Ingredients on hand


Using what’s at hand, he finished up the yard. He could use it and know when to quit.

Time after time I’m refreshed by this obscure line from a nearly forgotten verse on a 7th century koan I studied long ago. When you first approach a Zen koan, through meditation, you can get lost in a labyrinth of intellectual incomprehension. Using what? Whose hand? Finishing what? The yard where? And then you might stop wondering for a second and the instructions surface, clear and direct. As clear as picking up a rake, for instance, or sweeping with a broom.

This is how life is. We always have at hand everything we need to finish up. We know how to do what needs to be done and we know when to quit too. It’s what we don’t need to do when we don’t need to do it that is so puzzling.

If I ever wrote a cookbook, this would be my sole instruction: Use what’s at hand. That stark brevity means, of course, that I could never write a cookbook. But I could make dinner out of limp celery and garbanzo beans, as someone once said.

Similarly inspired by the forlorn kale, spongy mushrooms, forgotten carrots, patient potatoes and canned tomatoes in my kitchen yesterday, I made ratatouille for dinner. Not that it was ratatouille from a book, mind you, but what I simply called ratatouille in a spark of who-me individuality and why-not invention. My daughter was so engaged by the prospect of dinner a la Remy that she instructed me to thin-slice the accompanying sausage and array it like “fallen dominoes” around the circumference of the mush. See? She knew.

We always have the ingredients on hand to finish what we already know how to do.

As I write this, by hand, the sun has just risen in the mists between the surf and the cliffs of Orange County, California. I followed a medical transport van here in the wee-hour darkness, a van that carried my sister. Last week, on the first of what was to be seven days of Colorado skiing, she broke her ankle and her wrist. Back home now, she’s doing what she knows to do using the help at hand. Today, surgery to re-set and secure the bones and hasten recovery.

The thought, the mere thought, of losing the use of one leg and one arm is paralyzing, isn’t it? But here she is, with a medical transport taxi to get her to and fro, a couple of good doctors, a home health attendant, and a sister in the waiting room. I would be here anyway. But now, by virtue of life’s passing, I am her next of kin, her domino.

It turns out none of us is paralyzed.

Today I write with my hand the words that you read. It is the writing that makes for reading and the reading for writing.

We all, each of us, come together where we are, as we are, to make one savory stew, one delectable taste, interdependent and whole. In the way my sister is grateful for me today, I am grateful for you. Together we make a meal.

Planet Lazarus


Last weekend I sat in the middle of more than a dozen newcomers who participated in the Beginner’s Mind retreat at my Zen Center, and it was a remarkably powerful experience. Powerful because it always is. Remarkable because attracting more than a dozen people out of the drunken sunshine of a lazy LA Sunday to practice eight hours of silent self-discipline is a miracle. A miracle, I tell you.

Now it’s nothing much to boast about compared to what they’re calling America’s most popular church, the church of Be as Rich as God Wants You to Be.

And it’s a pittance compared to the self-styled gospel worshipped at the altar of Be as Rich as You Think You Should Be.

But it is a miracle in the plain and ordinary church that I frequent, the church where, invite as we might, many are called and stubbornly few ever choose to step even one foot inside, the church of Be.

Sitting there all day in this simmering brew of effort, willingness, endurance, open-mindedness and sincerity, sitting with strangers in a slow bake of solidarity and mutual encouragement, percolating in the intimacy and acceptance of a shared experience, I was overwhelmed with delight and gratitude. When it was over, we all left on weightless wings, sailing on gusts of freshness, into the lives we had, only eight hours earlier, been desperate to leave behind.

Truly, miraculously, we raise the dead.

Please come next time. There is always a next time, and there is always room for you.

Department of flying pigs

With intermittent frog downpours. As soon as I rhapsodize on splendor in the grass, heaven freezes over.

(It’s technically hail, not snow, but still.)

Hail by hail.

Revolutionary new weed treatment.

Weed by weed


I wrote this post yesterday and I was holding onto it for later, but holding on is not at all the spirit of this post, or the teaching of the weed.

I used to know a deeply intuitive and provocative woman, a woman of many arts and aptitudes, who said she was going to write a book called Start What You Finish (as opposed to that book we’ve all had recited to us a billion times, Finish What You Start). I well understood her point. Before we even start something we are already mentally rounding the curve toward the steep and sticky part, the complex, exhausting, immeasurable length of it, the part we can’t imagine doing, and we stop before we’ve begun. How to keep from doing that would make a great topic for a book.

We lost touch with one another, but as far as I know, this was one project she never got started.

This morning I sat down to work on the kind of work I get paid to write. Honest, I don’t get paid much or at all to write this other stuff. So I’m looking at my options on this wide-open morning: to crack into the research brief entitled “Competing on Analytics,” or the “Encyclopedia of Statistics in Quality and Reliability.” (I’m not making this up.) Or maybe I’ll just scroll one more time through my primary source, the white paper I already wrote once, “Making Performance Measurement Work.” I need to pull together an outline and key messages to ghostwrite an industry article on “Operational Dashboards.”

