Saturday, July 19, 2014

KIVA and the peanut farmer

Jiguisseme B Group Kafana Mali

In this Group: Mariam K, Kadia Ali, Mariam O, Saran, Assetou A, Toron, Awa Salif, Maria Modibo, Bintou, Mamine B

This month's KIVA loan goes to the ten members of the Jiguisseme B Group, all married women who are, on average, 38 years old and have three children. Most of them live in traditional families in the commune of Kafana, Sikasso district, Mali.

During the winter months, the women work with the KIVA field partner, Soro Yiriwaso, in order to improve their agricultural businesses. This will be their tenth group loan. The previous loans were all fully and correctly repaid.

Saran (in the yellow dress, standing second from the right in the photo) grows peanuts. She will use her loan to buy fertilizer, herbicide, and pay someone to help her work her acre land. She sells her peanuts in Sikasso. Saran expects to make a profit equal to about $150.00 USD, which will enable her to repay her loan and help her husband to provide for their family's day-to-day expenses.

This is a Group Loan

The other nine members of the group each have a small business which they will invest their $95.00 loan in to improve its profitability. In a group loan, each member of the group receives an individual loan but is part of a larger group of individuals. The group is there to provide support to the members and to provide a system of peer pressure, but groups may or may not be formally bound by a group guarantee. In cases where there is a group guarantee, members of the group are responsible for paying back the loans of their fellow group members in the case of delinquency or default.

Soro Yiriwaso is a microfinance institution that works primarily in rural and semi-urban areas of Mali to provide underprivileged communities with access to financial services. The organization provides access for disadvantaged clients, particularly women, to new resources and services, fostering solidarity and cooperation among its clients. Kiva lenders’ funds enable Soro Yiriwaso to expand its outreach and target even more under served Malians involved in business and agriculture.

Many Kiva Field Partners implement innovative business practices and offer services in addition to their financial products to meet the needs of the people they serve. For example, many organizations partner with health-focused agencies to provide health care services to their clients who are more likely, as a result of good health, to be able to repay their loan. The inability to treat health related issues, when borrowers did not have access to health care, had the potential to cause them to fall back into the cycle of poverty despite running a successful business.

Other examples include institutions that stress the importance of education. This can mean loans that enable parents to start businesses and bolster their income so they can send their children to school, as well as educational workshops on topics that are not financial in nature, such as the prevention of disease and domestic violence.

This month we doubled our usual loan, in memory of our daughter Mary Margaret Isabel. Please consider joining us as KIVA partners and reaching out to lend a helping hand to a hard working business person. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The illusive mustard seed

There's a story told of a mother who early one morning took her newborn son who had died in the night, to the Buddha, prostrated herself before him and weeping with grief said, "I have heard of your great wisdom Lord. Surely you have a medicine that can bring my baby back to life again."

The Buddha looked on her with deep compassion, knowing that there was nothing he or anyone else could do anything to restore her child to life. But he could not bear to send her away with no hope. So he gently told her, "Yes, there is such a medicine. But to make it I need one ingredient I do not have, which you must search out for me."

"Oh, anything," she responded, "I will get anything you need."

"It is a simple thing," he said. "I need only one mustard seed from a house in this village which has not been visited by death, and has never suffered the grief of parting from one they dearly loved."

The woman rushed off and began calling on her neighbours, explaining what she needed. But at every door she was told with tears of the children, wife or husband, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and grandparents who had been called by death, and of the burden of grief lying on every heart.

At the end of the day she went back to the Buddha, heartsick and exhausted, but with understanding. "There is not a single house in the village where death has not come," she said.

"Now you know you are not alone in your grief," the Buddha told her. "Take your child home, pay your respects and bury him. Your grief is everyone's grief. Loss is universal. Remember and honour your child by extending compassion and comfort to all those who also grieve."

And so it is we live with grief and understand that it is universal. She never forgot her child. I know because 43 years ago I also held a dead infant, which no one could restore to life, and I grieved, and I will grieve forever.  Born sleeping one mother called it. One day active and kicking, and then stillness. My breasts, readying themselves to nurse, felt different, less full. There was a bloodstain.

I called the doctor. "Oh," he said, as if he were talking about losing a mitten or a book he hadn't much cared for. "You've lost it, it's died. You'll go into labour within the week. Come to the ER when you do."

