the best parts of the Walk to Emmaus is that there are several surprises along the way. These times usually end up being the most memorable of the whole weekend.

The Walk was the first time that it really sank in, for me, how deeply God loves me, and each one of us. I mean, it really sank in and has never gone away since. I really saw God’s community at work throughout the weekend, in joyous celebration and love.

I’d like to share something that our pastor at that time wrote to me about the weekend:

“I hope that you found your life deeply moved, your love of others and of God confirmed, your past forgiven, and your future opened up in ways that are beautiful and gracious to behold. It is my prayer that the kinds of grace you heard described during your walk, you will experience in your life. May God’s grace be graciously woven into your life, so that at your work or at home as well as at church, you will rejoice at how God is at work in your life. Then as we see you, hear you, and affirm you with our love, you will see emerging a newer sense of what it means to be fully alive – alive within yourself, alive to others you love, and alive to God in fresh and mysterious ways.”

Footnote: the above note was from our most dearly beloved pastor (mine and Dwaine's), Greg Robertson, who has had serious health problems recently and is very stooped and frail-looking these days. He was a powerful speaker and brought the Holy Spirit into our presence on a regular basis when he preached on Sundays at St. Andrew's. He and Dwaine must have been destined to become friends, as they share the same birthday (though not the same year). I have told Pastor Greg on more than one occasion that he was the one who saved our souls, mine and Dwaine's! Before we became Methodist, we were wandering, unanchored, spiritual drifters without a home.

We attended a reunion for St. Andrew's about a month ago and were happily surprised to see Greg and Donna there, despite his obvious trouble getting around! He has a walker and is able to walk quite a distance, though his body has become so deformed. He has been afflicted with a rare type of Parkinson's. Greg and Donna were known and beloved by the entire congregation, or so we always thought -- so it was a sad sight to find that the only people who went to sit with them at the luncheon were us! I think most people are so put off by a physical deformity that they feel great awkwardness in addressing such a person, in getting past that physical appearance which may be disturbing to see. Greg's mind was obviously still working at a high level, and he had a great many things to discuss with Dwaine (although Dwaine suffers from trouble hearing, so it was difficult to know exactly everything Greg had said!).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Speeding up, slowing down

I am back to listening to my beloved podcasts after winding up the "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy and finishing Bill Moyers' interviews with Joseph Campbell, "The Power of Myth." My listening to various books on tape (actually, on iPod) has taken the place of reading, since I routinely am in the car for well over an hour a day and sometimes twice that.

Also listening to ... On a whim, I checked out a translation on CD of the ancient epic warrior tale, "Gilgamesh." So far, it is quite racy! I think Austin had to read some translation of this story for a dual-credit literature class in high school.

I listened to an interesting download back from Feb. 12. Terri Gross of "Fresh Air" fame interviewed author William Broad discussing yoga, dangerous poses, its erotic and mystical history, and its undeniable health benefits. Here it is if you'd like to read about it or have a listen:
Yoga podcast

One of my favorite parts was Broad's discussion of how he himself was injured while practicing yoga, which he has done since the 1970s. He was in an advanced class with some much younger (and more flexible) women doing a difficult pose. He was enthralled by one such woman who was also doing the pose, and while chatting with her, he bent over more than ever before to show how capable he was. Then his back went out and he experienced immediate and excruciating pain, collapsed, and lay in a motionless heap as his classmates and instructor gathered around in alarm! That injury took a couple of months to overcome, he said.

It sounds so much like something that could happen to me! In my case, I would be mentally competing against this young, flexible woman and proving I could do just as much as she could, until --- creeeaak!

Anyhow, I learned that yoga is similar to meditation in that it is relaxing. It slows the heart rate and the metabolism -- although new practitioners tend to feel like it's hard work.

The author, Broad, also told a story (fable?) from the 1800s about a yogi who agreed to be buried for 40 days and nights to show the power he had attained over his own body. Of course, the 40 days are symbolic of a perfect measure of time, as in all the times in the Bible that something happened over 40 days (or years). This yogi was unearthed 40 days later, and his body was cold and stiff. Then he opened his eyes, gradually reanimated and huskily whispered to the ruler who had doubted him, "Do you believe me now?" That's how much the practice of yoga by a truly advanced practitioner can really slow down the body, apparently!

Apparently, it is important for the body to have moments it speeds up (as in cardiovascular workouts) and also moments that it slows down. Yin-yang!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Another excerpt -- on dying

"Compassion and forgiveness can help dying people to be more loving towards themselves. The functional mechanisms are not always clear, but those who care for the dying cannot escape the suspicion that, at least in some cases, there seems to be some sort of connection between one's judgment style and one's suffering. Offering acceptance and understanding can be a powerful elixir, for both the dying and nondying alike. Being forgiven (and forgiving) does tend to ease suffering.

"Being 'nonjudgmental' is something of a misnomer in that we all must make judgments in order to survive. The real question is how we judge; i.e. with love, understanding, empathy and compassion ... or with harshness and condemnation. Whatever the case may be, we learn to judge during the course of our lives, then have to live with that learned behavior while we are dying."

Excerpt from:

Crossing the Creek by Michael Holmes.

I am happy to endorse his information and philosophy about death (the dying process) and its implications for life, and how each informs the other.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The no-school school -- does it work?

From various sources I've listened to, there are apparently a number of ways to approach meditation. Learning how to meditate is just like the way to learn anything else. There are many, many ways to do it, and each person probably needs a different approach. One way, the way I've been trying, is the "no-school" approach. First, to let you know -- I am forever a beginner at meditation. I only practice several times a week, 15 minutes at a time, so I am not a devoted practitioner by any definition!

So here's a sample of my own do-it-yourself way. I approach meditation from a number of different directions to keep it fresh. Sometimes I focus on my breath. Other times, I focus on my senses and bodily sensations. I may meditate with eyes open or closed. I may have a stream of consciousness type of thinking, or I may try to sit without thinking. (Nearly impossible for me -- I need lots more practice.) I try to notice when I am becoming less alert. I know that Buddhists have all sorts of technical terms to measure the quality of meditation, alertness and a broad or narrow focus.

The things that are generally constant for me are that I start by reading the day's Upper Room Bible verse devotional, and lately, reading a pithy Buddhist saying or two. Both of these are apps on my phone. (Sample of Buddha saying, a bit like what you'd find in a Chinese fortune cookie: "In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.") I ask to be in the presence of God. I usually sit outside, even if it's 100 degrees. (I can take it, in the shade, for at least 15 minutes! I am a South Texan, after all.) Outdoors is where I find the best quality of relaxation and also the most awareness of God. As a result of sitting outdoors, my legs are quite bug-bitten at the moment.

I don't know if this no-school approach is ideal, however. I take my cue from weightlifting, to which I have devoted considerably more time and energy for the past five years or more. I started weightlifting on my own, with a weight bench that we keep in the garage, which is currently gathering all manner of dirt and cobwebs, and which has probably become a home for a variety of small creatures. During the years I used it, I thought I was doing great and achieving amazing results! Then I went to work for a small-town paper that had a novel approach to employee health, and offered a personal trainer and weight/cardio room for every employee at no charge. I used the weight room for quite a while before deciding to also try out the trainer. I wasn't sure I would really like her, or benefit from her, or something! And, of course, she turned out to be the type of odd conservative person that this rural nook of the world breeds: anti-vaccine, very Tea Party (this is before the Tea Party had become a force in national politics), and so on. Some of her views, I could understand; a few (grass-fed beef is great and everyone should work out), I could agree with. The others, totally out there.

But she was definitely on her A game when it came to personal training. The trainer, it turns out, really opened my eyes to the shortcomings of my "no-school" homegrown workouts. She showed me some excellent and basic form techniques that greatly improved the quality and safety of my weightlifting efforts. One that's easy to convey and remember is this: Chin up, chest out! Keep the back slightly arched to protect it when lifting weights or squatting. Engage the abs as well to prevent a back injury. Now, when I'm lifting heavy bags of dogfood (for our Chihuahua) at the grocery store, I automatically engage my abs first and try to keep the weight close to my body. It's become a habit.

