It’s not that Zen is holy, it’s that this gives you every reason to laugh out loud.Have a happy weekend!
May 1st, 2008 - 13 Comments
There is engaging language in my spiritual tradition, in the old writing and the poetic phrases. It’s easy to take the language as inspiration or as metaphor, inclined as we are to analyze everything for deep meaning and exalted purpose. This is what religious scholars do, what intellectuals do, and it’s obvious why. We can almost never believe that things are simple or straightforward, that they are what they are. What do we use our brains for if not figuring things out? Everything has to mean something else.
I’ve heard a phrase more or less like the one above many times and thought it conveyed urgency and desperation. It does. But then I saw with my own eyes this week the startling science of extinguishing fires. How you put out a fire is exactly how you should practice. How you put out a fire on the ground is exactly how you put out the fire on your head – your insane, compulsively anxious, fearful ego mind.
Like you, I wish practice was merely a matter of writing this post, or reading a book, or making a list, or thinking positive thoughts, or losing five pounds. But I’ve seen the firefighters, and how they practice. They do not waste a moment to theory, philosophy, inspiration or appearances.
This is what I learned:
The best fire prevention is fire. When an area burns fully it does not burn again. To extinguish the fire of ego, you must burn the concept of self completely. Then it does not re-ignite or flare up in trouble spots. Have no more inflaming thoughts of yourself: what you want, what you need, what you wish, what you think, what you feel, what you don’t have, what you don’t like, your dramas and intrigues, the world according to you. It is not enough to comprehend this, though. You actually have to burn the brush away, and let the fire rouse you from the bed you sleep in tonight.
A fire isn’t out until the roots are upended. When a mountain catches fire and the flames soar from a vertical surface, the battle begins from the air. Water and fire retardant are dropped over and over. It’s impressive. It buys time, but it doesn’t finish the job. To finish the job, they send in the ground crews. Foot solders, who scale the blackened slope with picks and shovels to turn up the smoldering roots. The roots of burned vegetation can hold a fire for months, I’m told, like the roots of ego attachment, ageless embers of ignorance and anger, all the delusive ways in which you hold fast to the idea of yourself.
Fire erupts from conditions, an inextricable set of causal conditions including heat, dryness, fuel and a spark. Unfavorable conditions sustain a fire, no matter how valiant the strategy. When conditions change, the wind turns, humidity climbs and the temperatures drop, the fire goes out. Like that, it goes out.
To practice the Way is to change the conditions of your personal suffering. Like that, it goes out.
Written in haste, while clear and fresh, and with apologies to those who have no interest in these matters.
April 28th, 2008 - 10 Comments
It’s not supposed to be fire season but we have one nonetheless, a little fire that exploded into a big and menacing one overnight on the brushy mountains behind our home. We are still here and safe, one block outside the evacuation line.
I already had the title of this post in my head two days ago and it applies even more now. I’ve written about Southern California wildfires before. They are an intermittent fact here in desert paradise. You might wonder how we can handle it. The answer is we just do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Today we wait and trust and offer a hand to those who live one block higher up the hill.
The fact is, no matter which state we reside in we all live in the pit of the flame, confronted time and again by conditions that seem too hot to handle. Sometimes the most we can do is offer an oven mitt, a sopping towel, a tall cool one, or a breather. Whatever we do is the best we can do. We all handle what we think we can’t.
And in that spirit I offer for your interest and consideration several quenchers.
Those of you who oohed over my daughter’s tortured art may be ignited by her one-of-kind potholders now up for bid at the Bloggers for Jeni auction. She made four to contribute to this amazing endeavor, all to raise funds for Jeni Ballantyne and her son Jack. The bidding on these is still quite low, and if you knew what I had to pay the wee miss in order to secure rights to her work, you would appreciate the bargain. Please bid high and often because these little squares are guaranteed to get you out of a hot spot. I don’t know how, but that Georgia can weave magic.
