Exploded and firefighters are two words you don’t want to hear from an unfamiliar caller, informing you that your mother needs you to come over to the house immediately.
Already in the car, heading in the opposite direction, with my husband thankfully behind the wheel. My first response was not to panic but to pause and assess. In reflection, I recognize: This is my brain on mindfulness.
And let me say right now that mindfulness is not a quick fix tool that I acquired after some 6-8 week stress reduction workshop. It is the result of 10-plus years as a dharma practitioner with feet grounded firmly on the Zen path and a lifetime of exploring contemplative spiritual and wellness practices that have helped recalibrate my fiery temperament “to be more able more often” to generate skillful responses.
I’ll be straight up: it doesn’t “work” all the time in all situations! There are certain conditions that are more likely to trigger my unskillfulness than others — lack of sleep, hormonal shifts, information overload, my enduring pet peeve with folks’ poor communication skills, a sudden pile-on of simultaneous requests for assistance or multiple “crises” (’cause, ya know, family) and, not for mere emphasis and effect but because it is my reality and truly can the training grounds for spiritual resilience, all manner of family habits/patterns/cycles.
It takes time, over a span of time and situations, to cultivate mindfulness as a spiritual faculty. With practice this faculty serves as a power, which becomes activated in a moment of crisis, where our innate flight-fight-freeze instinct is bypassed and instead calm and clarity prevail. So instead of having my husband immediately bust a U-turn, I took a fortifying breath and quietly cancelled the appointment I was heading to; notified other family members of the news — explaining that I didn’t have all the details but would provide an update soon; prayed that no one was harmed; and concentrated on seeing clearly and calmly a broad range of possibility.
En route I learned that my mother and grandmother were indeed safe, which made the drive from the opposite end of town less stressful. Still with only minimal information, I was mentally prepared to pull up to a busy scene with the driveway blocked by a firetruck, a crew assessing damage, and my mother and grandmother in a dither.
Much to my relief, there was no outward evidence of any hazard. Life, limb, and living quarters were in tact. There had, in fact, been an “explosion” and “smoke” in the form of a pipe to the water heater bursting, a release of some vapor/exhaust cloud through the smokestack, and a legitimate concern about the gas line being connected. But, thank God, all was well…albeit flooded. No elevated heart rate, nervous sweat, or belly-twisting fear to recover from. A sigh of relief and deep gratitude that nothing worse had happened. I later joked, Do y’all know how it sounds to hear “exploded” and “firefighters” in the same sentence?! There’s a certain picture that comes to mind…
I won’t speculate further about worst-case scenarios. What’s more important was being reminded that, whether in the midst of uncertainty, tension, and crisis or in their aftermath, I can trust the fruits of my practice will continue to bloom — equipping, nourishing, sustaining, and restoring me.
This is my constant complaint as I search the shelves at the libraries and book stores. As a mother and aunt to brown children of multi-ethnic heritage, I snatch up any book that features children of diverse cultures — Asian, Latino, Black, Native — or, in lieu of being ethnic-specific, “characters of hue.” My default to balance out the predominance of white characters: animals, cars, and robots.
to tv or not to tv
In fact, just last week I explained to my not-quite-5-year-old that I had concerns about him watching a new show on nick jr. that does not have a character of color. He corrected me, pointing out that one purple-haired girl was brownish. Ha! True, she has some “tint.” But, factoring in “voice” and story context, and she skews far from an ethnic identity.
I’m an avid reader (who holds a graduate degree in media studies) who loves sharing good stories with great illustrations and age-appropriate lessons that I can build on with K. I certainly don’t avoid books without people of color; however, it is crucial that the children in my life get to see themselves reflected in a full range of stories, from the fantastic to historical. Their imaginations must be nurtured and celebrated so they may be inspired to live boldly, creatively and beautifully.
No tree. No lights.
No wrapping paper or gifts (from mom or dad, at least).
And, this year, no snow…
Which is, as my 4 year-old son declared to his dad this morning, the sole factor dictating whether this “quintessential” winter holiday can happen (especially for us Michigan natives): “It’s not Christmas because it’s not snowing!”
