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2 bd/2 ba apt available – dogs OK

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Tonight, as was I was fumbling with my keys to get into my house, I was besieged by the frantic barking of the dogs in the apartment building next door.

“Jesus, dogs, I live here. Can’t I come and go from my own house without you losing your shit?” I mutter to myself. (And yes, I know it’s not the dogs’ fault, but the humans. Still it gets old. Really old.)

It’s not a new complaint. These dogs are only the latest in a series of frantic dogs who have lived in that particular apartment over the years, which got me musing about the occupancy criteria.

Potential tenants (PT): We love it!  We’ll take it.
Landlord (LL): OK, great, but I need to ask you some questions first. Do you have a dog?
PT: Um, we have two. The ad said dogs were allowed.
LL: No, that’s great. How big are they?
PT: Oh, they’re small. Chihuahuas.
LL: Perfect. Do they bark a lot?
PT: Well, they’re protective. Yes, I guess they can be a bit vocal at times.
LL: But could you characterize them as “yappy”?
PT: Some might call them that. But, they’re only like that when they get bored or lonely.
LL: How often are they left alone?
PT: We both work, so they’re alone pretty much all day, and well, frankly most of the evenings too.
LL:  Are they territorial?
PT: Like we said, they’re protective. If anyone comes close to the house, they’ll probably bark.
LL: How close?
PT: I don’t know, 50 yards?  Yeah about half a football field in any direction sounds right.
LL:  Perfect!  Your dogs sound like they will continue the long distinguished history of bored-psycho-yappy dogs that have occupied this particular apartment. I’ll get you the paperwork and we’ll get you moved in ASAP. Welcome to the neighborhood.

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A relationship rant

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If you’ve been in a relationship with someone for 14 years, you probably have learned to overlook a lot of shit that your beloved does that drives you batty. For instance, at the beginning of our relationship, The Boyfriend’s inability to wear a watch or tell time was almost a deal breaker. I pride myself on being punctual, to the point of being downright neurotic about it. So, when he said he would be over at my house by 7pm, and he then he didn’t show up until after 8, I would fume. I would yell. And I would threaten to break-up. Eventually, however, when I saw that his inability to tell time was almost a congenital defect, I decided that I would just have to get over it. His good traits outweighed the bad. Besides, he started demonstrating that he was at least making an effort, which greatly softened my annoyance.

But, he has another trait for which he is absolutely unapologetic despite years of my complaining, nagging, and making snide comments. The man uses a clean dish or cup for EVERYTHING.

The Boyfriend is only here one night a week, yet in that 24-hour period, the man generates more dirty dishes than I do all week.  Whenever I see him take a plate to eat a piece of coffee cake, or a slice of cold pizza, I give him The Look. The Look that says “really? Is that really necessary?”  He acts as if he doesn’t know what The Look means even when I go on to extol the virtues of paper towels.

“Paper towels are wondrous things. They can serve double duty as both a napkin and a plate” I tell him as if I haven’t told him that hundreds of times already.

“Oh yeah. Thanks. Could you hand me one?” he says with no intention of relinquishing the plate.

It’s hopeless. He does the same thing with glasses and cups. He gets out a clean cup even when he just wants a glass of water. It never occurs to him to reuse the glass from which he drank his last sips of refreshing H2O. And I don’t know how he does it, but there is always a plethora of cutlery left in the sink far exceeding the number of utensils needed for what has been consumed. Does he just take them out of the drawer and lick them and put them in the sink?

I suppose this wouldn’t annoy me as much if I had a dishwasher, or if he offered to do the dishes. But, I have neither a mechanical dishwasher nor a human one besides myself. While he does perform many much needed chores around my house, washing dishes is not one of them.

I suppose I could wrap up this little rant with a heart-warming lesson about love, patience, forgiveness, gratitude or some other bullshit. Perhaps if I had more time, I could come up with some meaningful life lesson from this. But, no, I have a sink of goddamn dishes I need to wash.

Your insights, suggestions, condolences or a free dishwasher are always welcome.

