The hereafter

I won’t die.
I won’t go anywhere.
I’ll always be here.
But don’t ask me any questions.
I won’t answer.

– The Death Poem of Ikkyu

I’ve been keeping up the memorials this week, lighting incense and saying chants, which are like prayers. You might wonder why. At the bottom of things, “why” is the only question we ever ask.

Why?

Some people are drawn to the spirituality of things, the sentiment, but are not so comfortable with the ceremony, which they don’t understand. I tell people that no one understands ceremony. Not understanding is the ultimate understanding.

Although we might be averse to religious things, to what we see as pomp and posturing and mumbo jumbo, we use ceremony all day long in our everyday activities to keep things sane. We get out of bed in the morning, we eat our breakfast, we brush our teeth, we put one shoe on and then the other. These things are ceremony? You might scoff. But consider how the orderly sequencing of activities dignifies and sustains our lives, keeping us healthy and whole.

And so in our tradition we have ceremony to enliven and activate our intentions. When we remember, we don’t just remember with a thought, that triggers another thought, and another, and back into the shadowy depths of inexpressible despair, we remember with an action. Stepping forward. Lighting incense. Reciting chants and names. The place where we take action – right here – is the place that real transformation occurs. The magic is right in front of us, not in our imaginations.

So I counsel you, if you have someone to remember, if you have grief to bear, express it in ceremony. Mark your calendar and do it – light incense or a candle, say a verse or prayer – without ever knowing why. It is the least that you can do, and it is the very most.

Several years ago, my mother died on April 13.

A year after her death, I showed up one Saturday around April 13 at my Zen Center. A fellow priest came up to me without prompting and said, “Would you like to do a memorial service for your mom?”

I was surprised that he remembered the date. “How did you know?” I responded.

He said, “I’ve been doing services for her all along.”

This is how doing the least thing becomes doing the most. Isn’t it amazing?

We just keep going.

***
All this week, and on the first Sunday of every month to come, I’ll be memorializing lost children and unborn babies in services in my garden. To include the name of a child, just leave a comment. All names and sentiments will be recited. Children from any faith tradition are lovingly included. And I thank you.

The farthest way


When death occurred to the child of Marpa, he cried so bitterly that his disciples flocked around him and asked, “Master, didn’t you say that the world is only an illusion? Why are you crying so brokenheartedly just because your son has died?” Marpa answered them, “Yes, everything is an illusion, but the death of a child is the greatest illusion of them all!”

Yesterday I stepped into the garden to do a little weeding before the afternoon memorial ceremony. I saw that a bird feather had fallen just feet away from the Jizo. I knew it wasn’t an accident. Minutes later my husband called to me from the far side of the house.

“The heron is here!”

I heard its sonic wingstroke, like the B-52 of bird flaps, and saw a broad shadow lifting.

Herons feed at our backyard ponds in the spring and fall, so a visit is not unusual, although this was an unusual time of year and time of day. And yet, given the day’s purpose, it was right on schedule. Herons are auspicious guests because they symbolize long life.

Awesomely elegant, herons are nonetheless enraging to us. We stand helpless to protect our fish from the birds’ appetites at dawn and dusk. The flick of the kitchen light in the early morning can trigger a sudden takeoff from waterside, and we’re left with the gut-puddling certainty that we’ve been robbed.

Herons symbolize long life, I wail, for everything but the fish!

I am ashamed to tell you how cruelly, how uselessly, we tried to fight back at the beginning. But that was before I saw what was really happening.

In an instant, you see, a fish is transformed into a bird. Released from one universe and reborn in another. Nothing is lost, but all is transformed. That’s the fact. It takes faith to see it.

The mourning couple brought flowers, pinecones, pictures, candy and tiny treasures to leave behind on our altar of impermanence, which is called the Earth. I gave them the feather to take home. It had drifted down from who knows where to the very place they stood.

And still, we sob.

***
All this week, and on the first Sunday of every month to come, I’ll be memorializing lost children and unborn babies in services in my garden. To include the name of a child, just leave a comment. All names and sentiments will be recited. Children from any faith tradition are lovingly included. And I thank you.

