How Wise Are You?

Is wisdom reserved for the elders? Can anyone, at any age have wisdom worth sharing?

How does one measure wisdom anyway?

I define wisdom as learning from experience and applying it to how you live your life.

One dictionary definition is “the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment.”

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Do we learn from our experiences? Are we able to coalesce all that we have learned into a body of wisdom from which we make future decisions? That would be ideal. Then, I surmise, we would be able to learn from history. Even though something hasn’t been part of our personal experience, every historical event is held in the collective memory. Somehow, deep within, we know that we don’t want to repeat what lead to World War II, for instance. We’ve seen enough films and read enough books about the atrocities, haven’t we? Some of us have had relatives or acquaintances who’ve lived through those years. We might have heard their stories.

Yet, one can only wonder how far we’ve come when we see egocentric leadership who fans fervor in his/her followers. When division and dissension are made to look appealing, necessary or as the only way to make change–any wisdom seems to go out the window.

So, we don’t really have wisdom then. We’re wishy-washy, easily lead and already traumatized. We’ve lost touch with a grounded sense of truth that comes from honoring oneself and the other with compassion and creativity at its basis. By a grounded sense of truth, I mean the ability to sit quietly, go inside and ask the questions that lead you to deep (perhaps universal) truth. Compassion because it really is true that until “you walk a mile in my shoes,” you won’t know what my life has been. And creativity because creativity says “let’s do this differently…let’s collaborate…let’s figure this out together.”

Wisdom, that elusive exotic bird, the prize of a lived life or occasionally recognized in the naivete of youth. We should be praying for this. For leaders who have this quality. For leaders who love life and all of its inhabitants. For those who love the earth, our home in the universe. And we need to cultivate it in ourselves. Daily.

One way is to get out in nature as often as you can. And sit there. Sit there until you feel a deeper and truer rhythm.

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Do you claim your learned lessons? Have you freed yourself from the pretense that you don’t know what you do know? As a woman, there have been times when I let myself be smaller and didn’t own the wisdom I have. Perhaps I didn’t want to make someone else, usually a man in my life, feel inferior. That, I now know, serves nothing and no one. We don’t have to pretend to be less wise than we are. I don’t have to be less wise than I am. You don’t have to be less wise than you are.

Enjoy your day!

Technology is Phasing Me Out

I wrote this post a few years ago although I didn’t publish it at the time. Today, I find the message to be as relevant as ever…

My DVD player went kaput the other night. I swear I heard it sigh twice before it succumbed. Unfortunately, it had swallowed a Netflix DVD, Secretariat. I was forced to resort first to tweezers and when that didn’t work, I used a can opener to pry it open.

The next day, I went up to Wal Mart and reviewed their inventory of DVD players. I chose a Sony DVD player with Blu-ray Disc capacity. An upgrade, I thought, pleased with my choice. I even brought the two-year warranty plan. I got home that night, too tired to set it up.

A friend told me “it’s easy.”

So the next evening, I decided to get it up and running before bed. I unplugged all the cords from the old DVD player. I read the instruction manual from front to back.

I realized that the HDMI cable wasn’t included in the deal. I also noticed that some of the hook-ups looked different than what was on the older model. There weren’t the same jacks and outlets and inlets and all of that. I don’t have Cable TV and wondered if that was a requirement. I plugged in the DVD player after I made one connection…but it wasn’t actually connected to the TV. I decided it could wait until the next day.

I went down to the local Radio Shack with both of the manuals–for the Sony Blu-Ray Disc DVD Player and for my SANYO LCD TV. I was told that these two pieces of equipment were incompatible and furthermore, they no longer made the same type of connectors as are on my less-than-five-year-old TV. In other words, I wouldn’t be able to find a DVD player that would be compatible with my LCD TV. What a disappointment!


“It’s old,” he said plainly.

“Not that old,” I replied.

I was told that I could bring my old DVD player to the transfer station and that there is no charge.

He said “Sometimes, they charge to dispose of them as there are lethal components.

I said “I can only hope that they find a way to recycle some of these parts. Otherwise, what a toxic heap we’re making.”

I thought, built-in obsolescence.

Where is all of this technology, the technology with the lethal components going to end up? In a heap and choking our environment? What the heck is going on?

