petals

When my daughter was three years old she was asked to be the flower girl in a family wedding. I’d never been a flower girl, so I felt as though all my aspirations for her had been fulfilled. We’d get the fancy dress, the shiny shoes, the crown of flowers: it would be perfect. But as the date approached I was stressed. She was three, for heaven’s sake. How did they think I could keep her awake, good-humored, and adorable at an evening wedding past her bedtime without a nap? (I thought like this quite a bit.)

The doors of the hotel ballroom opened and the wedding guests turned to see a tiny girl enter with a basket. She walked forward all by herself, dropping handfuls of petals with great seriousness until she stopped abruptly just halfway down the aisle. Then she tore out running the rest of the way to the front until she could hide herself on my lap. Her basket had emptied, you see, and she couldn’t keep going without petals to throw. For years after she would say that she ruined the wedding.

This summer my daughter is 17, and she is spending a month in New York City taking classes before her last year of high school. The night she moved into the dorm, she texted me: “miss you.”

I responded immediately as if she needed me to. But she didn’t need me that night, or any other.

Over the weeks, her messages have been scant and short.

I love it.
I love my roommate.
I love my teachers.
I love NYU.
I love the city.
I love you.

They are petals, dropped on the far side of the aisle, from a full basket.

verbatim

People are starting to notice
Everyone here is talking about
Many people are saying
Most people don’t know
My friend Jim
who’s done an amazing job
A very, very substantial guy
A high-quality person
who’s being recognized more and more
Well, look, I don’t know him, and I know nothing about him, really
I’ve never met him
I can feel that he likes me
We have a very, very good bond, very, very good chemistry
He says nice things about me
We have, like, a really great relationship
We get along great, OK?
I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go.
He’s a nutjob
She’s disgusting
It’s a hoax
It’s a hoax
It’s a hoax
Crazy, Psycho, Loser
Bleeding badly from a face lift
Blood coming out of her wherever
No one knew it would be so hard
Nobody knew it could be so complicated
Not only do people not adore me, they’re being really mean to me
I thought it would be easier
I have very little time for watching TV
Stay tuned!

the end of my rope

 

This post was written seven years ago when my daughter had just turned 11, what I  now recall as a particularly anxious year in the life of a girl and her mother. Truth is always true, though, so perhaps it is what you need today.

Yesterday morning trying to pry my daughter out of bed and off to school was so completely awful, so terrifyingly bad, so angry, so loud, so confounding, that I thought: she needs a new teacher, she needs a new school, she needs a new attitude, a new diet, a new bedtime, a new mother, and short of that, an exorcism. I trembled with the weight of the disaster all day after. Something big would have to change, right away, and I had no idea what that could be.

This morning was different. A radical change occurred overnight. It’s called “a new day.” I never know for sure exactly what my daughter needs, but when I’m at the end of my rope what I need is more rope.

There are a lot of contrasting parenting styles and an endless supply of dos and don’ts. You’ll find a parenting expert of the day on the daily morning shows, and that expert isn’t me. Don’t get me wrong: every bit of information that comes your way can be helpful. If I have anything to offer it’s just my ever-renewed trust that our babies will be okay. If I have anything to give you it’s just more rope.

I always invite people to stay in touch with me, to write me with their questions and concerns. Sometimes they do. They might ask about discipline, handling sibling rivalry, overcoming their own parental fears and anxieties, or how in the heck to get the kids dressed, fed and to sleep through the night. It might sound like I’m giving an answer, but what I’m giving is simply rope – the lifeline that keeps us bobbing aloft until the blessed rescue of a new day.

Do you know who makes the day new? Only you.

 

the myth of the teachable moment

Teachable moment a learning opportunity for a child to acquire new information, values, morals, a new behavior or a new skill, or a new way of expressing and coping with an emotion.

I’m a failure at teachable moments. By that I mean I’m a failure at teaching teachable moments. I’m so lousy at teachable moments that I’m declaring myself an official dropout. I don’t know how to teach a moment when the moment is always teaching me. What the moment teaches me is to accept.

In truth, my heart abandoned the endeavor once I got a good whiff of the notion that whatever moment our kids are having isn’t quite enough. Not instructive enough, powerful enough, or motivating enough. The concept that what life needs is a lab assistant – me – someone to add and extract value from the raw materials. Someone to turn the crank, press the button, squeeze the lemon and add sugar. The moment I bailed on teachable moments may well have been my first successful teachable moment.

