Distillation: A Quarantine Meditation

Day 28.

When stay-at-home orders came down from local and state governments, when all three of my places of employment closed their doors for the time being, when I drove eerily deserted highways across the country to bring my 31-year-old daughter home from California, when I stood still while a nurse took my temperature before allowing me to climb the stairs to my orthopedist’s office, I clung to my hope for normalcy.

After that appointment, when my doctor and I finally began to discuss full knee replacement and I scheduled yet another MRI, I defied my damaged joint and ventured a Target run just a couple of blocks from the clinic to grab milk, bread, and additional outlet covers so the grandbaby wouldn’t electrocute herself in her home explorations. My usual joy found wandering the home department, perusing throw pillows and baskets and sniffing candles was absent, though. The store was populated by employees who seemed nervous, moms in scrubs shopping before/after a shift at the nearby medical center, and a couple of rambunctious teenaged girls whose loud giggles and rowdy running interrupted the subdued energy of the store. The empty aisles seemed as holy as the aisles of a quiet cathedral, as still as a church awaiting its Sunday congregation. I had a realization.

We are being purified. I am being purified.

When I returned home with my meager purchases, I carried supplies to my laundry room where I was assaulted by scent. My laundry room reeked of the vinegar-soaked rags my intrepid housekeeper had used to wash light switches and doorknobs. The bitter-sweet, pungent aroma knocked me off-kilter, I detest the smell of vinegar; I cleared the washing machine so that I could toss these rags in, eliminate the scent.

We are, like the vinegar, being distilled; our lives heated by pandemic-driven fear and isolation. The fluff of life is seemingly boiled away, evaporating all but the truth of our natures, the honest crux of our lives. My own nature is being revealed as a little sharp, all angles and abrupt retorts. Anxious.

I fell back on a coping mechanism that has almost always served: cleaning. I have pulled weeds and pared down closets, cabinets, garage, linens, even playlists on my iPhone. My Disney playlist is shorter by 33 songs today. And yet… reducing stuff wasn’t quite enough. A different tactic was required.

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In response to the storm around me, after months of neglect, I resumed my meditation practice; my spirit was crying out for grounding.  I turned on a meditation app and spent ten minutes breathing, mind wandering as I struggled to bring focus back to the breath. The practice broke me open, though not all at once, but within an hour, I found myself alone on my sofa, sobbing. Weeping for the shared grief of those who have lost loved ones, for the fear I saw on the faces of those who were required and needed to work, for the loneliness of those who may live alone or who do not find themselves surrounded by love in this time of social distancing. My tears were cleansing, washing my soul much like the vinegar had washed parts of my home. Since those tears were shed, I have been cultivating a sense that both less and more are the pure and healthy way forward. Less stuff. Fewer obligations. More time with the ones we love and feel safe with. More time for story, less time for arguing.

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I don’t have a handy list of activities to keep your kids busy during this weird time. I am not a counselor who can publish lists of coping techniques or a chef with 25 healthy recipes for feeding your family in a time of crisis. I have no interest in creating a quiz that tells you what sort of potato your personality matches, I don’t know how to craft toilet paper or make non-toxic fingerpaint for preschoolers. Thankfully, we have Buzzfeed, Pinterest, and Google for all of those, don’t we? That’s not how my mind works. Not how my spirit rolls. What I can do is offer a meditation, a benediction:

May we be purified.

May our lives be distilled, refined into what is most crucial: love. Love for those on the front lines of fighting this virus, love for those confined with us, love for ourselves.

May gratitude and generosity be the energies that ignite our souls. May we seek ways to support each other: tip delivery personnel generously, contribute where possible to organizations whose work mitigates the damage of a world-wide shutdown, purchase a piece of handwork from an artist who just lost their source of income.

May we grant grace to those who see the world differently from us, understanding that they too are nervous about the future, also understanding that their faith may not leave space for ambiguity or doubt.

May we also grant grace to ourselves, for none of us is going to navigate this situation perfectly. We will each, without a doubt, say something we don’t mean to. I already have.

