I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’ Francoise Sagan

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The importance of grandmothers….


I have often observed that women play a primary role in keeping the family together and it is the matriarchal figure of the grandmother who frequently takes the lead in this most noble of endeavours. 

These days, with increasing economic pressures adding to the strain on young families and escalating divorce rates, grandmothers often play a pivotal role in their grandchildren’s lives. As a society, we are indebted to these strong, principled women, whose deep-rooted sense of the importance of family is at the heart of their worldview. These are women who have already raised their own children and finally have the freedom, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to do as they please; but, rather than spend their remaining years pursuing hobbies or taking cruises - they find the greatest satisfaction in spending time with their grandchildren. 

My own grandmother greatly enriched my childhood and twenty-three years later, I still feel her influence.  To a child, the summer holidays can often seem interminably long and monotonous, but my grandmother’s vibrant imagination and talent for story telling would transport me to a magical world, where anything seemed possible. I like to think that my love of writing has been her legacy to me.

However, it is my own mother, who has given me the greatest example of all of the importance of grandmothers. I was just twenty years old when my first child was born and ill equipped to cope with the demands of caring for a newborn baby and completing a university degree; thanks to my mother, I was able to manage both. She was present from the moment my daughter came into the world and has been a guiding force in her life ever since; because of this, grandmother and granddaughter share an unshakeable bond.

Such is their complicity that my daughter quite often tells her grandmother about the important events in her life before she tells me. At times, this has caused me to feel sidelined and overlooked, but I recognise that there are certain things that are easier to confide to a grandmother than to a mother. Furthermore, grandmothers are usually better listeners and have the wisdom to know how to advise without appearing to interfere. They are also able to maintain a degree of emotional detachment from their grandchildren and, unlike mothers, do not hold themselves responsible for their every mistake!

I used to tell my grandmother things that I would never dream of telling my mother. It was wonderful to be able to confide in someone who loved me unconditionally but who rarely passed judgment. For example, I would frequently share my dreams of running away from home with her - this was something I had been plotting since the tender age of five! Rather than reacting with alarm or criticism, my grandmother limited herself to calmly enumerating the obvious impracticalities of my plan. She advised me that I would need considerable funds to live on my own and that I would have to save my pocket money for many months. She also gently reminded me that although my parents were undoubtedly hard to live with, they did provide basic things for me, like food and shelter (without which a young girl could not survive for very long!). At the time, I did not feel patronised or ridiculed for my childish dreams of escape – on the contrary, my grandmother always lent a sympathetic ear to my problems; however, she never failed in her duty to remind me that, despite my parents many imperfections, their love for me was unquestionable.  She also never failed to reassure me that – if things got tough – I could always seek refuge at ‘grandma’s house’.

I have often thought that my children’s lives would be very different without the presence of their grandmother. She has been their rock in an uncertain world and they rest safe in the knowledge that they can always count on her. The bond they share with her is particularly precious because neither one of them has known their paternal grandparents. The reason for this is sadly commonplace: when relationships break down, children not only lose contact with the absent parent; they also very often lose their connection with their extended family on that side.

For my daughter, the reality of this statement is sadly poignant. She has a wide network of relatives on her father’s side that she has never met – including her paternal grandparents. In fact, she was planning to travel to Colombia next year to visit them but just last weekend, her sister wrote to say that their grandmother had died. In view of the fact that she had never even spoken to her father’s mother, the depth of her grief took my daughter by surprise. However, it seems to me that the reason she feels this loss so deeply is because she knows how precious and irreplaceable a grandmother can be. She is mourning the relationship she might have had with her Colombia grandmother, if only she been given the chance to meet her.

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, my children were deeply affected. Their grandmother has been at the heart of their world for as long as they can remember and neither of them can imagine life without her. One day, shortly after she became ill, I took delivery of a beautiful bouquet of lilies. On the handwritten card accompanying them were the words: ‘To abuela’. My children have always called their grandmother abuela (the Spanish word for grandmother) but the flowers were not from them – in fact, they were sent by a close friend of my daughter’s. My mother has become a sort of ‘honorary’ grandmother to this young girl and her words were a touching testimony to that fact. This caused me to reflect that she has assumed a grandmotherly role with several of my children’s friends, whom she has gradually adopted over time.  Consequently, they do not think of her as someone else’s grandmother - to them she is just abuela - and for this reason, their attachment to her runs deep.

