to keep our children safe

Across the fields a cry heaves up as young bodies bleed out on native soil
What can we do
ten thousand echoes pound the sky
to keep our children safe?

I watched the news this week, and this is what I saw.

On Monday, a short black man stood on a stage in Washington DC and spoke words that were hard to hear. The microphone was positioned for a person much taller than him, and because he was either too nervous or polite, he did not draw the neck of the mic down to his own mouth. He gave a speech barely heard and returned to his seat, but then stood up again with unseemly insistence to interrupt the next speaker so he could say the one thing that had to be said.

“My mother,” he began. His chin quivered and mouth broke.

This was Kehinde Wiley, the painter of Obama’s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery, the son of a single mother with six children who ran a junk shop in South Central LA, the survivor of a notoriously dangerous neighborhood who had become one of the most successful portrait painters in the world.

“My mother . . . she bought me paints,” and now he is crying as he looks at her, knowing that the pigments were his sole power and privilege.

“She bought me brushes,” the word itself fluttering with impracticality, the whisper of impossibility. His face shines with tears. He doesn’t have to say more. The portrait is already drawn, and we’ve seen the invisible mother, we know her heart and the dire hope it held, the hope that her children would be safe.

Two days later, in one of the safest neighborhoods, one with good lawns and great schools, home of the lucky and best, came the terrifying report that repeats each week, of children killed in the hour they should be most alive and free, followed by the cynical insult unique to this country, the blatant lie that nothing can be done to stop the mass executions of the innocent except what is too early or too late or not enough or must be pried-from-my-cold-dead-hands. This familiar drone, so dull to the senses, subdued by the next day’s disaster, is forgotten, until the child among us stands up and says the one thing that must be said. “You are the adults. Do something.”

###

As it turns out, the famous portrait artist went to the same high school my daughter attends, a public arts school that by its very creed welcomes the free and shelters the brave. There, as a self-described “chubby 16-year-old,” he painted himself into the portraits he practiced on, painted himself as a nobleman, a conqueror and a hero. True, each of us creates the world we inhabit with whatever tools are in our hands.

What power have we handed to our children, I ask you, the power of goodness or villainy? The color pours out from our schools, streets and homes, and beauty lives or dies.

practice no harm

Cracked_Pavement

When folks begin to practice Zen, they can be set back by how hard it is. They might have expected to be good at it—for certain they expected something—but what they are good at is something else altogether.

Why is it so hard to just breathe? Because you’ve been practicing holding your breath.

Why is it so hard to keep my eyes open? Because you’ve been practicing falling asleep.

Why is it so hard to be still? Because you’ve been practicing running amok.

Why is it so hard to be quiet? Because you’ve been practicing talking to yourself.

Why is it so hard to pay attention? Because you’ve been practicing inattention.

Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress.

Why is it so hard to trust? Because you’ve been practicing fear.

Why is it so hard to have faith? Because you’ve been trying to know.

Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad.

Whatever you practice, you’ll get very good at, and you’ve been practicing these things forever. Take your own life as proof that practice works as long as you keep doing it. Just replace a harmful practice with one that does no harm.

***

For the benefit of those who will be practicing with me at any of these places, and especially for those who won’t be able to make it.

Winter Sun Retreat, Madison WI, March 1-4
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, March 18
What is Zen? Retreat, Kansas City, April 13-15

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how to be useful

I’ve been thinking about writing a post for a long time, which is a good way to not write a post. Last week I felt sick and overwhelmed, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on either the “sick” or the “overwhelmed.” People really are terribly sick all over but I’m not. The heater has been broken for five days and won’t be fixed for another three, but you can’t get much overwhelm out of that when you’re wintering in California with a high of 80 and a low of 50. No, it was more that I had accumulated unreturned messages and unanswered letters and I knew too many people who were praying for real help, miracles and such, tumbling into sorrow and fear, and doubted that any of my pearly words could repair the broken. I didn’t think there was much I could do.

My teacher has always made a point of emphasizing why, whether we know it or not, we come to a spiritual practice, which is the very same reason Shakyamuni Buddha began his spiritual practice which is the very same thing that not a single one of us can do anything about. Namely, that we get old, get sick and die. Come face-to-face with that and it might tie up your tongue for at least a week or two.

I have been wondering lately what I’m supposed to do with my little old self, and I’ve lit upon an answer. I want to be useful, just a tiny bit useful, and you might argue that I’m already handy in that way so what I mean is that I want to be a tiny bit more useful. Useful is always good, you see. It’s not fancy, but it gets right to work for better and not worse.

