a long life

Day after day, day after still day,
The summer has begun to pass away.

When my husband walked past me on the way to work this morning, he asked what I was going to do today.

I did not say what I was really going to do, such as “Wash a week’s worth of towels” or “Iron that clean white shirt of Georgia’s that ended up in the laundry just because it got wrinkled in her suitcase,” or “Make Katrina Kenison’s favorite recipe for gazpacho.” No, I didn’t say any of those things because they seemed trivial compared to the daily march of important activities in which I am no longer employed.

Instead what I said was, “Clean out a few closets.” And I saw the shadow of terror briefly crease my husband’s face, the shadow that crosses whenever I throw out what to him is safely out of sight. By my thinking, closets are where things go to die, and by die I mean lose vitality and disappear from use. Such is my ambition in this eighth month of every year as summer slows and autumn knocks. I become a teeny bit preoccupied with cleaning off the shelves. It’s my thing.

A failing light, no longer numinous,

Now frames the long and solemn afternoons

Where butterflies regret their closed cocoons.

I have just a few closets in my small house and they are in awful shape because I have now lived here longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere. As long, and soon longer, than I lived with my parents. Longer than the time spent with my grandparents, whose undying devotion gave me an eternity of perfect memories. Longer than any home I fled or wrecked. A very long time, and the closets show the count.

When I was packing week before last for a family vacation I went hunting for umbrellas, having seen the forecast, and found our “new” umbrellas encased in grime from layers of daily dust creeping through a slender crack in the closet door. Where in the world do closeted umbrellas get dirty through lack of use? My house, that’s where, in the closet I’m aiming for.

But that’s not what this post is about. I will get to the closets, or someone will. This post is about time. I’m feeling it, aren’t you?

Time, time, time. Next week my precious rosebud of a daughter turns 15. Next month I’ll be 58. We are so blessed.

A few years ago I was giving a talk in Boston at which, without shame, I called myself “an old lady.” A lovely woman wearing a look of discomfort raised her hand.

“Why do you keep calling yourself old?” she asked.

“Because I am.”

“But look at you,” she said, as a compliment.

“I feel as though I’ve lived a thousand years,” I said, “and I am satisfied.”

What’s wrong with being old? More to the point, when did age become an insult? It is liberating to open the doors, sweep the shelves and discard what is no longer enlivened by use. To face the present day and the plain, pure facts in front of us.

We reach the place unripe, and made to know

As with a sudden knowledge that we go

Away forever, all hope of return

Cut off, hearing the crackle of the burn-
ing blade behind us, and the terminal sound

Of apples dropping on the dry ground.

I watched a beautiful film on the plane last Sunday, and then commenced a quasi-obsession with Coco Chanel. She was a captivating ingénue, a force of nature, a cultural legend, and she lived until she was a very old lady of 87. She died not sick, but working — and hers was the work of scissors and straight pins. She made a full, long life of doing the simplest things again and again until she was satisfied.

After a week’s trek through some of the great monuments of Western civilization, I came home from vacation to a dry, needy yard and three full laundry hampers. Four loads and three hours of weeding and I was sated. Not done, not by far, but feeling utterly content and alive. Summer nearly gone, and I’m living well past it. To the closets I come.

Excerpts from the poem “Summer’s Elegy” by Howard Nemerov
Photo: Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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#meetingnotmeeting

photodune-3009661-heart-made-with-book-pages-m-e1357164872576

A remarkable thing—the opportunity to meet after millions of ages.

In 1989 I met the prolific literary genius, Larry McMurtry. It’s hard for me to believe that now because it’s not entirely true.

That year I was working for an old-style businessman’s club in downtown Houston that had declined in favor. To be sure, what we in Texas call “the good old boy’s club” never, ever falls out of favor or privilege, but its clubrooms do. This one had peaked along with white-gloved waiters and dark wood paneling. My job was to fill it again.

So we asked Larry McMurtry to come and speak. Today you might wonder why a crowd of oilmen would rally for a literary type like McMurtry, and the answer is, not because of a book. It was because of TV. Lonesome Dove, the irresistible miniseries made from McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Western, had aired on television for four nights in February 1989 and no one alive had missed it. You can bet no one on the club roster wanted to miss a night with the storyteller, and so the event was sold out.

