prayer; dear some something

james-douglas-730photo by James Douglas

Prayer. When I was little, I prayed. But it was really more of an OCD. My own version of If I die before I wake…was an anxious plea to keep myself, family and friends safe, healthy, happy, and alive. If I didn’t perform this prayer the same way every single night, right after closing my eyes but before drifting off to sleep, I feared something bad would happen.

Unfortunately, something bad happens whether you pray or don’t, have an OCD or not.

I never learned how to pray. And I didn’t know whom or what I was praying to exactly.

But I did it anyway. It soothed me and felt essential in some curious way.

I didn’t see my parents pray. If they did, it was personal and discreet, perhaps it was something done at night or first thing in the morning behind closed doors.

When I was younger and heard someone say, “I’ll pray for you”, it sounded like an insult. But, “You are in my prayers”, sounded more inclusive, gentler and not so judgemental.

Tosha Silver in her exquisitely beautiful book, Outrageous Openness, seems to echo this sentiment when she writes that worrying about someone is the worst energy we can send them (and ourselves). She writes, ” It’s simple instead to learn to send blessings as soon as worry begins. Just hold the person in your mind filled with light and happiness, see them peaceful and content. Do it day after day. That’s the single most useful gift you can mentally offer anyone you love.”

I also read somewhere that while meditation (and or stillness and silence) is listening to the divine, prayer is talking to the divine. To be in a relationship requires both; talking and listening, giving and receiving.

But every dawn of every new day, my definition of prayer expands. It is deeper, wider and more forgiving. The particulars are irrelevant. All that matters is that I do it. Prayer to me is inviting sacred meaning into my day.

And now when I think back to my dad admiring the desert sunset with a gin and tonic in hand, swaths of orange and purple sky embracing him, I see him in prayer. My mom, on the beach, sitting in her chair, toes in the sand, drinking up the sunshine as waves play and roll around in the background, feels like prayer. A positive intention, a wish on behalf of a loved one or stranger can also be prayer. Singing Happy Birthday around a cake lit with the soft glow of candles and smiling faces, prayer. Art, prayer. Walking for charity, collective prayer. Writing this blog, prayer.

While reading the book Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist, I loved the visual she offers of imagining a bottle of vinegar and oil. When we pray, her friend Geri says, “pour out the vinegar first – the acid, whatever’s troubling you, whatever hurt you, whatever is harsh, and jangling your nerves or spirit.” I am worried, scared, sad. 

And then what you find underneath is golden. There, lies the oil. There, the divine is working. There, we are not alone. Please give me strength. Please provide comfort and peace to those I love.

We get to bring our whole selves to prayer. We are honest and naked in prayer with nothing to prove and nothing to hide.

I am reminded of Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow, The Three Essential Prayers. We pray when we or others are in need. We pray to give thanks. We pray when we are standing in the midst of sacred awe.  And sometimes we pray simply because we don’t know what else to do.

“Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself up to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something. These prayers say, “Dear Some Something, I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t see where I’m going. I’m getting more lost, more afraid, more clenched. Help.”

“These prayers acknowledge that I am clueless but something else isn’t. While I am not going to go limp, I am asking for the willingness to step into truth.”

Prayer is said to be powerful. I used to think that meant powerful as in the realm of magic and miracles, powerful. And while that might be true, prayer is also powerful because of what it does to the person praying.

In a recent article in Outdoor Magazine, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg writes about his research on prayer. “Newberg found that prayer allowed his subjects to more ­quickly and ­efficiently achieve flow, that coveted state of mind most commonly described as being ‘in the zone.’ During flow, a cascade of neurochemicals descend into the brain, including dopamine (which regulates pleasure), serotonin (which reduces stress), and norepinephrine (which activates the fight-or-flight response). The brain also undergoes electrical changes.”

Prayer is good medicine.

Prayer for me is no longer an anxious plea. It is a letting go, a ride on the crest of a breaking wave. It is an open arm surrendering, falling backward onto a field of velvety green grass. Prayer is resting. It is being carried. It listens, it holds, and it is always an option. Sometimes, it is the only option.

