how to grow a democracy

Study the trees that will outlive you by a thousand years.

Look up to the one sky that unites all beings.

Walk the earth with the millions that came before you and the millions to come after.

With each step, plant a seed so small that it is nearly invisible.

Do not doubt the power of that one seed.

Let clouds, wind, rain, sun and fire pass over.

Trust your feet; believe your eyes.

Hold fast to those truths that are self-evident.

Study the trees.

Before the marches last weekend, my sister, niece and I walked through the Muir Woods National Monument, an old-growth redwood forest north of San Francisco. Redwoods can grow as tall as 380 feet from a seed the size of a tomato seed. The majority of the trees located in Muir Woods National Monument are between 500 to 800 years old. The oldest tree in the protected forest is over 1200 years old.

focus on the good

Last Saturday, The New York Times ran a story in which a dozen women explained, in their own words, why they voted for the president-elect. It is a bit of a curiosity, that question. After I read it, I noticed that the article was not open to comments. No sense in everyone getting riled up.

He’s not perfect, one woman said. He does some terrible things. I don’t agree with him on very much. But that’s the thing about relationships, she seemed to say. “You get through the bad and you focus on the good.”

Reading that reminded me of what my own mother would say after my father did something cruel, insensitive and selfish, which was pretty much all the time. “He really loves you,” she would tell us. Her words were like a wish blown onto a dandelion.

I’ve read the piece several times since then, looking for the “good” that attracted these voters and I couldn’t find any. They didn’t seem to be motivated by the good at all, but by the bad. Most were expressly anti-immigration, some were anti-Obama or anti-Obamacare, one was clearly anti-welfare, and nearly all were anti-Hillary Clinton. They were afraid of the whole world, or at least America, and looking for protection from the enemy who moved in next door.

In the days immediately following the election, someone wrote a conciliatory comment on my then-Facebook page, where people were posting about how terrified they were by the outcome. Although I voted differently, this person said, I did it out of concern for your safety.

And so the fear has been unleashed upon those who were not yet afraid, not yet exiled or outcast, not yet silenced or disenfranchised, not yet bound and gagged, imprisoned or forgotten. What can we do in the face of this overwhelming, incapacitating fear?

I will focus on the good, which will forever outweigh and outlast the bad. I will be marching with my sisters this Saturday in the Bay Area: Oakland in the morning, San Francisco in the afternoon. We will move our feet and raise our fists and sing out the truth. The forecast is for wind and rain. For sore throats and aching feet. For darkness and dejection. For courage and endurance. The forecast is for a long winter and a frosty spring. But one day, a field of dandelions.

***

If you’re marching in one of the hundreds of protests planned in cities around the world this Saturday, let everyone know in the comments.

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the lie

I’ve been very lucky in my life. I have had many teachers.

When I was a college senior, a teacher offered me a job grading papers. He was not a good teacher; in fact, his classes were notoriously bad. He offered me $2.50 an hour for a few hours a week. My budget at that time left no room for error, and even a dollar misspent would leave me without the cash I needed to wash my clothes or buy a meal. This teacher might have known what students thought of him; in any event, he was grateful for my help. When I was about to graduate, he asked if it would be okay if he set up some job interviews for me.

This was 1978, and there were no jobs for college graduates. My first interview was with a man who had a small public relations agency, although he had a big reputation. He had been president of the local PR association, and everybody knew him. I can’t recall anything we talked about except that when I told him the salary I was expecting, he smiled because it was so little. One day later he called and offered me a job. I started working two weeks after graduation. This was my first lucky break.

The office was in a nice building in a fancy part of town. My boss dressed well and drove a big car. The people I worked with were helpful and friendly. The work was interesting and seemed important. I got a raise. I learned a lot, but the longer I worked there the more uncomfortable I became. I figured out that my boss didn’t pay all his bills, or that he juggled things so that he paid what was necessary to keep things going, and ignored everything else. The problem was that I was the one who hired the suppliers for our projects—the photographers, the printers, the artists—and he was the one who didn’t pay them. This was something I couldn’t fix, and it troubled me. I felt like a liar, a con, a cheat. After about a year, I began to look for another job and found one. When I told my boss I would be leaving, he gave me a farewell party.

A few months later, I got a call from a former client at the PR agency. He told me that he had asked my old boss about me, chiding him for letting a good one get away. He wanted me to know what my old boss had said in case it ever got back to me. “He said that you had a nervous breakdown and that he had to send you back to your parents.”