Maybe I’ll return the DVD player. Maybe I won’t get a TV. Maybe (before Covid) I’ll just invite some friends over and chat around a cozy fire. I could start a knitting circle where we sit and share our stories. I might make ice-cream the old-fashioned way. Take up weaving, spinning wool. TV, after all, can make us anti-social and lazy.

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All of that said, with the advent of the virus in 2020, we’ve become more dependent on technology to stay connected. The good and the not-so-good of things.

I genuflect

I came across this poem I wrote back in 2009…my dad was resisting allowing in-home-help for my mom.  When we were finally able to get someone in to help my parents, when my father finally acquiesced, I wrote a poem of gratitude for this corps of helpers.  Caregivers are underpaid and unsung heroines and heroes.  They do women’s work which, as we realize, is undervalued across the globe.

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I genuflect
before all life
and the caregiver who
washes a sink full of dirty dishes
and changes diapers
or empties bedpans
bathes my parents
–to those who wash urine-soaked mattress pads
with grace.

I revere the life
which enters in a bloody burst
catching its first breath in a cry
and releasing its final breath in a shudder
and everything in between
–especially women’s work
which great corporations
like hotels, restaurants,
the hospitality industry
model themselves after.
Women have always
prepared our food,
cared for the sick,
done the laundry,
and not been paid for
their necessary labor.
i.e., my mom
–now my dad has to pay wages
for her care after sixty-six years
of her unpaid service to him.

To pay for women’s work
is a tough pill for him to swallow
wash it down
wash it down
and cough up the money
for these worthy and necessary chores
from worthy givers of care
to my more than deserving mom.

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Ultimately, my parents moved to a care home.  Their needs were met by caregivers making minimum wage. There is a real humility in accepting help as we age.  And caregiving is a humble profession that deserves to be elevated.  Where does any one society place its value?  This becomes obvious in what they put their money towards.
My father passed away in 2010 and my mom died six months later.

Grandmothers

Recently, in an online Zoom class, the discussion went to “What’s a good story you’d like to share about your relationship with one of your grandfathers?”

I came up with zilch! Good stories about either one of my grandfathers’ relationship to me were non-existent. This wasn’t the first time where I felt a longing for a grandfather (remember Heidi and her grandfather in the Swiss Alps). My Irish grandfather on my father’s side was an alcoholic for most of his life. I have a sad image of him slumped in an old upholstered chair staring out the window from the second story of his house in Bernal Heights. I remember someone saying that he had only six teeth left, his hair was white and sparse and he had nothing to say to a little girl. The other Grandfather, the Italian one, would slip out of the house rather quickly when my parents arrived with their nine children in tow. He had a beautiful garden out back in the open fields of Mountain View and I only remember being allowed to go out there a few times. He wore a beat up hat and overalls. I understand that he was an accountant and wore a suit during the work week.

However, I do have memories of my grandmothers. The Irish/German Grandmother on my father’s side was diabetic. She tucked boxes of chocolate in drawers, cabinets, under beds. One week she would come to visit and her legs would be swollen with fluids; the next week, she twirled her skirt and ta-da, skinny legs. She once gave me a pink and purple feather duster. I guess she knew that I was one of the little serfs in my parent’s house. That’s how I thought of us at times, like a feudal system. We, the children, the serfs, had to do the work to keep the kingdom thriving. I have other memories of her, Lou short for Louise.

My Italian Grandmother Anna was born in Palermo and she was brought to America with her brother and parents when she was six months old…Ellis Island. She is the one I witnessed into her old age…she lived to be ninety-one years old. As a girl, I didn’t feel either favored or disfavored by her. When she pronounced my given name of CHRISTINE, it sounded stern to my ears. I was usually Chrissie. She was an authoritarian figure, the matriarch. I got the impression that my grandfather was the submissive one. She was groomed by her mother to be an opera singer. She did sing in some of the churches in San Francisco. The family had moved from the east coast to the west coast. Those stories are sketchy.

One year, I bought a cassette recorder. Two of my brothers and I thought it would be a good idea to interview Grandma especially in regards to our Italian lineage. She was in her late eighties at the time. I have those tapes to this day and have made copies for family members. When we showed up on her doorstep, her greeting would sound so weak…”I have nothing to say really. I live the life of a recluse.” By the end of the conversation, her voice had regained the old strength and she was once again the final authority on everything, the matriarch that we remembered.

My grandparents, I can only guess at what life stories, traumas and dreams they did not disclose that affect me and the future generations in this lineage?

