Archive | November, 2013

Buddha and the dictionary

27 Nov

IMG_1136For the past two years, I’ve written a Thanksgiving post. Both of them have been on the cranky side.

One explored the idea that if our own life situation was better than someone else’s—say we have a job we don’t like, but someone we know doesn’t have a job—we had no right to complain about our shitty job. In fact, instead of complaining, we should thank our lucky stars, or chosen deity, and be grateful we have a job. I wrote then and still believe that the rush to gratitude leaves too much else unexplored and unmourned. Glossing over the crap in our lives doesn’t make it stink less. If we are to truly feel gratitude, we need to honor what keeps us from being grateful and let it go.

Last year’s gratitude post focused on the idea that the proper response to “Thank you” is “Thank you.” The proper response, I wrote, is “You’re welcome.” Welcoming others to what we’ve offered is a far more generous gesture to my mind. One of my greatest pleasures at the holidays is welcoming as many people as possible to share in our celebrations. Adding to the guest list, even an hour before dinner, increases my pleasure far more than my workload.

Those posts were written spontaneously. This year, I started pondering what I’d write early in the month. I wasn’t sure I had much more to say about gratitude.Whenever I’ve written about gratitude, though, I’ve felt I missed something essential, the nub of my inability to cuddle into the comfort of unbridled gratitude.

When I was a child, we would bow our heads and clasp our hands in prayer before dinner while my father recited:

Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts,

which we are about to receive, from thy bounty,

through Christ, Our Lord. Amen

I always had a problem with the prayer, other than confusion over whom we were praying to given that there were two “Lords” in there and it didn’t really feel like they were the same person.

My biggest problem was that what we were about to receive didn’t seem to just be a gift from God’s bounty. My father had worked pretty hard to earn the money to pay for the bounty and my mother, who hated to cook, had worked to turn the bounty into dinner. Frankly, my mom had earned at least part of the money, as well. Where did they fit in the pre-dinner picture?

Though the sentiment wasn’t overt, the Prayer Before Meals was clearly presented as an expression of gratitude. To my mind, while God had had a hand in creating the world, food, etc., I didn’t really see the need to thank him for something he did a long time ago and not really for my personal benefit anyway. Turns out, I was a Buddhist before I became a Buddhist.

Naturally, I researched gratitude before writing this post. I’d turned to Buddha to help my dad and me through his passing, so turning to Buddha in this dilemma was a no-brainer.

Buddha had a lot to say about gratitude. I found some of it in a teaching by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (aka Geoffrey DeGraff, abbot of San Diego County’s Metta Forest Monastery). Than Geoff (as he’s affectionately known—I feel affection toward him for pointing out the nub of my gratitude problem) wrote:

the Buddha always discusses gratitude as a response to kindness, and doesn’t equate it with appreciation in general. It’s a special kind of appreciation, inspiring a more demanding response. 

Gratitude is due to people, particularly people who have done us a kindness that benefitted us, have done it from motives we trust, and have gone out of their way to do it. What is due to the feeling of sun warm on our skin, the smell of a freshly brewed pot of coffee, the lighting of a butterfly on our shoulder is appreciation.

I realize appreciation is a pallid word compared to gratitude and that the two are nearly synonymous, but there is a distinction that resonates for me.

Appreciation is defined as a recognition of the value of what we appreciate. When I run in the songbird sanctuary near my home, I am frequently overwhelmed by its beauty. I feel a peacefulness I don’t experience anywhere else. I so value the beauty and peacefulness that I leave it as I found it, hoping others appreciate it as I do.

If I followed another spiritual path, I might give thanks to God for the beauty of the sanctuary; I mean no disrespect to those who would. But I have always felt hollow thanking things for their existence, though I have never taken their existence for granted.

The songbird sanctuary was not created for me. It has no motives in existing. It did not go out of its way for my benefit. While I love its presence, I do not owe it thanks.

This Thanksgiving, I will give thanks but it will be to people rather than for things. I owe thanks to my sister for carrying the greatest share of caring for our father and her understanding of my need to care for my family. I owe thanks to my husband for his generosity and constancy. I owe thanks to my father for planning for his own and my futures. I owe thanks to my brother for continually helping to repair my home.  And I will run in the prairie, thankful that I take care of my body so that I can continue to appreciate it.

IMG_0086, springbrook prairie, snide reply blog

Happy Thanksgiving


Too Embarrassing

12 Nov

Time was, I read really good literature. Being an English major and all, it was pretty much required. When I graduated, I continued my habit of reading critically acclaimed novels. I’ve written about the reading revelation I had on reading “The Shipping News.” In three words, I hated it. I hated it so much that, for the first time in my life, I left a book unread. I’ve been called negative, and certainly been depressed, but “The Shipping News” was too grim even for me.

