A different kind of eyes

“Today, kids, I want you to find one way to be of help to someone else.”

My older brother and I were buckled up in the backseat of our family’s new Dodge Aries K station wagon: light blue with a wood stripe. (OK, who am I kidding? We were sitting unbuckled in the ‘way-back’.) He was in third grade, I was in first grade, and it was the last year we would spend in Henderson, Nevada. My dad’s retirement from the United States Air Force would soon be a reality and we would move to the east coast to be nearer to both sets of grandparents. But for today, we were in our Sunday clothes, on our way to the new church our parents had helped build with other volunteers and church members. As we rode through the flat and sand-colored landscapes, my parents asked us to go into church differently than usual – to be on the lookout for people who might need help, to do something for someone else.

Now that I have two children of my own, I understand and appreciate why they did this. I think all of us – no matter our age, are more practiced at going through our days thinking about our own needs. Let me speak for myself: I walk into restaurants thinking about what I will order and what I am hungry for or how I’ve exercised today so I can afford a little dessert. I walk into my job thinking about what I will accomplish and how I can be or at least appear competent. And even when I walk into church – the place designed to take my eyes off of myself and onto my higher power, my bigger calling – I admit I am often occupied with where I will sit, whether I will know and like the songs, and what groceries I need to remember to pick up when I leave.

Back to 1987: We entered the sanctuary with all the others coming in to worship in the new space they had built together. My brother did his helpful deed right away: he held the door for a couple walking in. Mom went to sing in the choir and my dad, brother and I took our seats in the new pews. To my right was an elderly woman sitting alone. We sat through the praying and the anthems and the sermon and the offering. It came time to sing a hymn as the service was wrapping up. The woman next to me seemed to be fumbling with the pages and having a hard time. This was it! This was my moment! I couldn’t leave this service without helping. I took her hymnal from her, turned to the correct song and handed it back with a smile. She smiled back at me and we all stood to sing together. I looked at my dad like did you catch that? I HELPED!

Thinking back, I do not know if I helped her or if I startled her. And, while my motivation on some level was to check that box – to do the thing I had been asked to do – I also remember the way it felt to make someone else’s day a little better, to cause a smile on another person’s face. It felt warm and sweet.

This morning I saw a clip of a good news story about an 11-year-old girl named Ruby who goes with her mom, Amanda, to her work in nursing homes. She started asking the residents their 3 biggest wishes and she was surprised by their responses. None of their lists included fancy cars, houses or money. They wanted fresh fruit, hygiene products, and the little cans of vienna sausages. This young lady – the same age as my oldest son – started a charity, raised money online, and bought all the items the residents had wished for. She returned to the nursing home to deliver the goods – stacked in boxes on a wheelchair which she used as her cart. The residents were overwhelmed with gratitude as Ruby had met some of their most basic human needs: the need to be remembered, to be cherished. And my guess is that Ruby learned the same thing I learned in that new church building 32 years ago: that we are already equipped to meet the needs that others around us are brave enough to make known. Being a helper is not only for grown-ups or for the richest or for the strongest among us. It is for all of us. Right now.

In the midst of my eyes welling up over Ruby’s work, my mind went straight back to my parents’ words to me: Find a way to help. Use your eyes to see more than just what this world has for you. Use your eyes to see someone else.

I believe that when we are gone from this realm, the work we did with love and for love will remain while all else fades quickly away.  So in honor of my parents on this Palm Sunday (while we were actually skipping church), I gave my kids the same encouragement while they were buckled in the backseat of my car: Use your eyes to see others. Look for ways to help. {AND PLEASE GOD WHEN MY KIDS LOOK BACK AT OLD PHOTOS DON’T LET MY ACURA BE AS UNCOOL AS MY PARENTS’ DODGE, AMEN}.

Thanks, mom and dad, for building so many things that have lasted. Thanks for teaching me to see with a different kind of eyes, to use my hands to do work that will last. May I be ever in-tune to that bigger story, and ever-grateful that I get to be a part of it.

Love,
Mandi

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The land

The land where my brother is buried
next to him my father
next to him my grandfather
grandmother
and one day my mother:
is sacred.

Haunting and hoping at once
my feet are stuck to the ground
then my knees
my forehead.
I bow close to the ground and examine all that grows from it.

Wild mosses and weeds next to
shrubs planted by the still-living, the mourners.

