Where Peace Comes From

World peace is difficult precisely because I couldn’t resist spending half an hour at the Calvin Klein 70% off sale this evening. I wanted to forego Calvin Klein not because they make their clothes in Asia or Latin America but because I need to get some sleep tonight to avoid imploding. Yet there I was.

We cannot create something we cannot imagine, and we have so little experience with peace. At a conference last spring, a presenter spoke about the connections our brains are and are not capable of making. She put the word “apple” up on the screen and asked the audience to get a mental picture of the word. She then showed a red apple, a green apple, and the Apple logo and asked the audience which image they had in mind. About half the audience, myself included, had pictured the Apple logo. “That result was not possible 20 years ago,” she said.

Twenty years ago we couldn’t have connected an existing concept—apple—to something that didn’t exist yet, the current Apple logo. And pre-iPod, pre-commercial Internet almost, only a handful of members from a 1991 audience would have pictured the Apple logo of the time—most of them hadn’t practiced that connection.

We imagine war every day. We build monuments to it. We watch movies about it. We play it in games. Enter Calvin Klein. How can we imagine peace if we can’t feel it within ourselves? And how can I feel it when I continue to do things I know don’t make me peaceful?

The amount of time I spend fighting myself—not wanting to get up, not wanting to go to work, not feeling I’ve gotten enough done—is much greater than the amount of time I spend at peace with myself—admiring a scarlet leaf shot through with sunlight, sitting still long enough for the cat to crawl up on my lap, feeling pride in an accomplishment. I suspect I am not unique in this internal war/peace ratio, yet we haven’t completely destroyed each other yet.

I think humanity has survived because peace is tremendously powerful. Ten seconds of peace must count for at least ten hours of strife. Which means even in our human-ness, in our infinite capacity for making mistakes, in our resistance to change, in our succumbing to the temptation of the fancy jacket reduced to $30, even in the midst of all that, if we spend just a few more moments breathing or appreciating, thanking or complimenting, being still or being astounded, we will add not drops but bucketfuls of peace to the world.

No one can say whether it will be enough, but let’s imagine what life will be like when it is.

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation next week. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, and joyous celebrations of whatever other holidays you honor at this time of light growing out of the darkness.

Learning from Your Students

Any day with homemade cookies is a good day. Last week a troop of freshmen appeared in our office bearing plates laden with chocolate chocolate chip cookies. Clearly, these freshmen have good taste.

chocolate chocolate chip cookiesWe didn’t know what to make of them at first. I work in an administrative office at a university, and we generally only see students when they are lost or in serious trouble. These young men and women had baked cookies for everyone in the building, all four floors, to show their appreciation “for everything you do for us.” I’m sure most of them have no idea what we do.

Many of us, myself included, tend to dismiss the contribution of those whose jobs we don’t understand. These students took the opposite approach, assuming we were doing something worthwhile on their behalf, a generosity that meets or exceeds that of baking dozens of cookies for people you don’t know.

I think the world would benefit from more random acts of appreciation. They should probably be done regularly, like flossing. They could be simple, like thanking the person who checks my groceries with more than a mumble instead of interacting solely with the credit card machine.

One blogger has taken it a step further in her Year of Kindness campaign. She does things like buy a complete stranger a cup of coffee because he looks sad or give away dozens of roses to whoever will take them. I’m probably not that advanced yet, but I could start by recognizing those people who help me regularly rather than taking them for granted.

When the cookie bearers stepped off the elevator, the atmosphere on our floor suddenly became Disney-worthy — sun shining, birds singing. I found myself asking everyone, “Did the students come to your office?” That kind of good cheer is worth spreading.

A Little Perspective Goes a Long Way

If I could regularly follow my own advice, I could give the Dalai Lama a run for his money. Holiness is, after all, a competition.

