2020 Notes 5: What We Truly Need

I read pretty much constantly, but over the last several years, my reading has mostly been non-fiction. Our current circumstance made me long for an absorbing novel, so I started Spider Woman’s Daughter (2013), the first of the Navajo mysteries Anne Hillerman wrote after the passing of her father, Tony Hillerman, (1925-2008). Over the years, I’ve savored Tony’s 18 novels centering on Navajo Tribal police officers, Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernadette Manuelito. A review I posted in 2011 serves as a summary of the pleasure I’ve taken in his stories. Now, I can happily say his talented daughter’s work is equally satisfying.

Even as I was savoring the story and vivid descriptions of places I love in the Four Corners, I was saddened to hear how devastated the Navajo nation has been by Covid-19, lagging only New York and New Jersey in per-capita infection rate. The 27,000 square mile reservation, stretching across parts of three states, has only 12 healthcare facilities, problems of  chronic health issues, and a shortage of medical staff. And as Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo Nation, said:

“You’re telling people, ‘Wash your hands for 20 seconds multiple times a day,’ and they don’t have running water. Or you’re saying, ‘Go buy groceries for two or three weeks and shelter in place and don’t come out,’ but people can’t afford groceries for two or three weeks.”

Navajo Stone House, Public Domain.

In addition, Federal Assistance has been delayed due to red tape. All these difficulties make the following story, unfolding today, so gratifying to hear.

In 1847, shortly after 60,000 Native Americans had endured the Trail of Tears, on which thousands died, members of the Choctaw nation, relocated to Oklahoma, heard of starvation in Ireland due to the potato famine. Though poor themselves, they managed to raise $170 – about $5000 today – which they sent to help the Irish.

Since word of the Navajo and Hopi Indian’s plight got out on Twitter, the Irish have made significant contributions to a GoFundMe account that has so far raised $1.8 million to help purchase food, bottled water, and other supplies for the Navajo and Hopi people. ( stories in the New York Times and IrishCentral News ).

Vanessa Tulles, who helped set up the GoFundMe account, said:

“In moments like these, we are so grateful for the love and support we have received from all around the world.

“Acts of kindness from indigenous ancestors passed being reciprocated nearly 200 years later through blood memory and interconnectedness. Thank you, IRELAND, for showing solidarity and being here for us.”

Most of us can recognize and appreciate the compassion and generosity of spirit that make such kindness and spirit of kinship possible.

It may well be the most important factor in determining who will survive and thrive on the far side of this crisis, and who will not.

2020 Notes 3: Apple Blossom Time

Apple blossoms are out on the tree in the back yard.

My grandmother had a  habit of blurting out snatches of song, without warning, at family dinners, or quiet evenings, or on Sunday afternoon drives, back when people thought it was fun to hop in the car and go somewhere.

One of her favorite songs was, “Apple Blossom Time.” Another was (I believe) part of the chorus of a 1920’s era song about Little Orphan Annie, “And it gets all over icky!” That would piss off mom, much to my sister’s and my amusement. I suspect my grandmother used to sing that during my mom’s teenage years, and she still hadn’t fully gotten over the embarrassment.

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In other news of the day, our oldest rescue dog, Kit, a chihuahua / pomeranian mix, is almost 13. She still has so much energy you wouldn’t guess she’s on three medications for serious heart problems.

At the start of February, after a checkup, the vet said, “I’m guessing she has a year or 18 months left.” No way, I thought. That got me back to daily practice of a Tibetan long life sadhana a few weeks before COVID-19 motivated all of us to pursue safety measures, both physical and non-physical in nature.

After talking to the vet, I wanted to make sure we had enough of one of her critical meds, called Vetmedin, that mitigates her leaky heart valve. I had a standing prescription at Costco for three months worth, but when I called at that time, they said it had been on backorder for some time. I wondered then if that was a result of the epidemic in China, for I’d heard that that China manufactures the components of lot of our pharmaceuticals.

I got some Vetmedin from our vet, but because it’s cheaper at Costco, I called again yesterday and was able to place an order that was ready today. They told me when I came to tell one of the people at the entrance that I was there for a prescription only.

Costco is one of those stores now dedicating the first hour of business, from 8:00 – 9:00 am, to people over 60 – a thoughtful practice, but one not exempt from the law of unintended consequences. When I got there at 8:20, I found several hundred people, most with shopping carts in line. With most observing the recommended six foot spacing, the line snaked around the front and side of the building, before disappearing around the back of the store and out of sight

I was just about to leave, to try in the afternoon, when a woman came out to urge everyone to patience, saying they were letting in 75 shoppers at a time. I told her what the pharmacist had said on the phone, and she very kindly allowed me to go in to pick up the prescription. I was in and out in less than 10 minutes.

