Befriending Ourselves

Bridge reflected

For the most part very young children are naturally generous. This may be because they do not yet have a strong sense of individuality or perhaps because they feel others will enjoy what they find tasty or enjoyable, whether a cookie or a cherished plaything. Later on they lose this openheartedness and fight to keep what they believe is theirs. At this point most parents teach them to be polite and sharing. This lesson becomes a kind of inner imperative that guides us as adults. We learn to feel better when we obey this inner morality and as a consequence often end up depriving ourselves in favor of giving to others.

When was the last time you bought yourself a present—not something practical but something you wanted and didn’t think you ought to spend the money for? You might even have recently bought a gift for someone else that you would have liked to give yourself, and yet didn’t quite dare to for fear of your own disapproval. Most of us have been taught to think of others before thinking of ourselves. While that is a nice way to behave it often leaves results in making us feel deprived or at least somewhat resentful.

Giving to others is praiseworthy. Depriving ourselves to give to others is not. It often results in our feeling the other person ought to be more grateful than they may be…especially if the other does not know how you sacrificed to do that. The reason we too often give to others at our own expense is that it feels nicer to do for others. It gives us good feelings because we’re acting in accordance with what we feel is the right thing to do. But is it? I believe it is important or even necessary to treat ourselves as we would a friend.

Long ago I met and studied with a teacher that taught me about this. It was the beginning of a friendship between myself and me. I learned that if I listened to a wee small voice inside me I would receive true guidance toward correct behavior when it came to giving to or acting for myself. I am not speaking of being selfish or self-centered. There is a big difference between befriending oneself and spoiling oneself. I do not believe in self indulgence to a point of neglecting others, only in being fair about the balance between giving to others and giving to myself.

The real key here is that balance. I can tell when things get out of balance because that inner voice will cry out in pain or sorrow. I may feel neglected or ignored even when I am actually not. Learning to hear that inner voice requires giving up the righteous feelings I get from self-sacrifice and instead asking myself what I really want to have or do instead. I can ask myself if is this how I would treat a friend? The answer comes as a knowing or an understanding. Then my actions are guided by what is good for all concerned including me. When I am my own friend I treat myself the best way I can, and I am happy and content.

The Preciousness of Remembering

When I was a child Little Tasha 4and death or even disaster was to be spoken of, someone would say, “Not in front of the children.” The subject would be changed or I would be told to go off and play so the adults could continue their discussion. Yet because we had animals, death and change were part of my life. I witnessed the drowning of baby ducks and the demise of baby chicks. It was hard when a dog got into my pet rabbits’ pen and maimed them. My aunt’s gardener had to–as I was told, “put them out of their suffering.” Death was no stranger to my childhood. I am neither uncomfortable with it nor afraid of it.

Still, it does have an effect. The recent passing of a dear friend has brought a sense of immediacy to my relationships, and prompted a renewed sense of attention to my way of thinking about life. She and I used to speak each morning except Sundays. More than once I said to Stephen, “One day the phone will not ring at 9:30 every day.” Then indeed that day did come. While I miss my friend, I know she is in a much more comfortable and happy place than she has been for some time. Though I do miss her calls I also rejoice for her.

I am happy to have pleasant memories of our time together. That is the saving grace of partings. It is also a reminder to focus when I am with a dear one and to be present in order to have something to remember. More and more as I get older I have come to realize that endings come whether we want them to or not. We have no way of knowing whether or not any given conversation, meeting or interaction with another may be our last. I do not say this because I have a morbid fear of endings but rather as a reminder that any time we spend with another may be significant.

When we are children we have no understanding of how it is that things change or perhaps end. That ignorance may even be important to children’s comfort and sense of security. Most adults grow accustomed to change and learn to flow with it. It may be an aspect of maturity in human beings to be able to do that. In my life there have been many changes I could never have anticipated. Being able to adapt to them has been crucial to my happiness. Developing a sense of detachment to an anticipated condition of permanence has been not only valuable but also essential.