Admittedly, I still pray, hoping to keep the bad at bay, but in addition, I pray to be given the strength and courage to endure whatever happens. I pray to be of service. I pray as a way of showing up.

I pray to stay open.

And, slowly, prayerfully, I am learning.

 

 

 

 

opportunities

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 After a beautiful day at the beach, we came home wanting to fall on the couch and watch a movie. When this happens in our house, it takes at least thirty minutes to find one we all agree on. Tonight, we were really all over the map. I wanted Sound of Music. That didn’t go over very well. So then my husband actually started playing Baby Geniuses…2. Yes, you read that right. When it first began, my daughter asked which of the babies was Baby Jesus. I think she thought that was the name of the movie. Baby Geniuses 2, much to our surprise, was not that interesting so we turned it off and put on Evan Almighty.

It was sweet and I especially liked the scene when God, played by Morgan Freeman, talks to Evan. He says: Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?

Tomorrow, when my daughter starts to whine and I start to lose my marbles, I am going to try and remember this. Maybe those moments, as trying as they can be, are just opportunities in disguise. Opportunities for us to love each other.

Pom Pom

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Sitting on my front steps this morning, stealing a few minutes of quiet before lawnmowers and obligations, I enjoy my watered down coffee while breathing in all of the signs of life around me.

The little marigold seeds sprouting up, the cool but humid air, and the Magnolia tree with its new white cottony blooms. They look like little pom poms.

This reminds me of my grandmother, my dad’s mom whom we called Pom Pom. The name, coined by my sister, had something to do with a hat she had made.

Pom Pom knitted beautiful sweaters, blankets, hats and scarves. My cousins called her Gammie and Gammie Maine because that is where she lived before she went back to New Jersey.

And before New Jersey, it was Scotland and Connecticut. That’s when she was Alice.

But to me, she was always Pom Pom.

When I think of her, I think of peach colored pants, the polyester texture dimpled like Ruffles Potato chips. Later, they were replaced with soft velour that my mom bought for her.

My mom would call her to check in and make sure she had enough chocolate. When I think about those phone conversations, they feel like a tangible example of unconditional love. My mom, always there for her.

Pom Pom was the most flexible grandmother I had ever seen. She would sit in a chair cross legged with hips as open as a book, watching t.v. enjoying a Scotch and maybe a cigarette.

She was so beautiful in her old black and white photographs. I used to look at them, admiring her elegance along with her perfectly coiffed hair and posture, stunning smile, and lovely nose. Sitting with her handsome husband; my dad’s dad and her three boys.

She looked happy. Before her husband died so young and she had to move back to the states from Scotland with my dad and his brothers.

She eventually married again. This time to a man with a son and a daughter. Thank goodness, she found happiness again.

I recall her saying things like, “Good Night Nurse” and “Watch your tongue, Bud” and telling me how lucky I was when I would pull a juice box out of the fridge.

I felt that I never knew her very well. But I always loved knowing that she was one of five girls, a colorful and beautiful bunch of sisters.

Sometimes when she visited us in Arizona or New Jersey, she seemed sad or distant. I wondered if she would have rather have been somewhere else.

But I fondly remember her the last Thanksgiving with my Dad before he died. She sat at our dining room table with the china with the letter B on it, wearing a cowboy hat that I put on her head while we listened to the song, “I’m too sexy.” She was a good sport that night!

This remembering today makes me feel incredibly grateful for my mom and my mother – in-law and that my kids have had so much time getting to know them. Being picked up from school, vacations, playing card games and Scategories, making macaroni and cheese along with various desserts, and the best part…hearing lots of I love you’s – indelible memories they will treasure forever.

It also encourages me to love the heck out of people even if they bug me or I don’t quite “get” them. It feels like a nudge to believe that people are doing the best they can.

I knew my grandma loved me even though it wasn’t something she said. And it was interesting, we never spoke about religion and I don’t think of her as being particularly religious. But before she died, she asked me to “speak to the Lord for her”.

It felt like a gift, like a window into her soul and an acknowledgment of mine. This, I will carry with me forever. And in some way, I feel like I am getting to know her more now, a slow and sweet unveiling of her spirit and her story whispering to me through the breezes and the blossoms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But, are you happy now?

