what she said

Even though it may not be necessary to write you a letter, I want to thank you again for everything you do for me. I am so incredibly lucky to have parents that support me in following my dreams, no matter how crazy they are. Even though I know I’m not always the easiest to put up with, you have always stood by me. I would not be the woman I am today without your unwavering love and support. You have shown me what a strong, intelligent, beautiful woman looks like. No matter how far away I am, I know you will always be a phone call away to help me if I am having a hard time, or comfort me when I’m feeling down, or just for me to tell you about my day. I hope one day to be as loving and supportive a mother as you are. I will always be your little snow bunny. I love you endlessly.

What I said.

keep starting over

It is important that you encourage yourself to keep starting over, to keep listening to the basic, simple instructions in how to sit, because this is a simple thing to do. But, of course, it isn’t easy.

You are here to face yourself. We are each uncomfortable in some certain way with ourselves and with our lives. Now you are here. You are sitting on your cushion and you are by yourself. You are experiencing yourself. You are breathing your own breath. The most important part to keep in mind is the body. I suppose you might think this is a thinking practice— because we always think that things require thinking—but this is a practice that ultimately requires no thinking. Your body, functioning by itself, requires no thinking. That’s why we can rely on it to guide us.

Let’s pledge to practice with the body we brought. Don’t be critical. Don’t think that you are shortchanged or shorthanded, that you don’t have the right kind of feet or knees, hips, shoulders, eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind. You are perfectly endowed as a buddha. What do you think? If this practice was good enough for Shakyamuni, is it not good enough for you?

Excerpted from the dharma talk “The Breath is You”

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Sept. 30, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

Beautiful Valley: A Zen Retreat
Oct. 11-14
Chapin Mill Retreat Center near Batavia
Upstate NY
Register before Sept. 24

jewels in the dust

When my daughter was three, she played all morning in a broad and shady yard at her preschool. There, she was instructed in the most ingenious way by having free range to climb, run, sing, swing, laugh, cry, fall down and make stuff up. The teachers had spread bag after bag of tiny beads and plastic jewels into the sand, and she and her friends made a treasure hunt of them every day, perfecting the pincer skills necessary to holding a pencil and using scissors, the final summit before kindergarten. The girls hoarded these shiny baubles into collections that were the subject of much intrigue and negotiation between them. A good day meant Georgia came home packing equal parts dirt and dazzle in her filthy pockets.

These days folks send me kind solicitations about the “transition” or “passage” I am going through as the nest empties. “I can’t imagine the feelings you must both be going through,” or “Let me know how you are handling it,” and I am embarrassed because the truth is mostly that I can’t wait. It feels the way it does when you are too pregnant and ready to burst. You’re not relishing the thought of labor but you can’t stand the delay of another day. I tell people that this is all natural and organic and such, that our current relationship is unsustainable because it is hard to share a home with someone who is 1) never home or 2) won’t come out of her room. At some point your child can come to feel like a stranger and worse, a squatter.

I’ve told most people that it reminds me of when she was three, the very age of all those treasure beads. Age three is competent enough to become bossy, as I recall, with none of the sweetening that surfaces at age four. A friend once told me that when her sons were young, her exasperation would reach a pitch where she would think, “If they don’t change I’m going to throw them out the window,” and right then they would change. In the old days I read books that affirmed this very thing: child development goes through cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium, ease and difficulty, compliance and rebellion, with the goal that everyone simply gets out alive and with a good probation officer.

It’s interesting too that all this is happening in the same month of her birth, an unforgiving August of incinerating heat and astrological omens: lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, and that pesky Mercury gone retrograde. I don’t know what any of that means except that the dog got sick, the AC died, the dryer broke, the garden gate collapsed, and the bears are tearing into the garbage cans nightly. Today I was rescued by my trusty appliance repairman who made it out to fix the dryer. It was a simple thing, just a two-bit fuse, but there was a rattle in the drum, probably spare change trapped in the cylinder, so he would open it up and fix that too.

A little bit later he’d finished the job. In front of the dryer he’d swept up a 20-year mound of dust, topped by a myriad tiny jewels once washed out of her preschool pockets. They’d been rattling around all that time, but here they were, freed at last to shine.

where the fun stops

Two years ago we took a summer vacation to Hawaii. Nowadays weather is unpredictable all over, and here it was unseasonably wet. Roads flooded and bridges washed out. One day the clouds lifted. Housebound and bored, we signed up for a kayaking tour that would have us paddling up a river and hiking to a waterfall.

