Jean Marie Gunner

Jean Marie Gunner
We are all basically good.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Pay Attention

I am going to be 47 this October and I often have to stop to do the math to figure out my age.  I know that I am not unique in this regard; I vividly remember my mother and grandmother going through this same mental calculation when asked their age.  It seems that as we age we become more and more ageless despite the passing of every year.

As a young person I often felt that I had to figure it all out but who doesn’t?  I was in such a hurry to live life, make the right decisions, and achieve some kind of ideal.  Ironically and sadly, we miss a great deal of life at this speed and with this pressure. Our world, our educational system, our culture encourage a fast-paced, quick touch and go existence with very little room left for taking it all in, or space to just breathe and be.

When we are young, there is this imperative, this pressure to make perfect choices.  Paradoxically, growing older offers us a kind of relief and freedom; even as our time is diminishing we seem to have more space to really live. Today, my view is to make mindful choices and to remember to breathe before reacting, particularly to my children. 

In the home of a friend and fellow meditation practitioner I recently visited, a sign in her house caught my eye, “Pay attention.  Be astonished.  Tell about it.”  This stopped me in my tracks, a direct reminder to be in the moment, as much as I can remember to be.

Trips away from home and our families are also excellent reminders to pay attention and be in the present and they come sometimes just when we need to find ourselves again.  I had the recent good fortune to take a weeklong trip to Nova Scotia.  I hadn’t journeyed away alone for more than a weekend without family or friends since my fifteen month long backpacking trip to Europe in my mid-twenties in 1992.  I was feeling a mixture of anticipation, anxiety and adventure.  As a first time visitor to this Canadian Maritime, I imagined how I would find the world there, the food, the people, the environment, the landscape, the weather.  I conjured a place that felt, looked and tasted like somewhere between Maine and Ireland –the perfect blend of Celtic culture, traditional music, friendly people, and breathtaking landscapes. 

For over twenty-five years I had wished to visit Nova Scotia and my long dreamed of trip coalesced around two significant set of circumstances in my life at present.  First, I am a meditation practitioner and the path I practice, known as Shambhala, would be offering the next level of my training during a four day retreat in northern Nova Scotia.  The other circumstance around which my trip orbited was a new found love whom I had met in April on a family cruise vacation and would soon be relocating to Halifax.  That he wouldn’t be in Halifax while I was visiting or that the relationship was perhaps more fiction than fact, didn’t change the truth of the love I had felt while with him sailing in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. 

When we fall in love it is as if everything magically and alchemically falls together and is suddenly explainable.  Heretofore unexplained events, decisions and expenditures, including an expensive, completely out of my budget travel club membership purchase two years prior suddenly made perfect fiscal sense.  This membership led to my booking my family’s cruise and meeting this gentleman.  When we are in love, we seem to pay attention to everything and life seems brighter, clearer. I find myself smiling even wider at everyone, including perfect strangers.  Every moment is astonishingly precise, each experience incredibly direct and I want to share it all. 

The first leg of my journey would be my four day meditation retreat.  I arrived early to my retreat and took an hour to sit peacefully and quietly in the warm May sun.  I looked out toward the Northumberland Straight and Prince Edward Island as I stretched my tired body and limbs and did a few gentle yoga postures.  The four days were a reminder of how wonderful and refreshing it is to take a few days away from my daily routine, how meditation and contemplation during the retreat can penetrate the rest of my everyday life. 

As the retreat came to an end, I began to prepare for my leave with some regret and sadness as well a touch of doubt.  The moment had come to say goodbye to my new friends and fellow meditation practitioners so I could move onto the second half of my journey which would include staying three nights in a funky Halifax Inn where the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde had slept, walking around the city and taking a day trip to points south of Halifax.  I loved the drive along the south shore of Halifax and meandering along the coast through fishing villages.  The rugged, barren granite rock face along the ocean swept me away as I sat listening to the nearby waves swell and crash of the mighty Atlantic shrouded in fog but undeniably present.

