Ants Do It, Birds Do It

I found this thought among my collection of writings. I still stand by it.

“The advancement of humans individually and collectively lies not in perpetuating or fighting about differences, but in universal respect, cooperation void of egoism, and a willingness to learn objectively. We fight each other over borders, over doctrines that all strive for peace, over commodities both natural and imaginary; we bicker selfishly over leadership and chairs of hierarchy. Our egocentricity, our megalomania, is distancing ourselves instead of bridging the gaps everywhere. We know how to reach out to our fellow humans in times of crises (earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, fires) tearing down borders and walls built within us by separatist elite ideas. Why then, can we not continue to live without walls and stay connected to the essence of our humanity…to continue to be rooted in humility and selflessness? The selflessness that helps another to survive, to climb and to achieve with the same rights as you or I as part of a chorus of 7.5 billion beating hearts. At times I cannot think of myself as an American, a Caucasian, an Armenian, a Christian, or even as a woman. I am a person among people, and people can achieve the impossible by setting aside egoism, working together as one colony, as one flock.”

I woke up to an impressive form of large, irregularly shaped black mass of ants on my white countertop. They were busy at work having found a few crumbs of apple pie crust left after a late night of friendly entertaining among friends. I followed the trail all the way down the kitchen counter, circled the off-center island, along the long galley, into the dining room and out onto the back patio to find their source. I set to work ridding my home of these little insects that were stocking up for the winter. Undesirable as they are, I admire their collaborative skills. Ants are a shining example of collusion in action. They carry tiny specks of dirt underground to form complex tunnels and living systems, tackle prey as a team, and help each other carry leaves and food back to their colony to use as mulch for raising fungus, which they eat to survive. These tiny creatures carry loads heavier than their body mass and work in unison as a team, understanding that strength lies in collectivity. They work harder than many species just to get through each day, and they do it as a team. No one gets left behind, and no one carries all the weight while others just sit on the sidelines. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we humans could work together as ants do to coexist instead of competing with each other for resources?

There was an unusually cold breeze that morning. It reminded me that Autumn was just around the corner. In a few weeks I’d be fortunate to see the most impressive form of large, irregularly shaped black masses (flocks) of birds in the sky, dancing their way in flight to migrate north and south. Birds that swarm in a murmuration seem to be connected together. They twist and turn and change direction at a moment’s notice, and in a dense group, the space between them may only be a bit more than their body length, yet they can make astonishingly sharp turns conducted entirely in unison. Even pelicans, ducks, geese (and many other) that fly in V formation do so as a team. They form the V to take advantage of the wind from the bird in front of them giving that extra lift that saves energy to those behind. Interestingly, all birds in the V contribute to the leadership (which provides the first wind) almost equally as they rotate leadership relieving each other with grace and ease. Followers become the leaders and leaders become followers. There is a selfless act of altruism among them, being able to set aside differences for the mutual benefit of the flock. What an incredible skill to help each other out regardless of their social hierarchy in the flock. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could work together with such altruism among our own multitudes?

People, our strength lies in acceptance, unity, and in the ability to work together harmoniously on teams, sharing common values of helping each other to arrive at our destinations quicker, easier, lifted up by the energy and enthusiasm of one another. Ants do it. Birds do it. Why can’t we who know how to love do it?

 

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Wish and Pray

As summer draws to a close and I know that those “lazy, hazy,” out of the ordinary days must end, I look across the glossy tanned bodies of eclectic people in their “itsy bitsy teeny weeny” sometimes non-existent bikinis, to the stretch of sandy beach and beyond, to the sea….the blue, the green, the brown and grey of it; the crashing, the calm, the choppiness, the smooth and the roll of it….and I wish that summer would never end.

“I wish summer wouldn’t end,” I overheard my grandchildren speaking. Which got me thinking again.

Sometimes I drift into the quiet of my mind and I hear my heart urgently longing for something. Sometimes it’s wishful thinking knowing I have no control over whether I’m going to get it and sometimes its earnest, honest asking which becomes prayer. What makes one thought a wish, an expression of a person’s will or hope, and what makes a different kind of thought into prayer?

Whether big or small, frivolous or grave, we all have “wishes” that we’ve uttered quietly or loudly and that weigh on our hearts depending on our circumstances. We wish for good health, a cure, better living conditions, a promotion, the perfect house, the perfect mate, a job, success in exams, the moment to never end, a good night’s rest, an end to violence, an invitation to the prom, a visit from an offspring, a phone call…all valid desires that consume us with the outcome. But when does a desire for a definite outcome turn into prayer?

