Both feet


From a story that seems like it began yesterday:

She followed her guide out the back door and into a shaded garden, where she could now see that this place, a collection of houses and apartment buildings painted pale yellow with blue trim, covered perhaps half a block. They walked across the yard to the far house, which she took to be the teacher’s.

They paused inside the door to remove their shoes and padded through the downstairs in stocking feet. In the living room the woman pulled up and did a little bow. There in a nubby upholstered armchair sat a little Japanese man, bald-headed and smiling. She fumbled at the bows and nods, invisibly, she hoped.

Hers was a large guest room with three twin beds. She was too early, and where she thought there would surely be something, something important to do, there was nothing to do but quiver and wait. Wait first for supper, then the first sitting period beginning at 7. This was what Zen Buddhists called a “sesshin,” or a meditation retreat. Four periods of seated meditation a day, two hours each, divided into 30-minute periods with walking meditation in between. Meals, services, work and rest in all the other hours. Starting at 4 in the morning and ending at 9 at night. She’d been warned that, even though this was a beginner’s retreat of only three days, it would be the hardest thing she’d ever done. These days, everything was hard for her. Eating was hard, sleeping was hard, speaking and making sense was hard. She laid down on one twin and listened to the street noise barge through the open windows: cars, buses, horns, shouting, the forlorn refrain of an ice cream truck. She was too afraid to cry.

Shortly before 7, she put on her loose black pants and t-shirt and went downstairs to walk over to the zendo, the meditation room. It wasn’t like a lecture hall. With just over 40 people sitting along the walls, she wouldn’t be overlooked, but she could still be inconspicuous, she thought.

Just outside the backdoor, she found Roshi, now in his black robes, standing with his attendant. They looked at her and smiled.

“Are you ready for me to torture you?,” Roshi kidded, the words softened by his accent and his laugh.

“I do that well enough myself already,” she joked, flush with the narrowness of her escape.

***
To be continued all this week or until I find out how the story ends.

Once paradise

I’ll be leading another one-day beginner’s meditation retreat on Sunday, March 16 in Los Angeles. That reminds me of a story.

The taxi driver was lost. Not lost, but not where he expected to be. She sat silent in the back while he retraced the turns then stopped on a narrow street crowded with pastel apartment houses and faded cars. Airport fares didn’t come to this part of LA. She paid, grabbed her duffel and stepped out.

It was a raggedy neighborhood not far from downtown. Tiny bungalows perched off the curb behind chain link fences; noisy, messy lives on full view through open kitchen windows. Only if you looked up, straight up, at the palm trees swaying against the perfect sky, did you realize that this was once paradise.

She was unsteady after the big trip. And disappointed. A three-hour flight and she was standing on a painted porch without a soul in sight. The door was locked. She rang the buzzer and an intercom voice answered. Come in, the woman said, we’ve been expecting you. The automatic lock unlatched. She went inside.

She’d always mistrusted the mean little black pillow he sat on when he turned his back to meditate, mornings and nights. Once she had tried the pose beside him, only once and only to please. Follow your breath. Count to ten. She didn’t get it. It hurt and it was dull, almost impossible to do and who would want to? So when he chose it, day after day, a sacred routine, she tiptoed past, petrified that this strange seduction would drive them apart.

Much later, a slender red spine caught her eye on a night spent roaming what remained on the bookshelf. When she opened a page of the Chinese verse, the ache in her gut yawned wide and the words fell in. Dropped all the way down and echoed back again. She took her bed pillow and folded it into a high square and sat on it. First, for five minutes. The cool space that surrounded her seemed so significant that she wrote the date down in a book by her bedside: June 18, 1993.

She read more books and bought new ones. The man at the yoga studio said it’s called a zafu and it’s $36. She left work at lunch and bought her own hard black cushion. That night and almost every night after she sat and watched the wall, measuring the time and her intent. Why am I doing this? What am I hoping for? She remembered his reverential reference to a teacher in Los Angeles, one of the first and now one of the last. One day she dialed directory assistance and asked all the questions without, she thought, revealing her doubts. When the woman said they had a special training planned for September 24-26, she said yes send me the form because it coincided with her birthday and only just then she had begun to believe in magic.

She went upstairs to the office and was greeted by a kind-faced woman who handed her a schedule and keys. She nodded at all the instructions but couldn’t respond, taking in the cases of books and papers and mismatched furniture that filled the room. How nice you’ll be houseguesting with Roshi, she heard the woman say, and she squinted at the rarefied name of the teacher she’d hoped to avoid.

***
More to come. There’s always more to come.

Bookmark it


Updated to note the first come, first served below:

Jena tagged me for the meme that I’ve seen a number of you do already. Like most exercises, it is useful. I am to take the book closest to me and open it to page 123, then go to the fifth sentence and quote the next three sentences, or some such. I’m not being too exact with these instructions because, well, I wasn’t too exact when I did this and you’ll see that it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we do it at all, and the how just takes care of itself.

