Breathe!

I recently attended a meditation retreat; a single day dedicated to chanting and meditation, to turning in.

Of course, it can be healthy, in general, to take a break from routines and habitual busyness to do such things. The larger benefits of this day, I imagine, will unfold over time.

The key thrust of the program was to encourage people to meditate. Rather than using meditation for centering or performance enhancement (a focus not ignored in business or sports), my perspective on the true power of meditation is more spiritual.

The goal of meditation, I believe, is to experience existence outside of one’s ego, to let go of one’s dependence on circumstances in order to be happy and to identify with the limitless and eternal rather than defining who we are based on politics or class, gender or profession.

Whether this approach to meditation is of interest to you or if you are curious about meditation to improve your golf swing or lessen anxiety, it’s common for beginning meditators to start with their BREATH.

Ah breathing…

It sounds so simple, and yet, as we often learn in a level one yoga class, many of us don’t breathe correctly. It’s hard at forty or older to allow your belly to fully expand when you’ve spent most of your life holding your stomach in.

When a well-meaning meditation instructor follows up on tips for how to sit by saying, Watch your breath, my battle with my breath kicks in to a higher gear.

I’m not a visual person to begin with. I have to play around with any metaphorical references to golden particles of light filling my lungs, filling all sorts of body cavities, and then being expelled in long exhalations. I can’t seem to conjure up the intended visuals but I get the gist of instruction.

Be conscious of your life force. Be aware of natural boundaries, with insides and outsides. Be present to the sensation of these boundaries melting away.

Breathe in deeply. Let your breath out slowly…

It’s not that I take breathing for granted.

I have two sisters that had experiences with lung cancer. One sister, older by seven years or so, after diagnosis five years ago, had two lobes of one lung removed. She had to re-learn how to breathe with less capacity. Another sister, only one year older, died 16 years ago.

As children, that sister, unhappy to share a bedroom with her snoring younger sister, used to pose a strange rhetorical question to me, Must you breathe? 

Was she merely tired of listening to the unconscious waves of my respiration? Was she upset at me just for being alive? Was she questioning my right to occupy space on this planet as she questioned whether air should fill my lungs?

No, I never had an easy relationship with my own breath. I still find myself holding my breath when I’m excited or deep in concentration. I’m aware of habits to take in just barely as much air as I need, not as much as life might be offering.

….But I want to experience samadhi, this state of total absorption in both the present and the eternal. I want to lose preoccupation with accomplishments and judgments and just BE.

From others before me who have had the same goal, I understand this place to be at the intersection of where one’s breath meets the heart, the heart of everything. There are no road signs, but I trust that I’ll know it when I get there.

Respiration keeps the body alive, but maybe, more importantly, breathing with this goal, gives life meaning.

Even though I’ve been at it for sixty years, I guess I have to practice breathing.

First thing in the morning (before I have tea and take India out for her walk), when the sound is turned down during a commercial break, or when I’m wiping my kitchen countertop –- It’s a good thing that I can practice every day.

Recognizing the importance of breathing, deeply and CONSCIOUSLY, even while the basic function occurs automatically, is no small thing.

 

Doing Evil Justice

I really enjoy taking walks in my neighborhood this time of year.

The temperature is comfortably in the 60s (my body’s favorite no-sweat, no chill range). The leaves have already turned from green to gold. They float to earth from tree branches, blanketing sidewalks and lawns in brownish hollow cones that greet our footsteps with their patented crunch-crunch-crunch.

I also love to look at Halloween decorations. This holiday has definitely surpassed Christmas as the time of year when homeowners go all out to transform their patch of front lawn. They become cemeteries, or giant spider webs or yellow-taped crime scenes.

Some front yards seem to call out the Dollar Tree provenance of their witches and skeletons and jack-o-lanterns. Other scary objects seemed to have come from a fire sale of props at the Theatre of the Macabre. Some scenes seem to be composed of an odd assortment of objects excavated from basements.

