Archive for August, 2009

A flat tire changed me

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

It’s Sunday. A good day to express gratitude if you take a traditional approach to these things. Actually, I take time every day to be grateful. It is part of my spiritual practice.

I have a lot to be grateful for this week. For one, I started a new job at the beginning of the week. In a job market that has more than 12% unemployment, it’s no small thing. That the job is actually a good fit for my skills and something I’m interested in is even better. As if that is not enough, the company culture, the benefits and not least of all, my boss and fellow employees, are all wonderful. I’m exceedingly grateful for this job.

But beyond that, and all of the friends and family who populate my life, I want to express gratitude for the California Highway Patrol who stopped when he saw I had a flat tire last Monday night. I had pulled over on a difficult stretch of the Interstate through the Sierra Nevadas where I could not even get out of the car to look at the tire. He reassured me and stayed behind my car until the tow truck arrived an hour later to change the tire. He said it was no big deal: he was just doing his job.

I don’t know about you, but most of the time I see the highway patrol, I get nervous. Why that should be, I don’t know. I rarely exceed the speed limit by more than 5 miles an hour, and I have a valid drivers license, car insurance and registration. I’m not a criminal. But for some reason, cops have made me nervous since I was a kid. Maybe it has something to do with my parents’ admonition when I was young that “if you’re bad, the policeman will come and take you away.” That was pretty scary for a little kid. I guess the fear stuck. So much of what we hear as children dominates our belief system for the rest of our lives. It makes it impossible for us to listen to reason sometimes.

Maybe this blog is about fear more than gratitude, but I think it’s about how an act of common decency can go a long way to change deep-seated limiting beliefs. Actually, it’s just about how silly some of those fears are. We all have them.

Because of the unfortunate incident of a flat tire, I have an altered, and more balanced perspective of something I’ve feared my whole life. Wouldn’t it be great if all of us could have an opportunity to examine our fears and find them unsubstantiated long enough to experience a different viewpoint?

If nothing else, it’s Sunday. Think about it.

Another Woodstock Relic

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

A recent New York Times article celebrating the 40th anniversary of the three days of Peace, Love and Music in Bethel, New York, in 1969 surprisingly drew a lot of nasty comments Most of the negative criticism and “get-over-it-already” attitude appeared to be the opinions of those aging baby boomers who didn’t attend.  They are either still harboring a 40-year grudge that they missed it, or else they are the same uptight crowd that give us baby boomers the evil reputation (among younger generations) of being greedy old bastards who are hell-bent on destroying the economy and the planet.

I’m one of the relics, a leftover of the 400,000 or so who made their way to Yasgur’s farm to spend three days and nights listening to the premier musical artists of our day. What we found when we arrived was something even more amazing, and that’s one reason we’ll never forget our experiences. It’s the stuff that cultural legends are made of, a story to hand down to future generations. I’m sorry if the uptight crowd still thinks we were a bunch of unwashed, drug-addicted, sexually depraved hooligans. I’ve lived another 40 years as a contributing member of society and I’m going to tell my story, if you care to stomach another version of the Woodstock legend. Those three days changed my awareness, all for the better:

It took a couple of weeks to convince my boyfriend to come back from his summer job in New Hampshire to accompany me to what was being touted as the music event of a lifetime. Eventually, he gave in and we purchased tickets for all three days. I don’t remember exactly what they cost, but I do remember it was a hefty sum for two teenagers in those days. The irony, of course, is that when we got there, so many people had shown up, that tickets became irrelevant.

Neither of us had a driver’s license, so we bummed a ride up to White Lake with some high school friends of mine. About 3 or 4 miles outside of the festival, the two lane highway had turned into a massive parking lot headed one way to the festival. We got out with my friends’ camping gear and walked the rest of the way. It was the first time in my life I can recall walking that far. It seemed like such a great distance for me, spoiled and pampered as I was at the tender age of 17.

