Written on Friday August 11, 2017. Preamble. As a child, I loved to play in the bath tub in my home in the Dominican Republic. I have memories of drawing little soap-foam-bubble faces on the tiles, and then talking to them. The faces were the American president, and I was usually asking them questions about the “red phone” and telling them that it would not be good to press “the button”. In my child’s mind, I was conscious that the US president and the Russian president could blow the planet and create another “Hiroshima and Nagasaki” type incident with the their known aftermath of radiation, and toll on planetary life. As a sci-fi kid, I believed an event on Earth could contaminate space, and thus reach other planets. So I role played talking to the soapy-president-on-the-tiles, because I believed that he could see reason, i.e. I believed that he was capable of understanding and willing to rule from a place of understanding and clarity. As a child I believed that he (and all humans) could and would understand, if I talked to him/them, and I also believed that anyone would (after understanding) want to choose to do the right thing for humanity, for the Earth, and really, for the universe.
It’s been interesting to discover that the child-Rita is still alive in my heart. This child believes in the human potential to understand, and to choose to do what is right. However, this child-like heart is now tempered by the sadness of knowing that THAT president was a soapy-figure-on-the-tiles, and that while the countries in conflict at that time are not the same as the players in conflict today, many of the presidents in the world, our Earth, as it exists today, still have the means to blow us to pieces. The sadness is that my soapy-president-on-the-tiles listened, and would/could understand (and he wanted to), but I am not so sure about the willingness to listen of our world-leaders today, and this includes my own. Sad.
From the perspective of this child-like sci-fi heart, I feel the weight of the thoughts that say that as a humanity we have lost our ways. I have begun to remember how much I am affected by the leadership of presidents and governments from all over the world. The world has somehow seemingly gotten smaller and the fears I had as a child again weigh heavy in my mind: I see the likelihood for mass destruction increasing, and like it was when I was a child, my only tools are words, and the education/taming of my own mind-heart. I feel that I do not have much to offer, but what I have, I offer.
Talking. I started reading fantasy and watching sci-fi on TV very early. As early as age 4. I still do. And today, while at work, after receiving online news about North Korea’s threat to deploy nuclear weaponry near Guam, and of the American president’s response to that threat, I was caught in a felt-wave of fear-anger-laden thoughts that were mine and mine alone. Then I answered a phone call from one of my supervisors. We talked deeply for more than an hour about things that are at the core of how I currently feel about not having guaranteed work-hours or insurance; about how I do not feel as part of the team because I am a PRN interpreter, called and present when needed, but invisible when not. My plight of wanting to have full-time status and medical insurance seemed extremely tiny in comparison to the newfound clarity of remembering that nuclear weapons have never vanished and that as they are tested, we, humans pollute not only our own air and water, but all systems around us.
However, regardless of how tiny my plight is or isn’t in light of the potential damages done at a planetary or a grander scale, one thing seems to remain true. Today I was able to talk calmly and truthfully to my supervisor with my heart in my throat, and with tears swelling in my eyes. I spoke my mind-heart as it was at that moment, and because of this, it was genuine. I talked with her with the same truthfulness I spoke to my soapy-president-on-the-tiles when I was little. The sad-beauty of the conversation was that neither of us shut down. We both touched each other’s heart. And I feel clean, and clear. And I am grateful for that encounter, for the possibility of going beyond my fears and opening, and for that seeming-other human brave enough to do the same and open that space. I have not encountered many people in a supervisory capacity in this country with the bravery of a true friend. I pray that our friendship extends and that she has benefited from the encounter as much as I did, for this is “enlightened society at its best”. Sad truth: I crave this depth.
[Saturday August 12, 2017. Recent recognition of the darkness(es) or of things I had labeled as such and believed them to be so as a child-protecting-itself from what s/he intuitively s/he cannot handle– without again pushing it/them away nor craving it/them is/was key: This key can now be looked at with the understanding that all that it once hid is already integrated and that it all is as it should be. From the mud, the lotus.]