My eyes lift. I see that I am actually quite high.
We buried them on a mountain. Yes.

Poetry is my portable sacred ground,
a space to lay all that lives and dies in me.
I lay it there so that I need not carry it anymore; or
because I cannot carry it anymore.
or: because when it is on the pages, I can see
just exactly what it was I carried
and how.

Ashes, I will become ashes,
scattered here, lighter than air
and then: it will be me who is carried.
high – carried high.

 

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Drawing the Tummy

As the third anniversary of my dad’s passing approaches, I share this poem written just days after his death. It is an account of how my children processed their new reality without grandaddy Jimmy. The most poignant moments were the moments with them: telling them the truth, holding space for their sadness and questions and love and truth. 

Drawing the Tummy

Grandaddy is dead.
I told them, he died.  I’m so sorry.

One son threw up.
Yes, I thought.  That is how this feels.

Details, mom.  How?

Middle of the night.  Up to get decaf coffee and pee.
Grandma held the coffee for him so it wouldn’t spill.
He collapsed.  Stiff, he fell to the floor.
Grandma spilled the coffee.

She called the helpers and they came.
She called me.  I went.

His heart had stopped beating, the heart they had just fixed.
Something was wrong that couldn’t be mended.
Tired, worked so hard, finished.

All of our bodies will stop one day.

I’m glad he was home.
I’m glad we were near.

The kids made papers for his casket—for him to carry to the other side.
Older son wrote a note.  Younger son drew a picture.

Note from older son: Funeral logistics.
We will have a funeral.  I will go.
You will be in a casket.
A church, a graveside, dress up clothes.

Picture from younger son:  The scene.
A birds-eye view of the bedroom and how he imagined it looked.
A bed.  Grandaddy. Blood splattered.  No coffee.

“Is it OK to draw the tummy?”

How does he know that even in our final scene we may not want to look as fat as we really are?
How does he know this?

“Yes, son.”  It is ok to draw the tummy.
To tell the truth.

We tucked those papers in, sent him away.
Dotted lavender on his head, on the place that had ached so badly.

I looked at his face.  Last time.

March 2016

 

Your Picture

I ran the tip of my pointer finger
across the dusty glass, the once shiny square cover laid to rest
in a wooden frame too intricate for the
photo it held
of you.

You were smaller then – scrunched up,
holding your stuffed fish friend
Superhero t-shirt
Athletic shorts
Velcro shoes.
You were three. A new brother.

I captured you just as you scooted your back end from
the wooden platform
to the plastic part of the slide
Ready to descend down the curvy yellow plastic
into the muddy yard – the yard that had more grass
Before the slide, before you.

Over and over you climbed and you descended –
up the stairs, down the slide. Every time
holding your friend, every time
smiling.

I wonder now: was it the top you loved most –
or the bottom – or the trip up or down?
Or was it that you got to hold on to something?
Was it that someone was watching you –
noticing you, holding this moment in time?
What was it that made you smile
that beautiful fall day
under the stinky pear tree?

Now, here it is – the threshold moment, needing to be dusted.
Placed on my piano next to my fiddle. I see you
again and again when I go to do my own playing.
Scrunched up just like you.

Losing Season

Maybe all of life is a losing season.
We start and we build, we want to hold on to
Love, connection, tribal belonging
Babies and husbands and flower beds
Talent. Discipline. Improvement.
We play instruments, run races, write papers.
Try to be a good daughter.
It all matters—it all feels like it matters so much.
We send our kids outside to build independence.
We tell them to watch for cars so that they don’t get killed.
But they will.
They will—and it all goes away.
Every day a cat dead or a dog lost. A friend with a cough, a lump, a feeling.
A tree loses its leaves. Over and over again.
iPad left in the rain—the last remnant I had
of my father’s voice, of his face when he looked at my sons.
Gone.
Losing him was one thing. Losing those sounds—those ghost
Sounds. Feels unbearable.

Basketball season a total loss—except the last game
We beat the only other team that had lost all their games
And this does not feel like winning.
Baseball season a total loss. All the games lost.
And still my son walks off the field bright-eyed
And smiling. He got to play.
He got to take a swing. He got to throw pitches. He got to get runners out on first.
He is thrilled. He is muddy.
He’s on the team. The team for which there weren’t even any tryouts.
This is not an accomplishment by any stretch of an American’s imagination.
Maybe it isn’t accomplishment he seeks.
Maybe it is something else.

