church time

Growing up I spent every Sunday morning in church. The Sundays were always the same although the church moved around a bit. At times, it was on a hill near a misty ocean, stuck in the summer hell of Texas, or in a double-wide trailer parked on the barren fringe of a brand-new suburb. I’d be a good girl during the rounds of mournful hymns and mumbled creeds until we got to the sermon when I’d go numb and cold. But then, before my stiff body could be lowered into its final resting place, the pastor would stand up and face me straight on, holding his arms out like the sun shattering death at dawn, and say these mysterious and melodious words of salvation.

May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace

***

Nowadays if I write you a letter I might go on a bit about the wet spring and the cloudy summer. I might mention the lemon crop or the jasmine bloom; recount the ailments of a dog or the antics of a cat. Unless you’ve asked me to tell you something or the other, my letters won’t be about anything in particular. They won’t say anything new and they won’t get there in a hurry, because I’m not in a hurry.

The other day a fellow sent me a very nice message by email.

Please write another book. TY

I can’t say I haven’t given it thought, but I haven’t given it much more than a thought. I replied to him asking which book he’d read that impressed him so. It does make me wonder. He said he’d read all of them and one of them five times. That’s easily four more times than I’ve read any of them. But even that kind of appreciation doesn’t budge me off my butt. It occurs to me now that I’m living on church time, and I feel like I could sit here forever.

***

A good friend sent me this link to an essay that sums up the sad state of our cultural creed, so to speak, the sick addiction of being “crazy busy.” I’ve read a few articles like that, and no doubt have scrawled a desperate message across these pages more than once: slow down! There are various “slow” movements afoot, but we have to be careful that we don’t turn “slow” into a pious virtue, a weapon or a magic wand. It’s deeper than a desire to have a better life, a less anxious mind, a healthier gut or a smarter kid. It’s spiritual.

On Tuesday I tried to put gas in my car. Rounding the corner to the filling station, I saw two or three cars lined up waiting, which in my town constitutes a jam. The front of one pump was opened to its insides. I couldn’t tell what was going on but I repeated my mantra of the moment, “another day” and drove home. I had the time and enough gas to make it.

Yesterday I went back to the station and the same thing was going on but there was only one car in front of me at the pump so I stuck it out. A really old fellow got out of his Honda and looked around like he was confused. Honestly, I wanted to go up and mercifully pump the gas for him. But he gradually shuffled over to the little convenience store and I thought oh my god he’s paying in advance with cash. And that took an eternity and when he came out he stopped and fussed with his money, trying to get the bills back in his wallet before doing anything else, which is what any reasonable person would do, but his hands shook and the money wouldn’t go in and I was boiling. You know then that he struggled with the gas cap, and then he pondered the front of the pump for who-knows-how-long and then I started to calculate how much gas he was going to put in, god forbid, and when it shut off pretty quick I figured that’s about what twenty dollars will buy you. But then I realized oh shit he’s going to have to get that gas cap back on and just like that it wouldn’t go and it wouldn’t go and it wouldn’t go. Eventually he got it on so that the little door to the compartment would shut and he got back in the front seat and I waited. It was eons before he started the car and shifted into drive.

That’s when I realized that I was on fire because something that I expected to take three minutes had taken all of six.

Who said I wasn’t crazy? Who said I wasn’t busy? Who said I was past all that? What’s the point of all my babble if it doesn’t keep me from cussing out my ninety-year-old neighbor for being ninety?

About then I found myself back in church hearing the lovely strains of the benediction. I suddenly knew it wasn’t really about God looking down and smiling at me, but me, looking up and smiling at God driving off in the Honda, with twenty dollars in his tank.

Photo by Josh Applegate

don’t use a word of this

“You are an experienced meditator, aren’t you?”

Perhaps only an experienced meditator would be stumped by this question, but I answered yes to be cooperative.

“Something happened after I meditated and I wanted to ask you about it.”

She told me that she’s been meditating more and she was getting good at it but the last time she did it she had made it through all the chakras and it was going pretty well and she meditated for longer than she ever had and afterwards some good things had happened to her but then later that day she felt sick and lightheaded and had to lie down and had I ever heard of that and what did I think it meant?

“That does sound like a kind of sickness,” I said.

Which part? she asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t even know where my chakras are.”

***

Something happens when you meditate, but it will never be what you expect.

To be sure, no one starts a meditation practice without expecting to get something out of it—the answer, the secret, the pay-off. Just about any motivation is worthwhile if it gets you out of bed and upright for one more day, but what I experience in a room with other people on retreat is never something I’m seeking.

