Fifty Months


Dear Persephone,

You are fifty months old today. To celebrate we counted to fifty together.

The month got off to a rough start. You had a couple severe meltdowns while playing with friends. You’ve not had big issues with sharing before, so hopefully that was just a phase.

We read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. That took about a month, reading a chapter most every night before bedtime. Sometimes we split long chapters in two. Though it’s clearly aimed at children, I would say it’s the most adult book you’ve read so far. There were some concepts that were new and I daresay a little disturbing to you, such as overt classism or an orphaned child starving on the streets with no one to care for her. It was frankly kind of heartbreaking to behold you encountering such harsh possibilities for the first time, and I seriously considered shelving the book, saving it for a year or two. But we toughed it out. All for the best I think.

Now we’re reading Prince Caspian, which is closer to your speed. Last night I was amazed that you’d already identified Nikabrik as “a bad dwarf,” even though we only just finished chapter six. Granted, the clues are pretty obvious, but you’re only fifty months old after all. What was even more astonishing was the way you put it: “My brain is killing me.” You meant that you kept thinking this thought to the point that it was aggravating. I can relate! Perhaps you’ve inherited my hyperactive mentality. That lead to an interesting discussion of how we can moderate mental events. I pointed out that you generally can’t force yourself to stop thinking about something. But if you “step back” and observe, it tends to help.

Speaking of books, there’s a popular one called Hunger Games which has just been made into a movie. You saw a picture of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen drawing back a bow and exclaimed: “It’s Artemis!” I used my phone to post your remark on Twitter, which is a popular social media service, and as I did so I read my post to you. The problem was that I’d specified Athena rather than Artemis. You swiftly corrected me. Which just goes to show that you know your ancient Greek mythology better than me now.

Some weeks ago I instructed you to say “Send in the clowns!” if your hear someone say something silly in a serious voice. Then I forgot about it. But you remembered, and you used it on me. I forget what I was saying, but it was well-played on your part.

On a similar note, here’s a transcript of a conversation we had last week:

Me: “Are we a part of Mother Earth?”

You: “Yes but we’re a funny part.”

Me: “A funny part?”

You: “Yes because we can forget that we’re a part of Mother Earth.”

I was about to fall out of my chair until you reminded me that you were repeating back something I’d said myself a couple weeks ago. Still I hope you can hold on to the idea.

One day, after a discussion of what meat is, you swore you were going to be a vegetarian from now on. Your resolve did not last, however. You ate some chicken a few hours later. Given how many vegetarian friends we seem to have, I won’t be surprised if this comes back up again later. I wouldn’t mind going back to a vegetarian diet again, but I think your mother might have different ideas.

On April 12 we celebrated Yuri’s Night with some friends and neighbors. It was a trip to hear you lecturing us about Yuri Gagarin.

Last week you announced that you want to get married to one of your pre-K classmates, a boy named Joshua. His qualifications? “I’ve never played with him.” Hopefully your standards will elevate with time.

I can’t close without noting one of the most touching things you said to me this past month:

Dada, once I see you I sort of smile, and I don’t know why.

I feel the same way.

By the Light of the Moon


We gather by the side of the road on the edge of an urban forest. I know the others only because they are dressed like me, in white clothing. We talk amongst ourselves, getting to know each other.

The signal comes at twilight, just as the sun is setting and everything is growing dark. We walk into the woods along a gravel path. We can hear the sound of drumming.

Soon we come to a clearing. There’s a circle made of lit candles and strewn leaves. Inside the circle, an altar and a pentagram. There are two women here, also dressed in white. These two I know, a little. One is inside the circle, drumming. The other is outside the circle, singing. She strides toward us. Her voice is beautiful. She reaches out and takes my hand, leading me and all the rest toward the circle.

We are each in turn ritually purified with incense. When all are within the ring of light, the circle is cast by calling the quarters and invoking the elements. And within this sacred space the ritual unfolds, as the full moon slowly rises.

