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Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining, and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure. (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)

By all accounts, I was one of those unsettling children who look out at you from a child’s face, but speak with a tone, confidence, and vernacular far beyond their years. I was what people tend to think of precocious in the classical sense, and not as a thinly veiled euphemism for too-worldly.

I have only ever known what it is to be precocious, and therefore, don’t exactly have the same perspective on many things that others (who weren’t quite as precocious) have. It is now, as an adult woman, that I look and see what that precociousness meant and what it wrought for me throughout my life. It is as I watch children and see them interact with one another, and watch them blooming “on schedule,” or “ahead of schedule,” or “behind schedule” with adult eyes. (Who determines these things, anyhow?)

In retrospect, I see my own journey with some clarity. (Can it ever happen any other way?) I can see how I tended to lack true peers – I could play the game well, and “fit in” with kids who weren’t quite at the level I was, but it felt like a lot of work. I could speak to adults with the maturity of one of their peers, but it came out of a child’s mouth and was often disregarded because of that – and I lacked the experiences of an adult, so that was one more barrier.

You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you. (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)

I really wouldn’t say that I technically had a lonely childhood, but in some ways, that was very true. I realize now, that my love for reading and my passion for stories and books was partially inherent (I think we all come here with leanings toward talents and interests), and partially cultivated. I soon realized that having a book in front of your face gave you two things: a barrier and an excuse to not have to socialize, and something to talk about if you were made to interact.

When I was doing my student teaching internship, I happened to bump into one of my high school teachers. She remembered me instantly (having taught 168 kids a year, I now know how rare this is), and said that she remembered that I was never without a free reading book (again, having taught, I now know how rare this is).

Those books were my solace, my inspiration, and my shield. I was never really alone – I had a whole cast of characters holed up in my head. I was never really bored – even when I was stuck without a book, I could conjure one of the many stories I’d read to ponder.

I am going through the rest of the boxes I still have at my folks’ house, and I’ve come across some very old friends. I saved two things for last: my books and my genealogy research. Both are precious to me.

I share Einstein’s affirmation that anyone who is not lost on the rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe ‘is as good as a burnt out candle.’ (Madeleine L’Engle)

As I open these boxes, some for the first time in five years, I am transported. I remember the edition of Tom Sawyer that my mom’s parents gave us when I was about ten. I remember the huge, ponderous collection of Shakespeare’s Collected Works that my former mother-in-law gave me for my birthday one year. It has a maroon cover, and Bible-thin pages. I remember the copy of The Velveteen Rabbit my mom gave me shortly before I got married – a story that carries special significance in our house. The Bible my Aunt Margaret gave me for my confirmation. The canning books I bought when I thought it would be cool to make my own preserves (still planning on it, someday…).

The animal and plant guides I bought when I started to explore the complexity of our world… The poetry volumes I purchased as I discovered new voices… Philosophy… Spirituality… Religion… Life Sciences… My “Beach Reads”… Books from the Banned Books List… Classic Fiction… Eventually, I hope to have enough shelving to store / display them in some semblance of “order,” which will probably only make sense to me (which is fine, since I’m the one who’s into them all the time).

Then, this weekend, I came to some of my very old, very special friends. For Christmas, when I was twelve years old, my Uncle Dave gave me a series of books by Madeleine L’Engle, which I fell in love with. I’ve read my copy of A Wrinkle in Time so many times that I’ve loved the cover to smithereens. I promptly petitioned my parents for the rest of the series, and have read and re-read them repeatedly.

I am reading them again now, as an adult woman, whose precociousness, subsequent experience, and continually developing perspective, give me a new appreciation for the gift of them. These were the first books I’d read then, at twelve, that didn’t try to scrub the ugly things clean, in the way that so many people try to for children. They let the ugly be present, and they let the good and the beautiful be present, side by side, and gave the reader enough credit to make sense of it themselves.

Infinity is present in each part. A loving smile contains all art. The motes of starlight spark and dart. A grain of sand holds power and might. (Madeleine L’Engle)

L’Engle couched truths within fiction. I encountered God there, and science. I met with the age-old predicament of what I think of as can-or-should (as in, just because we can, does it mean that we should?). I entertained ideas of cosmic scope, and eternal reach, of infinite perplexity and infinite simplicity.

I lay on the couch last night, following Meg Murry through her troubles, her struggles, her challenges and triumphs. I walked along the path with old friends for a time, covering territory that felt familiar and brand-new at once. I spotted seeds of later-thought within the story – ideas that fueled the genesis of my spiritual questioning and my reasoning.

I lay there, at once twelve years old again, and brand-new to the world with all the wide-eyed optimism and belief in the possible – and at the same time, as I am now at 31 – older, a bit more cynical, a bit more hesitant, a bit more jaded, a bit less hopeful. I captured, for a bit, that sense of who I was when I’d read them for the first time – the wonder they awakened, the daydreams I embarked on, the debates they encouraged.

