Spiritual Errand

Through the front windshield of the bus, I watch the painted white lines on the black pavement of the road passing alongside in mesmerizing, rhythmic order. Thwop, thwop, thwop, thwop, my mind lays down a soundtrack to accompany the hypnotic visuals of the center-line’s fragmented glow under the low beams of the bus’ headlights.

With almost everyone else asleep, I remain awake as we travel through one of the least populated and most desolately beautiful regions of the Four-Corners area of the American Southwest. The time is closing in on midnight, and the highway is relatively deserted. No moon is visible. And, although the interior of the bus is dimly lit, the world immediately around me is bright, filled with spiritual Light.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Sitting quietly, as I review events from the trip, I remain in a state of heightened gratitude for the Grace extended during this excursion of spiritual errand—the Light needed to be reaffirmed in myself and among those whom I visited. Travelling for such a purpose is always humbling. With the aid of Grace, the best and sometimes most unexpected doors open with simple ease.

Sitting in my own bubble of spiritual reverie, I hear the man next to me shift in his seat. The bus is almost full. Then, turning toward me, he leans over to ask a simple question—something about current events. It is an election year. Not wanting to disrupt the thread of connection that is part of the larger picture and my heightened sight, I politely change the subject. Then, after regrouping, he redirects his own conversational energy, asking a series of questions about my religious affiliation.

After a few minutes of polite exchange, where I try to ascertain the general purpose of his line of inquiry, I finally ask him outright, “Are you needing me to pray for you?”

“Yes,” he answers in a hesitant affirmative. Then, with more conviction, “I need you to pray for me.”

The man appears to be Native American.  He may be Navajo, Hopi or from another First-Nation group native to this region. One of the things I learned while living in the Southwest is that most Native-American Peoples, who are still in a state of receptive connectivity, understand the Way. They know how Grace flows and moves and are respectful of the nature of sacred contracts.

“Do you know this song?” the man asks me, beginning to hum quietly—slowly—as he adds a few lyrics.

“Yes,” I answer. “I remember that song. It has been a long while since I have heard it.”

“Yes, it is an old song. I only need you to pray for me when you hear that song, that will be your cue that I need you to pray.”

We lean back again into our individual seats. I am amazed at how respectfully he has put forth his request. The parameters of our agreement are clear, tidy and not overly demanding. I find myself filling with gratitude again; this time it is for this man’s respectful politeness toward my own manifestation of the Light.

Bus Stop

“Would you like some sunflower seeds?” The Native-American woman sitting next to me at the bus stop turns to ask.

“No thank you, but thank you for offering,” I gesture, clamping a hand across my belly. “I just ate.”

We return to silence, waiting for the bus together.

In my peripheral vision, I watch as she continues drawing the sunflower seeds from their package in small groups, creating a well of unhulled seeds in one palm. Then, taking her hand to her mouth after her palm is full, she carefully cracks each seed one-by-one with her front teeth. Her well-practiced tongue deftly picks up the freed seed meat, tucking each along the bottom edge of her cheek. When my bus-stop companion has collected enough seeds, she drags the edge of her jawline clean with her tongue and chews on the seeds’ meat in an appreciative and meditative manner. Ritual eating. She is fully present.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Four-lanes of traffic move without stop in front of us. Two-lanes of traffic move by our joint right. We are parked on the bench. Early. No bus. Waiting.

“I’m going to the Native American Center,” she reopens our conversation. “I had to transfer. Do you have to transfer today?” Her transfer slip is lodged between her ring and pinky fingers on the hand holding the perpetual well of unhulled seeds—her left hand. The story of her hands tells me she may be in her fifties.

“No. Not today. Today, it is just this one bus,” I answer. The sunshine feels good on my face. I turn my face to meet the shifting sun, grateful for my bench companion’s calm presence as we wait.

“You are lucky.” Changing the subject, she continues, “My brother is having a show, an art show at the Center. He is an artist—a pretty big deal. He lives clean. Doesn’t drink. Doesn’t smoke. Real clean, my brother. You should meet him. We are Lakota Sioux. You should come to the show. I’ll introduce you.”

Without stopping, she continues, “I bet you’re wondering why I have this busted lip. Like I said, I’m Lakota Sioux. I was walking home late one night with my groceries a week or so ago when three Chippewa gals jumped me. They were leaving a bar. They’d been drinking.”

“Oh, my. I’m sorry to hear that. Is it healing alright?” I ask, trying not to be overly intrusive.

“Yeah, I had some stitches. They’re out now, but it still looks pretty bad. “Her report is matter-of-fact. “You know the Chippewa don’t like us.”*

I think back to my one history course on Indian treaty rights. Chippewa. Ojibwe. Anishinaabe. My head is swimming with names, given, chosen, preferred, rejected, taken by various First-Nation Peoples of North America. Our conversation has entered uncomfortable, conversational territory—personally, politically and historically—and my knowledge is sketchy. Who names things? How do we name things? From whose perspective do we tell our stories?

