July 31, 2008

Thank You

Songwriters have always touched me. I appreciate a good melody and harmony, I even know the difference between an arpeggio and a cord, a symphony and a sonata, but I ever was a lover of words. An author or a poet can paint pictures with words, they can tell us the emotions to be felt, describe them in every tiny and monstrous detail, but a songwriter has other means. A song, for all its brevity, can contain an enormous amount of meaning even a poet would stumble to convey. So when I look for a song, a good song, I judge the words as much as the music, the emotion more than the skill, the content above the substance.

I was listening to my favorites play list while I worked the other day, in the midst of a fascinating article about the importance of engineering expertise in the air conditioning industry just after the turn of the century. (Yes, it actually was interesting.) Thank U, a song by Alanis Morissette came over my headset. Now Alanis gets a bad wrap because of her vocal style, but I’ve always enjoyed her. She sings about harsh subjects, anger and pain, so I always though her style appropriate. (And she actually can sing, as evidenced by her role in the movie De-Lovely about Cole Porter.) I hadn’t heard Thank U in quite a long time. My favorites play list contains almost 400 songs , so it takes a while to cycle through. Hearing it just then, with everything I had been thinking of these past few weeks, convinced me Alanis is, in truth, a genius.

”Thank you India.” Thank you for the Buddha. I don’t doubt that India, as it claws its way to prosperity, still has much to teach the rest of the world, especially those of use who have grown cozy in our affluent societies.

”Thank you terror.” Thank you for showing me the fear within my own mind, the nature of my mind, and the every changing, transitory nature of life.

”Thank you disillusionment.” Thank you for tearing the veils from my eyes. Thank you for showing me that disappointment is not the end of the world. Thank you for giving me the courage to look in the scary places and ask the hard questions. I could have gone through my life accepting the illusions that I and society had built around me.

”Thank you frailty.” Thank you for always showing me how much I have to loose, that I might be grateful for it. Thank you for showing me that pain is just as transitory as pleasure. Thank you for teaching me to be careful and mindful.

”Thank you consequence.” Thank you for the understanding that all things are interdependent. Thank you for knowing I am not alone. My actions have an impact, even the very smallest ones, even the very largest ones, and there are others all around me.

”Thank you, thank you silence.” Thank you for all the people who sit with me and around me. Thank you for teaching me how to let go of my awkwardness, how to not seek distraction, and how to be.

”The moment I let go of it, Was the moment I got more than I could handle. The moment I jumped off of it, Was the moment I touched down.”

Thank you for all the negative things which aren't really negative at all.

July 26, 2008


Discipline is a bitch. And a half. Ya ever noticed that?

My vegetarianism lasted just as long as I didn’t have to eat anything yucky. My non-consumerism lasted just as long as my poverty. They were surprisingly easy to discard once they no longer suited my lifestyle or my whims. And meditation…let’s not even go there. I haven’t been able to maintain a daily practice for, well, ever actually. I came somewhat close last summer while I was living at the mountain center in the company of a sangha, but that fizzled out once the novelty wore off and the tediousness set in.

I’ve never much bothered with trying for force myself into something I don’t want to do. Oh, I try from time to time. I talk myself into all sorts of things. I’ll turn over a new leaf. Tomorrow, of course, always tomorrow. Someone I once knew liked to say “If you’re not having fun, go do something else,” and isn’t that always the way I’ve lived my life? That’s samsara I guess. Chase the blue butterfly when the red one isn’t pretty enough anymore.

But trying to force yourself into something you’re not, isn’t that just another type of chasing? Another way to deny the perfection of the perfect moment? And if I deny discipline, because after all the present moment is “perfect,” isn’t that just an apathetic copout?

Maybe. Yeah. But the Buddha (really smart guy, that one) had this thing he called the Middle Way. It’s what I like to think of as the “do what you can” doctrine. So that just leads to the question “What can I do?

Well, I’m renewing my commitment to vegetarianism by gradually eliminating meat from my diet. Never too strict, no hard and fast rules. My brother even let the cat out of the bag at a recent family gathering, so maybe I’ll test my new-found veggie-ism next time Grandma serves pot roast and see how that goes. I also want to buy less prepackaged food, more fresh veggies and cheeses, learn to cook a few more things.

