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Is Zoom a Reliable Alibi?

One of the joys of the Shutdown has been discovering crime dramas on what used to be mysterious and unclicked words on my TV screen. The series of murder mysteries on MHZ, Hulu, Britbox and Acorn are not necessarily formulaic, but they have one major scene in common: the detective always asks if the suspect was elsewhere on the night of; and if there are witnesses to the alibi.

I had an alibi last Sunday. The Shutdown service at my church was livestreamed into an adequate eleven-inch computer screen propped up on the desk in my bedroom. The sermon struck the taut chords in my silent mouth and unclapped hands. I needed a collection of witnesses to shout “Amen!” to Pastor Shannon’s sermon. But I was alone, looking out the elsewhere window weeping over the no-one. No one to join in a standing ovation, no one to see and no one to see me.

After the sermon I sang along with the tinny music emanating from the computer; an old hymn I love:

Live into hope of captives freed

From chains of fear or want or greed.

God now proclaims our full release

To faith and hope and joy and peace.

Halfway through I shuttered with a renewed and deeper knowing that I’d never attend a church service in person again. The pandemic Shutdown will hold me captive in chains of fear until the end of my days. Groups, especially singing groups are out of the question for my old bones in these non-vaccine days. 

I won’t observe Pastor Matt’s infant grow from a toddler to a Sunday schooler. He’ll never again see me ooh and ahh in the delight of his fatherhood. I’ll never sneak into an early morning service in my pajamas (hidden under a long winter coat), to hear Pastor Rocky again. And he’ll never see me admiring him in the way of a proud mother. Gabrielle and I will never again join arms, run up to Pastor Shannon after the service and proclaim our undying gratitude for her ministry. And she will never see the reflected glow of our admiring faces in the pews.

crrub140320Albert Einstein once posed a question to a fellow physicist, “Do you really believe that the moon only exists if you look at it?” It’s a common philosophical question, similar to
the sophomoric, “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”. In morning meditation I intentionally ask myself if I’m hearing sound or “thoughts of sound” as a way to go deeper, where there is no sound.

Intentional solitude is not the same however as the feelings of isolation that arise from the existential supposing, “If I’m neither heard nor seen, do I exist?” Responding to covid requires an abrupt “so long” to a group existence I wasn’t ready to leave. In an alternate elsewhere life, witnesses see and hear me on Zoom.

Is this a reliable alibi?

 

Shutdown Week 7: Unknowing

Shutdown Week 7: Unknowing

The first change I faced for the Covid 19 shutdown was the suspension of classes and groups for older adults at the Center for Life and Learning (CLL) in my neighborhood church. The cancellation announcement infuriated me. For an entire day, I thought it was the only shutdown announcement, the only group activity suspended.

The media had been continually reporting that people over sixty were more vulnerable to coronovirus than the rest of the population. Shutting us down was our best protection. My wounded ego jumped to the conclusion that we, as a group, would be thought of as weak, defeated and sick, putting a frame around the ageism I struggle to define in myself

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Mammoth Mountain Sky by Sharon Schock Sharonschock.com

 

and in the public square. I stuck myself in a cloud of unknowing.

It was mid-March. I bundled up to walk a long way around to the church for the last event before the shutdown, the CLL yearly Art Show.

How to express my agitation?  Old people were being singled out. Excluded.

That’s when I ran into one of the pastors on his way down the street to the Red Line.

“We’re cancelling services.” He said.

“Huh? How long?”

“Unknown. It’s all going to be livestream. We have to figure out Zoom for other gatherings.”

His worried expression hit me like a ton of bricks. He didn’t crack his normal smile, nor did he put a jokey spin on the situation.

“It’s serious.” He said.

“So, It’s not just old people?”

At the Art Show I gathered with friends and reported the news .

No Sunday services. 

I eavesdropped on other conversations. Eavesdropping has become one of the social distancing casualties I miss the most.

“They say we might have classes on Zoom.”

“What’s Zoom?”

“Some kind of computer conferenceing.”

“I’m not doing that. I’m sick of technology.”

“Me too. I don’t want to learn anything new.”

“Well, it won’t be for long. Maybe a week. Maybe two.”

We’re in the seventh week now.

I fell victim to the fear of the unknown and refused to learn Zoom for about six days. But I longed for the energy of the collective silence in my meditation group. Others did too and meditation became the first Zoom hosted by CLL.

