Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Power of Kindness and Dreamcatchers

No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that itakes them kind themselves.
~ Amelia Earhart

Many years ago, I had an experience that would have a profound impact on my life. At that time, I was mothering my two very young children, and had only minimal time to myself. Parenting two toddlers can be overwhelming and stressful. I felt the need to be perfect; to have an immaculate home, clean and well behaved babies and elegant meals on the table every night. Because my husband and I made the choice that I should stop working outside the home, and focus on our children and house, I didn't believe that I had a "right" to outside interests. I felt that being a homemaker was my job and I needed do to it with excellence. I may have stressed myself out with my unrealistically high standards, but I did feel pride in my life. I believe that I had a good shot at success, until two major losses threw my world off its axis. The loss of my father, and of my 3rd baby a week later, were more than I could handle. I didn't know where my touchstone was. I couldn't seem to find 'center' again. I had no idea how to even begin approaching getting back there.

When these losses happened, I was somewhat shocked by the responses of a few people. While many were truly sympathetic, and others embarrassingly unsure of what to say, there were a few that were profoundly derogatory to me. One woman, whom I had considered a close friend, told me just days after my miscarriage to just 'stop being a baby and get over it'. She went on to recount her own losses, how much deeper they were than my own, and she was fine. Fine! Her comments, and others like them, said to me, "You are a loser. You have no ability to be a great person. If you can't, then you have no place in this world." Despite all the loving generosity I was shown by others, the effect of this false friend's words to me was staggering. I sunk deeper into my own despair and wondered if I really did not have what it took to be a strong woman, a decent wife and a good mother. I doubted my own beliefs inalmost everything, I doubted my intelligence, I doubted my faith, I doubted my ability to find joy again.

One place I used love to go, in the depths of winter, was a garden center's greenhouse. While the rest of the nursery lay dormant, under a blanket of thick white snow, the greenhouse beckoned, like a siren of Spring. There were tropical plants in full bloom, several water features that bubbled enthusiastically and even birds who flew about singing and delighted to have found an oasis from Maine's harshest days. I had struck up a pleasant acquaintance relationship with the greenhouse's caretaker, and we'd often chat, as we shared a cup of tea (provided by her little electric teapot) together. I never troubled her with anything heavy, with my horror at
my own inability to feel peace of mind. But, I did soak in her positive nature and her beautiful way with words. She often wore a lovely dream-catcher necklace that held small totem animals dangling from it. I had admired the way it reflected the light, and the intricacy of the design. Each part of the necklace seemed to have a significance I could only hope to guess at, and yet the piece of art it created was profound and moving, even without knowing what each item represented.

One day, I shyly offered my compliments about the necklace. I told this lovely gardener how beautiful I believed it was, my cheeks burning red from fear that I'd be rebuffed in my meek attempt to praise. What I was offering was not just my admiration for the lovely piece of jewelry, but also for this woman's unfailing, and unrequired, kindness to me. I was prepared to be rebuffed and sent on my way, as she tended to her other customers, all of whom were paying for plants, rather than just soaking in the womb-like warmth of the greenhouse. Instead, she smiled, took off the necklace and put it around my neck. I tried to protest, offering my hands up in submission to her overly generous act. But, she kissed me on the cheek and said, "You need it right now." I accepted with a sense of deep importance at the unprecedented beneficence.

I began to feel better. I started returning phone calls from well meaning friends. I started taking yoga classes. I began to eat right, exercise more and the power of feeling as if my center was returning, palpably weighing me back into balance. When I went to the garden center a month after the gift was bestowed upon me, the woman was gone. Her successor was a harsh older man who had little patience, and less understanding, for people wanting to picnic in the greenhouse without purchasing anything. I felt shock that "Eve" had been voluntarily left the garden. I also found that my beloved sanctuary was now off limits and tended to by a grumpy curmudgeon. Still, I wore the necklace almost every day for several years. I felt myself touching it often, absentmindedly and with a sense of grace. I wore it to church, I wore to yoga, I wore to the grocery store, to meetings and to the library. It was simply a part of who I was. I read about dream catchers, learning that they began as an Objibway Native American tradition, as a symbol of protection from harm. I enjoyed learning about the tiny totem animals on mine: the badger for healing, the bear for self-preservation, the eagle for divine spirit, the wolf for loyalty and the owl for insight.

