Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year, Old Problem: Learning to Deal With Disappointment

By Claudia Ricci

I arrived on the first day of the four-day silent meditation retreat telling myself not to have any expectations.  But of course I brought them along nonetheless.

What I was hoping for was a lot of silence. Plenty of quiet space in which I could begin to hear the truths buried in my heart.

The woman leading the retreat was nice enough. And very well meaning. But almost immediately I realized that she talked way too much.

In the first three hours of the retreat she led us through maybe 8 different exercises, all of which took considerable explanation.  I kept waiting for her to say, "And now, we will take the next 20 minutes (or 30 or 40) and remain silent."

It never happened. About 10:30 in the morning she took a half hour break.  As I poured a cup of tea, I realized that I was pretty upset that I wasn't getting what I thought I needed from the retreat.  I considered leaving, but decided that I hadn't given it enough time.

After the break, she led two exercises which felt wonderful, and so my hopes were rising.  But soon after, it was noon, time for lunch -- and this break was going to last two and a half hours.

Simultaneously, it started snowing like mad. The teacher told us that four to six inches of white stuff were expected. As I gazed outside the meditation hall tucked into a steep mountainside, all I could think about was the drive home. Me slipping and sliding down the narrow road in the dark (I was commuting.)

That's when I started seriously thinking about leaving.  I approached the teacher and thanked her for the morning session. I told her I was nervous about driving and she was very understanding and instructed me to take my retreat at home for the afternoon.

And so I left. Driving home, the snow tapered off (naturally) and I wondered if I'd made a mistake cutting the day short. And then I started thinking was this whole retreat a mistake?

Something curious happened when I got home.  I decided to sit at my own meditation table and call up a guided meditation on my computer. I listened to Sharon Salzberg and as always, she helped me to focus on and calm my breathing.  And then, while I took leek and potato soup out of the freezer for lunch, I went to Insight Meditation Society's list of "dharma" talks, and found a fantastic lecture by Christina Waldman. Called "The Wisdom of Disappointment," Waldman's lecture explores the way most of us live our lives, tightly bound to expectations for how life should be. When things don't turn out the way we think they should, we get frustrated, or bitter, or resentful. Or disappointed or depressed.

Waldman points out that life by its very nature is guaranteed to disappoint. Disappointments are "small deaths," she says, deaths of our wishes or what we imagine happening in our lives. The more we expect of life, the more likely we will be disappointed. The solution is to accept what is, and to be less tightly bound to expectations or aspirations. Be open to whatever it is that life brings.

And so as I sat eating my soup, I relished the words of this wise teacher.  And I realized that if I hadn't left the retreat center, I would probably never have heard this wonderful lecture.

Waldman pointed out that disappointment often happens to people who go on retreat. Sometimes people expect some dramatic change to emerge out of a retreat. A big turning point in life.  Or some kind of bliss. "We hope for rapture and we get an aching back. We hope for calmness and we get agitation."

Waldman believes in living life through what she calls "shouldlessness," in other words, avoiding mapping the way our lives should be. That's not to say we should have no aspirations. But she suggests we temper those expectations by accepting whatever life delivers up.

Life is unpredictable and uncomfortable and sometimes, downright painful. Bad stuff is guaranteed to happen. The more we fight it, the more we will suffer. Freedom lies in the ability to accept life on its terms. As she points out, life is by its nature "never certain, never sure, unpredictable, full of surprises, full of change. Reliability is just not the nature of this life and that's often what we're expecting and demanding."

By embracing life's disappointments and by holding our demands for life "a little more lightly," the happier we will be.

And so, this afternoon, as the retreat proceeds without me (I'll return tomorrow after the snowstorm ends), I am heading back to my meditation table.

I'm ready to make a few New Year's resolutions: I vow to try out Waldman's notion of "shouldlessness," that is, to live without tight hold of a map about how life should proceed. I vow to try to embrace life exactly the way it is, in all of its imperfections. I also vow to try to learn to live with the discomfort of disappointment.

All in all, I'd say the first day of my retreat was a great success.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Musings on Meditation

Perhaps it's because I am about to do my first four-day silent meditation retreat, starting tomorrow.

Or maybe it's because the last few days, with all the holiday activities, life has been so hectic and I needed space.

All I know is that when I sat down at my meditation table this morning, I immediately felt a glowing energy rise up inside me.

