Once More, a Talking Stick

§  For those unfamiliar with the practice, a Talking Stick Ceremony allows survivors to speak at a memorial service without the formality of rising to address a crowd. Instead, a simple thing—a stick, a branch, a piece of wood, decorated to represent the lost individual, is passed from hand to hand, so those seated may speak a few words in kind memory. §

I have created Talking Sticks now for several friends and acquaintances who have passed: Debbe, Mary, Terry, and now Cathy. I did not create one for my mother (see the post My Mother’s Talking Stick, November 17, 2017) only because I was, as I knew I would be, the single person to speak that night. Speaking for a woman who had few mourners, though, was far more difficult than assuming the responsibility for creating a Talking Stick to be spoken through by several people who will be missing someone.

Rather than being difficult or hurtful, there is instead great beauty and release in being the person who is privileged to create another’s Talking Stick. It is a physical meditation, allowing one to think through the value of a friend or loved one’s life, and to say farewell by determining the representative talismans or totems to be included.

IMG_20190725_152444340For Cathy, who loved all things natural and green and growing, the talismans on her Talking Stick (although of necessity made mostly of non-organic substances) will be representative of those passions. A small tree branch, sanded and finished with clear lacquer, will be wound with silk vine to symbolize her history as a farmer. A packet of flower seeds called “Bee Feed” and a rubber honeybee will signify one of the last things she ever spoke about to her friends in our Monday night meditation group: that she was sick with worry over the plunging honeybee population. A copper flower will further denote her delight in the world of growing things, while a silver tree of life will stand for the hundreds of trees she planted in her lifetime. And because she rode her bike everywhere, dying just after returning from having enjoyed a ride with her biking group, a bicycle charm will be prominently displayed.

Having created it, I will once more carry the Talking Stick to a friend’s memorial service, explain its creation, and then encourage those there to pass the stick from hand to hand, each one speaking a pleasant, special, or humorous memory of our friend. I’ll remind them to begin their memory with “I remember Cathy”, because, as the ancient Egyptians believed, if our name is remembered, our soul continues; to speak lovingly or caringly, for if their relationship was rocky or difficult, this is not the time to discuss those problems—respect for the dead really being only consideration for others present who are not in a fit state to hear that sort of bitterness. I’ll mention quietly that, if they haven’t anything pleasant or kind or humorous to say about the soul who has gone on, then there is no shame in merely holding the Talking Stick silently for a moment before handing it off to the next person. Their very silence allows us to acknowledge their own special pain, and serves to remind us that we are all complex creatures; that our view of a person is not necessarily the one which is shared by all who knew her or him.

And when the memorial is completed, I will gift the Talking Stick to the person who best loved the deceased, so that they might do with it as they please: keep it, cherish it, burn it, bury it—whatever is best for them. It will have served its purpose, which is only to evoke memories to be shared, and make it easy for loved ones to recap a life; to help us say goodbye.

Four times, four times now, I have created a Talking Stick; stood to explain its significance, spoken the formal words of the Crossing Ceremony, and, after the memorial,  passed the Talking Stick on to the person who best loved the one now lost.

Someday I will be the one who is being remembered as the Talking Stick is passed from hand to hand. I wonder what talismans will be on my Talking Stick. I wonder who will create mine.

In Memory Of:

 Debbe Boswell
Mary Cole
Terry Robare
Cathy Dawson

The Benefit of the Doubt

Lest I be accused of maligning him, let me state firmly that I don’t think my acquaintance is alone in this sort of behavior; we all—every last living one of us—make assumptions and speak of them as truth. 

A friend who is that rare bird, a married gay Trump supporter, attended the Indy Pride festival as a vendor. The following Monday when our group met for our weekly meditation and discussion, he told us that his own vendor booth was quartered directly alongside a “Love” booth. Now, I wasn’t entirely clear, from his description, what this “Love” booth was about: Learning to love and accept the LGBTQ individual in your family, perhaps? Hugs for those who needed them? Methods for the community to demonstrate love and acceptance? His description was vague, and I was a little unclear on that detail as a result.

The point he was making to us, though, was that he wondered at the time, and was still wondering: Had he strolled over to that booth, wearing his MAGA hat, and explained to them his adamant view that Trump is “our greatest President ever”, would the people manning that booth have considered him loveable? He was extremely doubtful, he said, that love would have been their reaction.

Since this comment was not really in line with our group’s purpose and objectives, I didn’t engage with him on his remarks, but they set me to thinking. And although another group member and I used his question as a springboard to open a valuable discussion about what love itself is, and what constitutes unconditional love, I was still bothered by those original remarks.