While I was there, I asked the pharmacist if things generally slowed down later in the day. “By 11:00 it’s usually pretty quiet,” he said – a message I thought I’d pass on to anyone locally who is thinking of getting up early for special shopping opportunities – be ready to queue up really early, or wait and have a good breakfast and coffee first!

2020 Notes 2

The night before last, I had a hug dream:

I seemed to be in a restaurant, waiting to pick up a takeout order when I spotted a friend. He and I hugged, but then, at the same moment, said, “Shit!” and jumped back to to a six foot distance. I ducked into the restroom to wash my hands, knowing that hands were not the issue, and pissed that I’d have to start counting down 14 days again to feel safe from contagion.

Most of the time, the dreaming mind brings up issues and themes we ignore in waking life. When something as topical as the corona virus appears in a dream, we know how far it has penetrated deep into the psyche.

Out in Fair Oaks Park, the weather has mostly been pleasant and the skies stunning.

We see others strolling in ones and twos, with and without dogs. Many of them wave or ask from a distance, “How are things going for you?” Again I sense that, left to ourselves, a crisis like this would pull us together. Our natural instinct is to lend a helping hand.

Then why are we so divided?

The real question is “Who benefits when we are so divided?”

2020 Notes 1

Fair Oaks Park, February

February was warm and bright, and I got out regularly to walk the dogs in the local park. It was the finest early spring I could remember, although it struck me that the only other place I’ve experienced such warmth so early in the year was Phoenix, and that suggests a hot summer.

By early February, or certainly mid-month, everyone who was paying attention knew the corona virus was coming, and it was going to be serious. I certainly didn’t anticipate the force of the shock when it hit our shores, but during those sunny walks, I had the sense that this was going to change our world in profound ways. I think lots of people, over the last few years have understood on some level that we’ve been living in a house of cards. I suspect that much of the fear and anger that fill the air derives from this understanding, even if we didn’t quite grasp it consciously.

I thought of what I have read of the prelude to another world changing event. By all accounts, the spring and early summer of 1914 in Europe were the most beautiful that anyone then living could remember. One of the best histories of that period is The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman.

Tuchman wrote another fascinating history of another period that changed the arc of world civilization, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Fourteenth century Europe was ravaged by climate change, never-ending war, and pandemic which triggered the collapse of medieval culture. I am not making this up!

The century opened with two decades of cold, now known as “the little ice age,” which caused widespread famine. The “Hundred Years War,” continued through the century, and in several outbreaks, bubonic plague killed a third of the world’s population.

At this moment, 20 years into the new millennium, no one knows how this century will end beyond the absolute certainty that the way of life we have known will be but a memory.

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Yesterday afternoon, Mary and I left home on the important mission of picking up her birthday cake (it’s tomorrow) at Baskin Robbins and having some ice cream while we were at it. I had to laugh when I heard “Love Me Two Times,” on the audio track. The Doors were way too subversive when to play in an ice cream shop when they first hit the airwaves more than 50 years ago!

But who knows? I have no idea when I’ll next be able to get a haircut, so my true colors as an aging hippie may soon be revealed!

Slender Threads

Dew on Spider Web by Luc Vlatour, Creative Commons.

“Sometimes a life can hang by such a slender thread.” – Kate Wolf

Yesterday, around dinner time, I took my wife to the emergency room with severe chest pains. This morning, a little before 9:00, she texted that she was going into surgery in 45 minutes. I hurried over, but had to drive to the roof of the parking garage to find a spot.

As I sprinted down the steps, I spotted an acquaintance, who I’d seen earlier in the week at a meeting, who did not look well at all. He was entering the oncology building. I called his name but he didn’t hear me.

By the end of the day, my wife was stable. Though not out of trouble or the hospital, her prospects are encouraging. Not so, I believe, the friend I saw. He’s elderly but notable for a heart that is both wise and kind. This is a man who clearly does not have much money. Exactly the kind of man that the oligarchs want to strip of healthcare.

I thought of what Buddha said at the end of the Diamond Sutra:

“So I say to you –
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

It was a sullen day, and windy, with a threatening sky. The kind of weather that reminds you of mortality, even without anything explicit on the horizon. Buddha didn’t flinch from difficult truths, but he did make clear, as the Dalai Lama continues to do today, that in the face of this fleeting world, nothing matters more than kindness to other living beings.

In the end – and we shall all make this discovery, sooner than we would wish – everyone’s life is a slender thread, and when it breaks, bank accounts do not matter. Nobility of soul does – very, very much.

Notes from 2017 – What is your innermost truth?

truth-2

I  started this post several days ago – in what now seems like a galaxy far away – with something different in mind. My title is paraphrases a question asked by Zen priest, Edward Espe Brown, at a retreat in 2011: “What is your innermost request?”

In the context of the retreat, I took his question to mean, “What is the deepest desire at the deepest core of your being?”  The word, “request,” implies not just desire, need, want, but something akin to prayer. What do we want our lives to be about? What would it take , when our time comes to leave this world, to exit with a sense of peace, victory, satisfaction?