I sat in silence, just feeling my breath slowly coming in, and slowing passing out.

It was completely and utterly peaceful.

And it just went on and on and on. I drank a full cup of tea (which usually means I'm done meditating)
and then went to the kitchen and made a second cup. I came back to sit once again at the table, with the euphoria and peace that I had found just staring into the candle.

At some point I started thinking, "I just never want to stop meditating." I felt a sense of transcendence and joy and love that cannot be described in words.

And so now, I suppose, I'm ready for the retreat.  I don't expect four days of euphoria. I'm not sure what to expect.

But I'm excited to spend this time and space apart from life, listening to the voice, and the silence, within.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays!!

This is the Christmas poinsettia that belonged to my grandmother, Michelina Rotondo. I was fortunate enough to inherit the plant, which blooms big-time at Christmas.

And from this mother plant came babies.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Plea to President Obama: Stay Progressive on the Fiscal Negotiations!

By Richard Kirsch

President Obama must remember the message of election night and back away from cutting Social Security benefits.
That progressive stance of Obama's didn’t last nearly as long as I had hoped. I put on my Obama baseball cap – the one I picked up from a street vendor walking to the inauguration four years ago – a few weeks before the November election. I’ve worn it every day since, to both celebrate his victory and cheer on the president for keeping to a progressive promise in the fiscal negotiations. Part of that promise was telling the DesMoines Register that Social Security benefits should not be cut. But it looks like my cap is going back on the shelf if reports that Obama is willing to cut Social Security benefits prove to be true.
There are three things to keep in mind about the president agreeing to cuts in Social Security benefits. The first is that Social Security’s benefits are slim, while retirement savings for most Americans are even thinner. The second is that if we are going to address Social Security’s eventual shortfall, there’s a simple progressive alternative to cutting benefits. The third is that this concession is giving in to the corporate deficit hawks, each of whom has huge personal retirement accounts. Let’s take them – very briefly – one at a time.
Social Security is what American seniors survive on. As Dean Baker reports, “The median income of people over age 65 is less than $20,000 a year. Nearly 70 percent of the elderly rely on Social Security benefits for more than half of their income and nearly 40 percent rely on Social Security for more than 90 percent of their income. These benefits average less than $15,000 a year.”
And most people don’t have savings to fall back on. Half of Americans have less than $10,000 in savings and nearly half of baby boomers are at risk of not having enough savings to pay for basic necessities and health care.
Point number two is if you are going to tackle the eventual Social Security shortfall – which has nothing to do with the fiscal talks since Social Security doesn’t contribute a dime to the deficit – there is a simple, progressive alternative to cutting benefits. Lifting the cap on payments into Social Security for income of greater than $110,100 would only impact 6 percent of wage earners and would extend the life of the trust fund for almost 75 years.
Finally, let’s look at the corporate CEOs who blithely talk cuts in Social Security, like Goldman Sach’s CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who told CBS News, "You're going to have to do something, undoubtedly, to lower people's expectations of what they're going to get." It’s easy for a guy who has $12 million in retirement assets to dismiss a cut in benefits of $1,000 and more as just lowered expectations. Other CEOs leading the campaign to cut benefits include Honeywell’s David Cote, with $78 million in his retirement account, and GE’s Jeffrey Immelt, with $55 million stashed away for his later years.
Hopefully the president will back away from cutting Social Security benefits. If not, we need Democratic leaders like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep to his pledge to keep Social Security out of the fiscal talks. And if a fiscal package with the cuts is presented, Democrats in both houses should offer an amendment, substituting lifting the cap on 6 percent of upper-income Americans for cutting benefits for all our retirees. That’s the kind of choice we need Congress to face.
But Mr. President, let’s not get to that choice: I really like wearing my Obama cap. 
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform. This post appeared in Next New Deal and the Huffington Post.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Chapter 57, Sister Mysteries: Time to Face the Music

By Claudia Ricci 

The sky has a showy golden glow when Renata creeps out of the porch and into the cabin to sit beside Arthur's door. She's brought a blanket with her and the morning air is so cold that she arranges it over her head like a veil.

How ironic. For days now, Arthur has been waking at least an hour earlier than Renata. He's come to the porch, settled in the rocking chair, and sat there, just watching her sleep. Each time she awoke to see him in the chair, staring, creepy feelings circled up from her gut. She would pull the blanket up over her nose and ask him very politely to leave the porch.