So, those of us who have been lucky enough to know our grandmothers should give thanks: for we have been blessed.

It is as grandmothers that our mothers come into the fullness of their grace.
-- Christopher Morley

If nothing is going well, call your grandmother.
-- Italian Proverb

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Power of Prayer

It has been just over two months since I lasted posted on here but in that short time my whole world has been turned upside down. I look outside the window, noting that Spring has made a tardy appearance and that the foliage on the trees outside my office have burst forth in a verdant display of abundance. Yet, I can't help feeling a touch of indignation that the world continues to go about its business and the sun still shines. This may sound like an odd statement but, as I have recently discovered, when there is a shift of cataclysmic proportions in your own private corner of the universe, you are left with the sensation that this should somehow be reflected in the wider world and a feeling of bafflement and annoyance that it is not. There has been a seismic shift in my world and nothing will ever be the same again, but the earth carries on circling round the sun and the seasons continue their unaltered, centuries-old course.

Someone once wrote that grief is the price we pay for love and this is a lesson I have learnt well over the past four decades of my life but none of the losses I have experienced to date compare with what awaits me. I realise now that I have been lucky because although I have had my share of heartache, I have never had to face losing someone who is at the heart of my world. There are certain people in our lives who are irreplaceable but whose presence we tend to take for granted; ironically, we sometimes only fully appreciate how valuable they are when faced with their imminent loss. A mother is one such person.

In my particular case, my mother is more than a mother: she is also my best friend, the person who knows me better than anyone and the only person who will ever love me unconditionally, no matter what. I have not always had an easy relationship with this strong-willed lady– two feisty and determined women such as us are bound to clash at times – but, in recent years, we have forged a solid bond founded on mutual admiration and appreciation and a strong sense of complicity. Over time, my mother and I have learnt to look after and look out for one another and this has made both our lives easier and more pleasurable. We have supported each other through some rough times but we have also shared some wonderful times, feasting on each other’s triumphs as though they were our own. In view of all this, I quite simply cannot begin to imagine my life without her.

On this subject, it seems to me that there must be an inbuilt feature in the hardwiring of the human brain that prevents us from dwelling too much on the fact that life must eventually come to an end and that things cannot continue indefinitely as we have always known them. This feature undoubtedly serves a useful purpose – particularly as it prevents us from becoming excessively melancholy, allowing us to go about the routine business of our lives without experiencing too much existential angst. However, despite the undoubted usefulness of this form of self-protective denial, it definitely has a downside: namely that when we are suddenly and abruptly forced to confront our own mortality or that of a loved one, it tends to come as an almighty shock.

Yet, despite the shock and the sorrow of the last few weeks, at times the unmistakeable glimmer of the proverbial ‘silver lining’ has illuminated the dark clouds surrounding my family. To begin with, I have received a valuable lesson in the importance and value of courage. In the circumstances, it is remarkable that the one to deliver this lesson has been my mother herself, who - to her everlasting credit - has remained strong, composed and selfless throughout all of this. I have never once seen her indulge in self-pity or give way to despair and her focus has remained unwaveringly upbeat and positive. Knowing her as I do, I would have expected nothing less of her in this situation; nonetheless, her strength and composure in the face of personal adversity are remarkable because the fact of the matter is this: if my life has been turned upside down, hers has changed forever in the space of just 14 days. Observing the grace and dignity with which she has handled this situation, I can only hope that I might have inherited some of the qualities of this remarkable lady.

It is often at the most challenging of times that people draw together and, true to form, my extended family has sprung into action to offer a very welcome transatlantic network of support and comfort. In addition, my relationship with my brother has unexpectedly transformed itself. Until recently, we had never been close but the shared difficulties of the last few weeks have given us a sense of common purpose and unity. I have also been fortunate to count on the support of my ‘other’ family - made up of a close-knit circle of close friends who I regard as honorary siblings. Despite the geographical distance between us, they never fail to step up to the mark when help is needed. Within a couple of hours of sending a simple four-word text along the lines of “help, I need you!” its recipient, who happened to be on a business trip in Petra, Jordan had got out of whatever she was doing and called me. She was so keen to offer her support in any way she could that she offered to come and clean the toilet bowl in my parents’ house, bless her!

