Sunday, March 29, 2020

FEEDING THE GOOD WOLF


You know the story of the two wolves?  A Native American grandfather was talking to his grandson.  He said, 

"I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart.  One wolf is vengeful, angry, lying, arrogant, greedy and mean.  The other wolf is loving, serene, truthful, compassionate, generous and kind." 

His grandson asked him, 

"Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?"  

The grandfather answered, 

"The one I feed." 

Given the way things are, I feel like I'm hearing this story for the first time.  A story that reminds us of the power we have over our experiences and emotions. 

It's easy to feel like a victim in challenging times.  I was talking with my cousin.  She reminded me of the generations that lived through the Great Depression and World War II.  Before that World War I and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, an influenza that lasted 3 years and infected a quarter of the world's population.  Since then the Vietnam and Civil Rights generation.  We could add the Black Lives Matter the #MeToo generation and now COVID-19.  It's our turn.  That doesn't make us victims, it makes us human.  

My mother, the Nina Naomi to whom I dedicate this blog, was named after two beloved family members who both died in the 1918 pandemic, a mother and baby together.  Generations later my cousin was named after all three of them.  One year she and I put down the top on her convertible and visited all the family graves in St. Louis that we could find, including that mother and child. We had the best time!  We were feeding the good wolf.  When I reminded her of this the other day she said, "Wouldn't all those people have loved it that we were visiting them?" 

For the most part I think we are all feeding the good wolf.  We recognize that when we self-isolate we are saving more lives than our own.  We act out of self-interest, yes, but we know that our interest serves the greater good.  We are taking personal and communal responsibility.  

I'm reminded of the battle so many face against cancer.  I overheard a patient say, "I've got a year of fighting in my path.  I have to look at little things as big things and big things as little things."  We understand that.  We are doing that now everyday as we learn how the coronavirus takes no prisoners.  My husband washed the windows today; this became a big thing; I am so grateful.  We will be able to see the sun streaming into the bedroom in the morning without the haze of pollen.  The small becomes large.  

By choosing to spend our time and thoughts in ways that keep us healthy we feed our good wolf. The patient in cancer treatment mulled it over, "Yes, I've got a tough year ahead, but I plan to smile everyday because a positive attitude is sometimes the only thing I have."  How brave.  The good wolf is winning; I would like mine to win too.  
                                                                      Nina Naomi





 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

MARY OLIVER SPEAKS TO US, TODAY


"The Uses of Sorrow"
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift. 


Right now many of us may feel as if our arms are full of darkness.  Or if not yet, this darkness may be closer than we're used to.  In our sleep we may feel this way. Or as we waken--disoriented, a little edgy, or even depressed. It takes awhile for our wonderful ways of coping to comfort us.  A cup of coffee perhaps, a look out our window, the voices of our children, a cuddle or two. Whatever routine we've adopted during these at-home times.  

This poet believes we can learn from sorrow, we can learn from grief, we can learn from our losses.  We can choose to be softened, to keep going, to find whatever gifts there are in our communities and togetherness even while physically apart.  Mary Oliver lived a long time.  She died before this pandemic but at age 83 would have known others.  The longer we live the more inevitable it is that there be darkness with the light.  I find comfort here.  I hope those nurses and doctors and all who are keeping us alive are finding their bit of comfort too.  



"In Blackwater Woods"

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go. 

These lines are from the last three stanzas of Oliver's poem about (inevitably) losing something that you love. She uses the burning of a forest that had sustained her as the vehicle for what she wants to express. The poem begins with flames from the trees turning their own bodies into pillars of light; next the cattails on fire; then the cinnamon smell of charred pine cones.  

In these final stanzas she tells us how to live in such a world:  a world that is mortal, where everything, everything, dies.  Love it, hold it, hold it close against our bones--that close--and then when we have to, let go.  So simply said, words that a child would know.  When a poet starts with "To live in this world . . . " she needs insight greater than most.  That Mary Oliver has.  I can't explain why this brings comfort except that the truth almost always does.  The truth, whatever it may be, sows its own kind of peace. 
 


"The Veil"
There are moments when the veil seems
almost to lift, and we understand what
the earth is meant to mean to us -- the
trees in their docility, the hills in
their patience, the flowers and the
vines in their wild, sweet vitality.
Then the Word is within us, and the
Book is put away.

