On a frigid December night, my husband and I pulled into the parking lot of St. James Catholic Church
to join a candlelight vigil against gun violence. Parishioners were already gathered on the corner, their candle flames a minor constellation within a universe of traffic lights. I pulled two tapers from my purse, as our friend Kate––a church member, she'd invited us––parked her car near ours. We trudged toward the group and claiming spots against a wall, blended into the background.
The national news had been filled with stories about unarmed Black boys and men killed by policemen; while the local news had been decrying the frequency of homicides in city neighborhoods.
I set aside my opinions about race relations in twenty-first century USA. On 39th and Troost in midtown Kansas City, I held a candle. We were only a few
, our presence on that sidewalk brief, but I felt consoled with my hands folded in prayer around a taper. Drivers tapped their horns, some waved, and the gestures united us in grief and united us in our exhaustion from grieving. A gust sneaked up my coat sleeve. I shivered. It was a night to mourn.
(Read more about my reaction to violence.)
The line at the post office inched forward whenever one of the two clerks muttered "help-you." They glared at us over their reading glasses, which made it more an accusation than an offer. Between mumbles, they shouted. "Need some relief out here." "She still ain't back from lunch?"At another branch, I queued up with three other customers. Our instructions were provided by a scribbled sign beside the clerk. "Be courteous! Don't approach Counter
until I say." After handing change to a gentleman, she shouted, "What are all these people doing in my lobby?"
The Post Office Paradox is Uncle Al. He worked there for decades; even though it's well documented he's the most-loved man on planet earth. He's retired now, but If you asked him for a stamp, Uncle Al would give you his last one, make you popcorn, sit you in his recliner with your favorite DVD (he'd know which one), and drive your letter to the addressee.
Yesterday, I trudged into another USPS branch, schlepping my bundle of postal worker prejudice. I stopped short––the clerk behind the counter was somebody's Uncle Al. So I smiled at the clerk and he offered me "Happy holidays" with my stamps.
(Read another post about my prejudice.)
When a policeman killed twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland I was still grieving Michael Brown … John Crawford … Eric Garner … Trayvon Martin…. I didn't have any grief left for Tamir; I feel like I owe his mother an apology for that.
Jakobi––a young black man, nineteen or so––waited on us at Steak 'n Shake last week. He called me ma'am and recommended the salad. I prayed he'd make it home safely after work, but I already saw him as a corpse. So many things could go wrong. I imagined the whole scene––maybe he'd get stopped for a broken taillight and maybe the officer would mistake Jakobi's wallet for a gun.
The other day at the gym, we were talking with an African-American trainer. I saw him as a corpse, too. And also the kid who joined church last Sunday. And I'm worried for my brothers, cousins, and nephews.
A parade of corpses, real and imagined, woke me at 2:00 AM. Ben and I gave up on sleep. We passed the time with a DVD, Wall-E. It was kind of a sad movie, but at least it had a happy ending. Sometimes all you can do is hold hands and watch cartoons.
(Read more about Ferguson)
From the Poem "Defuse Me," by Thich Nhat Hahn
I need you to listen to me.
No one has listened to me.
No one understands my suffering,
including the ones who say they love me.
The pain inside me
is suffocating me.
It is the TNT
that makes up the bomb.
There is no one else
who will listen to me.
That is why I need you.
But you seem to be getting away from me.
You want to run for your safety,
the kind of safety that does not exist.
I have not created my own bomb.
It is you.
It is society.
It is family.
It is school.
It is tradition.
So please don't blame me for it.
Come and help;
if not, I will explode.
This is not a threat.
It is only a plea for help.
I will also be of help when it is your turn.
Sunday I was quick to rise and head straight down to breakfast. Tuesday I was equally content. But Monday, I woke up feeling hopeless. I couldn't raise an arm to lift the covers, and even if the physical act had been possible, I lacked the will to initiate it. There was no point in getting out of bed.
Why the despondence? Because it was a Monday? Because dead gray clouds were shrouding the sun? Because Mama had been depressed?
Buddhists teach that it's depression, but not my depression.
A therapist explained, while I'd slept in utero, the chemicals that ferried my mother's malaise through her blood were coursing through mine, too.
Joy Harjo wrote, while she'd listened from an ancestor realm,
she'd recognized her mother's song and was called into this world by the music.
Mama sang alto. She, Aunt Gerry, and Aunt Mable sounded like the Andrews Sisters, on those occasions they replaced their sibling cattiness with harmony. When she called me to be born her daughter, sorrow composed her tune in a minor key.
Hands cupped over my ears, I capture the roar of blood flowing through my veins. Mama's lament.
(Read why vacations depress me.)
As we were packing up at the end of our silent retreat, one of the other women said, "I saw a bobcat this week. I think it saw me first." Had she been afraid? "A little nervous, yeah."
