Someone Needs to Work Those Gas Stations

quote-our-job-is-to-love-others-without-stopping-to-inquire-whether-or-not-they-are-worthy-that-is-not-thomas-merton-252808 “Go ahead, drop out of high school. We need people to work in gas stations.” Did quote the junior high Algebra teacher. This comment–not one you might expect to be delivered from an adult in a role of educating our youth–happened one bleary winter morning in an 8th grade classroom of the school where I was employed at the time.

First period of the day: I was helping two students with functions and domains while they stared enviously at my coffee, the majority of the other students were sifting through folders to retrieve the day’s homework due, and one particularly owly student issued a statement regarding not needing to turn in homework, he was just going to drop out of high school anyway because “that’s how much I hate homework.”

In an attempt to avoid condemning the teacher overall, Mr. Blank (which we shall call him to protect his anonymity) was a methodic, technical teacher focused on learning practical skills and increasing knowledge in order to help teenage students survive high school, and beyond, through sharpening their logic. He was not one to get too friendly/warm/emotionally invested with the students, which is fine; he was an extremely efficient teacher with the ability to keep students focused and achieving much of the time. He was also, as you would generally perceive when he spoke about his wife and child, or his friends and colleagues, a warm and loving person. Mr. Blank as a multifaceted human being with genuine  human relationships is a different story, emotionally, than Mr. Blank as a teacher in the classroom. Even if intending to be firm in passing along an idea that school will make life easier, it remained confusing to hear such a reckless comment from a teacher to a fourteen-year-old boy who was among the many other students in the school who needed a little more positive encouragement.

First, it’s never a good thing for a teacher to dismissively tell a student to drop out of school, even if the intention is reverse psychology. A more straightforward tactic would be to ask the student to stay and talk with you after class, and actually initiate discussion about how school would be helpful in achieving various career goals. Second, how is anyone, of any age, supposed take a comment such as “we need people to work in gas stations” in relation to being a high school drop out? It clearly meant that if you work in a gas station, you are less successful, less important even, in society. The message was definitely there, in the connotation of the words and, something I cannot replicate here, in the tone of voice. As we know, non-verbal language is quite often stronger than even our most passionate spoken words.

Although I have nothing ill toward Mr. Blank as a human–imperfect as myself or anyone else–I long retained a sore spot in my mind over the comment. And I was not even the recipient of it. As someone who has friends who work in gas stations, stay at home, are physicians, are mental health counselors, are nurses, are teachers, are bankers, are waiters or waitresses, are cashiers, are graphic artists and world travelers, I have never judged anyone I know by their professions. It doesn’t factor into who they are as people. As someone who has taken her time finishing her college degree, and as someone who has worked through the whole caste system of jobs, I know better than to not realize that a job is a job and something to be grateful for.

Hopefully he won’t drop out of school, I later said in regard to the student (who ended up leaving the class even more owly than when it started), but drop out or not, if he works anywhere it would be a move in the right direction. It would be taking responsibility. Why put it in his mind that he is lower in society if he works in a gas station, or any other position that doesn’t meet someone else’s subjective standards of success?

Also, what were any of those students thinking if one of their parents or relatives happened to be employed in a gas station? You never know where your negative words are going to land, and whether that landscape will be stronger than the impact or fragile enough to be cracked, scratched, or otherwise blemished by impact.

We need people to work in gas stations. This is true. We need this just as we need physicians, trash collectors, plumbers, train attendants, cable and computer technicians, Art and Chemistry teachers, podiatrists, hotel managers, and so on and on. To be honest, I appreciate having gas in my vehicle, and I am grateful there are people to operate the fuel systems and take my money when I am ready to fill the tank. Recently, I decided to take a second job. I’ve learned this is the best way to save money and/or catch up on finances quickly. (Note: something I forgot to mention in a previous post about visiting the immigration field office–love is priceless, but be that as it may, immigration fees are a surefire way to break the bank.) I first accepted a position at an Autism center, which went well with my Behavioral Science degree and my years of related work history, but the hours weren’t working. It was also a far drive from home and therefore a lot of money spent for gas. I was going to stay because of my love for and experience with the work, and it sounds decent on a resume–even impressive to some. I decided to look for something closer to home though, and something that would keep me busy yet not flow into afterhours in the form of paperwork and writing behavior programs, competing for time with family and school and job number one. Therefore, somebody has to work in gas stations and among those somebodies is me.

I accepted a job in a neighborhood gas station. I am willing to admit that I returned home after my first six hour shift with no break and cried to my husband about the exhaustion, the leg cramps, the mildly sore back this created. I admit also that I won’t stay in this job for years, as it’s not a long-term career for me. It is, however, benefitting my life right now, and I am thankful. I also get a chance to help people as I am inclined to do–offering kindness, smiles, and concern to those you interact with is always helpful, and when you are dealing with customers who expect you to politely and efficiently perform your job duties, it is imperative to recognize the worth of good interactions.