It took me some days following his comments to tease out from my subconscious what I found distressing in my fellow group member’s original statement, and when I did so, it had nothing at all to do with my feelings about President Trump.  It was twofold: first, that (although, either through a sense of good taste or perhaps self-preservation), my friend wasn’t actually wearing his MAGA hat at the Pride event, he failed to follow through with his idea and actually speak with the people manning that Love booth: state his views, and give them the opportunity to respond. He assumed their likely response. But was he correct? Would they have rejected him outright? Might some of the participants have done so, but not others? Would they have said (as I have been known to do), “I don’t have to like someone to love them. I don’t have to approve of a person’s views to love the person. I don’t have to agree with someone to acknowledge that they are a child of the Divine.”

The second factor that bothered me was that, having not given these people the opportunity to prove their point, to demonstrate that they were living up to the ideals they promulgated, he then spoke of them to us when they weren’t present to defend themselves; making all of us doubt them and their good intentions.

Now, lest I be accused myself of disparaging my friend, let me point out that I don’t think he is alone in this sort of behavior, either; we all—every last living one of us—do this sort of thing.

And it’s wrong.

When we have doubts regarding the genuine intentions of another, or the likelihood that an individual will follow through on their stated good intentions; when we are cynical of their motives, or hesitant of their integrity, we have not just the choice, but the perhaps the responsibility, to bring our suspicions into the light of their attention, and provide them the opportunity to respond. We have the responsibility to give them the benefit of the doubt, for that demonstrates our own integrity. And should we fail to give people the chance to prove themselves to us, then we really have no right to speak badly of them, especially if they aren’t present to defend themselves.

There are exceptions to this general rule, of course. Public figures, celebrities, well-known speakers and teachers, often promulgate positions to which many of us respond with a disparaging, “Yeah, right, sure”.  We then state our opinions that their stances are, to put it bluntly, a crock. That is sometimes the price of being in the public eye: you have to take the heat of the kitchen.  Being doubted or criticized, unfairly or not, is a requirement of fame.  The question then becomes not so much one of our having stated our views about a public figure’s supposed lack of integrity, but whether, if they later prove themselves, we ourselves have the moral fiber to willingly admit, “I was wrong. They honestly did believe, behave, as they said they would. I’m sorry I doubted them.”

Personally, having swung on the pendulum from being quite naïve to somewhat cynical, I now must admit that I’ve been especially bad about this sort of behavior.  Recognizing it from my friend’s remarks has been a wake-up call to myself. It’s time for me to begin living up to my own standards, and giving others not just the benefit of the doubt, but the opportunity to prove me wrong in my suppositions about their behavior and beliefs.

I’ll always wonder now about how the workers manning that “Love” both might have reacted to my acquaintance, had he followed through on his notion and approached them with his views. I’d like to think that some of them, at least, would have shrugged and said, “Hey, you’re entitled to your opinions. It doesn’t mean that we can’t love you.”

After all, I don’t agree with his beliefs, either, but I still love him.

Charity Begins

  True charity, true giving,  requires so much more of us than just sending a check or pulling used clothes from a closet. 

I clearly remember when I became aware of the need and responsibility to alleviate poverty and to give of my own resources: I was a preteen when our class at school decided to sponsor a needy family for Christmas. I will never forget the look on the face of the mother of that little family as we children and our teacher trooped in, singing carols and carrying boxes of food and wrapped gifts into a bare, cold house. “Well, I got them a tree,” she told us, her voice breaking, “but I didn’t know if there would be anything under it.” That day brought home to me, as nothing else could have done, how very blessed I was—rich, in fact—and the responsibility of sharing my blessings.

The lesson stayed with me, right up to adulthood. Even in those years when I barely had enough money to meet my bills, I saved a small—sometimes tiny– amount to contribute to charitable causes. During some years, that meant no more than my leftover pocket change dropped into a jar at the end of the week, and finally wrapped and rolled at year’s end.  The coin rolls were taken to the bank and deposited into my account before being distributed by check to a charity I deemed important. That, and buying a few small gifts for a needy child from an ‘Angel Tree’ at the holiday season, comprised my charitable giving during the lean years of my life.

As my income rose, so did my distributions. I was never one to believe in tithing to a single organization, but instead selected multiple causes in which I believed and contributed my funds there: environmental foundations, disaster relief, animal shelters, children’s charities. I gave as I felt moved, or the need arose. I donated my used goods and clothing to charity thrift shops, and purchased from them, as well, so that my money could do more for needy community. When someone at the office lost a loved one, I always offered a memorial contribution from coworkers as an option to the traditional and wasteful flowers; when my own mother passed away, Dad and I did the same, requesting contributions to her favorite animal shelter. Then we packed up her lovely clothing and shoes, and I contacted a local women’s shelter so we could contribute the items where they were most needed.