And about the time you hit on the word, useful, up comes a chance to do something useful, and not because you’re feeling right-minded or decent, either, but just because you look up and see what you need to do.

In early December I heard that an old friend of mine had died without warning and all alone. He had been a priest with me until he left the temple and made his life as best he could on his own. He was without close kin but had an ex-wife who was big-hearted and she called me after it happened just to talk about all the things that had been left to her to iron out. I told her I would help, and I didn’t do much, but she felt she had some company in taking care of what comes after. Everything got sorted out and we did as much as we could to dignify his life and distribute the leftovers. She kept insisting that she wanted to pay me for my trouble, my mileage or my time and I refused because I hadn’t done a damn thing. But last week a card came from her with a crisp bill taped inside that had one of your more electrifying presidents printed on it. I shook my head and maybe muttered a curse or two but I said thank you because I could, in fact, use up a $100 bill in a single trip to the grocery store. I put it in my wallet.

The next day I was coming up to the corner of Lake Avenue and the 210 overpass when I saw my regular buddy working his spot where we cross paths two or so times per week. The light was red and as I stopped beside him I reached in my wallet for a dollar. I rolled down the window and we exchanged our familiar hellos and when I asked how he was doing he cocked his head and said “Well . . . ” Seems he’d just been given a $250 ticket for walking into the second lane of traffic when someone had waved three dollars at him and he hadn’t seen the patrol car until it was too late and he was cited for being a pedestrian outside of a marked crosswalk. The ticket was going to make him late on his rent. He was old and often sick, but he and a partner had worked themselves to the precarious point that they had a place to sleep with a roof over it, and every single day was a test of whether or not they could keep it. And then I remembered what I’d been given, and how I could share the merit of a friend’s life, pass on the generosity of another, and be a tiny bit more useful in this crooked world.

I handed him the crisp $100. He looked at me in disbelief and concern, which you can actually see when someone is thinking of you and not themselves.

“Are you sure you don’t need it?”

And then I was really sure.

###

You might find it useful to read what a friend of mine wrote after his son died from the flu: “What I learned when my son died.”

no beginning no end

Midstream
by Vicki Patschke

“So God, we . . . “
Every Sunday
our pastor begins the prayer
this way
as if already deep
in the middle
of a conversation
with God —
and we just joined in

I recall the words
of my Japanese calligraphy
teacher
the thick wet tip
of his bamboo brush
poised high above
a blank sheet of
rice paper —
The brush stroke begins
before
the ink touches the paper.

From invisible to visible
From silence to hearing
A message flows
through us
and we receive it
midstream.

“Blind Men Crossing the Bridge” by Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), ink on paper.
The poet is my cousin.

starting to change

This morning I went into the backyard and took this photo of the Japanese maple, which is just now starting to change color. You might look at it and think, isn’t that lovely, and it is, but the color change used to take place in early November. The old calendar is obsolete.

This is my daughter’s final semester of high school. In the fall, she will be moving to New York to start college. I don’t know any more than that. I don’t know what will happen then or after. It’s not my life. I might have pretended I wasn’t obsessed with the future for these last 18 years or so, but that was a lie. Before our children leave home we have a pretty clear idea of what we expect to happen the next day, week, month and year. We’re all in. But now the future has finally escaped my grasp, leaving my hands ready for—ready for what?

A new year always brings with it the drive for change and renewal, but this one seems pointed straight at my keister. Everywhere I turn I see the message: What will you do with your days? What will you try now? What is it time for? How far will you go?

My friend Mary Trunk has a new documentary project, Muscle Memory. A former dancer and choreographer, she reunited with her college dance buddies after 30 years and filmed them learning new dance steps while they talked about how they’d changed since their glory days. Were they still willing to take risks, create, and discover new things about themselves? I find the answers mesmerizing.

Muscle Memory #1 from Mary Trunk on Vimeo.

A few months ago my daughter asked me the very question lurking around these margins. “What will you do after I leave?” She beamed her electric smile at me, buzzing with her approaching freedom. I shrugged. “You could write a book about raising a teenage daughter!,” she said. She was trying to help, and she meant it. She was giving me her permission. It was a kick, a jump, a start. Let’s see how far I’m willing to take it.

