what my mother taught me

It was an attribute of her deep faith and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper when, in facing certain death, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them. Months before this day my mom had taken quiet confidence in me, telling me what she wanted for her funeral, what she wanted for her body, and asking me to write her obituary. Permission was thus tacitly granted to each other to proceed as we must. At her funeral I rose to say these words. They were not the first thing I had ever written, but they were the first thing I had ever written for myself, to be spoken in my own voice. This is the kind of thing that a mother can teach you. I have remembered it always, and especially on this day every year.

I wanted to share a few things with you about my mother. I’m sure you already know them. They are what bring you here today.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, she said some things that I wanted to pass along. She has probably been saying them to me all my life, but I suspect I heard them, finally, for the first time.

Just last weekend she looked at me, clear-eyed and steady, and told me what I’ve come to recognize as her final instructions.

“Be yourself,” she said. “And take good care of your family.”

Now you know that my mother could never, for one minute, be anything but herself. Honest, unselfish, unpretentious, lighthearted, optimistic and, in a way, so ordinary. So ordinary that she was, in fact, extraordinary. It drew people to her, to her comfort and ease. So open and accepting. So authentic. And so happy!

She kept all the cards and notes you all sent over the course of her illness. Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even a thousand. She kept every one and everyday, more came. She was so uplifted, and in a way, mystified at the magnitude.

I told her that they showed how much she was loved. “Yes,” she said, and she shook her head in disbelief. “And just for being me.” read more

all I got done

On the street outside the gate, a woman walks a dog. I’ve glimpsed them nearly every day for what must be years. Her dog is old and the woman goes slow, the two now inseparable on the steepest part of the hill.

“It’s a beautiful day,” I say.
“It sure is.”

This is a passage from Paradise in Plain Sight, and as it is with many things I scribble, I don’t arrive at the full impact of my words until long after.

I am writing from a sick bed. I had a colonoscopy last week, a routine one they give you at age 60, and as with the one ten years ago, the trauma of the procedure and the sedative wiped out my immunity, and I quickly picked up the flu that I pray doesn’t progress into pneumonia.

It’s painfully obvious that at my age, I am approaching the steepest part of the path. The time that some of us realize that we have already done it all, with that determination and acceleration that young people produce, barreling through decades of accomplishment and acquisition. But now, in order to keep going, we have to let go. Let go of stuff, which is actually the easy part. Let go of our health, perhaps. Let go of our certainty about things and the reliability of physical strength. Let go of our beliefs about who we are and what we want and need. We really have no choice in the matter.

This is what I am experiencing. My resistance makes it worse. There is no going back. I truly have to see how things go. It doesn’t matter if I like how it goes. Letting go of what isn’t needed is such a relief.

This may be all I “get done” today.

7 tips to de-stress your home

 

No matter how much the spring wind loves the peach blossoms, they still fall. —  Dogen Zenji

Is it just me or is anyone else stressing out?

There’s nothing slow about spring. Everything speeds up. Winds howl. Boughs break. Blossoms burst. Things fall apart.

The same devotional practices that turn monasteries into bastions of serenity can relieve the stress that infiltrates life at chaotic times of year. Even if you can’t consistently observe all of these pointers, doing a few will change the way you feel when you come home, and that is nothing less than a modern miracle.

1. Observe light. The natural world wakes with the first light of the sun, why not you? If rising at daybreak is too late for your daily work and commuting schedule, wake before the sun and observe the sunrise. In the habit of hitting the snooze button? Don’t.  If your waking thought is resistance, you wake in stress. You start the day in a race against time, and you stay that way. The sun is not only a natural time management system, it delivers the neurotransmitter serotonin that enhances brain function and reduces stress.

2. Observe darkness. Turn the power off and see what happens when night falls. We’ve turned our homes into temples of electronic stimulation, and our default position is maximum overdrive. Gadgets are handy and appliances are useful, but everything from the microwave to the smoke alarm and the cell phone to the computer is discharging a constant pulsing stream of energy. We cannot afford to be careless about our electronic addictions because we are going out of our minds. Evening brings a natural end to the 24-hour workday, restores mind-body balance, and invites quiet.