The gas station is in truth not such a bad gig: I get to chat with people, make them smile, take home the extra funding I seek, and drink free coffee. I get to investigate yet another place in life from a new angle. I will have a license to practice as a mental health therapist within a couple of years and until then, and even then, I don’t find myself above an honest job of any type. Work is work, it is taking responsibility and taking responsibility always enriches our lives. I’m sure Mr. Blank could respect this point of view, as I recall how he would often tell the students how much hard work he did growing up on a farm, how much discipline it gave his life. If he happens to stop by my cash register one day, I’ll offer him a discount on his coffee, or maybe just offer it on the house.

I know some days as I ring up cigarettes, convenience store food, liquor, and gasoline, I will feel like a Dante, but on most others I will be more of a Randall–perhaps my affection for Clerks subconsciously prompted me to drop that gas station application. I can only hope I might have a few Clerks moments–maybe a hockey game on the roof, or a fight involving hoagies with my best friend, which in my case would be my patient husband. Very patient–so far the wildest hijinx I’ve had was shaking husband’s can of Red Bull as he purchased it from me on day one. He lamented to me when I got home that his drink had tasted, “a little strange. When you shook it, the sugars settled at the bottom got all disrupted. Just put the whole taste out of balance.” Still, no war was waged, and not a single hoagie hit me upside the head. One can always hope, though.

Movie Note: Clerks is a 1994 film created by writer/director Kevin Smith. It is a comedy, it does have some vulgarity, but mostly is free-spirited fun, a little bit of whimsy, and offers discussions in the realms of philosophy and life-actualization. ALSO Kevin Smith was working in a gas station/convenient mart when he wrote Clerks, and he actually used his place of business as the primary filming location. From clerk to film writer and producer. Use wherever you are at to build on your dreams.

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The In-Arms Parent

Social-emotional development flourishes when children have close, supportive, and trusting relationships with adults.
–Howes and James

Mayim Bialik was a child actress well-known throughout households in the 1990s as Blossom, the title character in the sit-com of the same name. Since her time on the television show, Mayim has gone on to complete a degree in neuroscience, and has written a book, Beyond the Sling, about parenting. Specifically, her book is about attachment parenting. I’m excited about this book and expect that reading it will be time well spent.

Mayim discusses parenting from her personal experiences as a mother, but also adds in perspective from her background in neurology to look at how highly affectionate, hands-on parenting that includes great deals of attention have a positive affect on child development. She is in agreement with those psychologists, neurologists, pediatricians, and parents who believe a baby can never be shown too much attention. Attachment parenting dismisses the notion that a baby can be spoiled, and instead supports that what seems like too much attention to some is a strong contributing factor to helping a child develop a healthy sense of security in the world from birth. I find myself supporting this belief as well; indulging a baby with your attention is not indulging, it is giving a new little human being what it needs to feel safe and loved and it will not turn him or her into a clinging, confused, or spoiled individual. I have also heard this style of parenting referred to as “in-arms parenting,” a term I like for its simultaneous warmth and strength–what parenting is all about.

Attachment parenting is what it sounds to be: you attach yourself to your child with your time, attention, and affection. This doesn’t mean no discipline or to give in to every wish as your child grows up, not at all. Instead, it focuses on the strengths that parent-to-child bonding offers to the individual first, but carries on to greater results in all of that individual’s relationships as he or she grows on through life. To quote from Attachment Parenting International’s principles of parenting, The long-range vision of Attachment Parenting is to raise children who will become adults with a highly developed capacity for empathy and connection. It eliminates violence as a means for raising children, and ultimately helps to prevent violence in society as a whole.

To get to the long-range vision, you have to instill within your children love and strength, and the concept that true strength is loving and emotional, not a thing only of logical mental sturdiness.

Aside from the positive effects that developing with love give to us, it is also a beautiful experience to bond so closely with your child. And, as many a person has said, the baby stage passes so quickly. We grow fast, skipping through to adulthood in ever-changing phases. The day does quickly arrive when your child no longer fits into a sling on your body, or even in your arms, and to sit on your lap is just simply not practical when you realize your child is towering over you, along with feet firmly planted on the floor next to yours. Of course, this can be funny, as I can attest to from my own experiences of my teenage daughter sitting on my lap. But I can also attest to the fact that you will sometimes have a longing to skip backwards though time and let your four-year-old settle into your lap as if it were a nest, especially when you find yourself at the cusp of young adulthood, your child stepping into the earliest spaces of her independence which, in a few years, are going to be beyond the family she grew up in, somewhere out in the great, labrynthine, busy world.

I can tell myself with contentment that the sole reason my daughter and I are as close as we have been throughout her life is that this closeness started where it needed to, at the beginning. Rarely did she fall to sleep on her own; I carried her not just to get from car to store or house or whatever destination, but in the house, while sitting in a cafe, while sitting in a park or anywhere else, holding her close for no reason at all other than to know my child was close. She slept in her crib sparingly the first year (always research not both benefits and possible risks before venturing into a family bed to make it a safe choice), and on nights she wasn’t rocked to sleep she was sometimes pushed in an umbrella stroller through the house, happily falling asleep to the comforting motion and the closeness of a parent. My daughter was a very attached baby, which from my perspective means “nurtured,” and from others’ perspectives sometimes meant “spoiled.”