When I stop thinking about myself, I feel the subtle energies around me, like fear and sadness, restlessness and worry. People around me are grieving. They are in crazy pain and shame. There is trouble at home. A marriage is ending, loved ones are lost or leaving, lives are falling apart. The body is breaking, the cancer is spreading, the debt is coming due. And out of this great ache comes a flooding rush of gratitude up my spine and out of my heart because these humans have shared a moment of their lives without a get or a fix, for no good reason and absent any shred of understanding.

What happens is love.

***

Your body knows what to do, and it’s already doing it, so just breathe, I told her. Breathe from the belly, and count your breath to keep your mind still and focused. You don’t have to process anything. Everything is already processed. Try not to look for a result. Don’t judge if it’s good or bad or right or wrong or working or not. Keep it simple. Buddhism is really simple, and Zen meditation is the simplest kind of Buddhism.

“That’s really useful,” she said, even as I prayed she wouldn’t use a word of it.

Letting Go: A Zen Retreat
Aug. 8-11, 2019
Transfiguration Spirituality Center, Cincinnati

Clear Waters: A Zen Retreat
Oct. 10-13, 2019
Chapin Mill Retreat Center
Batavia NY between Rochester and Buffalo

Photo by Zoltan Tasi

a cat in your bed

“Let’s go to the Humane Society when you get home and adopt a cat. There are too many animals who need loving homes.”

It sounded like something I would say but I didn’t really mean to say it. It was more of a Hail Mary pass, an attempt to keep my daughter in the game before semester’s end. The dog had died. Her cough was worse. Sleeping wasn’t possible. She was sad, tired, lonely and ready to come home. Then she started asking for a new pet. I hemmed; I balked; in desperation I threw into the end zone. In my mind there was still time to backtrack.

My chief regret as a parent is my failure to leave well enough alone.

Our conversations changed overnight.

She immediately named the fictional kitten.  She spent hours shopping for cat furniture online. In one day she sent me seven links for different scratching posts and beds, not to mention a cat hat. (I had to admit it was darling.) There didn’t seem to be any end to her expectations.

Can we please get this bed please please please.

Depending on how well behaved the cat is maybe I can get it registered as an emotional support animal and bring it to school with me.

Before she even flew home she asked how soon after deplaning we could go and get the kitten. I bargained for time, and then I had to level with her. I didn’t really want a cat. I just wanted her to feel better.

It seems to me that there are two checkpoints in parenting. The first is when your children believe what you say. The second is when they don’t believe what you say. If you fail the first, you accomplish the second. I knew I had to keep my word. It was time to let go.

A few mornings later we were at the humane society. She filled out the forms to be a new mother. Then she fell in love once, twice, three, four, five times. She loved every single kitten. Narrowing her heart to fit the one who was old enough to be adopted that day, she made the perfect match.

My mind churned with everything I should tell her that she didn’t know—about the sleeping, the eating, and the mess. The commitment, the responsibility, and the cost. And then, like a circle completing itself, I flashed back to bringing my baby home 20 years ago this summer, and silenced myself with the sudden certainty that she had everything she needed. It’s all any of us have to see us through from beginning to end—love.

And a cat in her bed.

clear waters

Upstate NY
Clear Waters: A Zen Retreat
Oct. 10-13, 2019
Chapin Mill Retreat Center
Batavia NY between Rochester and Buffalo
Registration Open

A traditional three-day retreat including seated and walking meditation, dharma talks, chanting services, oryoki meals, and the opportunity to meet privately with a teacher. Chapin Mill is a peaceful refuge on 135 rural acres that the people of the Iroquois Nation once called “The Place of Clear Running Waters” for its abundant springs, streams and ponds.

soft focus

We were walking down the street when my daughter looked over at me and said I hope I inherit your DNA of aging.

What do you mean? I’m an old woman.

Your face doesn’t look like it.

That’s not DNA. That’s lifestyle.

The flattery was nice, and the science might have been correct, but I wanted to kick that train of thought in its little red caboose. It’s not so helpful for a 19-year-old to believe that she’s nothing but a double helix of nucleotides unleashing an irreversible code of predeterminants that she can’t tinker with.

And yet, that’s precisely the way some of us approach our lives: with grim resignation. You’re born, you pay taxes and you die.

No one can argue against DNA, but do you know, really know, what your DNA is and what it foretells? Of course not. What I’m talking about here are the hard lines of our foregone conclusions, the unyielding beliefs we hold about who we are, what we can do, and how it will turn out.

