sharing everything this Christmas

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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

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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. It’s a timeless reminder that kindness begins in the kitchen, and 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.

letter from my 16-year-old self

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Yesterday I reached into the bottom of a drawer and rediscovered my English Composition notebook from my junior year in high school. I knew that I had kept it, and flipping through the pages of my tightly curled script, spaced so sincerely between faded blue rules,  I remembered why.

We often think that if we had the chance we would go back in time to illuminate our younger selves with mature insights, to foreshorten expectations and prevent cruel disappointments. Drop the notion that you’re wiser now than you were then. What did your 16-year-old self know that you’ve forgotten? Before your last hour, can you remember again?

My Last Wish
English III
October 23, 1972

My life is a collection of small occurrences. In looking back over sixteen years, I remember incidents which, when they happened, seemed quite forgettable. A handshake with a friendly dog, a gift of bubble gum from my father, and a playground chase are a few of the scenes that come to mind.

When confronted with the possibility of only one more day of life, I immediately respond with a desire to experience all of the thrills our earth has to offer. But, after considering further, I reject that idea as a way to conclude my life.

What experiences, after all, has my memory chosen to include in its vast enclosures? The everyday happenings remain most clearly in my mind’s eye. They have influenced and molded me into the complex person that I am.

If I had one day left to live, I wouldn’t want to circle the world or sail the seas. I might wash my hair, play cards, clear the dinner table, fight with my sister, say my prayers and go to sleep.

We must become the ones we always were. How else to explain the sublime recognition when we meet ourselves again.

 

Buddha’s last 8 instructions

I hesitated before I wrote that title because there is no such thing as “last” or even “first,” but there is a short list commonly known as Buddha’s final teaching before he died, and so I am sharing it here and now.

Words attributed to Buddha are the basis of much industry, interpretation, and enterprise. Buddha’s teachings were entirely spoken and conveyed for hundreds of years by word of mouth until the first written records were made. This is just the way it is and in one sense it works just fine. Sure, words are subject to erroneous understanding by deluded people, but with a bit of practice and a flicker of clarity, you can look at a modern quotation, especially a popular one, and know instantly that Buddha never said any such thing.

And this is precisely what his instructions foretold. There’s a good chance you guys are going to get this all wrong.

“Last words” are interesting in another way. When you’re present at someone’s death, you don’t know when the final moment will come, or what the critical utterance will be. Sometime later you reflect on what happened last and then decide for yourself what it means. Before her death, my mother told me, “Be yourself and take good care of your family.” She lived for several days after I heard that, and she may have said more that I didn’t hear or recall. But the words I retained were useful for me — simple and straightforward — carrying with them a mother’s hope that I wouldn’t complicate things quite so much.

That’s the spirit with which I see Buddha’s last instructions. A human being, surrounded by devotees and dependents, with a final chance to bring peace and ease to a population crazed with fear and grief. I have simplified these from a scholarly translation, but in a nutshell, this is what Buddha tells you to do here and now:

1. Want little — Suffer less.
2. Be satisfied — Enough is enough.
3. Avoid crowds — Be alone and quiet.
4. Keep going — Don’t turn back.
5. Pay attention — Guard your mind.
6. Meditate — Or you are lost.
7. See for yourself — Cultivate wisdom.
8. Don’t talk about it — Do it.

“Now, all of you be quiet and do not speak. Time is passing and I am going to cross over. This is my last admonition to you.”

***

Based on “Eight Awakenings of Great Beings” by Dogen Zenji. From Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi.

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your questions about Buddhism

What drew you to Buddhism? What do you like about Buddhism? Where can you learn about Buddhism?

I didn’t do it. I can’t explain it. I don’t know.

There is the kind of “Buddhism” that people might study in college, meaning its history, geography, and impact on world events. Then there’s a kind of “Buddhism” that people choose to believe in and adhere to, like a political party. These folks think of Buddhism as a philosophy or source of inspiration. Maybe even a religion. They like it better than other alternatives. But the Buddhism that found me is first, foremost and only a practice. It is a way to do things, and not do certain other things.

Whether you’re interested in Buddhism or not, you might be interested in reading my books. Because they are about life. Buddhism is about the truth of life and not anything else.

the work of matriarchs

Georgia O’Keeffe

Making

God told me that if I painted that mountain enough I could have it.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Mending

I’d like to be remembered as someone who helped repair tears in her society, to make things a little better.