The labour was quick. She was born in the car on the way to the hospital. I ducked into the washroom just inside the door and took her out of the leg of my slacks. She was bloody, and wet, and her skin was peeling off like petals falling from a rose. Legs the size of my thumb, such delicacy. The membrane was still around her head, and I was in shock and felt I might faint in the cubicle. I thought they'd let us see her, hold her, once we were in a room, so I didn't take the membrane off. I should have looked at her face. I never even saw my baby girl's face. She lay curled in my two hands.  I didn't want her exposed to the curious stares of the people sitting in the waiting area of the ER. I wrapped her still, small body in toilet tissue.

I walked shakily to the nurse's station and handed her to the nurse behind the desk.  I don't remember anything else except lying on a gurney. The doctor was behind me. He had her, was unwrapping her. I asked if I could hold her. He said no, it was better if I didn't see "it" or touch "it".

I asked my doctor later what they did with her and he said all stillborns under a certain weight were cremated, no birth certificates, no acknowledgement they ever existed.  He said just forget about "it" - pretend it hadn't happened. But how do you carry a child for seven months and "just forget it"?

Mothers were shamed for grieving a stillborn baby then. You were told not to cry, not to "worry" your husband with it, and not to even acknowledge your loss. And for many years I didn't. I soldiered on, and stayed quiet, until I just couldn't bear to do it anymore. 

"The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not 'get over' the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same again. Nor should you be the same, nor should you want to."  ~ Elizabeth Kubler-Ross 

Mary Margaret Isabel born sleeping 17 July 1971


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Waiting for Daisy

It's been a month since the landscapers came out and weeded the flower beds, then covered the earth in black cedar mulch. We had lots of rain for a couple of weeks, and for the last few days we've had what passes for hot weather in Calgary, days ranging from 23 - 31 C (73-88 F). The garden has grown like crazy.

Typically not everything has thrived. Several of the petunias I bought turned up their toes and died, as did every geranium. (Was it something I said?) I didn't know geraniums were so picky.You see them blooming like crazy all over town.

 The purple mints that were so lovely earlier have now finished but both the rose bushes I planted last spring survived the winter, as did the mini-rose with orange blooms down in the front of the bed.

The purple sage and the shasta daisies are dancing around nicely with the roses and pink verbena in the front bed. If you look closely you can the coarse foliage of the echinaceas and their fattening buds. 

The bed beyond the bike rack has a native shrub called wolf willow, which has silver, granular textured leaves, and a large species rose which is red on the outside edges and white inside. This is a pretty spectacular combination, but between the bike rack and a moving van I couldn't get a good vantage point for a picture, maybe next time.

So at the moment the garden beds are a riot of colour. The poppies threw themselves into producing saucer-sized blossoms that were so vibrantly red they gave my cheap little camera lens a seizure. But they were a short lived delight.

To make up for the brevity of the poppies the Plaintain Lily Hosta has been blooming like mad for weeks. Though I failed to get a good photo you can see how many flowers it has on it.

My eyes are so bad I can't see if a picture is in focus. I take several and hope one will be good. This time I didn't get a good picture. This part of the garden sees only a bit of dappled morning sun, and is home to several hostas, a false spirea which is hanging on by its toenails and a lovely fern at the back, which you almost have to imagine in this photo. 

Two or three pale pink volunteer poppies bloomed right among the stand of purple veronicas, on the other side of the walk, but I was dealing with the flood at the time and had no chance to grab my camera and get a picture. Shame, the combination of frilled pink poppies and lavender spikes of veronica was lovely.

The lime green hosta is thriving next to the veronicas. It's shaded most of the day. Behind the veronica, though hard to see here, is the morning star ligularia. Its huge purple-green leaves wilt down every day, and come back up as the day cools. The flowers are just like big yellow daisies or sunflowers, but the foliage is so interesting.

Closer to the doors the purple-leaved coral bells are blooming, the tiny blossoms hover above the plants like pale pink fireflies, as in all but bright sunlight the stalks are so fine as to be nearly invisible.

And in what I call Isabel's Garden, my un-raked Zen garden of gravel and three stones, the sedums I planted last year survived being completely covered in a mound of ice and have covered the base of the standing stone once more. They are even beginning to bloom, little splashes of yellow on the green. 

