Tag Archives: gratitude

The Kindness of Strangers

We woke to a snowstorm this morning in central Maine. I could hardly wait to get out in it and walk. It was snowing hard and accumulating fast, coming down in heavy, wet flakes. I headed to work midmorning, maneuvering out of the driveway with some difficulty. The ground was already well saturated before this storm.

Getting out of the driveway is the hardest part of winter driving here. I’ve been amazed at how well the roads are taken care of in Maine, much better than the rural roads and streets in Colorado. Still, winter driving is winter driving, and I gave myself plenty of time.

I quickly discovered the paved road was every bit as treacherous and without traction as the driveway. There was a heavy coating of slush and no sign of sanding or plowing. If I went over 30 miles an hour I lost traction and I almost couldn’t climb the steepest hill on the way into town. I turned on my audiobook, sipped my travel mug of tea, and settled down for a slow and careful commute, wondering why the road crews seemed to be ignoring the dangerous conditions.

I started down a gently sloping hill with a shallow curve. One minute I was driving and the next I was floating. I was alone on the road. Nothing happened. I hadn’t accelerated or braked or jerked the wheel. I just started slipping across a thin layer of slush between the tires and the pavement, and I knew I wasn’t going to make the curve. I kept my feet off the pedals and tried to steer into the skid, but the tires might as well have been glass slippers, for all the traction they had.

I was very lucky. The side of the road was thickly edged with woody shrubs like alder and willow. I didn’t hit a pole, tree or fence, and I wasn’t going fast. I also didn’t land in water, a real danger here in Maine. I recognized the weightless feeling in the pit of my stomach and knew I was helpless, a victim of momentum. All I could do was sit tight and wait for the car to stop. I wasn’t at all scared. I had a seatbelt on and I was only coasting.

I’m going to be late for work, I thought, resigned.

The brush and bushes caught me neatly. I turned off the audiobook and engine, turned on the hazard lights, gathered up my keys, wallet and travel mug of tea — not a drop had spilled — and set out for the nearest house.

I was greeted by the baying of several dogs, the alarm calls of a pair of geese and a woman about my own age with very blue eyes. I explained, said I didn’t have a cell phone, and asked if I could call for help.

She was extremely kind. The dogs were contained somewhere while I waited. The geese eyed me balefully. When I stepped inside, the house was warm and a stove glowing. It was a typical farmhouse kitchen, cluttered, friendly, comfortable, filled with plants. She handed me her cell phone, introduced herself as Sarah, and asked if I was hurt. I reassured her I was perfectly unharmed, called my partner and called work. I was about to call AAA when she offered to pull me out with her tractor.

I dithered. I have a horror of being a burden or needing help. Why should this woman leave her cozy kitchen and go out into the snow and slush to pull a stranger out of the ditch? She told me to stop apologizing and pointed out that AAA would likely take a long time to respond, given the local conditions. We both wore heavy mud/snow/rain boots. She flung on an old yellow slicker and fired up the tractor.

The tractor couldn’t get any traction, either. It churned up mounds of mud and grass, but the chain wasn’t long enough to allow it to pull from the pavement, and she came close to sliding sideways into the ditch, just as I had done.

At this point we’d both been lying on the slushy, muddy ground hooking up chains, the snow was coming down in wet clots, and the narrow rural road we were on was extremely hazardous. Sarah took the tractor back and returned with “Tank.” Tank is an old-fashioned heavy farm truck, painted in camo and looking indestructible.

Tank couldn’t pull me out, either.

During all this, everyone who went by stopped to ask if we needed help.

The snow turned to heavy rain.

We went back to the house and I called AAA.

I wanted to wait for the tow truck in the car, but Sarah wouldn’t hear of it. We could see the car from her kitchen window. We were both wet and muddy to the skin. We sat at the kitchen table and talked about our sons (her two and my two) and what we’d done with our lives so far. Every car that went by mine either slowed or stopped. We were so worried that someone else would go off the road or my mishap would cause another accident, we put a note on the car window saying Nobody hurt. Waiting for tow truck.

About an hour later a big tow truck pulled up. I thanked Sarah from the bottom of my heart, put my sodden coat back on and went out into the pouring rain. There were two young guys in the truck. They considered the problem, walking around the car in their heavy boots and the bulky waterproof gear all the working men seem to wear here. They decided the only way to get me out was to pull me sideways back onto the road. I was shivering by that time. I got in the driver’s seat, rolled down the window (I could hardly have been wetter), and prepared to follow directions.