The guide told us that because of the rain, this was the first day in a week that any boats had gone out. When we launched, the river was wide and placid. About two miles in, we pulled out to start the hike. They gave us sandwiches and cold drinks for a picnic in the shade. Then they told us that to start on the trail, we had to cross a ford over slippery rocks in high water with a churning current by holding onto a rope. We’d have to do the same on the way out. There was no way around it.

For some of us, this is where the fun stopped.

I spent last weekend sitting with a group of people in Cincinnati. Anyone who has ever been on a meditation retreat knows that the principal reason you come to sit, whether you realize it or not, is because life is difficult. Sure, meditation helps you focus and calm down. But no one with a half-opened eye comes to Zen just to chill out, be a better person, or get more out of life. This was never clearer to me than when folks began to tell me their troubles. Inside this silent room, amid a rainbow of stained glass, illuminated with the dappled daylight of the glistening garden beyond, disease was spreading, surgeries were pending, marriages were ending, parents and partners had perished, children were stumbling, money was scarce, worry was rampant, and fear flooded our hearts. The sky was falling and the earth was burning. Up ahead, the current was swirling.

Knowing what we know—the swiftness of change—and what we don’t—the miles of uncertainty ahead—how do we live?

There’s a rope over the river and we cross it together.

The rope is love. Take it.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, July 15, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

Beautiful Valley: A Zen Retreat in Upstate New York
Oct. 11-14
Chapin Mill Retreat Center, Batavia NY
Register here

it always comes out of nowhere

We have more money and more brains and better houses and apartments and nicer boats. We are smarter than they are. We are the elite. — Trump in Fargo ND, June 27, 2018

In the light of an early morning last week, I was on a 58-foot boat motoring the 22 miles to Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. The sky was gray, the clouds were low and the water, smooth. We hadn’t seen much—a handful of seals, a scattering of water birds, and nothing at all on the horizon—when the island suddenly penetrated the mist.

“It always comes out of nowhere,” the captain said.

I’d never been to Catalina, although I’d long heard that there wasn’t much there. As soon as the clouds lifted we set off walking. To my mind, the only way to get to know a place is on foot. A mile-and-a-half stroll across the tiny harbor town takes you a century back in time to the island’s brief heyday, when a chewing-gum magnate bought the whole of it and vowed it would never leave his hands. Mr. Wrigley aimed to turn his investment into “the people’s island,” a tourist mecca to be known all over the world.

It didn’t take me long to reconstruct what happened instead. The Wrigleys built their mountaintop home here 1921, their son’s mansion in 1927, the country club in 1928 and the Casino boasting “the world’s largest circular ballroom,” in May 1929. Yes, that 1929. In the long and great aftermath, who would dare to boast? The island was closed to visitors during WWII. Big bands died, and with it, ballroom dancing. Commercial air travel would soon make far more exotic locales accessible to tourists. Dreams disappeared like mist.

Decades later the island remains what it has always been, a lovely little spot to see the endless wash of wind and waves, which leave their mark without a word.

Can anything be imagined so ridiculous, that this miserable and wretched creature [man], who is not so much as master of himself, but subject to the injuries of all things, should call himself master and emperor of the world, of which he has not power to know the least part, much less to command the whole? — Michel de Montaigne

This sad week has felt, politically speaking, as if nothing will ever change, that the deck is stacked, the course is set and the outcome is irreversible. The vain and vile talk of “more money, more brains, and nicer boats” recalled, for me, the nicest boat of all, the world’s largest ocean liner, built by the richest men with the biggest blindest egos and ambitions, a vessel that nonetheless took only 2 hours and 40 minutes to submerge completely under the North Atlantic and a scant 5 minutes more to reach the ocean floor. All because something always comes out of nowhere, and things really do change overnight.

Photo by Matthew Johnson

a sip of stillness

I’ve added a one-day beginner’s retreat on Sunday, July 15 in case you need a sip of stillness in your summer. All the information you need to register is right here.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, July 15, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Register by email

a story about butterflies

When our children are little we ask them what they want to be when they grow up. A butterfly, they might say, a fireman, mommy, giraffe, teacher, tiger, truck driver, astronaut! And these are good answers. They are born knowing how to be so they know they can be anything.

But when our children are older we no longer ask them what they want to be. We ask what they want to do. What is lost? What is gained? What happens when we do not release the butterfly?

