The fourth agreement: You’ve got to be kidding!

It happens this way …

Version 4For any recovering perfectionist, reading “always” and “best” in the same sentence is a temptation to relapse. To my great relief, Don Miguel Ruiz softens this statement early in his discussion of the fourth agreement:

Under any circumstance, always do your best, no more, no less. But keep in mind that your best is never going to be the same from one moment to the next. Everything is alive and changing all the time, so your best will sometimes be high quality, and other times it will not be as good. When you wake up refreshed and energized in the morning, your best will be better than when you are tired at night. Your best will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick … . Your best will depend on whether you are feeling wonderful and happy, or upset, angry, or jealous.

Phew! “Always” and “best” are relative not absolute.

During her 1965 college class in adolescent psychology, Dr. Anna Starr – who was as old as God and as wise – told a room full of us white-veiled novices, “Sometimes good enough is good enough.” That was news to young women who were on the path to perfection. How we ate, walked, prayed, slept, studied, did chores, and recreated were surrounded by rules that encouraged us to do each activity perfectly. Of course, being young and sometimes a bit clumsy, we broke dishes and Sacred Silence; we scorched veils and spilled coffee on senior sisters; we dumped a container of meat on the pantry floor, quickly scooped it up, and served it without a second thought.

Since none of these activities reached perfection, we had to confess these shortcomings in front of our Novice Director and each other. I’m not sure we felt too much self-judgment or regret — most of what we did were accidents – but we certainly felt these were legitimate bumps on the road to perfection.

The upshot was it took me decades to rid myself of shame when I made a mistake. Mistakes were moral failures, I thought, rather than keys to learning. Then one day I read somewhere, “Make more mistakes.” Bam! That thought slowly brought me around to a more balanced approach to navigating life on this planet. Recently, I wrote in a poem, “Believe what you want. I believe failures set us free and eternity holds enough time to get things right.”

And maybe that’s the key: always do your best to keep on learning and growing and finding joy and happiness in the every day of every day. That’s an agreement I can work on.

 

The third agreement: “You should have known …”

It happens this way …

Version 3

At the beginning of his discussion of the third agreement, Don Miguel Ruiz lays it out:

We have a tendency to make assumptions about everything. The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth. We could swear they are real. We make assumptions about what others are doing or thinking – we take it personally – then we blame them … . That is why whenever we make assumptions, we’re asking for problems. We make an assumption, we misunderstand, we take it personally, and we end up creating a whole big drama from nothing.

How many times have I assumed someone wouldn’t want to do what I would love to invite them to do, or travel  somewhere with me, or contribute to a project I was involved in? I made those assumptions not based on their truth, but on my own hesitancy to ask and be told “no.” So rather than risk rejection or the appearance of being pushy, I never gave them the opportunity to say “yes.” What a limiting way to live!

Ruiz discusses the third agreement mostly in terms of personal relationships with our significant others. They’re supposed to know what we need, when we need it, how we need it, right? Of course that never works. What would happen if we had the courage to “avoid misunderstanding, sadness, and drama” by being honest? I think I’ll add “Ask for what I need” to my note on the refrigerator – all week my significant other kept reminding “Don’t take things personally.” This week I’ll remind her not to take it personally when I do the asking.

 

 

The second agreement … yeah, right!

It happens this way …

Version 2

But I’m a person, I want to scream! How else can I take what others throw at me with their words, actions, or energy but personally?

Ruiz explains that once we realize that people do what people do, it’s not too difficult. He writes:

 All people live in their own dreams, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world. Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you.

Hmm …

Years ago I was entangled in a series of misunderstandings with some colleagues that led to a lot of hurt. I was so confused about what they were accusing me of  that I couldn’t see they had their own pain and confusion. It’s taken years to understand that and let go of resentments. My focus had been on me, me, me and not them. Ruiz calls this me-focus “personal importance” and emphasizes again, “Nothing people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.” Phew! Let’s chew on that for a while!

There’s another stunning insight in this second agreement. Ruiz says:

… by taking things personally you set yourself up to suffer for nothing. Humans are addicted to suffering at different levels and to different degrees, and we support each other in maintaining these addictions. Humans agree to help each other suffer.

We are addicted to suffering and support each other’s addiction? How can that be?

Have you ever met someone who seems almost relieved when they have another illness to deal with, another personal set-back, another seemingly insurmountable challenge? They are so wrapped up in their suffering that they can’t seem to live without it. That’s what addiction is. Nothing we do can free them from their suffering unless they are willing to take responsibility for it. And our job is to take responsibility for our own. However, if we are people-pleasers who have a misplaced notion of caring, we may participate in their addiction as a way to support our own. What a crazy suffering cycle this is!

Ruiz suggests we write “Don’t take anything personally” on paper and put it on our refrigerators. I’m off to do that right now. Enough of personal importance and needless suffering!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient wisdom anyone?

