Friday, July 26, 2013

Adrenaline Rush: An Emotional Fire Drill

Fire drills are necessary whether we want them or not.

It's crazy how the human mind works sometimes.  This morning, my husband registered our daughter for the seventh grade.  She'd been agonizing all week long over which homeroom "team" she would be placed in, hoping against hope it would be her top choice with all her friends.  When the phone rang, I answered the call expecting to hear either my husband's or daughter's voice telling me about the schedule and homeroom assignment.  What I did not expect, however, was my husband screaming fairly incoherently into the phone. In an attempt to tease our daughter about her previous angst regarding registration, he pretended to be an excited pre-teen girl delivering good news.  I didn't hear that, however.  All I heard was my daughter's name and my normally reserved husband screaming which completely terrified me in a visceral, bone-deep way.

In the span of a few seconds, I was thrust back almost nine years ago to a phone call I received at work from my hysterical father telling me my mother had died very suddenly of a heart attack. On the heels of that memory, I started shaking and rapidly talking over my husband, asking what happened. Fortunately,  he quickly heard the panic in my voice and explained his badly received joke.  I calmed down just enough to talk with my daughter about her class schedule, her volleyball try-outs, and to yell at my husband to never, ever do that again.

After they hung up, I sat for a minute, trying to gather myself and realized that not only was I still shaking very badly, but also I was crying.  Intellectually I knew the "flight or fight" response had hijacked my body and it wouldn't stop until the adrenaline had run its course.  The knowledge of that didn't help my emotions, though. It took me about fifteen minutes to achieve a calm state, and the entire time I thought about how absolutely awful that moment nine years ago had been and how unfathomably horrific another phone call like that would be, especially if it concerned any one of my children.

When I said it's crazy how the human mind works sometimes, I meant that it's really an amazing thing.  For example in this kind of instance, the mind operates on so many levels at one time.  It triggers a biological response to handle crisis, it evokes precisely and clearly old memories as if they happened yesterday, it manages to deal rationally with information processing, and all the while floods a person with emotions running the gamut from abject fear to overwhelming relief.

In addition, after some reflection, the mind allows a person to realize he or she just experienced a serious reality check.  It drives home the point that bad things happen to good people all the time and random, tragic events occur on a regular basis.  No one remains immune from the vagaries of life. But it also gives us practice on how to deal with potentialities like this.  It's like an emotional and mental fire drill for crisis. Moments like these give a person the opportunity to face fears that usually remain hidden, or briefly thought about and then dismissed.  Even though addressing fear can be incredibly unpleasant, it is necessary.  If we didn't deal with fear occasionally we would be totally unprepared for when we come face to face with it.

As well as providing practice for possible future scenarios, instances like this readjust a person's perspective on life. It  forces a person to recognize who and what comprise the truly important things, and reinvigorates a person's appreciation of and participation in one's life.  Last but not least, it thankfully allows the fear to recede into the background so that we can go about our lives without being dominated by "what ifs".

I'm still having a hard time believing I reacted the way in which I did, and I am still feeling some of the after effects of the adrenaline rush and the unwanted thinking about painful memories.  Nonetheless, I'm going to shake it off.  I'm going to let my mind do what it does best--focusing on good, productive thoughts, staying in the moment, and appreciating the people who mean the most to me and valuing the time I have to spend with them.  It's going to be a good day even though it got off to a rocky, adrenaline fueled start.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Critical Mustard Test and Good People

My parents used some interesting turns of phrase on a regular basis.  They generally had a colloquialism to describe almost any situation, event, or person.  My mother's sayings reflected her Oklahoma/New Mexico upbringing and seemed familiar to me because I spent many years in that particular region.  My father always seem to have more "exotic" things to say as he hailed from Ohio.  Never having spent much time in Ohio,  I always thought of the place as being somehow more foreign than the southern and western part of the US where I spent my childhood. His sayings usually made me laugh because they were colorful and strange, but by the same token, they were incredibly apt in description and classification.

