so much magnificence


It was the day before Austria found 50 bodies in a truck on the side of the road. The day after the young Roanoke reporters were murdered on TV so the shooter could post it on Facebook and Twitter. And three days after my daughter woke up for her first day of a new school year.

“I dreamed Donald Trump bombed our school because we have gay students.”

Do you know anything about Donald Trump? I asked her.

I just know that he is stupid.

This is our world. The virulent, ignorant, unimaginable evil of it, screaming past us every day.


A few years ago, at the end of a summer yoga class, lying vanquished in the death pose, I heard a song come through the speaker. A single voice sung a four-line lyric (well, three) to an acoustic guitar, and then swelled into a two-part harmony.

There is so much magnificence
Near the ocean
Waves are coming in
Waves are coming in

It was so plain! Repeating and repeating without ever going anywhere. But I was mesmerized. Eight minutes of a song with no beginning, middle, or end, and I didn’t want it to be over, didn’t want to silence the strange and awesome power of the simplest tune I’d ever heard.

It was sung by a guy named Steve Gold. I bought the song and never got tired of it. Sometime it’s the perfect time for it.

Maybe this is what we mean by magnificence. The pristine beauty of things bigger than us and simpler than us and yet so near to us, coming in, coming in, coming in, to the sand we’re standing on.

I can’t do anything about anything, but I can share the magnificence. Let this be enough for now.

The list of forgetting

To study the Buddha way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.
To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to free one’s body and mind and those of others.  –

Mindfulness means to remember that you are here, and to forget the story of where you are not.

So forget the story you tell yourself about your parents, the story you tell yourself about your childhood, the story you tell of your first love, the story of your first marriage, the story of pain and partings. Forget the birth story, the death story, the whole story, the story you keep repeating, the story you’ll never forget. Forget that story, and do not replace it with another.

Forget what might have been and what could still be. The past is gone and the future will arrive on schedule.

Forget the time you ran away, the time you cheated, the time you got caught, the time you found out, the time you broke down, the time you picked yourself up, the time you were left high and dry, the time the milk spilled and the glass broke, the time you’ll never forget. Forget time.

Forget what happened this morning. There is no this morning. There is no last night, today or tomorrow.

Forget your second thoughts, your second guesses, your second glances and second chances. Forget the count. No one knows the count and there is no way to count it.

Forget your worst fears and highest hopes. Forget all fears and hopes. Forget all worst and highest. Forget altogether the habit of make believe when reality is magic already.

Forget your leaps of logic and foregone conclusions. Nothing is ever foregone or concluded. Cover the ground where you stand. It’s enough.

Forget what you thought.

Forget what you felt. Do not resurrect a ghost.

Forget what she said, what he said, and especially what she said. Do not mistake the word for the thing.

Now, open your eyes and do what needs to be done. Having forgotten all obstacles and limitations, all distractions and negations, there is nothing you do not know how to do. Surprise yourself.

You are a buddha.

Any questions? Remember to ask me in person.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, Oct. 18
Introductory Zen Retreat, Kansas City, Oct. 23-25
Zen Retreat at Meadowkirk, Middleburg VA Dec. 10-13
Meditation as Love, Kripalu, Feb. 5-7

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my practice isn’t working

If my practice doesn’t make me more tolerant, humble,
and generous,
my practice isn’t working.
If my practice doesn’t make me more respectful, loving, and
my practice isn’t working.
If I can’t forgive and forget
begin again
stop, drop
turn around
wake up
say hello say goodbye
be kind be quiet be still
listen laugh
cry it out
give it time
sit down stand up
get over myself
admit I don’t know
then my practice isn’t working.
If I’m not less cynical, less critical, less arrogant, less mean
then my practice isn’t working.
If my practice doesn’t fill me with wonder, gratitude,
fearlessness, faith and trembling doubt
my practice doesn’t work.

Does my practice work?
Only when I practice.
Let’s do it. Soon.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, Oct. 18
Introductory Zen Retreat, Kansas City, Oct. 23-25
Zen Retreat at Meadowkirk, Middleburg VA Dec. 10-13
Meditation as Love, Kripalu, Feb. 5-7

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15 ways to practice compassion today

Marc-Dombrosky1I hear quite a bit about compassion, that brand of selfless love we usually judge ourselves to be lacking. Talking about compassion may be one reason it is so frequently misunderstood as something that we should be doing. But compassion doesn’t need doing. It exists already in the harmony of things just as they are.

