Competition Versus Cooperation

chickens.jpgI’ve never been a competitive person. Usually a sense of competition kicks in around the age of four, when a child gains a clear understanding of “me” and “mine.” Even then there is often a desire to share unless the child is surrounded by competitors. When I was growing up competition was the rule and the idea of a game that required cooperation instead was unknown. I did not enjoy the competitive world I grew up in.

Even as a child I disliked competition in sports. One reason was that I wasn’t very agile or well-coordinated and thus most often chosen last for any team. Another was that it made me sad that someone had to lose in order for someone to win. I played board games yet not with a keen desire to win. For instance, Parcheesi which was a popular game when I was young was best won by blocking opponents and rendering them helpless. I never enjoyed doing that. For me, that was like punishing someone or hurting them.

My mother was a fierce competitor. She loved games and was good at them. She played Bridge and Mahjong with her friends. With me she played card games and Chinese checkers, which she played without mercy, making no allowances for youth or inexperience. She played to win, regardless. As a result, I did learn to play a good game of Chinese checkers. Fast forward to my adulthood. I still resisted competition when I could. Unfortunately, my children invariably made me enter the tired Mothers Race at the fourth of July games. in the town where they grew up. I came in last no matter how hard I tried.

My children’s father was very competitive. He encouraged the children while they were still quite young to play on teams and to compete. He even started a girls’ softball league in the town where we lived.  My daughters and then my sons all strove to do well in order to make him happy. He cherished their ribbons and trophies and often coached their various teams to victory. As a loyal mom I used to attend their tennis matches and their and baseball and ice hockey games, cheering along with the other parents and trembling for fear they would lose and be sad.

Regardless whether or not they won, I was glad whenever the games or matches were over. Certainly, my children learned much from their years playing tennis, hockey, and baseball. They had fun and met other children they would not have met otherwise. I am not regretful for them, though I do feel there are other ways to have fun that they might have enjoyed as well. I was too busy keeping up with household and child caring duties to do much about that.

Competition is said to be a good learning experience for children. Today even little ones barely out of toddler years are put on teams to play at various sports. For competitive people that’s good. For those like me, not so much. On the other hand, it is possible to play games in the spirit of cooperation. Team efforts in sports are only one way. There is also a cooperative way to play many games, and that is to play to see how high the score can rise. Scrabble can be played that way, and I know that’s how I would prefer to play it.

It’s Hearty Soup Weather

2014-09-16 15.36.53 During most of history, people ate what they had put away for the winter in their cellars and barns. In Colonial New England, unless someone had a greenhouse a midwinter salad was unheard of. In the Middle Ages in Europe and Russia, fasting during Lent was a necessity because what little food was available to most by late winter had to be hoarded and used carefully. People ate with the seasons. Forty years ago on a late spring trip to Russia with my mother I recall cabbage being served to us daily. It keeps well if properly stored.

Root vegetables can stay fresh for months. Turnips, Carrots, Rutabagas and winter squashes keep when in a cold place. I recall the root cellar in my Great Aunt Alice’s large garden—a deep hole with a wooden cover where vegetables could be safely stored for the winter months. I prefer to eat with the seasons. I feel healthier eating root vegetables often in fall and winter.

One thing special thing about fall is that my appetite returns and I can eat more without gaining weight. Those extra calories burn to keep me warm. However I do not eat more empty calories: i.e. desserts, snacks, sweets. Instead I eat more vegetables and healthy carbohydrates. Soup calories are always good fuel for the body. Hearty fall and winter soups are made with root vegetables, winter squash, beans, and other appropriate ingredients.

Sturdy herbs like thyme, oregano, rosemary and tarragon add flavor and food value to these soups as well. I begin most of my soup recipes by sautéing chopped onion, finely chopped celery, and ground garlic (not garlic powder, that has less flavor) in butter and olive oil. The mung beans in this recipe can be found at any health food store if your market does not carry them, and are a nice change from the more commonly used lentils or other kinds of beans.

My mung bean soup is a little different from the average bean soup. For this hearty recipe sauté ½ cup onion and 1 cup celery chopped small in 2 Tbs olive oil and 2 Tbs butter until transparent. Add 1 tsp each of thyme, rosemary, curry powder, and ground garlic . Stir in 2 cups peeled, chopped firm potatoes and 1 cup or more sliced carrots. Add 2 cups beef broth, and 4 cups water. Bring to a boil and simmer for an hour or so, until vegetables are tender and soup is tasty.