While they were working the road was effectively blocked. A big pickup truck came along, pulled into the center of the road behind the tow truck, and turned on his hazards.

They pulled this way and that. I went from neutral to park and back again. I braked when they told me to. The rain ran down my face and neck and under my coat and other clothing. Branches scraped across the car. The winch whined. Mud and slush churned. A few vehicles waited patiently. We finally got two tires on the road. They got behind me and told me to accelerate nice and slow. I did so, they pushed, and the tires found the pavement again.

I thanked them wholeheartedly. I waved to the kind and patient human being who blocked traffic and kept us all safe.

This morning in Maine there have been many, many accidents, including a flipped-over school bus, snowplows off the road, jackknifed trucks and people like me sliding into ditches, power poles and other cars. There have been cancellations, delays and detours. We are warned of flooding. This afternoon and tonight we expect freezing rain. The storm is not over, but my adventures for the day are. I crept back home three hours after I left it, shivering, wet and exhausted, and promptly got stuck in the driveway.

How do we thank the strangers who brush against our lives and lend a helping hand? I’ve never known. A simple thank you seems so wholly inadequate. Still, what else can I say? What about all those anonymous strangers who help in ways we never know about, or come and go so quickly we don’t even see their faces? As an old first responder, I know how essential traffic control is, but I don’t know if the driver who shielded us and stopped traffic was a man or woman. I suspect everyone’s plans were disrupted this morning, but people slowed and stopped to make sure the driver of the car in the ditch was not injured or needing help. Treacherous roads, blinding snow and then rain, a dark November day, and ordinary men and women willing to assist in spite of it, willing to leave their warm firesides and kitchens, willing to climb out of their dry, cozy vehicles, willing to do what they could for a stranger.

These are the darkest times I’ve seen in America in my lifetime, but this morning my faith in humanity was renewed. A series of strangers helped me when I was in need, and because of them I’m back home, safe, dry and warm. I’m grateful. I also know that all over the world people are practicing small acts of kindness all the time, ordinary people going about their business in neighborhoods, communities and at work. This post is for them.

Thank you for checking to make sure a stranded driver is okay. Thank you for answering a stranger’s knock at your door. Thank you for offering a cell phone or other means of communication to someone who is stuck without the ability to call for help. Thank you for helping direct or block traffic so further accidents don’t occur. Thank you for being patient when an accident holds you up. Thank you to all those first responders, tow truck drivers, utility company workers and the other hundreds of thousands who are there with tow chains, chainsaws, shovels and tractors when the unexpected happens. You might be doing your job, but thank you anyway for your smiles, your kindness, your expertise, your willingness to contribute, your difficult and often risky work, and your humanity.

My hope lies in all of us who do what we can in our little corner of the world. The simple, humble kindness of strangers may, in the end, save us.

Needing the kindness of strangers. My daily crime.

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Lessons From Tai Chi: Meditations on Moving

After years of interest, last autumn I finally found a Tai Chi teacher. I approached learning Tai Chi with hopes and expectations about the benefits it could provide, but I was unprepared for the depth and complexity of the power of the practice and how important it would become in my life.

Photo by Mark So on Unsplash

Tai Chi is a form of Chinese martial art intended to teach defense and support health. It’s a multilayered practice, elegantly complex. Learning the gross motor movements is only the first baby step. One layer is connected to and leads to the next. Tai Chi is not a linear activity to learn from beginner to mastery, but a dynamic, fluid practice best approached with humility every time. It’s constantly challenging in new ways, depending on what my state of mind and spirit is on any given day.

The Tai Chi I practice is called 24 forms, all of which gradually blend into one smooth, flowing whole with practice. The forms have delightful, poetic names like The Crane, Windmills and Clouds.

Tai Chi is about finding one’s center, physically and emotionally (layers) and building the strength and balance residing there. In order to facilitate this, one crouches slightly with bent knees throughout the whole routine. This is obviously quite challenging, and for some people impossible. However, with proper foot position, body dynamics and a crouched stance, we can immediately feel the solid, stable center that is the core of every Tai Chi form. Crouching for long periods of time immediately informs us about the strength of our ankles, knees, hips, hamstrings and quadriceps, information we might not otherwise receive as we move upright through the world.