These legs, I train them—to run fast, to run a long time, to run up hills without stopping.
I’ll lose them. One day they won’t run anymore. They won’t carry me.

My husband, I talk to him and I listen. We sit together and we build
something between us. One day we won’t exist anymore as the two of us.
There will be one of us, or none of us. Where will it go—what we’ve built?

What will outlast the losing?

It all falls down? All of it?

Or is there a trace? Is there a shadow—something
at the end that shows where you once stood,
where you once breathed,
where you once slept and cried and prayed.
Your voice as it was when you were tiny
and when you were new to love
and when you had seen it all—where will the voices be kept?

 

Passing

I drove by.

The place where I ate the greasy burger
before giving birth to my youngest son.

The place my granddaddy took my brother and me when we were little
and said a quiet prayer to bless our hot dogs and milkshakes.
Orange booth seat secured to the floor, awkward distance
to the table for my young body.

The place where—driving past—I saw a man who could
have been my dad.
Patting his round belly; lifting himself
into his pickup truck. Toothpick
in gritted teeth.

Where everyone inside looks like someone who could
be at my family reunion.

Side of the highway. The only decent hot food between the city and my
quiet hometown for many generations.

I continued past,
remembering those tastes, tasting them
again, briefly, long enough to
understand it wasn’t what I needed
on this day.

Neither did I need to unwrap my food
from paper; to eat it in the car, handheld, fast,
messy, unconscious: meal over and barely satisfied.

I continued on
to the Asian café.
Warm washing towel—yes.
Hot tea meticulously prepared and poured.
Fermented soup.
Rice steamed and vegetables barely cooked.
Ice cold water.
Slow. Attention to each bite. The waitress’
face—a face my dad, granddad, perhaps even my brother
wouldn’t have accepted
food from. Too hard—the war, the either/or.

Not all things are worth passing down.

As monuments topple and people cling,
I see the space my ancestors have left behind:
Space I can move through, disloyal
to the once-living
loyal to the now-living (including me)
and the next-living. My children. Theirs.

The eclipse has passed too: sun covered
and uncovered. Within a time brief enough
to see in between meals. The darkness
came and went. The sun will pass too—

It’s only a star—
one placed just close enough to sustain
life, far enough away not to burn.
It’s our star
and we forget that it, too, and we
will end.

The mint comes at the end of the meal
with the check—the amount owed
for all
the service, the food: all grown
from the sun, the earth, our ancestors.

Some things are worth passing down. Yes.
And so we pass.

picking up pieces: a poem

Before you pick up those pieces
Stop.

Sit down with them.
Hold them.

Touch the edges
rough
ragged
dusty

Like they aren’t broken at all.

Examine them
shiny and dull
smooth and sharp

Like they aren’t broken at all.

Before you sweep them up
And throw them out
And tell the children to watch their step
And forget them

See the shape they make in the
sprawl
a solar system in the floor
life on each planet piece:
the big bang

theory: they aren’t broken at all.

 

Letting yourself have what you have (or, the difference between heaven and hell.)

“You will find yourself on death’s doorstep one day. It’ll happen. There will come a moment in your life—and you don’t know when—and you will be about to pass from this realm.”

I was sitting at a retreat at a yoga center in the mountains of Massachusetts. Autumn was beginning to show off. The air had just turned crisp and chilly and the leaves on the trees were starting to turn—some had rushed to turn their brightest colors and others were hanging on to their green. I had come here to hear an author speak. An author whose books I ran across by accident and which have become quite meaningful to me as part of my health and self-care journey.

She had come down from the mini-stage where she sat for most of her talk and she was walking among us—about 200 women in yoga pants holding hot cups of tea and journals—and she was telling us a story about a time she thought she was about to die. She reminded us we’d all find ourselves in that day—that day where death is closer than ever.

She summarized the countless studies that have been done on end-of-life regrets. What do people most regret when they are near death? Over and over people keep saying that the things they regret most are that they were not more present for the life they already had. They don’t wish they had worked more or traveled more… they don’t wish for more anything really—they wish they had actually just shown up for the life they’d already been given.