***

It was ridiculously, even insanely, untrue. Here I was, sitting in another office not three miles away, working for someone else well-known in a relatively small field. But in one sobering instant I knew that as long as I worked in that city, I would have to defend myself against the lie. I had seen behind the curtain, and he had reached out in retribution to steal what little I had: my name.

Perhaps it was luck. I never again went looking for another job. Never had another interview, never asked anyone for a referral or recommendation. The next career move I made was to start my own business with an honest partner. I was 23. I kept that job for nearly 20 years.

I never even thought about my first boss, but he still hung on. Bad business practices don’t necessarily put you out of business. One day I met someone else who had worked for him long after I left. He had told her about me, she said. He had told her the lie.

The guy died in 2010. He had a very long resume.

***

Why would someone keep lying? Liars have to lie, it turns out. They have to keep lying because they are lying to themselves. They have to keep lying because they are a lie.

Over the many years since I learned this lesson, I’ve tossed nearly every bit of the name that was besmirched. In the end, nothing was lost, and the experience gave me a pretty good handle on the truth.

There is a ruckus in the news these days about lies and liars. Should the press call a lie a “lie?” Should they call a liar a “liar?” Should they call cheaters “cheaters,” traitors “traitors,” thieves “thieves,” racists “racists” and monsters “monsters?”

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had many teachers, and so I can answer the question. Yes.

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a little rain must fall

I tell people that we’ve had a little rain lately. We’ve had a little rain. December was the wettest month in Los Angeles in six years, and around here people look at the sky, and then at each other, afraid to jinx it, afraid to even whisper that the drought might be ending. What it depends on, we all know, is not the rain soaking our backyards, but the snow falling on the Sierras, because our water supply depends on the depth of the snowpack. So far the snow is looking good. And this week, with the promise of big storms piling up in the forecast, a little more rain could tip the scales.

For those folks who don’t want to face the truth, climate change like what we’ve experienced could look like it’s just a liberal bellyache. I visited Connecticut in October and spent a night in a bed and breakfast near Hartford. It was a lovely place, old and elegant, and Connecticut looked like what you’d expect after the first snowfall of the season. At breakfast the innkeeper started up a conversation about the weather, and I told her that it had been 97 degrees or so when I’d boarded the plane the day before in LA. No kidding. Last week of October. That kind of heat has been scaring the shit out of us for six years. She threw her head back and laughed, saying something like “But the drought isn’t real. Isn’t it caused by the environmentalists trying to save a fish?” And I was dumbfounded that this seemingly well-bred woman could be so willfully ill-informed, swallowing and then spreading the fake news spewed by you-know-who, ridiculing a guest at her dining room table. Serves those Californians right! I know a few people who satisfy themselves making fun like that, denying pain, denying truth, denying responsibility.

A couple of years ago I invited an arborist into the backyard to give me an assessment. I was hoping that there was some mystery to the dying trees, something other than the obvious. He told me what I already knew and then some. Trees were stressed and dead all over, and even the ones that looked alive were probably ghosts. He pointed to the three redwoods and explained that they don’t just take water from the ground, but through the air, and fifty or so years ago the air was different. There wasn’t much more to say or do, and so we stood together in prayerful silence, pallbearers in the middle of a sad forest, lifeguards in front of a dead ocean.

Sometimes when people ask me how they can be more compassionate, because they are ripping themselves apart over not being compassionate enough, I say, well, why don’t you just talk to people about the weather? What I mean by that is let’s not be strangers. Let’s be human beings. Let’s talk about something we have in common, you know, something like rain or snow or wind or heat, summer, winter, spring and fall. We all know hot; we all know cold. There didn’t used to be two ways about the weather. But I guess today there are two ways about everything, and no way in-between.

A hard rain’s gonna fall.

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when we were young

When we were young and back at school after the winter break, we would write the date of the new year on the top right-hand corner of a piece of paper for the first time. Then for about six weeks after we would keep forgetting and write the old year.

When we were young we used pencils with erasers on the end so we could rub away our mistakes and start over. By the end of the day, eraser dust might still cling to our laps or sleeves, we made so much of it. A single pencil was mighty in its power to both write and right our wrongs.

Nowadays I’m not sure that anyone has occasion to write the year by hand, except I still do, and when I go pick up the dry cleaning I will get it wrong for a few more weeks or even months. Getting the year wrong might not constitute a mistake these days, since I don’t know how checks are handled by banks or whether human minds are still engaged in the process.

