Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Habits of the heart

Last night I took refuge in the three gems: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. This annual ritual that involves some chanting and tying a red knotted string around one's wrist is as formal as my meditation group gets. I debated whether to do this, decided I would attend the session regardless, then went through with it. Right now my reaction is "meh".

Don't get me wrong. I will continue my meditation practice and attend sangha when I can, maybe even take in a retreat sometime. It's the ritual that leaves me unmoved. Too churchy, I guess.

(An interesting aside: Attendance last night was up. The first meeting of the year attracted some peripheral members who are not on the mailing list and who don't attend often enough to know what was planned. They were nonplussed to say the least.)

In The Barn at the End of the World, author Mary Rose O'Reilley spends a month at Plum Village, where someone addresses her struggle with the precepts by describing them not as commandments, but as "habits of the spirit". She also defines the precepts differently, making them more resonant with her life. I've done the same:
  • To the best of my ability, I will develop the habit of compassion for all life.
  • To the best of my ability, I will develop the habit of contentment and sharing.
  • To the best of my ability, I will develop the habit of responsibility in all relationships.
  • To the best of my ability, I will develop the habit of listening mindfully and speaking kindly.
  • To the best of my ability, I will develop the habit of health.
These "goals" don't meet the criteria of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-related). In fact, they are vague, loose, idealistic, cosmic, and open-ended. And that is okay. I know what they mean to me today; their intent may change with time and context. And that is okay, too.

Besides, the precepts are preferable to my usual resolutions of eat less, exercise more, and keep a cleaner house. And probably more achievable.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A walk in the woods

On Thursdays, my SO and I attend senior yoga at the Community Center, have lunch together, then hang out the rest of the afternoon - our midweek "date day". With the temperatures ridiculously warm, I suggested we hike the north side of Metea County Park. Neither of us had been there in a while, but we managed not to get lost. We put about 8K on our Fitbits and 14 flights of stairs.

Chimney in the middle of nowhere


Candy cache!

Geo cache!

Tree fungus

Monday, December 14, 2015

Get out of town

The family spent a weekend in Three Oaks, Michigan. I found the rental through HomeAway, which worked out well. The house slept 11, was nicely decorated, and was clean (sometimes a concern with vacation rentals).

Three Oaks is very flat, and everything is within walking distance. I was afraid that businesses would be closed during the off season, but not so; they even had a small xmas parade Saturday morning. I cooked dinner Saturday night, but otherwise, we ate out. It was a relaxing time, which was the whole point of the weekend.

The weather cooperated - cool but sunny. Saturday we explored the town. Sunday we hit the beach, at both Warren Dunes and Grand Mere state parks. I put "only" 8K steps on my Fitbit on Sunday, but 24 "flights of stairs" - those dunes are challenging!

I would definitely go back.

The rental:

Buck in the woods


Aga range!

Local activities:

Still working on the border


Get me down!

The dunes:

Obligatory snow fence photo

Lake Michigan from Warren Dunes

One of many dunes at Warren Dunes

Arty photo of dune grasses

Arty photo of sand and shadows

Wetlands at Grand Mere

Looking for the lake at Grand Mere

Lake Michigan from Grand Mere

Monday, November 23, 2015

A sangha of one

A while back, I met a friend for coffee, and she gushed, "I'm in love!"

We had both recently lost our aged dogs (mine was a basset mix named Charlie). She, however, had a new puppy, a shiba inu that looked like a little stuffed animal. I oohed over the photos, then enumerated all the reasons I was not getting another dog, the primary one being I was at work all day. She said she had thought the same thoughts, then decided she didn't care.

This resulted in my getting another dog, Betsy Beagle. I too fell in love. But when next I met my friend for coffee, I commented that, by getting a new dog, I missed an opportunity to face my self. She said, "And that's a good thing."

I knew that this was *not* a good thing, but life was full of distractions.

Fast forward. While rereading Teach Us to Sit Still, by Tim Parks, I paused to look up the definition of a term online. Included in the resulting search list was a link to the Insight Fort Wayne group, described as a sangha practicing Vipasanna meditation.

My SO practices meditation twice daily. I have tried meditation off and on over the years, mostly off because I have not been able to establish the habit. The FW group meets on Tuesday evenings, not the best day for me because of conflicts, but a Monday evening class for beginners was starting soon, so I signed up for that.