I once told an audience of women who were easily 25 years younger than me that I was an older mother. I can’t deny it and I don’t try to hide it. A rumble erupted in the room until one of them demanded to know why I called myself that. I asked what was wrong with being old. Why is it a thing we’re not allowed to be or even say?

When I first started to practice Zen, my teacher said that women who practice become more beautiful with age. They soften, he said. I wondered why he told me that. Was it so obvious that I was a panicky 40-year-old staring into the maw of middle age and what comes after? Why yes, it was obvious. Nothing is hidden. But it’s also true. When you relax and release the grip of vanity, fear, resistance, and self-obsession, things change. You’ll probably be the last to know, since you no longer spend time in front of a mirror fussing with what you find there. You no longer have the interest.

So when I say I’m old, it’s not a criticism or complaint. It doesn’t come from self-pity. It comes from being free. And yes darling, I really hope you inherit that too.

Here is a talk about body acceptance and the courage to be what you are.

letting go

Let go and make yourself independent and free, not being bound by things and not seeking to escape from things. — Yuanwu

Letting Go: A Zen Retreat
Cincinnati
Aug. 8-11, 2019
Transfiguration Spirituality Center
Registration Open

Make peace with impermanence and find freedom in things as they are. Experience the healing presence of just sitting or walking in meditation, chanting, Dharma talks and private encounters with a teacher. Special attention and support will be given to beginners. Three nights, all meals included.

spring and fall

“No matter how much the spring wind loves the fragrance, the beauty and the delicacy of the blossom, the same wind that caresses the blossom sets the blossom free. And so we see that. We feel that. This is what life brings to us: spring and fall, the bloom and the faded bloom.

The boundless ocean of love encompasses everything—the rise and the fall. We can know the infinite comfort of love and still grieve. And still be terrified! We can be unafraid to be terrified. We can be unhindered by grief.”

Dedicated to my faithful dog Molly, 2001-2019

An excerpt from Closing Remarks at the Spring Wind Zen Retreat on April 14, 2019. Listen in full using the player shown below, or at this link.

Photo by Robbin Huang on Unsplash

still falling

Several years ago, I took a rather astonishing degree of encouragement from a study examining how babies learn to walk. I’m not sure how I found the research, but I must have gone looking for it. Perhaps I was trying to shed the expectation that as our children grow up things shouldn’t be so hard for them. I might have been thinking that I’d missed a critical element of good parenting, and had therefore shortchanged my daughter in a damning way. Just so you know, I’m not so evolved that I don’t think idiotic things.

The study concluded that as they learn to walk, babies fall on average 17 times an hour. I could hardly believe it. To realize that I’d been present as my baby busted her bottom on our unforgiving hardwoods hundreds of times a day was utterly inconceivable to me. As parents, it never occurs to us to count the falls. We don’t consider falling down to be an obstacle, interruption, or failure. From our perspective, and perhaps from the baby’s, falling is inseparable from walking. You might even say that a fall isn’t a step backward, but a step forward. Learning anything new is a kind of falling: letting go of preconceptions, expectations, and in general, whatever we think we can or can’t do.

It might sound like I’m talking about babies. But I’m talking about myself. The question I am asking is whether I am still learning. Yes, I am, if I’m still falling.

love unconditionally again

Sometimes I’d like to tell every reader of Momma Zen, “Nevermind. I’m sorry. I had no idea what I was talking about. It’s not this simple.” Parenthood is the education of a lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes. Increasingly I find myself turning to the model of my mother and her tolerance, patience, and selflessness. My daughter keeps reminding me that there is a place to be involved in her life that is still present but not hovering, and not so self-righteously involved in who she is or what I want her to be. What I’ve seen is how emotionally dependent I’ve been on my daughter being happy, doing things that I like or liking the things that I do. The real shakeup for me has been seeing the degree to which I encumber my daughter with the job of feeding my ego or meeting my emotional needs. It is really a hard lesson to not exploit our children in that way, to not judge them, and to take an even further step back as they explore difficulty, pain and their own confusion about themselves. Whereas parents in our time feel so much stress and pressure to do something right and to advantage their children in some way, our children feel that times a hundred. My daughter said to me not long ago, “Mom, I have more stress in my life than you’ve ever had in your life.” And I’m beginning to see that it’s true: academic stress, social stress, physical stress. It’s hard. The lessons never stop! How can I write another book unless it’s an apology? I’m along for this ride and the ride is long and steep. I’m trying to keep my own place and love unconditionally again.

This is what I said in a podcast recorded three years ago, which you can listen to in full at this link or via the player shown below. Although I scarcely knew it at the time, this has become the anthem of my life, my one true song. Love unconditionally again.

