Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The End and the Beginning

Each time I write I die a little. Putting words on a page isn’t simple, even when they’re flowing at an exhilarating pace. What’s emerges comes from places deep inside me. And as I venture there, I find myself afraid, anxious and eager. As if I were once again a teenager about to go on a first date.

It may seem odd to be writing about dying during the Holiday Season. But this time of year is full of emotional traps and this year that’s particularly true for me. It's the year's end and I’m feeling very vulnerable.

As a writer, I travel through landscapes full of memories and thoughts; some painful and bitter, some bursting with laughter and warmth. This year, I’ve taken it upon myself to search more deeply for what these moments mean. I’m searching for what lies in their depths. I’m looking for the lessons, the small cues I may have missed that could empower me. The lessons that might help me to be finally free of the things that I’ve brought forward from my past.

A few days ago, while meditating, I saw my mother. For the first time she was smaller than me. She was actually shorter by several inches, but her dark bitterness cast a large shadow that haunted me for years. In my meditation, I found myself walking at my mother's side. We were holding hands, but she was the child and I was the adult. In vignettes I saw the perils, the fears and loss that were part of her childhood; the polio, the flooding in the oilfields of Texas. The young girl without a mother.

You see, my mother murdered her own mother. Not as a conscious act, but under the direction of a physician over the telephone. My grandmother died in my mother’s arms and although were other things later on in life that made her the angry woman she became, I believe that event was the most dire of all.

Coming out of the meditation wasn’t a hallelujah moment. It was merely a quiet letting go, a feeling of relief. The child that was part of a cycle of pain and anger died. The things my mother did to me were hateful, but it's time to let them go.

Thich Nat Hahn says that when someone dies we must live more fully for them. And as my mother's genes, and my grandmother's cells are all a part of me, I can live more fully for all three of us.

I confess that my decision to consciously practice dying has had me praying to the Gods to hold my hand – no one should have to die alone. And I’m grateful to feel their presence nearby. It may be that I will die physically in my sleep, or instantly in an accident. But practicing dying everyday is something I highly recommend.

As I ventured further into this process, I decided to call once again my dear friend and spiritual counselor, Abdi Assadi . Here’s what he said - "In my experience of being around dying people, most of us leave in the middle of something. Very few of us leave when our egos are ready. It’s good practice to see what feelings come up when we do have to leave things unfinished."

Abdi’s meditation: In your mind, release all that you hold dear, all activities, pains and loves that surround you in that moment. Pay attention to the emotions that come up. Your reluctance to let go - both the good and the bad. And practice letting them go. If you're reading a book, stop. If you're watching a movie, stop. Walk away. Let it go.

With that in mind, I, Sam, am an adult. I’m unfinished. I’m angry. I’m compassionate. I'm loving. I’m my mother's daughter. I'm my daughter’s mother. I’m every mother. I’m foolish. I’m wise. I want to finish this post. I’m a writer. I’m dying...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