What I can relay about our experience: she was never clingy, she had the same occasional moments of temper tantrums or lack of sharing as her peers but not more than her peers, she was not afraid to venture into new experiences away from her parents, and she was actually very happy and willing to venture into new experiences on her own. She was an independent soul from early on, and to this day maintains her spirit of independence, along with a willingness to show compassion to others as much as possible. She is still a human with her various human faults–I would not claim that attachment parenting transcends us into perfected states–but when she talks about going to college to become either a teacher, a physician, or a child psychologist, and when I hear her talk lovingly about the young step-siblings she has inherited via her dad, I am happy for her that she can look at the world she occupies with love and concern. And I do believe I can credit this in part to my nurturing/smothering mother-love as soon as she was past the womb and available to be loved in all manners of closeness, including being kangarooed.

To “kangaroo” your baby is also how it sounds, and, I believe, a lovely experience for parents and baby: wearing your baby either in a sling or in your arms, close to your body, as if in the comforting pouch the baby kangaroo is privy to. Baby’s don’t understand verbal affection, but they do understand the secure feeling of being held.

If you are a parent and you are a let-the-baby-cry-himself-to-sleep parent, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be. There is no reason to believe that if you give your child love and direction in life he will grow up to be an insecure, broken, troubled adult because you chose the crying it out method for sleeping or in any other instance. We all have styles that work or do not work, and a good parent is a good parent. Having enough affection, at any age, won’t hurt us though, and anything that brings us closer to our children and gives them a sense of security in this world is worth considering.

We can all, as parents, look back and find things we wish we had done or had not done, and offering daily, hourly, minute-to-minute affection is likely never going to be something we regret having done and may be something we wish we had considered. I am especially grateful that I followed my instincts on providing affection in the attached, in-arms way considering the disruption of divorce that has limited my time with my daughter since she was ten. It’s certainly a positive thing that she has maintained close relationships with both of her parents, but it’s unfortunate that a divorced household means a child is parented one parent at a time, away from one while with the other. It’s an unnatural feeling to not have your child with you for all of the regular happenings of daily life: getting ready for bed, reading stories, doing homework, cleaning the house, running to the grocery store. It’s an upside-down lifestyle that wreaks intense havoc on both parents’ and child’s emotions. Had I never had this experience, I would still be happy for taking all opportunities to be attached to my daughter in her earliest times; but in light of this experience, I feel blessed to have created such a tightly clasped bond early on, keeping our love strong and thriving through distance as well as years.

And this is what attachment parenting is about: love that builds, strengthens, and doesn’t get overshadowed and pushed aside during conflict. Loving attention that becomes so natural, your child grows up to easily give back to others compassion, empathy, kindness. Individually and universally, understanding what unbiased love for others is what we need to solve our problems and to be secure in our world. Love your baby as much as you can, kangaroo him, kiss her limitlessly, hold him when he cries, rock her to sleep in your arms, let her stay in your arms awhile as she sleeps. The baby who receives an abundance of affection will not seem spoiled or clingy–this baby will simply seem loved, from the beginning and on into life.

Love and the security it gives will build us, not break us.

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Is That Cheetah Print…or Cougar? A Tale of Cats, Women, and Pop Culture

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Popular culture sometimes creates strange, insulting, or ridiculous trends. I would like to nominate the “cougar” phenomenon for all three categories.

I have not a thing against what any consenting adults’ preferences are for relationships; we all exist to know the beauty of free choice, especially in terms of who we choose to share life with, or to date, or to dance and have fun among other things with. Let me tell you something about love–I know just as much as you or anyone else, and no more than that. I know if I fit or not with someone, I know how it feels to be in the right place–peaceful, healthy place that can overcome disruptions and always return to a sanctuary–with the right set of arms curved around me. That is all I know and need to know about love.

When love comes into existence between two people, it is a decision whether to honor it or not–you can stay with it and build that connection, or leave for whatever reason and never find out what whole, completed structure that connection might take. This we choose, keep it or not, but those first flickerings of attraction, curiosity, and connection that opened the doors to love are not by choice. They just are. Whether you think in terms of biological chemistry or in notions of soulmates, we all know we cannot force ourselves to either be attracted or not attracted to a particular person. It is there of its own intention, a force acting upon us.

Of course the cougar lifestyle that has been gracing pop culture vocabulary and media for several years now doesn’t speak much of love. It speaks of older women looking for excitement from much younger men. The exact definition I have extracted from online is “a woman in her forties who dates or has sexual relationships with men in their twenties.” A cougar, in essence, is the term for modern women taking up the look-at-me-I’m-worthy-because-I’m-with-a-hot-youthful-mate-young-enough-to-be-my-offspring role more traditional to men in a mid life crisis.

The cougar is commonly described as a fun yet desparate animal; typcially divorced and seeking new adventures; superficial and fearfully noticing the disintegration of her youth and physical attractiveness; immature on both the emotional and intellectual scales; lacking class and a sense of reality. They are generally pack animals: they gather on cougar dating websites and at cougar meet-up clubs, live in places such as Cougartown, and exhibit their varieties and habits on Facebook and other social networking sites. I know this because I did the research. My favorite research habitat, and one of the most informative for me, was a Facebook page dedicated to the glory of being a cougar. Many of the women posing in their cougar personas (a display not unlike a National Geograpic photoshoot) were quite attractive and appeared down-to-earth, yet there was still something a little amiss in their expressions: their eyes were perhaps a little overlyfocused, bearing the look of a creature both too hungry and too vacant at the same time. I remember breathing a sigh of relief to be able to tell myself I am not this type of animal.

