Do you care?

This is a picture of me about 3 years old with a kitten.  My father took slides and this one was so old and underexposed that I had to have it professionally dealt with to reveal even this much detail.  But I like it.  To me it shows that 3 year old Mary knew how to care – and that my care was acceptable.

To care – to take care – to care about – to care for…

Since I was a small child I have had the desire to care. This deep desire is found in many living beings – maybe all. It interests and disturbs me that when I express it, this desire to care has been sometimes met by others with a mixture of ambivalence, diminishment, distrust, even mocking or by suggestions that it is somehow inappropriate, excessive, misguided or a bit sad – rather than it being accepted as just the care that I desired to show.

My desire to care has, at times, been associated with a peculiarly negative image of mothering – as if I must be a smothering or insensitive mother, more concerned with my own needs and desires than the needs and desires of those I care for.  I am sorry to say this has mostly come from men – rather than other women.

Yes – my experience of being cared for at birth and through my childhood was not ideal.  The experience of Lemn Sissay’s was far worse, and yet it is clear that he cares deeply and has made a very positive impact with his caring.  Yes – we can displace our need for care by attempting to care for others, not always meeting their actual needs – and it is essential to become aware of this.  But is this all that is going on when others push back, belittle or criticise our care for them?  Of course it is more complicated, involving individual histories and circumstances.

But is it sometimes that they are expressing a fear of the whole realm of care?  Fear of their own vulnerability and need for care?  Their own lack of care and caring?

To care is the foundation of love and of compassion.  We need to talk more about caring, not just side-line it to the arena of care for the ultra-vulnerable – the very young, elderly, disabled and dying.  We need to examine our own relationship with care.  Do we care?  What do we care about?  How do we care?  Are we caring enough?  How easy is it to just not care?

We need to urgently look at our own lives through the lens of care – to begin to find the best ways to care for ourselves, each other and our whole environment.  Each of us needs to more identify with Mother Earth – to challenge the misogynistic negative mother image that is insidious in Western culture and the relegation of care to “carers.”

It is often said that one needs to learn to take care of oneself first before being able to care for others – and there is some wisdom in this.  But my experience is that it is more a case of slowly learning to include myself in my caring – to continue to care deeply about others, but also include myself in that care.  Sometimes I need to focus more on caring for myself, when it clearly is not happening enough – but also to keep desiring to care about everything.

Desire Arises From Contact – a Buddhist perspective

Contact is fundamental:  “The Eros of reality begins with touch.  There is no life without contact.  Without touch there is no desire, no fulfillment – and no mind.”1   I will go more deeply into Eros and touch in another posting.  Here, rather, is my opportunity to discover how much I have really absorbed the basic Buddhist teachings on desire – after trying to understand them for almost 30 years.

In Buddhism they speak of “sense contact” as the primary experience that can lead to desire in terms of grasping, clinging, attachment and aversion – all of which result in the kind of suffering Buddhists call “dukkha”.  Sense contact, in itself, is not a problem – that just happens by being alive.  The problems come in what the mind can do with it.

Nature has designed living beings to move towards what is “pleasant” and move away from what is “unpleasant”.  This is necessary at the base level for survival and, in itself, there is not a big problem in this – except you find you cannot simply do it.  Human life is hugely complex, full of obstacles to our desire for our existence to be pleasant.  Even simple organisms cannot escape their own demise.  And don’t assume sensory pleasures will always be comfortable either.  If we eat too much lovely food our stomach hurts.  If we attach to a lover, it pains to part.  The beautiful rose blossom opens and soon falls apart and drops to the muddy ground.  The things we want – desire – will often be uncomfortable at times.  I want to meditate – I have a strong desire to do so – it could be said that I really love it – but sometimes it causes my knees to hurt.  Many of the things in life which I have truly desired, my children for instance, have caused me great heartache at times.

Some unpleasant experiences need to be gone through.  The task is to be with them rather than turn away and close off from them.  This is not easy.  It’s a kind of “swimming against the tide” and is why there is such a strong emphasis on practice in Buddhism.  You need to practice – lots – with the small, everyday unpleasant things, so that you can stand a chance of being able to open to and embrace the big unpleasant things, like dying.  The reward for being able to do this is peace of mind – for some, a very deep peace of mind indeed.

