Giving Thanks

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. A day where we all eat the same meal containing too many carbs and too much sugar. A day where we drive some distance to be with family we only see once a year at most. Or a day where we’re plotting our shopping itinerary to take advantage of Black Friday sales that start at midnight to buy cheap shit we don’t need.

Ok, that’s the cynical view, but on a broad scale I’m not too far off. I love me a holiday, so while I am deeply cynical of the holiday and the trappings I hear about out in the world, my husband and I keep things simple and end up enjoying a delicious meal with whichever friends and family come to us.

But this year has been different. This week I got to experience Thanksgiving as seen through the eyes of the American public school system as an adult. I am shocked and dismayed to report that nothing has changed since 1980. Teachers are still making kids create teepees (which I am pretty sure belonged to Native Americans from the central plains, not the eastern seaboard), wear various headdresses, calling Native Americans ‘Indians,’ and basically spewing an historically sketchy version of events using the word ‘God’ in the story. My history degrees cringed and wept. The liberal snob in me was appalled. The mother in me smiled like a fool while my kindergartener happily (and politely!) ate up his plate of various corn products.

Oh hey look, this is not how it happened! Nothing about this scene is accurate. Painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

Oh hey look, this is not how it happened! Nothing about this scene is accurate. Painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

No, Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday of freedom. The Pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution, but they did not believe in ‘freedom for all.’ Perhaps from a white colonialist point of view their landing was a step toward their freedom. But we know how the story ends – with Native American populations more than decimated by war and disease, forced off their lands and into spaces that forced them to renounce their languages, families, customs, and gods. This is not a holiday celebrating the kindness of whites to Natives, or their friendship.

I think there are ways to discuss the contested origins and perspectives of this holiday that even 5 year olds can appreciate. (This is a good look at the Native American perspective.) I expected that in a rather liberal, hippie town such as Olympia that there would be more nuance in this unit. I was terribly mistaken.

Yes, capitalist powers have eaten into this idea by creating a national day of shopping on the Friday after. Yes, this holiday is much more easily celebrated by the middle and upper classes who can afford the standard meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie, and who are not compelled to work on a day that most people get off. Cynicism and criticism vented, I still celebrate this holiday and think that, in general, it is a positive one for the United States. Why? Because anything that can bring attention to the history and current status of Native Americans is a good thing. Because having a national holiday that focuses on giving thanks is a good thing. Because in spite of the cynicism and distractions of food and goods people still post all over the internet and share in person the things that they are grateful for. Gratitude is serious spiritual and magical work.

Today I am grateful for the beautiful weather my region has been having and the sun that lifts my spirits. I am grateful for my husband and children who bring love and joy into my life every single day. I am grateful for a healthy, uneventful pregnancy, and an active fetus wiggling like mad inside me. I am grateful that Adam’s parents have chosen to live near to us, that we will drive a simple and lovely 20 minutes to their house today. I am grateful that we have enough to eat and that my parents showed me how to cook, so that I can eat what I want to eat. I am grateful for the people in my life, near and far, who support me in my fullness.

Wherever you are, I hope you will take a moment to practice an expression of gratitude. If you are American, I hope you find a way to celebrate this day in a way that has meaning for you and yours. May your families, biological and chosen, be blessed. May your stomachs be full. May you be blessed by the land and your communities. Safe travels to all who are on the roads, in the skies, or on the rails this weekend.

Blessings to one and all!

A Day in the Life

I see the light peeking around the edges of the curtains. I know I’ve slept late. It’s Tuesday. Monday nights mean choir rehearsal, and I don’t get home until 9.30 – well, past my bedtime! It was another night of me not being able to sing, thanks to my myriad colds. I can’t dwell on self-pity for too long: the children have heard Adam putzing in the kitchen and they come climbing into my side of the bed for morning snuggles. Just as we’ve attained fair and equal snuggles for all, Adam comes in to tell us it’s 7.30 and breakfast is on the table.

They scramble off the bed and race to the table. I make my way slowly: bathroom, find robe, open up the windows in the bedroom. When I get the table I see bowls of oatmeal in front of the kids and a spinach omelet waiting for me.

Olympia artist Niki McClure's calendar

Olympia artist Niki McClure’s calendar

Adam gets the kids dressed while I take the briefest of showers. Once dressed, I pack lunches and snacks, and off we go. We’re bundled in boots and thick coats. Last night’s downpour surely meant there would be puddles this morning, but no. As we walk up the hill to school, my son informs me that Papa was wrong; he didn’t need his boots after all.