. . . and returning

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The first 24-48 hours after coming off a silent retreat can be challenging.  People move way too fast and speak too loudly. You have to cook your own meals, which are in no way as tasty or healthy as those that to which you’ve become accustomed in the dining hall. Since I’ve been home I find myself  just sitting quietly doing nothing as if  I’m still waiting for the bell to ring, calling me to the meditation hall.  And then looking around at my messy house, I realize I ain’t at Spirit Rock anymore.  And while I love being home with my critters and my comforts, I sure wish I could have a few silent sincere yogis come clean my house, cook my meals and ring a bell reminding me to meditate. Oh, and while I’m wishing, I want to adopt Sylvia Boorstein as the Jewish grandmother I never had.

This was a particularly sweet and easy retreat for me. Unlike previous retreats where it takes me a day or two to land and become accustomed to the schedule and the bed and that blasted hike back up the hill from the dining hall, I settled in rather quickly.  Since this is my third retreat there in 13 months, all that stuff that used to be new and scary is now familiar and comforting.  But, there was one new twist to this retreat, I wasn’t there alone.  One of my closest friends, Frank, decided to join me. This was his first Spirit Rock silent retreat and while I had no concerns that he could handle all the meditation, I was a bit worried how he was going to take to the silence. Me, I love love LOVE it.  I was really hoping that Frank would grow to love it too.

The focus of this retreat was on Metta (or loving-kindness for those whose Pali is a bit rusty. Some teachers even translate it as mere friendliness of heart). So for seven days, we meditated on cultivating a heart full of loving-kindness directed towards an ever expanding circle of beings.  If you are not familiar with the practice, Wikipedia has a pretty good description here.  The practice is quite beautiful and inspiring. In fact, on about the fourth day, the physical sensation of my heart expanding became so intense I thought I was possibly having a heart attack. I nearly tackled  poor Sylvia on her way out of the dharma talk, so badly was the need to be reassured that I wasn’t  dying. She assured me I wasn’t, and that what was happening was actually a good thing. (Yes, a heart full of metta, a concentrated mind and a tendency towards panic attacks makes for some interesting physical sensations.)

Some highlights of the reatreat:

  • I got to be a bell ringer! I’ve always wanted to ring the big bell that summons people to the meditation hall. And no one could accuse me of being tentative with that bell. I whacked the hell out of it. No one was going to miss the 4pm dharma talk because they couldn’t hear the bell. No, not on my watch.
  • Turkeys!! God, I love those stupid turkeys. I was actually quite concerned when I didn’t see them for the first couple of days. But when I finally saw the flock, I was so happy I almost wanted to cry (yeah, metta not just warms the heart, but apparently it supercharges the tear ducts).
  • On the sixth day, when the silence is lifted for a short period, Frank and I found each, embraced, and the first words out of our mouths were “I love you” (and I, of course, started crying).  He loved the retreat. I was filled with mudita. Plus, it was such a relief to finally be able to talk and laugh openly.  For the entire week every time our eyes met in the dining hall, we both had to suppress bursting out laughing.  Nothing was particularly funny, but I think we were like two naughty children in church who can’t help but giggle when everyone else around them is so silent and serious.
  • Coyotes! It’s hard to believe, but I think this may have been my first experience of hearing coyotes howl at the moon. When I first heard it while doing an evening walking meditation, I was transfixed.  And then when I was awoken by a pack of coyotes howling outside my window at 3am, I was in awe. But, when they woke me again at 5:30am, I thought to myself “Jesus, coyotes, it’s just the freakin’ moon. Give it a rest”.
  • When deciding which retreat to sit, there is usually at least one teacher that is the main attraction for me. In this case, it was Sylvia. But, as always, there were no duds, all the teachers add their own hearts to the mix. But, often there is a pleasant surprise, a teacher who I fall a little in love with. For this retreat, it was  Heather Martin. She didn’t  look like the typical Spirit Rock teacher, who tends to look a bit earthy, or at the very least, psychotherapist-y.  Heather looked like the prototypical middle-aged English Rose. But, she was delightfully honest, funny and very wise. I would love to sit another retreat with her.

I think that’s all I want to say about it. It’s funny, at previous retreats, my narrator seems to be ever present, and I tend to instantly translate all my experiences into stories. This time, she was notably absent, and my retreat journal, which is normally voluminous, was quite brief this time.  Which isn’t great for my writing aspirations, but I think it’s good progress towards my deeper aspiration to greet each present moment, no matter what it brings, as a friend.

May you be happy and peaceful
May you be safe and protected
May you healthy and strong
May you live with ease.