Despite my personal altruism, I was often in trouble during my working years for my refusal to participate in the office-sanctioned big-name charitable concern. A few times, knowing that my job hung by a thread, anyway, I committed to the bare-bones minimum of donating a dollar a week to the giant organization. But I gritted my teeth as I did so, suspecting that what I was actually subsidizing was some CEO’s high roller lifestyle. Nevertheless, when asked in later years to arrange office-wide silent auctions from coworkers’ donated goods, with the proceeds going to the big-name charity, I did so willingly, telling myself that at least people were receiving something tangible in return for their money.

But something happened, as time has sped by, to alter my preteen comprehension of the value of giving. Slowly but inevitably I’ve learned (and it would be a sad thing if we did not spend our lifetimes growing and learning) to fully grasp the meaning of the old maxim, “Charity begins at home”. True charity, true giving, I have finally come to understand, requires so much more of us than just sending a check or pulling used clothes from a closet.

True charity is the kindness that visits, not just to bring a casserole, but to spend time with a sick friend; to care for their pets and do their household chores.  It feeds the homeless, hungry animal that arrives on the porch, and finds the poor creature a home. Genuine altruism invites the lonely person without family to a holiday dinner, or cancels long-anticipated plans when another’s emergency arises and help is needed. It contributes time and compassion, sitting in the hospital room with family members as they deal with the anguish of a loved one’s illness. True charity looks at the neighbor’s overgrown, unmowed lawn and doesn’t register a complaint with the homeowner’s association, but stops by to find out if sickness or crisis has prevented them from caring for their home, and offers help. Authentic generosity arrives on the doorstep with concrete ways to help rather than muttering the worn-out and unmeant platitude, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do”. It cleans the house, drives the children to their activities, does the laundry, or simply sits with the person in pain. True charity uses the funds that would have gone to one of those hundreds of foundations, and instead buys groceries or pays a bill for friends or family members who are down on their luck.

I will never stop providing funds to the causes in which I wholeheartedly believe. But, although it has taken a lifetime, I’ve learned, finally, to give in the ways that really matter

Political Civility


~ I have intentionally avoided politics in my thoughtful blog, but with respect to the real reasons we celebrate Independence Day tomorrow, I offer this essay. I hope that, no matter what your political views, you will have the courage to read it all the way through. ~

 I was dealing with the potentially-fatal illness of my favorite pet, barely keeping my head above churning emotional waters as I prepared for the possibility of releasing her to her final journey, when a series of hate-filled e-mails sent me into an emotional tailspin. The e-mails had nothing whatever to do with pets or illness or any other life-altering, sad situations. They were political.

And while facing the loss of my favorite cat hadn’t forced tears from my eyes, the e-mails made me weep.

The first contained a graphic that proclaimed:

“We hated Obama like you hate Trump. Except we hated Obama because he hated America. You hate Trump because YOU hate America”.

Dismayed and affronted, I nevertheless replied to the e-mail mildly, saying just that I found this untrue, and very offensive, and asking not be sent anything like it again.

Yet less than 24 hours later, I received another e-mail, this time referencing those whose political views were similar to mine, alluding to us by name-calling and bullying. We were, it seems, “Libtards”. We were “Wingnuts”.

I’d long since dealt with and dismissed being derided as a “Snowflake”. Despite knowing it was not meant as a compliment, I accepted the appellation proudly. Snowflakes are some of the most incredible creations of Nature: intricately formed, astoundingly beautiful and infinitely individual; wrought into beauty from water, without which life itself cannot exist. Joined together, snowflakes are capable of creating massive, unstoppable forces for change, such as blizzards and avalanches.

But, hitting me at an already-low point in my life, the abusive invective of these latest e-mails was not something I could shrug off or transliterate into a positive. Instead, they wounded me at the very wellspring of my heart.

I have been heard to make sour jokes about politicians whom I do not like, but I do not, under any circumstances, speak  ridicule, insults or derision to another person regarding their political choices. I firmly insist on behaving respectfully about their opinions, even when I just as firmly disagree with them. Politically, I consider myself to be an Independent middle-of-the-roader, slightly left-leaning, but always open to civil discourse and the possibility of changing my mind.

I voted for President Barack Obama, and, while I certainly did not approve of everything he did, I thought him to be both dignified and definitely far and away from being the worst President we had ever seen to that time (after all, I’d  lived through Nixon).

And I did not vote for President Trump. Like our late, greatly lamented former First Lady, Barbara Bush, I’d been reading about Donald Trump–the unscrupulous, unethical businessman; the serial adulterer; the scoundrel who did not sacrifice home, career and family to go to Canada for his convictions, but relied on a medical falsehood to evade the Vietnam draft–reading this and more since the mid-1980s. I’d made up my mind about the man at that time, and nothing I heard him say, nothing I saw him do, during his campaign, gave me cause to alter my opinion. Had I been persuaded in that direction, reading the 2016 article, “I Sold Trump $100,000 Worth of Pianos. Then He Stiffed Me”1 would have sealed my opinion of the man forever.