I like that girl I was, and there are days when I really miss her. In some ways, she was far braver then, than I am now (it helps when you don’t know all the facts of a situation, I suppose – it’s easier to talk myself out of things, or around them, now). Having got that sense of her – that essence of possibility and dreaming – I carry it forward into today. I marry it to my experience, and in that, I attempt to balance naiveté and experience.

I am grateful to Madeleine L’Engle for giving young readers enough credit, for having the guts to put it all on the page. I am grateful to Uncle Dave (and everyone else) for the gift of books – the gift of ideas, really. I am grateful to my parents for encouraging my precocity. I am grateful to my twelve-year-old self for having a courageous mind, and a questing heart, and an empathic way. I am grateful to have these thought-worlds to revisit, to rediscover, to recapture all the selves I have been. I am grateful, because they all contributed, and in this latest incarnation of self, I am especially pleased.

It seemed to travel with her, to sweep her aloft in the power of song, so that she was moving in glory among the stars, and for a moment, she, too, felt that the words Darkness and Light had no meaning, and only this melody was real. (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)

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Couch Explorer:

When I was young I always wanted to go exploring in a cave and when I got older I finally did & it was dark everywhere & there were strange sounds like your stomach after a big meal & I couldn’t wait to get out. I figured out later that I mainly liked to go exploring caves in my mind where I could be comfortable & not get dirty & cold. If you read too much National Geographic when you’re young it’s hard to adjust to the real world.  (Brian Andreas)

I could be off curing obscure tropical fevers, or creating diplomacy amidst warring nations, or writing the great American novel (which my mother would love), or scrubbing my freaking bathtub – but, no – I have been derailed. And it is all my friend Dan’s fault.

I did not want to want to join facebook. I didn’t even have an account until last September, and the only reason I joined was because my friend Dan was going off to the Americorps, and when I asked him for his email address, he said he didn’t really use it – he facebooked. It is a measure of my affection for Dan that I broke down and grudgingly joined the rank and file of facebook users.

And, I used the account pretty sporadically – at first. I was mystified by all of the random and seemingly inconsequential or incredibly personal things that people would post to their profiles – Things like, “going to work now” or “cleaned all day” or stranger things that I’m not sure I would’ve wanted broadcast across the world-wide-web.

I uploaded a bunch of pictures initially, too – but I kept them private so that only I could see them. I just wasn’t sure I wanted them broadcast to people I hadn’t seen since the seventh grade (even if it was really neat to see what became of them).

I logged on here and there, and as I reacquainted myself with some of these far-flung folk or connected with newer friends, I became more comfortable. I even decided to make all the pictures I’d uploaded available to the public (even the ones where I know I’ve put on some weight and I no longer like the shape of my jawline, or anything else).

And that was all well and good, and then I discovered Farmville. Last Thursday night (a mere 5 days ago), I finally decided to accept one of the oodles of invitations I received in my notifications and start my own little farm. I haven’t done much of anything productive since then, and Jeremy (my fiancé) has had to make dinner every night because I was hooked to my laptop and couldn’t be bothered to do it.

You’d think that he would be incensed, but he’s actually rather amused. He likes it when I do things that are somewhat more “human” and hint at potential commonalities with all the other humans. (I am a brainiac, and I know it gets intimidating sometimes, and annoying other times). Every time he comes home and sees me staring intently into the screen muttering things like, “One more valentine and I can get another Luv-Ewe,” and “I fertilized their crops, when the heck is someone going to fertilize mine?” and “My ugly duckling is 58% ready,” he giggles and asks me how the farming’s going. And I think he actually likes it that there is a part of me that is so utterly fallible and addictable and de-railable.

What has me totally confounded is this: How on earth have I become a Farmville junkie? And by extension, a facebook one?

I actually gave it a lot of thought (that’s what brainiacs do, I guess, when they are farming virtually), and I think I’ve come up with a theory. When I was a little girl, the family who lived behind us had a dairy farm. All of them took turns working on the farm, and they were all in 4-H and got to raise their own cows and stuff, and I thought it was intensely cool.

I used to read all sorts of books about pioneers, and I used to love the game Oregon Trail (even if all of the people in my little wagon always seemed to die of cholera). I was entranced by the idea of striking off and exploring new places, and then carving out a place for yourself that was just how you wanted it to be, and that you created with your own hands.

I used to play pioneer in the backyard, and spend the afternoon harvesting and foraging for supplies (which made my mother very nervous since I was harvesting berries from the rowan tree and leaves from hostas – and essentially creating “food” out of completely inedible and poisonous plants). I would gather them all up, and turn them into little meals like I’d seen the chefs do on the cooking shows I saw on public television.

I loved all of those things. I loved the idea of owning a little farm-let when I grew up and having some chickens and maybe some other critters, too.

And then, I grew up. And in growing up, I realized a few things: farming is incredibly hard work and it is difficult for the family farm to even sustain itself in this era of the corporate conglomerate farms; animals are not always cute and cuddly (more often they’re smelly and dirty) and they get sick a lot and they die – or you have to kill them so that people can eat them. Yeah…when I was twelve, my mother made duck for the first time, and I sat at the table and cried and wouldn’t eat it because I told her that all I could picture was this poor guy waddling around a barnyard (poor woman – no one looked too enthusiastic about the duck after that). I was not cut out to be a farmer – in real life.

