Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cleaning House

 Because he doesn't cook, Charley will never remember that the spatula goes in the drawer by the stove, but the measuring spoons and cups go in the drawer under the counter.  He will never remember that bowls go on the second shelf over the sink and not in the pantry.  Or that the blue mugs hang in one place and the brown mugs in another, and so on.  He doesn't really care where things go as long as they are "away" and he doesn't really understand why I care.  So is there any point in reminding him?  It sounds like I am nagging or like I think it is my kitchen and he really doesn't like to feel like he is a guest in his own house.  I think it is partly that he grew up as the youngest in a house of women and so he really doesn't like women telling him what to do.  And yet, washing dishes is something he feels strongly is his chore. I appreciate that.  So I have three choices.
  1. Notice when he washes the dishes and offer to put things away.  This is a great option.  We get to hang out together and chat about Ken Wilbur and Ekhart Tolle and saxophones and Special Ed kids as I put things where I think they belong.
  2. When I walk through the kitchen and see something in the wrong place, put it where it belongs.  This is a sort of good option.
  3. Live in a perpetual "Easter Egg Hunt" as I frantically search for the spoon to stir the beans before they burn and lose my temper when I burn my hand pulling the biscuits out of the oven because the oven mitt has gone wandering again and all I can find quickly is a wet washcloth which doesn't really work.  This is probably the worst option and yet it is the one I "fall back on" continually.  
I'm not a very good housekeeper, but it seems to me that working smarter is a better solution than working harder - since I already get only 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night and I'm always tired!  But working smarter seems to take a non-stop vigilance.  So many things require ceaseless vigilance.  Like dieting.

Suggestions anyone???

Sunday, December 27, 2009

If you aren't busy being born, you are busy dying

For over a year now, I've been focused on the fact that Sam is dying.  If the sleep apnea doesn't get him, the bronchiecstasis will.  He's a little weaker today than he was a year ago.  He is missing more and more days at Esperanza because we just can't get it together get him strong enough to go.

A couple of weeks ago I started thinking that this terror of his death has me "stuck".  I am missing out on the joy of today because of the terror of some future event.  He might go another 50 years or he might die tomorrow.  But hold on, that is also true of ME.  That's... NORMAL!  Well, gosh.  

In the meantime, what IS extraordinary is that I love my job.  I get to take care of Sam.  I get to love Sam.  I get to wake him up and see his eyes crinkle up with joy when he sees me.  

I live with a secret.  I look fairly common place, but in my heart is a source of joy and pain that is absolutely profound.  The same thing that brings me my greatest joy is the thing that is the source of my deepest fear and pain.  I have a son who is full of life and joy and who is sick more often than he is well and who is going to die.  Taking care of him is the greatest honor of my life, my highest achievement and it's not going to make me famous or solve world hunger or stop war.  (Sorry, Dad.)

Caregiving transforms me.  Caregiving is my spiritual practice.  Caregiving is Zen.

I rented "How to Cook Your Life" and watched it last night. I love it.  Edward Espe Brown is so sincere and transparent.  He recites a poem from the last letter his mom wrote before she died.  It's by Donald Babcock and first appeared in the New Yorker on October 4, 1947 (V.23, No. 33, pp 38-39)

The Little Duck
Now we're going to look at something pretty special.
It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf.
No, it isn't a gull. 
A gull always has a raucous touch about him.
This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn't cold, and he is thinking things over.
There is a big heaving in the Atlantic,
And he is part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher.
He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn't know how large the ocean is.
And neither do you.
But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you.  He sits down in it.
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity - which it is.
That is religion, and the duck has it.
He has made himself a part of the boundless, by easing into it just where it touches him.

Maybe I resonate with this poem because I spent so much of my youth cuddling in the gentle heaves of the mighty Pacific, past the breakers, and feeling rocked by the womb of the world. But I do resonate with it.  This poem came to me last night when I needed it.  I am the primary caregiver to a philosopher who is just like this duck.  I can learn from him how to repose in the infinity which is now and ease into the the boundlessness of today.  That is religion.  That is something I can do.  Today just might be the best day of the rest of my life, and today is beautiful.  I get to go feed Sam.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Speaking of Angels

Speaking of angels, here's a video my friend Himmat sent me.


