a new day on the old place

It’s a new day
on the old place.
With every good wish for peace and plenty
and a very
Happy New Year!
From our home to yours,
The Millers

On the left: The garden circa 1916
On the right: December 2013

wonderful life

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There is a meme going around the teen social media sites (something you will only learn in a dark and fearful hour). If you had to live the rest of your life in a movie which one would you pick? It’s one of the least troubling things you’ll see your kids talking about, although the movies they mention might scare the beejesus out of you.

Someone answered It’s a Wonderful Life.

What a great movie. But it’s not a movie about a wonderful life. George Bailey has a terrible life, remember? And it keeps getting worse. First off, he is not the favored son. He’s denied his dreams, stuck in a dead-end job in a no-count town, left behind to take care of his needy neighbors and crazy relatives. He’s mortgaged up to his eyeballs living in a drafty old house with a passel of noisy kids. He’s dead broke, out of his mind with fear and rage, and probably going to jail if he doesn’t jump off a bridge first. And he’s not exactly father of the year.

Janie, will you stop playing that lousy piano?!$#@&%

Yesterday afternoon after I dropped my daughter off at the tutoring place I stepped into the Starbucks next door for a cup of tea and noticed the guy standing in line behind me. It was the tutor, grabbing a quick cup before the start of the session. Telling you the second story in a week about math tutoring might lead you to conclude that my daughter is either less fortunate or more fortunate than you thought. Either way, this year at school hasn’t been easy. There is a passage that befalls young people: the journey to discover who they are reveals by process of elimination who they aren’t.

I’m not the smartest girl in the class, Mom. I’m not that girl anymore.
I’m not a nerd, I’m not a geek, I’m not a math whiz.
I’m not like that. I don’t want that. I don’t care.
I hate my life. Get out of my room.

It’s not what you would call wonderful.

The tutor didn’t recognize me until I told him who my daughter was, and then the first thing he said was this:

Your daughter is wonderful.

The worry that lifted from me at that moment—the fear, doubt, brittle aching raging pain that departed my heart at the Starbucks on Rosemead at Del Mar on Monday at 4:21 p.m. was so divinely lifesaving that I have to repeat it.

Your child is wonderful. Yes, yours.

We all have to repeat it, every day, over and over, because it’s probably true and we’ve probably forgotten.

It’s not until the last six minutes of the movie that George Bailey’s life turns into any kind of wonderful, because that’s when he wakes up and realizes that it was wonderful all along.

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sharing everything

sears-1969-christmas-wish-book-cover-1It was close to 7 p.m., pitch dark and cold by California standards, and I was stopped at a red light on the way to pick up my daughter from math tutoring. The light was long and I let my gaze drift to my left, across the street, where I watched two men waiting for the bus. One wore shorts, the other jeans, both in dark hoodies. I knew they were strangers because they stood apart and ignored each other. In the same moment, each raised a cigarette to their lips, an orchestrated pair invisibly attuned. And then the traffic moved.

Earlier that evening my daughter asked me how we used to Christmas shop. “When you were little did you order from magazines?” she asked. For Hanukkah she was given money and the same day spent most of it on Christmas gifts for friends. The spree had made her happy and it had made me happy too, being much more fun than my grumpy sermons on generosity. She ordered everything online (with my help) and the UPS man delivered the first box today. She went to the front gate and took it from him. I think that was a first, too.

I told her about my grandparents, who seemed crazy rich to us but crazy poor to everyone else. There was a book in those days called the wish book that was really the Sears catalogue. Since my grandparents lived far away from a department store they waited for the wish book to come every year. Then they handed it by turns to three little granddaughters and told us to make a mark by anything we wanted. I’m serious. That’s what they said, and then they went in the other room. It was a big book and a tall order for us little girls, but knowing that I could have it all made me less greedy. I remember pausing my pen over a page, empowered with a Midas touch, thinking of my grandparents, and not wanting quite so much as I thought I did.