When we were young we didn’t use credit cards for little things like dry cleaning, lunch or stamps. (Actually, we didn’t even use dry cleaning.) Credit was used for buying cars and washing machines. For everything else we used checks or cash money for which we had to use our hands and head. That’s why we learned math: to keep track so we wouldn’t be fooled or cheated.

When we were young, my mother told us to clean the bathroom every Saturday. This was an awful chore at the time, but now I see it as a timeless profundity. We used Comet cleanser, which you can still find on the bottom shelf of the cleaning supply aisle at the supermarket, outshined by a mile of other colorful, expensive and overhyped products. The world literally turns for those few who notice, first, that the bathroom needs cleaning and, second, that farfetched promises don’t get the job done.

When I was young and in first grade, a second-grade boy stole my shoe and ran around the playground teasing me. I chased him over the grimy asphalt with a shoe on one foot and a blackened sock on the other. I fell far behind, vanquished by his ugly, embarrassing audacity. When I gave up, he pretended to pee in my shoe before he threw it back at me. The meanest kid in second grade will soon be the president of our country.

It seems like I’ve been here before: my thoughts on the new year.

a thousand words

Seven hundred and forty-six million miles: The sight of Earth from Saturn.

May this view bring you peace, perspective and patience for the times
when words won’t reach.

pledge of allegiance

Today I stood in line behind nineteen other patrons served by a diminished staff of two underpaid postal workers, packages stacked cattywumpus in bins and on counters, the holiday stamps sold out, the customers impatient but still peaceable, because what else are you going to do, the wait stretching ever longer behind me as if to the end of time, or at least out the front door, and I thought to myself: this is what this country needs, indeed this is what this country is. Neighbors assembling in democratic fashion, first-come first-served, inconvenienced, to do something selfless for someone else, using an old-fashioned and unglamorous system that still ably conveys their tidings across inconceivable distance and indecipherable zip codes with a high degree of reliability, affordability, and yes, even speed.

Perhaps some of us have overlooked what is already great about this country.

Anyone with the proper perspective can tell you that greatness is not stitched on cherry red gimme caps or emblazoned in ten-foot-tall letters atop the penthouse floor, but found in inconspicuously small things. Small things have filled my time since I leapt off social media and invited people to save their Facebook likes and send me mail instead. Since then I have spent a little bit of every afternoon writing to folks who gamely wrote to me first, people in California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Nevada, Wisconsin, Missouri, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Iowa, states I name here so you can know that you made my day.

Your mail has saved me. Saved me from self-obsession, that is. From my own fear, angst, and despair. Because before I respond to a letter I read it several times, entering your life by quieting my own. This is nothing new, just something to be rediscovered: a key, I think, to civil society and noble friendship, the ability to interrupt for a moment the nonstop stream of self-absorption that otherwise engulfs and destroys us.

What I’ve shared with most folks is the vital necessity to take the long view right now, much like a postal customer, and to do small things with great love, as Mother Teresa taught. To be sure, there will be shameful waste and ruin, thievery, greed, lies, crimes and disruption on a grand scale, but our independent spirits can still rise. In these treasonous times, I pledge allegiance to the United States Postal Service, and to the flag of a Forever stamp. If you’d like my address, just send me a message through this Contact form and I will promptly respond because it is the single greatest thing I can do.

10 books for serious readers*

*And the people who love them anyway.

Ten notable books I’ve read and reviewed on Goodreads this year. Literary gifts for the serious reader in your life, which might be you!

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin. Enter the anonymity of Lucia Berlin, who must have written her stories between addiction and abuse, poverty and pregnancy, romance and rehab, all manner of disaster and distress, a writer who writes without reader or acclaim, beyond rescue, from a motive so pure that it renders her posthumous words startling and brilliant. You will learn everything about Lucia in these stories, no truth too precious to hide, and afterwards you will hunger for more. She is a writer’s writer, which means she is a reader’s writer—hard knuckled, plainspoken—a cleaning woman’s cleaning woman. High praise.