The first time I trained with her, my thighs were trembling uncontrollably from the effort of achieving the proper depth of squatting! I wasn't squatting any weight, either. How humiliating. (I had been doing shallow squats on my own that weren't working my muscles nearly as effectively.) My reaction? I loved the challenge! I know I am a much better weightlifter now, because I had a personal trainer who went from using a broad brush to correcting small form breaks while I was doing my reps.

Therefore, I suspect that my do-it-yourself approach to meditation may be unsatisfactory, as well. I know there are basic techniques that I could use from experienced practitioners to strengthen my approach and lead to more results. So why don't I? That, my dear, would take effort and time on my part. I would need to either drive somewhere to get lessons, or find lessons online. Now, I have several meditation exercises on my Zencast podcast that I have listened to, so I am not completely uninitiated. By the way, it's a bit tricky to listen to these while driving. Sort of like listening to a hypnosis session -- not completely advisable. It would be most helpful, though, to have a personal trainer that I could spend meditation sessions with.

Given that "my time" is what I love best to hoard and cling to, I'm not sure that finding meditation training will be my top priority anytime soon! In fact, managing my precious time is quite honestly what is keeping me from more than 15 minutes, several times a week, of meditation practice. Because my time is so special (think Tolkien's Gollum and the ring, his own "My Precious"), I find it hard to spend it doing nothing. It's odd how devoted I still am to "my time," given that the entire concept is an illusion! Nothing is mine, and there is no time, and it's not under my control anyhow, so I'm not sure what is enthralling my mind so completely. But to this day, when the day is not going according to my little roadmapped schedule, I find myself becoming anxious.

Every day, I have a little mental checklist of my own creation that must be gone through. These are the things I do during my discretionary time, outside of work and the like. Lately, it's been something like this, depending on the day of the week: Go see Dad. Check. Watch the Olympics. Check. Work out. Check. Do housework. Check. While driving, listen to Joseph Campbell's interviews with Bill Moyers on the power of mythology in the morning (after spending 15-20 minutes of driving time in prayer); listen to the third book in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" series in the afternoon, while driving. Check. Do something to connect with my husband and children. Check. Go on an evening walk. Check. Spend some time volunteering. Check. Etc., etc. You get some idea of how regimented I like to keep my schedule. When life interferes with all that, I get mad!

As far as finding meditation training? I am starting a 9-month contemplative prayer study with a group at church that I think will have to suffice. By the way, I love the curriculum we are using. It transcends the usual problems with a Bible study of radically different interpretations. Our group study started with 6 weeks of spiritual and prayer practices that we went through, and the group members will be the same for the 9-month study. I pray for these people every day and feel so close to them in spirit as a result.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Life and dying

From a long discourse on the dying process (relevant because of my dad):

"The magic of human contact"

"One of the most effective salves for the fear of dying is the presence of other human beings. It is not necessarily what a person may say or do, but their very presence that makes the difference. We often feel at a loss for words when faced with tragedy, but sometimes saying nothing at all has the best effect. ... There is something truly magical about one human being simply "being there" for another. Never underestimate the power of your being."

That's what I needed to hear. I often think that going to see my dad is more and more an exercise in futility. He spends most of his time sleeping, and we talk about such banal things. We don't seem to be any closer than we ever were! It's always been difficult to feel close to my dad. However, I have noticed that he still has a wonderful sense of humor, and it's great when he uses it.

This brochure on the dying process goes on to speak of the soul's immortality, of meeting up again with loved ones who have gone before, when going through the dying process. It's quite interesting.

I sometimes feel like I was thrust into a life where I don't really belong. I'm not really from here. I am an alien! It is so hard to find intimacy and a meeting of souls with all the barriers that arise with being human. I feel so sad and lonely sometimes. But those are just feelings, and they have a right to exist as much as I do. I have to believe that other people also feel the way I do, and go on to do great things for others just the same.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

On change

I started a conversation on Facebook recently that I find interesting, on "changing others." Organizations like AA have adopted the attitude that it is "wrong" and "bad" to deliberately try to change others, that this is a dysfunctional and selfish behavior.

Maybe I'm talking about something completely different. But what I observe is that we humans are like a mass of charged particles, zooming around, colliding into one another all the time. We are constantly changing others -- redirecting them as a result of a random or deliberate collision, whether of ideas or something more physical. Even hermits that go up to a mountain to live a separate life are still alive and aware, and their spirits remain intertwined with all "sentient beings" (as the Buddhists like to say).

To say we can't or should not change others is irrelevant to the fact that we do, all the time. Anyone who has been a parent or teacher must have noticed his or her enormous power to change other human lives. When you think about watershed moments in your own life, many of them involve the influence of other people who were extremely important to you. Most people point to their parents or certain teachers as having the strongest influence over their lives. Some of these influences were positive, while others may be perceived as very negative.

I have noticed that the greatest teachers among us -- Jesus, Buddha, and many others who aren't regarded as the foundation of an entire religion -- set out in a very deliberate manner to exhort others to change. You may regard Christianity and Buddhism as fundamentally different. It would appear that Christians want to evangelize all others to think exactly the same way, whereas Buddhists want others to achieve freedom from suffering by changing the way they think (just how to do so is an individual journey). However, if you investigate the way Jesus lived, he did not talk about a detailed theology or belief system that he wanted others to follow. Rather, he said, "Follow me." He also told individuals to turn away from their sin. He also cautioned against focusing on the sinfulness of others: "First remove the beam from your own eye so that you can see clearly to remove the speck from your neighbor's."

Jesus did not lay out a rigid pattern of belief, but a transformative way of living. "I have come so that they may have life, and have it more abundantly," he said. I have to conclude that Christians who enjoy imposing a rigid belief system on others have not gotten the fundamental message of the savior they claim to follow!

I don't think that Buddha and Jesus were on different paths at all. They both lived by example, and had disciples who tried to walk in their steps. They both spoke of dying to self, and the need to undergo a radical rebirth as a transformed creation. Does any of this sound like it might require some personal change somewhere along the way?

Change is such a "constant" and inevitable part of living. You can't escape it, even for a moment. Even if you don't wish to acknowledge it, we are each changing all the time. We are also so interconnected that we cannot change in isolation. If I change myself, I can't help but also change others.

It seems like one of life's most sacred tasks is to be more intentional about how I change, and how I change others. Instead of this being a more or less random occurrence just depending on my mood and what I happen to be doing when I meet other people, love requires that I become much more aware of the way that I am changing, and how that affects all the rest of this amazing and wonderful planet.

When I change myself, I also transform the world. There is no "I" and no "other." There only is. If I am transformed, I must help others who are also transforming. There is no way to avoid it.

So what does this have to do with the pop-culture idea that trying to change others is always a misguided and bad idea? That's where I am getting lost. I do see other people trying to impose a certain viewpoint (i.e., political) on others, and getting very frustrated when they don't convince everyone of the correctness of their views. Part of the problem with our political discourse seems to be that everyone's goal is to make others believe the same things as they do. So, when I speak of transformation, I don't mean becoming more liberal, or more of a Democrat, or any other label for human points of view. If anything, those things become like a memory of things that have been outgrown. I used to identify myself as a liberal, or a Democrat. Do I still have points of view? Yes, I haven't achieved such a level of no-self that I have left all my opinions behind permanently. But I am starting to see that these are bound to my existence here as an individual human being, part of my "Julie" self but not part of my larger spirit. Somehow, all these particular beliefs and points of view are no longer important when I become a part of all creation.

Behavior is more important than belief, although often a certain belief is what leads to certain behaviors. I think where the human mind gets into trouble is when it insists on thinking in a limited, dualistic way. Right-wrong, good-bad, black-white.