Communicating. The following mini-event also took place yesterday, before I read the online news about Korea and before I talked with my supervisor on the phone. In the context of being the coordinator for a project. My tendency is to deal or navigate projects by asking questions and clarifying my understanding, throughout the duration of any project. I depart from a stance of open-curiosity, which all too easily turns into anger and feeling deflated (and I see this as my problem, not anyone else’s), when I feel that my understanding of my role and my particular way of understanding said role is not respected. I have over the years trained myself to not react by sending flurries of emails or text messages. Instead, I pull back and craft what I want to say, attempting to address with as much clarity as I can muster in my writing in English. I do so because in the crafting I manage to temper or tone down what ego-monkey brain comes up with initially. I also craft the message by re-reading the communication I am reacting to, making sure that I am responding exactly to my concern which usually boils down to something like the following: I am coordinating this project. This has been established. I have already initiated the conversations that I needed to initiate with the project leads, and I have told you who plugged me into my current role, that I have done so. Ah, but you did not receive my message to you on time, so you went ahead and contacted the leads to ask the same questions. Why did you not ask me instead if I had taken the step already? So I notice the communication flurry of emails and I become confused, and truth be said, a little annoyed since I do not like confusion with my morning coffee. So I craft a response, and I send it. Your response comes back with an apology and an offer of completing part of the task that I had already told you I knew how I was going to complete, ignoring the other part of the task and the fact that I took the time to tell you. So, I go back to my own emails, not just confused but doubting myself: Did I not say this clearly? How poor was my pre-caffeine-writing-in-English this morning?
And I sense my frustration swelling, and then the SNAP into place: “No. You do not get to torture me today (talking to monkey-brain). Everything I thought I had told her is there in what I wrote. If she wants to complete that part of the task herself, so be it. All I have left to do now is thank her for her help, and further clarify that I will be completing the other part of the task.”
Looking back. Looking back is useful because if we don’t use it as attempts to reify the past, it can shed light and let us see how far we’ve come, and where we need to look next. I have recently become aware of my tendencies to hide and not play at all, or to overwhelm and dominate the games or life situations where I was afraid. These tendencies hid in the darkness of not even denial, for denial acknowledges the presence of that which is being denied. These tendencies hid instead in the darkness of submissive-little-ms.sunshine who would pretend to do what others wanted while totally withholding warmth, and human empathy/contact. Instead, this time I could feel the tendencies swelling and getting ready to lash out, and I was ok with feeling annoyance, confusion, fears, shame, all the thoughts, together with the sadness I also felt because you could not bring yourself to ask me questions directly and felt that you had to do things yourself. Oh well.
I pray that I can bring the fruit of this newfound clarity, the clarity that happens when certain things SNAP into place, and the clarity of what happens when hidden things SNAP into the open and allow themselves to be looked at, to guide me in my attempts to communicate in order to conjugate “enlightened society” as if it were a verb. I am grateful to the teachings that allow and encourage me to look at the SNAPS of this mind-heart and at what is below the cracks. And I am grateful to the people who participate or appear for the dream of this life to unfold.
Two Gifts from a Week Full of Mondays
This past week was one of those weeks which I call “a week full of Mondays”, with stressful, heavy long days punctuated by moments of opening. These openings were brief moments packed with tenderness that I was privileged to feel and to touch only because I somehow allowed myself to do so… So I guess the good news is that I feel that the path of meditation works: it walks on me, treads on me ever so gently reminding me that my task is to be there with my walking or dancing steps, but moving, always moving fully present with every step.
Framing: Three days without a working toilet in my pre-k classroom, and the cold weather that prevented us from going outside to play framed the week. The kids seemed restless, talkative, clumsy, careless with each other. On my part I was dealing with feeling sick, and not having had enough sleep. So by Thursday, I was really tired and painfully aware of how short my supply of patience and energy felt. This provides some context for the remainder of my Thursday after work visiting with a friend and then at choir rehearsal later that evening, and for Friday.
Thursday after work. My friend and I just chatted about our week, our day… and as it is with me, when I relax in the presence of someone I trust, I allow my questions, topics, jokes, laughter, sadness to flow without too much mental editing. Within the stream of our conversation I had asked a question which I cannot remember but to which he answered with a simple: “I don’t have a dad”. I followed with: –He passed? Died? And my friend’s reply was: –No. He had surgery and is now a woman. There are no words that can completely or remotely adequately describe my experience(s) at that moment. My-Mind-Heart-stopped. I felt time and things around me slowing down like when witnessing a car accident. I turned away from my friend. I looked away in order to hold myself without pushing thoughts, comments, feelings away. Blank. I needed to look away in order to hold myself without giving in to the thoughts, and feelings that were mine and mine alone. I needed to look away to my own reflection on the glass window panes that surrounded us so that I could feel and hold the sting that I heard on his voice when he uttered the phrase that I myself had uttered so frequently before: –I don’t have a dad.