Discord comes from our doing — when we impose our judgment, expectations, fear and greed. Compassion comes from undoing. Compassion greets us when we undo our boundaries and erase the lines we said we’d never cross. Compassion waits in the space between us, the space that only seems to separate us: a gap we close when we cease all self-serving judgment and take care of whatever appears in front of us.

We don’t have to go anywhere else to find compassion. Not to the Himalayas or even a meditation retreat (although the latter is probably cheaper and easier on the feet.) We don’t have to sit at the foot of a guru or stand on our heads. We won’t find compassion in a book, a blog, a TED talk, a sermon or an inspirational quotation. People who argue the need “teach” compassion usually mean their own idea of compassion.

Right in front of you, every moment of every day, is the only place to practice compassion. Do you want to live in friendship or fear? Paradise or paranoia? We are each citizens of the place we make, so make it a better place. Here are 15 ways to practice compassion today. You don’t have to do 15. Just do one as an experiment so you will recognize the source of compassion within you. You’ll feel good, and then you’ll share that goodness more easily and more often.

1. At the grocery store, give your place in line to the person behind you.

2. Ask the checker how her day is going, and mean it.

3. On the way out, give your pocket money to the solicitor at the card table no matter what the cause.

4. Admire children and praise pets, especially bothersome ones.

5. Roll down your car window when you see the homeless man on the corner with the sign. Give him money. Have no concern over what he will do with it.

6. Smile at him. It will be the first smile he has seen in a very long time.

7. Do not curse your neighbor’s tall grass, unshoveled walk, foul temperament or house color. Given time, things change by themselves. Even your annoyance.

8. Thank the garbageman. Be patient with the postal worker. Light a candle for the power company and the snow plows.

9. Leave the empty parking space for someone else to take. They will feel lucky.

10. Buy cookies from the Girl Scout and a sack of oranges from the poor woman standing in the broiling heat at the intersection.

11. Talk to strangers about the weather. Forgive weather forecasters.

12. Allow others to be themselves, with their own point of view. If you judge them, you are in error.

13. Do not let difference make a difference.

14. Do not despair over the futility of your impact or question the outcome.

15. Love the world you walk, ride and drive around in, and make it your home. It’s the only world you’ll ever live in, and you have all the love in it.

Leave aside the extraordinary lengths and heroic measures. There’s an eyeful of suffering right in front of your face. Often, people look frightened and lonely. They seem bothered, hurt and terrifically sad. Kindness doesn’t cure everything, but it cures unkindness. What a magnificent place to start.

Prove it to yourself:

Introductory Zen Retreat, Kansas City, Oct. 23-25
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, Oct. 18
Zen Retreat at Meadowkirk, Middleburg VA Dec. 10-13
Meditation as Love, Kripalu, Feb. 5-7


Hand embroidery and found cardboard sign by Marc Dombrosky.

birth story


She sat on the step between the kitchen and the hall, waiting for the time to pick up her friends and drive to the beach to celebrate her birthday.

There’s something I want to tell you, I said, and I stepped outside of myself so I could give this to her, so she could have this for herself.

Sixteen years ago today we were both at home. Of course you weren’t born yet. We had spent a week in the hospital trying to keep you inside of me where I thought you were safe. I wanted that very much, for you to be safe and well. And they had finally let us come home. I had to stay in bed and take my blood pressure every thirty minutes, and it just kept going up and up. I couldn’t make it go down. A friend drove me to the doctor’s and she said it wasn’t up to me any longer, you had to come out, you had lost a pound because the food wasn’t getting to you. It was too serious to wait any more. So she told us to go to the hospital early the next morning so you could be born no matter what.

I’ve been thinking about his lately because everything has been hard and stressful again, and I’ve realized how hard and stressful it was for you then, how much pressure you felt, and how you weren’t getting what you needed, and I was so worried and sick. They gave you steroids in the hospital before you were born so you would be able to breathe. The steroids made you strong. And when you were born, after all that pain and pressure for you, you were strong. You have always been strong, and you do such strong things even when they are hard. And when the doctor saw you for the first time, she said I really like the way this baby looks!