Anyhow, I'm still working out all these things. If you get to Nirvana/the kingdom of heaven before me, come back and help me get there, please! Help me change!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Returned from one trip, on another

My family returned home this weekend after a one-week trip to Disney World in Orlando. Our visit was timed to occur during what was probably the most busy week of the entire year at that park! (That is, the week encompassing the 4th of July.) We were amazed, stunned even, to witness the volume of people moving through the 4 theme parks during the 5 days we visited. (Those parks are Epcot Center, my favorite; Animal Kingdom; Hollywood Studios, formerly Disney-MGM Studios, the kids' favorite; and Magic Kingdom). What's amazing about that old Disney magic is that we still were able to have a great time, for the most part.

The most serious bottleneck was at the Magic Kingdom. Not much magic was happening the first day we attempted to visit; the lines were long and quickly growing longer. There was even a long wait for "It's a Small World!" I told my hubby that people were simply trying to get in a line where they would be out of the sun and possibly exposed to some air-conditioning somewhere along the way. Any ride would do at that point -- for the same reason, Andrew and I ducked into the Tiki Room to hear some animatronic birds chirp. (Actually, the music was quite elegant, if dated.)

Though not as hot as here in South Texas, the weather was still rather brutally hot. It only rained one afternoon, which was a welcome respite from the humid heat of the other days we were there. During our stay, we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary at Boma Restaurant in the Animal Kingdom lodge, which is one of the really outstanding culinary choices that the World offers (most are at World Showcase in Epcot Center). I gained a few pounds. Oh, forgot the many exclamation marks after 25 years married!! Surely I'm not that old. (I'm not -- I married young!)

Both of our kids were in tow. The last couple of days, they got tired and we returned them to the hotel room before driving back for more Disney insanity -- er, fun and lines for rides. It was good to have them both on vacation with us for perhaps the last time in a while, and we only had one serious argument with our (currently unruly) eldest son.

My husband has become a Disney fanatic. He was salivating over the thought of one day working for Disney. Which job seemed much less important than the idea of merely working for this legendary company. He could be a monorail guide, or a waiter raking in $25-and-up tips per table, or even a ride operator. It all looked so fun from our side of the aisle.

My take on Disney -- the theme parks are trying hard to keep up with the latest technology. There's still a significant "cool" factor to many of the rides. However, they have so much money sunk in rides that seemed, to me, to be outdated. My personal preference, still, would be going to visit a state or national park, or traveling out of the country. Those things may wait until we are less encumbered with teenage kids!

What Dwaine loves best about the whole Disney experience is their extreme emphasis on customer service, something that seems to be sorely lacking at many companies. Most of the employees, even the rank-and-file, were unfailingly helpful and pleasant. Many of them showed some special talent at talking with people, or in their general level of enthusiasm. For instance, our guide on the Jungle Cruise was good enough to be a contender in stand-up comedy, in my opinion -- and he was going a mile a minute on an extremely hot and humid afternoon, when most of the guests on the boat wore a dazed expression as the heat sucked out every last drop of energy from their limp bodies.

I am happy to report that I rode almost every roller coaster, even though I can report to you with complete confidence that Julie still hates roller coasters! I decided to go outside my comfort zone in this one small area. The result? Well, they were all pretty miserable. What I did was compare the whole experience to getting chemotherapy. In that light, I had to conclude that a few minutes of terror couldn't (quite) match what cancer patients have to go through. Actually, the Mission: Space, which involved a G-force blastoff simulation created by rapid spinning (imagine being inside a centrifuge), caused the greatest feeling of nausea, so the comparison turned out to be apt. (Read on to understand why chemo might be on my mind right now.) On the Rockin Roller Coaster (which I have never ridden before), I pretended I was Austin, who loves roller coasters. I imagined how he would be feeling during the 5G-force acceleration, the bottomless dives, the jolting turns and endless spirals. It got me out of my own small fearful self for a moment, and allowed me to relax a bit in the face of apparent doom. Is that what roller coasters are supposed to do? Allow us to face our fears and feel we can master them, or at least survive? (I don't get it, you see.)

The trip I'm on now is a journey of a whole different sort, with Dad. His illness has taken a turn for the worse, and it looks like rough times ahead.

He is taking chemo once weekly, hopefully for 4 weeks. He's had 2 doses so far. Then we'll see what comes next. We took our family vacation (with me on standby to return if needed) just a few days after he got the diagnosis, and just after chemo round one. It adds an almost unbearable sweetness to life, somehow, to see how brief -- how fragile -- it really is.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The joy and the tears

My hubby is cooking a delicious stir-fry for us for dinner. The three of us, that is. Our eldest son normally does not deign to dine with us anymore unless Austin-Allison make a joint appearance at the dinner table. My contribution to dinner tonight was to turn on the wrong burner on the stove, which I discovered when smoke began to billow from the bottom of the plastic cutting board that happened to be placed squarely on that burner. The odor of burning chemicals lingers. (For that reason, when I cook, the entire stove surface is always clear of flammable items! My husband hasn't learned that lesson, though maybe he did tonight.)

We may be approaching another turn in Dad's health (and not for the better), pending the results of a bone marrow biopsy. He says "he's just fine" -- a typical response -- and I should take our upcoming family vacation to DisneyWorld, which includes our 25th wedding anniversary. Even the oh-so-grown high school graduate in our family will be going! Sans girlfriend!

I haven't decided what to do yet. I need to know Dad's diagnosis, and prognosis, and how easily I could hop a flight back if I go.

Meantime, Dad's favorite occupation these days seems to be sleeping. He hasn't had much fight in him for a long time. Maybe he never did.

It's hard to know what to do with someone who apparently doesn't know the value of his own life, or who has given up on it. I've never been confrontational. That is not my style, for better or worse. I would rather just be present to someone else's feelings and preferences, most of the time. This has led, in the past, to some differences of opinion with my sister, who was more of a mind to try to kick Dad's butt into gear and out of bed.

Is it OK to sit by without argument while a loved one gives up on life? How about when it is your Dad? What about when his health, his quality of life, is greatly diminished and will never be the same? I guess I don't know the magic answer to reigniting someone's passion for life, especially if it may never have existed in the first place. I can only walk the walk of my own beliefs with as much integrity as possible. I am loathe to try to convert others to my way of seeing things, most of the time. I can't be so arrogant as to say that someone I disagree with is wrong.

What a wonderful grace that I found God and happiness, and so much meaning in this life! So many things have blossomed from that groundwork. And yet, happiness is a hard thing to plant in others. It's a tragedy that neither one of my parents ever seemed to be happy, or to find much fulfillment in life. I can't stand to think deeply about their sadness, because I start to sink into it myself. It's a part of me, always, as surely as my genes came from them. An ocean of tears. Yes, life is that! The great paradox is that for every tear there is an equal measure of joy! Joy! The two things, sorrow and joy, cannot exist apart from one another, and each points to the other, here on earth.

The great, unanswered question, is why some people see the joy as well as the tears, and others don't.

There does seem to be a time I apparently violate my own personal "Prime Directive" (any Trekkie fans out there? The prime directive forbids interference with alien cultures; in my case, it forbids interference with others' lives). That is with my children. Austin tells me that I am an intimidating person, with steep standards, who is very judgmental of him and his friends. Reluctantly, I have to believe that he sees me that way, anyhow. I can catch more than a glimmer of all that in myself.

Who does that remind me of? My own Mom, completely. She was always so full of information and rather enjoyed showing up the ignorance of others, which usually meant her immediate family! She always demanded a high level of achievement from me and my sister that she could point to and brag about, and we delivered endless disappointments. I think she lived vicariously through her dreams for her children. That's common for parents to do. But she also seemed to give up on her own progress in life, withdrawing from the outside world more and more over time. A lot of my life, subconsciously at least, is about being "not-Mom" -- about finding my own identity and not repeating her mistakes. But I've taken a page or two from her parenting book, after all. I don't know how I feel about that.