It's what I wait for all year long. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

The 24 Hour Channel called 'Monkey Mind'


A learned professor of Asian religions traveled a long distance to visit a revered Zen master. The professor was excited by the opportunity to visit the master, and eager to share his theories on how this practice developed or another was influenced by some other teaching. He talked and talked and talked, until his throat was parched.

The master called for a tea tray, set out two cups and began to pour tea into the first cup, and poured and poured and poured. The tea filled and then overflowed the cup, spilled across the table and into the lap of the professor.

When people hear this story most will identify with the Zen master. We all know people like the professor, people who don’t know when to shut up. But the truth is that we’re very much like the professor, you and certainly me. It’s a human thing.

There's a commentator in my head, constantly regretting, planning, judging, worrying, fretting, feeling irritated, or fearful, angry or anxious, excited, happy, goofy or scolding. The voice in my head is like that visiting professor - it never shuts up.

Through practice I've learned how to quiet the commentator, at least some of the time. There are still days when it screams what an awful person I am and all I want to do is sit in a corner and sob, usually because I've said or done something that hurt someone else.

And when my commentator, what the Buddha called 'Monkey Mind', will not shut up and I have no strength or energy left to do battle with it, I have to shut it out, change the channel as it were. Sometimes this is through music or a dvd, not recommended ways to deal with the commentator but the best I can do at that particular time, and I leave working on taming my monkey mind to another day. Sometimes it works out well, and I like to think at any rate, patience may overcome what force cannot. A hot shower and a good night's sleep have been the cure for many a midnight's calamity.

Tao de Ching  Verse 15 

…when a man is in turmoil
how shall he find peace

Save by staying patient till the stream clears?

How can a man's life keep its course

If he will not let it flow?

Those who flow as life flows know

They need no other force:

They feel no wear, they feel no tear,

They need no mending, no repair.

Monday, June 30, 2014

On which side of the door did you place your KIA?

There was a young monk who wanted to study with a widely respected teacher. He knew this teacher only accepted the most promising students so he studied the texts, memorized wise sayings and practiced looking impressively serene. Finally he gained an appointment for an interview with the master.

On the morning of his interview it was raining heavily. The young monk set out for the teacher's house carrying his umbrella. When he reached the teacher's house he removed his muddy shoes, closed his umbrella, sat it aside, adjusted his robes and rang the bell.

Once inside he sat where the attendant indicated and waited. After a while the teacher came in. The young monk jumped to his feet.

Now, I drive a bright red KIA Soul, which I park in stall 76 which is to the right of the double entry doors on the south side of our building. I love my little car, which was a gift from my two wonderful sons. It's easy to drive, I can get in and out of it without dislocating anything, the small back trunk area holds the wheelchair, the walker or my grocery cart. It's the perfect car for me.

So I was more than a little perplexed when my neighbour hammered insistently on my door yesterday afternoon to tell me that a tow truck was towing my car away! I wobbled after him as quickly as I could, the driver was securing the last wheel to the trolley as we arrived in the parking lot. My KIA was not in its usual stall.

My first question was; "What is my car doing here? Did you move it?"

"No," he said, "it's been ticketed to be towed for being illegally parked here. We received a complaint that your car was parked in this stall, which belongs to someone else."

It was stall 66. Ten stalls in the line-up short of my stall. (Gobsmack)

I'd made a quick trip to the Walmart the day before, to try and find tomato cages or braces or anything that would keep the topiaries we'd placed in the big concrete pots out front from toppling over. I wanted the bases secured to concrete blocks and buried in the gravel, but I could not get the young men doing the work to do it the way I wanted. They put the blocks in, wrapped a strand of wire around and left the pots perched on top of the gravel. We've had 60 mph winds the last few days, and I've rung myself out trying to wire the darn things down better, but they just flop over again. 

They had no tomato cages, no braces that I could see how to implement. I came home with two iron cage-like things - obelisks - for the garden. They were heavy. Some assembly required. I got them unpacked, clipped off all the plastic rings and tags I wouldn't be able to reach once they were in place and put them together. They were a foot taller than I am, but after struggling to get the first one on I learned that they were too narrow to encircle the topiaries. A real topiary yes, one made of whatever solid material fake topiaries are made of - no.

They were going to stand a good foot higher then the top, and lack a good foot from reaching the gravel at the base of the pot. I could have cried. If I'd had the strength to take them off and take them apart I'd have taken them back, but I had none of that. So I came inside, got some grape ivy greenery I've had for like 20 years and wired the bottom rung of the obelisks to the wire holding the pots.