All the Living by C.E. Morgan. Epically tender and exquisitely wrought: hard love on dry ground.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. I loved this quietly lustrous book, just as I loved the movie, so faithfully rendered. A reminder that modest lives now scarcely remembered—those of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents—entailed profound risk, loss, hope and courage.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. A down-deep revelation of what a family silently imparts to itself. This will make you wonder how your impact—the stings, the slights, the oversights, and misperceptions—will reverberate long after your last breath. I took it personally, and could not put it down.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Quietly thunderous where words don’t reach.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen. Don’t even bother wondering what this book is about. It is not a story. It is a diagnosis. Yes, it was hard to love at first. But Franzen has once again astonished by taking on our culture’s big lies and crimes, mapping the DNA of our delusions: the rage for privacy amid the lust for fame; our worship of truth and appetite for lies; deep, personal isolation and alienation in a world of false connectedness; the noble ideals of art and equality hiding the ugly animal ferocity of our killer instincts. As in The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen drills down until we see that the big things that seem beyond mere mortal intervention—irreducible trends, events and technologies, history itself—reflect the small intimacies of our relationships. Left with only the unrelenting pain of this modern life, he comes down on the side of love, which, after all, is why we read. PS Anyone who wonders who killed America must read this book.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. I feel obliged to tell you you’re not going to like this book. You may never read it and if you start you might not finish it. It is strange and not like any other piece of contemporary fiction I’ve ever read. It is about the ultimate journey we take in our life—our life—and the destination that lies ahead. We forget where the future will deliver us, just as we forget where we’ve been. And all along we embellish our story with myths and fantasies, history, fear, vague memory and conflicts so intense that we obscure altogether the absolute reality we dare not face. And yet, on this one-way journey, there is no turning back or getting around, no short cut, no other ending. The river flows. No knights can save us, no magic, no miracles, no medicine, no prayers. Finally, on the last page, we remember, and we go on alone to the other shore. What a curiously brave undertaking, Mr. Ishiguro. Even if this wasn’t your intention, we can’t avoid the truth when we find it.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Speechless.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix. A wicked romp. Loved it.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. The young neurosurgeon is ambitious and accomplished, a fascinating person whose early death from cancer is sad and unfair. But the most poignant passage in this autobiography does not arrive until the last paragraph, when he is well past memoir, beyond eloquence and intention, when he writes with simple, aching truth about the joy he finds with his newborn daughter. It’s a reminder of what most of us never see or know until the end: that there is nothing worth having that isn’t already here. And then, because that last paragraph is the first and last of its kind—incomparably pure and true—you know how life stops. In the middle of everything, just like that. Oh, to have a little more time to appreciate.

***

Give the gift of books that change lives. My publisher New World Library is offering a special discount of 50% off all titles, including Paradise in Plain Sight and Hand Wash Cold, until 12/21 (plus free shipping in the US on orders of $35 or more!) Simply enter the code “HOLIDAY” at checkout.

the rules are broken

Last night I saw my neighbor at the gas station in town. We didn’t recognize one another at first even though we’ve lived next door for 17 years. A sad sign of the times. We immediately fell into each other’s arms, saying what needn’t be said, that every day it gets unbelievably, horrifyingly worse and that our country is dead. I told her it feels like the flags should be flying at half-mast. She said she feels sorry for our teenage daughters, a year apart. There was a contract we thought we had, a contract with the future that depended on our effort, intelligence, honesty and decency. Did you ever feel that? It was fragile, to be sure, but it’s what we grew up believing.

The rules are broken, I said.

A night or two after the election my daughter came into my room as I was sitting. “Mom, if you let me get a tattoo . . . ” she launched into a proposition that she knew was absurd, “would you get one with me?” She explained that since she was under 18, she could only get a tattoo with a parent’s consent.

Every institution in our country is collapsing and what comes up in the middle of the fall is the tiny matter of a tattoo.

I did not straight away say no, because of the realization that has taken hold in me: the rules are broken. We’re going to have to depend on something else, you see, than what we thought was allowed. How we thought things worked.

I said yes.

I told her about a certain phrase in of one of my books that has inspired quite a few people, words that I wrote with only her in mind. I suggested that if we got identical tattoos based on that message, even though people all over the world have shared it on the internet, we would be the only two people in the world who shared it in real life and knew what it really meant.

And that dialogue has since caused piercing pain for me, but total amusement and pride for her, and considering the way the world is going, it has made us both very happy to have each other, two blossoms blooming on a branch that will never break.

healing the fall

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Empty-handed, the masters say, we attain the Way. This is the healing power of your peaceful presence, resisting nothing, adding nothing, thinking nothing. Sit quietly and enter the fullness of time, where the seasons advance in one viewing. Know that leaves bud and break. Flowers bloom and burst. Fruit softens and drops. Earth is our mother. She heals even the last fall.— Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden

Please remember to purchase this book for holiday giving. It is perfect for making peace with mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, and conveying love to gardeners, caregivers, teachers, neighbors, friends and enemies. Thank you for supporting my life and practice.

signature

stronger together

 

The Clinton-Kaine sign is still in the front yard, worse for wear what with the rain and wind but I don’t yet feel inclined to toss it. It’s like a gall bladder scar, and here’s me, lifting my shirt to show it to the cameras.