Resolutions, Facebook and the comparing mind

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Normally, I poo-poo New Year’s resolutions.  I stopped doing it so long ago, I’m not even sure I ever made them at all. Consciously, I’m not a big fan of setting myself up for failure (unconsciously may be a different story).  When I’m ready to make a change, I simply do it.  Maybe it lasts. Maybe it doesn’t. My meditation regime has lasted. My swimming regime, well, not so much. Same with writing. I’m good for a while and then it fades. So, why if I pledged to do something starting on January 1 would it have any different outcome than something I pledged to start on, say, April 23?

This year, however, I’m feeling like maybe I do want to make a resolution or two. Why the change of heart? Maybe because last year I  got a taste for change. I got reintroduced to my body after decades of living exclusively in my head, and my meditation practice is now an integral part of my day.  It’s been good.

The other night I was reading Sharon Salzberg’s book LovingKindness and when I got to the chapter on generosity, it became very clear to me that being more generous with my time and my resources, was something I needed to do.  And being New Years was only a few days away, I thought that it would make a dandy and worthwhile resolution.  I don’t like that feeling of constriction I get when I’m holding to something for no good reason other than it’s mine.  Which is not to say I need to be foolhardy and give away all my stuff and energy, but I think I’m mindful enough to recognize that tightness that comes when I know I could give, but out of neurosis (selfishness, fear of not having enough, ill will) I simply don’t wanna. So, my practice for this year will be to recognize that constriction, and then make a concerted effort to open up – open up my heart, open up my hand, my wallet, my home, my refrigerator, whatever.

The other intention I have for the New Year is to spend less time on that blasted Facebook. It’s insidious, really. When I’m at my computer at home, I pretty much always have a window open with Facebook up. And even though I don’t really post all that  much, I still peek, almost compulsively at my newsfeed, as if I am expecting some breaking news like election results or updates on a natural disaster.  I really need to get a grip.

Like most of us, I joined Facebook with the hope of connecting easily with old friends – the kind of friends that you’re interested enough to hear what is happening with them, but not so close that you’d make the effort to see.  And it is always a kick when I first “friend” someone  I haven’t seen in eons. I check out their pictures, their info, take a gander at their wall.  It’s a quick and safe way to get a sense of who that person has become (or at the very least who they want people to believe they have become).  Maybe we’ll exchange a message or two expressing how tickled we are to be in touch.  But then after that, the connection is pretty tenuous and voyeuristic.

What I’ve been finding lately, is that my excursions onto Facebook are simply an excuse for my comparing mind to have a field day. Oh look, there’s someone who was such a hotshot in high school and now they’re just a suburban housewife. I’m much more interesting than she is.  And there is that guy whom I barely remember, he’s smart, successful, travels a lot. God, I’m a failure.  And why does that girl have so many friends? She’s such a phony. Yet everyone buys into her Super Mom routine.  Wow, and look at my former workmate, she looks amazing!  I look like crap.”  You get the drift, right?  It’s simply not healthy.

So, I’m going to try and find a middle way with Facebook. I don’t need to drop out all together, but I’m going to limit my time. I really wish there were a plug-in that would tally the number of minutes you’re on it.  I guess I’m just going to have to do that whole mindfulness thing and just recognize when I’m checking Facebook out of boredom or some other neurotic impulse.  Hmmmm. Mindfulness and Facebook. Somehow they don’t really belong in the same sentence, do they?

Knowing suffering

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“Suffering is to be known,” the Buddha said. One must penetrate dukkha directly. Penetration occurs when you consciously choose to be mindful of the actual experience of pain, stress, and emotional distress as it manifests in your body, mind, and heart. In order for you to know its true nature, you must be with your suffering as a lived physical experience and willingly feel the “ouch” of it.
Phillip Moffitt

The other day, towards the end of the workday, normally a rather cheery time in the office, my staff and I were informed that Wilma, a beloved former colleague was within hours of death, and if we wanted to say good-bye we better get our asses over to the hospital ASAP.

In twos and threes we took turns making the sad pilgrimage up the hill to the hospital.  Those who went before me reported that Wilma was simply not there – her eyes were open but nothing was registering. But, the family appreciated the gesture, and my colleagues were grateful for the chance to see her one last time.

When my turn came, I headed up with a colleague who had remained close to Wilma even after she had retired, and one of my staff.  Wilma’s room was crowded with somber family members lost in their own grief. We were greeted by her 20-something year old daughter, a beautiful girl who bore a great resemblance to her mother, and thanked us for being there.

