Thursday, January 31, 2008
The Usefulness of Emptiness
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
Thus tools come from what exists,
But usefulness comes from what does not.
Though thirty spokes may form the wheel,
it is the hole within the hub
which gives the wheel utility.
It is not the clay the potter throws,
which gives the pot its usefulness,
but the space within the shape,
from which the pot is made.
Without a door,
the room cannot be entered,
and without windows it is dark.
Such is the utility of non-existence.
Chapter 12: Open to Everything, Attached to Nothing
Colors blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.
The Master observes the world
but trusts her inner vision.
She allows things to come and go.
Her heart is open as the sky.
Friday, January 25, 2008
I mean, it is, but she isn't getting any older.
For better or for worse, that part of her life is over.
So, in reality, this is our first January 25 without Abuela.
We knew today would have its challenges, so Tita sent out an email suggesting everyone honor Abuela's life by planting a tree or a rosebush, "something permanent, something that grows...."
That's what my Mom asked me to do.
And I'm not gonna do it.
Life is about letting go of everything.
Every single thing that is born and grows, will die.
I will not plant a rose. I will not plant a tree, I will not shake a single seed onto the dirt.
I refuse to take responsibility for another living thing which I might leave, lose or kill.
So here is Plan B.
It's a tougher plan, but it's mine and I'll own it.
When Abuela came to New Orleans from Cuba in 1960, she didn't powerwalk.
She didn't eat salad and vegetables ("hierba!? mierda!") and she smoked cigarettes well past her 40th birthday.
Abuela was happy -- but she wasn't healthy.
She came from a culture of nightclubs, maids, boats and chaperones to New Orleans.
Her exercise habits in Batista-era Cienfuegos, Cuba included walks on the beach, nights out dancing, strolls in the neighborhood. Abuela's America was not a place she felt safe walking the streets.
The woman was strong, energetic, stubborn and witty. And she loved to eat.
She would eat anything, joyfully.
Her doctors were always warning her about her cholesterol and blood pressure, but she didn't worry.
Abuela wasn't a worrier.
She ate what she wanted, enjoyed it, and found pleasure in every minute.
Abuela is my model of joy and lightheartedness.
We laughed together, all the time.
Although I have learned a lot of from Tata from her about how I want to lead my life, I will not lead my life the way she did.
I promise right here and now that I will take much better care of my body than my grandmother did.
I watched her die over several years, I saw her pain.
I will not follow in her footsteps.
I know exactly how I want to leave this world.
I have seen the day, quite clearly.
I am old but strong; alone but loved.
I will be sitting on cool grass, leaning against something wonderful like an oak tree.
Maybe I'll be praying.
Maybe I'll writing.
Most likely I'll be doing both.
The sun will be on my face, there will be just a few clouds in the sky.
I will close my eyes and sigh.
No diabetes, no heart attack, no stroke, no back pain.
None of the things that plagued Abuela.
First came her high blood pressure, then the diabetes, then back problems.
Or did the back problems come first?
Or was it the hysterectomy that started the cystitis?
I can't remember, but I do recall her feet always hurt. Her back always hurt.
Then, what was it? Maybe a heart attack? Then sciatica?
And all the while, her sugar was up, down and all over the place.
In another time and place, Abuela might have lived a healthier more active life.
Or she might have lead a shorter, more painful life.
That doesn't matter, because the truth is she lived in America, land of chocolate chip bagels, insulin shots, McDonalds and Pollo Tropical.
So today, Dear Tita of Mine, obedezco pero no cumplo.
I am NOT planting a tree. Or a bush. Or a rose.
I am planting one big seed in our family whose vine will bear abundant fruit -- I'm planting the seed of health.
Healthy thoughts, healthy actions, healthy food.
I know, it sounds nuts.
But that's what I am taking on for myself, and -- Dear Tita -- that is also what I'm planting for you.
Happy Birthday Tata!
Have all the cake you want!
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
And that isn't a coincidence.
My job as writer -- and professor -- is to help *other people* figure out their own politics, not to feed them mine.
But, OK, I'll tell you a few things I believe today, only if you promise to remember that all things are always changing and I might see things differently tomorrow.
I make the same promise to you.