It's over now. While I don't think I learned anything new about meditation per se, being in a group with a teacher has helped me start a regular practice. I started with a 10-minute "sit" in the mornings, to set my intentions for the day. I tried complementing that with a longer sit in the evening, for 20 or 30, someday 40, minutes, but if the day had been full, I sometimes forgot or, if I remembered, struggled with nodding off. Now I sit for 40 minutes most mornings.

I have managed to attend the regular weekly meditation session on occasion. First comes a 40-minute sit, usually in silence. This is followed by a dharma talk, either one delivered by our teacher (Tamara Dyer) or a prerecorded one by another teacher, like Gil Fronsdal, a co-teacher at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California and the Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz, California. (Audio Dharma is a source of free dharma talks.)

And that is it.

Right now I am a little confused about the difference between Zen and Vipasanna Buddhism. Gil has trained in both the Japanese Soto Zen tradition and the Insight Meditation lineage of Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia, so they must not be mutually exclusive. Our local teacher, Tamara Dyer, is a retired psychotherapist and is of the Insight school. From my own readings, Zen sounds more rigid and ritualistic, at least when compared with what I am experiencing with the local group. Maybe that is one reason I find myself responding favorably.

I plan to continue attending the sessions when I can. Meanwhile, I listen to dharma talks at home and practice on my own. Maybe I will wake up to my life, maybe I will come home to who I am. Better late than never.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

If I were to suffer a heart attack, it would have happened at Starved Rock

I am a firm believer of vacations. Besides the obvious benefits of R&R, it is good to get out of town once in a while, and see something different. When my daughter changed jobs, she took no time off; in fact, the two jobs overlapped for a while. Crazy! I said, and urged her to take some time off, somehow, someway. Since I am sharing the inheritance from my dad with my kids in the form of subsidizing travel, money was not a real issue. All she had to do is take a few days off and choose a destination.

The end result was a girls weekend away, my daughter, granddaughter, and me, with guest appearances by my son and his pseudo-stepdaughter (that is a long story and not mine to tell). My daughter chose Starved Rock State Park because 1) it is close enough not to be an ordeal to reach, 2) it offers plenty of hiking experience, and 3) it is not in Indiana.

Fast friends

Starved Rock consists of 18 canyons along the Illinois River, near Utica, IL. The 13 miles of trails are well marked, including little signs that indicate whether one is moving toward or away from the visitors center, very helpful when one decides enough is enough. Going off trail is an invitation to disaster: the last time I was at the park, with my SO, a young boy slipped and fell into the river; he was rescued by a boater, but his uncle, in an attempt to save the boy, drowned. A more recent incident resulted in a spinal fracture.

Starved Rock itself as viewed from Lovers Leap overlook

Knowing this, it was tempting to put a leash on the granddaughter. Fortunately, she understands (at least, for now) the necessity of following rules, even when those around you are not. I was a little shocked that parents let their kids scramble around off trail, even taking pictures of the little monkeys. I hope they all get poison ivy, a distinct possibility because it was all around.

Anyway, we had a good time. It would have been nice to stay at the lodge or in one of the cabins, but they are booked well in advance. Instead, we took up residence at the Hampton Inn in Ottawa (not the best Hampton Inn I've stayed at, but perfectly adequate, plus free breakfast! And a pool!) We arrived on Thursday night, so we could have a full two days of fun before returning on Sunday. We hiked the trails for about two hours Friday. My daughter signed up for a guided hike Saturday, and my original plan was to do something outside the park with the granddaughter, but when I told my son our plans, he decided to join us on Saturday. I figured he would not find the Scarecrow Festival in Ottawa all that fascinating, so we hiked the trails again.

One of the shorter stairways

Here is the thing about the trails at Starved Rock. Hiking there involves going up and down a LOT of stairs, especially if one decides to visit a canyon floor. Even though we did not traverse the whole park nor visit every canyon over the course of our visit, my Fitbit registered 80 flights of stairs in two days. The map displayed symbols I originally took for bridges on the trails, but in actuality were "major stairways". Climbing those lifted my heart rate to its maximum, requiring a rest or two on the way up. Some stairs were so steep I insisted on walking in front of the kids on the way down, in case one tripped. I am surprised there are not more injuries, but off trail antics aside, people must be careful enough most of the time.