About fifteen of us spend twenty minutes each Monday and Friday sitting in silence in our Hollywood Squares with our eyes closed. Afterwards we each say a few brief words. We know a smattering of particulars about each other.

What could I possibly miss that I can’t do on my own?

In The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth century monk teaches when we know enough and we don’t need to know more, an opening through the clouds to the sun or the moon brings us to an endless, wordless, deeper knowing. Contemplatives call this love.

This is why I yearn to sit in silence with fellow meditators. We know each other through the clouds of our own wordless unknowing. I call this love.

Shutdown Week 6: Solitude

Shutdown Week 6: Solitude

The coronavirus shutdown forces me to sit in silent contemplation, doing my best to control the one thing I think I can—my thoughts.

American buddhists say people in the West are afraid of solitude, of being alone.              That’s not my fear.                                                                                                                                  I fear the future.                                                                                                                               When the threat of coronavirus is over, will I ever leave home again?                                  Will I ever chance gathering with friends or strangers in a group for a common purpose, a protest march, choir practice, church, AA meetings?                                                            Lunch even?                                                                                                                                        How would I fit into the world with no connection outside of myself and Henry the dog? What would be my purpose?                                                                                                             No wonder loneliness shortens life.                                                                                                     It will kill you, this lack of purpose.                                                                                          

Hmm. Two fast-walkers below my window dressed head to toe in black spandex, masked like bandits.                                                                                                                                        What are they talking about?                                                                                                           Are they planning to rob the bank on the corner?                                                                        Do they know the polar ice cap is melting and will soon spill over into Michigan Avenue? Perhaps they’re headed to Northwestern to get tested for coronavirus.                                      I hope they bow to the angels fluttering around the Emergency Room.

Down the street gardeners dig up winter to plant spring by the goldfish pond.                    Those goldfish swam around that manmade pond the entire winter. 

                     

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Out with winter. In with spring

Blackbirds jump from branch to branch on the budding leafless tress awaiting the gardeners’ departure.                                                                                                                       They swoop in for a scratch-around in the fresh mulch, but ignore the goldfish.           They’re not fishers.

The backup whistle on the garbage truck that normally blends in with early morning noise?                                                                                                                                                         It now pierces the street from the otherwise empty alley.                                                         Cars are so infrequent these days that instead of tires rolling over the road with a steady hum, their sound breaks the air with a hiss. hiss. hiss.                                                          Where are they going?                                                                                                                              If I had a car I’d be driving around too.                                                                                            I’d drive up and down the Drive to be close to my own wild lake.                                                The mayor closed the lake path and parks for good reason.                                                 Chicago loves to be out.                                                                                                                       We’d gather there, on the lakefront, congregate.                                                                     Spread the virus.

Those words are my thoughts from five minutes of meditation. This is how I talk to myself. How embarrassing. My interior life is a tragic waste of imagination—that grammar, those articles, prepositions and pronouns. The mundane. Oh, to be a poet.

On Being’s Krista Tippett hosted Stephen Batchelor, a Tibetan Buddhist on Sunday morning. His new book, The Art of Solitude, made a fitting subject for the Shutdown era. He said indulging in myself leads to inward wisdom and outward compassion. The integration of the two make me fully human. I’m game to be fully human, to be wise and compassionate.

But for now, I must get control of my thoughts.

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Alone on Oak Street Chicago 11:00 am April 27, 2020

_________________________________________________________________________

Before Coronavirus We Were Dying of Loneliness 

On Being: Stephen Batchelor: Finding Ease  in Aloneness

 

 

Shut Down Week 2

Nothing’s changed in my one-bedroom condo.

I wake up frozen in fear. My old Ikea down comforter shrouds my body. Before peeking out at the same world I fell asleep in, I breathe in and say, “The troubles of the world don’t own me.” I breathe out and say, “I don’t own the troubles of the world.” After twenty or thirty minutes forcing my mind back to this cushioning mantra, I go to my computer for the latest messages and news about friends impacted by the coronovirus.

At the hospital, a friend is off a ventilator and in for a long recovery, thanking those around him for saving his life. The Panama Canal Authoirty finally approved passage of a cruise ship that had been stranded off the coast of Chile, shunned at every port. Four people died onboard, and my friend, healthy but worried is locked down in a cabin with no windows and scant information. 