I've always thought of myself as an independent, but one who leans to the LEFT on some issues.
For example, in class I've said "What government can even attempt to regulate things that GROW out of the ground? And if that government starts making some crops illegal, wouldn't it want to make poison ivy illegal? yes? Well, why hasn't it??? Can they maybe do something about jellyfish too???"
Our forefathers -- at least the ones who wrote the Constitution, not the ones who were hogtying women & throwing them into lakes while proclaiming "if she's a witch she'll float!" --- intended us to experience maximum freedom from government.
They knew something that we seem to keep forgetting.
Any attempt at imposing one single morality upon millions of rational people won't work.
Our Constitution writers would never have understood or tolerated a government that wastes precious time and resources regulating difficult decisions made within the presumed privacy of physicians' offices.
Our first President warned against foreign entanglements, but the march of US business around the world has lead us to become enmeshed in the world's issues.
Like it or not, the US is militarily involved in places that we have a responsibility to stay until the job is done. I'm not sure what the JOB is, but I have full faith and confidence that we will have an honorable ending to these conflicts.
And since all things are always changing, I don't believe that ending our current conflicts mean that other conflicts won't rise up and require our attention.
Oh, and one last thing.
Immigration Policy is inextricably bound to Foreign Policy, so any simplistic "close the doors" or "open the doors" ignores the reality that we are a nation that interacts with the world by exchanging many goods -- including human capital.
Well, up until TODAY (thanks to Mary, my lovely sister in law who sent me this link) I really thought I leaned LEFT.
And, since I'm spilling my political guts here, I kinda had my heart set on Richardson.
He has the background, the experience, and dammit, I want my president to speak Spanish so he and I can maybe stand in the back of the room and whisper secrets.
Sadly, I can't give Richardson my vote next week.
Since I'm registered Independent, and Florida has "Closed Primaries"(what? only Democrats can choose the Democratic candidate? What's democratic about THAT?) I haven' spent much time examining the candidates because really there is no reason to get attached anyone I can't later vote for.
Now, thanks to ABC's Match-o-matic, I won't have to do any more research on candidates.
I just clicked on the link, answered some pretty straightforward questions, and it told me my THREE TOP CANDIDATES.
Dear Mom, before you read any farther, please know Hillary isn't on this list. I didn't do it on purpose.
Dear Governor Richardson, LO SIENTO~ call me!
1) Mike Gravel (who the f*?)
2) Mike Huckabee (as far as religious men go... I could MAYBE vote for Dr. Wayne Dwyer... but Huckabee makes Jimmy Carter look like a mix between Reagan & Kissinger!)
3) John McCain (OK.)
Thank you, ABC for shattering the imagine I held of myself as a left-leaning independent.
God Bless America, and the media which shapes us.
iClickers have been a fantastic tool because I can immediately gage their understanding of key terms and ideas and figure out if need to backtrack or keep plowing forward.
Oh, *and* I get to write funny things.
Here are my tow favorites from this semester, so far.
On the first slide -- more than 70% of the students responded "B."
Responses to this one were scattered across the board, but "A" won out by about 10%
(I call him Culito)
standing between presents
from last week's tenure celebrations.
Zoita Maria with her grown up teeth coming in...
Here is Zoe throwing a birthday parade for Zack....
can you believe he'll be 4 next week???
Everyone in crowns!!
Me and Zacaroni... and his most favorite pink bear named Jake.
thank you Danny....
You are the king of all that "power tool" stuff and my kids love you SO much that have written your name on the garage floor with my favorite Sharpie....Oh, and are you ready to tackle the Laundry Room? Yes?
Friday, January 18, 2008
Thursday, January 17, 2008
On January 16, 2008 at 12:30-- ten years after finishing my Ph.D. -- I had the official meeting to officially be notified that the Dean is officially recommending my official application for Continuing Contract (translated: TENURE).
I am far too zen to say this is "good" or "bad" but I am quite sure that I am wholeheartedly content.
Being a woman of great balance I decided to keep things low key.
I didn't even think about letting my 1:25 class out early, just to celebrate.
After class, on the day that I got this momentus news, I went to Walmart for a long-overdue oil change.