My daughter is performing in A Christmas Carol at a local theater. She’s been in four such productions now, so I have seen and heard Mr. Dickens’ tale brought to life dozens of times. On Sunday I saw it and cried again, and not just with pride. I cried because you cannot receive that story and not have it tenderize your heart. There can’t be one of us who isn’t afflicted by anger, frustration, cynicism or a shitty mood around the holidays. There isn’t one of us who isn’t sometimes blind to goodness or stingy with sentiment; who isn’t isolated or afraid. To see a human being transformed by joy, generosity, and belonging — and to feel it for myself — I don’t want anything else just now.

I only want to share what I have and do what I can do. If you have something to share, post it here. If you’re not sure you have anything worth sharing, read these:

The Soul of Solstice
All Feelings are Mutual
Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life
Community Grants Wishes for Terminally Ill Superman Sam

if you want, give

51wgzXg3BgL._SY300_If you want time, give away your preoccupations.
If you want faith, give away your reasons.
If you want peace, give away your ideas.
If you want love, give away your fear.
If you want rest, give away your worry.
If you want a better future, give away your past.
If you want a home, give away your walls.
If you want fame, give away your contentment.
If you want money, give away your happiness.
If you want more, give yourself less.
If you want fulfillment, give everything away. (You’ll never run out.)

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the hidden gift of macaroni

893661103C39C086AE1A284E3E0C4I had begged my father to take me to the store. It was the day before Christmas, and I had nothing to give to my mother except an art project I had brought home from school, a picture made with painted macaroni. How embarrassing. Even in kindergarten I knew that it wasn’t a real gift. It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t the kind of thing anyone wants or gets. Remembering it, I can feel the full extent of a five-year-old’s self-criticism and shame. Dad took me to a convenience store and I emptied my piggy bank for a set of plastic drink coasters.

One day my mom cleaned under my bed and pulled out the macaroni picture from its hiding place. She showed it to me with questioning eyes. Now I know what she felt inside, her heart breaking with a sudden rush of tenderness for an injured child.

The most profound gifts are the ones that don’t measure up to any standard. They are not excellent or grand, but unexciting and ordinary. They may not look like gifts at all, but like failures. No matter how they look, they carry the precious essence of life’s true nature, which is love.

“Between the giver, the recipient and the gift there is no separation.” This is a Zen teaching telling us that generosity goes beyond appearances. There is really nothing in-between us, nothing that divides the sides or defines the substance of a gift. All is empty and perfect as it is. We practice this truth by giving what we can whenever it is called for, and by taking what is given whenever it is offered. When we give and take wholeheartedly, without judgment, separation is transcended. Stinginess is overcome and greed vanishes. We come to see that everything is already a gift that we have already been given. All that remains is to share it.

“I love it,” my mother said. And it was true.

From the January 2014 issue of Shambhala Sun magazine.

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all I see is suffering

fresh-modern-thanksgiving-table-setting-lYears ago when I was doing one of my first internet interviews the host said something that caught me off guard. She said, “Isn’t it hard for you to live in a place like that?”

I couldn’t fathom her meaning. It’s not hard to live in Los Angeles — a beautiful place with nearly perfect year-round weather, where you can go outside any day under a blue sky and climb a mountain, see the ocean, and gather fruit from the trees in your own yard.

But she didn’t mean that. What she wondered was whether it was hard for someone like me to live in a place with people who weren’t like me. A place known for its vanity and pretense, empty dreams and false promises, shallowness, selfishness, fear, lies, and addictions.

In other words, a place like everywhere with people like everyone.

“All I see is suffering,” I answered.

I’m remembering that conversation because Thursday is the day we adorn the table and feel blessed, fed, loved, warm and secure — or at least pretend that we are — among the people who might be the hardest to live with: our own families.

What will you see at your table? And more to the point, whom will you serve?

Happy Thanksgiving.

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write the letter

mary-cassatt-letterA few months ago I received a packet of letters in the mail. They were the last letters sent by my mother to a friend who, cleaning out her drawers 14 years later, decided to send them to me. They trace the first months of my daughter’s life, which were also the last months of my mother’s life, for she had just begun a course of treatment for advanced cancer. Reading the letters, I saw what she had written about me and her new grandbaby, the commonplace detail that had given her something uplifting to share. I could see what we have lost in the abandoned art and ritual of correspondence; how by our modest connections we extend our life and love. These remnants of my mother’s simple, selfless friendship remind me to do what I urge you here: write the letter. Write the letter today.

