Like a Cloud of the Cumulus Sort

Life: Unpredictable. Changeable. Impermanent. When I gaze at my reflection in a mirror, the image I see is very different from the one I saw ten or thirty or forty years ago. From month to month, year to year, and decade to decade, what I bear witness to, not only in the mirror, but in my head, heart, and on the roller coaster ride we call life, is always changing. Thoughts come and go as do feelings. Impermanence is a fact of life and a good reason not to take things for granted. From the moment we are born until the moment we take our last breath life is always in flux. With that in mind I’d like to share a page from my life, a page taken from when I was thirteen years old:

You can get polio from garbage. That’s what my parents told me when I was younger. I look at the debris scarring the hill before me: the familiar red and white colors of the empty Campbell’s soup tin, its jagged-edged lid hanging on by only a thread; a flattened Alpha Bits cereal box; moldy coffee grounds; a moving white mound, maggots enjoying an early afternoon meal of rotting cherries. I try to imagine some invisible menace lurking there. It still seems as unreal as back then. Before the vaccine.

“You may play baseball there, but stay away from the side of the hill.” I can still hear them with their stories of iron lungs and crippled people and death.

“Aw Sandy, get out of there,” I say, suddenly jolted back to the present. Sandy ignores me. He pushes his snout under the decaying meat-covered bones into the dirt. Dogs can be so disgusting sometimes.

“Sandy. Out.” I wear my best angry face. Sandy picks up on my tone and looks up at me with black encrusted snout. Dogs are also easy to fool.

“Here boy!”

I look away from him and sprint across the grass toward the crumbling old flour mill at the other end of the hill. I smile as he flies past and disappears over the rise. It works every time. Sandy loves to race around when we go on these treks through the fields behind my house.

Arriving at the crest of the hill, I glance at the mill nestled amidst the trees just across the road at the base of the embankment, turn right, scramble down the slope, and start across a second field. The sun beats down. I slow to a walk. As I look ahead I can see Sandy in the distance at the end of the grassy expanse.

I scan for rocks as I go. Whenever I reach one I stop, pry it loose at one end, and carefully raise it a little. I only find one snake this time. A big two foot one though. A garter snake. Usually I manage to find two or three grass snakes by the time I make my way across the field, hardly ever a garter snake. They seem to like the woods better. Once I find a snake, I return the rock to its original position, and continue on to the next rock. It’s fun just to find them. I like the way when you look across the field it appears as though all there is is grass, but really it’s home to all sorts of creatures. I like to pretend that I am the only one who knows about this secret that the field hides. It’s just me and them.

I meander along this way for about half an hour, alternately checking under rocks and keeping an eye on Sandy.

Sandy resized (1)

Sandy

Eventually I arrive at a spot about halfway across the field overlooking a dirt road and the woods beyond. I sit down with my back to the road.

I have my writing pad with me. I love spending an afternoon like this, surrounded by nothing but green. Just me, Sandy, and my poetry.

I started writing poetry after I studied Shakespeare in my grade nine class last term. When I was in grade eight, all the older kids warned me about Shakespeare: You’ll hate it. It’s boring. It doesn’t make any sense.

They were wrong. After reading Romeo and Juliet I fell in love with Shakespeare. I am still in awe of how he can turn ordinary language into such beautiful natural sounding verse.

Soon I am immersed in my writing. I am working on a poem about death. I write about everything, but today it’s death:

It hovered near, steadfast, foreboding

Like a cloud of the cumulus sort,

Never wavering, to darken all within range.

Suddenly the heavens opened…

My grandmother took a long time to die. I can still see her with her bright intelligent eyes, looking down at me from her hospital bed, comprehending everything and able to say nothing. Somehow I knew that the grandma who used to give me Taveners Fruit Drops and let me watch her clean the budgie cage was still there, trapped behind the warmth in her eyes. I felt so sad for her. I loved my grandmother. She loved me too; I could see it as she spoke to me through her eyes.