I like it that Farmville is my grown-up version of playing farm or pioneer in the backyard with my brother and sister. The animals don’t die. They don’t smell. When you harvest them, it isn’t to turn them into bacon – I had been kind of nervous about the pigs when I bought them. I mean, we all know what pigs are used for, ya know? Well, the cute (non smelly) plump smiling piggies on my farm gather up truffles for me to harvest. How cute! And how fun!

Even thought I may never accomplish anything ever again (I am astonished that this post even got written!), I am glad I found this little game. I’m glad that it’s just for fun and it’s totally idealized and not remotely like real life. I get enough real life every single time I pay the bills – it’s nice to have a little fantasy now and again. Well, I’ve got crops to harvest and cows to milk…(and a tiny virtual agricultural empire to build. Muahaha).

 

I once had a garden filled with flowers that grew only on dark thoughts but they need constant attention & one day I decided I had better things to do.  (Brian Andreas)

At my “regular” job, my desk is directly next to a humongous picture window – and it is one of the few reasons that my day behind a desk is tolerable. I get a front seat to the doings and happenings out there, the comings and goings, the small dramas of mothers pushing toddlers or lovers hand-in-hand (or not as friendly, and therefore, more dramatic).

Most of these passersby don’t ever even notice I’m there. But every single morning, without fail, the elderly man who does outside maintenance for the company next door, walks by with his scoop bucket slung over his shoulder, and he waves. Every single morning. I wait for it – in my head he’s the scoop-shovel-man. I don’t even know his name. I know nothing other than that every morning, we share a wave and a smile – and that he’s an important part of my day because of it.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.  (Leo Buscaglia)

I marvel at these moments when virtual strangers are able to connect and share something important – a small moment, a small mutual experience of being human. I tend to be something of a Pollyanna (I hope you all know who she was – Disney made a movie about her a loooong time ago, based on a 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter). According to Dictionary.com, a Pollyanna is an excessively or blindly optimistic person – I wouldn’t say that I am quite that extreme, but I make a real effort to see the sun peeking through the clouds on more days that not.

I don’t know if any of you have felt the energy shifting lately, but I sure have. It was funny – I was on facebook the other night, and one of my friends posted something along the lines of, “Is it a full moon or something? What a really weird, intense day!” I posted back, telling her that it was, in fact, the new moon that day, and those energies could be just as – if not more intense – than that of the full moon. Not sure what she made of that, but I hope her day went more smoothly, anyhow.

This shift links to something that keeps coming up for me in the everyday – a newer unwillingness to put up with things and people in my life who bring bad juju. And this brings me to the phenomenon of the Negative Nellies. A Negative Nellie is the antithesis of a Pollyanna. I am sick unto death of people who, when asked how they are, heave a deep and mournful sigh, and proceed to tell you how everything in their life is utter crap. Aack. Tired of it. These people leave a legacy trailing off behind them like a comet’s tail, too – but, instead of kindness, they sow sorrow.

When confronted with a Negative Nellie, don’t even think of mentioning the weather – this is one of their favorite whipping boys. If it’s a clear sunny day, it’s too bright; if you have a warmer day after a lengthy stretch of bitter winter, they’ll tell you how horrible it is that all the snow is melting and everything is wet. If you are in a ten-year drought, and the long-awaited rains have come, they’ll tell you how there is not enough rain, or too much, or the water just isn’t quite wet enough.

The dismal outlook of the Negative Nellie extends to literally every event, emotion, occurrence, or happenstance that could be conceived of by man (and some that haven’t yet). If you see a silver lining, they’ll find a spot of tarnish. And, lately, I find myself less and less willing to give them even a moment of my time – which presents me with a bit of a moral conundrum: I believe that one of the most important things we can be is kind, and I believe that there is good in every person (somewhere) – but then, I find myself wanting to absent myself from these folks who propagate and spread negative-vibes (which also eliminates some opportunities to show kindness).

I find myself unwilling to be subjected to or held unwilling captive to the Eeyore-ish moanings of these nay-saying doom-and-gloomers. So, I absent myself from their presence, from the conversation, and from the bubble of negativity that they cultivate & surround themselves with – and it made me feel just a bit guilty. Aren’t I supposed to be spreading sunshine and daisies wherever I can?

And then, I came across the following quote from George Eliot: It is good to be helpful and kindly, but don’t give yourself to be melted into candle grease for the benefit of the tallow trade. I had to read that a few times before the depth of her (George Eliot was a woman) message sank like a pebble into the still pond of my heart and rippled outward. How can I go on spreading kindness and a helpful hand if I allow it to be devoured by all and sundry? And, especially if I squander that energy on those who don’t WANT to think or see anything positively? (Depending on how you look at it, I either do the Negative Nellies a disservice by attempting to inject positivity into their contented discontent & melancholy – or, I make them deliriously happy: whenever I make a positive statement, they get the chance to spread negativity seeds with each rebuttal).

