I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Category: God

We Hurt Everywhere

world-map-in-orange-and-blue-michael-tompsett

May We Go On

I understand anger. Kill them all! I feel anger.

I understand fear. Don’t go there! I feel fear.

I understand despair. There is no hope! I feel despair.

More than anything, I feel despair.

What now? How do we make sense of another 129 people dead? How do we go on?

I’ve gotten used to saying good-bye in the morning, after 9/11, whispering I love you, and wondering. Will I come home tonight? Will you? I no longer have burning ambition for my life. I am okay. What will be will be.

But I am heart-broken for my children. I want them to want to travel. I want them to want to change the world. I want them to want to bring children into the world. But what world is this?

The hatred is palpable. Why do they hate us so much? Why do we hate them so much? Why is there us and them? Aren’t we all human beings living on Earth? The last I read, there is very little DNA difference between us and chimps and virtually no difference between us and them.

If we kill them, they will kill us back and then we will kill them back and then they will kill us back. Is that what it will take? The apocalypse? We will kill ourselves. And our Earth.

More than anything, I feel despair.

I sympathize with the angry warmongers. But I want to believe the spiritual leaders who tell us to pray. For that is all I can do today. Pray for Paris. Pray for us. Pray for them. Pray for love. Pray for peace. Pray for my children and their children and their children and their children. May we go on.

 

“later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

 

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere.”

 

― Warsan Shire

 

Image Credit:  World Map in Orange and Blue by Michael Tompsett

I Want Stained Glass Windows!

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Awe

Around about now, I wish I belonged to a church. It seems like such a meaningful way to spend the holidays. You know, Christmas and Easter. Holidays that I celebrate. Secularly. But the sweet baskets of chocolate and the spring tulips and the nice family dinner don’t seem like enough. I want Ceremony. Ritual. Music. Candles. Incense. Stained Glass Windows. The Word of God.

Every decade or so, I wonder about joining a church. The obstacles are many. I was brought up by cerebral scientists who were not necessarily atheists (neither would commit to believing nor not believing), but who were damn sure they did not want to go to church. And, probably not surprising, I married a man with a similar attitude: not quite sure about God but convinced that church is not for him and angry, angry, that religion is the root of so much persecution and conflict in the world.

I am not sure about God, but I don’t believe that Jesus is any more divine than you or me. I am not Christian, but that is the religion to which I’ve been most exposed. I definitely don’t believe that you need to follow a religion and its rules and its mythology to be a good person.  In fact, I am suspicious of those who follow a religion’s rules without questioning.  How can you be so sure? And why is one religion more worthy than another?

But in stillness, the stillness of savasana or meditation or a Reiki session, sometimes – just sometimes – warmth spreads throughout my body. My body tingles with energy. I see colors and images. I am both hyper alert and deeply relaxed. Usually, in my daily life, I am too busy busy busy and too determined to achieve something to be still. To feel. To listen. But in stillness, it happens. Sometimes.

I am sure there is a scientific reason for my very physical, very dramatic, very strange, very powerful, very real experiences. I am equally sure that people who are more comfortable than me with the mysterious and the mystical will claim this as an excellent example of the unknowable. And that I should get myself to church or synagogue or temple without another moment’s hesitation.

When my mother died, I was determined that we would honor her in a church. Unlike our disappointing and unsatisfying nods to Christmas (presents!) and Easter (chocolate!), this life passage needed more meaning. We found a Unitarian minister and church who guided us to create a lovely memorial service. It helped. It made a difference.

I like the Unitarians. They tend to be liberal and intellectual without a lot of strictures. Good God, they hardly even mention God in their beliefs and principles! That’s my kind of religion! I must say however, that their churches hardly seem like churches to me. The church where we had my mother’s memorial service was an ugly building from the uninspired 1960’s. I Want Stained Glass Windows. A Breath-Taking Sanctuary. Ceremony. Ritual. Music. Candles. Incense. The Word of God. A church should define the notion of Awe-Some.  Like the cathedrals that inspired me while I was traipsing all over Europe when I was 20.