Grandma Connor

My grandma, me, and my younger sister

I used to love it when dad took me to visit her. It was a time when everything seemed larger than life: the hospital with its huge entranceway, the long halls with the nurses rushing along to places I was sure were scary and not places that little girls would want to be, even my grandmother’s pale green room with its high ceiling and window ledge that barely reached the top of my head.

I look up from the page and smile as I catch sight of the streak of gold to my left. Sandy is chasing a rabbit. I watch as the rabbit bounds and Sandy scrambles. No use yelling. He’ll never hear me. I hope the rabbit gets away.

We had a pet rabbit once. The two of them loved to play chase. Thumper would wait till Sandy was asleep, then creep up to him and thump him with his large hind feet before taking off through the house. They would race through the rooms until Sandy caught him. Thumper would go limp; Sandy would release him, and they would start the game all over again. I really don’t know what Sandy will do if he actually catches the wild rabbit he is currently chasing.

I watch Sandy for a moment longer, then look past him until my gaze comes to rest at the top of a small hill where the road disappears as it works it way toward the houses at the far end of my street. I trace the ribbon of brown with my eyes as it winds its way down the hill and around the bend toward me, finally reaching the foot of the embankment just a few yards behind and below where I am sitting. Hardly anyone ever drives down this way because the road comes to an abrupt halt just on the other side of the woods at the edge of the river. I like it that way. Occasionally I’m disturbed by a car, fishing poles visible in the back seat or poking out of the trunk, but outside of that, I pretty much have this place to myself.

Returning my attention to Sandy, I scan the field. The rabbit has disappeared. With the rabbit safe, I resume my writing. I love poetry. It makes me think about things in a different way. I often find that there is something strangely beautiful, or refreshingly novel, in the way some poets write about the everyday world.

“Sandy, you silly old thing,” I say affectionately as the cocker spaniel bounds up to me, stops, and proceeds to push his head against my arm. Putting my notebook down and grabbing him by the scruff of the neck, I pull him toward me, give him a big squeeze, and then bury my face in his fur. I sit there holding him, breathing in his scent. Sometimes I just can’t get enough of him: his doggy smell, his warmth, the smooth tension under his fur.

Hearing the sound of a motor, I look up just long enough to see an older-looking black car come into view from the top of the hill on my left. Releasing Sandy, I turn around and face the road. Pulling up to the foot of the embankment directly below me, the car comes to a gradual halt. I can see two clean-cut young men sitting in the front seat of the car looking at me, smiling. Smiling back at them, I wait as the driver lowers the window. It won’t be the first time I’ve given directions to a couple of fishermen. You really can’t see the river from this vantage point. It is pretty well obscured by the woods.

I suddenly freeze, the color draining from my cheeks. In front of the still friendly face smiling up at me, I look down into the black barrel of a gun. I can’t believe what I am seeing. This can’t be real. It has to be a joke.

“I’m going to kill you,” says the man, looking directly at me, the smile no longer friendly.

My every instinct screams at me to run, but I sit glued to the ground, my stomach lead. I sit helplessly as the scene playing itself out in front of me is replaced by a series of slow moving pictures of myself getting up, turning around, and running across the field away from the man, a gun going off, and my body dropping to the ground. No, I want to scream. Not now. Not me. I’m not ready to die. I remain quiet. I look once again into the nose of the revolver pointed directly at me, and then at the now unsmiling face of its owner. This is really it, I think, as nausea threatens to overcome me.

Suddenly I’m furious. No. Way. You are not taking this from me.

That’s when my whole world changes forever. I feel a tranquility descend upon me, envelop me, alter me. It’s unlike anything that I have ever known. I have never felt such peace. Not ever. My fear gone, I now know with every fiber of my being that dying is no more important than living. They’re the same. With the blanket of calm also comes the knowledge that I will not turn and run. If this guy is for real, this will be my death. I can’t stop him from shooting me, and there is no way he’s going to miss. If this is to be my last moment on earth, I want to experience it fully. Dying is as much a part of life as being born.This is my life and my death.

