Deference? and Gratitude

When we got home that night, I asked my husband, “Did you notice that they were treating me with deference?”

He said, “Yes.”

We’d spent the late afternoon hours of tea time with our meditation teachers, and their extraordinary toddler, Lily.

I’d had a painful and frustrating underground journey from Saint Pancras station to Earl’s Court, where our teachers live; one of those frequent tube malfunctions that you take in stride – unless you need the lift; and the breakdown is the lift, in fact, all the lifts, because all the electricity in the station suddenly went off.

So I was in considerable pain, leaning heavily on my cane, when I arrived. Our teachers had never seen me look quite so affected by pain, and the worried look on their faces was touching, but also embarrassing. I assured them that I was all right as I asked for the water to take the painkillers the moment I sat down.

I was still aching two hours later, even after taking pretty strong painkillers , when we made our way to the Union Chapel where Tom Paxton was giving his last ever concert in London. Fortunately, we arrived late enough not to have to stand in the queue, and we found seats close to the stage. It was a perfect last concert, Tom’s voice as full and rich as when he started out all those years ago. He was going out in style, and I wept shamelessly through most of it. I felt drained afterward.

Yet by the time we arrived home, after midnight, greeted by our hysterically happy and hungry dogs, and had fed same, I was wide awake, elated by a wave of love and memory of the fifty years Tom was part of my life; and surprised but more or less happy to know that our teachers hold me in such esteem. I felt deep gratitude for the love and respect I felt in their company and tenderly delighted by Lily, with her devastatingly direct and real affection; and her happiness in her innocent ability to accept and love us as we were.

Unattachment – 50 years getting there

Today, at the age of sixty-eight, I think I’ve finally, finally, finally, learned the value of unattachment; have finally “got” why and how it helps us on a spiritual path. At last I comprehend that unattachment isn’t avoiding involvement or discomfort. It isn’t uncaring or distancing oneself. Rather it is the tool for experiencing life, especially difficult or complicated situations, with compassion and concern but without judgement of other people or oneself; and, thank God/dess, without soul-scorching pain.

Today I learned that no matter how compassionate and caring you are; no matter how calm and comforting; no matter how careful and precise you are with words; there are people who neither understand nor want to understand what you are doing for or saying to them.

Today, I let go of someone whom I hoped was a friend; whom I loved and supported; but who, now, several years after we met, neither needs nor wants what I offer. As usual, this sudden realization was a long time coming, and, as usual, it began with an incident that was mundane, surprising, petty and confusing. After a frenzied exchange of pretty much useless messages that lasted less than a day, I decided simply to drop it. To let it go. I felt completely and absolutely mystified, struggling to find words; she seemed irrational and unable to get what I was saying. It was pointless. The blinding flash in my brain late last night was, “Stop it. Just stop it.” So I did.

Today, this was the discovered lesson: Unattachment to outcome makes life changes bearable. Though the process had saddened me deeply (I had cried while writing e-mails), confused me, and frustrated me, when I accepted; when I sighed and said out loud, “This is what is supposed to happen,” as opposed to what I wished would happen, the pain and confusion stopped.

So today, finally, after fifty-four years, I observed myself letting go without could-haves, would-haves, maybes or any other self-recriminations. I say fifty-four years because, when I was fourteen –I remember this vividly– and stretched out on my bed weeping uncontrollably, my dad knocked and came into my room.

He asked, “Anna-Marie?”

I nodded. “She said she doesn’t want me to be her friend any more.”

Daddy looked at me for what seemed like minutes. He had warned me about her when he met her, but he didn’t say I-told-you-so. What he said was, “You’re too willing to help people. Girls who need someone find you and they take what you give. But they’re never really friends. You’ll be hurt a lot in life if you don’t learn to be more careful.”

He could have gone on to list about half a dozen girls who were my constant companions for a time, sometimes months, sometimes years; then just disappeared as suddenly as they’d appeared. He could have told me stories of his own painful experiences.