I think I was due back in October... but that month was a bit stressful. http://laughingmelissa.blogspot.com/2007/10/all-there-is.html
Then I might've gone in December, but I spent half that month travelling up and down the state in rental cars. http://laughingmelissa.blogspot.com/2007/12/happy-first-day.html
And for the last two weeks I've been up and down and crazy with beginning of the school year stuff.
So anyway, on this particularly rainy and cold day, I brought the car to Walmart.
The nice man took my keys, gave me a receipt, and told me to go shop for about 30 minutes.
Some people love shopping.
I loathe it.
I will not buy myself a winter coat.
I will not buy new glasses.
I do not like looking at packages of raw meat.
But I did as I was told, and wandered around, tossing paper towels, Caprisun and chocolate chip mint ice cream into the cart.
When I made my way back to the "Car and Gun" section of Walmart, my car wasn't ready so I sat in their little waiting room and listened to cellphone conversation between an orange haired woman and her friend.
I didn't take notes, but it went something like this.....
"Yes. We're in Florida. I don't know where... it doesn't look like Florida.... I swear I'm going to kill Larry..... No, no, we've been in that trailer for 47 days.... we'll be up your way next week.... Larry won't stop talking. He will not. He talks to everyone. To waitresses, to these Walmart people..... he has lost his mind.....oh, and I went into Miranda's bank account. $204. That's all that was left. It was like she knew.... no, no she didn't pay any of her credit cards.... no, no insurance..... (sigh) I could do that.... like a garage sale.... we don't want her stuff anyway....."
I don't really want her to know I'm listening, so I start shuffling through my purse, looking for the receipt the nice man had given me when he took my keys.
I looked in the zipped back part where the Bobbi Brown Pinkie Brown lip color and Peach Lip Shimmer live. Nope.
Not in the middle, where the keys, pens and gum live.
Not in the front part, where there is this rumbled and torn check....
A check? THE CHECK!?
Yes. The Check.
I bit my lower lip.
Then my upper lip.
Then I hugged myself with one arm, and took a deep breath.
I found the check.
The one Abuela gave me, dated June 23, 2007, $200.
Yes, a check from my Cuban refugee grandparents.
I know. I know.
I am a grown up with a house, job and kids, but my grandparents "insisted" on paying for the rental car.
As she was about to hand me the check, Abuela pulled it away and waved it in the air, "Do NOT lose this! You PROMISE you will NOT lose this?"
I stomped my foot, suddenly a twelve year old again. "Ay Tata! I will NOT lose this check, I PROMISE you."
She wagged her finger at me, "I remember you lost that check before...."
"Well, this is DIFFERENT!" I kissed her on the cheek, and snagged the check.
"Where are you putting it? Don't LOSE it!"
"I'm putting it in my laptop. It will be safe there...."
So I put it in the outside pocket of my laptop case, then moved it to my jeans, where it went through the laundry.
I then took it out of my jeans, put it somewhere and promised myself I'd mail it back to them so that Abuelo's bank statements would not be off.
In my head, I composed a witty note letting Abuela know that I had followed her directions and had -- in fact! -- NOT lost the check by depositing in a bank... in fact, I have been so obedient that I have kept the check with me at all times, making sure to follow her very specific directions.
I knew Abuela would laugh and it would be all just fine.
But of course, that didn't happen.
So, while getting my oil changed, on the day that I got tenure, I sat at Walmart and began to define the word "bittersweet."
Zoe has had a marvelous nine weeks, and continues to be a very involved student.
She is quite a fluent reader who comprehends well.
Zoe's creative writing skills are superb, and she adds much detail to her journal.
Zoe is always willing to assist other children in the classroom, and she compliments them as they master new skills.
Many thanks for sharing such a wonderful little girl!
(Signed, Zoe's Teacher)
Monday, January 14, 2008
I have some VERY important writing to do.
If I want tenure, I need to submit a huge portfolio.
Which I haven't written.
This morning I snuck into the Dean's office and asked, "My letter, the portfolio, the case for tenure, the one that's due January 15... is that a *firm* date?"
He gave me this look like "Soldani, the woman who is always 10 steps ahead, are you seriously looking for permission to be behind?"
I bite my lip, praying for an extension.