The difference in a wish and a prayer is in who receives it. Prayer is communication, and communication needs a sender and a receiver. And when there is a sender and a receiver it becomes a conversation. A conversation implies a relationship. A relationship involves trust. A wish, on the other hand, is just wanting something to come true without becoming personally involved. I cannot will something to happen without taking concrete action myself. To turn a wish into a prayer requires me to communicate. It requires conversation with a being who understands me; who makes me feel safe to share myself honestly —about my dreams, my hopes, weaknesses and failures, without trust being broken or having to fear that my words will be used against me later on. It becomes the kind of conversation that satisfies and a relationship that gratifies.

Simply put, prayer is a matter of asking for help from a person whom I trust and who is in a position to take action. If I were to ask my friend Mary to pick up my children from school, I am trusting her and in a sense I am praying for her to do so. And when I ask God to help me through some hardship, or to bless a couple, or to help another through hardship, I’m not simply wishing that outcome; I’m asking someone in a position to do something. And as one who puts her trust in God, that someone is the Divine.

Prayer requires sincerity towards myself, towards others and towards the Divine. It is an attitude turned to hope and the future. I believe in hope not because it makes hard things easier, but because it has the unique ability to make impossible things reality. No other emotion or form of motivation has the power to change the world than the indescribable drive that comes from completely immersing oneself in the hope and trust for a better tomorrow. It has limitless power because it is not derived from tangible or measurable substance. Hope can make the weak strong, the poor rich, and the lonely loved.

Not everyone prays, but just about everyone wishes and wants, all desiring the outcome of some circumstances and dreading others. Those who put their trust in the Divine somehow react to the circumstance (whether frivolous or grave) with gratitude, and turn that gratefulness, and that wanting and willing, into prayer. For those who really pray know that it’s not just about getting what we want. It’s about a relationship of growing in the deep knowledge and infinite love of an ever present divine being. You can’t just wish for that.

Secretly, I hope, and will, and wish, that as I write this, my readers will identify with my words. Words born of moments. Moments that take me back to days when I would wish upon a shooting star in the clear night skies of summers past.  Moments of wishful thinking that today I shed light on something true about the experience of praying, and hoping, and wishing, and willing.

“What do you wish for ‘Meema’?” asked my grandchildren. “I too wish for summer to never end,” I said as we ran toward the waters of the sea shouting “last one in will have to shower me with kisses!”

Prayer: a practice of communicating with one’s god.
Wish: a desire, hope, or longing for something or for something to happen.

 

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Dutiful Freedom

“Why can’t I have freedom to do what I want?” complained my eight-year-old grandson when he was asked to perform a task given him. “There are too many rules and duties,” he whined further.

One of my goddaughters at age 16 complained and said she couldn’t wait to go to college in order to have freedom from the restrictions imposed on her by well-meaning parents. “I want to be free from duties; free from beliefs and our culture,” she whined.

Little do the children of today know that there is no pure and perfect freedom. They will grow to realize that in order for them to pursue “freely” what they want in life, they will have to make choices that come with a set of rules and limitations and consequences to their actions. They will learn that the definition of a free society is not where people are free to do what they wish, but it is one in which they freely choose to surrender certain behaviors in exchange for the benefits of living within that society.They will learn that freedom requires sacrifice. It requires an understanding that certain rules are necessary to create a society in which people of different skills and ideas work together in a mutually beneficial exchange. They will have to become citizens who will find a way to balance or reconcile their civic duties with the personal yearnings of their spirit.

When we are children, our parents impose our schedule, duties and the rules we must live by. Our possible choices are limited, and our beliefs and goals often come with a cultural inclination from parents and family members. As children, we often lack self-mastery; we have poor impulse-control and we are required to take ownership of our actions. Then one day, we turn 18, graduate from high school, and perhaps leave home and go off to college, ridding ourselves (or so we think) of the cultural rules. We are pretty much free to do anything we’d like except violate societal rules and the law. We can party all night, sleep in and be free from well meaning rules. We may fail, stumble and fall, and we learn further that our actions have consequences. We learn quickly that freedom to do what we want doesn’t mean we’re free from the repercussions of those choices. We choose our actions, and with those, for better or worse, we must take ownership and responsibility for our freedom to choose. Today’s children will soon learn that the really important kind of freedom involves developing an understanding of how one thinks, being able to speak one’s mind, to be fearless, to be tolerant and to be conscious of the needs of others. It requires attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to care truly about other people (society) and to sacrifice for them over and over in countless petty, unappealing ways, every day, while achieving their goals.