Two of the phrases that stand out to me that my father frequently used applied to people.  I still use them today when someone new enters my life and I evaluate whether or not to keep him or her.  One expresses whether or not a person is suitable for friendship, partnership or romance and the other grants a seal of approval. Daddy would always say after meeting and conversing with someone new that he enjoyed, "Well, he/she passed the critical mustard test."  That meant the person made a good first impression and definitely had qualities that were worth exploring.  Passing the critical mustard test usually meant that a person exhibited a neat and tidy appearance, had a robust sense of humor, good communication skills, and an overall sense of decency and respect.  

My dad had one of the most genial and social personalities I've ever encountered..  He could talk to anyone, could make a person feel comfortable and welcome, and amuse him or her consistently.  Even though most people felt as if Daddy constituted an immediate friend, not everyone passed the critical mustard test.  He reserved that saying for people with whom he really connected.  Passing the test with my father wasn't terribly difficult, but it wasn't always a sure thing either.  I can remember bringing friends home from school and some gave good vibes while others did not.  Daddy never hesitated in giving his opinion and I never hesitated in listening to it.  To me, he always seemed a fair and consistent judge of character because he gave everyone a chance.  He didn't have many preconceived notions or stereotypes regarding people and let them prove or discredit themselves before he decided whether or not he enjoyed their company.

Now when Daddy whipped out the saying, "He/she is good people," I knew that he really liked the person and appreciated the qualities and personality of him or her.  Being "good people" for my dad was a seal of approval and a welcome invitation to become close to the family.  I use this saying all the time because it is a simple and concise way to explain or describe someone's overall innate character.  It means regardless of some annoying behaviors, social faux pas, or idiosyncrasies, the person is decent and has a good heart.  It does not take into account socio-economic status, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or even political affiliation.  If a person is deemed "good people" then they are just straight-up good people and worthy of knowing.

I've met a lot of "good people" in my lifetime and I am fortunate to be able to say that.  I have friends from all over the world who come from very disparate backgrounds. They cover the spectrum of thought, behavior and personality from one end to the other. "Good people" come in all shapes and sizes and they aren't necessarily all sunshine and light. Some have difficult personalities, some exhibit awkward behavior, some are irritating and annoying, but they all share that one quality of having a good-hearted orientation to the world. They maintain an innate love or caring for their fellow human beings, they respect life, they hold a sense of responsibility and obligation to make this world a better place, they do not go out of their way to harm others, and they generally are well-intentioned in most of what they do. 

I feel lucky that my father passed onto me, not just these two colorful phrases, but also the meaning behind them.  He taught me to be not only open-minded and friendly, but also discerning.  He blessed me with the ideas behind the critical mustard test and the good people standard--give all people a chance and hold onto the ones that embody the meaning of being good-hearted.  My life has definitely been enriched with the good people I've had in it, and I am grateful.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dipping My Toes: My Ramadan Experience

I am a curious person by nature.  I like learning new stuff about pretty much everything.  I enjoy the feeling of neural expansion when a novel piece of information attaches itself to something I already know, and the sensation of fitting together concepts, ideas and knowledge to create a big picture of how the world and its inhabitants work.  Lately, for the past six months or so, I've been exploring religion.  Religion and spirituality have always interested me and I have some unique ideas regarding faith and organized religion that I wanted to clarify.  I decided in order to have a firm grasp on my own beliefs, I needed to understand as best as possible the world's major religions.  Along the way, I've learned quite a few things, about religion, myself, and people in general. Some of what I have learned has debunked certain preconceived notions I held while other things have upheld my beliefs and ideas.

I am the first one to admit that I am somewhat of a dabbler in this penchant for knowledge acquisition.  I am a taste tester of life, if you will.  I like dipping my toes into the water in a variety of areas, and only rarely do I commit to a full-on swim.  Whether or not this comprises a good trait, I honestly do not know.  Being a Jane-of-all-trades and a master of none has both benefits and disadvantages. This type of learning means  I know a little about a lot of subjects and I know a lot about very few.  I am in essence, a generalist and not a specialist of information. When I started my comparative religious study, I think I unconsciously assumed I would be dipping toes again.  This time, however, I somehow managed to fall into the water feet first and become fully submerged.

