Monday, February 20, 2017

The day the frogs came out


A Wood Frog at Riverbend Park.

This past weekend, Brad's parents fled the more than foot of snow on the ground at the house in the Poconos to visit us. 

On Sunday, to celebrate Spring in February, we took them and the girls to Riverbend Park in Great Falls. 

As we sat at a picnic table eating lunch among the other families swarming the park to revel in the unseasonable weather, Brad made a wry observation.

"It's like President's Day is the new Fourth of July."

And looking out across people grilling and kicking soccer balls and even kayaking in the dead of winter, it did indeed look like summer – save for the fact that all the trees were bare.

Earlier, we'd taken a walk on a crowded path along the Potomac River. We saw leaves starting to form on the trees. Perennials poking through the dirt. Sap running on one maple tree was covered in ants, flies and moths. 

We'd been walking maybe 30 or 40 minutes when the girls started grumbling. 

"I don't think I can walk much farther. I'm soooo hungry." "Moooooom, my legs are tired. I'm starrrrrving." "Mom. My stomach is empty. It's saying, 'I need lunch!'"

Heeding to the girls' increasingly desperate pleas for lunch we headed back to the parking lot. 

The pond.

The path took us past a pond – in the middle of the woods. A kind of magical sight on its own. As we neared the pond we heard an odd sort-of quacking sound that got louder the closer we got. Like there was an entire flock of arguing mallards – well kinda. Like, an entire flock of arguing mallards who'd just sucked on a giant helium balloon. Only when we came within view of the pond, there were just two lone ducks floating on it. And neither were making a peep.

The quacking was in stereo though. We scanned the pond and around its banks. In addition to the quacking, there were irregular plopping noises. The sun glittered off the backs of shiny things surfacing then diving in the water. 

"What are those?" we all wondered aloud. 

And then with a crackle, something leaped out of the leaf litter on the shore and splashed in the water. 

A frog on a log.

A frog. 

Then another. 

Then another.

There were dozens of them.

All swimming along the shoreline. 

The pond and the hoppin' hillside.

We looked up the hillside that lead down to the water and heard the distinct rustle of dry leaves as frog after frog jumped toward the water in an amphibious parade.

It was so very strange. 

And a bit unsettling. At least to me. I'd just read Barbara Kingsolver's "Flight Behavior" about a kaleidoscope of monarch butterflies (that's what a group of butterflies is called – a kaleidoscope – so perfect, right?) mysteriously landing in a forest in Appalachia instead of Mexico where they'd overwintered for thousands of years previously. An entomologist/ecologist arrives to study the butterflies – he blames climate change for their unprecedented behavior. The butterflies taking a winter break in the mountains of the Southeast United States is not just a strange phenomena or a miracle from heaven (as the locals in the story believe it might be); as the temperatures fluctuate between unseasonably warm to freezing, the entire swarm of butterflies is at risk of dying out, decimating the species.  

As I watched these frogs wake up from their winter hibernation and make their way to the pond on a 72-degree day in the dead of winter I had a sickening feeling. It's too soon, I thought. Too early. What happens if it the temperatures go down again and they all freeze to death? Frogs are one of those indicators of environmental health– what were these February mating calls telling us about the health of our planet? 

Still, it was hard not to delight in the moment. The reverberant frog quacking. The girls shouting in glee "There's one! There's one!" The vibrant blue sky and the sweatshirts tied around waists. 

Left up to me, I would've camped out by that pond to watch the frogs. But the girls' hunger pangs resurged as soon as their interest in the frogs flagged. We trekked onward.

But I worried about those frogs. 

At home, I pulled up pictures I'd snapped on my phone and started Googling pictures of frogs native to Virginia. I came across the Virginia Herpetological Society, which not only had pictures of different frog species, but also recordings of their calls. This made for a fun activity for the girls and me – comparing our memory of the quacking frogs to the recordings online. Eventually, we heard a match: The Wood Frog.

As I scanned information about the Wood Frog's hibernation and mating habits, I breathed a sigh of relief. 