Unfortunately, regularly doing anything is not my strong point. Last week I finally stressed myself out to the point of getting sick (remember that report?). On the fifth day, I was well enough to despair over all the lost time and uncompleted tasks and spent some time railing against the injustices of the world. Then a moment of lucidity bubbled up from somewhere: perhaps I was overreacting considering people live with chronic illness and pain.

My friend, we’ll call her Deidre, has MS yet is sincerely and consistently positive. She manages to be grateful for impossible things like dirty diapers, which remind her the baby is more important than whatever she happens to be doing. She enjoys doing the dishes because it gives her meditative time with God. I often want to throttle people who espouse this type of attitude; not many who say it truly mean it.

I suspect Deidre’s genuine gratitude has its roots in her deep acceptance of her own humanity. She once told me wise choices come from making lots of mistakes. She manages to be happy with who she is even though she can no longer take a hot shower, occasionally has to use a walker, and sometimes literally cannot connect to the right word while speaking or reading because her nerves misfire.

You’d think someone in Deidre’s situation would need more than she has the capacity to give, but that’s never been my experience. I always leave our visits enriched, having gained some wisdom to tack on the refrigerator and reread until I’ve reached the maturity level necessary to practice it.

So next time I’m sick for five whole days and have to suffer through my mom bringing me soup and movies, perhaps I can feel a speck less sorry for myself. Take that, Dalai Lama.

Starting the Season Right

I almost subjected you to deep thoughts this week. Nothing cures unnecessary deep thoughts like a good party, and no one throws a better party than Central Coast Soccer. I highly recommend parties over deep thoughts. First of all, there’s more food. Second of all, people are enjoying themselves.

soccer ball with Santa hatHere is what I love about CCSoccer: it is coed; we don’t keep score; the league asks anyone who is too aggressive to leave; newcomers to the game are welcomed, encouraged, and passed to; everyone on the team having fun trumps playing the best possible game. This truly recreational atmosphere is as rare as a cheerful Woody Allen movie, one out of every few thousand.

Here is what I love about the CCSoccer party: it takes a moment to recognize people because they’ve blow-dried their hair and no one is sweaty. Greetings resemble those between long-lost friends whether people haven’t seen each other for a year or they just played together Wednesday night. Everyone brings their kids, who get to run around and play and be kids. Stealing during the white elephant gift exchange is merciless. The food is really good.

The attitude of the league creates the ambience of the party. The members of this community have practiced not taking one another too seriously, and all the time they’ve spent together, they’ve spent doing something they love—a rare combination.

I don’t know the details of these people’s lives the way I know those of my closest friends or family members, but whether I only exchange hellos with someone or the conversation continues through year-in-review updates, seeing each person cheers me. The smiles and hugs throughout the room make it clear others feel the same way.

If the spirit of the holiday season includes welcoming, supporting, and enjoying those around us, this group is ready to celebrate.

Get Your Gratitude On

To get us all in the mood for the holiday, here is a brief selection from the long list of things I’m grateful for.

CornucopiaThe sense-able: the sun’s warmth on a cold day, the contour of a rock pressing through the sole of my shoe, my sister’s laugh, the impossible whir of hummingbird wings, the oboe playing out over the rest of the orchestra, cat purrs, the smell of freshly-baked bread, the scent of the air after a good rain, the way a warm chocolate chip cookie melts around your tongue, the taste of fried squash blossoms or a perfect peach, the clarity of the milky way on a cloudless mountain night.

The less tangible: early morning silences, the lift of my spirit when a hawk circles, the way a wildflower or sunlight through fall leaves calls me back to the present, the impatience of tree buds ready to burst into life, the satisfaction of a well-placed word or well-struck soccer ball, the way a line of poetry can grab me somewhere between my heart and my bones, the anticipation of leaving on a journey, the comfort of returning home, the moments of feeling all is right in my pocket of the world.

The often overlooked: running water, hot running water, cleaning machines of all kinds, well-maintained roads, airplanes, laughter, peaceful sleep, dentists, antibiotics.