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“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the now the primary focus of your life.”  – Eckhart Tolle 

Sometimes when I find myself ruminating about the future and existing in fear of the unknown, I remember this story.

My brother and my son are good friends. Once when he was visiting and my son was about 6, the two of them had a little heart to heart. My brother was telling him how sad he felt that he had to leave later that day.

That is when my son looked at him, and with his coffee colored eyes, said, “But are you happy now?”

 

 

Hakuna Matata

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I just drove my mom to the airport. We went to the beach for spring break. There, we traded in towels for Kleenex. I had the flu. She had the flu. My baby got the flu. It was miserable. But before we got sick, we had one morning adventure in a golf cart to a bustling bakery and another on the beach collecting treasures from the Gulf.

When I pulled up to the curb at the airport, I hopped out of the car, grabbed her tan bag from the back and briskly walked to the counter, careful not to take too long as to avoid a scolding by security. “No Stopping!” “Keep Moving!”  I gave her a hug and kiss goodbye, smelling that sweet and familiar scent of Oil of Olay on her soft cheeks, when the inevitable trickling of tears, warm and stubborn, wet mine.

I got back in the car. But the security man, a Danny Glover look-alike with a tender grin, stopped me. I got a little scared when I saw him coming, fearing that I was about to get a talking to. But instead…

He said: “You can go, it’s o.k. I’ll watch the car.”
Me: Still the tears. “But, I have to say goodbye sometime.”
Him: “Why?”
Me: Not really answering his question. “It’s just hard, it’s my mom.”
Him: “You never have to say goodbye to your mom. Where is she?”
Me: Feeling literal. “In New Jersey.”
Him: An enthusiastic “NO! Look in the mirror – who do you see?”
Me: I wasn’t catching on. “Me.”
Him: “No, it’s not me, myself and I. You have kids? Who do you see when you look at them?”
Me: Still not catching on, bear with me here, I hadn’t had much sleep in the past week. “My Mom?”
Him: “No, you. And you see your mom when you look in the mirror. Your mom is your past and your kids, the future. Your mom is always with you. There is no need to say goodbye.”
Me: I’m a hot mess at this point and these words, reminiscent of Mustafah talking to Simba in The Lion King, pierce right through my sadness. I feel like at any minute, everyone around me – those walking in through the automatic doors, toting luggage and toddlers as well as all the workers dealing with tickets and bags, are going to start dancing with grass on their heads to the song, Circle of Life. Finally, I come back to this gentle, lovely man, and say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, you are so kind.”
Him: “You don’t need to thank me. G-d puts the right people in our lives at the right time to remind us that we are on the right path.”

He mentions my spirit, blesses me, and moves on.

I too move on, taking my mom with me.

tinsel, dreidels, songs, and gin and tonicas.

beach I love Christmas. As a little girl, I would go to bed strangely early on Christmas Eve, like right after dinner early. And like most kids, I simply could not wait for Christmas morning. Eventually, morning would arrive. But the waiting wasn’t over. Before we could see the tree and get our hands on our presents, my three older siblings and I would have to sit on the stairs and wait as my father showered, shaved, took the dog out, got his camera ready, and made sure the lights were on. It is funny now to think about my dad; all clean-shaven wearing a flannel shirt, sitting enjoying Christmas morning while the rest of us had nary a tooth or hair brushed. And sweet too, because he really just wanted it to be perfect for us. Preparing for the big day meant taking the obligatory holiday photo. This was most likely a disaster and usually included my dad yelling at my oldest sister. She did not like getting her picture taken, and getting her to smile was not an easy task.  “G-damn it, Heather,” I am quite certain was uttered a few hundred times as we posed by the fireplace or on the beach on vacation with missing teeth and awkward hairstyles. buffy Christmas also meant all of my siblings would be home. This was awesome because I got to share a bed with Heather who went to college when I started elementary school. I thought she was cool, and I liked having her around. She mostly liked me too, although probably not very much when I  said in response to her disagreeing with my choice of tinsel for the tree, “You don’t get to decide, you don’t live here.” I suppose she was right after all, silver icicle tinsel was much better than the hairy gold tinsel I favored. silver When I was feeling generous at Christmas-time, I would walk into the kitchen, open up the junk drawer, and amidst the paperclips and batteries, find something like a plastic Smurf that I could wrap and then re-gift. This, I was told, “didn’t count.” (I’m thinking of trying this again this year, perhaps I can scrounge up an old Rubik’s cube for my sister, Kerry, who has always been masterful with them.)

