Saturday, December 8, 2012

Casting a Wide Net Yields a Bountiful Life

She always looks up!

The humming birds were buzzing around the bird feeder, while she filled it with water and food.  In a quiet voice, she informed me that they carried the spirits of her dead siblings and parents.  She was the only one still alive and they liked to visit.  Not a superstitious type, she said “My mother used to say to me hummingbirds were our relatives.”  From that time on, when I sit in my backyard hot tub and the hummingbirds fly around and I think of my departed family members.

Committed to a full life, this older lady defines involvement and creative expression.  Her typical day is:  check the stock market, go to water color or exercise class, garden in her yard, play bridge in the evening, and then 'stream' a movie.  Keeping this schedule day in, day out would be daunting for someone half her age.   But she doesn’t stop, and barely takes time for the occasional nap.  ‘Why would I stop?  If I did, I may as well die’ she says.   

One day I asked her about the meaning of life.  She responded, "Look around.  What do you see?  Plants, animals, nature.  That is what it is about."  No concepts, no theories of the hereafter, and no god, just the simple expression of life with all of its abundance.  In her garden, last year’s roses and tomatoes are long gone.  Like her career in public education, that was then and she moved on. 'Let the dead bury the dead.'

Born and raised in a small New England town, this skinny, big brown eyed, dark haired daughter of Italian immigrants had an overarching dream—live life in all its fullness.   Never one for sitting still, as a small child she would follow her older brothers where ever they went--wanting to explore the world.   That inclination stayed with her in moving to California with her Navy officer later civil engineer husband, living in Europe for a couple years in the Sixties, traveling to foreign lands nearly every summer vacation, and even more often in ‘retirement.’  

Intensity in acrylic by Belinda Z. Klarin
At 62 she retired from a career in teaching elementary school, but not from life.  Immediately she began taking art classes ranging from abstract painting, to sculpture, to watercolors.  Befuddling her instructors with her wild creativity, she would turn a simply ceramic pot into phantasmagoria of shapes out of the Lord of the Rings.  Once a skill is learned, it is on to a new one.  It didn’t matter if she was 65 or 75 or even 85.  Learning and exploring is the gold of life for her.  She transformed herself just as she did the back yard of her house from basic grass and concrete into a verdant collection of native and drought tolerant plants.

Not confined to travel, gardening, and art, her smorgasbord of interests includes mental stimulation as well.  About a year ago, she began to learn chess along with her other recent interests in Sudoku and RummyKube.  I don’t know what happened to chess, but I suspect it got lost in her re-surging popularity as a contract bridge player.  That takes about three to four nights per week--there is only so much time.

She also found an outlet for her teaching skills by volunteering at the local library.  Once per week she assists adults improve their reading and writing skills.  In that role she often becomes a surrogate mother offering gentle counsel along with correcting grammar.  

a few of the many water colors
When I look at this woman in her mid eighties, I see the young girl who wanted to experience the world and life. Not limited by her ethnicity, small town upbringing, poverty, or discrimination, she seized opportunities.  Always busy, she took college classes at night while raising three children.  But it is in her 'retirement' years that she has really shined.

Never one for fancy things: for her life is for living, not possessions.  Recently, she found some old family photos in a back closet.  They had been sent to her when her last brother died and she hadn’t looked at them.  We leafed through the mixed collection of wedding, army, and school photos and she named relatives captured in moments forty, sixty, one hundred years ago.  A mystery was solved.  I got a clue to what fuels her relentless zeal for living.  It is an unbreakable family bond:  A rock solid foundation that remains and sustains through all of the travels, classes, friends, and hobbies.   

Although she left her hometown to live her life 3,000 miles distant, she never left her family and she was not limited by her family.  Their love and support seems to have inspired her wide ranging interests and creative expressions.  She starts each day with the expectation to live fully orbed.  Her guiding principles are not planned, not studied, not counseled but they are authentic; be curious,  learn new skills, give back to society, be close to nature, and remember the past but live in the present.

Belinda Zompa Klarin and the writer
She is not without struggles or faults but she is real.  My mother is my greatest teacher about this stage of my life.  Satisfaction and fulfillment in older age calls for freedom, courage, and curiosity.  It is not easily come by,  successful aging is not common.  But Belinda Zompa Klarin is an exemplar of forging authentic, maximum living after 'retirement.'   More than reinventing, she casts a wide net on the sea of life and makes the most of whatever she catches. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Banish Perfectionism & Welcome ‘Good Enough

Striving for perfection is the greatest stopper there is…It’s your excuse to yourself for not doing anything.  Instead, strive for excellence, doing your best.  Sir Laurence Olivier

Swami Muktananda Santa Monica tent, 1981
Over thirty years ago, around sunset I walked up to big tent on a parking lot on Ocean Ave., Santa Monica.    At the entry room were a gaggle of devotees wearing saris and other Indian garb, who said Namaste.  Next to the door was a huge glass barrel about 10 feet high which was filled with hash pipes, cigarettes, syringes, and whiskey bottles.   I inquired ‘what is that about?’  She responded, “Baba absorbs karma because he is a perfected being.”  Firmly in my ‘prove it’ attitude, I sat through the program of chanting and discourse in Hindi translated into English by his comely assistant later to be his successor.   