When I was a child, I could buy an ice cream cone for a nickel. Now even the smallest one costs 50 times that. The decor in my parents’ living room changed once in my memory. Today many people redecorate frequently. Then divorce was rare, people stayed at the same job for most of their lives, I could go on and on about how it used to be. My point is that change is more than ever a constant in most lives. For our comfort it is important to be able to deal with all forms of change, whether of décor or of circumstances. When I make the time to focus my attention and to appreciate what is happening, whether with a relationship or an experience, I have much less regret when it ends.

The Discipline of Remembering

Garden Conversation042

I can clearly remember lying in my bed upstairs and wishing I was able to stay up and be part of whatever was happening. I also remember sitting at the table, a boiled egg or perhaps worse, a piece of liver before me—things I had no desire whatsoever to put in my mouth. If I wanted to leave the table I had to finish whatever I was given. One way I managed was to cut the liver into small pieces and swallow it whole. I can’t remember how I dealt with the egg.

My life as a child had lots of discipline in it. Authority figures held sway over my life. Often it was a parent: “Time to go to bed,” or a teacher: “Be sure to do your homework in a timely manner.” It never occurred to me that these disciplinarians were stand-ins for what comes when we are adults. In my innocence I thought discipline had to come from someone telling me what I had to do, not that one day I would need to tell myself.

Unfortunately for my childhood dreams, I need to enforce my own discipline in order to function in the world in an orderly manner. There is really no one that can do it for me. As a child I dreamed of the day I would be my own boss, as I thought of it then. I yearned for the day there would be no one to tell me I had to go to bed if I didn’t wish to, or make me eat something I didn’t wish to eat. Of course that is how a child thinks and the reality does not occur to us because as children we simply cannot conceive of it.

I remember thinking how grand it would be to be a grownup with no one to tell me what to do and when to do it. I could, I believed do whatever I wished, whenever I wished to do it. Children are so innocent. Little did I know then what I had to remember to do for myself when there were no more grownups to tell me and I was the grownup. As an adult I find discipline needs to be addressed often. For instance, there is the discipline of deadlines. If I wish I can ignore them though I do so to my peril. There is also the simple discipline of my body, which needs to sleep eat and go to the bathroom, occasionally at inconvenient times.

As I have grown older it seems to me there are more and more things I need to do each day in order to maintain my health and sanity. These require me to remember them as well as to do them. Lists help, yet were I to write everything I need to do daily down, it would be a lengthy list indeed. Practicing the discipline of remembering is perhaps the most important one of all, and in addition to doing my exercises and taking my vitamins, I practice this each and every day.

The Wonderful Jacket

Tasha in hood 2Those of us who come from New England are familiar with Yankee thrift: use it up, make do, or do without. I am of a conserving nature, having in addition to a Yankee father, a German mother born at the outset of WWI. Nothing was ever wasted in the house I grew up in. I thrived on hand-me-downs and thrift shop finds. Over the years I have accumulated clothing items I am happy to see again when their season rolls around. I often develop a fondness for clothing that has served me well.

Recently as I pushed my wagon through the aisles of a grocery store, I saw a woman standing by the meat counter in a unique and lovely white furry jacket. “I can’t resist telling you I think your jacket is magnificent,” I told her. She laughed and said it was from the 70’s, yet she could never bear to part with it. “Nor should you,” I replied. We each continued on our way, pushing our shopping carts in opposite directions.

I smiled to myself. I was wearing a jacket I have had for close to thirty years. It is a fairly ordinary, black, nylon one, with some very useful pockets. Black fur edges the hood. It is warm and comfortable, and probably unremarkable as jackets go. However the story of how I acquired it and what has been done to it since makes it special.

On a trip to the Cape many years ago, Stephen and I were in a consignment shop, poking around. I saw the jacket hanging on a rack, and figured I might be able to use it. I took it down, intending to try it on. “If you can zip it up you can have it,” said the woman behind the counter. I looked down at the zipper and saw that it was slightly frayed on the bottom and could be a bit challenging. When I tried it on I liked the feel of the jacket and resolved to see if indeed I could zip it.

