I shared this piece written by my younger brother on this blog in May of 2014. He wrote it before he died of cancer at the age of 39. This seems like a good time to share it again.
The Truth I Live By
(William John Smith 1953-1992)
Everything makes sense. This can be paraphrased many different ways, although many attempts are less accurate. One of Voltaire’s characters stated, “All is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.” This is unnecessarily optimistic. My phrasing doesn’t imply that everything that happens to us is good either in the short or the long term. Everyone experiences moments or long periods of unpleasantness. One can hope that over the long period of a lifetime these sad times may not add up to much overall, but most persons with a little thought can think of individuals whom “fate has treated unkindly,” i.e. who have received more than their share of agonies. I think this is one of the hardest things for you, C., that what has happened is just not fair. I’m not sure how long ago I came to believe (or realize) that fairness isn’t the issue. There is nothing fair about life, either in distribution of rewards or unhappiness. And what’s to say that it should be fair. If each of us had an opportunity to create a world, then maybe that’s an attribute that we would build in. But this world is not of our making, and all of the mental checklists that we might make comparing who’s gotten more breaks than we have, etc., will never change the fact that we have to make the best of what we’ve got, not despair over what we perceive as inequities. So life isn’t fair. How do we cope with that? One way might be to remind ourselves that no matter how bad things seem to be at any one time, a little time spent flipping around the TV channel or reading a news magazine will serve as a reminder that we should be embarrassed to be heard complaining about the vast majority of things that concern us. I don’t doubt for a second that I have lived a very privileged existence compared to 90% of the world’s people.
I’m not sure that that is the best way to approach a new tragedy, though (i.e., making ourselves feel better by thinking of others doing worse). I would appreciate a more optimistic approach. The best way to greet each unpleasant event is to grab it by the throat and make the best of it. C. and I have both had our share of suffering, almost all of it, I’m happy to say proceeding our first date. There is no doubt that led to a degree of maturity that made our time together (pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis) much more meaningful than the lives of those growing up “with the silver spoons.”
Is cancer unfair? Is it fair that we should expect billions of cells in our body to reproduce over and over again, over an entire lifetime, and always get it right? Doesn’t it make more sense to recognize the initial miracle of our birth, the magnificence of our growth into feeling, loving, praising adults, the privilege of experiencing enough of life that we can despair over not having the time to spend longer doing the same? One of the things I am most grateful for is that many, many years ago I learned to be grateful for what I’ve been given. I didn’t, as occurs with many, only get shocked into this realization by a terminal tragedy. This type of appreciation often does begin in the midst of despair, and for that reason I am actually glad that I had enough hard times as a young man, to allow me to think hard about what things are and are not important. Accordingly, for the past 15 or 20 years, I’ve been able to ignore aspects of 20 th century American living that are of no consequence to me (parties, cars, frivolous chatter, clubs, etc.) and concentrate on things that touch me personally. I am forever grateful for what it was that dropped the blinders from my eyes so many years ago.
I am very sad that people seem to see so little of the world around them. I can’t walk outside without seeing the beauty of our created world, from the rainbow in a line of earthworm slime, to another visible ring on Jupiter. We have been given this magnificent world to study and enjoy in limitless detail at any level, microscopic to cosmic. Even though I have enough things to interest me another 10 lifetimes, I must take solace in knowing that, at least compared to others, I’ve had much more than my share even in half a life time..
I am blessed to have had a brother who could embody these attitudes. I hope those of you who read this find his words meaningful in your lives as well.
I have a list of posts waiting to be written. This will be a busy weekend for me but now seems like a good time to start!
I left Amritapuri on the afternoon of January 12, the day before my international flight. If I had stayed in the ashram, I would have probably gone to bed late, slept poorly, arisen at 3 am, finished last minute tasks and then started the two-hour taxi ride to the airport sometime between 4:30 and 5 am. By spending the night in Kovalam, I was able to get a good night’s sleep and leave for the airport at 6:40 am. That trip took about 20 minutes.
