I Need to Relax

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Among the rush, the responsibilities we all face and work that must be completed, I listen to friends speak about how good it is to relax. Meditation, yoga, deep breathing, vigorous exercise, leisurely walks, gazing at a beautiful nature scene, listening to birds. Shall I go on? I’m sure you can add activities that might help you relax and perhaps you’ve tried one or more yourself.

I bought a series of CDs on mindful meditation and listened to one of them, just once. The narrator’s voice irritated me. She spoke too slowly. I put it back in the case, never to hear it again. The others in the set are still wrapped in cellophane, waiting to be opened. I rejected the whole lot based on one impression.

There are many paths I could take to relax, to calm my mind. I don’t allow myself to try any of them or even make an effort to take the first step. I’m too caught up in the jumble of demands that pound my thoughts.

It’s as if all these very important activities must be completed now, or they’re already late. They fight amongst each another. Their rumble keeps out the slower, more thoughtful possibility of doing something else.

I realize that if I lessen the furious interchange in my mind, life would be easier. According to others who meditate or relax by some other manner, the chatter in the mind is calmed and clarity rules.

  • Productivity would rise.
  • Organization of tasks would become easier.
  • I’d be happier.

Accomplishing even one of those three promises would be welcome.  So, why haven’t I done this already?

Habit! That’s the answer.

Last year, I read a wonderful book about habits. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, gives specific suggestions how to build a way of life that’s positive and other ways to eliminate those habits that are harmful. I was so caught up with this book I practically memorized some sections. I underlined paragraphs and phrases that seemed important. Every day I read something from the book. It had become my bible. And then, one day, clearing up the coffee table in the TV room, I placed it on a bookshelf in my office and forgot exactly where I put it. Out of view, its importance faded.

How could I have let that happen? It certainly wasn’t intentional. I wasn’t tired of the book. If anything, it had become more important.

My brain experiences a whirlwind of thoughts about work issues, some of which are difficult or challenging, even unpleasant. I have to decide how to quiet my mind and leave room for calmer, bigger ideas and intentions. Can I change the dissonance between the demands of work and other activities that are more important?

Deep breathing helps and I actually do that – occasionally.

Maybe, later today, I’ll open up one of those CDs and listen to it. Perhaps that can be the beginning.

 

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In the Garden

 

 

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A tiny moth, its wings whirring so fast I can’t make them out, hovers over the grass. The moth rests on an elongated blade and just as suddenly as I notice it, disappears. The lawn is long and lush, just the way I like it. Only when it still holds the early morning dew and my shoes become wet, do I wish it were shorter.

 I thought I would weed in the upper garden, behind the tall shrubs that flower in the spring, but never get there. The cool shade is too welcome, among the hosta.

 It’s easy to clip off the long seed stems of the large hosta. I have enough plants and don’t want self-sown seedlings sneaking up through the little stones on the path or further crowding the established ones. The immature seed stalks from the smaller varieties, and my favorites with their luscious yellow color, will remain. In the fall, I’ll collect these, allow them to dry and then plant them in the early spring. I remember when my grandson and I planted hundreds of seeds and watched them appear, tiny green mouse ears, under lights in the basement.

 Heavy, healthy, invasive vines are hard to pull out. Some I clip and others I just pull until they give way. Poison ivy, that I never noticed all summer, brushes against my arm and I trudge inside to wash with soap and water.

 Dead branches that fell during some summer rain or wind storm rest on top of azaleas that bloom bright red in the spring. Others stick up between rhododendrons that earlier in the season sport blooms, pure white against their deep green leaves. It’s a relief to remove these eyesores which have bothered me.

 While I’m in the garden, I never hear the cars and trucks roar along my street, the planes on route to the airports. I don’t hear leaf blowers or young people playing in a neighbor’s pool. I do hear the chickadee and the squirrel. A light breeze ruffles my hair. Carefully I watch a white faced hornet fly by. He ignores me and I’m careful not to make any unexpected motion.