I am not sure how to reply appropriately to her report.

“Well,” I pause to take a breath, “you know with so many of ‘us’ out there, I would think that ‘you’—all—would need to stick together. I am sorry that you were hurt so badly.”

The bus pulls up, slowing to a stop. With the familiar expulsion of pressurized air, our conversation comes to a halt. As we stand, my bus-stop companion turns to me, shrugging her shoulders, “Yeah, well, it happens. Come and see my brother’s work. He is real good.”

“Thank you for the invitation.”

*Prior to extensive contact with European traders and settlers on the North American continent, peoples of the Great Sioux Nation were being pushed off of their native lands in what is now the Upper-Midwestern portion of the United States (Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin) by the westward expansion of the Ojibwa. Territorial conflict betweeb the Ojibwa and Sioux intensified after the Ojibwa gained access to European weaponry, resulting in  the Sioux having to relocate permanently.

Sounds

One winter, a man travels from his home in perpetually sunny, southern California to the snow-bound Upper Midwest and, from there, to a tropical island in the Pacific. He observes that in his home in southern California, the windows are almost always open to the constant, ambient hum of city activity, mixed with the sounds of a subdued version of nature.

Spirituality

Flying into the Upper Midwest, to stay in the home of friends, he is amazed by the nighttime silence of a snow-blanketed winter. There is an almost dead silence, common to the closed-windowed deep winter months. Even though he is in a large urban area, the home’s double pained windows, substantial  insulation, combined with a doubly thick blanket of snow outside, keep audible sounds to a minimum. Who is not hibernating?

Finally, after a very long flight, he lands on an island in the Pacific Ocean. On his first night there surrounded by the lush jungle, a cacophony of sounds—typical of any viable tropical forest—keep his eyes wide open. Awake amid the common night calls, clicks and cries from the forest coming through the open window, he lays listening. Nothing seems to sleep.

Preparing

It is one of the last weeks of September; the air is cool. In the sun, horseflies are still biting. In the shade, mosquitoes hum toward me like wandering tourists, trying to determine which location might be best for a snack or meal. In cool weather like this, even the hand of a small child can thwart most mosquitoes’ efforts. With each successful swat, grey dust outlines a dead mosquito’s silhouette on an arm, elbow or leg.

My father, sister and I drove up early this morning, specifically to butcher. Winter is coming on. People who have known hunger view an approaching long, cold winter with an attitude and timbre radically different from those who have known only moderate weather, packed pantries or full larders. A one-and-half year old steer is being readied to become steaming spaghetti dinners, hot beef-onion gravy, paper-thin breakfast steaks, broiled rib-eye and roasts to be baked with carrots, onions and potatoes—garden produce from this summer’s harvest.

Spirituality
Spirituality

When our trio bursts onto the scene at my grandparents’ house, my father’s family is not prepared for us or the day’s project. The shotgun must be retrieved from the back of the closet underneath the stairs. A sufficiently sharp knife must be found in one of the crammed kitchen drawers. The red trailer remains to be hitched.

Our early arrival marks the beginning of chaos in the house. Except for my grandfather, already on his morning walk, my father must rouse everyone. My grandmother came in late last night from work. My young aunts and an uncle are rousted to get breakfast and look after my younger sister and myself. Because she is working at the hospital, my mother is not there to care for us herself. We did not actually bring the chaos. The chaos is the result of two overly-full schedules colliding on one of the last available weekends for butchering.

In October, the snow will come halting all outside food-producing activities for the next seven to eight months. Except for the canned vegetables and fruit already set aside, our freezers are empty. The meat from the steer will fill two freezers. Urgency surrounds preparations today. Fear of hunger is factored in. I think of my father.

After breakfast and a few warm hours in the house, I walk outside to amble about the yard. Peering around the edge of the now-hitched trailer, I look inside to see the dead steer’s head staring back at me. His supple black, velvety hide is in a low crumpled heap, cushioning his head. Closer to me, his tail lies discarded—a rope with one frayed end.

In the dark, yawning doorway of the barn behind me, hanging from his back legs, the steer’s carcass has been hoisted up by a chain with block and tackle. With his skin fully stripped, I observe a thin milky membrane covering the fine musculature of his body. Component parts are connected by thick fibrous strands, crisscrossing his legs, hips, trunk and shoulders. My father and his father are preparing the animal for meat cutting at a shop forty miles south-east.

Peering again around the monstrously tall sides of the hay trailer, I am struck by the contrast in colors. The trailer is red. The hide and head and tail of the Angus steer are a glossy jet black, except for cut surfaces which bleed red. I am also amazed by the size of the animal’s head and his protruding tongue. I stick out my own tongue to examine its color, texture and shape. We seem to have the same tongues on different scales. Somehow, it feels like we are siblings. I know that, if I were to peel back my own skin, we would look much the same, except that I am smaller, leaner—skinny.