Thank God, I would fit much better in the unicorn or phoenix category. Even the skillful, agile, and playful little rat category.

This relief brings me to a question that may have crossed your mind: Why must I be so negative and demeaning about the idea of a Cougar Culture, so unkind to other members of my gender instead of accepting all other women as my sisters? I’m only knocking the culture, the notion, the trend, not the actual women. It’s a personal issue that has drawn me into culture’s cougar territory; my husband is younger than I am, and I have incorrectly been summed up one too many times with the C-word. And in all honesty: I’ve grown weary of laughing about it while performing one of those calmly dismissive hand waves to indicate it’s okay, it’s all in good fun, I don’t mind if you think I’m a desparate old lady on death’s door trying to extend my mortality with young blood and my relationship is silly like a clown with oversized shoes and more oversized hair. I might find it within me to laugh with you a little more, but it seems sense of humor is sometimes one of the first things to go amidst the seriousness of old age.

Let me tell you something about love–personality is key. It is the one and only, both magical and practical key to how you mix with someone, determining whether you blend aesthetically together or turn a muddy, cloudy, unintelligible and unpleasant hue with. It’s a fact of our natures that we simply fit better with some friends, family members, colleagues, and potential mates than others.
heart key

What I have found–age does stand out even to the couple when there is a large difference, but no more than when cultural or religious or educational backgrounds are different. I have seen couples evaluate such differences between themselves and more often than not reach the same conclusion my husband and myself, and countless others, have reached about age; that it is a superficial difference, just a surface thing. What we are as a body bound by biological processes of time, but not who we are as a soul. And soul, whether you believe in the soul as our immortal essence or as our emotional self bringing purpose to our mortal existence, is where we humans connect fully to each other, especially in love.

When I worked for the first time as a CNA, I cared for a man I will call “Dunn.” Dunn was in his 60s, bedridden, and like many of our patients, especially those who could rarely leave their rooms, loved for staff to stay around and talk. I used to sit on a chair across from Dunn in my down time at work, eating the chocolates he stored on the sly in his nightstand, and being a good listener while he mapped places of his history for me with stories from his life. One night he told me about his first wife, fifteen years older than Dunn. I had interrupted him to ask if the age difference was what destroyed the marriage (cougar relationships are said to lack longevity, generally ending when either the boy-toy or the cat-woman returns to his or her senses and recognizes that age-inappropriate relationships are merely flings, fun, or temporary insanity), but Dunn denied this as the reason. “I loved her very much,” he had said, “even the first time anyone ever asked if she was my mother. I always loved her.” (In her defense, Dunn at sixty-four looked about forty-four; it’s likely she was mistaken for a young mother.) Dunn went on to say that as time proceeded, “her loud to my quiet” wasn’t working. He described her as a vivacious, extroverted soul and labeled himself as a prototypical geek, validating his label with, “I’ve worn pocket protectors fully stocked with pens most of my life!” So eventually, it didn’t work, but Dunn swore that if it had he would be a sixty-four-year-old man loving his seventy-nine-year-old wife.

Personality is key. If the key is cut wrong, don’t expect it to work no matter which way you turn it. I was married a first time also, to a man my age. Our formative years shared a time in history: we remembered Reagan as president and hearing about the Cold War and Star Wars on the news and at school; the Challenger disaster; the fall of the Berlin Wall; 80s music, neon clothing, and parachute pants; Atari; televisions you still had to touch to adjust channels and volume; the lack of cell phones and internet. We even shared time in the same high school together, walked down the same hallways, cut class here and there with the same group of friends. We went on to have a relationship and a daughter together. We made an amazing team as parents and were very age appropriate. Being age appropriate is not what made us a good parenting team, however, and ultimately it did not make up for the connection we always seemed to be lacking between each other. We clashed the way one might consider Titans to, and were one of those couples where each person is a very good person individually and among all others, but not necessarily with each other. Sometimes, no matter how much you see the good in someone, getting close is not going to work when the chemistry equation never figures out right. You need to find equilibrium at some point.

All relationships have their worries, and age is quite often the least of them. I can laugh about cougar jokes and comments at times (including the comment once posted on a social network site picture in which I wore a leopard-print dress: Is that cheetah print…or cougar? Classic, I have to admit) but I also find it a tiresome and unfair label to throw at a woman because she is older than a man she loves. Popular culture has somewhat effectively conditioned people to think that a relationship where the woman is much older is not a serious, genuine, actual relationship. My husband and I considered this point a little bit, at least in the beginning; we shied away from the possible discomforts and stayed “friends,” a more socially acceptable status. But, whether you believe more in chemistry or in soulmates, you don’t choose physical, intellectual, and emotional attraction. It just shows up. When love begins to show itself, you decide where to go with it, and if there are differences, you decide how important or not they are. When love exists, outside opinions lose their force.

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I’ve met other women unfairly tallied into the cougar category, and each has lamented that it’s a bit silly for people to make comments such as, “Don’t you worry your husband will leave when, you know, you get older? Won’t he want someone with, well, less wrinkles and who, well, let’s just say, looks better in lingerie?”

