Friday, July 9, 2010

Influence and Inspiration

Have you ever sat down to contemplate just how many people have influenced and inspired you over the course of your life? I haven't undertaken it yet in any systematic way, but even casual musing makes me realize that it's a pretty potent subject.

I immediately think of my father, whose enthusiasm for Nature, poetry and whimsy and whose keen interest in metaphysical matters have stayed with me all these years. What about Miss Cartwright, the neighbor who lived across the street with her old mother? Their house was warm, gentle and quiet. They moved at a slower pace than other people in our neighborhood. They seemed to pay more attention.

There were people whose sense of beauty astounded me, people who elevated my heart with their poetry, people with whom I investigated the arcane mysteries of synchronicity and magic. People who taught me about cooking good food, lovemaking and taking risks. People who taught me about generosity and healing. Quite a bouquet of inspiration and influence. I imagine if you take a look at your life, you'll find that you are similarly endowed with a mandala of beings who have touched you.

When I was living in New York as a single mother, life sometimes felt isolated and difficult. Money was tight. Once I asked my friend Lex Hixon for a loan of $100. Lex's life was much more expansive than mine. He was wealthy; he was also very kind. He loaned me the money and I paid him back within a few months. Soon after that, I got a card in the mail from a Quaker group devoted to peace. It said, "A donation of $100 has been made in your name by Lex Hixon." How I cried when I read that. I had become a philanthropist! His gesture had a lasting influence on me.

Years ago, I had a wonderful spiritual teacher named Sister Palmo, an English woman who became a Tibetan Buddhist lama. I never really understood anything about the profound qualities of the feminine until I met her. Up until that time I had been a woman who tried to act like a man. I remember that Sister Palmo once wrote me a note that included the line, "In gentleness is all Dharma." Gentleness. What resistance I had to that! I was afraid of it. Her example shifted me in a very essential way. I began to become comfortable about being a woman. I started to recognize the unique value of feminine qualities.

I never even met many of the people who have profoundly influenced and inspired me over the decades. Writers, artists, healers, philosophers, saints, explorers, social change agents. So many people. It's because we are really so permeable to each other, so interconnected.

One person who influenced and inspired me died the other day. I was very sad to hear about his passing. Dr. Robert N. Butler is often credited with starting the field of aging. I first discovered his work six or seven years ago when I read a report titled Ageism in America, which he was instrumental in developing. It was Dr. Butler who coined the word ageism in the Sixties to describe prejudice against older people. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for one of his books titled Why Survive? Being Old in America. He founded the National Institute on Aging and the first department of geriatrics at a U.S. medical school. I admired him and his groundbreaking work. He left a grand legacy.

I think about the legacy of my own life these days as I sail toward 70. Do you? It's a natural part of aging to contemplate the meaning and the patterns of the years, what one will leave behind. But now it's late. I'm ready for sleep, not for reflecting on my life's legacy, whatever that may be. I want to be fresh because tomorrow I happily head to Tashi Choling to participate in a practice intensive. Ahhhh. That is real delight.

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