Smelling the Lilies

Star Lilies 4       Of all the flowers with delightful scents, there are three that are favorites of mine: Lilies, Roses, and Hyacinths. So it was that when I was shopping in Trader Joe’s last week and saw the Star Gazer Lilies for sale I could not resist buying a small bunch and bringing them home. As I had hoped they would they have filled our small apartment with their wonderful scent.

As I sit here writing my column I am breathing it in. As I do, these colorful lilies with their glorious perfume remind me over and over again how important it is to give to myself as well as to others. It has taken me more than a few years to recognize the importance of doing that. My dear mother called such thinking selfish. She was raised in a home where children came last, after guests, parents and other adults. To think of oneself first, if at all, was not encouraged.

There was no intentional cruelty involved in this attitude. It sprang from a different way of seeing the world and of acting on that viewpoint. There is a strong behavioral edict that sprang from traditional thinking that it is better to give than to receive. While it is good to give, there are psychological reasons that were not taken into account by this edict that need to be addressed. In addition there is the question of balance versus imbalance to be considered.

I was raised in much the same way. I remember once being surprised when a friend said that we must be home by four o’clock for her children’s TV program. That the wishes of children were something to consider was a new thought for me. As a young mother it never occurred to me that children’s choices were anything to be considered.

In the years since then I have done a lot of learning. A most important lesson of my lifetime has been that if I do not give to myself I will not have much to give others. My cup must have something in it before I can give from it freely. My giving must be in balance with my receiving. What I have discovered, sometimes the hard way is that if I give only to others and not to myself I develop unconscious resentment that can lead me to act unkindly, or be overly critical without meaning to. This can creep up on me and I need to make sure I notice it when it happens.

From the time I was small being kind has always been very important to me. Thus it has become vital that from time to time I assess my behavior to make sure I have been giving to myself enough to balance my graciousness to others. It is not always easy to remember to give to oneself. It often initially feels so good to give to others that it is easy to forget to include oneself. As I inhale the perfume of the wonderful lilies I am reminded again of how grateful I am for this gift I gave to myself, and of how glad I am that I bought them.

Text and Photo by Tasha Halpert

The Importance of Mental Focus

Crystals5When I began to meditate I noticed that I was much more aware of the contents of my mind. The longer I practiced meditation, the better I became at following my thoughts. This ability has grown for me over the years, and I am very grateful to be able to be aware most of the time of what I am thinking. The reason this is so important is that it enables me to monitor my mental focus.

The importance of mental focus cannot be overstated. Certain habit patterns are built into the human psyche. They are intrinsic, an inborn aspect of our consciousness. They are intended to function as a kind of safety mechanism for keeping us alive. One of these is the “fight or flight” response. As you may know, the human body is programmed to react to any perceived threat with the appropriate input for what it believes is required.

I have read statistics to the effect that much of our modern high blood pressure as well as other stressful conditions of the physical body have come about as a result of this built in response to perceived danger. This particular response was useful in the days when death in the form of an enemy or feral beast lurked behind any bush or tree. It was important when the crocodiles in the river were patrolling for breakfast. It was helpful when the early settlers of any new homeland encountered its dangers.

Now for the most part it is not only unnecessary to modern life but actually harmful. Yet in times of perceived stress our bodies continue that response. The perceived stress could be a need to get somewhere on time or to dodge someone’s criticism as a result of inadequate preparation. It is seldom a response to a true threat of death or physical harm.

One of the main ingredients of this response is that our minds have a built in tendency to notice what is wrong. This can be very helpful if, for instance, you wake up in the night and hear sounds you know are not normal, or you suddenly notice that your child is very quiet and might therefore be up to some mischief. However, as a general rule, consistently noticing what is wrong can lead to a focus upon it that prevents us from seeing what is right and good.

When I practice actively looking for all for which I am grateful, I am much less apt to be focused on what may be wrong. If there is real danger or a need to notice that something is amiss, I know I can and will. However for the most part when I focus on that for which I am grateful, I am much less focused on the negative thinking that can lead to any number of difficulties. The key to success is being mindful of the direction of my thoughts. That way I can reinforce my positive focus or change the direction of my thoughts if I need to.

Photo and Text by Tasha Halpert

Conveying Love

Selfi with art 4The stores are filled with red and white decorations, candy and gifts labeled for Valentines’ Day. The newspapers overflow with ads for various ways to express one’s fond affection on this day dedicated to lovers and those who love–whether romantically or otherwise. There are cards galore for any and everyone on your “fond of” list, and the internet also has plenty of humorous to mushy cards to be sent out to anyone with the ability to receive them.

Once it was difficult to convey one’s love on Valentine’s or any day except in person. Several centuries ago, when a loved one set out on a journey, most especially across an ocean, months, possibly years might elapse before they would be reunited. Letters took weeks, even months, if at all to arrive. The postal service was not organized until the 1840s when stamps were first issued.