I honestly did reach for the book closest to me here at my desk. It is a book that sits, indeed lives, under my desk. A number of books live under my desk, because literally and figuratively, that’s where my writing grows out of: the underneath. A box of books I wrote sits under my desk. But the book closest isn’t one I wrote. It is a book that I endeavor to rewrite daily through my life itself. It is my muse and inspiration, “The Way of Everyday Life” by Maezumi Roshi. This happens to be a self-published publication from 1978. It is out of print. And because it has that circa-1978 zen spin, it doesn’t even have page numbers. So I turned to what I would like to think is page 123 and I scrolled down a bit and chose not three but four sentences:

Some people think that until they complete their practice and attain enlightenment, they can’t help other people. But such a time will never come, because practice is our life itself, and continues endlessly. So, according to the demands of each situation, we do our best. That’s our way.

We do our best. That’s not only our way, it’s the only way. We are always doing our best. When I see these words, so simple and clear, I want to weep for all the times that I have forgotten them.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading (and writing) lately. Because of these appetites and my deep belief in the beneficent and reciprocal power of circulation, I have books to pass on to you. This post gives me a way – the best way – to offer up some fine paperback reads for your taking, and this is the only kind of tagging I do. I will send any of these by very cheap, excruciatingly slow media mail service to anyone who claims a title by name in a comment. Then email me separately with your address. Please take only one so more can benefit. I enjoyed them all in their own original way. According each to its situation, they were the best. The one you choose will be the best for you. That is our way.

The books have been claimed by the following readers, many of whom pledge to pass their copies along in good faith, and whether they do or not it will be good enough. I am delighted to have heard from so many first-time commenters and I encourage you to keep coming so together we can keep going:

A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton/The Conspirator
Handling Sin by Michael Malone/Mama Zen
Life of Pi by Yann Martel/Jennifer The Word Cellar
Oil by Upton Sinclair/Kathryn
Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan/Someone Being Me
Snow Flower and The Secret Fan by Lisa See/Kirsten Michelle
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón/Jena
Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett/Backpacker Momma

Spell d-i-s-a-p-p-e-a-r

F-a-d-e to i-n-v-i-s-i-b-l-e. Step b-a-c-k and a-v-o-i-d becoming a p-e-s-t. After my s-n-e-a-k-y p-l-o-t to t-e-s-t her l-i-s-t for this Friday’s spelling bee she did not d-i-s-g-u-i-s-e her c-r-y. “Mom, you are taking over my life!”

Editorial Note: G-r-i-n. H-a-p-p-y. H-u-g. L-o-v-e. T-h-e-s-e are more than words to m-e-m-o-r-i-z-e.

The future in a rear view mirror

This is the only way to see where I am going.


Editorial Note: Spend your day hauling a posse of second-grade girls and you won’t know whether to look forward, look backward or squeeze in-between.

Illustrated guide to life planning

Sometimes, what to do next becomes quite clear.


Editorial note: Keep a goldfish alive for three years and you might one day find yourself in this position.

Distance calling

My parents called one night last week. It was late and I’d been sleeping.

First, my mom got on the line. I recognized her right away although she sounded old and frail. It was so good to hear her.

“We’re coming out,” she said. I understood that she and dad were getting in the car and starting to drive all the way from Texas to California.

“It will take awhile,” she said, “because we have to stop at the pharmacies.”

Somehow that made sense to me. Then my dad spoke.

“Hi honey.” I could tell he was smiling in his weary way. “Are you sure you want us to come?”

I was remembering all this the next day when I drove down Santa Anita Avenue and I saw an old man in the crosswalk. He was stoop shouldered. The breeze made his white hair flare out behind his ears like wings. From the back, he looked exactly like my dad, who died two years ago. Mom went first; soon it will be seven years.

Here’s the thing: I said yes. I really do want them to come, and they’re on their way.

Dreams are not dreams, you know. They are no more dreams than any other dreams we live while we’re awake.

I’m dreaming with my eyes wide open. And I’m watching for what comes.

Going postal


It’s not fair! Everything happens when you don’t expect it and at the very end when you want it the most!

This was my daughter, yesterday, at that hysterical place where well-laid plans go postal. Dear friends from Texas were about to board the plane for a weekend at our place when the flu bug arose in that most irrefutable indication up out of your gut and onto your Air Jordans. Our friends are now where they should be: still at home and on the mend. That’s where we are too, on the mend, facing a few days suddenly free and undone. She and I will find it, too, the fresh direction in just the two of us, holding hands, nursing root beer floats and indulging in what will be no small amount of retail therapy.