As I courageously and gently took my leave from the safety and kindness of the retreat center to travel back south to Halifax, the teacher and I hugged, then hugged once more.  She reassuringly whispered a reminder in my ear the same words I read in my friend’s home, “Pay attention.”  Excellent words for no matter how things turn out….

Singing, Fishing, Hiking

A great way to start out the summer - singing, fishing, hiking - right after an idyllic morning of getting up, scampering down to the kitchen, putting on the kettle for my French press coffee, and opening up the back screen door to breathe in the summer morning.  Taking it right in to my deepest core, to my cells, to my atoms, to my sub-atomic parts.  I love summer.  My body and bones and joints love summer.  Now I am not saying I don’t love the other seasons, I do.  But summer is:  Pure delight.  Warmth.  Heat.  Sun.  Brightness.  Birds.  Flowers.  Gardening.  Abundance.  Backyard dinner parties.  Campfires.  S’mores.  

Today driving to work and listening to a Springsteen song, “Kingdom of Days,” I felt utter freedom.  The moment was perfect exactly as it was.  No thoughts or wishing for a different reality.  The moment cannot be rushed, try as we humans might.  The moment of now is eternal, constantly occurring; it is always fresh and new.  Like it or not, we live, each and every one of us, in the now, the present, and it is the act of paying attention that makes all the difference.  When we are in a rush, attempting to cram too much in, as we all do some of the time, we miss the wonderful gift of the present. What is really awesome is that once we notice our mind has drifted away from the present, we can come back.  See our mind travels as our body waits for its eventual return.

In the car with the boys this past week as we were driving home from Elm Street Bakery in East Aurora, a delicious cafĂ© and bakery, my boys burst into spontaneous song.  Aidan began and Kailen joined in. “Open up your mind and see like me.  Open up your plans and damn you’re free.  Look into your heart and you’ll find love, love, love.”  They began their serenade with this song, “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz, and on perfect cue slid into “We Are Young” by Fun, purportedly the kids’ theme song from our April Caribbean cruise.  It was joyful, exuberant to hear them singing freely. They ended with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the full, uncut version.  I couldn’t help but join the choir after all it was a song from my era.  They had time traveled and taken hold of the words and emotion; I felt privileged to be in this car with them as they sang their hearts out.  Aidan just loves to open up and cut his vocal cords loose and it was nice to hear Kailen with his deep, resonant voice unhesitatingly harmonize along.  It was over before it began.  But I know I was fully there in that car with them; mind and body united. These songs mean a lot to them, they speak to them, to their generation, to their being in this world.

It was a lucky few days for me, a fantastically memorable way to begin summer 2012. Aidan decided he was up for fishing.  We acquired the basic angling gear and off to the Eighteen Mile Creek we trekked.  On our hike down the path we passed a celebration of tiger lilies with a splash of magenta below in the face of tiny fire-pink wildflowers.

Once in the riverbed, the boys took to setting up their fishing outpost with one chair in the middle of the creek, one fishing rod, one little brother fisherman and one big brother helper.  I laid there on the stones and gritty bank of the creek experiencing the timeless wonder and happiness of being in the moment, mind and body synced.  My gaze alternated between being filled with the view of my boys fishing and the beautiful sky above me.  The boys headed up stream and I stayed back to read my book, The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, a novel of love, heartbreak, forgiveness and redemption. 

The sun had gone below the tree line and I was getting chilled on the bank. Deciding to find my boys, I hiked traversing a rugged, worn embankment and found my children in a still sunny spot.  Aidan was on a search mission for crayfish bait having in his own words, “tired of not catching any fish,” and Kailen was casting the line.  I took up my seat perching on the shale, breathing in the moment once more, soaking up the sun, my children, the creek’s melody. 
 I was gently reminded of these words a friend recently spoke to me, “Don’t push the river.  It flows by itself.”   Exactly.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Summer Morning in June

The tail of June is not only just the beginning of summer and the children dipping into long hot, sunny summer days, but it offers a fresh new chance to touch the miracle of life, its growing abundance and slower pace; and as a mother with two adolescent children still under my roof, I revel in the time and space that folds out before us. A whole summer to go – what fun, what freshness, what spaciousness!