And then, my gaze returned back to him and I just wanted very much to hold him, soothe him, take any sting from pain or anger away from him. Protect. In truth, I knew that these were/are my interpretations of what he had said. He never said to me that he was feeling pain or anger as he was speaking to me. But my heart-felt reaction was that I wanted to provide comfort, and space. And later on, I wanted to provide assurance: I wanted my words and my whole being to reflect to this other human being in front of me that the wholeness and light of his presence, his worth and the value of his being on this planet were not at all diminished by the content of any of the stories that contributed to his being the person that he is today. I wanted to convey to him that even if he were to take the same path as his dad, his integrity and worth would not diminish. And then, slowly, time and things around me recovered their usual speed. And as they did, I knew that I had been punctured and blessed by something precious. An image of a cartoon by Argentinian artist Quino came to my mind. In the cartoon strip there are very young children talking among themselves saying, What does a turtle have to do to be a turtle? A dog, to be a dog? Why do I have to go to school to become something? Instead of comforting my friend, touching his hand or sharing a gesture that would indicate that I SAW HIM through that and other stories that he has shared with me, all I managed to do was to say: Isn’t it amazing? we are the only creature always striving to be or become something that we are not. Breathe. I am not talking about not going to school, nor stopping our personal search and growth. The image of the cartoon in question represents the extent that we will go as humans in order to find our core, and/or be at ease with who we think we are.
Friday. Then, Friday came and I went to work. The kids were still wild, seemingly regressing to an emotional and social state reminiscent of where they were at beginning of the school year (perhaps related to two new students I got in January and their effect of the chemistry of the group). I was still tired and feeling somewhat ill. And then in the morning, bam!!! Someone had gone to our bathroom, and thrown dirty (poopy) toilet paper in the waste basket and floor. The smell. I noticed. As a group, we had been talking about this habit since August, the beginning of the school year, but there has been a relapse on the behavior and on not coming forward and telling the truth. So, in the morning I picked the toilet paper up, threw it in the toilet. Then, I congregated the group, and we talked about it. We agreed that we would be more careful and we recalled where the white paper goes after it is used, and what we have to do (flush and wash our hands). We moved on to work on our projects, and then we went to lunch, did music, and had our rest period. And then, again, bam!!! The waste basket in the bathroom was full of poop-laden-smelly toilet paper.
At that point, for my aide and I, the most important thing became trying to find out who had done it so that we could work with that particular child. And for me, it was also important to bring the group to the understanding that accusing a person likely to have done the deed would not necessarily relieve the group from having to act responsibly and that telling the truth is important, no matter how scary it feels. These are tough lessons even for adults to live by, so I felt for my kids. It was time for bad cop, good cop. My aide and I took turns asking them to let us know who had done it. We wanted the child who had done it to come forward with the truth. I said that if the person who’d done it would come forward and let either one of us know, nothing (bad) would happen. I also said that if nobody stepped forward, then I would have to let all parents know about the incident, so that they would take the retraining of the desired behavior in their hands. It was at this point that one of the boys started to cry. He had done so in the past when we have said that we would send notes home, or sad faces for everyone.
His crying somehow indicated to me something positive, i.e. that his parents actually read my notes and that they are actively involved in educating their child as a whole person. On the other hand, on that day he seemed brittle, anxious. I decided to take him out to walk with me in order to calm him because I had a very strong sense that it had not been him who had thrown the dirty toilet paper in the trash can. So I told the aide to handle the room: she was to allow them to be on their own to talk and when the person who had done it was ready, they should come to get us. She simply had to wait outside our classroom door. I took the boy by the hand and we started walking down the hallway. I prayed: please get me out of my way so that I can say what’s needed to be of comfort.
