Where the light enters

finding meaning in mortality

Category: Moving Toward the Light

Listening to the universe

It seems that most people don’t keep in touch with their exes once they divorce or break up.  I guess I’m the exception; I stayed friends with both of my ex-husbands.  People may find this strange, but I happened to marry two really great guys.  My second husband and I were married for twelve years.  That’s actually pretty good considering the fact that we met five days before our wedding.

It’s a strange story that I don’t usually tell people, but it’s something that I find myself thinking about lately.  It all started in December 1995, when I was feeling pretty low.  I had been married to my high school sweetheart for three years after dating for seven, but somehow things had gone horribly wrong.  I was in school working on my bachelor’s degree, but otherwise, my life didn’t have much going for it.  I was seriously unhappy.

I had never been a terribly religious person.  My mother went to the local Methodist church every Sunday, but I think it was mainly for outward appearances.  She wore a completely different face in public than she did at home.  When I was younger, I went with her to church.  She had a terrible temper and was very apt to curse (mainly at me) for the entire drive to church, being careful to put on a “pious” smile when we arrived.  As soon as we pulled out of the parking lot after the service, her true personality returned, and so did the cursing.  As soon as I was old enough to understand what it means to be a hypocrite, I lost any interest I had ever had in church-going.

So when my life seemed to become hopeless, it was quite odd for me to speak to God.  But that’s what I did one night; I sat up in bed before going to sleep and said, “God, if you really exist, please tell me what to do to be happy.  I promise to do what you tell me if you just show me what that is.”  That night I had a dream.  I dreamed that I was getting married, although I couldn’t see the groom in the dream.  All I knew was that my friend, Nasser, had arranged the marriage.  And I was happy.  Very.  Very.  Happy.

Even when I woke the next morning, I was happy.  I hummed cheerful tunes all day, skipped to the mailbox at lunch, and drove to classes at night still feeling upbeat.  When I walked through the courtyard at school, I saw Nasser sitting on a bench, studying and eating vending machine cheese crackers.  I sat down beside him, stealing a cracker and popping it into my mouth before he could say anything.  I was very tempted to tell him about the dream, but restrained myself.  If it was real, it would happen without my forcing it.

After a few minutes of small talk about classes and exams, Nasser said, I have a nephew back home; I think you would make a great match for him.

I couldn’t believe this was actually happening.  If I hadn’t had the dream, I would never have listened to Nasser’s spiel.  But, after all, I had promised God that I would do whatever he told me, right?  So I listened.  And found myself writing to this nephew the very next day.

We wrote to one another for maybe a month.  The picture that he sent me of himself was disappointing when I first saw it.  He wasn’t smiling, and his hands were awkwardly clasped in front of the hideous shirt he was wearing.  His hair was unkempt and I thought that he kind of looked like a Middle Eastern Fred Flintstone.  And to top it off, he was standing in front of an obviously-fake backdrop of palm trees.  But I believed that the dream meant something, so I propped the photo up on my nightstand and looked at it first thing each morning and last thing each night.  It wasn’t long before the picture had grown on me.  I started noticing that the hands looked strong, and the eyes looked honest and intelligent.  And kind of sad.  At the end of our month-long letter writing, I was on a plane to Tel Aviv.

I can’t say that the month I spent in Israel’s West Bank was easy.  He didn’t speak an awful lot of English, and I knew exactly two words of Arabic (neither of which I could pronounce correctly).  Our wedding took place in a sweet shop, where I ate entirely too much kanafeh (which I hope to never see again).  A celebration took place at his parents’ house that night; women danced around me all night as I sat uncomfortably in the tackiest pink satin dress that his sisters could find.  The men danced outside; by the sound of it, they were having a blast, but I wasn’t allowed to go see.

By the end of the month, I was convinced that the dream had been prophetic.  God existed.  And he evidently wanted me to be happy.  Because I certainly was.