Now, though, it's her turn to sit guard outside his bedroom door, waiting for him to wake up. She is anxious to speak to him as soon as he wakes because she will need his help -- and his wagon -- with her plan.

It occurs to her to say the rosary while she's waiting, but no sooner has she said the first four Hail Mary's than there is a scratching noise behind Arthur's door. It sounds like the dog clawing wood.

"OK, OK, I hear ya," Arthur says. And now she hears his feet planted heavily on the floor.

Renata bolts to stand and knocks.

"Mr. Arthur, good morning," she calls brightly.

He's at the door before he even answers. But he only opens it a crack. Renata glances down and instantly realizes why. Inwardly she  groans. She sees a naked hairy leg and swivels 180 degrees to turn her gaze the other way.

"Excuse me Mr. Arthur, I'm so sorry to disturb you before you' to greet the world."

"That's not a problem at all, ma'am, I will be dressed and out before you finish your next prayer."

And so he is, he's emerged from the bedroom before she can even resituate herself on the floor.

"You are the early one today," he says, running his suspenders over each of his shoulders. He ruffles one hand through the mop of curls on his head, and then takes the same hand across the beard growing on his cheeks. For the first time she notices that his beard is reddish in color. His hair, as always, is a swarm of golden curls.

"Yes, well you see, I'm in a hurry, and I need your help, at least I'm hoping you can help me. Shall we go into the porch?" She doesn't wait for his reply but turns and he and the dog follow.

"Excuse me ma'am but you must allow Pete to attend to our morning business." Arthur opens the cabin door and the dog lopes outside. Arthur follows. A short time later he and the dog return.

Inside the porch, Renata takes a seat on one of the benches at the edge of the porch and Arthur has the rocking chair. Pete settles at Arthur's ankles.

"I should say first of all that I put a mighty store into my dreams," she begins. "That's the first thing you should know. It may not make sense to you, but I had a dream last night which was like no ordinary dream. I was at the convent and my dear friend, Sister Teresa, I've told you about her, well, she was very seriously ill. I could see her thrashing in her bed, and the doctor was there, and the other nuns were all gathered around the bed saying prayers."

Arthur nods. "And so?"

"I must go back. I know it's crazy, I know I may pay dearly, but I cannot stand by thinking Teresa is ill and that I will not be there to help."

"But ma'am, she has people there to help her, no?"

"Well of course she does, but must understand Arthur we are as close as real blood sisters. We came to the convent within a month of each other and we've been together ever since. And because of that, I have no choice. What if something were to happen to her? Dear God, I don't want to consider the possibility. If she were to die, I wouldn't see much point in carrying on my own battle. No, no matter that the risk is grave for me, I must go to her. Immediately. And so I will need your wagon. And ... and perhaps you driving if you're willing."  Renata's eyes were two dark flames in wide white pools. Her face was as pink and flushed as a fresh salmon.

Arthur shakes his head and lifts both hands outward. "I hardly know what to say. You're the one who told me all the reasons you wouldn't dare set out from here because the authorities are everywhere looking for you. Are you honestly going to go right back to the convent, right into the mouth of the lion? They'll be waiting for you, and I don't need to tell you, the gallows will finally claim you."

"I know I know." She lifts one hand as if to silence him. "But somehow I think God's hand is at work here. Maybe it's just time I just faced what I haven't been willing to face. I know as God is my witness that I didn't kill Antonie, but perhaps it's my destiny to pay for his death anyway.  I tell you Arthur, I'm ready for whatever happens. I won't be kept away from Teresa another day."

Arthur reaches down to scratch Pete's ears. He looks up.  "I hear you ma'am. And even though I cringe thinking what will happen, I cannot deny you what you're asking."

"So we can get going right away then?"

"Give me a few minutes to pack some vittles, and I'll git the wagon hitched." He eyes her. "You want to ride underneath a blanket, in case we meet anybody in the law along the way?"

Renata shakes her head. "I'll tuck my head beneath your widest-brimmed hat, and we can bring the blanket just in case. But I have had my fill playing the frightened criminal on the run. I won't return to the convent hiding under a blanket." She has a kind of passion in her voice that she hasn't felt for months.

