Remembering Betty

Last weekend I attended a memorial gathering for Betty Senescu. Her passing at age 92 brought together at least a hundred people. Judging from the range of ages, and the memories expressed by those who walked up to the front of the room and accepted the baton of a cordless microphone, Betty played an important role in many lives. Those gathered included longtime Albuquerque friends of Betty and her deceased psychiatrist husband, Bob Senescu, as well as the children of childhood friends who reminisced about other times and places in Betty’s life. Five bridge partners arrived in a facility van from Manzano del Sol–where Betty spent the final years of her life—to give testimony to how she remained active and engaged to the very end of her days.

I’m not sure whether it crossed my mind that, since I too had known and appreciated Betty for forty years, I could have said something. It would have been simple to grab the electronic talking stick and say a few words. But I didn’t. I sat there in silence for a good hour, and it wasn’t until the next day that I realized there was something I would like to say.

One of the people who did speak was my ex-wife. I think we’ve only crossed paths three times in the thirty years since our divorce: once when she read from a book she and her sister had compiled of the poems of a relative who died very young in the holocaust; another time outside a nursing home, where I used to lead resident support groups, when she was visiting someone there; and then this past weekend.

On Saturday, my ex-wife got up and spoke of events in which I was also involved, including a skit, in which I played a part, which roasted her beloved Psychiatry Professor, Dr. Bob Senescu, on the occasion of his retirement. Recollecting that event, I also was reminded how much I enjoyed the book reading evenings, which Betty and Bob hosted in their family home for his psychiatry residents.

In those years, I enjoyed a personal relationship with Bob. We played bridge, hiked in the Sandia Mountains, and when he was dying of throat cancer I made a thermos of chilled vichyssoise of which Betty, perhaps lying through her teeth, said he had enjoyed a full eye-dropper. Other memories came forth: an Easter Egg hunt which Betty and Bob set up for my two young nieces when my sister came to visit from her home in British Columbia; of Bob and Betty howling with laughter at a gathering they had arranged for my Canadian friend, Bill Cadogan, as he did a highly suspect rendition of a backwoods Canadian—their appreciative laughter causing all Canadians present to feel welcomed as citizens of the world. Looking back now, I realize how fortunate I was to be welcomed in the home of the literate and generous Senescu’s. Similar feelings of appreciation were also expressed by all who gathered to celebrate Betty’s long and full life.

Last Saturday, as I sat there, catching glimpses of my life in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I seemed to be seeing an unexamined compartment of time and space, which I had packed away in the filing cabinet of time past, infiltrating my mind. Realizing how my tendency is to incorporate those memories into an established set of interpretations, I can sense the spirit of two times wanting to break tradition.

This morning I got out of bed to pee around 1:00 am and then couldn’t get back to sleep. After another hour lying in bed, with my mind working through the thoughts I am now trying to articulate—or rather, after being tossed back and forth on the rolling billows of those thoughts—I got out of bed, ran a load in the dish washer, microwaved a cup of yesterday’s coffee, and am now watching my blue Bic pen meandering across the open expanse of my yellow pad of paper.

A fledgling hope is trying to rise above the compartments of past time, presently boxed up and stored in their several storage rooms.

If I had stood up to say something in honor of Betty’s life, I would have mentioned how she read several of the books I have published, most recently “Falling on the Bright Side”; and over coffee at “The Flying Star” (a good title for Betty herself), she revealed that she had not only read it with close attention, but that through her own life history was able to fully appreciate all the themes I had tried to express.

I think we always sense that there are depths of life experience alive and vibrant when someone reveals that they have understood what we were trying to accomplish—both what we were seeking to express and why it was important for us to do so. Less common is the thought I have had during the past few days: that when I was with Betty I was in the company of someone whose life expressed a fullness of attention and who drew upon experiences that I was not equipped to fully appreciate. Clearly Betty’s richness of experience not only allowed her to understand issues important for me; the remembrances of others who were fortunate enough to cross her path, confirmed that they too had experienced this quality of generosity and full attention to others.