I think I had consumerist whiplash this spring, because I spent a lot of money. Clothes, shoes, furniture, books, just plain fun, and it was fun too, but in the end I really don’t think I was that much happier, and now I’ve basically blown whatever little rainy day money I might have had. I’m coming up on a new semester, which always means a massive lump sum financial aid check. I also secured a contract to continue work with Rocky Mountain Institute in the fall, for a good hourly wage. As a result, I’ve turned down the teaching assistantship which would have had me driving 380 miles a week (Yay!). I’m determine to be more responsible and stash some away for emergencies, to do my best to live off my earnings, and to plan all my purchases in advance, save, and budget well.

As for meditation…well, I’m still not even gonna go there.

July 19, 2008

Afraid of the Dark

I have never seen the man in the moon. I have never seen a rabbit, wolf, snake, bat, or other kind of creature in that scarred silver surface. The moon has always been the moon, benevolently smiling down, even without a face. Yet even in its full and awesome light, I cannot shake the sense of wariness that steals upon me. The sense of fear.

I think there is a fundamental different in the way men and women are raised. Women are raised to fear. Oh, little boys are told, along side little girls, "Don't talk to strangers. Don't get in cars with strangers." But aside from the random serial killer and rabid dog, the dangers in this world are so much fewer. As women come of age they swiftly become aware of another predator, one who walks in right beside us down the street every day and makes up 48% of the population. We get pulled aside into special classes and spoken to about anorexia, date rape, stalkers, sexual predators, and domestic abuse.

Despite that, most of us turn out okay. Yet the vague sense that the world can in fact be a dangerous place lingers, always in the back of our minds, so ever present we don't even notice it. Until the dark. I am afraid of the dark.

Last summer I walked home every night after dark. It was not my own species I worried about, but where there is dark the imagination conjures monsters to fill it. Every time I left downtown and walked through the open meadow to my tent high in the trees, under starlight, moonlight, or clouded dark skies, I was afraid. Every time the adrenalin flowed, ears perked, eyes wide, head scanning, nose sniffing, all my senses alive. Every time I walked without a flashlight. Every time I was afraid.

Even now, sitting on a rock in the alley behind the little house I call home for this summer, the nearby intersection brightly lit, sounds flowing out from neighboring houses, and a full moon overhead, I still feel it. Not fear precisely, but wariness, the precursors of fight or flight. And my imagination conjures, drunks and bums, mountain lions have been spotted in the city, stray dogs, and drunk drivers. Nothing to get alarmed about, but it is always there, a steady background hum.

Can I shed it, or will I always live with this fear?

July 15, 2008

Little Perfect Present Moments

I will never need to go skydiving. I have felt myself plummet. The wind across my face, plastering my hair back, rushing in my ears blotting out all other sound. I have looked into the great blue, felt the unfiltered sunlight, and seen the world far below. I have leaned forward and not fallen. I have done all this while sitting on a rock at 12,000 feet on an tundra-covered peak, where the moss blooms in tiny pink flowers.

I followed the moon home one night. I drove on darkened roads while the low silver disk hung before me, as if it were nothing more than a bobble on my rearview mirror. It would swing back and forth with the twisting road, dip up and down with the hills rolling under the car, and then return to center, lighting the way home. And as I stood on the stoop and glanced to the west, only then did the bright, smiling moon tumble it’s bed beyond the ridge and so I did the same.

I find here and there granite seats where I can listen to the whispering trees and flowing water. I can feel sun warmed rock and mountain cooled breezes. I watch birds circle and ants wander and think my thoughts without deadline. I notice the neurosis, the ego, the anxiety is still there, but it is small now and distant, like the ant against the mountain or the bird against the sky. It is so much less important that it seemed only moments ago and will seem again sometime in the future.

I have flown on four swift legs not my own through the rushing course of trees and over the whipping grasses, across swift, clear streams, and around tumbled boulders. We watched a hawk circle overhead and listened to the ground squirrels shriek in warning. I have felt my breath match that of my horse, our ribs rising in unison. We smiled together, my smile all teeth and happy cheeks and crinkles around the corner of my eyes, his smile a high head, perked ears, and fast thumping hooves.

