Neuroplasticity and flying like and eagle

Neuroplasticity. It is an odd word, and an even odder word to use to begin a blog that promises in some kind of way to get around to social justice or human rights.  Neuroplasticity … plastic brain? Well, yes, kind of exactly. It is a newish area in brain studies that is very quietly shouting out that are brains are not as fixed as we were once told they were.  Remember high school biology class when we were taught that by then our brains were our brains and what you had was all that you were going to have? That drinking alcohol killed off brain cells, and so you should pretty much expect that drunk and stupid would inevitably go hand in hand? Well, now neuroscience is discovering that it ain’t necessarily so.

Now, I’m not saying drunk and stupid don’t go hand in hand, there is way too much evidence – scientific and anecdotal – to document that, but I am maybe saying it is the transient effect of the alcohol, not the permanent death of brain cells. But, wait, that is not really the point of this anyway. Back to neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity says that the brain is capable of healing itself, that the brain is capable of reshaping itself, literally so. If only we work at it diligently and in the right way. And isn’t is always the diligently and in the right way part that is the kick in the butt!  Trying something once, failing pitifully and giving up is no longer an options. Now it seems it really is much more that you have no longer failed so much as you have begun to succeed – if only you are willing to keep trying. And yes, trying with diligence and in the right way. Because, remember the definition of insanity: repeatedly doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get different results. And then there was Thomas Edison who would conduct thousands of experiments on an idea he had for an invention until he got it right. And that is the model here – Edison’s experiments: he would try something, fail, analyze the failure, learn from it, and then come back at it another way, tweaking (tweaking not twerking) until he got it right.

The road to social justice and human rights, the road to fairness and respect for human dignity is a long road, a very, very long road. But if we approach it with diligence and in the right way, maybe looking at all of our actions as experiments in the spirit of Thomas Edison, acting, analyzing the outcomes of our efforts, learning and trying again in a slightly different way, maybe there reason for hope!

And here’s a bit of a story I found that kind of gets to that point:

Once upon a time in a far off farm in rural New Jersey, Jessica found an eagle’s egg. She didn’t know what kind of an egg is was, she just saw that it was an orphan egg that needed a home. So she picked it up and carried it home with her. When she brought it in the house, her mother shoed her out, and told her to put the egg in one of the nests in the hen house. Together they would watch and see if one of the hens would sit on the egg until it hatched.

Well, sure enough in a little while the egg hatched, and a baby eagle was born.  The eaglet was born along with a whole brood of baby chicks and grew up with then in the barn yard.  From the time he was born, through all of his life, the eagle grew up with the chicks and did everything the chicks did right along with them.  They scratched in the dirt for worms and insects, he scratched in the dirt for worms and insects. They clucked and cackled, and he clucked and cackled. They would flap their wings and fly a few feet into the air, he would flap his wings and fly just a few feet into the air.

Some years passed like this, with Jessica and her mother always keeping a close eye on the young eagle and the chickens in the yard. One day an old college friend of Jessica’s mother, Anna who worked for the Audubon Society came by the farm to visit. When she saw the eagle in the barn yard in the middle of the chickens, she was aghast.  Her first reaction was to ask if the animal was ill or injured, but it looked healthy to her. Jessica and her mother told Anna the story about the egg and the eagle growing up with the chickens, Anna got very quiet and thoughtful.  Then she proposed a road trip to Jessica and her mother, and the three of them packed a lunch and drove to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary across the river in Pennsylvania. As they walked the trails there, the three of them talked about birds and freedom. Over the horizons they saw six or seven different kinds of hawks, a kestrel, and even an eagle or two. As they drove home, Anna looked at Jessica and her mother and said, that is what an eagle’s life should be like, not scratching for bugs in the dirt.

