Sunday, July 28, 2013

Watching


July 28, 2013

Dear friends,

Each summer I meet for an informal weekend with a small group of women who do two things: they study with me, and, bless them, complete a "punch list" of chores that are difficult for me to manage alone.  This year we thought together about the power of perception, and the ways in which we can open our option list by "re-framing" the context of both our inner and outer worlds. For me it was an incredibly rich experience and one from which, as you will see, I continue to be challenged to "practice what I preach."

Personally this week brought an energy deficit of major proportions. I was tired, slow, and a bit muddled. Every task seemed to require me to do it twice: the first time in which I did everything backward and upside down, and then the second time in which I first corrected  my original muddle and then completed properly the task I had originally set out to do. You understand:  I begin to make coffee, spill coffee grounds and water on the counter and the floor and drop the pot. Then I clean up water and coffee grounds, retrieve the pot, wipe up the floor, and start the process of making coffee all over again. Such times while common to an octogenarian's experience generally do not make me a happy camper.

This week, however, I felt challenged to "reframe" my habitual self-scolding response. If I could not work well, what could I do?

I can watch, I decided. I can watch my world with focused intention to see people and things busy being beautiful around me while I am still.

I can watch the slow steady pooling of the coffee as  it brewed in the newly washed pot. I can smell the aroma of freshly ground beans. I can sit with my coffee and watch my begonia being beautiful, the incredible color of the cream and coral blooms, the intricate pattern of its distinctive leaves, the mystery of its life processes in which light and soil and water are used by its gifted begonia self to produce these blooms. I can watch the stately dignity with which Miss Annie arranges her duchess self upon her porch rail perch.  I can see with sharpened awareness the incredible strength by which a single clear crystal drop of rain hangs silent and motionless from a lilac leaf. I can hear the beauty in the off-key tuneless whistling of the young man pulling weeds in my neighbor's flower garden. 

 Aging brings moments in life when work as we once experienced it now lies beyond our resources. We can, however, frame this diminishment as watching time, rich in learning and wordless praise.

See you next week.

Gay




Saturday, July 20, 2013

Grounding Miss Annie?


July 21, 2013

Dear friends,

Miss Annie does not regard the Fourth of July as a holiday. The sudden lights make no cat-sense to her, and the noise of the explosions hurts her ears. The unpredictable patterns of lights and explosions send her central nervous system into hyper-sensitive, hyper-reactive red alert.

Our usual routine for managing this yearly crisis is simple: we stay at home with doors and windows securely closed, and have lots of together time and a large ration of treats. This year we were proceeding as usual and were doing quite well until the evening of the Fourth.

Friends stopped by to share wonderful food from their afternoon barbeque. Involved in the interesting conversation we were having, I forgot that it was the Fourth—no, that is not what happened. I remembered the fact of the date itself. However, interacting with my friends in the relative quiet of late afternoon sunlight, I stopped giving attention to Annie’s reality.

By this time Annie was bored with being indoors, particularly since with company present no one was paying sufficient attention to her Duchess self. Annie walked sedately to the door and with exemplary good manners asked to go out. My friend was sitting near the door, and noticing Annie, asked, “She goes out, doesn’t she?”

“Yes,” I responded absent-mindedly. My friend, in logical response, opened the door, and Miss Annie made her exit, dignified, lady-like, her long white tail held elegantly erect.

When I realized what had happened, I was cross with myself but relatively unconcerned. Annie consistently demonstrates serious attention to food. I thought she would come home for her supper before the evening’s fireworks began. My friends and I continued our conversation, and I left Annie out and on her own without further thought.

After some time—it was, however, still quite light—there was a sudden loud explosion followed by a series of smaller explosions. The initial sound was so loud and unexpected that all of us were physically startled.

“What on earth was that?” I exclaimed.

“I suppose someone fired their Large Special Fourth of July Firecracker early—couldn’t wait until dark,” my friend replied. “That was really a cannon shot.”

Then, becoming suddenly in touch again with Miss Annie’s world, I said, “Good grief! I left Annie out, and she'll be scared witless!"

We walked around the neighborhood looking for her but Miss Annie was nowhere to be found. In a world that from her cat’s eye view had gone mad with lights and sound, Miss Annie had gone to ground.

My friends went home, and I settled in to wait for Miss Annie. As the late summer sunlight faded into night, the erratic explosions and the disconcerting flashes of light increased. From time to time I would go to the door to see if Miss Annie had returned, but there was no sign of the Duchess. She was making herself safe in the best way she knew with the resources available to her. From her point of view, missing supper was a necessity, no matter how uncomfortable it was. So long as the lights and noise continued it was simply too dangerous to attempt the trip home.

Sometime around one o’clock the fireworks ceased for the most part and the dark became quiet. I went once again to check on Miss Annie, but there was no Duchess sitting regally on the mat waiting for me to open the door. At this point, thinking about the next day’s tasks, I decided to go to sleep. Miss Annie would have to bed down wherever she could find a place and make her way home when she could. But I did not do this easily. Since I have seen both coyotes and a fox in the neighborhood, I had reason to be concerned about Miss Annie’s safety.