Arthur stares hard at her, his eyes wide and bright. "Ma'am, if I might just say one thing, I am rooting for you, and if there is such a thing as God, and if there is such a thing as a miracle on earth, you would be the way I would see both of them happening in the world. What I'm trying to say is, I am on your side no matter what."

Renata blushes deep. "Oh Arthur, you shouldn't put too much store in me. God has plenty better clay to work with I promise you." She rises from the bench. "Now why you let me take care of packing food and water, I ought to be able to handle that while you take care of the wagon."

And so in less than half an hour, Renata and Arthur are side by side and already riding, with the dog and Arthur's rifle and some provisions covered by a blanket in back.

"I figure if we ride without stopping, we be right about at the valley leading to the convent by nightfall, or shortly after."  That's all Renata has to hear.

"Bless you Arthur. Bless you." She rides with her rosary beads wrapped tightly around both hands.

Sister Mysteries is an on-line novel about a nun, Sister Renata, who was falsely accused of killing her cousin. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


By Kellie Meisl

I have returned to the woods. Some of you reading this know that I come out of the woods in the early spring when deer ticks awaken, and return in the late fall, early winter, when they become mostly dormant. I sometimes wonder if this cycle is for a bigger reason, would I explore as much in the winter if the season did not provide me with this suspended window?

I am humbled by the beauty of the woods. Even on days like today, when I feel chilly and unmotivated to bundle up, when I finally do, and get myself out the door, gratitude instantly melts away the chills. Today, though the daylight was grey, all around me, all I could see were beautiful colors and patterns. Nature is so elegant.

Culturally, December is an ornate season, filled with glitzy trappings, yet I find the most florid decor on walks in the woods, as if it was placed by sentient beings for the sheer pleasure of me discovering it. Even things that would not be traditionally considered beautiful are. It is the energy of the woods that provides me with this sensuous experience. I am certain of it. 

In the woods I am alone yet more connected that ever. The trees remind me of that as I trod upon their roots, knowing that each is joined to another in an endless web buried deeply within the earth. Too, their canopy seems to connect the vast space of sky. The trees remind me to reach.

I often refer back to a dream I had where a beautiful tree sailed toward me in a rushing river, and I was frantic thinking I needed to capture it to place it as a work of art in my home. I could not capture it but has not the artful tree captured my heart hundreds of times as I walk the forest? Indeed it has.

It is hard to put into words just how much the woods and the walks have changed me, for the better, but that has been the mission of my writing about the walks all along. So I try. In a way I have become less tolerant of pretense and more impatient by inauthenticity, even in myself. My walks in nature have challenged me to both reach higher and dig deeper, and in them I have found my true calling.

Kellie Meisl is an artist and writer who lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. This piece appeared first on her blog, called "Walk."  All the photos are Kellie's.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

"Just Be"

By Claudia Ricci

Just feel your body.
Just feel.
Just breathe.
Just be in motion.
Just beware of your arms and your legs, your fingers and your toes,
your ears and your eyes, your stomach and your brain.
Just be grateful for all the marvelous things your body can do, mysterious things
like thinking, which we can't even explain.

Just be somewhere, somewhere quiet, and let it sink deep within you.
Just be the rain, or the sound of thunder
or the music from a wooden flute.
Just pretend you are sitting in a canyon
under a cornflower blue sky and that flute
music is floating overhead.

Just be sitting in your dinette
sipping a cup of tea watching
the red-headed woodpecker
snapping his beak against
the suet.

Just watch the birds settle and fly,
settle and fly.

Just let your eyes close and
just be glad for the drumming
that is your heart beat.

Just start to see yourself
a new way
apart from anything you
have ever accomplished.

Just sit still and follow
your breath in
and out
and in
and out
for at least half an hour a day.

Just be.

Painting by Claudia Ricci

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Now Comes a Poem Crying out "Sacred"

Every once in a while along comes a poem and it stops you in your tracks. You read it over and over again and feel the words sinking into your blood and running through your veins. You are astonished that someone has written exactly what it is you needed and wanted to hear. You wish like heck that you'd written it yourself, but most of all you're just so glad somebody else did.

In this case, the poet who wrote the poem I have in mind lived hundreds of years ago. Hafiz, who lived from 1320-1389 (about 100 years after Rumi) is a highly celebrated Persian poet. Wikipedia claims that Hafiz' work can be found "in the homes of most people in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan," and that people "learn his poems by heart and use them as proverbs and sayings to this day." Westerners learned of Hafiz' poetry largely thanks to Goethe, and later to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who translated Hafiz' work in the 19th century.