She asked us to write down the things we’d regret if today were that day. If today I found out I had hours to live, what will I wish I had done more of? I thought about what I really love. The real pleasures of being in this body that I have on this earth where I’ve been planted. Here’s what I wrote:

Place my cheek against my kids’ cheeks and feel the softness of their skin.
Look—really look at my husband, especially in his eyes (he has beautiful eyes.)
Rub and smell the dog’s fur.
Run fast.
Write the stories that are in me.
Cook beautiful, tasty food.
Laugh with my friend.

beandog

Bean-dog made the list!

Listen to beautiful music.
Let my mom know I love her.

She asked us what we noticed about our lists.

What I noticed about mine was that it didn’t have anything on it that I keep thinking I want –the things that take up lots of mind-space (to be thinner, stronger, to travel more, to make more money, to get recognition, to be better at music than I really am…) What I noticed about my list was that it was full of everything that I already have. What I noticed about my list was that I already have everything that I really want.

She asked us a few times during the retreat: What will having what you think you want give you that you don’t already have? Stated differently: What will (being thinner, traveling more, making more money, etc.) actually give you of any value that you don’t already have?

This was not an exercise in gratitude. It was not an exercise in feeling bad or guilty for not being a better wife or mother or daughter. It was not an exercise burdened by any value judgments or criticism.

This was an exercise in noticing: Noticing what you really want and noticing what you already have.

The noticing led me to a deeper understanding that I already have everything I want. I wondered, then, about my times of discontent. Perhaps when I am dissatisfied or suffering, it is not because I really lack something. Perhaps I am suffering because I am not letting myself have what I already have.  Suffering, perhaps, is not noticing what is already there, not really showing up.

“Hell is wanting to be somewhere different from where you are.” (Stephen Levine as quoted by Geneen Roth.)

Where do I encounter hell?
The grocery store, for one. And if I’m honest, the rushed evenings at home after work: dinner, homework, baths, bedtime….

I can go to the grocery store and try to get through it as quickly as is humanly possible because ohmygod why are all these people so slow and unable to navigate aisles? Or I can go to the grocery store and notice the abundance of food available to me, notice my own abundance that I have enough money to feed my family.

I can yell at my kids to take their baths, do their homework, go to bed. Or I can run the bath water and hear how it sounds and feel it running on my hands. I can see my kids’ bodies in that bathtub and how they’ve grown. I can hear them splashing. I can smell their skin as its drying.

You get the picture.

I can get through life wishing I were somewhere else or I can live life. I can constantly try to jump ship or I can really inhabit the body I was given and the moment I’m in and the speck of earth where I’ve landed.

I can drop my attachment to all the things I think I’ll get when I get the things I think I want. I can drop the story about how things will be better when I weigh a little less or earn a little more. I can notice what’s right in front of me, what’s in me right now.

Right now? I’m writing the stories that are in me while I sit next to my dog. Birds are singing outside. My tea is warm. My body feels pretty good. I’m fairly certain my kids made it safely to school. There is breath in my body. I’m awake, present.

But what if your moment right now sucks? What if right now your moment is that the person beside you is sick and dying? What if right now you are sadder than you’ve ever been? What if right now your kids didn’t make it to school safely?

You can be present for that too. Regrets aren’t about the deck of cards you got dealt. Regrets are about not having been present for your life. When your life feels good and when your life feels bad. When you are faced with beauty and when you are faced with what feel like unbearable circumstances. For all of it, you can be present. You can, in the words of the author at the retreat, “come home to yourself” (Roth).

What an invitation.

I read a meditation once that said: “The divine lives in you, as you.” It resonated with me and matched what I’d learned early in my Christian faith: that God abides in me, that my body is a temple of God’s spirit. If that is true, then coming home to yourself is coming home to God. Being present in this body, on this earth, in this moment is communing with the one who made you. It is the highest spiritual practice. It is perhaps, the place you’ll find peace. Can you imagine that?

 

Where did I see God today? (a poem for the pre-occupied)

I recently started a new kind of spiritual discipline.  It is the (almost) daily practice of taking a few moments to ask and ponder the simple question: Where did I see God today?  Where did I hear him?  Feel him?  It has been a way for me to come back to a simple gratitude without the standard, “I’m thankful for…”  It helps me remember that God was there all along–that in the hardest moments, in the brightest ones, I was not alone.  Most days, I remember.  Most days I remember the moments I felt the presence of the eternal.  In a song.  A look on my child’s face.  A breeze.  Today, as I sat down to reflect, something different came forth–a realization that all the times he must have been nearby I was nowhere to be found.  I was the one who didn’t show up.  My head was swimming with thoughts of the past, the future.  So preoccupied with what could be, I failed to see what was.   I took myself so far out of the present that I seemed to not notice the Presence.