May we learn to appreciate quiet: quiet streets, quiet parks, quiet homes, quiet spirits; for if we can hold to the beauty of hush when this time of enforced rest is over, we may discover that there is healing, peace, and immeasurable strength in stillness.

May we also remember the beauty of noise: laughter at family dinner tables, chatting in  restaurants, classrooms, or church fellowship halls, excited players, moms, and dads at little league games. School choirs. Outdoor concerts.

May we move forward in soul with a renewed love for our collective humanity.

Stay well, friends.

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Middle-Class Gratitude AKA “bougie kthxs”

I just had the most lovely afternoon.

Houston, Fieldings Kitchen + Bar, July 2015, pizza
The margherita and a glass of wine at Fielding’s

It began with a sunny drive during which I listened to a podcast I love, Astonishing Legends. Scott and Forrest were doing a deep dive into the exorcism case of Anneliese Michel, a gripping story that kept me alert as I drove to one of my favorite restaurants, where I ordered a really yummy Pinot Grigio and Margherita pizza.

Next, I strolled to the spa, where the chipper and absolutely beautiful, trendy young women who checked me in loved my coral shoes and saffron lace kimono. I was wearing my Gaimo espadrilles. Made in Spain, they are not shoes I could typically afford, but I found them on sale at Marshall’s for about $26. The young ladies gushed about my footwear while I drank the chilled coconut water that they brought to me.

 

Then I enjoyed a facial with some sort of “skin brightening” treatment that is meant to begin the herculean task of minimizing the sun damage from all those teenage years of slathering baby oil on my skin, setting a lounge chair in a kiddie pool filled with reflective water, and sizzling while listening to Madonna and Wham! on my Sony walkman. The room smelled like every perfect flower and herb, music was soft and soothing. I am new to the facial thing, I was given one as a gift in December, then decided to keep them up. At fifty-two years old, my skin is now paying the price of my misspent youth. I’d like to save it if possible.

 

I explained to the aesthetician that I was new to the facial thing because, well, you know how moms always put themselves last, aw-shucks.

The aw-shucks attitude was a facade, though. My hesitation to treat myself has deep, old roots, like a gnarled, ancient oak.

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I was a poor kid. I shouldn’t have been, my dad was a CPA, which is a job with a good salary. But my mom was a drug addict and my dad wasn’t great at managing a household income in which the spending was spinning out of control. We kids did without a lot. I don’t just mean we didn’t get Disneyland trips, though those were as impossible to contemplate as a trip to the moon. No, I mean we did without enough clothes and dependable electric service. Daddy worked two jobs, laboring twelve or more hours a day, so our lawn was always overgrown; when I walked home from school with friends, I stopped at the corner of my street and waited for them to get far enough down the block that they wouldn’t see which house I entered. I was deeply ashamed of its unkempt appearance. Sometimes our house was filthy and had bugs crawling all over.

When I was in fifth grade and was chosen to dance in the “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” number for our spring concert, we were asked to wear a solid color pastel tee shirt. I didn’t own one. We couldn’t buy one. A simple top that would have cost no more than $5, quite possibly less at the local TG&Y was out of our reach. The morning of the concert, our music teacher, Mrs. Bell, asked us to show the shirts we were wearing with our skirts made of green paper leaves, and I had to confess, “Mrs. Bell, I don’t have one. My dad doesn’t have the money to buy it.” Do you know how humiliating that is for a child? She was as gentle as a teacher can be when she is thrown a curveball on the day of the big show and arranged for me to borrow from a classmate. Daddy drove me to their house when he got home from work and I had a lilac tee shirt to wear for the concert.

So my espadrilles from Spain mean something to me.

Now I live in an affluent master-planned community. It’s one of the first that was developed in the country, actually. My aunt and uncle moved into this community when it first opened in the late 1970s, and when I visited them for an Independence Day family gathering, I fell in love with the neighborhood’s trees, bike paths, and park fireworks. To be honest, I fell in love with what upper-middle-class cleanliness and architecture looked like; I wanted to move here when I grew up. I finally got my wish when we bought a house in 2017.