The hardest gone


This Sunday I’ll be conducting a memorial ceremony in my garden with a couple who learned, heartbreakingly, that their son would not live after he was born. He was born, and then he died. We will remember and ritualize this passage; we will light incense, stand, chant and cry together.

I am so honored to keep this family company now and forever.

This matter of loss – death– of born and unborn children has been circulating around me of late, and that tells me it is time to take a look at it for myself. All next week I want to share with you writings, customs and practices that can help us face our unfathomable grief. I will be doing a service – a chant – every day next week for this baby, and for every child, unborn or departed. I offer this because of the perfect accident of having a Jizo statue in my garden. You can read more about Jizo here.

If you have the name of a child you would like me to include in my services, please note it in the comments, which you can make anonymously if you prefer. Hereafter, I’ll be conducting children’s memorial services on the first Sunday of every month, and I will include all the names you send. Please consider forwarding this to anyone you think would benefit. The world moves in mysterious ways.

Just the utterance of names and sounds, you see, begins the transformation. Nothing else is required. Nothing else is possible.

And while I will find things to say in my future posts, little I say will likely be as full or rich as this, the inspiration I found lying open in my hands last night:

Silently a flower blooms,
In silence it falls away;

Yet here now, at this moment, at this place,

the whole of the flower, the whole of

the world is blooming.

This is the talk of the flower, the truth

of the blossom;

The glory of eternal life is fully shining here.

– Zenkei Shibayama

Instructions on burning a barn

Haul the dog to the vet – she’s perfectly healed.
Sort the mail – a small stone glimmers from the stack.
Reluctant to cook – the lemon and basil take over.
Morning madness –the earth and sky kiss me at the door.
Can’t find your way – let the barn burn itself to dust.

***
Barn’s burnt down – now I can see the moon
– Masahide

8 years, 4 stitches, $5K, a lot of itches

My Poem
by Georgia

When I was a child
I was quite wild.
I banged my head on a piece of metal.
Years later I got stinging nettle.
I won a huge award.
Our dog had surgery that we could hardly afford.

Early and often


More of my excerpt from the new anthology, The Maternal is Political. Go back here to read the first installment.

I was not, I thought, unduly anxious about my daughter’s educational prospects. I was not among those employing literacy tutors for my three-year-old. I did not use an Excel spreadsheet to track the application process to private kindergartens. I did not angle playdates with the grandchildren of private-school directors. I did not donate a wad of money to the schools at the top of my wish list. I did not even make a list. I simply believed that one day, when the luminous sheen of my daughter’s wonderfulness was made known, something fantastic would happen.

“Who’s John Kerry?” she asked one day, seemingly out of the blue. It was not out of the blue, but rather right out of the red, white, and blue bumper sticker on the SUV in the preschool parking lot. She pointed to it and revealed that, while I wasn’t looking, she had begun to read. It seemed early, the reading, and early too, the electioneering, although I happily took both signs as foretelling a fabulous outcome.

I had been crushed by the presidential election of 2000. Heartbroken, enraged, and then quietly, insistently, optimistic again. Four years was unimaginable, but four more was entirely impossible. Not with truth on our side. Not with smart money. Not with the Internet. And so I found myself doing what I’d never done before, not in my more than twenty years of informed and, sometimes, impassioned voting. I took the phone calls. I made the phone calls. I sent tens of dollars. I sent hundreds of dollars. I walked the precinct. I wore the button. I slapped on the bumper sticker, then saw the stickers everywhere, and not just in the parking lot of our high-priced, progressive preschool. Democratic values were alive and never wealthier, it seemed. The republic would be saved.

We took our daughter to the polls on election day of 2004. And what seemed to matter most going in—truthfulness, courage, effort, and ideals—mattered nothing in the end. One measly vote in one dinky town in one irrelevant state didn’t count for much. The republic was not only broken, it was no longer ours to fix.