McMurtry brought some books with him. Unfortunately, they weren’t Lonesome Dove. They were the hardcover editions of Anything for Billy, his new novel about Billy the Kid that was far more resistible. He gave a talk. Perhaps it was about his life or his craft. I don’t recall one word of it, except what he didn’t say about Lonesome Dove. He didn’t say anything about Lonesome Dove, but after awhile he asked for questions. Every question was about the miniseries.

No one in the audience gave one hoot about Larry McMurtry, although they thought they did. They were interested in Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, the characters Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call. Each questioner had an intimate relationship with the story. What did Larry think would happen to these characters next, if, and when? These fans had worked out future plot lines, and they offered them to inspire the writer toward a sequel. At some frustrated point, McMurtry told them that he had written Lonesome Dove a long time ago. It was old and over. He wasn’t thinking about it at all.

I was a PR counselor at the time, and I thought he was in serious need of PR counseling. The most successful night in the revival of the club was a rank failure.

There was a table set up in the foyer with stacks of the new hardcover, and McMurtry sat there after to sign books. I bought one. There were a lot left over. The club members hadn’t much appreciated the change in subject. This McMurtry fellow was kind of rude and full of himself.

I think about this now because of the perils of offering myself online, as I do here, or through my books, and recognizing the rare significance of meeting one another for real. I think about this because of media that disguises writing to oneself as writing to another and the digital repartee that passes for speech. I think about this because I have presented myself on the page as a kind of soul sister but show up in the flesh as a taskmaster. Because I have told three volumes of personal stories but limit my in-person talks to the practice of silence. It can seem kind of rude, like I’m changing the subject.

In researching this post, I’ve learned that Anything for Billy is considered one of McMurtry’s standalone books, meaning that it isn’t part of a thematic series. I surely saw that for myself all those years ago, the author standing by himself in a room of 400, no one seeing, no one hearing, no one caring, that lonesome night I didn’t meet Larry McMurtry.

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clarity and compassion

Clarity and Compassion: Lessons from a Zen Garden
A wisdom teaching at The Rothko Chapel, Houston
June 29, 2014

Clarity and Compassion: Lessons from a Zen Garden from Rothko Chapel on Vimeo.

 

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goodbye mom

montrose02I could not feed you.
But you did not starve.
I could not comfort you.
But you found your rest.
I could not carry you.
But you learned to walk.
I could not teach you.
But you taught yourself.
I could not keep you
shape you
mold you
trick you
tweak you
push or pull you.
After a while, I couldn’t dress you
or even comb your hair.
I couldn’t brush your teeth.
You wouldn’t change your shoes!
I could not understand you.
And I still don’t.
But I can love you
when I stop trying
to do everything else.
The longest goodbye is not the one we give our children.
It is the one we give ourselves.
Goodbye mom.
How long have I labored
when the labor was long done.

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Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

when life comes into focus

ParadisePlain_cvr_fnl.indd

When life comes into focus, you realize there’s no time to waste.

Form and substance are like the dew on the grass, destiny like a dart of lightning — emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.

Have you ever known a 28-year-old who felt as though his life was nearly over? Perhaps. How about a 58-year-old? Now you do.

In 1222, a Japanese monk named Dogen was 28 years old when he returned from a sojourn to China, a quest in search of the true Dharma. Needless to say, he found it. Dogen came home so energized and committed that he singlehandedly revitalized Japanese Zen into a form still alive today.

Upon returning after a four-year absence, he immediately wrote a short teaching. It wasn’t mystical or philosophical. It wasn’t clever or even original. He didn’t bang his own drum. Frankly, Dogen didn’t get a lot of attention in his day no matter what he did.

Just 1,000 words long, this article was what we might today call a “how-to.” He titled it “Universal Instructions for Sitting.” By “universal” he meant “for everyone.” Dogen had resolved the great matter of life and death — grasped the ultimate reality, the holy grail of a spiritual pursuit. But he didn’t waste time telling stories about it. What seized him as the most urgent thing to do was tell people how to sit in zazen, or zen meditation: still, upright, and as comfortably as possible, with the added assurance that everyone can do it.