But nothing, NOTHING, in my judgement about now-President Trump, nor former President Obama, signals that I do not love my country! In fact, my opinions represent exactly what is best about the United States of America: the right to personal convictions. Liberty. Freedom of expression. The right to choose one’s leaders, and to criticize those leaders without fear of retribution or reprisal. The right to see matters from differing perspectives. The right—the requirement—to stand up for one’s beliefs. The requirement to be respectful of those who believe differently.

But now derision and ridicule, vicious mockery, name-calling, bullying, harassment and persecution of others for their beliefs have become the standard, the norm; have taken the place of civil discourse and reasonable debate.  I find that shocking and heartbreaking. That is not what I have always understood America, or Americans—the concept, nor the reality—to be.

And so, receiving such harassment by e-mail, and already in a saddened state of mind, I wept.

I will never claim that those who stand with President Trump are in some way un-American.  I will not stand before them calling them wingtards or nutjobs or even deplorables. They are simply individuals who hold a different viewpoint, one with which I resolutely, unshakably disagree; one which I do not even understand. But that I do not agree with their choice of leader makes me in no way un-American or vile or deplorable, either. On the contrary, it makes me a true American: one who is unafraid to speak up for her convictions; who accesses her right to freedom of expression, to liberty.

I, an American woman, do not deserve to be made to weep, to be derided and insulted, for my political opinions, least of all through the faceless, cowardly medium of an internet communication.

My right to view and work for and love this wonderful country of ours in the way that I see best is my personal pursuit of happiness. And I would have it unshadowed by those who demean America by deriding the liberties bestowed by the Constitution upon its citizens.

1https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/28/i-sold-trump-100000-worth-of-pianos-then-he-stiffed-me/?utm_term=.6ab2e9c42d4d

Forgiveness Is Always An Option

Being told, over and over, by multiple people, that I needed to forgive was, in the end, totally counterproductive to the actual process of forgiveness.

I recently attended a six-week support group. Those brief two-hour sessions a week, and some light “homework” assignments following each session, found me freed, freed at last, from an intolerable burden that I had carried for a decade or more: unforgiveness.

Understand, it was not that I did not want to forgive the person who had, undeniably and maliciously, caused me enormous harm. Being raised in an Italian/Scottish family, I was all too familiar with the mechanics of feuding; of carrying grudges. I knew what it was to experience unforgiveness, bitterness, enmity, animosity and hostility.

Even more, I knew very well the toll these emotions took not just upon me, but upon everyone on the periphery of my life: my loved ones and family members. And I knew, as well, that not one iota, not one tiny, minute drop of the acid from those spiteful feelings in any way harmed the object of my anger. Instead, they ate away at my own soul.

Intellectually aware of all these facts, I nevertheless could not put aside the rage that scored my soul to its center. I could not forgive the individual who had wronged me.

Oh, I tried—how I tried! I prayed over and meditated on the problem. I forced myself to carefully recount all the ways in which the person who had harmed me deserved my understanding and empathy.  Each time the bitterness rose like a bile that I could taste in my mouth, I chanted to myself the words, “I forgive”. But the words were hollow and empty; the empathy a mere pretense, fleeting and unfelt. I finally created a string of beads and frequently held them in my hands, whispering my forgiveness as the circlet slipped through my fingers. The exercise did nothing but drain me. All my attempts to forgive merely induced a new anger—anger at myself—and a growing feeling of being inextricably trapped, ceaselessly beating my hands at the silken strands of a web that would not release me.

Worse yet was my reaction to those who told me what I already knew. If I had plucked a hair from my head for each time I heard someone say the words, “If you could only forgive…”, I would have been bowling pin bald!  “I’m trying,” I wanted to scream at them. “I’m trying to forgive. I want to forgive! I just can’t seem to get there.” No matter how well-intentioned, their words hindered rather than aided my healing. Rather than perceiving their concern for my emotional state, I heard them belittling my efforts. Instead of comprehending their hope that I would find healing, I heard them being sanctimonious. I shut my ears to their actual words or their intentions.  Instead, what my heart heard them saying was, “I  have been hurt and  I forgave! I am so much more evolved a soul than you!”

Being told, over and over, by multiple people, that I needed to forgive was, in the end, totally counterproductive to the actual process of forgiveness.