The End

wheels up

The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever
to be
able to do it. — J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Last weekend I got on a plane and paid close attention to the takeoff. The explosive roar as the engines throttled up. The rattle and shake as you accelerate down the runway. The bounce, the din, the doubt. The outcome of the whole endeavor doesn’t seem very promising at this point. Then, when you’re about to run out of runway, the lift of the wings overcomes gravity and the ride goes suddenly smooth. You’re wheels up, in flight.

The day before, I’d walked into the house and my daughter calmly announced, “I cleaned my bedroom.” This is something I might ask her to do, oh, about nineteen times a day. Here she had done it without provocation, and was so quietly pleased that she wanted to show me. I stepped into a room devoid of any scrap of her school days. No pencils, pens, or spirals. No notes, no lists, no riot of papers. Counters empty, drawers organized, clutter disposed.

In that moment I realized we’d cleared the runway.

Today is her last day of high school. An on-time departure.

a teacher is a mirror

because your mascara ran
your lipstick smudged
you have spinach stuck between your teeth
because you broke a nail
got a rash
wore a hole in the heel of your sock
because your crow’s feet
your frown lines
the circles under your eyes
because what to do about your hair
you’re going bald
you’re going gray
the roots grew out
you sweat
snore
shit
stink
can’t do it
don’t want to
a lost cause
a waste of time
a lie a fraud a joke
but mostly you’re afraid
afraid to face the mirror
because the mirror just reflects

like walking on diamonds

A poor man came to visit a wealthy friend, and they ate, drank and talked until late in the night. After the guest fell into a deep sleep, the host learned that he had to leave immediately for a distant land. Before he left, to show his care and compassion, he sewed a beautiful jewel inside the hem of his friend’s shabby robe. This jewel had the power to satisfy all one’s desires.

The next morning, the guest awoke alone in his friend’s lavish house. He departed, traveling from place to place begging for food or work, unaware that he possessed a priceless gem in the hem of his robe.

One day, by chance, the wealthy man came upon his friend. Seeing the man’s desperate condition, he asked him: “Why have you allowed yourself to become destitute? You could have used the jewel that I gave you to live your life without worry.”

Bewildered, the poor man fumbled in his robe and found the gem. Ashamed of his ignorance yet overcome with joy, he realized for the first time the depth of his friend’s love and compassion. From then on, he lived in complete fulfillment.

When we realize we live in a treasure house, we can use it freely.

The Parable of the Jewel in the Robe from the Lotus Sutra

 

I just want to encourage you

My first Zen teacher was Japanese, and although he spoke English, he was nearly impossible to follow. In his soft voice and heavy accent, a good part of what he said was indecipherable. Because of that, he had a reputation for giving terrible Dharma talks, or teachings, and this caused him regret.

“I just want to encourage you,” he would say as he set off on a discourse that no one could make heads or tails of. But that was enough, at least for me. I’ve realized that encouragement is the essence of teaching. I think it’s just about all we can do for one another, and all we need to do. With encouragement, you see, people can do anything and will. A little encouragement goes a long way. You might even say it lasts forever.

Nowadays I’m grateful for the encouragement I’ve been given, which seems to be the most useful thing I can pass along.

A few years ago there was some new research into how toddlers learn to walk. The study said that a baby learning to walk falls on average 17 times per hour. 17 times! Can you imagine that? Seventeen times the shock, hurt, and tears. More than 200 failures in one 12-hour stretch! And 200 times to start over at square one. Even with all that, there has not yet been a baby who gave up on the whole enterprise. It’s a remarkably efficient learning process. Forward motion dissolves fear.

This information has factored into a lot of the advice I’ve given to people since then. Most of us, most of the time, encumber ourselves with the terrible weight and responsibility for teaching our kids everything so they turn out to be something. By that I mean something successful or prized, happy or well. Starting out, we look at them as shapeless clay, putty, or goop. I like to remind parents that we don’t actually teach our children how to walk, how to eat, how to talk, or how to sleep, regardless of how many expert opinions we seek on those subjects. An acorn becomes an oak, I say, lacking any other explanation for how human development happens. And on this basis, our children are completely and wholly themselves at every age and stage, lacking nothing, only absorbing time and encouragement to keep going.