I try to imagine the moment of being shot, of seeing myself being hit, and seeing myself die. I’m fascinated. Excited. And so very curious. I’m going to experience something that every human being must go through and I’m going to be alert as it happens. I just wish that I could live to remember what I’ll feel when I die. Maybe I will know with whatever comes after. I wonder what does come after. Somehow that doesn’t matter. As long as I don’t miss this part of my life. Calm now, and utterly at peace, I raise my eyes to meet the gaze of my killer as he shoots me.

I sit there, motionless. The peals of laughter coming from the front seat of the car pierce through me like a knife.

“Just kidding,” says the man with the gun, looking straight at me and grinning.

I watch in stunned silence as the men look at me and laugh uproariously. Before I can even react, the driver, still grinning, wishes me a nice day, rolls up the window, and speeds off.

It was a blank. There is no bullet.

I shiver in the warmth of the late afternoon sun. I clutch at my stomach, trying to control the wave of nausea that again threatens to overcome me. A little way down the embankment a snake sits sunning itself on a rock. The song of a lone bullfrog in the distance cuts through the stillness like a canoe through a glass lake.

I stand up. The snake is gone. The song has become a chorus. I turn, whistle for Sandy, and head across the field toward home.

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It’s Called Penobscot for a Reason

I wish to share this post with all of you because not only do I believe that it very much resonates with the theme of this blog, but is of great importance. This post saddens me. When will we ever learn? I like to believe that, bit by bit, more and more people are becoming aware of the need to not only respect the rights of indigenous people, but to see and embrace their wisdom of the earth in relation to all that is. I pray that the right actions are taken to protect them and this precious planet that we call earth.

Finding Our Way Home

Kirk Francis [Penobscot chief, Kirk Francis, speaking at the rally] Yesterday, I went up to Bangor for a Penobscot River Sovereignty Rally.  This was in response to a recent Appeals Court ruling that stated that the Penobscot River is not a part of the Penobscot Nation–despite the history, despite the fact that the water has never been ceded by any treaty.  This description is from the Event Page:

On Friday, June 30th, the First Circuit Court of Appeals sanctioned the State of Maine’s territorial taking of the Penobscot Nation’s ancestral waterways, by ruling against the Tribe in the Penobscot Nation v. Attorney General Janet Mills, case.

We will not accept this decision. We now call upon ALL of our friends to come and stand with us during this critical time, to say no to the State’s continued infringement upon Tribal rights. Their attempts to violate standing treaty rights and the Maine…

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Cherokee Wisdom

The following is something that I shared in 2008 with a group of friends who came to my home to meditate on Sunday mornings. They had all wished to be included in regular emails that I sent out, emails in which I spoke words that connected with that open-hearted place we all share. A personal incident, recorded below, also precipitated my decision to send the following post to them. Very quickly I received responses from many of them; the post had resonated strongly. So once again, from the heart, are the words I wrote so long ago:

Hi everybody,

This morning I got caught up in anger. And of course, because I habitually watch my mind and its antics, I saw what I was doing. I even saw myself paying lip service to “I’d better not talk right now; I don’t want to say anything from anger.” Then, a moment later, continue to speak from that negative angry place. My ego was right in there saying: “Screw the Buddhist way. To hell with the tools. I want to be angry. And I want to let this person know that I am really ticked.”

So…why am I telling you all this? Well, I recently came across the following passage that a friend had sent to me a while ago and that I, in turn, had emailed out to others. I had already been thinking of sending it out to you and then New Year’s Eve found myself talking to a friend. He had brought it up as something that had stood out for him; he had rather liked it. I realized instantly that he was not the only one who had let me know that the passage had struck a chord for them.

And so this morning, here I was, totally caught up in that angry place (And of course telling myself that well, my day had been ruined and of course blaming the other person for it; I certainly had nothing to do with how I was feeling.), when I sat down to my computer to write. Then something unexpected happened. As I reread the passage something in me shifted. I could feel the trappings of my ego kind of just fall away and a little bit of clarity seemed to shine through and suddenly I was at peace. My ego had lost its grip. My anger was gone.