When my weeding is done for the day, I notice a hundred seeds that have attached themselves to my light sweater. In the house, one by one, I pull them off. They grip with an unexpected intensity that enables them to be successful, sticking to the animal or person that walks by. They’ll fall off somewhere else and next spring, grow in that new spot, spreading the species, ensuring their success.

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Lessons Learned in Nicaragua

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The children attended school for only half a day. After the teaching time was over, they walked home along dusty, rutted roads or went to the program at NicaPhoto, which provided a safe place for them to do homework, take art or dance classes and other activities. Even martial arts classes were offered for older students, all of whom were girls. For some, their only food for the day was the mid-day meal at NicaPhoto. Most of the students knew nothing about growing vegetables until they worked in the community garden and shared their new knowledge with their families.

One afternoon, we took a walking tour around Sonrisa de Dios and saw where many of the children and adults we had met, lived. I had never seen such dire poverty. Most homes were just one room, covered with thick plastic with dirt floors. Many had no latrine. Running water was available only recently and we were proudly shown the water meter that led to each person’s home. Previously, they had to walk a good distance and fill buckets with water every morning and then carry them home.

One woman, mother of three children whose husband had left her and gone to Panama, had no job and no money. We listened to the sad tale of her circumstances and felt genuine affection for her, and appreciation for her help at the worksite. Our inclination was to write a check to help her get a real house, and not live in the black plastic shack. It was gently explained to us that such a step would not be good and might easily backfire, causing her to be resented and have others feel jealousy towards her. Life can be so much more complicated than it appears, especially when outsiders, like us, use our own life experiences to judge what we could do to help.

We learned so many things from our week in Sonrisa de Dios. Every one of us realized how much we have, no matter what our personal circumstances. We are truly fortunate, compared with the people we encountered, who are easily as smart, kind, hard working and interested in bettering themselves as any American.

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Late to the Work Site in Sonrisa de Dios

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            Thursday morning, curled up on my side, I huddled under the thin blanket, wishing I’d turned off the air-conditioning after my last trip to the toilet. Drained from explosions of gastric distress, the chill that sneaked up my back made me feel as if I was trapped inside a cold, dark cave. I’d been so careful with what I’d eaten. I couldn’t figure out what could have caused my misery.

            I knew I was too woozy to join the others at the work site. Weak and drained, I went back to sleep, knowing that the rest of the group was already laboring, using pick axes to rout out the hard-packed dirt where classroom floors would be. Then they would move the heavy chunks and rocks in wheelbarrows to another location. Some of the group worked on leveling the floors for the two large classrooms, shoveling and mixing cement. Others painted the walls of the new classrooms, inside and out,.

            After sleeping for three more hours, I managed to drag myself up and get dressed. The hotel manager hailed a moto for me. I climbed in one of these red, three-wheeled taxis, with open sides and non-existent springs that tore around the streets of Naragote. The trip cost just forty cents, no matter how far you went. The trip up the last hill, through holes, ruts and bumps, shook my weakened body. Wind-swept dirt, as fine as powder, slammed into my eyes. My skin hurt when I arrived at the worksite. A blast of heat almost knocked me over when I stepped out of the moto, into the scorching sun. I gingerly walked through the gate to enter the school grounds. A ten-foot-high wire fence, with coils of barbed wire along the top, surrounded the school and grounds. The fence had been installed before any work began on the school. Theft and vandalism were serious problems in such a poor town.

            I sat on a pile of bricks, in the shade, sipping water from my water-bottle, imagining I was supervising the others, so I wouldn’t appear lazy. Some offered sympathy for my experience and then hurried back to the chores of shoveling sand or gravel into buckets, carrying the filled containers and then, at the appropriate time, pouring them into the small cement mixer. Others carefully pushed wheelbarrows full of wet, sloshing cement, making sure none splashed out on the ground. There was no way I could do any of that work. I could barely stand up.

            I found that three other co-workers, who had eaten at the same, supposedly excellent restaurant in the town of Granada, had similar experiences. One woman had ventured out to the site, but had to take a moto back to the hotel. We had all eaten the same fish dish.