Do not use your time in vain.

Dogen was concerned with nothing else because he had realized that anything else would use his time in vain.

He had a head start on this realization because his father died when Dogen was two and his mother when he was seven. Here he was, already 28. He would die at the age of 53. His instincts were spot on.

Concentrate your effort single-mindedly.

At some point while I was writing my last book, it hit me. It hit me like a brick because it was so obvious.  I was never going to be everybody’s favorite fuzzy-headed Buddhist writer. I wasn’t in league with the really well-loved memoirists. I couldn’t pass myself off as a parenting expert, a relationship counselor, a TED talker or a psychologist. I’d topped out as a literary celebrity without ever becoming one.

All of that is just fine and right on time, because I feel the weight and length of my days. They are running out, and I no longer have time for much else. I just want to tell folks how to sit.

A quiet room is suitable. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs.

I’ve become clear on my life’s work and purpose. I know what I want to be when I grow up.

So I no longer go anywhere to do anything except sit with people who want to sit. I know that not everyone wants to sit. But everyone can.

I’ll show you.

Washington DC June 21-22
Houston June 29
New Orleans Sept. 13
Kripalu, Massachusetts Nov. 14-16
West Hartford, Conn. April 17-19, 2015

Fukanzazengi, complete text

 

kripalu nov. 14-16

kripalu

The Straightforward Path: A Zen Retreat
November 14-16, 2014 Friday-Sunday 2 nights

For all levels.

Where can you go to find peace, patience, acceptance, and joy? The straightforward teachings of Zen point directly to your enlightened nature, right here and now. This retreat combines the simple practices of the Zen tradition with loving guidance, including:

Instruction and practice in seated meditation using chairs or cushions
Walking meditation
Devotional chanting
Dharma talks to illuminate the wisdom teachings in daily life

Discover how the power of silence, the strength of breath, and the support of a group practice uncovers your capacity to live with clarity and compassion.

This program is eligible for CE credits.

Join me. Register here.

Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health
Berkshires, Western Massachusetts
Three hours north of New York City

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in plain sight

Paradise Garden

From Gardening Gone Wild:

I’d published two books and I was having trouble getting started on my third. As a Zen Buddhist priest, I write about spirituality in everyday life. My first book, Momma Zen, was about the path of early motherhood; the second, Hand Wash Cold, was about making a mindful home. But for the third, I wanted to write something “important” about Buddhism. Boldly ambitious, I made several attempts, each summarily rejected. I thought my writing career was over.

Then a sympathetic friend offered a simple suggestion. “Why don’t you write about the garden?” The idea was obvious. I could suddenly see exactly what the next book would be, and how easily it would come to life. It was already alive, and filled my vision at every turn.

My backyard is southern California’s oldest private Japanese garden, constructed in 1916 by a landscape designer from Japan. The unlikely prospect that a 7,500-square-foot garden — with four ponds, three bridges, two waterfalls and a teahouse — would be hidden in the backyard of a house in suburban Los Angeles is a rich premise for a book. But Paradise in Plain Sight goes beyond any history I can tell, and instead recounts what the garden has told to me: the living wisdom of our natural world. Released from my notion of what an important book should teach, I found instead that the garden already teaches everything. Rocks convey faith, ponds preach stillness, flowers give love, fruit teaches forgiveness, and leaves show how to let go. The garden right in front of me gives the lessons in fearlessness, forgiveness, presence, acceptance, and contentment that form each chapter of the book.

A story about this unique garden might be interesting, but wouldn’t provide lasting benefit, so my purpose was to change the way readers understand the word “paradise.” The secret to doing that is found in the word itself. Its old Persian roots convey its original intent: pairi-, meaning “around,” and diz, “to create (a wall).” Before it became a mythical ideal, paradise meant simply “an enclosed area.” A backyard, if you will, and not just my backyard, but everyone’s.

In the 17 years we’ve lived here, my family and I have made this paradise our own. Now I want readers to find their own paradise in the here and now, on the ground beneath their feet. Then I will have done something worthwhile.