I bet we all have these moments more and more often as we rely upon nature for solace.  Appreciating--no loving-- the trees, the hills, the flowers and vines.  But the trees aren't always docile, we might say.  Sometimes they bend frighteningly close to our shelter in the March winds.  The hills aren't always patient; sometimes they send water and rock where we don't want it.  And the vines aren't always sweet.  Some, hairy and toxic, try to choke whatever they can.  Still we recognize what Oliver is saying.  When she writes, "[W]e understand what the earth is meant to mean to us," a special place might come to mind for each of us.  Then God is with us too.  Perhaps so close as to feel within.      

In the beginning was the Word, 
and the Word was with God, 
and the Word was God. 
He was in the beginning with God. 
All things were made through him, 
and without him was not any thing made that was made.
John 1:1-3

God bless us one and all, Nina Naomi                
                                      





  


Monday, March 23, 2020

TODAY IS DIFFERENT


In a conversation once I said complaining, "My life isn't what I expected it to be."  A fair statement given the deaths in our family that summer.  "Whose is?" was the reply.  

I think a lot of us are feeling that way.  At least right now our lives are not what we expected them to be.  I don't need to list all the ways.   

I know of no new sickness among our circle of family or friends. And the friend who was in intensive care is home.  We give thanks.  But this morning I stood in line behind a young man wearing a protective mask. I had seen him before the pharmacy opened, stretched out on an out-of-the-way bench for customers. He lay there alone, eyes closed keeping his distance.   Tall, thin and with a shaved head, now he was kneeling at the pharmacy counter.  Too weak to stand for long, he waited on his knees as his prescriptions were filled.  My first thought was, "Here is someone to pray for."  Then he rose and slowly left the store.  

Each of us in line--three women all standing 6 feet apart--looked at him and at each other with visible compassion.  It was hard seeing this man, this stranger with whom it was so easy to feel kinship.  I don't believe I'll ever forget the sight he made.  Him tall enough to easily reach the counter while on his knees and me immediately thinking of prayer.  In a safer world I could have knelt beside him, though he would have surely found that strange.  After all, we were in a pharmacy not church.  After he left the three of us spoke about him briefly from our distances.   

I had a tall thin sick boy of my own a few years back, that summer that I mentioned.  I've written of him before ("The Sundial," 7/23/19).  I came home and lit a fire to ward off the inner chill and saw this:


Life is messy and complicated and we are afraid.
But we show up anyway.


All the changes of this season are not this difficult.  But for this post, I'll leave it with the picture of the young man kneeling and how he woke compassion in the women in line behind him. 




Wednesday, March 18, 2020

ONE WORLD ONE DAY AT A TIME


"It is a serious thing
 Just to be alive
 On this fresh morning
 In this broken world.
. . .
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant when she wrote:
You must change your life."
Mary Oliver

If ever there was a time to live one day at a time this is it.  China, Italy, the US, France, the whole world. Every one of us is affected, some worse than others.  I have a friend in intensive care, test not back yet. Yet here I am blogging; here you are reading.  Life goes on.

I'm taking Mary Oliver's words out of context I know.  She was writing a poem about the natural world not a pandemic.  She was admonishing us to interrupt our "busy and very important" day to listen to the song of a riotous goldfinch.  There are other things now that interrupt our fresh mornings.  I can't help but see these words applying to us in a different way.  It is a serious thing just to be alive with all our world is going through.  

All of us people with a common interest.  And most of us today likely at home.  Unless you're a health care or other essential worker.  Or unless you are hospitalized like my friend. Or without a home in a shelter. Otherwise, like me, you're probably practicing social distancing by staying put.  In some areas we're ordered to stay put.  It's a serious thing.  We are changing our lives.  

Some days ago I started a post about all the free time we now magically have, now that our calendars are wiped clean.  Looking for the positive side of social distancing, a term we never even used before. The post was triggered by the cancellation of sports events and concerts.  Then the schools closed. Now movie houses, bars, restaurants, shops, malls . . . .  It's become hard to think of something that isn't closed, cancelled or should be.   

How to respond?  I think we're all doing it right.  We're following best practices and staying apart.  We're not hoarding. (The on-line seller who stripped three states of necessary sanitizing supplies has donated them.)  We're supporting each other.  I love that I've been getting phone calls rather than texts.  We have time to chat.  I love that we have time.  The excuse, "I'm too busy," is gone. 

So my To-Do and Could-Do lists are all different.  Yesterday my husband and I had time for a walk together around the Duke East Campus track.  It drizzled but so what?  Last night I watched Puccini's La Boheme; the NY Metropolitan Opera has launched a free "Nightly Met Opera" stream of encore live HD performances on their website. How I love that score!  The music soars, giving Mary Oliver's goldfinch a run for its money for sure.  What a creative gift to the world during this stressful time.    