But what he said was, “Most people never even have one true friend in life. If you find that one true friend, you’ll be very lucky.”

My mother was more practical and ruthless. “She hurt you. She rejected you. You don’t need her. You’ll meet a lot of people like her, and you’ve gotta’ learn how to spot them.”

It seems pretty pathetic that it’s taken me almost 60 years to learn this lesson. Mama would say that it’s because I’m hard-headed; I got that from my father. Daddy would say it’s because I wanted to help people, and I had no instinct for self-preservation.

What I say is that I am grateful for having finally learned the lesson. Grateful for understanding that unattachment fosters forgiveness. And grateful for my lifelong friends, riches beyond all imagining, because I have many, not just the one my dad hoped I would find.

I do wish that I knew how this episode was assimilated by the other person. What filled her messages were anger, fear, defensiveness, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, vengefulness, disappointed expectations. . .  But these are immediate and emotional responses. I wonder what the longer lasting effects will be. But I will never know.

Gratitude: The Grace of Lifelong Friendship

 teacher whom I respect and admire posts daily on Facebook a list of “Appreciations”  — a spiritual practice of public gratitude for the graces and joys in her life. As she intended, many of her friends and students are now doing the same.

My practice is more private: Every morning I go over the day before, thinking of both gifts and challenges of the day just past. I often have those thoughts of what I could/should have said; or what I could/should have done. But the past is the past, and the best any of us can do about our mistakes is to learn from them and not repeat them. Usually, however, the gifts and graces far outweigh the problems and “off” days of my life.

I have been extraordinarily blessed all my life.

My parents were extraordinarily loving, fair and strong, in spite of the “scandal” of divorce that still shocked people in 1957.  They were completely devoted to their children, and never once spoke ill of each other nor made my brother or me feel we had to chose between  them.

I was fortunate in the education I received, in California public schools which at that time (pre-Proposition 13) were the best schools in the country, including the University of California Berkeley, consistently rated one of the top five universities in the world.

I was less fortunate in being brought up in a misogynistic, guilt- and fear-driven Catholic Church; but I realized that the core of that form, the Presence of Christ during the mass, is the only thing that really matters, and the rest is useless to spiritual life.

Both of my marriages, the first in my late twenties, with a man I’d met at Cal; the second in my fifties with a man I had described perfectly thirty years earlier and sought for all those years; have been full of love, grace, laughing and crying together. And they are cordial friends, the men of my past, present and future.

But the most amazing blessing, the most enduring relationship and deepest, soul-connected companionship has been with my best friend, Jo. She laughs, and my heart sings. She weeps, and my heart aches.  

We have known each other, been friends through thick and thin, through highs and lows, through indescribable pain and through unbridled happiness. We have grown from spiritually restless, desperately seeking teenage girls in a small-town high school  to women of both material-world abilities and successes, and spiritual awareness and depth of understanding. I cannot imagine my life without her.

Jo

Jo

We both turn sixty-five this year; she is four days older than me. We discovered, years after we met, that we were also born in hospsitals just a few miles apart. A star danced . . .  Since then she has given me more than I can even articulate. From our meeting, we shared the depths of our political and social awareness together, just us, among age-peers who were completely oblivious to the outside world. She introduced me  to Quaker philosophy and practice, which form the core of my path to spiritual discovery and every growing awareness. I supported her at her wedding; she supported me at mine (both of them). Yes, she laughs, and my heart sings. She weeps, and my heart aches.

So I think of her every day when I do my self-reflection. I think of my other friends, too; they are all very, very dear to me.  But Jo has been there longer than anyone else; we know each other at a level so deep we can’t articulate it in words. Our connection is JUST THERE, always.