But when I came down to put the coffee on, Annie heard me. When I unlocked the door Annie quickly emerged from her hide-away under the bayberry bush and set a speed record getting in the door. She was tired and ragged as a tramp; her long fur was decorated with leaves, grass and a generous amount of dirt, but, no matter the cleaning job that lay ahead, Annie was glad to be home.

She immediately demanded to be petted, admired, and welcomed home with a can of her favorite cat-food. She clearly expected a splendid homecoming party, and, I confess, I happily met her expectations.

Once safely home, Annie felt quite pleased with herself, and ridiculously proud of her all-night adventure. I noticed, however, that throughout the day Annie stayed quite close to me, limiting herself to one trip outdoors during which she took a brief nap on the glider facing the door.

When I shared Miss Annie’s all-night adventure with a friend, she asked (with a twinkle in her eyes) if I had grounded Miss Annie for failure to keep curfew. We laughed, but her question made me think. Despite the real danger, why was it that the idea of grounding Miss Annie seemed so absurd but yet worth asking?

The practical reason, of course, is that grounding would have no positive effect on Miss Annie. Like most cats, Miss Annie largely goes her own way despite human efforts to interfere. I could, theoretically, as the adult-in-charge, ground Annie. I knew, however, that resting comfortably under her favorite chair, Annie would simply watch the front-door traffic carefully, and then when the opportunity presented itself, she would slip noiselessly out the door and find whatever adventure interested her that day. Grounding might crimp Miss Annie’s style and sour her disposition, but it would not control her behavior. Grounded or not, Miss Annie would remain Chief-Cat-in-Charge. It’s her nature.

But I thought about my role in Annie’s care.

The whole affair began with my failure to keep clearly in mind what the environmental events meant to Miss Annie. Noise that simply startled me, hurt—painfully—Miss Annie’s ears. Unusual light patterns in the night sky that were entertaining to me were terrifying to her. I wondered if in some non-verbal instinctive way, Miss Annie thought the world was coming to an end. Perhaps animals have their own wordless sense of possible Armageddon.

At any rate, from Miss Annie’s viewpoint, this human she had come to trust had willingly permitted her to go out into a world full of unexpected events that were painful and terrifying. In these circumstances, Miss Annie was faced with keeping herself out of harms’ way as best she was able, then making her way home as soon as it was safe to do so.

When she arrived home, Miss Annie logically demanded recognition of her brave exploit—she had kept herself safe in a place of danger, and had found her way home with great difficulty. A celebration was certainly the logical conclusion to the story. Grounding? What a ridiculous response.

During the night while Annie was taking refuge from the terrors of light and noise, I, however, was thinking about the threat of foxes and coyotes. I trusted that the noise that frightened Annie would at the same time keep her safe from foxes and coyotes. I trusted that, like Annie, frightened by the fireworks, foxes and coyotes would (hopefully) keep themselves in their dens. Nevertheless—full disclosure—I was anxious and slept restlessly.

I did not like being anxious. I know that Annie is only a pet—and an imperious Duchess-type cat at times—but I do not want her to be fearful, nor do I want to be fearful in turn.

Being responsible for Annie and for myself raised an awkward question. Maybe I should require Annie to give up her adventures and become permanently a house cat? Should I ground Annie altogether to avoid the dangers that lurk in the big world outside?

Pointless to try, for starters.

Annie, rightly, will insist on having her own choices, some of which I may not like, but Annie will insist that she act on her choice. Annie will find a way.

But more: Am I willing to make Annie a prisoner in my house so that she will be “safe” and my sleep uninterrupted?

What price for my comfort and freedom from fear am I willing to require Annie to pay?

Thinking with you that freedom, like rules, is a tricky thing to manage.

See you next week.

Gay

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The "other moment" in the show

Dear friends,

This week’s blog is a brief coda to last week’s writing in which I sounded Scrooge-like about Fourth of July celebrations. Miss Annie’s story will come next week. Promise.

Some readers objected—gently—to my somewhat snarky remarks about fireworks.

I gladly acknowledge that I too enjoy fireworks. First there is the silent drum roll of waiting, then the sound and the sudden brilliant pattern of scattering light against the night sky. What is not to enjoy about a spectacle like that? Cost, priorities and parking problems cannot be fairly included in evaluating the joy of the fireworks display itself. Point freely granted.

In life part of the gift of expectations lies in their ambivalence and uncertainty. One reason that watching fireworks is fun for adults is the way in which the display process demonstrates this fact of life. Somehow, the experience of the visual spectacle of light is intensified by another less celebrated aspect of the show. As an adult, I experience of moment of delicious laughter when in the process of increasingly impressive displays, the expectant silence is followed not by explosion and brilliant flares of light but rather by something that goes “Phuss-zzzz-phuss—fizzz. Klunk.”  Dark.

