Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

square sisters and common ground…

imageI have three sisters. People who know all of us well — a small number (we tend to overwhelm in large doses!) would say we’re not much alike. We would agree. But we also can give you countless examples of a perfect stranger asking one or the other of us, “Are you Diane’s sister?” or “You must be Dori’s sister!” And yet we differ in height, hair colour, complexions, religious beliefs — in most ways you would ‘recognise’ similarities.


So two of my sisters have been spending more time together lately, and apparently one said to the other: We’re really not much alike. The other agreed/ disagreed. Her marvelous take on it is that we’re four sides of the same square.

Okay, you KNOW how I love metaphors! And this one, to me, is particularly apt. There is this lovely common ground that connects us –Việt Nam (we are all Third Culture kids), moving, summers on an island, alot of moves… Far more has shaped the centre of that square than the differences of the four sides. :)


We think of ourselves in stairsteps: the 1st sister (me); the 2nd sister — my retired Army sgt sister; the 3rd sister, who was in the National Guard and has done retail for years; my 4th sister, who has worked at a university for years. One of us has three children. One has none. Two are divorced, one separated, while I’m happily married for a zillion years.

Some folks would see these as differences. We often do. But when we talk of my parents — all of us still call my father Daddy, and my mother is often still Mommy — or exchange conflicting tales of our this family story or that, it is that common ground that trumps. image


What if each of us saw ourselves as part of some infinite-numbered, equal-side polygon? Something so multi-sided that we resembled a circle, to all intents? What if we focused on the common ground in the middle, that which joins us, rather than the tiny segment that represents us…?

I know — it’s another darn metaphor. But this one is NOT my fault, and it’s a good one! :)










love, and the job of it –

imageIf there was a job loving babies, I’d be the BOSS. Because here’s the secret to babies: you can love them as much as you want to. They won’t feel smothered, threatened, controlled, or weird in any way. They will look up at you, and grin.

How great is that?

Yesterday, my entire job was to love the baby. As my husband, son, and DIL supervised movers/ shopped for cleaning supplies/ unpacked boxes/ generally WORKED HARD, I sat on a sofa, with a perfect baby in my arms, and loved the baby.


That was my whole job. All day! For which, I must say with all due amazement, I received ACCOLADES & THANKS! “Thanks, Britt, for holding the [perfect, amazing, totally easy] baby.”  And “Mom, thank you so much [for sitting on the couch, watching the baby breathe, and marveling at his every movement].]

I am so NAILING this job!

Once, when the world was very dark for me, and I couldn’t imagine how I would ever be good at anything, I thought: there should be a job loving. I could do that. I love many things, and many people. Not quickly, but easily. And with great fervour. I’m an enthusiastic hugger, a touchy-feely patter of arms, the kind of person who refuses to be proper and sit still when there’s a dog, or cat, or child, or baby to play with. I’m just hard-wired like that.image


It is, probably, why I’m so happy being a Buddhist. The Dalai Lama is — of course! — quite right: religion should make you happy. And mine (like his) is love. Sometimes evinced in a piece of art — a poem, a handmade journal, tea with homemade ginger scones. Because making is also love.

Babies are work. But not work lovers of babies mind. Even diapers (really). What’s difficult about  helping a helpless baby get clean? And burping? A tiny downy head, nestled into your shoulder…wow. This I’m good at.

I used to tell my student I loved them. They would laugh, but later tell me (alone — in the safe privacy of my office) that no teacher had ever said that. But it’s true: I did love them. Still do, the ones I’m in contact with. I write them letters of recommendation with pride: they’re blossoming into such incredible people.


Babies are like that,  but on steroids (despite the tiny package!). They’re built for loving. Incite it/ ignite it/ inspire it. :)

I want to learn from this moment, this NOW, how to love the world this way. All of it. The mean drivers in Tennessee (sorry, you Tennnesseans, but the folks on I40 are DANGEROUS); the people who left Hilde the German Shepherd to die; even just the cranky folks in front of me in line who are rude to the over-worked cashier.

imageWhen my grandson cries, I can’t always fix what’s wrong. Sometimes, he just wants Mom or Dad. And that’s okay. I hold him, try to breathe for him, and remind him he’s surrounded by love. I have no clue how to do that w/ the reckless driver in the giant multi-wheeler who darn near ran us off the road in the rain. All I can do is shake my head, right now (well, that’s all I SHOULD do!).


Instead,  I’ll try to remember is that everyone was, once, someone’s beloved grandson. Even the previous tenant, who left my son & DIL a totally disgusting washing machine, was once a beautiful baby. So when I meet the next unloveable grownups in my day-to-day life, I can bring these job skills to our encounters. I can think of today, sitting on a sofa with a perfect baby. And I am going to love the beautiful babies they once were.