She had been quietly smiling as I said this, hearing it, seeing it, knowing it, full and ready to go.


how do you find a Zen teacher?


A question that comes up nowadays: How do I find a teacher?

Your question is an important one. I would even say it is the most important one. Unless we limit our interest in Buddhism to philosophy or history, a teacher is essential. Buddha was a teacher. He did not formulate a doctrine or creed. He simply sat down and meditated, and for forty years taught others to sit down and meditate. Out of that we have your question.

So let me tell you that just asking the question is answering the question. You have raised a thought, and that thought will manifest direction and motivation for you. There is no need to figure anything out, such as distance or location or likelihood. You raised the question and then you sent it to me, someone who answers from the most fundamental view of a teacher. You need one. You do not need to know how you will find one.

In short, you are being led. Yes, you go and look. You listen. You’ll know your teacher when you hear him or her speak (as if they were speaking to you alone). You will work, however, to actively limit and prohibit your chances of meeting your teacher, in the ways you already have, such as “I live in the middle of nowhere, everyone is too far away, I don’t know the kind of Buddhism I want, I have no time, yada, yada, yada.” All of those excuses will make you stop before you start.

If you have been drawn to my work then it is over for you, I dare say. You will not be fooled by lukewarm teachers with watered-down dharma. So in a way you are spoiled. In another way you are terribly lucky. Just continue to meditate on that thought: who is my teacher? — and let yourself be guided. Don’t settle for just anyone anywhere. That would be a waste of time.

When I met Maezumi Roshi I lived three states away. I attended a retreat not to meet a teacher (Lord, no!) but just to get instruction in how to sit. So imagine my surprise, fear, and deep recognition when I saw him standing in front of me.

Nothing is impossible.

Don’t give it a second thought.

Have faith in yourself as the Way.

In gassho,

moving toward love


I was two days home from three weeks in silence when the calls and emails came. The fall, the break, the orphaned kids, she was only sick twelve days, the surgery, the setback, the job loss, nothing on the horizon, the unexpected and unimaginable, he’s on morphine now, with no warning, no hope, and no answers, the mountainous pain made immediate and real, and my doubt disappears, the shroud of my self-concern, the scrim of my small personal failure, and I know what there is to do.

Do for others, do for others, do for others.

When? When they appear. How? Without self.

May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be well.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be free from suffering.

The world, you see, does not end in a fire or flood. Not with war or pestilence. The world ends with the self. May we mind our devotions, and enter the vast and empty eternity of love.

Photo by Pierre Carreau

a healing summer


During a three-month summer ango, or training period, a novice monk is selected to serve as the head trainee at the monastery. He or she will monitor the practice inside the meditation hall, acting as a model and mentor for those who join in. The monk maintains order, harmony, motivation, and discipline through the depth of his or her own samadhi, the non-distracted awareness that is the healing nature of meditation. Ango means “peaceful dwelling.”

A simple ceremony marks the beginning of the training period, when the student formally enters the temple to begin the term of service. The trainee and the teacher will commence a long stretch of silence sitting side by side in zazen, doing their work alone and together. The student will swim through a flood of fear and crawl over a mountain of doubt. The work will consume light and dark, days and nights on end. At first he will cherish nothing more than the thought of escape, but in time he will plant himself deep in the ground and give up the search. On the last day of training, the student will enter a place he has never been. It will be in the exact same place he’s never left, but the walls will be gone, a cramped and airless room transformed into a universe of living things. He will know perfectly well how to take good care of it.

But this is still the first day, and he has no idea where the path is leading.

Ceremonies in the zendo are orchestrated, the script ordained in the manner of a thousand students and a hundred teachers before. The student stands before the teacher and expresses humility and gratitude. He moves to make his bows, but the teacher waves him off. There is no need for formality between them, no show of rank. The two are fellow travelers, and they will make this trip as one.

With palms together, the student speaks the last public words that will pass between them until they reach the other side. The room is quiet. Nothing stirs. Paradise comes into view.

“California weather is peaceful and calm. May your days go well.”

May you enjoy peace and healing this summer.

