Maynard is a mystic. And I like him for it.

undertowI love Tool.

I fell in love with their music nearly a quarter century ago and, as other artists came into and went out of my life, I have remained a faithful fan of this band. First, it was the sound. How original it was. The sense of depth or, I don’t know, spaciousness of sorts that it gives. The mix of heavy riffs with graceful melodies. The bass. The drums. Maynard’s vocal acrobatics. His gentle, velvety crooning breaking into powerful screams.

Oh, how I love this voice!

I will not pretend to be an expert on the meaning of their songs, but, despite their vagueness, or maybe because of it, I have always had this conviction that Tool’s lyrics point somewhere that is larger than this life situation. Somewhere beyond the pain and the anger that we feel sometimes. Definitely beyond the superficial and the trivial stuff that we tend to obsess about.

There are lines that stuck with me over the years. Like little puzzle pieces that, I am realizing now, are a part of a larger picture. And it is so awesome to be reminded of a random Tool song while I am reading some spiritual teachings and to understand why I was so drawn to it in the first place.

We are choosing to be here right now. Hold on, stay inside
This holy reality, this holy experience.
Choosing to be here in

This body. This body holding me. Be my reminder here that I am not alone in
This body, this body holding me, feeling eternal
All this pain is an illusion.

 

I am going to see them today!!!

This might be controversial but no, I don’t think words hurt as much as actions do

Our daughter came home from kindergarten with a couple of scratches and a bruise on her neck.

Where did that come from? I asked.

M. tried to choke me.

(Gasp) And what did you do?!

(Head down, shoulders slumped) I was trying to tell him politely to stop.

I was hit by a wave of rage.

No, kiddo, you do not have to be polite when someone tries to choke you. Keep your hands to yourself if you can, but be as firm and as loud as you need to. You do not have to be nice when someone is hurting your body.

***

Our daughter is certainly not an angel; she has been in a number of minor altercations and has been the perpetrator sometimes. But this looked more serious.

I talked to the teacher and she gave me the same old spiel about how they keep reminding children to be polite and respectful and that all words and actions need to be kind because words hurt as much as actions do…

I kind of agree. In principle.

But I also don’t.

In the past, I received emails from the teacher as well as from other parents about our daughter saying something about other children’s clothes or allergies or birthday parties.

So now they are not to talk about clothes or allergies or birthday parties.

Because it might hurt someone’s feelings.

***

When I was a kid, my parents and my friends’ parents would not have spent two seconds pondering what another kid said.

We had our feelings hurt alright.

And it was okay.

We knew who the allies were and who to stay away from.

We had an opportunity to develop our instincts and our coping skills.

Parents only stepped in when there was physical violence.

And we knew it was a big deal.

I don’t know if these kids know that it is a big deal when they are physically violent toward someone.

Because if you tell them that words hurt as much as actions do, you conflate the two and they might think that, if someone is annoying, they can just punch (or choke) them instead of trying to think of a really good insult.

***

I think that my job, as a parent, is to keep my kids physically safe. It is also my job to help them develop resilience and coping skills.

So, if someone tells her that she is not invited to their birthday party, I will say, love, you have probably been to one hundred birthday parties already and I am sure you will be invited to many more. Don’t worry about it! We can do something else that’s fun.

If someone tells her that they don’t like her dress, I will ask her, do YOU like your dress? Because if you like it and if it makes you happy to wear it, don’t worry about the one person who does not like it. You don’t have to like what other people are wearing and they don’t have to like what you are wearing but there is no point in going around telling people that.

And if someone tells my daughter that they don’t like her, I am definitely not going to email their parent. I am going to tell her, well, I like you, and daddy likes you, and your brother likes you. In fact, I can name about fifty people right now who like you a lot and who think that you are great. And I sure hope that YOU like you, too. And don’t worry about this one person. For all you know they might have just had a really bad day.

But I want to be as clear as I can that if someone physically hurts her, she needs to be able to protect herself. And also, if she physically hurts someone, there surely will be consequences.

True Colors

Have you heard the song True Colors by Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick from the Trolls movie?

Something about this line always makes me feel a little emotional:

“I see your true colors and that’s why I love you”

I think we rarely let people see our true colors. We are afraid of being vulnerable, so we operate in the world behind masks, and this, in my experience, makes us feel very lonely.

We are afraid that we will be rejected for showing our authentic selves to the world. Since this also very much applies to me, I thought that maybe I ought to be a little more courageous in showing the world the different hues of my own self.