It’s a curious thing, that desire to express negativity to others about others’ relationships; how can a species of thinking, emotional beings with such capacity for compassion sometimes become so snide to one another? I always hope our species will reach a point where we don’t worry about couples with age differences, with gender similarities, with different racial or cultural or religious backgrounds. I hope we can see a time, considering how far we have actually come along in time, when there isn’t so much controversy over something such as a Cheerios commercial featuring an interracial couple. How do we still fail to see each other as equal beings of the human race deserving equal, universal rights of love and respect in our earthly existence? Regardless of age, sex, color, creed, and who we love despite his or her age, sex, color, creed, and all kinds of other traits.

Something about love–we all need, desire, and deserve it.

A cougar is a large cat of the Felidae family, also known by the names mountain lion, puma, panther, and catamount. It has four feet on which it runs with agility, it has whiskers and a wet nose and tan fur. It is not a woman who loves the man she is with despite the fact that she had already accumulated a lot of life experience before he was even born. As adults, he has likely caught up with her on experience (in a number of ways) anyway.

Don’t be so quick to cry cougar if your daughter, sister, mother, aunt, grandmother, best friend, or any other woman in your life shows up happily involved with a man who is younger. Don’t assume it is only a phase or only fun or a disillusioned attempt to avoid reality and will end in either the man packing up to find a younger lady, or the woman making a run for an older gentleman.

Demi Moore, Jennifer Lopez, and Madonna are three women who, due to their fame–and the obsession culture has with fame–have been offered to the world as studies of the cougar species. (And they are definitely not the first well-known women in history to have had a reputation for being with younger men.) What people forget is that these are real women who have (or have had) real relationships with a real history of partnership and love, and real heartbreak if the relationship ended. What the media has ceated by criticizing, mocking, and trivializing the relationships of these women so publicly–or likewise calling out Way to go, ladies! You found yourselves a younger man! You are hot! You are worthwhile!–is a negative chain reaction in which we think we can diminish these women to superficial or ridiculous or desperate creatures. Next, we think we can do the same to every woman in a similar situation.

And, of course, once we start negatively judging one type of couple, we feel justified to move on to another type, and then to various groups of people, and various individuals, and we find others doing the same to us. The cycle of judgment is neverending; at the very least, though, we can avoid strengthening it by avoiding calling each other out on the most trivial of differences that are really not hurting anyone.

In all honesty, it doesn’t hurt my sense of who I am as an individual or in my relationship when I get the occasional negative comment about our age difference. (I admit it’s a little easier now, given people most often think I’m younger than my age, therefore closer to my husband’s age. We’ll see how it is if my slow aging speeds up within the next years.) As with any relationship securely structured with love, what the outside world has to say about our preference remains unimportant–as stated before, those outside opinions simply lose force.

Still, it is nice to be recognized as just another regular, human woman, not a strange hybrid of succubus and cat. I’m sure their are other woman who agree, and possibly a few tan, agile, Felidae cats who would agree as well.

Cougar Image shared from images.fineartamerica.com. http://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium-large-5/cougar-smile-athena-mckinzie.jpg

Let It Drift Onward, Like Smoke

“Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.” – Cherokee Saying

During my time in the early 2000s working in a recovery center for substance abuse and addiction, I learned about Native American smudging rituals from, Goodteacher, a colleague of mine who was of Lakota descent and very attuned to practices of his Native spirituality. Smudging is also known as the Sacred Smoke Bowl Blessing, and is when certain herbs and grasses considered to have sacred properties are burned to cleanse an area or person of negative energy. In the belief system behind this cleansing ritual, smoke is said to attach itself to negative energy and as the smoke floats away, the negativity is carried with it.

At the suggestion of Goodteacher, I took the opportunity to sit in with a group during a summer evening and experience a smudging ceremony. We were outside in a public park, but smudging of the self need not be outdoors. There are different ways to perform the ceremony of smudging, as based on variations in beliefs between groups or on personal preference.

The method I learned began with an invokation to the ancestors; we called upon the wisdom of those who have taken care of this earth and learned the ways of this life before ourselves, and we thanked them for their wisdom. We then called upon the four basic elements of our existence, earth, air, fire, water. We thanked the elements for all that they give to us. We also turned to face North, East, South, and West to be sure gratitude was sent out through our world in all directions. And then we sat, and our ceremony leader, Sheila Quiet Dove, a woman of European and Cherokee bloodline, walked to each of us and wafted smoke from a small bundle of herbs lightly over our bodies.

“Picture the negative thoughts, ideas and actions you want to rid yourself of now,” Quiet Dove told us. “Focus on these negative energies that are interfering with your ability to live each moment fully.” Similar to Kundalini yoga, relaxation, and meditation techniques, we closed our eyes and focused on our breathing while the smoke danced over us, wrapped us in itself briefly before spiraling its way to the evening sky.

While the smoke raced away on breezes, we opened our eyes and cupped our hands, given this last instruction in the ceremony: “Any negativity left in you now, picture it falling like dust into your hands. Now blow into it, let it blow away. Let it follow the smoke onward and away from yourself. You have made the choice to let it go, and the Great Spirit takes it away because this is your choice.”