Today I'll start on the de-cluttering I sort-of-enjoy-but-can-put-off-indefinitely.  It stares at me from every shelf and closet and I can't say I don't have time to tackle it. Not for the foreseeable future.  So . . . old clothes, frayed linens, mystery photos; closets and cabinets; all are in my sights. Cans of dried paint, used florescent lights, rusty chicken wire, leaves and dirt; the garage will be next.  


Like all of us, I'm also cooking more.  At our house that's a plus and a minus.  Saves money, which is good. But my heritage is English and German cooking.  Diner food.  How I envy those raised by French and Italian mamas and grandmas  There are times we want to eat something I just can't cook. Still, a chance to learn.  I just looked up recipes for a Classic Aioli: I've got an egg, olive oil, garlic, lemon, salt and pepper. Simple.  Good on chicken, fish, veggies.
 
A trip to the UK has been cancelled so that's a savings too.  Though I had it all planned, staying where we lived when our daughter was born.  Hard to forego.  It's our favorite place. But haven't I been learning how to better cope with disappointment?  These downsides are a chance to put mindfulness to the test.  And prayer.  Both calm anxiety and fear. That's been shown.  

Keeping the kids on task, working from home, or coping with furlough and less income.  It is one day at a time, isn't it?  It is "we're all in this together."  It is a time to do all those things at home that in normal times we save for our day off. And to be creative, in every way.  To love each other.  

I have a feeling this is Part I of a series.  Take care please everyone,  Nina Naomi






  

Thursday, March 12, 2020

THAT BRIGHT VEIN OF GOODNESS IN US ALL


Well, I finished the 8-week Cultivating Kindness Meditation Course at Duke Integrative Medicine.  Just in time.  The news today is more corona-virus shut-downs. Oh my.  What could be more stressful?  We are all a bit on edge.  Or worse.  Yesterday in a drop-in meditation class the program director announced "closed until further notice."  Our college student has been sent home to finish the semester. Clearly more kindness can't hurt.  

Our class had long-time practitioners and newbies, moms and a dad or two, an emergency room physician, a young widow, a librarian, retirees, people who traveled far and locals like myself.  Did the course make us kinder?  Thankfully 🙏 judging ourselves is anti-loving and kind. But yes, I think the practice of meditation is helping me better understand and connect with myself and others.  

So, here is a little of what I've been learning (and unlearning) so far.  You may know it all already. But with some things I am grateful for repetition; perhaps you are too.     

  • Meditation isn't a religion.  It can be faith-based or secular.  In my practice I am daily brought closer to God. But that's not everyone's practice. 
  • It doesn't require special skill or background.  If you can breathe you can meditate.
  • It only takes whatever time you give it.
  • It doesn't eliminate sadness, difficulty, grief or pain.  It does teach new ways of coping with these.
  • It isn't an attempt to zone out, stop thinking or focus on only positive thoughts.  That's not humanly possible. 
  • It is a way to recognize our thoughts and relate to them more skillfully.  Stress, anxiety, pain or depression become more manageable, allowing us to make better decisions.  The result is we feel safer, more confident, calmer. 
  • Meditation helps us respond, rather than react, to what is happening in our lives. Or in our minds.
  • The concentration we learn restores our energy unlike distractions that deplete it.  
  • Meditation is not self-indulgent or self-centered.  We learn about ourselves but what we learn we apply to others.  
Mindfulness the same.  Mindfulness is an attitude, meditation an action.  Neither is a withdrawing from anything, not fun or careers or politics or anything else.  We have all the skills we need for mindfulness at our finger tips.  It's always available to us. 

Specifically, in the loving kindness meditation the anchor is not the breath but a repetition of traditional phrases.  Our class read the book Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg.  I'm not drawn to the title; happy seems almost too trivial for what we were learning.  I'd choose "at peace" or "content," wider umbrellas than happiness--although one can give rise to the other. The book includes such traditional meditation anchors as "May I live with ease," but in class we were encouraged to create our own.  For painful times I like, "With God's help, may I remember that my life is vaster than this moment."  Or, "With God's help, may my care for myself and others protect and calm me."  Better yet, from our liturgy the prayer "Help, Save, Comfort and Defend Me Gracious Lord."  You could think about what phrases might work for you.  It's a pleasant task, creating a phrase that we'd want to return to. 

Salzberg talks about "add-ons," those unhelpful threads we follow from a painful physical or emotional experience.  Projections into the future that add mental anguish on to what is already difficult enough.  She shows how mindfulness can restore balance, teaching us to observe all feelings of whatever intensity with curiosity, interest and compassion. To watch them come and go. To recognize that we are not our feelings.  


