A recent feature reported by Susan Spencer on CBS Sunday Morning entitled “Can Money Buy Happiness” included mention of a 2002 New Yorker cartoon by Eric Lewis. It shows an old man on his deathbed, saying to his about to be bereaved, “I should have bought more crap.” It made me laugh, as I am once again in the unpleasant process of attempting to pare down, at least a little.
It also made me think about how I am currently spending much of my time, and as I pack for eBay shipments, I’ve been considering my personal cartoon captions:
I should have…
taken more selfies
driven better stats
watched more news
The possibility for ludicrous (but eye-opening) memes is endless. While writing this, another cartoon by Eric Lewis, published in the New Yorker in 2013, caught my attention: it shows the grim reaper knocking on a front door, saying “Take a wild guess, butter boy.”
I do hope life continues to be entertaining.
I’m generally good at being polite, and when I think about it, being grateful as well. I’m certainly thankful for family, friends, good health, and my home. But some time ago I heard about Naikan Reflection, and remembered that it offered a somewhat different approach to thinking about gratitude.
In looking for a definition of naikan, I found the todoinstitute.org. The site explains that a Japanese Buddhist, Yoshimoto Ishin, developed a meditation method he felt would be accessible, and named it Naikan, a Japanese word for introspection. While any meditation practice requires understanding that I don’t presume to represent here, I found Naikan’s suggested reflection questions useful:
What did I receive from others today?
What did I give to others today?
What troubles and difficulties did I cause today?
It doesn’t take much time before sleep to ask myself these questions. When I really think about the details of my day, I find I have always been given courtesies and considerations that didn’t get my full attention, and had pleasurable moments I didn’t fully savor. Am I thoughtful and generous to others? Maybe not so much. Did I cause harm or hurt feelings? I hope not, but perhaps I was distracted, inattentive, careless in a response. You get it.
I am usually aware of and thankful for big things; paying attention to smaller ones broadens my gratitude scope. This Thanksgiving week and beyond, I’m going to try to think small.
My TV is off, I have removed all news feeds and social media links from my phone and computers, and I’m going to make a daily effort to look more closely at the truly irreplaceable things in my life.
It’s a question to take seriously, and I found my answers troubling. My favorite pundit and “truth seeker”, David Brooks, spoke about trust (and lack thereof) in a recent interview. He expressed concern (if my interpretation is correct) about the general lack of trust that seems to be spreading across our culture and the corrosive negativity dripping into our collective psyche from that lack of trust. Who do you trust, and why?
Brooks seems to believe that trust is necessary for a society to successfully function and grow, and that trust most easily finds a foothold at the community level, from connections such as those with which we used to be more familiar, when we lived in closer contact with more personal interactions. I remember having a professional relationship with a banker, for example, and we knew one another by name. Now I feel as though I become more invisible by day, in every way. Is this an undercurrent of the societal upheaval we seem to be experiencing, I wonder? Lack of trust?
I had an interesting adventure this past month, in keeping with this subject. We went on a tour, on a bus, with 30 strangers from 6 countries. All had chosen to change from usual pursuits and tolerate one another for a period of time for different reasons. On a tour, for a minimum of 14 days, there’s little getting away from one another. Cultures were expressed among us in different ways. We were completely at the mercy of two strangers in particular: the tour director who set our requirements, and the coach driver who was challenged by hazardous driving conditions daily. The entire experience required trust.
The start of a tour, in our experience, is wary, and fraught with unsettling first impressions. It’s like the start of summer camp, or jury duty. Group standards have to be established and managed (which is the responsibility of the tour director), but participants have to buy into the program. There is peer pressure for accountability and responsibility. Interaction is forced immediately, ready or not.
As information replaces uncertainty, and experience rises to expectations, we begin to relax. Facades fade, we start to exchange stories from our own cultural experiences, while new shared events subtly create group cohesion. It’s a powerful dynamic to witness, as “me” morphs into “we”.
On tour we listen, we are respectful, we compromise, we learn that our way is not the only way, nor the best way, and we are reminded to laugh. We find that everything doesn’t go as we might wish, and that we need to be prepared for changing conditions. We experience tedious times between dramatic times. We find it’s not important to be first in line. We actually develop a small community among complete strangers, committed to the common goal of a pleasant experience, nurtured by trust and support.
