learn to meditate

Find a sane spot in an insane world.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, March 19, 9-3
Hazy Moon Zen Center
1651 S. Gramercy Place
Los Angeles

Beginner’s Mind Retreat is designed to give new meditation students a taste of the Zen tradition, with instruction in seated meditation, walking meditation, bowing and chanting. Lunch is served. Informal discussion is encouraged. Everything you need is provided, along with kindness and encouragement. It costs $40.

For more information about the retreat, go here. To register, go here. If the time is right, just go, and I’ll meet you at the door.

Photo by Ben Newton Photography.

the man on the wall

A couple of days ago some visitors dropped by to see the garden. Before we went outside we sat around the dining room table chitchatting. One of the guests pointed to an old-timey portrait on the wall and asked who it was.

The fact is, I didn’t know for sure. I’d been told it was my father’s grandfather, my grandfather’s father, whose name I only guessed at because nothing had ever been told to me about him except that he had died young and left his family destitute. This old-fashioned, hand-tinted photograph turned up after my grandparents died and if I hadn’t claimed it, it might have been tossed out of the shed along with everything else. This side of my family didn’t waste much sentiment on the past, for reasons you know if you’ve read Paradise in Plain Sight, but still there was a little bit of mythology that we granddaughters clung to, as some of us do about historical fictions. First, we’d been told ours was a clan of railroad men, iron tough but weak to the degradations of drink, and that somewhere sometime they’d come from Ireland. That sounded like a romantic beginning to an American fairy tale but my grandfather didn’t have a wisp of interest in spinning it, nipping our questions about the old country by saying “if there had been anything worth remembering, we’d have never left.”

But things being what they are these days, and the question coming across the table at me last Thursday, I thought I would try to verify the simple facts of the mysterious man who has been hanging on my wall for the last 20 years, peering at me through the same liquid blue eyes that have marked the scoundrels in the family for at least a hundred years.

***

We all have an immigrant story. Some of us were right there in it at the start, clutching a hand, crossing a border, coming ashore; for others, it’s a story covered in dust and thick with make believe. When my daughter was 12, my sister and I took her to New York City and then by ferry to Ellis Island, where we heard a less lyrical history of the place than I would have ever guessed from the words in the national anthem. Here I thought I was a good American student, but I was shocked and sad to realize that immigration has always been as much about keeping people out as letting people in. And so the hollow caverns of the Statue of Liberty National Monument are haunted with the desperation of not just those who survived the cull, but those who didn’t: the ones judged defective or diseased, crippled or criminal, cross-eyed, insane, unemployable or unlucky enough to cough that day, folks who were put back on the boat to sail the other way. I don’t know what you’d have left to say after that kind of cruel passage, which was not just the end of the worst but a hard start to what would prove to be harder still.

So I went looking for a thread to connect those liquid blue eyes from one generation to the next, from father to son, to find the name behind the frame that came to be hanging on the dining room wall. I found it and something else too. I found out how much my family was like every other immigrant and refugee family: they damn sure wanted to be Americans.

The man on the wall is Grover Cleveland Tate, my great-grandfather, who was born in Illinois in 1885 and died in 1919. His wife, my Grandpa’s mom, was Mary A. Cox, born in 1883.

Grover C. Tate’s father was George Washington Tate, who was born in 1850 and died in 1928, father of 10. And although all these many lives were lived in Illinois, the 1900 US Census shows that, sure enough, G.W.’s father had been born in Ireland.

Sixty years later, his blue eyes turned up in my grandpa, George James Tate:

And then again in my dad James Allan Tate:

None of these men amounted to much except what little comes from hard luck, hard life and hard times. Not much to show for all their work and woe other than me and my sisters and all the lives entwined in a galaxy with ours, my daughter and nieces and great-niece and great-nephew-to-be, each and every bloom of fruit on this fertile plain, all the sons and daughters of George Washington and Grover Cleveland, the weak, the strong, my family, my heart, my home, my country, my countrymen and women waiting to cross over and become one of us. I don’t have a political position on immigration; I don’t have the slightest idea. What I have is a life. What is it that you have?