Finally, I had the opportunity for darshan (blessing) and walked up to the podium and looked in his eyes.   What I saw was beyond the mind or the material world.  This little, old Indian man with the orange beanie was the first and only person I have ever met who was ‘perfected’.  From then on I was on a quest to know and to achieve awakening or perfection.

Perfectionism: a personal belief that anything less than perfect is undesirable.  
After Swami Muktananda died, stories came out about his less than perfect behavior with underage devotees.   Like the rest of us, it turns out he was a bit less than perfect.
Throughout my life I have oppressed myself with perfectionism in the important domains of life:  mate, job, home, health.  Never fully satisfied, I too often changed the job or the girl because it or she wasn’t perfect.  Never satisfied, the grass was always greener.  I once had a therapist who admonished me to not drop a girlfriend as long as positives were more than the negatives (providing there were no deal breakers).  I dropped him, not the girl.

American culture is suffused with perfectionist ideology; 'winner take all, second place is for losers, die trying.  What if there is no perfect, no absolute, and that date or job or house or suit of clothes was good enough.  Would it change your life?  Would you be happier?  Goals motivate us to improve and are important component of happiness.  But more and better may lead to constant striving, never arriving.

Let's back up a bit.  As Boomers we have been exhorted to live our dreams all of our lives.  The Boomer generation was often indulged by parents who had grown up in the Depression and World War II.  As youths we felt entitled to be, do, and have what we wanted.  We wanted perfection.  That zeitgeist fit with the traditional American can do spirit of self-reliance.   We wanted decided to work on ourselves. The self-improvement industry expanded into the mainstream in the 70s with the est training which promised instant transformation.  Naturally, after you’ve been transformed you want the perfect mate, job, house, and body.   Self-help reached some sort of zenith with Oprah Winfrey and her massive following.  Not so coincidentally, Oprah ended her show in the aftermath of the Great Recession.   Perhaps that shift heralded a new perspective on the search for perfection. 

Rev. Ike, 70s televangelist
American self-help did not start in the 60s or 70s but can be traced all the way back to Jefferson’s ‘pursuit of happiness’ as enshrined in the 1776's Declaration of Independence.  Throughout our history, salesmen of perfection have achieved huge success, from James Allen’s ‘As Man Thinketh’ to Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ to Napoleon Hill’s ‘Think and Grow Rich’.   In the 80s these classic American success teachings came together with religion with televangelists such as Rev. Ike and Rev. Terry Cole-Whitaker.  They offered a spiritual basis for enjoying ‘heaven on earth.’  Rev. Terry's slogan was ‘Prosperity Is Your Divine Right’ and Rev. Ike declared, ‘Green Power.’ 

We deserved a perfect life.  When one brand or mate turns out to be a bit difficult, maybe it’s time to recycle.  After all wasn’t I promised heaven on earth?  When a boss tries to get me to come to work on time, shouldn’t I be following my divine right livelihood as an actor?  The twin traps of choice and perfectionism ensnares the ungrounded, the gullible, and the dreamers.  There is always another slick entrepreneur of optimal living waiting down the street with a new program or miracle mineral to cure all that ails you.  With effort anyone can have perfection, just take another seminar or potion.
Meditation teacher, Akasa Levi
Pursuing the carrot of excellence has a place but you have to know when the donkey has gone far enough.  Now tired of looking for the ultimate job, mate, home, or health, I am done with constant working for perfection and thereby never being content.  For me it's time to stop, assess, and appreciate what is present.   As the renowned meditation teacher, Akasa Levi of Santa Monica calls it…’good enough enlightenment.’