Yesterday, when I was younger, freedom was not a notion I considered unless it was free time/play time where I could run the streets of my childhood home. I was dutiful. If my mother expected me to make the coffee after lunch, I made coffee. If it was expected of me to wash dishes, I washed dishes. If it was cleaning day, I helped clean house. If I brought in stray pets, I was expected to take care of them. I did what was expected of me, whether I wanted to or not.
However, being dutiful got me through childhood, then college. Dutiful accompanied me in balancing priorities while making life choices. Dutiful bound me to my roots. Dutiful impressed on me to care about children, the elderly, society and those around me. Today, freedom is a notion I understand as I dutifully serve the yearnings of my spirit. I am free to spend time with loved ones; help others, practice my faith, be fearless in the truth. I am free to be in a steady, unyielding relationship that works when we spend time together or apart. I am free to speak my mind, to make choices and dutifully take ownership of the consequences. Freedom also means wrapping my hands around a steaming mug of coffee while I watch waves lapping the shore. It means staying up late into the night to indulge my pleasures and still waking up early the following morning to perform duties. Freedom means putting words on paper for no other reason than because it makes my heart sing.
After all the whining and complaining, I’m blessed with the tools gifted to me by well meaning parents who got me there, to where I manage my freedom to serve the yearnings of my spirit.

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Graduation Season

It’s graduation season. It’s that time of year when social media is inundated with posts of proud parents celebrating one of the most rewarding moments of their lives as they watch their children walk across stages, receive certificates, diplomas and trophies for promotions, graduations and commencement exercises. And proud they should be, because the world into which today’s students graduate from elementary through college and universities is fundamentally different from the one in which many of us grew up. We’re increasingly living in a globalized society that has a whole new set of challenges and expectations. These are challenges that come by way of economics, science and technology, health, security from external threats, and an ever changing demographics. There are expectations that come by way of parents and commencement speakers telling the graduate what he/she must do to move on to the “next chapter” of life… “Chase your dreams, be bold, take risks, it’s ok to fail, be true to yourself and live your passion.” The message that each speaker is trying to convey to young minds is near universal: From here on, life’s lessons are not in classrooms and books of biology, history or math. Life’s true lessons are in the arena of experience.

At 93, my father was still an avid reader. He said that one’s education never ended even to one’s last breath on earth. He told me that while he practiced making a living with what he learned in college, he continually found greater joy in changing the shape of his education. He was passionately curious and kept an open mind with his eagerness to read, listen, watch and share. Dad was right. His education didn’t end with a college degree. In fact, dad never really left the classroom. Here’s what I learned from my father.

With every book or article you read, with every person you interact, with every situation in which you find yourself, you open possibilities that stretch the imagination beyond the expected. You discover a sense of awe, knowing that there are things larger than us, that we do not have all the answers. A sense that we can stand right at the boundary between the known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened.

There will always be a new lesson life has to teach you, if you’re willing to listen. Be conscious. Be aware. Think about who you are becoming at every corner or road you take. Do not lose sight of your North Star. What inspires you to live in the present based on your values? What makes you hold on when all else is pulling you under? Be patient. Reflect. Offer your soul the quiet it needs in a world where you are expected to seek happiness through your material self-worth. Expectations tend to make you rigid, narcissistic, and uncreative. Seek a life of integrity as the source of your personal worth. You will feed the opportunities and starve the problems in your life.

Seek joy rather than happiness. Happiness is boring. Happiness is when everything around you seems perfect and you must stand still so as to not change the situation or yourself. However, the one constant in life is change. Seek change and know joy in facing challenges and moving forward. Pay your debt to life through deeds of love and service. Give before it is asked. Take care of others. Before you pursue your own dreams, serve someone else’s dream because you will learn much and remain humble. You will have many signposts along your path directing you to make money and climb up the ladder, but there will be almost no signposts reminding you to stay connected to the essence of humanity. Become an apprentice. Help someone else climb the ladder before you do. You will become less egocentric when you reach that “AHA” moment, the moment of success.

