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Beginner's Heart

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My son made the most observant comment yesterday. He said he was glad to be out of the US for election year. And you know what? I wish I was.

I am heartily sick of racism & jingoism masquerading as patriotism, of sexist slurs pretending to be valid critique, and of just plain mean-spiritedness. My beginner’s heart hurts, for all of us.

Interesting: I finally blew up (in an articulate, mild-mannered way, I hope) on my FB page. Trying hard to keep in mind my Buddhist beginner’s heart, I pointed out that slamming my candidate would not make me change my mind in support. I’m not changing my mind at this late date; I’ve studied my candidate for some time, and as a scholar, I’m pretty certain I haven’t been misled by (the admittedly unobjective, on both sides) media.

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No one seems willing to discuss (remember discussion? not ‘debate,’ or ‘harangue,’ or ‘argue'; and certainly not ‘yell loudly at whoever disagrees’) issues. If I want to talk about how a candidate will pay for his or her platform promises, people accuse me of all manner of unpleasantries. Mostly just not buying in to their candidate…sigh.

I wish there was a Buddhist political party. A party where everyone agreed that war is terrible, horrible, and rarely necessary. A party of inclusion, not exclusion. No walls to keep people out, but helping hands to enable people to work for new & better lives. Not handouts, but hands up. I’m dreaming of a world where men & women could run for office and women wouldn’t be asked about their clothes, or hammered over how they look. In a Buddhist party, candidates would work towards peace — local/regional/national/global. And not think it overly idealistic or unrealistic. But they would work: not make pronouncements. Nor would they threaten to make countries glow in the dark, or throw racist epithets about like celebratory confetti.

I suppose my idealistic youth is obvious in this dream, even as I acknowledge the utter impossibility of it coming to pass. In my own benighted state, we have defunded education to the point that schools are closing early. Rural hospitals have already closed, in response to our refusal to accept Medicaid $$. We have let teachers go and are enlarging classrooms to the point that many teachers have retired early, sick of the heartbreak innate to an overcrowded classroom. We’re closing down assistance to area child abuse investigating authorities in order to continue tax cuts to the very wealthy. But we insist that we are a Christian state, even as we do away with health care access for poor and rural women.

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I wish I was ‘down under,’ like my younger son. Wish I was somewhere people understood that all we have is each other, and to hate difference is both pointless & ultimately tragic. Someone will always be different: race, gender, class, birth place, religion… There are more things to ‘separate’ us than, apparently, there is love to remind us of all we share. Buddhist politics would change that, I swear. A politics based in compassion, and the recognition that we are all human together. A deeply held belief in the power of love to transform us. I’m voting this fall for that — for changes  based in love, not power. In the meantime? I’m going to ignore politics. I’m going to watch cat videos & garden. It’s going to be hard, I realise. But I can’t move to Australia, so it will just have to do.

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My youngest son is readying for another adventure. One that involves rolled up clothes in duffel bags, a passport, and another continent. He can’t wait.

By now, he’s at the airport. Or on a plane, happily off into the wild blue that called his father, his grandfathers.

Given history, it will be at least a year until I see him again, probably longer. He points out we have electronic assists now — FaceTime, Skype, email & texts. I nod like the good mother I want to be; I do not howl like a banshee because he will be 24 hours away in a time zone 18 hours ahead.

My beginner’s heart knows that this is attachment, as well as a strong desire for things to be — somehow — different. And yet this grown man still my baby is who he is, and much of that is an adventurer. He has been back from his last peregrinations only months — fewer than six, to be exact. To ask for things to be different is tantamount that he be different.

My sons are good people, and good sons. They call, they talk. They share their lives in bits & pieces, better than than their father did with his mother. Certainly better than my own father did with his. I’m grateful daily for who they have grown into, these men who are still, somewhere, my blond, blue-eyed children.

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Each of them has found his own way — and they are different ways, although they share many similarities. Each is a dreamer, willing to work to realise those dreams. And each is flexible, bending to the winds that shape lives. And each is far away, with one going even further.

I used to whine (and yep…I whine) that one son was on one coast & the other on the opposite. Now? That sounds great. One will be on one coast and the other on …. another continent. The heart is finding this kind of knowledge hard to accept.

And again, I remind myself that attachment to what I want is not their destinies, if one may use such an old-fashioned word. I hesitate to say that others have ‘destinies,’ although I believe in my own. Right now? It’s learning how to live in the bittersweet space of packed bags & passports, someone else’s dreams. It’s a good exercise in beginner’s heart, this revisit of how to let go of expectation and embrace even the melancholy of goodbye, knowing how long it will be before I can hug my youngest son. It’s just not easy.

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This is the way I always remember my father. He was much younger than I am now — 20 years or so. Today is his birthday: he would be 99, were he still with us. Although (of course) he is, for his four daughters. Whenever we get together, old stories join us. Sometimes even new ones, when one of us has spoken to an older cousin, or an aunt. Stories of heroism, of pranks, of hijinks that bordered on craziness.

This past few weeks, looking after my grandson, I thought often of my father. Not because  my grandson is so much like Daddy; it’s really too early for a not-quite-three-year-old to be like anyone other than himself. But because he reminded me that once I too was small, and dependent on the understanding of those foreign creatures, adults.

