The Power of Claiming an Umbrella

Updated: Jan 4, 2019


I did something today that I’m shyly proud of, and hesitant to admit.

To set the scene: At the Shambhala Mountain Center, there is a custom in the residential buildings: everyone takes their shoes off at the door, no matter how many times they come in and go out.

The place is run humbly and well by goodhearted, hardworking people. They can’t be everywhere. They’re probably paid in heads of chard from the garden. Anyway, being here engenders a sense of community that is as unfamiliar as it is comforting. Lodgers are invited to participate in caring for the center, the land, and the spirit of the place. Taking off your shoes inside is one way of doing that. We all need to do our part to keep it clean. And it’s raining, so today it’s even more important.

I make my way downstairs to go to the dining hall when I notice some new people (they come and go with regularity here; different programs are happening all the time). They’re kind of loud, and this one guy looks a little like Johnny Carson, but with none of the class. He has a smug, entitled, You-And-I-Both-Know-How-Charming-I-Am expression on his face. He’s also wearing his muddy shoes. Inside. (FYI, there’s a big sign that says, “PLEASE TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES BEFORE ENTERING” right by the ‘shoe benches’ at the inside entrance of the building, which, btw, is full of telltale shoes.)

He and his buddies are headed toward the exit, complaining about the rain, wondering what to do. Just as I appear on the scene (coming from right behind him), he looks down at my umbrella, which was right near my hiking boots, and says, hopefully, “Whose umbrella is this?” And I immediately say in my quiet voice, but with a little smile, “It’s mine.”

As I lace up my boots, he and his buddies, all jokey-but-not-jokey, say stuff like, “Hey do you think we could fit under it? Wanna share? Or, no — I know — maybe we could stand on each other’s shoulders and the top guy could hold it up, heh heh…” I ignored them, walked out the door, popped opened my umbrella and walked to the dining hall in the rain, quietly happy with my own preparedness.

Now, of course. Me being me, the requisite internal voices showed up. “You should have offered him the umbrella. This was petty of you. You have a hood to your jacket. You’re a Buddhist in a Buddhist meditation center for cryin’ out loud. It doesn’t matter that you don’t like him.” But I thanked those voices for sharing and listened instead to other voices. Like the ones that said, “Everyone who comes here gets the same welcome letter, admonishing us to bring an umbrella along with other stuff we’ll need.” So he and his buddies got that letter. If they didn’t read it, that’s their problem.

Plus, this weekend, I met a woman — a fascinating woman — who was a professor of computer science in the 80s and 90s at one of the universities here in Colorado. She and five of her colleagues suffered such incredible gender discrimination there that she took the head of her department to court — and after four years and lots of money to the lawyers, she won! There is an astonishing number of tech-savvy women in this writing retreat. Amazing women who were programmers or project managers so early in the game that nobody could afford to discriminate by gender. But as the years went by, and competition became fierce from countries where the pay was a fraction of what the pay is here (even for women), they were slowly elbowed out one way or another. The stories sickened me, and I have to admit, some of that tangential resentment was baked into my umbrella moment.

But mostly I was pissed off that the guy couldn’t show respect for our mutual space. Taking off his dirty boots at the entrance was just too much trouble.

And finally, to be completely honest, it was his tone of voice. Something beyond certain about it. Of course I’m going to give up my umbrella to him. All he has to do is perform a little good-natured ribbing and the thing is his for the taking.

Only…nope. Not this time.

It was such a tiny moment in the scope of things. But still, I didn’t give away my power, and it mattered. I walked into the rain with my umbrella over my head, full of strength and a little flame of joy and confidence burning in my belly. Wish I could just give this feeling to all the little girls growing up in the world today.

And…I’m aware still that it was a moment during which I had a choice to leave off self-cherishing, and let them use my umbrella, regardless of merit. I’m working toward that. I am. But the baby steps of not being codependent, not needing them to like me, not feeling less than, or like it was my responsibility to take care of them — those baby steps are important. So I’m bowing to that, and holding to my practice of awareness.

What was your moment today? What did you claim? Or let go of?

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