It happens this way …

Two weeks ago, a Facebook friend posted a reference to the 1997 spiritual classic, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz. I remember enjoying this book in the early 2000’s, so I was happy to see a renewed interest in its ancient wisdom. And, I’m happy to say, I found a copy on my bookshelf.

agreements coverOne of the more meaningful ideas early in the book is a familiar one: we all made mini- contracts with ourselves about ourselves based upon what other people told us was true. Ruiz calls these agreements the Book of Law.  It contains the beliefs we adopted from the moment we were born to the moment we opened our computer this morning and brewed our first cup of coffee. To challenge these beliefs – or narratives – takes courage because, even though they are probably wrong, adhering to them makes us feel safe.

Consider this: By the time we were 12, most of us had been reprimanded 150,000 times. We went to school with its hundreds of quizzes, tests, report cards, and classmate critiques. Then, our working lives were filled with performance reviews. Now, if we live with a significant other … well, I won’t go there! In any event, that’s a long and complicated story-line we’ve lived with and believed in.

As Ruiz explains, ” … even if we know we didn’t choose all these beliefs, it is also true we agreed to all of them. The agreement is so strong that even if we understand the concept of it not being true, we feel the blame, the guilt, and the shame that occur if we go against the rules.”

Want to read that again?

Today my thought forward is to take a quick look at the four agreements over the next few weeks to see what wisdom they hold for us in 2019. What can they teach us that we haven’t already learned? Let’s give it a try.

four agreements (1)

 

 

 

 

This one couldn’t be more timely, no? Voltaire was correct when he said, There are some who use words only to disguise their thoughts. We could add, There are some who use words even when they don’t have thoughts. But that’s them not us!

As teachers, students, writers, parents, spouses, friends, family members, we’re surrounded by words every day. Lots of noise pollution! Perhaps you’ve seen that other Facebook post that asks that before we open our mouths, we ensure that our words are true, necessary, and kind. Can you imagine the blessed silence we’d experience if even a minority of people put their words through this test?

I get the “true” and “kind” part, but the “necessary”? Of course my words are impeccably necessary! Yet, do I have to counter every story I hear about another’s grief, success, struggles, travels, whatever with one of my own? Can’t I just let the spotlight stay on them and not move back to me? This is something I have to work on.

On the other hand, words are not just symbols and sounds. They are powerful energies that can lift others up or destroy them. In this age of social media where anyone with an opinion is an expert, those energies can throw kerosene on kindling or they can heal and uplift in miraculous ways.

But you know all this. So do I. Enough about words then. Actions are needed. I’m going to try to be more aware of the words coming out of my mouth this week to see how true, necessary, and kind they are. How “impeccable” are they? Ruiz defines this as taking responsibility for them without judging or blaming ourselves. That’s a fine definition. I’ll remember it when I hear the words I send out to the Universe. How about you?

 

R.I.P., Mary Oliver

It happens this way …

Few poets have captured the poetic imaginations of readers around the world like Mary Oliver. Her passing today at the age of 83 unleashed an out-pouring of sentiments from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Madonna to a dear neighbor across the street. Millions of accolades to this extraordinary woman will no doubt continue.

Of all the things already being reported about Mary, what touched me deeply were the comments she made about her partner of more than 40 years, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005.

Though you have known someone for more than forty years, though you have worked with them and lived with them, you do not know everything. I do not know everything — but a few things, which I will tell. M. had will and wit and probably too much empathy for others; she was quick in speech and she did not suffer fools. When you knew her she was unconditionally kind. But also, as our friend the Bishop Tom Shaw said at her memorial service, you had to be brave to get to know her.

“You had to be brave to get to know her”: What a commentary on the task everyone in a committed relationship — or a deep friendship relationship – has. I’ll be pondering that for a long time to come.

I’m throwing my poetic hat into the ring of praise for Mary with a poem inspired by her.

Here’s to you, Mary!

You do not have to be good.

– Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

Ain’t that a kick in the head!

After all the bunk about straights and narrows,

wrongs and rights, confessionals

where venial sins are laughable,

it’s come down to this: we’ve been duped.

Friday fish, forty fasting days, crownings

in the Mary month of May; rosaries,

callused knees, indulgences that smudge

our sins: they don’t add up to good.

Neither do tidy rooms, top grades in school,

nor mandatory modesty.

 

So let’s delete the snake behind the apple tree

and every bite of stale theology.

Let’s resurrect original wildness

and ramble through valleys scratched and scarred,

down unquiet streams, across raging fields

of blooms disguised as weeds.

Let’s celebrate every fleshy flaw,

each mistaken thought that turns out true.

Let’s race wild geese to the nearest star,

cheering on imperfect

nakedness with disheveled glee.