Don’t get me wrong. If my daughter asks me a question, I answer. If she comes to me to talk, I listen. That’s never a problem.

The problem is only when something happens that I don’t like or want.

Let’s look closely at what it is we’re supposed to be teaching. No one is telling us to teach our way through the easy times. We’re talking about teaching our way around what we don’t like: disappointment, sadness, jealousy, and frustration, for starters. We’re trying to teach our kids out of what they are momentarily feeling, thinking and doing, or at least I am, every time I am confronted with what someone tells me is a teachable moment. read more

before you were a victim

I knew you before you were a victim,
before you were a wreck, a mess, and a bomb.
Without a crowning success or crippling failure.
Before you had an issue, an axe, or a cross.
No disorder, no syndrome, no label –
undiagnosed,
without a blemish or scar.
Before that night and the morning after,
before the after and before the before.
Before the fall, the crash, the crime,
without an upgrade or makeover.
Version 0.0
No story,
no narration, no closed captioning,
no footnotes and no bonus features,
before you remembered to forget and forgot to remember.
I knew you before you were what you say –
what you think, what you fear, what you know.
Do you know yourself before?

Band-aid Carpet by We Make Carpets

 

the dharma of lincoln

I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t in any textbook I’d read as a schoolgirl. It wasn’t at the memorial on the mall or the monument blasted onto the face of a mountain. I didn’t find it in any of the 10 million pages collected by 10 thousand presidential historians. It wasn’t even at Gettysburg, where the rolling fields of green still heave with everlasting shame. I suspect it was the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in 2012 that opened my eyes for the first time to the hidden dimensions of the human being we know as Lincoln, an odd and nearly unknowable man transfigured by grief and despair, shouldering the immeasurable wrongs of a divided people and broken nation. And then came this year’s amazing work by George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo, a fantastical rendering of an event that might have converted the man from a doubtful political strategist into a courageous instrument of compassion.

The worst times make the best leaders, and if not, we’re so much the worse.

So some days, awake and reading the news in stunned torpor, I wonder how Lincoln might have seen the day. What he might still have to say. Then I go looking for words to calm my agitation. Lincoln’s dharma, like all dharma—the truth—does not fail to illuminate the way.

What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself. — Campaign circular, 1843.

How fortunate that Lincoln didn’t distinguish himself with vanity.

Common looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them. — Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay

In his humility, he saw the One in the many.

Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally. — Speech to 140th Indiana Regiment, March 17, 1865

And the many as One.

You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.—1st Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

We must take responsibility for the greed, anger, and ignorance in our own hearts.

I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. — Letter to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864

With no promise to turn back time, but rather, to face things as they are.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. — 2nd Message to Congress, Dec. 1, 1862

Only how we respond in this present moment can save us.

An Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction! — Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Sept. 30, 1859

And this, too, shall pass away.

I have stepped out upon this platform that I may see you and that you may see me, and in the arrangement I have the best of the bargain. — Remarks at Painesville, Ohio, Feb. 16, 1861

Visit Washington and you might see the corpus of a 28-foot-tall man enshrined on the platform of a marble throne. But that’s not what Lincoln sees. Through the open portal right in front of him, he sees vast emptiness reaching beyond the horizon, and under a common sky, the good people he has vowed to serve as one, now and forever.

These days, it helps to look at things his way.

***

Photo Source: Shorpy Historical Photo Archive. May 5, 1922. Washington, D.C. “Vista of Monument from Lincoln Memorial.” National Photo Company Collection glass negative.

 

 

teachers are special

Last Wednesday at 10:32 a.m. I got a 16-word text from my daughter, which is noteworthy regardless of what it said. She was at the awards assembly on the last day of her junior year of high school. She wasn’t expecting to hear her name announced. Middle school convinced her that “they don’t give awards to people like me” and it wasn’t a complaint, but a clear-eyed wager, since that’s when a handful of kids emerge at the top of Geometry and Robotics and Chess Club and Debate, with better-than-perfect grades so that when I asked who they do give awards to she answered, “the same people every time.”

Won most improved in APUSH and AP bio and magna cum laude and summa cum laude

That night she had dinner with a friend of my husband’s, an entrepreneur who offered to advise her on applying to his alma mater, a school that has emerged as her new Number 1. He told her that there are lots of kids with good grades—good grades don’t set you apart to the admissions director at a great school. She needed to be special. She needed to stand out by standing up for something. Where did she want to make her mark?