The Zen(x)Mas Way
“Buddha Blessings + Merry Christmas!” My sister, in all her silliness, affected a sacchrine, almost-pious, and breathy tone when I answered her call this morning. (I could tell she’d been cackling to herself while rehearsing this greeting in her twisted head.) We immediately burst into laughter!
Our families know that we are staunchily against the holiday madness that often prevails in the seemingly endless weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years. We’ll watch the holiday-themed movies and generate some cheer over food and drinks in the company of loved ones but make no extra effort to aggrandize the occasion. We enjoy participating in the low-key Christmas Eve dinner with my mates’ family and then spending time with mine on Christmas Day. But in the years since our son’s birth (not to forget, the multiple back-to-back births of his cousins on both sides), the holiday festivities have thankfully and decidedly been downsized. Cause ain’t nobody got time or energy for all that!
Our inter-spiritual household of three lives by and cultivates the ethic of simplicity. While my dharma practice is a cornerstone in our foundation for being, the plain truth of it is, in heart and soul, we are just not traditional when it comes to many things.
So (since we live knee-deep in Legos and other construction sets year-round) this greeting card was a perfectly awesome way of letting our more “observant” loved ones know we were thinking of them as they celebrate!
Wishing you a happy, healthy and Lego-tastic holiday and a new year full of unimaginable adventures!
[Disclaimer: Ironhide is K’s newly-adopted imaginary pet. We DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT have a dog, as several have wondered. We’re keeping life super simple that way!]
my on-the-brink-of-four-year-old child just told me (threatened, was it?) that i would not be his best friend if i didn’t let him have ice cream for breakfast!
he wasn’t mean about it. but he was as sincere as a little one who’s coming to understand the “suchness” of friendship could be. he really wanted that statement to mean something to me.
i held back the laughter. (the ridiculousness of it all: K is cute and funny when he pouts and rationalizes; he’s persistent in his requests for sweet snacks at inappropriate times; we have this debate several times a day!)
i then probed deeper, talking with K about feeling sad or mad or disappointed at not getting what he likes when he wants it. i asked him what it meant that i’m not his best friend. but he’d already changed his mind, climbing into my arms for a hug.
here begins another teaching moment for the family in patience, fairness, friendship, teamwork and kindness. always exhaling…to invite mindfulness to the madness.
We were standing in the grocery aisle when K said it. I turned to look at my not-quite-four-year-old son and, with disbelief, asked, “What did you say?”
“I’m bored, Mommy,” he repeated. “I’m not having any fun right now.”
My jaw dropped as if K had actually uttered that other 5-lettered curse word. Seriously, how did he even learn about the concept of boredom when it’s not in my vocabulary?! (The answer popped up between my silent bouts of huffing and teeth-sucking: TV or D-A-D, of course!)
After I recovered from the shock, I assured him that I understood shopping wasn’t his top choice of activities (despite his previous excitement over getting to cruise around in the plastic car attached to the shopping cart). Then I immediately told K he was not allowed to be bored! Seriously. He’s too young and imaginative: this child of mine who nearly goes into a trance over the simple joy of pushing his fleet of cars around the bed for hours on end—molding the sheets and blankets into mountains, ramps, and parking lots.
I mean, have mercy on your dear mom—a/k/a your human jungle gym, running buddy, puzzle partner, play date coordinator, and master problem solver who does her best to engage you in stimulating activities to help you burn energy and learn new/interesting things. This is no small feat on a regular day. Now add the relentless surge of winter storms from the Polar Vortex, which has limited the time we can play in the snow, and the battle against cabin fever can become excruciating. Oh, and, mustn’t forget to multiply it by occasional bouts of must-have-Mommy-by-my-side-at-all-times. EXHALE.
Since then K has tossed out the b-word a few more times. Thankfully, it’s only taken a little bit of quizzing about his ideas and feelings to divert the restlessness toward a satisfying creative outlet. But, man! I had really hoped we would have a few more years before our kid started complaining about boredom.