IMG_4785Henry jumps around to say he’s ready to go out and read his drizzled mail on the low hanging boxwood branches. There’s a shift on the sidewalk; less people than the day before, fewer parked cars, more birds. And Henry makes less and less whiffer stops. His friends must be on a later schedule, sleeping in. It’s the second week after all.

We pause at a neglected sidewalk garden, elevated in a bas-relief concrete trough. In there a crow pecks at dead twigs and tendrils from last year’s plantings. We’re not more than ten feet from her. She drops a brittle stick on the cement ledge, plunks a claw down on one end, grabs the other end and pulls up, breaking off a piece of nesting material. Gathering a few more right-sized pieces she jumps down and walks across the empty street with a full beak. Henry is nonchalant, as if she were just another member of the family. Dogs have a way of knowing. They read souls.

Around the corner, we stop to watch workmen covering another couture clothing shop with sheets of plywood. Pretty soon the whole street will look like a war zone of boarded up storefronts. Crows caw overhead. It’s our mother and her kin squawking about the lack of garbage pickings in the alleys behind the shut-down restaurants.

Back home you’d never know Chicago is on STAY-AT-HOME orders from the mayor unless you open the freezer and see 25 frozen Mac ’n’ Cheeses from Trader Joe’s. Other than that, nothing’s changed inside. I spend the whole day in hysterics laughing at jokes, memes and cartoons that people send me and post online. At first there were all dog jokes, like two dogs looking at a couch full of papers and a computer. One says to the other, “Do you think we’ll ever get our couch back?” The other says, “I think it’s going to
be a couple of weeks.”

After that, there were husband and wife jokes, like the photo of a woman knitting aIMG_5462 noose for her husband. And one of a woman digging a grave in the garden. Now I’m getting a lot of jokes with swear words:

Today the devil whispered in my ear, “You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.”

And I whispered back, “Six feet, motherfucker.”

That’s another way of saying the troubles of the world don’t own me. I don’t own the troubles of the world.

Hard Truth: 50% of the People You Meet Don’t Like You.

50% of the people you meet don’t like you.

Huh?

Yeah, that’s right. And guess what? 50% of the people you meet you don’t like.

But I like everybody and everybody likes me.

Nope. They don’t. You don’t.

The lady at church in St. John’s knit, pearls and Ferragamo flats? Does she ever say hello? How about the guy who leads the meditation group? He preaches mindfulnesss but stops short when it’s time to tune in to you.

And you? Do you really like the lady in the lunch group with her pinched red lips that never stop moving?

Ok. Ok. But 50%? I think I like 75% and 75% like me.

No. They. Don’t.

The truth of it? The guy in the park who stands up and gives you his seat? He hugs you just so he can feel your boobs. You hate that but you’re nice to him ‘cause you think he likes you.

Get it?

Ancestral Tree Worship and Carl Jung

Ancestral Tree Worship and Carl Jung
A crow caws in the gingko tree on the corner. The rising sun shines through the outdoor tree branches. Their shadows dapple my bedroom walls.

I wake early to catch the glory of each day’s wall art, to meditate with the trees in their seasons. Outside, Ozzy the dog and I stop long enough under the gingko tree to allow its fanning leaves to breathe a fresh day into our early morning walk.

th-1My favorite place is anywhere there are trees.

I love them for all the usual reasons: pretty, green, shade. The deciding factor on my condo purchase 15 years ago was the swaying branches outside the wall-to-wall windows. My home is on the 3rd floor of a 20-story high-rise overlooking Lake Michigan. When I first saw the place, the three ash trees in the parkway had reached a height equal to the 4th floor.

It was like living in a treehouse.th-3

Last year the City of Chicago’s Forestry crews euthanized my treehouse. The ashes were slowly killing themselves by feeding Emerald Ash Borers, those exotic hungry beetles from Asia. I mourn my ash trees. I thought they were immortal.

My mother, Agnes, taught me the pragmatism of trees. Stacy was born 11 years after me, and Agnes insisted I walk my baby sister around on sunny days. Her constant reminder stays with me, “Be sure you stop under the trees so the baby can see the shadows swaying.”