And I don’t mean being obnoxious in relentlessly expressing my opinions, but more along the lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, letting the soft animal of my body loving what it loves…

We went on a weekend cabin trip with a couple of dear, old friends and their kids. It was really a lovely time. We cooked and ate and hiked a little and hung out and chatted by the fire… One night, I was talking music with this friend of ours and we discussed what floated our respective musical boats and it was all mostly “respectable” stuff. You know, Led Zeppelin and Dylan, Radiohead and Cohen…

Then, at some point I said that I also really like Justin Bieber. This was followed by a few awkward seconds of silence and an unexpected and only halfway-joking response from my friend “I am surprised you would actually admit it” followed by “it’s because he’s cute, right?”

I cannot remember exactly what I said. Probably, that it is good workout music, and that I actually think that he is talented, and his music does make a lot of people happy… But I was definitely trying to minimize the impact of my “confession”…

It is a silly situation and will have no bearing on my friendship with this person, but this stinging feeling caused by his judgmental comment lasted a little while. And I remembered that a couple decades earlier I would rather die than admit I liked something that went against the grain in my peer group.

This is such a paradox, because I think we are all attracted to authenticity in people, yet we dis friends for not complying with some unspoken standards of being cool.

There is this great quote about Winnie the Pooh’s friend Eeyore that I found somewhere on the Internet:

“One awesome thing about Eeyore is that even though he is basically clinically depressed, he still gets invited to participate in adventures and shenanigans with all of his friends. And they never expect him to pretend to feel happy, they just love him anyway, and they never leave him behind or ask him to change.”

This whole authenticity/showing-one’s-true-colors thing was in my head when I heard this On Being interview with Joy Ladin: “Transgender Amid Orthodoxy: I Am Who I Will Be.”

Ladin was born a man and described that this body she was born in felt like a cross between a mask and a tomb… that she didn’t even have any childhood memories as they all got suppressed amidst the hate that she felt for the body she was trapped in.

And I was thinking, if I, a grown woman, get irked by someone looking down on my Bieber affection, how unimaginably difficult and painful it is for someone to think that they, as a person, are a mistake… that who they are in their core is somehow unacceptable and unlovable…

 

Pleasure vs Joy

I wrote this post several weeks ago when my family went to see Grandma for a few days, so, chronologically, it is not accurate, but the gist of it still applies.

I decided to take it easy last night: get some takeout, some dessert, watch some mindless things on the Internet.

I knew I should have stopped eating and watching way before I did, but hey, I don’t get to do it often and it was such a pleasure…

The thing is, today, I don’t feel so great. I feel tired and “blah” all around.

And I was wondering, what is it about pleasure that often leaves us with this “blah” feeling?

Aren’t we supposed to make ourselves happy?

So, the nerd that I am, I pulled a definition of the word pleasure from Merriam-Webster online:

Pleasure

1 :  desire, inclination

2 :  a state of gratification

3a :  sensual gratification

b :  frivolous amusement

4 :  a source of delight or joy

and then I got curious about the word joy

Joy

1a :  the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires :  delight

b :  the expression or exhibition of such emotion :  gaiety

2 :  a state of happiness or felicity :  bliss

3 :  a source or cause of delight

Well, this didn’t help me the whole lot, as these two words are somewhat related. But pleasure seems to be associated more with the feeling in the body while joy seems to be more ethereal.

Pleasure also seems to be related to addiction. Something is making us feel good (like burritos, and wine, and chocolate, and looking at pretty things online, and reclining in a favorite chair) so we want more of it.

The thing is, it doesn’t really make us satisfied and whole. It sometimes feels like feeding some sort of insatiably hungry creature sitting inside. It is only feeling satisfied while it is being fed. And there is definitely the feeling of hangover when we’ve consumed too much of this good thing.

When I feel joy, it is more like feeling peace and happiness and gratitude. The feeling is longer lasting and doesn’t leave a bad taste or a headache the next day.

I think of moments when I feel joyful and they don’t have to necessarily be pleasant. Like climbing a mountain or raking leaves or cooking a meal for the family. I mean, there can be joy in hard work or mundane things.

I have these memories of my mom sewing or peeling potatoes… I cannot say that watching her do these things was a pleasure. It was not something that I would seek to watch purposefully. But when I happened to be sitting with her, watching her work was pure joy.