***

Maia Duerr has written a handy new book right up this alley, Work That Matters, a wise and realistic step-by-step guide to finding a livelihood that you love. If the questions on my mind are the questions on your mind, this book can start you off in the right direction. Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a brand-new copy and a brand-new you.

you are born

eggshellFor everyone.

You are born.

Let’s consider the facts before we get carried away.

You are born and no one—neither doctor, scientist, high priest nor philosopher—knows where you came from. The whole world, and your mother within it, was remade by the mystery of your conception. Her body, mind and heart were multiplied by a magical algorithm whereby two become one and one becomes two.

You inhale and open your eyes. Now you are awake.

By your being, you have attained the unsurpassable. You have extinguished the fear and pain of the past, transcended time, turned darkness to light, embodied infinite karma, and carried forth the seed of consciousness that creates an entire universe. All in a single moment.

Now that you are here, you manifest the absolute truth of existence. You are empty and impermanent, changing continuously, turning by tiny degrees the wheel of an endless cycle. Just a month from now, your family will marvel at the growing heft of your body. They will delight in the dawn of your awareness. You will grab a finger and hold tight, turn your head, pucker your lips and eat like there’s no tomorrow. You will smile. Six months from now, the newborn will be gone. Within a year, you will be walking the earth as your dominion. And although your caregivers might think that they taught you to eat, walk and talk, these attributes emerged intuitively from your deep intelligence.

You are born completely endowed with the marvelous function of the awakened mind. You are a miracle. You are a genius. You eat when hungry and sleep when tired.

You are a Buddha. But in the same way you will forget the circumstances of your birth, you will forget the truth of your being. And by forgetting what you are, you will suffer in the painful, fruitless search to become something else, striving against your own perfection to feel whole and secure. By your attachment to desires, you will squander the chance of infinite lifetimes: the chance to be born in human form. Luckily, the chance to be reborn—to wake up—arises every moment. Your body is the body of inexhaustible wisdom. When will you realize it? read more

the last word

A few days ago I got a letter in the mail. The letter was written almost a year ago, after I’d quit social media and invited people to write me letters instead. Funny thing was, the letter had somehow disappeared into a stack or a drawer (like the one on the left side of this desk) and never been mailed to me. When the writer found it again after all this time, she sent it along anyway. Turns out everything she’d written about herself still applied, and all the questions she had for me naturally remained unanswered, so I wrote her back.

Perhaps what I write here will be a little like that. This time of year always brings the cycle back around to where we started.

A year ago I got off Facebook and Twitter because I thought the election provided pretty good evidence that social media corrodes our society and degrades our intelligence. Research is coming out that says just that. Several months later, I began using Facebook again, not because I changed my mind about it, but because people no longer seem to read email, and I need to reach folks in a more reliable way than telepathy. The fact that people don’t use email much anymore means that our ability to communicate with one another in a measured and thoughtful way has been further diminished. Why take the time to pound out so many words when what you really want to do is scream!!!

It’s hard for folks to realize that social media is not a human connection in the same way that a conversation is. We are addicted to it (I hope that no longer needs to be debated) and so we run the risk of behaving digitally in the same uninhibited way we might if we were drunk or on drugs. We don’t put ourselves in the place of the person or persons we are “talking” to because they aren’t even there. So what we post on Facebook or Twitter runs the risk of being about as scary as the sociopathic babble of the taxi driver Travis Bickle talking to himself in the mirror. (Click this link to see what I mean.)

I’m as much to blame for spouting off as anyone, but Facebook has convinced me that no one out there is waiting to hear what I think. So far, I haven’t made mortal enemies of anyone but a few fed up family members and friends. And I’m not sure that would have happened if we weren’t all talking into mirrors.

There’s a word that comes up a lot these days: “weaponized.” I suppose when you live in a world at war with itself everything is a weapon. I don’t much like it when folks stick an -ize onto a noun and make up a verb, but in this case I do believe that social media has given us a way to weaponize our words with bump stocks, making them fully automatic and firing them from the 32nd floor into a concert crowd at 9 rounds a second. I don’t much like that I’ve become familiar with those words either. So, yeah, words kill.

Despite all these misgivings, I’ve learned quite a lot about how to use social media responsibly this year, giving myself these 5 reminders to make the world better through Facebook:

1. Give encouragement. People are angry, sad, sick, lonely, and discouraged enough already.

2. Refrain from giving advice. Those who ask probably don’t need it and those who don’t ask don’t want it.

3. “Like” pictures of kids or pets, especially kids and pets in Halloween costumes. Small acts of kindness aren’t small.

