The Zen of Words With Friends

Growing up in a large family, competition was fierce. I learned how to aspire; often succeeding, especially when it came to academia in which I excelled. And although I didn’t grow up having to mandatorily don a skirt or restrict myself to half-court basketball like women before me, the unspoken rules still persisted: act like a lady; don’t make men feel or look powerless; don’t build too much muscle. Being athletically inclined in build and temperament, to be restricted to girly sports resulted in a nervous, fragmented, overly-intellectual young woman who, due to a natural proclivity toward introspection, was thoroughly awkward in social situations.

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Fast forward to my life in the Maine woods, once I left home. Horses, log cabins and a whole lake to swim in and sixty-five acres to ski on gave my spirit room to breathe and my mind a healthy outlet for problem solving.

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Fast forward again to online Words With Friends. Seriously. When you’ve possessed a lifelong drive to succeed in what you’re good at, competition can rear its phantom head when least expected. Opponents utilizing cheat apps only served to improve my vocabulary and sharpen my competitive edge. But I was beginning to dislike myself. Friends and family began to express their distaste for losing to me once too often. Yet I couldn’t simply allow others to win without merit. What to do?

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Over time, I’ve learned to relax a bit around the need to be the best at everything. I’ve had the leisure to explore the background static in my motivations. I don’t have to capitulate; neither must I angst over a word board for fifteen minutes, trying to extract the absolute highest score possible from a letter placement. I’ve discovered that if I speed my playing up a bit, the likelihood increases that sometimes I win, but sometimes I also lose. When I’m losing, I get to observe where I’m not in harmony with myself – just as some do in sitting meditation. And you know what? I’m finally at peace with it – as long as the game is played well.

MEDITATION

1959

I was five then, as we crowded around
the black and white TV,
watching patterns on a blank screen labeled
THIS IS JUST A TEST.

When the high-pitched drone became unbearable,
we reluctantly switched it
Off.

Now we have
color and vexing bands
of text endlessly scrolling
their mindless confusion.
Twenty-four hours
of nonstop “entertainment”
only beware: turning it Off becomes
an inner, as well as outer process.

Pausing alongside that drive
well traveled by others living worlds
apart from where I am today,
the ghost of a little girl riding a blue Schwinn
steams by in vaporous hues;
streamers plugging handlebars,
playing cards clipped between spokes.

Gazing up, a single red-tailed hawk
soars above the din.
Rejoicing in cloudless flight
is something I long ago learned from its kin.
Pulling the rental car into gear,
wheels headed now for gravel roads.

SCC Red Tail April 14 2010_MG_7344

Well Met

Strange fruit –

shape and husks like the mottled

purple-white breasts

of small dying birds,

scattered on asphalt.

Running together,

life and death

in the avenue.

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That we choose one

over the other –

fight like cancer to linger

in this place –

affirms daily the experiment.

To validate, rather than destroy –

whether with arms, words

or intention –

the inviolate

right of our fellows

to share space on

this spinning playground;

promotes delight

in earthly pleasures

on nature’s own terms.

love, more or less

image: Henri de Toulouse-Latrec<br />poem: Bela Johnson

Passion splits skin like

an overripe melon

straining its boundaries –

Daring to go beyond

convention,

what’s safe.

Comfort assumes new meaning,

reaches deeper –

until again, it stretches.

And what once exhausted

now sets the tone

for beginning anew.

Unzipping skin

in unabashed nakedness –

standing or lying

or sitting before another

like a well-polished mirror –

a little too frank,

yet one cannot look away.

Hot breath steams it over

momentarily, only to resolve

into palpable dampness –

running from the glass

like beads of sweat

flowing freely from rosy flesh.

Rivulets of salt and desire

commingling with sounds

prehistoric,

otherworldly –

a snake uncoiling,

then poised to strike –

and, once bitten,

one’s capacity for tolerating

the sweet venom increases

until, eyes dilated,

pulses pounding,

the blood purifies itself –

and we are healed.

MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE

It’s easy to whine about annoyances – those circumstances or people that burden the mind with nagging urgency. Harder to cultivate reception when there’s so much confusion, coercion and outright deception filtering down from high places these days.