The essentials: so much food I have never once worried about going hungry, clean drinking water, shelter, heat, work, freedom to relate to God as I choose, time to create and the freedom to decide the form of that creation.

The even more essentials, a.k.a. family, friends, and blog readers: your encouragement, your support, your humor, your patience, your forgiveness, your generosity, your love, you.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Joyful feasting.

Just Five Minutes

I have a little problem with cleaning. A few months ago, a couple of friends gave me some good advice: spend fifteen minutes a day cleaning and the house will be in shape before guests arrive. I shortened it to five. Then things got a little out of control.

I liked the idea so much that my list of five-minute-a-day tasks would now take approximately 28 hours to complete. And no, I never even did the cleaning part.

Trying to be hyper-productive, useful, scheduled, and organized doesn’t really work for me. (The results are well and hilariously illustrated on Hyperbole and a Half.) I know people who are naturally this way, and surprisingly I like these people. But when my five-minute-a-day list starts to grow, I am likely trying to make myself OK by achieving all my goals right now. Which means, of course, that whatever I am now is not OK.

Albert Einstein supposedly said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” The extreme five-minute-a-day approach definitely stays at the same level; it reinforces the not-OK assumption and buys into the achievement myth big time.

Playing, relaxing, praying, and being grateful truly change my thinking. They don’t have much use for not OK because they’re pretty excited about how amazing and fun life is.

When I picture my fully-achieved life (cue background music of heavenly choirs), I feel content. I used to think content was a bad word because it meant stasis and complacency and sitting on the couch eating potato chips and watching endless TV, but maybe it’s just a change in thinking. Maybe it’s gratitude run rampant.

And maybe I should practice it now so that on that day when my kids happily inhabit my clean house and my novel is published to great acclaim, I won’t be taken too much by surprise.

Just Marvelous

A very important event happened recently: my friend Mary Ann turned ninety. I hope I can be as full of life on my next birthday as she was on her nintieth.

Every time Mary Ann sees you she tells you, “Well I think you’re just marvelous,” and she is so clearly delighted with exactly who you are that you start to believe it a little. You also start to think maybe you could tell others the same thing.

Mary Ann collects people. She almost never walks past someone without greeting him or her, regardless of whether she knows the person or not. There must have been more than fifty people at her birthday party, young and old and most ages in between. To honor her sense of adventure, the candles on the cake were tiny sparklers.

She has survived the death of her husband and all her biological children with her good humor and ability to enjoy life intact. She appreciates beautiful things and supports the people who make them.

She is losing her sight and has had to move into an assisted living apartment, a dangerous environment for a free spirit. The first year or so, she struggled with the transition, but every time she started a conversation by complaining, she ended it by telling me why she was lucky to be there.

During a prayer at the party, a friend of hers, in trying to describe what about the birthday girl she was grateful for said, “I’m grateful for her being so Mary Ann.” And I’m grateful for such a fine example of how being deeply ourselves and enjoying the heck out of it may be the best way to spend our lives. Thank you, Mary Ann.

Getting Ghoulish

Halloween is good for adults, better than vitamins and a full daily allowance of fiber. It gives us an excuse to be silly and creative for no reason—in public!

jack o'lanternOne of the departments in my building transformed its office into The Price Is Right, complete with products and tags that opened to reveal the cost of each item. In practical mode, recreating The Price Is Right logo and printing it on all those tags for one day’s entertainment would be deemed a waste of time, but in Halloween mode, it is awesome.

Halloween mode changes our approach to the day. We appreciate, honor, and enjoy each other’s wackiness. We anticipate and look for fun and unexpected things to appear in ordinary places—at work, at home, on the street.

I think we would all benefit from spending more time in Halloween mode. Too often we feel our actions have to be productive in order to be worthwhile. There’s a great passage in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that explains how the humans think they’re smarter than the dolphins because the dolphins play all day while humans accomplish things, and the dolphins think they’re smarter for the same reason.