      Cherokee Wisdom

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on

inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is

evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt,

resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is

joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy,

generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which

wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

And so this morning, what had I done? I fed the wolf of negativity. And how had that made me feel? Pretty darned crappy (not to mention the other person to whom my angry outburst had been directed). Interesting how the mind works…

Maureen (Samten)

 

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What About My Retreat?

The following is an article that I wrote, published in Buddhadharma: The practitioner’s quarterly magazine, Winter 2013 edition. I thought it worth sharing:

Maureen Connor (Samten Wangmo) was ordained as a lay teacher in the Tibetan Karma Kagyu tradition in 2004.

When my teacher, Karma Yeshe Wangpo, told me that he would be happy to teach a weekend retreat if I organized it, I was thrilled. At this point in my life, I had been meditating for just over two years. I would finally be attending my first retreat.

Two others from our meditation group agreed to help me coordinate everything. There was a lot of work to be done: organizing rides, figuring out meals and arranging for people to prepare them, keeping everyone informed about the retreat, and setting up the cottage where it was to take place.

When the day arrived, I couldn’t wait for the retreat to start. As day one unfolded, however, it didn’t take me long to realize that for me, this would not be a weekend of uninterrupted silence and contemplation. How could I have been so naive? Someone had to organize the meals, supervise the cleanup afterward, and solve any problems that arose. And that someone was me and the other two organizers.

Before every meal I would head to the kitchen to get things ready. Each time I went, I found myself pulled away from the meditative state that I had been in. I started feeling frustrated by my situation and the demands being made on me. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Fixing a toilet that wouldn’t stop running or unjamming a stuck door wasn’t part of the bargain. I felt cheated. By the third day I felt resentful. What about me? What about my needs? This, I had already decided, would be the last retreat that I would ever organize.

Early Sunday afternoon I found myself once again in the kitchen. I had just finished overseeing the cleanup from our final lunch and was heading back to join the others for meditation. Pausing for a moment, I looked across the room at the faces of these people I had come to know over the last two years. We had meditated together, picnicked together, been there for each other in times of need. We cared about each other. We were a community. As I stood there in the stillness, the silence of the room broken only by the occasional crackle of a log settling in the fireplace, I felt something shift in me as well. What “I” wanted didn’t matter. What mattered were the people in this room, with their hopes and fears, hurts and joys, and their happiness. What mattered was simply that they were here.

At the end of the retreat, I knelt before Yeshe to receive his blessing. Bringing my hands together in prayer, I softly recited the words that I say daily after meditating:

As the earth gives us food and air and all the things we need, may I give my heart to caring for all others until all attain awakening. For the good of all sentient beings, may loving kindness be born in me.

Tears filled my eyes as I looked up at Yeshe. He smiled.

“Thank you, Samten, for all of the work that you have done. Your efforts have done much good,” he said gently. “I have something for you.” He pressed a small packet of what looked like six or so small dark pellets into my hand. I examined them, unsure of what I had just received. “These tiny pellets are made from the remains of monasteries that have been destroyed in Tibet,” Yeshe said. “The monks make them from the ashes.”

I looked into the eyes of this humble monk, my teacher, and for the second time that day I saw clearly. I saw that we, as a community, stand on the communities that came before us, and that sanghas in the future will be built upon our own. I saw that all of us here today owed our presence as a sangha to these monks and to all of those, both past and present, who through their efforts have kept and are still keeping the teachings of the Buddha alive.

I thanked Yeshe, bowed my head to receive his blessing, and stepped back, even more gratefully than before, into the community.

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A Simple Act of Kindness

“It is helpful to remember that sometimes the most powerful medicine we can offer for suffering of any kind is simply kindness. It says: ‘You’re not alone. I see you. I hear you. I am with you.’ Even if it’s only for a moment or a day, that sense of genuine connection can change the trajectory of a life.”