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So do you have stories of your relationship with your grandparents? How do you preserve them or pass them on?

The Feminine in Him

By now, most of us have heard that a man has a feminine side and a woman has a masculine side. How accessible each of those are to any one of us is questionable. Any given society’s dictates are strong to be true to your gender. For a man to show his feminine side is often perceived as a weakness. For a woman to show her masculine side…well, she’s been called a bitch or other not-so-nice names. Assertive women and gentle men…hmmm, we’ve got a lot to learn about what it is to be a whole human being.

My ex-husband of thirty years bore the burden of having to be a macho man! He couldn’t admit to fear. He couldn’t show sorrow or grief. The only permissible emotion for him, under this label of macho, was anger! And he did that one really well to the detriment of others and ultimately to himself. During our marriage, when it was needed, I opened the door for him to grieve a loss. He wouldn’t go there. He was a firefighter and a tough guy. That said, I remember the considerate young man that he was before he became so attached to that machismo as a way of defining himself. He passed away in late 2019. In the last five years of his life, after he had his first stroke, suddenly tears were at the surface. He couldn’t control them and gave up apologizing for them. I witnessed in him the struggle as he began to express his more feminine side. His apologies to his children and me, for one. It had been a hard and unyielding wall that kept the machismo, inherited from his lineage, in place. Finally, crumbling.

It is known that the hormone, testosterone, decreases in men as they age. I’ve noticed some men, upwards of sixty, becoming softer, sensitive and compassionate. It could be that they no longer feel that they need to prove themselves. If they are able to retire, perhaps they no longer need to be so competitive. It could be the wisdom of aging. It could be the decreased hormone levels and/or all of the above. It’s a change for the good because why not have access of all who we are? Why not discover our depths of feeling out of which can grow new possibilities for oneself and humankind?

A New World
by Christine O’Brien
Soft as a mother
of cushiony comforts
–men fear that perceived weakness
within themselves.
A man so strong
as to pretend fearlessness:
so rigid as not to crack.
Topple him within yourself
and cry.
Show me a man
who can encounter a woman
in her softest center
and not try to convince her
of anything.
Show me a woman
who can welcome a man
and not become him.
Where they meet,
at that softest center
honorably,
they can grow a new world.

Being the Age that You Are

…and in the times that you live.  Right now, this feels very challenging.  With a pandemic, wildfires  around the earth, worldwide protests arising from ongoing social injustices, political instability, economic crashes, and more!  Who wouldn’t want to escape into the past or a perceived as better future?

How often do I retreat into the past or project into the future in my thoughts?  Often, I’m sure.  I remember thinking that “things would be better when I conquered some aspect of my personality…in the future” or how much more pleasant it is to linger over a rare soft spot in the past.  I do think that sometimes, it is good to recall a moment when I felt powerful in the past, or exceptionally healthy or positive and to draw on that feeling to bring it forward into a challenging time today.  However, idling there isn’t helpful.  And while it’s fine to imagine a better future, now is where the action happens to begin to shift energy.

On my last birthday…I rediscovered magic.  I woke on my birthday feeling unsettled and grumpy.  I felt like cancelling the gathering with three friends.  I had a flexible plan for them to come over around 5:00 p.m., depending on the heat.  We would sit outside, bring our own food and drink, sit socially distant and share carrot cake.  Contemplating cancelling, I thought about the last birthday, a big one, when I was sick.  I thought about how I deserved a party, a celebration of me.  I remembered when I was a girl and had given myself a few birthday parties…because no one else would.  Suddenly, I had the energy to create a special setting for myself and my friends in the backyard.  And the day unfolded from there into a lovely shared experience.

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“Let me stand in my age with all its waters flowing round me.
If they sometimes subdue, they must finally upbear me,  for I
seek the universal and that must be the best.”
Margaret Fuller

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I didn’t know who Margaret Fuller was.  Do you?  It’s amazing to me how many women of some notoriety in their times have slipped through the cracks of “his…story.”

Margaret Fuller was an American journalist, editor, critic, translator, and women’s rights activist (1810 to 1850).  In a brief forty years, she accomplished quite a bit!  She left behind a lot of her writings including a book entitled Woman in the Nineteenth Century.  I encourage you to google her and read a brief bio of her life.  She was a deep thinker of her times.  Anyone who has gone before (our ancestors) sets the stage for the next ones to enter.