4. Honor everyone’s privacy, especially the privacy of your kids. Don’t let them suffer the indignity of your pride or imprudence.

5. Only offer what you need to see yourself: words and pictures that will support, guide, calm or uplift you. After all, you’re the only one here.

If these guidelines keep you from getting what you want from Facebook, then it can’t be found there. Find a real friend instead, and do what it takes to keep them. Your life will be immeasurably enriched.

sharing everything this Christmas

unwrapping-gift-cropped

Sharing the good stuff all over again.

It 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, stretching her imagination to conceive of a life without computers. 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.

Last weekend we saw A Christmas Carol at a local theatre.  My daughter was in four such productions since the age of 8, so I have seen and heard Mr. Dickens’ tale brought to life dozens of times. On Saturday I saw it and cried again. 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.

When people say they like the work I am sharing, I look around for the work. This doesn’t feel like work. It feels like life, which is inseparably shared by all of us. If you’re not sure you have anything to share, I will understand. I feel like that sometimes, too. Then I see differently, and my heart is bared. There is good in this world. We have to see it to share it. To start, take a look right here: The Week in Good News.

the gifts you don’t keep

Growing up, finances in our family were tight, so there were limits on Christmas. But one year we woke to a stack of gift boxes that seemed to appear from nowhere.

My father had been given a surprise Christmas bonus and spent it on presents for everyone. He was especially generous to my mother, who had always made do with less. The whole thing was like magic.

The next day my dad drove south for a job that would have him on the road for two weeks. The day after that there was a knock at the door and several members of our church came in to talk quietly with mom. After they left, she asked my sister and me to go for a drive with her. We ended up in the parking lot at Dairy Queen.

There she told us the truth about the bonus that wasn’t really a bonus. About the road trip that wasn’t really a road trip. About the money that had gone missing while my dad had been church treasurer. And that he was missing now. She told us this because she’d been given a chance to repay the theft and save us from further trouble. That meant that our Christmas gifts weren’t really gifts because we’d have to take them back.

I was 16. I got a part-time job and started saving money. At home, I mowed the grass and washed the car. From then on, I knew I couldn’t ask mom for anything because she didn’t have anything. But I always got by with what I had. Those are useful lessons to take into your life.

One day my father came back. When I was older, I forgave him, because forgiveness frees you from the past and its shadows. Neither he nor my mom ever talked about those events again. I rarely remember them myself. Still, I wonder what good he thought could come from such a false display. Whatever he got from us that morning—redemption, gratitude, or what he thought was love, it cost us in shame.

When this time of year comes around, I feel unprepared. I don’t like thinking about the holidays before, and I don’t like thinking about what happens after. But that’s my problem to let go of.

Sometimes people give you a gift that isn’t a gift at all, but a debt—a box of bottomless want, tied in a ribbon of pain. Those are the gifts you don’t keep.

the myth of the missing moon

Let’s consider whether we see a crescent moon, a half moon or a full moon. In any of the phases of the moon before it is full, is anything truly lacking? — Maezumi Roshi

One day a girl looked up at the sky through a veil of clouds and saw that half the moon was missing.

The moon is missing! The moon is missing! No one could convince her otherwise. In fact, she had seen it shrinking for some time, and every night came more proof of her worst fears.

I was right! This conviction was a miserable consolation.

Where others might have seen a sliver of shine, all she saw was the deepening hollow of absence.

There is something you think you don’t have. A virtue, quality, or substance you need to acquire. Courage. Strength. Patience. Wisdom. Compassion. As soon as I name it, you see it as missing from you, quick to disavow the suggestion that you are complete.

I’m only human, you might say. I’m not at all whole and perfect. I’m injured, inadequate, and yes, even a little bit robbed. Especially robbed.

She tried filling the hole with tears, shouts and bluster. She bought a toaster, a Sub Zero, and a Maserati, a pile of shiny objects. They overflowed her house and storage unit. She stomped her feet and kicked up dust. All of it made a mess, but nothing more. You can’t fill a hole that doesn’t exist.

And so, exhausted, she gave up and sat down, head heavy, heart leaden.

She didn’t notice the shadows shifting into light, the wind lifting, the clouds parting, the days passing. One evening she opened her eyes and saw the moon. It was full, of course. It was full all along, doing what moons do, reflecting light. Only our perspective changes. We rob ourselves when we mistake the unreal for the real.

Your heart is always whole, just as the moon is always full. Your life is always complete. You just don’t see it that way.