I know Mom has been closer in my consciousness as Dad's health has seemed to be more frail once again. It seems like their destinies are connected, although Mom died 13 years ago. Both of my parents came down with blood cancers. Mom had myelofibrosis that became acute myeloid leukemia. Dad has multiple myeloma and possibly something more now. So many myelo's! (Just looked up: Greek word meaning marrow, also used to refer to the spinal cord.) Both have been treated by the same oncologist, Dr. Lyons, a wonderful man who must be past retirement age by now but who hasn't stopped fighting hard for each of his patients yet. He has a great sense of humor that is probably required for anyone working in this field of care.

So what will the upcoming weeks bring? There will be joy -- a vacation with my family, the celebration of 25 years of marriage. I have to make the affirmation that there will be joy, no matter what!

There will be tears, too. (With me, that's inevitable.) But once again, like last summer, I can't face up to the mortality of my only remaining parent. It's just too much to comprehend.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

In which our son, Austin, graduates

Austin, prom night

Dear blog/diary:

This graduation stuff sucks! Talk about an emotional roller-coaster ride. God, I'm glad that's done. However, what's next?

Austin (our oldest son) graduated last night, and turns 18 in a few days. He's got a foot still planted in youthful immaturity, having fallen hopelessly in love/obsession with a girl. But then there are those flashes of maturity that shine through. Like today.

But first -- what's up with half of Floresville turning out for the graduation ceremony? We got there 45 minutes early and pulled into one of the last parking spots, far from the stadium. (The graduation is held outdoors in the football stadium; I guess that's the only place big enough for it.) We made our way to the stadium only to find the seats all taken on the "home" side! We had to sit on the far side of the stadium, with the speakers' backs turned to us, but right by the band. We had been warned how packed it would be, but it was still a surprise.

This was my attitude about it: I was pissed! I mean, really? There were tons of people there just to watch the show, who didn't even have a family member graduating! Is Floresville really that much of a sleepy, boring hill-billy town that everyone thinks the high school graduation ceremony is the biggest thing happening? Yup, apparently so. Austin said, Mom, it's a small town! Graduation is a big deal!

Dwaine and Andrew got bored once the top 10% had graduated (Austin among them) and wanted to leave -- walk out, right there. I just couldn't do it. That would be too tacky! So we sat through the rest of the graduates being recognized. Then we snuck out early. So I didn't get to see everybody toss their caps in the air, though I did hear the ridiculous country song that the class picked out as its own. Something, Austin said, about "Driving my tractor and big-ass truck," maybe not in those exact words. You know? It fits, about half the population (actually, less than half these days). Could have used some spicy salsa music for the greater half, which is the population that Austin mostly hangs with.

Yesterday was a really tough day, at least for me. I was stuck on the idea that Austin was on the verge of wrecking his life with this girlfriend obsession. How could I possibly be happy about his graduation? I've been ping-ponging between being furious at Austin for some stupid choices he's made/will make, and realizing that this is my son, whom I love deeply, and nothing will ever change that. Last night after graduation, he called asking to go to the river with said girlfriend today, and I sulked, very noticeably, and practically hung up on him. Way to go, Mom! Way to model how to behave as a responsible adult! (I take a sardonic bow.) Hey, at least he still asks. Though, recently, he declined to follow our advice, and that is what really hurts.

I've had all the worst disaster scenarios making practice runs in my mind, which hops everywhere like a caffeine-crazed rabbit in times of stress. I tell you, I am so tired of being an unenlightened human being and having to endure all this suffering of my body, mind, and emotions. Most of it self-induced. But I can tell that people have really been praying for me (and practicing contemplation has definitely helped, too). Because as much dirt as my rabbity mind tries to kick up, I can still catch a glimmer of the truth.

Today, I was more emotionally centered (as of latest report) and wasn't trying to manipulate my child with my moodiness -- for the moment, anyhow! When Austin had rolled out of bed, taken his brother to work and returned home, I asked if he had time to mow the lawn (because I'm a big believer in giving a little to get a little, which means he still has responsibilities here if he wants to go enjoy life with his girlfriend/friends). He did mow the lawn, and when he was done, announced that his girlfriend had left without him. I said, well just drive on up there and meet them. He said, no, don't want to waste the gas. He was remarkably calm about it. He and I went on to talk about graduation, he showed me his brand-spanking new diploma, and he was completely normal and OK with everything, not sulky at all. What a man! He then left to go to a friend's house.

This is why it's so important for me to get a handle on my own feelings! It's amazing to see how much Austin mirrors me in that regard. Today, I was calm; he was calm. Though it is tempting to pull out the emotional stops and work them, baby, work them! That's probably why he felt compelled to mow the lawn today, because I was so upset about the whole river outing last night. Hey, it's manipulative, but it works! At least in the short run. Women everywhere are in on this little secret.

The truth? Goes something like -- Austin's life is his own now. He will make his own choices. We can decide, if he bombs out of school, that it is time for him to move out and support himself with a job instead of going to college. This is not the end of the world!! (I wanted to add a lot more exclamation points there, but I restrained myself.)

Whatever we do in response, the important thing is to act in love, not in anger, and to show Austin our love, not the petty anger. It's not that hard to do, especially with people praying for me. The real disaster would be if we wrecked our loving, close relationship with our son. That would be pretty much the end of the world, and I'm not willing to go there. No matter what.

It is no coincidence that I am going through a spiritual formation class right now that emphasizes contemplative practice. This is the Christian version of meditation, by the way. I need it in my life right now!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Our Memorial Day outing

I know you have been seriously deprived of visual aids on my blog for a long, long, time! This is what life looks like on a 17-acre "farm" nearby. By the way, I downloaded these from my iPhone!* (*with technical assistance from Austin.) 

 Andrew, mowing
 Dwaine and Mr. Gregory, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War
 This is the farmland -- tomatoes, okra, beans and peas, corn, and table grapes
Here's the chicken coop

Andrew mowed the yard, Dwaine used the gas weedeater until his back wouldn't let him anymore (we forgot the shoulder strap), and I used a battery-operated weedeater! (Austin, as usual, was working at Sonic.)

There were about 4 freezers full of frozen vacuum-packed fruits and vegetables. We came home with a haul of garden-grown tomatoes, fresh corn, frozen blackberries (from Pullin's), peach jam, and frozen dry black-eyed peas. Yum!

No promises ... but with the Internet working, my technical skills sharpening (ha ha), and with more time on my hands, I may post more pictures here. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say.

The "State of my Life" address

Happy Memorial Day! In honor of today, we're going to go do the lawn of a retired veteran who's no longer able to do it himself. Sometime today, after Dwaine returns from a trip to get an oil leak fixed in our newest vehicle, the 2010 Toyota Corolla.

Thanks so much to my son Austin for fixing my wireless on my laptop! Apparently there is a toggle switch on the keyboard, function-F8, of which I was blissfully unaware until it somehow got toggled off and my Internet was down, down, down, down (as Bruce Springsteen would croon). I guess my boy's still useful for something! Otherwise, he is hopelessly in love and completely sidetracked by a new flame. When he's not obsessively texting her or physically with her, he's working (still the greaseboy at Sonic, where she also works). He's pretty much finished with school, although he has to go check in Tuesday - Friday. I don't know how he's going to make it in college, being as obsessed with her as he is at the moment. But a mother's love never fails, never gives up ...

Perhaps you could intuit that it's been a time of high emotional stress for me, lately. Austin's high school graduation is next Friday. I think I've untangled a few of the feelings flying around:

1. Mourning, for the loss of my child forever
2. A really bittersweet feeling about what it means to graduate from high school -- moving on, of never being able to return again to those carefree days of childhood (this is how I felt about my own graduation)
3. Jealousy, because my son is being taken away by another woman!
4. Worry, that my son is going off a cliff with this girlfriend and is going to ruin his life and his future, etc., etc.

Notice the lack of "happy" or "celebratory" feelings, although those do make appearances, too. They were present at the senior recognition services held at our church and at its Hispanic counterpart, El Mesias, the last two Sundays.