Walking around the charming Old Port section of Portland, Maine one day, I looked down and noticed that my necklace was gone. In a panic, I raced around the cobblestone streets and historic brick buildings, retracing my steps. I went into every shop, recrossed every intersection and thoroughly searched the restaurant in which I'd enjoyed lunch, much to the dismay of the family currently eating at the same table. I was mortified at my own irresponsibility and felt as if I'd lost myself all over again. Despite a Herculean recovery effort, I had to admit defeat and returned home feeling very low. Still, my yoga classes were going very well, I was involved in several exciting parenting groups and had a busy, full and productive life. My slip was more into disappointment, and while still keenly aware of the loss of my necklace, I knew that life would not end because of the misfortune over its disappearance.

When I walked into "The Green Store", a healthy living center, in Belfast, Maine, a few weeks later, I couldn't believe my eyes; there behind the counter was the Gardener. I wasn't even sure she would recognize me....but she warmly greeted me and gave me a rich hug like a long lost sister. I stammered how much her necklace had meant to me, what a turning point it had been in my life and how wretched I felt when it was lost only recently. She smiled and told me, with wisdom in shining in her eyes, "You didn't need it any longer. Someone else will find it. She will pick it up and put it on, and it will make the same difference to her. It was time for you to let it go. Just do something kind to someone else someday, okay?" I walked out of the store, flushed, dazed and dizzied...having forgotten to buy anything on my shopping list. As I drove home, contemplating the Gardener's words, I wondered how I could accomplish her mission to me.

I discovered that kindness isn't hard to practice. We only need to smile at people who are having a bad day. We can hold doors for people whose arms are filled to overflowing. We can let someone go ahead of us in line. We can offer to watch a friend's child. We can bite our tongues when we want to bark out a snarky retort. We can compliment, when we feel like criticizing. We can try to work into understanding, when we feel antagonism. We can let old grudges go, when we secretly like the festering hostility within us. We can forgive, when we want to hold onto bitterness. The amazing thing is, when we begin to actively practice kindness, it's fascinating how the reactions to us can change. Although being kind doesn't mean being a doormat, repeatedly allowing ourselves to be in where we'll be treated horrendously, it can mean making a graceful exit from these situations. Additionally, kindness is easier than negativity. I have discovered that, on days in which I actively intent to be kind, my energy level is far greater. Kindness can provide a boost in energy, as well as in one's mental state.

I never did learn the name of the Gardener. I never saw her again after her final piece of wisdom to me. In some ways, I wonder if this episode in my life is a dream....a faraway fantasy of my own creation to get me through an insurmountable period of grief. Yet, I have photos of myself wearing the dream-catcher, so I have a proof that it did exist in reality, and not just in my imagination. I only wonder who is wearing it right now, and the impact it has had.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Search for Self

Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering. ~St. Augustine

Every so often, I come across a book that I love so much, I want to buy a copy and give it to everyone I know and love. This is most certainly the case with "The Girl from Foreign" by Sadia Shepard. This memoir is going to be my go-to gift for people I care about. From my mother to my closest friends to my daughter, I hope to share this journey with with all. Author Sadia Shepard grew up, as many people I know did, in the Boston suburbs. However, her mother grew up Muslim in Pakistan, having emigrated there from India during the Partition, when India and Pakistan divided into two countries. Shepard's father is Episcopalian and from Colorado. Her most treasured relative is her grandmother, Rahat Siddiq...who was born Rachel Jacobs into Bombay's Bene Israel community. Unknown to me, as well as to many other people, India has had a strong Jewish history, its Bene Israel members believe themselves to be one of the lost tribes of Israel. They trace their history back to a shipwreck on the Konkan coast more than 2000 years ago. Shepard grows with three traditions: Christian, Muslim and Jewish. Her promise to her grandmother, funded by a Fulbright scholarship, takes her to India to discover her Jewish roots. What she finds both surprises and confuses her; that of a people she has known very little about. In them, she finds a missing part of herself.