I’m offering my own kind of comfort on the auction, and it is already high priced enough. When the chance came to contribute to the sale, I couldn’t think of anything to give other than myself, and I routinely give that away for free, as you’ll see below. But that wouldn’t net any money for the cause, so we figured out how to give away nothing for something. The Comfy Day I’m offering is everything and more I can do for a mom (or dad) who thinks she’s in it alone, without a clue, a break, an extra pair of hands, a shoulder to cry on or a day off. I wish I could give it straight to Jeni but I think she’ll be just as soothed knowing that someone else is getting a lift. Think of it as a Mommy 9-1-1, suitable for a new mom, a multiple mom, or a group of moms, a shower gift, or a rescue for your own combustible self. If it doesn’t sell, I’ve already committed to contribute the value of my plane ticket to the auction fund so Jeni and Jack will get the most I can give no matter what.
That’s how we handle the heat, giving the most comfort we can give, knowing that there’s always someone farther inside the evacuation line.
Last week’s giveaway really caught fire and inspired a burst of wild-eyed generosity:
I’m sending the German version to all five people who asked, because what else am I going to do with a box of books in German? (Especially when I evacuate!)
Winners, please contact me via email on my profile page and leave me signing and shipping instructions. Soon the air will clear, the breeze will cool, and I’ll be winging your relief packages in a flash.
April 24th, 2008 - 79 Comments
This is your chance to take it or leave it. Drop a comment here by 6 p.m. PDT Sunday, April 27 and take this off my hands: an autographed copy of my book, “Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood.” Or, if you prefer, one of the first copies of the new German translation! (In my mother’s mother tongue, of course.)
It may not change the direction of your life, but it will certainly put my map in motion. To the post office, that is, and headed for any domestic or international address. You read that right. Please specify your language preference for the book– English or German– and make sure you leave a way for me to contact you by email or blog.
Good luck here and everywhere else you look.
April 23rd, 2008 - 13 Comments
It was not a surprise. On Christmas morning he handed me a piece of paper with the picture of a car on it, the car he had determined was right for my needs: hauling all kinds of precious and ever-growing cargo. Then he spent several more months deliberating on the features that were the ones he thought I deserved.
My old car was doing fine, but at 12 years old, it could definitely be called old. I had driven it from Texas to California in 1997 and it symbolized the life I had left behind: a life of workaday grind, grief and stress, yet relative solitude and independent ease; a life without a child, a dog, a Brownie troop and Keebler crumbs. Mine was the kind of car that never fails, yet lately, when pressed to make a road trip, I felt better off renting some reliability.
When we arrived at the dealership, I could tell from the start that times had changed since the last time I bought a new car.
I remember the delivery process like this. You sit behind the wheel with the salesman beside you. He shows you the refined and slightly unfamiliar features of the dash: the windshield wipers, the gear shift, the lights, the stereo, the AC, the adjustable steering column, the cruise control, the CD changer (!), the remote side mirrors (!), the cupholders (!).
There was none of that.
Instead, we sat in the front seat and he began punching a touchscreen that occupies the center of the cockpit. As a car marketing professional, he must have sensed the slight quiver that was about to send my female eyeballs orbiting, because he said:
I’ll never buy another car without one of these.
Hmm, I thought, I’d better keep my opinions to myself.
His fingers were flying through maneuvers that I would never remember.
You can find the nearest Starbucks, for example.
Isn’t there one on every corner?
When you’re alone on the road this will lead you straight to the nearest Chinese restaurant.
If I’m ever again alone on the road I’m heading straight to China.
I’ve already programmed in your home address.
Can’t I just go back the way I came?
I considered it all harmless folly, even when he handed me the owner’s manuals. That’s right, two manuals. The manual for operating the car was 584 pages. The manual for operating the GPS system was 274 pages.
My husband sensed my trepidation and said, “Want to just follow me?”
And I did. Things went smoothly until he decided to try a shortcut. Then the map started scolding me, in that mildly sensual yet patronizing voice inherited from patriarchal computer forebears.
Right turn in one-quarter mile, she suggested.
Left turn in one hundred yards, she intoned.
Right turn ahead, she insisted.
Left turn ahead, she shrieked, and shot me in the head.