Crouching assists with balance because it lowers the center of gravity. Many people take up Tai Chi to support balance issues, in fact. Several forms require balancing on one foot or another with the supporting knee bent. This, too, can be unexpectedly challenging. Once again, our body has a story to tell that we might not otherwise hear as we move normally. I’ve always been aware that I have sloppy posture, but I’ve been habitually lazy about doing much about it. Tai Chi demands that I stack my bones on top of one another and tuck in my tailbone. If I don’t do that, I can’t balance. I notice that I now move through the rest of my life standing tall, with more grace and confidence and better posture. I don’t slump, crowding my lungs and abdominal organs. I don’t tilt or lean. I know where my pelvis is and I stay over it. My back is happier. I feel better.

Every movement counts in this practice. Each foot is placed just so in order to support a fully centered crouched stance. Shoulders, wrists and elbows stay in line with several of the forms, which necessitates holding arms straight out from the shoulder. My arms ached for months as I built strength, and I’m a strong swimmer who works out in the pool once a week. One form requires placing toes down and heel up, and another the heel down. At times we turn on our heel, and at other times our toe. In one form we turn one foot on the heel and the other on the toe at the same  time. Everything about Tai Chi leads me inward on a spiraling journey of deeper focus and mindfulness.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

It’s amazing to practice over time and begin to feel the forms smoothing out into a cohesive routine with some kind of elegance and grace. Such fun and so rewarding. Then, however, the instructor started to talk to us about our eyes. It turns out every form requires a very specific eye gaze, often on our hand movements. I was doing well with balance, but when I took my gaze off the middle distance and looked at my hand in front of my face, I lost my balance. This was advanced balance. I added in the appropriate eye gaze and started all over again with balance.

Then, the teacher began to talk about breathing. Crap. I hadn’t even thought about my breathing! Breathing is connected to energy, and Tai Chi was originally a practice for working with energy as well as defense. All the forms have to do with pushing, pulling, deflecting or defending. Now that we had some mastery of the physical challenges, we began to work on feeling our field of energy and moving it with our bodies and breath. A push is an exhalation. A pull is an inhalation.

Breathing then leads to pace and rhythm. We practice Tai Chi to meditation music — very slow. Balancing on one leg is not so hard when you do it for two or three seconds. Balancing for sustained periods of time, especially with a bent knee, requires a lot more strength and, well, balance! Every movement takes far more concentration when slowed down. This is one of the few activities I’ve ever done where the goal is to slow down. We seem to be running faster all the time, overstimulated, overscheduled, multitasking, trying to earn more money, perpetually on call via technology. We’re all in pursuit of … something. What? Does anyone ever find it? Is it worth the cost of the chase?

Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash

Tai Chi demands we slow down. In that slowness we discover our fatigue, our aches and pains, our half-healed injuries, our distractions and our distress and unmanaged feelings. We remember our center. We recover our balance. We make time to breathe.

Some people call Tai Chi a moving meditation, and I now understand why. When I’m practicing Tai Chi, I’m not doing anything else. When I’m walking or swimming my mind goes right on with whatever it’s busy with. Those activities are good for creative inspiration, prayer and processing feelings. Tai Chi, though, takes me to a deep, restful, quiet place of no thought, focus and present mindfulness, so rich and so empty. It opens the door for awareness, too, of the degree to which I’m captive to distraction. The instant I’m distracted by a sound or a stray thought, I lose my balance and center, I lose my breath, I lose the flow and I don’t know where I am in the forms. I think of myself as fairly focused, but I’m just as susceptible to distraction as anyone else, and I don’t want my life to become an uncontrolled blur of noise and stimulation in which I forget there’s anything but distraction. Tai Chi brings a precious and necessary balance into my days.

All these layers have brought health and healing into my life, but the greatest grace Tai Chi brings me is the opportunity to be in the body. I’m saddened by the ever-more strident body politics in our culture. I don’t remember a time in my life when it seemed so many people were locked in self-hatred and hatred of others based on some kind of physical characteristic. It reflects in our suicide and addiction rates, and it touches each one of us. We no longer honor the sacred feminine and masculine, we have few invitations to fully inhabit ourselves physically, and no one encourages us to honor and respect our physical form as it is.

Just like dance, Tai Chi calls us home to ourselves. My home is not nipped, tucked, plucked, lipo-suctioned, dyed, shaved, made-up, compressed, surgically reconstructed or uplifted. My home is my oldest friend, my most loyal companion, the loyal record keeper and diary of childbirth, breast-feeding, menopause, a lifetime of Colorado sun, slipped kitchen knives and barbed wire fence. My home is lines and wrinkles, lumpy thighs, softened breasts, grey hairs and thinning skin. This amazing, adaptable, resilient, hard-working body is the shelter and haven for my spirit.