Who knows? It may work!




a happy (normal?) childhood…

imageTo paraphrase one of my favourite authors (Tom Robbins), “It’s never too late to have a normal childhood.” And I just realised — really! — that I did.

When I was little, reading stories of normal American children, they lived in small American towns. They went to the beach for the summer — a month at a time! — and they took family vacations. I desperately wanted to be a ‘normal’ American child. Living overseas, wearing clothes a tailor made, I combed the pages of catalogs and magazines to see what ‘regular’ kids wore.


I wanted a lunch box, not a military bus that took us home for lunch. I coveted  a book bag with a ruled tablet and thick pencils, not blue cahier notebooks with fine-point fountain pens. And I would have traded one of my sisters (well, at least for the summer) for a ‘real’ family vacation.

Just this week, driving on the highway to Virginia w/ my husband, I realised: place is the key to the differences. Because I had most of those things! It’s just that our summers at the beach — and the long LandRover trips to them — were in southern Thailand, down to a small island now famous from the tsunami: Phuket. We spent long, often boring months of our summer — and sometimes Christmas breaks, as well — downcountry. Days at the beach, when my father came with us, he hacked off pieces of watermelon with the machete he carried on his trips through the jungles of Thailand.


Our ‘family vacations’ were a train trip over Thanksgiving week down the coast of Thailand, to Singapore. We ate fried rice and  Spam instead of turkey.

But as a child, I saw no similarities to anyone else’s childhood. Ours, it was obvious, was a totally weird (and thus inferior) family. We were sooo not ‘normal.’ Sigh… Our Sunday drives were on the Biên Hòa highway. One year there were no Christmas trees, so my mother hung a fishnet upside down, and strung it with lights & ornaments. When I was 16, the tailor copied a Rudi Gerneich dress for me to wear to prom with my boyfriend.

Many years later, watching the green Smoky Mountain foothills imageglide by, I can still see the darker, richer greens of Thaiiland from a window. As we stop to stretch our legs, I remember four laughing girls piling out of a battered LandRover, and my mother herding us in to a NOT European toilet. Or better yet, forming a make-shift outhouse: four corners of a large blanket held in a square around a fifth girl, in the (private) middle. And as the woman at the state line rest stop chats with me, I can hear the lyric cadence of Thai in my history.


There are elephants in my childhood, and a friend of my father’s who rescued a small lion cub and drove with it in his convertible. Once he let me ride beside it.

What’s ‘normal,’ anyway? And why do we pursue it so diligently, that chimera of routine and cultural expectations…? Who ever said “Oh wow! I l met the most normal person!”  Since when is that a recommendation? :) My best friends are extraordinary: talented, witty, kind and gentle and beyond average in all ways. (And isn’t ‘normal’ another word for ‘average’…?)

So no, I didn’t have a Sally, Dick, & Jane childhood. Unless you leave out the places it happened. And then? It was the happiest of normal childhoods.



London and Palestine and Toad Suck Park…

image I drove to London today. And to Palestine. And right past the turnoff for Toad Suck Park. If these clues leave you going “hunh?” then you haven’t been to Arkansas lately. :)

We’re doing a family road trip, moving my son & daughter-in-law & grandson to Virginia. That’s quite a ways from the family house — where we’ve all been for the past 2+ weeks, along w/ Rufus the giant cat & Silas the terminally cute rescue dog — in Tulsa.


If you drive the breadth of Arkansas, right along the middle (like a bright ribbon around a present), you drive through London & Palestine. And you really do drive past Toad Suck Park. Look it up!

So, besides the pleasure of my husband’s witty conversation, and seeing the landscape change from the overpasses of Tulsa to the wooded highway verges of Arkansas, I also had the fun of map surprises.

Which brings me to seeing the world new & fresh, a critical element of being here, now, in the Buddhist frame of beginner’s heart. Because there’s something quite lovely about thinking about these two magical places — both of which I’ve been lucky enough to visit — move around the globe. I’m enchanted just thinking about Big Ben and the Tower of London coming unstuck from their places and drifting over the Atlantic to Arkansas. And perhaps if Palestine got the annual rainfall of Arkansas, tempers would cool…?


Not to mention… Toad Suck? What a great name! Supposedly from the way steamboat crews ‘sucked up bottles’ at the local watering hole until they ‘swelled like toads,’ I prefer to think about toads. Real toads. Sucking…whatever a toad would suck if a toad could suck whatever.

So today’s leg of our family road trip is dedicated to places and the names that don’t always identify them. To the poetry of those names, and the dreamy images they conjure. To the seductive crawl of the red Arkansas highway (and yes, it’s really red in places — not grey at all!) beneath our wheels, and to a country where you can have London, Palestine, and Toad Suck Park all within driving distance.


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