We each took turns maneuvering our way through the hovering family to get up near Wilma’s face so we could have our good-byes.  Wilma’s eyes were open and her mouth was frozen open in a grimace. Her lips were glistening with a glaringly glossy lip gloss someone had applied in order to keep them from cracking with dryness.   I had expected that she would be silent.  She wasn’t.  As I stood by her side, stroking the side of her face – I didn’t have any words – she moaned. In fact she moaned the entire time we were there.  At first I thought it was just some kind of neurological response, something that was not volitional.  I didn’t want to believe those moans were signs of her suffering.

My denial didn’t last long.  Soon it became very clear that behind the frozen face Wilma was still there and wanting to communicate her discomfort.  The daughter called for the nurse to administer more morphine.  Wilma’s agitation was growing more agonizing as the nurse took her own sweet time getting the morphine ready.  The family, seeing Wilma’s torment, all started crying.  The daughter was desperately to get her mother some relief.  The family had started a chain of comfort, with an auntie rubbing a cousin’s back who was  rubbing the daughter’s back as she was trying to comfort and calm her mother until the morphine kicked in.

My staff member and I wanted to leave the room, partially out of respect for the family in this difficult moment, and also to spare ourselves the pain of having this agonizing scene being the our last image of Wilma.  But, we were trapped in the room by the medication cart the nurse had parked in the doorway.  I closed my eyes and started to silent recite the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum.

Unfortunately, the morphine did not quell Wilma’s discomfort and the energy in the room got quite chaotic as people were trying to figure out what it was that she wanted.  Finally, their best guess was that she wanted to be turned.  I offered to go get the nurse again, which also gave me a graceful way to exit.

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Arriving home that evening, sad and tired, I listened to my voice mail. There was a message from my landlord telling me that they were coming to clear these three large trees from my front yard tomorrow and asked me to move my car so they have room.

While this wasn’t a surprise, the timing was.  They had mentioned they wanted to get rid of those trees, but I thought I would have had some time to dissuade them, or maybe they would just forget.   Again, my denial was proven futile.

While Acacia trees are not my favorite, these particular trees provided the great service of not only keeping the front of my house cool and shaded, with their shadows creating beautiful dappled light in the morning, but they also offered me privacy an shielded me from my neighbors, the hoarders.

While I can be quite entertained by the television show Hoarders, it is less than amusing have some live next door to one.  These people hoard cars, lumber and and have the largest collection of trash cans that I have ever seen (which is somewhat ironic because they clearly do not use them). I have never met the hoarders next door.  From what I’ve seen, it’s not a family.  It looks like it is mostly men who work construction and bring home all the lumber scraps and pile them in their driveway.

I’ll be the first to admit my dislike for those people is not rational. Like I said, I’ve never even met them. Yet, in my mind I made them monsters.  The best tactic for me was to simply ignore them lest I get all worked up about the eyesore they have created. Those overgrown Acacia trees provided me a shield from having to look at their mess, and kept me safe from those so-called monsters.

So, upon hearing that those trees were going to be cut down, I was flush with anger, pain, and fear, all the while still reeling from  the sad good-bye to Wilma.  Since there was nothing I could really do about it, I went about my usual evening routines. The first of which is to check my email and Facebook.   Ironically, the first posting I read was the quote above from Phillip Moffitt. Timely. Very timely.

So taking the clue, I closed my eyes and sat for a moment.  Yup, I indeed was knee deep in the dukkha. My face and jaw were tight, my stomach was knotted and my heart hurt.  Ah yes, this is suffering . . . yup, still suffering . . . OK, still feeling like shit.  Ouch.  This hurts.  OK, Buddha, I get it.  Now what?

And with great mindfulness, I decided to have a  pint of Trader Joe’s Chocolate Caramel Swirl ice cream for dinner.  Sorry, Buddha, but I’ve enough dukkha for the day, thank you very much.

That’s how the light gets in

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In anticipation of seeing Leonard Cohen again tonight, his music has become my constant companion on my commute to and from work.  The other day I had a bit of an epiphany while listening to the refrain from his song “Anthem”:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

A couple of posts ago, I used a rather long and graphic metaphor of my past traumas and emotional hurts being like a wound – at first it’s bloody and oozing, (and possibly pustulant) and then moving on to a crusty scab and finally to mere scar tissue.  And as much fun as that was to write (because who, after all, doesn’t enjoy the word “pustulant”?),  now I think I was wrong.