3. Observe quiet. I’ll be loud and clear. The quiet that needs observing is not an external silence like the kind imposed at a library or hospital. Our homes are not ivory towers or infirmaries. The quiet that needs stilled is our internal commentary – the nonstop thoughts that stir anger, resentment, anxiety and fear. You may never get around to practicing meditation, but try this technique in the meantime.  Designate a comfortable seat in your bedroom as your “quiet chair.” Clear it of clutter; keep it empty and available. When domestic chaos and turmoil overtake you, retreat to your bedroom and take sanctuary in your quiet chair. Conflicts will decelerate by themselves when you take a step back. When the decibels in your head come down, come out.

4. Observe bells. A mountain of laundry, a forest of weeds, and an avalanche in the hall closet: the sheer size of untended tasks at home can topple us into paralyzing despair. When chores get out of hand, pick up some extra time. Set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes and focus on doing one thing during that period. It doesn’t matter if you finish; what matters is that you start. Once you start, the finish comes into view.

5. Observe nature. Open a window. The view doesn’t matter. Open a door. You don’t have to be in a national park. Air and light are curative. If you doubt it, just take a walk around the block and watch your mood lift with the breeze and change with the scenery.

6. Observe order. Washing dishes, sweeping floors, folding clothes, clearing the table, and sorting mail: these are not just simple means of practicing mindfulness, they are your mind. As Buddha described our true relationship to our environment, “There is no inside, there is no outside, and there is no in-between.” When we resist order, we are messing with our minds.

7. Observe ritual. Light a candle, and elevate your mealtime. Burn incense, and alleviate anxiety. Sages have always known that rituals are not just symbolic. Your rituals don’t have to reek of religious significance. Give yourself a set of completion rituals to signify the end of the day. Empty the kitchen sink; put your shoes in the closet; brush and floss your teeth. When repeated, rituals prepare you to enter a state of repose.

***

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you won’t believe what I don’t believe


From time to time I’m asked this question: What do Buddhists believe? I like to respond that Buddhism requires no beliefs, but that’s rather hard to believe. And so I offer this.

I believe in love. Not the love that is the enemy of hate, but the love that has no enemies or rivals, no end and no beginning, no justification and no reason at all. Love and hate are completely unrelated and incomparable. Hate is born of human fear. Love is never born, which is to say, it is eternal and absolutely fearless. This love does not require my belief; it requires my practice.

I believe in truth. Not the truth that is investigated or exposed, interpreted or debated. But the truth that is revealed, inevitably and without a doubt, right in front of my eyes. All truth is self-revealed; it just doesn’t always appear as quickly or emphatically as I’d like it to. This truth does not require my belief; it requires my practice.

I believe in freedom. Not the freedom that is confined or decreed by ideology, but the freedom that is free of all confining impositions, definitions, expectations and doctrines. Not the freedom in whose name we tremble and fight, but the freedom that needs no defense. This freedom does not require my belief; it requires my practice.

I believe in justice. Not the justice that is deliberated or prosecuted; not that is weighed or measured or meted by my own corruptible self-interest. I believe in the unfailing precision of cause and effect, the universal and inviolable law of interdependence. It shows itself to me in my own suffering every single time I act with a savage hand, a greedy mind or a selfish thought. It shows itself in the state of the world, and the state of the mind, we each inhabit. This justice does not require my belief; it requires my practice.

I believe in peace. Not the peace that is a prize. Not the peace that can be won. There is no peace in victory; there is only lasting resentment, recrimination and pain. The peace I seek is the peace that surpasses all understanding. It is the peace that is always at hand when I empty my hand. No matter what you believe, this peace does not require belief, it requires practice.