And we were happy for most of the twelve years we were married.  Things weren’t always great; mixing cultures and languages is hard.  But we hung in there until one strange day in 2008.

It seems petty (and quite possibly bat-shit crazy) to say that I divorced my husband because his scent changed.  But that’s pretty much what happened.  One day I noticed that he smelled different.  His normal scent had been replaced by a strange dark musty odor.  And with this change, the spell that he had over me was broken.  I suddenly could see him objectively, and for better or worse, felt that we were no longer compatible.  All the grievances I had with him over the years were now deal-breakers.

So we got a divorce, but we stayed friends.  I wondered about the dream and the promise I made, and what it meant that things had ended this way.  I did what God told me, and still ended up unhappy.  I was a cosmic failure.

He called me one day five years after our divorce and told me that he had been diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer.  It was early January, and he had only found out in October.  I thought, “He’s young (only 41) and otherwise healthy.  Maybe he can beat this.”  He said the doctors thought the cancer had begun five years earlier.  Around the time we divorced.  I started thinking about that, wondering if having cancer changes your body scent.  Evidently it does to a dog’s nose, but could humans possibly detect a difference as well?  When I told my brother this theory, he said, So you’re saying that you have the ability to smell as well as dogs?  As far as superpowers go, that’s pretty lame.

I went to see him shortly after the phone call.  He was very thin; I didn’t know if it was from the cancer or from the chemo he was taking.  They also had him on an experimental drug which he seemed pretty hopeful about.

On January 17, 2014, I had a dream (yes, another dream).  My ex was standing in front of me, looking young and healthy.  He said, I’m going back home.  I think I replied with something like, Oh, that’s great. I guess you’ll be getting treatment there.  I don’t remember the rest of the dream, or maybe that’s all there was.  Three days later, my phone rang after ten at night.  The caller ID said it was his uncle.  I didn’t want to answer the phone, but I knew I had to.  The uncle’s voice said, We lost Fareed.

I went to the funeral home the next day, but I felt completely out of place.  His mother, who had always been so friendly to me, pretty much ignored me.  Two days later, they flew his body back to the West Bank for burial.

Yesterday I found myself thinking about him without knowing why.  Then I realized what the date was.  For a while after he died, I talked to him.  Yesterday I talked to him again.  I apologized for leaving after his scent changed; whatever happened to “for better or for worse” (although in my own defense, that’s not a part of the Muslim wedding service)?

Fareed was a very nurturing person.  When my mother was dying, he would visit her every night.  Many nights he would simply stand by her bed and hold her hand; my mother might have been a less-than-ideal patient all day long, but the moment he appeared, she quieted down and a peaceful look would come over her face.  He was the only one who had this effect on her.  Lately, I’ve wished that he could be here for me when I haven’t felt well, even though I realize I was too selfish to be there for him when he was sick.

I still haven’t figured out why the universe hooked us up only to split us apart twelve years later.  Did we do something wrong?  Did God decide I didn’t deserve to be happy, after all?  With my own recent diagnosis, I think there might be some truth to the latter.

Some Hindus believe that everything in your life contains a lesson that you need to learn.  If you don’t learn the lesson in one life, you will be presented with it again in the next.  And the next.  And so on until you finally learn whatever it is the universe is trying to teach you.  At this point, I obviously have no idea what the universe is trying to tell me.  Evidently I’m not a good listener as far as cosmic conversations go.

But I honestly think I’m trying.  Several people close to me have died of cancer: my mother of breast cancer, my father of chronic leukemia, my grandmother of colon cancer, and my ex of stomach cancer.  Now I too have cancer.  There must be a lesson here somewhere.  Maybe I’ll be able to learn it in this lifetime.  Going through this over and over again in many different lives doesn’t seem like a good option.  So speak to me, universe.  Sooner or later, I hope to figure out what you’re saying.

A disappointing photo, but one that grew on me.


