Imperfect Serenity

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008


I used to keep a gratitude journal, a place to record those little blessings that come each day, but which are easy to overlook. Here are a few recent ones that I don't want to forget:

Amtrak, which has been pleasant and prompt the four times I've taken it in the last week, and New York City, which I visited yesterday. I had a lovely lunch in the West Village with my Tarcher editor and my agent. I appreciated good food, good conversation, and a sense that my book is moving forward. Even in the rain, I love walking around Manhattan.

Speaking of rain, it passed over the children's spring concert, which for the first time was held outside. The Pre-K and Kindergarten had collaborated on a song about spring. One group had written the words and the other the music. They were very cute singing on the meetinghouse porch, but the best moment was when they finished the song and the Seventh Grade girls stood up and cheered loudly. Maybe middle schoolers have just gotten a bad name, but I can't help thinking that at most schools Seventh Graders wouldn't give a standing ovation to four and five-year-olds. So the sense of community at my children's school is another thing I want to appreciate.

I also want to appreciate the community spirit at my Quaker meeting. When it rained Friday night, our scheduled barbeque and bonfire became more like a typical potluck, though some hearty souls continued grilling outside, and the kids still got to roast marshmallows. At one point a friend looked at me and said, "This is a great community." It seems especially important to remember and appreciate that after a business meeting that wasn't quite so joyful. Appreciating the joy when we experience it can keep us grounded in the moments when we don't. It's a practice that I need to continue.

Friday, May 09, 2008


I know it’s a cliché, but be careful what you wish for. I have been fantasizing about getting a Prius lately, mostly so I’ll feel less guilty for all the driving I do, but it didn’t seem justifiable with two cars working. The Toyota Camry, which is the car I primarily drove, had 103,000 miles on it, not to mention a few minor dents and a back seat spaghetti sauce stain a foot in diameter, which is to say it looked like it had some life left in it, but not much resale value. I actually stopped by a Toyota showroom on Thursday, while the Camry was getting an inspection and a new tire next door, but told the salesman my interest in the Prius was just “thinking ahead.” Little did I know the Camry would die two days later, with a brand new inspection sticker on it. The engine was so shot I had to coast down Midvale Avenue with the engine off to get an official diagnosis from a mechanic. When I turned the engine on in order to turn it into the service station, the grimacing mechanic came running out asking, “What happened to that car?” Indeed.

So after two days of calling Toyota dealerships and hearing repeatedly that in the last few weeks, with gas prices soaring, the Prius (both used and new) has been speeding off their lots, we finally ordered one that will be in late May. I’m grateful that the decision is made and that we can actually afford it now. A few years ago a dead engine would have been a much bigger hurdle, as it would be for many families, I know. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that God/the universe was really messing with me. I had been looking forward for months to this time when my university semester was over, but the kids were still in school, so I could just write, write, write, with no distractions. I had this image of total focus and had been trying to clear out possible distractions ahead of time. So here the first morning of my writing month, I had to shop for a car and look into things to do with the old car.

Ah, yes, be careful what you wish for because there is nothing to cut the distractions out of your life like being without the vehicle that made your distractions convenient. Instead of my favorite coffee shop, where I know all the staff and most of the customers, I’ve been forced to work at home or at a walking-distance coffee shop where I don’t know anyone. I can’t have those little chats while I’m getting another drink. I can’t swing by the co-op and pick up a quart of milk or see my acupuncturist in Ambler. It’s been a blessing, much more than an inconvenience. Combined with my ongoing media diet, staying home has meant much more quiet than I usually experience, a real gift as I shift back into writing mode. Plus, it has been a gorgeous week, so that walking around the neighborhood and taking the bus home from piano with the kids has been a pleasure. I’ve been thinking about teaching the kids to be more independent, and May is as nice a time as any to learn how to transfer between two buses. Even though I had been trying to cut back my driving anyway, this week is making me realize that it is not as hard as I thought, though it is also affirming my sense that I’m not ready to live without a car completely. I’m looking forward to the Prius, but enjoying where I am.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

News Fast

Some of you may find this hard to believe, but I’m going on a news fast—or at least a news diet. I just can’t take any more of the presidential campaign, Philadelphia’s murder rate, or the price of oil. I was feeling worn out by it all weeks ago, and kept tuning in to hear the latest anyway. But last weekend I lead a retreat on “Listening for God’s Voice” for a group of thirty Lutheran women at a beautiful retreat center near Reading. Although I enjoyed the whole weekend—especially the friendly people and the blooming trees—I especially appreciated the break from email and radio. On the drive home I resisted my usual impulse to turn on NPR and just enjoyed another hour of quiet. Nothing like a weekend of teaching about inward listening to make me practice what I preach.

Monday morning I headed to the gym and felt like my senses were on overload. The overhead lights, the music competing with ten televisions sets on three different stations—it’s a lot to take at 5 am, so I went to the quiet room and did some yoga. When I went back to the gym on Wednesday, I remembered that my headphones were broken, so although I exercised in front of the televisions, I couldn’t hear them. I’ve still turned on the car radio here and there, but I’m trying to break the habit of doing it reflexively. I’ve checked the New York Times headlines that I get emailed each morning, but on my own time, which feels less mentally invasive than getting the news from television or radio. As I said, it’s really a diet more than a fast.

In wondering why I’m so addicted to the news to begin with, I’m remembering one of the weekend retreat participants who said she turned on background noise so she wouldn’t feel alone. I don’t think that’s it for me, though I suspect her reason is not unusual. For myself, I fear that turning off the news means turning my back on all the suffering in the world. Yes, I spend more time at baseball games than peace rallies these days, but I’m still informed. At least I care. I feel this especially when I read about Zimbabwe’s current political crisis, a story which is probably overlooked by many American readers. When I was in the Peace Corps in neighboring Botswana, I enjoyed a few wonderful vacations in Zimbabwe when it was in its post-independence prime. I feel so sad reading about how low the country and its president have sunk, but there is not much I can do about it, except keep informed, even though it’s depressing. I remember times I’ve heard people say that they were refusing to follow the news so it wouldn’t disturb their inner peace, and I felt they were somehow being callus, as if there inner peace would be just fine as long as they didn’t know about the world’s suffering. These days I’m seeing more of their point, but trying to figure out a healthy balance. Perhaps if I had one issue I followed… but I’ve never been a one issue gal.

As usual I come back to the issue of discernment, and timing. I am finishing up my university semester this week and diving back into the book writing. It seems a fitting time to cut back on the external stimulus and clear some mental space, which isn’t necessarily selfish anyway. I remember an article about Buddhist monks who were found to be more compassionate toward those who suffered for the hours they spent in quiet. Of course, I read that in some kind of news magazine.

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