Maybe I can stay here all night.
Maybe there is something that will suddenly make my brain feel like sunshine again.
"Wednesday. First thing. Soldani. Go. Write."
So I leave his office, come back to my wonderful space, and sit in front of the blank screen.
Suddenly I don't even know if this is real.
What IS tenure?
What does it MEAN to be a professor?
WHO am I?
That makes me laugh.
I know who I am.
I am Melissa, tired.
I am almost ready to cross the next finish line in my life and career, but I'm distracted by the illusion of disappointment.
Yes, the illusion.
Things are not how I wish for them to be.
But they are perfect.
And within that perfect and eternal changing, there is only love and peace.
That, I know.
Why? Because instead of writing, I've been reading.
Chapter 29: Tao Te Ching (Lao Tzu)
The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Zoe looks up from the table where she is coloring with Isabella.
"I knew that. You didn't know that?"
I cross my arms, absolutely dubious, but a better person that to embarass my daughter in front of company.
"Really?! You could see all the way up there to that corner of the top shelf? Amazing job, Spy Girl."
The girls giggle and go back to whispering.
Minutes later, they are outside in my fenced back yard, riding their bikes in circles.
I know they think they're ready to ride around the block unsupervised, but I'm not ready for my daughter to assume such freedoms.
Maybe I'll get a bike, I think, maybe I'll take my daughter for rides down hills, through leaves.
But not yet.
I'm not ready for that, yet.
The girls tolerate my strictness because I throw them little parties.
Sometimes I cut muffins up and stick little toothpicks in them.
Another time, we threw a spaghetti feast for the two of them using the silver I found in a box in the attic.
And so, because I have again limited their freedom, I bring them a snack tray.
Carrots, strawberries, crackers, and apple juice in plastic wine glasses.
Walking out the door, I remember to grab the fish food.
My poor fish hadn't been fed since before Thanksgiving.
I wonder if they worry, if they freak each other out.
Where oh where is the Food Goddess?
Will she come today?
Will she every come back again?
She's forgotten us!
We shall STARVE!
Oh, what did we DO to anger our Goddess of the Golfish Food?
Perhaps the universe is using me to test their faith.
I am the Goddess Provider who floods their lake, fishes out their dead, sprinkes food and planted a nice shade tree for comfort.
Clearly, I provide abundantly.
Not consistently, but abundantly.
I love my fish.
Sprinkling food over Lake Melissa I muse about the spiritual and emotional lives of my goldfish.
I pray they do not know worry.
I hope they live in a safe little world of peace, abundance, joy and freedom.
The ego steps back in, and I announce to myself that I would never change places with the fish in their little fish worlds.
They cannot imagine the clouds, the stars, the universe.
They cannot meditate on the glorious connection between all things, eternally.
They cannot imagine a future bigger than now.
They they cannot be architects of their own blessings and miracles.
Preparing to further lose myself into a trancendentalistic moment, I closed the little jar of goldfish food and crossed my arms, shifting my weight to a more formal Mountain Pose.
And as I did that, I stepped right on the dead branch of a rose bush that I'd pruned the week before.
A thorn broke off in the sole of my foot and I was shocked right back out of the universe, back into my backyard where two first graders sat on a picnic blanket, eating carrots and strawberries.
I hobbled back into the house, thanking my creator for that swift and decisive kick, for telling me to stop wasting time thinking about forever, reminding me to move back into the here and now.
Either that, or roses are mean.
I just knew I would find peace that way.
After three or so minutes of standing outside, alone, crying, a shooting star caught my eye.
Maybe it was a sign.
But if so, it was the wrong size because it didn't make me feel even a tiny bit better.
I went back to the sofa, back to the kleenex, back to holding a pen on top of a closed notebook and beating myself up for not thinking any happy funny thoughts.
It is 8:20 on Sunday morning.
I know this because I keep staring at the clock through my tears, kicking myself for not being in front of the computer, writing.
I have deadlines, obligations and responsibilities.
My big portfolio documenting the case for tenure, along with the letter requesting tenure, are due.
I haven't even *begun* them.
I've been at the starting line, waiting for a gun to blast "Go!" but it hasn't come.
And then I went for more coffee, the two children trailing me like tails on a comet.