In gassho,

Adapted from Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

your child is a boat on the ocean


Your child is a boat on the ocean. There are clear skies and calm nights. There are storms and rain and fog. You cannot control the course. Every time you exhale, the boat is carried safely toward the horizon, its distant harbor and home.

You are the breeze.

Paying attention to the natural movement of the breath teaches you everything. The breath is totally present. It can’t happen anytime but now. There is no past breath or future breath. There is no secret to the breath, and nothing to figure out. Breath is the utterly perfect function of pure being. We are soothed, strengthened, amazed and made grateful by the breath, which is life. There’s nothing more to want or wish for.

Read more on Annapurna Living.

blaming Steve Jobs

PA020450This afternoon I went into the backyard and noticed a patch where everything has shriveled and the ground is cracked and bare, and although this wretched drought is in its fourth year, it seems like it happened overnight. The garden is dying.

I blame Steve Jobs.

I’ve been blaming Steve Jobs for a whole mess of stuff for a long time now, for the conversations that stopped, the music that ended, the books that disappeared, the kids that went absent, the friends that drifted off and the way the world seems to have shriveled into a hot, lifeless, angry place of crazy strangers. Oh, I know it wasn’t him. It’s a cynical joke. But it was him, and the legion led by him. I saw it happen. I saw it happen with me and I saw it happen with nearly everyone else. And now there is hell to pay.

He was a god to many. But he was never my guru. I never entered that temple, not all the way. The theatrics looked cool, but they disturbed me. There was awesome power and beauty in his works, but I never trusted myself to handle that kind of artillery. It went too fast and too far. I didn’t need it. I didn’t want it. I am too cheap. I bought a laptop. It works fine. It sits on this desk. Every time I use it I have to stop, be still, and do only one thing. I do not carry it in my hands or put it in my purse, pocket or car. It is not a companion. It is not the world. It is a very small and distorted picture of the world.

I have to wake myself up every minute of every day to realize the difference.

I am probably the only person you know without a smartphone. Please don’t text me.

It seems to me that we have completely confused the world with a picture of the world. We are so adept at manipulating the false picture — with just one thumb — that we have forgotten how to occupy the real world. How to live responsibly and with accountability. How to use our hands and feet and heart. We are so fascinated with artificial intelligence that we have negated our own. We do stupid things. We say stupid things. We shout at each other in tiny digital boxes. We overuse exclamation points.

When we do things directly in the world, instead of through technology, when we speak aloud to one another, meet face-to-face and side-by-side, it is altogether a different experience. It is intimate and alive. Magic, really. You can’t program it. Totally original, one-of-a-kind, without a trademark.

Innovation produces some really neat things, but it can’t be your religion. It won’t soothe or satisfy. It destroys what is to make room for what’s next. To be sure, it’s a naturally occurring cycle, January to December, but it can be sped up to the point of wanton waste and disposability. Suppose every time you were hungry you took only one bite and then tossed the apple. (It got a little brown around the teeth marks.) The earth would be nothing but a landfill of fallen fruit, and we’d all be hungry ghosts, waiting in line all night to grab the next nibble that will once again fail to satisfy.

I know Steve Jobs isn’t to blame. But I blame Steve Jobs.

This is a lousy load to lay at the tomb of a giant and a genius. Although he was arrogant and egotistical, by all accounts Mr. Jobs made amends to estranged friends, family and rivals and was at peace before the end. It’s a given. Everyone reaches the end of ideas when they arrive at the ultimate disruption. I’m going to have to give him a break for everything that troubles me and take responsibility for what’s right here now.

I’m going to have to keep this place alive.

So I’m heading out to walk this world of mine and see what needs doing. To notice the dry spots. Fix what’s broken. Lend a hand. Spare a little more time, a little more water, and a lot more love. I know this in my bones because I preach it, and I preach it because I need it: What you pay attention to thrives, and what you do not pay attention to withers and dies.

What will you pay attention to today?

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what to tell the children

She taught me everything by the time she was three. But I keep forgetting.

The tsunami hits the day before we fly to Hawaii for a holiday in paradise. The long trip and the time change are numbing enough without the odd narcotic of the disaster: a sky-falling, earth-swallowing event of incomparable horror. We traverse a few thousand miles across a now deeper and more ominous ocean. Our extended family from two states reunites, in one piece, in time to light candles beside a whispering night sea. We are all grateful.