These were also the days when my dad would come home from work with lots of gifts from the nice people he worked with. My mom would most likely be getting dinner ready, and perhaps mixing a gin and tonic, wearing a real Christmas sweater –  not an ironic one, but a real live Christmas sweater with teddy bears and presents on it – as he walked through the door with gigantic tins of flavored popcorn and rolls of different shades of brown wrapping paper.

One year we took all that unattractive wrapping paper and had an ugliest wrapping job contest. Another year, much later, we had an ugly candle contest. Vying for the top spot in the competition were lots of little wax figurines with wicks on top of their heads. When you lit them, their faces started to melt. This was demonic and creepy, and not at all merry or bright. I also recall a festive red rat candle with beady green eyes. I think, however, that our corn on the cob won first place. I mean a life size corn candle is hard to beat.

I apologize for rambling, but I cannot write a blog about the ghost of Christmas past without visiting my love of Christmas carols and hand-made ornaments. Oh and Christmas letters…maybe I’ll save that one for next year.

First, ornaments. Every year, at my mom’s house, I gingerly take them out of their little boxes, and pray that I don’t uncover a dead mouse. I look at the ornaments with the dorky kind of sentimentality usually reserved or made-for-T.V. holiday movies. I can’t help myself, there is a whole lot of nostalgia there. I adore the pink and blue gingerbread people that a neighbor made.  ( I originally thought my grandmother, “Pom Pom” made them, but the fact checker in my family, Rich, corrected me, and you don’t question his memory, trust me). Each one has our names on it, and every year I have been oddly obsessed, in a disconcerting way, about making sure that my sisters and brother only hang the one on the tree with their name.

Another favorite ornament is the yellowish wooden one with the red piping around it depicting some sort of historical scene from the 1700’s. This ornament was made by Heather in Ms. Aloupis’s fourth grade class. Just today, as a matter of fact, my brother shared another interesting fact with me about Ms. Aloupis. It seems in 4th grade, when he was in her class, she spent an entire afternoon teaching the kids about none other than Charles Manson. Thank goodness they didn’t make ornaments that day.

And the caroling…oh my, the caroling…I love Christmas carols. I can hardly listen to The Christmas Song or the music from Charlie Brown without getting choked up. When I was little, my friends and I would have our parents drop us off of in a neighborhood with lots of seniors (not those in high school but rather elderly people) because we thought they might appreciate our singing the most. Sometimes I saw tears in their eyes. I hope this was due to them being touched and not us being off-key.

And lastly, I love the Nutcracker ballet; the music, the growing tree, those over-sized mice fighting with toy soldiers, and especially the dance of the Sugarplum fairy.  Which reminds me, one Christmas party, about twelve years ago, I begged a male friend of ours to don a pink tutu and dance to a techno version of the song while throwing candy canes at people from our balcony. It really wasn’t too hard to get him to agree to my request. Some people laughed, but I think others were royally confused, and perhaps a little agitated with being pelted by a candy cane in the head as they tried to enjoy a nice little illegal bonfire in the middle of a group of apartments. Thank goodness, our landlords, the father and son duo who called themselves Stan Fard and Stan Ford (for some reason they didn’t want us to know they were related and clearly thought us not too smart,) didn’t find out or we would have been evicted that time for sure!

For the past 17 years, I have also celebrated Hanukkah with my husband. And for the first time since we had our son and daughter, we have our very own Christmas tree. A lovely little Frasier Fir that smells fantastic. But we call it a Holiday tree and along with the candy canes, snowmen, and Santas, are blue and silver ornaments, dreidels, and stars of David.

For a variety of reasons we have never had a tree before. One reason being that we celebrate Christmas with my family in New Jersey, and two-ish, because we are raising our kids Jewish. I was also worried about something an old curmudgeon said to me years ago when I first moved to Tampa. He told me my kids would grow up confused because I hadn’t converted.