So, I think I’ve devised a new modus operandi – I will continue to extend kindness, politeness, courtesy, generosity, and compassion to all I meet – but, when I note the presence of an ‘event horizon’ surrounding these black holes of energy, I will pull back, retain my energy (and my integrity), and move on to offer the gift of my being to others (I realize that “gift of my being” sounds unbelievably conceited – but, I swear I don’t mean it that way – I see everyone in my life as a gift, so it’s hypocritical not to think of my self that way, too).

This new determination is all well and good, but I know there will be times when I slip into the maelstrom with the Negative Nellies and that’s fine – I’d rather take a chance with someone than squander the possibility of a wonderful interaction out of fear of being burned. I’ll just have to continually tweak my Nellie-o-meter.

What it comes down to, really, is this (said by those who’ve said it best):

Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you – not because they are nice, but because you are.  (Author Unknown)

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. (Dalai Lama)

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. (Plato)

The other night as I was trudging up the colossal flight of stairs stretching up to our apartment, lost deep in thought, and laden with bags & belongings, an elderly gentleman who I’d seen around the building was making his way down. He has extreme difficulty walking – it takes him minutes to traverse what I can in a few seconds. He said something to me, which broke me out of my myopic fog, and I said, “Pardon?” And he says, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” And I look about for a moment, uncomprehending – until I realize he means the fake grass thingie I’m carrying under my arm (it looks like the wrong end of a hula skirt all tied up). And I just started laughing!

My laugh is a booming, chest expanding one – I hold nothing back. And I said to him, “Have a good night, sir.” And he said, “Thank you. You, too.” And I got the feeling that he was thanking me for more than my well-wishes. I hope he knows that my laughter was a thank you, too – for a moment shared on the stairs with a stranger, who saw an opportunity to reach across the silence, and make a connection.

 

A lot of the stuff I’ve written on this blog lately has been pretty “heavy” stuff, dealing with the “big questions” we each face. I’ve got another “big question” to answer, and it all starts with Punxsutawney Phil. I apologize in advance if any of my readers have a deep (if unfathomable) attachment to him, or any other form of rodent-like creature.

Every single year, they trot out this dodgy, flea-bitten rat and have him give us the bad news – six more weeks of winter! Aack. I hate Punxsutawney Phil, and all of his ilk, and it all started many years ago….

When I was growing up, we were essentially prohibited from having pets. My father was one of six children born within a nine-year span. The only fur-bearing mammals allowed in my grandparents’ house were their children, and I’m sure there were moments when my grandma wished it were as simple as caging them up and installing self feeders and wheels to keep their various progeny accounted for and safe.

Much to our dismay, my father also subscribed to this anti-pet mentality. We had a chinchilla once, at my mother’s insistence. It was a big rat – a soft rat, to be sure, but essentially a rat nonetheless. It bit one of my cousins once because he was a toddler and smelled (and tasted) like apple juice – or at least that was the explanation my mother provided. I think that it just did what rats do – it bit whatever was handy. I was sad when the rat died because I don’t like to see things suffer, but I’ll admit it – I was also a bit relieved.

In a foolish bit of defiance, I arranged for my brother, my sister, and I to acquire Hamsters (fat, tail-less rats) when I was fifteen. I figured that dad couldn’t be too tweaked by this – after all, they were caged! What could go wrong? My sister named hers Beaner (we were teenagers, remember), and he was the only good one of the lot. He was also misnamed. We should have called him Houdini. Like a vampire in a B-movie, Beaner could turn himself into smoke and pass through the screen on top of his cage – or at least that was the only method we could figure, as we’d secured him inside his environs with weights that even a toddler could not budge. His perpetual escapes led the entire family to engage in frantic search and rescue missions throughout the house. My father would get this look on his face, which I now recognize as a sense of impending dread, as he thought ahead to destroyed furniture, and the mystery smells that result from unrecovered rodents in the home.

One time, after searching for hours, we found Beaner making himself a cozy nest in my closet…out of every single pair of shoes I owned. I wore Hamster-bitten shoes for the entire year. Not a great way to gain friends in high school, I’ll tell ya. Another time, my sister had a friend stay overnight, and while she was cozily asleep on the floor of my sister’s room, she felt something run across her neck. Eerie, to be sure. Well, she shot up like a rocket, screeching about a rat attacking her while she slept. She refused to sleep on the floor after that, and I really couldn’t blame her. Beaner had struck again. I’m not sure that moving from the floor would have really helped, though, because this miracle-rodent somehow managed to escape repeatedly, and my sister would find him asleep on her chest in the middle of the night.

Eventually my sister, being my sister, tired of him, and decided that she would “set Beaner free” in the backyard. I spluttered all sorts of admonitions about responsibility, and “you took on a job here,” and facts about how domesticated animals would not last five minutes outside – hawks, cats, crows, possums, cars! Nothing swayed her, and I took the poor unfortunate back into the house to join the growing rodent menagerie in my own room.