Cauliflower has become popular lately. I have seen versions of it prepared in many ways. This is my cauliflower soup: Thinly slice ½ to ¾ of a large cauliflower and 1 or 2 large carrots. Simmer in 2 cups water until soft. Meanwhile, Sauté 1 medium onion and 6 cloves garlic chopped, black pepper and your choice of seasonings in olive oil. Mash simmered vegetables and add sautéed ones. Add 2 cups chicken broth. If desired, thicken with leftover mashed potato or a roux made from 2 Tbs butter and 2 Tbs flour stirred over medium heat, with 1 cup added liquid of your choice stirred until smooth and thick.

The Importance of Self Acknowledgement

Fall Dandelions

It can be frustrating when you cannot do something that you have done all your life with ease. I’ve been putting on my own clothes for most of my life. However for the first two weeks I was home from the hospital, I wore the same simple garment every day. It went over my head without effort and kept me adequately clothed. As time went on I could wear more elaborate clothing until finally I could pretty much dress myself in whatever I wished to wear, all except for my shoes and socks. That required more bending than I was capable of.

Shoes and socks seem simple, do they not? Everyone can manage them. I have a distinct memory of learning to tie my shoes as a child. I know I was still only three, because I was attending nursery school at the time. My memory is of bending over my shoes until I had learned to wind the shoelaces into bows that would keep them tied. I didn’t have a choice in the matter. In my mind I can see the bedroom I slept in with my caregiver and feel my sense of frustration as I tried over and over again to tie those laces until at last I succeeded. Then oh, how happy I felt. I can still remember that too.

Just recently I had another small victory. I was able to put on my left sock all by myself. To do that sounds so simple. Yet it was the final step since my hip replacement two months ago, in my being able to get myself entirely dressed without help. To be sure up until now Stephen has been ever so kind about assisting me. Yet regardless how kind someone helping you is, it is very appealing, at least to me, to be able to do something I have always been able to do, by myself once more.

My parents weren’t generous with their praise of my accomplishments. They always informed me I was supposed to do well. They were apt to say, “Now that was quite good, can you do better next time?” They thought this was how to encourage me to try harder or at least keep on trying. I, on the other hand, believe strongly in praise. My children’s father taught me this. No matter how wretchedly the children he coached performed, he found a way to say some encouraging words. His teams invariably did well and I think this was one of the main reasons.

Not many of us have a coach in life to praise us, so it is up to us to pat ourselves on the back when we need encouragement, and more importantly, when we need to be acknowledged. It is not only permissible but also important to take note of our personal victories, most especially to do so for ourselves. We need to feel good for ourselves, not because someone else has praised us. When we recognize our successes we can build on them with a sense of satisfaction. When we feel satisfied with our performance we do not need to seek praise elsewhere but instead can feel good and be happy because we know for ourselves that we have done our best.

Mourn and Move On

Fall Maple Gold 2 When I was small I had a small cemetery. It was beside the church I had set up in a corner formed by a chimney and the wall of a small greenhouse. My family lived in the country. We had chickens and at one time some ducks. Baby chicks died and I buried them  there as well as the other assorted creatures whose deaths went unmourned except by me. My acquaintance with death came early and in a natural way. This was of help to me later.

Laurens Van der Post, a South African author whose writing I respect, once wrote, “There are some things we never quite get over, however once in a while we go back, pat them on the head and say, ‘How are you doing old fellow?'” In this instance he was speaking about his time in a Japanese prison camp, where he was very cruelly treated. I have remembered this quote for many years. It has been very useful in reminding me not to dwell on past grief, yet not to suppress it. The recent unnecessary death of a poet friend helped me to recall this.

When anyone special o us dies, it reminds us of others of whom we are fond who have left us. Yet it is well to remember them with joy rather than regret. I will treasure in my heart my friend’s funny emails and his amazing adventures. He was a unique character with a huge, loving heart and a mission to try to help every woebegone that crossed his path whether or not they deserved to be helped. He also had a way of getting into trouble. As well he had several bad habits, one of which resulted in his premature death. Rather than blame him for his foolishness I will bless him for his courage in pursuing his life the way he wanted to—whether I thought it was a good way or not.

When you live a long life as I have, you do “lose” people that you have, for one reason or another, outlived. Whether these were members of your family or your friends, along with the current grief the sadness of their passing may easily come to mind. In addition, in our lives there are other instances of departure or absence: the job we didn’t take or did, the home we bought or didn’t, the gift we meant to give, even the words that went unsaid or the ones we wish we had not spoken. The grief engendered by regrets small and large can consume us if we let it.

