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!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Thomas Merton, the contemplative life, and grace

Almost done with "The Seven Storey Mountain." The second half is easier and more interesting for me, when he really gets enraptured by everything about Catholicism and his vocation as a contemplative monk.

He describes grace as well as I've seen it done anywhere. He spoke of the Baroness de Hueck, who worked with the black community in Harlem during World War II. She came to speak at St. Bonaventure College in New York, where he taught. He described her as nondescript, drab, and of course a woman -- meaning that he didn't expect her to inspire much attention or interest! But he said he came in to the hall while she was speaking and immediately became aware of the rapt attention of the audience on what she was saying. It was because of the strong, simple message she carried, and her conviction in her work. In fact, he later watched her ministering to ordained priests, carrying that divine power with her wherever she went.

This was more than an individual alone could ever do. This is where grace comes in, and a person is able to channel the power of the holy spirit, that transforms an individual human being into a channel for doing God's work in this world.

Merton's greatest love was writing, it seems, and he experienced God through his writing. He is still alive to us today because of the body of his work. How amazing for all writers, the immortality given by the written word! (Hopefully, the writing is good, not mediocre! Wouldn't it be simply ghastly to be mediocre for all eternity?)

Some other amazing thoughts from Merton. If we wish to be saints, we pray to be so. God does the rest, the part that we cannot do. We cannot predict the outcome of any action where God is involved.

I've gotten to the part where Merton experiences a complete surrender to the will of God, and is able to rest in it for the first time in his life. This is shortly before he is accepted as a Trappist monk. (They are a silent order except that they also chant and sing.) He realizes that it no longer matters whether he becomes a monk or if he's drafted into the Army, because it is God's will. But before this, he went through tremendous suffering about whether he should be a priest.

Finished reading his book tonight. I need to buy it and reread the Epilogue often. Simply devastating, his brother's young death in WWII. All those young men whose lives have been cut off by war!

Merton is also an Enneagram Type 4. Here's more information on Type 4's if you are interested:

http://www.enneagram.net/type4.html

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Impermanence

Last night called to mind a life-changing experience I had. I went to a meditation session given by a Tibetan lama, Tulku Tsori Rinpoche, at the Haven for Hope, perhaps more than a year ago. This is the lama who is the spiritual guide for my Buddhist friends who live in Floresville. (Yes, imagine that -- Buddhists in Floresville! They're everywhere!)

What was striking about this experience, for me, was that I was as calm and settled as I have ever been in my life. I had that moment of spiritual transformation that people have when they are around a saint -- I wanted to follow the lama around everywhere, leave my life behind and serve him so I could have this feeling always. It's described in the Bible, when people experience Jesus and drop everything, leave their everyday lives behind to follow him.

I remember the lama talking about "impermanence" -- a central concept in Buddhism -- and how it was his kick-start to each day. Other people drink coffee, he declared. I think about -- his nostrils flared as if he was smelling the coffee brewing -- impermanence!

Well, personally, I'm still totally hooked on coffee -- among other things. I guess I can meditate on impermanence all right in the mornings, so long as a steaming cup of joe is close by. Yeah, that'll never change! (I say with assurance.) Is there coffee in heaven? A pivotal question!

Addictions aside, I have become much more aware of impermanence in life. It's amazing because things can last for a seemingly long time, like my marriage (24 years) ... Dwaine's previous job (30 years) ... where we live (18 years) ... but even these solid structures in our lives can change in a flash. Dwaine's job was gone, after 30 years, and they gave him two weeks to find his footing again. That's how change often happens, a sudden shock like a natural disaster, and you look around and say, what in God's name just happened here? Where did my comfortable, safe and predictable life go?

Dwaine's got a kidney stone, about a week and a half out from our planned vacation to go skiing! He will have surgery early next week. The trip was the first big "going-away" vacation we were thinking of since we went to South Padre over Spring Break. I don't think we have gone anywhere more than a couple of days at a time since then. On top of everything else, Dad's fighting a cold that so far has gotten worse, not better. Everything is up in the air, like always, but this time I can see that so clearly.

The old me would have been very upset at the thought of canceling a beloved vacation, especially for a bad reason! I clung to those bright spots in the dull background of my life, like vacations.

But these days, I feel more content with my life where I am, and don't hold out as much hope of a vacation magically transporting me to some incredibly happy place. Father Rohr described this phenomenon. He said he could be on the most beautiful beach in the world, and it just wouldn't be good enough. Why? It would dawn on him ... "Oh yeah, I'm still me." He could never find a place to travel that was such a paradise that he could leave behind all that personal baggage, the conflict and turmoil of his own soul! 

I am slowly learning to get to a place of relative calm, peace, even happiness, wherever I am, in whatever circumstances. Of course, I haven't tested this theory under any real great adversity, so it might not hold up.

Those mood swings that used to be a deep part of me have changed -- this is one area where I can say, Thank God for impermanence! The best part of constant change is seeing some of these stubborn bad habits finally give way, after years of work.

Speaking of impermanence, this is what brought it to mind. Dwaine and I had ourselves a little adventure last evening. I had just finished cooking dinner and putting everything out on the table. Dwaine was in the shower, an odd time for him to be, but he was feeling unwell and knew a shower would help. While he was finishing, his phone rang twice -- two missed calls. When he listened to the message, he came out to the dining room and told me, "This is a call I really don't want to make." I could see that something was really wrong.

He had gone in for an afternoon CAT scan to confirm if he had a kidney stone. The hospital had just called and said, "You need to call the radiologist right away!" Dwaine had to listen to the message again, write down the phone number, and then call. That was the longest minute or so that he and I have experienced in quite some time. So while Dwaine was fumbling with the phone, I sort of automatically started grabbing the dinner stuff off the table again and putting it back. If one thing was clear, it was that we weren't going to be dining at home!

I sat down beside him as he made the dreaded call. I tried to appear outwardly calm, but my mind was racing. What could it be? A burst appendix? Dwaine wasn't in much pain. We didn't know for sure if it was really a kidney stone at that point.

The radiologist had been unable to talk to Dwaine's doctor, and ordered him to the ER right away based on a large kidney stone that could be causing a blockage. So we went. It was the usual four-hour ordeal (which was actually quick by ER standards), and eventually we learned that the radiologist was overreacting -- there was no sign of infection, and Dwaine's condition wasn't an emergency sufficient to stay at the hospital, so long as he followed up with a urologist right away.

I started thinking about all the things we usually take for granted, like being able to sit down and eat dinner! It was such a relief that nothing was terribly wrong, this time. This was not a cancer diagnosis, or a death sentence, though Dwaine was scared out of his wits when he got the message. We joked later about the worst thing the radiologist could have said: "We've just determined, Mr. Smith, that you are clinically dead!! Get to a morgue, now!" Now that would be reason to panic. Except I suppose it's too late to panic when you are dead already!

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