He is probably right, my kids will be confused. I mean with me as a mother…yes I am certain there will be some confusion served up piping hot and probably with a song.

But when I think of recent memories like my son teaching my siblings how to sing a song in Hebrew in front of my mom’s Christmas tree, or my sister-in-law making a menorah out of cupcakes, or my husband singing the Adam Sandler Hanukkah song after passing out lyrics to his family, I see a beautiful melding and honoring of all of our customs and traditions. Some quirky, yes, but that is what makes it special.

And when I look at our holiday tree, I don’t see confusion, I see love. And now I love Hanukkah too. From our mixed bag of (mashuga) nuts to yours, Happy, Healthy, Holidays!

I love you just the way you are

sue tomatoes

Just the way you are by Billy Joel, popped into my head this morning. Although I have never been a big fan, his songs flood me with happy childhood memories. Piano man, however, reminds me of drunk girls locking arms and dancing. But much of his music conjures up memories of riding in my mom’s station wagon as I marveled at the glow of the moon from my back seat window wondering why it chose us to follow home. I can hear it now…Don’t go changing to try and please me as we drove to the farm to buy corn and tomatoes after a day of swimming. I loved that station wagon partially because it was so much fun to sit in the way back and throw tennis balls out the window.

I realize now how helpful it would be to invite this song into my consciousness from time to time. Like the other day when my daughter was standing by my side while I was writing, and in mid-sentence said repeatedly and with increasing volume, “Fix my hair, fix my HAIR, FIX MY HAIR!” I told her if she did it again, she would get the hose again. To which she replied and with good reason, “What’s the hose again?” I didn’t answer. Somehow I didn’t think it would be considered mindful parenting or okay on any front to explain: 1.”Princess” the little white fluffy dog, 2. the lady trapped in the well who was instructed to rub the lotion on her skin, or 3. Hannibal Lector.

One night recently after my son threw up all over my mom’s living room from “too much popcorn and ice cream,” I was all out of sorts. After consistent nights of inadequate sleep, and bemoaning the fact that I was up yet again, my son with his amber colored puppy dog eyes and hand over his heart, said, “I’m sorry Mama.”

I felt badly that I wasn’t being the mother my son needed me to be in that moment. I thought about a conversation I had  had with my oldest sister who is a mother of four as well as a therapist. She mentioned that it is important for a child to understand when they get in trouble that he or she is not bad, but rather it is the behavior that needs to be addressed. And it is the same advice for me to remember, I am not a bad mother, but sometimes I make mistakes and lose my temper.  The guilt, shame, and blame is better to discard so as to leave room for forgiveness and unconditional love.

One of my favorite children’s books is called Mama, Do You Love Me by Barbara M. Joosse. In it the little girl asks her mom over and over again if her mom would still love her after doing all sorts of terrible deeds like putting ermine in her mukluks. (They live in Alaska.) Her mom listening with her whole heart replies reassuringly that she would love her even if she was mad. She will always love her because underneath the bad behavior, the little girl is just a little girl. A little girl with a beating heart and bright soul prone to mistakes from time to time but above all, spirited, beautiful, whole, and most likely trying to do the best she can.

And the same is true for us, behind our personalities, our insecurities, and all of our life-long baggage, lies our true selves, our essential and highest selves that want to be good, helpful, and loved.

It makes me wonder what it would look like if we could practice lovingly seeing our relatives and friends for who they really are during their tantrums, nonsensical chatter, unintended mistakes, annoying behavior, selfish actions, mindless moments, and clueless comments.

And what if we could also lovingly see and hear ourselves through these times? Knowing that beneath the noise, there is always calm, unconditional compassion, and love.

Maybe by becoming aware; simply, intently, and increasingly aware and with an air of openness and curiosity to our genuine feelings, we carve out a teeny bit more space to respond more gently. And by meeting ourselves as well as those closest to us exactly how they are in that moment, we also then get to love them just they way they are.

I said I love you and that’s forever
And this I promise from my heart
I couldn’t love you any better
I love you just the way you are.