Pursuing heaven on earth may be as valid as any other life purpose.  But after that last seminar/ sermon and that last 'back of the room book table,' I don’t want to say I’ve missed real life in all of its glory and imperfections.  These days when I am tired of reading, studying, and workshopping about life, like Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, I get up and sing, play, and dance.  That is Good Enough!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Pursuing Zorba's Secret

All the problems we find so complicated or insoluble he cut through as if with a sword…it is difficult for him to miss, because his two feet are held firmly planted on the ground by the weight of his whole body. (from Zorba the Greek)

My home office looks like a used bookstore that specializes in self-improvement, spiritual, and philosophical books.  It has been a passion for thirty years.  While preparing for a recent trip, I decided to break this habit.  The programs, theories, and concepts had blended into the labyrinth of the Minotaur who could not .  Wanting to read about a life well lived and fully expressed, I decided to read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, which was appropriately set on the same island of the Minotaur, Crete.   There wasn’t time to order it from Amazon, checking my public library and several used bookstores, inquiries to literary friends were all futile.  Caving to the chain, I went to Barnes and Noble.  Upon handing my $25 gift certificate to the cashier, I got a strange response.  “Sir, our lines are down for gift cards.  I can only take cash or credit.”  Frustrated, I declined to buy it and walked out.  

But he did not even look round.  How could he possibly have talked at that moment to a bookworm who, instead of wielding a pick, held in his hand a miserable stump of pencil?   He was busy, he did not wish to speak (Zorba the Greek)

On the way to the car, it hit me:  I am done reading about life.  Life is to be lived right now in the present, like Zorba.  No more reading about Zorbas but living like Zorba with zest, vitality, energy, purpose, passion, and in the body.  My self-improvement zeitgeist had become a solipsistic merry-go-round.   Round and round and round.   Being a good student and a graduate of a career in public education, I always believed the answers were in books and classes.  Study was my teacher, not living.  Finally tired of preparation, I wanted to just do it.  For the recent retiree it may be even more poignant, since the sands in the hour glass are running out.  

Salem, Mass
Ultimately, I chanced upon a used bookstore in Salem, MA.  Hidden in between the shops selling witch costumes and broomsticks, it was the most crowded bookstore ever.  The proprietor only had a ten inch space to peer out.  I asked for Zorba the Greek.  He said “Sure.  Right away.”  He picked it out of one of the ten foot tall stacks.   It’s protagonist sounded like me.  He is a writer and a student of life—in books.  He encounters Zorba, who is a working man who lives full out; dancing, singing, making love, fighting wars, and traveling to many countries.  Zorba is a thoughtful man also and ponders questions such as the meaning of life, but his solution is not reading but dancing to get the answers. Drawn to this totally different and liberated soul, the narrator realizes he must stop living in his head and allow the soul and body to lead.

Inspired by the book, I now wanted to see the 1964 movie.   It too proved elusive.  I mentioned my interest to a friend and he called to tell me that it would be on TV on a certain day. I planned to record it but then forgot.  Thinking that a vintage, classic movie would not be hard to find, I put in a hold request at the library.   I waited for several weeks and the tracking report said it was in transit, meaning that it was turned in and on its way to my branch.  After another week or so, I went in to the library and inquired and they reported that it had been in transit for six months and was obviously lost.  Chalking up that outlet, I dropped into my local indie video rental store.  They looked it up.  Nope, checked out.  Surprised but into the hunt, I went home and joined Netflix streaming because now I really wanted to see it immediately.  Turned out it is not available on streaming, only on DVD.  Chastened but not quitting, I put it on the back burner.  The next day stuffing the mail box was a notice from my public library, ‘sorry we couldn’t get the it but we will do an inter-library loan for free.’    Here I was again, unable to procure a simulation of living.

The Dance:  Anthony Quinn & Alan Bates
Finally, I ordered from Netflix and viewed the film.  Cloaked in the patina of a black and white, the film portrayed the key events from the novel, but not the inner quest.  Although the brilliant performance by Anthony Quinn was nominated for an Oscar, the film barely scratches the surface of Kazantzakis’ spiritual inquiry.  Zorba comes off as a wild man who chases his passions, without the reflection explored in the book.

That is what a real man is like, I thought, envying Zorba’ sorrow.  A man with warm blood and solid bones, who lets real tears run down his cheeks when he is suffering” and when he is happy he does not spoil the  freshness of his joy by running it through the fine sieve of metaphysics. (Zorba the Greek)

My quest for this book demonstrated to me that living fully can be studied in a movie or a book but doesn’t replace action.  It is especially relevant these days when virtual experiences are considered normal.   People walk down a beautiful street or park looking at their screens.  Zorba says, 'look up and see what is obvious.'   Some things can’t be answered with an Internet search, I suggest at times pull a Zorba; dance, sing, and play music.  Study, analyze, and think and then muster the courage to live life.

You don’t want any trouble!” Zorba exclaimed.  “And pray, what do you want, then?  Life is trouble.  Death no. To live do you know what that means.  To undo your belt and look for trouble. (Zorba the Greek)