I suppose the physical space should not matter. Any space can become beautiful, and sacred, as you spend time there, in stillness. It’s not the stained glass windows that are sacred, but the people who make the stained glass windows and sing in the choir.  Or chant in the yoga studio.  Or pray for peace.  Or act to build peace.  What matters is the community of people and the holiness of love and support between the people and a sense of sacred purpose. Faith that life and love matter.

I will spend some of Easter in stillness, being grateful for the hope and optimism that is Spring, and reflecting on love. I believe that what is holy is love. Love is what is Awe-Some.

Photo is the Rose Window of Chartres Cathedral.

Breathing In and Breathing Out

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Alive

The death of my mother has cracked open my heart. With every emotion heightened, I feel impatient with the numb carelessness with which most of us approach our day-to-day lives. The holiday shopping honking at the slower and more cautious driver; the selfish crush of the commuter horde to find a seat; the eye-roll at the different: the slower aged elder, the awkward special needs child, the sad one. “Life is short! Life is precious!” I want to scream. We’re all going to the same final destination. Please be kind along the way.

I returned to New York and my life on Thursday. The familiar routine of work and household chores a distraction. But I find I don’t want to merely return to normal. I want to feel everything. I want to feel the sadness, the loss, the love, the compassion. It makes me feel human. Alive. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out.

Isn’t the breath amazing? We take it for granted, but it is what makes us alive from the moment we are born to the moment we die.

When I got home Thursday night, I shared the story of my mother’s last breath with my son. I cried. He cried. I held him. He said that he had been wanting to cry but couldn’t. I know that feeling. It’s painful. The chest tightens and constricts. You feel like your heart is going to break but you are too controlled, too embarrassed, too remote to let it go. Crying that night made him feel better. Catharsis. I whispered, “Live your life.” The best way to deal with death is to live.

My yoga practice has been immense comfort to me this week. Moving my body, focusing my mind, and breathing in and breathing out has kept me grounded and open-hearted. Yesterday, we focused on a sutra that goes something like: “The self must lift the self.” In other words, only you can make yourself feel better. We noticed the areas of our bodies and minds that were dull and brought energy to these areas so that every cell was shimmering with the breath. Alive. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out.

In this time of grief and loss, all kinds of random memories have come flooding back. I was remembering that she had this gardenia plant when I was quite little. She nurtured this gardenia, so proud when it bloomed. The scent of the gardenia blooms was sweet and intense, permeating the house. I was thinking that we should have gardenia flowers at her memorial service. As this was rolling around in my mind, I arrived home from work on Friday where there was a box waiting for me. I opened the box and GASPED.

It was a gardenia.

Mysterious. Awesome. WILD!

I feel inhabited by my mother. Her body may have stopped breathing but she lives inside me. I really feel her with me, supporting me with love as I breathe in and breathe out.

Remembering All Souls

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For Elizabeth

I was not brought up in any religious tradition, and don’t “belong” to any religion, but I am most familiar, culturally, with Christianity. I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell or an omnipotent God. But I have come to believe there is sacredness in the moments of connection between people and in the rare moments of peace we experience in stillness and in nature.

What happens when we die? Where do our souls go? Why are we here? Without religious tradition and faith, these questions can be troubling, leading to existential angst. These questions can also drive an urgency to live this life with meaning. Because, what if, there is nothing after this life? Better make this one count.

I believe that we are here for those sacred moments of connection and peace. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I know where our souls go. They are part of us who live on.

The daughter of my cousin Elizabeth – Elizabeth, my surrogate sister, the one who was killed by a drunk driver, leaving behind a 10 year old girl – is now grown and got married this weekend. It was a beautiful and joyous and emotional event. With great care, she and her groom planned a ceremony and a party that reflected their open and loving personalities and they included all the people they loved, both alive and dead. The dead ones were there. I felt them.

Elizabeth, Frank, Mary, Melvin, Fran, Earl, Sadie.   Those are the ones from my life that I felt. Present. At the wedding. Imagine if every person brought all their dead loved ones with them. (They did.) It was a big party!

There we all were, living and dead, celebrating the sacred connection of love.

Elizabeth, who I still miss deeply and so acutely at our rare family gatherings, lives on in her daughter and all of us connected to her. I know she is so full of love and pride for her daughter. I can feel it.