That sounds crazy to me, suggesting as it does that our teenagers rave about themselves before they have any idea who they are or want to be. Isn’t that what college is supposed to be about? Taking the long road to arrive at a better understanding of the world and how you might fit into it?

She and I wondered why her two favorite teachers awarded her “most improved.” Her history grade had held steady all year long. There were a lot of good students in AP Bio. I told her what her teachers had said at the parent conference last fall: She writes down everything I say, she’s eager to participate, and she’s heading in the right direction.

If I could, I would turn around and tell those teachers what I’ve learned this year: She loves and respects you, you’ve inspired her, and she couldn’t wait to go to your class each day.

I have a daughter who cannot bullshit. She won’t boast, can’t pretend, and doesn’t waltz around thinking she’s special. She thinks her teachers are special.

They are.

****

Coffee mug by PhotoCeramics on Etsy.

preparing for retreat

How do you know if you are prepared to handle the silence, the stillness, the discipline, and the single-minded focus of a meditation retreat?

Relax. You can’t know. You don’t need to know. There is no way to prepare. The very notion of preparation traps us in false expectation and self-evaluation. It shows us how often we are paralyzed by the feeling of inadequacy in our lives. We are never inadequate but we are immobilized just the same.

A Zen retreat, which is the only kind of retreat I’ve experienced, is designed to cure you of that paralysis. It is intended to rid you of hobbling second thoughts and hesitation. I like to tell people to leave preparation aside and just bring readiness to a retreat. Readiness is no small thing. It can be quite compelling and even desperate, but it does not require preparation.

So here are a few tips on getting ready for a retreat:

1. The organizers will tell you when to come and what to bring. Follow those instructions to the letter. It is good practice for a retreat, which consists entirely of following instructions.

2. Find a pet sitter, a house sitter, a babysitter, and every other kind of sitter you think you need in order to leave home and its responsibilities completely. You are creating a trusted community to support you in your ongoing practice. Reliable surrogates may not relieve you of anxiety, but they rob you of excuses.

3. You may be inclined to read about retreats before you attempt one. This is natural, but it’s not such a good idea. You are bound to form erroneous preconceptions about what you haven’t yet experienced. I read Robert Aitken Roshi’s Taking the Path of Zen before my first retreat, and of all the books I read it helped me to prepare the least.

4. Leave all books at home. Books aren’t the subject of retreats, so you’ll only be discussing it with yourself, probably on the cushion. Not helpful.

5. Leave your laptop, your tablet, your every little ringing thing behind, or just turned off. (Except bring an alarm clock!) You are without a doubt central to the universe, you just aren’t all that important. Your retreat will be richly enhanced if your keypad is out of reach, so you’re not tempted to live tweet your retreat or Instagram your sudden enlightenment. In this way you can see how the dharma works by itself when we truly commit ourselves to doing nothing, not even Facebook.

6. What’s holding you back? Pack your fear in your suitcase and bring it along. You won’t need it, and next time you’ll be unafraid to pack lighter.

In practice centers everywhere, summer is retreat season. What’s still on your mind? Leave it out of the suitcase.

Cincinnati – June 29-July 2
One Mind: A Weekend Zen Retreat in Ohio
Jesuit Spiritual Center
Milford, OH
Registration closes June 9

Washington DC – Oct. 5-Oct. 8
Autumn Moon Zen Retreat
Washington Retreat House
Registration open

no shoes

I met plenty of powerful people in interesting situations before I began my practice.

I met the heads of some of the world’s largest companies.

I met the founder of Enron before his titanic collapse.

I stayed too long having cocktails with the Governor of Texas and missed my flight home.

I saw a President of the United States having a club sandwich on a sun deck outside a hotel.

I met Frank Sinatra when he was still doing it his way.

I met a Super Bowl quarterback, a Hall of Fame pitcher, and the general manager of the New York Yankees.

I met three Heisman Trophy winners, including one who would be acquitted of the crime of the century.

I met a half-dozen television anchors, two big-city mayors, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

None of this was because of me, but because when you are a young woman in business, certain doors open to you.

What I remember about all of these fellows is that they were well-dressed. (Except for the writer.) And by that I mean they wore fine shoes: expensive and polished to a mirror shine. Because when it comes right down to it, shoes really do make the man.

And then I met the most powerful human being I’ve ever encountered, in the most uninteresting situation imaginable, and he wore no shoes.

He wore no shoes.