In my memoir, “The Flying Caterpillar”, the only mention I make of my first marriage is when I quote a passage from Loren Eiseley’s “The Immense Journey”: of how a burr hitching a ride on his pant leg, shakes off a few fields over, where it may sprout roots in that new time and place. That seems an appropriate passing over of another time that has no place in my present life; but it was also a way of dismissing the reality of an important period of my life, one which empowered me to plant new roots in the soil of that adjacent field. Just because something has run its course doesn’t mean that it disappears from the body of our lived life on Planet Earth.

You’d think I would have learned by now the importance of honoring the cycles of life and how each one, in ending, has provided me with the ground of a new beginning. In the course of a six month retreat I attended in the early 90’s, I discovered that my past was more than expended shells in the firing range of lived life. I have passed through several reincarnations, each of which has allowed me to take up the baton passed on by those earlier versions of myself: each offering new opportunities that would not have arisen without those earlier manifestations of my being.

But somehow my interest in such life cycles had not allowed me to see how personally empowering the five years in my earlier marriage had been.

No one wants to be stuck in the past, regretting actions and outcomes, and feeling that something important remains incomplete or was prematurely abandoned. And I am grateful that I was largely spared such feelings during that time of transition.

Indeed, newly ‘single’, I moved into a kind of ramshackle railway car, with no insulation in the roof, that stood at the edge of a family compound in the South Valley, within a few hundred yards of the Rio Grande. This building had running water, a space-heater (which in the winter never stayed off for more than five minutes as the heat radiated out into the arms of a venerable cottonwood tree that overlooked the compound. Its roots probably extended beneath the intervening streets, the back yards and swing sets, all the way to the river.

What I most remember about the year I lived there was a screened porch which had a couch and a table on which each morning I placed my cup of milky tea and my copies of two books by Tarthang Tulku: “Skillful Means” and “Time, Space and Knowledge: A New Vision of Reality”. I got up at 4:00 am each morning and walked barefoot across the cold floor to shut off the alarm that I had placed across the room.

At that time, in the mid ‘80’s, I discovered what felt like the revelation of an ancient teaching, but one strangely related to the world in which I lived. I experienced a quality of openness and appreciation, which in turn fueled a desire to understand unexplored possibilities of my life as a human being. Looking back, I see an aura of magical discovery which came into my consciousness at that time.

I had recently started a new job at the University of New Mexico—supervising fifty students who staffed the campus computer labs. It was a job that allowed me to explore my undeveloped social side; however my tendency to feel resentment toward authority eventually surfaced. The book, “Skillful Means”, helped me to recognize that work itself provides an opportunity to work on the feelings of alienation that had plagued me all my life. And once I felt more interested and grounded in my daily life, I was able to dive into “Time, Space, and Knowledge”.

Each morning, sitting on the couch with the yard spread out before me, I worked with the 35 exercises in that first TSK book, discovering a kind of time not limited to a sequence of moments—each falling one after another like dominoes, successively consumed by the restrictive routines that had become my second nature. In the open space of early pre-dawn, visitors appeared out of nowhere. I remember two dogs coming into the court yard who didn’t notice me watching them, and who carried with them the mystery of the neighborhood into which they soon disappeared–like sounding whales returning to the deep. Another kind of time and space awoke in me, expressing another kind of understanding: one in which my mind was not committed to the set of influences and circumstances which kept depositing me in some here and now.

Next weekend I will start an online program that uses this first book, led by a woman who lives at Odiyan in the heart of the Nyingma Mandala. I feel ready to return to that time, when a younger person first opened that book and was thereby changed forever. I’d like to think that my present self will be able to communicate with that younger one—and be open to the sense of wonder and possibility that came so readily to him back then.

As a step in the direction of reconnecting with an earlier phase of my life, I’d like to say that I feel I have never acknowledged the importance of my first marriage and how those five years left me so much better equipped to enter the future with interest, confidence, and a readiness to live more fully.

Let me share a bit of how I came to live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I think it follows naturally, perhaps even super-naturally, from the migrating fight that was launched when I left Montreal, never to return, in the mid 1970’s—feeling so desperate to escape what felt like the stagnant remnants of my life there.