But what I found in those brief few weeks of spilling my guts to total strangers was the unexpected miracle that led me back to a state of grace. Finally able to speak my truth—my rage, my enduring anger, and my unforgiveness–without censure and without judgment, gave me the freedom I needed to find my way to mercy and compassion; to give pardon and grant absolution to the individual who had so grievously wounded me.

If I have learned anything on this long and twisted journey to compassion, it is that forgiveness is always an option, and one that we do not have to choose. I have learned that to tell another that they need to forgive is to stand in judgment upon them. And I have discovered that, for most of us, forgiveness can happen only after the wound we are carrying has been drained of all its poison. Then forgiveness will happen so naturally, so easily, that we will not even realize at first that it has occurred. We will simply awake one day to the knowledge that the burden of rage that we have been carrying has been lifted from our shoulders, and we are no longer enmeshed in the binding web of fury.

If I am ever faced with a friend who is suffering, trapped in the spider’s web of unforgiveness, I now know what I will say. I will tell that person only, “It’s okay. Everything you are feeling is okay. And when you are ready to forgive, it will happen. It will just happen. And that will be a wonderful day.”

A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

What struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, was at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

Years ago, I was watching an educational TV show, and the narrator discussed plants that were not native to the Americas but which were now common. As an example, the script mentioned Queen Anne’s Lace, stating that the seeds were carried to the Americas caught in blankets and clothing of the European settlers.

I could not stop laughing. I was well aware that the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace, taken as a morning-after tea, were the most effective of all the early forms of birth control–at least since silphium was hunted to extinction by Roman and Egyptian women desperate to prevent conception. The seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace weren’t ferried to the Americas accidentally, hitchhiking on property, but quite purposefully, by women who preferred not to be worn out or die due to too-frequent childbearing.

For centuries, knowledgeable midwives instructed the women they served in the lore of birth control—difficult, and not totally reliable, but not completely impossible in the centuries before the development of the diaphragm and the contraceptive pill. And, yes, their knowledge also included methods of abortion, customarily using herbs. Compounded from celery root and seed, hedge hyssop, cotton root, Cretan dittany and spruce hemlock, mistletoe leaves and horseradish, cinchona bark, ashwagandha and saffron, wooly ragwort, castor oil, blue and black cohosh, evening primrose, and even the remarkably dangerous pennyroyal and tansy and ergot of rye, herbal abortions were common when contraception failed.  The concoctions were so prevalent that ads for patent medicines to cure “delayed menstruation” were common in women’s magazines throughout the 1800s—that is, until the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873 criminalized even the possession of information on birth control.

The world has turned many times since the Comstock Act, through the invention of the contraceptive pill, to the self-help clinics of the late 1960s that instructed women in the practice of menstrual extraction, through Roe vs. Wade. The morning-after pill was introduced, a chemical solution at last replacing that centuries-old use of abortifacient herbs.

I absolutely do not, will not, debate the wrongness or rightness of any of this, from Queen Anne’s Lace to the present day. To me, decisions regarding birth control and abortion remain always a choice best made by the woman involved, in accordance with her conscience and personal situation. But what struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, was at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

We think of the Middle Ages as a time of great ignorance, yet it was then that midwives—wisewomen–practiced, sharing their expertise and knowledge with the female population at large, easing the pain of childbirth and preventing many maternal deaths by their skill. And it was then, too, that such women were hunted down, burned and tortured and hung as witches, effectively silencing their knowledge for generations. Women were left in the hands of male doctors who, shrugging, pronounced, “Maternity is eternity”, reconciling countless numbers of women and infants to death as babies were delivered in filthy conditions with unwashed hands.

Circle the world a few times on its axis, and enter the 1900s, when horrific deaths by botched back alley abortions were common. Young and desperate women bled to death or died horribly of septicemia. Circle again, and information on contraception was readily available, along with new forms of birth control. Contraceptive creams and condoms were sold over the counter. Legal abortion gave a measure of safety to the procedure. The morning after pill became available for those who had either been careless or experienced the horrors of rape.

History, they say, always repeats itself. And so as society swings perilously close once more to the era of illegal and back alley abortions, so it may also oscillate to women who reclaim the ancient knowledge that gave them power over their own reproductive processes: to the natural methods that provided women a way to make their decisions in accordance with their conscience.

The morality of these decisions is not truly the question, for no matter what is legislated, women will continue to fight for and gain absolute control over their own bodies.  They will continue to make their personal choices regarding reproduction. The Pendulum of Queen Anne’s Lace, you might call it. History will, genuinely, always repeat itself.

How Ego Became a Dirty Word

Kept in check, regularly examined through conscience, and recognized as a personal identity having nothing to do with one’s possessions or achievements, the ego is a marvelous thing…

When did “ego” become a dirty word?

