Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Hushing Angel

From Walden: …If I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?

Photo by Sonja Rainey

Sometimes we picture our good and bad impulses as an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other. I think we are not leery enough of a third voice, a voice that is burrowed so deep in our brains that we may mistake it for our own conscience. It is an authoritative voice, dressed up as an angel, telling us to be “good” by placing the wishes and needs of everyone above our own. This voice tells us to be a good girl, take up less space, don’t complain, need less, give more.
This is not the angel that stood with Martin Luther and Sojourner Truth and urged them to speak out. This false angel keeps us from speaking out. It is the hushing angel. The hushing angel tells us that we should take the burnt toast.
The hushing angel is heavy. The hushing angel presses down on us so that our brows are furrowed and our lips are tight. The hushing angel tells us we should carry more, do more, lift more. The hushing angel tells us to use our vacation time to pick a nursing home for our mother because our brother “just can’t cope with this.” The hushing angel tempts us to buy best-sellers for the library shelves because the town has slashed the book budget. The hushing angel pushes us out of bed early in the morning to wipe the kitchen counters before the housecleaner arrives.
The hushing angel drapes around our neck a golden necklace inscribed on every link with the motto, “I matter because I make others happy.” And the links of chain are so massive and so many that our heads bow down under the weight. No wonder we fret that the kitchen floor is dirty; we can’t look up to see out the window.
The hushing angel has us harnessed to an infernal machine for which we are the source of energy. Every breath lifts a lever, every step pulls a chain to make something happen for someone else. We’re a horse in harness, we’re a prisoner on a treadmill. And the reward, the payoff for all the work, is just this: you get to keep doing it.
This is the horrible secret of the hushing angel. If you live as though your goodness, your value comes from serving others with no regard for your own well-being, then the reward you get in exchange for all your effort is continuing to live – to serve others. “You are earning your spot on earth,” the hushing angel tells us. “You are paying rent on your right to breathe. If you jump off the treadmill, throw off the golden chain of obligation, then – why should the rest of us let you go on?”

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ballad of a Bad Girl

Photo by Dorothea Lange,
1939, Yakima Valley, WA.
These are lyrics I've written for a song that takes a folksong premise and gives it a jolt. No melody yet. Anyone care to try?

My sister’s name was Jezebel.
I never understood--
Folks call her a bad bad girl
She’s just misunderstood.

Her hair was black and glinted blue,
Like sunlight on a starling.
She’d go with anyone they said,
No-one called her darling.

My sister’s name was Jezebel,
That’s what Daddy named her.
I was younger by a year,
Helpless while he shamed her.

While Daddy messed with Jezebel
Ma looked the other way.
I knew we had to grow up fast
And make the bastard pay.

One day he came home stumbling drunk
As Ma went into town.
She said, “You keep that fool inside--
He’ll fall in the creek and drown.”

Well, girls are strong when times are tough--
We did what needed doing.
All alone when Ma came home,
Two girls and coffee brewing.

My sister’s name is Jessica--
She changed it ‘cause she could.
The town calls us those bad, bad girls.
We’re just misunderstood.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Don't go too far

When my husband and I first met, I liked him a lot, and he liked me a lot, right away. But when I thought about actually dating Robert two things seemed clear to me. The first was the sensible observation that a man only recently separated from his first wife, paying tuition bills for his kids in college, would not be a person most people would consider a good romantic match for me, not long out of college myself.

The second thing that seemed clear to me, if there is any clarity in intoxicated bedazzlement at all, was that it was amazing that this funny, smart and attentive man with kind grey-green eyes wanted to spend time with me, a rather shy perfectionist with spasmodic ambitions to be a writer.

The two ideas worked against each other like a Push-Me-Pull-You. The sensible insight-- that Robert was likely in a classic midlife crisis, and that he was no doubt entranced by my shiny 28-year old hair and my great 28-year old legs -- that insight was a powerful damper on the dream-about-him-all-day daze I felt I could easily slide into. "Don't go too far with this," I told myself. "Getting to know Robert is a life lesson, an experiment. Don't feel too much, don't go too far."