Well, it happened again.  The three of us went to a wonderful concert by Luis and Roy and enjoyed chatting with a lovely lady who told me I was "an angel" for being Sam's mom.  I don't understand why people feel that they need to tell me that.  I realize they think they are complimenting me, but for some reason it just makes me cranky.

Instead of speculating and grumbling, however, I have decided to write down some true stories about "angels".   

Ash Wednesday
Sam and I were walking down the center aisle to receive our annual smudge when suddenly he stopped and refused to go any further.  He reached into the pew beside us and, with his best smile, touched the woman sitting there who was praying earnestly.  As she stared into his smiling face, tears began to flow down her cheeks.  Sam made it very clear that he wanted her to get up and come with us.  People were backing up behind us, unsure whether to "cut in line" or not.  Rather than cause a further scene, she got out of the pew and came with us.  We got up to the altar rail and Sam knelt down beside her and began to babble and stroke her arm.  She just cried and cried and said things like, "Oh thank you."  Then the pastor came by and, instead of just doing his thing and moving on, he knelt on the other side of the rail and said "Thank you Sam for teaching all of us so much about compassion." I don't have the faintest idea what that was all about.  I'm just the mother.  I don't mean to be irreverent  here, but I kind of know what Mary must have felt as she watched her son do weird and miraculous things.  I'm  not the angel.  I'm just the amazed and fortunate by-stander.

Marriage Counselling
I play cuatro.  I love cuatro.  One of my favorite cuatro players is Queque Domenich.  Amazing guy.  Check him out on iTunes.  A few years ago, I got to play "back up" for him along with 200 other cuatro students at the graduation ceremony for the Chicago Cuatro Orchestra Program.  (ok I'm practically old enough to be the grandmother of any of the other students, but I was just as excited as they were.)  It was incredible.  We didn't know he was going to be there.  I will never forget the thrill of playing with him that night.   Afterward, we all lined up and he patiently signed all our cuatros. 

This is the cuatro that my husband misplaced.  I was devastated.  

The next day, when I took Sam to Esperanza, I was still very upset.  Eddie, one of the verbal guys in the room, noticed and asked me what was upsetting me.  I told them and asked, "Do you think that losing such a precious cuatro is grounds for divorce?"  I was sort of kidding.  But they took me very seriously.  When I came back to get Sam that afternoon, they had worked out an answer.  No. Losing one cuatro, no matter how precious, is not grounds for divorce.  5 is the magic number.  If Charley loses 5 cuatros then I can divorce him.  In the meantime, some retribution must be taken for the loss of this one precious cuatro.  The consensus was that Charley should pay for me to take kickboxing lessons.  

This advice made me laugh, which always helps a bad mood.  But when you think about it, it is pretty good advice.  In the room they have one of those big hanging bags that you can kick and hit, and have found it very useful for working out frustrations.  They recommended I try it.  More than that, it is incredibly healing to have someone - or a whole room of someone's - take my feelings seriously.

Murder Most Foul
When Billy called to tell me that our dad had been brutally murdered by a couple of crack addicts as they robbed his home, I went into shock.  I didn't know what to do with myself or what to feel.  I called Kelly, the weaving workshop instructor at Esperanza, to tell her that I wasn't going to be able to volunteer for awhile.  My friend Phillip took the phone away from Kelly.  He knew just what to say.  "Your father has died?  I bet you are feeling very sad right now, aren't you?"  He went on talking very matter of factly about my grief and, as he spoke, I started to feel again.  I started to cry for my dad.  Then Phillip took the cell phone all around the second floor of Esperanza finding people who knew me and telling them, "Jeanne's father has died.  Talk to her."  They all had something to say to me.  Sometimes it was in Spanish, and sometimes it was in some personal language that no one has figured out yet, but they all sounded caring.  I cried and cried and cried as they kept on passing the phone from person to person.  And that was the experience that gave me the strength to face all the stuff that came next.  

These people have cognitive disabilities or sometimes it is called cognitive challenges or mental retardation.  But whatever you call it, it doesn't impact their heart and their feelings.  They give so much joy and love and wisdom.  It is in our hearts that we feel the impact of miracles and they understand heart better than most of us.  These people are a gift from God to me and they have changed my life for the better.  I think that makes THEM the angels.  I'm just a recipient of their grace.

Bobby Tirelli, another friend from Esperanza, says in his new book, "I like angels.  They're real entities of love.  They've saved my life a hundred million times."  Amen, Bobby.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Amazing and Apparently True Repenning Stories

OK I promised to record some of my childhood stories.  Here is the first one.  Remember the Repenning Family Motto: "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story."  I think this is mostly true...