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My father didn’t speak daughter very well. He was a man’s man, as they used to say: drawn to hunting, guns, sports & other culturally defined pursuits. A Golden Gloves boxer, he was strong & knew it. But he was also very gentle w/ littles. And he read omnivorously — sometimes sharing Kipling with me, sometimes quizzing me on my newest Golden Book encyclopaedia volume. He could (& did) pick up all four girls in one arm, and my mother in the other. Not often! But he could, & did. He also could (& did) outshoot most people: rifle, pistol, shotgun. My bedroom was filled w/ trophies he won over the years.

Most important to me, however, was that I knew I was safe in Daddy’s care. When a scary movie left me with nightmares for days, only sleeping by Daddy would comfort me. I knew that nothing could scare Daddy, nor would he let anything get me. A man who made the history books, who returned from war w/ medals out the wazoo, & the respect of everyone he knew? No ghost could get through Daddy.

Nor could the normal nightmares of our peripatetic lives break through his protection. Daddy was my own superhero, so it didn’t matter that as I grew we didn’t always see eye-to-eye on politics, on history, on much. We would reunite on the other side of young adulthood, as I moved into my own parenting years.

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This month, as my grandson grieved for his parents who were on the other side of the country at a wedding, wailing that he missed them missed them missed them, I remembered how my father cared for us. How he could pick me up when I was fearful and the fear would fall away from me like water droplets. How gentle he was with my own son, so many years after my childhood. And how our need for reassurance, for safe, never wanes. We only place it in deep storage, behind the façade of adulthood.

My grandson needed a lot of affirmation the week we watched over him. He needed constant reassurance that things were okay, and that his parents had neither abandoned him nor forgotten him. I held him often, and we talked and played for hours. This wasn’t my father’s MO, although he became much easier with littles as a grandfather. But his legacy lives warm within me: the knowledge that a child needs to feel safe. That even an adult requires the affirmation, the loving recognition, of this vulnerability. That, my father gave me whenever I asked. And so many many times I didn’t need to.

I miss you Daddy. Happy Birthday.

 

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It’s been a while. I plead flu, travel, a rambunctious grandson of not-quite-three, and life in general. Somehow, when people spoke of retirement, I had thought it would be both emptier of duties and more peaceful. (I was misinformed…)

I also had a birthday, in my favourite month: National Poetry Month. I’ve been reading & writing & thinking poetry since I was verrrrry small. Probably as long as I’ve been able to think — listening to the rhyme in song, the music in speech. Noticing that my Grandma Skidmore had a Southern lilt & cadence to her words, while my Grandmother Britton spoke with the clipped authority of her teaching background. Hearing in my adoptive family members — amahs & elderly sitters & ersatz aunts & uncles — the inflections of Việtnamese & French & Thai & poor white Oklahoma.

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It’s probably my drug of choice, language: I can follow an unraveling skein of etymology as if it was a treasure map, leading somewhere magical. The derivation of a word, its connection to another, the threadlike hairs that bring one linguistic family into contact with another. How Indo-European & Aryan underlay both Sanskrit and English, to the infinite gain of everyone.

Now, I’m recovering slowly from a bad bout of flu — fever high enough to ‘sunburn’ me from the inside out! I haven’t had that happen since I was a little kid! And a cough to rattle windows. (No kidding: the car window rattled!) But despite the flu, and the cough, and snow on my actual birthday, I held my grandson for hours. And was able to baby my beloved son & DIL. AND I saw my favourite sister-in-law, who drove up w/ my brother-in-law just to be w/ us for my birthday. How cool is that??

My youngest sister & her son took me to Irish pub brunch, and we talked about BOOKS! And ideas! And the things that have excited me for decades — these long decades of work & play that are a map all around me. While I basked in how very lucky I am to be a writer, and have at least some words for love.

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Missing two weeks of a blog is HUGE — entire lives come & go in the space of two weeks. My new grand-nephew was born on my birthday (what a present!!); a dear friend’s mother passed just before. The cycle of life is also the cycle of death, and we ignore this to our own loss. But like with meditation, & following the (mostly reliable) breath, we return to our focus. And the thing about being pretty sick — & thus fragile & tired — is that you have to prioritise. You have to remember what’s important. And it may well not be vacuuming! It may be, instead, making tea for the iced tea you need to push for fluids. It may be feeding the birds, so you can sit quietly in the breakfast room & watch them draw ribbons of colour through the air. The goldfinches are brilliant — new-minted.

But you can’t focus on loss. It’s not productive (which is not the same as grieving — that is necessary). You have to move forward, allowing things fall into a more proper hierarchy of importance: you fix food (we need to eat!). You make tea, or cappuccino. You watch the birds, and you smooth the sheets for a nap.  You write thank-you notes to the wonderful folks who remembered your natal day, and remember your real focus. You reorient to what you have gained: a reminder you’re loved, the ephemeral nature of life, the beauty of birth.

And it’s enough. It’s absolutely enough. It just takes remembering. And a return of focus.

 

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