Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

the family tree

the author's

the author’s

Last weekend was family central. There are times when family seems a chore (we all have those moments!), but this weekend could not have been smoother, or more fun. Everyone in town made it, to celebrate my 3rd sister, who lives just outside of Dallas. She and her beloved came up, stayed with us, and we all went out to brunch for her birthday.

What is it about sharing food? And old family jokes — even at my expense? Even the youngsters — the nieces & nephews, as we call them — join in. It seems to the obviously unbiased me that we have more fun than most families — we kid, joke, tease, and are generally a bit crazy. One of the family stories is that my elder son went on a blind date, even after his friend said the girl was ‘a little crazy.’ Elder sSn reassured his friend that his aunts were crazy; he was used to it.

Apparently, Elder Son reported later, it was not the same kind of fun-loving crazy! She was NUTS, Mom!. We aren’t — just a little funnier and goofier than some.

Our families shape us, obviously. Their values are the matrices of our own belief systems, whether we accept them — colouring inside  those lines, as it were — or reject them. And the labels that attach in childhood are hard to shake, even decades later. Fortunately, so is the love, no matter differences. It continues, and we’re all glad.

What does your family value? Obviously, mine treasures our time together, driving long distances (and Skyping from even longer ones) to keep in touch. Younger son Skypes in regularly from the latest disaster area (and I’m only half-kidding: so far he’s weather a typhoon, a flood, and an earthquake in less than a month…). Elder son FaceTimes w/ his own elder son, my wonderful grandson. Elder son also invited his cousin and her partner for Thanksgiving last fall, completely on his own. As I said, we like  each other.

via google

via google

Perhaps that’s what I value most — the laughing acceptance of my own fallibilities, and the familiarity of my family’s. Who would trade the sister jokes? The sister songs? Even the inherited almost-sister friends — 2nd sister’s BFF and school chums, for instance, are invited to most family events. Not to mention the incoming partners of the next generation — smart, funny, wise young men & women, already woven deeply into the family fabric. Or the shared stories of Uncle Dick teasing Grandmother, and my cousin Sally remembering my mother making pineapple upside down cake at 10 p.m.

For what it’s worth, I’m fairly certain I could not have been even this far along my beginner’s heart journey w/out the support of my family: my old ladies, who taught me grit and laughter, not to mention how to cook! My aunts, who modelled so many important character traits: motherhood, sisterhood, daughterhood. My mother, my father, my mother-in-law & father-in-law… But these days? My sisters, and their sons & daughters. My beloved, and our sons, DIL, grandson. These almost impromptu get-togethers over food & laughter. It’s a good time to remember that despite the occasional craziness, I’m pretty darn lucky.

taking time (by the throat, if necessary)

tea and palmierIt hasn’t been a hectic day, but it’s had its moments. Lots of email catch-up, including depressing stuff like querying publishers who should  have LOVED my work, and snapped it up months ago! Sigh.

There’s also the ongoing sloggery of homemaking (such a much nicer, more accurate word than housekeeping!). Laundry, dishes, straightening, changing beds, etc. Not to mention feeding the birds, the dogs, more etc.

But in the middle of all our work, every day, we need to take time. I use the verb ‘take’ intentionally: it’s not a gentle verb. Nor is time a gentle master; it masters most of us. Certainly me! I find myself begrudging the 20 minutes of my meditation, 20 minutes on the recumbent bike. The 5 minutes to fill the bird feeders, the half-hour it takes to mop so the white kitchen floor shows its true colour. And I’m retired!

My explanation is that we didn’t evolve to be nearly so darn busy, so it takes a LOT of work to stay on top of our contemporary lives. In my case, it takes 2 calendars, 3 electronic devices, AND a journal. Oh, and patience. As much patience (because things often don’t work) as effort.

The tea & palmier cookie fuel an absolutely necessary break, a ‘taking’ of time. Just for me. Yes, I spent part of it on this post. But I also fiddled w/ my new computer, learning how to change it from the default American spelling to the British lexicon of my childhood. And I listened, for a moment, to the call of an unknown bird outside, wondering if it was the yellow-rumped warbler we identified the day before yesterday. Then I had to look up the call, of course!

via google

via google

The writer in me knows how critical time is. How this taking out of my daily drudgery — however much I try to embrace it — is critical for me to breathe, to flourish. But I suspect most of you reading feel more than a little guilty about any time just for you. And yet, how else will you relax? How will you be able to hear what’s happening outside your small sphere of business?