It is important for us to grieve and let go. It is vital not to carry these burdens any longer than necessary. There is a Zen story of two monks who came to a stream where they found a woman who was afraid to cross it. One monk picked her up, carried her over the stream and set her down. As they continued, his brother monk began to berate him for touching a woman’s body. Finally the first monk turned to his friend and said, “I set the woman down a while ago. You are still carrying her.”  There is no need to carry our grief endlessly. We can let it be on a shelf in our memories and then once in a while, go back and pat it, and say, “How are you doing, old friend?” And then go on to find a happy memory to continue on with.

Dealing with Anticipation

Flower -1 bud  The appointment for my hip surgery was made more than three months ago. Now its time has come. While I feel positive about the outcome of the experience, I also feel a tiny bit apprehensive. Everything I have heard about the surgery from those who have had it done has been good. I even ran into someone who had the procedure done by the same doctor I have and she said hers had gone wonderfully and she was very pleased.

However, my mind has been twirling around the upcoming surgery for all the months I have been waiting. My thoughts have revolved endlessly about what I will be unable to do and for how long, as well as what I will need to have prepared and so forth and so on. Now as one who tries hard to be in the present moment as much of the time as possible, this has been a real teaching situation. Present moment mindfulness is not something to be practiced only during meditation. It is a frame of mind to be kept in place all through the day.

I once met a man who said, “Whenever I think about what is upcoming, and dread it, it always seems much worse than it turns out to be.” The fear of the unknown is what drives the dread. The silly part is that anticipation has no actual basis in fact, and therefore it  is inaccurate. Only when the experience has arrived can it be truly judged. Otherwise its truth is obscured by what we feel rather than whatever the facts may be.

There is an acronym for fear that reads: “False Evidence Appearing Real.” This is a good description of fear. The so called evidence is usually a product of our active imagination, warnings by people who are trying to be helpful, past experience that may not be applicable here, or feelings of inadequacy. When we think about what is upcoming if we can recognize this for ourselves we can think about it in a more positive way.

As a child I used to enjoy anticipation. I would think about going to the circus, something that happened once a year, with great joy. I looked forward to going to the library to get a pile of new books to read. An avid reader, I often devoured a book a day whenever I could manage to get the time to do so. School vacations were a great source of anticipation. Before they arrived they always seemed to stretch out invitingly and even when they were over there were more to be looked forward to

There was one form of anticipation that was unpleasant. That was when I had done something I shouldn’t and my mother would say, “Wait ’til your father gets home!” Even though he was a kind man, I knew whatever punishment was coming would be more severe if he administered it. My anticipation of the surgery is not with dread, however, but with joy. I look forward to more mobility, less pain and a better sleep at night. Meanwhile I am trying hard to stay as focused as possible on the present moment.

 

Small Blessings Bring Joy

Dandelion and pebblesKittens grow up and become cats. They learn to use their claws on the furniture, and then they reach a point where if we do not pay attention, they may produce more kittens. Snow falls, gets turned by snowmen by eager, mittened fingers, and then when the sun comes out and the cold retreats, they melt. I wash the dishes, polish up the burners on the stove and sigh, remembering that there will soon be more dishes to wash and something will fall on the cooking surface and smell of burning if I don’t notice it before I begin to cook again.

It is important to me to take notice of how nice it is to have an empty sink and a clean stove. If all I do is think about doing it over again I will miss the feeling of how nice it is to have done with my small tasks. They can become routine, done without thinking, and without appreciation for the effort as well as for the result. When I take the time to notice, I feel better about myself and about my life in general.

When spring comes and the first bluebells and crocuses poke up through the thawed ground, how wonderful it is. We say, “Spring is here.” And it is. Yet spring turns to summer. Then we rejoice in the longer days and firefly strewn nights, until the hours of daylight begin to shorten again. Fall’s bounty of color comes and then goes.  It is good to appreciate what we have while we have it because as a wise teacher of mine used to say, the only constant is change.

It’s easy to take for granted small blessings that pass quickly. We do it all the time without thinking. We’re actually more likely to take notice of what is wrong than what is right. I’ve read that our brains are wired that way for self-preservation. It’s important to make note of the danger lurking nearby—is that a wild beast? Or see the car coming a little too fast as we are about to cross the street. However, our built in warning system can override our joy.

Just recently the wild roses bloomed. Their sweet smell permeated the air by my back porch. I made sure to take time to enjoy their scent. Now the petals have turned brown and I have to wait until next year to enjoy them again. Still, I do have the memory, and although it does not have an actual scent, it can still bring back the pleasure of what I enjoyed when the petals were fresh.