Be bold. Question the status quo. What’s right today may not be right tomorrow. Take risks. Move out of your comfort zone and discover the world in new ways. Do not become victim to “failure.” Become the hero. Because failure is an opportunity to learn; it rewires the brain and gets the creative juices flowing. Root your life in justice, compassion and humility and listen to the voice of your heart’s knowledge even when nobody else is looking. The trophies you earn may lose their luster and the merits on paper may fade but the true measure of your award is to remain the humble student of life’s universal classroom.
Congratulations parents and students.

 

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Father Made Spaghetti

Every so often my father made spaghetti.
For four or six, it mattered not.
He’d bring to a boil the largest pot
filled with water well seasoned with salt
And throw in a pack (and sometimes two) of macaroni.

He’d stand in front of the stove,
Fork in one hand with arms akimbo,
Eyes glued to the boil, stirring the froth
Patiently waiting a minute or two.

Then with a smile he’d pick with the fork
a few slippery strands
Blow air on them as though to seal with a kiss
And together, we’d test for doneness knowing full well
that tasting was half the process.

He liked to see results.
Somewhere in his youth he’d heard the ultimate spaghetti doneness test
Was to throw a strand or two against the wall.
If it stuck it was beyond al dente
If however, it slipped and fell, it needed more of our arm toss.

Finally when half the spaghetti was in our system and across the wall
He’d drain and throw in hefty block of butter.
A quick swirl on the stove top once more and we were served presto.

Years later the mood would strike him with my children.
I would shake my head and get out of his way
While my kids took part and cheered him on without delay.

I’ve no idea what started him off on spaghetti making
But I’m glad he did.
It was exciting.
It made him non serious, mysterious
And our particular one of a kind father.

I cheer him on.

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Beautiful Hands

“These very hands, a mother’s hands, These old and new hands
These very hands… …That have been worn out And also become rough
But for all of us They are as tender as silk
These perfect hands, A mother’s hands.” (Excerpt from Mother’s Hands, by Baroyr Sevag)

I was having my fingerprints taken for official business. The well-manicured lady assisting me looked disapprovingly. She said there were too many horizontal lines in the whirls of my thumbs that blurred the clarity of the print. I looked at the familiar whirls and loopy circles of my fingerprints. It was true that there were quite a few lines dissecting those little hurricane patterns, but I didn’t see the problem she was seeing.
“Isn’t that what fingerprints normally look like?” I asked, defensive of my apparently non-standard fingerprints.
“Oh no! You have way too many cracks!she said with a genuine smile. “Honey, you’re too young to have hands that look like this. They should be smooth.”

One of my earliest memories of my mother was of her hands. Those slender fingers, with nails clipped short and unpolished, were never idle—from dawn to dusk they were engaged in selfless service, nurturing, loving, and assuring the well-being of family and friends. In the kitchen, her hands performed as “a chef’s most prized tools” as she used them to cut and mix, knead, shape and test for doneness.  As a nurse her hands gently caressed fevered cheeks, measuring with thermometric precision a patient’s temperature. She used those same hands to teach and guide, to labor, to wash and clean, to reprimand and to fold into prayer. Mama had the softest hands. I was never sure as to why or how because she didn’t use creams or lotions. It was an enigma. Every time her hands touched my face or in later years when I held her hand, her skin felt silky smooth as I would breathe in the scent of soap and lemon.  I expected those hands that had been through so much, to be rough, crooked and worn. But for some reason they were not. My mother had beautiful, soft, statuesque hands.

I often look at my own hands, so strikingly different in appearance to my mother’s.  My fingers are stretched wide apart like I’m palming a basketball. The knuckle on my ring finger appears larger than my ring. I am resigned to broken nails and creases, and the fact that I have arthritic hands, curl and knot my fingers like well-established plant roots. Alas, I do not have my mother’s hands.

Looking closely at hands, I see a series of milestones unspoken.  Hands, from the moment we are born have been the tools used to reach out, grab and embrace life. Hands have touched breasts and held onto newborns. They have caressed a lover, struck in fear or anger, brushed aside hair, wiped away tears. They have braced and caught falls. They’ve put food into mouths and clothes on backs. They’ve tied shoes, buttoned shirts, brushed teeth, and nursed scrapes and bruises. Fluffing, patting, retrieving, holding, writing, scratching, building, tearing down and soothing. Hands have trembled when forced to stand back to allow children their independence. They’ve been sticky and wet, bent and broken. Hands have tilled soil, reaped harvest, burned and dowsed fires and cleared snow. They’ve said hello in a hand shake and waved endless goodbyes sending sons and daughters to war. They’ve suffered blisters to raise brave youth. They’ve held riffles; been dirty, scraped and raw, swollen and bent. They’ve been uneasy and clumsy. They’ve been pampered and manicured. They’ve been strong and they’ve been weak. Hands have shaken with clenched fists when boundaries have been pushed and injustices prevailed. From raking the yard to scrubbing floors, pulling weeds to changing tires, hands have moved through life fixing, cooking, nurturing, healing, for the comfort and safety of loved ones. Leathery, creased, silky or statuesque, hands have come together in applause, and folded together in prayer. There is life so beautiful in hands.