Just let everything and anything be so, as it is, without using any kind of standard by which we make ourselves satisfied, dissatisfied, happy or unhappy. Then you’ll see the plain and clear fact.

Excerpted from the book Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

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the departure

The beauty of independence, departure, actions that rely on themselves — Walt Whitman

I saw a movie a few weeks ago, by myself, at a nearly empty Monday matinee. It is an acclaimed film, a coming-of-age story about a high school senior yearning to get out of a painfully outgrown home. It was funny, real, and poignant. And it was personal, because for me, the one who came of age in this story was not the impetuous high school senior who tosses herself quite literally from the nest, but her narrow-minded and critical mother, hardening herself against a future she cannot fathom and a departure she cannot prevent.

Coming of age is not so much a coming, you see, it is a going. And then it is gone.

I thought I knew what this would take, but the going only gets harder and the distance longer, the risks higher and the hurt deeper. As parents, we school ourselves on preparedness. We strive to protect. But in the end, your defenses get you nowhere, and what we really hope is that our children are headed for somewhere, somewhere, somewhere: a place without us, a place of courage and self-reliance, a life that is honest and original, not of our making, without the apron strings of approval or the aftertaste of unwelcome advice. Free.

Another Monday not long ago, I sent my daughter a text during the middle of her school day after I’d cracked open the door to her bedroom and encountered the daily mound of strewn clothes, dirty dishes, shoes, towels, textbooks, and the ungodly mess of her inner sanctum. My terse words of blame and disappointment read: “Grow up!” Mustering the restraint that so often eludes me, she did not respond. And now I see why. Because the message is for me. The message is always for me.

Time to let go.

***

Perhaps you’ll join me on this path by listening to this new podcast interview. These days I could use a little company.

7 ways to make Thanksgiving mindful

129309418-new-york-new-york-city-stacked-plates-and-gettyimages

Of course you want it to be good. You’d like the mashed potatoes to keep warm, the stuffing to stay moist and the gravy to taste homemade. You’re hoping the pies turn out, the guests turn up and the TV gets turned off. You’ll be grateful to have it over with, but can you take a week of hectic cooking and turn it into a mindfulness practice?

The sages did, and still do.

Mindfulness practice is exactly like preparing a holiday dinner. In fact, one of the most profound and practical texts in Zen, “Instructions for the Cook,” was written nearly 800 years ago for the monastery kitchen staff. That ancient teaching inspires these 7 ways to prepare your Thanksgiving meal more mindfully. read more

don’t shoot


I vow to refrain from killing. — Buddhist precept

At some point in his early adulthood my father became a hunter.

I think he was trying to earn his tribal stripes, feeling adrift and afraid. Maybe he was keen for those nights away from home, sleeping on the ground, eating beans and drinking beer. In the end it seemed like one more of a broken string of hobbies, which always began with a bang and then fizzled out under layers of dust and clutter on his workbench.

The whole gambit was peripheral to my attention until I was about seven or eight and came upon a deer carcass bleeding out in the garage. What followed was a big to-do about the flesh, which was butchered into steaks, sausage and stew meat to overfill a freezer. But venison was too tough and gamey to fool us girls even under heaps of ketchup. We refused it. Perhaps he was trying to fulfill that primal need to protect and provide, being by his own unstable nature a reliable threat, at least to his family, and an unreliable provider.

Over the years we had to face down other plates of prey, like squirrel and rabbit and certain small birds. We never delivered the awe or appreciation that my father might have wanted in reward. Mom served us spaghetti on the side, Jello pudding for dessert.

He fancied bow hunting for a while. He took it on a trip and came home with a ram’s head that he mounted over the fireplace. We called it Uncle Harry, trivializing the awful shock of seeing a bighorn sheep opposite the TV in the living room.

We survived these episodes without being acculturated into guns. And by “we” I mean all of us, including my dad. He eventually decided that shooting overpopulated deer was so lopsided a bargain that it was no longer sport. He quit the NRA over its support of assault weapons, saying they were only designed to hunt people. One day, grown up and on a rare visit home, I asked him what had happened to his rifle and bow, to his trophies and his hunting trips. While I was gone they seemed to have disappeared. Instead, he’d taken up vegetable gardening until the entire backyard was subsumed in rows of beans, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and if memory serves, a valiant stab at corn.

I got tired of killing, he said.

That’s when I thought I might be able to love and even respect him one day. Turns out I do, Dad. I really do.

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