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Thursday, May 26, 2016


So I find myself reflecting on the nature of memory this Memorial Day; most everyone who knows me regards my elephant-like recall as one of my super-powers, but as a recent feature of middle age I have found my short term memory becoming a bit faulty.  For example: a few weeks back I was invited to attend a girl’s night at one of my neighbor's and agreed to be there.  I did not end up going, however, because I completely and totally forgot about it in the time that elapsed between invitation and event.

This was not an oh-it-slipped-my-mind due to busyness or interceding occurrences.  This was flat-out it never crossed my mind in the days leading up to it nor on the night in question.  It was not until the next morning when I was out walking and saw a woman who resembled my neighbor that my brain finally kicked in and set off the reminder DING! that was approximately 15 hours too late.
And while you are probably laughing and thinking that this sort of thing happens all the time and it’s no big deal, to me it was a very big deal because it had NEVER happened to me before.  My ridiculously reliable and detailed memory has not only been an incredibly useful tool in my life, it has actually been a critical part of my identity.  I have clear and vivid memories of some events themselves but also of my perception of those events starting at around the age of two.

One of my favorites involves 3 year old me pushing a doll carriage up the street and filling it with wildflowers.  Although from the outside I am sure this presented an idyllic portrait of childhood, I was fearful the whole time that some adult would think I had a live baby in the cart and admonish me for smothering it in weeds.  My linear memory doesn’t kick in until school age, but the idea that I was probably being watched and should therefore behave in a way that reflected well on me was deeply ingrained in my psyche from day one.  This was many decades before the internet or Facebook or YouTube, so perhaps I was after all a prescient child.
The thing I enjoy most about memories, apart from the fact that they give you tremendous insight into who and how and why you are the way that you are, is that nearly all of them are good.  That is not to say that the remembered events are always good, but the place they take in the mosaic of life, if you are like me and take each experience as an opportunity to learn and grow, is usually positive and helpful.

When I remember some of the worst things that have ever happened to me, I have to be impressed with how well I handled them, even as a kid.  When I remember my lowest and most depressed moments, I feel such compassion and yes, again some pride for how I managed to eventually lift myself back up.  Thinking about relationships that came to an end reminds me of how each of them taught me a little bit more about healthy boundaries and who I am and what I need to feel safe and engaged with other people.
The wonderful thing about memories is that they generalize in a positive way.  I  recently saw a headline that said something to the effect of “anyone who says they had a happy childhood is lying” and thought to myself the only people who are going to read an article like that are those who had unhappy childhoods because they are looking for validation.  Sorry whoever wrote that article, I had a happy childhood!  Generally speaking, of course.

Yes, some unhappy things happened during my childhood, but they did not make me an unhappy person.  My parents had a remarkably good marriage, my siblings and I were all healthy and capable, my Dad was always gainfully employed, my Mom kept a clean and comfortable house well stocked for healthy meals and all the daily needs of life, I had friends and relatives I loved and even the occasional pet.  Plus, it was the 70’s!!!  The 70’s were an awesome time to be a kid!   Generally speaking, of course.  So I had a happy childhood.
Memories generalize the positive, I think, because although positive memories are a wonderful underpinning to a happy life, it tends to be the more specific negative memories that were the “game changers”.  We all want to protect our children from bad experiences, but the truth of the matter is that those are the ones that develop our courage, strength and compassion.  Bad experiences teach us how to cope, show us that we are difficult to break.  We remember them so specifically because they help us to trust ourselves above all others.   Bad experiences are where we get to demonstrate our strengths.

The last thing I love about memories, good and bad, is that they are always there waiting for you.  The good ones are there to buoy your spirits, give you a chuckle or a bonding moment; the bad ones wait patiently for you to be ready to deal with them and receive their lessons.  I think of them like in those old cop movies, when the detective has to find the file of some long forgotten mystery; he is always taken to a room with racks and racks of cardboard boxes…the piece of information he seeks has been just sitting there all along, ignored until it became critical to crack the case.
I recently had a bad memory come up that helped me “crack the case” of a certain behavior pattern that had been dogging me for years.  I wasn’t ready to process it earlier, but like a crime solver in film, recent events had led me back to it as key.  Remembering helped me to understand myself and why I had made certain choices better; it also served to remind me that I survived.  And we have all survived something.  It’s good to remember that when dealing with each other, I think.