I especially like the idea during these chaotic times of thinking of kindness as a strength, not a weakness.   
                                        In peace, Nina Naomi











    Monday, March 9, 2020

    SIMPLE, SWEET AND SLOW: CONTENTMENT


    I don't know about you, but I'm a little bit sad that we've moved our clocks forward.  Even though it's still cold out our long nights are over.  Now for awhile it's dark in the morning with more light in the evening.  I've been content with our early nights.  Mid-winter always seems like going back to a simpler life which, as we know, is not a step backwards.  A step inwards perhaps but not backwards.  Winter is the quiet season; more solitude, that thread that unites us with our inner world.  The season of short days is the time to work on our projects.  I took up a long-dormant knitting project and am just hours away from finishing.  I enrolled in a knitting class to get it just right. 

    Longer nights have also given us more time to keep company with ourselves and those we live with.  Kids love an early bath, books and jammies.   The meditation class I finished encouraged us to be more compassionate companions, as if we ourselves are someone we are fond of and wish to inspire. Practicing that gentleness has been the best of winter projects.  

    The contentment of long nights is such a soft, generous idea.  It's a word that conjures up a mix of joy and peace, the kind we might get from an early night to bed with the one we love most. What's great about contentment is that it is possible every day.  We don't need to wait for one of those special dream-come-true days.  It's right here where we are, sitting and being fully in the grace of what surrounds us and lives inside us now.  Accepting the past, living for today, and hoping for tomorrow. 

    Well now, that isn't confined to a season, is it?  By the time we get used to the dark mornings they'll be gone; the sun will be up before the alarm rings.  We'll have longer days to find something wonderful in the ordinary.  To let our curious, accepting, non-judging, kind selves do their thing.  If we could harmonize our mind, body and spirit with the cold beauty of winter, what can't we do in Spring?

    Snow-covered Rosemary in Bloom




     


    Friday, February 28, 2020

    A SIMPLE CHECKLIST FOR MOST ANYTHING


    Mental preparation for what lies ahead, whether it be traveling solo, hosting a party, giving an interview, changing a habit, speaking publicly, trying a new venture, having a difficult conversation . . .  you name it.  I've been thinking about this.  It comes up so often. 

    Many of us fear what lies ahead because, well, as much as we try to create our future it still remains unknown.  One way to calm that fear might be to treat the future like we would a trip we're anticipating.  We could imagine the things we predict struggling with.  For a trip, lost luggage, delayed flights, safety issues . . . .  But for a new venture or habit or a difficult conversation very different potential struggles. We could then throw out some thoughts about how we would deal with these eventualities.  Write them down if we want.  We could mentally rehearse how some scenarios might play out and get used to the feelings of how we might respond.  We could think about how we'd stay calm and, if necessary, seek help.  

    Finally, we might ask ourselves the following:

    ✔  What am I looking forward to about this situation?  Why am I considering it?  What are the pros and cons?  (If the cons outweigh the pros and you have the option, STOP here.)

    ✔  How do I want to push myself in this instance?  In what ways?

    ✔  What do I want to learn from this?

    ✔  What if anything am I hoping will change?  What if nothing does?

    ✔  What version of me am I involving in this event?  Is it a version I like? 

    These questions should quiet our minds in readiness for what is to come so that we can give equal time to both the fear and the excitement in our lives, not letting the fear prevent us nor the excitement mislead us.  But letting both flow through us, living with our nervous tension as with a helpful friend.  The questions can be faith-based or not. Why is God offering me this situation?  What does God want me to learn from it?  What, if anything, am I hoping that with God's help will change? 

    The other night I was in a situation that for me causes tension, a possible encountering someone with whom the last meetings have not gone smoothly.  To avoid the possibility of the encounter I would have had to stay home; but the pros of going were strong.  Now in the 8th week of the class on Loving-Kindness Meditation at Duke Integrative Medicine, I readily played out scenarios in my mind and settled on my own response, the only part over which I have control. Thanks to the class, it came from a version of me that I like.  As it turned out, the encounter didn't occur.  But my mind was quiet about it all evening. 


    In retrospect I can see that I used a version of this list in October 2018 when I ran across Annie Grace's book This Naked Mind, about a mind that happily becomes alcohol-free.  As it turned out, that became my mind, something I did not expect. 

    I think the checklist works for most any challenge.  As Shakespeare says:

    "All things are ready, if our mind be so."
    William Shakespeare, Henry V 

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