Whenever I am at one of those parties where they ask you to tell something about yourself that no one knows I say that, oddly enough, I was the ONLY girl in my high school who had an elephant buried in my back yard.  In all the years of saying this, I have only ever met one other person who had an elephant buried in their backyard.  They were from South Africa someplace.  I'm from a suburb of San Francisco.  Elephants buried in back yards was unusual in Mountain View.  Now that it's called "Silicon Valley" I assume it is even more unusual.

My dad was a paleontologist, zoologist and geologist.  When an animal died in the San Francisco Zoo they would give him first dibs.  He would often bring them home and display them on the front lawn for a day or two.  My husband remembers vividly our first date when he arrived to pick me up and there was a ram's head bleeding on the front walk.  He got the message and was VERY careful to get me home on time.  Another time Dad brought home two zebras and propped them up under the plum tree on the front lawn.  It looked very much like an African Savannah.  My mother says a police car drove by very slowly several times.  Mountain View had very strict pet codes, but nothing about dead zebras on the front lawn, I guess.

But back to the elephant.  This was back in the days when Stanford was building the Stanford Linear Accelerator.  This is a mile long underground tube.  Scientists stick an atom up on a dart board at one end of the tube and then aim an electron at it from the other end a mile away.  Obviously, it has to be pretty accurate.  The guy digging the hole, however, made a 100 meter error and cut off the head of some prehistoric beast.  Fortunately they discovered the error and went back to digging the tube and left the headless beast for my dad to identify and name.  He named it the Paleoparadoxia and I spent a lot of my junior high years crawling around in it's ribcage while he and Adele Panofsky excavated it.  

At the time they found this beast, my dad was engaged in the  study of shrews - a  VERY tiny rodent.  He kept some shrews in his bedroom in an aquarium.  They die of fright if you startle them, so we were forbidden to go into my parent's bedroom.  He wanted to develop a bio-chronology of these tiny rodents that would be similar to "Petersen's Field Guides."  Paleontologists could carry his field guide around in their back pockets and get a pretty accurate date for any fossil beds they might find.  It's the teeth that are important.  Remember that in case I write another chapter.

But back to the elephant.  With great reluctance, my father was convinced to put aside his microtene rodents and turn to this gargantuan thing-a-ma-bob and it's modern relatives.  This was how he became an expert in elephant seals and demostylians.  It was at this juncture an elephant died at the San Francisco Zoo.  He was really only interested in the feet, so he drove up there to collect them.  The zookeeper just pointed him to the pen and left him.

It was a dark and stormy night.  He pointed the headlights of his woody station wagon at the elephant and got out his tool kit.  As the storm raged around him, he managed to saw off the parts he needed and put them in great big garbage bags and stuffed them into the back of the woody.  Can't you just see the movie footage?  Lightning flashes and winds howl as our mad scientist waves his saw defiantly at the sky while the elephant's mate on the other side of a flimsy bamboo fence trumpets in a mad rage.  It doesn't actually thunder and lightning in San Francisco, but I always see lightning when I picture this.

Now in normal circumstances, after amusing himself and the neighbors, animals from the zoo were taken to the "bone yard".  This was a fenced off portion of our back yard presided over, appropriately enough, by our raven, Honker and decorated with fierce witch doctor masks.  In the bone yard were several barbeques and a large cauldron.  Really large.  I mean big enough to boil a missionary.  Here was where he would render the animal down to bare bones to study.  Unfortunately, he discovered that elephants are so big that even the feet will not fit in a large cauldron.

So my ever resourceful father went to the local hardware store, bought several shovels and gathered all the kids in the neighborhood.  "Find China" he said and we began.  We dug and dug and dug.  We made roads down into the hole.  We had a perfectly wonderful time until Barbara fell down and broke her arm.  That was the point where he figured we had dug far enough.  He unwrapped the elephant feet and dropped them in the hole.  And left them there for several years until they were clean.

And that, O Best Beloved, is how I came to have an elephant buried in my back yard.


Winter Approaches

It is December 2 and it just might snow tonight.  I'm mulching the garden and winding up hoses. But this rose has decided to bloom.  It strikes me that this is a pretty good life attitude: Creative, optimistic and defiant.