"This species is adapted to the cold and ranges farther north than any other North American amphibian or reptile. It appears very early in the year, and males are often heard calling before ice-out on the ponds."

It's not unusual for males to start quacking for mates in late January or February. 

I had not witnessed the frog-pocalypse, as it turned out. At least not that day.

Wood Frogs are found in northern forests in Canada and Alaska where winter temperatures can dive to -50 degrees Fahrenheit. And here's where things get interesting: in order to survive these temperatures, the frogs don't do what I do, which is dress myself in seven layers of wool and fleece and spend winter under a cozy throw blanket sipping tea and refusing to leave the house. 

No, when they hibernate, Wood Frogs bury themselves in leaves (unlike other species that hibernate underwater). As the air temperature dips, so does the frog's body temperature. And when air temperatures hit freezing, so does the frog's body temperature. 

"Yet wood frogs have evolved ways to freeze solid for up to eight months each year," according to the National Park Service.

You should check with NPS to learn how all this goes down, it's pretty interesting. But basically, they're these little cryogenically frozen frogsicles (their hearts stop beating, they stop breathing). And then one day in winter, they start thawing from the inside out. Their brains wake up, their legs start wiggling. Then, with fire in their loins (I presume) they start hopping in search of love (well, probably more of just a hookup. I suspect Wood Frogs are more Tinder than eHarmony if you catch my drift ...). 

I'm not exaggerating when I say I felt celebratory at learning that these frogs were just doing what they always do, instead of being the harbingers of climate doom I'd feared them to be.

Of course, that's not to gloss over a crisis in our midst. It is odd to see daffodils almost in bloom. Buds on trees. Songbirds greeting the morning from trees covered in buds rather than huddled around a snow-covered feeder. It was 72 the other day– I had to dig out summer clothes for the girls. It all feels very premature. Even a bit ominous. 

But there was some small peace in the constant chaos of our existence right now, that the day the frogs woke up doesn't have to be spoiled by all that. It can be this marvelous little island of a moment floating in the raging seas of my psyche. I really needed that, too. I mean, we really need that don't we? 

Magic in our midst. 

It's there, you know. It's right there under the leaves waiting to jump out and be noticed.

Stay vigilant.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Transforming pain into compassion

Photo courtesy of Flicker Creative Commons

The heart is a muscle.

It starts beating at 150 (or so) beats per minute when we're growing in our mother's womb. It slows to 60 to 100 beats (or so) per minute as we head into adulthood. But it's always beating. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.

It beats and beats and beats, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, until the day it stops beating.  

I've been thinking about hearts. How constant and steady they are. And how we have to take care of them – giving them the right food and exercise and all that. And even if we're not all that great at tending to our hearts, they still muddle through. 

I've been thinking about how our physical hearts relate to our metaphysical hearts – that part of ourselves that dreams, creates and loves. How it thirsts for goodness. Both metaphysically and physically. It feels warm and full when it gives or receives kindness. It feels cold and empty when it gives or receives hatred. 

Our hearts thrive when there's peace. And suffer when there's stress. 

Physically and metaphysically.

I had this thought that just like our physical heart, our metaphysical heart is a muscle. It's the steady beat of our subconscious. And it can be strengthened and weakened based on our actions. And that the stronger all our metaphysical hearts are, the stronger we'll all be.

***

This past weekend my sister sent a text to my family. Her neighbor's home was on fire -- flames shooting out of an upstairs bedroom. She was worried and sad for the family who lived there, so she went across the street as the emergency crews were working and told her neighbors gathered out front they were welcome to come to her house if they needed a place to stay.

Not wanting to be in the way of the firefighters, she returned home to prepare for friends who were coming that evening. 

She told me the next day she didn't know where the family ended up. She felt guilty for not going back outside to find out if there was anything she could do to help them, she'd gotten distracted by dinner preparations. She felt badly that she didn't do more for them.

I pointed out that she had done something. She'd reached out to them during what must have been a terrifying ordeal and offered them a place to stay. 

Even though they didn't come, that gesture meant something. It should not be diminished. 