If there is no heaven nor hell after life, then surely it is here in this life. And if there is no afterlife, then it is urgent and imperative that we maximize heaven and minimize hell in this life. Love deeply. Those moments of sacred connection are heaven and those moments of sacred connection are the only way to minimize hell. Know that our loved ones’ souls live on in us.

Dear souls, may we find peace.

Believing in OM

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OM is God?

If you knew that the goal of yoga was to quiet the body and quiet the mind so that your soul could experience “God,” would you still do yoga?  Would I?

Brought up with an attitude of condescension towards religion (scientists know better), I pursued an intellect’s path.  Regretfully.  As a child, I was awed by beautiful churches and temples, intrigued by the mysterious rituals, moved by the harmonic vibrations of the chants and hymns, and jealous of the social community that my friends belonged to.  Not belonging to church heightened my sense of being an outsider, alone, different.  My parents allowed me to explore Christianity while making it clear that they would have none of it.  At the age of 12, 13, 14, I threw myself into it (pretty much how I do everything in the new throes of a passionate interest), preparing myself to be confirmed as a member of the church.    I read the Bible, joined the youth group and the choir, went on retreats, attended church school, but ultimately decided I did not believe in God.  Wistfully but decisively, I chose not to be confirmed.  I went forward with my intellect’s life.

I married a man who has an even stronger history of disbelief in religion (though perhaps a more open relationship with God).  His father was damaged (exactly how is unspoken and unknown – I can only imagine the worst) by his Catholic upbringing.  While introducing his children, intellectually, to all the religions of the world, he made it clear that he was vehemently opposed to religion, characterizing it as inhumane, self-serving, even evil – definitely not spiritual.  When we had children, I found myself wondering again.  Is there a way to belong to a church community and provide a spiritual foundation for my children that is beautiful and meaningful and supportive?  I explored the most open and liberal church in our neighborhood, but came to the same conclusion.  If I don’t believe in God, how can I whole-heartedly join this community?

At mid-life, questioning the meaning of my life and frantic that it was going by too fast, I discovered yoga.  It was a delicious form of exercise!  My body loved the poses: the stretching, the challenge, the exhilaration.  I was awed by the beautiful space, intrigued by the mysterious rituals, moved by the harmonic vibrations of the chants.  I belonged.  It was secular spirituality!  And my body got a workout!  I was in Heaven!  I kept the “crazy hokum” at a distance.  Chakras?  Energy?  Devotion?  Samadhi?  I just knew that I loved the feel of going inside, feeling my breath, feeling my body, listening to my gut, listening and communicating with my loved ones with more honesty.  OM Shanti Shanti Shanti?   Peace Peace Peace.  Who could argue with that?

I went deeper and got my 200 hour teacher certification.  Yeah, okay, I read the Bhagavad Gita.  Lovely mythology.  Life is a journey, don’t be attached to the outcome.  I read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  Yoga is the stilling of the mind.  Thank God, because my mind is in overdrive and yoga was the only place it quieted down.  My family tolerated my chanting, Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah over and over as I prepared for my certification exam.  Yoga had become profoundly important to me, a sanctuary.  I began to think maybe I was a spiritual being after all.

I started teaching.  Beginners.  Primarily women looking for a form of exercise that didn’t hurt.  When I started teaching, I realized how little I knew.  Two years later, I am now embarking on “continuing education.”  We began with philosophy.  I reread Book 1 of Patanjali’s Sutras.  Hmm, it’s making more sense this time, or perhaps it is simply becoming more familiar.  I warned my beginners that I might be introducing OM next week.  They appeared curious and interested.  As fate would have it, I and a classmate were assigned the task of reading, explaining, and teaching Sutra 1.27.  You know, the one about OM.  The one that says OM is God.  What?  I don’t think I realized that the first time I read it.

Here is what we said:

OM is a deeply expressive, full, and mystical sound.  Like breath, like life, it has a beginning, “AHH,” a middle, “OOO” and an end, “MMM,” the vibration of which resonates through your body.  OM is the yogic word for God.  It is the manifestation of God.  It IS God.  Chanting OM quiets the body and quiets the mind so that your soul may experience God – the goal of yoga.

Do I believe this?  I don’t know.