Once there, the Emirates agent asked if I would like to have an upgrade to Business Class for $150. I was ecstatic. My excitement was short-lived however. I soon realized that the $150 fee was too good to be true and that he was talking about the leg of the trip between Trivandrum and Dubai. I wasn’t going to spend $150 for a four hour flight, especially since I had spent the previous night in a hotel, and would be spending the night in another hotel once I was in Dubai.
When I arrived in Dubai, I was met by a hotel staff member and taken to the Dubai International Airport Hotel. I was there for 19 hours, which allowed me to rest throughout the day and get another solid night’s sleep before the long journey back to Seattle. I love staying in that hotel. From the time you get into the elevator and the time you leave it, you are immersed in silence.
I can’t sleep on airplanes, so nothing can make the 14-hour leg of the journey easy, but having two nights of restful sleep helps. I watched two good documentaries. I don’t remember the first one at this point, but the second one was called Drowning in Plastic. If I remember right, it was a BBC production. Since I’ve been focusing on the world-wide plastic problem being able to see the documentary seemed synchronistic.
Eventually, I was in Seattle. The immigration and customs process was speedy and I even got my baggage quicker than normal. I ordered a Lyft “taxi” and was soon on my way to Seattle. Before long, I was in my house!
Challenge after challenge
The last time I stayed two nights in hotels on my way home, my reentry was much easier than it has been in the past. Amritapuri is 13 ½ hours ahead of Seattle, so nothing can make the transition easy but the time in the hotels at least helped. If it helped this time, it wasn’t obvious. I’ve been back for 12 days and sleeping has been an ongoing problem. I slept almost 7 hours last night though, so maybe that problem is almost over.
The other thing that has been different this time is that I’ve experienced challenge after challenge. They started almost immediately. The ones I’m remembering now are:
- When I drove my car for the first time, there was a several inch crack in the windshield. It immediately grew to 9 inches.
- When I drove my car for the second time, the crack grew to 5 feet.
- The lights and fan in my bathroom went out soon after I got home. The circuit breaker hadn’t tripped. The electric company I chose had a diagnostic fee that was around $250. When the electrician came, he went to the downstairs bathroom and pushed the reset button. It reset the upstairs system as well. I knew the button would work if the problem was downstairs, but I had no idea that it would work in another room. I was frustrated that the company didn’t troubleshoot with potential customers over the phone.
- I discovered that the 30 buckets we have in our forest restoration site were stolen.
- Someone dumped all of the debris from cutting down a tree into an area of our restoration site that we had cleared. It had to have been a professional company because the debris was sorted and banded.
- Someone dumped disgusting garbage along the street on the edge of the Greenbelt. The garbage was further scattered by rodents or animals. I reported it and then eventually picked it up.
- My bathroom scale doesn’t work.
- The physical therapy appointment I had made before my trip was canceled, and I had to wait a week to get another one.
There were more challenges but that is all I remember at the moment. I would guess my list is complete enough for you to get a sense of what my reentry has been like. Lack of sleep has been the hardest part of it.
Everything hasn’t been a downer though. There has been a lot of good.
- Since the electrician was in my house, I decided to spend a little more money and have him install an outlet in my kitchen that has two USB ports in it. I have wanted to do that for a long time.
- I have been dealing with a carpet problem for about a year; carpet that was put in three years ago unraveled. That type of carpet was no longer available, so the company couldn’t patch it. That meant that they had to replace all of the carpet in the living room and dining room. The carpet was installed three days ago and it’s beautiful.
- I hired a friend to move the furniture out of the area where the carpet was going to be installed. That gave me a chance to sort through the books in the book case and give away any I didn’t really want. He also cleaned and organized the big storage area under the stairs. (I’ve worked on that area from time to time, but wanted to do a deeper level of cleaning.) Many items went to Goodwill or the trash and the storage room looks beautiful.