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10 steps for a mindful protest

1. See
2. Hear
3. Speak
4. Sit
5. Stand
6. Walk
7. Write
8. Sing
9. Laugh
10. Cry

Repeat as needed.

what to do next

Never underestimate the power of a single monk on a mountaintop. He alone is transforming the universe.

***

A terrible forest fire broke out one day, and all the animals fled their homes. But one hummingbird zipped over to a stream, got some water in its beak, and rushed back to the raging fire. The little hummingbird tried to douse the flames with a few drops of water, then back to the stream it flew to retrieve more water. The other animals watched in disbelief. They asked the hummingbird what it was doing—one tiny bird would not make a bit of difference. The hummingbird replied, “I’m doing the best I can.”

***

On a winter day 56 years ago, Edward Lorenz, a mild-mannered meteorology professor at MIT, entered some numbers into a computer program simulating weather patterns and then left his office to get a cup of coffee while the machine ran. When he returned, he noticed a result that would change the course of science.

The computer model was based on 12 variables, representing things like temperature and wind speed, whose values could be depicted on graphs as lines rising and falling over time. On this day, Lorenz was repeating a simulation he’d run earlier—but he had rounded off one variable from .506127 to .506. To his surprise, that tiny alteration drastically transformed the whole pattern his program produced, over two months of simulated weather.

The unexpected result led Lorenz to a powerful insight about the way nature works: small changes can have large consequences. The idea came to be known as the “butterfly effect” after Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado. And the butterfly effect, also known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” has a profound corollary: forecasting the future can be nearly impossible.

***

It seemed to be going one way, and it turned out to go the opposite. The disaster is overwhelming, and you are powerless to change the tide. What do you do now? Be a hummingbird, be a butterfly. Do your best against impossible odds.

The hummingbird and the fire is a Japanese folktale, but you might like to hear it told by a masterful storyteller, political activist and Nobel laureate.

The story of Edward Lorenz is quoted from this article by Peter Dizikes in the MIT Technology Forum, Feb. 22, 2011.

And impossible things? They are happening every day.

 

I know

Last week, I woke from a frightening dream in which a friend had gone missing. Nervous, I sent her an email and asked about her health. She told me that she had just been referred to a specialist for something serious, and had suddenly entered a place of uncertainty and worry.

Two nights ago, another friend appeared in my sleep and asked me to say a service for someone with a terminal illness. In the dream, we were in a vast temple, darkened by deep shadows. I ran across the long length of an endless corridor to find the altar and light the incense, panicked at the time being lost, the prayers unsaid.

Yesterday a good friend told me he had been to the hospital earlier in the week. His heartbeat was racing and he was short of breath. Tests were run, but no cause could be found. He thought he knew what it was. He had been waking at night in deep terror. His were the symptoms of profound anxiety.

This morning, a friend texted me and said that I had come to her in a dream last night. She was terrified about our country and sobbing. I appeared out of nowhere and hugged her. Then I said, “I know.”

In the name of terror, we are being terrified. In the name of security, we are being attacked. In the name of freedom, we have been made hostage. The temple is dark.

But this I have seen, and you have seen, and we can trust. Our fear is collective; our tears flow in common; our prayers ascend in one eternal sky. You appear to me and I appear to you. We are in this together.

I know. And I will always respond.

I am writing more than ever, saying all that I can. If you wish to subscribe to this blog and receive new posts in your email, please sign up here.

cake recipe

I was 5 or 6 years old when my sister and I would play a certain game. Whenever we got a bowl of ice cream for dessert we would mash and stir it into the consistency of batter before we ate it. We called the game “Making a Cake for President Kennedy.”

This game was not the measure of our innocent imagination. It was a sign of how much we adored our president. Alas, we didn’t get to play for long. Adoration, ice cream, childhood—and noble presidents—disappear too quickly.

After the euphoria of the marches on Saturday, the reality of our national wound dawned fresh and ugly. What can be said about an affliction so huge, an ignorance so insistent, a menace so malevolent? A lot, it turns out; but then again, not much.

A few days ago I heard from a friend and favorite author, Katrina Kenison, who writes with depth and heart about everything. She has been quiet of late. Quiet since the election. What do we say about the unspeakable? What do we do about the undoable? She wondered if she would ever feel moved to share a cake recipe on her blog again.