My son, now 13, is the same age I was when I explored Christianity.  His close friend is a devout Catholic.  My son is curious, searching for what he believes, and trying to reconcile his friend’s faith with our skepticism.  “Mary was definitely not a virgin!”  he exclaims with certainty.  We marked Easter in our quiet and secular way.  Easter baskets filled with chocolate, an Easter Egg hunt demanded by my son, and a dinner worthy of Spring are our traditions.  But at our festive Spring dinner, we found ourselves musing on Jesus and the events of Holy Week and the inexplicable mystery of Jesus’ disappearance and resurrection.  I do not believe that Jesus is any more divine than you or me, but I do believe that Jesus was a wise and compassionate man who preached beautiful teachings of love, the power of love.  I believe in love.  I will do what I can to help my son feel free to appreciate the mystery of life and to guide him toward the healthy ways that religions attempt to deal with the mystery.  I will try to guide him without being too academic and intellectual.  (Truth be told, I bought him a book yesterday.  That is my way.  Sigh.)

Will I introduce OM to my students this week?  Yes.  I have decided to start with just feeling the MMM vibration.  It’s a mysteriously powerful sensation!  Is it God?  I don’t know.  I do know that I will keep practicing yoga.  Yoga is where I feel still and sacred, able to be me, able to love and be loved.  I feel holy in those rare moments when I float in Svasana.  I feel holy when I chant OM with my yoga community and the vibrations make me feel like I am expanding and taking off.  I feel holy when I look in my husband’s eyes, my children’s eyes, and know love.

Walking With God

My Friend Agnes

Agnes means “lamb of God,” according to my friend Agnes.  I would joke that I was walking with God when we walked daily.  Truly, it was no joke.  If God is love and the connection between us, then walking with Agnes was walking with God.  Our walks were sacred.

We walked nearly every day for a year and a half.  Monday through Friday we got up at 5 am and walked about 2 miles from 5:15 to 5:45, year round.  On the weekends, we slept in until 6:15 and doubled our mileage for a 4 mile jaunt.  We texted each other every night to confirm, checking in with the weather and the temperature.  I bought us each flashing safety lights that we wore around our waists when the mornings were dark.  She bought us each a fleece top to layer on when the mornings were cold.

Of course the reason for walking was fitness.  I had a grueling schedule and a commute and couldn’t fit in exercise in any other way.  She was launching her real estate career but still wanted to be home as much as possible for her three children and her husband.  Having an early morning walking/fitness partner insured that we did our walk nearly every day.  After all, Agnes was depending on me to show up.

But really the reason for walking was friendship.  I was the quiet, more reserved one, focused on family and career with seemingly little time for nurturing friendships.  Agnes was the talkative, more effusive one.  Indeed she is the connector, the glue for our entire neighborhood community.  We were perhaps an unlikely pair.  As the talker listened, and the listener talked, we shared everything with each other forming a deep bond.  When I slid into indecision or reluctance to express my point of view, she asked questions creating a safe and nonjudgmental place for me to be me.  I looked up to her as being funny and extroverted and energetic.  She looked up to me as being intelligent and compassionate and honest.

We started with the mundane.  “What did you have for dinner last night?” led to lengthy conversations about food, recipes, and the Flat Belly diet.  I am still skeptical of her Brussels Sprouts roasted with bacon but she swears they are delicious. She thinks my preparation of two batches of pasta at dinnertime (regular for the boys, whole wheat for the girls) is unwieldy and not going to happen in her family.  We are both fans of Mark Bittman and his approach to food and cooking as we incorporate more vegetarian options into our repertoire and hope our families follow suit.

We tackled movies, books, and current events.  We both read Three Cups of Tea and later felt betrayed when the accusations against Greg Mortensen came out. Agnes is never afraid to ask a question or reveal that she doesn’t know something.  I am more protective of how I appear outwardly, not wanting to reveal that I don’t know something.  We usually had read the same articles in the New York Times the previous day and she would launch into her thoughts and questions about it – while allowing me the space to articulate my questions and thoughts as well, instead of pretending I had it all figured out.