- There is a big maple tree in my back yard that has grown so big that it was covering part of my back deck. It also covered part of my neighbor’s house. I have worried that if a branch broke off, it would damage my neighbor’s roof. I had not done anything to that tree in the 45+ years I’ve lived here. That tree was pruned two days after my return. I received validation that it is a healthy tree and it now looks even more beautiful than ever.
- We had a wonderful work party on Monday, the Martin Luther King National Day of Service, and many of the volunteers who participated want to come back! It was the first time we had opened one of our work parties up to children and that was a good experience too.
- I’ve had numerous chances to work in the Greenbelt myself. Most of the plants are beginning to bud. I am so eager to see what the land looks like in Spring.
- Replacing the car’s windshield was easy.
- The Seattle Parks Department is going to take away the 10′ x 10’x 6′ pile of tree debris that was dumped into our restoration site. They will also replace the missing buckets.
- I’ve almost finished the part of the February PNW GreenFriends newsletter that I am responsible for.
- I went to Seattle Satsang last Saturday and will be going to satsang activities today and tomorrow. One of my goals for this year is to once again get more involved with this group. I’m off to a good start.
- I had a physical therapy appointment yesterday. While I still am having problems related to shoulder, neck and ribs, I was pleased to discover I had made progress during the time I was in India.
There have been more good experiences too, but that is enough for now. So, to summarize, it has been a difficult reentry, but all is well.
Photo Credits: Pixabay.com
On my first day in Amritapuri this year, I noticed a man wearing a t-shirt that said “let go” on the front. Since my blog is named Living, Learning and Letting Go, his shirt caught my eye and my interest. A few days later, he asked me if I was having a good day or a great day. I was startled at first but then realized it was a nice example of how powerful choosing our attitudes can be. If our choice is between a good day or a great day, we are more likely to create one of those two options for ourselves.
I was reminded me of a story that I once heard Jean Illsley Clarke tell. She is a parent educator and was a mentor for me. Her story was about a seven-year-old girl who had been kicked out of a number of foster homes. Jean visited her on a day that she had been acting out. When Jean went outside to talk to her, she asked the child “How did you make your day go today?” The girl was startled for a moment. After thinking about it, she said, “Exactly the way I wanted it to go.”
A quote that is projected on the screens during Amma’s programs in Amritapuri and the U.S. (and probably elsewhere) is also about the importance of choosing ones attitudes.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. In one of his books, Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
There is so much power in realizing we can be responsible for our own attitudes.
Towards the end of last week, I realized I hadn’t done many of the activities that were important to me during previous trips.
- I hadn’t joined the prasad line to hand Amma the packet of ash and candy that she gives each person who comes to her for a hug.
- Amma has given western visitors and ashram residents the opportunity to sit on the stage with her each darshan day. Not only had I not taken advantage of that opportunity, I hadn’t even checked to see what my assigned time was.
- During my last three trips to Amritapuri, I had enjoyed doing a one-hour shift as a prasad assistant twice a week. That job consists of making sure that there are always people available to hand Amma the prasad and teaching them what to do if it is their first time giving prasad, I had planned to do that seva (volunteer job) again this year, but kept putting it off. I soon realized that it wasn’t going to be a priority for me this year.
Instead, I have kept focused on coming to bhajans on time, and sitting in the floor-seating area in the front of the auditorium, as well as attending more of the meditations and Q&A programs.
A few days ago, I walked by the prasad-giving line and saw that it was almost empty. I know what it is like to not have enough people to run the line, so as soon as I could, I joined the line myself. I enjoyed giving Amma the prasad packets as much as I always do.
After I finished doing that, I noticed that there was a lot of empty space in the area on the stage where devotees sit. That is very unusual, so I decided to take advantage of it. I had an incredible view of Amma as she gave darshan. I sat there for about half an hour and then left. I realized this was a good example of the importance of staying aware of opportunities that arise and not holding on to plans in a rigid way. It is important for me to consider each choice that comes my way individually.