There is no talk about what has happened elsewhere. My daughter is a preschooler and, at home, we have entered what will be a long stretch without a working television. We have disabled it: unplugging the non-stop signals that are still collected by the satellite dish on the roof and pulsed to that place in the living room where no one waits or watches. Like most solutions, this one is temporary, but it has provided all the relief we need right now. It has freed us from the need to police and intervene; it has released our child from a junkie’s craving and stupor; and it has liberated us from what the mass media seems to suggest is the most prevalent issue in modern parenting: What to Tell the Children.

This is what the media serves up to us over and over again, within hours of natural and unnatural disasters: 9/11, floods, fires, hurricanes, wars, beheadings, shootings, earthquakes, rampages, murders. Even contested presidential elections. “What to Tell the Children,” they intone, delivering their expertly articulated opinions. They are, indeed, quite expert at giving this advice. It’s the same advice dispatched after every catastrophic story — stories we believe, by virtue of the ever-widening screens in our homes, to have happened to us. We say that these events have entered our collective consciousness. But if we stopped long enough to consider how they got there, we might realize that “What to Tell the Children” is incidental to “What to Tell the Parents,” which is to turn off the TV.

The aim of all my years of Zen practice has been to get to this point: the point of seeing what really happens in my life. All that sitting still and staring out during meditation is for the sole purpose of glimpsing the difference between what occurs in front of me and what occurs in the inaccessible, inexhaustible reaches of my imagination. In this way, Zen practice is frequently misunderstood as disengaging from the life around us. Fully realized, Zen practice disengages only from the life of the ruminative mind; it is not for one moment disengaged from real life.

Attuned then, finally, to what is, a person might actually pick up a rather shocking bit of news. Despite all the talk about talk, contrary to the rarefied status of the spoken word, regardless of all the good press about interpersonal communication, there’s hardly ever very much that needs to be said.

We can learn this by spending years on a meditation cushion. Or we can learn this in three easy lessons from the children in our midst.
“What did you do at school today?” This is how Georgia and I always begin our drive home from preschool. I do the asking, studying my daughter’s face in the rear-view mirror to intercept the visual clues that I decode into conversation. There is a smear of paint on the curve of her jaw; she sucks a grimy thumb while she gazes out the window. She never answers this question to my satisfaction. No kid ever answers this question to a parent’s satisfaction.

“I don’t know,” she says.

She sounds like a troublesome teenager already. I dunno.

I hear it like a challenge. I take it as an affront. Is that sullenness? Is that concealment? What really went on today? Is she unhappy at school? Bored? Bullied? Ignored? Or worse? Silenced by unspeakable trauma? How can it be that nothing remarkable happened at school today to this most remarkable child?

I sound like a troublesome mother already. You never call. You never write.

The topic is communal around the school. It comes up at Parents’ Night when a father suggests that the teachers in our class of 22 four-year-olds might busy themselves composing a little narrative report about what each one of our kids do every day. Our children’s accounts are so insufficient, he reasons, so lacking. The teachers’ eyes widen and roll. I find myself responding on their behalf and answering my own question in the process.

“What we have here is a gap between what we need to hear and what our children need to tell us.” I say the words to the other parents, but I am soothing myself. As addicted as we might be to information and assessments, to texts and tweets, to executive summaries and PowerPoints, to journals and blogs, to news and gossip, our children are altogether blessedly free of all that. They don’t process their day as a set of events; they don’t bullet-point it for easy recitation. There are no highs or lows. They just live it: playing, singing, climbing, painting, kicking, digging, shoving, crying, and who knows what all, completely immersed in the flow. When it’s over, it’s over, with nothing left to talk about.

“I don’t know,” my daughter says again the next day, and I catch the drift, the wisdom of the ancients. Not knowing is most intimate.
Sometimes I engage Georgia in talk just for entertainment. Everyone does this. We ask the little ones what they want to be when they grow up. It’s funny to watch them wobble forward into this strange place, this neverland of the future, and concoct something out of the wisps of the unreal, something charmingly unimaginable and sometimes biologically impossible. “I want to be a giraffe!”