Otherwise, that's a potent stew of feelings, there. That would explain why I've had a couple of tossing and turning nights recently. All these dark feelings are mostly a reflection on me, and my personality. That's the realization that has kept me from going completely berserk! I can hold back from projecting them onto my son, when I am at my best. I must thank the contemplative practice for leading me to that grace. I've always had these very deep emotions at my disposal, for good or bad, throughout my entire life. They're practically my best friends now! "Hello darkness, my old friend ..." (Simon & Garfunkel) Actually, I couldn't bear to give up the depths of emotional feeling that God has gifted me with. So there! You're not really living until you are sobbing your eyes out at the grand tragedy of life!

Back to family matters. Dwaine & I are having some battles with Austin now because he's turning 18 and that makes him, in his eyes, "an adult." Ha! Ha! But laughing to his face doesn't really help matters (yeah, learned that the hard way). This, too, is a necessary rite of passage, though it makes the ride bumpy.

His latest wish-demand? To go off to the beach with the girlfriend for a weekend, which we've previously forbidden. The only real leverage we have now is to kick him out of the house and make him go it on his own, and I'm not ready (quite!) to do that. I want to give him a chance to succeed in college first. In the meantime, there's some serious negotiating that goes on all the time. He wants to hang out with his friends/girlfriend all the time ... I negotiate blocks of free time for him in return for household chores and other obligations, which he does. He's really quite responsible, helped along by frequent reminders. Did I mention he loves his brother, intensely? Their closeness is something I marvel at. And that he and I often text back and forth (either chatting or arguing), pretty much every day? He is still strongly connected to his family, but don't ask him to admit to that.

He's not a bad child, just misdirected at the moment, hormones in solid control of the decision center of his brain. Really, was I there once, too? Yes I was, and somehow -- God only knows how -- I survived to tell the story! And I didn't come out half bad, either!

I'm not sure what his character is going to be, and that's what frightens me to the core. However, it is out of my hands now, and I can honestly say I have done my best. Ouch! I can't mourn prematurely, though, much as I enjoy doing that ... imagining all the disasters looming, working myself up. That's one of my strongest personality traits! Can anyone relate to that? I think that's an actual family trait. Not naming any names here, but I do think that there are several other family members (esp. on my mom's side) with this lovely sort of anxiety disorder.

I must remember what Thomas Jefferson said: "How much pain the evils cost us, that never happened." (It's on my wall at work to remind me, one of Jefferson's top 10 quotes.)

And then there's this: "Put it in the God box!" I do, and then take it out again and fret some more, then put it back in. At night, it just comes out, like all the stuff that came out of Pandora's box, haunting me, and I have to deal with it somehow, alone in the dark ... that's where my life is, at the moment. But I know that others suffer too, and I can commune with them now as I couldn't when I was younger.

Thanks so much to Alice Lackness, my companion in the spiritual formation class at church, for crying too, and for giving me some perspective that this, too, shall pass. It helps me so much, as well, to write it all out. Somehow, it gives me a lot more emotional distance and perspective. Having that list of feelings, above, is a great help. It hadn't been clear until I wrote it all down.

On to the next crisis!!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A poem by Thomas Merton

The trouble I have with Father Richard Rohr is that he loves to preach too much! Perhaps I have a little bit of that in my own personality, because I find it irritating to be preached to.

Rohr ended his book, "Falling Up," with a beautiful poem by Thomas Merton. Merton, like me, is an Enneagram type 4, i.e., a hopeless romantic who is never, never ordinary. We'd rather die than ever be ordinary, we type 4's.

Rohr read the poem and then -- he just couldn't resist -- proceeded to ride rather rough-shod over its delicate pathos with long-winded explanations of what it meant! As a lover of poetry, I have to say that poetry must find its meaning with each reader, individually. It's the closest thing that writing has to compare with music, that it speaks directly to the soul, no translations needed.

However, I must also say a most whole-hearted thanks to Father Rohr for his great wisdom, for introducing me to this poem, and for his insights into many other lovely and profound ideas.

Without further ado:

When in the soul of the serene disciple
Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton poetry, Christian, Christian poetry, Catholic poetry, [TRADITION SUB2] poetry,  poetryby Thomas Merton
(1915 - 1968) Timeline
Original LanguageEnglish

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.

Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions.

Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.

What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Suffering, revisited

Today was a day of suffering for me, for reasons I will not go into here.

I forced myself to spend 15 minutes in quiet contemplation this afternoon, only to spend most of it sobbing, alone out on my front porch. I felt as if I were buried under a pile of rubble and could hardly breathe. This is how depressed people feel all the time. How fortunate that I can sit with it for a while and then move on to another place.

I have come to a new understanding of my suffering. It puts me in touch with the suffering of others, that is common to all humanity, and so it has value that I didn't see before. Actually, it is a pearl of great price. I believe that all my compassion started in suffering. I could be a very wicked and cruel person without having been through that painful forging of my soul! Thank goodness there is a purpose for my suffering, because my personality type is such that I will never stop being aware of the great tragedy that is so intertwined with all life.

As I was crying this afternoon, I thought of Berta, who has lost a son, who told me this morning that it had been a rough week for her. Perhaps she also had spent time crying out on her porch.

Then I got on Facebook this evening to check on my 20 or so friends and family, and found that my best friend from high school had had a very difficult week and asked for prayers.

I also read today's installment of the Upper Room, which featured a scripture passage from Lamentations.

But perhaps the way the Holy Spirit best cared for me today was in the words of two of our church elders, who are taking a spiritual formation class that I am in (one of them is leading it). Shelley said that my words in the last class had stayed with her all week, and then her husband piped up and said he even had a dream about it! So I know it was the Holy Spirit's work in leading me to say those things.

In the last class, I had been asked to read this scripture: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul, and all your strength." I then went on to explain my interpretation of this passage: Love comes first! It must precede everything else. It comes before rules and commandments, and it comes before judgment. I said that I could overcome my human nature by looking at other people with the eyes of love, through God's eyes. When I was able to do that, it completely transformed my image of them -- particularly people who gave me difficulty, whom I disliked or was in conflict with.

I was reminded of these statements I made just last week, and it revealed so clearly my sinfulness today, the cause of most of my suffering. I was not using those eyes of love today, let me tell you!

This spiritual formation class is such a breath of fresh air. It's completely what I need in a group study, and so different from the painful experience I had in Disciple Bible class, where my own theology clashed dramatically with that of most of the rest of the class. My problem is I can't be silent when I disagree so passionately. What I disagree with the most vehemently is another's small-mindedness that places limits on God's love and compassion, and narrows the field of God's beloved to "the saved," only those who meet certain criteria. Let's just say, if the discussion turns to religion and politics, most of the time I'm in deep trouble, because my views are quite different from those of most church-goers to my small, rural, church community.

But I do love them all anyway! I may not like them all, but that's another story.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Random thoughts

This could be the title of every one of my posts!

Andrew and I both had dreams about sharks last night. He didn't remember much about his, except that it was a nightmare. In this dream, he was exploring a coral reef, and it was dark and murky and there were sharks around, somewhere, lurking.

I have had a number of dreams where I am above a coastline, looking over an ocean, which is beautiful. I'm either on a hill overlooking the beach, or in a lovely, airy cafe looking out on the ocean. This was the setting of my dream last night. I was watching two large sharks frolic in the water, and I was trying to show Andrew, but I couldn't catch his attention. (I suppose he was too involved in his own nightmare to enjoy my dream with me!) The sharks looked like they could be dangerous, but they were obviously playing. My recent dreams involving sharks have been about how they seem dangerous, but upon reflection, they are actually a lovely part of God's creation. Or, at least, they aren't really threatening after all, the threat is an illusion.

Another popular location for my dreams is at the gate of our house; either keeping me in, or holding some threat out; or on journey, by foot, along the road that runs in front of our house. It seems like these places are ones of transition, or change. The coastline, the shore, is a metaphor used for many things -- the beginning of the necessary journey we take during our lifetimes; a journey away from our selves, to a far place away from the safe and known, perhaps even to the other side of death. Odysseus lived on an island and that was his home, from where he ventured on a great adventure, then returned, then went on another more private, late-in-life journey before returning home for the last time. (I had the chance to review Homer's epic tale, listening to "Falling Up" by Father Richard Rohr.)