For All the Trees I've Known and Loved

From the time I was six and ran away to spend the night under the sheltering branches of an avocado tree, to those moments when I find a really big beauty and slide down to settle in the lap of its roots and meditate – I love what trees do for me. Like the mythical World Tree that links the heavens, earth and the underworld, their vibrant energy breathes life into my body and soul. Trees heal.
But as my readers know, I harbor an inner Grinch over Christmas, the mass slaughter of trees. The decorating of trees with glitter and cheap shiny paraphernalia. There was a time when the ancient practice of tree worship had a seductive hold on humankind. Trees were linked to immortality and fertility and their worship emerged in various forms. Some cultures used trees to capture the demon that held a tormented soul in its grip. From Africa to the Northern Plains states, pilgrims traveled thousands of miles to visit Wishing Trees, whose secret locations are carefully handed down from generation to generation.
Despite the slashing edits to the Bible by Constantine, there remain references to the power of trees. Jesus said there were five trees in paradise, which never lost their leaves and granted immortality. St Thomas alluded to the five manifestations of greatness to the five words for mind; sanity, reason, mindfulness, imagination and intention. Some believed that these five manifestations were somehow linked to the meaning of the five trees.
This tree worshipper gave her daughter a pear tree for her wedding. But even today, although my feelings have mellowed somewhat about Xmas, I still suffer a mild guilt from bringing that living green inside. I know that tree farms make a difference and there is the added blessing that many of these farms tithe a portion of the monies to non-profits.
The ornaments Chloe and I accumulated are a different story. While searching for some documents, the memories of Xmases past came tumbling out of a small box high on a shelf. Worn with pieces missing, this odd collection is no less dear to me for its tattered condition. It has the patina that only love can give. A seashell Chloe had found on Venice Beach; a pair of wooden clothespin dolls – the boy painted black with a crooked red pipe cleaner halo. The girl is dressed in a long gold skirt and has a strapless top knotted in the front. Her long blonde hair sprouts straight up from her head. Miniature dolls that belonged to my mother - a fireman in a felt suit and red cap; a baby with hand crocheted dress are followed by a clay heart from Chloe’s Waldorf School days. It was broken in half. As I held the two pieces, I thought about my daughter, who will be spending Xmas in Lebanon with her husband. (The good news - I’ll be seeing her before Xmas and after.)
The brightly hand painted clown hat we used to cap our Xmas trees is going on the plane with me this holiday season. A lovely touchstone, a token of deep connections that exist across distance and time. Perhaps, there will be a tree near the house where I’m staying. If so, I intend to give it the hat in honor of all the trees I’ve loved and will love; the wild, the old, the new and those that are still a seed.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Grinch Surrenders: 8 tips for green gifts and giving for kids.

Okay, I confess – for years I was a Christmas Grinch! Hated the holiday and the hoopla that surrounded it. But, looking back, there were some memorable moments.
When Chloe was six I caved and bought a real tree – a small one as I wasn’t entirely ready to let go of my cranky Grinch. My poor daughter had already suffered through a spray painted tumbleweed with lights and bulbs, a fake spray job from the drugstore with fake elves. The real thing didn’t look bad but Chloe wanted more tinsel. And when you have a daughter as beautiful as mine, and you’ve promised to a ‘real Xmas’, you go out and get tinsel. Never mind that it’s already nine o’clock on Christmas Eve. After a quick foray to a shop on La Brea, we headed toward the car when suddenly a homeless man with a long beard emerged from behind a dumpster. Even from a distance, I knew we could have started a fire with a match to his breath. “Got any loose change, lady,” he called, shuffling in my direction.
I’m not heartless – I try to carry in the back of my car fruit and sandwiches, clean pairs of socks (something the homeless always need in cold weather). This man wanted money. At the time, I was living in Hollywood and had lots of courageous friends in AA, but Christmas Eve, with Chloe along, wasn’t the moment to try for rehab of any sort. At least, I told myself, a few dollars for some booze and he’ll be warmer tonight. Rummaging in my purse, I came up with a ten – all the cash I had and handed it over. His eyes grew large, and then he threw up his arms, and headed toward me. “Lady, let me give you a kiss,” he shouted.
I told him no thanks, but he kept coming. The two of us faced each other over the hood of the car, and circled a couple of times. Me telling him thanks! Really! Gotta go! Chloe was already in the front seat - giggling like a maniac.
I made my escape and as we pulled out of the parking lot, I heard him yell…I love you! Merry Christmas!
By now, you know that Chloe and I never had a truly traditional Christmas. I wasn’t that kind of Mama, and although I have some regrets about that, she’s doing really great. And that’s all a mother can dream of!
There are lots of wonderful ways to have a meaningful Xmas that connect with the spirit of giving. Chloe and I served Xmas dinner at Cecil Williams’ Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Glide has one of the biggest outreach programs in the country and their foundation has an online website for making donations easy ( www.glide.org ). In his 80’s, the dynamic African American Reverend Williams still heads the church. Ex cons park cars, their health programs, programs for women, job programs, story telling groups, to name a few, are part of what makes this church so special. If you’re in town, attend one of their services. It’s a real high. Open to all faiths it’s not strange to find yourself with a mix of believers from different faiths. The choir wears tie-dye robes and their gospel songs rock. Glide is San Francisco at its best!
You might gather a group of friends, and pool your funds for some Christmas turkeys. I did this pre Chloe with some artist friends. We found needy families and delivered the big birds on Christmas Eve, along with bags of veggies, cookies and fruit. It actually makes for a great family outing. If you’re busy, take shifts, or choose a designated driver and have your kids go along. Be sure to bring – sigh - lots of Christmas music and have your own songfest while driving. Or, if you’re really swamped and have no time, find a market that will deliver a bird or two to a church.
This year, an eco friendly Xmas makes the season extra special. I’ve been looking for ideas at two of my favorite green websites, www.inhabitat.com and www.inhabitots.com. Here are 8 eco friendly stocking stuffers and gift ideas for kids:

1. Tree blocks – toys from discarded sections of trees and look like
tiny logs ( www.inhabitots.com )
2. Bamboo toys of all sorts – bamboo grows 3 feet a year!
( www.inhabitots.com )
3. Recycled sweater stockings for the stuffers. (www.inhabitots.com)
4. A battery charger so you’re not always buying batteries! (any
drugstore, Target or Bed, Bath and Beyond.)
5. A permanent water bottle – add names, stencil designs of your own.
6. A bamboo framed drawing for a parent or a child.
7. LED anything; key chains, decorated bedside or bathroom lights that keep
away the monsters at night
8. Make a throw made out of recycled men’s ties (I found mine in a
flea market in Paris and made another when that one
disappeared from ties I found in thrift shops.)

Inhabitots also has a slew of eco friendly gifts that allow family and kids to nurture the spirit of green giving. They include solar powered laptops for children in developing countries, handcrafted tote bags made by women in India. The money for the tote bags goes toward employment for widows, abandoned mothers and unmarried women. You can adopt an acre of rainforest land from the Nature Conservancy or with as little as $25, micro-finance a small business on Kiva.org.
For homemade eco friendly gift-wrapping, cut a raw potato in half and carve a design on the top center. (It’s how they made wallpaper designs at the turn of the century). Dip them in green or blueberry teas, cranberry juice or food coloring. Then stamp recycled brown paper bags; the kind with handles. You can find all sorts of beads, unusual ribbons and odds and ends at a crafts store to dress them up a bit.
It’s hard to find a kid (or an adult) who doesn’t like to make and sample homemade cookies. I happen to like gingerbread men, or sugar cookies in assorted shapes. I gave out 20 bags to clients one year. They loved them. I actually had requests for refills. I used recycled paper gift bags and tied the handles with ribbons. On a handmade card (recycled paper with crayon and water colors), I wrote these lines, which I’m now sending to you!
Christmas isn’t only for kids and angels don’t always have wings..

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Calling to the light: A Ceremony for the Winter Solstice