I give up. It’s not happening today.

Today, I’ll weed.


We used to enjoy having a carpet of green weedy ground cover across our rolling backyard garden. I say enjoy but I really mean accept because what, in the end, is more enjoyable than simple acceptance? Our vista looked neat and green, but the ground was mostly weeds. Then when our nervy neighbor began hoisting his two-story addition overlooking our home and garden last year, we raided the retirement fund to landscape the whole schmeer with towering bamboo and darling little mounds of grass called “dwarf mondo.” Isn’t that the cutest name? Dwarf mondo, i.e. little big. Because it’s a little thing that can cover a big space.

We replaced all the topsoil with rich, fragrant dirt and planted precious little plugs of mondo across the roaming whole of it so that now I still have a green grassy ground cover but I do not enjoy it nearly as much. No, I have replaced that sense of carefree disregard with the drive and agitation I imagine a surgeon feels as he surveys his upcoming schedule of life-and-death procedures. Now, I am a backyard neurosurgeon, prying sprigs of weeds from between the delicate roots of my baby mondo, my vast and miniature world, my little big.

When I look up across the endless stretch of the job before me, I surely want to quit.


But if I manage to regain my focus on what’s at hand I realize it’s just one weed. There’s always just one weed to do next. I do it weed by weed, and the weeds always show me how.

I’ve come to believe that every impasse, obstacle and impossibility is just that: one weed, saying, “Pull here.”

I don’t ever finish. But I always start. Weeding is something you start but you’re a fool if you think a gardener is ever finished, if you think a garden ever stays put.

Today I’ll weed. And when I return to the job I’ve set aside, it will start in an altogether different place, a different space, with different openings and perhaps, greater ease. Everything moves through this one place in time, the infinite and unimaginable totality of existence moves through this one moment of motion: the tug, as I dislodge a weed from the earth. When I do that, I dislodge it all.

Starting anything is starting everything. The finish, if you want to call it that, takes care of itself.


In homage to a certain treatise on birds.

Rescue mission


Twice a year or so I get this kind of telephone call.

We’ll be in your neighborhood next week. Do you have any donations of used clothing or household goods?

And right away I say yes. Without even knowing what the donations might be I say yes.

The outfit that comes by is called Rescue Mission.

There are things that you and I probably don’t want to know about the used clothing business. There is re-marketing and profiteering. I’m never sure how much of what I pack up will be used, or used by someone who really needs my shredded sneakers and faded khakis.

There is more to this than meets the eye, I’m sure. But I don’t need to know. I always say yes because the time is always right and the need is always great. Because the call has come and the closets are full. Because children grow and parents do too. Because I use my clothing well but I never quite use it up. Because when you have more than you need things grow heavy and dull, dusty, dark, airless and dead. I say yes because it’s a Rescue Mission, and the one being rescued is me.

Art imitating potholder

After days weaving strands on her classroom’s loom, losing hours of sparkling daylight to an indoor obsession, missing recess and skipping lunch to feed her creative fever, more impressed and impassioned as completion neared, she only reluctantly brought it out of her backpack when it was done:


Mommy, when I show people they say it is pretty but I don’t think they mean it.

The artist’s life.

Sign language

My daughter came home from Spanish class one day last week and plastered signs all over the house. Seeing them everywhere has really shed some light on things.


Over at my friend Shawn’s new review blog, The Chunky Purse, she talks about a Spanish-immersion DVD set for teaching language to young children, and it sounds pretty neat. Eight years ago, we didn’t have that, we had something else.


One of Georgia’s first words was “awa” for water. Whether she was speaking Spanish or speaking English, who can tell. We congratulated ourselves for the clever good fortune of having a babysitter who could not only put Georgia down for a nap, but speak Spanish while she did it.


How we all wish we could lock-in these predispositions. We see the astonishing development of our babies and toddlers – their seemingly effortless learning – and what we might overlook is the amount of practice they put in. From where I sit now I view it all a bit differently than I did then.


Every day from birth to age one or so they practice mobility. Every day from age one to two and beyond they practice language. Without maintaining that level of constant practice, nothing gets very far off the rug.

Now I can see that if Georgia acquired any Spanish aptitude at all during her toddlerhood it wasn’t because of the words her nanny spoke, but because of the love in that sweet woman’s mother tongue.


I’m tired of having cards taped all over the house, but love is one language we could all use more practice speaking. And for that, the signs really help me.

Life is a box of Thin Mints


You spend all your time waiting for it to arrive and then it’s gone in an instant.

It’s better when you consume it like there’s no tomorrow.

It weighs next to nothing but puts an extra five pounds on you each year.

They say it keeps in the freezer but no one keeps it there long enough to find out.

If you do have any part stored in your freezer you could well be judged criminally insane.

Even when you’ve had enough, you haven’t had enough.

On their deathbed, no one wishes they’d had any less.

Authored in my official capacity as Cookie Co-Chair for Brownie Troop 1242 where our motto is “Eat the Damn Things and Get it Over With,” a creed which I swear to uphold and uphold to swear.