So, I started reading fantasy. Vampire books, to be specific. But I soon branched out to werewolf books, then witch books, demon books, ghost books. When I got tired of fantastical characters, I started reading about fantastic realistic characters. This went on for years. Then, a convergence of timing, events and money made it seem reasonable for me to return to grad school and finish my master’s degree. I am probably the only person who would think the combination of helping care for a dying parent, working evenings, being home for my kids (did I mention it was summer break?) and attending grad school made perfect sense. Must have been a hypomanic phase.

It was one week into the course that I discovered I would be required to do in six weeks what ordinarily takes 11. That is, I was to research a topic in education, devise a research study around it, conduct the study, analyze it, write it up and present my findings to my classmates. I got through it with the help of a supportive family and caramel corn. My topic, predictably gloomy, was teacher attitudes toward classroom-based screening of students for mental illness. I got an A.

At the same time, I was working three evenings and Saturday mornings, teaching English and Math to over-achieving students. I spent Sundays at the nursing home with my dad, whose cancer crept out of remission, while his brain continued to decline. I spent my days either writing or corralling my kids. In other words, I was strung tighter Paula Deen’s Spanx.

That’s when my entertainment preferences when to the dogs. Literally. Influenced by my daughter and the search for something we could watch together, I found solace in Animal Planet. My son and husband deemed this far more appropriate after we were busted watching “Magic Mike,” before my daughter turned 11.

First, it was Animal Cops. Houston, Philadelphia, Arizona—it didn’t matter. As long as there were dogs to rescue from abusive owners and cats to confiscate from hoarders, my daughter and I were happy. Sure, some of the animals died, but never at the end of an episode. I nearly cried tears of joy this morning when the one-legged dog who’d been tied to a tree found a new loving family. And cow surgery?! Hell, yeah, I want to see a vet with her arm sunk pit-deep in a cow’s abdomen!*

Animal Cops lead to Pit Bulls and Parolees, next up in the Animal Planet weekday schedule. Who would watch such a thing? I used to think. I even jokingly called it “Pit Bulls and Pierogies.” But just one episode and I was addicted like nothing since General Hospital in the Luke and Laura years.  Will Tia’s husband get out of prison? Will they reach New York in time to save the poor misunderstood pitbull on death row? Will I stop watching this long enough to get the breakfast dishes done? Yes, dogs died. No, Tia’s husband didn’t get out of prison. But the pitbull in New York was saved. Naturally, we didn’t find that out until the end of the episode.

It was only a matter of time before I stumbled onto the show I am most embarrassed to admit I loved, let alone watched: Too Cute. Too Cute was the antedote . . .for everything. It’s broadcast on Saturday nights. That worked perfectly into my kids/work/grad/dad schedule. Assignments were generally due Sunday. I needed a break by then, before the big push Sunday evening. Mind-numbing in its predictability, Too Cute is the perfect brain novocaine. And it is far less fattening than caramel corn.

Each episode of Too Cute is a coming of age story of three litters of puppies (sometimes kittens), or, as Animal Planet describes it: From their unsteady first steps, the beginning of their lives will be an epic journey for these adventurous pets.

The show details the lives of three litters of puppies from a couple of days past birth to the day they are adopted by their new families. It’s filmed from a close-up pup’s eye view and follows the little critters as they hit all the developmental milestones: opening their eyes, eating solid food, the first trip outdoors and visits to the vet. All with only the briefest glimpses of humans.

Watching puppies play could be akin to watching paint dry, but narrator Henry Strozier keeps the action rolling. According to New York Post writer Paige Albiniak, Strozier narrates the series “in the dulcet tones of the amused grandfather.” And while he does sound sweetly soothing, he also has the story-telling ability to turn a runt’s struggle to return to the puppy pile into a nail-biting adventure.

The best part about Too Cute, though? Unlike Animal Cops and Pitbulls and Pierogies, nothing ever dies. All of the puppies grow and thrive. All of them play and frolic. Some are more adventurous, some are trouble makers and, occasionally there’s a pup who identifies more with the family goat than his canine litter mates. But never, ever does a star of Too Cute die.

At the time I was most seriously addicted to Too Cute, my father was in the last weeks of his life. He had his lucid days and some times his typical sense of humor returned, but he was obviously declining. Only a fool would fail to see the reason I took comfort in what is arguably the most un-Janice entertainment available today. I am no fool. When everything was crap around me, an hour with packs of puppies (did I say they never poop, either?) was just what I needed.

My dad died October 1; I and my siblings were with him. While I’m not quite ready to write about his death, I appear to be ready to return to my regularly scheduled programming. I haven’t seen an episode of Too Cute in weeks. But I have discovered Sleepy Hollow. It’s trash, but it’s got enough witches, demons and time travelers to keep me coming back, at least until Game Of Thrones returns.

* I have since recalled that this appeared on an episode of The Incredible Dr. Pol, a program on National Geographic Wild. See? This animal-show-watching is addictive.

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