However, what I wanted to accomplish with the group and with the boy I had by the hand was easier said than done. As soon as the group saw me walking away with him, they wanted to escape too, so other boys started to cry to no avail. The aide, more like the other teacher, stayed with the group while I left with the little boy by the hand. Deep breath. My mind was frozen watching his tears and sobbing. I wanted to hug him, but I did not. Instead there was an exchange of words and gestures, mostly in Spanish and with translation because to top it all, he is one of the kids in my bilingual class for whom Spanish is not dominant, and I am never sure of how much he is really processing/understanding in any language. The exchange went something like this as we walked hand in hand up and down the corridor:
[While my walk with the boy was happening, the aide came out to stand by the door, and about three time a kid would come to get us saying so-and-so did it. After the third time, I went back in and I said: I do not want to hear: —he/she did it. I want to hear: –Teacher, I did it… Silence fell on the room as the understanding of what I wanted dawned on them…]
Me: –I know I am ugly. I think I look ugly when I am scolding you. Are you afraid of me?
Boy: (He nodded yes glancing at me, and not holding his gaze.)(I felt stung by my own long held beliefs of being an unattractive ugly person not just physically…)(Breathe….)
Me: –I am really sorry that you are afraid of me. I don’t want you or your friends to be afraid. I want to know the truth. And then softly, sweetly: Was it you that threw the dirty paper in the wastebasket??
Boy: (He looked up, held his gaze and nodded No.)
Me: –Then you have nothing to worry about. You should not be afraid and crying; nothing is going to happen because you told me the truth, your truth. You did not do it. You know what to do with the toilet paper.
Boy: (Still sobbing.)
Me: –I need to know who did it so that I can teach him or her to be a champion like you.
Boy: (Furtive glance at me, with the beginning of a smile)
Me: –If the person who did it tells me the truth, then I don’t have to talk with your moms and dads because I can teach him/her what to do with the toilet paper. But I know it is hard to tell the truth because I look mean and ugly. So you are very brave for telling me the truth, your truth. You don’t have to be afraid.
Boy: (Crying stopped, glance, serious look followed by a quick smile.)
Me: –If the person who did it does not tell me the truth, you also don’t have to be afraid because you have already told me your truth.
Boy: (Kept walking, and then yelled): –I don’t have to cry??? I don’t have to cry…
Me: –Why not? (Me sounding hopeful…)
Boy: –I don’t have to cry…I didn’t do it…I am a champion…
Me: –(Relieved because he had understood deeply…) You got it buddy!!! Can we go in there now? (He nodded yes.)Will you cry? (He nodded no.) (We walked together into our classroom.)
As we were walking in, my aide told me who had come forward. I was a little girl that has been with us from the beginning of the school year. I thanked the girl profusely in front of the group. I told them that she was very brave for telling the truth in spite of being scared. I told the group that I knew I looked ugly when I was angry, but that they should not be afraid of telling the truth. I said that since the truth was out I could now help the girl, and that moms and dads did not have to become involved. I instructed the aide to have the class sing and dance, to dissipate or move fear around before we resumed working on our projects. I asked the girl to come outside with me.
A bit of our exchange
Me: –Thank you for telling the truth. You are very, very brave. Now tell me, what happened that you threw dirty paper in the trash can? Is this how you do it at home? (This could be true in homes without proper plumbing or septic systems…)
Me: –When you’re at home, where do you throw the paper after you are done?
Girl: –Inside the toilet, in the water.
Me: –And then what happens?
Girl: –I flush.
Me: –So what happened today?
Girl: –I forgot… a mistake…
Me: –What can I do to help you with this so that it does not happen again?
Girl: –Happy face… I don’t want a sad face…
Me: –You are not getting a sad face today at all. If I put a sign in the bathroom with a drawing of the paper going in the toilet, will that help you remember?
Girl: (Big nod yes with a big smile on her face…)
And then back in the classroom, I announced: We all make mistakes. We all forget things. I make mistakes and forget things… it’s okay to make mistakes and forget things. What is not okay is to blame others for something that I forgot or for a mistake I made. And I know that sometimes telling the truth is very scary and does not feel good. But now, now we need to pick up our projects and line up. It’s time to go outside. (I needed time out.)
I pray for space… I pray that I can get out of my way, so that the words from my heart can flow. I pray with gratitude for the friend and students that like true teachers forced me this week to step outside the institutionalized-rotten-roles in which we all fall so that I could simply be: human-frail, human-brittle, human. Not a role. Not a category. I pray again with gratitude for the friend that punctured my arrogance, softening me with his shared truth. I have yet to milk all of the deep-felt understandings that stem from these two gifts for they both touch upon the notions of roles I play, how I play them, the beliefs I/we carry around from childhood. And the gifts also touched on the need to be fully present to ourselves so that I/we do not shut down and start acting from the constructs and concepts that I/we have adopted as the truth about me/us. In gratitude for the dharma that is in all, and for the ability to be touched by it.