The source and expense involved in fashioning a compelling Halloween scene matters less than the creativity and attentiveness of the decorator.

Walking along Sacramento, I came across two dolls standing on top of cement and brick balusters flanking stairs leading up to a front entrance. They had curly red hair, which was a little wild, and their eyes seemed to be rolled back in their heads, appearing as nearly all white spheres under heavily mascaraed lashes.

Their red, bow-shaped lips were a deeper shade of red than that of a vampire’s last drink. They wore Victorian vintage dresses, which were hard to guess the age range they were made for. Were these dolls meant to represent schoolgirls or not-quite maids, women past their expiration dates for marriage?

Ah…I was standing before the Creepy Queen of the Pumpkin Patch.

I wondered what she could see with her eyes, turned, as they were, inside her head. I wondered if she was guarding the house or trying to escape some evil that resided there.

She wasn’t exactly threatening. I saw no fangs, no sickle of destruction. But she was creepy.   She was perfect in effect.

I started thinking about evil in literature and movies. Of course, evil is not something we want to see flourish, but I have a strange sort of admiration for authors or actors that create super memorable villains.

Some of the most famous came to mind: Sherlock Holmes’ clever nemesis, Moriarty; Shakespeare’s scheme-meister Iago from Othello and bitter hunchback Richard III; cruel slave-owner Simon Legree from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; uncompromisingly in control, psych ward warden, Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; sadistic Nils from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Of course, Darth Vader’s story can be conjured up whenever we hear particularly heavy breathing; a life destined for good that got corrupted.

Some of these characters had fine intellects, but misused them. Others centered their lives around manipulating others, which most of our better instincts tell us is wrong, and some were especially cruel as a sort of personal power metric, taking special advantage over the most vulnerable.

Some thrived on being in control (as many of us do), but took control to an extreme. Others showed no remorse or empathy for actions that harmed others.

All great villains are unique, but all teach us a little about our own humanity. Certainly, just the thought of EVIL makes me uncomfortable, but I have a great admiration for artists who make the qualities of evil real to me and remind me of my choices.

Doing wrong RIGHT is no small thing.

The Call

These past few months, I have been preoccupied with my rehabbing; looking for little milestones on my path towards full functioning of my hand and shoulder.

I will listen to the news regularly, but very few bits of information penetrate my bubble. I consider that I’ve become numb to the circus that has become our national political scene and have never much hung on lifestyle trends, no matter which celebrity may be involved.

But last Tuesday morning, while making tea and watching the morning news, I caught video of a developing story; another weather related tragedy that was just beginning.

Wild fires were ablaze in northern California. Black smoke filled the streets. Beautiful trees along rolling hills seemed to have been turned into kindling. Thousands of homes were being destroyed.

I was upset about the suffering in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, but this uncontrollable act of nature hit me personally. My best friend lives in Sonoma.

Lin moved from Chicago about ten years ago. She sold her Bucktown home and joined her husband to live in wine country.

We have managed to see each other almost every year and have enjoyed many Friday afternoon Happy Hours telephonically. At the end of our respective workweeks, we have clinked glasses in the area of our receivers before venting about current events in our lives.

She has put so much into her house; reconfiguring the kitchen and entranceway, overseeing the rooftop installation of solar panels, converting a barn into a guesthouse, and landscaping. It was hard to think about it being threatened. Then, I was slammed with a heavier thought.

Oh my God, Was she okay?

Immediately, I texted a short note to her.

After not hearing back all day, I left a message on her home answering machine. Late at night, her husband called me to acknowledge receipt of my message.

He reported that the town was full of smoke, that they could look out their windows and see flames only two miles away, that the nearby town of Glen Ellen and various vineyards and tasting rooms I had visited with them were hit hard.

He relayed that Lin had left the previous day and was staying with friends in San Francisco and that he planned to join her the following day.

Last Wednesday, I abruptly ended another phone conversation when I saw her cell phone number flash on my caller I.D.