I don’t reside in the most affluent part of the neighborhood, our community has homes that range in the millions, owned by oil executives and professional basketball players. I live in a modest (by community standards) 2500 square foot home. It’s fifteen years old and we haven’t updated any appliances or floors. I don’t care. It’s bright and clean, my tiny well-manicured yard is lush and green, and there are flower beds and a screened-in sun porch. We’ll get around to changing out the carpet at some point, but it’s not a priority. I don’t drive a Jaguar, I drive a late model Ford Escape.

But here’s the thing: when I walk into a restaurant in this utterly white-bread upper-middle-class town, I look like I belong.

You know what that makes me? Grateful. Grateful beyond what can be described.

After years and years of deprivation, then joining forces with my husband to do the work to get financially stable, I am, quite simply, grateful.

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A bench at the park by the entrance to my neighborhood, there are 130 parks in our development.

Recently, I encountered a man on our neighborhood’s Facebook group, he was going on about how people who live where we do should not have to deal with rude salespeople in the mall. I questioned him: “The right to common courtesy isn’t limited to people living in ——–. Maybe I am misreading your intent.” No, it turns out I wasn’t. He doubled down, speaking of entitlement and property values and expecting a certain level of service because we all pay a premium to live here. This attitude of superiority and exclusivity rears its ugly head pretty often where I live, to be honest. Sometimes I just want to say, “Neighbors! Friends! Notice our parks and the crews who work so diligently to keep our little hamlet looking pretty! Look beyond your tax rate and resale values to see the people who do the work! And know that it’s all, every bit of it, temporal.”

I was deeply bothered. Perhaps it’s because I came from little, perhaps it’s just my nature, but I can’t respond to the gift of living in this place with anything other than gratitude and joy. Accumulating possessions and running a race to beat others doesn’t resonate with my soul.

Gratitude is, I believe, a spiritual practice. To notice one’s surroundings and be thankful is to nurture one’s own soul; it enables us to walk in a way that opens us to the gifts the Divine One bestows. When we are grateful for shelter, food, transportation, and even amenities, we are ready to receive all the abundance the Universe has to give. More importantly, though, we are able to hold loosely and share graciously. Our priorities shift and we become equipped for seasons of less.

Sometimes I think the residents of my town don’t really know what it is like to be that poor kid who just wants to have a lilac-colored tee shirt to take for the school concert. That’s going to have to be their journey, though. Mine is to just walk an authentically grateful path, to recognize the gifts I have been given, and to share what I can along the way.

What are you grateful for?

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Modesty, Shame, and a Korean Spa

For Mother’s Day, my daughters took me to a Korean spa. This was a wholly new experience for me- I was excited about soaking in pools of warm water and sitting in steam with my two girls. Then I learned something: you have to be naked. Fully unclothed. As a jaybird. Buck. Naked.

I did not handle this well. I had brought my swimsuit- but I was not allowed to wear it. I put on the short green cotton robe that was provided in my locker and just quivered.

I was raised to be modest, and since I was naturally shy, it went hand-in-hand. I am not sure I ever saw my mom naked, maybe once or twice. By accident. I never saw grandmothers in dishabille, even once my grandparents moved to live at a lake, my Grandma June did not wear a swimsuit.

Once, on my first sleepover with a friend, my third-grade self started getting dressed by putting my shoes and socks on with my nightgown. My little friend was puzzled, “Why are you getting dressed like that?” “This is how I always do it,” I replied. The truth was that as she started getting dressed, I was too embarrassed to do the same, so I started with the safest thing: shoes and socks. Of course, once it was time to take off my full length flannel nightgown and put on pants, I had to take off my shoes anyway.

Cover ups were worn to and from the pool, and when I was in drill team we were required to wear cover ups to and from rehearsals. We did not leave a dance rehearsal in our leotards and tights- we covered up.

Shorts were not allowed at school. They were not allowed at church camp- we sweltered in jeans in 100+ degree heat. When I went to college at a conservative Evangelical school in 1985, the same policy held: no shorts except in the gymnasium (no co-ed pe classes), intramural fields, or in the non-public areas of the dorms.