Friendship is like that, so reliable and yet still so unexpected. Pictures arrived in the mail of my most beguiling baby Claire Georgia, all smiles and growing up before we dare blink; please go see. As I write I’m playing the angel voice and sacred songs sent forth by my friend Sally Dworsky, who wrote her love hymns as our children romped in a shaded schoolyard like a litter of kittens, pure life and joy; be sure you have a listen. And then a secret heart, a handmade valentine arrived in the post from Beth, so faraway and yet her magic is today here in my grip; it is my ticket and I am using it right now, sending love to everyone, everyone by return mail, and with this solemn pledge.

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Love the one you’re with.

Love in the time of laundry

Dear Cupid:

I’ve been out of touch for a while. I used to imagine you, worship you, and cry my eyes out for you every day. But that was before you left for the last time.

I’ve learned a lot about myself since you’ve been gone. I admit I’ve changed. I learned, for instance, that there is a time and season for everything. There’s a time for flirting with that cute waiter at the breakfast place even though he’s 10 years younger, doesn’t own a car, needs to borrow money and he’ll pay you back this time for sure. A time for composing all-night sonnets to the old high-school heartthrob who doesn’t realize he’s just using you to get over his divorce. There is a time for booking a first-class ticket to spend a romantic weekend, at your own expense, with the handsome stranger who will one day soon drive down from Denver, move into your house, barely ever get out of bed, never get another job, and tell you everything that’s wrong with you and your life before he moves out again.

Then there’s a time to sort the whites from the colors.

I’ve learned, too, that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. That Mars can be light-years away from clearing the dinner dishes from the table, putting the shoes in the closet, and making the coffee in the morning, but that Mars is nearly always inches away from a flat screen.

The washer and dryer are on Venus.

I’ve seen and felt my share of love. In some ways, I consider myself an expert. I’ve seen a man’s face tremble in awe and, yes, fear, as I walked down an aisle toward him. I’ve seen a man weep at the sight of his baby girl. I’ve seen the walls quake and the floor tilt with the immensity of our anger, then fall instantly still with an apology. I’ve seen an entire home built and rebuilt on love alone, sometimes in a single day.

I’ve seen the washer overflow and the fuse short out.

Love comes into my life everyday now, Cupid. It comes in denim, khaki, in cotton underwear, in hand wash, machine wash and rarely, rarely in dry clean only. It comes in dainty piles of pink and purple, and massive stacks of towels and sheets. Love comes by the basketful in my house, Cupid, but it doesn’t come from you. It never did.

Dear Cupid: I’m into my third load today, but I’m just not that into you.

***
Inspired just in time for Happy Valentine’s and another lovely group writing project at Between the Lines.

Turning words


In 2003 – March 16, 2003 to be exact, because I still have the paper– I drew a Wheel of Life as I described in yesterday’s post. My daughter was then two and a half years old. Under my “Career” aspect I wrote “Power of Pen.” I can recall being uncertain and inhibited about my ambition, but I was asking for something invigorating to come from my writing. I drew a quick sketch of an open book with little squiggly lines and a pen on top. The next day, a former PR client called me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book with a man whose last name happened to be Power.

I had never written a book. I had written many things – articles, papers, brochures, websites, speeches, business plans – but I had never written anything published in my own name so that I could credibly call myself an author. Awed by the coincidence, I said yes to the invitation. Over the next weeks and months, I met and spoke to a series of people involved in the project so they could assess my ability. It was a very long shot, but each presentation was the opportunity for me to believe my own b-s about myself. In the end, not surprisingly, we didn’t do a book together. But by the end, I knew that there was a book to be done by myself. The little power trip was to empower myself.

This is the kind of thing that comes out of the wheel. Not always so immediately, so glaringly, but in its own time and fashion. Everything, you see, turns on the wheel. Just this weekend as I was fomenting this topic, it came to me how psychically and spiritually powerful the circle is. Familiar with the enneagram? Fascinating. The Celtic wheel? The labyrinth? The bagua? A mandala? We all know the wheel of the zodiac. How about the dharma wheel? And then there’s that little cheerio close to my heart, the enso. The list goes on and on, and it isn’t a list, but a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s your life in motion.

I would write more but I’m already inspired to move beyond. And you are too.

The pi of life


1. Take a pencil and draw a large circle on a blank sheet of paper. I usually turn one of my salad plates upside down and trace the outer rim to get a circle true and wide.

2. Eyeball the center of the circle and make a dot there. Don’t trouble yourself to get the exact center.

3. Use a ruler or straightedge to divide the circle into halves, then quarters, then eighths. Don’t worry about the equidistance of the lines.