I wrote this on a week of Mondays that marked the end of this dön season. May it be of benefit.
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This was originally written on December 28, 2015.
Today, this morning, I finished reading Jarvis Masters’ book called Finding Freedom, Writings from Death Row. I bought it just a couple of days ago but I could not put it down, crying and laughing, and sometimes even managing to do both at the same time, which is not a pretty sight. Some of the stories in the book and just the way he writes made me think of my own path and my own life, and about how often I create not just my own prison but my own personal hells. Reading the stories in the book also made me raise a prayer for those in prison that could and perhaps should be freed, and for those who work for a system that perhaps need some mending. After finishing, I bought another book by him. I guess I still have more tears to shed and perhaps some bittersweet laughs. Life itself.
Then, I thought of the teachings that have come to me, the Shambhala Buddhist teachings that I understand to mean that I am to bring everything to my Path and, that I am not to leave anything out. I am not to leave anything out, and all my world(s) are to be included in my Path because the Dharma is not just written in books, or spoken by teachers, but it is printed in any and every moment that I am willing to read with these human eyes, and with my-all-so-human heart-mind. But the trick is that to read this Dharma proclaimed in every exchange, in every step that I may take, I need to lower my shield(s) and allow my heart to be touched, and then, then I have to be willing to extend it: to admit (even if just to myself) that I had a shield, that I tasted the flavor of the shielding, and, that when I lowered it I could feel, even if it was for just a second, the sadness-tinged-softness that is truly me. And this is simply t-e-r-r-i-f-y-i-n-g.
When I allow myself to read books that touch me like Jarvis’ book, or when I allow myself to write from within, from my experience, from my heart, it feels like my head wants to implode: there is simply so much within me that turning Buddhist says I must gently look at and be with so that I can in turn be of service where and when needed… Breathe.
This morning I touched depth with Jarvis’ book and this evening I touched depth while thinking about encounters that took place today. For any of this to make sense, perhaps I need to state that I do not understand how to go about establishing friendships, or any other relationships for that matter, and that I feel I am even clumsier trying to do so in the USA. While in the Dominican Republic things seemed simpler to me: I was typically surrounded by people that when we would hit it off, we would want to extend our time together, to explore at depth and length the topics we cared about, to explore the things we shared, and perhaps even take on new things from each other. The heart guided the initial sparks and we made the time and space for the relationships to happen, or not. In the US, I feel typically surrounded by people who when we hit it off, we tend to run away from each other as if afraid to let others in, or to be allowed in. Not sure about which of these two it is. Perhaps it’s both. Perhaps neither. While the heart may guide the initial sparks, we tend (me included) to not give ourselves the time and space needed to even explore the possibilities… This saddens me, the grownup woman with a child’s heart-mind that I am.
I confess, I am at a loss. While I do not know the true reason(s) why this seems to happen in the US, I do know/understand some of the “logical” reasons or constraints applied to the formation of new friendships and/or relationships of any sort… [but I should only speak of my own reasons for isolating myself or pushing others away, and I will perhaps explore these in a separate piece.]… All I know is that this evening I looked again into the face of people outside my Sangha to which I would simply love to get closer, and I felt angry. I had these well rehearsed reasons as to why I would not allow myself to smile when I saw them, or why I would just stop-cold-turkey (as if I could) wanting to be near them, hearing them talk, laugh, cry. I feel I have clearly told them that I would love us to be friends. And I also feel that what I have said to them has been ignored. I guess being/becoming friends may mean not only something different to all of us, but that there are also different ways of going about it that I do not know about.
In the meantime, this heart of mine yearns for friends from whom I would not have to hide (much), and with whom I could share the depths of things like Jarvis’ book or a movie, or ice cream, or a joke. Breathe.
I guess I don’t have to know why things are the way they are, nor do I have to like them. My task, as a practitioner is simply to look, and look, and keep on looking further, allowing my heart to be as it is and to open ever more with the way things are. Perhaps this is the freedom that Jarvis has begun to touch from within his prison. I breathe. May this be of benefit.
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