Jo and me at my wedding to Ian

Jo and me at my wedding to Ian

Acting with Soul

Over the past year or so, I’ve been re-connecting with friends from my Berkeley Rep days, twenty-five and more years ago. The quest to do this began with a benefit performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company, given by their “long term” company for a member who had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. The solidarity of the company, clearly forged by the deep work they had done together, brought memories flooding back to me of the extremely tough times the Berkeley Rep had in the early ‘70s, and the similar deep connections formed among the company  through those experiences.

This coincided with my studying to be a Spiritual Companion, and set me thinking how I might, as a Spiritual Companion, be of help to actors in their work. I haven’t formulated this yet, but am still working on the idea.

I have always thought that theatre can be a sacred event; that actors and audience can connect on the intangible level where consciousness meets heart. And, like Michael Leibert, who founded the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I’ve seen that actors do their best work when they’ve been working together as a company for a long time, a couple of years, at least

I also agree with Michael that the purpose of theatre is Truth. If what happens on stage is true, then “it works.” If it isn’t true, it “doesn’t work.” When actors reach that inner source of creativity and bring it to the physical–the voice, the body, speaking, movement–that is Truth. And that’s when the audience is lifted up and experiences that Truth with the actors. That’s the transcendent moment. A sacred event.

Many of those moments washed over me during this benefit performance. Here is what I wrote to an actor friend several days after the show.

I’m just getting back to “normal” after an exhilarating afternoon last Sunday. The emotional memories I had then were what got me started thinking about the old days at the Berkeley Rep.

Preface: The Royal Shakespeare Company sign actors up for a minimum of two years in an ensemble. They work together for the two years,  “as cast” in all the shows. Stratford is not a big city, so they probably are in each other’s pockets a lot of the time they’re not working, too.

We went to a benefit on Sunday for James Gale, a member of the company who has leukemia. The ensemble got together and did a couple of hours of songs, dance, magic, etc. and auctioned things like an opportunity to work backstage for a day and help run a show.

The audience was full of actors, so it got wonderfully raucous at times. Man, what a treat to be in an audience that really participated with those on stage. English audiences are so sedentary and non-responsive in general. What really hit me in my solar plexus was the fullness of the affection these people had for James, that it was not one iota part of the acting. We were all crying together when the emcee read the note from James at the end of the show.

Before the show, actors circulated with red buckets to collect change from the audience. We had paid only £10 for the tickets so I decided to put a fiver in the pot. I looked at Sam Troughton, a young actor who is doing Romeo right now, and played Brutus last season (and, of course, as cast in other shows, including “Gentleman” and Dion in Winter’s Tale).  Seeing him in the crowd, I realized he’s only about 5’6″ or so. His presence is so big on stage, I’d thought he was at least 6′ tall.

I smiled at him and waved my fiver, and he came over. I told him that his stage presence far outstrips his physical size and he was pleased. We chatted for about ten or fifteen minutes. He’s bright and he’s very good, in a small family dynasty of actors. (If you get the recent BBC Robin Hood, he played Much in it.) His dad, David Troughton,  is an actor, and his grandfather, Patrick Troughton, was the second regeneration of the Doctor in Doctor Who, among other roles. Anyway, we talked about interpretations of Hamlet, and about my seeing his dad in Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic, and how his dad was brilliant in it and how Kevin Spacey was disappointing. [He “played” old instead of inhabiting the role. Disconcerting, to say the least.]

Sam is about 28 or 30 years old, I’d say, and I told him he ought to try to play Hamlet in the next couple of years.  He said he wishes his dad would do Lear soon. I said that his dad should play James Tyrone. He didn’t know the name; I had to tell him the story line of Long Day’s Journey into Night. So he’s going to go find the play and read it. I commented that he was very smart, signing on for two years with the RSC right after doing the TV Robin Hood, when he could have gone for the money in TV. He said he was very lucky to work at the RSC and that he knew how lucky he was. Got his head screwed on very straight. It felt good talking theatre again with an actor who knows what he’s doing

Anyway, they raised over £7,000 on the one afternoon. Not bad, but they project that James will probably not be able to work for about two years after the marrow transplant, so I think there may be more benefits.