Padding toward the house, across the dark green grass, it is almost noon. I feel how cold the ground is already. My sister is chasing cats in the yard. Despite many scratches, she looks pleased to have caught a grey puff of fur. When I finally catch my own cat, I observe in its heft that there is not enough meat on this skinny-carcassed animal for even one meal.

Teaching Kindness

“Didn’t you see him?” hissing under her breath, a mother in her early thirties reprimands her daughter for not yielding to an elderly man at the doorway of a local library. The girl is perhaps nine years old. And, from my observational point of view, she is or was completely and excitedly absorbed in her stack of new books, portals to alternate worlds of grand adventure.

“Ow, you’re hurting me,” I hear the girl respond, as I witness her incensed mother taking the child’s one free hand to twist the girl’s arm behind her back. In my heart, somehow I know this frustrated mother is attempting to underscore her original, parenting point through this physical addition.

Visibly tired, as well as being angry and impatient with her daughter for not yielding to the elderly man in the doorway, the mother continues the verbal lesson, “We yield to elderly people. It is courteous. You need to pay more attention.”

Spirituality

The scene takes up less time than it would take to air a thirty-minute commercial. The mother wants to ingrain in her child a common, social kindness, so that that kindness becomes automatic. Yet, being socially courteous requires each of us to be fully grounded in our bodies and aware of our surroundings in present time. And the manner in which this mother has chosen to underscore her point, in terms of physical reprimand, will do nothing but drive this girl further out and away from her personal, physical center.

As an observer, all I can envision is how this child—as an adult—may end up in tears on a yoga mat or in the office of a physical therapist or on the table of a licensed body-worker, trying to understand the origin of the pain in her right shoulder and the source of her inexplicable grief. The body does not forget. Even as the sands of incidental, daily memories are wiped clean by the tide of time, the body does not forget.

As I finish crossing the foyer of the library into one of the building’s sunniest wings, I see the beauty of the sun’s light  playing through the leaves of a tall, potted tree. Turning toward the comfort of nature brought indoors, I ponder why we—as a society—continue in our attempts to teach kindness through brutality.

Stuff It

One table away, at the Indian restaurant where I am dining, a little boy is crying. He is not crying loudly, though he has come to the dry, hiccuping phase in his tears which indicates it has been a long road to arrive at this stage of his demonstrated upset or grief.

Spirituality

As I sit down to eat, I notice that he and his mother are part of a larger family gathering. Buffet days at this restaurant are consistently busy because the buffet offerings are of enough variety to satisfy even the most persnickety of eaters.

“If you can’t stop crying, we’ll have to leave the restaurant,” the boy’s mother leans over to inform him. “Do you want that?” she questions him in a threatening tone.

Internally I sigh and, while taking a deeper breath, wonder why she has not asked him about the source of his tears, reminding myself that I am coming into the situation late. Sometimes the intellectual-emotional exercise of asking children about why they are crying is enough to stop the deluge, if only for a moment.

Finally, out of sheer exasperation, I overhear the mother tell the boy to stuff it, using the old maxim, “Big boys don’t cry.”

I cringe. I contemplate the antiquated maxim, “Big boys don’t cry.” And, ofttimes big boys—that is grown men—can neither identify their own feelings as adults nor can they draw up plausible cause-effect relationships between their personal experiences and those of their internal, emotional world. In this last scenario, grief, fear, abandonment, being slighted or otherwise hurt by life circumstances may end up being channeled into anger or rage—two of the more culturally “acceptable” emotions for men to exhibit.

Returning my attentions to the beautiful plate of food in front of me, I say a short prayer for the gift of my food, as well as a short prayer for this mother and child, while recalling—with profound regret—the less-than-optimal parenting skills I exhibited in my own youthful, child-rearing days. We are a work, are we not? And all of us are “in progress.”

Dear God, please let this small boy come to know that it is okay to cry.

Talking to Ourselves

Collecting my belongings after the close of one of my evening yoga classes, an adult student approaches me.

“Do you know what has helped me more than anything in your teachings?” she asks in a forthright manner.

“No,” I respond quietly, looking up from collecting my things.

“Your teaching about compassion toward the body—encouraging, coaxing, inviting and allowing the body to open in its own time,” she answers. I see her holding the removable brace her left hand requires. The brace reminds her not to overdo anything during her extended recuperation after tendon surgery.

Spirituality

She, like me, is a doer. She, like me, is a relatively impatient personality. I empathize with the extra frustration she has exhibited in class as she works through her relatively long period of convalescence. Yet, with her standing next to me, I notice the manner in which I have silently girded myself against what might be coming, because she is also a student capable of delivering swift, verbal feedback in real-time, without the blessing of any gentle or mercifully wordy cushioning preamble. And, even as she exhibits this trait, I—regrettably—see much of myself in her. The Mirror is always speaking.