However, throughout the highs and lows of the last few life-altering weeks, my greatest source of strength and wisdom – keeping me on course throughout all the turbulence - has been my Buddhist faith. I have come to appreciate just how fortunate I am to follow a philosophy that offers pragmatic yet profound guidance on how to cope with life, especially when the going gets tough. This is truly the greatest of blessings because my Buddhist prayers enabled me to maintain a connection with my mother during the period when she was attached to various machines and fighting for her life - making direction communication impossible. Throughout this time, I felt an unwavering conviction that she could feel the vibrations of my daimoku (Buddhist chants) and I knew that they were having a positive impact on her physical and psychological state. She later told me that she knew that she was not battling alone: she felt my prayers. She also felt the healing energy from the prayers of all our beloved friends and family who were earnestly praying for her in their respective corners of the world. We were not all praying to the same God - or in my case, to any God at all - but in the final analysis, Buddhist prayers, Christian prayers, Muslim prayers are all one in the same, as long as they are offered with a loving intention. This is the wonderful thing about prayer: it has the transformative and restorative power to deliver hope, light and life to the darkest of situations. Sadly, there is a lot of confusion about prayer: some people seem to think that it is an irrational attempt to bargain with a non-existent Divine being, others confuse it with positive thinking. Yet ultimately, prayer is Action and my mother most definitely sensed the effects of that most loving of actions when she most needed it.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have learnt to live in and appreciate the present moment, taking each day as it comes and giving thanks for it. Moreover, despite my sorrow and fearfulness about the future, my faith has given me the courage to never give up. Buddhism always reminds me that no matter how insignificant and powerless I may feel, I have the capacity to affect whatever situation I may find myself in – no matter how difficult  – in a positive way

I would like to end this post with a quote from Nichiren Daishonin.

Though one might point at the earth and miss it, though one might bind up the sky, though the tides might cease to ebb and flow and the sun rises in the west, it could never come about that the prayers of the practitioner of the Lotus Sutra Sutra would go unanswered.
(Passage from “On Prayer”, The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin)

Friday, 16 March 2012

Faith like flowing water…

Those who know me well understand that I am the kind of person who feels things intensely; consequently, my opinions tend to reflect this.  I am a passionate advocate of the causes closest to my heart and have strong views on a number of subjects - particularly, the more complex philosophical issues concerning life and death. It was my unceasing quest for meaning – a way to make sense of the often unjust and seemingly random world we live in – that led me to Buddhism; which I still consider to be the only world religion that comes anywhere near throwing any real light on such questions.  

My thoughtful, introspective and somewhat rebellious nature revealed itself from an early age, showing itself in my tendency to question things. I recall one of my teachers telling my parents that I was a bright child but very hard to teach, mainly because of my refusal to accept any kind of received knowledge as a given – I would always ask WHY? Furthermore, I would not stop asking why until I was satisfied with the answer, which quite often never happened!

The reason I share this with you is that I have been thinking recently about why my experience of the world has been so difficult and how this links to some of those character traits I have just described.  This is by no means an exercise in self-pity, I realise that life is a difficult business for most of us and I am lucky enough to be blessed with good health, a fulfilling job and two wonderful children – so I do not have a lot to complain about. Nonetheless, my transit through this world has not been an easy one and the conclusion I have reached about it is this: my tendency towards extremes and acute sensitivity make life just a little more uncomfortable and jagged round the edges than it is for most people.

This leads me to recall something my mother once said about me many years ago. Commenting on the intensity with which I experience things, she made the following observation: when I am happy, I appear to transcend the mundane concerns of every day life like a visionary from another dimension; however, conversely, when I am not, I seem to be lost in a cataclysmic abyss of unfathomable depths.  She also remarked that for one who lives betwixt and between such diametrically opposed extremes, I ought somehow to have grown accustomed to this emotional rollercoaster; at least enough to be able to embrace the highs and resign myself with grace to the lows. Yet, the reality is that although I am, by now, thoroughly accustomed to being me – after all, I have had 42 years to get used to it - I have never really made peace with the extreme tendencies that seem so intrinsic to my nature.

This is not to say that I dislike being me – there are at least some positives associated with the experience: for example, I am very glad to be the kind of person who never does anything half-heartedly. And, in a way, I’m also grateful for my capacity to feel things so intensely as it means I get to experience all of life’s beauty in extreme Technicolor with magnified surround sound (even though it also inevitably means that I experience all of life’s ugliness in a similarly enhanced way). Yet the uncomfortable reality is this: at times, it is rather exhausting to be me - especially when it comes to relationships….

