Heart Cleaning

My dad and sister are coming to visit for Christmas, and there is this small matter of getting the house ready. There’s also a larger matter of getting my heart ready.

Readying the house requires making room for their physical presence—clearing the papers off the table so they have a place to eat, putting hangers in the closet for their clothes. We welcome guests by making space for them, by setting a place at the table.

One day I caught myself wishing that my dad and sister were arriving a few days later to give me more time to prepare. In other words, the whole reason for these preparations was to welcome them, and here I was wishing they’d stay away. That’s when the whole heart thing came up.

I think heart preparation is similar to home preparation. We need to clear some space in our hearts to welcome others into it. We have to let go of the preoccupations of how we want our lives to be—sometimes even when we think those preoccupations are in the service of others, like cleaning the house for their arrival.

We also have to let go of who we want them to be. I don’t mean that we should tolerate cruelty, but to truly love someone or something means loving her as she is—both the perfect and the imperfect bits. I think this is hard, especially with family members because so much of who we think we are is wrapped up in our relationships with them.

But what better time to practice than Christmas when we celebrate, to paraphrase Meister Eckhart, the birth of Christ in the essence and ground of our souls? When we make room for others in our hearts—relatives, friends, those who are struggling—we make room for this birth, and vice versa.

According to Eckhart, it’s worth the effort: “If you just wait for this birth to take place in you, you will find all that is good, all consolation, all bliss, all being and all truth.”

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. May whatever holy days you celebrate at this time of year bring you light, life, and love.

Lessons from Hardwood

With apologies for more time away than anticipated, here’s a recap of what the universe of wood flooring taught me this past month.

Lesson the first: Cardboard is a wood floor’s best friend.

Lesson the second: As a friend said, yay for dads.

Empty room with wood floor
The new wood floor in all its glory.

Lesson the third: I liked seeing my floor stripped down to the plywood, though I’m still not sure why. Maybe it’s reassuring to know there’s something under it all. Maybe the unpretentiousness of plywood—its simplicity—appeals to me. The plywood, paint-splattered as it is, appears to be comfortable with itself and its role in the universe, a state of being I often fail to achieve.

Lesson the fourth: Home improvements are worth it. Every time I walk into my bedroom and see the floor, I think to myself, “Wow, this is my room” because I’m that surprised by how beautiful it is.

Lesson the fifth: Do-it-yourself projects provide an excellent opportunity to practice the spirituality of imperfection (not my term, stolen from Richard Rohr). The first time you use leveling compound, it’s not going to be pretty.

Lesson the sixth: Beds are awesome. I slept on a cot in the living room for more than a week and the return to my bed was, as previously stated, awesome. I think Tux, my cat, was happier than I was.

Lesson the seventh: Though unanticipated moments may lead to quality time contemplating different shades of brown caulk, they may also form the happiest memories. One of my favorite moments had nothing to do with the floors. Dad and I were leaving for dinner, and Tux had snuck out into the patio. I was attempting to lure him in with treats, and he, being a cat, was determined to remain uninterested. Then my dad—who usually addresses Tux with, “Yes, cat, out of the way”—said, “Go on Tuxer. She has some treats for you.” Anything is possible.

In Praise of Co-Habitation

All of you who live lovingly with others—roommates, spouses, children, extended family members—astonish me. I asked some people what they think praise means recently, and two of my favorite responses were “to honor and recognize holiness” and to stand in awe of. Today I’d like to take a moment to praise healthy, happy—at least most of the time—co-habitation.

Sometimes after work I sit in my car and play word games on my phone to avoid interacting with my cat quite so soon. Granted, none of my former roommates clawed me if I didn’t play with them when I got home, but I started thinking about all my vanmates who get in their cars and drive directly home to care for or simply be with families and spouses.

A friend and I spent last weekend at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. That’s three days of sitting in your own room with your own little garden, seeing people only at services, and speaking only during our afternoon walks. I always find re-entry rough, but she has to readjust not only to noise and advertisements and Starbucks but also to another human being, her husband.