 

Thinking it forward

It happens this way …

You’ve heard of that lovely concept of paying it forward? This week I discovered it’s mate: thinking it forward. I’ve been listening to You-Tube clips of one of my favorites: the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. In an interview with Bill Moyer,  she explains that after her second husband admitted to an affair and asked for a divorce, she was thrown into a tailspin of anger, and then terror at the depth of violence of her anger.  She explains to Bill how she finally dispelled her darkness, but the punch line for me was her embrace of the thought forward of becoming a Buddhist. When nothing else worked — no therapy, no dabbling in other spiritual disciplines, none of the typical escape routes –  she was seized by the passion to learn how to use the energy of her life  — even the negative energy of her painful experience — to wake up.

Wake up to what? How our minds — often closed and afraid — effect not only ourselves but the world; how, if we could open and soften our hearts, we could move toward de-escalating violence and aggression and escalate loving- kindness. That passionate thought moved her forward into a life-long quest of learning how to open and soften and into sharing what’s she’s learned with millions of people.

pema

Pema Chödrön

Call it what you will – grace, inspiration, the thought forward – but how many times have we heard an urgent voice within nudging us to do something, but we mute it because it would take us out of our comfort zone? Pema talks a lot about living with uncertainty, groundlessness, ambiguity, and insecurity both as individuals and as a society. It’s the fear of these realities of life on this planet that freezes us in our tracks and stops us from doing good things for ourselves and others.

I was talking to a friend at a poetry reading recently who has resolved to invest more time connecting with people she loves and admires. She had a dear friend from her past who lived in North Carolina, and she often thought about contacting her. Before she took action, however, the friend died. Now her thought forward is not to miss other opportunities to spend time with those who can enrich her life as well as those she will enrich.

Personally, I’ve been blissfully living in a cave for the last few years – enjoying my solitude, shaping days to fit my rhythms, dabbling in all kinds of creative activities – by myself. However, a thought forward has been nagging at me lately and I’ve actually begun to take some risks to act on it.

I’ve known for decades that my essence contains being a teacher. For the first time in 35 years, I taught a poetry class in 2017 for the Writers’ Mill, a group of prose writers and poets who meet monthly at the Cedar Mill Library in Portland.

On April 28 I’ll be presenting my fourth program to them and have subsequently risked contacting Happy Valley Library to set up some classes nearer home. In June, I’ll return to Watchung, New Jersey to do a fund-raising poetry workshop for my dear Sisters of Mercy on the 29th. In the audience will be students I taught at Mt. St. Mary Academy back in the ‘70s. Coming full circle seems so right. Listening to that thought forward has become a passion. I am a teacher and it’s time to embrace – and act – on that.

Think about all the thoughts forward that have been nudging you: the book you keep saying you want to publish, the trip you want to take, the people you’ve thought about recently and need to contact, the classes you’d love to sign up for. Whatever. What’s holding you back? If it’s lack of confidence or uncertainty, that’s fine. Acknowledge it and move forward anyway. Learning to break the bonds of fear is part of a life-long process that will wake you up to the essence of who you really are. Undoubtedly, it will pay itself forward in ways you can’t begin to imagine – yet.

 

 

 

 

Coming this February …

It happens this way …

I’m thrilled to tell you that my fourth poetry collection, A Penchant for Masquerades, is scheduled for release mid-February by Unsolicited Press. Thanks to Shawn Aveningo Sanders, owner of The Poetry Box, for the stunning cover, and UP’s Summer Stewart for her astute editing advice.

Unsolicited Press, 2019, 130 pages

ISBN: 978-1-947021-71-6

(http://www.unsolicitedpress.com/store/p202/carolynmartin.html)


About the collection

Martin FinalFrom the universal to the personal, the formal to the experimental, A Penchant for Masquerades takes an unflinching look at the fluidity of truth, time, identity, history, death, and relationships.

Martin time-travels from the Neanderthals, Lucy, and Big Foot to 9/11, then on to the future collapse of a holographic universe. She mines scientific discoveries, nursery rhymes, biblical characters, and the works of Issa, Horace, Yeats, Frost, Williams, Szymborska, and Collins in poems that are both playful and thought-provoking.

Since she believes re-incarnation is a distinct possibility, she suggests that death need not be taken too seriously (“Re-Entry Interview,” “A Case for Sudden Death”). She riffs on an Issa haiku (“Thoughts on a Translation”), sits down to dinner with Horace (“Notes from a Water Drinker”), and promises literary revenge on a reviewer who negatively critiques this collection (“To the Reviewer Who Missed Too Much”).

A lover of all things poetic, Martin has created an eclectic collection for readers who have a penchant for words and who are open to believing in everything and nothing.


My pre-lease price: $15.00 includes shipping.

Email me TODAY at portlandpoet@gmail.com for ordering details.