The photo shown at the top is of kintsugi, the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a lacquer of powdered gold, silver or platinum.

my portal to the dark side

I am bothered by parents who constantly check the parent portal, sometimes 5 or 6 times a day. I’m not sure they realize the school can see how many times they access the portal. — An irritated teacher

Reading this, I am beset by a sudden, sinking feeling. It is the same feeling I had fifty years ago when I was riding my bike and a police car pulled up behind me, siren blaring. I knew what I’d done, and it was bad. Faced with the choice to do the right thing, I had nevertheless given in to the impulse to ride, rather than walk, my bike through the crosswalk. I was busted.*

Last week I came across an article on the pros and cons of student information systems, or parent portals, to view grades, attendance, and assignments, and I found the quote above. My first thought was: who checks grades only 5 or 6 times a day? My second was: they knew.

Everyone knew. The school knew, the teachers knew, and my daughter knew. Everyone knew what I am about to say for the first time.

My name is Georgia’s Mom, and I was a parent portal addict.

To my mind, it was a unavoidable. I was practically forced. They opened the vault and shoved me inside. Sometime around 2013, our school district adopted student management software. I can barely remember how sweet and simple life was before then. From kindergarten to fifth grade, there weren’t any number grades. The report card would have an O for outstanding, an E for excellent, an N for needs improvement, and a P for practically perfect in every way. One year, my daughter got an actual award for Being An Awesome Young Lady!! Admittedly, she was only 6, but I found this to be a quite sufficient and extremely accurate record of progress.

But no, they had to come up with a “way for both parents and students to stay involved in the student’s academic life.” Oh, you want me more involved in her academic life? Just watch me.

I remember how involved my parents were. Not. They saw my grades when I brought home my report card. They signed it and went back to watching Jeopardy. That’s how I learned to be involved by myself.

I was your basic recreational user of the parent portal until I went hardcore in high school, specifically 10th and 11th grades. Those are the years that matter, I’d been told, those are the years on the transcripts that are sent to the colleges, the grades that determine everything going forward, the rocket fuel for one wild and precious life. So naturally, I upped my involvement. I learned a lot over that time period. I learned, for instance, that some teachers load grades only intermittently or haphazardly, leaving your child with a mysterious missing assignment for days upon frantic days and nights. I learned that attendance records are erroneous and require an immediate text to your daughter to tell her to confront the faulty roll-taker today. I learned when the math teacher graded tests (after 2 p.m. on Fridays) and when the English teacher graded essays (after 11 p.m. on Sundays). I learned that getting final semester grades in real time requires refreshing the page, oh, 50 or 100 times a day over Christmas break so that you can heave a sigh minutes before your child strides out from her bedroom saying “I made an A-minus!”

But mainly what I learned is what a gnarly beast of an ego I carry around, haunting myself and terrorizing others. “No one else’s parents are like you!” my daughter would cry in self-defense. “I’m afraid to tell you anything because you are so OCD! It makes me feel that you don’t trust me to do anything right.”

Gulp.

By senior year I knew I had to go cold turkey, so I swore off. I never checked the portal, not once, so I didn’t see that shocking F on the March 13 quiz in economics. Whatever. I told my husband that it was his job to stay on top of grades, which he didn’t do, and would have never done, so I had to do it just a little. The bottom line is that the die was cast; she was on her way to where she would have gone anyway, and without me.

The saving grace of college, by the way, is that they go without you.

Reflecting now on my shame and regret, it seems that the parent portal is just more technology sold in the name of connection that causes infinitely more disconnection. I realize that there is no privacy in our world. Someone is looking over your shoulder all the time. What I can do is quell my own beast and swear that the person foolish enough to distrust my daughter will no longer be me.

*Do you want to go to jail? the policeman yelled at me. I was 11. He let me off with a warning.

invisible from earth

My smiley 13-year-old came home from school one afternoon, stepped into the kitchen where I stood at the sink and instantly blurted out a stream of gibberish that sounded like so-and-so asked me if I wanted to date him and I said yes.

I’m pretty sure I paused in thoughtful reflection before I said the wrong thing. I’m pretty sure I paused because 1) I’d never heard of the boy named so-and-so, and 2) I couldn’t conceive of how two children their age could go on anything approximating my idea of a date. My next question came from genuine puzzlement.

What does that mean?  

I DON’T KNOW! The words flew out of her in a sobbing scream and she covered her face with her hands. That right there was a pretty convincing indication that we’d entered a perilous new phase of this zen motherhood thing, a phase where neither one of us knew what was going on.