Yes, she will. We will all share recipes. We will shop, chop, blend and stir. Preheat the oven, oil the pan. We will set the table, pour the wine. Dress the salad, butter the bread, slice the cake and scoop the ice cream. We will invite people into our homes and feed them, you see, because that’s what the resistance does, in so many words: care.

Small things loom large in times of unfathomable crisis. Small things are how we serve.

Here is one of Katrina’s cakes.

And here is a helpful article with self-care tips for those who care. I’m passing it around for seconds.

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how to grow a democracy

Study the trees that will outlive you by a thousand years.

Look up to the one sky that unites all beings.

Walk the earth with the millions that came before you and the millions to come after.

With each step, plant a seed so small that it is nearly invisible.

Do not doubt the power of that one seed.

Let clouds, wind, rain, sun and fire pass over.

Trust your feet; believe your eyes.

Hold fast to those truths that are self-evident.

Study the trees.

Before the marches last weekend, my sister, niece and I walked through the Muir Woods National Monument, an old-growth redwood forest north of San Francisco. Redwoods can grow as tall as 380 feet from a seed the size of a tomato seed. The majority of the trees located in Muir Woods National Monument are between 500 to 800 years old. The oldest tree in the protected forest is over 1200 years old.

focus on the good

Last Saturday, The New York Times ran a story in which a dozen women explained, in their own words, why they voted for the president-elect. It is a bit of a curiosity, that question. After I read it, I noticed that the article was not open to comments. No sense in everyone getting riled up.

He’s not perfect, one woman said. He does some terrible things. I don’t agree with him on very much. But that’s the thing about relationships, she seemed to say. “You get through the bad and you focus on the good.”

Reading that reminded me of what my own mother would say after my father did something cruel, insensitive and selfish, which was pretty much all the time. “He really loves you,” she would tell us. Her words were like a wish blown onto a dandelion.

I’ve read the piece several times since then, looking for the “good” that attracted these voters and I couldn’t find any. They didn’t seem to be motivated by the good at all, but by the bad. Most were expressly anti-immigration, some were anti-Obama or anti-Obamacare, one was clearly anti-welfare, and nearly all were anti-Hillary Clinton. They were afraid of the whole world, or at least America, and looking for protection from the enemy who moved in next door.

In the days immediately following the election, someone wrote a conciliatory comment on my then-Facebook page, where people were posting about how terrified they were by the outcome. Although I voted differently, this person said, I did it out of concern for your safety.

And so the fear has been unleashed upon those who were not yet afraid, not yet exiled or outcast, not yet silenced or disenfranchised, not yet bound and gagged, imprisoned or forgotten. What can we do in the face of this overwhelming, incapacitating fear?

I will focus on the good, which will forever outweigh and outlast the bad. I will be marching with my sisters this Saturday in the Bay Area: Oakland in the morning, San Francisco in the afternoon. We will move our feet and raise our fists and sing out the truth. The forecast is for wind and rain. For sore throats and aching feet. For darkness and dejection. For courage and endurance. The forecast is for a long winter and a frosty spring. But one day, a field of dandelions.

***

If you’re marching in one of the hundreds of protests planned in cities around the world this Saturday, let everyone know in the comments.

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the lie

I’ve been very lucky in my life. I have had many teachers.

When I was a college senior, a teacher offered me a job grading papers. He was not a good teacher; in fact, his classes were notoriously bad. He offered me $2.50 an hour for a few hours a week. My budget at that time left no room for error, and even a dollar misspent would leave me without the cash I needed to wash my clothes or buy a meal. This teacher might have known what students thought of him; in any event, he was grateful for my help. When I was about to graduate, he asked if it would be okay if he set up some job interviews for me.

This was 1978, and there were no jobs for college graduates. My first interview was with a man who had a small public relations agency, although he had a big reputation. He had been president of the local PR association, and everybody knew him. I can’t recall anything we talked about except that when I told him the salary I was expecting, he smiled because it was so little. One day later he called and offered me a job. I started working two weeks after graduation. This was my first lucky break.