This week I also had the opportunity to see that I don’t always make choices that are in my best interests. On Sunday, I got a hug from Amma and then decided to have dinner with friends instead of listening to the Swami bhajans. During that dinner, I heard Swami Pranavamrita singing one of my favorite bhajans after another. Even though I longed to be immersed in the music, I chose to stay with my friends. It was nice to be able to choose between between two good options, but since I am still longing for what I missed that day, I don’t think I made the best choice for me in that moment. I know it was a learning opportunity though and I believe I will have an opportunity to make a different choice many times in the future.
I used to teach a workshop based on Wayne Mueller’s book Legacy of the Heart. I ended the workshop by saying “You will have endless opportunities to choose between Pain or Forgiveness, Fear or Faith, Performance or Belonging, Scarcity or Abundance, Grandiosity or Humility, Drama or Simplicity, Judgement or Mercy, Busyness or Stillness, Disappointment or Nonattachment, Isolation or Intimacy, Habit or Mindfulness and Obligation or Loving Kindness. The choice is up to you.”
Discovering My Limits
I have enjoyed sitting on the floor during bhajans. My legs often get uncomfortable but my back feels better than if I am sitting in a chair. If I go to the earlier meditation and Q&A program, I usually sit in a chair since sitting on the floor for the 1 1/2 -2 hour bhajan program is all I can handle. I’m pleased that I am able to get up and down from the floor, although I’m not very graceful about it.
On Thursday of last week, I faced a new challenge and soon realized I had discovered a new limit. When the program is in the auditorium there is a lot of space in the front area. However, on Thursday, darshan was held in the temple, which is much smaller. I decided to go to the temple for the 6:30 bhajan set. Since Amma would be giving darshan, a swami would lead the singing. It would be like the “old days”.
The situation was very much like the old days. The front area was very crowded and there was no room to walk between people. As more and more people sat down, I began to wonder how I was going to get out. The swami would sing longer than a normal bhajan program and I knew I couldn’t sit that long. As crowded as it was, it would be difficult to get into a standing position and my balance would probably be a problem.
I worried about it for a while. Then the person next to me stood up. By using her space and my own I was able to stand up. That didn’t solve the problem of walking through a crowd of people when there was no space between them though. I slowly made my way past one person and then another, and then reached out my hand for support to go the last distance. One person either didn’t see me or ignored me, but another took my hand. With that extra support I was able to get to the aisle.
I had discovered a new limit. I will not sit on the floor during the 6:30 p.m. bhajans if darshan is in the temple. I can sit there at other times during the day.
I used to tell new devotees to be sure to stay until the end of programs because so many special things happen then. Another limit I have had to accept is that I can’t handle staying up late. If I do, I feel horrible the next day.
One of the events I missed this week was Rosh Hasshana, the Jewish New Year. A group from Israel sang for a while. I was there for part of that. I loved their music. Later in the night, another group of Jewish devotees sang for Amma and then Amma sang with them. I could hear a bit of that song from my room. Part of me wanted to join them, but I knew I needed to respect my limits.
I spent some time in Saraswati Garden a few days ago. It has become so lush. As I wandered through it, I marveled at how big the plants are compared to those that were there in 2016 when the garden was fairly new. Some of the plants that were 18-24 inches in 2016 are now well over 6 feet tall. And there are many new plant varieties.
To read the previous posts in this series click here.
The last week in April, a friend sent me an email that said an artist, working with Seattle Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School project, was painting staircases around Seattle. The notice also said that the next steps to be painted were the Hanford Stairs, the stairs that border our Greenbelt restoration site.
