The Most Important Thing

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This afternoon, I had the opportunity to speak to a very wonderful group of women.  I had no inkling that it was I who would be spoken to.

It was a work thing.  I was to go and give a lunch-time talk about our organization to a group of elderly ladies at the Jewish Community Center in the city where I work.  I had stressed about what I was going to wear.  I’d been nervous in the car on the way there.  The director of the program had said that there would be about 60 ladies present, ranging in age from 60 to 93.

When I arrived, the women were finishing their ice cream, and chatting amongst themselves at tables.  I said hello to this one and that one, all with my professional face on, glowing and smiling.  I’m pretty good at putting up the polite societal barriers, draping myself in the persona of my profession.  I was oh-so-charming.

The director of the program was wearing a blood-red blouse, fierce glasses, and had jet-black hair.  She led me to the lectern, which was designed for a man twice my height.  I felt conspicuous.  I had worn black sneakers.

One of the ladies came forward to introduce me.  The others slowly finished their desserts and then drifted forward to their chairs by the lectern, on canes and walkers, slender hands steadying themselves on the backs of metal seats.  As all of this was very slowly happening, the woman who would introduce me silently read my bio, a little nothing that I had self-consciously cobbled together earlier this morning.  She looked up at me and said, nodding, “You, are a very special lady.” I smiled, looked down, and then we exchanged a glance.

That glance…  Her eyes pierced though the polished persona in an instant, leaving me vulnerable and clumsy.  She, she was indescribably beautiful.  A tiny little thing, not more than five feet tall, with lovely coiffed hair and translucent porcelain skin.  Her eyes…

Now, I have to tell you something here.  When you are raised by a pathologically narcissistic mother, you have never, ever, heard the words “I love you” without suspicion.  They are always followed by a demand, a slap (or worse), or a painfully manipulative cruelty.  I’ve spent my entire lifetime hiding behind a wall, unable to hear love, unable to trust it.  But, I’ll tell you this, I’ve peeped out from my fortress for each of my 52 years whenever I’ve heard a kind voice, hoping…  hoping…

This lovely woman slowly walked the three steps to where I was standing, and carefully, gently, reached up to touch my face.  “You are a very, very special lady” she said again.  She patted my cheek.  She patted my arm.  She took my hand in hers.  I confess, I pretended for a moment that she was my mother, drinking in the feminine kindness that radiated from her, devouring it like a cool draught of water, stolen in the desert.

Then, this graceful, beautiful woman said softly, “I survived the holocaust.”

My tears came hot and insistent behind my eyes.  Fighting the urge to kiss her hands though the tears, I said to her, “I will tell my son about you, about having met you.  Many of his father’s family did not survive.”

“Do you know what the most important thing is?” she asked, patting my hand, her grey-blue eyes dancing,  “I have learned one thing in my life.  You tell this to your son.  The most important thing, the most important thing, is love.”

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My son and his girlfriend came by the office this afternoon.  He wanted to borrow a few dollars for some medicine.  His allergies are acting up.  I told him the story, and passed on the old woman’s words.  He stood in my office and wept.

The most important thing, the most important thing, is love.

Acceptance

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How deeply poignant, our struggle to “accept”.  How painfully overwhelming to wrestle with surges of agonizing grief, the black ocean of shame, the fear of what may come, or the steadfast desire to make things right.

We know beyond any doubt, and from our own experience, that some kind of acceptance would resolve, at least to a degree, the ferocity of the conflict within us.  And yet, the imperative to hang on to our idea of how things should be is so strong that it feels as though our very identity will die if we even imagine moving into harmony with our pain.

And, there is a measure of truth in that.

There is courage in the struggle for what is right.  There is an uplifting quality to our fervor when we plant the flag of outrage and refuse to move from it.  It makes us feel as though the ground beneath our feet has substance, if only temporarily.  And, we find it preferable to settle for this illusion of being right, because it gives us a little strength in the face of the thing that we can’t accept.  But, the pain is still there.