The commands elevated in urgency as the system rapidly reconfigured the route to accommodate my husband’s own innovative guidance choices one car ahead. Once we arrived home I was drenched in flop sweat and palpitating with fury.
I did not set my ass in that car again for one week.
Oh I know there’s plenty of gender psychology at work here, but I consider it all too obvious to mention.
Suffice it to say this may well be the car that I deserve, but I’m more convinced than ever that I don’t deserve it.
Honey, I said carefully to my husband one morning, I just don’t find myself getting lost that often.
Compassionately, he disabled the GPS and I’m getting used to driving again. I’ve located the radio. But I haven’t yet ventured toward the windshield wipers.
And I know in my gut what the lesson is. If I can overcome my aversion, if I can truly find my way around it, then I will finally be getting somewhere.
April 21st, 2008 - 16 Comments
A little while ago my daughter directed me to one of her favorite on- and offline passions.
Mommy, come see.
A writing contest.
I think you could win because you’re a really good writer.
It seems to me that I don’t hear that very often from a real live person, or a least not often enough.
Still, I let it slide a bit, because although my daughter is certainly wonderful, she’s not that kind of wonderful, not that kind of competitor, not that kind of hero, prodigy or star. And neither am I.
When the time came to write the essay, I had to keep it real.
When the time came to mention the honors, they told us she was quite real enough.
I hope you’ll read all about it. Georgia was happy enough with the essay, and her prize, but happier still with the cardboard kingdom it inspired one Sunday in the garage.
That’s my real girl. And this is the real-life lesson she keeps giving me: believe in yourself and each other just the way you are.
April 17th, 2008 - 10 Comments
We are starting a new unit in our reading series and as a part of this unit, your child will be writing a biography of a famous person. It can be any famous person, living or dead, from the United States or anywhere else. I ask only that they not choose Dr. Martin Luther King, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, since we have already studied and written about them. I ask that you help your child to do the research as part of their homework during these next two weeks. Many biographies for children are written in such a way that the information is hard for them to find. Your child will need your help! Thank you.
Mommy, I think I’ll write about C.S. Lewis.
Pause for awe and self-congratulation.
No, I decided on Shirley Temple.
With acknowledgment to Eden Steinberg, editor.
April 15th, 2008 - 12 Comments
One of the things I tell people when I give talks (which, hint hint, I do whenever and wherever I’m asked) is that when we are still and quiet for just a few minutes in this pesky “now” it feels like a foreign country. A foreign country we are desperate to get out of. There are always newer, ultra high-speed ways to get out of this unfamiliar country and so we keep heading across the border, spinning this way and that and complaining of the bad food and long layovers in-between.
These days I feel a bit as though I am in a foreign country. Certain certainties behind me, and certain uncertainties before me. I am not trying to get out, in fact, I’m quite comfortable that I cannot leave, but I can notice the native soil beneath me.
Last week my dog Molly had surgery to rebuild her ruptured cranial cruciate ligament. We were eager and ready to do this, and eager and ready to bring her home. And now that she’s here I realize I will be too for some time. The recuperative instructions are clear and emphatic: two months in confinement, another two months in incrementally longer walks; assistance here, watchfulness there, judiciousness here there and yonder. This is the kind of circumstance that adds sudden clarity to the fuzzy wondering of what in the world will we do over summer vacation.
While Molly was at the hospital, I spent several nights with my sister, she of the still-broken wrist and ankle. She is every day more agile and resourceful making do with her intact left side, which I imagine to be like learning to drive on the opposite side of the road. Her doctors believe she will be back together at month’s end and although she can’t yet subscribe to that theory I’m sure that she will, if only because as soon as we adapt to the unadaptable, time’s up.
The visit with my sister coincided with the happy occasion of spending two days in Orange County, which never needs a happy occasion for hordes to consider it the happiest place on earth. I spoke at a conference of preschool directors, teachers and parents from across California. When I get to do something like this, which is too seldom for my insatiable ego, it is magical and uplifting for me, me who otherwise sits in confinement next to my sad dog with an ignoble plastic cone encircling her head. It is uplifting because it affirms once more that we have one life, one struggle, one place and one heart. If any of the wonderful people I met should find themselves here – or find themselves anywhere, for that matter – I do hope that they will speak up and say hello.