This was the norm in the 1980’s- especially in Dallas, Texas, where the Bible Belt influence is tenacious.

And to be completely honest- I dig a little modesty. I might be a mite old-fashioned, but I feel a jolt when confronted with booty shorts and crop tops. I don’t think I am judging the ladies who dress that way, but I feel uncomfortable, nonetheless. I once saw a really great political cartoon, in which the dichotomy of modesty and freedom in Muslim and Western culture is obvious:

I might fall closer to the figurative hijab or burqa, personally, and the cartoon above really brought it home to me. It’s about perspective, really.

But shame? That’s a whole different ball game.

Confronted with so much female nudity in the Los Angeles Korean spa- a clean, well-lit, secure environment- I could barely lift my eyes, which at moments filled with frustrated tears. I glanced surreptitiously- there were women both fatter and thinner than me, older and younger, darker and lighter, shorter and taller. There were abundant cellulite, lithe limbs, bellies stretched from childbirth, taut tummies, surgical scars, small breasts, large breasts, and in-between breasts. My body would have just blended in. No one would have given me a second glance, yet I just perched on the edge of the hot tub, feet sitting down in the hot bubbling water, robe wrapped tightly and clutched fiercely to make sure it didn’t gap. After a few scorching minutes in the steam room, I curled up on a sleep mat and let the heated floor send me into a sweet snoozy cat nap.

My daughters suffered no such self-shame, by the way.

I have given so much thought to the shame thing- where does it come from? It’s cultural, of course. Ad campaigns, tv shows, blah-blah-blah, on and on. But even more insidious is the way it creeps into the real conversations of the real people who impact our lives.

Like that drill team director who instructed us to cover up as we went to and from the gym or practice field and who also required regular weigh-ins at which all the officers were allowed to sit and comment on our weights as we stepped off the scales.

Once, without realizing I could hear her, a grandmother looked at my photo and commented to my father that I had gained weight. At fifteen, I had been so proud of that photo shoot and had felt very pretty. Until.

On another occasion, while hugging another grandmother tight, she disparaged her own body, saying there was too much too hug, how could my arms reach? I told her I loved her just as she was. Her reply? “Your grandfather would love me more if I could lose some weight.” I was thirteen…

and I believed her because that very grandfather would look out the window at their lake cabin and mercilessly critique the neighbor who, in her 50’s and then 60’s, liked to do yard work in her two piece swimsuit. Her body was fair game, both for its size (which was quite healthy) and its age.

Don’t mistake me- I loved (and still do) all of these grandparents. But somewhere along the way, their comments mixed with church and media messages to create a powerful and addictive cocktail of body and age shame in me.

 

As the mother of two girls, I tried to be very careful of what I said to them about their own bodies- I wanted them to feel comfortable in their own skins, and for the most part, they do. They didn’t have any problem stripping down to hop in the pools. But what I didn’t realize was that what I said about my own body was affecting them, too. That they were watching. They were listening. They were copying.

 

When I was visiting in LA just a couple of weeks ago, and I started the litany of body criticism, my older daughter looked at me with exasperation and said, “Mom, please don’t ruin this week with that. Please don’t go there. Please.” It stopped me dead in my tracks- I don’t just hurt myself when I clothe myself in shame. I hurt my girls, who have learned to love themselves, and who love me just like I am. It’s the craziest thing- they admire me. They respect me. And their adult selves have very little tolerance for my self-shame.

I guess body shame and body ownership are two sides of the same coin. I feel empowered when I am a little more modest. Some women are empowered by the burqa. Others are empowered by bikinis. We accept shame when we listen to the voices of the world, and when we let those voices supplant our own.

So, in my own voice, I spent time in my morning gratitude practice saying thank you to and for my body. Part by part: legs, knees, lungs, heart, eyes, mouth, womb, hands, belly…I acknowledged what my body does for me. With me. Sometimes in spite of me.

And just maybe, next time I will get in the naked pool. Maybe.

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