 Aug. 16, 1999

I’m feeling stronger today. I guess time is the best healer. It was so nice of you to take the time and the effort to encourage me and show me your love and friendship.

Karen went home last night from the hospital. Little Georgia will stay on. It will be decided on a day to day basis how long she stays.

Aug. 28, 1999

Georgia now weighs 4 lbs. and 10 oz. The baby came home from the hospital last Tuesday afternoon. We talked to Ed & Karen today. They both sound tired.

Sept. 5, 1999

I talked to Karen this morning. Georgia now weighs 5 lbs. 4 oz. Tricia was with Karen & Ed from Tuesday night to Friday evening. She was a big help. Karen seemed to feel so much better.

I went to a Cancer Support meeting last Wednesday. Met so many nice people with lots of helpful hints & advice. Got a free wig also. It’s got some gray in it, so I’ll finally have more gray hair.

Sept. 12, 1999

Talked to Karen yesterday. Georgia goes for a check-up on Monday. Her dad told me she might weight 6 lbs. She eats all the time. Some friends of mine are going to give me a Grandma shower on Sept. 25th. It’ll be a brunch. Isn’t that nice of them!

My hair is falling out daily.

Sept. 19, 1999

Right now, I have a strange hair-do. I usually wear a hat when I go outside. Don’t want to shock an unsuspecting person.

Sept. 27, 1999

Georgia weighs about 7 lbs. now. She’s had either colic or some stomach distress lately. Karen calls me every week, sometimes 2 or 3 times. She is still very stressed out & worries about everything.

Sept. 29, 1999

Karen sent me directions how to meditate while sitting in a chair. I do it twice a day. Each time about 10 minutes. I hope I’m doing it correctly.

Oct. 14, 1999

We are not going to Calif. this weekend. I had a hard time making up my mind. Karen said since I couldn’t decide, let outside influences determine. The nurse called to tell me about my blood test. My white cells were down. Then on Monday Dr. Bell, the internist, put on a 24 hr. heart monitor on me to see if anything unusual showed up. That’s when I decided home was the best place for me. read more

tacloban is calling

Surivor in Tacloban walks among the debris after Typhoon Haiyan

This message is not for the people of Tacloban. The people of Tacloban do not need any messages from me. They are completely engulfed in a reality that eclipses the linguistic coding of sentiment or solidarity. Send money if you can. No, this message isn’t for, but rather from the people of Tacloban, because in their horrific struggle for survival and security, they have sent a message to you. It is a message you don’t want, and that none of us is ready for.

Some people have a sudden glimpse of reality, a stroke of insight, an aha moment. They might strive for it a long time – travel the world, trek mountains, study the wisdom of sages. But that’s not the glimpse of reality that matters. The glimpse that can change your life is the sight of rubble and ruin – the truth that things fall apart. We see the evidence every day, but still, it’s a hard thing to wake up to.

There was that cloudless morning in early September when most of us – roused by the radio, a phone call, or a shuddering impulse – turned on our televisions and saw the impossible.  We saw a building buckle, and then, after a breathless half-second, a rushing crush of dust as one and then another tower disappeared in front of us – a Niagara of concrete, steel, desks, and doorknobs, everyday lives conjoined irretrievably in death, a plume of ash simultaneously rising and falling and haunting the gaping emptiness we could not turn away from.

One day after Christmas, the Indian Ocean stood to reach a resplendent sky and then tumbled forward into a bottomless blackness, swallowing the earth in one gulp, stealing the doomed from their innocent idylls and the sleepy ease of paradise – paradise! A whole population was snatched from the sheltering palms of a holiday while the rest of us still celebrated ours.

read more

6 steps to a mindful argument

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1. Stop talking
2. Inhale
3. Exhale
4. Listen
5. Smile
6. Repeat as needed

Because when you stop arguing, the argument stops.

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8 reminders to let go

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 Leaves fall. Freed from a useless stem.

Bags break. Contents spill.

Wind moves. Never arriving.

Birds fly. No end to the sky.

Clouds burst. The earth flows.

Fruit rots. Returned to their nature.

 Smoke rises. In plain sight.

 Morning comes. Where does the moonlight go?