I often move a chair aside, open the windows, take up the sheepskin rugs lying on the wide plank floor in my attic space, shut the door at the bottom of the stairs, turn on music and take off my clothes to practice Tai Chi. I like to look down at my bare toes and toe ring on the sloping grey-painted floorboards. I like to glance at my strong knees and make sure they’re in line with my heavy ankles. I like the gentle slope of my belly, cross-hatched with silver stretch marks, under which two children grew into life. I like to stack my bones carefully, tuck in my tailbone and feel the subtle realignment that opens up my center and my balance. I like the clench, pull, stretch and relaxation of my muscles. I like the combination of strength and loosening skin and flesh as I move my arms. I’m grateful for the ability to breath deeply, and the ability to sweat. I relish the air coming in the windows and touching my bared breasts.

We started with a large Tai Chi class, and over the weeks and months people dropped out, one by one. I suppose for some it wasn’t a good fit. For others it wasn’t a priority. Still others were discouraged by their physical limitations, in spite of the fact that the instructor was and is eager to modify the practice to accommodate anyone. One lady had trouble with balance but was unwilling to stand next to a chair for safety and support. Others were ashamed of their weight, their muscle weakness and/or learning a new thing in public. It made me sad. I think many would have benefitted if they could have moved past their shame and self-consciousness, and if they’d been willing to work with their physical reality instead of resenting and arguing with it.

Our Tai Chi group is small now, but we’re good friends. We laugh a lot. We learn from one another. We greet and part with hugs and affection. We enjoy the music; share our distractions, worries, aches and pains and support one another in centering, grounding, calming and mindfulness.

I’m entirely grateful.

My daily crime.

Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Making An Offering

The seed for this post was a podcast by Pat McCabe, also known as Woman Stands Shining, who is a Diné (Navajo) mother, grandmother, activist, artist, writer, ceremonial leader and international speaker. In the podcast, she speaks about the idea of making an offering as part of our spiritual work.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

That idea started me thinking about offerings, what it means to make one, to whom we make them, and why. Spiritual and sacred practices are a strong theme in the trilogy I’m writing, starting with The Hanged Man. Mother’s Day has come and gone and Father’s Day is ahead. Many of us mark these days with offerings of some kind. For Earth Day, I joined a small neighborhood group and picked up trash, and I framed that activity as an offering. Yesterday I cleaned up my summer-only dance space and danced there for the first time this season. As so often happens, during that hour of dance this week’s blog crystallized.

An offering is “a thing offered as a gift or a contribution” according to a quick Internet search. A gift is “a thing given willingly to someone without payment.”

The act of making an offering is ancient, a practice we began long before we could go out and buy a gift. Various cultures have historically engaged in ritual sacrifice (an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or to a divine or supernatural figure), an altogether different degree of gift from a cute coffee mug.

I’ve long struggled personally with gift giving. There’s something in me that resents and resists the cultural mandates we’ve created to give gifts of a particular kind on certain occasions or days of the year. It seems to me modern-day gift giving has moved away from making an offering and into a demonstration of possessing money and spending it on some new piece of something, just for the look of the thing. We may feel real love, or gratitude, or whatever, but the only way we know how to express it is by buying a card (never mind the trees) and some kind of a gift.

I know that’s how we do things, but what does it accomplish, aside from contributing to our capitalist economy? Is that what we most want from the people in our lives — more stuff — or is that what we take because we can’t get what we really want? Is a coffee mug all we think we have to offer? Is a coffee mug all we think the other will accept? Are we unable to recognize and cherish an offering unless it comes gift-wrapped?

Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash

I’m thinking a lot about Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, because I’m writing about her in my second book. (This began before the recent trouble in Hawaii.) Traditional offerings to Pele involved tobacco, brandy, silk, crystals, tropical flowers and food. Offerings to Pele and other divine figures around the world involved ritual, prayer, music, song, dance and sometimes a sacrifice. Things, yes, although many were objects from the natural world, but also time. Presence. Creative, sensual and/or erotic expression. Community celebration, guided by spiritual leaders. Reverence. Appreciation. Gratitude. Acknowledgement of the Divine’s connection to the people and the natural world they inhabited.