Change is the only thing you can count on.  If you embrace impermanence, there can be a great deal of joy – even, and sometimes especially, in the changing itself.  Each changing has its own pace and is in consort with every other change connected to it.  If you resist the changing – and its pace – that is what the Buddhists call “dukkha” – and dukkha is distinctly unpleasant.  The Buddhist scholar and teacher, John Peacock, once described it as “like slowly rubbing your arm against a brick wall.”  That really spoke to me.  You would think that, due to its ultimately unpleasant nature, we would not indulge in it the way we do.  But our minds are restless, always seeking to grasp the pleasant, however we view this, and push away the unpleasant.  Nothing is ever quite right – it is always “unsatisfactory”.  “Craving” is often defined as a sense of “unsatisfactoriness” and it is.  But this gives no sense of how deeply unpleasant it can make our minds and lives feel.  Dukkha is what happens when desire becomes “craving” – a sense of constriction around the experience of wanting and not wanting.  Instead of opening to what is, there comes a closing and tightening, leading to all kinds of tortuous mental and emotional activity, which can feel very visceral indeed.

This is only scratching the surface of Buddhist practice and philosophy – but it is enough for now.  There is certainly a lot of craving in many desires.  My question here is:  Is it possible to desire without craving?  What does that feel like?

1 Weber, Andreas (2014) Matter & Desire, An Erotic Ecology; White River Junction, Vermont; Chelsea Green Publishing; p 16.

Death and Desire

A week ago, I started awake in the early hours with fear flooding my body.  The realisation was that, when my mother was my age now, she was probably already in the first stage of the dementia that claimed her life 10 years later.  As her sister also fell victim to dementia, there were some greater than average odds that I might too.  I don’t have much time!  The fear has stayed with me in smaller and larger waves – and fear, as I well know, can be paralysing.  But I keep moving and watching the fear moving in my body and mind.  I spoke about the fear to a few trusted others.  Naming it out loud helped, but it felt very vulnerable.

I was due to give a poetry reading a few days later, and had decided to read Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”  as my closing offering – a tribute to her.  She has had no small effect on me over the years – all positive – and she met her own death very recently.  Mary Oliver’s poems seem always to speak to my own deep desire to connect with life – to be fully awake and attentive to the ordinary joys endlessly available in this unfathomable world I find myself in.  It’s the simple and invaluable gift her poems give to anyone willing to receive – and in this poem she reminds us, Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Andreas Weber, in his book, Matter & Desire, An Erotic Ecology, devotes a whole chapter to Death.  He claims that Aliveness must be able to fail if it is to be truly alive.  Only because of death does life become creative.1  And then, Stubbornly insisting on life can result in the opposite.  The frantic desire to ward off death can actually invite it.  Conversely, if you wish for life you must be prepared to welcome death…Perhaps we can speak of a biocentric tragedy, of a rift that cleaves the living heart and makes it bleed.  But this division alone is what makes space for desire, it frees this desire, this longing to reveal itself in snowstorms of hawthorn blossoms, in the swifts’ joyous arcs through the evening air…2

Of course – the beauty, poignancy and aliveness of impermanence – cherry blossoms.  Why else write poems?

But I have desires about how I want to die, too – as did Mary Oliver.  In her poem “When Death Comes” , she says she wants to be able to step through the door full of curiosity.  Ah!  I desire to do same!  To die the death of the fully alive.  To open to death as I would to a lover, not a thief.  Fat chance if I succumb to Alzheimer’s!  Death is not a thief, but dementia is – slowing taking every meaning from you, crumb by crumb, connection by connection, brain cell by brain cell.  It angers and frightens me.

I wrote about my mother in Nothing Special: “My Mother’s Kitchen”

My mother’s kitchen was her kingdom.

She ruled there as despot and sage –

copper bottomed saucepans rubbed to a shine

with vinegar and salt –

cupboards with Lazy Susan circular trays

that turned around bringing

spices from China and India,

condiments from Italy and Japan,

spinning around into her easy reach.

 

Dishes were rinsed from right to left

and into the dishwasher –

but not the lead crystal

or the bone-handled knives.

 

She cooked with concentration,

subtlety and sincerity.

It was her poetry

and her pride.

 

But she was left walking through it

one heavy autumn day

with a spoon in her hand.

Looking at it, she turned to me and asked,

“What is this for?”

 

I can, and will, keep exploring and opening to my deep desires for as long as possible.  And I can also feel that death, itself, makes this space for desiring.  But how will my fear of dementia impact this?  What is this for?

 

1 Weber, Andreas (2014) Matter & Desire, An Erotic Ecology; White River Junction, Vermont; Chelsea Green Publishing; p 50.

2Ibid; p 60.