Living well with others requires a certain selflessness and self-sacrifice, a willingness to give up some of how you would rather things be, an openness to negotiation and renegotiation. In essence, a daily giving of yourself that can’t help but make the world more loving.

Of course not everyone manages to be as kind as they might like to be every day, but on balance, this daily and often not-so-simple caring for one another is a great good. Huzzah to you!

Rest in Peace

My Uncle David died last Monday. I am relieved that I will not have to see him again or feel guilty for not visiting more often while having no intention of doing so. Can you say you loved someone you really didn’t want to be around?

My uncle suffered from schizophrenia, and suffered is an apt word. As difficult as it was to listen to his ranting about what his cat said or what the government was plotting, I’m sure it didn’t compare to the torture of being inside his head. There probably wasn’t a moment after his break around the age of twenty when he felt at peace, when he could relax and enjoy this world and his life in it.

People say, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” and I want to say, “Don’t be.” Though I have felt a strange grief at his passing, I suspect it has mostly to do with the death of any hope that he might change, that he might be healthy. Or happy.

Even before his break, many of his childhood stories were grim. While sorting through his belongings, we found old pictures of my grandfather. My mom told of how, when David was around thirteen, my grandfather chased him the length of their apartment, which was half a block long, beating him with a belt while my grandmother watched.

Let me include a few positive memories because no life is ever one-sided. David was incredibly intelligent, deeply spiritual, and always concerned with social justice. He taught me to play marbles and Chinese checkers. The people at the retirement community where he lived the last decade or so of his life truly appreciated his friendship.

I burned a yahrzeit candle for him, a Jewish mourning tradition. When looking up the prayer to say over the candle, I came across one that said, “May his memory be for a blessing.”

I tell these stories here as a member of a people that has survived 5,773 years by remembering. Because David wasn’t and isn’t the only one. I think it’s important to remember that when you scratch the surface of almost any family, you rarely have to go more than a generation to find scars a mile wide.

I can’t say what I was supposed to learn from knowing my uncle, except for that one lesson that we can never learn often or deeply enough—that everyone we encounter is in need of more compassion than we can know and so we should offer what we can. What we can may vary. Being physically present for my uncle wasn’t something I could do often, nor was talking on the phone. But maybe I can help his memory be for a blessing.

So here is a remembrance, a prayer, a wish, a hope for all those, living and dead, whose demons dig their claws in so much more forcefully than most of us will ever know: may you rest in peace, whether in this world or the next.

Not So Little Anymore

I declare this week Little Sister Appreciation Week because my little sister is awesome. In both the really great and fills-me-with-awe meanings of the word.

My sister is six years younger than I, so every time she hits a milestone—driving, college graduation, thirty—it reminds me how old I am. But to make up for that, she amazes me with who she has become. Recently, I keep realizing that she has become a grownup.

The author and her sister under a blooming cherry tree
My sister, me, and some cherry blossoms.

Her most recent demonstration of grownup-ness consisted of caring for my dad after hip surgery. My dad is a lot of wonderful things, but he’s generally unresponsive to people telling him what to do. If they could measure stubbornness, I feel certain he would be in the Guinness Book of World Records. He also resists cleaning even more than I do, which is a strong statement to make.

My mom had a couple of surgeries a few years ago, and even though I mostly showed up at the hospital and smiled, I was pretty much of a train wreck. My sister, on the other hand, had to figure out house cleaning, buying new furniture, modifying a walker, cooking two weeks’ worth of meals to freeze, and coaching Dad through his first physical therapy sessions. And she is deaf.

Deafness gives you a whole new way of experiencing the world; it also makes parts of life more difficult because most of our institutions, services, and processes are designed for hearing people—hospitals and furniture stores, for example. Yet she navigated all this expertly. Color me amazed once again.