I drop one kid off at kindergarten, another next door at a preschool. Happy kids are happily learning and playing. I descend home, down the hill, feeling wiped out. I’ve been awake an hour and fifteen minutes.

Once home I survey the mess of the kitchen. I feel overwhelmed by all the To-Do’s cluttering up my head. It’s Tuesday, so we have nothing to do tonight, except enjoy one another. It’s Tuesday, which also means it’s Kali puja day. First, though, I need to sit.

I make a cup of green tea and sit myself on the horrid burgundy corduroy couch. I enjoy the thin sunlight shining in through the windows. I sip my tea and do the barest of responding to comments, threads, and emails online. I watch a news clip on the Fukushima disaster. I begin berating myself for all the things I’ve left undone: a book review or two, blog posts I keep meaning to write, emails to be written, Christmas presents to sort out, and oh yeah, there’s a book on hold for me at the library.

I’m tired of feeling tired and sick of being sick. Self-pity threatens to eat me whole. I remind myself that I’m pregnant, it’s autumn, and I have two small kids that bring every sniffle home. What might fell them for two days will no doubt fell me for five. I’ve been sick every week for 5 weeks straight. But it will pass. I remind myself of that: this will pass.

I shut my lap top, drain my tea-cup, and peel myself off the couch. It’s nearly ten. Walking into the kitchen I realize I haven’t bought fresh flowers this week, so I grab a fat medjool date and head to my altar. I lay the date in my offering dish, light my candles and incense, and do the most basic of pujas. Still, puja feels good, like visiting an old friend. While sitting in meditation I think of my 2013 collage up on the fridge. I realize that this last part of the year was ‘set aside’ for rest. My collages are surprisingly prophetic. Sometimes I forget this. I drew the Moon and the Hanged Man for the last few months of this year. While the wheel of the days continue to turn and opportunities continue to knock, I need to realize that this time period for me is one of quiet, rest, and internal contemplation.

My altar this day

My altar this day

With that helpful reminder fresh in my head, I bow and make prayers. I pray for my Feri teachers, who are in need of healing right now. I pray for myself, also in need of some immune support. I ask that I might get the rest I need, learn what it is I need to at this time, and gather the strength I need for whatever is to come after this season passes.

It’s now 10.30. One hour until I pick up my daughter from preschool. I decide to throw in a load of laundry, then drive out to my friendly local farm and get eggs. I return in time to get lunch heating in the oven before walking up to get the girl.

Walking home in warm coats

Walking home in warm coats

Lunch is last night’s shepherd’s pie with a green salad. Adam and I talk about how his work is going, the realizations I had in meditation, the news I picked up on the farm; our daughter reminds us at least six times that her birthday is coming up (it’s not until February, but she is obsessed).

I tidy up the kitchen. Daughter asks for a bath, so I run the bath, brew a cup of tea and sit to write. Just as I get into the piece she’s through; I dry her off and dress her. She asks to watch Rastamouse while I write. I finish up and move on to general mental housekeeping: answering more emails and making lists of everything: Christmas lists, prepping for the various coming holidays, etc.

Cup of tea drained, more cartoons than I care to admit, and one distracted descent into Facebook, I finally get to work on my lists before reading to my daughter and letting her play with marbles. Only half way through my lists, my husband and I decide to do an impromptu drive-by of a potential house (we’re still house hunting) before going to pick up our son from kindergarten at 3pm. The house’s location isn’t quite right.

Once home everyone gets snacks. I go back to my lists. The kids get two cartoons before spending the rest of the afternoon drawing, reading and making a mess of the living room. We work on reading homework and I field a meltdown. I’m still trying to organize my lists. I am interrupted every few minutes. I give up and decide to work on it after the kids are in bed.

4.30 rolls around and I realize I need to fold some laundry and start on dinner. After reading the kids two more stories. We do a quick tidy up, which is dismantled minutes later. The youngest comes asking to play with rice. I dye some rice orange and the kids make a fine mess in the kitchen while I cook. The boy asks for a bath, which he runs and then picks up his mess while the bath fills. This is a first.

Orange rice for the win

Orange rice for the win

Dinner cooks. Adam watches basketball. I sweep up the rice and start lighting some candles. I light the family altar candle, say the Holy Mother prayer and a few others for some family needs. I discuss the meltdown issues with Adam (stress at school).