I bury my face on my arm on the counter and keep crying.
"What IS it, Mami?" Zoe asks.
I bend down to where she is, perched on my big blue yoga ball, kicking her feet in the air in front of the stainless steel refrigeratior.
"I'm tired, honey. I'm tired of Abuela being gone, tired of pretending that everything is OK, and I'm through with her being gone. I want her to come back. Because I love her. And I know I shouldn't feel this, but I just, I mean... I'm ....tired ....OK?"
Zoe keeps eye contact with me, nodding her head and wiping my tears with the back of her hand.
"Well, she isn't coming back anytime soon, got that? Am I right?"
"Now wipe your tears (she hands me a teal napkin left over from her birthday party) because we all can't cry every time we feel sad. Right?"
I stop crying and give her my undivided attention.
"If we all just sat around sad about what we don't have, no one would get anything done, and then no one would have anything at all. And that's not OK. Right?"
I sniff and mop my face, grateful for her strength.
"And Mami? Maybe it's time to take a good look at your attitude. We can't get everything we want in life, but we can keep our thoughts positive. Right??"
I bite my lip hard, almost finally smiling.
Friday, January 11, 2008
I've been teaching.
The first week is crazy.
It was crazy when I started teaching college in 1994, and it's still crazy now.
And I have these cute new jeans which totally distract me from writing.
Oh...and my portfolio officially requesting tenure is due Monday.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
Out of habit, I pat my pockets to find my cellphone.
It isn't on me.
I stand still for one second, unsure of whether to go right out the door or head back in the house to hunt my phone down.
I don't turn back in.
Time passes too quickly with children and bikes and cool January evenings, so I march out the front door, intent on admiring my daughter's skill and bravery.
There is a half-drinken (half-drunk? half-full? half-empty?) carton of Budweiser beer bottles ON MY DOORSTEP.
BEER. ON. MY. DOORSTEP.
At first I think it might have been a student.
Some of them know generally where I live ("out past Chiles") and I can imagine a drunk dare of leaving beer and running away.
I would think they would know I prefer wine, but maybe it might have been one of the more absent students.
Anyway, I was flattered.
Then I had a much better thought.
It is late in the day on January 5, so I realize what MUST be going on.
Three Kings came to my house.
I know, they should come at dark.
And yes, I should have TECHINICALLY left my shoes out.
But I did leave some jacaranda in a cute pot.
That must have pulled them up the hill to my doorway.
And then, maybe jetlagged and perhaps disoriented after a real big shakedown and short detention and interrogation in an undisclosed location, the Three Kings brought a case of beer to my doorway.
And then, um, some deer must have gathered around them, curious about the camels.
At that point, the Three Kings chose to defend themselves by hurling beer bottles at the woodland creatures.
I haven't seen any deer or Wisemen, but I in my heart I know that I am right.
And I also know that those poor tortured Wise Men must have been confused because I really don't drink beer without steak, and I have no steak.
Anyway, I leave the bottles outside, pushing them behind the pillar so that the neighbors won't see what's going on and get some crazy ideas about Cubans, Wise Men, beer bottles and camels ruining the neighborhood.
Later, after the sun has set, I find my cellphone out on the table in the back deck.
One missed call.
Oh! It's from my missing friend.
You know who I mean?
The one who has been knocked down by another wave of double grief after just getting off her knees from unspeakable sadness.
"Hi. I got your texts and your messages. I'm not in that happy place where I can talk yet. But I left you some beer. You should answer your phone. Bye."
I laugh at her courage for coming up from air, and continue getting the kids through the evening, convincing them lasagne doesn't have worms.
We eat hot buttered rolls and toast each other with the leftover non-alcoholic champagne we didn't drink on New Years because the three of us were alseep by 8:40pm.
I will answer my phone, my friend, after I take the kids for a walk in the park to look for deertracks and listen for bears.
I promise myself to spend this walk in prayer.
I will bring the case of my friend's grief to God, to wave it in Her face and demand She shower my friend with buckets of joy, sunshine, diapers and baby bottles.
Oh, I have to remember to ask God -- while She's listening -- if She could please send some steaks to my doorstep, to go with the Three Kings' beers.