And that was that, and it was refreshing. The sage and other dried herbs were fragrant and peaceful; everyone was smiling; the birds settling into their trees as the sun dropped further to let night move in were singing their evening, nesting songs; there was the general sense that there was a positive aura of energy that each of us, and all else in the perimeter of nature we were occupying, was basking in. There was a zero amount of negativity for the time being; we had decided that this is what we wanted, and knowing that it can’t exist at all times made us appreciate it more.

My understanding of prayer and other spiritual/religious rituals: when we perform these rituals, it is not necessarily about whether or not there is the God many of us believe in to listen to our needs. It is about how performing these rituals produces positive thought and energy within us. Our rituals bring us comfort and optimism, they allow us to expand our minds into greater possibilities about existence and into greater capacity to feel connected to everyone and everything we share our world with. I don’t mind when others lack belief in religion or God; not everyone needs or wants the belief. We are who we are and we understand our reality in the way that is best suited to us. I do not believe there is a right way or a wrong way to believe in regard to religion and God.

To believe does not mean to injure others–mentally or physically–for not, just as not believing brings no right to injure those who do. Atheism and deism can live in the same space and not interfere with each other; we don’t need to fear those who pray or burn herbs or leave offerings in temples, and we don’t need to fear those who give thanks for having a life without believing in a creator to thank. We are who we are, and we all need our own thoughts, rituals, and belief systems to find our connections to and optimism in this world.

For me, it was the study of science, of how this world is composed in materials and systems and structure, that brought me back to a connection to the single concept given a name by many groups of people throughout history: God; Wakan Tanka, or Great Spirit, or Great Mystery; Yaweh; Allah; Brahman.

This is me, it may not be you. What seems important in spiritual practices, is simply that we find optimism–a reason to be thankful, a reason to live, a reason to love others, a reason to enjoy our time here.

This is why, no matter who you are and what you believe or do not believe, you might find some type of spiritual or religious practice that works in your life on your terms.

Among spiritual practices of my chosen faith and from the many other faiths I’ve had the honor to learn from, smudging is one I like to keep in regular practice. To be honest, I rarely use the herbs, I simply sit, focus on what I need to release in order to make myself a little heathier in mental and physical capacity, and when I’m ready to make the choice to give these negative energies away so that I’m not slowed down by the weight and doubt they clutter my mind with, I cup my hands and blow into them, imagining I can see particles of negative energy drifting onward, like smoke.

Baby Cicada

Look, they’re hatching! Cicadas!

I love how children get so excited when they make a new discovery about their world that they don’t mind calling out the news to perfect strangers. In this case, I’m happy that the two children standing almost nose-to-tree-trunk impulsively called to me as I jogged back onto the aparment grounds, because although I am thirty-seven years old, I had lived thirty-seven years without actually having watched the hatching process of a cicada. I have gathered their crumbly, sheer nymph shells from the trunks of trees many times throughout the years, and have almost as many times held a cicada in my hand until it grew bored, or annoyed, or frightened, and lifted away on its wings. Until now, I had missed out on the silent, delicate way the cicadas emerge from their previous nymph forms, and this final step in the transformation of nymph to adult cicada was, for me, an art, a beauty, and a reminder of how effectively structured our existence tends to be.

What a wonderful thing, to know that no matter how many years I spend living, there will always be an opportunity to witness something new in the natural world. There is so much taking place from sea to earth to sky to greater universe that we can only scarcely comprehend how much there is to experience.

My only disappointment was that I had no camera access for this moment. Even the webcam on our laptop was not functioning, as I discovered after carrying a newly hatched “baby cicada” into the apartment and arranging it for the webcam. (With full intent to return the insect outside, of course). There was at least some consolation in having a new animal to wake my daughter with; it’s usually a gerbil in the face. It can be fun to mix things up.

Any animal is beautiful, I fully believe this, and this is why I am so compelled to stop at times, pick them up, investigate, and not worry too much when other people give me a funny glance. Animal lovers, including the bug lovers of Kingdom animalia, can understand this. Earlier in the summer I was honored that a large Cecropia moth let me lift it from the ground at the tennis court and then sat in my hand long enough to let me see each line, spot and color grading of its pattern. It even let me trace its scaled wings of modified hairs with a fingertip. The baby cicada–or newly altered nymph–also didn’t offer much protest to my presence, allowing me to appreciate it until returned to the tree it had been clinging to along with a number of other hatching cicadas.

Later, I looked up the basics of the cicada lifecycle, out of curiosity and a little concern for the small, stubby outgrowths I had seen instead of the usual body-length wings cicadas have. If its wings were so underdeveloped, would it survive? From a website featuring cicada photography, I learned that the lack of wings was illusory–the correctly designed, effective wings the cicada uses for its short lifecycle start all folded up and minutely contained, but they are there and they will open up and fulfill their role.

Minolta DSC
Minolta DSC

What a relief to know that the small creature I was giving back to its place in nature would most likely be among the other cicadas filling the upcoming nights with their song.

Cicada Photography: Shared from kozmicdreams.com.

All About Cicadas: Visit cicadamania.com.