She Who Knows

SheWhoKnows.

There is the tale that is told so well by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her world-renowned book,  Women Who Run with the Wolves.  When I first encountered this book, I was in an independent bookstore, The East West Bookshop, down the Peninsula in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I opened the book randomly and read a passage that was relevant to an experience that I recently had.  The hardbound book wasn’t in my budget.  I replaced it on the display table and walked away.  Then, after browsing for awhile, I was drawn back to the book.  Again, I randomly opened it and voila, another passage that claimed me.  I bought the book.  Every weekend, I’d read a chapter and integrate what I was discovering.  This book felt like a woman’s bible to me.  The mythology and tales that were woven in with a Jungian interpretation touched me deeply.  These tales, passed down from generation to generation, transported me into my own psyche in a way that had never happened before.

La Que Sabe, She Who Knows, was one of those stories.  The story goes…

“In the Southwest the archetype of the old woman can also be apprehended as old La Que Sabe, The One Who Knows. I first came to understand La Que Sabe when I lived in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico, under the heart of Lobo Peak. An old witch from Ranchos told me that La Que Sabe knew everything about women, that La Que Sabe had created women from a wrinkle on the sole of her divine foot: This is why women are knowing creatures; they are made, in essence, of the skin of the sole, which feels everything. This idea that the skin of the foot is sentient had the ring of a truth, for an acculturated Kiché tribeswoman once told me that she’d worn her first pair of shoes when she was twenty years old and was still not used to walking con los ojos vendados, with blindfolds on her feet.”
(excerpt from Clarissa Pinkola Estes)

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When I created this mixed media painting, I had no idea who or what was going to emerge.  But then, she did.  This painting is not about perfection of features…it became about expression of a deep feeling…the woman who has searched inside and encountered her own depths in search of her place in the world.  She does not feign timidity.  Pretense doesn’t work for her.  She decorates herself.  She is radiant and is comfortable with being in her own power.  She is not apologetic for being this powerful.

She has lived her life and learned from it.  She is present with you and deep seeing into human foibles and their underlying strengths.  She understands that wisdom is there for each one of us.  And, she holds patient compassion for herself and others as we sense into our own deep knowing.

My Mother’s Hands

mom1

This mixed media piece was to be my entry in an upcoming art show.

It was also a challenge to myself to integrate poetry with paint.  In some way, it was a homage to my mother’s life.  The photo is of her at age seventeen.  She was a beauty.  My mother died in 2011 at age 91.  From my perspective, her life had been a long, hard road. I’ve written so much about her, about our relationship, about her relationship with my father.

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One of the layers of this painting is a poem, My Mother’s Hands.   After writing the poem  on the canvas, I remember feeling vulnerable.  I was revealing her story to an audience who might not understand the battered wife syndrome.

The poem begins:

I wonder if a palm reader back then would have foretold
–a long life
–an unloving marriage
–an abusive spouse…

…and then I smudged some of the words with gesso and paint.

In the last three years of their lives, my parents were in a care home, a house in a neighborhood with eight elderly residents.  Another sister and I alternated visiting them during the week.  Two other sisters orchestrated their care from afar.  The brothers remained aloof until the very end as they didn’t feel at ease with our father.

In her later years, my mother’s hands were contorted with arthritis.   Her fingers had trouble gripping a spoon and then navigating it to her mouth.  But she had lost so many of her abilities that I didn’t want to help her too much.  I watched as the spoon wobbled towards her mouth.  Her mouth like a quivering bird anticipating food.

My father in the background would say “These are not the golden years.”  I could see that.

One sunny day, we were sitting outdoors under fruit-laden orange trees.  My mother said “I wonder where we go from here.”

“What do you mean, Mom?” I asked.

“After we die.” she said.

“I thought you believed in heaven,” I said, trying to offer comforting words.

My father said “There’s nothing.”

“Dad,” I said, “I thought you had a dream of heaven.  You said it was beautiful.”

My father said, “It was lonely.  I was the only one there.”

In slow motion, my mother reached for my hand and held it–an unfamiliar gesture.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day.  I’m sure thoughts of my mother weave through my mind on any given day.  For one reason or another.

I wonder what she’d be thinking about the state of the world today.  She once asked me to write her story…I’m not sure which one…the one of the devoted wife who stood by her husband no matter what abuse.  Or the possible woman who hid herself away and didn’t have an opportunity to blossom.