We shared our hopes, frustrations, and love for our children.  We shared household tips, best buys, and ideas for birthday celebrations.  We groused about our husbands and complained about ornery bosses and co-workers, while working through conflicts and sticky situations.  We shared our family stories.  Her Italian Catholic upbringing contrasted with my Aetheist upbringing as an only child.  So different.  And yet we were interconnected as busy working moms in the same neighborhood at mid-life (though she is quick to point out that she is three years younger than me and technically not a baby-boomer).  “But you do believe in God.”  She stated during one memorable conversation about religion.  It was not a question.  She understood that I was brought up without religion, but she saw the spiritual side of me and never questioned my faith even though I question it every day and am pretty sure most of the time that I do not believe in God, at least not in the sense of an omnipotent being.  But her faith in my faith was unwavering.

As our second winter of walking approached, I couldn’t face frigid, dark 5 am walks any more.  I had discovered yoga and began to phase out walking with Agnes.  I had embarked on a 9-month 200-hour teaching training program that required all my energy that wasn’t wrapped up in my work and my family.  Busy Busy Busy!  I am always busy doing, learning, achieving – leaving little time for friendships.  Somehow the achievement of some goal seems more important than just being with another human being.  As an only child, I can be self-absorbed and spotty when it comes to valuing relationships.  Agnes said she missed me and missed our walks, but she did not express anger or outrage at being passed over for my latest pursuit.  Indeed, she was supportive and one of my most loyal guinea pig students when I needed to practice teaching yoga.  We always picked up where we left off and talked enthusiastically about some crucial topic of high interest to both of us.  But there was a distance, a gap.  I missed her, but I was busy busy busy.

Last week (two years later) I was at her house using her blow dryer during the power outage.  I had shared how the lack of a hair dryer was a source of both physical discomfort (my hair doesn’t dry and my head is cold!) and aesthetic discomfort (my hair just hangs limply, with no body or style!).  “Come to my house right now and dry your hair!” she commanded.  I obeyed.  About the only good thing about the power outage is that I wasn’t busy busy busy, because there was no light in which to do anything.  We talked for an hour, catching up on each other’s lives.  My friend Agnes.  A few hours later that same day another neighbor called me to tell me that Agnes’ husband had passed away suddenly.  WHAT?!  It was just unfathomable.  What could I do for my friend Agnes who had taught me so much about life and friendship?  I stopped by every day just wanting to be near her and to hold her hand, jealous of the more organized ladies of the neighborhood who seemed to have a knack for knowing what to do, praying that my presence was in some way a help to her.  When she got up to give her eulogy at the funeral, I sobbed.  My brave friend, how could this tragedy have happened?  She stood up and shared her love for her husband and her sadness that he was gone and her profound understanding that he loved her and knew that she loved him.  What a gift to know with certainty that you love and are loved.

On the morning of the funeral, the daily thought from the Buddhist Tricycle was written just for the occasion.  Funny how that happens.  At times of crisis and heightened emotion, we remember that it is important to live every day like it is our last.  It is during the ordinary times that it is hard to hang onto this wisdom.

“If we really faced our fear of death, our lives would ultimately be lighter and more joyful. I don’t propose death awareness to depress us. It enhances our ability to live more fully.”

– Larry Rosenberg, “Only the Practice of Dharma Can Help Us at the Time of Death”

As Agnes rebuilds, I hope to be a friend to her as dearly as she has been a friend to me.  We’re going to begin with some walks.

Mark Bittman’s Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic, p 273

Brussels Sprouts must be cooked thoroughly, but not until they’re mushy; they’re best when the insides are tender but not soft.  And they’re ideal when the exterior is crisp.  This combination of sautéing and roasting does the trick nicely, and these sprouts are good when very, very dark brown, almost burned.  Other vegetables you can use: red cabbage or wedges of radicchio.  [I prefer radicchio.]

  • 1 lb Brussels sprouts
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 4-6 cloves peeled garlic, or more to taste
  • Salt and Pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon of balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 450°F.  Trim the hard edge of the stem from the Brussels sprouts, then cut each in half through its axis.  Put the oil in a large oven proof skillet over medium-high heat.  When it shimmers, arrange the sprouts in one layer, cut side down.  Toss in the garlic and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Cook, undisturbed, until the sprouts begin to brown, 5 to 10 minutes, then transfer to the oven.  Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the sprouts are quite brown and tender, about 30 minutes.

Taste and adjust the seasoning; drizzle with the balsamic vinegar, stir, and serve hot or warm.

Serves 4.

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