If I am focused on regret because the roses have passed, it is more difficult for me to remember the joy they brought me. As well, I might not be able to take advantage of some new and pleasant experience that could await my notice. Small blessings do not announce their presence with a shout but rather with a whisper. The bright dandelion by the side of a building might go unseen and unappreciated if I am not aware of its gift. If I am only looking at the trash around it, I might not see it all. Small blessings bring joy.

Remembering to be Thankful

Laura Dove A         While at Thanksgiving we are reminded to be grateful, that is surely not the only time to do so. it is vital to remember to be thankful frequently each and every day of our lives. For some time now I have begun and ended each day with this little prayer: “Thank you for this day and for all my days.” As often as possible each and every day I remind myself to acknowledge my gratitude for any good experience and even those that might not have been so good, because of the knowledge gained.

Recently we were saddened to hear of a friend who died suddenly and unexpectedly just as she was starting a new life with her spouse. Within the past few weeks we have heard news of other friends who are ill or whose lives have been disturbed or changed for the worse. Each time I hear such things, while I say a prayer for those affected, I am also reminded to be grateful for my relatively tranquil, happy life. In this present moment I have so much to be thankful for. When I survey my daily life, even with all its ups and downs, I am reminded to express that gratitude.

My late newspaper editor used to say, “Health is wealth.” How right he was. What are a few aches and pains compared to long term, probably painful illness or worse, an approaching end to life? What’s a broken washer compared to the loss of a parent or of a dear friend? It is so easy to take one’s blessings for granted, to think of them as ordinary or just a part of life. There is an old saying, “I complained because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.” While I am thankful for what I have, I am also grateful for what I do not have to endure.

There is such joy to be had in a tasty breakfast of a Sunday morning shared with one’s partner. Were this scene to end suddenly and abruptly I would deeply regret having lost even a moment of our time together through inattention . There is no way to know ahead when one’s end will come, when all of a sudden there will be no more time. I have read of a Native American tradition to greet each day with the phrase, “This is a good day to die.” Some might think this is a morbid attitude. To me it says, “Pay attention, live fully in this and every moment.”

Quite simply, though we don’t like to think about it, we begin to die the day we are born. With the increase in medical knowledge the life span of human beings has been greatly extended, still one day life will end for us all. One of the benefits of mindfulness meditation is that when it is practiced, it becomes easier to pay attention. I am grateful for this practice and to the teacher that taught it to me. It behooves us all to remember that every moment we have whether uncomfortable or comfortable, sad or happy, sour or sweet is a precious gift to treasure and to be thankful for.

Mothers are Everywhere and Always

Family women 1989My mother did not have good training for the task of mothering. Her mother was the wife of a diplomat and spent her days doing what she needed to do to support my mother’s father in his position. Her children were cared for by nursemaids and tutors. I knew her briefly: a proper, formal woman who came to live briefly in the states in the late forties. I was a young teen at the time, not very interested in this elderly person. Now of course I wish I had asked her more about her life. She returned to Germany and passed on soon after. Ill prepared as she was, my mother did the best she could, and I honor her for it.

When I think of the word mother, I envision a womanly figure with her arms around a child, though not necessarily her child.  Many women without children do their share of mothering. One definition of mothering is taking care of or caring for someone. The nature of the caring embraces many actions. A mother cat keeps her kittens close, yet disciplines them as well. A human mother hugs her child and also disciplines that child—hopefully in a loving manner. Mothers of all kinds help children learn limits and learn to respect them.

Growing up, I was fortunate in being given a great deal of unlimited physical freedom. Nobody minded when I climbed trees or played explorer in the marshes behind our home. As long as I stayed on the property I could do as I liked. The few times I ventured off I was punished. However, my punishments were not cruel, only restrictive: being confined to my room for a long period. I’m sure my mother kept an ear out for me while I played, in case I needed her. She was at home with me and my siblings. Today’s mothers are fortunate if they can do that. In some respects not being able to makes mothering harder now.

I went on to have children of my own; all of my girls are now mothers themselves. Sometimes they need me to mother them; sometimes they even mother me. Mothering does not end when the child is an adult. However as many a mother must discover, mothering must be modified if one does not wish to annoy one’s children. There is a fine line between caring for someone you love and overdoing it: smothering versus mothering. Kindness is defined by how it affects the recipient; helicopter parenting, as it is called can have negative results of all kinds. Limits are for parents as well as for children.

Teachers mother students; some animals have been known to mother young ones not of their kind; I was comforted by the trees I spent hours sitting in– reading, and writing poems. Mothering is of the heart–the heart of the receiver as well as the giver. A difficult childhood results when the mother is unhappy or ill prepared for motherhood. It is easier to judge one’s childhood experience as an adult. Also, not only women can mother. Men can as well. I see them, infants on their backs or in a stroller, tending little ones in a loving manner. On this Mothers’ Day In my heart I honor all those who have mothered me, and I am grateful to each and every one.