According to the book where I saw this poem (see citation below), an Indian teacher named Hazrat Inayat Khan, who is said to have brought Sufism to the West, once said of the poet "the words of Hafiz have won every heart that listens."

And so Hafiz has won my heart with a poem called

"Now is the Time."

Now is the time to know
That all that you do is sacred.

Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God.

Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child's training wheels
To be laid aside
When you can finally live
With veracity
and love.

Hafiz is a divine envoy
Whom the Beloved
Has written a hold message upon.

My dear, please tell me,
Why do you still
Throw sticks at your heart
And God?

What is it in that sweet voice inside
That incites you to fear?

Now is the time for the world to know
That every thought and action is sacred.

This is the time
For you to deeply complete the impossibility

That there is anything
But Grace.

Now is the season to know
That everything you do
Is Sacred.

from The Gift, Poems by Hafiz, The Great Sufi Master, translations by Daniel Landinsky. Thanks to my dear friend Leslie Gabosh for loaning me the book! My hubby and I read Hafiz' poetry together in bed the other night; Richard actually found the poem and said, "this one is just right for you." He read it, and then I asked him to read it again. And again. I just lay there letting the words sink right into my body.

Paintings by Claudia Ricci

Monday, December 03, 2012

THIS I BELIEVE: "I Will Live For Her"

By Sira Faizi
               It was a cold winter. Probably the coldest winter I have ever experienced and not because of the snow on the ground, the cold air brushing against my cheeks, or even the wind blowing in my face until my nose was as red as a rose. “Auntie Maeh” was sick and I was very worried. She didn’t look like “Auntie Maeh;” I’d never seen her like this before. Her toes turned brown, she could not move, and I had to feed her. Now if you knew Auntie Maeh, you knew there was something wrong with this picture. My family and I had taken her to the hospital and I assumed that the doctors would fix her because that’s what doctors do, right? I thought they would make her better and that she’d be home in time for Christmas, she’d be home in time for my sisters 13th birthday, she’d be home in time for New Years. Unfortunately, that did not get to happen. On December 16th 2009, at 7:50PM, Auntie Maeh passed away at the age of 69, the victim of kidney failure. Instantly, that moment changed my life forever.
            I was fifteen when I lost my aunt and I could not find the strength to do anything. I gave up on holidays; I gave up on life. I went from a 94 in math to a 55. My other grades dropped drastically. I had a spare key to my aunt’s apartment so sometimes I would ditch school and stay there, hoping she would come home. I would dial her phone and just listen to her voice on voicemail 1,000 times as she simply said “Maryanne McKeever.” But she didn’t pick up. She was never going to pick up no matter how much I wanted her to, no matter how much I needed her to.
            My aunt was more than my aunt. She was like a mother. She never missed a birthday, graduation or any event I had growing up. During my chorus recitals, she would come right after work, traveling two hours just to be there for me because that’s the type of person she was; devoted and caring. Her age was nothing upon her young reflection and attitude towards life. Despite all the cruel events in her life, she never let them make her bitter. I could say a million things about her but the bottom line is Auntie Maeh was the sweetest women alive and will always have a special place in my heart.
            With the help of my brothers and sisters and many endless days and nights of crying, I realized they were mourning for her too. I was not as alone as I thought I was. I had to help them and be strong for them but they were the ones who helped me. I turned to them because I knew they could understand what no one else did. Slowly, we began to heal together, reminiscing on all the memories we had with Auntie Maeh. Eventually, with time, I realized I did not have to forget her but I did have to move on. I had to live my life because that’s what she would have wanted. She wouldn’t have wanted me to be sad. She would say “Stop it Sira. Put a smile on your face, you’re a doll.” So I tried to smile every day until finally, my smile was real. I got back involved with school and I made her proud. I even started celebrating holidays again.
            This I believe: you do not have to forget but you do have to keep living. With time, things get better. My aunt was gone physically but not spiritually. She is my guardian angel now and just like I turn to God for help, I also turn and talk to her. She will always be there in my heart. I will never forget the heartache her death brought me but I will live with her spirit in my heart and remember all the good times I had with her. I will live my life; I will live for her. 
Sira Faizi is a freshman at the University at Albany, State University of New York.