   I'd come for lunch with Blanche, who lived on Bliss Street and went home with much more.  In her 80s, with a sweet tooth, she believed she might die before the meal was over.  Why not have dessert first?  She was celebrating being alive, the sweetness that can be found in the now.
     A compelling force for rituals, Author Joseph Campbell, ( The Power of Myth) described the power of now when he wrote we are seeking to "feel the rapture of being alive.  Rituals and ceremonies help us find the clues to this within ourselves."  Through rituals, we celebrate our passage out of the darkness.  We heal our wounds from battles with our personal demons.  Metabolizing what we learned we're ready to share the stories of our warrior wisdom.
    Light often plays a significant role in rituals, in the form of candles, a fire, at dawn or dusk.   Rituals can be dramatic, or appear in the form of small Zen like moments.  In Brazil, an old man told me of a daily evening ritual before electricity.  At dusk, as lamps were lit, each family member, each friend would turn to the other and say 'Good evening.'  How many times do we take a moment when we turn on the lights to honor the transition from day to night?  In doing so, we embrace each other, the safety of home, and the unity of our circle.
     While staying in a 12th century villa in Chianti, I made evening rounds to close the wooden shutters over each window.  As I said good night to the stars and the small bats that swooped past the panes, I became aware of slowing down; a prelude to sleep and dreams.
     On the morning round, I was awarded new vistas - gardens, olive trees and medieval villages on distant hilltops - all touched by light.  It was a very large villa with many shutters and windows which extended my pleasure.  By the time I reached the kitchen I was dancing!  Colors seemed richer, deeper; smells and tastes had textures and layers as the new day became a gift waiting to be unwrapped.
     Each culture has developed different rituals celebrating similar passages in life; the seasons, birth, coming of age, love, marriage, healing and dying.  Particularly fascinating to me are the rituals for Truth and Reconciliation that emerged in South Africa with Nelson Mandela's intent for a peaceful transition through forgiveness and healing.  Traveling committees were chosen to be objective observers.  Former local apartheid members stood in the front of a large community room to listen as each villager told his or her story about the horrors, loss and grief they'd suffered under apartheid.   Then, the accused acknowledged their participation in those acts and asked for forgiveness.
     These ceremonies had much older roots in tribal traditions across the African continent.  They inspired more ceremonies further north with the child warriors.  Most in their teens and 20s, these anguished souls sat in the center of a circle.  They spoke of being brainwashed and tortured to commit atrocities against their own families and friends.  The tribe listened and answered with stories of grief and pain at losing their children.   Sometimes, the process took days.  When everyone agreed all that needed to be said had been said the circle opened up to song and dance.  Some tribes gave the prodigal an egg to crush under foot during the dance; symbolizing the birth of new beginnings.  Mandela called in the light and when he did, the whole world felt lighter. 
     Personally, I've never understood why schools send children who are acting out home where they are often alone and without guidance.  Where their anger and confusion festers.  What if we were to send volunteer teams trained in compassionate communication to create their own circles?  What if our children would learn to listen deeply, without judging.  Learn of forgiveness, conflict resolution and the healing and unity.  They'd be calling in the light. 
    As a storyteller, a writer, an activist, a spiritual woman, I'm often reminded of the title of Zora Neale Hurston's wonderful book 'Their Eyes Were Watching God."  It doesn't matter whether a circle is Quaker, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist or Pagan.  Whether its members call to Jaweh, the Great Spirit or profess to not believing in god, I believe we're all connected in our humanity. That we all have the potential for goodness.
    December 21st is the Winter Solstice, the darkest, shortest day of the year.  It's also a day I experience a quickening at the returning of light the next day. This year I see the Solstice as a powerful metaphor for the darkness, the economic meltdown, the conflicts that fill the headlines and the light that's spreading worldwide.  The light I've heard in stories of children gathering pennies to build wells or send food to Darfur.  I've seen it in the beauty of African women who've planted tens of millions of trees.  I've rejoiced when I heard about the organizations that micro-finance businesses for women in South America, the Far and Middle East; with www.girleffect.org that raises money to send young girls to school. 
    I'm not Pollyanna.  There will always be turmoil and stress; sometimes more than others.  However positive change is occurring.  And so, on the 21st of December when the light changes, I'm going to celebrate by sending out my own light and my prayers. 
      Where I am, at midnight (EST in my case) the first candle will be lit.  Perhaps, there will be a circle of candles held by family and friends.  It may just be me and the dogs, thinking of the rest of you as we empower each other in our work for positive change.  My circle will begin with the eldest and finish with the youngest, lighting candles one by one.  As each individual lights the next person's candle, we will say "Please share this light, in mind, body and spirit."  And when everyone is finally holding a lit candle, "We are the light."
     I hope you'll join me!