Drumming up some healing energy

I’ve always had an interest in drumming.  I learned the violin as a child, probably because my mother was more accepting of the noise a violin would make in a child’s hands than the sound of drums in… well, in anyone’s hands.  The violin was elegant from my mother’s perspective; she probably thought of drums as belonging to rock ‘n’ roll hoodlums or hippies (If you’re not already getting the picture, my mother was a very prim, straight-laced woman).  We also had a piano in the house which my mother played.  But despite her best efforts, I’ve always been drawn to the sound of drums.  Maybe it speaks to a primordial instinct within me, the drumbeat reverberating inside me almost like a second heartbeat.  I started taking tap dance lessons last year, I think in part because it felt as though I was beating a drumbeat with my feet (and also because I love the old Fred Astaire movies).

But after going to a benefit concert in November where there were several performers playing traditional drums such as the djembe and Native American hand drums (see my previous post), my interest in drumming has been renewed.  So on Cyber Monday, I took a leap:  I found a great deal online for a Djembe, which is defined as a rope-tuned, skin-covered drum played with the bare hands, originally from West Africa.  I was nervous buying it unseen since I don’t know the first thing about drums, but my fears faded away when it arrived.  The drum was lovely, and it had a nice resonant sound to it when I tentatively tested it out.  The poodle ran and hid the first few times I played it, but she eventually decided that it was safe to return (i.e. maybe mommy hasn’t entirely lost her mind), and now just lies next to me as I play, occasionally shooting me a questioning look with her big raised poodle eyebrows.

I found some great videos by World Drum Club on YouTube that provided me with my first djembe lessons.  I was immediately hooked.  Now I make sure to practice at least a little every day.  I’ve found more great videos to watch to learn new rhythms, and I’m contemplating working up the courage to join a drum circle.

As I googled information about the drum, I ran across some interesting online articles about using drums for healing purposes.  I found a good summary article on aboutreligion.  The article states that therapeutic rhythm techniques have been used for thousands of years to create and maintain physical, mental, and spiritual health.  It lists many different therapeutic drum benefits including the calming, focusing, and healing effects of drumming on Alzheimer’s patients, autistic children, emotionally disturbed teens, recovering addicts, trauma patients, and prison and homeless populations.  Study results demonstrate that drumming is a valuable treatment for stress, fatigue, anxiety, hypertension, asthma, chronic pain, arthritis, mental illness, migraines, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, paralysis, emotional disorders, and a wide range of physical disabilities.  One study cited found that group drumming actually increases cancer-killing cells, which help the body combat cancer as well as other viruses, including AIDS.  

I was excited, but skeptical.  How could something as simple as playing a drum have such beneficial effects on the body?  According to the article, one theory as to why drumming is so beneficial is that drumming permeates the entire brain.  Vision for example is in one part of the brain, speech another, but drumming accesses the whole brain.  The sound of drumming generates dynamic neuronal connections in all parts of the brain even where there is significant damage or impairment such as in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

I hadn’t realized any of this when I ordered my drum, but I had somehow sensed that creating my own energy through music might somehow help me.  I thought that not only would it help me relax, but maybe I could use it as a meditative device.  This idea apparently has some research behind it; a study by Barry Quinn, Ph.D., found that even a brief drumming session can double alpha brain wave activity, dramatically reducing stress.  The brain changes from Beta waves (focused concentration and activity) to Alpha waves (calm and relaxed), producing feelings of euphoria and well-being.  Alpha activity is associated with meditation, shamanic trance, and integrative modes of consciousness.

I definitely could use more alpha waves right now; having cancer is a seriously stressful situation to be in.  Not only is there the question of living or dying, but the stresses of the treatments themselves, the question of lumpectomy versus mastectomy, the financial drain (I have decent insurance, but there are so many things that aren’t covered, or are only partially covered), the inability to perform all of your job duties within the normal time frame, et cetera.   I would be very thankful for all the alpha brain waves I can get to counteract these stresses.  My monkey brain makes it hard to even sit for meditation on most days; maybe drumming will allow me to reach enough of a meditative state to return to daily sitting.