Unfinished Business

When my friend, Carolyn, died in 2003, it was for me a generous (on her part) initiation into grief and loss.

In the final months of her life, Carolyn pondered the questions:  “What have I contributed?”  and “Did I do what I came here to do?”

My reply at the time was something like “Look at the people you’ve gathered around you.  Look at how they love you.  Isn’t that an amazing achievement?”

We tend to measure our success by the standards of a world that has defined success in terms of “how many toys you have when you die” and how much money you’ve accrued.

One’s life story is not so neat as a Hollywood ending or a well-scripted novel.  It’s a messy business with threads left dangling, unresolved issues, an apartment, room or house full of incomplete projects, and furniture, laundry, unreplied-to-letters, dishes in the sink, dreaded clutter.  There’s the ending that comes too soon before things are properly resolved or healed, put in order or even accepted.

In the small picture, everyone is not a hero.  And probably, it’s an unfair standard of measurement–heroic or not heroic.  One doesn’t often or always come out looking “good,” their life having been resolved by their dying.  Do you think that the works in progress that we are continue beyond this lifetime?  We can’t, though we might want to, make heroes of all of our dead.  They are the ancestors, but not necessarily of heroic stature.  I’ve been to  funerals where superstitiously or sentimentally or desirously, relatives and others search their memories to say something kind, albeit false regarding the dear departed.  Although tainted by loss, grief and fear these words don’t ring true.  Truth is a partial tale told under these sad circumstances.

When my mother-in-law died in 2007, for me there was a confusion of feelings.  I wondered why my feelings were so congested, constricted, why I couldn’t cry as forcefully as I thought that I should.  Was it because I was ignoring a large part of my experience with her?  So much had gone unspoken between us…she rivalled me for her son’s affection.  Finally, after our divorce, he was all hers.

What’s up to me is my part in the story.  A backwards look, a retrospective from the vantage point of a completion of sorts that occurs when someone dies.  And yes, let’s add a dose of compassion for this human condition.

Truthbound

Sometimes a quote stays with you.  This one is from the 1956 film, Anastasia, starring Ingrid Bergman:

“Truth serves only a world who lives by it.”

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In their later years, when things were so difficult with my aging parents, I was taking a creative writing class.  The instructor, a wise woman, witnessed my turmoil.  One day at the end of class, she took me aside.  She knew some of the challenges I was facing with my parents and family.  She challenged me to write a type of sonnet called a Sestina.  I didn’t know what a Sestina was.  I asked her for a timeline.  She said I should write it that evening.  I went home, studied the form and this poem virtually flowed out of me.  It was the perfect vehicle for what was happening in my life.  As art, poetry and writing can do, it shifted the energy for me.

Truthbound
© by Christine O’Brien

Truth lies in a shallow grave

while perspectives hang out everywhere.

Semantics argue with the unwary

as he admonishes “feelings aren’t facts.”

She remonstrates that mine is not the only opinion!

I inquire “How does one unearth truth?”

 

A sly animal is truth;

in its lair as silent as the grave.

Taunted by every brand of opinion,

each certain that his truth binds everyone, everywhere.

Scientists are burdened with facts.

Buying facts carte blanche is for the unwary.

 

My mother has been unwary,

living my father’s lies, denying truth.

Out in the cold, the stranded facts;

a story of lies they take to the grave.

Wounded healers, their children lay everywhere.

On unalterable facts I do base this sad opinion.

 

Really, what is there to opinion?

What warning can I give to the unwary?

The pain from his misdeeds is everywhere;

his forked tongue can’t speak the truth.

“Oh Dad, set yourself free before the grave

takes you and the unspoken, faltering facts.”

 

Weakening into old age, do they matter less, the facts?

That my mother be separated from him was my opinion.

Yet, there they are growing fragile together, headlong to the grave.

His rage bursts her peaceful ending, she the constant unwary.

In this sad scenario, can one find the concealed truth?

Fragments of perspectives and hurt feelings lay everywhere.

 

When division and broken hearts are everywhere,

are they less important now, the historical facts?

Is forgiveness the elixir of truth?

It seems opposition only supports an opinion

as egos argue in the territory of the unwary.

Let’s bury our perspectives in a grave.

 

Though facts, feelings and opinions are strewn everywhere

is it only the unwary who bind them to truth?

The grave is the end for all; is it wiser to pave the path with love?