My Irish Relations

I don’t know why I love the Irish. Maybe it’s because I halfway belong to them on my mother’s side.

I snapped this pic from the train to Belfast from Dublin this summer. The countryside is so delicious.
I snapped this pic from the train to Belfast from Dublin this summer. The Irish countryside is so delicious.

But I also belong, halfway, to my father’s Scandinavian side. And the two sides of me are occasionally in conflict. But there is one thing they agree upon. Traveling expands you. My people are a traveling people. My ancestors set sail and did not look back.

In the U.S. most of us are halfway something. And even if we came from this soil, this fertile soil of America, we too, are nomads. Travelers.

So, too, are our relations – the gazelles leaping across the Serengeti or the Monarch butterflies flitting towards Mexico. All of us belong to a branch of the biological family that is on the move.

And we do not necessarily travel fast. Consider the sloth. They are part of our family too. And I don’t want to stretch this metaphor until it snaps back on me, but my husband who has Parkinson’s is a bit on the sloth spectrum. Yet he hangs on to the family tree. And still, he travels. (Heading to Florida for a month and a half to direct a play.)

Still on the go.

The difference between us and our biological family is that when we return from our distant adventures – down the branch of the tree or across the vast plain or swamp or ocean – when we return from our journeys — we tell the tale. We huddle around the campfire, the Sunday dinner, the AA meeting, the bar, the water cooler, the back of the bus. And we regale our friends and family with stories of our successes and failures. We make something out of an ineffable nothing — that place that only resides in our memories — our distant homeland, our Ireland, our watering hole, our home.

And that is why I love to travel. And I believe it comes from both the Irish and the Scandinavian. It is not that I love the journey — the uncertainty of where I’m going. But it is that I love to return and tell the tale.

So today, look up from your computer, glance into the eyes of your officemate, your lover, your daughter, your spouse. Ask:

Where have you been? Where are you going? When you return, will you tell me all about it? And then that place — your place, your story — will live in my memory, as a story, too.

Why Be Mindful?

This October I’m going to blog every single fricken’ day.

I tried this last year and missed a few days. Because my darling Charlotte was in excrutiating pain and we landed in the emergency room with her fibroid cysts for a day. And well, you know, a trip to the ER can ruin a few days.

This year I’m back in the blog game. And my theme is mindfulness. Sure, it’s trendy. What’s wrong with that? I’m trendy. What are you saying? I’m fat? (That’s an inside joke — apropos of nothing, my sister and I like to say that. It’s funny. Trust me. The way we say it. It’s funny, okay?)

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In the West Village. Balloons over the steps of Alma Mathews House, a short-term residence for faith-based professionals. The house is being sold. Change is inevitable. Mindfulness reminds us of impermanence. 

Be mindful. Breathe. Notice. Be present. Not so funny? Maybe. But fun, and as previously mentioned, trendy.

Seriously. I came up with this theme when I realized I was just madly cycling through life. Ever feel like you’re just riding your bike in place? Not going anywhere? That’s called spin class. Also, trendy. I like to ride a bike, sure, but I like to go places. I realized at the end of September that I was restless. And I thought I would pursue a month of mindfulness to center myself. Figure out where I am and who I am. And what’s important.

And remind myself to be. here. now.

That’s it. Join me.

Stop a minute to breathe. That’s all.

Blue Cliff Monastery

On the mindfulness walk, I took out my phone to snap this picture. The Buddhist sisters were ahead of me on the walk. I looked at my phone and realized that I had email. And so at a Buddhist monastery on a sunny daylong retreat I found myself checking my email.  (I had to resist posting my status on Facebook and Twitter. “On a walk in the woods with my Buddhist sisters.”)

I like to be inundated. I like to be overwhelmed. I like MORE. I came to Blue Cliff Monastery for less. For a few hours one day to let go of the swirling storm of my life.

In the morning, I sat cross-legged in this beautiful, big, bright, meditation hall. I love rules for life. And while I noticed I could not sit as still as the monastic brothers and sisters on the mats near me, I got so much out of the message. 

This was the dharma talk from the teacher and founder of the monastery, Thich Nhat Hahn. It was a message videotaped a few days earlier from his talk while traveling in Thailand (I think):

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1. Be aware of breath
2. Follow breath
3. Be aware of body
4. Release tension
5. Generate joy
6. Generate happiness
7. Be aware of pain
8. Release pain

The first four focus on the body; the next four on feelings. If pain is great, practice five and six. How to create happiness and joy? Let go. It is possible right here and right now.

Happiness can come when you 1) let go and 2) are mindful. 

Mindfulness is the energy of the Buddha. You can be mindful of your eyes. With your eyes you can see the paradise before you (all of the colors). You can be mindful of your heart, beating all the time. With awareness of your heart, you can be grateful for it.

But they do not sell mindfulness at the market, you must generate it.

Joy and happiness can always be possible.

Pain is like the baby, crying. We do not hit, suppress, fight with baby. We embrace, we hold the baby with tenderness. It will lessen the suffering, the pain.

There is no reason to be afraid of strong emotion. Strong emotion is like a storm. It will come. It will pass. Young people need to know this. We are more than one emotion. Bring attention to the “in breath” and the “out breath.” Give attention to the abdomen. Touch the rise and fall of your breath. Go down there. Breathe in and out. In a storm, the tops of trees sway, but the trunk (the belly, below the naval) stays strong.

Practice five minutes of deep breathing every day for two weeks. It will then become a habit.

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This was the guidance from Thich Nhat Hahn’s talk. The 30 of us then stood in a circle outside and sang a few songs with hand motions. We took the mindfulness walk. We ate a warm vegan meal in silence. Then the bells tolled (I thought of visiting the Taize monastery and the tyrrany of the bells! https://mbcoudal.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/taize-service-my-guys/).  

After the bells, we could talk a little with those sitting near us. Then I sat alone in the sunshine. And yes, I checked my email again!

Then we, the group from the United Methodist Church, sat in a circle and shared the meaning of the day so far. How Jesus was like Buddha. How to practice compassion and Christianity. How to live in community. How to and of what to let go.

The sharing was deep, powerful, honest. It was a wonderful day. The brothers and sisters invited everyone to come again for the weekend or for a day of mindfulness or for a holiday. I would like to go again. But next time, I will leave my phone in the car.  

This retreat was organized by the wonderful Mandy Iahn, a United Methodist pastor who has found peace visiting the monastery. She is a part of the Commission on Christian Unity and Interfaith Concerns, CCUIC.

I saw this retreat listed in the New York Annual Conference newsletter, which promised, “This opportunity is being offered to promote peace and understanding between ourselves and our Buddhist brothers and sisters.  You will learn about Buddhist traditions and practices, have a silent meal with the monks and nuns of Bluecliff, and connect with God and yourself as you spend the day at this peaceful place.” 

http://bluecliffmonastery.org/