As I say, seeing the company actors outside both before and after the show, having that sense of connection, was a real upper. Made me remember those times at BRT when Mitzi and the rest of us “admin” people postponed our salaries so the actors could be paid. Difficult days, but also joyful in the work people were doing on stage and the friendships forged there.

Friends in Spirit

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about friends, the meaning of friendship, the immense influence friends have had on me, and the possibility that I might have influenced them, too. This mutuality is the basis of friendship, isn’t it? Sometimes one is talking, talking, talking, while the other is listening closely; other times the roles are reversed. Yet the mutual sense of connectedness drives the relationship and keeps it living.

I decided a while ago that I want to give a “graduation” gift to the members of my spiritual companions training course. Closing gifts are a long-standing tradition among theatre people; that only just now popped into my mind; perhaps that’s where the seed of this idea was planted. Whether it is or not, the intuition to mark the occasion with a memento is strong.

But what to give? At first I thought I could make something for each person. Well, yes, I could make earrings for each woman; but then what could I make for the men?  These are not  cufflinks type of guys, nor are their ears pierced. Well, maybe a book for the men. . .

Then I woke up suddenly one night from a deep sleep, feeling that I needed to read Musings of a |Mediocre Gardener again. I’ve read it many times, since it first came to me as self-published, photo-copied booklets, three in all, from their author, my friend of forty years, Dori Dana Hudson. The clear, direct, simple language of her writing belies the profound and deeply spiritual nature of her reflections.

Dori was, in fact, my inspiration to take the spiritual companions training. She became a minister in her fifties, something she had wanted to do for a very long time. She took the plunge, and I admired her for having the courage. Her leap inspired me to jump off the cliff, too, and trust that God would hold me up.

Reading her book, on the train, on the way to see a play in London, I was again brought to tears as I read; and her messages had even more meaning and truth for me than ever before. I was suddenly certain that I had to share it with everyone in my spiritual companions course.

But something else happened. Reading the book reminded me of the deep spiritual connection I have always felt with Dori and, to a lesser extent, but still important, to her husband, Rob. From the day we met, in June, 1971, I knew we would be lifelong friends. (I also knew that Dori and Rob would end up together and said so.)

To be honest, I cannot remember when we last saw each other in person. I remember the visits, but not in any time order. Driving across country, my then-husband and I stopped to visit Rob and Dori and their baby son Andrew in Louisville, Kentucky. (Andrew is now a grown man, graduate of Fordham University, and out in the world.) And Dori and Rob came to San Francisco for a visit once. I have a photo of Dori crossing the arched bridge in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

Even without the face-to-face presence, I still feel a deep, strong connection with them, an outpouring of love, of gratitude for their presence in my life. Our souls keep in touch.

Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

So closely interwoven have been our lives, our purposes, and experiences that, separated, we have a feeling of incompleteness –united, such strength of self-association that no ordinary obstacles, difficulties, or dangers ever appear to us insurmountable.                                        –Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were arguably the founders of the modern women’s movement in the United States. This is a quote from Stanton about her friendship with Anthony.

Found in the book, 365 Reflections on Love and Friendship, publ. Adams Media Corporation, 1998.

Friendship and Spirit

A friend is someone who leaves you with all your freedom intact but who, by what [s]he thinks of you, requires you to be fully who you are. –John L’Heureux

Books by John L’Heureux include poetry (Quick as Dandelions, Rubrics for a Revolution, No Place for Hiding) and numerous novels.

If you look really hard, you can find copies of Picnic in Babylon, his journal of his last three years of seminary before ordination as a Jesuit priest. (He later left the priesthood.)  Of all his books, this one’s my favourite because it makes me laugh and think at the same time; and the books he reads are fabulous. He enjoys women writers– Flannery O’Connor, Muriel Spark, Doris Lessing, for instance.  He also reads Carolyn Kizer, one of my favourite poets (see Mermaids in the Basement).