Jessica and her mother thought about it, and realized that Anna was right, but what could they do about it? Their eagle didn’t know how to fly, not any distance, not really. But they recognized right when they saw it, and so the two of them devised a plan to teach their eagle to fly. Each day they would take the eagle to a ledge, each day slightly higher than the day before, first a table top, then a ladder, then a low roof. Each day repeatedly they would stand the eagle on the edge of the ledge and encourage him to fly. The first day the eagle fell as much as he flew, but with practice and as his wings strengthened, the eagle developed skill and confidence. And then the day came when Jessica and her mother knew it was time. They gathered their eagle into a cage, drove to Hawk Mountain, walked to the edge of one of the cliffs, and set their eagle free. As he stood on the edge of the cliff, the eagle spread his wings, lifted his head into the wind, and few off with the wind to the life he was meant to live.

Of course Jessica and her mother were sad to see their beautiful bird leave their nest. But every now and again, they are fairly certain that they see a magnificent eagle circling over their farm, floating on the winds in majestic and regal freedom and dignity.  And in those moments they feel like they too share in their eagle’s freedom.

And the point of the story? Finding your nature and living it, of course. But also that it took diligence and determination, persistent and intelligent work to make it happen.

So, may we all find our best wings! And may we all develop the resilience to learn to use them to fly!! May we all remember that even the brains of old dogs are plastic enough to always learn new tricks.

Thinking about Great Expectations

What can you expect from a fellow whose school career ended after a mere three months and ended with his teacher describing him as addled? What, really can you expect from a fellow who was home schooled by his mother with much of his reading focused on two books? Really, what can you expect from a fellow who moved from job to job, only to be fired from each?

Imagine someone so pig headed that he would get an idea in his head, and when the idea did not come to fruition after one thousand experimental attempts, the fellow just tried another thousand or two thousand or even three thousand times more!

I suspect that today we would label this addled fellow with attention deficit disorder and/or maybe obsessive compulsive disorder. Certainly the guy had some kind of dis-order.

And, truth be told, this fellow has indeed been labeled by many – this fellow Thomas Alva Edison, is the guy the world calls ‘the wizard of Menlo Park.’ He was probalby one of the greatest inventors our world has ever known. Over the course of his life, Thomas Alva Edison registered 1,093 patents. His inventions include the phonograph, the electric generator, fuel cell technology, a kinetographic camera making motion pictures possible, the alkaline battery, improved cement production, improvements on the telephone, and improvements on the electric light bulb to make it practical, Many of Edison’s inventions were improvements on earlier inventions that were interesting but not practical. Thomas Edison frequently said “I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it.”

When Edison was asked about the many thousands of failed experiments in his laboratories, he is quoted as saying, “We have not failed, we have discovered many ways not to make whatever is the focus of our experiment.” Through his persistence through his many failures, which he understood as steps in the path to success, Thomas Edison worked his way up from being an impoverished, uneducated railroad worker to one of the most famous and financially successful men. In his lifetime, Edison became a working man’s folk hero. As history looks back on his contributions, Edison is credited with building the framework for modern technology and society in the age of electricity.

Yes, Edison held over a thousand patents, and produced many commercially successful inventions. And all of that was built on the foundation of thousands and thousands of failures. One of the keys to it all was his confident vision that success was on the horizon and he and his team were working their way along the path toward their goal. As one of my teachers once said to me, “You have not failed so much as you have begun to succeed.”

Be clear on your vision. Be true to your dream. Know that the road toward your goal is likely to be a long and winding road. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Do your best. Learn each day. Treasure your frustrations as signposts for new areas to learning and growth. Edison brought us a framework for technology and electricity. We can be the vanguard ushering in a future of justice and human rights.

Chiyono and the bottomless bucket

 “If you are as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, you still will not escape slander! Get thee to a nunnery, go!” Around 1600, by way of William Shakespeare’s pen, that was Hamlet’s advice to Ophelia. A continent away in Japan, and 300 years earlier in 1290, Chiyono found herself facing similar options. So, Chiyono set off to the nunnery, to the Zen temple in Hiromi where she was accepted to work as a servant.  Chiyono journeyed to the temple (and agreed to work there as a servant if that was the only way in) because she wanted to attain enlightenment (for the new agers or feminists among you, think empowerment).  For years – years and years even – Chiyono worked faithfully, diligently moping and cleaning, chopping wood and carrying water for the nuns at the temple. And through all those years her desire to attain enlightenment never wavered.