By now I was wringing wet, weak and getting a bit befuddled, as I do when I'm tired. I slammed the trunk of the KIA, drove around the building and in my haze realized I had driven right past my parking spot. The line of cars in the stalls was unbroken.  I put the car in reverse and backed up until I saw my empty stall with the '6' peeking out from my sign. The car to my left was different than the one usually there, but Jess is a mechanic and often drives a different car home.

"So you want to study with me?" the teacher asked, looking out the window at the falling rain. "Have you prepared yourself? Are you ready to learn what I have to teach?"

"Oh yes," the young monk answered, "I have studied very hard."

I got out of the car, crossed the lot and was puzzled momentarily by the door I found myself at, a single door, not the usual double door I usually come through.  I was not awake.

"On which side of my door did you place your umbrella?" the teacher asked.

The young monk's thoughts flew back to the moment when he closed his umbrella and leaned it on the wall beside the door. He could not remember, his thoughts had not been on the umbrella, but only with the interview before him. "I don't remember," he said, "is where I placed my umbrella of importance?"

"Until you wake up and learn to pay absolute attention to every moment and what it holds I cannot teach you anything," the teacher answered.

The tow truck driver said; "Once we have the wheels off the ground we're supposed to pull the car to the impound lot. But I can see this was just an honest mistake. We have the option to refuse to tow. I'll do that, and I'll call the city but they don't usually rescind tickets."

He got on his radio while I hurried to get my keys. By the time I was back he had my car back on its own wheels and was trying to talk the City out of the ticket, but they said no. But at least I avoided the impound lot which would have cost $480.00 plus the parking ticket to retrieve my vehicle.  As is the parking ticket will cost me $40.00. The person who was parked in stall 76 when I came home will remain unknown. 

Next time I park my KIA I will be awake, even if I am falling down from exhaustion.  A nudge to awaken… so be it.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Clinging and the backward 'C'

Life Rocks!
I must say we've made great progress at the job of purging and organizing this past week. In the living room my goal was to get rid of enough books/dvds to completely empty the bookshelf we'd stuck on top of the secretary desk.

I was a bit ruthless. Dvd's we'd not watched in ages or would not likely watch again went out. A great pile of them. A great pile of books, including some I really loved, but my heart was steel. 

There's a "Freecycle" table next to the front entry downstairs. The dvds went to a friend down the hall who came by while I was busy purging, the books to the Freecycle table. I had my doubts if some of the philosophy and history books would go but they flew.

Contents which were staying were then redistributed between the remaining bookcases, the empty one was cleaned and dusted and carried off to the bedroom where it slid into my closet beneath my clothes and was then filled with my art supplies and such.  There's now a nice neat space in the linen closet for other things.

I bought a nice white square basket for the "disaster" towels; you know - the ones you have to keep on hand for when a grain of rice get stuck in the gasket of the dishwasher and a flood ensues? That new basket went on the top shelf of the linen closet, with the disaster towels rolled in it. Since I can't really reach that shelf I've been throwing the folded towels up there, and they magically unfolded themselves on the journey, arriving to lie in odd configurations on a shelf I can't reach to straighten without a ladder. 

I'm not sure if it's just this building or if this is the new norm everywhere, but any time a neighbour comes over they have to inspect our entire place, so you feel an obligation to be at least reasonably presentable at all times. This building has a dozen differently configured units, and each configuration can be flipped right or left, so there are dozens of combinations and there seems to be an obsession about which one you have and how you use the rooms. "Do you have a 'C', or 'Z'? Mine's a backward 'C', or "I have an 'L'." The 'L' is a studio, with the room we use as a living room, plus a kitchen/dining room, plus of course the bathroom and linen closet combo.  Pauline downstairs has an 'L' and uses the 'den' as her bedroom, shoehorning her sofa and living area in the six foot extension past the kitchen cupboards.

We have a backward 'C'. We use the 'den' as a living room, and the kitchen/dining room as kitchen and dining room. Of course we also have a bedroom. A neighbour who visited a few days ago inspected our place then said he has the 'L', uses the den as his office during the day and has a Murphy bed he sleeps on. I know someone with a 'L' who has boxes lining every wall with a single recliner in the middle of the dining area facing a TV on the wall. I don't think she even has a bed. The wall of boxes bristles with hangers and broomsticks, mop sticks, odd bits of unidentifiable metal. I don't know how she finds anything. More to the point I don't know how she keeps from putting out an eye!