Back when my daughter was in preschool, her teacher made a handout for parents called 4 Steps of Encouragement. When your kids are about 4 years old, you might start to worry about the really important stuff they aren’t doing, like riding a tricycle, holding a pencil, writing their name, or drawing a person with arms and legs. You’re pretty sure they’re already behind, and then where will they end up?  The teacher assures you it’s not late, there’s no hurry, children learn and grow at their own pace, and for heaven’s sake please confine your contribution to repeating these four things:

1. “I understand, I know it’s hard.”
2. “I think you can handle it.”
3. “Want to give it a try?”
4. “When you’re ready . . . “

Last week my daughter texted me during a school day, one of the last of her senior year, and said “I’m getting sad to leave.” I was surprised to hear her express affection for high school, but that wasn’t it. She meant sad to leave home, which really means sad to grow up. Isn’t that true? Isn’t reluctance at the root of all sadness? The reluctance to change, let go, fall down, get up and move on?

Of course we can give help where it is needed, attention when it is lacking, and patience when time is short. But there’s one more thing that bears repeating.

I just want to encourage you.

instant pot enlightenment

I didn’t want it. I didn’t ask for it. What I asked for was a slow cooker. When I said “slow cooker” I envisioned the brown ceramic Crock-Pot my mother filled with pork chops and a can of condensed mushroom soup in the morning before work. I’m good with slow.

I usually scale down what I ask for because gifts for me tend to get scaled up. Once I asked for a juicer and got a stainless steel “citrus press” that stands 14 inches high. I asked for a 10-inch fry pan and got a 15-inch skillet. I asked for a soup ladle and got a professional grade combination ladle and strainer with a handle so long that it won’t fit in a drawer. I use all these things, but I have a small house and kitchen that gets teenier every Christmas.

So when I saw the two-foot tall box under the tree I held my breath. It was the last gift I unwrapped. It wasn’t a slow cooker. It was my worst fear: an instant pot. I needed it like I needed another ladle.

A week later I still hadn’t opened the box. When I did, I was wary. It had a lot of packing material and instructions in several languages. My husband reassured me it wasn’t that complicated. And it was the highest rated model he could find. I might have asked for what I wanted, but I hadn’t wanted nearly enough.

I waited until he cleared one of our three gourmet coffeemakers from the counter before I installed it. And then I trolled Facebook looking for real people who had used the thing successfully. The first weeks of the year were full of postings from first-time instant pot users, posts of the “live to tell” variety. I found one from a friend and went right to the recipe she had used: butter chicken.

I tried it. I loved it. Everyone loved it. And that’s all I needed to keep going. I’ve attained instant pot enlightenment, and here’s what I’ve learned:

1. It’s not complicated. Never mind the 14 function buttons lined up on the front of my Instant Pot Duo Plus. I don’t want to make cake or porridge or yogurt. I want to make dinner, and to do that I have only ever used two functions: sauté and pressure cook.

2. It’s not that big, not as tall as a citrus press, for instance.

3. It saves time to cook, but not necessarily the time for cooking. You still have to prep the ingredients, and you might have to shop for specific ingredients more often.

4. It’s fun. I’ve been the cook for at least four nights a week for the last 21 years. So I needed a jolt to my system.

5. There are a lot of recipes out there. Some of them are faster ways to make old favorites like pot roast, chili or tomato soup; others are things you never thought you’d make, like Indian food. The Instant Pot has revolutionized traditional at-home Indian cooking with its time bound methods to achieve complex flavors. (I read that in a magazine article.) I usually start looking for a recipe using things I have on hand and want to use up, like too many sweet potatoes, carrots, or tomatoes.

6. Season it up. The pressure cooker nukes your seasonings. My favorite recipe is for a quick pot roast that sounds like something my mom would have made: it uses a packet of old-fashioned onion soup mix for flavoring.

By now you might have an instant pot sitting on top of your refrigerator. Time to haul it down and fire it up. People ask where I get my instant pot recipes. I get them instantly, but I can still save you a second or two of trouble. These are some the recipes that I have or definitely would make twice.

Beef Stew
Butter Chicken
Chicken and Pea Risotto
Chicken Biryani
Curried Carrot Red Lentil Soup
Curried Sweet Potato Lentils
Ground Beef Chili
Kale with Garlic and Lemon
Lemon Vegetable Risotto
Mongolian Chicken
Mulligatawny Soup
Palak Paneer
Spicy Cauliflower Soup
Pot Roast
Sweet Potato Chicken Curry
Tomato Soup

 

go straight on

Here are audio excerpts from a dharma talk given on April 14, 2018 at the Rime Buddhist Center in Kansas City.

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