That’s all that we travelers can do in foreign countries. Make ourselves and each other at home.
April 13th, 2008 - 33 Comments
She was standing on my front porch, right where I would find her. I rushed up and hugged her. I was so happy, although she was dead. Her body was like ash in my arms, crumbling and decayed. She was dead, but I was not afraid or repulsed. She took me up, like in a flying dream, but not a flying dream. We flew into space, into the vast darkness and pulsing light. I felt celestial wind in my face. It was exhilarating.
I asked, “Is there a heaven?”
She said yes.
“What’s it like?”
Like this, she said, like this.
My mother died on April 13, 2001. Seven years, and this is how I remember her.
It was an attribute of her deep Christianity and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the small hours before Good Friday, the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper, when Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them.
Not too long ago I chanced upon a telling of what has become a bit of family lore, that my mother, a devoted Lutheran and good churchgoer, had never known that I was Buddhist. She would not have stood for that, the reasoning goes among my relatives, who have mistaken the strength of her faith for hardness.
What is true for me, what I remember, is what my mother said when I told her of my first encounter with my Buddhist teacher and the peace that I had found. What she said then, 15 years ago, was what today I recognize as the ultimate sanction a mother can give.
“Now I don’t have to worry about you anymore.”
It’s not that she was flawless. She did a lot of things I know she wished she hadn’t, a few things I wished she hadn’t, and some of them, like marry my difficult dad, she did more than once.
Still, none of that stays.
What stays is something else, something that is replenished with every recollection, with every blink and heartbeat.
When my father died four years after mom, he had just begun to keep company with a sturdy and decent woman. I told her of my dream about my mom and she made it real.
“When you can remember it,” she said, “it’s not a dream. It’s a visit.”
My mom brought me right back home, to the front door, and then she said something.
“There’s only one thing I want you to do.”
What is it, I asked. I would have done anything she said. I was filled with immense joy and thankfulness.
“Love Jesus,” my mother said.
I will, I said. I will.
Only later, upon waking, did I wonder. And then I stopped wondering.
I am sorry.
I am sorry that I am too often clever, unkind, rude, and critical. Too snide and quick. Sometimes when I am like this it causes others to hurt. Even when it inflicts no outright pain, it causes confusion, and that is the most chronic and enduring pain of all. So for your sake, for my mother’s, and for all of us, I’m sorry.
I offer this reparation not because I am a Buddhist. Not because I was raised a Christian. I say this because I am my mother’s daughter. Being my mother’s daughter is the only way I can know who she might have been, and the only way you can know her is through me. This is how I keep her alive. This is how I keep peace. By loving as she asked me, as she showed me, as Jesus loved.
There are many names, but only one love.
Rest in peace, Mom. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.
Artice Patschke Tate
June 20, 1933 – April 13, 2001
April 10th, 2008 - 20 Comments
Children need to believe that the world is an interesting and safe place. Without it, they cannot grow and explore. When we rear our children to fear other adults we truncate their growth. Human development occurs within the context of real relationships. We learn from whom we love.
–Mary Pipher in The Shelter of Each Other
I scarcely gave the circumstances of my daughter’s life much thought before she was born, occupied as I was with my wished-for baby as the imagined end of the process. But soon, I faced up to the obvious. Here on this earth she would be mostly alone, without the company of kin. [Insert tears here.]
Not only were my husband and I older parents and she an only child, my parents were older and soon to be gone, my sisters older and far away, my nieces decades older and also far away, my husband’s parents farther away and his nieces way farther still.
But as soon as I mustered the gumption to roll a stroller down the hill into our two-bit town, I saw relievedly how it would go. With every coo, grin and bat of her lash, my baby drew people to her, perfect strangers, who filled her eyes and ears with the marvel and music of love. I saw her future instantly: She would draw people to her, and she would never be alone. She would always be loved and her life would always be full and new, if I could keep mustering the gumption to leave the house.