There were a lot of people even on Friday afternoon before the concert started, and as the evening turned to night, more people kept showing up. I remember the opening act: the rough urgency of Richie Havens’ voice and guitar, and then Melanie, young, slender and pretty, who later immortalized her own memories of looking out from the stage into an ocean of hopeful young people as we lit matchbooks and candles in the rain. When I saw her years and years later performing for free on a beach in Florida, the crowd broke out the cigarette lighters, shining like stars in a sudden downpour. I filled with my own sudden downpour of tears. I was older, Melanie was a plump, aging hippie with two grown daughters, and it seemed like Love, Peace and Music was a dusty concept to brush off and air out at concerts performed by has-beens.

Many wax ecstatic over their memories of Woodstock. Like the old joke about the ’60s…”If you remember them, you probably weren’t there,” I have my doubts about the validity of most of these reminisces. After all, most everyone was high, and they are all 50 years old or more now. I can barely trust my own memory, and I wasn’t stoned that weekend. What I do remember, besides the thirst, the hunger, the heat exhaustion, bug bites and waking up in a cold puddle of mud was the sheer power of almost half a million young people spontaneously coming together to celebrate life with a collective free spirit that had never been seen in such magnitude.

Without hearing many of the groups perform that I’d come to watch, I begged my boyfriend to help me find a way home on Sunday morning. Painstakingly, we hitched rides one after another until we got to New Jersey, and from there we took a train to New York City. As we passed a newsstand in the bowels of Penn Station, I saw this headline on the front page of the Sunday New York Times…”300,000 at Folk-Rock Fair Camp Out in a Sea of Mud.” A 5×6 aerial photo showed the stage in the right bottom corner and the rest of the frame was filled with tiny dots, somewhere among them my own. Like 100s of thousands of pinpricks of light, we had come together in a galaxy of peace for one brief weekend in time.

I was paralyzed with a feeling like pride, and realized that I had just been part of something significant. I had, for the first time in my life, experienced something much bigger than just myself. It took many years for me to begin to understand how we are all a part of one another, something a lot of people who came to Woodstock that weekend already seemed to know. Still, it was a start for me, and though I wish I’d been less self-absorbed at the time, I could not help but take away a seed of understanding that germinated and grew long after we left the festival behind.

Peace be with you,

Long live the spirit of Woodstock 1969: Peace, Love and Music

Whose Suffering Is It Anyway?

Thursday, August 6th, 2009


In the final days of my cat, Natasha’s life, was human comfort or feline comfort my priority?

Already a spectral presence, frighteningly thin, weak, and silent, my dying cat took up residence under the bed exactly far enough from either side that she could not be reached. I lay on the floor, my arm outstretched towards her as far as possible, begging her to please come out where I could stroke her. Those great liquid eyes stared back from a place I couldn’t go, a place where pain and exhaustion took her when they became her new mistress. It was a contest I couldn’t win.

I cried to her to please not die under  my bed where I couldn’t touch her.  Again, those big, empty eyes turned towards me at the sound of her name: the end of her tail flicked. I still don’t know whether her tail registered happiness that I was near or annoyance. Like most of my species, I needed to believe my life made a profound difference to hers.

In the end it did. I chose to stop her suffering prematurely…and mine. Always the supposedly good human, I had to take control of her death as I’d always had control of her life.

I have to remind myself now of the times when I was sure I made a happy difference in Natasha’s 16 years, of the affectionate head butts, the late night snuggles, even the cold shoulders I received when I was away too long: the rejection that seemed to say Hey Human, pay more homage to your cat next time!

For the last two-and-a half years of Natasha’s life I measured every day in 100 ml dosages of the subcutaneous fluids I painstakingly administered to her, giving her failing kidneys another 24 hours of usefulness and another day of the pleasure of my company. Eventually the fluids strained her failing heart.

Did she want to live? Did she want to die? I’ll never really know, will I?

In the end the decision was a human one. The only feline input was the big void of her eyes staring back already near the other side of life, the place we humans have a really hard time with. I pleaded with her not to die under my bed, and finally when her weakened body couldn’t fight me off, I overpowered her and whisked her off to the vet for a professional analysis of what I already knew.

Did she want a quick release from her suffering, or was it human suffering I was more interested in ending?

I only know her suffering presence is gone from under the bed. For me now, imprinted in my mind’s eye is the slender, regal gray cat whose whole tail shuddered with joy, I’m certain, the moment I entered the room.

We humans  interpret the world so full of our own importance.