Politicians have always sugar-coated lies to help them slide down a bit better. But what is going on in this country just now is beyond my understanding. A Presidential election is two weeks away, and far too many are falling victim to hype instead of looking at the glaringly obvious facts: our fundamental rights as citizens and human beings are very much at stake. And we desperately need to shift to a new energy paradigm.

Maybe instead of becoming sidetracked by spin, we could be examining the issues and demanding the candidates address them. Yet the culpable are so worried about returning to the false comfort of a toxic status quo that they are ignoring the silver tongues jammed down their virtual throats.

What keeps us collectively plowing ahead as if greed were our birthright as American citizens? Have we forgotten the warning signs along the way; that actions are now reaping consequences; that democracy is, by its very definition, participatory; that our materialistic desires have infected an entire planet with our disease? Have too many of us lost our minds, if not our hearts?

Discovering joy in the midst of this kind of insanity can be challenging. But here’s the thing: I’ve got to settle inside my own skin. Only I know what is right for me at any given time, and sometimes, through no fault of my own, I am wrong, even when well intentioned.

Still, before November 6, I will be reviewing the candidates and the issues as best I am able (votesmart.org is one place I’ll explore). I will exercise my right to vote, because too many have suffered just to grant me that right. I can get as cynical as the next person about corporations running our government, but just in case it matters, I will go to the polls. And I will scream and I will shout and I will make a joyful noise without uttering a sound. I will do it with my left hand wrapped around a stub of pencil tied by string to a canvas booth just big enough for me.  Me and that still-powerful instrument the ballot, that is.

Columbus Day Musings

We live down the street from a rooster farm – no, make that two rooster farms. We didn’t know about one of them, which only came into being a week after we settled into this place. It wasn’t a conscious decision to be or not to be in company with such an annoyance, rather in order to secure a nice home with a modicum of privacy, this is what was available; this is what we got.

When the tradewinds are down as they are and have been for the past few days, the noise can be unbearable, never mind the agenda that presents itself when one considers the raising of these lovely birds, each tethered by its foot to a triangle of plywood just big enough for its body. To us animal lovers, it is a disturbing and pitiful sight. And let’s face facts – there is no earthly reason to raise these creatures except to fight them. They don’t lay eggs and their meat is too tough to be palatable. And though cockfighting is illegal in the great old US of A, it is largely overlooked in Hawaii due to the diverse cultural milieu.

Before you get all riled up as I was the first time I realized people actually engaged in this awful practice while living on the island of Moloka’i twenty years ago, I’d offer this caution: if righteous anger could alter an engrained cultural practice overnight, we would live in a very different human universe. Sadly, it does not and cannot. Changes of this caliber happen slowly, if they happen at all, through peaceful understanding and more patience than the gods ever granted folks like me, though I am learning. Changes such as this happen by impressing youngsters with knowledge and alternatives. In turn, they then may or may not affect the deeply rooted values of their parents.

If I’ve learned nothing else through confronting injustices such as this, it is to cultivate greater tolerance. Countless others have attempted through personal and litigious channels to eradicate rooster fighting from the islands without success. And I realize that, just like personal transformation, change happens from inside the culture. It’s highly unlikely that another white person (who, like it or not, remains a symbol for the coopting of indigenous people through imminent domain) is going to ingratiate himself into the native community while insisting that people sweep away even more vestiges of their familiar. It’s a conundrum and a balancing act in this evolving world where many of us envision a more level playing field for all sentient beings.

 

 

WALLS

How many times have we slammed into walls in life, only to either slide back down them bruised but alive, or peeled off like some bad wallpaper with a cheap replacement slapped back over it in haste, while we continue more or less as before?

There have been pivotal times I’ve run into walls, though thankfully in looking back, I can recognize the wisdom that was garnered from the pain of separation, whether from another human being or from society in some form. I’m not overtly rebellious, but something inside of me balks at accepting the status quo simply for its own sake. What follows is an example of one of the wall hits with the greatest lifelong impact. I’d love to hear about your own, if you’d care to share them.