This is an esbat, not a seasonal celebration, and so something new and unfamiliar to me. The heart of the ritual I might describe as energy work and group therapy. H. Gunaratana Mahathera describes Buddhism as “much more akin to what we would call psychology than to what we would usually call religion.” This is not a Buddhist ritual, but I’m reminded of this nonetheless. We are invited to think of some area in our life where we’ve reached a plateau, some area of our personal or interpersonal development where things have stagnated, where we’ve grown complacent or are just plain stuck. We think about ways to release that energy, and we engage in a few activities to visualize that release. Strategic symbolism, perhaps.

This may all sound very solemn, but there was a lightness to it as well, and laughter. We also drink margaritas.

Later, we sit in the moonlight sharing food, drink, and conversation. I hear a voice through through the trees. Soon it comes again, and again, impossible to ignore because the unseen person is shouting. He sounds angry. Then another voice joins the first. A woman. Their exchange becomes a song. Then instruments kick in: accordion, double-bass, sousaphone. The music is lusty and uproarious. There’s a whole band back in the woods somewhere.

After a few verses and a rousing chorus, the song crashes to a halt, and there is a round of applause. Judging by the sound there must be at least fifty people there. A couple members of our party are dispatched to scout out the situation. They report that it’s a gypsy-punk interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome.

Many strange and wonderful things happen by light of the moon.

Photo: Moonrise / Eric Miraglia / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

With or Without Me

Hike Panorama

The coolest thing about this year’s hike, from my personal perspective, is that I’ve had hardly anything to do with organizing the event. (Term limits, y’know.) Yet still it chugs along. That’s extremely gratifying.

But there are other cool things: This year we’re reversing direction, hiking toward the river for a change, so people can tap into French Quarter Fest if they so desire. Also we’ve got a brass band this year. It was just a matter of time. Aaaaand this really should be your last chance to hike the corridor in its current (neglected) state as I just heard plans are to break ground in October.

Please join us as we TAKE A HIKE along the Lafitte Greenway on Saturday, April 14, 2012. The annual hike is roughly 3 miles, and parts of the path are overgrown and weedy. So dress accordingly, and you might want to bring some sunscreen. Flip-flops are probably not appropriate footwear!

9:30 AM: Bike Easy will hold a bicycle safety workshop in the Delgado Community College parking lot. Bike Easy will also offer FREE bike valet services for all participants of the hike.

10 AM: Meet at the Delgado Community College in the parking lot (parking and bike valet available).

1 PM: Finish at Congo Square in Armstrong Park with a culminating celebration featuring Baby Boys Brass Band, refreshments and more.

2 PM: Head to French Quarter Fest!

These times are tentative, as we’ll be hiking in small groups with plenty of fun activities along the way. Different groups will probably move at different speeds.

The Hike and Bike Valet are both FREE and open to the public.

Please register in advance to help us gauge how many participants to expect. The more the merrier!

And just in case it’s not clear, I will be there hiking with the rest of y’all. In fact I’m a Greenway Ambassador so I should be leading a small group. Maybe you’ll be in my group. See you there.

Mindfulness, Meditation


Back in August when Persephone started school my morning routine changed severely. Instead of being responsible for bundling a toddler off to daycare, suddenly I was seeing wife and daughter on their way. I waved goodbye and then they were gone.

And there I was, with the house to myself, and at least an hour before I needed to leave for work.

What to do?

After a couple weeks I’d exhausted the more obvious possibilities. I realized this would be the perfect opportunity to establish a regular contemplative practice, to fit meditation into my daily routine. This was something I’d been wanting to do for at least a year, since reading Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry and attending the Contemplative Academy.

OK, great idea, but again: What to do? There are many types of meditation. Hmm, well, how about mindfulness meditation? That’s something I’ve heard about repeatedly. Sounds interesting. Maybe I could try it.

I found a short article in Psychology Today, titled “How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation” by Karen Kissel Wegela. She made it sound so damned easy.

So I decided to start, just five minutes a day.