Now I can see that the fasting that I did over Lent this year was important. Turns out, it was a needed first step toward changing my entire attitude toward food. I need to give up certain clinging habits and addictions surrounding food. After fasting, I have become so grateful that I can eat whenever I want, from a great variety of foods! So I am learning to focus on the abundance I have, and not on what I might need to give up. This lesson has taken seven years (and counting) for me to learn, and I'm still working on it!

I stopped drinking coffee and most caffeinated tea, once again, after the end of tax season (so a few weeks ago). I always have this convenient mental trick I play to ease the transition -- "It's only temporary." At some point in the (not-so-distant) future, I can start back enjoying coffee again ... maybe. Though, I must say, drinking coffee would usually give me a stomachache, and I'm not sure it was worth that. Not unless it was really good coffee ...

In response to quitting these supposed trigger beverages, my reflux did a surprising thing: it got worse! Actually, I'm not sure that what I have is reflux. That's the symptom, but what is causing it? Mouth sores (most recently a terrible ulcer on my tongue), runny nose, burning around my lips, a persistent sour taste in my mouth, coughing, and often a sore throat. I don't feel the classic burning sensation of heartburn that much, but these other symptoms have been more noticeable lately. I really feel for people who have ulcers in their mouth and throat, because they are very painful. They make it difficult to talk and eat.

I decided to start eliminating entire food groups that I might have developed a sensitivity to. First on the chopping block was wheat and gluten. My mom decided to eliminate these from her diet, which she did for many years later in life, due to problems she was having. So does this mean I can't eat oatmeal that was processed "in a factory where wheat products are processed"? Dunno.  I have been weaning myself from grains, except for breakfast, for a number of years already. I just felt they were superfluous and I usually didn't enjoy them enough to want to eat them except as a convenience item, say the bread to spread peanut butter and jelly on in a sandwich. I don't know, a PB&J with no bread -- a little difficult to concoct. Right now I have rice cakes, though I long for something I can put in the toaster. The gluten-free bread is rather pricey, though.

Next to give up -- possibly dairy, though I may have to make do with just replacing cow's milk. It would be tough to combine a strict no-wheat regimen with no-dairy, though I guess it could be done. Honestly, I found it easier to go without wheat than to totally give up yogurt and cheese, which I enjoy every day.

What I wish is that there were some simple test to determine food allergies and intolerances. But from what I've read and heard from other people, there's not. Often, the conclusive tests are invasive. At this rate, I'll need an endoscopy sometime soon, so maybe they can do some other tests while they are there. I know I tested negative for H. pylori (the ulcer bacteria) around six years ago, the last time I had one. I'm not sure if they tested me for lactose intolerance (which Austin has) or if they could test for celiac disease, which apparently must be done by taking a sample from the small intestine. But I wonder, even if I didn't test positive for that disease, if I could still be intolerant of a certain food group. Wheat/gluten is a challenge because it's included in so many foods, like gravies and broths, and used to bind other foods.

The one group I would really miss would be nuts, which is another food item that gives many people trouble. Nuts!! I have to have my nut fix every day, and often enjoy several types of nuts -- peanuts and peanut butter, almonds, cashews, walnuts. Yum!

Yes, I'm planning to consult with my doctor ... though there's another dilemma. What kind of doctor? ENT? GI? Allergist?? I may go to my primary care doctor, once again Dr. Chavez, and see where he points me. He was the one who sleuthed out reflux in the first place! I was having constriction in my throat (a very alarming symptom) that sent me to the ER a couple of times, where they were looking for a pulmonary embolism. Turns out, my vocal cords were going into spasm because of irritation from acid. TMI, maybe, but if this helps someone else, it's all good. I am officially signing off on the HIPAA release right now.

Let's face it -- all these problems are small potatoes. In general, I am the picture of health! Just to prove that point, I am going to work out today, one of my favorite activities.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The similarity of human thought

I was trying to clean up my clutter from the open counter between our kitchen and living room, where all the paperwork and unread mail accumulates. I was about to throw away our church's Lenten "prayers for courage and change" which consists of submissions by church members of prayer requests. But, of course, I had to flip through it just one more time. I was looking to see if I could figure out what my husband turned in. I haven't found his yet, but I found others that I could swear that I wrote. Or if not, they tuned perfectly with my heart. (meaning, they probably weren't written by him, ha!)

It wasn't hard to spot my own submission! It stood out: wordy, with a bit of dramatic flair. It had me written all over it!

When we meet in groups in my church, I am usually reminded of all our differences. I'm more liberal than many (though not all!) our members. Our political views tend to be opposite, though again, there are a number of people who think more like me (this is one thing I love about United Methodism -- that it can attract free thinkers better than probably any other mainstream Christian denomination).

However, there are times that our common humanity is so apparent that the differences all fade away, for a time, and I truly am capable of loving my neighbors, every one of them -- for a moment, anyhow! One such time is during communion at church. I can't express in words the way that communion affects me. It "embodies" the spiritual power of grace. It brings it into the body, which is why it is such a powerful ritual. Any spiritual practice that is disconnected from the body is sadly lacking. When we each eat bread and have a bit of "wine" (grape juice), representing the body and blood of Christ, God truly does become incarnate and the holy presence comes alive.

I look at every other person in the church at such times, and our common bonds -- our joys, our suffering -- are so apparent to me. I see grace shining on every person, and the divinity of every person shines out at that moment, overcoming all human limitations and separation.

Anyhow, here are a few prayers that I could have written, or that I really relate to:

To eat more slowly, and mindfully -- to choose what I eat and how much I eat

Work harder and complain less

To start worrying less about the safety of my family and to have faith that they will be ok

Pray that my wife (spouse) and I have the strength to instill more discipline in our children -- I'll have to ask, this could actually be Dwaine's!

I need courage to not over-commit, prioritize, and say no to some things and some people

This one echoed part of my prayer, which was to stop judging my loved ones:
To be free and not so demanding of those I love. To let things go and just enjoy being with them. Be more like Mary, less like Martha.

This last sentiment sort of contradicts the one about more discipline for the kids. Sigh -- story of my life. Conflicting thoughts, desires, all clamoring for my attention and approval.

Monday, April 23, 2012

An apology for the prior post

Well, I'm having technical difficulty with my blog. I can't ever log in! The system does not recognize the password, and I have to constantly reset it to get here. I know I'm doing something wrong, but don't know what.

I want to make an apology, in the old-fashioned sense of a defense or explanation, for the previous blog post. Let's see here ... while I am a deeply spiritual person and I feel a close, personal and life-saving relationship with my own personal divinity, I am not a particularly religious person. I don't feel bound by the traditions or customs of any particular style of worship, though I do identify myself as a United Methodist and I am a member of the United Methodist Church. I realize that my savior is not your savior. He/she can't be! Even if we both said we were Christians, our relationship with God and Christ is as individual as a fingerprint and simply can't be duplicated. Hence the saying, "God has no grandchildren." Each of us is God's children, and can't transfer that relationship, even to our own children, indirectly. Each of us must experience that relationship (or not) by ourselves, though it often is sparked through the loving action of others.

I believe that God is quite a bit more comfortable with diversity than most people are. Most people want to hang around others of our own type, who think the way we do and hold most of the same beliefs. I've always rebelled against that notion. Of course, I have my own unconscious or semi-conscious biases, a whole bunch of them! I am human, too. But I know that God loves -- adores -- great variety. Look around! There isn't just one type of anything. There's a great abundance of plants and animals, and the same variety holds true for people as well, even as we become more global and more aware of our human commonalities.

Therefore, I delight -- as I truly know that God does -- in the variety of religious traditions that humans have devised over our time on this planet. I don't denigrate any of them, and I don't rank any as more worthy, including my own -- although I don't profess to understand them all. I detest all religious traditions, including within Christianity, that condone violence of any sort, or that repress freedom of thought.