To the best of my understanding, in its original concept, ego meant simply that part of human consciousness which indicates “I”. It was understood to be the ability to distinguish one’s self from others; the awareness that comprehends personal experience. Over time, that original concept enlarged to include egotism—that is, conceit, vanity, or an inflated sense of self-importance. But, at its inception, the idea of the ego was simply that of self-awareness, and of personal identity–an ability which small children begin to develop at about age two.

Yet, somehow that harmless perception of a consciousness which distinguishes the self from others has mutated into a appalling concept; shameful at best, destructive at worst.

While I cannot lay all the blame for this divisive idea on a slew of philosophical books of recent vintage, I do believe they are responsible for perpetuating the concept that there is something inherently reprehensible about the normal human ego. Frankly, that makes little sense to me. Without a sense of separateness, of individuality, we cannot function in the world.

A healthy ego protects. It tells me unequivocally that, no matter what some nitwit says of me, I can make the decision to not believe their words. A well-regulated ego says to one, “Just because I am requested, ordered, to do this by a superior, I need not necessarily do it. I am an individual. I can make my own decisions regarding the rightness or wrongness of the order.” A wholesome, balanced ego is a shield against poor decision and immorality.

Nor, despite the best arguments pondered by those who despise the term, is a normal ego an obstruction to empathy. To the contrary, knowing that I have endured a difficult, painful or troubling experience allows me to look with compassion on others who are undergoing something similar. The “I” that identifies as an separate entity recognizes and therefore empathizes with all the other “I” individuals who are enduring anguish.

Sadly, the concept of a healthy, balanced ego has somehow become almost inextricably confused with egotism. But the two are not the same. “Nothing in excess”, the Greeks are reputed to have carved on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the advice is as apt now as it was those thousands of years ago. An overweening or inflated ego is an excess. It is narcissism, selfishness, and self-absorption. It is a bane and antipathy to sympathy and concern. It does, as those self-same philosophical books decry, express itself in the attachment to things; it warps the personal identity into a mere exponent of possessions or achievements.

Those who lambast the idea of a personal ego seem to maintain the position that our very separateness also separates—separates us from each other, and from the divine within both ourselves and others. Again, that concept makes little sense to me. If I am I, then I am the Divine expressing as this wondrous, personal, individual being: myself. I am a perfect creation from the hand and mind of the Creator. To be in any way separate from my divine self is simply not possible; to think so is total hubris.

And if I recognize that divine and spiritual center within myself, then I must recognize it in all others, who are all also perfect creations of a perfect Creator.

I believe we came, were sent, into this world to experience life as individuals. In doing so, I recall that, in some versions of the myth of Hercules, Zeus desired to know what it was to live as a mortal. And so he fathered a son, Hercules, who would be both god and human. As the creator, Zeus was inextricably interwoven to everything; he was all he had created. But, through his son, he could comprehend what it was to be separate and apart from all he had created; to live as an individual; to be mortal.

Kept in check, regularly examined through conscience, and recognized as a personal identity having nothing to do with one’s possessions or achievements, the ego is a marvelous thing, leading us through a lifetime of personal awareness in conjunction with our spiritual core. Far from being undesirable, it is yet another impeccable creation bequeathed us by our Creator.

My Be-Attitude

When I am doing housework, I usually wear my glasses, not my contacts. This is a self-defense measure: I’m a lot less likely to end up with stirred-up dust or other particles irritating my eyes if I’m wearing eyeglasses.

However, due to those very eyeglasses, for a number of years I found myself regularly fussing—essentially, throwing a mini-tantrum—each time I opened the dishwasher. This despite the fact that I rarely run the dishwasher more than once weekly, since, living alone, it takes me days to fill it. But it’s also my habit to open the dishwasher the very minute it stops running, in order to check that none of the dishes (especially the small bowls I used for serving canned cat food to my pets, or the concave bottoms of some of my cups) have been positioned so that they are holding water.  I know from sad experience that the drying cycle won’t remove water from a pet food bowl that’s flipped upright during the washing.

Unfortunately, opening the dishwasher at this point sends clouds of steam rising. And that, inevitably, means that my eyeglasses completely fog up, making vision impossible.  I couldn’t see a water-filled bowl unless it jumped up and slapped me in the face.

And so, for perhaps three years, I struggled to remember to pull my glasses off my face before I opened that dishwasher door.  Struggled, and inevitably forgot, resulting in stream of (Bad Word Deleted) language, followed by roughly yanking the glasses from my eyes and scrabbling for a tissue to wipe them.

As I say, this unfortunate behavior continued for almost three years, before one day it occurred to me that, after encountering the rising steam and being thoroughly wiped, my eyeglasses were much cleaner–the lenses, of course, but I also wiped the hot steam from the frames and earpieces, cleansing them, as well. And with this realization was coupled the sudden understanding that my repeated irritation was totally unnecessary.  In fact, it was contrary to good sense.