The office was in a nice building in a fancy part of town. My boss dressed well and drove a big car. The people I worked with were helpful and friendly. The work was interesting and seemed important. I got a raise. I learned a lot, but the longer I worked there the more uncomfortable I became. I figured out that my boss didn’t pay all his bills, or that he juggled things so that he paid what was necessary to keep things going, and ignored everything else. The problem was that I was the one who hired the suppliers for our projects—the photographers, the printers, the artists—and he was the one who didn’t pay them. This was something I couldn’t fix, and it troubled me. I felt like a liar, a con, a cheat. After about a year, I began to look for another job and found one. When I told my boss I would be leaving, he gave me a farewell party.

A few months later, I got a call from a former client at the PR agency. He told me that he had asked my old boss about me, chiding him for letting a good one get away. He wanted me to know what my old boss had said in case it ever got back to me. “He said that you had a nervous breakdown and that he had to send you back to your parents.”

***

It was ridiculously, even insanely, untrue. Here I was, sitting in another office not three miles away, working for someone else well-known in a relatively small field. But in one sobering instant I knew that as long as I worked in that city, I would have to defend myself against the lie. I had seen behind the curtain, and he had reached out in retribution to steal what little I had: my name.

Perhaps it was luck. I never again went looking for another job. Never had another interview, never asked anyone for a referral or recommendation. The next career move I made was to start my own business with an honest partner. I was 23. I kept that job for nearly 20 years.

I never even thought about my first boss, but he still hung on. Bad business practices don’t necessarily put you out of business. One day I met someone else who had worked for him long after I left. He had told her about me, she said. He had told her the lie.

The guy died in 2010. He had a very long resume.

***

Why would someone keep lying? Liars have to lie, it turns out. They have to keep lying because they are lying to themselves. They have to keep lying because they are a lie.

Over the many years since I learned this lesson, I’ve tossed nearly every bit of the name that was besmirched. In the end, nothing was lost, and the experience gave me a pretty good handle on the truth.

There is a ruckus in the news these days about lies and liars. Should the press call a lie a “lie?” Should they call a liar a “liar?” Should they call cheaters “cheaters,” traitors “traitors,” thieves “thieves,” racists “racists” and monsters “monsters?”

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had many teachers, and so I can answer the question. Yes.

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a little rain must fall

I tell people that we’ve had a little rain lately. We’ve had a little rain. December was the wettest month in Los Angeles in six years, and around here people look at the sky, and then at each other, afraid to jinx it, afraid to even whisper that the drought might be ending. What it depends on, we all know, is not the rain soaking our backyards, but the snow falling on the Sierras, because our water supply depends on the depth of the snowpack. So far the snow is looking good. And this week, with the promise of big storms piling up in the forecast, a little more rain could tip the scales.

For those folks who don’t want to face the truth, climate change like what we’ve experienced could look like it’s just a liberal bellyache. I visited Connecticut in October and spent a night in a bed and breakfast near Hartford. It was a lovely place, old and elegant, and Connecticut looked like what you’d expect after the first snowfall of the season. At breakfast the innkeeper started up a conversation about the weather, and I told her that it had been 97 degrees or so when I’d boarded the plane the day before in LA. No kidding. Last week of October. That kind of heat has been scaring the shit out of us for six years. She threw her head back and laughed, saying something like “But the drought isn’t real. Isn’t it caused by the environmentalists trying to save a fish?” And I was dumbfounded that this seemingly well-bred woman could be so willfully ill-informed, swallowing and then spreading the fake news spewed by you-know-who, ridiculing a guest at her dining room table. Serves those Californians right! I know a few people who satisfy themselves making fun like that, denying pain, denying truth, denying responsibility.

A couple of years ago I invited an arborist into the backyard to give me an assessment. I was hoping that there was some mystery to the dying trees, something other than the obvious. He told me what I already knew and then some. Trees were stressed and dead all over, and even the ones that looked alive were probably ghosts. He pointed to the three redwoods and explained that they don’t just take water from the ground, but through the air, and fifty or so years ago the air was different. There wasn’t much more to say or do, and so we stood together in prayerful silence, pallbearers in the middle of a sad forest, lifeguards in front of a dead ocean.

Sometimes when people ask me how they can be more compassionate, because they are ripping themselves apart over not being compassionate enough, I say, well, why don’t you just talk to people about the weather? What I mean by that is let’s not be strangers. Let’s be human beings. Let’s talk about something we have in common, you know, something like rain or snow or wind or heat, summer, winter, spring and fall. We all know hot; we all know cold. There didn’t used to be two ways about the weather. But I guess today there are two ways about everything, and no way in-between.