            A substantial, delicious lunch was served at noon every day at the site. That day, I was only able to eat a little rice. We sat together at student desks, in a semi-circle in one of the completed classrooms. Wendy, who cooked for the students at the NicaPhoto program (and was the wife of the martial-arts instructor), prepared the most appetizing meals for us. She marinated chicken breasts with a paste of garlic, cilantro and sour orange which created the most delicious chicken any of us had ever tasted. I dreamed when I would once again be able to taste Wendy’s amazing chicken. I knew that the next day I’d be back shoveling, raking, and lifting, as I had been before that fish dinner.

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First of Three Vignettes about time in Sonrisa de Dios, Nicaragua

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Last week, I was part of a group of sixteen people from Westport Rotary and Builders Beyond Borders, consisting of four students who were twenty-years-old and the remainder of us, all over forty. We traveled to Nicaragua to build two additional classrooms for an elementary school in Sonrisa de Dios, a poor barrio, part of the city of Naragote. Two classrooms had previously been built by groups from Builders Beyond Borders and were full of happy children and their teachers.

            Our contact organization was NicaPhoto, an American non-profit, with an office located in Norwalk, Connecticut. It provides a wonderful program for eighty students, with a waiting list of another fifty. The woman who started this remarkable project is a member of Rotary. She saw a need and filled it by working with the government, authorities and the creative, hard working people in Sonrisa de Dios.

            Most of the students, in the existing other rooms of the school wore a school uniform. For years, this requirement was dictated by the government, although recently, with the last election, Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega had decreed that students didn’t have to wear uniforms anymore. However, everyone knew that if you didn’t wear a uniform, it meant you couldn’t afford it. No one, no matter how poor, even if the family didn’t have a latrine, or lived in a house covered with black plastic and didn’t have enough to eat, wanted anyone to know that she couldn’t afford the white blouse and blue skirt of the official school uniform throughout the country.

            Two women, who spoke to us, had been part of the Sandinista movement and hailed Ortega. They appreciated his work as head of the Sandinistas during the 1970s, and now as their president. Others secretly complained that not enough reforms had come to the people.

            Signs praising Daniel Ortega and his party appeared throughout the country. Opposing him could be risky and during a rally praising the Sandinistas, everyone was expected to show up. We walked around the huge crowd, sitting in white folding chairs or standing outside and noticed that few people smiled. No one cheered or applauded the speaker who shouted into the microphone and waived his arms. We were told that if someone wasn’t present, his job might be at risk. People would note who was in attendance and who wasn’t.

            The final day we were at the school, while on the work site, a pickup truck arrived. Two men, wearing T-shirts that extolled the Sandinistas, with a facsimile of Daniel Ortega’s signature on it, entered one of the classrooms. They presented the teacher with shoes to be given to the children, as well as some plain, black backpacks.

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Paul’s Release

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Tuesday May 13, 2014

I write this, a few days before Friday, May 16th, the scheduled date of Paul’s release. I’m surprised at the intensity of my reaction, which, to any logical mind, is exaggerated, overblown, especially considering the reason he’s been in prison. Why should I even care? Almost nine years have passed, you’d think I would have…perhaps forgotten all about him, but I haven’t.

In fact, I remember almost every critical moment of the two years from 2005-2007, although now I only consciously relive those times when I’m writing or editing my memoir. Nowadays, it’s as if I’m writing about someone else, or about something that happened a lifetime ago.

Today, May 13th, just three days before the release date, I may throw up, even though lunch was more than three hours ago. A strong metallic taste invades my mouth. I know this physical reaction is entirely caused by emotion.

My heart isn’t racing, but each beat feels louder and harder than normal and goes from the center of my chest down to my diaphragm, a jackhammer of augmented anxiety.

I remind myself to take deep breaths…like the little reminders I have taped all over the house. They say, breathe – and prompt me not to hold my breath, but breathe evenly and deeply. This conscious action lessens my level of anxiety and helps me create a calm atmosphere. I actually notice the spring breeze that sneaks though the screened-in porch.