I realize that the world has its own idea of beauty and that it may have nothing to do with hands that serve. But my world has shown me that my hands (and “mutant” fingerprints), although strikingly different in shape, size and texture from my mother’s, will still carry the story of my work with me all the days of my life. Because in those creases and imperfections will exist a long and exquisite history of love that only mothers know.

Dedicated to ALL women who use the strength and power of their hands to mother all living things, and especially to mothers who are no longer of this world but there where they have been stroked and caressed and held by the hands of God, HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY.

 

 

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The Simple Life

The 40 days before Easter, better known as the Lenten period, is the time when we focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. For Christians, it is a bench test in changing our lifestyle and letting God change our hearts.   Easter and the Resurrection of Christ signify a renewal of our lives and a promise to reinvent ourselves….very much like Spring. Spring is the season that shouts out through nature that it is time to be a bud again, to revive oneself and bloom.  Like Easter, which reminds me that life is truly a constant beginning, a constant opportunity and a constant springtime, Spring sends a message that I can lighten the load, pack away what weighs me down (just like winter clothing) in exchange for the things that are less burdensome. It serves as a reminder to find meaning in living the simple life.

What does living a simple life mean? Does it mean getting rid of material things to make room for what I consider the nobler…relationships and friendship? Does it mean being more conscious of spending time instead of money in ways that will enrich my life and the lives of those around me? Does it mean living a life that isn’t defined by things I know won’t last? In other words, does it mean trading the material trappings — driving flashy cars, buying designer clothing, or the latest gadgets while attending every social event — for the freedom of creating less stress and becoming more resolute in the quality of relationships instead of quantity?

Is the ideology behind those actions enough to help me live a meaningful life? Because no matter how many closets I clean, it appears my struggle is less about deciding how much or how little stuff I have, and more about where I find my meaning in life.

At a recent panel discussion, a well versed speaker mentioned a quote by Joseph Campbell. “If you want to understand what’s most important to a society, don’t examine its art or literature, simply look at its biggest buildings.” In the early days of time, the biggest buildings in and around the cities were the places of worship, cathedrals, churches, synagogues, temples. By the 16th century, the biggest buildings in mid-city were political palaces of government. Today, the biggest/tallest buildings are office buildings and money market centers. It is the material that has the upper hand.

While I am convinced that, as human beings, it is our natural destiny to grow, to achieve and prosper, to succeed and amass, to find happiness in the immediacy, I also know that as individuals and as a society we want to positively impact and transform the world around us; to give meaning to our existence.  But we won’t find those things that give meaning by looking to either our “stuff” or lack of it. Sure, we can find meaning in our possessions, but one day they’ll be taken from us. We can find meaning in our external beauty, but one day we’ll lose it. We can find meaning in our immediate happiness, but one day we’ll be sad.

My intention is not to denigrate actions that are promoted by material possessions or abundance. Neither is it to promote minimalism that advocates a life of little. At one extreme, we are trying to define ourselves by iPhones, cars, homes, and disposables, while at the other, we’re trying to define ourselves by our own depth of contentment. But neither one alone is sufficient to ground me in a world of refugees, crises, cancer, famine, genocide, human trafficking, and…the list is endless.

I’ve come to the conclusion that simplicity isn’t just about less mindless and needless stuff;  It is about being present, being conscious of a world where nearly 1/2 of its population — more than 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day, and more than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 a day). It is about making a constant and conscious effort to renew myself in the face of changing circumstances and the evolving “biggest” buildings. Simplicity itself demands time, space, and room to question the depth of today’s envied, desired and coveted, trading them with loved, treasured and adored in the living and breathing. While there are plenty of signposts along the path directing us to make money and climb up the ladder of today’s tall buildings, there are almost no signposts except for Easter and Spring reminding us to renew ourselves and to stay connected to the simple things that make life grand, to reach out to others, to pause, to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible…The promise of new life in the Easter Resurrection of Christ, and the buds and blooms of Spring.

 

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