I feel thankful to the benefit concert for allowing me to see the possibilities of drumming up my own energy.  I will try to raise energy for my own healing process, and if I get good at drumming up energy, maybe I can eventually raise it for others as well.  That is, if the poodle can handle all the noise.

Seeking the simple life

Since I’ve been scrutinizing my priorities and goals in life, I’ve come to the conclusion that I would really like a simple life.  One that brings me close to nature with more frequency.  One that I can be more active and involved in, and full of little pleasures that I can savor at leisure.  Like watching the sun rise from my deck as I drink a hot cup of tea.  Or being able to watch the spring bulbs break out in profusion across a country field.

All of these things have made it seem even more urgent that I find a new place to live.  I’ve lived in a county west of Atlanta for eight years now (except for the one year that I lived in Shanghai).  I’ve never really liked this town or the overbearing neighborhood that I live in (complete with manicured lawns and neighborhood lawn-nazis making sure that everyone nukes each weed as it appears).

I’d much rather live somewhere that pesticides aren’t seen as a must-have arsenal against weeds such as dandelions.  Side note: did you realize how wonderful dandelions really are?  They’re lovely in my opinion, but their leaves are also quite nutritious, their roots are medicinal, and they even pull nutrients from the deeper parts of the soil up into the topmost layer so that plants nearby can more readily take advantage of them.  But the homeowners association where I live views them instead as a horrible blight to be removed at any cost.

These suburban neighborhoods, in their overzealous tidiness and symmetrical plantings, are anything but natural.  I long to escape this environment and relocate to a woodsy corner somewhere that I can relax and feel as though I belong to nature instead of fighting against it.  Somewhere that I can be surrounded by trees and animals and wonderful dark nights without glaring streetlights.

After looking online for some time, I discovered (or re-discovered) a neighborhood called Big Canoe in the north Georgia mountains.  Even though it is a gated community, its philosophy seems to fit with mine.  They value the natural setting and work hard to preserve it for its residents.  Eight thousand acres of trails, woods, and nature are tucked away in Jasper, Georgia.  No street lights.  No lawns.  No hideous lines of Leyland cypress.  No ghastly deformed skeletons of mis-pruned Bradford pears.  So I decided to take a look at some of the homes they have for sale.

We’ve liked what we’ve seen so far of the area.  Just driving around with our real estate agent, we’ve already seen several deer, heard stories of bears hibernating under people’s decks, and seen lovely lakes, streams, waterfalls.  Not to mention the gorgeous long-range views from many of its summits.

I haven’t yet found the perfect home, but I’ve found some good contenders.  One house that my boyfriend and I both like is up on the mountain.  Literally.  It takes twenty minutes of winding (sometimes scary) roads to get there from the front gate. Its driveway requires a four-wheel drive (which luckily, I have, but my boyfriend doesn’t).  Its decks hang over the side of a hill and the view is quite exhilarating.  But there is no place on this rugged slope for a garden.  I wonder: could I live in a house where gardening is not really possible?  Even if I am surrounded by a gorgeous canopy of natural wonders, would I be willing to forfeit my small gardens of herbs, vegetables, and flowers?

It will take some real soul-searching for me to find the answer to these questions.  I haven’t had the time or energy lately to devote to my garden; it’s been quite neglected this summer.  My boyfriend has fought valiantly with the thorns and weeds and the overgrown beds, but it’s a hot mess at best.  So at the moment, I could easily take a break from gardening, but once I feel better, I’m afraid that bug will bite me again.  And then what would I do if I had no garden?  And no chance of creating one except for maybe a few pots on the deck?

So I have some pros and cons to debate.  What are my must-haves, and what can I live without?  Finding the simple life is turning out to be not that simple.

Another not-simple aspect of this whole house-hunting thing is, of course, money.  The simple life is evidently not cheap.  I’m finding out that I should have socked away some serious cash if I want to move out to the country.