Living in the present is a glorious thing; we enjoy our experiences as they happen and at face value.  But the memories we store are the foundation for our functioning not only productively but with well-ordered priorities.  I remember loss because it reminds me to appreciate what I have.  I remember trauma because it reminds me I am strong.  I remember sadness because it reminds me to be compassionate.  I remember mistakes because it reminds me I can make different choices. 
I remember my life because it made me who I am.   And I am happy with who I am.   Generally speaking, of course.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Why Life is Like a Sand Mandala

As a much younger woman, I worked for a Buddhist chef as his Gal Friday.  I sort of plugged in all of the holes in his small operation, from office duties to running errands to working the front desk to bartending.  This was mainly a positive experience as he was a kind and gentle person and I got to don my beloved superhero cape on a regular basis, swooping in to save the day with my MAD COMPETENCE.  There are few things in life that invigorate me more than being of genuine help to someone, and this was the actual function of my position.  When I left, I missed that sense of purpose and accomplishment; it might not have been world changing work, but knowing you make someone else’s life better and easier is a pretty sweet gig.

One of my most indelible memories of that time is when the chef invited some visiting Tibetan monks to take up daily residence in the restaurant and create a sand mandala.  If you have never seen that done, I encourage you to check out this time lapse video: (  It is one of the most incredible things I have ever witnessed; the patience for minutia, the intense focus, the peaceful aura.  As I watched them transform a blank slate into a work of art with a level of skill and creativity most of us can only dream of, I found myself growing increasingly anxious.  I’m sure this sounds like an irrational response, so let me explain myself:
Once this intricate and painstaking masterpiece was completed, the monks fully intended to destroy it. 

I watched day after day as they gently tapped cups full of colored sand in tandem to create a mosaic of breathtaking symmetry and beauty.   I pre-emptively entered a state of mourning…why did they even bother to finish it?  What was the point?  An errant gust of wind could sweep it all away anyhow, why dedicate the heartbreaking hours of mind-blowing effort to something so fragile, so unsustainable???

I know you are laughing at me right now, because of course what I am describing is life.
But I was a young person, as I mentioned, and mortality had not yet impacted me meaningfully.  I was still trying to climb the mountain without any cognizance that all reaching the top would do is afford me a better view of the next highest peak.  I had not yet grasped what I now refer to as “the hamster wheel of effort”; or, more elegantly as “the sand mandala we call living”.

Before I go on, I would like to share with you the sweet irony of my story—the monks did NOT in fact destroy the mandala when they were done!  So we can add “worrying about something that never happened” to my mad skill set.  Somehow my sweet (BUDDHIST!) boss convinced them to allow him to sort of spray glue the sand into place (still not sure how it was accomplished, but it was accomplished) and he owned this magnificent work of art for as long as I was with him.
But the wisdom of the monks’ intention stuck with me:  nothing in life is permanent.  Most especially life itself.  And also, there is an even deeper wisdom to everyone who is engaged in the culture of “merit by accomplishment”…while it seems to be coded into the human experience to strive towards goals, once a goal is met there is always the “next” thing to achieve.  One sand mandala is swept away and we begin another. 

My son is rapidly approaching his eleventh birthday and I am watching the sand of his childhood blow into the wind.  When he was a baby, it felt heavy and almost eternal; but with each passing year I hold on to him tighter and cherish those moments I now know will too quickly pass.  He asked me once what I thought heaven would be like and I told him that if heaven is perfect happiness, then I will return right here to his childhood—always knowing where he is, always knowing he is well and profoundly experiencing what it is like to purely, fiercely love and have that love returned so easily and openly.
That Buddhist chef I worked for was an artist in his own right in the kitchen.  He had a magic touch with food and presentation and nearly everything produced by his hand was “to die for”, in the vernacular.  Of course his masterpieces were also instantly destroyed by hungry (but usually appreciative) guests and each day he would start all over again.

That is the reality we all live in; or as my Father would have said “It’s the GOOD news AND the BAD news”.  Most of what we work so hard on in life will eventually (and often instantly) be destroyed…much of what we accomplish will be quickly eclipsed by another accomplishment, either our own or someone else’s.  That is why it is pretty critical not to allow yourself to get too worked up about or overly invested in anything.
Hmmm, I’m sounding like a Buddhist now.  But don’t worry, I’m not going to go all “life is suffering” on you here.  Instead I will point out that when we are always fixated on the end result (or even worse, “what’s next?”) we are living from a very uncomfortable place.  We are sitting in the seat of dissatisfaction instead of enjoying the actual experience of things.

Working for the chef, I knew the job would never make me wealthy; I knew I wasn’t “going anywhere” in the position.  I knew it was impermanent.  But I derived tremendous satisfaction out of doing the job well and being truly helpful to someone.  Now that I am older, I figure if I can hit those marks on a regular basis in life, I am doing okay.  Especially if I remember to pause and notice the incredible and painstaking beauty that surrounds me each day before everything changes again.