I'd also gotten up close to wildlife that week. I took a daily stroll down the half-mile drive from the cabin to the main road, cutting through a grazing pasture. I walked at a brisk pace, spurred on by the chill in the morning air. About a dozen cows grazed on either side of the long driveway. As I approached them, I slowed down. Involuntarily. Fear was a life-long habit. At least here on retreat, I was at a perfect venue to investigate my fear. I walked a couple of hesitant steps. A calf looked up at me, then ambled closer to its mother. (My apologies to the cows for being presumptuous about their relationship.) I thought the little one was cute, until its mother looked up at me, too. I stopped. I noticed a very slight twinge in my knees. The bigger cow squared herself to the drive, although she remained several yards away. I breathed deeply. The knee twinge dissipated. I resumed walking. Further ahead, cows were lying on both sides of the drive, close enough for me to touch. My knees got very fluttery. I turned to go back. But other cows had closed in on the driveway behind me. Not exactly on the driveway, but they would definitely breathe on me if I walked past. My knees wobbled, but I took a step toward the cabin. My knees buckled, so I stood there and felt my fear, until the cows got bored and wandered off. And when they left, so did the all the symptoms in my knees.
I was grateful for the opportunity to see fear so clearly. To notice how it rose and fell and passed away, like all things in life. I got to see how judgments piled on top of anxiety can spiral you into panic. Maybe I'll take this as a starting point, to accept my whole self once and for all. Yes, I think from now on, I'll practice compassion for my fear.
Oh yeah, and a side note to my knees: Are you nuts? You wasted my time on cows? There were bobcats out there!
____________________________________________________________________________(Read Cow Epiphany #1)
On a meditation retreat, we stayed in a cabin built in the middle of a grazing pasture. On the first morning, I strolled down a half-mile gravel drive, contemplating the nature of reality. Several cows lay snoozing nearby. Lying down? Don't they sleep standing up?
Twenty years earlier, I recruited rural students for the University of Kansas. They learned about college. I learned about farms. I overheard a conversation about cow-tipping. "Really?" I asked. "How do you tip a cow over?" "Well, ma'am, they're off balance when they sleep." (Farm kids were very polite.) "So we do it at night." (Also very bright.) "But the owners hate it." (Also mischievous. I liked that.) Still, I couldn't quite picture how it worked.
On the second morning of retreat, I kicked at stones, while questioning the existence of God. A cow looked at me. Did cows bite?
On the last day, I headed down the drive, pondering the finality of death. A cow lumbered toward me. I stopped. He stopped. Lordy, he was bigger than a VW. And way more solid. There was no way in hell you could tip that thing over!
Retreats. Where life's big issues are resolved.
(Read Cow Epiphany #2)
(Check out another post about cows, titled Show Pies)
"Herrera shouldn't have pitched in the eighth." Pardon me while I talk a little Royals baseball. You see, after watching a dozen games, I know something. Never mind the previous sixty-four sports-free years of my existence. "It's H-D-H 7-8-9.
Boom. Yost forgot his own formula." I've picked up just enough info to make myself edgy and opinionated. My husband adds, "Yeah, that's why people say fire the manager." So now I know What People Say and
I know what People mean when they say it. I'm getting cocky.
A proficient know-it-all needs cockiness. As long as I'm reeling off the tiny bit I know regarding the Royals' relief pitchers and the Giants' I-don't-need-no-stinkin'-relief Bumgarner, I can ignore the fact that the size of what I don't know dwarfs what I do know. Honestly, I don't even know who won the World Series. But you do.
Here's the thing. As I write this, the World Series has already been won. As you read this, you know who won it. You might not even care who won, but you know. Right now, most everybody knows––except for me, because I'm stuck back here in the past, a day before game six. However, my ignorance doesn't bother me a bit. When my time catches up with yours, you can bet I'll look you in the eye and tell you this: "I knew they'd win."
"Can you … do you think … could you … pick one out for me?' I fingered a beret in a booth at the Maple Festival. Mary and Nicki sifted through their piles of autumn-colored knit caps. "Too small, Nicki said. "Try this one." Mary plopped a floppy number on my head. She patted and tugged and fluffed; my face was the center of her attention.
Her fingertip grazed my temple. I leaned ever so slightly into the spot where skin pressed against skin. The sensation raised a memory: another woman's hands––from long ago––that had failed to pat my cheek, failed to braid my hair, failed to articulate my essential prettiness.
"Beautiful," Mary said. She held up a mirror. I peeked. She was right.
I saw very few maple trees at the Maple Festival. They shied away, their scarlets and oranges dulled in comparison with the blazing cuteness of me in my new hat. Touring other craft booths, I pretended to savor cinnamon-roasted almonds, plucked one at a time from out of a paper cone––but really, I was enthralled with how the soft yarn was caressing my ears, warding off the chill of past neglect.
I snuggled into bed that night, still wearing my new hat.
The glass walls of an outdoor labyrinth imprisoned me within narrow corridors, while giving the illusion there were no barriers. Unlike other labyrinths I'd walked before, this one was triangular, its interior not graceful curves, but all straight lines and angles.
I was timid, because although the whole thing was transparent, I couldn't see which way, or when, to turn. (Forehead-shaped smudges on the walls announced where some who'd entered earlier had misjudged the design.) What lay just ahead? Would the path angle off to the left or right? Or would my next footfall smack me into the glass?
queasiness in my stomach intensified with every step, as a familiar hunger for safety gnawed at my gut.
The partitions opened at unpredictable moments, in unexpected directions, but I recognized a rhythm in my body––a slow build of anxiety, followed by relief. Lungs tightened around the breath and then set it free. I began to trust that rhythm. Fear marked a turning point; relief marked another. Rewarding my faith, the glass passageway guided me to the center and eventually spilled me back out onto the lawn.
I'm still waiting to learn such faith in life. To trust that fear evaporates and openings appear.
Read about another contemplative walk.