But we do that all the time, don't we? When faced with the problems of our family or our community or our country or the world, we always feel as if we're coming up short. That we never do enough.  

I feel this way all the time. After reading "The New Jim Crow" last year, I remember just feeling so defeated. Here I am the picture of white privilege with the blinders ripped off my eyes with no real direction on what I could do to fix the broken system. 

Or, like, watching the news of Syrian refugees. All those people – all those children – being slaughtered or dying trying to escape. What could I do to heal that? 

It's all around us, this despair and worry. How do we solve homelessness and poverty? How do we save the polar bears and the chimpanzees? How do we help our veterans plagued by PTSD? How do we stop gun violence? 

In the face of all these enormous problems, I find myself paralyzed. I can't fix all the things, so I do nothing.

But when it comes to compassion, the rule doesn't have to be "Go big or go home."

Our metaphysical hearts are muscles. They're ready to be compassionate, just as our physical hearts are ready to beat. It's the thump-thumping of our metaphysical hearts that makes us human.

The more we tend to our hearts, the more compassionate we will be. And just as we wouldn't expect our physical heart to be able to successfully run a marathon with no training, I don't believe we should expect our metaphysical hearts to solve all the problems of all the world on a moment's notice. Rather, as with all the hard things we want to accomplish, we have to take it one step at a time. One deed at a time. And even the smallest of gestures counts toward that step. Because compassion begets more compassion. We can strengthen those muscles with each deed. 

I was reminded of this while reading a Facebook post by a former co-worker.

He's a TA with an English-as-a-Second Language class in a Pennsylvania town "where three months ago about 3 million people voted for a man who said he’d build a wall between America and Mexico and protect people who live here from people who don’t." 

Bill recently shared a story about a field trip the class took to a local coffee shop to practice using English. He described how the large group of immigrants arrived in a Starbucks 20 minutes before close, how they apologized, telling the guy behind the counter they were an ESL class. 

The barista told the group it wasn't a problem. He'd been an ESL student himself. Another patron, an old man, chatting with the students despite the language barriers. At closing, the cashiers gave the class armloads of free pastries. 

This next part gave me goosebumps:

"Someone with a long beard and torn clothing asked one of the students for money. 'I have to go to Rite Aid,' he said. 'Sure,' said Xiomara. She plucked a dollar from a thin wad of cash in her pocket. 'I always give,' she whispered in Spanish to the teacher. 'It doesn’t matter what they do with the money. That’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to give.'"

My responsibility is to give, I thought. Such a simple, beautiful sentiment. 

When you're fostering a compassionate heart, there doesn't need to be a scale on which your compassion is measured. You do what you can whenever you can. The act of giving, not the amount of that giving,  is breeding grounds for more compassion.


*** 

This is important, to point out I think, because we are a culture obsessed with data. And as such, we are always comparing ourselves to the work of others. But we sabotage ourselves when we do this. We sabotage the compassion already glowing within us. Because it stops being about the act in of itself and starts being about the magnitude of that act. And when someone else inevitably does more, we inevitably feel smaller. 


Now, I'm going to go out on a Zen limb here (sorry, I hit up that section of the library recently...) but bear with me.


In "When Things Fall Apart," Pema Chodron writes about the importance of learning how to be kind to ourselves and to respect ourselves. She says that when start to look into our own hearts and begin discovering what is confused and what is brilliant or what is better and what is sweet, we're discovering more than ourselves – we're discovering the entirety of the universe. We learn that everything and everyone is awake. Everything is equally precious, whole and good. When we can perceive our thoughts and emotions with humor and openness, then that's how we perceive the universe. And this liberation isn't limited to the individual - but the communities we live in, how we help our families, our country, the world, even the galaxy and beyond.


Whether it's ourselves, our lovers, our bosses, children, or the political situation, she writes, "It's more daring not to shut anyone out of our hearts and not to make the other into an enemy."


Chodron then questions how we can communicate to the heart in a way that allows a stuck situation to ventilate? 