I wander the shelves of the library and sit with my prizes along the tumbling laughter of the creek, while young men in shorts and water shoes float lazily by and curious dogs with bright eyes prance beneath the shady trees. I share wine and cheese with friends, and laughter and Shakespeare too. We race to beat the sprinklers swinging across the walk and almost make it, shrieking in almost triumph.

I have seen the tall, dashing man on the dark steed crossing the green meadow, pennant flying in the wind, like in a story book. I have seen the white stockings on dark legs flashing through the tall grass, and the gleam of polished metal against black leather saddles and bridles. I have admired the sharply turned out uniform and shining boots of the man on the horse and looked forward to taking them off later.

I have rolled my eyes at my own behavior and then gone about it anyway, smooching in the Wal-Mart aisles and tickling in the aspen groves. I have teased and laughed and been very conscious of all the ways I shut down, close off, protect and defend against people who might, only just might, hurt me some amorphous someday. I have dragged out my introverted habits by their tails and held them up to the light only to realize the only one chewing on the slippers and peeing in the house is me. But I don’t scold them, no never that. I just stop feeding them until someday they might turn into little dust bunnies and blow away.

As I continue on, I find the great wide world is so much more interesting, so much more perfect in its every moment than all my little mental worrying ants and drifting birds and misbehaving dust bunnies.

July 02, 2008

Accepting Family

I think how we relate to our family can reveal a lot about our character, our own presuppositions, assumptions, and concepts of how the world should be. As I was a teenager, formulating views on myself and my world, deliberately creating the beliefs and opinions which would shape my outlook on life, I was surprised to realize how different these were from my parents. I suppose I naturally assumed I would be like my parents, that we would share the same beliefs and opinions. After all, they are good, intelligent people, so we should naturally come to the same conclusions, right?

As it turns out, we never really spent a lot of time discussing what they believed to be right and good. I think they actually trusted that as an intelligent person in my own right, I would naturally come to the same conclusions they had? It was obvious, wasn’t it? It turns out that one thing to which I hold now is that there is very frequently no one correct answer, no one right opinion, and that the strength of humanity comes not from a single person standing up to declare what is right and lead others forward down that path, but from so many people travelling down so many paths simultaneously and sometimes in seemingly opposite directions. It’s something of a strange way of hedging our bets with the universe.

Milton said: “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is be knowledge in the making.”

It was a surprise then to learn that I had not absorbed so many of my views from my parents, but mostly from media and popular culture. Premarital sex, single parents, homosexuality, environmentalism, religion, war, education, human rights and freedoms, so many things which we never explicitly discussed. So many things on which I was left to decide for myself, much to our mutual surprise.

Yet, ironically, I am so much like my family. I have the speech patterns and syntax of my mother. I have her intelligence and sharp wit. I have my father’s easy going nature and his tendency to laugh and tease ruthlessly. I have his subtle deepness. I am so grounded and practical – so Midwestern I have been called of late, in a strange form of compliment, like they didn’t actually think that type of person existed beyond redneck stereotypes. I am a dreamer and wisher, like the science fiction writers my dad likes so much. I am a geek like my older brother.

I know how to relate to my family, to their families, to their friends. Yet, I am not one of them. If they ask, I will not lie and then they’ll look at me as “Huh? How did that happen?” I think that bothers my mother almost as badly as some of our disagreements – the belief that some kind of failing in her raising resulted in me. (After all, the truth, what is right and good, is obvious, right?) Such thoughts rarely fall on the father, so he can take it with more ease.

I think I learned quite a bit about myself just attending my cousin’s big, fancy, very Christian wedding. I learned that I still want my family’s (my extended family, not just my folks) approval even as I flaunt their rules. I guess it is all part of a little game that says “Accept me, but accept me for who I am, not who you think I should be.” Of course, it is a very subtle, mysterious, and long running game, undoubtedly set to last a lifetime. It is a very interesting form of clinging, of attachment. I see why some orders insist their clergy give up their family, become entirely separate from it. One can never be completely genuine when one is seeking another’s approval. Of course, I know I will always have their love and support, and am secure in that knowledge, but…there will always be a but. “She’s family, but…” I think I need to let that go.

Maybe I need to be the accepting one.