 

One of the first startling memories was when, at fourteen and as a devoutly raised fundamentalist, I decided to no longer attend church. My Sunday school teacher on whom I had a bit of a silly adolescent crush kicked me out of class for being a wiseass, though that’s certainly not what he would have termed it. As an all-around model student and perfectionist, I took this as a major blow, and vowed never to set foot in his classroom again, which meant I would lose major face by returning to church in general. So I stayed away with one future exception, despite fears of being ostracized and the deeply rooted terror at making a choice that would land me somewhere less than desirable in the afterlife.

A sort of inner quaking persisted for over a decade, but I never backed down on my decision. Meanwhile I began to read voraciously, anything I could get my hands on, from the beautifully illustrated Hare Krishna books sold at airports everywhere to the I Ching. Once I had children, I questioned the wisdom in losing that first spiritual bridge, and even brought my small daughter to Sunday school and placed her amongst other children to begin her indoctrination. But after the adult morning service was out, something twisted inside of me and, despite misgivings that I could provide her with adequate nonsecular guidance, I once again vowed never to return. There was simply something diminishing and lacking in that particular brand of patriarchal structure for me, and I didn’t want my daughters tainted by the experience. It was hard enough being a woman of the ‘fifties who rooted through cultural hype in order to establish some foundation of self-esteem. I wanted more for my girls. I just didn’t know how I was going to provide it for them.

In time, I managed to discover much of what was missing in the dogma of youth, a shining core of faith and divinity that had settled deep within me despite the means by which it was inculcated. More a product of my own personal communication with the great unseen, this eternal flame burned in me as it must, I think, in any soul, by whatever means, if it is to blossom into self-realization.

P.S.  My daughters turned out with similar inclinations, unsurprisingly.

 

Revisiting The Four Agreements

Years ago I read this book and wrote an article for a statewide paper about and around it. The following is a reworked and shortened version, which I thought to share with you while on a month’s vacation which has taken me away from a regular writing schedule. I hope you find it helpful!

In The Four Agreements, don Miguel Ruiz, a surgeon- turned-Toltec medicine man describes how we are “domesticated” when young to obey laws and elders (parents, teachers). We might not agree with these laws; nevertheless we are virtually powerless as children to challenge them. Sadly they are too often the way we receive acceptance and approval from significant others. Discovering our own voice and cultivating self respect are life changing processes. Along the way, we learn the importance of keeping our word and honoring obligations.

Integrity, or the impeccability of our word described in Ruiz’ first agreement demands that we say what we mean and mean what we say. Follow through with commitments. Life can get so full at times, it’s hard to prioritize and say no. However  it makes sense to promise only what can actually be delivered. This is a process, though getting clear on what can be committed to while remaining impeccable in word and deed allows us to feel better about ourselves, don’t you agree? In this way, everybody wins.

We all know the frustration of being lied to, of having friends and family failing their commitments and forgetting to honor their word. This is, in fact, where Ruiz’ second agreement comes in: Don’t take things personally. And this can be tough. Yet if we understand that we all see things from different perspectives, we learn to be clearer in asking for what we need. Recognizing that we have no control over other people’s feelings, actions and responses can be liberating. Change only happens through an individual’s strong will and desire, over which we have no control. Focusing on our own personal growth fosters self respect as well as providing positive role modeling for others in the grip of their own illusions. Again, a win/win situation.

This naturally leads to Ruiz’ third agreement, don’t make assumptions. We can never know what another is thinking, no matter how long we have known them. We can never accurately predict another’s actions, though we might come close now and again. This is why striving for clear communication is important – an ongoing process.

The fourth and final of Ruiz’ agreements is to always do our best. When learning what it takes to maintain personal integrity, we make mistakes. A lie slips out or we make one more commitment we struggle to keep. Doing our best might simply mean going back and forgiving ourselves for repeating an old habit. And yet when we forge on with a new behavior, a different neural pathway is created in the brain. Repeating the new behavior is now known to strengthen this pathway until actual patterns are altered. How exciting to know that science has actually demonstrated what ancient civilizations such as the Toltecs have known for some time – that the road to peace of mind truly does lie within, and that we have the power to change ourselves for the better!