We don’t see the risk in this; we don’t see the lesson. We ask a child what she wants for her birthday next month and — whoops — dislodge an avalanche of desires. We murmur about the doctor visit next week and — gee whiz — ignite a fireball of anxiety. We think out loud about our vacation plans for next year and — never mind — stir up restlessness. We don’t realize how many times we aim to curry favor, tame tempers, or just distract ourselves by talking about what is going to happen tomorrow. It doesn’t seem strange to us to spend so much time talking about what isn’t. It’s where we adults live most of the time.

“What day is tomorrow?” my daughter asks. I’m pleased that she has learned the days of the week.

“Wednesday,” I say.

“No, what day is tomorrow?” she asks again.

“Today is Tuesday, so tomorrow is Wednesday.”

“But when is it tomorrow?”

I’m no longer sure what she is asking.

“It goes Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” she ticks them off. “But when is it Tomorrow?”

When is that day called “Tomorrow,” that factors so eternally in our plans and schemes? I gape at her clear-eyed misperception, at her supremely intelligent confusion. How many times have I lost her in the mists of my ramblings about that never-to-come day? Her question reverberates and I hear anew the last word of the immortals. Just this.
Surely there’s more than just this to take care of, we might argue. Surely there’s more than just our own spilt milk to cry over. In the face of so much pain and suffering, calamity, bloodshed, hunger, and homelessness, surely there’s something more we can do somewhere else.

Driving home from a week’s meditation retreat, stopped at a traffic light in the steamy summer heat, I see a man, his face crumpled, holding an old McDonald’s cup. He’s weaving through the idling cars with a sign. I don’t think; after a week’s retreat, I don’t have to. I reach into my wallet, where I know I have no smaller than two untouched twenties, and I drop one into the cup. His eyes and mouth break open as he looks inside and blesses me.

I’ve talked about this kind of thing with my daughter. Explained, touted, preached. “When we come across people who need something, we give it to them,” I say as I hold up traffic, tossing a dollar bill to the guy who stands on the corner at Lake Avenue.

The first day back at home the phone keeps ringing.

The university calls. “We’re asking all alumni . . . ” the woman starts. I cut her off.

“I’m happy with what I’ve given so far.”

The next time I pick up a call, it’s from someplace called the Cancer Recovery Center. I end it quickly with a curt refusal.

“Who was that?” my daughter wonders at my swiftness.

“Someone who wanted money.” I bear down on the last scurrilous word to close the case.

“Maybe if they need it, we should give it to them,” she says, and I’m face-to-face with the profound. The great Way knows no difficulty.
Hawaii is now a memory. We holidayed by a crystal bay where sea turtles bobbed on a seamless gleam and baby waves broke at our feet.

One night, months later, I open up a favorite picture book for a bedtime story.

“‘Hello, ocean, my old best friend,'” I begin the rhyme. “‘Amber seaweed, speckled sand, bubbly waves that kiss the land.'”

Georgia interrupts. “And sometimes the ocean comes way up and covers everything,” she says, as sure as an eyewitness.

I freeze. She has seen it. She was there when we turned on the TV, in vain search of a forecast so we could sightsee on a sunny day. She was there when we clicked back and forth and back again to that mesmerizing footage of the ocean retreating, then towering, then tumbling forward into a bottomless, screaming blackness.

Now. What to Tell the Children?

“Sometimes it does.”

Originally published in 2006 at Literary Mama

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a world where anything is possible

Violet_from_the_Incredibles_by_mark33776“My new hair makes me feel like Violet from The Incredibles.”

Yesterday was the day before the last day of ninth grade, and I had done the incredible. I’d said yes when my daughter asked if she could color her hair darker, a color she said she’d been envisioning since sixth grade but never asked because I would say no. She’s right: I would have said no.

But by the end of a school year gravity lightens, a no can levitate to a yes, and the whys become why nots. Her new hair was dark, and I was wordless at the reveal, gnawing on my tongue, counting future shampoos before the fade, but she was empowered.

You might remember a little something about Violet Parr from The Incredibles, a teenager stuck at the crossroads between a girl and a woman. She wants to be normal. She wants to belong and blend in, so she hides behind a curtain of raven locks.