Wildcat Canyon

Starved Rock is open year round. When it is rainy, there are waterfalls. Migratory birds stop by (we saw white pelicans on the river) and bald eagles nest there in the winter. Fall wild flowers include mostly asters, golden rod, boneset, and jack in the pulpit. There is a dam on the river, and we watched tug boats push barges through the locks. I recommend visiting during the week, because it gets quite crowded on weekends.

My daughter brought work along, for which I properly chastised her. On the way home, she admitted the work had gone untouched. Instead, she hiked and swam for two days, read a whole book, enjoyed some quality time with her daughter but also some grown-up time away from her. Mission accomplished.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Color my world

When I was in college, back in the Stone Age, I (re)discovered the calming effect of coloring. I bought some crayons and a coloring book and when feeling stressed or overwhelmed, retreated to my dorm room to color. I don't recall sharing this activity with anyone, and my roommate was not often present, especially on weekends, so it was my private little vice.

Once again, I was ahead of my time. If you flash forward to now, you will find that "adult" coloring books and apps are all the rage. I tried one app, Colorfy, and while pretty good, it doesn't allow for shading or enhancements. However, you will never color outside the lines, as each space is filled with the color of your selection - no actual coloring required. I didn't find that as satisfying as the coloring apps targeting kids my granddaughter's age, although the subject matter was generally more interesting than fairies and Hello Kitty.

Barnes and Noble had some adult coloring books on sale, so I picked up one with a garden motif and one of Norse designs. (I'm clinging tenaciously to my Danish ancestry.) I also purchased some pens there, which I both love and hate. Each pen has two points, one short and stubby and one long and pointed like a paint brush. That's the love part. The hate part is there is no way to identify the true color of the ink without yanking off the rather tight caps and scribbling a bit. And some pens seems to have a different shade at each end. And if you don't get the cap back on completely, they dry out rather rapidly.

Naturally, my granddaughter wants to use MY pens and color in MY books. (Boundaries, child!) Yesterday I purchased an "advanced" coloring book for her at United Arts and Education (paisley prints) and some new pens for moi. I have more colors now, but the tips leave a lot to be desired.

I still find the act of coloring to be soothing, sort of like knitting but without the counting and the frustration. Sometimes I am in the mood for the tiny details in some pictures, other times I need to make broad strokes. While coloring, my mind wanders hither and yon, and I get some real thinking done without pulling a muscle in my brain. It easily becomes a time suck.

This pastime continues to be a secret, mostly, as I imagine some people just would not understand and/or approve. I figure it is no worse than watching TV. And maybe someday I will learn to share.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Up to a point

If one's fifties is the decade of regret, the sixties seem to be the age of reflection. At least, that is what I have been doing lately when not involved in this, that, or the other thing.

One thread of musing has gone along like this: How come I never became really good at something? I recall reading articles as a teenager where the author insisted that everyone is good at something, you just have to find out what that is. I don't remember being particularly encouraged by anyone, so blamed "them" for that. Then I wondered if maybe no one saw anything in me worth encouraging. Hmmm.

After I brief respite from that topic, I returned to it from another angle: what was I good at, and what happened along the way? In high school, I was very good at math, loved plane and solid geometry and trig. But then something happened in college when I hit calculus. I never quite understood calc, nor the higher math classes I took while pursuing my computer science degree. So maybe I was good at math, but only up to a point.

Speaking of computer science, I loved designing and writing software and believed I was good at that. But then along came a paradigm shift, from procedural programming to object oriented and event driven software. I understood both at an abstract level, but my OO efforts still looked like procedural code. My brain just did not want to make the shift. So I was good at software development, but only up to a point.

What else? I was good at sports when we lived in Illinois, but the competition was sparse because back in the dark ages, there were no interscholastic team sports for girls in that state. We moved to Massachusetts my senior year, where they were more enlightened and I was less good compared with the others. Not to be deterred, in college I tried out for volleyball and sprained both my thumbs the first day of practice. After that, I stuck to intramural sports. As an adult, I did continue to play tennis, teaching my son until he surpassed me. I also played in a parks and rec league, until I got tired of losing all the time. Now I play golf, and even though my form is good, the results are inconsistent. Again, I'm good, but only up to a point.

I'm a good gardener, up to a point. I'm a good knitter, up to a point. I'm a good cook, up to a point.

What is this point I reach where my talents don't develop further? Maybe I get bored easily and don't stick with something long enough to become better. Maybe I am lazy, just don't want to put the work into becoming better. Or it could be I am simply average (HORRORS!)

That is when it is helpful to remember, We don't all have to shine.