Just for fun, here are a few of the many other reasons my sister is awesome:

  • She is a talented artist.
  • She makes me laugh so hard I can’t breathe.
  • She celebrates her deafness.
  • She is always learning more about her profession.
  • She has impeccable taste.
  • She tells it like is.
  • I can’t think of anything that makes me happier than seeing her when one of us has just gotten off an airplane.

Thanks, Little Sis, for being you.

Falling into Place

I bribed my family to forego skiing in Colorado and come to California for Christmas. The winning offer: Dungeness crab at $6.99/lb.

We’ve never before gathered in California, and the four of us haven’t been together in quite a few years. When reflecting on what made the week so much fun, it appeared to me that we’re all at a point where we want to be with each other or are at least capable of enjoying the company. With the possible exception of the cat, who made it clear he objected to the disruption of his usual routine.

It’s not always easy to remember that things happen in stages. My sister is six years younger than I, and for years I didn’t want her around. In my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t want any of my family members around. By the time I returned to the fold, my sister had had about enough of all of us. The two of us have been close for years now, but it took some time.

The cycle turned again this year, and it felt as if things I didn’t even know were missing fell into place a little.

That’s not to say we’re perfect. My sister and I had to stop speaking about a photograph because we disagreed so strongly about its contents. My parents are divorced, and though they did us the gigantic favor of not hating each other, they are not those people you see in the movies who remain close friends.

Yet we all seem to have come to a place where, most of the time, we don’t need each other to be any more or less than who we are. The other side of the coin, I think, is that we all have some acceptance of our own failings. We can, mostly, listen to stories about ourselves and say, wow, did I really do that? A gentler reaction than, I did not do that!

The future undoubtedly holds anger and frustration along with the joy and love, but this Christmas felt like a healing, as if something was sewn together that will make our relationships stronger in the future. And that is a remarkable gift.

What Grit Will Get You

I learned from a friend this morning that new Marines take three tests: intelligence, fitness, and grit. The greatest indicator of success is a recruit’s score on the grit test. (Caveat: I didn’t check this fact for the Marines, but I did find this article in The New York Times that says something similar about West Point cadets and college students.)

A few days earlier I had re-watched Little Miss Sunshine, one of my favorite movies, whose moral could be summed up as: things may not work out as you hoped even if you score 5 out of 5 on the grit test. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t watched the movie and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now.)

A thousand pushups won’t help colorblind Dwayne become a pilot in the Air Force. Frank has forever lost the pinnacle of Proust scholarship, and Olive will certainly never wear the Little Miss Sunshine crown.

But the movie is very much about how grit matters despite all that. From the eternal pushing of the clutch-less VW bus to stealing grandpa’s body from the hospital, this family epitomizes the refusal to give up.

Not the refusal to fail. They do nothing but fail, as measured by society’s standards and their own goals, in the entire movie. But they never give up.

Olive doesn’t win the pageant; Richard doesn’t get the book deal; and Frank doesn’t get the boy. I think life is like that sometimes: grit doesn’t necessarily get you what you’re aiming for, but it might get you something better.

What’s better than winning life’s many beauty pageants? Dancing to “Superfreak” on stage surrounded by those who love you.

Note: My friend Anne Ford will be guest blogging while I’m on vacation for the next two weeks. Anne is the author of Peaceful Places Chicago and is wonderful and funny and by the end of two weeks you will wish she had her own blog.