Making an offering on this level is a demonstration of commitment and willingness to participate in the complex web of connection between people and nature. It’s a practice, not a one-time event. It’s flexible and not limited to the calendar or the clock. If there’s a community or individual need to speak to the Divine, time is set aside to do so. No money or commerce need be involved, because the offering is of self.

The offering of self, however, is often invisible, especially to our nearest and dearest. It’s so fatally easy to take one another for granted. The very act of feeding those we love is an offering we’ve been making and accepting since humans began. The acts of growing, harvesting, gathering, hunting, sharing and preparing food, absolutely necessary for survival, are almost obscured now by money and time constraints, ecological concerns, health issues, ideology and who does the dishes. Whether we recognize it or not, feeding another person is an offering of life. Parents know that making that single offering to just one child, let alone other family members, is a colossal, exhausting, unending task. Yet it’s so often completely invisible, and who has time to enjoy the act of offering food to another (or ourselves, for that matter), or incorporate ritual, play or creativity into our eating? It’s just another chore in our busy days.

So, if our offering is invisible, unrecognized, unappreciated or even rejected in favor of something like a coffee mug, does it mean we’re worth nothing, we are nothing?

Of course not, but it feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it?

Making an offering means letting it go into the world and having faith in its worth. An offering is a gift, and a gift is a thing given willingly, without payment, remember? There isn’t a scorecard. It’s the practice of offering that enriches our spirit, not the outcome. Unfortunately, everything about our modern culture trains us to depend on immediate reinforcement. We’re hooked on likes, claps and our stats. We gloat over the number of our friends, subscribers, comments and shares. Deadliest of all, we compare our popularity and performance with the popularity and performance of others.

What others think about us and how the world perceives us is becoming more important than our own integrity and the authenticity and quality of our offerings. We’re forgetting how to trust and have faith in silence, in invisibility and in not knowing. We’re forgetting that our worth is not defined by others.

We’re forgetting that our worth is not defined by others.

What about the offerings we make to ourselves? What about our ability to meet our own needs,  spiritual, physical, creative and emotional? Do we have any self to give ourselves? Do we tell ourselves there’s no time, no money and no point? Do we tell ourselves that whatever our self-expression is, it’s not worth anything, meaning we can’t sell it to someone or no one will approve of it?

Woodshed

I danced yesterday in an old woodshed that was attached to a local one-room schoolhouse more than 100 years ago. It leans and tilts. The roof leaks. The windows and doors aren’t square and the wind blows through gaps. I swept out the winter’s accumulation of mouse and bat droppings, leaves and dirt. It was a warm, sunny day and as I danced I gradually peeled off my clothes until I was naked. The sun came in the west window and made a square on the floor.

I thought of trees and stones offering their bodies to moss and lichen, the earth offering itself to plants, and blossoms offering themselves to sunlight and insects.

I thought of smiling into a stranger’s eyes and complimenting a cashier on the color of her blouse.

I thought of the creators of the music I was dancing to making an offering of their talent, enabling me to offer my dance.

I thought of homes, rooms and gardens I’ve created that are long erased. I thought of people I’ve loved with my whole heart and volunteer work I’ve done. I thought of my partner, who was running an errand in town so I could eat bacon the next morning. I thought of picking up trash on Earth Day and the new trash that’s been thrown out car windows since then, and how futile that makes me feel.

I thought about words, all these words, all these stories and ideas and thoughts in my head that are here, and on Medium, and in my books. I thought about all the words written by others that I read each day and appreciate, share, clap for or comment on.

I thought about procreation, the red tide and the milky seed our bodies offer to life, to hope, to continuance. I thought about offerings of tears, of blood, of pain, of rage and of surrender.

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

Offering is a circle. Life offers itself to us, and we can choose to offer ourselves to Life. What better offering can we make than our fully engaged participation and presence with ourselves, our experience and others? Such a gift can’t be bought or sold. It might not feed our fame, popularity or bank account. We probably won’t get validated by statistics or Twitter. Some people may never recognize or value it.

But our self-esteem will bloom. Our joy will increase. Our words and choices will add to the positive energy in the world. We will become self-empowered and spiritually strong and resilient.

I smiled and laughed and shouted as I danced, whirled and stamped and clapped. I offered up my white, winter-tender skin to the sun and air. A mosquito bit me on a knee; a blood offering. No one saw me, except maybe an astonished spider or two. No one cared. It was an offering of self to self, a private thing. It gave me joy. It gave my body a chance to move and be grateful. It fed my creative well.

It was nothing.

It was everything.

It was my offering.

Thank you for reading.

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted