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Attitudes of Gratitude

22 Nov

This morning, I tried hard NOT to flail my arms out in African dance class as I had surgery last month and don’t care to rip stitches out prematurely. But how can one not feel joy when you hear a drum beat? Drums are akin to our hearts. They are the pulse of life itself – lub dub, lub dub. Years ago when music therapists and myself would bring drums into groups at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, even acute stage Alzheimer’s patients would tap a hand or a foot, despite being practically comatose and near death’s door.

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I have the privilege of taking African dance with a magnificent teacher. I studied African dance fairly extensively in college, so it’s part of my blood. However, the reason I love my teacher is because she understands dance as a form of worship. She practically radiates something higher than herself.

Dance is a way to express joy and praise; a way to mourn and rage.

I dance so I don’t forget I have a body that is often far superior to my mind. The body has its own knowledge and its own divinity. As Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric!” and as Hafiz waxed eloquent:

Every child has known God, Not the God of names, Not the God of don’ts, Not the God who ever does anything weird, But the God who only knows four words and keeps repeating them, saying: “Come dance with Me.” Come dance.

This is the week of giving thanks. Dance reminds me of the vitality inherent in gratitude. Often, thanks is pretty basic: I slept well last night. This coffee tastes terrific. Friends make me smile. Strangers can be kind. Let me give you a hug. The dog wagged his tail. I’m doing what I love. It rained in LA. Sunday is football. People still care.

Amen.

 

 

Content to be Content

21 Oct

I have 15,000 things to do today but the sun streams in through the windows, bouncing off the hardwood floor, and I am content to sit here. I am content to be content.

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Autumn is a time of sweet reflection. The heat breaks. The days are shorter and darkness drops in earlier inviting in cozy and rest. As a young girl, I loved being huddled under the covers in the bliss of childhood slumber. My mom would have to rouse me for school in the morning and I’d slightly protest, wanting to stay in the cave of oblivion that we only really get when young, cared for fully, and unencumbered by the pressures of the adult world.

In her recent memoir, “M Train,” Patti Smith writes, “The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” she writes. “Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book.” Although I read voraciously year round, I associate books with Autumn and Winter and the start of a school year. I also think of holiday foods, the crisp in the air, and cherished television specials and films. It is a time of reunion with loved ones, past and present. The smell of a turkey and fragrant pines, reminding us of people no longer alive and memories yet to make with new players on the stage.

Our lives move in seasons – seasons of darkness and depth and seasons filled with the lightness of being. It is the light and the dark that provides perception, depth, and contour. That makes our lives a living, breathing piece of art in the process of becoming.

Harvest. Pumpkins. Leaves and fading sun. Lessons stored and drawn upon like a squirrel’s cache of nuts for Winter.

This is not a season to be glossed over and rushed through. It is time to sip the hot mulled cider, to put one’s feet up and to rest after a considerable amount of work and exertion. It is time to prosper and be content.

 

Selfish Bitch of a Daughter

5 Dec

When my mom was released from prison after that particular incarceration, she asked me to pick her up from the bus station. She needed her purse, money, her driver’s license, and to be driven to a hotel because she no longer had her apartment or many of her belongings. She was going to have to start all over from scratch. Getting a job with a felony was a mountain to scale but at least this time, they hadn’t revoked her license. My mom was no more a criminal than Bambi. Instead she suffered from alcohol dependence and had gotten behind the wheel while intoxicated. She had served prison sentences a number of times for this offense yet had never been court ordered for rehab. If she had had more money and a better attorney, she might have escaped her jailbird fate.

Her car had been parked near my house so I could keep an eye on it. The first thing she wanted to do was get her hair colored because apparently, it looked terrible. Grey roots were showing.

I couldn’t do it. When I thought about picking her up from the downtown Greyhound bus station, making small chitchat after she’d been gone from me for a year, fear hit me like a tsunami. I was a terrible daughter. I was letting her down. I was abandoning my mother, but if I went, I was going to abandon myself. I wouldn’t have a self anymore.

My friend, Lori volunteered to meet my mom at the station. She would give my mother her belongings. Lori also cut me a check for $200.00. “I know money is tight right now, but you need extra therapy support. Take it. It’s my pleasure.”

By not meeting her at the bus and offering her any support, was I leaving her an orphan, lost and alone in the world? Would blood be on my hands? The first time my mom was released from prison, she’d jumped from her apartment balcony, puncturing a lung and breaking a few ribs. I was a selfish bitch of a daughter.

Somehow my mom figured it out. She established herself in an apartment and found a job as a home health aid. She picked up the pieces of her shattered life and put them together again. I owed it to her to see her. That was all she wanted: to see me, her daughter. Thanksgiving was only a few weeks away. I knew that too was on her agenda. What were we going to do for the holiday? I hated the fucking holidays!

I was in the middle of moving apartments, I’d just started a new job, and my father had died only a year prior. I was a selfish bitch of a daughter, but my sanity was as fragile as my mother’s.

I decided that we should meet at Whole Foods and eat at their take out bar. It was quick, it was simple, and I felt safe amongst their gourmet cheese and flower displays. It was civilized and serene. We’d be spared the ordeal of cooking and awkward silences while waiting for a meal in a restaurant.

I stood outside the familiar building and saw her little White Hyundai pull into the parking lot. Because it was almost Thanksgiving, and Whole Foods catered, huge storehouses occupied space in the parking lot. It was difficult to find a spot. My mom had to circle a bit.

Whatever I feared would happen, didn’t. On the contrary, my heart opened when she got out of the car. This was my mother, the woman who had taken me to Girl Scouts and to Halloween carnivals. She was the woman who I had matching mother/daughter outfits with. Oh, how I loved my pink, green, and white plaid bell bottoms with the matching pink top. I’d beg her to wear hers so we’d be identical.

As she came forward to hug me, she kissed the air instead of my cheek. Whenever I hugged her, her body would collapse in and away from me. Direct, bear hug contact made her uncomfortable, no matter who was hugging her. With authority, I led us to the hot bar area of the store and gave her an overview of our selections. She picked out roast beef and macaroni and cheese. As a habit, my mom barely ate. She consisted on diet-coke and vodka, but when she occasionally would have a meal, she was still a meat and potatoes girl from Wisconsin. She didn’t like fruits, whole grains, or vegetables. She maintained a stellar figure for years, until starving herself finally messed up her natural metabolism. She affectionately called me, “Little Piggy,” which infuriated me. I was far from “piggy.” I was actually quite slender, but she didn’t understand where the food I ate went. I would lecture her that dieting was the worst thing one could do for one’s health and figure.

She insisted on paying for our food. I knew money was tight for her, but it would have insulted her if I had made the gesture.

It wasn’t awful. She asked me about my new job and how I liked it. I asked her about her new apartment. Even though I was working as a psychotherapist in a program that supported ex-felons in a their re-entry into society, I couldn’t ask my own mom about her experiences in jail. We both had an unspoken rule that it was off limits for discussion. Despite it all, I was proud of her. She had more spunk and strength than I’d given her credit for. Time in a state prison would have destroyed me; shattered my soul.

Every holiday season, when I see those storehouses, or generators, or whatever that thing is that takes up a number of spaces in the Whole Foods parking lot, I think of that encounter with my mother.

Incarceration is like a death in the family. The person leaves and then suddenly resurrects upon release. I went through this process with my mother five times, until she actually died for real.

Too Busy To Be Grateful?

18 Nov

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The other day my friend/neighbor texted me, asking if I wanted to go for a walk when she got home from work. I was delighted to realize that yes, I could go for a walk. I didn’t have a commitment at the hour she suggested, nor did I have pressing work that needed to be finished.

Years ago, when my friend’s dog was alive, we used to walk at least a few times a week. Deb would call (texting hadn’t been invented yet) to tell me that she was leaving her house and that she’d meet me at mine. This routine kept us up on the details of each other’s lives. We knew all the strange cacti of the neighborhood, as well as all of the dogs and cats. It was a way to reflect on the beginning or the ending of the day.

Those walks set a precedent of neighborly connection not thought of as the norm in Southern California. Yet despite our nice friendship, weeks and even months can go by without Deb and I walking or even talking! The demands of work and personal lives interfere with spontaneity, spaciousness, and leisure.

I have been too busy. And when I’m too busy, gratitude is the first thing that goes out the window for me. I don’t notice the canyons, or the flowers, and I don’t hear the birds. Instead, I experience a chorus of worry and resentment unheard of in a third world country. Many people would be grateful for my life, as well as my problems. I have my health, food in my belly, and a roof over my head. I have meaningful work and people that love me. What’s not to be thankful for?

As we enter the pre-Thanksgiving period and start to reflect on all we have to be grateful for, I am reminded again and again how my sense of appreciation somehow rises exponentially when I have a little inner spaciousness. For me, if I’m too busy, I forget to be grateful. Instead, I’m exhausted and cranky like a child in need of a nap. Slowing down increases my awareness and causes me to give thanks. Time is a precious commodity and one of the things for which I’m grateful this season.