"How can I communicate so that things that seem frozen, unworkable and eternally aggressive seem to soften up, and some kind of compassionate exchange begins to happen?"
It starts, she says, with you. With being compassionate toward the parts of yourself that you feel are unworthy of existing on this planet.


Our hearts are muscles.  When we strengthen our own by loving ourselves, then we are better able to strengthen the hearts of others.


She then quotes another Tibetan Buddhist. 


"You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion." 



See, even if you're harried, time-strapped or penniless you can strengthen your metaphysical heart by using your breath as a metronome to transform the hurt in the world into love.
Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.



Later on in the book, Chodron shares about a Buddhist practice called Tonglen – creating space, ventilating the atmosphere of our lives so that people can breathe freely and relax. 

"Whenever we encounter suffering in any form, the tonglen instruction is to breathe it in with the wish that everyone could be free of pain. Whenever we encounter happiness in any form, the instruction is to breathe it out, send it out, with the wish that everyone could feel joy."

***

The idea of walking this world with an open heart can be intimidating. At least, it's been for me. Because you're vulnerable, right? I find myself worrying about how even the smallest gestures will be received – that I'm too awkward and weird and clumsy. That for all my best intentions my overeager interactions with the world will be viewed as lame, disingenuous or desperate. 

Was that waiter offended that I told him it looked as if he'd had a long shift and could use a break? Was it weird that I told a complete stranger on the street I thought her lipstick color was really cool? Did my Muslim neighbor think I was too earnest and overdramatic when I asked how his family was doing and told him I was appalled by the recent travel ban? 

I fumble every day with compassion. I'm this gawky, hyperactive golden retriever with a ball who just wants someone to play with. Like, just relax about the ball dog. But whatever. I'll figure it out. I guess. I'm building this muscle -- there's bound to be a few aches and pains along the way.

For those, like me, who obsess over these minor interactions with others, I'll go ahead and close by going full-on Buddha with a quote from the Dalai Lama from "The Art of Happiness." 

"I think that this is the first time I am meeting most of you. But to me, whether it is an old friend or a new friend, there's not much different anyway, because I always believe we are the same, we are all human beings. Of course, there may be differences in cultural background or way of life, there may be differences in our faith, or we may be of a different color, but we are human beings, consisting of the human body and the human mind. Our physical structure is the same, and our mind and our emotional nature are also the same. Whenever I meet people, I always have the feeling that I am encountering another human being just like myself. I find it much easier to communicate on that level. If we emphasize specific characteristics, like I am Tibetan or I am Buddhist, then there are differences. But those things are secondary. If we can leave the differences aside, I think we can easily communicate, exchange ideas, and share experiences." 

We all share the same human hearts. Let's open them to each other.

Photo courtesy of Sadie Hart/Flickr

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

No Hard Feelings



The other night, after we tucked the girls in, Brad asked me what I was up to.


"I don't know," I sighed, flopping on the bed. "I kind of want to blog, but I don't know what to write about."


Instead, we ended up chatting about the news of the day and about what was happening on our social media feeds. I read some from this Buddhist book I picked up from the library and fell asleep. I figured the new day might bring some clarity to all the thoughts banging around my head. 


First, I thought I'd write about the weekend's misadventure to D.C. with my sister, Laura, two of her kids (16-year-old Finn and almost-2-year-old Callie in a stroller), Brad, our two girls and me. The one where what should've been a 45-minute(ish) Metro ride into town for the Chinese New Years Festival at the Smithsonian American Museum of Art ended up being a two-hour slog on three trains and a stop-and-go shuttle crammed with, apparently, all the people. How we made it to the museum, which was also packed with all the people, and were able to watch Chinese acrobats juggle hats, drums and an impressive seven lime green balls as well as see a performance of a lion dance. How we made paper lanterns and roosters. How we giggled on the trains and in the shuttle. How while, devouring over-priced cheeseburgers at the Hard Rock Cafe, we discovered that Laura and Keith Richard's have eerily similar handwriting. And we got this picture of my ridiculous nephew. All was not lost.





But I don't know. I've written that story before. The one about bright spots on a crappy day.


