Monthly Archives: November 2014

Marjorie

About once a month on a Sunday night we all go over to Mom’s for waffles. It’s all pretty informal—we use paper plates and cups, and the adults just eat on their laps while the youngest children eat at the table or counter. There’s no pulling out all the tables and table cloths, no setting out plates and silverware, no messy pans to scrub. The only things to clean up are the bowls Mom mixes the batter in and the forks and knives we use for eating. The hardest part is getting all the sticky syrup off the counter. All in all, it’s a whole lot easier than a big Sunday dinner, and it still serves the purpose of getting the family together.

At our last waffle night, I was at the counter putting peanut butter and syrup on my waffle. (Yes, peanut butter. It’s really good—you should try it!) The great-grandchildren, all of whom are my grandchildren, were seated at the table and suddenly began to laugh uproariously.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Oh, Marjorie’s dead,” was the answer.

Marjorie? Who in the heck is Marjorie? And why in the world is her demise so funny? Well, come to find out, Marjorie is my three-year-old granddaughter’s imaginary . . . um . . . I don’t know quite what to call her. You see, Marjorie is an old woman with glasses. The last part of that description is visual. Every adult who told me about her made circles with their thumbs and forefingers and then put them up to their eyes like glasses. My guess is that is how my granddaughter always described her.

So I asked my granddaughter, “How’s Marjorie?”

marjorie“Oh, she is died,” she replied. “She was always mean to me and tried to get me in trouble.”

Thinking maybe Marjorie would be resurrected, I asked my granddaughter about her the next day. “She is already died,” she answered, the tone of her voice definitely conveying the idea that Grandma was kind of slow on getting the picture.

We have no idea where in the world the name Marjorie came from; there is no one on either side of the family with that name. Why my granddaughter would create an imaginary an old woman with glasses who was mean to her and tried to get her in trouble is an even bigger mystery. But then, this is a three-year-old who described somebody as “feisty” to me the other day. You never quite know what is going to come out of her mouth.

As I’ve thought about it, I have come to the conclusion that I, too, have an imaginary Marjorie who is mean to me and tries to get me in trouble. She is that incessant voice in my head that tells me I am not now nor will I ever be “enough,” whatever that means. She gleefully reminds me of dumb mistakes I’ve made in my life, things I hope no one ever finds out about because I would be really embarrassed if they did. She tries to convince me that I am defined more by my weaknesses than my strengths. And she works overtime trying to get me into emotional trouble by inducing me to listen to her and believe she is telling me the truth. Thirty years ago, she was the voice of hopelessness and despair that caused me to want to end my life. Marjorie is definitely not a friend.

The practice from Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time I’ve been working on for the last couple of weeks is “See the Good in Yourself.” The authors describe Marjorie’s mission in the following way.

Each of is us is like a mosaic, with lots of lovely tiles, some that are basically neutral, and a few that could use a little—ah—work. It’s important to see the whole mosaic. But because of the brain’s negativity bias, we tend to fixate on what’s wrong with ourselves instead of what’s right. If you do twenty things in a day and nineteen go fine, what’s the one you think about? Probably the one that didn’t go so well. (p. 29)

Picturing my life as a mosaic made me realize that Marjorie is just one aspect of the broader panorama. For some reason, considering Marjorie this way made me think of the Where’s Waldo? books, only the title of my story is far too often Where’s Marjorie? I spend more time searching in every nook and cranny of my mind for imperfections than I do enjoying the good things that are also a part of me. At least when you go looking for Waldo, he is always smiling when you finally find him. Not Marjorie. When I track her down, her expression is one of disapproval and disdain.

I think my granddaughter was right to kill off Marjorie. None of us needs her negative nattering rattling around in our brains. Life is already challenging enough; focusing on the things we do wrong makes things harder, not easier. This doesn’t mean we disrewaldogard our mistakes and discard our efforts to become better, it just means we ignore the voice that says only a complete idiot would make such a dumb blunder in the first place.

Marjorie, rest in peace—if you can. I’m going to go look for Waldo. He likes me.

Image Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_elenaray’>elenaray / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

A Tale of Two Trees

I mentioned in my last post that I am reading a book called Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been working on Practice Number 2—Take in the Good. This practice includes looking for good facts and turning them into good experiences. Thus, when I become aware of some positive feeling or event, I try to let myself feel good about it. In the past, my habit has been to dismiss these positive things as insignificant. Now, I let myself feel good about whatever it is and allow the good fact to affect me—at least I’m trying to.

golden leavesAs I’ve been working on this practice, I have tried to notice when I’m feeling positive about something. To my surprise, it happens more often than I would have thought. Obviously, I just haven’t been paying attention. I find that it is little things that lift my spirit. One of those little things that I have noted is the changing leaves outside my kitchen and bedroom windows.