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Dinner is lamb and pork meatballs, sweet and sour sauce, roasted cabbage, and chard – all homemade, all super tasty! Everyone asks for seconds. It’s been chaos for the last two hours, but I’m feeling peaceful and sated at the table.

After dinner I go to the super awesome neighbors across the street for a quick chat and to pick up some keys. I walk over in my slippers. When I return, the end of the basketball game is on and the kids are reading on the couch. I finally fold the laundry and put it away. I make a cup of throat coat tea for myself and the boy. It’s time for the kids to get ready for bed and, of course, they get squirrelly and riled up. Adam gets them in their pjs and brushes their teeth while I write a little.

Pjs, toothbrushing, focus, night-time pees, get out of the laundry basket, time for bed, which story do you want, please focus on you, get in bed. While Adam works on the dishes, a story is read by me, hugs and kisses doled out. Adam goes in to sing them to sleep. It’s not terribly successful tonight.

I finally finish making my lists and get organized. I sort out what I want to accomplish tomorrow (add pictures to this post, post it, write up a book review, vacuum the house, don’t forget to buy milk and eggs, and get that package from the post office). I finally open this week’s Economist. And now it’s time for me go to bed. It’s 8.30 and I can’t wait to crawl into bed and do it all again tomorrow.

Maxim Monday: Use your skill

All of us are skilled at something. Maybe you are a violinist, a carpenter, or speak two languages. Maybe you knit or craft or bake the best muffins in your town. Maybe you kick ass at video games, play a mean game of foosball, or know how to carve wooden swords. I don’t know, but I’ll bet all of us are good at more than one thing. So the questions this raises for me are: are you valuing the skills you have? And, how are you using them?

Often times our skills can be put to use for the benefit of others. Sometimes we get to make money with our skills or use them in our day jobs. Many times our skills really shine when we use them for own pleasure.

Whatever your skills are, I encourage you to use them. You’ve likely worked hard to develop them, or at least spent many hours over the course of your life developing the skills you’ve got. Using our skills is a sign of pride in ourselves, can be a gift, a help or a blessing to those around us, and honors the work that we’ve done to hone our skills. Plus, when we use our skills they get better.

I’m good at several things: I am a skilled reader, a decent writer, and I know a lot about religions. I can cook and I can sing. I can organize like a mofo. I am trying to use the first set of skills in a more professional way. I have spent a lot of time, effort and money developing those skills – I’d like to use them!

I cook three hot meals a day for my family; this is an act of love and service. Cooking and hospitality also bring me a lot of joy and weave into the vision I have for my life, my community, and the world at large.

Singing is another skill on which I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money. Not singing seems like a waste of all of that effort. Besides, singing brings me joy, and I’ve also promised Kali I would sing! My husband tells me that my singing brings joy to him and others.

Lastly, I organize my household, but in the past I’ve used this skill extensively in my professional life, and I hope to do so again some day.

All of those skills utilize different aspects of my self. They all bring me different kinds of satisfaction. I am guessing that your skills do similar things for you: tapping into the varied parts of who you are and bringing you pleasure.

Let us value the varied skills we possess and encourage one another to use our skills for joy.

Happy Halloween!

Today is the rather secular holiday of Halloween, where kids dress up in costumes and eat absurd amounts of candy. We’ll be observing by doing about the same, only going easy on the candy part. My son is going as a ‘skull ninja’ and my daughter found a dragon suit to wear.

There is something lovely, especially for a kid, about getting to walk around in the dark, autumnal weather. The leaves crunch under the feet. The cold (or rain) nips the nose. You get to knock on doors that you might never touch all the other days of the year. And the extra candy is always a sweet treat. Especially if you have a mother like me or mine, who doesn’t let much sugar into the house!

Tonight we’ll observe just like regular Americans, enjoying the holiday for what it is. Tomorrow and Saturday our family will observe this time in our own, more meaningful way.

Here are some past posts I quite like on this time of year. Enjoy!

Samhain Ritual

Kids & Halloween

The Not-So-Dumb Supper

Health, part 2

In my last post I talked about five dietary changes to help you be healthy. Now I want to add five non-food related ideas for health. Yep, it’s another non-spiritual post!

Let me reiterate two things. One, I am not a medical professional. Take this post as you will. Two, I am not interested in promoting weight loss. I am interested in overall health. Sure, taking steps to get healthy as a whole person often leads to weight loss for those who have excess weight on their frames. Sometimes it means gaining weight. What’s important is that our bodies find equilibrium.