Very carefully I inserted the frayed end into the metal slot and continued to be careful as I zipped it all the way up. The saleswoman was good at her word and gave me the jacket without charge. In the ensuing years I went on zipping it up carefully until finally one year I invested in a new zipper. Along the way parts of the jacket lining began to wear out. I was fortunate in having friends who at different times were able to repair the worn places in the lining so that it looked almost new.

Now when I put on my wonderful warm winter jacket I remember my friends and their generous work on my behalf. I also think how fortunate I was to have found it, been able to zip it up and to have it still after all these many years. What keeps me warm in it is more than the lining or the material, it is the memories and the love of friends that has been sewn into it. How could I ever part with this jacket? I believe I never could, nor do I ever wish to.

 

The Dark Time is The Ideal Time to Rest

The trees outside my window have lost most of their leaves. Some few still cling to their branches as a result of the late warm weather, however not many. The leaves are being released from their branches. The tree has sealed off the part where the stem contacts the twig and the leaves are subject to the whims of the wind. Thus the trees move from active participation in growth and expansion to rest and restoration, solidifying what has been gained. Nature is sensible that way, bringing opportunities for alternative modes of being. Most animals as well as insects are in their burrows or nests, resting from the work of gathering and consuming food as well as maintaining the dwelling.

Once there was no electricity to keep us humming along 24/7. In many cases native peoples in the North went into quasi hibernation mode in the winter. Later, although torches and candlelight provided evening illumination, early bed times were likely. Judging from how I feel, the human body seems to be inclined toward seasonal rest. I always seem to sleep longer and even more soundly during the darker hours between November and February. I find that my body is happy with the additional rest. However I am fortunate that I do not have to answer to a time clock at work or an alarm clock at home that tells me I must rise and get moving regardless whether or not my body would prefer to stay under the covers.

We humans do love the light. Throughout history various cultures have provided and still do provide their own opportunities to invoke it during the dark hours. In our Western European culture, our holidays devoted to light in one form or another commonly include Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Hanukah comes to us from another part of the world, as does Kwanzaa, a recent addition. The Internet can provide information concerning the many other celebrations of light that are not as common now because they have faded or been forgotten. These include interesting customs—some of which have come down to us, that include all kinds of symbolism as well as special dances and other activities. All these opportunities help counter the inevitable lethargy brought on by the dark hours.

Although I do not count the years, I still celebrate my birthdays. Now I have another celebration coming up, and I am reminded that as a result of the numerous autumns I have lived through, the leaves of my days are indeed falling. Little by little they flutter down, gathering on the ground in colorful heaps. I have also noticed that as the days of my life increase, I am slowing down. I do not get as much done; I need to rest more. Sometimes this is frustrating. These days are precious and the daylight needs to be made use of. Still I need to be kind enough to myself to allow for the rest I need to keep up my strength, most especially as the days of autumn dwindle and the dark hours grow longer.

Smiles and Frowns can Grow on You

My first husband was in the ROTC in college. After his graduation we went to El Paso to live while he attended officers’ school. My little girl took her first steps there. We lived in a small housing complex with other young families. I became friend with another of the mothers in her twenties. She was from Oklahoma. One of the first things I noticed about her was that living in that hot, dry climate had scored deep frown and squint wrinkles in her youthful skin. Seeing them I determined right then that if I was going to have wrinkles at least they would be pleasant ones, and so I trained myself to notice whenever I started to squint or frown. Then as I caught myself, I would stop.

Some research on the Internet revealed that it takes more muscles for a genuine smile than it does for a frown. Furthermore, the act of smiling exercises the facial muscles and brings more blood to nourish the cells of the face. This I turn helps make us look younger and prettier. More important, so far as I m concerned is that the act of smiling releases endorphins in the brain. These are feel good hormones that makes us feel happier. So as we do so, we smile more and so forth. This is called a positive feedback loop.