Productivity isn’t bad, but its usefulness to our souls is limited. Very few of us light up after completing a task, no matter how useful, the way we do when the International Education office appears dressed as a group of loud, American tourists, complete with fanny packs and Hawaiian shirts.

Halloween gives us some time to enjoy rather than worry, to create rather than produce. We might consider granting ourselves that freedom more than once a year.

Happy to Inherit

Newsflash: your parents were once children. Some of you may have figured this out before I did, but the corollary may surprise you: your aunts and uncles were, too.

Last weekend my dad, a couple of his siblings, their respective spouses, and I gathered for an incomplete but very enjoyable family reunion. It has only recently occurred to me that these people—spouses excepted—have spent all or most of their lives together. They know each other in a variety of contexts: childhood, adolescence, newlyweds. They know the stupid choices, the heartbreaks, the brilliant successes, the unexpected joys.

They hold all these versions of each other within their memories and yet miraculously manage not to hold each other to those versions. Forgiving and forgetting even the small things can be difficult—the broken toy, the gloves thrown in the snowbank (sorry, little sister)—and history between siblings is not always comprised of only small things. This willingness to let go is a big chunk of what it means to be an adult, and it is rare.

I appreciate this group’s ability to laugh—kindly—at the way we are utterly and predictably ourselves. My uncle will always pause mid-conversation to find the source of the unusual airplane motor the rest of us don’t even notice. My dad will always search out mayonnaise packets, oblivious to my other uncle’s impatience to get where we’re going. But by and large, everyone chooses to be entertained rather than annoyed by each other’s idiosyncrasies.

After my grandmother died, the entire family gathered at a beach house with an astonishing collection of food and drink. Toward the end of the week, my dad and his brother and sisters sequestered themselves in one of the bedrooms for a few hours. When they emerged, all my grandma’s assets had been bloodlessly divided up, the only item of contention a CD/tape player that may have been worth $100 at the time. They flipped a coin. No hard feelings. No lawyers. Everyone not only still talking to each other but also still enjoying each other.

And that, perhaps, is the older generation of Henrys greatest legacy to my generation: the lived conviction that enjoying each other is more valuable than whatever else might happen.

Communing with Crabs

Nature often saves me. The trees outside my office building catch infinite shades of light; hummingbirds zip by improbably close; hawks redefine effortless. The non-human-created gets me out of myself in a way nothing else does.

Last weekend I found a new-to-me park with a trail that led past the “Hazard: Unsafe Bluffs” sign down to the collection of rocks that served as a beach. It was one of those glassy ocean days when it looks as if you could skim sunlight off the water’s surface. The sea was receding, leaving tide pools in its wake.

sea anemoneI squatted down to look at one of the pools, little more than a puddle really, and was initially unimpressed: some wavy pink plant, a lot of snail shells, a few closed up anemones. I stayed, though, and after a time previously inanimate objects began to move, first only a few and eventually most of what had been stationary.

Crabs ranging from small to borderline microscopic stood up underneath those supposed snail shells and started scuttling about with them. What I’d thought were pebbles encrusted on the outside of the anemones sprouted tiny legs and joined them. Some sort of mini lizard-fish made short, intermittent darts here and there. A many-legged creepy-crawly that resembled those you don’t enjoy finding in your bathtub appeared and moved in random, short bursts, miraculously never running into the lizard-fish. And finally some creature who resembled nothing more than a few grains of sand stuck together began bobbing about.

The tide pool couldn’t have held more than a few gallons of water, and yet it supported this exquisite and astonishing abundance of life. As I’ve said before, I sometimes worry we’re going to wipe out ourselves and the rest of the world through various forms of stupidity or inattention. I understand the scientific delicacy of ecosystems. But the sheer amount of life in this splash the ocean left behind gave me hope that creation is bigger than our stupidity and inattention and not likely, however improbable it seems, to be overcome by the likes of us.