It is natural, it is our nature, to rise up against that which is wrong, or hurtful, dangerous or frightening.  We are compelled to act, and to act courageously.  The result is that we can, and do, improve our lives, our world, or even just a tiny portion of it.  Though the way is fraught with loss and heartache, we are willing, both alone and collectively, to do what is necessary.

And yet, although it is our nature to take a stand against what is wrong, there are times when we recognize that the battle or the event has come and gone.  The damage is done.  The world has moved on, but we have not.  We continue to fight – to fight the pain, the scars, the woundedness.  There are times when we realize that acceptance is called for, but even the idea of acceptance is abhorrent.  It seems an affront to our very nature to back down.  On what ground would we stand if we were to “accept” the source of our suffering?  What would that mean?  Who would we be?

The battle or event has come and gone.  The damage is done.  I can’t go backwards in time and change the myriad conditions that made my mother the person she was.  It is not possible to un-do the trauma.

We beg to know why.  If there were a reason, it might make sense.  In our desperation, we generate reasons – I was bad.  I was ugly.  I am broken.  We know in the depths of our hearts that this is not so.  It is our nature, it is the human way, to be able to put something to rest if there is a reason.  Human mind loves order, even at the expense of a lie that cripples us.

So, here we are, chasing our tails.  We can’t get in, we can’t get out.  Around and around we go, in denial, in anger, in pain.  We see no way out and no way through.  We cry out silently for someone to hear us, to help us.  We await the rescue that never comes, and out of the corner of our eye, we see acceptance as the only doorway.

What might that acceptance look like?  What if it weren’t as much like “giving up” or capitulating as we imagine it to be?  What if acceptance opened our hearts, gave us peace, made us stronger, and gave us back our dignity in such a way that we not only felt whole, but lighter, more spacious and loving?  And perhaps most important, what if we could do this in such a way that we get to keep the truth about what happened to us?

Peace does not appear when we push our pain away.  It appears when we stand hand in hand with it, in compassion.  Peace, real peace, arises when we stop struggling.

And there’s only one trick to it.  You must hold your own situation with as much tenderness as you would that of someone you love.

chicken hands bwHold it gently, in hands so kind that you begin to see the courage that you have had all along.  Recognize that your fight, your struggle, has been the human experience of rising up to right a wrong.  Have respect and compassion for that.  Recognize that your inability to make it right, or to find a reason for what happened is also the human experience.  It is not your failing.  This very brokenness, this uncertainty, is the ground upon which we all stand.

Envision this struggle, this pain that you carry, as the most precious thing in the world – not as something to cling to and identify with, but as the radiant core of our very human-ness.  Carry it with a child-like wonder that continuously expands and includes everything with heart-breaking tenderness.

It takes a little bit of practice.  Our habit of struggle is very strong.  But it erodes remarkably easily.  Don’t be deceived by the comfortable familiarity of your pain.  It would tell you that you are doomed to be plagued by your anguish for all eternity.  We like what is comfortable and familiar, even when it’s killing us.

Peace, real peace, arises when we stop struggling.  Peace begins with the love that you already have, and the courage to shine that light on your own heart.  Please be gentle.

Photo credit: © studiofascino – http://www.redbubble.com/people/studiofascino

First Evening of Spring

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Two apples from Panera, chopped into tiny pieces, tucked into a ziplock bag.  Step out through the mudroom with me into the dusk, on this, the first night of spring.

Mind the cat, he’s deaf.  Sixteen years old, and he still catches mice.  I find the tails and gut-bits on the mudroom floor where he spends his retirement stretched out in the sun.  Appreciate the skreeeee-BANG of the screen door behind us.  That’s a sound from our collective childhoods, even if our grandparents lived in an apartment.  We somehow remember that sound.