WHALE RIDER

Fog kissed the perimeter of the inlet, awash in the salmon palette of dawn. Scratched across its surface stretched a long expanse of lumber, rough-hewn and weathered smooth by time. Blinking in the light, she placed bare lily feet upon its surface; padded silently to terminus; grasped the cool smooth knob of one of the braces – and waited. She knew it would come – as dependable in dreams as in the imagination.

Two this time, the orca and smaller grey companion, a dolphin. Churning up brackish water, they lashed back and forth in a display of invitation. And this was something new: before, the girl had watched. This time, it was clear she was to participate. But how?

Silent as wolves padding through forest mulch, all thought ceased. She simply slid into liquid, astride the expanse of ebony and ivory. The thrill of connecting her flesh to that of the creature proved indescribable. Grasping the shiny dorsal fin, quickly they submerged; and it occurred to her briefly that she might require breath. Instead, oxygen sprang forth from the living ocean directly into her lungs. All fear abated and joy swelled up as though her heart would burst from it.

What remained when it ended was magic. Logic would come later to the waking brain, but for now, a profound sadness remained. The young woman longed for the creature like a lover. Mourned the separation of earth’s land masses from her watery depths. Anguished, she stood mutely, shivering in her white cotton nightshirt, toes gripping the end of the dock. Unmoving. As if she could summon the orca back; as though with enough love, anything was possible.

Time passed. Then she noticed a long wake of water ridged up to break its surface. An amorphous form assumed shape; curled and arched toward her. The leviathan returned, head rising out of the sea. An offering, a twig, began to materialize from the creature’s mouth. Impossibly, she broke the stick into pieces with razor teeth. Fashioned them into a tree. Nosed the object in her direction, insisting she grasp the gift. Heart breaking, tears streaming, the girl achingly accepted. Returning to her world seemed a cruelty, despite all the beauty it offered.

She awoke, pillow suffused with tears.

 

FIREWORKS

 

Tomorrow our nation will celebrate its roots and we ourselves will go in search of a fireworks display. Some of my fondest memories are of lying supine on velvety summer grass, gasping at vibrant hues exploding over my head. Hearing someone’s toddler gasping, Ooooh, wow! Ooooh, wow! over and over again. Watching the wonder on the faces of my young daughters whose delight is conflicted by the frightening noises surrounding them. Bundling everyone back into the car to wait interminably in traffic before making the journey home to the serenity of the woods and the lake.

For some, this day will carry a much different flavor in their hearts. It will be yet one more reminder, on the virtual tail of Memorial Day, of loved ones lost in battle. In my mind these losses are a tragic failure of an adolescent nation that still jumps to posturing rather than reflection, preferring aggression over conciliation.

Freedom isn’t free. Americans have all heard this, ad infinitum. But there are varying degrees of interpretation to the statement. While I’m thinking of the cost in time, energy and “face” while attempting to reconcile differing viewpoints in order to discover peaceful resolution, others have war on their minds. Freedom remains costly as long as innocent lives are at stake, and war ensures lives, innocent and otherwise, will always be held in the balance. Then there’s the more covert loss of innocence: that of too many eighteen year-old recruits with stars in their eyes and determination creasing tender brows, launching into battles they believe to be noble causes. Yet upon returning, few will tell you – those who can bring themselves to speak of experiences on the front lines – that glory was indeed beheld in the taking of towns and trembling human beings. Thus I remain wary and conflicted on national celebration days.

In Hawaii, locals simply love celebration because it means convening family and friends together to enjoy food and festivities and blessed days off work. I love this about the Hawaiian people. Never mind that this is a conquered kingdom; forgive and forget and gather the goodness of what really matters close to your heart. And so it is that we set out in search of fireworks – to join families and peaceful, joyous community who delight in sharing music and laughter and yes, the beauty of exploding lights in the sky. I count my blessings in the grace of living amidst such acceptance and aloha.