Let’s get to it!

#6: Get more sleep. I’m sure you hear this everywhere. You might even wish for it when your alarm goes off in the mornings. There are ways to get more sleep – and more restful sleep – without resorting to sleeping medications.

The first tip is…. just go to bed earlier. On night’s I’m feeling particularly tired I go bed as soon as the kids fall asleep. I feel a bit like child myself, crawling into bed at 8.30pm. But getting 10 hours of sleep? That makes me feel great!

Try making your room dark. I mean, DARK. This can be especially helpful if you live in an area with lots of streetlights. Get thick curtains or even a cheap, but thick piece of material to tack up. Put a scarf over your alarm clock. Our whole family sleeps much more soundly when it’s truly dark in our room.

Get off screens before bed. There’s something about the constant input of light that messes with our brain’s natural sleeping signals. All the light tells our brains it’s still daytime and our minds can keep going. I’ve read some people advocate for 5-6 hours before bed, some say 3-4 hours before bed; I generally get off 2-3 hours before bed. This means not just television, but computers and smart phones, too. If you spend all day at work in front of a computer, perhaps just leave screen time behind once you leave the office. Maybe start reading all those books you’ve bought, but never gotten around to reading.

#7: Deal with your feelings. Get to know how you really feel. Perhaps without the distraction of excess screen time, or with a practice of sitting meditation, you might start to realize that you have undealt with grief, anger, insecurity, or other unvoiced feelings. Learn to feel your feelings and find ways to express them. I have experienced first hand the heartbreak and health-issues that can arise from undealt with emotions. Learning to love and free up all of our parts will help reduce stress, but can profoundly affect our health, both mental and physical.

#8: Surround yourself with support. All of us need support and encouragement. Find people who love you and support your efforts to get healthy. Maybe you have some addiction issues – AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and other 12-step groups can be amazing -and free!- therapy. Maybe you need to go see the doctor. Maybe you need therapy. Maybe you just need to reach out to your friends in new ways. Find a forum online or a meet-up group. We are not islands unto ourselves; we are meant to thrive in a community, whether that’s a small one of only 5 people or a larger one of interconnected groups. Whatever it is, do it. Get the support you need.

#9: Move in ways that make you happy. Our bodies were made to move. Even if you have mobility issues, find some form of movement that makes you feel good. If your health is particularly bad, maybe a walk around the block is a triumph. I don’t think we all need to be joggers or join the gym. I am a huge fan of exercise that can be done anywhere: yoga, walking, squats, push ups, etc.

If I may, let me make a few suggestions about yoga. It can be expensive and elitist. Don’t let that stop you. I recommend finding a class that makes you feel good. If you can only afford once a month or every six weeks, do that and tell your teacher that you’ll be coming once a month (or whatever). Then, take what you learn and practice at home. You can get adjustments and corrections and new poses on those days that you go to class, but you’ll be getting the benefits of regular practice at home. Also, you don’t need fancy gear. I wear pajamas to yoga. Seriously. Or gear I’ve found at Goodwill.

Whatever you find, start with something that makes you feel good and is appropriate for your body. Then, work your way up in intensity and endurance over time. Eventually you might branch out to new activities. Forget about perfect abs and just make your body feel good!

#10: Find ways to manage stress. This one is part and parcel of every other tip here. Eating healthier foods reduces stress on the body. Getting more sleep can ease stress. Getting exercise can be a great release. But you may need more. Sitting meditation can be one tool for this, although I have found that sometimes it can raise stress because we have to sit with ourselves and our issues! Maybe you need to take up a hobby. Maybe you really need to find a new job, or make some other serious lifestyle changes. As you get healthier, I believe that you’ll start to see the ways that your life can be more spacious – even with kids and jobs and pets and bills.

So there you have it! Niki’s top 10 ways to bring more health and vibrancy into your life. Please remember to start where you are and make small changes that you can stick with. There is no need to try everything at once!

The spiritual life is ideally one of holistic health. We are both not wholly our bodies and we are completely incarnated in the flesh of this world. I don’t see our various parts as separate, but as interconnected. If I am unhealthy in my body, usually my work and my relationships struggle too. Finding the equilibrium in all my parts is one of my big goals for life in my ‘ashram.’ I wish for all my friends and readers abundant good health!