The work week and all its craziness follows us only as far as the red tube-steel gate, set into the wood fence that separates the back yard from the pasture.  But, before you raise the latch, stop.  Feel the breeze.  Let it carry the stress and tired and all the thoughts right out of your head.  Feel all of that flowing out through your hair, and away.  Breathe deeply.  Close your eyes for a moment.  The week is over.  There’s no rush.  No hurry.  Down shift, so that you can meet the horses humbly, where they are, not as an adjunct to your own story, your own identity.

Breathe.  Deep.  Taste the extreme green of the sugary new spring grass reaching up toward the sky.  Feel the baby-leaf-green of the vines and trees as the spring energy pours through them and into you.  Let the sweet smell of horse shit fill you without rejecting or approving.  The pulse of the tiny frog songs becomes the beat of your own heart.  Be still.  Smile…  Ahhh, that breeze…

Now, raise the latch on the gate.  Do remember to close it behind you.

Don’t worry about the mud from this morning’s downpour.  Like all the other things you’d like to push out of your life, all the things you have opinions about, it’s just there, doing its thing, being mud.  Enjoy it as though you were five years old.  Squish through the mud with me to the barn.  The horses are there in the shadow of this evening, quietly chewing hay.

Look!  Look how the clouds rest silver and gray against the pinkblue sky, hovering over the neighbor’s greening field.  Magnificent!  After such a long, cold winter, this – here and now – this is the first moment of spring.  Drink it in.  The breeze on your face is neither warm nor cool, but perfection itself in its sweetness.  Little frogs call out, rhythmically looking for love.

Step into the dim cool of the barn, over the hay-strewn dirt floor.  It’s a small, old barn with oak boards rough-hewn decades ago, fading red like the strong cedar poles from right here on the property.   Kit, Captain, and Lil’Bits quietly look up as we come into their space.  They’re not in stalls, but free to roam the aisle.  Kit lumbers over to see if you’ve brought something tasty.  We’re tempted to speak, but their silent presence is so strong, so complex and deep, that we know we’d cheapen the moment with the sound of our voices.

Get that baggie of apple pieces out of your pocket.  Hold a cool nugget of apple in the flat of your palm and offer it to Kit.  She’s alpha here, and it’s appropriate to give her the first bite.  Feel her enormous and exquisitely gentle and fuzzy lips grope your palm for the apple.  Listen to the crunch and enjoy the sweetness of her breath.  Captain nickers loud and low, but doesn’t move from where he’s standing.  Careful!  He dives hard for treats.  Watch your fingers!  Lil’ Bits is dainty and gentle, her strong lips whisking back and forth to make sure she’s taken everything you have to offer.

Breathe them in.  Breathe in their scent, the damp hay smell.  Stand perfectly still while Kit bumps your lips with her massive soft nose, giving you a kiss in exchange for another apple slice.  Smell the sweetness of her breath in the tender quiet of this place.

We’re out of apple pieces.  Stand quietly here for a moment and just be.  Just listen.  Let them fill you.  Let the darkening evening wash over you.  The summer lies before us as though we were ten years old again.  And, this, right now, is the first moment of it.

Turn gently, and walk with me back out into the evening.  Horses go back to munching hay.  You and I watch barn swallow silhouettes dancing over the fields.

The sound of foot-falls heading home.

The Pasture Bell

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078There’s a bell that hangs from the oak in the pasture.  It’s a remnant from another life, another place, hung with great care during the first months of living here.  I didn’t know this pasture yet.  I didn’t know the intimacy of the hills, the trees, the sandy clay soil that resists the efforts of even the toughest grasses.  I didn’t know Jess, or who we would become together.  She was simply the horse that came with the property.  They didn’t want her anymore, and when I offered a dollar, they were glad.  She lies in the red clay beneath this bell.

Steve made it from an empty gas cylinder and suspended a chain inside, with a thick wooden disk for a clapper.  It is massively heavy, but the tree doesn’t mind.  We move it slightly each year so that the chain doesn’t cut into the great arm that bears the weight from one season to the next.