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imparting wisdom to children

I94_North_Dakota_March_2005__soul-ampWhat have you imparted to your daughter?

This question came near the end of our one-day retreat together, when our hearts were open and full. After we’d done zazen and chanting, walking and bowing. It’s the kind of question we find underneath it all, when we’ve emptied all the silly stuff out of the top of our heads in the weary stillness of practice. We might still be looking for evidence that we’re doing something worthwhile.

Nothing.

That was my answer. I have imparted nothing to my daughter. At least not successfully. In hindsight, it seems to me that she has been waiting for me to stop imparting to her. To stop imposing on her, to stop judging, coercing, undermining, and second-guessing her, as if she were the proof of my able foresight and good intentions.

“You’re not me.” She tells me this with the blunt force of her 14 years, and I am stunned that she can see so clearly through the dark cloud of my crazy fears. “You don’t know what my reality is like.” And since I can’t identify the point at which she gained this unassailable insight, I can only assume she has possessed it all along.

Yes, yes, that’s it: each of us possesses this illumination (although we might only catch a glimpse in the rear-view mirror). The certainty that we can only be ourselves, at the center of our own reality, encountering the unknown road, and doing the best we can. So we can be kind to one another, offer the space to rest and refresh, without hurry, without doubt. We can be generous. We can let things be. And although this insight belongs to me, it is sharpened in the shadowless cast of her shine.

What has your daughter imparted to you?

Everything.

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why the hell you’re here

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Practice is like medicine: it is bitter, but good for you. Although it is a bittersweet experience, it is worth it. When you sit on your cushion, it is tearful and joyful put together. Pain and pleasure are one when you sit on your meditation cushion with a sense of humor. — Chogyam Trungpa
The money, I say.
The hassle, I say.
I have no zafu, I think.
I haven’t sat since March, I think.
Sitting is hard, I think.

In my mind’s eye, I see
that wall in front of me,
that damn wall after the blessed
reprieve of a meal or a break time.

I see you bow over
and over and the skies are gray
and dull and I wonder why
the hell I’m there

and then we are all speaking
with one voice even though
our tongues trip on the
unfamiliar syllables

and time is suspended
and the air feels sacred
and maybe there are tears
or maybe no tears
or a sigh
or no sigh

but there is breath
enough
and I forget to wonder
why the hell I’m there.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, Nov. 10, Los Angeles
Returning to Silence: A Retreat at Grailville, March 27-30, Loveland OH

Painting “Grailville Retreat” by Melissa Eddings Mancuso
Poem by Anne Erickson

10 tips for mindful writing

How to keep your mind on writing.

Read more. Words are the food of lively writing. Read everything you can get your hands on. Be greedy, but not picky. You never know what will flavor the meal you ultimately cook.

Think less. The kind of writing you want to do does not come from contemplation or analysis, not from self-judgment or second-guessing. It comes by itself when you stare blank-headed at a blank page.

Practice. Writing is a job. Writing is a discipline. A famous author once said that discipline in a writer was overrated. That’s clever, but wrong. Overrating is overrated. Without stopping to judge, just keep going. Everything done well takes practice.

Have no goal. Other than to write. Examine your motivations and be clear. There are easier ways to become famous. Sing, dance, run for high office, make a sex tape. If your goal is to become rich, I have no career advice for you.

Use a net. A butterfly net. Words and phrases will alight in their own time and place, and not always on a keyboard. Keep a pen handy. Journal. Jot in the fog of a mirror or shower door. Catch what comes.

Write for yourself. Write to yourself. Writing for others, to satisfy other people’s opinions and expectations for your writing, is folly. No one is as interested in your work as you are. You are already your worst critic. Now be your number one fan.

Know the reader. Approach your reader with fearlessness. Be honest. Be open. Say everything. Say anything. (Hint: the reader is you.)

Don’t know the reader. The world is vast and wide and does not fit on a Facebook page or Twitter list. Your true reader, like your true friends and fans and followers, is in the real world beyond social media. Let this comfort you, and redirect you to your real work.

Do not confuse talking for writing. Writing about how to write is a waste of time for you and everyone who reads it.

Go back to it. There are no tips for writing, only tips to avoid writing. I apologize.

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