Love Has Many Forms and Faces

Stephen and Tasha by Kim 3          One of the more famous of the poems Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to her Robert as they fell in love begins, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” It has always been a favorite of mine. I even set it to music and played it on my guitar in the days I sang in coffee houses and for parties.  Love can be given in many ways, and all of them are valid and special because each person has his or her own way of giving love. When I pay attention and see how love is given, it is a wonderful lesson to be cherished. Watch very small children; toddlers give us wonderful examples of the giving of unconditional love.

The gifts of love are so special. My home has loving presents from friends and family that come from their love and I cherish the giver as I see, wear, or use them. The kind words I hear, or receive in emails or cards and letters never fail to warm my heart. The love I have shared with my beloved husband for nearly forty years is an important part of my every day experience. I think of him as my always valentine. Love whether brotherly, romantic or spiritual nourishes my heart as well as the heart of us all.

Valentines’ day is an annual reminder that love is a vital part of our lives. I know that as I live with love and give it, I grow happier and more content. A wise teacher once told me, “You don’t have to like everyone but you must love everyone.” When I first heard this I thought a lot about what it meant. How do I love everyone? Especially how do I love those that annoy, irritate or even do awful things, whether to me or to others? In time I have taught myself to do this. I learned how as I grew more aware when I wasn’t loving and deliberately corrected myself, replacing criticism with unconditional love. I am still learning.

When I practice unconditional love, love without judgment and with compassion, even unlikable people can be loved. I don’t have to like them, or like how they act. Nor do I have to approve of anything about them. I can simply open my heart and see them as another human being, however troubled or awful, and envision them surrounded in the light of love. If I feel they ought to be punished I can say I hope they get what they deserve, without specifying.

When my children were small and had been naughty, I might not have liked their behavior yet though I might punish them, I loved them all the same. Often their bad behavior came from ignorance or was a test of boundaries. When I make an effort not to judge another person regardless how I might feel about them, I enhance my ability to give that kind of love. Unconditional love grows from practice. Just as I could punish my child’s bad behavior and love them still, I can give my unconditional love to anyone, and as to punishment, that’s not my job. I can have faith that eventually what goes around will come around, and sooner or later, so it will.

The Graciousness of Trees

Down to her frillies 3

I grew up climbing trees. I loved to sit in them to read, and later when I was a teen, sneak up and smoke a stolen cigarette while reading. I appreciated their bounty too, as well as their presence. The many kinds of apples in my grandfather’s small orchard, the four kinds of pear trees in the garden, the raspberry bushes I was allowed to pick from were an important part of my growing up. I was always surrounded by growth and nature.

I realize now that I was extremely fortunate in having this small territory belonging to my family in which to adventure. Safely ensconced on the outskirts of a small town, the land where I grew up had originally been developed and built on by my great grandfather, an amateur horticulturalist. He died before I was born, so I never knew him. However I grew up with its many and various trees as well as the fruit trees, the lilacs and the roses he planted.

His gardens were extensive. His daughter, my Great Aunt Alice with the help of a gardener kept it all going. He certainly had plenty to do, and occasionally had another man to help him. The chickens provided fertilizer and the vegetables were very tasty.

Most fortunately I had the freedom of a good number of acres to roam around in as I pleased. I was given this from the age of around six or so, and I felt quite safe and free. There were lots of kinds of trees to climb. To my mother’s despair I probably ruined more clothes than the average girl, tearing them on branches or staining them with pine pitch and bark. I lived in the country and there were no neighboring children for me to play with. It was as though the trees I climbed and played around were my big friends. I have always been grateful for their company.

My father was a horticulturist by profession. Working for a tree company he supervised the care of the trees and plantings of his many clients.  He would have  the recent articles about how trees communicate with one another and even how they protect one another from invasion by noxious insects. Trees, like animals, deserve more of our respect than they have had in the past. Researchers estimate that if every city dweller spent just 30 minutes per week in nature, depression cases could be reduced by 7 percent.

Trees provide for life on earth, and have been influential in its evolution from the beginning of life here. Scientists have lately begun to understand more about trees’ ecology, studying the way they learn to survive and to thrive in difficult conditions. As we have learned that animals, birds and even insects exhibit signs of intelligence through their behaviors and use of tools, we have gained in respect for them. Now it is the turn of trees. Grinding them up to make paper may become a thing of the past. Trees are sentient beings and perhaps one day we may even learn to speak their language.