My brother’s Hamster appeared, at first, to be just like any other hamster. He put on a good show – ran on his squeaky wheel in the pet shop, cleaned himself with his cute little paws. Dave was about nine or ten, and he was entranced. I feel pretty bad about this bit, because Dave really could have used a friend – even a little rodent one. There weren’t many families with kids where we grew up, and the ones who had kids had girl children, and then there were Kate and I, and the poor boy was pretty lonely. Well, instead of ending up with a hamster like Beaner who, while frustrating, was sweet and endearing and could be petted, David ended up with the Devil’s own Hamster minion. He was Satan’s own rodent, I swear. I didn’t even know that Hamsters could hiss (I’m still not sure they can – this might have been an ability special to this particular odious creature). He had red eyes, and he’d actually charge at you if you put your hand in the cage. Poor Dave. He finally admitted that the thing scared the wits out of him. Add another rodent to my collection.

I thought I was pretty smart back then. Now, I know that there is no way to outsmart this evolutionary marvel – rodents get me every time. It’s like they have a special list for those who shall be tormented, and my name tops it. I bought two miniature hamsters, who the pet shop owner swore up and down were the same sex. I was pretty dubious about this, but I took a chance and put them both in the same cage. If only I’d had the problem that I’d anticipated having! Instead of multiplying, these hamsters were interested in subtraction. A few days after they came to live in my room, the entire household was awakened in the wee hours by the most ungodly racket I’ve ever heard – my sweet fluffy little miniature hamsters had morphed into bloodthirsty savages and were attempting to off one another. There were no rules of engagement, and no bell ringing to call rest periods. I kept one of them in the “cute” little ball we’d purchased as though it were a rodent jail and hurried out the next day to acquire another aquarium.

A few things happened that made me believe that I’d been singled out for special punishment by these creatures, but one particular instance stands out coldly in my memory. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the living room, taking my miniature hamsters out one at a time to play with them and keep them used to being handled. All of a sudden, the demonic creature darted up my pants leg! He made it to my knee, and I stood up like a shot, thinking I could stand up and shake my leg to dislodge him. Wrong! He scrambled, quick as lightning to my butt-cheek, where he continued to defy gravity by scrabbling and struggling to climb higher. I started screaming, “There’s a hamster in my pants! There’s a hamster in my pants!” which brought my dad and brother running, and I began stripping right there in front of them and the living room windows.

At the end of the Great Hamster Fiasco, I had all four of the danged things living in my room, in separate aquariums. Blast. Do you know how long these things live? I figured maybe a year or two, at most. Beaner was the longest lived, at five years old. It’s a cautionary tale. If I ever have children and they request, “Please mommy, I’ll take ever so much care of it,” and want a rodent, the answer is unequivocally no. Some nice sea-monkeys, perhaps.

The hamsters kicked it off, but the word must’ve spread quick throughout the rodent realm that I was to be persecuted. I really don’t know what I did to warrant it. And, I know that scientifically, some of the following animals do not technically belong to the family rodentia, but after what I’ve been through, I think I can redesignate as I please.

My former mother-in-law had a penchant for acquiring animals and had accumulated quite a menagerie by the time I’d been with her son for awhile. The dogs, the cats, the birds were all just fine (well, the birds and I didn’t get on very well, but as I’ve discovered in subsequent bird-related interactions, it was specific to these birds – a post for another day). Then she got my former husband a rabbit. I am allergic to rabbits. Severely allergic. I’d look at the thing and get hives. Like a fool, I petted it anyway, and just as I was becoming encouraged about our ability to get on with one another, I picked the thing up, and it crapped directly down my shirt. Into my bra. Another rodent-relation gone horribly awry. After that, I’d feed it, but I never let it get too close. And, I’m pretty sure it was laughing at me, often.

Another time, my former brother-in-law decided that he didn’t really want to continue to care for the ferret that he’d acquired, and his soft-hearted mother took it in like all the rest. I have never liked ferrets. They smell nasty, and they remind me of slinky, furry snakes. They creep me out. Well, the first day she had the ferret, we had him on the kitchen table and were letting him get used to all of us. I was pretty apprehensive about the whole scene. My intuition was right-on, as usual. He wandered around to everyone, checking them out and acting all cute and ferrety. Then he got to me. He stopped, and sneeze-vomited, spraying partially digested pellets all over me. I was so shocked, I couldn’t even move quickly enough to get away from the thing.

And then there were the mice. At the time she collected the rabbit and the ferret, my former mother-in-law was living in a very old farmhouse she’d rented. She had three cats – you’d think that mice wouldn’t be a problem, right? Apparently they were, but only for me. I opened a closet door one night to feed the cats before I left, only to see a mouse scuttle past. I shut the door quickly, and figured the cats had plenty of food til tomorrow. Merely a startle – and perhaps a warning?