This is why I can't call myself a Christian. That word has so many negative connotations and much negative baggage attached to it, unfortunately. Perhaps this is largely in my mind, but I don't think so.

It bothers me that some of my dearest friends might have difficulty understanding what I was trying to convey in my previous posting, because it was so clothed in religious language.

I believe that holy scriptures are divinely inspired because they can be interpreted on so many levels, by different people in changing circumstances. I invite you to remove the religious aspects from the Bible verses I have quoted and seek to interpret them from the context of your own world view.

My friend Karen emphasizes that the Bible, particularly the parables and other teachings of Jesus, are laden with paradox. He'll say one thing, then say its opposite. So those who take a quick and easy interpretation are almost certainly missing something important. (Notice that I didn't quite say they were "Wrong!!" though I was tempted to)

When Jesus says, "I will make you fishers of men," what does he mean by that? Does it mean to go out and convert as many people as possible to Christianity?

Let me say that I can't be the final authority of what any scripture passages mean ... just as no one else can! I think that practicing any spiritual or religious tradition leads you down the path toward a much keener interest in every human being you meet. I think that touching upon the divine is also a way of touching into our common humanity, and recognizing that we are all part of one group, no matter how different we are in many ways. So the suffering of others suddenly becomes a personal problem. It's no longer neatly removed and happening to "someone else," "somewhere else" because every person is a part of this one great organism that also includes me. (I personally also include all of the living creation as one organism.)

It takes a lifetime of study to make spiritual progress, I believe, in any tradition. The one you follow is your choice, and I respect that choice and offer it to you! I think it is a choice that you should make, and not put off as I have.

Life calls me back. Oh, for a time I could just write, and write, and write. But life is a good and sweet thing, too.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I am a United Methodist!

It's taken me years to be able to make this simple statement with confidence. Today, Rev. Ross preached a simple sermon about how Jesus called his first disciples, the fishermen brothers Simon (Peter) and Andrew, James and John. He said, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Rev. Ross pointed out that most people forget about the "follow me" and just remember that disciples of Christ are to be fishers of men (people). However, you must first follow Jesus and his example, or nothing else will work! That precedes everything else. And following Jesus is no simple matter.

I had to ask myself, have I been faithfully following Jesus, my Lord and savior? Or have I been quibbling, refusing to "join" any group, insisting on my outsider status for all this time? I've never been a joiner. I much prefer to remain unaffiliated. (There's a funny line in "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?" about that.) Yet today, somehow it sank in that the least that Jesus could ask me to do would be to make a firm commitment that I am his follower! What a mistake I've made in failing to commit my whole self to his service. To put it in a coarse but quite descriptive way, time to s*** or get off the pot!

I still have a difficult time calling myself a Christian. There's simply too much baggage around that word for me. However, I am glad to be a United Methodist and a disciple of Jesus Christ. I still greatly admire the Buddha and his teachings, but I won't use that as an excuse any longer, to give less than my absolute all in service of my faith. The faith I was raised with, that is my cultural home base.

I've always been able to see multiple sides of most issues. I can understand and empathize with a variety of viewpoints, though I still stubbornly cling to my own views as the most correct! The problem with seeing around the globe of most problems is that it makes me paralyzed, at times, unable to decide on a single course of action. Life doesn't happen in a linear fashion, so how can I make just a single decision and move forward with it, when there are always so many alternatives?

If I can't even say that I am following Jesus, it is reminiscent of Paul's passage on charity-love. "If I speak with the tongues of angels and have all wisdom, but have not love, I am but a loud gong or a clanging cymbal." Strangely, my mom quoted this passage to me. Mom, who certainly had a difficult and prickly relationship with God! But it struck me what a beautiful passage it was -- it resonated with me, and I heard it first from my mother.

If I seek to help others, but cannot say why or where my intention comes from, the gesture is strangely empty. Then I am just being a nice person, but I don't bring the power of divine compassion with my efforts.

Here's an interpretation of the miracle of the loaves and fishes that speaks so loudly to me. Jesus receives this small -- measly, even -- offering of a few loaves and fishes, far too little to feed the overwhelming crowd that surrounds him, that is so hungry and needy. This is how I feel every day, overwhelmed by all the needs of this world. How can one person make any difference at all in the midst of so much suffering?

Yet -- here is the miracle -- when small gifts are placed into the hands of Jesus, they are transformed! They can help thousands, of thousands. Small gifts. All we have to offer is small gifts, yet they are transformed when they are placed in Jesus's hands, to use as he would have us do.

Jesus, may I give all my gifts to you ... all I have, all I am, to your service.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Happy Easter!

I was looking for a homeopathic, or holistic, or some-such doctor to help me with my acid reflux, and came across this great little article about eating mindfully:

This isn't just for weight loss, by the way! It's for everybody. Here is an excerpt. Good reminder, just in time for that Easter splurge of a meal! I thought it was quite humorous, too. Who ever starts out to eat to a level 10? Yet I bet every one of us has done it before, and for some it's a bad habit. As Thomas Jefferson said (it's one of his "10 rules" posted in my office), Few people ever repented of eating too little! Especially living here, when you can always have more food later.

The rule of thumb is to start eating at about Level 3 or 4 and stop eating at Level 6 or 7.
The Hunger Level Scale

Level 1 — Famished

Your stomach is completely empty; you’re weak and light-headed.

Level 2 — Starving

You’re uncomfortable and irritable and unable to concentrate.

Level 3 — Uncomfortably hungry

Your stomach is rumbling.

Level 4 — You’re slightly uncomfortable

You’re beginning to feel the signs of hunger and can’t wait to eat.

Level 5 — Neutral and comfortable

You’re more or less satisfied.

Level 6 — Completely satisfied.

You’ve eaten just the right amount of food and are completely comfortable. The key is to stop here.

Level 7 — Satisfied

At this point, you may be feeling a bit too full. If you don’t stop at this level on the hunger scale, you’ll soon feel ill.

Level 8 — Uncomfortably full

You feel bloated and are starting to feel uneasy.

Level 9 — Very uncomfortable and full.

You feel like loosening your clothes.

Level 10 — Completely stuffed and miserable.

You feel nauseated and need to take something for stomach relief. You can’t function, and you want to lie down.
This naturopath has some really simple and doable suggestions for better digestion. Here's one I will definitely try: don't drink a lot of liquids when eating a meal. Her theory is that it dilutes stomach acid and makes it harder for the stomach to digest food. Sounds reasonable to me!

Then, of course, there's the idea of pausing and taking some deep breaths instead of inhaling your food! This is one I need to work on. I am of the stuff-it-in school, always in a hurry, it seems. I like her suggestion of grazing throughout the day, especially since that is my natural style already. She seems to have a chip on her shoulder about dairy and lactose, and possibly also grains -- though it may just be that most Americans eat way too much starchy food, bread, rice, potatoes, etc. and need to cut back.

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Fasting" for Lent

Wow, long time no posts! That ski trip seems like so long ago, another life almost.

I wish I could have kept a journal of my "fasting" for Lent (technical difficulties in blogoland -- I notice the space bar is not always working, so bear with me). I have to qualify the term because I fasted between meals only, M-F only!! That's all I could stand to do, with it being tax season as well. That has been challenge enough. Let's see, the fasting is around 6-7 hours without food two times a day, and I have noticed it quite a bit. 

This year, I finally had a persuasive reason to fast, and I have started to grasp why fasting is so spiritually significant. It's a way to untangle all the cords that tether the mind/spirit to the body. It's just one avenue to tell the body, you're not the boss of me! (Of course, I'm not sure who is the boss around here most of the time.)

As I told my spiritual guide, Cecilia, I wanted to observe some fasting to be in solidarity with the people of Kinshasa, Congo. That country has abundant natural resources which have been misdirected and squandered. Food is imported from other countries at a high price, rather than grown locally, making it unaffordable for the people, so they have a system to survive. They choose which family members, including children, will eat on which days. Each family member eats one day, then fasts one day. This is not a mere exercise or a choice, because they have no choice. Imagine that kind of hunger and want, right now, and it makes our overabundance of food seem a bit sickening.

