Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Touching Base

[image: Thanks to Chris Hardin for suggesting this illustrated quote as a fitting homage to Teena Price, who was a wild flower.]

I have relatives who don't love me the way I wish they would, don't you?  The weather has been too hot, the air quality is so bad I have to wear a mask outside, my moods are up and down, I'm having an awful time with sleep, and I have to wear elastic on three of my four limbs, and sometimes I hate all this...... But today I am shrugging these things off (all but the depression, to be truthfull).  The universe has been giving me opportunities to see my problems in perspective.

As I wrote previously, Saturday night was a wrenching memorial service for a friend who died last Thursday.  This morning a beloved friend was at our front door to tell us that another friend died yesterday.

Greg Houston was 61 years old and seemingly in good health.  His truck went off the road for no apparent reason, and he was dead by the time the medics got there.  Greg and his wife of over 40 years are important to us, and to many, many other people, because they are lovely people who exemplify a life of compassion and generosity.  For a couple of years Greg has come over periodically to help Tom with projects around the house; it was a joy to me to hear them working together, both so polite and careful.

Yesterday Tom got an e-mail from Greg asking if he'd like help with anything.  The subject line was, as always, Touching Base.  If you want to know what it means to "lead with your heart," Greg was a fine example; Greg actually touched base; he looked at people and saw what we needed.  And he didn't just say, "Call me if you need anything."  He offered specifically to come and help with projects, and did that many times.

Many people had to be called about Greg's death, because many people love someone like that, and he was a pillar of the church.  I expect his service to attract hundreds of people, and we will all weep.

I want to say something very quietly here about the contrast with Teena's death and her service that I wrote about yesterday.  She was 76 and had been ill and uncomfortable with advancing COPD for years.  She took months to die, gasping for air.  Her death was a release from suffering, and I was glad she finally got to rest.  You feel different when someone who dies is much younger than you and vital, and it is an accident.

And it is logical that many people loved Greg and Judy.  But is it logical that so few loved Teena?  I don't know.  It's not uncommon, but it feels wrong.

I have heard from several friends who relate strongly to the post I wrote yesterday that talked about the stigma we feel if we are mentally ill or just, like Teena, unconventional.  I have thought about how many Buddhists work in prisons, often as volunteers, where they know the suffering is acute, and they might be able to offer someone a little peace.  Many others work in hospices, spending time I'm sure with people like Teena, whose own families don't want to be there, or can't.

But out in the social world there is, generally, a sharp division between the people we find easy to love and the people we avoid, or downright dislike.  Too often, people bond in groups on the basis of their mutual loathing for Sarah Palin or their mother or people with brown skin or Christians or those that have not accepted their idea of God. 

Teena was disliked for exactly the qualities that some of us liked about her:  she was open and honest, she was an original.  She said what she thought without regard for the niceties.  She was generous to me and never in my life hurt my feelings, and I never saw her say anything mean.  But she was outspoken, and had an attitude about that.

I don't know what she might have said to another woman in the church who just a few months ago told me she didn't want Teena anywhere near her private birthday celebration.  Teena had wandered into the room where it was being held, having come to church to make a payment on her pledge.  She was in a wandering condition then, liked to go spend time at Whole Foods talking to anyone who would listen, and came to church at every opportunity.  But she was not invited to that small party, not that she should have been; it was private.

I asked that friend, "You have issues with Teena?"

She said coarsely, "Doesn't everyone?"

I said, "I don't."

I didn't like that, but it didn't rankle me until Teena died.  Then I found myself furious with that woman (who has some annoying qualities of her own).  She felt entitled to hate Teena, as I gather some of Teena's children may have, too.  I was afraid that woman would show up at Teena's service, for she is another person who hangs around the church a lot.  I knew I would not contain my anger at her if she did, and I would probably regret that and it would create an uncomfortable break in our social set. But she didn't come.

I wish Rev. Mark had thought to focus Teena's service on our need to soften our hearts toward "the people we find difficult to love," a phrase he used once in a service to encourage us to say aloud or silently during the Silence the name of someone we love - or find difficult to love.  That was valuable to me.  It let me whisper, that Sunday morning, my own father's name.  My father was a shit to me, but the extent of his venomous hatred was only revealed to me after he died. When I found out that he was giving my siblings huge sums of money, and none to me because I was "mentally unstable," I was beyond hurt and angry.  I was the only kid who drove to Zanesville to visit him a few months before his death on Father's Day.  We took him and my mother out to eat.  He gave every appearance of loving our company that day.  There you are.  Life with alcoholics.  They hate you behind your back.

But saying his name in church let me open my heart that little bit and begin the long, long journey of learning not to hate him (and the rest of them, in fact).  Speaking his name with a wish that he rest peacefully let me begin the work of adjusting to that painful reality.

Some of us who are wounded have to work to open our hearts at all, for anyone.  Almost everyone needs to work on opening it all the way, to a cheating spouse, to a neglectful mother or a father who raped you or the man who killed your son in a fight.  Maybe cultivating this willingness to love is actually the fundamental practice.  Jesus thought so.  If enough of us did it, there would be no more war.  Because there would be no more concept of "enemy."  Maybe there would be no more unhappiness.  Because anger and hatred, that's hell, you know it is.


  1. Your siblings should have spoken up for you. Wow, that one hurt more than your father's act.

    1. You are exactly right. And I had to go on dealing with them and my mother after that until I couldn't anymore. In the end I did realize that I was the only person in the family that had ever spoken up to my father - and that was only once. That they were too frightened of his vindictiveness to refuse the money. At least, that's how I imagine it. But our family was consumed by jealousy of one another, there was not enough love to go around. In fact, there doesn't seem to me, looking back, that there was any love after our early adulthood, once each of them in turn had become devoted to alcohol.

  2. Yes. . . Difficult to untangle all of this in my own life (though your rendering is clear), but so, so, important to keep at it. . . and "anger and hatred" are definitely hell.

  3. As "ill" as you seem to be, you got a great gift, suffering to make you start on the path...not that ill, at least of you own doing....richness beyond $$$.

    1. Last night after Zen I was talking to another couple, who are in my general age category. We agreed that it is, in a way, fortunate to live to an old age and begin to see this constant dying of friends and loss of ability. It gets harder to evade reality. There is a saying in one of the chants about how this is the merciful Buddha giving us many opportunities to wake up.

      It depends on your attitude, though. Another friend calls it AFGO - Another F------ Growth Opportunity.