One does not always feel like smiling. Some days it seems like the whole world is conspiring to create problems for you. Now certainly you do not feel like smiling. However, you can take heart. Even a pretend smile releases he feel good endorphins. I learned this from Thicht Nhat Hahn, the well-known teacher of meditation. If you make even a small smile it will release some of those feel good endorphins and make you feel better and more like really smiling.

The subject of this column was sparked by the visit of an old and dear friend who came over recently for lunch. He told us that a little while ago when he was interviewing for a job his interviewer asked him, “Do your cheeks hurt?” He said they didn’t and asked why. “Because you never seem to stop smiling,” came the reply. He does indeed smile a lot, and he is a very happy person. I expect there is a connection there. For myself ever since I can remember I have always enjoyed smiling at people. It does make me feel good and sometimes I get a smile in return.

Years ago I did find that it was unwise to smile at strangers on the subway because they might get the wrong idea and try to follow me home. It is also true that in some societies, smiles are considered bad form and indicate something less than friendliness. An article in Wikepedia suggests that smiles may have evolved from a grimace of fear. However, perhaps this worked to make people less fearful and happier, who knows. It has been said that in our youth we have the face God gave us, and in our elder years we have the face we have given ourselves. This is a good enough reason to smile as often as possible.

Tasha Halpert

A Recipe for Unexpected Guests

Spring blossoms, whiteIt makes me laugh when it gets cold after a warm day and someone says, “What’s happened to spring? It’s winter again!” That’s what spring is: a back and forth time of year. One day it’s lovely out, the next it snows. It’s difficult to make plans. Once many years ago my father decided to give an Easter egg hunt in the house he had inherited from my great aunt Alice. He invited all the members of an extended family of 12 children grown and married with children of their own, and told them all to come at one o’clock on Easter for the party. Then he went to Maine, intending to return that morning.

At eight AM that day it commenced to snow furiously. By twelve it had pretty much stopped, however my father, having been snowed in was still in Maine. I was faced with hosting a party for a large group of people I had never met not to mention hiding the eggs, providing the food, and being gracious. I called a friend and together we managed to pull off the party. I was rather put out with my father who very cavalierly said, “Oh, I knew you could handle it.”

For as long as I have known him, Stephen, like my father has been prone to spontaneously invite people over for a meal. Confident in my ability to come up with something on the spur of the moment, he doesn’t hesitate to play the host, and to be honest, I can say I have never minded. I love to cook and it gives me pleasure to provide for my friends or even for strangers who may become friends. The trick is to have certain things on hand that I can rely on to fix quickly and easily to feed two or more guests. Potatoes to bake and serve with sauce and cheese, shrimp in the freezer–a quick fix for shrimp scampi. Another is cooked rice for the following recipe.

Chinese fried rice works wonders as a quick meal. Of course you must have the simple ingredients on hand. The secret of this dish is that it must be made with leftover rice. Very quick to fix, it is popular with most. To serve four, use a cup of cooked rice per person, one egg, half a cup of frozen peas, half cup of chopped onion, half a cup of chopped celery, and 2 Tablespoons soy sauce or Dr. Bronner’s Mineral broth. If you have any leftover chicken, or extra firm tofu chop a half a cup of that too. 2 or 3 sliced garlic cloves and 2 or 3 Tablespoons ginger in thin strips is good too.

Take a half a cup large or extra large shrimp per person from the freezer, and thaw briefly in warm water. Peel if necessary and line up on a cookie sheet. Bake at 425 for 5 or so minutes. Scramble the egg without any extra liquid and fry in some oil or butter. Set aside. In a large frying pan, sauté the ginger, garlic, onion and celery in oil until transparent. Stir in the rice and cook 5 minutes stirring. Add the peas, the egg, broken up, tofu, chicken and shrimp. Stir in the soy sauce and cook 5 more minutes stirring occasionally. Voila, Dinner is served.