Maxim Monday: Give back what you have received

I think this is basically an ancient way of saying ‘Pay it forward.’ I absolutely agree with this idea. Now that I have a family, I believe this even more. I can respect and care for my parents, who have given me much for my success in life. But I can pass on the gifts and resources to help my kids succeed as a way of paying forward the generosity shown to me.

And not just my kids, but everyone’s kids. Modern America is a divided society, segregated primarily by class. We have less upwards economic mobility than we have in several generations, and less than most other industrialized nations, particularly Western Europe. Rising inequality is primarily to blame. My husband and I talk about how much easier it was to buy a house and support a family with only one working parent 30 years ago than it is now. Yet, I feel like those of us in our 30s and 40s are still living under the expectations that we can have the lives our parents had, and raise kids the way we were raised. I don’t think it’s possible. At least, not without help.

Giving back, helping others, is much easier if we ourselves have received assistance. It’s easy to judge welfare recipients if we’ve never struggled to pay bills, afford stable housing, or get enough to eat. I guess some people are so used to having others pay their way or handle their struggles for them that they expect others to always bail them out. I’ve met very few of those people in my life. Most people I know have worked hard and accepted help when it’s been needed.

Adam reminds me that perhaps this maxim might be talking about giving back negative things. I don’t know how the actual Greek breaks down. Instinctively, I leaped to the positive interpretation. I’d like not to live in a world where we give back negative for negative. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, so goes the saying. I’d rather walk away from those who hurt me or create systems of oppression and work instead to pay forward the good.

Too much of politics and parenting seem built around the bitter attitude of ‘well, I had it hard, and I turned out fine, so you shouldn’t have it any easier!’ But what if we didn’t have to work so hard? I’m not talking being lazy and never working diligently for anything. I mean, what if we didn’t have to work obscene hours at menial jobs for pay that doesn’t afford us basic health care? What if we didn’t have to protect children from abuse and neglect? What if we didn’t have fear walking down the street at night? What if we didn’t have to have bars on our windows and make certain we locked every door? Why can’t we make it easier for our descendents?

So I’ll be voting for things that make others’ lives easier. I’ll be raising my kids with every resource that’s been given to me. I’ll be donating regularly, even when times are tough, to area organizations doing the same. (This last one is also enlightened self-interest. Who knows when I might need assistance?) Paying it forward, giving back what you have received, is a form of gratitude. Gratitude is an antidote to bitterness. Gratitude is also a powerful way to make our families and communities better, healthier, happier, stronger units.

Surrender

I suck at surrender. I’m a dominant, organized, go-getter who has a very hard time not doing. A lot of the time this works in my favor, especially as I run a household and raise my kids. I enjoy nurturing others and being pro-active in all of my varied practices. But surrender is an important act of (not)doing, critical to the spiritual life and for healthy relationships.

I’m starting to see that my limited capacity for ecstasy might be linked to my limited ability to surrender. Letting go to an experience that I have no control over is an essential component in experiencing ecstasy, but I have a hard time feeling safe in that position. Much of that is because for my entire life I’ve privileged what I call Big Fat Brain over other forms of knowing. I am very smart, and I’ve clung to that as a shipwrecked person would to a life-raft. Big Fat Brain serves me very well. To it I say, Thank you. But it’s not the entirety of me. I’m trying to make more space for other ways of knowing and experiencing.

Wrapped up with Big Fat Brain is the training I’ve received in Doing, rather than Being. I witnessed adults deriving their worth from doing. My parents, my mother particularly, is never sick. Never. She dotes on others, others do not dote on her. The examples my parents taught me was that getting help was a form of indulgence. None of that is true, which I know in my head, but letting go of those attitudes is hard work. I’m still disentangling those myths from my life.

And there’s no experience like being sick to drive this home to me, again. This week I’ve caught the cold my husband had last week. It’s just a regular ol’ cold, nothing too serious. Except I’m in the late stages of my first trimester of pregnancy. What does that mean? It means that I was already experiencing headaches and mild congested due to swollen membranes brought on by the expanding of my vascular system as the body ramps up blood production for the growing fetus. Add a cold on top of that I’m pretty miserable. Being pregnant also means I can’t take anything for any of the symptoms. I have no choice but to hunker down, rest, and drink ungodly amounts of fluids.

It means that I need extra help. It means that I have to let my husband take care of the cooking, dropping off and picking up the kids at school, and doing all the things that I might normally do. I have to surrender: to the cold, my duties, to accepting help. Better to learn this now, better to improve my surrendering through relatively small colds, than to be felled by chronic injury or illness and forced to learn the hard way.