And this makes known my third and final ingredient in my personal program to cultivate childhood creativity.
Ingredient Number 3: A Stranger
It is difficult to trust people, I know. It is difficult to trust teachers, I know. It is difficult to trust other places and even other children, I know. But when we don’t, when we burrow and hide, when we reverse and recoil, when we bind ourselves too tight to our better judgment, creativity curdles. Full and thriving, life doesn’t just depend on the new; life is the new. Life is, by definition, strange. It is always enhanced by the kindness of strangers.
But now I can see that strangers are not always strangers, rather just people with new and unfamiliar gifts. The strangers who will serve and inspire your children may well be the same-old friends, family and neighbors; those with high recommendations and faultless referrals; or they may be the untried and unknown; the teacher you most dread in the school you’re dead set against; and the troublesome kid in the back row. We cannot know or second-guess which strangeness will spark creation’s promise, only that it will. Life is forever new and unfolding; endless and – get this – good.
The stranger my daughter needs most is very often me, when I emerge from my shadowy house of fear and follow her into the bright light of an unknown world where we frolic and swirl to the marvel and music of love. That could be today. It could be any day. Anyone stopping me? Anyone stopping you?
If you still doubt the pervasive and positive influence of strangers, consider this: No one you really know was involved in the writing of this post. Or the reading.
April 8th, 2008 - 6 Comments
This is a story about a girl who lived in a museum. Once upon a time, there was a girl named Opal. She decided she was going to run away. But where? Then she knew where she was going. To the Natural History Museum. Then she packed her bags and left for the Metro train. So she got on and read. Then she got off and went into the Museum.
Last Thursday my daughter took a field trip with her second-grade class to the Natural History Museum. She asked if she could take a notebook with her to write down what she saw. Lately she has been stretching her character a bit, trying on the props of an older girl, an older girl who might write in notebooks while standing in a museum. I said of course. I always give way when I see her stepping into a new and slightly oversized part.
The night after the field trip I snuck a peek into her composition book and saw that she had written the story above. You might be more startled than I was. I recognized the story as that from a book she’d recently read, and the name of the character as that in another. Those two stories now live in her story. They also live in this story of Georgia writing a story about going to the Natural History Museum while going to the Natural History Museum.
Whether we realize it or not, we make every story we ever hear our own. In that way, stories never end.
Thus was made clear the second ingredient in my personal program to cultivate childhood creativity.
Ingredient Number 2: A Story
Some stories come in books, that’s true. Some come at bedtime. Some come to second-graders riding in school buses. But stories are not always stories. Sometimes they are paintings or photographs. Sometimes they are songs or poems. Sometimes they are beads on a string. Stories begin with just anything.
Stories beget stories as life begets life.
Our children are more sagely aware than we are that life is a story. Best not to take the story so seriously, because nothing we make up is as true as the original. Besides, we can always start over again.
I’m making up a story about creativity this week. Here’s what got me started.
April 7th, 2008 - 8 Comments
The other weekend my daughter implored my husband to help “her” build a trundle dollbed for her “sisters”. She was about to take possession of yet another doll, a doll she didn’t need and had nowhere to put but that “she” had duly earned. More about that later.
My husband, being the creative type that he is, “helped” her draw up plans and set up shop in the garage. When I came in a few hours later, Georgia was “working” on the construction from behind the walls of a corrugated “house” loosely assembled with the 24 empty cookie cases we have laying around. Less about that later. Mounds of sawdust had been swept into a landscape. She’d laid a “carpet” of rag towels and discarded sheets, and she was curled up in her cozy make-believe, casually supervising the ongoing carpentry. And she wouldn’t come out. All day, she wouldn’t come out. She was in bliss. And I thought to myself,
Oh my, I have made this childhood thing far more complicated than it ever needed to be.