I thought this day would never arrive. I couldn’t imagine my life without him incarcerated. Over the last year, I assumed, with his serious medical problems, he would probably die before his release date. He fooled the federal prison authorities, doctors and those remaining in contact with him and is going to walk out of the massive Butner, North Carolina facility, his sentence served.

Friday May 16, 2014

When Friday arrives, I find I think of little but his release. An accumulation of feelings: positive, negative, fearful, angry, resentful tumble through my thoughts over the day. I wonder, as the hours pass, where he is, what’s happening and how he’s feeling. This intense concern about him seems strange, even to me, as I try to figure out why I even care. There were months at a time during his incarceration when I never thought about him, even once. Perhaps it’s the memories of the good times, and yes, there were some, before he descended into his obsessions and illegal activity. I can’t figure out the reasons. It doesn’t really matter, for this day will pass and I’m not part of his life anyway. Except that I am, in my mind.

His cousin Chris, so supportive and kind to him over all this time, picks him up and drives him to her house for the remainder of the day. She tells me they have dinner and she emails a photo of the two of them, taken by her daughter, in front of a purple sunset. Paul appears remarkably well and her happy expression shows how genuinely she cares for him. A sensation of warmth passes through my chest and I feel glad for him.

The next day, he’ll fly to Arizona, where he’ll live with his sister. I tell my mind to empty the conglomeration of thoughts and feelings about him that have taken over my brain the last few days. I would like to think that his wellbeing has nothing to do with me, but the reality is that I’m still waiting for my release.

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This Terrible Subject

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Enough! I’m done writing about this terrible subject. This is the last post, I promise! I’m not solving the problem of eliminating child abuse, putting pornographers in prison, shutting down the millions of sites. The only good my posts create is that this horrendous subject isn’t forgotten by those who read about it. Otherwise the subject is resurrected in the news only when there’s a big arrest or particularly horrible case.

This last case (for me) is about Raven Kaliana, an American girl who lived in one of the western states. Nicholas Kristof wrote about her in a moving New York Times Op-Ed piece March 23rd.

When she was just four years old, her parents knowingly dropped her off at a professional studio in the Pacific Northwest, to be photographed by a child pornographer. This went on for years and was never discovered by the authorities.

I wonder how many more reports of child abuse can there possibly be. Judging by new articles, there are plenty more. The child pornography industry is doing just fine, in spite of gruesome information that appears, over and over.

The child that Kristof wrote about is now an adult. She changed her name, ended contact with her parents and now fights back by creating original puppet shows, with her writing, films and programs — http://outspiral.org.uk/index.html. I wish I could be as effective in educating the world about this evil industry.

Usually, I imagine that little girls forced into sex acts for profit in the child pornography industry were kidnapped or sold, because in their culture they weren’t valued, as girls. This horror story shows that it’s not just eastern European families affected by extreme poverty who sell their daughters into a life of sexual slavery. It happens here too.

In the case of this American girl, her parents needed the money she earned as a pre-schooler to pay bills. It’s impossible for me to comprehend mothers and fathers even considering throwing away their little girl’s childhood, for the electric bill, the mortgage.

Kristof quotes Kaliana’s parents saying that they thought she’d just “get over it”. I think that twenty years or even a life sentence in prison is reasonable punishment for them. After all, my ex-husband received ten years for receipt of child pornography. Raven Kaliana’s parents made it possible for pornographers to create horrific photographs of their little girl. The parents are as guilty as the perpetrators.

Kristof noted that there are 21 million sites available to individuals who share child pornography files. Most men, arrested for receipt of child pornography believe that they’re not guilty of truly bad things, because they only looked at pictures, and consider it a victimless crime. That’s completely wrong. The photos and films are of real girls and sometimes little boys, who are brutalized and robbed of their childhoods.

But until there’s no demand for such photographs, the many agents who search out the makers and sellers of child pornography don’t have a chance of stopping these crimes, where the victims are small, without a voice of their own.

No girl should have to recreate her life in order to try to live normally the way Kaliana is doing now.

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