Then, after reading a comment thread on Facebook about getting older as a woman in a beauty-obsessed culture, I thought about finally writing that rant on body hair upkeep. The one where I'd bemoan all the time I devote to waxing, plucking, shaving and brushing just to maintain socially acceptable levels of body hair and how futile it is because the second I catch the rearview mirror in my car on a sunny day I realize there's no escaping looking like an adolescent boy with all the haphazard hairs sprouting from my chin and upper lip.


But that seemed too trivial. Especially in light of how tumultuous this week has been. I haven't really wanted to write about the unrest, because it feels a little too unwieldy to make sense of and also because everyone else is writing about it. But I can't stop thinking about it. And well, for me, writing helps make sense of things. 


So here goes ...



***

I've been careful about following the news lately. I've found it's a rabbit hole I can easily get swallowed in that is damaging to my mental health and so is also damaging to my interactions with my children and others. I can't be angry all the time, you know?


That's not to say I'm trying to remain blissfully ignorant or anything. I'm following what's happening in our nation right now. Just not obsessively. Not all day. 


I know enough to feel like maybe I should be thanking our new president. I'm not being disingenuous. For all the fury he's ignited by all those executive orders he's signing, he's also been a catalyst. He's awakened the lions in our hearts. He's opened our eyes to how precious our democracy is. How it straddles the line between fragility and durability and how it does so based on our actions. 


It is not a constant. Not something we can take for granted. It lives and breathes as we all live and breathe. And I can see it now, better today than ever before.


I want to be careful though. Which I is why I digest news in moderation. I feel if I allow the outrage of this past week to sink too deeply, that it will start to darken my heart. And I think what we really need right now is open hearts. My friend, Debbie reminded me of that. 


She's been traveling down South and posted on Facebook about a walk she took around Charleston, S.C., hoping to visit some tourist spots. She stopped a man to ask if she was going the right way and he gave her directions. They were about to part ways when she looked over her shoulder and saw a church.


"I said, 'Is this the church where the shootings took place?' He paused, looked over at the church and then back at me again, 'Yes, ma'am, it is.' We then had a lovely conversation. I asked if he knew anyone who was killed and apologized that this happened. We had an AMAZING conversation about things happening in the world. He told me that people need to stop worrying about what people look like because we all bleed the same. ... 
The other day someone asked me how I find the people and experiences that I do. Without hesitation I said, 'Because my heart and mind are open.' My hope is that more people will open their hearts and minds to others. Live in love and not react to fear. I choose to believe and operate on the premise that people are good and it is proven to me time and time again. 

Choose love. Look into the eyes of others and listen to their story. Choose connection and community. Change the world one conversation at a time." 

See, what happened at that church the day of the shooting, what happened the day Debbie stopped by, what's happening in our airports, it's all part of the same story. 

Today I took the dog for a walk and listened to Krista Tippett's recent interview with Rep. John Lewis. During the interview, they talked about the Beloved Community – Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision for a world that does not tolerate poverty, homelessness or hunger.


"... You live that you’re already there, that you’re already in that community, part of that sense of one family, one house. If you visualize it, if you can even have faith that it’s there, for you, it is already there." 


I can see it happening right in front of me. In photos from the Women's March. In the more earnest, impassioned conversations I'm having with friends, families and neighbors. And in posts like these from Lily's teacher:




The key to the success of our Beloved Community is inclusiveness and openness, not only for other races, religions and cultures, but also other viewpoints. 

Even those we disagree with. Those that frighten us. We have to listen so we can understand what's behind it. 


At the library last week I picked up this book "When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times" by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun (you can draw your own conclusions on why the book might have appealed to me. ;) 


Chodron relates a story told to her by her spiritual teacher, Trunga Rinpoche. In it, Rinpoche was traveling with attendants to a monastery he'd never been to before. As they got close to the gates, they saw there was a large guard dog with huge teeth and red eyes, that growled at them and struggled to break free from the chain that held it. It looked as if it was going to attack them. They walked through the gate, keeping their distance as they passed the dog.