This is an area of life where my experience seems to diverge considerably from that of my friends and acquaintances involved in long-term, committed relationships.  Like many couples, they too experience periods of turbulence with their significant others but, for most of the time, they seem to enjoy calm and harmonious relations.  Without wishing to question here whether or not this is the norm, I can only report that, as in so many other areas of life, my experience of relationships deviates significantly from this.

Although it is not easy to acknowledge, my interactions with my significant others – including my youngest son – seem to be characterised by conflict and high drama.  This sometimes gives me cause to reflect that whilst, for some, relationships provide nourishment, comfort and reassurance – a bit like home baked apple pie on a cold, winter’s day – mine are rarely like that.  In fact, to give another food analogy, if I had to describe the primary ingredients of my relationships, I would say they combine the tangy sharpness of limes with the fiery fury of jalapenos; though, just occasionally the finest trace of pure honeyed caramel lends an unexpected dash of sweetness to this volatile mix. However, most of the time the incontrovertible truth of the matter is this: black and white, sweet and sour; my relationships – like me – are pure ice and fire!

At this point, I return to my earlier fleeting reference to Buddhism because what I have just described is precisely why Buddhism – being a philosophy essentially concerned with harmony and balance - is actually a perfect fit for me. The reason for this is quite simple: since I am unquestionably one of the world’s finest, long-standing drama queens, this an area where I am particularly ‘developmentally challenged!’

A word about Buddhism here: the school of Buddhism that I follow advocates that to change karma, you need to have faith like flowing water (see footnote*). What this means is that it is vitally important to be constant and unwavering in faith, no matter what life throws at you – good or bad – but particularly when things are bad. This is a challenging concept for someone like me because, being of fiery temperament, my faith more closely resembles fire than water: it flares up with majestic brilliance and then extinguishes itself at the slightest breeze. Consequently, when times are hard, I dedicate myself to my Buddhist practice as though my very existence depended on it – only to discard it again like yesterday’s newspaper when things improve. Fortunately, I have this self-knowledge so there is at least some hope of transforming my lack of constancy and creating a bit of balance as opposed to yet more extremes.

I often wonder how life would be were I to attain a state of total enlightenment. Would I be a picture of calm, the perfect embodiment of the principles of Zen? Would I break free from my attachment to extremes and dissociate myself from my drama queen persona? More importantly still, would I really even want to? For, strange though it may seem, I am rather fond of some of my defining characteristics. This is because although there is a downside to being me, there is also most definitely an upside: for one thing, my passionate nature means that life has rarely been dull and my journey through this world has been a colourful one, to say the least! However, the beauty of the religion I have chosen for myself is that it does not require me to give up being who I am. This is because, unlike some schools of Buddhism, it does not advocate renouncing worldly attachments or practicing assiduously for many lifetimes to change negative karma. Instead, the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin allows me to continue being me, with all my qualities and imperfections, whilst simultaneously encouraging me to become more balanced and less combative. As a result, I am able to connect with a calmer and more grounded self - an enlightened version of me - that has been polished and purified through my daily Buddhist practise.  All that is required in return is that I keep showing up every day in front of my Butsudan (a Buddhist altar) until my faith becomes like flowing water – continuous and unstoppable. 

Ultimately, the reality of my situation is this: unless I have a complete personality change - caused by a freak accident or brain surgery – I am likely to live out the rest of my days being the same intense, thoughtful, passionate, rebellious, contradictory and difficult person I have always been. However, fortunately, I am lucky enough to have the tools at my disposition to temper the extremeness of my character so that there is more equilibrium and harmony in my everyday life. If I can manage to do this, there is some hope that rather than being dragged through life by the scruff of the neck, bouncing from high to low, I will find a place of stillness within the ebb and flow of my emotions. Perhaps, that way, I may be able to continue living life with similar intensity but less suffering.

Today there are people who have faith in the Lotus Sutra. The belief of some is like a fire while that of others is like water. When the former listen to the teachings, their passion flares up like fire, but when by themselves, they are inclined to discard their faith. To have faith like water means to believe continuously without ever regressing. Since you pay frequent visits to me regardless of the difficulties, your belief is comparable to flowing water. It is worthy of great respect!
(Gosho from the writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 1206; MW-2, p. 296)

* Footnote: Karma in the context I use it here means the dominant patterns established through repeated thoughts, actions and words over many lifetimes, which create a complex chain of causes and effects.