The following week when I opened the steaming dishwasher, I was prepared. I took off my eyeglasses and carefully held them into the rising steam, making sure that it coated and heated every part of the frame and lenses.  Then I carefully and slowly polished them stem to stern before placing the glasses back on my face.  By that time, the dishwasher had stopped emitting steam, and I could see and empty any dishes which were holding water before closing the door and allowing the drying cycle to run.

Instead of a rumpled spirit, I had sparkling clean eyeglasses. Instead of fussing and irritation, I was relaxed.

And all it took was a change of attitude and perspective.

It’s strange, sometimes, the small and mundane ways that major lessons arrive in this life. Something as simple as opening a hot dishwasher door can inform us of just how often we view things askew, making our lives much more difficult and uncomfortable than they need to be.

I sometimes now stop, when I am irritated beyond measure by some minor event, and attempt to apply the lesson I learned from my steamed-up eyeglasses and the dishwasher door. And instead of steaming up within my spirit, I often find a way through to peace and courtesy and calm.

It might not be on par with sitting on that hillside listening to a master teacher speak the beatitudes, but I’ll take my lessons where I can find them. I am teachable; I can learn to be the master of my own attitude.

 

 

A Plague of Kittens

I just read another of those articles explaining that an unspayed feline can produce (blah-blah-blah) kittens in (blah-blah) generations, and I had to laugh.

Years ago, when TNR programs were non-existent, I casually fed a colony of feral cats on my doorstep, giving them kitchen scraps and the food left over from my indoor pets. And, yes, they produced massive amounts of kittens. But here is the salient fact: those kittens did not live. Over all the years—about a decade—that I (and countless mice, moles and birds) provided nourishment for those stray animals, only one of them, the colony matriarch, lived. A lovely little calico who resisted being brought indoors, despite my best efforts to provide her a home, CallieCoCo produced an endless stream of both her own kittens and daughters who provided more youngsters for the clowder. Usually born at the start of each spring, and despite having a steady source of food outside of their own hunting, each year by the autumn no more than one or two of the youngsters survived. They fell victim to cars, to hawks and owls, to illness, and (horribly) to the neighborhood’s future serial killers practicing their skills. And those who survived the summer usually perished in the winter.

Finally, when the venerable matriarch herself passed, the clowder died off within a few months. Without her guidance, the colony could not survive. To the dismay of the local homeowners, the moles and mice returned to the area in droves. But the predicted plague of kittens never happened.

I had much the same Spockian “Where’s the logic?” reaction another time, in the 1980s when AIDS was at its height worldwide, as I read about the poorest regions of India. On two different pages of our local Sunday paper, two separate articles had been printed: one discussing the high birth rate of the poor throughout India (at the time, a totally destitute country, with years yet to come before technology brought pockets of prosperity) and the shocking implications for overpopulation; the other just as earnestly delineating the horrific ravages of AIDS upon the area, and the resulting gruesomely high death rate among the neediest population. Now look, I thought, switching back and forth between the pages of the newspaper, comparing the two articles, you can’t have it both ways. Either the poor will reproduce without limit, until the population is stacked up like cordwood—or they will die off in an uncountable numbers as a result of AIDS. Each a dreadful and agonizing possibility, I thought, but one or the other; you can’t have it both ways.

Or, more likely, the high death rate from the plague of AIDS among the poor would counter the exceptionally high birth rate, balancing the two—because that is the way that Nature has, cruelly but effectively, kept things in check for uncounted millennia. High population—enter bubonic plague. High population—enter typhus and typhoid, war, natural disaster, famine, pneumonic plague, anthrax, ebola.

I sometimes try apply this logical thought process to the science of global warming. Don’t misunderstand me: I absolutely do believe that the human race has added disproportionately and frighteningly to the earth’s overall temperature, and, if unchecked, will continue to do so, with unspeakable results. But I also know that we have measured the earth’s temperature for only a few hundred years out of countless millennia, and that there have been cycles of warmth/coolness throughout; i.e., the mini-Ice Age of medieval times.  I know that it is these cycles to which those who resist a belief in global warming refer.  Then, however–logically–I remind myself that all of these previous cycles were the result of natural phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions and comet strikes, or perhaps even dinosaur farts, and that those cycles did totally destroy existing fauna and flora, completely revamping the face of the Earth.  I wonder then—logically—how much we really know about the earth’s temperature cycles, and the damage we are doing, have already done, to the ecosystem…if it can even be corrected, or if we have pushed matters so far that we now must let the chips fall where they may and, like the dinosaurs,  watch as the very environment that once nurtured our evolution perishes, and us along with it. And, in terror, I very much fear that this latter scenario is true.