I guess what fascinates us about all these others' homes is behind what someone signing themselves as  Sauveteur commented on Apartment Therapy a couple of years back; "Every home tells the story of the person or people who live there. All you need to do is open the door and the story that your house is trying to tell the world will immediately say what you would rather keep a secret."       

When a first-time visitor came a few days ago, I expected him to come in and sit down in the living room as invited. Instead he walked around (I was a bit shocked) and looked at everything. He asked about our configuration, the backwards 'C'.  As we talked he looked around, with bored disinterest, like you look at the health posters on the doctor's exam room wall, at the pictures of my parents, the bleached and long-dead turtle shell I picked up beside a dusty country road 30 years ago, the seashells, the paintings on the walls, the model ship in the case, my "pile-of-books" coffee table. These sentimental "treasures" of mine meant nothing to him. They didn't even rouse his curiosity.

One basic Buddhist teaching is that there is suffering in life, and that we suffer to the degree we crave and cling. So is the secret revealed by my home that I cling too much to the past? The art is old, the photos are of people who are gone. Seashells, such lovely forms but the animals who built them are long, long dead. Old rusting boxes, for pencils, cough drops and dusting powder; and aside from my medical references and nature books (identification of birds, plants, mushrooms, trees, etc.) I prefer old books. Books about people going back to childhood homes and towns and finding the town or themselves irrevocably changed.

There is an antidote to unhealthy clinging in Buddhism, the eight-fold path that shows us how to live with moderation. I'm doing my best to get this place organized and uncluttered, but even more I need to stop clinging to the past. The past is (literally) no place to stay. It's simply the place you journeyed  from, physically but even more importantly, metaphorically; Wendell Berry said;  …the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home. ~ The Unforeseen Wilderness    

Thursday, June 26, 2014

What do you do when an @$$hole throws rocks?

"[here] is an idea that is difficult for Westerners to accept: when someone harms us, they create their own suffering. They strengthen habits that imprison them in a cycle of pain and confusion.  …when they harm us, we unintentionally become the means of their undoing. Had they looked on us with loving-kindness, however, we’d be the cause of their happiness. 

But what’s true for them is also true for me. The way I regard those who hurt me today will determine how I experience the world in the future. In any encounter, we have a choice: we can strengthen our resentment or our understanding and empathy. We can widen the gap between ourselves and others or lessen it." *

Ask me about this most of the time and I'm all bobble-head smiley-face you betcha. Buddhism ROCKS! But tonight for a good long stretch of the drive home after a board meeting my gutter "French" got one hell of a workout.

Granted, I wasn't the only one. As we spilled out of the board room the air was positively blue. The atmosphere in the meeting was so taut you could have used it as a trampoline. There was a lawyer at the table, not for decoration, but to try and keep a lid on.

The person who was the cause for all the swearing is married to the person who was president of our board last year. She was doing a great job until she had a stroke which affected her ability to do the job properly. The board had to finally ask her to resign. This made her furious and her belligerent, domineering husband decided to avenge her honour by nominating himself to the new board with the intent of ripping us all (and me in particular) to shreds.

He sent a barrage of angry, verbally abusive e-mails even before the term's work began and tonight he criticized every breath I've drawn since joining the board several years ago. Everything bad that has happened since 2011 has been my fault. 

One of Buddha’s disciples went to him and said, “Master, what do I do about my enemies who throw rocks at me and call me names?”

Buddha said, “You have no enemies. Hatred is a defilement of the mind, a defilement you can mindfully overcome.”

This is my challenge. A test, as it were, not of my (ahem) "French" skills but of my ability to remain calm and compassionate while this 6' 7" man is looming over 5' 0" me, determined to intimidate me, since he blames me for ousting his wife, because as vice-president I had to finish out her term.

I want to experience the world in a positive light, not from a fearful and defensive position. I suspect by the end of this I will have learned a great deal more about mindfully overcoming the defilement of the mind which occurs when someone throws rocks at me and calls me names.

Or I will have taken up voo-doo, the kind where you make dolls, say incantations over them and stab them with pins. I'd say the chances are about 50/50.

