Sunday, June 27, 2010

Summer Deluge

We’re between thunderstorms on the Row. It’s The Deluge here in southeast South Dakota. The two main roads I take into Little Town have been intermittently closed, each precariously balanced between growing lakes – great fields of corn or soybeans flooded by the escaped James and Vermillion rivers. Trees, flowers, pasture, lawn, weeds…the Row’s greenery is lush, tropical, growing at an alarming rainforest rate.
The constant wetness has also resulted in record-breaking clouds of mosquitos, which my friend K swears are the size of helicopters. The flooded pond out by the meditation tower, the dense plum thickets, and the tall wet grass of the south 40 make ideal ‘skeeto nurseries. We try to live as organically as possible (we take out small loans every time we buy organic dog & cat food for the kids), but we can’t go outside right now without showering in DEET first. Ray wears a mosquito-net hat just to get to his car in the morning. When I envisioned Ray and I in our rural retreat – sipping juleps under the market umbrella, prayer flags billowing in the soft summer breeze, peacocks in all their puffery atop the rail fence – I didn’t quite see the full-body mosquito armor. I’m almost desperate enough to spray the yard. Almost.

I made a mozzarella-basil salad for the Sisters of Perpetual Disorder dinner last night – thirteen women, an amazing buffet of potluck dishes, a little singing, and lots of wine & coffee. What a gift, to have this community of strong, intelligent, hilarious women. We celebrated our friend C’s presence a year or so after her double-lung transplant (still, after all she’s been through, the most positive, life-affirming person I know). We celebrated our friend M’s engagement (and her Liz Taylor rock) to a kindhearted man who adores her. We celebrated the lovely blending of women’s voices, when friends G & L and I sang an old Jesse Winchester song that turned into a singalong. We celebrated 30-year friendships and younger women coming “into the fold” with each semi-monthly dinner. Why, the sheer continuity of it all makes me break out in an ear-splitting, quavering version of “The Circle of Life” from the Lion King! (Thank heaven we don’t have neighbors.)

I started a new blog last week – meditations on meditation. It’s a way for me to hold onto the feeling of “rightness” I had at Shambhala, and to keep myself going back to the cushion for daily practice. It’s a pretty boring blog unless you’re interested in meditation, but you’re welcome to check it out at

Today, the heat and unbearable humidity of the past couple of days broke, so I checked on my batch of Merlot, finished a video script for Ad Agency, pulled a few weeds, and got most of the Row mowed. Mowing out on the trails, I found a fresh varmint hole, maybe 10" across, and I figure that's why we haven't seen more peachicks. So I did what any proud plainswoman with an ounce of ingenuity (and no gun or poison) would do; I dumped half a jar of pickled jalapenos down the hole. Sure, you're laughing now...but just you wait till Sham-wow guy's doing my infomercials and I'm chillin' in the lap of luxury. Won't be so funny then, will it...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Life in a petting zoo...

It’s Father’s Day on the Row, Summer Solstice tomorrow. It’s been an incredibly wet spring so far, and it looks like more rain today. Our gardens are thriving, though we humans could use a bit more sun. By the time it’s dry enough to mow, we’ll need a jungle brush-clearer to do it.

Our two adult male peacocks are still rattling their train feathers in showy displays and vibrating primary wing feathers like castanets, in spite of the fact that the four adult hens are long past breeding for the season. Four peahens nested this year; two have already made appearances in the yard with four chicks each (bringing our “those crazy peacock people” flock count up to 24), and the other two hens should be showing up any day, toddlers in tow. The young girls completely ignore the old geezers’ parading. Four yearling males are also fanning and strutting and mid-air sparring, but the hens won’t even roll their eyes at the hapless boys until next spring, when the hooligans finally get their first long trains.
We took on a new Row resident this spring. Our son’s cat, Rickie Lee, came to live on the farm after she turned up her nose at a new brand of kitty litter, then at litter boxes in general. So she’s learning to be an outdoor cat, although she spends a good deal of time curled up on the rug by the back door. If she sees us peeking out the window, wild meowing ensues, and each trip outside means an extended kitty-petting session on the patio. We’d rather she had a home where she could be an indoor cat again, re-learning her lost litter box skills and curling up in someone’s lap in the evening, but she can’t be an inside cat here, because we also live with… 

Stella Faye and Polly Hester. Stella, the African Grey, is 12 this year, and Polly, the Lilac Crown Amazon, is around 17 we think. Stella keeps us entertained with long unintelligible conversations in a perfectly mimicked Ray tone & inflection, punctuated with laughs, coughs, sneezes, and occasional microwave beeps. She calls for water when her dish runs low. Polly doesn’t speak English, but she’s picked up a few parroty-English – penglish – sounds. She adores Ray. If I give Polly an almond, she’ll drop it, then call incessantly till Ray comes with another one.

Meanwhile, our two canine companions, 2-year-old Schnoodle Yogi, and rescued 9-year-old Aussie Jada, are obsessing over the new kitty on the porch. Yogi, in his obnoxious schnauzerly way, nips at the patient kitty, trying to get her to play. Jada desperately, compulsively, tries to herd Rickie onto the porch ledge.

So life is good at the Row petting zoo, although we may have to start holding fundraisers to keep the peas in corn (bad veggie humor). Stella could sing the Popeye theme…Yogi could do Schnauzer spins…I could sew little sequined gowns for the peahens…

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Meditation on Meditation

I’ve played with meditation for a few decades, since my 20’s, but always half-heartedly, and always with a vaporous, quasi-spiritual, otherworldly desire – until recently. My friend G and I got back last week from a 3-day “Learn to Meditate” retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center near Fort Collins, CO, and the experience changed my thinking about and approach to the practice of meditation.