What does it take to earn trust, and what do you have to do participate in developing it? It’s a much harder question to answer at home than on tour, but I’m grateful that our tour reminded me of how trust feels, and it’s value.
Literally and figuratively, I’ve been mentally and physically slow of late. Seasonal syndrome? Perhaps. Groundhog day syndrome? Perhaps. Simply overwhelmed by news and campaign negativity? Highly likely. I know it happens to all of us, but I also know I’m luckier than many to be able to roust and revive by getting on a plane.
I went back to San Miguel de Allende, that beautiful colonial town in the mountains of central Mexico. Their 11th Annual International Writers’ Conference & Literary Festival was underway, and over the week I heard Gail Sheehy, Joyce Carol Oates, Scott Simon, Luis Urrea and John Perkins talk about their lives, their books, their philosophies and their concerns; wonderful writers and speakers, with the talent to transport others to higher ground. My oh my.
In between intellectual pursuits, all I needed to do was walk about town with my camera to be revived. Perhaps colonial Mexico is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly is mine. It satisfies my longings for color and charm, good food, intersection with interesting fellow travelers, and the opportunity to join in a variety of activities for language and art immersion.
Among my pursuits, I chose an iPhone photo walk with Gracie, (http://photowalksanmiguel.com) and was re-introduced to Snapseed 2 by Google, an app I had downloaded ages ago and thereafter ignored. I‘m now hooked; it creates magic from the mundane with the click of a button or two. My oh my.
On Ash Wednesday, I sat with a table of friendly, chatty strangers from all over the world at St. Paul’s Anglican Church while we rolled those ubiquitous plastic trash bags that are destroying the environment of so many countries, into little tiny balls. Over the course of two hours we compacted enough of them (it takes about 2,000 balls) to stuff into a pre-sewn waterproof fabric cover, creating a child’s mattress. In nearby villages, these mattresses lift kids from damp dirt floors and ground crawling creatures, and are welcomed. It was a satisfying morning.
Am I “cured” of my malaise? I suppose not. Energy and interests wax and wane. But I do know how to alleviate it with Mexican medicine.
While mentally outlining my usual and fleeting notions of losing weight, exercising more, and becoming a more thoughtful person, I was interrupted by reading Howard Thurman’s “The Mood of Christmas” to reconsider my resolutions. (Thurman, according to Wikipedia, was an American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Chapel at Howard and Boston Universities, wrote 21 books, and cofounded San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first integrated, interfaith religious congregation in the United States. He died in 1981.) I think he got “the work of Christmas” right.
I visited San Miguel de Allende for their Dias de los Muertos celebrations this year, not for the first (nor hopefully the last) time. San Miguel is a beautiful small city in central Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its preserved 17th and 18th century town center and many lovely churches. The Centro area a feast for the eye, colorful and very walkable; no car is necessary or desirable to fully enjoy it.
The Day(s) of the Dead festivities may be underway much in advance of their observance, but evidence of preparations become public on All Hallows Eve (Halloween) as private altars (oftendas) appear in homes, stores, and on the streets around town. In Mexico, All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) focus on the remembrance of family members and friends who have died, and the bonds that continue to be held between the spirits of the living and the dead. Families go to cemeteries to clean and decorate the graves of the deceased, covering them with marigolds (the flowers of the dead), muertos (bread of the dead), and favorite foods, drinks and possessions of those who are gone. Some grave adornments are incredibly elaborate, some very simple, and it is common to see family members surrounding a grave site, accompanied by a mariachi band to help celebrate the life of their loved one. A priest may be summoned for graveside prayers, and picnics permit staying and visiting with the dead for as long as one wishes.
The private altars that are built around town encourage a visit from those living in the spirit world, and include elements important to an invitation to return: water for the soul’s thirst, salt to purify the soul and frighten away bad spirits, candles to guide the soul to its old home, flowers, sugar in the form of skulls or favorite animals, cut paper decorations, fruits and nuts, traditional foods, and photos of the deceased. The altars are all very personal, and quite beautiful.
These festivities are said to be based on ancient cultural practices which have become blended over time with local religious traditions. I loved the observance, and admired the sense of celebration offered as an affirmation of the mystical experience connecting life and death, in contrast to the tradition of cultural denial with which I am most familiar.
More photos are available through Flickr link.