Like many of us, Sadia Shepard feels torn between several traditions. During her time in India and Pakistan, Shepard experiences the characterization of people who know their own boundaries. As a woman with multiple points of heritage, she attempts to discover her own boundaries...where she begins and where she ends. She is continually encouraged to pick one tradition and to find the niche in which she fits. As an American, the Indians she meets automatically assume she is in their country to visit an Ashram or to go on a yoga retreat. As a woman making contact with the Jewish community, she's assumed to be a practicing Jew. Shepard's Muslim relatives always believe she is looking for a Pakistani husband. Others assume she must be Christian because of her last name. Shepard's seeking voyage takes her not only to places all over southern Asia to discover her own roots, as well as the roots of the Bene Israel community, but it also becomes a journey she tries to find out who she truly is. As she writes, "I never really felt at home in one place or the other, and yet I'm both American and Pakistani; Muslim and other." Shepard finds herself to be welcomed by all of these communities of which she is a part, and yet, feels unbearably different from each of them.

How often do we all feel this way? How many times have we felt both at home, in our own skins, and yet separate and different from those around us? What makes us feel at home in one
community, and what makes us feel contradictory? These feelings may not even have to do with religion or the cultural backgrounds of our ancestors. We may feel complex and conflicting emotions surrounding our political leanings, our life choices or the decisions we had made. We may see our lives as separate and "other" from those around us, leaving us with a sense of not really 'belonging'. What do we need to do to find that recognition and conscious awareness of fitting in?

As human beings, we all want to find a way to fit in. In middle school, many of us insisted on wearing our hair a certain way, wearing specific clothes or wanting particular, desirable after-school activities. We wanted to be indistinguishable from those around us. As we grow up, we continue to search for meaningful connections with our peers, but we may be less likely to change who we are to find do so. We hope to find our special avocation, by reaching out to those with common interests, common beliefs and common goals. We join book groups, churches, clubs and political parties. We volunteer for worthwhile organizations. We attempt to make sense of our own presence in the world by connecting with others. This might well bring us full circle to lead us back to the roots of our childhood. Or, it may well take us in a completely new find meaningful bonds outside of a life may find lacking. Like Sadia Shepard, this search may lead us on a physical journey, to visit the native places of our ancestors. Or, these travels might spur us on to discover like minded people in other parts of the country. We feel a dramatic pull towards being with people who resemble us or may believe in similar ideals. Instead of changing who we are in order to fit in, we may try to discern where we can go, to find people with whom we find harmonious traits.

What if we haven't a clue about to who we are, before we begin the search? We begin by trying new things, by rediscovering the traditions of our childhood and by investigating the world around us. We can start reading books written by people who come from backgrounds similar
to our own, as well as those who come from vastly different traditions. We can take classes involving new experiences, as well as talking to family members about the activities we did in the past. We can blend the excitement of learning a new skill, folded in with recipes from our youth. We can look through photo albums, remembering the places we went and things we liked to do when we were young. We can share those very spots and traditions with our children, with our friends and with our spouses. We can cook them the foods we loved when we were younger, and share the memories we have with them. In sharing what we already know about ourselves, we may find that we discover hidden truths, hidden meanings and hidden experiences we can only recapture by experiencing them with others...especially those who care about us. In the process, new insights will find us. When these shared experiences lead to questions and conversations, we will be discover entire parts within us that have laid dormant and buried.

C.S Lewis wrote,"Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another: 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one!". As we find ourselves on the journey of self-discovery, we may just find kindred spirits....people with whom we share a great deal of ourselves. What we may also uncover are the keys to unlocking our sense of belonging...but we will all find that, until we are truly comfortable with who we are now, with where we have been and with where we are going, those keys will be harder to discover. When we reach the point of comfort within ourselves, we may just find that we do belong in many different places...and we can feel equally comfortable in each one.

And, we may also discover, that the journey is a lot more fun when we include others.