*paraphrased from Pema Chödron's book No Time To Lose...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fatoumata and the peanut farm

Back: Bintou, Fatoumata, Selimata, Djelika, Sitan, Front: Bakoro, Tenin
Our KIVA loan this time goes to the seven members of the group BENKADI 2, all of whom are married women. They average 36 years of age and have six children each. Most live in traditional families in Diomatene, a village in the 3rd administrative region of the Republic of Mali. 

Like Fatoumata, who is standing second from the left in the back row in the photo, they all grow peanuts which are a staple food of the diet in Mali. Like all of her partners in the group she will use her part of the loan to hire someone to plow her 1 hectare (about 2.5 acre) field, and purchase seeds, fertilizer and herbicides to help control the weeds. 

The women work with the microfinance institution Soro Yiriwaso, a partner of Save the Children,  in order to access the funds they need to prepare their fields, plant and reap a good harvest. This group is on their fifth farm loan with Soro Yiriwaso and have paid back all their previous loans.

After the harvest, their produce is sold to customers in the village and at nearby markets. Fatoumata anticipates she will make 140,000 francs CFA ($290.00 USD) from selling her produce. This will enable her to pay back her part of the loan, as well as to help in meeting day-to-day family expenses. (Think about it, six months of back-breaking farm work for a payout of $290.00. )

Soro Yiriwaso doesn't just make loans, it also understands in many cases poverty is not just about lack of money, and the alleviation of poverty requires more than access to capital and an understanding of business. So Soro Yiriwaso also has a Family and Community Empowerment program which offers access to health care services and education for its borrowers and their children.

Many of KIVA's microfinance partners offer access to medical care for the borrower and their family members for a small monthly charge. They can receive regular check ups from a physician, as well as low cost medicine and hospital referrals. As you can tell from the photo, several of the ladies were expecting new arrivals when this picture was taken. Access to pre-natal care and a midwife are vital to the survival of Africa's women, where so many die in childbirth or related infections.

The inability to treat health related issues has the potential to cause families to fall back into the cycle of poverty despite running a successful business. Support services also can include educational workshops in disease prevention and domestic violence.

For $25.00 you can help farmers and all kinds of business people in the Third World improve their lives in so many ways by making a small amount of otherwise unattainable credit available to them.
Visit today and find a borrower whose story resonates with you, and lend that 1st $25.00.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

How do we find joy and peace?

I went shopping yesterday afternoon. On the way home I was driving in the right hand lane of two lanes, driving just over the upper edge of the speed limit because the traffic around me was moving at the same speed. I was approaching an intersection where I turn right. There is a dedicated lane for this which branches off some way ahead. I signalled my intention to turn before I reached the branch because the curve requires you to slow somewhat.

Suddenly I was passed by a driver who then cut me off very sharply, but at this point I reached the turn-off so I just veered off into the turn lane. The light was red and I had to wait for an opening in the oncoming traffic.

The driver who had cut me off was sitting at the light behind two or three other cars. The passenger, a young man hardly more than a teenager, rolled down his window and began screaming at me, gesticulating and making threatening gestures. My window was rolled up and the fan was on, so I didn't hear what he said, but his face said it clearly enough.

I was puzzled by his anger and its intensity. I had not caused them any delay. They had only just come up behind me before the driver passed me. There was an empty lane in which to pass, and 100 feet ahead of us there were already cars sitting at the red light.  Maybe the fact that I was able to turn and integrate into the cross traffic despite being cut off, while he still sat waiting for the light  to change irritated him, but when you drive you sometimes catch the light green, and sometimes it's red. 

But I had been upset by something just as silly earlier in the day, not as upset as he was, but enough to keep me stewing for a couple of hours. I find I'm quick to talk peace, but slow to practice it. My temper can be ignited in an instant, and if I allow it to erupt I may say and do things in anger which I deeply regret later. In this case I said nothing. I let the matter drop and walked away.

I have been practicing not to respond in anger to provocations that might have had me lashing out in times past. This can be a difficult practice, denying one's self the symbolic victory. Walking away from an argument without having to get in "the last word". The practice of peace often means waging an internal battle with yourself. So why bother? There's certainly satisfaction in telling someone who has their facts wrong and is defending their position in an obnoxious, even hurtful way that they are an idiot and don't know what they are talking about. But it doesn't bring you peace. The other person goes away angry, and after the momentary thrill of triumph wears off you feel the shame of not living up to your own standards.  

