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.

Illuminated

Trent Palmer sits across from me in the back of Mrs. Patterson’s seventh-grade English-grammar class.  He is dark, unusually dark complexioned compared to almost all of the other adolescents in school.  Moving through the hallways, among a crowd of third-generation Germanic and Scandinavian immigrants, he is an exotic, ethereal and appears to be almost other worldly.

Spirituality

This trait alone could have set him apart, but he also sports a jaunty limp whenever he walks, setting him further apart from the general, middle-school crowd. When Trent is standing straight, his shoulders do not match and, at the end of the one arm held closer to his body, his right hand curls into a permanent fist. With the diplomacy missing almost universally among all seventh-graders, I tell him it is a good thing he is left handed—attempting to be positive without succeeding at being even remotely socially appropriate.

In the back of English-grammar class, while Mrs. Patterson lectures from her desk in the far, front corner, Trent and I swap one-liners under our breath.  He smirks at my quips, and I smile at his one-liners.  We have a grand time. And, though I never speak of it, something inside of me loves something inside of him. I love his audaciously rare beauty, his gently skidding speech, his intellect, his brilliant white teeth and, most especially, that we are partners in our own secret comedy club.

Unlike the time I spend in the halls between or in other classes, I actually look forward to English-grammar class and the feeling of wholeness that seems to live there when I sit alongside Trent.  No one seems the wiser about my feelings, including Trent.  Then, my sense of wholeness comes to an abrupt end when Trent and his family move away suddenly.

Community gossip has it that Trent’s family felt he had been singled out for ridicule, the town was too small and that Trent’s intellectual needs were not being met by the district’s curriculum or teachers.  I miss my friend terribly.

Yet, time has a way of gently erasing old hurts. And, the faces and names of middle-school friends become paved-over by the faces and names of those friends we make in high school and college.

Then, decades later, while reading about one of the posters put up in ancient, Roman-occupied Judea, calling for Jesus’ arrest, I read a description of Jesus as being dark, not overly tall, with uneven shoulders and that, if he is seen walking, he walks with a slight limp.  From a distant well within my heart, an image of Trent and his radiant Light flood in. At the same time, I also remember some of the most awkward things I said to Trent which must have hurt him terribly.

Recalling how Trent’s one hand formed a permanent right-handed fist, I think if I were he in seventh grade, I would have wanted to punch God full in the face for making my body something less than perfectly symmetrical—especially given the width and breadth of Trent’s  joyful Spirit and keen intellect.

My thinking at the time was this: If God had been paying attention, Trent’s whole, radiant and flawless Spirit would have been reflected in a perfectly symmetrical physical presentation for Trent.

But, as an adult, I realize that circumstances on the physical plane often do not work out that way. And, now, when I remember Trent, I know his physical presentation to be a perfect reflection of that which is most certainly of God.

Children of the Light II

I have a theory that our souls remember every kindness, injury, relationship, pain and Grace bestowed upon us by the actions and inactions of the Light in the souls of Others among us.

Months have gone by since the late morning, early one spring day, when a few words issued from my mouth allowed one teenage boy to regain his Light, after an intense outdoor domestic scene involving his cross and churlish mother.

Spirituality

Walking one of my regular routes to the coffeehouse to work, I see a teenage boy pop out of the same house. The boy is veritably skipping down the long flight of stairs from the front door toward the sidewalk ,where I am passing. From his perspective, the day looks to be a good one.

Almost past the house, I hear the boy shout out to me, “Hey! Are you having a good day?”

A blanket of tense, cogitative fog lifts from around my own dampened Light. Looking over my shoulder to meet his gaze, I give him a standard and socially acceptable reply, “Fine. Thank you for asking.”

Stopping his lank frame at the bottom of the steps, he calls out again, “I want you to have a good day. You need to have a good day.”

His command is a blessing. It is only then that I realize that this may be the same child of Light whom I tried to help one early spring day.

Walking on, I unearth the sacred space in my heart again, and I thank him silently, “And, you too, my friend. And, you too.”

Children of the Light I

Walking through a neighborhood not far from our own, I observe a woman grab the forearm of her gangly teenage son in vicious impatience. She does this only to yank him closer to herself so that she may spew several ugly, vitriolic phrases in his face about his worthlessness as a human being.

From the looks of the home’s side yard, it appears that the entire family of four has been out working, raking the side-yard dirt to free it from last year’s debris. A new chicken-wire fence is in place. Last fall’s leaves, twigs, sticks and branches, as well as a few scraggily green vines, rest in a heap in the corner of the area which is now cleared dirt.

Spirituality

The only friendly motion in the scene I am witnessing comes from the wriggling swaying tail of a puppy’s unstoppable joy at the undeniable beauty of this early spring day. I suspect the raking has something to do with making way for this family’s new canine friend. I wish that this puppy’s happiness could be magnified and distributed among all five souls present.

Today, I do not hold back. Turning my body halfway around to address the woman, while putting on my very best positive voice, I almost shout, “Wow, are you lucky to have such great help in the yard! Beautiful day to be outside. My own son is all grown up. Hardly see him. Busy. They grow up so fast.”

The woman stares back at me in shocked amazement (maybe at my cheery impudence), loosening her grip on her older male child’s forearm. Her mouth gapes in awe.

Mission accomplished. Further, immediate verbal abuse truncated. But, I can see that the boy’s personal Light is still crumpled up and twisted around his lank physical frame, leaving him vulnerable and emotionally unprotected.

Turning to continue on my walk, I say a silent prayer for this child, “Dear God, please protect this holy child, restore his Light and help him remember who he is—Yours.”

Making Plans

One. Two. Three. Four. Boys were born twelve months apart to a couple living in a house down the block in the community of my early childhood. Talented and hardworking. The parents of all four boys were gainfully employed as teachers.

Spirituality

As each child arrived, careful plans were made and special funds were started so that each child might attend college at eighteen. Pennies. Nickels. Dimes. Quarters. Kennedy half-dollars. Coins were dropped in jars for the funds. Regular deductions were taken from the checks of each parent.

Wanting what was best for their boys, both parents began taking progressively better jobs with more responsibilities, higher pay and more hours away from home. With the longer work hours, the couple cast about for proper childcare. Care was found. Yet, at times, it seemed as though the boys were becoming feral or as though they existed in two separate worlds—that orderly world of their parents’ preordained desire and the sphere of chaos they created under the watch of even the most trusted childcare providers.

From my childhood perspective, theirs was a house of loosely supervised mayhem down the block, floating like an untethered island on the move in a very large lake.

Turning the corner from boyhood to manhood, each man-child piled into his individual dinghy and left the mayhem of the island behind, setting a course for some point far, far away. Not one of those boys chose to pack his bags, load the family car and make the journey to university with his parents’ carefully planned financial support.