She explained that the devastation was incredible, that she was in touch with her boss and was advised not to even think about coming in to work. She explained that her husband was going to join her and stay a few days at Jennifer’s and that they were also in touch with his brother in Palo Alto.

The conversation was short. I don’t know if all her words registered in my brain, but I heard her VOICE. That meant everything.

For the rest of the week, I watched for more news on the region, but it was not personally geared for my concerns. She called me on Sunday night. She was home. The fires were still very close, but firefighters were doing a better job of containment.

She said that she was tired but glad to be home.

I realize how vulnerable we all are; to natural disasters or to psychologically challenged people with guns. Literally, her safety and the preservation of her home depended on which way the wind blew.

I have never had children and have never been one to require a call from friends or family after a visit to announce their return trip ended in safe arrival.

I’ve heard the expression, No news is good news, and I don’t like to indulge in worry, but I cannot explain how much I changed when I heard her voice. There’s something about hearing the actual voice of someone you love telling you that they are safe that spells relief and comfort like nothing else.

Getting a call from a loved one and hearing, in their voice, only that they are home safe is no small thing.

Pull Me Up

My life seems to revolve around rehabbing my shoulder and hand.

I visit my chiropractor’s office a few times a week for treatments and have been going for physical and occupational therapy a couple times a week also. Of course, I have a home regimen.

Since being sent home from the ER, I take time each day to bend at my hips and let my right arm dangle. Like a pendulum, first, I’d swing my arm in a circle going one direction, then the other. I’ll do 20 reps of various motions with my right arm dangling three times a day.

I also practice touching my thumb to my index, middle, ring and pinkie tips then make fists and practice extending, straightening out, my very stiff fingers.

I use props for some exercises. Recently, I bought a simple pulley from Athletico and had a friend hang it on the back of the door to my guest bedroom.

Sitting on a dining chair in front of the door, I’ll place each of my hands on crescent shaped handles at the ends of each pulley cord and draw my left hand downward to pull up my right, my “affected,” hand.

The exercise provides a good stretch. I feel in control. I can set the pace and the height that I lift my right hand. From day to day, I can see progress. I can see how much farther I can move my arm over the previous week. That’s really important to me.

As I’ve reflected on my journey, my path from injury to normal functioning, I’ll think about how easy it is to get discouraged, to worry about how long rehabbing will take. I’ll ask myself whether my bone and joints are aligned and on track for me to resume my lifestyle.

I worry about whether I am making the best decisions for treatment and recovery. I worry about how to minimize my out of pocket expenses.

I have been going out more and more, but I still don’t drive. It’s easy to sink into periods where I feel isolated.

Having this injury, at this time, considering my situation in life, I’ve become especially aware of how much I miss having regular contact with a mate or close friend.

I’ve contemplated how nice it would be to have someone know about my little accomplishments and disappointments. I recognize that I have done myself a disservice by assuming, as I often have, that no one would care about the little details of my life or how I feel.

I have been considering who, among my existing network of friends, could transition into a role of greater intimacy. And I think the universe is supporting me in this exploration.

One of my gal pals from my book group had hand surgery about a week after my injury. When we found out about each other’s wounds and recoveries, she’s reached out a lot with offers to help.

She’s acted as a great sounding board when I’ve wanted to think through a decision about treatments and has started to call me every other day to make sure I’m doing my exercises and keeping up with my home therapy regimen.

I appreciate the gentle accountability her calls have added to my life. More importantly, I like to know someone’s thinking about me and wondering how I am doing.

While I sit in my chair under the pulley and use the mechanism to lift my arm, I’ll think about being able to provide a good report when Deb W. calls. I’ll also think about the Talking Heads song from the seventies.

 

I was complaining, I was down in the dumps
I feel so strong now ’cause you pulled me up!
Pull me up up up up up up up up!
I slipped, and I got pulled
Pulled up, I tripped, and then you pulled,
You pulled me up…
 

 

Getting regular calls from your accountability buddy is great. Getting a call or text from someone, with no other purpose than to show you they’re thinking about you, is no small thing.