We take the telephone call for granted. However, universal telephone service only began in the 1880s, and coast to coast long distance was not available until 1915. Not until 1927 could telephone calls be made overseas, though telegraph service was available. Twenty five years ago my daughter living in Africa and I found it necessary correspond for the most part by mail. Phone calls were expensive and unless she was home, pointless as a result of language barriers with those working for her.

Children born in the last decade have absolutely no concept of a time when communication was not instantaneous. Once the Dick Tracy two way wrist radio was a cartoon fantasy. Now there is a wrist radio that acts with your cell phone for two way communication. Until fairly recently, face to face communication on the computer, known as Skype did not exist.

The ubiquitous cell phone, first available 1983, was still fairly rare even in the early nineties. I know I didn’t have one back then, and people who did were considered quite trendy. Camera phones came into use in the last decade. Does it seem that short a time ago? It seems no time at all to me. Once something is present in our lives it is not easy to remember when we didn’t have it.

While Valentines’ day was celebrated in Europe from the 14th century on in a variety of ways, the actual Valentine card began in England at the very end of the 18th century. If you wanted to convey your affection with a card, according to Wikepedia, the first Valentines were generally available in Europe just prior to 1800, and in the USA in 1847.

Today Internet cards are often sent instead of paper ones. However, it really doesn’t matter how our love is conveyed or what method is used to share it. To paraphrase the words of a dear friend of mine, “Miles may separate us, but in our hearts we are no further away than a thought.” There is no postage or fee of any kind for this Valentine expression.

Words and Photo by Tasha Halpert

In An Orderly Fashion

Column VistaIn An Orderly Fashion

Remember fire drills? There are even some of my readers who might remember such a thing as a bomb drill. When the bell clanged we were always told to “proceed in an orderly fashion.” I suppose that meant lining up and staying in line so the teachers or whoever was shepherding us could keep track. In an orderly manner usually meant no talking, and certainly no fooling around.

I think about this phrase sometimes when I am dithering about my apartment working to get things done. Being a writer I spend most of my time at home and can make my own schedule. This has its positive and its negative points, because I do not have the same parameters necessitating order as someone working outside the home, however I do need to make my own order.

There is priority, there is the immediate demand, and then there is what I hope to get done. Each day presents its challenges. I can only do my best. For instance, take the insistent telephone. say I am about to begin a task when it rings. Stephen would tell me to ignore it, and my experience is that if I do it will only create another difficulty I haven’t anticipated. I answer the phone, conduct whatever necessary conversation and go back to what I was doing. Meanwhile, I may have lost the thread of the process and need to begin again.

It may be that I am called away while I am cooking. I ought to know better than to leave the stove unattended. However having had years of training as a mother to answer the immediate need of the moment, I have a tendency to rush over to do what seems to need doing. In the meantime, something boils over on the stove and that necessitates a huge cleanup.

When I plan ahead it seems to help. When I set out on a series of errands it works better if I think about the best arrangement for doing them. This works fine unless I forget my grocery list and either have to go back for it or try to remember what was on it. Stephen suggested I put the list in my purse and keep it there. I explained why I don’t: when I wish to add to it, I have to find it and write down the new item– if I don’t forget what it was in the meantime. It’s far easier to keep it on the counter.

I am all too easily distracted from my orderly progress. Sometimes this is simply my own fault. In the midst of doing what I intend to do I remember what I meant to do and didn’t, go do that, and meanwhile think of something else that needs doing. When I finally return to my original task it may have become more difficult or more complicated. The other day I realized that there is no such thing as an orderly fashion in my life, there is only keeping track as best I can and being content with that.

Text and Photo by Tasha Halpert

The Blessings of Simple Pleasures

Queen Ann's Lace with BindweedThe Blessing of Simple Pleasures,

by Tasha Halpert

I was fortunate in that I learned fairly early in life to practice my attitude of gratitude. There were two experiences in my life that prompted me to do this. One came in the form of a telephone call from a friend and teacher telling me to be grateful and to say this prayer of gratitude daily: Beloved Lord I do greatly thank Thee for the abundance that is mine.” When I protested she said sternly, “You have much to be grateful for–a roof over your head, food to eat, people who love you, now do as I say and repeat that prayer at least three times daily.” Because I respected her, I did as she suggested.

That was the beginning. Then I encountered mysterious woman at a spiritual gathering who told me a little about myself and then said, “Never take anything for granted.” Her words gave me pause and have resonated in my life ever since. At the time I did not know that my entire life would change radically within weeks. And while it changed for the better, almost everything in my life as I knew it then disappeared to be replaced by new and different circumstances. Nothing could have prepared me for that, however I was blessed to move through it to a new life for which ever since I have been grateful.

That was a great many years ago; and much time has passed with many experiences lived through. As I have moved through them I have grown in the expression of my gratitude. Nowadays when I turn on the shower on a cold winter evening and climb into its warmth, I give thanks. Although they may not live close to me, there are many who do not have the luxury of hot water from a faucet. When I cuddle my clean cotton sheets and the warm covers on my bed around me, I think of, and send a prayer for those who are homeless and have little to comfort them in the cold.