The second engagement was more alarming. One night, both my former brother-in-law and former husband were sleeping on the couch as I burned the midnight oil studying for an upcoming exam. I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and looking up, noticed it was a mouse making its way confidently across the living room. I started hollering, “Pat! Pat! Wake up! There’s a mouse headed right for you! It’s coming! It’s on your foot! Now your leg! Wake up!” Pat, in his deep sleep, just shook his leg, as though this would solve it all – the mouse did get dislodged and hid under the couch. I figured that this was a great time to leave.

The final incident was the last straw. I went to feed the cats (you’d think I’d have learned, right?) one night before I left, and I was scooping the food from the bag into their self-feeder with a mug left there for that purpose. About three or four scoops down, my thumb brushed something that didn’t feel like cat food – it felt silky and fragile, like a leaf or something. I made the mistake of turning on the light, and looking into the mug – and there lay a mouse curled up, having over-indulged in cat food, dead. I hollered for Pat – “There’s a dead mouse! Come quick! Bring me something to get him out of here with!” At which point, Pat tears the corner off of a box and hands me about a two-inch square of cardboard. Looking at him in disbelief, I say, “I was thinking more of something with a handle, Pat! Get me a spoon!”

So, spoon in one hand, unresponsive rodent-in-a-mug in the other, I open the back door, scoop up the mouse in the spoon, and launch him. He careened out over the lawn, and at about mid-arc, a horrible thought occurred to me – what if simply being scooped into the mug had made him faint or something, and he wasn’t really dead? What if I had just launched him to his doom? I didn’t want to see, hear, or be near any of these creatures, but I sure didn’t want to be the engineer of their demise, either. I’ll never know if I was merely jettisoning an expired mouse, or launching an unprepared rodent astronaut to his doom, and I suppose I’ll just have to live with that. I’m sure I’ll be able to manage.

I’ve known some folks who’ve had rats for pets, and they claim that they make very good ones. I’ll take their word for it. I think it’s more a matter of them being on the rodent-approved list, and me being on the rodent-retribution list. Maybe I was some kind of exterminator in a past life. Either way, no rodents for me, thanks.

Back to Punxsutawney Phil. In light of my history with rodent-like creatures, I have a certain dread of them and all of their ilk. I have a small amount of compassion for this poor, confused creature who gets yanked out of his den to the lights of cameras and the nattering and chattering of a cadre of human newscasters all bent on getting his prophetic winter announcement. Groundhog day turns me into Scrooge, and as all and sundry are discussing the predictions of a fat rat, I say ‘bah humbug’ – and with good reason. He’s got it out for me, too, you see – if it matters to me, he’ll predict just what I don’t want (whatever it may be).

He and all of his kind know I’m out here, and they’re waiting – just waiting for the next opportunity to catch me unawares. To lull me with cute grooming habits and little rodent smiles, into thinking that the danger has passed, and that they’re harmless. I will not be fooled… and neither should you… constant vigilance! And one of my favorite reasons for owning a cat.

 

Try not to become a [wo]man of success but rather try to become a [wo]man of value.  (Albert Einstein)

I have never questioned the fact that I am here to be of service to others. I have, at times, questioned where the line between service to others, and disservice to self, lay. But, I have never for one moment believed anything other than that we are to be helpmates to one another. This whole concept has been popping into my screen for days now, and I find myself devoting a lot of time and thought to it. And then tonight, I read one of the blogs I follow, and her post drove it all home for me (http://bonesigharts.blogspot.com/2010/02/payments.html ).

I can remember a lot of times when my father gathered up his tools, and went to build something for one of his siblings. He never expected payment – he only knew that he had the necessary expertise, and willing hands. My mother has spent her life in service to others – to her family, to her extended family, to her friends, to her students. They cast a long shadow. Growing up, we were expected to do for others, and it was taken for granted that helping out is just what you do. Of the many gifts that my parents gave me, for this, I am the most grateful.

I went to Mount Mary College in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and one of the pillars their entire educational philosophy rests upon is service. Each class seemed to include some service component – in the course of pursuing my degrees, I have done an intense amount of fieldwork and volunteering. And I can remember wondering, when some of my classmates would complain, and argue that there was no educational value in these experiences – if they could see no educational value in reaching out to their fellow human beings in friendship and kindness, what on earth did they believe we were doing here?

I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve. (Albert Schweitzer)

I am no Mother Teresa, I am no Gandhi, I am no great humanitarian. But, I look for the moments where I can be of service in the every day, in the small ways. The other day, I was on my way to lunch at work, and I saw a very elderly lady struggling to get her groceries from her cart and into her car. Without hesitation, I was there, like the stereotypical Girl Scout, with a “Can I help you with that Ma’am?” And she was really grateful. When I first saw her, she looked anxious and she was struggling – and when I walked away, she was smiling.

And afterward, I thought about the fact that I never even considered doing anything else. (I also thought about the fact that elderly people might be wary of offers of assistance, and that this was something that I was going to have to start taking into consideration, even though the entire reason for their wariness makes me intensely sad). And I realized that this was the kind of thing that makes life GOOD, and makes us feel GOOD about being here and being human.