The sound… how does one describe a sound?  In a gentle breeze, its voice is low, open, resonant, and seldom sounds more than once.  In the evening, it rises slowly and drifts across the pasture, up to my bedroom, where it melts into the walls and becomes the voice of candle light.

In winter, in the dead black of night when the wind howls and cuts mercilessly, its harsh insistent clanging is the voice of my concern for the horses and other animals who must endure until morning.  In summer, when the heat burns the grass to dust and no breath of air stirs, it is silent.  Wasps move inside, fizzing their wings against the rust.  During apocalyptic summer storms, it sounds the chaos and urgency of trees holding deep in the earth, thrashing leaves and shuddering roots.

This morning, as I stand at the pasture gate under a brilliant blue spring sky, a single note rises warm and welcoming.  It flows like silk, heralding warm days, bird songs, the chorus of evening peepers.

The grass is noticeably greener.

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All photographs copyright Zen Doe

The Path of Waiting

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Photograph by Zen Doe

Spring seems to be on permanent hold this year.  The flowers have tried their hardest not to bloom.  A few have surrendered to the force of their nature and opened, only to be frozen or crushed by snow.  The horses are shedding, the spring birds have arrived, but there’s not a warm day in sight.  It seems everyone and everything is waiting.

Waiting.  It’s the universal human experience.  We wait for the garage to call and say that our car is ready, we wait for our turn at the post office, we wait for the call from the doctor or the vet.  We wait.  We live in a suspended state, with all of our attention on that thing that we are waiting for.  It’s uncomfortable.  It feels glacial.  It seems that nothing is right until that thing happens or is resolved, and then we can get on with our lives.  What an interesting notion!

Because it is so uncomfortable, we go to all kinds of lengths to distract ourselves from the obsession with the issue.  When waiting involves a potentially serious outcome, fear can arise with an intensity that can be utterly debilitating.  And yet, nothing has happened yet.

Next time you find yourself in the bardo, the purgatory of waiting, take the opportunity to look at it.  “What?!  No!  Why would I want to examine my mind in such an uncomfortable state?!  Forget that!”

Waiting is a wonderful teacher.  If you are willing to stand hand in hand with your waiting for a few moments, you may find that it’s not quite as much of a monster as it seems.  Rather, it’s a potent cue to take a breath and experience what’s really happening in this moment.  Notice the steam rising from your coffee cup, the temperature of the air, the feel of your body in your chair.  The tension of your muscles.  Breathe again.  Relax a bit.  Just this moment is all there is.

Things That go Bump in the Night

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The next time I see a cheerful facebook meme about how we should “put the past behind us” I think I may just need to throw something breakable.

It snowed today.  No big deal, right?  Except, perhaps, for the fact that this has been the longest winter in human history. That aside, so what?  It snowed.  I lost power (when you have a well, that means you’ve lost water – when you have horses, that matters).  I lost phone, internet, and any other connection to the world outside the farm.  So, what?  I’ll tell you what.

It happened last week too.  The 35-mph winds lashed at the dozens of oak trees in the yard for more than 10 hours.  The snow blew sideways. Three trees fell across my driveway.  No power, phone, internet, or any way to get in or out.  There’s a generator, but unless you’re a 200 lb man, the cord is too difficult to pull.  The horses, already hock-deep in mud, were frantic.  I was alone.  I was responsible.

The vet came this morning. The vet came while it was still beautiful outside, the trees heavy with snow. Captain bashed his head on something last weekend, and the cut under his eye has become infected. The vet said that he hit his face hard enough to splinter off a piece of bone, which is now trying to work its way to the surface, though the pus and goo.  When Steve is here, (he travels a lot on business) it’s all we can do to manage cleaning the wound together.  Captain is not particularly interested in having an infected wound debrided.