On the first day, we were given practical advice for dealing with the altitude (we were at about 8000 feet). Then we were taught a good sitting posture, fairly comfortable from the start even for stiff middle-aged westerners. We tried it out that first night with a brief (10-minute) sitting meditation, but mostly, we were introduced to the intention of shamatha (Shambhala) meditation – to focus attention on the breath. That’s it. No mantras, no contemplating the nature of the universe, no Buddhist dogma, no reaching out for alternate realities – just the practice of keeping one’s attention on the breath. And not thinking about the breath – just experiencing it, being aware of it, in the present moment, as it’s happening.

Shambhala, according to their center in Minneapolis, “incorporates the teachings of the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, with the Shambhala vision of living an uplifted life, fully engaged with the world. According to the Shambhala tradition, there is inherent goodness and sanity in all human beings. This potential can be recognized and developed through…meditation. Its simplest form is rooted in the sitting practice of meditation where one works with the breath. We call this mindfulness/awareness meditation. Developing mindfulness cultivates a mind that rests calmly, and developing awareness cultivates a mind that sees clearly."

Over the course of the next day and half, we practiced sitting and walking meditations several times a day, interspersed with shamatha yoga postures, talks, and readings from Shambhala spiritual leader Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s book, Turning the Mind Into an Ally. 

The highlight of the weekend was a 20-minute hike up the mountain to the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya. Stupas are traditionally memorials to great teachers and their teachings, as well as reliquaries (safekeeping for relics, usually bones, of such teachers). The Great Stupa is the only one in North America, and it’s a breathtaking 3-story work of art, both inside and out, with carved statues, marble pomegranates and lotus blossoms in the floors, gilded wall carvings. We got to do a walking meditation around the outside of the Stupa and a sitting meditation inside, in front of a 30-foot golden Buddha. And later, when G and I walked back up and no one was around, I sang in the Stupa, where the notes echoed and hung in the air of that amazing circular space.

Over the years, I’ve spent time around the Catholic church, Presbyterian church, and the Holy Order of Mans (a 70’s San Fran-based group with communities in Omaha and Lincoln, NE). I’ve studied and taught as literature the sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.  Though I’ve never found a spiritual “home” in any one tradition, I’ve always felt that meditation is the key to unlocking direct experience – to knowing. And I believe that no matter what goes on out here in the world, it will ultimately be meaningless without some attention to my own spiritual center. So I’m grateful that I was able to give myself the gift of this retreat.

I know I’ve only peeked through the Shambhala/Buddhism door, and that the mansion goes on forever. But what I love about Buddhism is its philosophy of non-judgmental, compassionate detachment. Detachment isn’t cold ambivalence or indifference – it’s loving and objective. And what draws me to the Shambhala meditation practice is its practical, non-dogmatic “this is a path, not a destination” approach. So I’ve made a little meditation shrine of my own, and I’m delighting in my daily practice. Interestingly (maybe only to me), it’s not a big leap from meditation to poetry – poetry is a practiced craft, not a product. Likewise, meditation is not the answer – not the finished poem. But it is, I believe, the heart of good, hard work that for the present, at least, is moving me forward.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Pre-Roadtrip Prep

I’m re-doing the henna on my hands and packing today. My friend G and I are leaving tomorrow on a road trip. We’re headed across Nebraska, down through Cheyenne, WY, and into Colorado northwest of Fort Collins, CO, where we’ll spend three glorious days at 8000 ft at a meditation retreat. ‘Cause that’s what stalwart prairie people do – henna their hands and go on meditation retreats.

We’re planning to tent it one night going out, and one or two nights coming back. We don’t know where – we’re winging it, and that’s about as carefree as we get at our age. In the olden days, in spite of Grandma’s warnings about clean underwear, my road trip packing would include a gee-tar, an extra broom skirt and halter top, a bag of sunflower seeds, and a bottle of Boone’s Farm. But I’m middle-aged now. Fear and Caution are my sad and constant companions. So my dining room table is covered with stuff to take along, anticipating every possible contingency.

I have quite a list of things to get done before I go, too. I started my first batch of homemade wine Monday, with the help of Miss V., my WS (wine sponsor). It’ll make six gallons of “that damn Merlot” (if you haven’t seen Sideways yet, and you ever drink wine, see it now). In vintner parlay, my bung is bubbling. That sounds obscene, I know, but it means the yeast is doing its thing. I made this batch from a kit, learning the ropes as I work my way toward wine made from our wild plums. Before I leave in the morning, I’ll need to instruct Ray to watch my bung bubble while I’m gone.

I have a meeting in the Big City today, gearing up for some summer copywriting work for the ad agency I used to work for. Ad agency folks have an unusual kind of dark collective humor that I’ve really missed, so I’m excited to get back at it for a while. Then I’ll run errands in the City to pick up the first-aid kit necessities I’m missing and a “thief” for testing my wine once I get back.

Then I’ll clean parrot cages, water plants, feed outside birds, peacocks and barn cats, weed, mulch, and pack, pack, pack. By the time I get everything done, drive to Colorado, unload, we’re comfy on our meditation cushions, and I’m in the throes of caffeine withdrawal, I’m just hoping I can stay awake long enough to meditate…

(pics of teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and the Great Stupa of Darmakaya from