Friday, November 4, 2011

Reasons to be cheerful

Back in the day when Johnny Rotten, now known as John Lydon, was retching out the words to "God Save the Queen" -- I'm thinking here of the anthemic chorus of "no future/no future/ no future for you" -- and the Clash were going on about the white man in Hammersmith Palais -- there was another song that got some airplay on WXRT in Chicago, which was "Reasons to Be Cheerful" by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. It was not all that different stylistically, but it provided a different view, one that listed delightful things large and small.

A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it
You're welcome, we can spare it - yellow socks
Too short to be haughty, too nutty to be naughty
Going on 40 - no electric shocks

The juice of the carrot, the smile of the parrot
A little drop of claret - anything that rocks
Elvis and Scotty, days when I ain't spotty,
Sitting on the potty - curing smallpox

Sweet, eh?

But what does this have to do with Buddhism?

Buddhism, you see, is about breaking habitual patterns of thinking -- and by extension patterns of action. If our habit is to see the world as bleak and unfriendly, we will find the world to be ... bleak and unfriendly. But when we become aware (through meditation and inquiry) that that is our pattern, we can choose to continue to think that way or we can change it. We can begin to appreciate things instead of complain about them.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala, a western Buddhist tradition, famously exhorted his students to "Cheer Up!" He also exhorted them to appreciate all phenomena without prejudging it, seeing good and bad as two sides of the same coin, so I imagine we would have appreciated "sitting on the potty -- curing smallpox" as two reasons to be cheerful. And since the song came out in 1977, which was his day, maybe he, in fact, did.

So now that that's clear, why I am I bringing it up this week? So glad you asked.

It's been a trying week here in State Woebegone, aka Connecticut. One week ago, over a foot of heavy, wet, widowmaker snow fell, bringing down many branches on our abundant trees and power lines. In my part of the state, pretty much everything was without power on Sunday and Monday. I got power back quickly at home, but my workplace was operating on one-third of its usual electricity. Since I work in news, less-than-adequate power is no reason not to come to work; it is actually the reason we do work -- to bring information to people who can't get it otherwise.

Needless to say, things at work were tense as we worked with less equipment on tighter-than-normal deadlines. And cold -- there wasn't enough for heat. And people were coming from cold homes, where they could not shower or make coffee.

Nevertheless, there was surprisingly little complaining. And there were reasons to be cheerful. Bagels and cream cheese. Halloween candy that no trick-or-treaters came by to collect. A co-worker's child who drew colorful pictures during his day at work with mom.

Out in the world, people took turns at intersections where stoplights didn't work and had conversations with strangers because "do you have power?" replaced "hi." And yet the conversations always came around to what was good: The sun was shining. The trees limbs didn't damage houses or cars or cats. The grocery store was open in the half dark. The Thai restaurant cooked even though it couldn't take credit cards.

The situation wasn't as impermanent as most people would like -- 300,000-plus still without power on Friday and rumors of a two-week wait for some towns -- but there wasn't as much suffering as many feared.

Accept that the situation kinda sucks. Know that it will change. Find something to appreciate about the day.

Let's close with some words from John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, a man who gets crowds singing along enthusiastically to "I hope you die/I hope we both die," the chorus from the classic "No Children." This is a different sentiment:

It's OK to know to face the sun is forward
with no fear of shadows spreading where you stand.

Can you think of a reason to be cheerful?

For the moment, mine is the gluten-free vegan peanut butter chocolate chip cookies my son and I made this week. And then there was the brilliance of the stars in the clear morning sky. And ... it would take more than a song to list them all. Which is another one.

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