Chiyono would listen and watch the nuns from a distance. She emulated their sitting posture and practice each evening when her work was done. Chiyono sat facing the wall in her room, quietly breathing, quietly chanting the words she heard the nuns saying. And, over the days, weeks and years, nothing happened. Persistently Chiyono practiced what she observed, and still nothing happened, she could feel no progress towards enlightenment.  Eventually, Chiyono summoned up her courage asked one of the older nuns, “Sister would you please tell me the principles of your practice? How can I attain enlightenment?”

The elder nun looked at Chiyono and recognized her as the woman who cooked and cleaned, who chopped wood and carried the water. The nun was a woman of wisdom and compassion and so she said to her, “In your search for enlightenment, you must not cease your effort. The Buddha tells us that at the end of all our exploring we will arrive where we started, and shall know the place for the first time (who knew that T.S Elliot was quoting the Buddha!?!). Enlightenment is not words; it is looking deeply into your own heart, into your own mind, and nurturing the compassion for all sentient beings, the compassion that is always already there.  Each of us is complete and perfect just as we are. But each of us is best by desires for what we don’t have, and by fears of loosing what we hold dear. We are deluded into thinking that we can hold off changes that we foresee; but changes will happen, indeed that there will be change is the only constant. Let go of your delusions. That is the way of Zen. Practice this diligently as you walk, as you work, as you move through each day.” (Ah, new agers and feminists among you, think empowerment here too! Each of us is complete and perfect just as we are; each of us is fully powerful and need only learn to exercise and manifest our unique strengths, skills and powers.)

And Chiyono took the elder sisters words to heart and practiced letting go of her attachments even as she moped the floors and cleaned the lavatories, even as she chopped wood and carried water.  She moved through her days with one pointed focus and determination. As she worked and practiced her letting go, she became ever more compassionate in her encounters with the other nuns in the temple. As she moved through the days, where once she might have felt some resentment for the younger nuns who were free to sit in meditation throughout the day, now Chiyono saw her own work as actions of caring in support of the other’s practice.

One evening Chiyono was carrying her bucket to the well to bring back some water to the kitchen. As she carried her bucket, the bottom which was held on by bamboo strips fell out, and the reflection of the moon in the water vanished. In that instant Chiyono touched enlightenment. This is her enlightenment poem

With this and that I tried to keep the bucket together
And then the bottom fell out.
Where water does not collect
The moon does not dwell.

            For all of that I like the story about Chiyono for the first two lines of her enlightenment poem: “With this and that I tried to keep the bucket together, and then the bottom fell out.” For her, when the bottom fell out she saw through to enlightenment. That resonates for me as I think about how hard we all try to keep it together, wrapping our lives with bobby pins and bubble gum to hold the pieces together. And for us too, maybe only when things fall apart will we find our way to living lives that allow respect for all sentient beings (and isn’t that just what lived human rights are about?) to live lives that respect all sentient beings, all of them. (It is the all of them part that seems to particularly trip me up. It is so much easier to be fully respectful of people I like, people who agree with me.)

            So, I find myself wondering –  what will I see, what will you see, when the bottom falls out, and we have enough compassion for ourselves to remember to look through to the other side.

Do you have a banana in your ear?

There is a saying: don’t try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it irritates the pig. Which I think is supposed to mean don’t try to make people happy (or different in most any other way, you will only get in trouble).

There was a social worker who went into a bar, she sits down and sees this woman with a banana in her ear – a banana in her ear of all things! So, the social worker wonders if she should mention it to her. She thinks to herself, I’m off work, it really is none of my business. But the thought nags at her. So, after a couple of glasses of wine, she says to the woman, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to intrude, but, I can’t help but notice you’ve got a banana in your ear.”

The woman responds, “what?”

And the social worker repeats, “You’ve got a banana in your ear.”

And again the woman responds, “what did you say?”

The social worker shouts, “You’ve got a banana in your ear!”

And the woman replies, “Talk louder, I’ve got a banana in my ear.”