Happiness cannot come from without. It must come from within. It is not what we see and touch or that which others do for us which makes us happy; it is that which we think and feel and do, first for the other fellow and then for ourselves. (Helen Keller)

I’ve encountered all sorts of people who believe that we aren’t here to be of service to others, that God expects nothing from us, and that we are only here to experience happiness. I find that a hard bite to swallow. I find that line of thinking impossible to believe – if that is true, then I am bereft and adrift. If that is true, then why do anything?

I think what I am really getting at here is the concept of empathy. Of being able to feel what it is like to walk another’s path, and to reach out to them based on that understanding. I have always been an insatiable reader, and when I read, I joined those worlds, became those characters – I struggled with them, wept with them, laughed aloud with them. I sank into the experience of what it would feel like to be them. I think that this is what has really helped me grow my already empathic nature.

If you have empathy for someone, you have compassion for them – you reach out to them in a way that preserves their dignity, and honors the bond we share as living beings. This is different than pity – pity puts you on a pedestal, and others somewhere beneath you. Compassion is one person reaching out to another laterally, and with detachment.

In Milwaukee, a twenty-one year old man was shot and killed by the young men who were attempting to rob him, because he had no money to give them. They shot him in the back as he fled. At the trial, one of them turned and grinned at the murdered boy’s parents, as if to say, “This doesn’t touch me. None of this affects me. I have no remorse.”

One of my coworkers was set upon on his way home from work by a group of six young men, and they attempted to beat him – when he wouldn’t go down, they ran off. When they were caught and questioned, they said that they did it because they were bored. Things like this happen every day, and I cannot understand how or why. If these attackers could empathize with others, they would not do these things, because they would know that to hurt another is to really hurt yourself.

Great and wonderful acts of generosity and kindness and compassion happen every day, too – large and small acts of service, performed out of empathy and compassion. That is what I choose to focus on. That is what I choose to spread along my path. The final Reiki Principle states, “Just for today, count your blessings and be kind to every living thing.” This is one of the easiest for me to follow (not always the count my blessings part, but I’m working on that!). This is the one that I wish was indelibly tattooed on my forehead. This is the one that I want to permeate my being – and the one I most want to spread to others.

So, this week, I plan to make a special effort to honor myself by honoring others. By looking for all the quiet moments where I can be of service. By setting my foot soundly on the path with purpose.

Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile. (Albert Einstein)

‘Nuff said.

 

You know, I never thought that at this stage of the game I’d be facing the prospect of dealing with my anger. I thought I’d dealt with it – I am starting to see that, instead, I’ve just bottled it all up. There are moments when I can feel it viscerally, thrumming through me – hot and heady, ready to destroy.

And I find that really, really upsetting. I think it must come with the territory I’m entering now on my path: I have reached the parched, barren, burnt plains of anger. I have reached that place inside myself where I have allowed rage to devastate possibility or growth. I have reached that point on my journey where I must turn over each charred rock, scrape off the brittle crust of ash, and look to see what I have yet to release, what I have still before me to forgive. To really forgive.

The seeds of this knowing were planted a long time ago, and they’re only now breaking through on this arid stretch. Until now, I didn’t have the words to talk about it, and I couldn’t draw all of it together in my mind, or my heart. I was ashamed of it.

But, I found a passage today by Thich Nhat Hanh that brought some of it into focus:

It is best if we do not listen to or look at the person whom we consider to be the cause of our anger. Like a fireman, we have to pour water on the blaze first and not waste time looking for the one who set the house on fire. “Breathing in, I know that I am angry. Breathing out, I know that I must put all my energy into caring for my anger.” So we avoid thinking about the other person, and we refrain from doing or saying anything as long as our anger persists. If we put all our mind into observing our anger, we will avoid doing any damage that we may regret later. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

This is great so far as helping me deal with new anger arising now – and if I follow that premise (concentrate on your own anger, and not on those who’ve angered you), I can hopefully avoid future cringe-worthy moments. I’ve been repeating that mantra to myself for most of the day:

Breathing in, I know that I am angry.

Breathing out, I know that I must put all my energy into caring for my anger.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

(Do not throttle those who are angering you.

Do not call them dirty names when “no one” is listening. I added this part. I needed the clarification, apparently.)

This is part of Reiki Mastery, too. Just for today, I will not anger. When I mutter against them, I might feel better in the moment, as though I’ve expelled some of the venom within me – but in reality, I am cursing myself each time I curse someone else. If we are in all beings, and a part of all things, and they in us, then each time I curse someone else, I curse myself.

While this is all kinds of great and good for me to practice in the now, I need to get in and dig deep and look at all the old anger. It’s stockpiled in there. I feel like I’d need to send poor little thought-children down there in those freaky hazmat suits to handle each shard of ire with those creepy tongs they use to handle nuclear reactors.