Frances McDormand

Sharing

I’m not an actor because I want my picture taken. I’m an actor because I want to be part of the human exchange.

Jeong Kwan

Feeding

I am not a chef. I am a monk. I make food as a meditation. I am living my life as a monk with a blissful mind and freedom.

Jane Goodall

Seeing

No words of mine can even describe the powerful, almost mystical knowledge of beauty and eternity that come, suddenly, and all unexpected.

Toni Morrison

Loving

At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.

what happens on retreat

Someday, I told myself, I was going to sit a long retreat. I signed up for ten days, but by the second day I wanted out. Midway through the sleepy dawn sitting, I slunk out of the meditation hall into what I thought would be the invisibility of my dorm room. I didn’t plan to stay away long. I would just take a short break from the aching effort of staying awake. I was a beginner, you know, doing my best, and I thought I deserved a little me time. It would be a while before I began to realize that, no matter what I’m doing, it’s all me time. A few minutes into my escape, the door opened and two staff members came in and convened an impromptu meeting right next to me as I lay mortified on my foam mattress, staring up at the ceiling. That woke me up! I couldn’t wait to get out of my getting out.

At no time during the next twenty years of practice have I ever fled a sitting period, although I’ve wanted to. Of course, there are many ways to flee discomfort and difficulty, and I’ve explored just about all of them unsuccessfully. The best place to practice is a place you don’t want to be, using the time you don’t think you have.

That morning I learned that resolving the great matter of life and death starts with the little matter of showing up. I showed up to the zendo every morning, every afternoon, and every evening. I showed up to sit in one spot, upright, and watched the light rise and fall overhead. I surrendered; I settled; I entered samadhi, which means I stopped running around in my head. As much. The time that followed wasn’t fast or slow. It wasn’t long or short. It didn’t come or go. When the retreat was over, I went home happy and excited, babbling about the discovery I had made.

“I know what a day is!” I said to my roommate at the time. He suspected I’d been off chasing unicorns and rainbows. “It is daylight, followed by darkness, followed by daylight!” He looked at me funny. Maybe these retreats weren’t such a good idea. I was trying to describe what I’d seen: a day has no beginning and no end. It goes on forever. Conditions change, that’s for sure. The light shifts and the breeze moves; the temperature goes up and down; people are born and they die; the pages on a calendar flip; the second hand sweeps; toenails grow and hair falls out; but time itself stands still. There is no greater joy than seeing through time, because then you’ve touched the leaf tip of eternity, which looks exactly like your backyard right now, overgrown with time.

Where else could it be but right here now?

***

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

Photos by Rick McCleary.

for lucia, still and always

Many years ago, when I thought my life had just about ended, that my heart had died, and I would never be happy again, I wandered into a little shop and garden on Virginia Street in Houston. There, I met a woman who taught me things. She taught me that flowers are spirits and that stones are medicine; that herbs are wisdom, food is fortune, and friends are gold. She showed me that books are pictures and pictures are books; that music is alive. That the lines in your palm are your map, and the symbols on a card tell your story. Her garden was a place of hope and healing. It seemed as though just about everyone in the city had passed through her gate during a dark and halting time in their life and found a reason to believe.

She had once wanted to be a nun, or so I recall, but the cloister had been too confining. Instead, she made the world her sanctuary and gave everyone in it a home. She gave me a room above her garage to practice meditation when I was just starting to do it and needed a circle of friends to keep me going. She said it would help her to have the space filled with silence once a week on Sunday mornings, and that breath was the voice of God.

She and her husband, Michael, were master gardeners. Now I know what that means. It means she bowed to the earth and revered the fruits it bore. She knew that thyme is courage, sage is immortality, and rosemary is remembrance. I asked her to arrange herbs as flowers at my wedding banquet, a kind of secret blessing just between us.

There is not one thing that I ever did that she did not applaud. She sold my books. She sang my praise. I last saw her three years ago on a visit to speak at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. She and her husband, older and more frail than before, lingered back, not wanting to take my time, she to whom I owed every day since the first day I entered her door on Virginia Street.

She has been ill. She has been quiet. She has been still and always on my mind.

She is peace.

Lucia Ferrara Bettler
September 17, 1948 – September 22, 2017

sun and moon

One sky

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