Extending her hand toward me, she continues, “Look. I have been talking to my finger.” The digit, where the tendon has been reattached, is now level with my eyes. “Do you remember that one mental exercise you have us do in class where, when we are in a yoga posture, we first address the body with internal dialogue using harsh words and then switch to using encouraging internal speech?”

“Yes,” I nod in reply. Her hand is still poised before my eyes.

“Well, I have been using that mental exercise with my finger,” she proceeds. “Come on, finger. You can do it! I need you to curl forward. Now, straighten up! There you go. I know you can do this.”

I watch as her finger, in one slow shaky motion, moves through its paces. The human body is nothing short of a miracle. Our will, when properly placed, is yet another grace in action.

“That is amazing,” I murmur.

“Yes! It would not have been possible even a year ago. You gave me the mental approach I needed for the exercises prescribed by my physical therapist. I am told by the hospital staff that my finger is healing twice as fast when compared to the healing rates of most people who have had such a surgery.”

This is that for which I must give thanks.

Putting the Pieces Together

This is a story of a story of a story…*

With no advance notice, one day the uncle of a young boy was asked to look after his nephew for a few hours.

Spirituality

While thoughtfully considering a quiet activity to keep his nephew busy during the afternoon, the uncle paged through a magazine featuring a photograph of the earth from space. The image was taken from a new perspective, as it was a recent NASA photograph captured during one of the space missions.

Removing the page from the magazine with the earth’s image, the uncle decided to make an impromptu puzzle of the photograph by carefully tearing the page into manageable puzzle-size pieces. Then, placing the pieces in a random order on a table with a roll of clear tape, he thought to himself, “That should keep him busy.”

When the man’s nephew arrived, the boy was given the impromptu puzzle to work. Retreating to another room to attend to yet another project, the uncle was surprised to see his nephew appear about a quarter-hour later. The boy showed him the fully restored photo of the earth from space.

“How did you put that together so quickly?” the uncle asked.

Turning the puzzle over, the boy revealed another image—that of a person. The nephew explained, “I turned the pieces over and found the picture of a person. I knew that if I could get the person together, I could get the world together.”

And so it is. Blessed be.

*Thank you, Martin Hill, for passing this story along.

University of Life

Sometimes the best lessons from our university days are those we learn outside of the classroom.  –Julian Lynn

On one long weekend while I was attending university, I travelled several hours to visit a close girlfriend’s family. They lived several hours away.

My friend possessed many talents and gifts, yet social affability was not one of them. It was confusing for me to watch the uncomfortable social situations she created through her general suspicion and caginess around other people. From my limited perspective, it was as though she had never really learned how to occupy the space Grace had granted her, choosing instead to alternate between insecurity and a rather intense, blustery indignity which rarely allowed her to shine or even simply relax and be herself in community.

Spirituality

As with almost all of the extended weekend visits I took during my college days, Friday night’s meet-and-greet with the family was more formal in nature than the rest of the weekend.  There was nothing during that initial phase of being introduced to my friend’s family that could explain her social awkwardness.

Then, as the sun rolled over onto Saturday morning, I lay in bed considering what I needed to get done in terms of homework that day. The guest room happened to be on the first floor of the home, and it was stationed adjacent to the kitchen. My door was ajar.

As I lay there in bed, contemplating plans for the day, I was amazed to overhear what I assumed to be old family verbal patterns reemerging. The conversation was nothing like those which had been in evidence the previous night.

As my girlfriend attempted to help her mother prepare breakfast in the kitchen, my friend was showered with an ongoing barrage of complaints about the nature of the kitchen’s layout, the inefficient manner in which my friend was attempting to help, how my friend’s contributions were somehow subpar. And, perhaps, most telling was the general prickly refrain, “You are always in the way.”

In defence of my friend’s right to exist, I remember muttering under my breath, “Why did you bother to have children, if you don’t even like them?” Then, becoming more philosphical about the situation, I asked myself the larger question: Why do people have children if they are only going to berate them verbally, withdraw their emotional support, as well as decry their very existence?

In some families, audio tracks are actually handed down generation to generation like a series of precious heirlooms when, in reality, it would have been better for everyone if these soundtracks had simply been erased. From my clients and students, I have learned that the lengthy process of erasure or overdubbing of these tracks can be a struggle. Not everything a parent “gifts” us is meant to be cherished or held onto. Not everything an adult or parent says is meant to go into a child’s psyche. So, if you are a parent, or an adult around children, choose your words carefully. You are on the air. This session is live. What you say is being recorded. The soundtrack you are laying down will be replayed. Words matter.