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

The above quote resonated with me. I remember, many years ago, that I celebrated one Christmas by inviting people who would otherwise be alone for that day over to my place for a pot luck Christmas dinner.

Christmas Eve I got on a bus on my way home from some last minute shopping. As I stepped up onto the bus I bumped into Richard, an acquaintance who I didn’t know very well. I did know, however, that he had no family in town, so I asked him if he wanted to join us for Christmas dinner the next day. He said yes. Christmas day was wonderful with all of us together sharing good food, lively conversation, and much laughter. A number of the people were musicians so it wasn’t long before we had a jam session happening. One of the guests brought out a guitar and Richard joined in with his mandolin as we all sang into the night.

Much later I again bumped into Richard. He wanted to tell me something. He said that I had no idea how much it had meant to him that I had invited him to Christmas dinner that evening so many months ago. He then proceeded to tell me that he had been very sick when I had invited him to our Christmas celebration. He had just found out that his kidneys were failing and he had been horribly depressed. My invitation had meant the world to him. Richard has since died, but this special memory of him, and of that night, will live on in my heart forever.

One never knows what the effect of a simple act of kindness will be on another.

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Eating the Sun

I thought that I’d like to share the following with you all. My husband and I say these words every day before our evening meal. A few years ago I attended a retreat led by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Before every meal we would all say a beautiful prayer, a gentle reminder that we are part of something larger than ourselves. When I eat my meal, I am not just eating food.IMGP1067 resize2 I am eating the sun and the rain and the soil without which the plants that produce the fruit, vegetables, and grains that I consume would die.  The sun and the nutrients from the soil become part of them, just as they in turn become part of me. When I eat I see much more than the food on my plate: I see the worms that aerate the soil so that all of these plants can grow,DSCN7916 resized the farmer who tills the soil and harvests the crops, the people who grind the grain and make the bread that I eat with my meal, those who make the plates from which I eat, the earth for providing the material from which the plates are made, the people who make the clothes that all of us wear, and so on and so on. I see that we really do depend upon each other. We inter-are.

I am very grateful to Thich Nhat Hanh for sharing these words with all of us at the retreat. I’d now like to share them with all of you:

This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings and much hard work.
May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.
May we recognize and transform our unskillful states of mind, especially our greed.
May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering
of living beings, preserve our planet, and reverse the process of global warming.
In this food we see clearly the entire universe supporting our existence.

At the end of this prayer I have also added a few words of my own to remind me that not everyone is as fortunate as me and to wish for all beings enough food to eat and water to drink:

May no being want from hunger.
May no being want from thirst.

I am so lucky to have been born in circumstances where I do not want. I wish this for all beings. Peace to you all.

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Love is…

Right from the beginning Freya was a force to be reckoned with. My husband and I had purchased a scratching post for the three month old, white and gray patchwork tabby addition to our family. Our furniture soon became a silent witness to its lack of use. One day I, unbeknownst to Freya, stood just inside the entrance to our living room. I watched her walk over to our sound system’s not insubstantial speakers and sit down just a few feet in front of them. She waited. I entered the room. She looked in my direction, stood up, and looked at me again. Our eyes met, at which point she trotted right up to one of the speakers, then looked in my direction yet again. If she could have talked I’m sure that she would have been saying: “Are you paying attention?”.She then turned towards the speaker and proceeded to sharpen her claws on it. Our life together had begun.LastScan3 fixed

Freya loved to join in the family fun. In fact she insisted on it. My two kids and I liked playing board games and would often find ourselves engrossed in Monopoly. We soon started to notice the dwindling number of Monopoly house and hotel game pieces. One day I was vacuuming and lifted the grate on our cold air register to clean it. There, under a thick layer of dust, were all of the missing game pieces. Retrieving them, I found myself grinning and possessed by an urge to find and hug one four-legged little family member.