Like most everybody, I find a certain comfort in thinking that there can be certain recipes, certain prescribed steps that one must take in order achieve whatever it is you want to achieve, whether your goals be mundane or sacred. Back in my New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) days, I chanted “The Stages of the Path” several times a week. And while the tune was quite saccharine, there was comfort in knowing there was a path and if I worked very hard and was a good little Kadampa, I could progress along that path and eventually become enlightened. And while I wasn’t very far along the path,  I sure as hell was well acquainted with the map and how to get there.

When it came to my relationship with my past, I think I was falling into the same trap of thinking that there was this inherent path to perfect healing.  Step one: regurgitate all your painful memories and trauma and present on a platter to your mental health professional.  Step two:  work together with said mental health professional to take all the pieces of your psychic jig saw puzzle and make it whole.  Step three: having put Humpty Dumpty back together again, move on with your life.

Part of the problem with these paths, I’m starting to realize, is that there is this assumption that where you are right now is not good enough since, after all, you haven’t made it yet to your destination. It doesn’t take into account the beauty of our flaws, our vulnerabilities, that tender desire to simply be happy. So, the other day, when I heard that lyric

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

it occurred to me that our most Buddha-like quality – our compassion – does not come from our perfection, but rather from our cracks, our broken places, the holes in our heart.  So, why would I want to completely to seal my psychic wounds with scar tissue? How would my light get in (or out)?

Of course, all this is not to say there isn’t spiritual progression or movement towards healing.  There is. Yet, there is nothing wrong with this moment, whether I’m feeling whole or feeling the hole in my heart.

A day at the Blues Festival

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Every year for the past few years, the boyfriend and I go to the annual San Francisco Blues Festival.  The festival is always held in late September when the weather finally gets nice and warm in the City.  The location is perfect – out at the Great Meadow at Fort Mason, right on the Bay with a view of the Golden Gate.  Inevitably the days are hot, and just as the concert is winding down, that chilly breeze comes in through the Gate, and people who were half undressed a half hour before are throwing on their sweaters or huddling in blankets.

Admittedly, most of the time I am barely familiar with most of the acts.   The type of blues artists I’m most familiar would be old old delta blues legends like Robert Johnson, Ledbelly, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, etc.  They are long gone, so I just go to because I enjoy the blues, not any one particular artist. And it’s fun being surprised.   We always just sit in the less pricey general admission area, which is some distance from the stage, so my attention is never fully on the stage, but rather on the spectator sport of people watching.

This year I focused on festival fashion . . . if you can call it that.  But, hey, this wasn’t Bryant Park, it’s an outdoor music festival where people take in too much sun, too much beer and then attempt to dance all funkylike when most of them don’t have a funky bone in their body.

For the men, the classic look was a commemorative t-shirt from one of the past SF Blues festivals – the older the better.  This tells everyone you’re a true aficionado, not some festival Johnny-come-lately.  Or if you want to show you’re a bit more traveled, you wore a t-shirt from some other blues or jazz festival (extra  cool points for anything from New Orleans).  And then there was the tie dye.  Why oh why the tie dye?  Perfectly normal looking men – not your basic old hippies who never left the 60s, but men who look like they may draw a salary – wearing tie dyed t-shirts.  Sigh.  Granted some were tie dye commemorative t-shirts, but still.

A two-fer: a tie dye shirt, that was also a past Blues Festival shirt

The women were not nearly as uniform as the men.  In fact, it would be hard to make generalizations, so I shan’t.  But, there was something very odd going on with the few young girls there.  Every girl under the age of 16, and I kid you not, was wearing a belly dance coin shawl thing wrapped around their hips.  Seriously, every freakin’ girl child was wearing one.  At first, I conjectured that perhaps they were some kind of young dance troupe who all came together.  But, no.   There seemed to be no correlation between them except for that belly dance coin thing they were all wearing.  Weirdest damn thing.  It was like it was belly dance coin thing day at the festival – bring your girl child under 16 and she’ll get a free belly dance coin thing.

One shot, two trends.  Blues festival t-shirt for the adult, and one of those belly dance coin things for the young lady.

One shot, two trends. Blues festival t-shirt for the adult, and one of those belly dance coin things for the young lady.