Being raised as a Christian, I decided to forgo that faith as a starting point.  I know quite a bit about Christianity in regard to the basic doctrine, theology, and history of the Christian church.  In addition, I felt fairly familiar with Judaism due to graduate studies and decided to save these two religions for last in my explorations.  This left Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  I know the basics of all three religions from my experience as a world history teacher and starting with any of them would have been a good choice.  I went with Islam, however, because I've made some Muslim friends within the past year or two and decided to see what it was about their faith that they so appreciated. I also chose Islam because I am an ardent liberal and I thought that it would be good to understand a religion that I supported in the face of vehement denunciations by a lot of the right-wing, conservative acquaintances of mine.  I also secretly liked the idea of being better armed for Facebook fights about religious freedom.

I started by reading the Quran.  This then led me to seek out explanations of the surahs through articles as well as videos.  I asked my Muslim friends questions regarding why they do certain things they do and what they interpreted the meaning of certain verses to be.  The studying and conversation both enlightened and frustrated me. I must admit, reading the Quran allowed me to see how closely linked the religion is to both Christianity and Judaism.  Most people have no clue that the Quran references both the Bible and the Torah and recognizes Jesus as a prophet. Most non-Muslims don't realize that there is a focus on mercy and forgiveness in the Quran as well as an expressed tolerance for other religions. As far as religious texts go, it was easy to read, made good sense, and fit with my idea that there is only one god and no one else. I can honestly say I enjoyed reading it.

On the frustrating side of the study, I found it incredibly hard to have an objective conversation with my Muslim friends regarding this religion as they always kept one eye on converting me.  The conversations naturally bent towards all the wonderful aspects of Islam and didn't address the legitimate issues I had regarding certain verses,  with how outside-oriented the faith is in regard to ritual, and the hellfire-and-brimstone focus of the doctrine.  I couldn't seem to get an objective answer to many of these questions which then led me back to two of my original assumptions regarding religion in general.  One cannot hold on an objective discussion with a zealot and people have a profound way of screwing up what would otherwise be beautiful religions.

Nonetheless, I decided that while I was still studying Islam, I would take advantage of participating in Ramadan this year.  Ramadan consists of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is viewed as the holiest month of the year.  Muslims observe strict fasting from sunrise until sunset which includes no eating, drinking, sexual relations, smoking and swearing.  It is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and during this month, the blessings received from fasting are multiplied. During Ramadan, people follow the prayers with diligence during the day and spend the nights in prayer and recitation of the Quran.  Throughout the month, Allah has closed the gates to Hell and thus no shaitan (devils) can whisper in a person's ear to cause them to go astray. It is a month in which to prove devotion and obeisance to God without any excuses.

I am about halfway through my first Ramadan.  It's been an interesting experience to date.  Initially as the first day of Ramadan grew close, I psyched myself up for the task ahead and alternated between an excitement of seeing what I could accomplish and a fear of failing in a very big way.  Once I got started, though, I realized that I could do this.  It wouldn't necessarily be easy, but it would be good for me in many ways. All religions acknowledge fasting as having positive benefits in spiritual growth, so it must be true.