My oldest son is officially a ninth grader this September; my youngest a sixth grader. Both had rites of passage as they left elementary school and middle school behind. Now a wider view opens before them of ever greater landscapes to explore and connections to make. Chance meetings of people that will enrich their lives, fertile environments that will challenge and strengthen them as young men; there is so much richness and basic goodness. They can touch down in new places this coming year but before all that we have one long summer ahead of us and it begins with this summer morning.

This morning as my boys sleep lazily and peacefully, I sit here with a mug of dark roast coffee and cream in my pleasant small backyard space writing about summer and all its magic. Birds and small insects chirp and buzz, every so often a tiny fly lands on my typing hand or a bird alights on the fence post nearby. Once I lived near a thousand acre forest teeming with life and now I am a Villager and am still awed by the life that circles on around us despite all this humanity.

A few nights ago I had the delightful opportunity to be amazed and delighted by a lightning storm. My youngest son and I were reading in my bed when the wind whipped up and bursts of light began filling an empty, quiet sky. Immediately Aidan went to the windows and drew open the Roman Shades so we could watch the spectacle. The thunder grew uproarious followed by streaks of lightning that majestically and momentarily created daylight of the night.

Kailen also joined us and we moved our seating to the front of the house on the porch which offers the best seats for these stormy performances. There we sat all in a row on a new loveseat I had recently purchased last fall. It was the loveseat’s maiden voyage with three human beings watching and being held captive by the giant powerful and loud light show. Some of my most memorable mom moments are from that vantage point -- just making room for what moves through our collective lives.

Space like this opens up and time seems to completely disappear. There is only this moment, past and future is irrelevant, and we are a hundred percent present. Storms, emergencies, deaths, tragedies, falling in love, births – they all create these moments of now and complete presence. Sometimes even my dreams feel that way to me to, the big important significant dreams.

We sat together and big thoughts seemed to bubble up wanting out of our minds. To be expressed and shared with no agenda or attachment to response or outcome. My big thought was if everything on earth came from earth, even if it was chemically manufactured by altering and rearranging atoms to make such inorganic material as plastic or other polymer, is it not still natural since it was made from processes and materials on our planet. And, what if we humans suddenly perished at this moment would the seemingly big mess we made with all our toys, creations, buildings and dumps go back to some state of natural? Kailen just knows and confidently responds that all things, including tall Manhattan skyscrapers, will, if not maintained, fall in upon themselves and crumble returning all to a natural state within about 500 years’ time. In fact, he said it is estimated if human life ended today that within 500 years all would return to a state of equilibrium in nature, a relatively short time span in the scheme of our planet’s life. There is apparently a show that attempts to answer this very question. I liked that answer, whether completely accurate or not, as it somehow reassured me that our collective human mess could be put right, but it would probably take our disappearance to make it so...quite a high price to pay for cleaning up our human bedroom so to speak.

The light has changed in my backyard office; the clouds have moved in to block the sun’s intensity and warmth. I feel relief, and the wind has picked up refreshing my skin with its breath. The birds sing and chirp and clamor in the trees above. A Norway Maple in my backyard offers some respite during hot summer days and home to birds and a playground to squirrels; a Dawn Redwood towers high behind me and grows at least a half a foot a year waving its billowing arms in the morning breeze and scratching on my neighbor’s windows. The birds continue their morning chorus and the beauty of the day spreads out before me. In the soft Maple and Cedars of my neighbors’ yards, I am serenaded by the chirp of the chickadee, the metered trill of some songbird, the unmistakable seesaw sound of the cardinal.