Cecilia was on the same wavelength. This year, she is fasting for indigenous people who live in remote mountainous areas of Mexico and are experiencing great hardships and deprivation due to a severe drought and harsh winter. 

I think that untethering our souls from our bodies is a crucial step in progress toward, shall we say, enlightenment. Not to be unaware of how the body is feeling, but to be separate from it and allow it to suffer without the spirit also suffering. This would completely transform the approach to all human misery, which is so deeply connected with our physical bond to our body and to one another. "There is an end to suffering," says Buddha.

My latest philosophical epiphany is this: we are our attitudes! Nothing else is important, nothing else in life is even real. The way we approach everything is crucial, and makes all the difference. Our life's work is a continual attitude adjustment. Life is so fleeting, so uncertain, and the dramatic storyline is a distraction from the important work. 

So, to report on the fasting. Since this is me we're talking about, I have eased the way for my own suffering! I don't "eat" but I often enjoy a hot tea latte (complete with milk, i.e., protein, and some sweetener, nice and filling) late in the afternoon, when my body is demanding some attention. 
I wanted to try to describe the many aspects of hunger, having experienced it twice a day now. The hunger I have can't be anything like people who are truly malnourished and starving. It's just a shadow of that ferocity of deprivation. Even so, it is interesting how pervasive the effects can be. I have trouble concentrating (and this worries me because my job requires great concentration). I often get a dull headache in the afternoon. I feel weary. Of course, I have trouble being cheerful. It's quite similar to a car running out of gas! The get up and go, got up and went. 

This is how Austin described hunger, and he's a ravenous teenage boy, so is something of an expert! One year, he had a late lunch period at school and ate after 1 pm (right after math class, one of his most difficult classes) every day. He would describe feeling incredibly hungry midmorning. Then, by the time it got closer to his lunchtime, he told me, "My stomach died and I wasn't hungry anymore." 

I know what he means. By the time I eat lunch, after 1 pm (having eaten breakfast around 6 am), I am not experiencing the usual feelings of hunger and could keep on working, though I feel out of sorts. But I've noticed that my body is adjusting to the new schedule, and it is not so physically demanding as it was at first. 

I can sympathize with people who are trying to lose weight. It's really hard to feel hungry and not eat! Worse, it is easy to overeat when you really are running on empty. That is another challenge. I often come home and stuff myself around 8 pm, then feel uncomfortably bloated. Though, I must admit, I prefer the feeling of being too full to being too hungry! I sprawl into bed about 2 hours later, not having digested my meal.

Let me not end this post with that fulsome image!

My boys are growing up so fast. Austin is due to graduate from high school, and Andrew wants to get his driver's permit and a summer job. (I am bullying Andrew, at this moment, to sign up as a zoo volunteer as a backup plan. It's hard for teens to get summer jobs these days, especially the nondriving ones!)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Our ski adventure

Home ... all of us well, no bones broken, nothing torn that would require surgery! Quite the successful weekend ski getaway, all told. I felt bad for Dwaine, who trekked to the top of the mountain and retrieved lunch, shoes, and other assorted items while the rest of us went skiing. He did get preboarding on Southwest Airlines, though, being less than a week out from surgery when we departed.

I was a ski school dropout. You've heard the song, "Beauty School Dropout?" Yes, I flunked ski school -- the one for those "first experiencing" skiing, no less -- and sent myself to the remedial class the second afternoon, after falling (not quite literally) far behind my so-called "beginner" peers. Here's the story.

I was the one who was late to the party ... by the time I had fussed with all the apparel, gotten both ski boots on, made an extra trip to the bathroom, and ascertained that our older son had given up on the rest of us and gone ahead, Andrew and I were late for ski school. Andrew, being habitually late, was unconcerned by the small detail that our group had left and gone up the mountain already without us. We stood forlornly by the "first experience - ski" sign at the base of the mountain, just the two of us, until a helpful instructor noticed us. He then proceeded to personally escort us to join the group at the midway station, where ski school was starting. He even carried my skis for me! The boys wound up in one group together, while I joined a second group.

I learned that first morning to put on skis, put them on again if they popped off, how to ski one-legged, and finally, how to sort of ski down a very gentle slope without injuring myself or anyone around me. My group was actually a perfect fit for me, consisting as it did of one person who came down with altitude sickness and had to leave, and another person who fell down on her skis whenever she moved. Between those two, the instructor didn't make much progress with the rest of us.

We removed our skis and went to the summit in enclosed gondolas (no barbaric chair lifts for the likes of us) to lunch, and I was promptly separated from the group. No worries, though. I quickly found my lunch waiting with my faithful hubby, Dwaine. PB&J sandwiches I had made the night before, naturally chilled water, and an apple -- the best lunch ever!

It occurred to me at some point that I didn't know where or when my ski group was to gather for the rest of the full-day lesson. Dwaine went off to watch the boys ski while I absorbed the fact that not only was I lost, my shins were being mercilessly squeezed by ski boots that had to have been invented by someone with a sadistic streak. The pain was radiating up my legs, through my whole body, and to my brain till I could think of nothing else. Through the mental fog, a thought finally struck: I'd had enough fun for one day. As much fun, in fact, as I could stand. So I staggered through the snow back to the gondola, dragging all my ski gear with me, and went on the long ride down the mountain, where I got fitted for a better-padded ski boot that they apparently reserved in the back only for people who complained enough.

That was my first day. A good day it was, especially the half-day bit, as we were to return for another full day of similar excitement the following day. The kids fared better than I did, being natural daredevils, and actually bumbled their way down the mountain without either killing and maiming (that I know of) or being killed themselves, and with only about a dozen falls apiece. What a victory! We were all in bed, enjoying the absolute motionlessness and warmth, by 8:30.

The next day was even more promising. It turned out that I had never turned in my ski school ticket the day before. What this meant, a helpful attendant at the rental place explained, was I could go again! Yippee!

This time, I was no longer having my "first experience," so I was bumped up to "beginner." By the way, I was early, not late, for the day two lesson. This time, the group summited right away. We spent the morning learning to stop and turn down a very gentle hill, taking a nice little conveyer-belt ride back up to the top in amongst loads of about 6-year-old kids that were also skiing and snowboarding there. Just my speed! But then, right before lunch, the instructor took us to a terrifying-looking hill and announced that next, we would ski down this slope. There was a cliff on one side, and trees lining the other, plus a steep turn to avoid the cliff. Yikes! I started very tentatively before falling over, just short of the tree (to avoid the cliff side of the hill.) After I got to my feet with assistance, I skidded down a short way before falling again. I have no memory of how I finally got down that hill to the chair lift that we had to ride to get lunch, this time.

After the lunch break, I knew that I was out of my element. I went up to one of the instructors on the mountain and asked -- begged, actually -- to switch to an even more "beginner" group, the one that would have just finished learning to put on their skis in the morning. Of course, since I was paying, regressing was no problem. I went happily to the remedial class and spent the afternoon skiing even more slowly than I had in the morning, on tiring legs. Once again, the instructor capped off the lesson by taking us to the terrifying slope! This time, I managed to -- very slowly -- weave my way down, back and forth, very very slowly. Did I mention how slowly I was going? Somebody walking down the slope in snowshoes would have gotten to the bottom quicker.

I only fell twice, and got up by myself both times. Getting up on my own was truly my greatest accomplishment while skiing!

On day two, the boys went all the way down the hill on a difficult green slope about 6 times. Next time, they want to learn to snowboard! Yes, there will be a next time, sometime. The best part is that Dwaine will get to ski then!

Sorry, we took no pictures while at the summit, (that would have been Dwaine's job, and that explains it). We snapped a few just before we piled in the car with our luggage to drive out of snow back to Denver. Those don't look too convincing. Not only do we not have our ski gear on, Andrew --- in typical fashion -- isn't even wearing a coat. I haven't loaded them to the computer, and it's too much trouble to get them posted here at this moment. Besides, you don't come here for pictures!

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