I think back to the vision of myself, watching playful kittens who never quite managed to survive, let alone overrun the neighborhood—switching back and forth between the pages of a newspaper with two contradictory articles—sitting through school lessons, learning about both the sweltering heat of Mesozoic mornings and the vast fields of ice that once lay across the Great Plains…and I wonder, really wonder, how much we, sure and certain in our superiority and our reliance upon self-proclaimed “leaders” who really need to pull their heads out of their behinds—well, I wonder how much we actually know of all that we think we know.

Spirituality is Big Business

When I was in my early twenties, I picked up a slim paperbound booklet that discussed a technique called Treasure Mapping. I think I paid about $1.50 for it. (I was not very affluent in those days, so I certainly couldn’t have paid much more.) The technique illustrated in the booklet would today be understood as making a vision board, and I found it fascinating. “Pictured Prayer”, the booklet explained, was simple and produced excellent results.

I gathered together the necessary accessories, all of them easy to obtain and inexpensive: photos clipped from magazines, glue, pens, construction paper — and created my first vision board. I’ve used the technique many times in the intervening years, often with surprising success. I have sometimes come across my old, discarded vision boards and realized with satisfaction that nearly everything I pictured on them had come to pass.

But recently I saw an announcement for a class in vision board making. The cost for the two-hour course, which included all materials, was $150.00.  I thought back to my $1.50 booklet, and the years of photos clipped from magazines or downloaded on the computer, the poster boards, glue sticks, glitter, stickers, or occasional scrapbooking supplies – and realized that I probably hadn’t spent $150 on all my Treasure Maps in the 40 intervening years.

In that distant era, even as I learned vision boarding, I learned to meditate by selecting library books to read about meditation techniques, listening to tapes borrowed at the library, and asking advice of those who meditated regularly. After hours of dedicated practice I found the method that seemed best for me and made meditation a lifelong practice. Today, though, I could chose to spend anywhere from $10 weekly for an hour’s guided meditation at a local new age shop, or up to $60 for an on-line course complete with an instruction manual, interactive forums, and (this one still puzzles me) a certificate of completion. I could purportedly learn the hands-on energy healing system of Reiki entirely on-line, without ever setting foot in a master teacher’s office. I could pay $10,000 for a spiritual retreat with a self-professed guru. I could complete an on-line course to become a “spiritual master” in any one of a half-dozen different disciplines – and, having completed the course, be surprised with the information that there is yet another, higher level available that could not be revealed to a mere novice, but only to a seasoned acolyte. And, of course, that newly-revealed level could be mine for only an additional $59.95!

Americans, it seems, do not believe that anything, even spirituality, has value unless it is paid for – by cash, check or charge, rather than blood, sweat and tears. You need not put real effort into learning as long as you are willing to sit at the feet of a “master” and fork over money – and plenty of it.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate costs connected with teaching classes or holding retreats! Retreat attendees have to be fed and housed, and the teacher’s time has to be compensated. A class venue doubtless has costs attached – rent to be paid, utilities to be provided, class materials to be printed. But the hubris of charging $150 for an hour spent “instructing” students how to paste pictures on poster board, or to chant, hold crystals, or meditate, veers (at least to my way of thinking) about 180 degrees north of genuine spirituality.

Once the provenance of moguls of big religion, spirituality, too, has become big business, and a lucrative business, at that. Native American spirituality is taught by those who have not one iota of genetic material from the original inhabitants of North America, and their students pay the sun, moon and stars for the privilege. Instructors with no passion except that for feathering their nests promise to incite a passion for life in their unwitting students, and coin money as they do so.

My personal advice to anyone seeking a spiritual teacher is simply this: remember, first, that you are your own best teacher. There has never been a better or easier time for self-learning. Explore cautiously, keeping both an open mind and a weather eye, but explore. Read, watch videos, learn, practice. And if you find you need assistance to progress on your chosen path, or feel ready for that retreat, or believe a class with others might help – do your homework. Seek out a teacher who is validly a master teacher in her or his discipline, who is passionate about passing knowledge on to others, and who, mostly importantly, lives in such as manner as to demonstrate the value of the subject in which they will instruct you. If a cost is associated with the instruction, investigate what the payment covers, and decide if it seems reasonable, reimbursing the instructor’s costs and time and other essentials, or keeping a center in the black, but not intentionally generating massive profit.  And only then decide if the price is genuinely worth paying, or if you can find methods less financial and more truly spiritual to gain instruction in your chosen discipline.

But the finest spiritual instructor will always be the one you find in two places: your own mind, and your own heart.

And if all else fails, you can always make a Treasure Map.