“You Can’t Take a Picture of This, It’s Already Gone.” -Photos From a Small Journey

One of my best trips in recent times was a visit to Chicago in 2012. I wanted to remember it, so I picked up my camera with as much reverance as if it were an object of highly spiritual power. And for me, it was; the camera never fails to impress me with its ability to offer us visual artifacts of our personal histories and of the amazing amounts and diversity of moments, places, people, and beauty in existence.

The line from a show I watched once woke itself up in my thoughts as I switched the camera’s power on: You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.

Among my favorite quotes. If anyone reading this was ever into the HBO Six Feet Under series, this is a line stated by the dead brother of a character, speaking it into her ear as she photographs her family before getting into her car and moving across the country. It stopped me in my thought-tracks, at first in the uncomfortable way of feeling a slight psychic chill over our ever-present mortality, but then with an aura of contentment, peace. It struck me as a simple yet strong wording to sum up every concept of every religious and spiritual practice I have studied over the years: everything we are a part of in our reality is temporary, and we move on to further enlightenment when we release the bonds we use to tie ourselves, with the strongest knots possible, to this world.

Love this world and all in it. Be happy for this existence and all in it. Enjoy your life and learn from it. Ultimately though, accept that no matter how much you try and capture all of your moments, all that you love, and keep it with you forever–in thoughts, in words, in photographs–what you capture is not the actual moment. It is not reality. Memories are derived of real moments, but they are no longer reality.

So I accepted that no matter what I captured with the camera lens to keep with me, what I will keep are the abandoned shells of real moments. With this in mind, I collected what was most relevant to me in that time. It might be gone, but it won’t be forgotten, and it won’t go without first having been loved, enjoyed, and having given me some type of wisdom that will carry on with me.

Releasing your hold on this world leads you to enlightenment, and so does loving your time in this world and letting yourself grow while in it.

observation car
Getting there.

city
Looking at the city. Without blinking.

taxi
If you could pause a simple moment.

dreamlike
Dreamlike speed of a world.

walkway
Walkways through the world.

in the cloud
I never just see, hear, and feel love, but taste it on the tongue like a metallic energy. It is the first layer of creation from which all else, including skin and blood and bone and breath, including soil and sea and air, are structured from. Main ingredient. Taste of everything that exists. We stood in front of ourselves, and before we walked away it looked like we stood in some type of dream, and I loved you even more. (musings at a “silver egg”) —In the Cloud at Cloud Gate.

rain
Rain on the way back. It covers the windows and, in a beautiful way, distorts the scenery.

You sometimes travel a reconfigured world.

Dos and Don’ts for Visiting the Immigration Field Office

In the weeks before my husband and I attended our marriage interview, I, in a nervous state of mind, sat in front of the computer searching out blogs, articles, and USCIS websites to learn more about others’ marriage interview experiences as studiously as any medical school hopeful gearing her brain up for the MCAT.

Except this was way more important than winning a seat in a med school class. I needed some methodology and advice on how to organize my thoughts most effectively while fielding questions–more likely an interrogation–from an immigration officer who could either confirm or refuse the marriage my husband and I had already settled into. Well before we were married, like any couple, we’d begun shaping our together-life and by this time were comfortably entwined with each other in emotion, intellect, and daily routines.

To suddenly feel the reality of needing actual legal permission to continue your comfortable together-future when one of you is not a citizen or resident of the country you marry in is a sort of humbling and panicky feeling.

In this case Mahmoud, my dear alien husband (and alien most definitely applies to him in a variety of ways), was the cause behind this formal proceeding. He is a non-citizen, so there was no way around seeking a blessing from those demi-god men and women who sift through your paperwork, wedding photographs, and affidavits of support from behind their desks. While I was quite aware they are not God, I felt demigod was qualified, as their role from an immigration field office desk does grant them quite a lot of power, making them truly people of extraordinary ability. I figured it was simply a matter of figuring out which gifts brought to their altars would best appease them and soften their hearts to us, giving them the extraordinary ability to intuitively feel the reality of the commitment between us.

I had heard stories of others who had been along the same path already, and what I learned most was: Those interviewers will cast doubt on your relationship as much as possible, twisting your answers around and doing their best to provoke confusion and doubt within you, until you tremble, until you stutter, until you break down and cry. And as you sit there trembling, stuttering, and wiping your tears and runny nose as you wail, they will coolly look at you and ask, “Why are you crying?” And offer you a Kleenex. Or so I had been told.

I passed these tales on to my dear and sturdy husband, expecting him to assume his usual role as voice-and-laugh-of-reason; laughing in his gentle way and reminding me to calm down and not become emotionally paralyzed from thinking pessimistically. He did, but he also gave me a sort of wide-eyed look and asked, “So, have you found any articles with good advice?”

I found a number of good articles for preparing for your immigration interview, including dos and don’ts. I read them to myself and with Mahmoud; we were both thankful for their information and felt a little more prepared before heading into an incidence of the unknown.

In the end, our experience was simple and quick, so simple and quick that we wondered if our officer was going to send us a request for a second interview. We were told second interviews are only called if something comes up in processing your information, meaning something looks suspicious and we want to more thoroughly dissect your situation and put all the details under a high-powered microscope. The interviewer had asked us a few general questions about how we met and why we decided to get married, read through the list of questions we had answered on one of the forms, looked at the pictures of our weddings (the courthouse ceremony and the Islamic), looked at the pictures of us in Kansas City and Chicago and my parents’ home, and had us sign a paper agreeing to file for his permanent green card in two years “if I approve you.” It took less than an hour. We were never yelled at. We didn’t cry. We weren’t separated for the “wedding game,” when each of you is interrogated individually and your answers are compared after. We weren’t interrogated at all! And then we were never summoned for a second interview.