“Have we ever voted for someone who won?” My daughter’s response reflected her brief life history of losing, 0 for 2, in presidential contests, but the dejection was universal. We had come to the irretrievable end of hope. And the loss, we realized, was truly hers.

***
To continue reading. To continue listening. To be continued.

Grateful dead


From naive simplicity we arrive at more profound simplicity. – Albert Schweitzer

Is there anyone who doesn’t look at this discovery and say, well . . . duh?

***
May you find your own place to rest in peace this weekend. Back to school on Monday with more on my latest learning curve.

Big gulp


I’m looking out the window
for my baby to come home
because today she left without me
while I stayed behind and mopped up:
the floor, the walls, the ceiling,
the stickiness of me

I’m looking out the window
for my baby to come home
because today I spilled over,
supersized with my own wonderfulness
when I asked, “Want some Coke?”
(Which I never do, you see, since Mommy says it makes kids stop growing
and that settles that.)
I poured this one-time specialness over ice in a cup,
toasting my good-motherness,
our happy-togetherness,
handed it to her
and instantly it spilled,
emptied over homework and folder,
onto table and chair,
soaking the Crate and Barrel rug.

The poison rose in me like foam over a tumbler
streaming down the sides
puddling on the counter
my long tongue lashing out the blame
lathering the shame
my arms and legs erupting
in a crazy-lady dance
saving wet pages
wet carpet
letting her wet face dry by itself.

How awful, how inane, over a pause that refreshes?
Sugar water and dye.
I’ve had my pause. I’ve died.

I’m sick and sad and sorry to be
looking out the window
for my baby to come home
Standing alone
where I can catch the first gleam
It’s what moms do
we do it forever
even before we are moms.

The waiting is worth it.

* * *

For Denise. In fullness. Of time.

My bus


School’s out for many of you. But for some, it’s always just beginning.

I always knew where it would lead.

As we cruised down the street on the morning commute to nursery school, my two-year-old would pipe up from the back seat whenever the yellow bus rumbled into view.

“My bus, my bus!”

“That’s right,” I would carefully rejoin, “A bus,” affirming the noun, but not yet the pronoun, not the possession, not the slightest quiver of possibility that the public school just down the street would one day be hers. Years before the question of schools could reasonably be raised, I already felt the fluttering clutch of resistance to her baby-talk claim.

Which school for my daughter? I waffled. Haven’t a clue, I’d think. Never given it a thought, I’d shrug, although I’d given plenty of thought to how brilliant her future would be. How bountiful her birthright. How predestined her success. Although my husband and I were public school progeny, those were different times in different places with different kinds of parents, we thought. Our parents had neither the privilege nor the need for a choice.

Our school district was as underfunded as any and especially ill-favored by those with a chance of escaping it. Decades earlier, forced busing had decimated enrollments. As incomes and property values rose, the middle class that had once populated neighborhood schools was nowhere to be found. Sixty-three private schools educated more than one-third of all children in the district. Competition for admission was severe; tuitions were stratospheric. But for parents like us, parents who could pinch and scrimp their way to having a choice, there seemed to be no other choice.

This was the state of education in our country. This was the state of our country, in which the newly elite lived in fear of being left behind with the mass of others we had falsely promised to never leave behind. This was the road the yellow bus traveled twice a day: hauling mostly Hispanic kids to and from the apartment buildings that rimmed the industrial fringe of our suburb; collecting them on the littered streets at frosty dawns and delivering them to our quaint hometown school in our million-dollar neighborhood, made empty by a herd of us heading the other way.

***
To continue reading. To continue listening. To be continued.

Disconnect the dots


Even when the news is 2,500 years old, it can be useful to pay attention.

How the better half lives


Upon returning from the pet store with goldfish, hermit crabs and/or aquatic turtles, which have been called one of the most labor-intensive reptiles to maintain:

Don’t worry, you won’t have to do a thing.

Upon being reminded that it’s time to renew the car insurance, pay the property taxes, or fix the broken sprinkler that sprays a 30-foot geyser onto the neighbor’s front porch every morning.