“Women should always have babies in the beginning of summer,” Agnes often said, “in case they are colicky, they will be soothed by leaves swaying in the trees.” She muttered “idiot” under her breath anytime another mother announced the birth of a baby in any month other than early summer.

And indeed, three of her four babies were born in May, June and July. She pretended she planned it that way.

My one and only baby, Joe, was born in May. His 1st summer was spent on his back under the trees outside in a baby carriage. Inside, he spent his time in a crib under a window of trees, syncopating his first gurgles with the sound of leaves rubbing together in the breeze.

Agnes was right about nature’s tranquilizer for infants, but she never claimed it worked for adults. She wouldn’t have been caught dead contributing such unsophisticated, sappy remedies to adult conversations. Her tranquilizers were beer and scotch and later, valium. She spent some of the last years of her life demented from these potions and gazing at the trees in verdant Vermont.604909-44011-10

Trees soothe me anywhere, in any season. Joe absorbs tree balm while minding his wooded property. Carl Jung tells us Agnes simply passed on the inheritance – the collective unconscious of Irish tree worship that supposes tree fairies live in high branches watching over us. My mother’s life was rooted in addiction that mimicked a life-sucking aphid. Yet, she uttered words that gave me and my son our love for trees, a priceless, ancient, tranquilizing inheritance.

The Big Lie: Catholic Hell

The Big Lie: Catholic Hell

In every one of the thirteen grade schools I attended in the 1950’s, Catholic nuns taught me about Heaven and Hell, including the nugget that Heaven was only for Catholics, but there was no guarantee I’d go there. From the age of six I knew if I, as a Catholic, died with a “mortal” sin on my soul, I’d go to Hell, or perhaps Purgatory, the halfway house to Heaven.

This teaching dwelled in the official Catholic textbook for American children used from 1885 to the late 1960s, the Baltimore Catechism. Theth-2 Catholic Church denied that physical Heaven, Hell and Purgatory are part of Church doctrine, long before the Pope declared in 1999 that heaven and hell were “primarily eternal states of consciousness more than geographical places of later reward and punishment”. But that turnaround came after these medieval lies were grafted onto sapling children like me.

The only non-Catholics I knew as a child were our babysitters. I always felt sorry for them because they were headed straight to Hell when they died. In 1957 when I saw a TV ad for Old Orchard Shopping Center, I asked my mother, “where’s Skokie?” “That’s where all the Jews live,” she answered. At 11 years old, I didn’t know there were Jews alive in the world. I thought they were all burning in Hell.

I’ve come to believe that my own personal heaven and hell do exist. I visit hell whenever I relive the last time I got sober forty years ago, or when I regret insensitive words I spoke five minutes ago. And heaven appears when my 10-year-old grandson texts me photos of his lizard.

At the suggestion of my fellow seeker Terry, I crammed into the O’Hare Hilton with 1,000 other souls one weekend in 2012 for a retreat, “Transforming the World through Meditation” with Franciscan Richard Rohr and Benedictine Laurence Freeman, two men I’d never heard of. I had started meditating a few months prior in a Buddhist group and asked Terry if she knew any Christian meditation groups.

In addressing heaven and hell, Rohr said the ego prefers winners and losers. He offhandedly mused that if Jesus descended into hell, as it says in Church doctrine, than there is no more hell because, ”Hell cannot exist in the light of God.” I lost my breath, sprung out of my seat and staggered to the door for air.  A volunteer brought me a chair and water. “Raised Catholic?” I nodded yes. “Yeah, this happens a lot.”

If my subterranean soul had known all my life that I wouldn’t go to Hell for attempting suicide or stealing pens from the office, if I had known all non-Catholics were not doomed to go to Hell; I would have been a better friend to Jesus. I didn’t know my nature was adolescent, fertilized with dead ideas about Hell, sprouting false judgements on myself and everyone I knew.

Uncovering the lie is heaven indeed.

“Get Off the Bus” by Annette Bacon

“Get Off the Bus”  by Annette Bacon

Get Off the Bus

th-1I made the 146 bus after a quick run and put my Ventra card on the reader. It did not beep so I tried it several times. The driver said that I had an 85 cents negative balance. I apologized and said that I only had a ten and a twenty. She said I needed to get off the bus. I started to leave and this guy shouted, “Don’t, you do not have to get off the bus. I am calling the CTA.” “She can’t throw an elderly person off the bus due to lack of funds.” People were staring at us and I decided to get off. I ran across the street to my garage and took some quarters out of my car. I ran back to the bus stop as the other 146 bus had arrived. I put the quarters in the money holder. I looked up and saw the people from the first bus getting on. The bus driver said, “What’s happening?” “Thth-3e bus behind me is empty.”