An attitude of gratitude as we are often reminded by teachers from Oprah to Eckert Tolle is one of the pillars for the foundation of a happy life. My own personal experience has proved this to be true. I have also learned to realize how important it is to be grateful for that which at first seems less than fortuitous. However in general I prefer to focus on those things that bring me joy rather than those that do not, even while being grateful for those as well.

Small and simple pleasures–a phone call from one’s child or grandchild, the wagging tail of a treasured animal companion, the smile of a neighbor encountered unexpectedly in the supermarket, or the friendly help of a stranger in locating a hard to find item–these lovely, serendipitous experiences provide a splendid symphony of joy. As I live my life, it plays in the background as an accompaniment to my everyday doings. Listening to it I am reminded again and again to be grateful.

Making Improvements

Belfast veggies 8Making Improvements, by Tasha Halpert

When I look at a situation it is often with an eye as to what can be done to improve it. I think I developed this habit at an early age because my dear mother was seldom satisfied with anything. She always seemed to have a suggestion for an improvement. Most likely I inherited my attitude from her. However, this is not a bad way to be, and I’m not complaining. Yet it’s not necessary to see a flaw or a need. Perhaps another way to think about that is to see what I might do in general to be of help or to make an improvement..

My late son Robin greatly enjoyed gardening. He loved the earth and felt very close to nature. Wherever he was living he would plant vegetables and carefully tend them. He was proud to feed himself from his efforts. In addition as do the Native Americans, he believed in leaving a gift at the site of any herb or vegetable that he harvested. He always gave back as much as he could. The size of the gift was not as important as the effort.

I was reminded of this as I thought about what someone recently said to me: “I believe in leaving the world a better place than I found it.” The speaker went on to tell me how he had learned this when he was around ten years old and had made an effort to practice it always. This conversation stayed with me for a time, and I considered ways I might make the world I lived in a better place–not because it was lacking but because I might add something.

Paying it forward is one way to make a positive difference. There are drivers who pay the toll of the person behind them, or those who pick up the tab for a stranger in a restaurant. Some businesses do a holiday practice where small gifts are given in secret. I have always enjoyed sharing little presents or passing on what I enjoy or find useful. One friend of mine liked to say a prayer when he left any seat where he sat: “May whoever sits here after me be blessed.”

It may be that sometimes we think that small gestures are not significant. I find it is surprising how a little effort can make a big effect. Smiling at people, for instance, or saying hello to people you might not know personally. Of course there are those who might look at you suspiciously, still, it is not possible to please everyone and if a person feels uncomfortable with a smile, perhaps they need more of them in their lives.

If I can’t use a grocery coupon I leave it where it may be found. I often pay a stranger a compliment. I look around for ways to bring unexpected joy when and where I can. If I see someone who needs help I offer mine. Small efforts like these are my way of adding something positive. Mother Teresa said it so nicely: “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

The Permanence of Impermanence

Stones and leaves, fallThe Permanence of Impermanence by Tasha Halpert

 

Stephen and I were strolling along on Thayer Street in Providence on our way to meet my granddaughter who is a freshman at Brown. My daughter and her fiancé were with us, and Stephen was pointing out various landmarks from his years living in that city. We were almost to the place we were to meet my granddaughter. Stephen turned to point out a building of special significance to him, stopped still and gasped.

“It’s gone!” he exclaimed. He stood looking across the street to where the house turned shop that he had known from his childhood had been. In its place was the gaping infrastructure of a soon to be Brown University dormitory. Stephen had grown up in Providence, and his family had once owned the now totally vanished building for all of his young years. In his childhood it had housed a shop that his mother and father had managed and in which he had spent many hours as a boy.

“It was such a lovely little house,” he said. There was another house on either side. My mother ran the Scotch Shop in it, and I think she was happy there. My grandmother used to say that one day the building would be mine, but they sold it after I got married. I suppose they thought I wouldn’t be interested. Why did they have to tear it down?”

He turned to me and the expression on his face was sad. I felt for him. When something special you have known from your childhood is gone it is as though you have lost an old friend. The experience brings to mind other losses as well. I know I was reminded of other vanished childhood places as well even as people who have disappeared from my life. As a wise person who had been one of my teachers was fond of saying, “The only constant is change.”

It seems important to be able to take this kind of experience in stride. While it is appropriate to mourn a passing of significance, it is also vital to move on from it and to accept the inevitability of change. Growth cannot take place without it. Brown University had outgrown its current ability to house students and needed to expand. To make way for that, buildings or houses of lesser importance to them had to be razed. In life, what we have left behind must be removed to make room for what is to come.

As a mystic, I see a potential for symbolic meaning in this experience. Perhaps something from Stephen’s past has been eliminated to make room for something new that is being built for him. I am always curious to see what develops when a major change has taken place. Our lives are subject to the currents of energy that take us where we need to go for our next adventure. Meanwhile, as another wise person has said, there is always the laundry and the grocery shopping.