And sometimes our efforts to build a world of social justice and human rights feel a whole lot like that conversation.  So, remember the injunction to remember that nothing human is alien to any of us. Well, applied here, that seems to me to suggest that we all may very well have a banana in our ears. So, before we take the splinter from our neighbor’s eye, maybe we should take the banana from our own ear. Maybe we need to pause and truly listen, to hear the needs of our neighbors in their own terms before we ‘fix’ their world?

A Different Kind of Resolution from the Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women’s perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.



A Different Kind of Resolution


 Posted by Layli Maparyan on Monday, 06 January 2014 in Women Change Worlds


 A Different Kind of Resolution


This time of year, many people are thinking about their New Year’s resolutions. More often than not, these resolutions revolve around things we’d like to change in ourselves or our lives. But what about the things we’d like to change about our world–the things that are bigger than ourselves and our own individual lives? This year, I’m advocating for a different kind of resolution–a resolution to connect ourselves to “the change we’d like to see in the world” through direct action in areas we have the power to influence. I’m convinced that, if enough of us did this, we would turbo-charge not only efforts towards social justice but also human well-being on a vast scale. Are you ready to see where you can plug in??


Those of us who work at social change organizations, like us here at the Wellesley Centers for Women, perhaps have it easiest because our very livelihood depends on doing work that makes a difference in the world. Yet, even those of us who work in this arena need to recommit periodically–to our ideals and principles, to our social change goals, to the targets for change that we have set and to which we hold ourselves accountable. At WCW, we are using a strategic planning process to help us do this, which requires us both organizationally and individually to look at our work–which includes research, theory, and action programs–and its social change impact. Even those of us who have chosen social justice or human wellbeing as our lifework must periodically review, refresh, and reinvigorate.


Just because we don’t all work for social change organizations, however, doesn’t mean there aren’t major ways we can make each a difference. What do you care about? What change would you like to see in the world? As great and necessary as organizations are in the social change equation, they are not the end-all and be-all. Individuals and small groups, even when they are working for change outside formal organizations, can make a monumental difference in outcomes for many through partnering, advocacy, endorsement, and financial support. As Margaret Mead once famously quipped, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


Yet, the “power of one” is something to be reckoned with, too. We can look to history for inspiration. I would tell my students, for example, about an African-American “house slave” named Milla Granson who held a “midnight school” in her cabin each night to teach 12 fellow slaves how to read; once they learned, she took in 12 more–and did so for decades, until scores “forged their passes to freedom.” Can we imagine this kind of educational activism today? Just last week, I learned the story of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who, during the Holocaust, without orders, wrote and distributed transit visas, sometimes working in collaboration with his wife for 18 hours per day, even overnight, to produce them. Today, scholars estimated that he saved about 6,000 Jews and that anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 people are alive today because of the action he took. Both Milla Granson’s and Chiune Sugihara’s actions show us that there’s always something we can do, right from where we happen to be standing. So what are we waiting for?


All of us have some kind of expertise, passion, or resources that we can contribute to increasing social justice and human well-being in the world. It just takes a different kind of resolution. What will you resolve to do in 2014??


Layli Maparyan, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.


Martha Nussbaum and the Power of Stories

I found this in Brain Pickings. If you don’t know it, Brain Pickings is a wonderful weekly blog. You should check it out at quote is by Martha Nussbaum is from James Harmon’s Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) – an anthology of thoughtful, honest, brave, unfluffed advice from 79 cultural icons, including Marth Nussbaum, Mark Helprin, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and William S. Burroughs.

Martha Nussbaum is a philosopher who writes about human capabilities. I have been infatuated with her ideas for a long time, so I was pretty happy to find this quote from her. In the quote she writes about the importance of cultivating a rich inner life by by understanding and embracing our feelings. She highlights the power of storytelling as one pathway to a richer inner life and a fuller, more empathic human community.