The vet said it needs attention twice a day.  An hour later, Steve left for an 11:30 flight.  I’m responsible.

Here’s the thing: My nervous system doesn’t know the difference between a snow storm and the impossible situation of being eight years old and “responsible” for my mother’s sanity.  This is the nature of PTSD.  A similar situation “triggers” something, and your body and mind respond in a way that was never resolved, even if the current situation is not really threatening.  And there’s not much you can do about it, as much as you might want to.

I vividly remember my father telling me to “DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT!” when mother was screaming in a ball on her bed.  He’d go to the garage.  She screamed until the walls shook.  She cried, she raved, she rasped obscenities and recipes for suicide.  She railed that I was the cause of the extremity of her misery, and screeched through the alcohol that if I could just be good enough, or even just a little better than I was, that all of this would be over and she would be ok.  But, sadly, she was never ok.  And I, of course, was never quite good enough.

I remember the one and only time that there was ever any validation of this madness from my father.  Once, when I went out to the garage to tell him that I thought she was going to be ok, he looked at me and said, “Aren’t you the lucky one.  Someday, you will leave.  I’m stuck here with her forever.”  He never said anything like that again.

So, it snowed today.  It’s just a little snow.  Right?  But, all my system knows is that I’m alone.  I’m alone, and the health and safety of the horses is in my hands.  Figuring out what to do with the generator and the electrical system in the house is in my hands.  As you might imagine, I am the most responsible person on earth.  But, I don’t know how to make it stop snowing.  I don’t know anything about generators.  And what if…

It all seems so silly, doesn’t it?  How the jaw tightens, the shoulders freeze, the stomach becomes a knot of anxiety.  It seems so foolish to perch stiffly in the chair in the kitchen for hours on end, watching the jays and the squirrels compete for seeds at the feeder, staring, growing more rigid by the moment, breath coming shallow and quick.  So silly.  And yet, I have no more control over it than a combat veteran does when a car backfires suddenly, or a crowd at the mall stands just a little… too… close.

I become like my tree in the pasture, the one that calls to me somehow.  Rigid, pretty and bright, covered with ice and braced for the storm.  It does look lovely, doesn’t it?

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All photographs copyright Zen Doe

Tell you what – you “get over” your past.  I’ll be here doing my best to get through the afternoon, being optimistic and bright.

The power came back on just before supper time.  At the same moment, the sun came out and the temperature rose a degree or two.  I went out to feed the horses and tend to Captain’s wound.  He wouldn’t let me near it.

I stood for a while in the evening sun, watching the snow fall from that tree in soggy clumps.  I breathed, I sighed with relief.  It’s over.  Again.  For today.

March Evening Fog

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Quick!  Get your camera and follow me!  Out the back door, your boots half on, through the rustle of last year’s leaves, rain-soaked by this evening’s freak spring thunderstorm.  Watch out for the branch there, the one that fell in the snow storm.  Shuffle across the almost dark yard with me, and out to the round-pen.  Don’t zip your jacket.  We don’t have time.  The light is changing every second.  It’s almost dark.

Captain’s silhouette emerges from the fog that’s pouring in faster than we can walk.  He joins us in the round-pen, wet from the rain and snuffling at your pockets.  Did you bring a treat?  Here, brace your camera on the tube-steel rail, and look…  The fog is rolling up from the creek and oozing across the neighbor’s pasture.  We’re laughing, you and I, as Captain rests his chin on your shoulder, here in the almost dark.  His lips gently explore your camera, your ear, your shoulder, and he sighs, fogging up the view-finder and your glasses as well.

We laugh and push him away, firing the shutter as we do.  He laughs in his mischievous horse way, and trots off into the fog.  He disappears.  Just this…  Just now…  Could it be any more beautiful?

Quiet…  then, slowly at first, the sound of the first peepers, the tiny frog voices of spring.  So glad you could be here to enjoy it with me.

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All photos copyright Zen Doe