4. Now you have a pie with eight roughly equivalent wedges. Don’t quibble about how equal they are.

5. Quick, without thinking, label the top edge of each wedge with a word for one aspect of your life. For instance, I might write, “Work,” “Family,” “Finances,” “Health,” “Practice,” “Travel,” “Marriage,” “Fitness,” etc. Don’t study or ponder what your eight aspects are. Just jot them in as they come to you. They change over time and with circumstances.

6. Without stopping, look at each of the labeled parts and write a word or two that describes exactly what you would like to see occur in each of those areas in your life. Write these words at the bottom on each wedge, near the center of the pie, as you rotate it around. Leave most of the wedge empty and white. Try to avoid time spent in formulating the words you write. Just let them materialize without self-editing.

7. Remind yourself to use an immediate and short-term perspective. Be daring, but be specific. That means, for instance, instead of writing in the “Work” section “Successful Internet Gazillionaire,” write something like “Breakthrough Idea.” Later on, after you have an idea, develop a business plan, attract investors and design and program your enterprise, you can collect your gazillions.

8. Just as fast, look at each section and quickly sketch a visual to represent the outcome that you’ve described. It doesn’t matter how much accuracy or detail you use in your drawing. Do not judge or even think about this. The point is to take a dreamy concept and convert it into raw physical form using your intuitive eye.

9. This is not simply a list of things to do, which is itself a miraculous potion. This creation is your Wheel of Life. Label it with your name in one corner of the paper, like I do, “Karen’s Wheel of Life” and date it. We call it a wheel because wheels turn.

10. Place this somewhere it will be in sight everyday. I put mine on the top of my printer, which sits on the top of my desk at eye level. The point is to have visual access to this diagram automatically, without dwelling on it, and let the aspirations magically penetrate your thought and behavior patterns.

I began this practice, drawing a pie and turning it into my wheel of life, about 12 or 15 years ago. I don’t know where the instructions came from. It was about the time I was hungry and thirsty for everything, so I taught myself palmistry, astrology, and tarot cards. Get the picture? It was all about getting the picture.

I offer it now because of the conversations I keep running into about long-distance life planning and all such things about how to really do what we otherwise only talk or think about doing. Sometimes I re-draw the wheel every two or three months. There have been times, for instance, like in the early part of my daughter’s life, when I fell completely off track, and didn’t draw a wheel for years. Looking back, I can see that those years were indeed when I fell off track, wondering all the while where my life went!

I can’t emphasize enough that this exercise is to articulate immediate intention and action, rather than extract a list of “100 things” that can veer off into the inexhaustible and unimaginable future. Let the things you put into the pie be the things you wouldn’t think would happen tomorrow, but in some subtle and unpredictable way, could happen tomorrow. The way this practice works is that it brings your own readiness and aptitude for growth into manifest form, out of the smoke and dust of mere wishful musings.

All this week, I’m going to tell you more about why I believe this works, and what transcendental company you keep when you call forth a picture of your own pi of life*.

*Humbly inspired by the genius of Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi”, which will convince you that we are indeed the authors of a mysterious truth that is indistinguishable from fiction.

A floss of a different color


Some things said are not to be forgotten:

So last night my husband stuck his head into the office where I was filling out the Scholastic Book order form and all such things I like to do in my spare time said, “Did you get Georgia some different floss sticks?” Then she wandered in holding up the offending specimen and said:

Mommy, these are really hard to use.

I whipped my head around to look at the both of them and said YES I GOT SOME DIFFERENT ONES BECAUSE I DIDN’T MAKE A SPECIAL TRIP TO TARGET.

The thing is, I’m conscientiously avoiding Target for incidentals since they usually extract $200 or more from me before I leave. I’ve written about the peculiar devotion I have for flossing, and my wicked bliss to see my daughter favorably habituated toward dental hygiene because of our early introduction of candy-colored flossing sticks, but criminy guys, HOW ABOUT TRANSITIONING TO SOME NEW FLOSS STICKS BECAUSE I DON’T ALWAYS HAVE TIME TO MAKE SPECIAL TRIPS TO ALL THESE SPECIAL PLACES FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED THINGS LIKE SPECIAL FLOSS STICKS THAT THEY DON’T SELL AT THE GROCERY STORE.

And Georgia looks at me and says:

Mommy, these are really easy to use.

Rinsing off the zen


Some things said are not to be forgotten:

“Mommy, make your next book not about Zen. The whole idea of Zen is bogus.”

Pause here before you rush in to soothe my bruise; to bolster my case. There is no purer truth than what she uttered here. No finer precision, nothing clearer. If only I could do it, really do it, then I would earn my place as the dimwit ancestor of the wisest, choicest, sassy ass eight-year-old Master of the Milky Way.

You go, girl! Show me the back door straight out of bogus, as you always do. Truth is more beautiful than beauty treatments.

***

This is Not to Be Forgotten Week on the Road, where we share Some Things Said.

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