In the four weeks that have passed since election night, I’ve heard from a lot of you. The basic sentiment is how in the #&%## world are we going to get through this. I don’t know how we’re going to get through this. I don’t know how to get through anything. The basic sentiment governing my life is not knowing how to get through.

Last week I sat a retreat, which helped. It helped because when you’re sitting in stillness for eight hours a day you don’t have time to creep back onto your carefully curated news sources to seize on the glimmer that affirms your fear or hope or rage. And avoiding that kind of misery is good for the moment. It’s good to be quiet right now as we recover from trauma. Until we’re back on our feet and storming the streets.

The first day home I woke with a headache and within an hour was throwing up my morning coffee, then yesterday’s, and then a lifetime of yesterdays, in spasms so violent that it occurred to me that I was finally achieving my yoga teacher’s instruction to inhale your navel to your spine.

By evening I was a shivering husk writhing in bed and wailing to my husband in the next room who tiptoed in from time to time to ask if he could do anything. It struck me then how completely helpful he was being, although there was nothing he could do to help. He was so totally kind and present to my pain, unafraid to walk into the door and stand beside my contaminated self.

I am afraid, I said. I don’t want to be alone.

And he stayed.

That’s how we’re going to get through this, friends—together. I’ve seen the writing on the wall.

Los Angeles – Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m.- Feb. 19 at noon
Winter Moon Weekend Retreat
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Contact me for more information and registration

with a little help from my friends

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The other day my friend Tim dropped by after work with four brand new copies of Paradise in Plain Sight for me to sign. He had two friends in mind to give them to, and he would think of others for the rest.

I need more friends like Tim. We all do.

Soon you will be thinking of friends and family for holiday gifts and I’d really like you to give people this book. First, it’s cheap: $12.01 for a paperback on Amazon.* For that price, it will give a good amount of peace and comfort. Second, the story it tells is true. It’s not a big or important story. Nothing shocking or scintillating happens in it. But it’s deeply honest and real. As honest as sunlight. As real as a tree, rock, or pond that you can see with your own eyes.

Lastly, and this is the most important reason, it will really help if more people buy the book. The truth is, it hasn’t sold as well as my other books, and it’s easily twice as good.

People keep asking me when I will write another book. The answer is that I can’t publish another unless this little book sells better. That’s the way it works. Sometimes I’ll say that I’ve lost my ambition, but the truth is that I can’t afford to have ambition. This year I’ve made $156 in book royalties, and that wasn’t even for this book. So you get the picture.

Maybe even buy four or six or ten! (I have some amazing friends who have actually done this.) And if you don’t have anyone to give it to, buy one to give to your library. Some people tell me they haven’t read any of my books because their library doesn’t have them. So a single copy could enrich a lot of people.

I don’t like to ask for help—not many people do. But I’ve reached a point where I can. So I’ll say it again: I need your help.

Thank you.

*It helps if you buy it on Amazon or from another bookseller because it doesn’t cost me anything.

From a reader: how this book changed her life

being free

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A Manifesto for a Sane World

Get off Facebook. Permanently. It has corroded our society and degraded our intelligence while enriching a single misanthropic person to inconceivable wealth and power.

Quit Twitter. It serves no purpose now other than to elevate the ego of one dangerously corrupt and self-obsessed human being.

Watch no cable news. Subscribe to a newspaper, but not any newspaper. These days the Washington Post is the standard of excellence and independence.

Protest with your mouth, your feet and your dollars. Open your eyes. Get out of your chair.

Realize that every moment spent scrolling, clicking and typing into your device amounts to silence. Silence is doom.

Know enough to be afraid. Without fear, there is no courage.

Have no hope. Hope is a slogan that will divert your attention from the reality at hand.

Believe nothing. Investigate for yourself. Search the internet the way you used to. Look for evidence, not false assurances. The truth is always the simplest and most obvious thing in the world.

Be sane. A sane mind creates a sane world.

If you need a friend, contact me via my website. Send me a message asking for my mailing address and then write to me. I will respond.

 

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