Celebrate Your Life

Birthdays can be a time for reflection, but this year I’m opting for celebration. Some cool things that happened on or near my birthday:
•    My van erupted into spontaneous song on hearing news of the occasion.
•    A friend sent me a picture of her smiling, swinging baby with good wishes.
•    Three friends from two very different times in my life met each other in Johannesburg, South Africa.
•    My team won the over-30s division of the local soccer tournament.
•    I discovered someone in my new office has the same birthday I do. As a result, we got both a birthday breakfast and a birthday lunch. I think that’s what they mean when they say nirvana.
•    A friend baked me some healthy yet surprisingly tasty cookies, which is particularly impressive because I am generally opposed to combining the concepts health and dessert.
•    My mom took me out to dinner, and we had completely unhealthy chocolate torte with hazelnut mousse. Yum.
•    Another friend sent me this blog post by someone who spent her birthday doing random acts of kindness.
•    A number of people wrote cheerful texts.
•    My dad called.
•    The answer to one of life’s great mysteries—who buys Christmas ornaments in July?—was answered when my mom and sister bought me some I’d been eyeing in San Diego.

According to this list, what’s going to make the next year enjoyable is chocolate cake. That and the people who surround, nurture, and support me, who make me laugh and do me perhaps the greatest favor any of us can do for each other—keep me in mind, whether they are near or far.

And all of this for someone who only remembers others’ birthdays about fifty percent of the time. Thanks, everyone.

Laugh Until It Hurts

Silliness apparently runs in my family. My mom, sister, and I traveled to San Diego last week. The most enjoyable part of our trip was neither the feats of marine mammals at Sea World nor the amazing Afghani food we ate, well, devoured (at Chopahn if anyone’s San Diego bound). The best moments had more to do with hobbits.

I don’t remember what inspired the first Golem impression of the trip, but that one inspired many others. They all had us laughing in that way that makes everyone around you in the restaurant either very envious or very nervous. The kind of laughter that makes you cry, the kind where you look at each other, not really sure why or whether the cause is hilarious enough to merit this reaction but nonetheless grateful for how good it feels.

This laughter differs from that invoked by even the funniest movie or most clever comedy routine. It has a refreshing quality, like dipping your soul in a mountain spring. No one would choose the Henry women over Robin Williams for a night of entertainment, yet when each of us curled her lips, rolled her eyes back in her head, and located her throatiest voice, we were, at least to ourselves, the funniest act around.

I suspect we could all use more of this breath-taking fun. I wish I could bottle it or write a recipe: mix three parts friends or family with two parts shared experience; add a day of relaxation and three drams silliness; mix.

The magic seems to arrive when it will, though, and the unexpectedness of finding yourself struggling for oxygen and wondering whether your abs will be sore the next day only makes the moment that much more precious.

“There Must Come a Time – 70”

Seventy is far closer to the end of life than I want to contemplate, but my mom plans to enjoy the entire decade.

Mom is one of the only people I know who has rejoiced at getting older. At some point in her mid-sixties she said to me with great delight, “I’m a crone!” By which she didn’t mean the shriveled up old woman who lives in the scary house, but a wisdom figure, an elder who may choose to live in a scary house for fun if she so desires.

When we say, “She looks good for her age” we mean “She looks younger than she is.” I’m as attached as the next person to being mistaken for a student, but I can also already tell where the spots on the back of my hands will be—at least the first round. Without Mom’s example of aging gracefully, that might freak me out more than it already does. She has given me a priceless alternative to clinging to the appearance of youth or mourning its loss.

I have a friend who is ninety, and the last year has been difficult for her. I understand—as much as anyone still in the first half of her life can—that aging is not easy. But in our culture we so rarely celebrate the joys of getting older: learning that so few situations are do or die, worrying less about what people think, gaining wisdom from having seen your successes and your failures fade, finding depths in yourself when those you love die. Not everyone learns these with age, but I’m not sure anyone can learn them without it.

When I was organizing Mom’s birthday party recently, many invitees said to me, “I thought she was younger than that.” I don’t think a drop of moisturizer has ever touched my mom’s face, so either she has really good skin or something else accounts for true youthfulness.

It might have something to do with elasticity of spirit and willingness to hope. And it may be what we need to enjoy life regardless of the number of years we’ve accumulated. Whatever it is, you’ll find it in my favorite seventy-year-old. Happy birthday, Mom.