Thus I was inspired to offer the first ingredient in my personal program to cultivate childhood creativity:
Ingredient Number 1: Paper
One of the things I feel so self-satisfied about is the investment I’ve made in drawing pads for Georgia over the years. (Target should feel good about that too, but the last time I checked, they weren’t yet satisfied with the sum total of my purchases.) A surviving remnant of my daughter’s preschool days is the crate of writing and drawing supplies that resides by our dining room table. It ends up collecting a lot more than writing supplies, but I cull it at least once a year and feel self-satisfied about that too. Here are kept the rubber stamps, stickers and pens, the paper and glue sticks, the maze and puzzle books, the crayons and colored pencils we still use every day, and a veritable landfill of Happy Meal toys.
Georgia is a terrific reader and writer, as I’m annoyingly quick to boast, and I like to think that I contributed cleverly to her early literacy.
But now I see that a piece of paper – the fundamental building block of my personal program of creativity – doesn’t have to be a piece of paper. It can be a box. Or a rock. Or an old towel or sheet. It can be sawdust. It can be string. It can be just anything.
Just anything is the one thing that I consistently withheld from my daughter in her formative years. I never wanted her to use just anything, and I seldom allow it still.
Let’s say I’m a creative work in progress.
I’m making a mound of sawdust out of creativity this week. Here’s what got me started.
April 4th, 2008 - 21 Comments
There is a lot of show and tell about creativity these days. I understand the interest. Not so much now, when I can see and delight in my daughter for how colorful she already is, but in the earlier days of child-rearing when I was certain that someone other than me – a specially trained music teacher, art teacher, or storyteller – could do more to prime my daughter’s creative instincts than I could. I sought out those uniquely qualified people, I entrusted the both of us to their able hands, and my daughter and I got out of the house and enjoyed ourselves immensely. These activities were creative exercises, but they were not at all necessary to cultivating creativity.
I was doing it backwards. I thought of creativity as one of a myriad attributes to be managed; an aptitude to instill. Now I see creativity much differently. All children are creative and all adults are creative because life is creation itself. Spontaneous, dynamic, unpredictable, inexplicable and rich with inherent and inscrutable meaning. Creativity doesn’t always look like what we think it should look like, though.
The feeling that we lack creativity has given rise to a naturalistic movement – which could soon dwarf even Martha Stewart – giving us lush pictorials on creativity. Everything in displays of this kind defy my imagination: handmade, homemade, artistic, ingenious, and productive beyond human comprehension, or so it seems to me. After absorbing these images, soaking in a simmer of envy, disbelief and despair, I often feel my inspiration evaporate, more certain than ever that I am creatively disabled and DNA impoverished. I am, to be sure, no elephant among artists.
And not so with Ginger Carlson, author of a new book called Child of Wonder. Ginger is an education consultant, teacher, speaker and mother who contacted me a little while ago and offered to send me her book. I instantly agreed for reasons of universal karmic indebtedness. Having plowed this tough turf myself makes me eager to pay back the kindness of strangers. Ginger’s work is full of practical, encouraging, well-researched pedagogy and sane advice for nurturing creativity in your children and yourself. And get this: not one of these ideas requires that I sew, knit, embroider or quilt; grow my own leeks; gather fresh gooseberries; keep small farm animals; make my own curtains; distress my own hardwoods; or hold a paintbrush in my nostril. Those are all clever and worthy ideas but they are ideas that I’m not likely to use today unless I twist them into a switch and beat myself back into my cozy snail shell.
Ginger covers many of the same bases but without an outcome-orientation. In other words, her take on creativity isn’t about how it looks, but about how it acts. Her approach to being creative is more than crafts. To wit, some of the unintentional Zen wisdom I gleaned from her pages:
“Let your child be alone.”
“Don’t ignore the wind.”
“Move your eyebrows.”
“Collect paper clips.”
“Don’t underestimate snails.”
“Question your agenda.”
“Say yes more often.”
In short, I liked Ginger’s use of the everyday and everywhere, the breadth of material and resources, which touch on all the ways we fear we will fail our children’s natural curiosity.
What I liked most about the book is that Ginger asked me to read it. I, for one, recognize that single act as a creative leap of the boldest kind.
And that gave me the creative opportunity to say yes.
Furthermore, she has inspired me to inch along all next week talking about creativity, during which I will make almost no apparent progress and few will call it pretty, least of all me.