The same guy that was yelling on the other bus said, “I’ll tell you what happened, the other bus driver threw this elderly woman off the bus and that is against the law, so I called the CTA. And there she is!” He was pointing right at me. I cringed again and tried to pretend I was reading. The same guy called a friend and said the whole story again so loud I could hardly stand it. He ended the phone call with,“And I told the CTA I want this bus driver relieved of her duties. She did not have her badge on either!” I panicked. Someone was getting fired due to me? The woman was probably a single mom with four kids. When we arrived at my stop on Michigan Avenue, I jumped off and ran into the Fourth Presbyterian Church sanctuary. I said a prayer for this woman and asked God not to let her get fired.

As I went up the stairs of the church, I could feel my blood pressure was up and I felt like I was flying. On the second floor I walked into Buchanan Chapel and tried to calm myself. I couldn’t decide if I should call the CTA and identify myself as the “elderly woman”. Then I could ask them not to fire her. The system was so huge I knew this would not make sense. They would think I was deranged. Meditation was the answer. Afterwards I took my “elderly woman” body up the elevator to my memoir writing class at the church’s Center for Life and Learning.

Biking Around the Bomb

 Bicycle Grace by Regan Burke

The photo shows 2 athletic young men, 2 children and me, a plump old lady, pedaling east across Stockton Drive, a tree-lined street that sidewinds Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

The photo appeared in the City Beat section of the Chicago Tribune August 10, 2015 with the headline, “Biking Against the Bomb.” The caption reads “Demonstrators begin a 7-mile bike ride Sunday to mark the blast zone of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.”  My bike has a big yellow front tire, a black whitewall rear tire and red basket. I’m sporting neon pink ankle-length trousers, lime-green sneakers, and a “Bike Around the Bomb” extra-large short-sleeve turquoise t-shirt snugly over my long-sleeve lemon shirt. The t-shirt just happens to be the same color as my helmet and eyeglasses. My bike posture befits a 69-year old short grandmother with bulging thighs and donut midriff.

I stand out in the photo.

You see my hands gripping the handlebars of my beloved town bike. What you don’t see is God caressing those hands with high-fives. The day this photo was taken, that bicycle grace relieved me of the physical pain of moral certitude.

When I was in my 50’s, I worked in downtown Chicago overlooking the Daley Center. Every month a group of bicyclists, Critical Mass, gather in the plaza before their raucous ride through city streets. How I longed to join them! But I’d been derailed from lifelong bike-riding by fibromyalgia. After I retired I downshifted into wheelchair-bound despondency.

Suicidal thoughts took me to the velodrome of alternative therapies. Round and round I went to anyone, anything that might relieve my suffering mind-body. Eventually meditation led to feldenkrais, writing therapy, pain relief, and a bicycle.

I’ve marched in peace demonstrations since the 1960’s so “Biking Against the Bomb” was the perfect foray into group cycling since I regained mobility. Educated by nuns, I learned about peace huddled under my 1st-grade desk hiding from a possible atomic bomb. Pray for peace. God required peace by every means possible.

President Truman had written his own moral code a year before I was born. In August, 1945 he murdered 180,000 Japanese civilians with atomic bombs. An unnamed fear took root in my fetal shroud and sprouted in the dappled shade of A-bomb-talk throughout my youth. This genetic consequence chained me to the spokes of peace activism.

At my meditation group I tried to describe my day of bicycle grace but spiritual gobbledegook fell out of my mouth and I self-consciously coasted to the end of my sharing with, ”I think I could ride with Critical Mass now.”

Group-think chattered: “Oh no. Not them. Scofflaws. Sail through stop signs. Wheel around pedestrians. Weave in and out of traffic. Lawless.”

I said, “But they have a police escort.”

“Yeah. Unruly fringe group. Take over the street and piss off drivers.”

I went home, opened my computer, defaulted to moral certitude and clicked “going” on the next Critical Mass event listed on FaceBook.Biking