I also realize that I’ve never even financed a home before on my own, so this will be a huge challenge for me.  My ex-husband always took care of that sort of thing.  I was complacent and willing to be taken care of, never foreseeing that I would be alone one day, without the safety net of a husband or parents.   I should have been more responsible, should have paid more attention to finances and practical matters.  So here I am in my mid-forties wondering how in the world I’m going to make this happen.

I think living in the mountains will likely make my life more stress-free.  But getting there will definitely not.  I’ve never been a person who handles stress well.  Any small obstacle will send me into hand-wringing agonies (and I’m not really exaggerating by much here).  I obsess over small matters, lose sleep over miniscule wrongs, fret over perceived injustices.  So searching for, and financing a new home, is going to weigh heavily on me for a while.  Until closing is complete, and I have the keys in my hand, I’ll most likely be a basket-case.

And possibly even afterwards.  But maybe, just maybe, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.  A light that comes sneaking through the trees on the mountain, washing over my peaceful deck or patio, where I can finally sit and relax.  And finally have that nice, hot cup of tea.

Battling the thief of time

The 18th-century poet Edward Young said, “Procrastination is the thief of time.”  I must admit that I’ve been robbed by this thief more times that I can count.  How many of my dreams have been penciled in on the calendar of “one day”?  One day I will complete the first-draft of a novel.  One day I will organize a book-length collection of my poems and submit it to a publisher. One day I will buy a tiny farm and raise chickens and herbs.

After years of relegating the important things to “one day,” you wake up and realize that you’ve accomplished very little of what you always dreamed you would do.  I feel as though I’ve lost twenty years or more of effort that could have advanced me toward my goals.  Even if I had spent just five minutes each day of those twenty years working toward fulfilling my dreams, I would most likely be well on the way to realizing them by now.

The blog zen habits has a challenge for the month of September that aims to fight this thief.  And it only requires five minutes a day.  The rules of the challenge are

  1. Commit publicly (on social media, to your friends, family and coworkers, however you want) to doing this every day for the rest of this month.
  2. Each day, spend just 5 minutes doing an Unprocrastination Session (see next step).
  3. Pick an important task to focus on, clear away all distractions, set a timer for 5 minutes, and do nothing but that task.
    You cannot switch tasks during this session.  You cannot check on something real quick.  You cannot get up to clean something.  You can only sit there, with that one task, and either focus on the task or sit there and do nothing.
  4. When you get the urge to switch tasks, don’t switch. Just stay with the urge. Watch it, let it surge, then let it fade. Return to your task.
  5. When the timer goes off, success!  You can keep going if you want, or take a break and go again, but neither is necessary. Just 5 minutes a day is all that’s required for success.
  6. Yes, even do your 5-minute sessions on the weekend.  Pick a personal project to focus on during those days if you like.

It sounds so simple.  Just five minutes a day.  And yet I feel an evil hesitation in accepting the challenge.  What is it in my feeble brain that resists any effort in attempting to do what’s important to me?  Is it fear of failure?  Is it fear of success (because face it, success would open its own can of worms)?  Or am I just a supremely lazy creature who cringes at any intimation of actual work?

Whatever the reason for my hesitation, I am nevertheless accepting the challenge.   I hereby commit to working five minutes a day on putting together poetry submissions for possible publication (something I have avoided for many years).  There.  Now it’s public and I can’t pretend that I never agreed to it.   These five-minute sessions will be carved in stone on my to-do list for the rest of the month.  No.   matter.  what.

I’m not sure how much can be accomplished in five minutes a day, but I guess I’ll find out.  If you did the challenge religiously for an entire month, you would have two and a half hours of work under your belt.   Which is two and a half hours closer to your dream than you would have been otherwise.  Maybe in and of itself it’s not a huge step.  But from the point of view of building a good habit, it might be priceless.

If anyone out there would like to commit to your own five-minute Unprocrastination Session, feel free to let me know what your goal is by leaving a  comment.  And good luck in your attempt to stop the thief!