Do not despise your inner world. That is the first and most general piece of advice I would offer… Our society is very outward-looking, very taken up with the latest new object, the latest piece of gossip, the latest opportunity for self-assertion and status. But we all begin our lives as helpless babies, dependent on others for comfort, food, and survival itself. And even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve. As we grow, we all develop a wide range of emotions responding to this predicament: fear that bad things will happen and that we will be powerless to ward them off; love for those who help and support us; grief when a loved one is lost; hope for good things in the future; anger when someone else damages something we care about. Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions, and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them. Perhaps males, in our society, are especially likely to be ashamed of being incomplete and dependent, because a dominant image of masculinity tells them that they should be self-sufficient and dominant. So people flee from their inner world of feeling, and from articulate mastery of their own emotional experiences. The current psychological literature on the life of boys in America indicates that a large proportion of boys are quite unable to talk about how they feel and how others feel – because they have learned to be ashamed of feelings and needs, and to push them underground. But that means that they don’t know how to deal with their own emotions, or to communicate them to others. When they are frightened, they don’t know how to say it, or even to become fully aware of it. Often they turn their own fear into aggression. Often, too, this lack of a rich inner life catapults them into depression in later life. We are all going to encounter illness, loss, and aging, and we’re not well prepared for these inevitable events by a culture that directs us to think of externals only, and to measure ourselves in terms of our possessions of externals.

What is the remedy of these ills? A kind of self-love that does not shrink from the needy and incomplete parts of the self, but accepts those with interest and curiosity, and tries to develop a language with which to talk about needs and feelings. Storytelling plays a big role in the process of development. As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves. As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories – in literature, film, visual art, music – that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world. So my second piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: Read a lot of stories, listen to a lot of music, and think about what the stories you encounter mean for your own life and lives of those you love. In that way, you will not be alone with an empty self; you will have a newly rich life with yourself, and enhanced possibilities of real communication with others.

 It seems to me that this is sound advise for us all — read lots of stories, develop deep empathy — with our selves, for other, open our hearts to the possibilities of the world, love widely and wildly … and see what happens. Too much for you? Try walking down the street and smiling at the people you pass. See what happens then. It is a worth while experiment.

Cape Cod Dreams and Memes and Change

Cape Cod is a most wondrous place. September arrives and graces the soft sands of the Cape’s endless shores, and while so many others have returned home to work and school, I remain, reading and napping and bearing witness to the day’s gentle surf and warm breezes.

As I nap, I read Paulo Coelho’s “Manuscript Found in Accra” 

in the cycle of nature there is no such thing as victory or defeat; there is only movement.

The winter struggles to reign supreme, but in the end is obliged to accept spring’s victory, which brings with it flowers and happiness. The summer would like to make its warms days last forever, because it believes that warmth is good for the Earth. But in the end, it has to accept the arrival of autumn, which will allow the Earth to rest. . . .

Within that cycle there are neither winners nor losers’ there are only stages that must be gone through. When the human heart understands this, it is free and able to accept difficult times without being deceived by moments of glory. Both will pass. One will succeed the other. And the cycle will continue until we liberate ourselves from the flesh and find the Divine Energy.

And the cycles will continue until we find enlightenment, eternal rest, nirvana, moksha, until we find that for which we search. But as human’s we seem destined to search, even if it is for justice and rights, for fairness and dignity, the search goes on. We are creatures on a pilgrimage, a path. Perhaps it is not that we are strangers in a strange land, but pilgrims on a pilgrimage. For us humans, the journey is home. Lots of folks have plotted the shape and direction of that path. And, it is important to know where you are going – otherwise, how will you know when you get there? One of my favorites path tracers is a largely unsung fellow named Clare Graves who wrote about memes that mark the flow of human and cultural growth.

Now, meme (pronounced meem) is a fun kind of word that is not (yet) part of the common daily verbal lexicon.  It was probably coined by Richard Dawkins in his book “the Selfish Gene” as a concept useful for explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. So, a meme could be a melody, catch-phrase, fashion, idea, symbol or practice that is spread from mind to mind through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other ways of being that we can imitate. Meme’s self-replicate, mutate and respond to pressures.

 Clare Graves wrote about eight memes or themes for existence that human beings and cultures seem to embrace and develop as we move in the world. For Graves, each meme is essential and important and is incorporated and integrated into the ones that follow even as subsequent memes work to solve personal,  social or ecological problems that emerge as a consequence of ways of being consonant with earlier memes. Then the new meme catches on, and becomes a ‘normal’ way of living, thinking, being in the world. On an individual level, think here of crawling, walking, running for example, each remains important in its own rights, even as we build our ability for more complex forms of movement. For Graves, human cultures develop and evolve new, more effective, more complex ways of structuring and organizing communities and cultures, even as we continue to incorporate earlier ways of being.