An 8th Century Buddhist master named Shantideva had plenty to say about the "do as I say, not as I do" approach to peace. He said these habitual patterns of aggression we practice are the source of constant suffering, our own as well as others, and if we continue in these habit patterns and allow them to rule our behaviour and thoughts we will never find joy and peace.

Aggression begets aggression. The only way to overcome hate and fear is through love. Shantideva had no trouble calling a spade a spade. He said that as long as we justify our own critical spirits and self-righteousness, joy and peace will always elude us. We may well point our fingers at "wrongdoers", but until we learn to deal with compassion with everyone, there will be no peace, in our hearts or in the world.  

How do you feel about it? What's the difference between preserving the peace and being a doormat?  Have you worked out a strategy for a peaceful life or do you just scream when you're angry and let the chips fall where they may? 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A five-minute game and a lesson in life

Although it didn't occur to me for a long while, playing the Chinese tile game of Mah-Jong on the computer is not just a nice quiet way to pass the time, it teaches some interesting lessons along the way.

Barnyard Mah-jong
First of all, in many computer versions you can choose tiles with the Arabic numbers we use every day, 1, 2, 3 etc, and graphics we easily recognize as symbols for the seasons, or you can use the more traditional Chinese symbols. You can even download a set with barnyard animals, fruit, vegetables and a cartoon farmer on them.

The computer lays out the tiles in a specific pattern. The app I use has about 300 different patterns, only eight or nine of which I've actually used so far. You're timed. You have five minutes to remove all the tiles by matching them to an identical tile somewhere in the layout. The catch is that the tile must be exposed on three of its four edges, or it cannot be removed from the board. Difficulty is determined by the layout, as some layouts leave many tiles exposed and some leave only a few exposed.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter Tiles
Obviously the challenge is reduced when the patterns on the tiles are familiar to you, like those to the right. Your brain doesn't have to work as hard at pattern recognition on these tiles as on the unfamiliar Chinese symbol set, but since pattern recognition is a skill we need to preserve as we get older I use the Chinese set. I admit I still haven't completely figured out the matches in the seasonal and flower tiles.

I've tried numerous approaches and I've learned it's better if I organize my search beginning in the upper right hand corner. My brain observes more quickly and accurately working right and down and then to left centre to upper left corner, which is counter-intuitive in a culture in which we read left to right.

In practice of course you search over the entire board, or should, but that's generally a distraction and I will frequently empty 60% of the middle and right side of the board without ever touching the left tiles, except perhaps to pick up a match for a straggler. 

Chinese symbol tiles
These searches sharpen your observation skills, because it's not always easy to see that a tile is exposed. As you search back and forth for a matching tile you work your short-term memory. You often find a different matching set while seeking a particular tile, but to improve your time you need to be able to remember which tile you are looking for though you come across two or three matches which distract you from your original quest.

This is much like multi-tasking in daily life, a skill women are supposedly better at than men. Stir the soup, stop Jr. from climbing a tree, change the baby's diapers, run out and throw rocks at the neighbour's dog who is chasing the chickens, run back in and stir the pot… or keep a single tile in mind as several other pairs pop out at you. I find I am less and less successful at this the longer I play. My fastest times are my early ones. My brain tires quickly, but not as quickly as it did when I began playing.

Then you come to a point where there are still 15 or 16 tiles on the board, and you can't see a match anywhere. You go "match blind". At times the two tiles are adjacent, sometimes one is up in the corner, alone, or doesn't appear to be exposed. But you know there's a match. The solution is there, if you persist. And once you find that one match it often uncovers a tile that then allows you to end the game in seconds.

This says to me that most problems have solutions, maybe not obvious ones. I have to look stop, think, consider all the options. 

And  if there are no tiles left on the board which match in that configuration, the app shuffles the tiles, and then progress can be made. Beating my head against a wall which can't be fixed gets me nowhere. Sometimes you need someone to shuffle the tiles. This may be advice from a calm, reasonable friend, your doctor, your spiritual adviser; the person you trust to listen. Someone who has your best long-term interests at heart, and won't just tell you what you want to hear. 

And then I look at the timer, and while occasionally I finish under in 5:00 minutes, it almost always says 5:28, or 7:45 or 8:10. And I don't care, because I'm here to relax, not stress out. Decisions made in haste are often regretted.