I didn’t really know what I was doing. It must have felt good or something because I kept on doing it. In those first few weeks I got some of my most dramatic results. They are hard to describe. The practice seemed to induce an altered state of consciousness, a subtle euphoria, a feeling of mystery. I might say that it evoked a sense of the numinous. After my brief sessions, I tended to want to listen to ambient music rather than my regular eclectic mix, because that seemed to keep the mood better. I also noticed a slight increase in impulse control, and a corresponding negative correlation with alcohol consumption. When I meditated in the morning, as a rule, I seemed to drink less in the evening.

However, as I kept at it, these effects seemed to wear off a bit. The shock of the new practice was over, and my mind was reverting to form. After a time I realized I didn’t even know what “mindfulness” meant. I decided if I wanted to deepen and strengthen my practice I would need to learn more.

I cast about the net looking for resources. They are plentiful, but the diversity of perspectives was a bit confusing. For example, one guy says mindfulness meditation should be limited to five minutes, whereas others talked of sessions lasting for hours.

I needed something deeper than short web articles. I found Mindfulness in Plain English by the Venerable H. Gunaratana Mahathera. It’s a full-length book, available in print but also floating around on the web in various forms.

I read my way through this book slowly over several months. I’d never read anything quite like it — a practical meditation manual. It’s written from a Theravadin Buddhist perspective. I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I gather the Theravada branch claims to be closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. Despite this, or because of it, there was little religious baggage. There was some, however. I’m not sure I buy the talk of enlightenment and liberation and Nibbana. There were also some passages, such as a brief allusion to sign-objects, that I found mystifying. But for the most part the writing is admirably clear, and I found the practical advice very helpful.

My favorite passage:

We are learning here to escape into reality, rather than from it.

According to this author, the ecstasy I sometimes experience is not really the point of the practice. It’s a pleasant side effect, but just like the unpleasant side effects, one should not get distracted. Getting attached to any experience, however pleasurable, is a distraction. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a hedonist like me. But I do see the point.

Let me recount one particular experience I had somewhere along the way. This was several months ago. Like all such experiences it is hard if not impossible to describe. I’m foolish to try, probably. I will have to resort to metaphor because that’s all that I have.

So I’m sitting there, and I seem to become aware of a wind blowing through me, through the house, through the earth, through the entire cosmos. It’s blowing through all of us right now, and has been for our entire lives, through all time, only we don’t ordinarily perceive it. It not only pervades all but gives shape and motion to all.

I guess that’s a classic mystical experience. I find those kind of experiences compelling, but I also understand the need for detachment. If you sit down with a desire for some particular kind of experience, or any particular expectations, you won’t be fully alert and aware to what is actually going on.

There’s a paradox there, of course. We may be drawn to meditation because we perceive we’ll gain some benefit. And there are benefits. But the practice is worth doing for itself with no end in mind, and I suspect it’s more beneficial when it’s approached without anticipation or expectation.

But what do I know?

A truly wonderful thing about my job is that I’m able to explore so many divergent interests. And so it was that I found myself headed to Bryn Mawr College for the Fifth Annual Mindfulness in Education conference. It was a pleasant trip and an interesting experience. (I took some photos.) The conference concluded with a day of silent meditation. I’ve never done anything like that before. On the way home, I wasn’t sure what I’d really gotten out of the conference, but after a few days I realized I’d learned plenty. Sometimes it takes a while.

I’m now able to offer a definition of mindfulness off the cuff. Several definitions, in fact. Mindfulness is paying attention to your attention. Mindfulness is awareness of the present, moment to moment, without judging. Mindfulness can be practiced at any time; formal meditation is just one way to promote it.

I think virtually every human being values and practices mindfulness to some extent. It’s a basic part of being alive. But we also do plenty of things that run counter to mindfulness, sabotaging ourselves and our own best efforts without even realizing it. Formal practice can help us figure stuff like this out, and allows us to cultivate mindfulness in our whole lives.

Footnote: The license attached to Mindfulness in Plain English indicates it may be “freely copied and redistributed.” So I’m taking my first venture into e-book publishing. You can download a copy of the book, reformatted with minor corrections by yours truly, in EPUB format. I’ve not done this before, so if you run into trouble please let me know.