And then there is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan theory to add to the mix. Black Swans are rare events that have an extreme impact and that are retrospectively but not prospectively predictable (no one saw it coming, but looking back it makes sense). I’m thinking that Black Swan events help shift values and ways of being as they become dominant culturla memes.

Now all of this is pretty heady thinking for a day dream day on the beach, and as I thought about all of this I felt myself drifting off for a bit of a nap. And as I napped, I dreamt of nomadic cultures and communities struggling for survival living on their instincts. And then I woke and thought about tribal cultures and spirit quests and their search for kindred spirits. And I thought about how cultures grew from a sole focus on basic needs and survival to include spirituality and connections with family and kindred spirits.  And I thought about how democracies evolved creating space for individualism and spawning revolts, aggression and warfare – identity and independence seem to be linked with power and assertiveness and aggression. Traditions and religions seem to have emerged as one response to aggressions, but their structure and discipline that help to control chaos and to connect individuals and cultures to a higher ideal come with a call for self sacrifice that can be overly sacrifice freedom for security and tradition. The progress of modernity brought with it technology and material wealth and convenience, entrepreneurial growth and wealth – for some, but at a high cost to others and to the environment. There is the hope of green societies that offer compassion, community and equality, but these remain tender buds in the growth of communities. Perhaps we will see even further evolution toward more self actualizing cultures and communities, where survival, security, authority, structure, networks, systems and organic wholeness each and all find place in a dynamic balance and wholeness. And I found myself wondering where we will evolve next as human beings, as human communities. Perhaps memes of hope and healing (personal, social, cultural, environmental healing) will emerge and grow? I found myself wondering what a world free of oppression and discrimination would be like? What would we value? How would we organize family and education and care giving and wonder and awe and mystery and science and, and, and. And the joy of a sunny afternoon on Cape Cod is that I could wonder widely and wildly.   

So, now I am dreaming of love, compassion, and generousity exploding into our ways of being — as a black swan that becomes the next meme. It could happen. We could yet have a world where fairness reigns and dignity is respected.  I know my dreams will continue. The cycle will evolve. Indeed, change is the only constant. And amidst all of this change and wonder, there is the wonder and joy that Cape Cod is indeed a most wondrous place.

Parable of the Guitar Strings

Back in Hunterdon County, Murina is finishing up middle school and about to enter adolescence where things are not always as simple as life used to be as a child of innocence among the rolling hills of Hunterdon. It feels to her more and more that things are not as they seem. Too often she just does not quite seem to understand – not anything, not her friends, not her self, especially not her mother who had just gotten too weird for words almost overnight. Ugh. Life was tying her up in knots, she felt wound up and stretched tighter than a drum.

And now her mother wanted her to take music lessons! Guitar of all things! How incredibly 1960’s! How just like her mother! The woman who thought reading tea leaves meant reading the tags on the teabags! The woman who would only buy tea bags with tags that had quotes or sayings on them! The woman who collected teabag tags! Other kids had mothers who put their drawings or pictures or best papers on the refrigerator door. Murina’s had a mother who covered their refrigerator with tea bag tags: Bliss is a constant state of mind, undisturbed by gain or loss; practice kindness, compassion and caring; by listening you comfort another person. Ugh. Why couldn’t someone listen and comfort her? Why couldn’t someone really hear her? Murina thought she was going to explode!

And now her mother wanted her to take music lessons! What was the point?

But Mama was wearing her down, so Murina finally agreed. She dug Grandma’s guitar out of the storage closet, dusted it off, and set off for her first guitar lesson. At least the guitar teacher was cute and kind of an interesting guy. If nothing else, for 45 minute every week she would be away from her mother and could enjoy a bit of eye candy and dream.