So far, the experience of Ramadan has been a mixed bag of results.  I have had both positive and negative experiences. I have discovered in myself a willpower and dedication that I did not think existed.  I am proud that I have been able to fast all day long and remain mindful of my behavior and speech.  I've enjoyed praying throughout the day, having conversations with God on regular basis.  I feel as if I have improved in my thinking and behavior.  On a superficial note, I've also lost eight pounds.  On the flip side, I've had some negative experiences regarding Ramadan over the past two weeks as well.  To be fair, however, these instances have involved other people and not so much the dictates of what God wants and expects from me. Some of my Muslim friends, upon finding out I decided to fast, felt as if I were mocking their faith.  They immediately questioned my intention and sincerity.  Others became hyper-critical of my behavior, pointing out that I was not doing things with perfection.  More so than anything else, these experiences reinforced my belief that humans have the tendency to take a good thing and pick it apart until there is nothing beautiful left in it.  Their behaviors strengthened my thought that religion in general divides rather than unites.  It was one of the more unfortunate things I've discovered and I can honestly say their reactions disappointed me on a profound level because I had such hope they would be different.

All in all, I have had a good experience so far, but I have not had some grand epiphany regarding my ideas about God.  Certain aspects of my personal spiritual beliefs have not changed and I still find parts of Islam troubling for me.  I don't believe God hears a person better because he or she recites prayers just right.  I think intention and belief count more than just rote memorization and perfected outside behaviors.  I don't think a person has to stay away from everything that is pleasing in order to have a meaningful, impactful relationship with God.  I think God is a god of love and not fear.  I think God expects imperfection and values sincerity. Perhaps I have not found the right person yet to discuss these issues, but based on my personal explorations and experience this is how I currently feel, and until someone can convince me otherwise, I will more than likely continue feeling this way.

I will continue fasting and praying during the remainder of Ramadan.  I made a commitment at the beginning of it and I am going to see it through to the end. And, as odd as it sounds, I am enjoying it.  I am learning something new every day about Islam, the behaviors of its followers, and myself.  For a dabbler and life-long learner, it is a wonderful experience and one I don't regret embarking upon.  As a matter of fact, I like that I am not just dipping my toes, but really swimming this time.  It feels really good.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Proof is in the Pudding

One of my friend's mother passed away unexpectedly last week.  I felt badly for her because I know exactly what it is like to lose a parent suddenly.  Both of my parents died with little to no warning.  I remember how difficult it is, the initial period of grief and mourning, and while my heart went out to my friend, I can honestly say I felt relief that I'll never have to go through that particular situation again.  Losing my mother changed how I viewed the world. It brought home the idea in a visceral way that bad things happen to good people all the time and that the world is indeed very unfair in its dealing with its inhabitants.  The death of my father changed how I viewed myself, as it extinguished the role and expectations of being a daughter.  Profound changes can occur after the death of a parent, and I am left wondering how the death of my friend's mother will impact her life.

The other thing I thought about this past week concerns all the ways in which our parents still influence and direct our thoughts, actions, and behaviors even after they have departed this world.  I am fortunate in that I see and feel my parents every day in so many things that I do and think.  My parents influence is felt in big things like my ideas about morality, spirituality, and ethics to the little things like what meals I choose to make for dinner and how I prepare them.  They are with me every single day as long as I continue to remember and acknowledge their impact upon my life. I am hoping my friend feels the closeness of her mother in this way too.  It really does ease the grieving process when you think of them in that fashion.

I keep thinking of my children this week too. What kind of impact am I having upon them?  Am I giving them the security, the love, and the skills to be resilient, happy, productive people?  Am I showing them in both obvious and subtle ways how to live life well?  Am I mindful of how my behavior influences their behavior?  And above all else, am I a good mother? Am I doing things right?  I think all parents question themselves from time to time regarding how they are shaping their children, but it's moments like these that give rise to deeper introspection as well as to provide a catalyst for changes that need to be made in parental behaviors.

There are things that I need to do differently, I am sure about that.  There are things that I do pretty well too. Hopefully it all balances out at some point.  That's all we really can do anyway.  Try and change the things that aren't productive, strengthen the positive aspects, and hold onto the hope that we are enough for our children.  The proof, as the saying goes, is in the pudding.  And even if my pudding has a few lumps in it, as pudding is often wont to do, as long as it tastes good and satisfies, I will be happy.  I just want for my children what I had growing up--kind, responsible and loving parents who had a lasting, positive influence.  I'm working everyday to make that happen.