A hard rain’s gonna fall.

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when we were young

When we were young and back at school after the winter break, we would write the date of the new year on the top right-hand corner of a piece of paper for the first time. Then for about six weeks after we would keep forgetting and write the old year.

When we were young we used pencils with erasers on the end so we could rub away our mistakes and start over. By the end of the day, eraser dust might still cling to our laps or sleeves, we made so much of it. A single pencil was mighty in its power to both write and right our wrongs.

Nowadays I’m not sure that anyone has occasion to write the year by hand, except I still do, and when I go pick up the dry cleaning I will get it wrong for a few more weeks or even months. Getting the year wrong might not constitute a mistake these days, since I don’t know how checks are handled by banks or whether human minds are still engaged in the process.

When we were young we didn’t use credit cards for little things like dry cleaning, lunch or stamps. (Actually, we didn’t even use dry cleaning.) Credit was used for buying cars and washing machines. For everything else we used checks or cash money for which we had to use our hands and head. That’s why we learned math: to keep track so we wouldn’t be fooled or cheated.

When we were young, my mother told us to clean the bathroom every Saturday. This was an awful chore at the time, but now I see it as a timeless profundity. We used Comet cleanser, which you can still find on the bottom shelf of the cleaning supply aisle at the supermarket, outshined by a mile of other colorful, expensive and overhyped products. The world literally turns for those few who notice, first, that the bathroom needs cleaning and, second, that farfetched promises don’t get the job done.

When I was young and in first grade, a second-grade boy stole my shoe and ran around the playground teasing me. I chased him over the grimy asphalt with a shoe on one foot and a blackened sock on the other. I fell far behind, vanquished by his ugly, embarrassing audacity. When I gave up, he pretended to pee in my shoe before he threw it back at me. The meanest kid in second grade will soon be the president of our country.

It seems like I’ve been here before: my thoughts on the new year.

a thousand words

Seven hundred and forty-six million miles: The sight of Earth from Saturn.

May this view bring you peace, perspective and patience for the times
when words won’t reach.

pledge of allegiance

Today I stood in line behind nineteen other patrons served by a diminished staff of two underpaid postal workers, packages stacked cattywumpus in bins and on counters, the holiday stamps sold out, the customers impatient but still peaceable, because what else are you going to do, the wait stretching ever longer behind me as if to the end of time, or at least out the front door, and I thought to myself: this is what this country needs, indeed this is what this country is. Neighbors assembling in democratic fashion, first-come first-served, inconvenienced, to do something selfless for someone else, using an old-fashioned and unglamorous system that still ably conveys their tidings across inconceivable distance and indecipherable zip codes with a high degree of reliability, affordability, and yes, even speed.

Perhaps some of us have overlooked what is already great about this country.

Anyone with the proper perspective can tell you that greatness is not stitched on cherry red gimme caps or emblazoned in ten-foot-tall letters atop the penthouse floor, but found in inconspicuously small things. Small things have filled my time since I leapt off social media and invited people to save their Facebook likes and send me mail instead. Since then I have spent a little bit of every afternoon writing to folks who gamely wrote to me first, people in California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Nevada, Wisconsin, Missouri, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Iowa, states I name here so you can know that you made my day.

Your mail has saved me. Saved me from self-obsession, that is. From my own fear, angst, and despair. Because before I respond to a letter I read it several times, entering your life by quieting my own. This is nothing new, just something to be rediscovered: a key, I think, to civil society and noble friendship, the ability to interrupt for a moment the nonstop stream of self-absorption that otherwise engulfs and destroys us.

What I’ve shared with most folks is the vital necessity to take the long view right now, much like a postal customer, and to do small things with great love, as Mother Teresa taught. To be sure, there will be shameful waste and ruin, thievery, greed, lies, crimes and disruption on a grand scale, but our independent spirits can still rise. In these treasonous times, I pledge allegiance to the United States Postal Service, and to the flag of a Forever stamp. If you’d like my address, just send me a message through this Contact form and I will promptly respond because it is the single greatest thing I can do.

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