TEA SERVICE

When my three children were very young, they had the great privilege of sharing tea with their maternal great-grandmother twice a month.  Grannie was a force of nature, wearing pumps and skirts well into her 80’s and she could deftly navigate the rickety basement stairs in her 1920’s bungalow.  She and my grandfather raised their five children here (with one bathroom I might add), my father being the eldest.photo_15279_20100421

“Oh, I just have to pop downstairs to get one more thing”, she would say. The kids would always be curious as to what Grannie would emerge with. There was an endless array of “stuff” packed away down there. The eaves too were a walk through the American decades.  Having survived the depression, nothing was getting thrown away and everything had three or twelve purposes. And shelf life was not in my grandmother’s vocabulary.

Yet, with all this clutter below the surface, every room in her home was always tidy. And her values were clear water clean. She valued children, and the raising of them.

And you would see this, always, in afternoon tea.

Grannie would lay out the table lovingly.  If it were around Valentine’s, the kids were treated to a lace tablecloth and pink napkins, heart-shaped cookies with red sugar crystals.  If it were September, she would set out linens in brown and orange and serve soft ginger cookies. Every sweet homemade from scratch.  Oh, and always more than one kind. There were bone china cups, dainty and different, that would always match the theme. Even the pin on her sweater would reflect the season or occasion.

080322a8447Young as they were, I sensed their anticipation when I would tell them we were going to Grannie’s house.  It could be “just” a Tuesday at 3 o’clock, but there was nothing just about it. There was celebration and presence in every moment.

They listened intently as my grandmother taught them how to play Pinochle, an old-fashioned card game. They would sit at the table for an hour or more, sipping tea and munching on cookies, being listened to and heard while sorting out their hand.  Grannie, offering suggestions on a card, asking lots of questions.

The kids were learning the art of conversation and the richness of time that we have all but forgotten. Some of us, I’m afraid, have never had the grace to learn, yet.

It is simple really.  This being present.  But it takes practice.  Kids get it and so do the elderly.  The wisdom of knowing that the most important person is the one that is in front of you right now. That love and connection can only be cultivated in the here and now.

The sacredness of that time.  And I the fortunate bystander. My children telling their great-grandmother about their friends and school and what they like to do and what their favorite color was.  Grannie sharing about how she liked to swim and grow roses and read.  The four of them laughing while she regaled them with what their mother was like when she was little or the kinds of shenanigans their grandfather would get himself into.

iStock_000012366100XSmallThis memory a reminder, a pointer, that ordinariness and specialness are always both, depending on what you bring to the party.

“We come to realize that daily life is a theater of grace with continuous performances.  The sacred is here and there and everywhere. – Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

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NOTICING

Have you ever noticed that a lot of the time you are just not noticing? For instance, you are driving to the grocery store or to work (both of which you have done a million times), and not remembering when you arrive how you got there.  Just traveling on auto pilot, or absorbed in a phone conversation, you have missed the ride. Perhaps you think, “I’ve done this trip so often I could do it in my sleep!” And guess what? In a very real way, you are!  Conscious but not truly awake. 090514a127_2780 (1)

Our daily tasks of necessary repetition and ritual, whether it brewing the coffee, throwing in another load of laundry, walking the dog, become so automatic that these activities become the things we do between the times we actually are doing something that we are fully engaged in and are aware of.  The unfortunate thing is, if we add up all of these moments each day, we are actually “checked out” for a solid portion of our life.

You may recall the internet sensation a few years ago, where participants were asked to watch for how many times three white shirted basketball players came onto a scene. A shocking fifty percent missed seeing a person in a gorilla suit sauntering in, pumping his chest.  Even when looking right at him!  This phenomenon, coined “inattentional blindness” has been demonstrated time and again.

In Smithsonian (Sept. 2012), psychologist Christopher Chabris and journalist Mark Strauss set up an experiment where participants were told to jog behind a man and record how many times he touched his hat. As they jogged, they ran by a staged fight where two men were savagely beating a third man.  In broad daylight, 45% missed the altercation entirely and at night, that number rose to 65%. trapeze artist

We become so focused on what we think we need to see or so confident of what we know is there that nothing has the ability to enter.

While anthropologists posit that there is indeed an upside for why we have this ability to filter attention–specifically the benefit of being able to disregard distractions while trying to focus on a task, it appears we have become too proficient.

The limitations of inattentional blindness are felt everywhere. Complicating this issue is the overloading distraction dumping at all times.  The myriad forms of instant communication continuously clamoring for our attention, leaving us breathless…and mind (less).

We feel the effects of our inattention in automobile accidents, addictions, rises in ADD/ADHD, and the rampant sense of isolation that occurs with the breakdown of intimacy and congeniality in all manners of relationships.  The lack of simple presence of attention leads to misunderstanding and disconnection, and this includes our relationships with ourselves.

But there is a way out, and it starts today, in the here and now.  The only time there is.  We can begin in this moment to begin to purposely notice.  We can purposely and voluntarily take mini breaks from our devices throughout the day.

We can pay attention to our breath and body as we enter our car on the way to the grocery store. We can take stock of our surroundings while driving.  We may discover a beautiful old home along the road that we never knew was there, all these years on this same path.  We could discover the cool breeze or warm sun on our face with our windows opened just a bit. Or we can simply marvel at how this car of ours gets us safely from one place to another .

In other words, there is nothing that is unworthy of our noticing.  All parts of our days can be enriched by our very presence.

photo_12481_20100214Gary Snyder, in his work The Practice of the Wild points powerfully to this:                                  

”All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality.  Reality-insight says…master the twenty- four hours.

Do it well, without self-pity.  It is as hard to get the children herded into the car pool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha-hall on a cold morning.

One move is not better than the other, each can be quite boring, and they both have the virtuous quality of repetition.

Repetition and ritual and their good results come in many forms.  Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick–don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.

Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our “practice” which will put us on a “path”- it is our path”.