“There’s a lot of blue hair,” my daughter said at the beginning of her freshman year at the arts school, when I asked what it was like. And then to revive me, “You don’t have to worry.” Another day with a sigh, “I can say this much: there definitely isn’t a dress code.” She was wearing the awkward weight of her normalcy. She wondered aloud whether arts school was the right place for her and started looking for new schools, fretting over applications and admission deadlines, aiming for an old-fashioned, ivy-covered place with a dress code and uniforms where she could look and be like everyone else. Invisible.

“You don’t like it?” she asked to my frozen face on the ride home from the hairdresser’s.

“I have a picture to show you,” I said when the words came out.


It was the fall of 1998, and we were on vacation in New England: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. We were too late for the turning leaves, but something drew us there in those still-childless but trying-to-get-pregnant days, the urgency of an impending change, the sense that time was running out, the want of magic.

When you’re 42 and trying to get pregnant, it doesn’t seem impossible, not at first. But then it doesn’t work, and nothing works, and you don’t want to do that thing where you end up with eight babies, and so you go to Boston looking for a sign. And there it was on page 34 of the October 1998 issue of Boston Magazine, a picture of a girl who looked like it might be her one day. You tear it out of the magazine and keep it for 17 years.


The incredible really did happen this year: she got into a dreamy new school, a century-old institution with plaid skirts and ivy walls. We straightaway bought the uniforms, she eased herself into a comfortable identity, and we waited out the last two months of this semester. The transition would be complete when the new school started in September.

In April the first-year theatre students staged their debut. At the arts school, they make the freshmen wait nearly a year to perform, learning classical technique to discipline their fear and self-centeredness. Trained actors take themselves behind a dark curtain and come alive in a brilliant new world where absolutely anything is possible. She disappeared into the stage that night, remembering who she is, what she does, why she came, and two days later told us she would have to stay where she already was, foregoing the school transfer. “I cannot leave a place where there is this much love.”

Violet’s superpowers allow her to turn instantly invisible, creating anti-gravitational force fields within which she levitates heavy objects including herself.


I looked in every dusty, old, half-filled, falling-apart journal I still have. The picture wasn’t where I thought, but it was exactly where I remembered.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 9.01.21 AM

“Is that you?” she asked when I showed her.

“No, it’s you.”

the secret of a good mother

broken We say, “A good father is not a good father.” Do you understand? One who thinks he is a good father is not a good father. — Suzuki Roshi

The quote above is often misunderstood. How do you understand it? I’ll answer for you from my own experience. One who thinks she is a good mother is not a good mother.

Zen can sound like doublespeak, but it’s always as plain as plain can be. When you think “good,” that is not good. The moment you step back from total involvement in living life as it is and go up into your judging mind to evaluate it, you are completely mistaken. Do you know that place? Have you ever judged yourself to be comfortably ahead of the game? Or woefully behind? With an edge, an advantage, a method, or for that matter, a reason, excuse or handicap? Maybe you think all those things in a single day! When you indulge in either self-congratulation or self-criticism you are no longer present. You might even say you are no longer alive. Dead fathers are not good fathers.

One who thinks he is one of the worst may be a good one if he is always trying with a single-minded effort.

I have a teenager now, as if it isn’t obvious. And in the course of writing, however vaguely, about what I am experiencing, I hear from kind-hearted people of a venerable cast, folks who have a longer view of the road we tread. They tell me about inexplicable disappointments and deep sorrows, happy turnabouts, miraculous resolutions, and ultimate acceptance of what they didn’t know then and couldn’t have guessed would happen in a million years. Life is a tricky business, and no one knows how it will go. We all know this, and yet we don’t.  Not until the illusion shatters.

From where I stand now it seems a parent’s learning curve goes like this: it starts out hard then it gets easier, and then hard, then harder, then quite a bit harder, then much harder. Humility is the face of love.

The people I take comfort from are the humble ones. They are quiet but outnumber the prideful ones a billion to one.

So how do we conduct ourselves without attaching to good or bad? I like this story about the 20th century Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah who was giving a talk on impermanence. He could be talking about anything.

Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

Read a transcript of the original talk by Suzuki Roshi.

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