Mayer was alright. He took his guitar seriously, but he took himself lightly. The first week she knocked on his door for her lesson, he just shouted out: “if this house is rockin’, don’t bother knockin’” and he laughed. “come on in. let’s make some music.” He wasn’t half bad, all in all.

But today Murina was just not in the mood. She just was wound too tight. She couldn’t settle in.

Mayer looked at her, looked at her guitar, sighed, smiled and said, “OK. Let’s get at some basics – tuning the guitar.”

“Mayer, I’ve got a guitar tuner, see? I just clip it on the headstock of my guitar here and it shows me if I’m out of tune.”

“Murina, that’s all fine as wine, but you also gotta know. Some things you gotta know here” and he patted his heart.

Murina could tell she was not liking where this was going, but she was still too polite to do much more than roll her eyes. So she sat and listend.

“Ok” Mayer went on. So, he took his own guitar played with the machine heads and then strummed the strings. “How’s it sound to you?”

“Pretty awful. It’s all screachey” Murina winced. Mayer could always make his guitar sing. What was he up to?

“Hmm.” He said as he fiddled with the machine heads and the strings again. “How about this?”

“Ugh” Murina muttered before she could edit herself. “Now it sounds all flabby.”

Mayer smiled. “So, check it out, Murina. A guitar is not going to sing with you if you tighten the strings too much. And it won’t give you any good vibrations if you loosen the strings too much either.  You and your guitar. Its all about tuning. Neither of you wants to be wound too tight or you will snap. Too loose and the vibrations aren’t right, you can’t resonate the harmonics. Tuning isn’t about seeing the green light on the tuner, it’s about feeling the harmonics in your heart. Not too tight, not too loose. And when you have it all in balance, if you just touch the string here, and strum ever so lightly, you can hear the voices of angels in the bells tones of the strings.”

“Murina, all change is tricky. Its white water – you gotta learn where the big boulders are and figure how to paddle around them.”

“You are your guitar, my little grasshopper of a student. As you walk around in the world, in the new world that you are growing into, if you are too demanding of yourself and others, you will snap like an E string on Charlie Daniels fiddle. If you sink too deeply into the land of ‘whatever’ you will too loose to find your vibe or to ride a harmonic. Strings, guitars, music, life. It’s about being in tune.”

Murina looked at Mayer, thought about what he said, “But it’s hard to stay in tune when the weather is changing. Sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s so humid. The strings keep getting tighter and stretching and I’m not doing nothing.”

Mayer smiled. He knew they were not talking about guitars anymore. “I know little darling. I know. You just gotten keep tunin’ in and  listening to the music of your heart. Go slow enough to listen, fast enough to strum and keep tunin’.”

It’s kind of like the Taoist practice of the Way. If you are too hard-working in your practice, you will strain your mind and become too tense. However if you relax your mind too much, then you will be overwhelmed by laziness. You must strike a balance in your practice of the Way, you must strike a balance in your life. (From Treasures of the Heart, by Daisaku Ikeda) 

Work for social justice and human rights can be – it IS daunting. As we engage in that work, we too need to strike a balance, to find a way to keep in tune.

A little Celebration of Mother’s Love

Some years back this was seen on the wall of a toilet stall:

         My mother made me a homosexual

And, below it was written in a different color in a different hand:

          If I give her some yarn, will she make one for me too?

More recently this story was found floating on the internet:

A little while back Robert’s Mother went to have dinner with  him at his new apartment. Robert was living there with his roommate.

During the course of the meal, Robert’s Mother couldn’t help but notice how handsome Fred, his roommate was. She had been suspicious about her Robert’s sexual orientation, but being a good mother she felt that he would let her know if and when the time was right.  But seeing the two of them together, they way they interacted and worked so easily together just made her all the more curious.

Over the course of the evening, as she watched the ease and the playful, caring interaction between the two she wondered even more if there was more here than anyone was saying. Robert, sensing his mothers watchfully eye looked at his Mother and said, “really Mom, I can tell what you’re thinking and you can just get it out of your mind, we are just roommates and nothing more”.

About a week later Fred said to Robert, “ever since your mother was here the silver serving platter has been missing, you don’t think she took it for any reason, do you?”