I believe in wisdom. Not the wisdom that is imparted or achieved; not the wisdom sought or the wisdom gained. But the wisdom that we each already own as our birthright. The wisdom that manifests in our own clear minds and selfless hearts, and that we embody as love, truth, freedom, justice and peace. The wisdom that is practice.

***

I invite you to join me at an upcoming practice retreat this year. I know it is too far, too much, too long, too impossible to ask, and I understand. I just believe in asking.

beside still waters

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He leadeth me beside the still waters:
he maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his namesake:
he restoreth my soul.

This is not quite how it goes. I know it is not quite how it goes. I don’t remember how it goes, but I mumble it anyway. It is the least and the most that I can do.

Standing by the bed in the ICU, the respirator inflating my father’s chest like a pipe organ, I leave aside the Buddhist incantations that I’ve memorized and whisper remnants of the old soul song. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

This is a passage from Hand Wash Cold that I’ve been thinking about lately and a lot. Soon after my father died 10 years ago, I told my sisters that I would take his dog to live with me. That’s how the old girl ended up here, in a picture I took this morning.

On the far side of 15, she’s not quite on her last leg but clearly on her last three legs, as arthritis hobbles and sometimes topples her. I’ve pulled her from the pond twice. And yet she still wants to wander in and out, not hearing, perhaps not seeing, and not managing much of what she used to do so dependably. So I’m at her side most days, all day, watching for the wordless word she will give me, when we both know beyond knowing what time it is.

I’ve had a number of visitors to the garden lately, and the subject of nearly all these encounters has been life and death. Not surprising since it’s the only subject there is. Some people have seen the warning light of a crossroads ahead. Others are investigating how to be with the sick and dying. I always tell them not to make too much of the dying part, since it happens by itself and without us ever knowing quite how or when, but rather to work on the being part, since only when we know how to be can we be not afraid. Oh, to be not afraid. That is quite simply everything you can do for everyone.

I rattled around Amazon last week and picked up George Saunders’s new and brilliant novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. It is wonderful in the most daring and difficult way, and I recommend it.

The author has imagined life in the graveyard, populated by grotesquely self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are dead. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to leave all suffering behind.

I can imagine life in a garden, populated by self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are alive. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to show goodness and mercy forever.

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walking to rite aid

When Friday rolled around I didn’t much feel like doing anything special. Just about every day I haul myself to a certain place for yoga, or another place for a workout, or charge up my Fitbit and conjure up a route by which to “get in my steps.” But it seemed to me that I should just use my body in an everyday way and so I decided to walk to Rite Aid and pick up a refill that was ready. I didn’t know how far Rite Aid was from me but it was far enough that I had never been there without driving. So after a half day of doing regular Friday stuff I set off.

Before I’d even walked to the end of the block I’d noticed how much was going on in my neighborhood. Three folks were having new yards put in—yards without any grass and with a lot of wood chips and rock— and two more had already completed theirs. Driving by, I’d seen it all happen, but I hadn’t really taken it in, focused on getting somewhere. Because I know what even a small landscape re-do can cost in time and money it seemed to me that my own street was a pretty hopeful example of good citizenship. It’s now fairly common in California to rip out a lawn, given climate change and water rationing, but these new yards are more than a way to save on a utility bill. Each one is not only an investment in a single household’s water savings but also an investment in the whole world’s water supply. Everyone benefits when one person does the right thing.

After awhile I noticed that a lot of rain gutters need cleaning, including mine. It’s not so bad to feel as if you have something like a mucky gutter in common because it’s, well, common. There’s grace in realizing that we all have a responsibility to take care of something messy without blaming anyone else for the trouble.