One morning soon after, I finished brushing my teeth and went to put the toothpaste lid back onto the tube when I accidentally dropped it. I watched it bounce across the floor when suddenly, out of nowhere, Freya appeared, scooped up the lid in her mouth and took off. And so the game of “Fetch the toothpaste lid” and “Fetch the Monopoly house” was born. Freya loved it! I would toss the house, she’d race after it, stop, pick it up in her mouth, trot back to me, drop it at my feet, and wait patiently until I tossed it again.

Time passed. My marriage ended and I fell into a deep depression. One day, as I would often do in the following months as I started to heal, I found myself looking for solace in playing the piano. On this particular day, however, I stopped playing as sadness overtook me. There I sat as Freya walked into the room. She then did something that she had never done before. I watched as she headed over to the piano bench, hopped up beside me, and just sat there. It was as if she was saying, “It’s okay now. I’m here so don’t be sad.” I looked at her and my heart melted. With tears trickling down my cheeks I held her close and whispered into her ear how much I loved her and thank you. She stayed very still and just looked at me with those beautiful green eyes.LastScan5 fixed

Something else happened that day on the piano bench. Sometimes it is hard to find words for things of the spirit. As I held this precious creature, suddenly there was no cat and there was no me. There was only love and oneness. I know this may sound crazy, but I’m convinced that we both felt it. From that day on, whenever I played the piano, I was not alone.

Our family saw many changes as the years passed: My daughter and son grew up and headed off to university; Bruce, now my husband of twenty-four years, came into my life; Freya grew old. She would still play “Chase the toothpaste lid”, but she now forgot about the bringing it back part. One day she stopped eating. Many tests and an exploratory surgery later, the veterinarian told us that she had liver disease, pancreatitis, and inflammatory bowel disease. He implanted a tube in her tummy, held in place by a red vest. LastScan8We were to feed her through that tube until she started to eat on her own again. And so began weeks of mixing her food with water, warming it, and then injecting it into the tube to feed her. Every single time that food would make its way to her stomach, she would close her eyes and purr and purr.

Freya didn’t know that she was supposed to be an invalid. On day one of her arrival back from the vets, stitches still in place, we looked on in horror as she leapt off the bed that I had gently placed her on, sailed a few feet through the air, and landed nimbly on our dresser. Her healing had begun. We made her a special little bed in our bedroom so we could be near to her and she to us.

One day as I fed her, she suddenly took off racing through our apartment, tube flapping in the wind – okay, nix the wind; it was an apartment, not the great outdoors – food shooting every which way out of the tube. In a panic, as I chased her all over the apartment, I kept thinking: Her insides will come out; she’s going to die; I’ve killed her; and so on and so on. When I finally caught her, recapped the tube, and tucked it back under the protective vest, she acted as if nothing had happened. It was more like, “Why have you stopped feeding me? I’m hungry.”

One month later the vet removed the tube. That tube gave Freya two and a half extra years of life.

Freya’s final day started normally. She took her medicines, ate her food with her usual gusto, napped, and we shared some cuddle time. Early in the evening she headed into the bathroom.

“Meow.”

That’s odd, I thought. I went into the bathroom and there she lay, collapsed on top of the cat litter box. She looked up at me.

“Meow.”

She had lost the ability to walk. Years of heavy steroid use that had controlled her bowel disease had taken its toll. I called for Bruce. He gently picked her up and carried her into the hall.

“I’ll get a wet cloth.”

“It’s okay sweetie,” I said as I gently removed the cat litter stuck to her tummy. I looked at Bruce. Our eyes met. It was time.

At the vets as I held her in my arms she didn’t struggle. She just looked into my eyes with love and with trust. I think that she knew it was the end and it was okay. In her own little way she was letting me know that she’d had a good life.

“I love you,” I whispered into her ear as the vet injected the drug that released her from this earth. Afterward he told me that he’d never seen a cat who seemed so peaceful at the end. I will be forever grateful for those words.

This wonderful, loving, mischievous, incredible being taught me what love is. She also taught me what love is not. Love is not about boundaries. Love is about giving and doing for and about oneness and fun. Love is about acceptance. Love is of the spirit. Love is forever.

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FREYA    1981 – 1999

 

 

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