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.

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