Her hands were like separate beings, performing their tasks with mastery and ease and grace. No energy was ever wasted on unnecessary motions. There was a precision and dexterity that she possessed because of the hours she had spent perfecting these skills. And there was also a sense of presence that I think just sort of rubbed off on me in those moments. That’s why these memories are so vivid.

Honestly, I don’t remember half of the things I watched on YouTube last night. I am also pretty sure that last night will not be one of those I am likely to reminisce about in a couple of decades.

I think that culturally though, we are sort of conditioned to seek pleasure over joy. And, clearly,  it doesn’t make us happy.

***

I thought of these two podcasts when I wrote this post:

On Being: Mike Rose “The Intelligence in All Kinds of Work, and the Human Core of All Education That Matters”

Tara Brach: “The Realm of Hungry Ghosts”

The newly awakened

Since I started meditating and became increasingly interested in the subject of mindfulness (or being present), I tend to notice more and more people embarking on their respective paths, which is encouraging and motivating on a personal level and also brings me a general sense of hope for humanity.

But I also notice the form-over-substance-type situations that I feel compelled to talk about for some reason. And this is not meant to be a wag of a finger at any particular individual. Conversely, the fact that I notice such things is probably a good indication of my own hang-ups. I do realize that the others merely mirror my own shortcomings.

This one situation might be a good illustration of what I am getting at: I overheard a person asking another person what to do when they just want to appreciate every moment but it seems that, wherever they go, they are surrounded by people in a hurry either physically pushing them out of the way or honking at them, so wrapped up in the rat race that they don’t notice the beauty around them or, for that matter,  the poor, unsuspecting “newly awakened”.

And I get it. It might be a really beautiful cloud formation or a captivating performance by a street artist that is precious and fleeting, and you want to get a glimpse of it before it is gone.

Here’s the thing though: while a lot of those people around you are likely just running amok, chasing after their paychecks, and errands, and meaningless social obligations, some are probably not.

Some might have a legitimate reason to hurry. They might be rushing to pick up a kid from a daycare before it closes, or trying to see someone in hospital, or they might be on their way to the airport, excited to see someone they love that they have not seen for a very long time, or they might be late for work and will lose their job if they don’t make it on time.

I guess what I am trying to say is that mindfulness should not be about self-indulgence.

It should be about being mindful.

Aren’t we all addicts?

I went to the gym yesterday for the first time in some time. The late winter and early spring always come with an abundance of celebrations (and cake) so I have a few extra pounds around my waist that I will attempt to lose in the next couple of months.

The exercise machine I chose did not have a TV screen, but the one in front of me did so, of course, I was peeking at what the person on that treadmill was watching.  I don’t have cable at home and with an exception of an occasional movie on Netflix, I don’t watch TV at all, so I am always kind of amazed to see what’s on.

The person was watching a reality show featuring a morbidly obese woman who lay sprawled on the bed, unable to move. In the next scene, she was sitting on the edge of the bed, trying really hard to get up while holding on to a walker. She could not get her body to move and after several attempts, she gave up. She seemed embarrassed, defeated, and thoroughly vulnerable.

At that moment, my heart completely went out to her. I know how easy it is to substitute food for what we feel that we lack in our lives. And the realization of the ocean of lack that this woman must have felt for a long time overwhelmed me.

I hardly ever eat when I am actually hungry. I eat because “it is time”. I eat because I don’t want the leftover food to go to waste. I eat because I feel stressed, sad, or lonely. And the reason why, so far, I haven’t ended up immobilized in my bed is probably that my circumstances happened to be a little more fortuitous that hers. Maybe I have access to healthier food and a gym, maybe I was lucky to learn how to eat a little better, and maybe it is the fact that I am not feeling totally isolated and depressed in my life situation.

But I know the feeling.

And I think most of us do.

I think that, even though we don’t like to admit it, in one way or another, most of us are addicts.

Our addictions might not be the usual suspects like alcohol, drugs, or food. It might be shopping. It might be Facebook or Twitter. It might be criticizing others or seeking approval. It might be traveling. Or pleasing people in a variety of ways. It might be looking for adrenaline rushes and newness of things. Some of these surely apply to me.

I am not trying to say that all of these things are bad and we should avoid them. I am not trying to say that engaging in any of these things indicates a problem. But I think we ought to be honest with ourselves as  to why we do the things we do:  do we do it to fulfill ourselves, to find joy, and to connect with others? Or is it because we try to cover up pain or discomfort that we feel or to fill the void where self-love and contentment should be?

Because if the latter is true, we are really not different than that woman on TV.