If you’re a gardener (or wanna be) visit the Celebration of Gardening Books 2014 Giveaway for a shot at one of 7 just-published gardening books, including mine.

 

as open as the sky

kmm some people

Paradise in Plain Sight

Weekend in Paradise, practice meditation and yoga with me in Washington DC June 21-22

Spend an hour in your own Paradise, a radio broadcast.

Art by Julie Kesti

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the boy in the bandana

02_blue_bandanaAt some point in this long, troubling year, I started pulling up into the school driveway to pick up my daughter after school, ending a two-year banishment to the street a block away, where my instructions were to sit in the car don’t get out don’t wave don’t talk just wait for me. What changed? Her various complaints and entreaties, the weeks on crutches, a friend’s betrayal, her math teacher’s dismissal, the weight of her backpack, the heat, the stress fracture in her left navicular, or maybe just the compounded angst of an emotional eighth-grader and her overwrought mother.

Most days found me idling in line with the parents who arrive twenty minutes early for the 2:30 bell. That’s when I started to see them, the special kids.

The special kids get out of school ten minutes early to board the special bus before the crush of the four hundred others. At first, I was reluctant to look, really look at them, seeing the slow-moving pack of kids and attendants only as a sign of my daughter’s imminent appearance. But I did start to see them and even knew them in a way. I knew who would be talking to themselves, head nodding, arms waving, running ahead or lingering behind, and who would be tugged by the hand or nudged roughly ahead with each shuffling step.

Every day I saw the boy with the bandana. I began, in fact, to look for him. He never missed. He was short, at least a foot shorter than either the girls or the boys so that he looked like a young child with a broad forehead, drooping mouth and thick glasses. His back was hunched and both feet turned out by forty-five degrees. He pulled a wheeled backpack behind him, and with a rolling totter on the inner edge of his shoes, he passed out of sight.

The bandana tied around his neck looked sporty, I thought, and he was always smiling. I wanted to believe that he was always smiling, that he was happy and proud, with friends and classmates, toting a backpack full of books and a sense of belonging. Then one day I realized what the bandana, gathered under his chin like a mop, must be for. It wasn’t sport. I saw him for real then, and I thought about his parents. Chastened, I wondered why the hell I thought I had any problems.

School will be over next week. My daughter and I will leave all of this year’s worry and stress behind. She will have a fresh start and new friends. Both of us are ready for that. But there is someone I will never be able to say goodbye to, the one I’ve never even said hello to, the boy in the bandana, being shoved to the bus and leaving me behind with nothing to wipe the tears.

 

weekend in paradise

Find a short interview with me at Shambhala SunSpace.

Enter the Goodreads Giveaway for a free copy. You have until Sunday to find faith in yourself.

Step through the gate by watching this video.

Spend thirty minutes in the garden by listening to this podcast.

Take a picture of your Personal Paradise and post it to my author page on Facebook.

inexhaustible desire

kmm this is my inexhaustible

Paradise in Plain Sight

Enter the Goodreads Giveaway here.

Listen to 30 Minutes in Paradise, a podcast here.

Art by Julie Kesti

 

be greedy for the Dharma

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Paradise in Plain Sight by Karen Maezen Miller

Paradise in Plain Sight

by Karen Maezen Miller

Giveaway ends May 18, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

24 things you can’t do

Santa-Monica-Sunset-Fence-4

Can’t do it.
Not now.
No time.
Can’t afford.
Can’t imagine.
Save my place.
Hold the space.
Hit the wall.
Saying no.
Not me.
Never again.
No way.
Can’t keep up.
Can’t keep going.
Can’t promise.
Can’t make.
Can’t wait.
Count me out.
Can’t commit.
Won’t.
Wouldn’t.
Shouldn’t.
Can’t.
And then you do.

Here’s hoping you get to 25.

In honor of Mother’s Day, May 11, I’m offering a paperback copy of the perennially popular Momma Zen, personally inscribed, to someone who comments on this post by the end of the day, Friday, May 9. Your gift will arrive shortly after, giving you time to consider what you will do with it.

Photo ©Perry & Roses 2014

 

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