Just yesterday I considered the following question: what would you create if you knew it would last a very long time? Here’s the catch: anything creative requires a hefty investment of time. I think making space in the day for a cup of tea (or coffee, or cocoa) and a quick bite (I recommend French palmier cookies!) just to begin thinking about it. It’s a start.

that was then…

courtesy Bill Stelling

Pattaya beach 1960s courtesy Bill Stelling

I grew up overseas, which I’ve probably mentioned somewhere. The important thing to know about growing up overseas is that it marks you. The places you love aren’t (usually) places you can return to. And long years may go by between visits, if you ARE able to return. Given that I spent my childhood in places that have exploded in population, the quiet avenues and beaches of my childhood are now jammed with tuk-tuks (the newer name for what we called cyclos or sailors), traffic jams, cabanas, and tourists. Not to mention the millions of people who actually live there (6+ million in Bangkok, 7+ million in Saigon).

Growing up outside the US means I have very few friends from childhood. Almost none, really. It also accounts — in part — for why I’m so very close to my three sisters: they were (still are) my best friends. No matter where we moved, they were there. Not so my BFF from 3rd, or 4th, or 5th, or whatever grade. Either we moved or her family did, whoever ‘she’ was.

I have, however, reconnected w/ an old friend from high school. We worked on the literary magazine together, he as art editor, me as other editor. And just recently he posted a treasure trove of old photos to his FB page, photos Bill took with his Brownie camera during our lost childhoods.

This is Pattaya Beach, in Thailand. As it used to be, in the 1960s, when I was a young kid. By the time I was cutting school w/ my 2nd sister, and riding the military dependents bus down to the beach (about 45 minutes from school), most of it was more built up. But there were still spaces just like this. And the beaches on the way down south — to the villa where we spent summers, on an island now known for movie sets and a tsunami — looked like this for years after Pattaya ran pale with tourists.

courtesy Bill Stelling

courtesy Bill Stelling

I don’t take nearly enough pictures, although the advent of phone cameras has helped my lackadaisical attitude tremendously. Ironically, my first journalism job was as a photographer. I even had a darkroom, at one point. But when kids came, who had time for photography?? Even not working outside the home those first few years, my hours seemed filled w/ diapers, laundry, and baby/toddler play. A wonderful time, but not conducive to ‘spare time’!

Looking at my friend’s photos reminds me of so many things. Mostly that those early years in Buddhist countries shaped me in ways I could never have foreseen. That the every morning routine of monks coming to the house, in both cities, begging bowls in hand, became a saffron thread of what charity looks like. It’s not just a quarter in the offering plate; it’s food for real people, handed to them personally.

I’m very lucky, I realise, in the serendipitous arrival of my friend’s photos. Seeing my childhood through his Brownie camera’s lens, a kind of dreamy black&white version of an infinitely more complex time, I remember more than monks. I remember beginning to ask very hard questions: why the little girls on the street were begging. Why there were so many beggars. Why Americans didn’t ‘get’ the concept of face, and what that meant… Why, in other words, culture were so very very different.

There were questions, too, that surfaced not because I was an expat brat, although my outsider status made them more immediate, more pressing. Why, for instance, did we wage war in Cambodia? Why did we not help the Việtnamese refugees who flooded the US? Why didn’t we do something about the mixed race babies, sons & daughters of our GIs? These questions would ground my exploration of wisdom traditions. If the faith didn’t engage w/ these important issues, I wasn’t interested.

I still don’t have those answers, although I could soothe that little girl’s unease with her own difference. I could promise here that someday it would be better, and while she would never ‘fit in,’ she would be happy. And that an old friend was taking pictures so she could remember.

stopping while you’re ahead

via google

via google

My knees hurt. They join my poor arthritic hands (which look more like I remember my grandmother’s than my mother’s…). I’m cleaning up for family visiting this weekend, and I overdid. I do that a lot. And I suspect you do, as well.

Here’s the deal: it’s counterproductive. Really. We think: I can just finish this bit, then this bit, then… And suddenly we’re exhausted, and cross, to boot. Maybe even yelling at our beloveds, or breaking something because we aren’t paying attention.

Fatigue hits like that — it clouds our judgement, and aggravates whatever stress was already there. In my case, impatience w/ my own mortality.

used to be able to do what I wanted. My body obeyed whatever odd (or unreasonable) requests I made of it. No longer. It’s called ‘aging.’ And it SUCKS. Well, until I consider the alternative! OF COURSE I want to be here for my family, my friends, that incredibly smart & funny grandson. To see what new poems I might come up with, what new birds there might be in the backyard… (There was either a Bewick’s or a house wren yesterday, even in the winter!) And that won’t happen if I don’t take care of myself.

What do you push yourself at? Not the good kind of stretching-out-of-your-comfort-zone push, but the I have to get this done! It has to be done THIS WAY, and NOW! push. Rein in that kind of push; it will only lead to grief.

In my case, pulled muscles, tight hands, and a slightly busted up vacuum cleaner. Not to mention an abject apology to my poor beloved…

Take my advice: pour a hot cuppa; sit down for a short break. All that work will be there. Trust me. And you’l be far better able to tackle it. Remember: moderation, grasshopper. Moderation.

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