***

Everyone you ever meet is holding up a mirror to you. If you like what you see, it’s because it validates or elevates your self-image. If you don’t like it, it’s because you’ve seen some aspect of yourself that you’d rather hide or run away from.

A teacher is a mirror. A good teacher is a mirror without any distortion, which is to say, no judgment. From time to time, my teacher will say something that completely offends my ego. He will say, “I don’t care what you think about yourself.” This is actually the deepest and most compassionate form of caring. It means that what I think about myself is never true. This can be a shock, but it can also be a profound relief, like kicking off the shoes that are killing you.

Seeing yourself clearly seems like it would be the simplest thing in the world. Just look! But to see what’s here we have to slowly, painstakingly wipe away all the ideas, images and narratives sticking to us. We have to drop the costume that got us inside the door in the first place. This can be painful, but there is fresh-faced innocence on the other side of the mask.

The world’s largest companies don’t stay that way forever. Eventually they collapse, merge, shrink, or disappear in the churn of commerce.

The founder of Enron died in disgrace and exile. Some think it was suicide.

The governor lost re-election because he signed a law making high schoolers pass classes before playing sports.

The president lost too, for raising taxes when they needed to be raised.

Sinatra got old, got sick and died. What people remember are his early years.

The famous athletes, except for the murderer, retired to the oblivion of a record book.

Paper is dust; TV is yesterday; stars go dark.

But the Dharma never dies.

Never dies.

***

You might want to think about coming to a retreat.

how do you mother yourself?

One of the first readers of Momma Zen, by my timid invitation, was a middle-aged single gay man who had no interest or experience in parenting but a keen eye for content.

“This is about parenting yourself, right?” he concluded after a quick flip through the pages.

I agreed as if I knew. As if that very insight had guided my hand.

But those aren’t the kind of insights that illumine the daily life of a mother when the process is so totally involved with the continuous operation of a malfunctioning bundle, so wholly immersed in behavior management of a toddling monster or a moody teen.

We don’t see our lives clearly when we live it as though it has an external object and outcome. Judging it as if it is a foregone conclusion or – what if? – a looming failure.

Yet how we mother our children can never be anything other than how we mother ourselves, because it is all one life. So my question is not how you parent the people you undoubtedly love the most, but rather, how do you mother yourself? Because there are not two ways.

Are you kind and forgiving?
Do you give yourself quiet attention?
Permission to play?
Discipline to work?
The confidence to do things by yourself?
Are you honest with yourself?
Do you encourage yourself to go outside?
To take a breath?
To try again?
To take risks?
To be silly?
Are you hurrying toward some imagined milestone?
Do you undermine yourself with constructive criticisms?
Are you undisturbed by your apparent lack of progress?
Are you tender, careful and trusting with yourself?
Do you comfort fears, or magnify them?
Do you nourish yourself?
Laugh at yourself?
Smile in greeting each day?
Do you abandon yourself to preoccupations with the past?
Do you make new friends and forgive the old?
Do you allow that the world is entirely your own and encourage self-mastery?
Do you sleep when tired and eat when hungry?
Take a bath and splash?
Do you let yourself rant and cry for no good reason and then coax yourself back into the familiar cushion of your very own lap?

Do you tell yourself you are a wonderful mother and a beautiful daughter? Then let me be the first, and not the last.

How do you mother yourself?

A printable copy of this post is available here.

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calm mind

As we practice together sincerely, we become increasingly aware that such terms as internal and external cannot be separated. Our environment and our consciousness are inseparable. The two are one.

— Maezumi Roshi

A friend told me that I had shown up in her dream. In the dream she was infuriated with someone, raging mad and ready to fight, and in the middle of it I had appeared and said, “This is your mind.”  The thing is, I have been telling myself something like that as I go to bed at night. Perhaps word is getting around.

Lying in bed is when my mind is most likely to start spinning with worry or preoccupation. That’s when I say to myself, “calm mind.” And again, “calm mind.” Just those two words. No matter what has been racing around in my head up until then, at the moment I say “calm mind,” my mind really is calm, and that calm pervades throughout all space and time. I doubt that you believe it, but it is true. Our environment and our consciousness are one.

Even now as you read this to yourself, “calm mind,” it is so, and can’t be otherwise. Go ahead, read it again.

That’s the power we have—complete—and the responsibility—total. This is your mind. What kind of mind is it? You might consider taking a look. You hold the universe in your sway.