When I saw the photo I was concerned. I couldn’t imagine something so bright going through the forest. I didn’t understand how painting the stairs would make walking to school safer, but thought that anything that accomplished that goal would be a good thing. I liked that she was inviting community members to help paint. In addition, I knew that this unexpected change would be an opportunity for me to practice letting go and suspending judgment.
I took some comfort in the fact that the notice included a photo of the stairs that were to be painted and they were the new set of stairs that are below ours. Maybe ours would stay the same.
Last Saturday was the day the lower stairs were to be painted. Yesterday afternoon, I decided to walk down and check them out. From the top of the stairs they looked like this…. no sign of paint.
But when I walked to the bottom of the stairs and looked up, this is what I saw.
The bright colors still seemed strange to me but I had to admit that there was beauty to it. I loved that the stairs looked clear one way and fancy when you looked at them from the other direction.
This morning, I noticed that there was a lot of sand on the plants on both sides of the stairs near us. It seemed so strange and I couldn’t imagine what could have caused it. When I pointed the sand out to somebody later in the day, she said that the stairs had been pressure washed. In that moment, I realized that our part of stairs must also be part of this project and that they will probably be painted tomorrow!
I still think it will take me time to get used to this change, but I’m glad that I decided that the lower stairs were okay and even kind of pretty. I have no doubt that children will enjoy them a lot and I hope that it does indeed keep them safe.
Last night, Sreejit posted the summary of his Rage Against the Machine event. He did it in a new way in that for each post he included a quote and one of the comments that a reader made. I think that is a valuable way to help new readers choose which posts to look at, so I’m passing his summary on to those of you who read my blog.
I am still reeling from some information I received today. It just occurred to me to look and see if today’s Daily Prompt would fit for this situation. Revelation is perfect!
For the last month, I’ve been looking forward to taking a Plant Identification course that was offered to Forest Stewards and other volunteers who work in Seattle’s reforestation projects. When I arrived at the class today, I discovered most of the students had been Forest Stewards for a long time and the others had at least some experience in plant identification. I, on the other hand, only know a few of these native plants.
Last month, Ananya and I had to choose the trees, shrubs and ground covers that we will be planting in our group’s Greenbelt site the end of October. We ordered nearly 400 plants. In the course of today’s class, I learned that those plants will be delivered to us unmarked. Not only that, most will be in their winter state so we may have only a twig to use for identification.
The need for me to learn to identify our plants has certainly taken on a new intensity. As I sat down to write this post, though, a couple of other thoughts came to my mind. When we ordered the plants, we had to order in quantities of 10. We ordered 10 for some varieties and 20 for others. So even though we will have to identify 400 plants, there will only be 26 different types. That seems doable. Also, sometime prior to October we will have the opportunity to take a Winter Twig class. I will make taking that class a priority.
I am sure glad that I learned this information today, rather than discovering it when the plants are delivered. I can do it. I can do it. I can do it. I can do it. I can do it. Yes I can. Yes I can. Yes I can. Yes I can. And I don’t have to do it alone! Ananya and I will do it together and if we need help we will get it.
When I was walking with my son Sreejit a few days ago, we passed this sign. I love it, and am considering putting one in my yard!
I laughed when I saw that today’s Daily Prompt is Chuckles. I also thought of the old saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” That is exactly how I feel about dandelions this time of year.
Two days ago, I saw this strip of dandelions near my home. It was at least 50 feet long and maybe more. Throughout the winter, I have been going to the grocery store to pick up lettuce that is going to be discarded. I feed it to the worms in my vermicomposting bins. The worms seem to be losing their enthusiasm for the lettuce, but they love the fresh dandelion greens.
The problem with the dandelions in this field is that it is part of light rail property and is completely fenced in. I have no way to access it, so I have to be satisfied with using the dandelions in my yard and the few that are on the street side of the fence.
Even though I know that it is important for me to focus on what I have, rather than what I don’t have, I have no doubt that I will still look longingly at the treasure that is beyond my grasp whenever I pass this field.