"Suddenly the chain broke and the dog rushed at them. The attendants screamed and froze in terror. Rinpoche turned and ran as fast as he could – straight at the dog. The dog was so surprised that he put his tail between his legs and ran away."
The lesson of course is age, old. You have to face your fears. Confront them. See them. It's interesting to me that Lewis had a similar message in his interview. That as part of his training in nonviolent protest, he was told to make eye contact with whoever might be harming him. Confronting the fear in himself, but also creating a human connection.
"...You have to grow. It’s just not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being."
I've been thinking about this idea – finding the spark of the divine in my fellow humans. Especially the humans I find most frustrating right now. Even if I can't quite locate the divine, I can at least find the humanity in the people whose behavior I struggle with.

Like our president, for instance. I found myself wondering about his obsession over the crowd numbers at his inauguration. Like, he can't let go of it. He can't accept the idea that maybe fewer people showed up for his inauguration than at previous inaugurations. And it's easy to laugh it off or say he's being silly and ego-centric. It doesn't seem fitting behavior for a grown man who is now leader of the free world. 


But it's also sad, too, right? I find myself feeling sad for this man whose own worth is tied so closely to the number of people who show up to watch him being sworn in, to the amount of money he has or the number of celebrities he calls friends. Here's where I find the humanity. 


We've all been this person one time or another who wants to be popular and wants to be liked. We've all felt like we had to prove ourselves worthy of love or admiration. 


I keep thinking about a middle school cafeteria. A microcosm of social hell if ever there was one. I picture our adolescent president sitting on the fringes of a table full of the popular kids desperately trying to get their attention. To be one of them. And maybe they humored him because he was a rich kid or because he knew people who knew people. But they never really liked him. And they laughed about him when he wasn't around. They tolerated him only as far as he was useful to them. They certainly didn't stand up for him in public (see these two).


Having been on the fringe of my own middle school lunch table I understand this feeling. Fortunately for me, I also managed to navigate out of it and found some true friends along the way. 


But I don't think our president has. And so I have to wonder what happened to him as a child. How did he become the man he is today? Because I can all but guarantee that whatever happened was very painful. It's the bullet that has nestled deep into his heart, the thing he can't reveal for fear that this golden tower he's (kinda literally) built around himself will collapse.


Finding compassion for our president doesn't mean I've found acceptance for him or his policies. I haven't. But I won't demonize him. Doing that only hardens my own heart. 



***

We have a long way to go in all of this. I don't think we'll ever reach a point when we've arrived. We'll never get to rest on our laurels and congratulate ourselves for the utopia we've spent generations creating. Just as we as individuals never stop growing, learning and becoming, neither does our society or our democracy. This period we're in now is a growth spurt, I think. Painful and awkward, but still a step ahead of the day before. 


I mentioned this idea to a couple of friends who were visiting the other day. That our nation is waking up to the fire that had never actually gone out (Billy Joel, anyone? anyone?) -- OK and I wasn't all that poetic during our conversation. That is neither here nor there. My friend Danny made a really good point. He agreed that this groundswell of activism is positive, but it's also painful for the people directly affected by our president's actions. 


This might seem like an obvious thing to point out – I mean obviously there is pain for the 5-year-old who was detained at Washington Dulles International Airport for hours waiting for his mother. Pain for any individual who learns that the country that they sought refuge in and call home might no longer want them here. And this pain comes despite all the protestors who come out in droves to welcome them home and decry these executive actions. It's painful and scary.


So while we can celebrate our new-found activism and passion for justice and progress, we have to do so while being mindful of the pain and discomfort of those whose behalf we are fighting.


For those of you who are still with me, I apologize. I've rambled a lot. Maybe I should've just stuck with writing about Chinese New Year or Chin Hair (did you know you can call them chiskers! My friend Kristen told me that. It's like I'm morphing into a cat! An insult to cats everywhere!)


Maybe next time I'll stick with less ambitious rambling. 


Either way, I love you really and truly.


I'll close with this song by the Avett Brothers that I've been listening to a lot lately and that I also feel is inexplicably relevant.