Time went on. We kept talking and doing stuff together. We wrote funny postcards, made mixtapes of our favorite songs, and went cycling on country roads. Other men had made me feel giddy and twirly, as if I'd gotten a new dress. Robert made me feel as though we had discovered a mysterious empty house with our names on the mailbox, and the many rooms inside were ours to explore together. By the time I introduced him to my family, I began to think that my two insights were exactly backwards.

Yes, Robert had a history, but he understood his past and wasn't haunted by it. Despite his bumpy history, he was a great catch, precisely because his deeply rooted good qualities had remained intact and he wanted to share what was inside of him.

The second insight, that it was amazing that he was attracted to me, was plain silly. He loves thoughtful, kind, funny people in general, and he loves this thoughtful, kind, funny woman most of all. That's really who I am and he has known that from day one, from the bottom of his heart. In the seventeen years we've been married, I've been loving him back with just as much fervor and realism.

We lie in bed at night and I feel so fortunate for these years, knowing everything about each other and thinking the best of each other all at once. We lie in bed and I feel fortunate. "Don't go too far," I think. "This is just right. I want to stay close to you. Don't go too far."

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Around the meditation cushion

Sally Kempton
I recently attended a meditation workshop taught by the wonderful and inspiring teacher, Sally Kempton. She is the author of Meditation for the Love of It, which I recommend to anyone interested in one's inner life, but particularly to people who have meditated for awhile and are wondering if they are getting anything out of it. Sally encourages students to approach meditation with an open mind, alert to the possibility that any one of several methods may bring you into a richer harmony with your experience of Being or Spirit or God. As a teacher, she beckons the student toward a wide path with room for everyone. What you meet on that path may turn out to be surprising.

At this recent workshop she suggested a guided meditation method that woke in me a different sense of the presence of God than I had been aware of before. Here are her instructions, as I recall them. (This is my paraphrase from memory; Sally's book goes into greater detail.)

As you sit in meditation, visualize the energy of the universe, or the Great Spirit, or the loving-tenderness of all creation, or the presence of God -- whatever you would like to call it -- visualize this force right in front of you on the meditation cushion. As you visualize this energy, breathe it in from the space in front of you, through every pore and every organ of you body. After several breaths, shift your focus to the energy in the space in back of you, breathing in the energy from the back. Again, imagine that you are using every pore and every organ to breathe in that energy as it occupies the space just behind you on the cushion. Then, in turn, focus on the energy on your right side, on your the left side, the energy in the space below you and above you. Finally, visualize the energy as it surrounds you completely.

This meditation method affected me very strongly that day and I've continued to practice it regularly on my own. I relate best to this universal energy when I call it the presence of God. To imagine that I am breathing in the presence of God on all sides is like visualizing an unstoppable hug that goes into the cells of my body and doesn’t let go. When I do this meditation practice, I find that all day I feel more grounded, more calm and more open to what may be.

After I had done this practice for several mornings, my mind opened up with a little click of an “aha.” It occurred to me that most of the time when we think about God, we think of God as up above us. God is a Higher Power. God is in Heaven above. We ask God to look down on us and watch over us. But I don’t think that the God I love is really watching from an upper balcony seat as I act out my life down here on stage. How lonely it would feel to believe that we are tiny creatures on earth, looking up to God and crying out for his attention.

I believe God is always near me, always by my side, always above and -- also -- always below me as well. It sounds strange to say that God is below me. But when I meditate on how God is below me, I open my eyes to how God is holding me, supporting me, lifting me up. I'm overcome with a walloping awareness of how God is with me in every way at every moment. In that awareness it's clear that God is not far from me, God is very near, and all the walls between us are entirely of my construction.

In Sunday school kids used to sing, “He’s got the whole world, in His hands.” That has taken on a new shade of meaning for me right now. God does have "the whole world in His hands." But it’s not the planet earth cupped in a divine grasp. It’s every one of us, every person, every being, carefully held like a small fragile bird, in the palm of the divine.