I mean the same kind of thing with, “innermost truth.”  Not just beliefs, ideas, concepts, deductions, or any of the contents of consciousness, for they inevitably change. How many beliefs, ideas, concepts, and so on do you hold from this time a year ago, let alone 10 years ago, 20, or from childhood? What do you know more deeply than emotion and reason both?  Jack Kornfield, in A Path With Heart described this as something you know so deeply that if Buddha and Jesus both said, “You’re wrong,” you would answer, “I am not!”

It’s not an easy question, and there is no simple answer, but it has never been more essential to look to our truths, try to clarify and hold them close over time.

Knowing what we truly believe is an anchor, a center, a “know thyself” tactic at a time when the new president and his minions are trying to normalize lies as “alternate facts.”

The day will come when telling “a Spicer” is a synonym for “telling a whopper,” but until that happens, we need to guard our sense of right and wrong, true and false, as the greatest safeguards we have against the fascist administration that now occupies the White House.

voltaire

The Bell Tolls

Sometime during the first semester of graduate work in psychology, our clinical practice professor made an interesting observation. “The funniest people I know,” she said, “have all deeply experienced sorrow.” Her words came back when I heard we had lost Robin Williams.

They say he suffered from alcoholism and depression, both progressive, fatal diseases that  can be arrested. Interestingly, the media has done much to remove the stigma from both conditions. Ted Danson, as bartender, Sam Malone on Cheers, helped normalize an alcoholic abstaining and going to meetings. And the constant din of TV antidepressant commercials has probably primed millions to “Ask their doctor” about this oh so modern affliction.

Untreated depression, like untreated alcoholism, puts a person at risk for suicide, accidents, and poor health choices that end too many lives far too early. It’s futile to speculate on why some people reach out for help and others do not, but no individual, not you nor I, is a statistic. We are not bound by any kind of odds.

In this world where information is so easy to come by, it is my hope than anyone who sees in themselves the conditions that took Robin Williams from us may hit google and check out the mountains of information on what they may have and what can be done about it.

Notes on the Mind – Body connection

Subtle body from 1899 yoga manuscript. Public domain.

Subtle body from 1899 yoga manuscript. Public domain.

One of the key themes emerging for me this year, both in living and blogging, involves mental hygiene, in particular, watching what ideas and thoughts I dwell on. I tried to express it in posts like Guarding the Mind and The Wishing Tree Revisited. Cheri Huber a Zen teacher, sums it up like this: “The quality of your life depends on the focus of your attention.”

As I check out things online, I bookmark articles that look like they might lead to interesting posts. Several recent posts center on a parallel theme,  the intimate connection of mind and body.

The first comes from Julieanne Victoria’s blog, Through the Peacock’s Eyes. In a post called, Effect of Thought on Health and the Body, she describes a small book by James Allen, amazing because of its visionary nature – it was written in 1902 and published in 1920.

Nowadays we’re used to seeing people practice Tai Chi in parks. We find yoga classes at local gyms and hear of corporate executives learning mindfulness meditation. A discussion of the ends and means for lifting such practices out of traditional contexts is a topic for another time. The point is, general awareness of the mind-body connection snowballed in the west in the latter half of the 20th century. I think it’s just beginning, which makes James Allen’s conclusions, penned 112 years ago, all the more unique.  Check out Julieanne Victoria’s post. It is inspiring to read these words of a man who understood these truths before almost anyone else in our culture.

One manifestation of the mind-body connection that everyone knows about involves stress. Stress is bad and A-Types have it worst, right? What if you learned, as I did in a recent NPR article, that almost all of the studies that created “stress” and “A-Type” as modern words and concepts were funded by big tobacco companies, seeking to prove that stress and not cigarettes, cause heart problems and cancer? This article is an eye opener, and not because of this single topic. It’s illuminating to see how far money can go in creating the “truths” we try to live by.

The final post that caught my attention comes from the Scientific American BlogWhat does Mindfulness Meditation do for your brain. Leaving aside all questions of what might be lost in separating mindfulness practice from it’s Buddhist context, the benefits appear to be compelling:

“It’s been accepted as a useful therapy for anxiety and depression for around a decade…It’s being explored by schools, pro sports teams and military units to enhance performance, and is showing promise as a way of helping sufferers of chronic pain, addiction and tinnitus, too. There is even some evidence that mindfulness can help with the symptoms of certain physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.”

Beyond these experiential findings, the Scientific American post presents a powerful physiological finding. MRI scans of people after an eight week mindfulness meditation course show the amygdala shrinking. This is the brain’s fight or flight center, associated with emotion and fear. At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex, “associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making,” becomes thicker. In addition, brain links are altered: “The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.”

These few posts are just the barest notes on a huge topic, but one I find fascinating. I’ll be posting more as I see more interesting stories along these lines.