K took one look at his plate and exclaimed that the noodles looked like the picture in the book where you puke! He was so excited to show me and dashed upstairs to grab How The Incredible Human Book Works so we could, he suggested, “compare.”
I was cuddling one autumn morning with my then 15 month-old son. Nestled in the crook of my arm, K suddenly pointed at me and asked, “Whuzzat?”
“My armpit,” I laughed.
I was thoroughly tickled! For one, K was fascinated by this new discovery. He fearlessly inspected it, pinching at the sprouting hairs (um, yeah, I’m sharing this). I marveled that my child would find the ordinary, or otherwise maligned, armpit a source of wonder. Not to mention that he had used his word-of-the-moment in context!
My baby’s first uttering was “see.” A statement and a question.
He’d gaze intently out of our front window, repeatedly pointing at the scene before him. His dad or I would hold him close and name everything that was in view–elaborating on each detail or making up little stories or rhyming songs.
Together we’d soak in the sounds and sights with bright curious eyes.
It was easy to make the connection between this act of observing the world with my son and what I had learned through years of meditation: to look deeply, with every sense engaged and opened to the wonder arising in the moment.
What is this? The fair-witnessing mind gently asks.
Look. See truly. A reminder to strip it bare. Peel away the layers. Get to the core. Reveal the heart: Simple. Rich. Vibrant. Suchness.
With every ensuing question K began to ask, my mind and senses were bathed in mindfulness. I had to pause and consider how to answer in ways that could be understood by a toddler.
An exercise in skillful effort, indeed.
This meant each arising thought and spoken word was filtered through the four gates of speech (attributed to the Sufi tradition and referenced frequently in Buddhism): Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it kind?
Parenting books would translate such ancient spiritual wisdom as “keeping it simple and sweet.” But there’s so much more to this lesson.
We can cultivate our own skillful understanding as we break things down for the little ones in our lives. We refresh our perspective, search for new meaning (I mean this literally, too. Hello0ooo, Google!), and recognize, in truth, just how much we don’t know about this world.
My son has truly helped me unlearn, relearn, synthesize, and renew my practice of looking and listening. By nourishing his inherent joyful curiosity about life, I am learning alongside him how to penetrate the surface of all that we encounter:
For example, while playing at a park last summer, we noticed an enormous bee-like insect zipping around. Another mother warned her kids away, understandably concerned by the prominent stinger. We too avoided colliding with it, but our curiosity was definitely piqued. I even mentioned to my mate that I’d spotted something I’d never seen before! A few days later, upon leaving the children’s science museum, K and I spotted a sign in one of its gardens that identified this strange creature as a cicada killer wasp. He was excited to know all about it, so when we got home I read through articles and found a video on the internet to watch together (see previous link). For weeks afterward, he was talking about it–impressing his grandfather with the story of the cicada killer. Had I offhandedly dismissed it as a scary bug, we might have overlooked the sign and missed this opportunity to understand the nature of this creature.
With senses sharpened, we see the minute details and puzzle them together into an experience that reshapes us. This capacity to see clearly may expand into a capacity to speak truthfully and skillfully about what troubles, intrigues or excites us in life. For my son, Whuzzat became Why morphed into And Then What Happens? and begat the twin wonders What Does That Mean? and Tell Me About This, Mommy. Our questions bloom into explorations, discoveries, reflections, imaginings, stories and memories.
As Rilke once assured a young poet, we learn to live the questions now. Living the questions may often test our faith, compassion, and understanding. We may get stretched out completely. But our willingness to be present to them helps us develop the resilience to survive even the most difficult questions. So we listen and look closely and grow to love the questions and the journeys they lead us on.
This much I have learned from really hearing the wisdom in my son’s question and looking deeply into the coolness of an ordinary armpit.
I thought it might be a passing mood. K nibbled the bun around his burger, flipped it over to peel away the bottom bun, devoured it, flipped it back and polished off the top layer of his ketchup-soaked bun.
“Sometimes I don’t like the meat when it’s big like that,” he explained.
THAT was nearly a week and three ketchup sandwiches ago! And he’s asking to make more–“with ketchup and nothing beneath it.”