Robert thought about it and said, “Well I’m sure she didn’t. She would have said something, but I will email her and ask just to be sure.” So, he sent her this email: “Hi Mom. I’m not saying you did take the silver platter from the house and I am not saying you didn’t take it but the fact remains that it has been missing ever since you were here for dinner. Love, ever your son, Robert.

Then next day, he received this response from his Mother: “Dearest Robert, I am not saying that you do sleep with your lovely roommate, Fred, and I am not saying that you don’t sleep with him. You know I love you and could care less either way.  But the fact remains that if he was sleeping in his own bed he would have found the platter under his pillow. And, when are the two of you coming for dinner? Love, Mom”

 Ah, the times and the jokes, they are a changin’. 

Here’s to more family dinners that celebrate love in all its shapes, forms and sizes.

Pork, Sauerkraut and Why we cut the ham in half

Holidays and celebrations all seem, sooner or later, to center around and come back to food. At least they certainly did in my Polish Catholic family of origin. One of the MAJOR food traditions (and there were many), was that you MUST always eat pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s day – and you must NEVER eat chicken on New Year’s day.

As I was growing up, I thought this was a tradition unique (read idiosyncratic – which is polite for weird) to my own family. Then I found out that it is a widely shared tradition among Polish peoples, and is also common among many Eastern European peoples as well as a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.

My mom told me that you should eat pork because pigs root forward, and so if you eat pork you will move forward throughout the year, and you will make good progress. But, if you eat chicken, like chickens you will spend the year scratching out subsistence.

As I did some further research on the immensely interesting and important topic (read that as doing a quick google search), I learned that the green cabbage from which sauerkraut is created and the bountiful fat of pigs are taken to symbolize riches and prosperity for the coming year. The pig of course also represents progress for the coming year as a forward thinking and forward moving animal because it roots forward with its snout and all four of its hooves point forward. Also, many people from Slavic countries believe that eating the long threads of sauerkraut will nurture the threads of a long life – and now, modern science joins that belief with research about the probiotic properties of cabbage and of fermented cabbage.

Ah, food. And, all this writing about food reminds me of the addition practice in my family of buying a very large ham for any and every holiday, and then asking the butcher to cut the ham in half before you brought is home. For my father – and through him for my mother, the purchase of the very largest ham available and the cutting it in half by the butcher were as sacrosanct as eating pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s day. So, I had the story for the New Year’s practice, and even as I smiled, I could get my head around it. But why such a large ham? Smaller animals produced more tender meat – or so I thought. And why must it be cut in half? What special blessing did that act by the butcher impart? I just couldn’t puzzle it out. So, I asked my mother. She shrugged and said, “because that’s the way your father likes it done, and I’m not going to get into an argument with him over this on the holiday. So, I just do it his way.”

But, why? I wanted to know. So, I asked my father. And he said, “because that is the way your grandmother did it. She was a wonderful cook. When you find something that works, don’t rock the boat.”

Now, I knew that “don’t rock the boat” was one of my father’s favorite phrases when he did not have an answer and was not about to be dissuaded from his preferred way of thinking and doing things. So, I took a deep breath, put my coat on, and when over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house, and I asked her. Grandma started to laugh when I asked her. She said, “Sweetheart, I had eleven children and a husband to feed. I always bought the biggest of everything that I could afford. I had to if I wanted to feed them all. But, I had a small oven, and I did not have a very big knife, so I had to have the butcher cut it into a size that would fit in the oven. If I didn’t make a big deal over it, those boys of mine would come home with the ham in one piece and then I would have to send them back to the butcher and I would be here waiting while they took their time coming and going. It is about having enough and having it in a manageable size.”

Well, when I heard the reason behind the rule it all made sense. I then I started to laugh along with my grandmother, because there were only 5 of us in the house of my family of origin. A nice small ham would have been plenty.

And, I guess the moral of the story is that rules make sense when they make sense. And, then when they don’t it is time to let go.

Question everything! Keep asking until you understand. When the rule doesn’t fit, when it doesn’t apply, let it go and forge your own path and tradition. Here’s to a new year of understanding past practices and creating new ones of freedom fairness and joy!!