To push the metaphor a bit, as an adult watching fireworks I am reminded that when in life I light the fuse I am not automatically insured a given result. A day—a decision—may end with Roman Candles or a Klunk (or both).  No insurance available.

Thinking with you that living fully requires us to accept the fact that the real cost of exciting fireworks includes patience with the duds.

Miss Annie’s story will help us think next week.  Promise.

Gay


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Turn out the lights?

July 9, 2013

Dear friends,

As I write this, Annie and I—thankfully—have safely survived the first week in July. Two things happened. I had a “Bah, Humbug!” moment that raised an interesting question. Annie had an unexpected adventure.

In this week’s blog I want to share the “Bah, Humbug!!” question the holiday raised. Next week I plan to share Annie’s adventure and the ripple effect it has had on our lives together. Already July has evoked new learning. It promises to be a good month.

My “Bah, Humbug” moment focused around an annual irony I observe.

"See!! It has happened again,” I fussed to myself. “Cities with limited budgets none-the-less manage to purchase thousands of dollars of fireworks. What an interesting approach to serving the common good: money invested in fireworks which are then shot into the night sky for an hour's entertainment of the citizenry. This presupposes, of course, that the general public can find a parking space from which to observe the show. I wonder if these cities fund a summer lunch program for kids at risk. If you can’t afford bread and circuses, then by all means fund the circuses.” (I warned you that this was a decidedly “Bah, Humbug” moment.)

My Inner Critic (always watchful, always listening for error) promptly pointed out that my snarky monolog closely resembled the disciples’ criticism of the woman who “wasted” expensive oil to anoint Jesus before his death.

Inner Critic and I regularly engage in sharp disagreements and interesting debates. I have learned through experience, however, that Inner Critic must be watched. She cannot be trusted to play by the rules. “Not fair,” I protested. “That was an act of private religious devotion. This is a public expenditure of tax monies. The issue is not the same.”

I thought for a while, attempting to define my objection more clearly (and more charitably). Then Inner Critic raised a somewhat snarky question herself. “I suppose,” she said, “you have an alternative celebration in mind?”

Who could resist an opening like that?

“As a matter of fact, I do,” I said. “Here is my proposal. At a specified time all up and down the Front Range cities would turn out their lights. Then when our eyes became adjusted to the dark and our ears stopped being surprised by the absence of traffic noise, we could look up and see the stars. We could watch the brilliant pattern of the summer night sky and hear the silence of the dark. As the earth turns, we could see the Big Dipper moving toward the western horizon. City children who do not often see stars could learn to locate the North Star. People could think about the courage of those who sailed tiny ships across great oceans navigating by the stars. We could think about the contrast: their dangerous earth-bound travels—brief and perilous—plotted in relation to the slow massive movement of the distant stars. We could think about the North Star as part of God’s GPS. We could think too about words and the metaphorical way we now use ‘North Star’ to mean a safe guideline for living.”

“Additionally,” I added, “it would provide for a quiet time in which those of us who are so inclined could raise a moment of grateful praise to God for the liberty we enjoy, and ask for the common sense and courage necessary to keep it.”

Inner Critic has little sense of humor. “It is clear that your thought life is quite ridiculous today,” she sniffed.

“You have to admit that there are advantages to my proposal,” I responded defensively. “Think of the savings that would accrue from the drop in the use of electricity. Think of the educational value of people actually seeing—some for the first time—God’s nightly Summer Light Show. And consider the advantage of this sensible response to dry Colorado’s high danger of fire.”

I then sat quietly in the porch glider playing Idea Lego. I explored the virtues and disadvantages of my proposal, revised and expanded the original idea, and considered the nature and number of indignant objections that would be raised by the general citizenry if such a proposal were presented to the public.

It was a good game full of sensible nonsense and serious irreverence.

But, game over, I want to think  with you about an aspect of the issue that lies beyond civic fiscal priorities and the challenge of serving the common good.

It appears to me that habitual, culturally sanctioned patterns of celebration need routinely to be countered with at least one Scrooge-like question: what happens to me if—when—so to speak,  I go along with the show?

For example, Fourth of July fireworks provide drama, brilliance, and lots of “Ohhhh—look at that!!” Beautiful, and great fun, and, for the thoughtful, an opportunity for gratitude for the civic freedoms we enjoy.

But, thinking metaphorically, it is a fact that watching the fireworks does not teach me to understand the importance of the North Star, nor to locate it in time of need.  Indeed, what happens if I assign an importance to the show that makes me oblivious to my ignornace and my inabilty to reckon direction without a GPS? Finding my way to the city park is not likely to be the most important navigational task in  my life.

Thinking with you that since the lights are almost certain to go out sometime during life’s journey, even in our high-tech world of the GPS, wise people still learn to locate the North Star.

See you next week with an account of Annie’s adventure.

Gay