It’s on my list.

Upon hearing of the bolt embedded in the tread of my brand-new tire:

That’s easy. Just drive it down to the station and wait for it to be fixed.

Upon learning of the first day of school, the date of the parent-teacher conference, the call from the school nurse, the school reading night, art night, volunteer night, open house, and the last day of school:

Wish I could be there.

Upon entering the kitchen while the lasagna is in the oven, the artichokes are steaming, the maple-glazed carrots are glistening, the salad is chilling and the garlic bread is warming 15 minutes before the company arrives:

Do you want me to grill something?

Upon opening the drawers where four dozen articles of clothing have been sorted, washed, dried, folded and returned every week for the last 12 years:

Thank god. I was almost out of underwear.

Upon getting out of bed, after the dog has been walked and fed, the water boiled, the beans ground, the slow-drip coffee made, the girl’s breakfast and lunch assembled, the dishwasher emptied, the permission slip signed, the homework checked and the child herded out of bed and wrestled into her school clothes, all by 7:25 a.m.:

Are you in a bad mood today?

Upon being asked to check his calendar for a week in the summer when it might be possible to plan a vacation.

Nothing. Not one word.

DISCLAIMER: These incidents are not exactly based on the real life of any actual better or worse half that I know. But they may be based on one you know.

The doormat of your life


One last thing my dog showed me.

Before the accident, Molly and I had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on the home front. I’d leave the backdoor propped open and she’d wander out to do her business, whatever that was, and I stayed inside to do mine, whatever that was. The stipulations of her rehab now require mutual engagement. I have to decode her wags and whines to judge the likely outcome, the redeeming value, of a bothersome excursion.

Do you have a good reason to go outside, Molly? I test her intent as she tap dances her enthusiasm.

Lately, she has no good reason at all.

Because the sun is shining.

Because the earth is warm.

Because the grass is thick.

Because she is alive.

This is a line of argument that I do not practice. I hardly do anything for no good reason at all. Last week she led me outside by leash, and I followed, impatient for her to find the right spot as only a dog’s nose knows. But she had no business being outside. She simply plopped onto the lush carpet of mondo, letting the day’s radiance soak her sun-starved coat.

Amused, I took the time to gaze up through the canopy of maple leaves. Then I saw the painted birdhouse we hung five years ago when I felt interminably housebound with a three-year-old.


The project, like most of my projects, was a way to relieve my confinement. But there is really no part of life that is confined, no part that is just a tiresome interlude to be tolerated, or a penance to be endured, because life doesn’t come in parts. Every moment is your whole life.

In faded strokes I’d lettered under the portal it still says “Enter.”


Make yourself at home. Cross the threshold. Enter your life.

Dogs, birds, babies, everything, everywhere, all the time shows you how.

***

And if you’ve read this far, read a little farther still and see what I found in the laundry basket. It will take me forever to get it washed, dried, folded and put on the shelf.

No inside, no outside

Another thing my dog showed me.

Just the idea of it had me pacing anxiously. But there it was in black and white:

Molly should be STRICTLY CONFINED for the next 2 months in an airline kennel, crate or equivalent.

All my doubt and consternation rammed up against this barrier. Say what? A dog? A big dog? A big running, jumping, happy-go-lucky dog? Behind bars? For how long? Say what?

Truth is, just the idea of having a dog – a healthy, ambulatory dog – had seemed confining enough to me. And now the walls were squeezed to an inconceivably narrow enclosure.

We lugged the crate into the house. It loomed over the room. Black, menacing, punitive. Her prison. Our prison.

Molly walked inside the pen. She walked inside and laid down. She laid down and relaxed. She fell asleep. She snored her doggy dreams. When she got better, we began leaving the door unlatched. She ambled in by herself, undisturbed by what you or I might judge as the cruel separation of inside and outside.

She has never been anything but completely unconfined in her confinement, because she has no idea of confinement.

Me? I have been thrashing my head against these bars all my life.

Some are a quicker study.

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