Twenty or so years ago, we planted a couple of honey locust trees on the west side of our house. One is outside our bedroom window and the other shades the kitchen window. The tree outside of our bedroom window is just a run-of-the-mill ordinary tree we purchased from a local nursery. It looks nice, but it doesn’t have much character. The tree outside of the kitchen is a different story, however. You see, we grew that tree from a stick.

The story starts with our youngest daughter’s second grade teacher, who was quite an environmentalist—we spent that entire year being lectured regularly by a seven-year-old on the evils of Styrofoam. In the spring, the teacher sent home a flyer from the Audubon Society soliciting donations. According to the flyer, if we sent them $10, they would send us 10 trees. It sounded like a good deal to me, so I expectantly sent in my $10 donation.

Several weeks later we received our 10 “trees” in the mail. I put “trees” in quotation marks because what we found when we opened the package were 10 sticks. Each one was probably about 18” long and had a particular color painted on it. The planting instructions included the legend for the color-coding of the different sticks. I remember there were two honey locusts but have forgotten what the others were. As far as I can recall, we basically stuck the sticks in the ground in our unused garden space on the south side of the house and started to water them. I was skeptical, to say the least. Much to my surprise, however, by the end of the summer the two honey locusts had actually taken root and begun to produce leaves.

After that first summer, we just kind of forgot about the trees. Eventually, one of them died, but the other one just kept growing. To say that we neglected it would be an understatement. The only reason it got watered was because my husband had installed sprinklers in that area that came on when we watered the lawn. It didn’t cross our minds that we could prune and shape it as it grew. It was more like a sideshow than anything else: Look, here is the tree we grew from a stick!

Four or five years after we first put the stick in the ground, my husband decided the tree was big enough to transplant it into the backyard, so we dug a hole and dumped it in. I didn’t have much confidence that it would survive the transplant let alone grow big enough to actually give us some shade. But that tree was like the little engine that could—it kept on growing despite our general inattention. And we just let it do its thing, with branches growing every which way.

Two trees
Nursery tree on the left; stick tree on the right

About a year after we transplanted our gangly tree, we decided to plant another honey locust in the backyard and purchased one from a local nursery. Once we got the two trees planted about 20’ from each other, our disregard for the shape of our stick tree was blatantly obvious. While the branches on the nursery tree were relatively evenly spaced around the trunk, each curving gently toward the sky, those on our homegrown tree had grown, um, shall we say erratically? Some were parallel to the ground, others were growing at various angles away from the trunk. Craig started doing some pruning, but it was really too late to do much shaping; the angles of the main branches were fixed and unalterable.

I have especially enjoyed watching the leaves of these trees change this fall. Those on the tree by the kitchen began to change first, transforming from green to a deep liquid yellow. When the sun shines on them, they project a golden light through the window that envelopes me like a cocoon. Because I have been working on taking in the good, I have taken time to just stand by the window and enjoy the feeling. Providentially, about the time the leaves on the tree outside of the kitchen started to fall, those on the tree outside the bedroom window were just beginning to exhibit nature’s King Midas touch.

Stick tree
Our homegrown stick tree

For many years I have sought to become like the nursery tree—balanced, graceful, and cultivated. But this has been a relatively fruitless pursuit. Instead, I often feel like our home-grown stick tree with my mental, emotional, and spiritual branches growing every which way.  Simply because I am human and am vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life, my branches have grown whichever way the winds of experience have blown.

But there is a lesson for me in these trees. While Craig has pruned both trees as they have grown taller, the nursery tree still has its cultivated shape and the homegrown one still looks like a pile of pick-up sticks. However, the contrasting shapes of the trees make no difference in the pleasure we derive from both of them. The trees are big enough and close enough to each other that their branches join together in the summer to provide a cooling canopy of shade. And, the shape of the branches in no way lessens the autumnal beauty of the leaves. Likewise, the seemingly helter-skelter angles of my mental, emotional, and spiritual branches in no way lessen the good I can do. Judging myself as inadequate simply because my inner self doesn’t look the way I think it should is a faulty assessment based on the flawed assumption that I must be emotionally, mentally, and spiritually balanced and graceful in order to be a useful instrument in God’s hands. After all, who am I to limit God’s ability to use whatever tool he chooses to use for his work?

So here’s a positive fact I’m working on taking in—if God doesn’t care what my inner branches look like, then I don’t need to worry about it either. And that makes me feel good.