***

Food for thought

Johann Hari: Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong

Remembering My Mother

This is a post from November that I thought of and wanted to share on this Mother’s Day Eve.
'Today is All Saints Day in Poland. It is a very special holiday when families gather and visit cemeteries to remember all their loved ones that passed away. I cannot be with my family today, but I am joining them in spirit to light a candle on the grave of the person I miss dearly. 

The woman in this picture is in her early twenties. She has twin toddler boys and just had a new baby girl. Her one-room house has no bathroom, no running water, and it just has a wood stove for cooking and heating. In the country where she lives, winters are long and cold and store shelves are bare (excepting vegetable oil and vinegar) and she often has to queue for hours to get all the necessities for her family. She gets up early every morning, starts a fire in her wood stove in her tiny kitchen and hauls buckets of water from the hand-press pump in the yard. There are no disposable diapers for her three little children. She does all the laundry in her old-fashioned washing machine with a wringer on top, then rinses it all by hand, and hangs it to dry in the yard. Every day, she makes all meals from scratch, using magic, presumably, because how can you make such delicious, wholesome food with so few ingredients available? She has a sewing machine and works from home as a seamstress. She bakes cakes on Sundays and, in the summer, she tends to a small garden with herbs and dahlias, peonies, and marigolds…
This woman was my mother. She was hard-working, honest, resilient, and she liked to laugh. 

Growing up, as is often the case, I completely took for granted just how much and how hard my mom worked her whole life. Eventually, we moved into to a place with all conveniences of the modern life, but she never stopped working hard. I know that she hoped that when she retires, she would finally be able to relax a bit. To enjoy the grandchildren and maybe travel a little.

She was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer at 61. She was not a smoker. You may know that not many people win their battles with this particular type of cancer. She passed away this month two years ago.

My mother wasn’t great at expressing feelings and we sometimes didn’t see eye to eye. But today, whenever I think of her, I appreciate her wisdom in letting me choose my own path, I am in awe of her grit, and I know that her love for us, though unspoken, was immense. And I am overwhelmed with this mix of gratitude and tenderness and longing.

Two years is a long time to not hear you voice, Mom.'

Today is All Saints Day in Poland. It is a very special holiday when families gather and visit cemeteries to remember all their loved ones that passed away. I cannot be with my family today, but I am joining them in spirit to light a candle on the grave of the person I miss dearly.

The woman in this picture is in her early twenties. She has twin toddler boys and just had a new baby girl. Her one-room house has no bathroom, no running water, and it just has a wood stove for cooking and heating. In the country where she lives, winters are long and cold and store shelves are bare (excepting vegetable oil and vinegar) and she often has to queue for hours to get all the necessities for her family. She gets up early every morning, starts a fire in her wood stove in her tiny kitchen and hauls buckets of water from the hand-press pump in the yard. There are no disposable diapers for her three little children. She does all the laundry in her old-fashioned washing machine with a wringer on top, then rinses it all by hand, and hangs it to dry in the yard. Every day, she makes all meals from scratch, using magic, presumably, because how can you make such delicious, wholesome food with so few ingredients available? She has a sewing machine and works from home as a seamstress. She bakes cakes on Sundays and, in the summer, she tends to a small garden with herbs and dahlias, peonies, and marigolds…


This woman was my mother. She was hard-working, honest, resilient, and she liked to laugh.

Growing up, as is often the case, I completely took for granted just how much and how hard my mom worked her whole life. Eventually, we moved into a place with all conveniences of the modern life, but she never stopped working hard. I know that she hoped that when she retires, she would finally be able to relax a bit. To enjoy the grandchildren and maybe travel a little.

She was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer at 61. She was not a smoker. You may know that not many people win their battles with this particular type of cancer. She passed away this month two years ago.

My mother wasn’t great at expressing feelings and we sometimes didn’t see eye to eye.

But today, whenever I think of her, I appreciate her wisdom in letting me choose my own path, I am in awe of her grit, and I know that her love for us, though unspoken, was immense.
And I am overwhelmed with this mix of gratitude and tenderness and longing.

Two years is a long time to not hear your voice, Mom.

My heritage

The Ruszkowski clan, my uncle proudly said, were gentry.

And as I was beginning to imagine those vast swaths of land in Mazovia region trimmed with majestic willow trees, a white manor house with a red tile roof adorned with the obligatory stork nest, and our coat of arms over a heavy, oak door, my uncle continued: then, one branch of the clan squandered all the property and they all became drunkards and thieves.

And THAT, he said, is where we came from.