One Mind: A Zen Retreat in Ohio
June 39-July 2
Jesuit Spiritual Center of Milford
Registration open

Autumn Moon: A Zen Retreat in Washington DC
Oct. 5-8
Washington Retreat House
Registration open

flowing

There is a place out back, the place where a higher pond meets a lower one, and when the water is leveling to equilibrium, it flows. It flows in a short fall down slickened rock and spreads into ripples across the surface below, making sound and light. This isn’t something activated, like a fountain, but something that water does by its very nature. It flows, it fills, it levels, it spreads. I saw it just now, and it reminded me of what I’ve wanted to tell you.

Everything is moving. Not moving away, but moving together, as one body. Passing and yet not passing away; going and yet not going anywhere. I think you can see this too. It shows up as every little thing: good news, bad news, happy events, sad events, Monday, Friday, trash day, the ordinary and the unforeseen: an evanescent eddy swirling in a stream.

One morning this week I printed out a class schedule on the computer and showed it to my daughter. It filled me with excitement, her first college class schedule—even though it’s not quite college but a summer program for high school students at a college back east—still it is an unfathomable thing to hold in my hands the evidence that my baby will be away on her own for the summer, and soon ever after. What a milestone. I showed it to her over the breakfast table and she barely looked, didn’t even shrug. The meaning was all mine. She’s never been to college and so cannot conjure any sentimental significance out of it. She doesn’t feel any pride in a piece of paper. And in that instant I realized how much I’ve overplayed this, overplayed it all, as if I was the one who made things happen, made things go right or wrong, better or worse, when all along it’s been going by itself like water flowing.

It is perfectly clear and some might even say predictable, especially to those who don’t presume to have a hand in it. This thing that my daughter is doing is what she wanted, asked about, and tried for. She took one step and then another toward who she is and has always been. It is beyond the distinctions of early or late, near or far. It is not a calculation, this nature we have to be ourselves and no one else no matter what.

I offer this to everyone who is so careful and concerned: preoccupied with preventing one thing and engineering another. Perhaps all we do with all our might is simply deliver our children to the place they already belong. Water flowing into water, making sound and light. It’s beautiful.

 

this is love

There is a certain attitude, perhaps unavoidable, that most of us seem to adopt as we grow up. It is a kind of self-satisfied conclusion that our parents didn’t love us. Oh, they might have loved us, but they didn’t love us enough. They didn’t love us the right way. They didn’t love us just so. Have your own child and you will penetrate into the utter absurdity of that idea.

About six weeks ago I heard from someone trying to find a passage I’d written that she called “one of the most compassionate and eye-opening pieces of writing I have ever read.” It was about forgiving your parents for all the ways they failed you, and she wanted to share it with a friend as soon as possible. I told her that every book I’d written was more or less about that very thing, but having long since tired of reading or remembering my own words, nothing in particular came to mind. A few hours later she wrote back, having easily found what she was looking for at the beginning of Momma Zen.

Babies seem to be coming back into my world these days—babies and grandbabies of friends, family, and readers. It’s quite a joy. Meanwhile, I am feeling the cumulative weight of my own selfish errors and oversteps as a parent. It seems like the right time to remember how easy it is to find love, and how easy it is to give.

Just go back to the beginning.

It strikes me as best to begin with love. The word will never again mean so much.

Of course you love your spouse. You love your parents and brothers and sisters. You love your friends. You love your home, and perhaps your hometown. You love your dog. You may love your work. You might attest to loving your alma mater, mashed potatoes or reading on a rainy day.

But this is love. The feeling you have for your child is so indescribably deep and consuming that it must qualify as one of the few transcendent experiences in your plain old ordinary life. It occurs spontaneously as part of afterbirth. It is miraculous and supreme and irrevocable. It makes all things possible.

There is a certain attitude, perhaps unavoidable, that most of us seem to adopt as we grow up. It is a kind of self-satisfied conclusion that our parents didn’t love us. Oh, they might have loved us, but they didn’t love us enough. They didn’t love us the right way. They didn’t love us just so. Have your own child and you will penetrate into the utter absurdity of that idea. You will love your child as your parents loved you and their parents loved them. With a love that is humbling and uncontrived, immense and indestructible. Parents err, of course, and badly. They can be ignorant, foolish, mean and far worse, in ways that you can come to forgive in them and try to prevent in yourself. But this wholesale shortage of parental love at the crux of everyone’s story must be the product of shabby and self-serving recollections. Now that you are a mother, set that story aside, forgetting everything you thought you knew about love.

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