After that, I didn’t know why she had occasional migraines and mysterious stomach aches, days when she begged to stay home in bed or pleaded to leave school at lunch, had what seemed like twice-weekly panic attacks, called me crying from the girls’ bathroom, lied, drank, and smoked in her bedroom the night before finals as if we couldn’t smell the smoke from under her door. And so I didn’t understand why one day her hope soared and her heart healed, she got her groove, and surfaced on the other side, alive.

So yeah, I don’t know about any of that.

I’ve been talking to some friends lately, friends whose daughters are 13 or 14. They are dealing with issues of boundaries, setting limits, and having endless arguments over how much time a day is safe to let a teenager disappear into the phone. These parents are worried, naturally. They mean well, I know they do, because I always mean well too, even when it doesn’t look like that. But what I end up saying to them is something like this: It won’t work. The signal won’t reach.

Adolescence isn’t a place in-between childhood and adulthood. It’s not like a long road trip where you pass through Kansas City to get to St. Paul. Adolescence isn’t even on the map, and get this: our kids know it, so underneath the mask of anger and rebellion, they are terrified and alone.

For me, that day my daughter walked into the kitchen was like an alien landing. And for her, it was the first step onto the dark side of the moon. A world where she doesn’t know the words or customs, where she has to let go of old things and grab hold of new things, take risks, make mistakes, get angry, be lost and the whole time act like she isn’t.

Two days later, so-and-so said that he no longer wanted to date her.

I don’t have a name for the dark stretch of deep worry and difficulty, but astronomers do. They call it the new moon, so hopeful and full of promise, and entirely invisible from Earth.

Somebody else may tell you exactly what to do about it. But all I have to say is what you don’t want to hear: step back, have faith, and give it time.

under florida skies

A Day of Meditation
Sat., May 25, 2019, 8-4
Southern Palm Zen Group
meeting at
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Boca Raton

I’ll be a guest teacher for a day of practice including meditation, a dharma talk, the opportunity to meet privately, and a delicious vegetarian lunch.  Suggested donation is $45.  Please RSVP by May 22 to southernpalmzengroup@gmail.com. Seating is limited; the sky is endless.

an abundance of exclamation

When my daughter was in seventh grade, I became alarmed at her overuse of an addictive stimulant: the exclamation point. And not just one, but a scattershot of exclamation points exploding across her texts, emails and essays. I felt like asking the language arts teacher when she would start teaching language. But I didn’t. The teacher didn’t need a critic; she needed a volunteer. So I offered to teach descriptive writing to the class.

My goal was to convince the 12-year-olds that they had a vast vocabulary of words to express feelings without overpunctuating a sentence. At our first lesson, I asked the kids to tell me different words that meant “happy.” Then I asked for words that meant “sad.” Emboldened, I went for the gold, asking if anyone knew a word that described a mix of happy and sad. One brave girl volunteered.

“Bipolar?” she said.

It was bittersweet.

I didn’t ask how she knew a word from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I didn’t want to know. She might have learned all about it on Instagram. But I worried just the same.

Not long ago I was talking to the mother of an incoming kindergartener who was anxious about her child’s readiness. Pre-K prepares a child for kindergarten, I said, kindergarten prepares for first grade, first grade prepares for second grade, and so on. Middle school is really about preparing for high school and high school is all about college. It’s a refrain you hear every year at Back-to-School Night, and I guess it makes us feel that our kids are getting somewhere. But where, exactly? More to the point, at what price to our children? We can probably answer for them, because we already know what it feels like to spend our whole lives anxiously trying to get somewhere else.

A local high school junior disappeared after being dropped off one Saturday morning at an SAT testing site. It wasn’t the first time she’d taken the SAT, her frantic parents told reporters. She’d taken it many times in order to keep improving her score before applying to colleges. This wasn’t like her, no, she was a straight A+ student in the running for valedictorian at an extremely competitive high school! But in the end she skipped out and took the train to San Francisco instead of filling out the bubble sheet one more time. She sounded like a very smart girl.

Before senior year my daughter went away for a month as part of a pre-college summer program. She was excited and so was I. This was going to be a blast! You can bet that when a university brings a couple hundred footloose 17-year-olds to campus there is a lot of communication involved. In the last email from the college before arrival, there was a packing list, a move-in schedule, and a list of emergency contacts. What I wasn’t prepared for was this highlighted reminder: Make sure that you have taken all necessary steps to secure the mental health resources your student may need while they are here.

So this is where we are. I don’t have words, but I’ve been saving up a primal scream of exclamation points. Is anyone listening? We have to do better than this!!!!!

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