First I spent a summer in the Maritime provinces (unloading scallop boats and sleeping in a cemetery in Nova Scotia, picking tobacco on Prince Edward Island); then a winter back in Montreal, followed by a year in the western provinces (farming and ranching in Alberta and a winter at an open pit coper mine in British Columbia, where I worked as a laborer digging trenches, mopping floors, helping the carpenter make forms, and pulling pumps and hoses out of the huge pit before the next dynamite blast loosened rock to be trucked up to the ore-processing vats up top). I worked for several months as the deck hand on the barge that transported the ore trucks and the shift busses to and from the mine across three-mile-wide Lake Babine. During the twenty minute transits I read a lot of books; and the books I read were not the John Grisham and John Le Carre thrillers I favor these days. I delved into the works of Velikovsky, Gurdjieff, and Ouspensky, each of whom challenges the conventional wisdom of Western society: the kinds of knowledge in which I have invested little. I’ve often thought that, since I was not working on a continuum of practical skills in order to progress along a chosen path in life, it was easy for me to conclude that such knowledge wasn’t worth much anyway—in the footsteps of the fox who claimed the grapes that he couldn’t reach were sour anyway.

Then I finally visited my sister in Vancouver, British Columbia. It felt like the completion of a journey two years in the making; the touching down of a narrative arc founded on my felt need to establish a viable alternative to the life I had fled in Montreal. The act of visiting my sister (as far west as the continent allowed), felt like a tentative declaration of confidence in a new approach to life. But at the same time I must have suspected that the past was still lurking in the background, like the bad witch of the East, waiting to rescind the straw man’s hope that he had a heart, and the lion’s search for the courage he needed to live.

When I finally knocked on my sister’s door (ready or not, the pigeon has landed), we embraced and she suggested that I walk down to the Hong Kong Cafe for an hour while she finished up a few things.

When I reached the café I found it closed; and since I had an hour to kill (as we often say about the precious time of our lives), I ventured into the alleyway behind the restaurant. When I peered into the open service door, a man in a white apron gestured me inside and said that there was left over food I could have. He seated me on a bench that ran the length of one wall with a series of two-person tables placed every few feet. From there I had a view of the entire, empty restaurant and noticed that a woman was also admitted through the service door and seated on the opposite side of the restaurant.

Here’s where fate, or a meddlesome waiter, intervened. A striking-looking woman must also have peered through the delivery door and she was also invited in for some left-over Chop Suey. But she was directed to the bench on which I was sitting and was seated at the adjacent table immediately to my right. Not long after, the waiter showed up with a single pot of Chinese tea which he placed on my table, and two porcelain cups, which he placed separately on our adjacent tables.

The rest is history; if any five-year period in the fabric of lived life can be history. She was in town for a conference and to interview at UBC, which was one of several options she had chosen to check out for her four years of training to become a Psychiatrist (another was UNM in Albuquerque).

This chance meeting in a closed Chinese restaurant solved the problem of what would come next in my two-year flight for freedom. As a result, I not only got out of Dodge (Montreal) but moved to another country.

I don’t want to retell the story of the following five years, but I do wish to acknowledge that something like a visitation from another kind of time and space showed up in the portal provided by that single hour of cosmic time. It took some doing, because neither of us lived in Vancouver so it was remarkable that in the next few days we arranged to visit Peru for three months—after which we drove to Albuquerque together.

It took another five years before I encountered the TSK vision, which now provides some illumination of the importance of this moment when, after reaching the edge of the American Continent that I had spent two years traversing and had completed a cycle of time with no plans for what might come next,something mysterious appeared in the Hong Kong Café: at a time when all that I had gained, important as it was, was neither well-grounded in my psyche nor in a world in which I still felt pretty marginal.

Perhaps we are all steerage stowaways on a tramp steamer, and we never quite master or even understand what it all means, but I now want to acknowledge that my ‘starter marriage’ was not a mistake or a misfortune. It was a magical encounter that, in running its course, left me equipped to continue my own journey in this Land of Oz.

And when, last Saturday, on my way out of the memorial, we talked about our children and our health, it felt like two graduates of a life training program briefly comparing notes on the use we have since made of that useful preparation.

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