When I’d made it about half a mile west, I turned south to head down the hill to the shopping center. I started thinking about the last time I had made a long walk sort of like this one, not just to mark off the distance but to get somewhere. It was during the summer when I was 15 and I had a woeful crush on a boy who would never like me, and I lived invisibly in a small tract house on the barren side of town while he was living large on the leafy side, and I set out one day in the 500 degree heat that is a peculiar feature of your North Texas anguish to walk the 3.5 miles in his general direction for no other reason than I thought he might drive by and see me, the only person out walking on the sidewalk anywhere in town. Or maybe it was that I might see him, because he was someone you couldn’t help but see, being a spoiled son of an airline pilot who had given him a yellow 1973 Jaguar XKE for his 16th birthday. I try to think of how that day went and I can’t remember anything except the long stretch of hot sidewalk along Finley Road because nothing at all happened. I just made the seven mile round trip without anyone ever knowing what I’d done or how sad and silly I was. This boy’s name was Pete but a long time later I learned that his real name was an old-fashioned one, after his dad, a name that would have killed a teenage boy to say out loud, and I only learned that fact from his obituary which I certainly wasn’t thinking I’d come across anytime soon, having a persistent sense of my own youth. Reading between the lines, he appeared to have died without a family or a home of his own, no job, no biography, in his early 50s, and I saw it as the sad end of a dissolute life, a long flight from fear and pain. But what the hell do I know? I didn’t even know his name.

Then I got to Rite Aid where I couldn’t give a dime to the guy sitting at the table outside the entrance because I didn’t have a cent, but I gave him a decent hello.

How long is the walk to Rite Aid and back? About 12,000 steps and 45 years.

Today I’m starting on the gutters.

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not back

I did something a few weeks ago that I hadn’t done in awhile. I took a post from this blog and put it on Facebook. I deactivated my Facebook account on November 24 as soon as a woman I don’t know got fed up with me and wrote, “Why don’t you delete this account?” So I did. Sometimes a remark can strike out of nowhere like a clap of thunder, and you know it’s time to get out of the storm.

The new post that went up, in my typical roundabout way, seemed to be about my ancestors but was really about immigration. I put it on Facebook so that people would see it, because not many people come to my blog any other way. Nowadays a lot of people never see anything that’s not on Facebook. That’s OK, as far as it goes, but it’s also not OK. Specifically, I wanted people to see themselves in the story, to see the larger, human need to belong that makes people leave everything behind and travel a vast and terrifying distance. These days, Facebook seems to fulfill that feeling of belonging without having to do anything at all. There are nearly 2 billion active users of Facebook, nearly a quarter of the world’s population and close to half of all Americans. Nearly 70 percent of all the time spent on Facebook is via a mobile device. I’m gonna guess that’s because the mobile device is simply never out of reach and Facebook is the only “place” there is to go on it.

Pretty soon folks began to say things on Facebook like “You’re back!” and “I’ve missed you so much.” Those messages are really nice and a lot nicer than some of the other things people put on Facebook but still they seem mistaken to me. I’m not back from anywhere because I didn’t go anywhere because there really is no place that is Facebook, other than the screen of your mobile device, and the fact that people see it as a place where real live people do real live things is what scared me off of it in the first place. We have to do a better job of seeing reality than that. We have to do a better job of living in the real world and taking responsibility for it.

Just to reiterate, the place where real, live stuff is happening is not on Facebook.

I guess it’s hard to imagine that there is a way other than Facebook to reach a person with a public website and an email and a street address and a mailbox and a telephone. I started to notice this a few years back when publishers began sending me messages through Facebook and I would think to myself, “You’re a publisher for heaven’s sake,” but people always explained it by saying “I didn’t know the best way to reach you.”

We used to know the best way to reach people. I don’t know when it got to be so confusing. When I was in sixth grade I was assigned to do a report on New York State and so I looked up the address and wrote to the information people in New York State and they sent me a big envelope full of everything anyone could ever want to know about New York State and I did a fine report and put it in a blue report cover decorated with photos I’d cut out from the brochures they had sent. Obviously, in 50 years I’ve never forgotten how easy that was. How straightforward and yet, miraculous. The whole world used to be like that, and maybe when you come right back to it, it still is.

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Photo by Kevin Klima Photo on Etsy

 

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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