What I do see is that you never really bury it – it’s in there, waiting for you to be ready to look at it, deal with it, and release it, finally. I think all of that old garbage – all of the little smoldering anger fires of long ago – help to fuel my anger in the present. I hate that idea. I hate that I know it’s true.

The reason that I haven’t looked at it or dealt with it, in part, was because it felt shameful. Some of the reasons I’d ever been angry in the first place felt selfish or wrong. Some of the reactions I’ve had to situations throughout my life have left me with no small amount of chagrin.

But mostly, I think I was just ashamed of the fact that I’d allowed someone to get to me enough to make me angry. That I allowed my self-control to slip long enough to let someone get past the defenses and cause me to lose my temper or have such a deeply “undignified” emotional reaction. If I continue this way, I will become Prometheus, chained to rock, allowing anger to devour me each day.

 

 

If you don’t understand how a woman could both love her sister dearly and want to wring her neck at the same time, then you were probably an only child.  ( Linda Sunshine)

There were no truer words written than that quote. My sister just left our apartment – and for the past several months I’ve edged far closer to the urge to throttle her than to just “love her dearly.” The confounding part of it all is that even as I plot her imminent demise, my heart is wrenching for her and because of her.

There has been no one in my life as controversial as Kate. There has been no one as exasperating, as infuriating, as utterly maddening as my sister. There has also been no one who knew me quite so well, so intimately – very few who saw inside the boxes I’d drawn shut against prying eyes, no one who saw so well into my darkest corners or who ferreted out my weaknesses or my secrets and shames quite so easily.

God help me, there is no one like my sister. She was born here in possession of a manual detailing exactly where to find each of my buttons, and in which combinations to push them in order to achieve nuclear fury. There is no one who has inspired me to walk the floors at night, a maternal vigil, worried sick, worried fiercely for them, like Kate.

I know some sisters who only see each other on Mother’s Day and some who will never speak again. But most are like my sister and me…linked by volatile love, best friends who make other best friends ever so slightly less best.   (Patricia Volk)

I don’t know if it has more to do with me being the oldest child or with the exact conditions of our childhood circumstances, but I have always been like a tigress about her (and about our brother – but he needed a different kind of sistering from me – a blog post for another day). Kathryn required someone strong enough to intimidate those who’d she’d riled up into refraining from giving her the sound trouncing which she’d earned (no matter the situation, you could put money on it – if there was drama, my sister was there). She needed someone calmer than herself – and who possessed sound judgment –who was determined enough to cut through her scatter and chatter to chuck some sense into the maelstrom from time to time.

No matter what has passed between us, I have tried to be a “good sister.” I have succeeded admirably at times, and I have failed horribly at others. And right now, her life is a minefield of her own making. I am finding it hard to carry on with the roles that we’ve adopted and lived since childhood. I am tired, and I find myself out of patience, and out of common sense advice, and out of synch with our hereditary patterns. I feel left-footed in our relationship, and I cannot regain balance long enough to resume the dance.

I don’t believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.  ( Maya Angelou)

All I can do now, is listen to her. Love her. And hope – hope that things will turn out okay, hope that she will find her way, hope that she knows that I love her passionately, even if I have a hard time showing her sometimes. All I can do is accept who she is, and instead of reacting to her way of being by changing my behavior, know that she and I will find a new way of relating to one another that leaves me feeling like the sane, rational being I was before she blew through my door.

Throughout our entire childhood, I tried to protect her, to shield her, as best I could from all the ugly things – whether they were of her making or not. That’s not working so well anymore, and it leaves me to wonder what role I am to play now in her life, if not as her champion and defender? As Dani always says, “Who would you be, without that story?” There are parts of me that are working at cross-purposes now: one part of me still takes pride in being her shield and sanctuary, and another resents it.

Who will I be if not the eldest child? The eldest daughter? Who am I without that story, and all of the roles I play in it? But then, who am I to step in and take her chance to be her own defender? Who am I to so little value her ability to decide for herself what is right? Because isn’t that what I do by incessantly charging in on my white horse, so confident that my way is the right way?

At what point do I take that step back, and allow her life to unfold in either joy or pain? At what point do I stop enabling her, and crippling her?

Like everyone else, we are evolving and growing. The old story no longer fits us – and we lack a new myth to live by. The only thing we can do, I suppose, is allow it to write itself in love and pain, in sorrow and triumph, over time and page by page. All I can do is open my door to her, and open my heart to her, and have faith that we will find our new myth, we will recast our roles, we will learn new steps to old music. All I can do is have faith that our sisterhood is strong enough to survive this and all storms to come, and know that even though the shoreline may be reshaped, it remains one strong, unbroken line between ports.

Come have a look through my kaleidoscope eyes. Come walk with me, as I make my way down the Path of Mastery (complete with fits and starts and pitstops and potholes). Our very impermanence is what makes us burn so brightly, and struggle so valiantly, and feel so deeply – it’s what makes us seize the day, and the moment. Come in, settle in, share a moment with me.

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"Who are YOU?" said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, "I--I hardly know, sir, just at present-- at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then." (Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 5)