The only true negative we encountered was that we didn’t escape the much dreaded period of suspense you are left in when dealing with a formal, government process that at minimum thousands of others are dealing with at the same time–you must wait your turn. After two very long months, we were finally confirmed, and the feeling of knowing we fully possess our together-life felt like a blessing, a relief, a freedom, and a reason to jump on the couch , all wrapped up together. Our assigned immigration officer/demi-god did a good job, and he deserves our thanks and blessings.

We also picked up a few dos and don’ts of our own during our experience:

Don’t enter the field office with fruit, or with remnants of fruit. We learned this when we stopped at a QuikTrip before one of our appointments for advice on how to complete something or another in our paperwork, and bought bananas. Mahmoud was still eating his when we parked at the field office, and so finished it as we walked to the building. Inside, he asked the guards who check IDs and let you through the security sensor contraption if he could throw away his peel. “After you go through security,” was the reply. We were then asked to put our keys and any loose objects in our pockets into a medium-sized bowl. The first thing my innocently charming husband set inside was his banana peel.

“Don’t put that in there!” The guard looked and sounded panicked as he moved his arm in a qick motion to point at the banana peel. As I laughed, I felt an unamused gaze and turned my head to see the guard behind the counter watching me–definitely not amused. I stifled my need to giggle and watched Mahmoud take the banana peel back as he apologized. They had him carry it through. I guess just in case it was loaded.

Do research your understanding of political concepts. As our field officer read through a list of questions for my husband, regarding whether or not he has ever been involved in extremist groups, other groups dedicated to the overthrow of a government, mafias, gangs, boy bands with funny hairdos, my innocently confused husband got tripped up on the word communism. “Have you ever had involvement in the communist party?” Sometimes it’s a language/accent barrier type of thing. “I don’t know what that is!” A calm explanatory comment from our officer, “Communism, it’s about communism.” A wide smile and lost look returned along with an enthusiastic, “I’m not sure what that is!” An annoyed look with a raised eyebrow with another, “You know, communism.” Funny what nerves will do to you, because he still couldn’t say for sure if he was a communist, his mind just wasn’t grasping the word at the time. He does know what it is; still, he’s much more adept at chemistry and accounting than politics.

Don’t sit there and laugh when your spouse has difficulty answering a question. Don’t just sit there when asked something crucial. As Mahmoud struggled briefly to answer his question about communism, I had one of those episodes of laughter that started with mild shaking while attempting to contain it, and then accidentally turned into an open guffaw as I said, “You’re not a communist, dear!” I couldn’t tell if the officer was amused or not; I think he may have looked a little mentally exhausted. I’m fairly sure I saw him shake his head to himself.

We were then asked why we decided to get married. Thankfully Mahmoud’s mind was back in its usual engaged, agile place of thought, because I suddenly took on the form of a small, potted cactus growing on a silent corner of a desk. I think it was so simple it was too complex. Why did we get married? We love each other. We love being together We love waking to each other every day, we want to see the rest of our lives by each others’ side, as a couple and a team. As, to quote an Akon song, homies, lovers, and friends. Isn’t that reason enough?

I’m sure it was, but it was one of those moments such as for some reason not comprehending communism: I was certain there had to be a much more complicated, hidden answer. So, still I sat, and mute, waiting for the answer to whisper itself into my ear from some ethereal plain of wisdom. Mahmoud leaned in and gave the officer the needed answer then put his hand over mine, grounding me with a light touch of support. I made a brief statement. All was fine.

Maybe these aren’t true don’ts, as they did not result in a penalty for us. Still, it’s best to stay focused. Have a little fun, but don’t appear to be losing your compusure, just bring yourself back to yourself, stay confident, and support each other.

Do enjoy the experience. Overall, our experience with immigration was not as precarious as others had at times led us to believe it would be. It was also interesting. I learned more about the immigration process from both technical and emotional aspects. I had the chance to experience formal proceedings similar to what my husband had already been through upon coming to this country five years earlier as a student. It connected me more closely to the experience of immigrating and how much of a life-changing decision it really is for anyone to move into another area of the world and adapt.

I learned a little more and found reason to appreciate certain things more. My husband and I also worked as a team, scheduling our appointments and filing paperwork together, visiting the field office together to clarify instructions so that we both knew what we were doing, holding hands and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a silent offer of comfort while sitting in a waiting area on the day of facing the unknown of our marriage interview. Anything you can do with the person you have your together-life with that strenghtens you to each other is a worthwhile experience.

If you are in the same or a similar immigration experience and possibly fearing the interviews and appointments awaiting you along the process, don’t focus too much on the fear. Just do let your mind be free to take in the experience, enjoy it, and know that things are very often not as fearful or difficult as we create them to be within our minds.

Alien-Welcome3

Alien illustration courtesy of spacecrazed.com: http://www.spacecrazed.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Alien-Welcome3.png