Where did I see God today?

Was he in the sunshine that warmed my skin
as I sat still on the park bench
stewing about the work inside the building across the field?

Was he in the faces across the table –
All the many tables that held my elbows up
In the difficult conversations today?

Was he in the food on my plate:
The bread and the greens and the cheese,
The glass of water?

Was he in my breath? The few, short, shallow breaths?
Was he in my tears? The ones that waited for home to come forth?
Was he in my children tonight?

Where did I see God today? Where was he?

Was he as there as everyone says he is? Can you feel alone with him beaming down on you? Can you feel trapped when the creator of freedom is on your plate?

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In service to the song: a sociologist takes music lessons

“How does that note get to be in this song?”

It was one of the questions I asked at my last violin lesson. My teacher and I were looking at a song in the key of C minor: Besame Mucho’ (which I refer to privately as ‘that slinky Italian kissing song’.)   The sheet music in front of us had the notes and the guitar chords. He was teaching me bits and pieces of improvisation—particularly how to join in a song when others are playing by playing notes that belong in the song. And as I looked through the page finding patterns, there were two parts of it, two chords that didn’t seem to fit. So I asked: how can that chord belong in a song played in C minor?  It doesn’t seem to fit.

He said: “It’s a fifth of a fifth.”

Then I said:  “Oh, of course. How could I forget about that?!”

I actually did not say that. I said nothing. I cocked my head to the side and scrunched my lips and narrowed my eyes at him.  This means:  “You think I know what that is but I don’t and apparently it’s something that EVERYONE knows so let’s end the awkward silence with you explaining it already!”

Thankfully my teacher is good at reading body language because he sat down at the piano and started showing me what a fifth is and then where the fifth note of that note is and so on. And these are called the ‘roots’ of the chord. And haven’t I ever seen the ‘circle of fifths?’ (sure…)  And when it was all done, what I heard was:

It’s like you’re at a night club and your name isn’t on the list, but Bubba Junior is on the list and you know Stanley Joe who is friends with Bubba Junior so they let you in. You’re a friend of a friend. You get to be at the party because you know a guy who knows a guy who’s invited.

Then he showed me how eventually, when you travel far enough on the keyboard, you get all the way back to where you started—C. And on your journey there, you played every note (or at least every white key). Every single one of them belonged at the party via relationship to the note before. Every note got to be in the song.  Every one connected by their root.

“But”, he said, “you’re right—not every note sounds good in every part of the song.” He got out his guitar and played the chord I was looking at and then played one of the notes in the music with it. And some of them sounded off. He said “It’s unpleasant.  But, there are no wrong notes. There are notes that sound good and there are notes that are taking you to notes that sound good. This one that sounds kind of off because it’s just taking you somewhere else. It’s on its way. So when you play it in this sequence, you accept it because it got you exactly where it needed to get you. By itself it was unpleasant to your ear, but in relationship it works.”

What I heard:  There are no wrong moments. No wrong people visiting your life.  Only those that feel good—or those that are taking you somewhere else. There are ones that hurt, and they are allowed to be there because they are allowing movement. They are part of something bigger, not standalone moments. They are moments in relationship to your life song and so they are allowed.  The people, the moments–they are there in service to something greater, in service to the song.

See, this is what happens when a sociologist tries to learn music. She learns about music, sure. AND she remembers what she’s already learned about relationships and human connection:

Everybody gets to belong—because everyone is connected at their roots.
Every moment, every visitor—even the ones that hurt—get to be part of the story because they are taking you somewhere in service to your lifesong.
Why do those lessons matter so much to me? Because I am standing in or dangerously close to a dozen stories of pain and loss.  In many of the stories, I am in a position to lead others through the terrain.  This lesson reminded me of my opportunity to belong in my own story.  I can turn away from reality–avert my eyes and disconnect.   Or I can turn toward it, and allow it in the song, allow it to take me somewhere.  I can find root-level connection with the others in the story or I can hide.

If a slinky Italian kissing song can allow such connections in service to the song, then I suppose I can too.  Besame mucho…Amen.

besame mucho