No particular order

If you need a little inspirational company this weekend, keep scrolling or take the short cut to my interviews with Jen Lemen, Sally Dworsky and Wendy Cook.

Perhaps it would interest you to know that, through random acts of kindness, Lorianne won the Jen Lemen poster, Phyllis won the Sally Dworsky CD and Andrea won the Wendy Cook button bracelet.

But no one is excluded from these riches. Here by their own inclusion are this week’s initiates into the order of soul sisterhood, an order that naturally has no particular order:

Sandra Jena Strong The Whole Self Mama Zen Lorianne jessamyn denise Shelli Busymomma66 Jessica Girl con Queso Moanna bella Phyllis Sommer kathryn Shawn nyjlm Jennifer marta ladybug-zen Barbara Wendy Jenell Shurn Joan jen lemen Janet Thompson Megan RocketMom Missy k Shalet blissful* Susan shanspec Kyran melody is slurping life Jennifer/The Word Cellar Michelle Shannon Haley andrea scher nina bagley Robyn Mika Someone Being Me Anna and the earliest bird under the wire, Kirsten Michelle.

Looking back, I can say that this was one of the most delightful weeks of my life, and I’m so glad you were here to share it.


But why would I want to look back?

Full circle of kindness

Read on and then give yourself another chance at love.

Nearly two years ago as I was wandering the wilderness in search of readers (yes, we not only have to write books, we have to find readers) I found a little something that led me to Wendy Cook. I sent her one of the first copies of my book. Authors like me have to buy and send a lot of freebies that don’t amount to much. But Wendy responded. She sent me the kind of heartfelt message that you wait your whole life to hear. And she didn’t just tell me. She ran out and posted reviews here, here, here and here. Then she began dousing her blog with my quotations. And she interviewed me. Wendy is a veritable nest of kindness, and I wondered how she came to be so generous. Then I realized that she too is an artist and understands the role of the circle, the community, in making us whole. Because she has been so personally merciful to me, meet Wendy, my soul sister, who wears kindness like a bracelet, a bracelet that would look good on you too.

Every month on your blog you interview a mom about how she nurtures her creative life. So tell me: how do you nurture yours? Is it a quest? A struggle?

I think of it as one big beautiful juggling act (insert circus music here). I had to reconsider my definition of creativity and focus on projects that I can either complete quickly or work on in spurts. Luckily I don’t limit myself to any one medium, so there’s a lot to play with. Is it a quest? Oh yes. Is it struggle? Sometimes. Most recently I wanted to attend the Squam Art Workshops and really had a hard time asking my husband about it, knowing that it would mean he would have to work overtime so that I could go. I am still struggling with the feelings of joy to be able to feed my soul and guilt for wanting this for myself.

You discover and share a bounty of children’s books and music on your blog. Do you find that your own art is influenced by them?

Yes, because there is a sense of nostalgia at the core of my work. But I mainly do it so I can provide my son Satchel with inspiration. I share my findings to save other moms time because there are tons of children books, but not all of them have wonderful illustrations or beautiful messages. The best of them also teach me to believe in myself, to be myself, to help others, to care deeply and to help Satch do the same. They also show me that the dreams of our youth might very well be our authentic selves.

Do you have a sense of a calling now in your life other than motherhood?

Being Satchel’s mama is the most important thing I can be. That said, I still have an overwhelming drive to create, to work with my hands. When I go too long without making something, I get a bit wonky; I feel anxious and irritable. The remedy is often as simple as making something for Satch -– like felted Easter eggs or a clothespin catapult. Thankfully, my husband is very supportive and will step in so I can do something creative.

Tell me how your family inspires you.

To know that we belong to each other, that we are loved and respected, that we untangle our messes together, share our joys, and ride this fantastic twirling rock together: I’m inspired to be as real and as present as I can possibly be.

What do you want to do with your life now?

As Satch becomes more independent I would like to spend more time producing and promoting my work. I want to inspire others to follow their own creative dreams. I want to grow, evolve, love deeply, laugh often, dance with wild abandon and be a centenarian.

***
It won’t surprise you to learn that Wendy has donated the grand prize for the week’s giveaway, the Robin’s Nest handmade vintage button bracelet shown above, so please enter early and often before 6 p.m. PST this Friday, March 7. Winners revealed on Saturday. You can read this week’s earlier interviews with my inspirational sisters Jen Lemen and Sally Dworsky. And thank you for visiting this week. It did my soul good.

Sweetest days of all

So Georgia and I are driving around one Saturday afternoon a few years back listening to A Prairie Home Companion on the radio and the little one erupts from her car seat: “Mommy, that’s Sally Doorsky!’ It turns out that Sally, frequent radio guest, is the mom of her pre-K mate Charlie, and his little sis Lila, and in that moment Sally Dworsky has become the most famous person we will ever know. Her transcendent voice, her songs of pure heart: we can’t sum it up except that we have become fans of the most slobbery kind. Here is Sally, another soulful sister, mother of mercy and angel of inspiration talking about singing in and out of her new CD, “Boxes.”

I can remember having coffee together one day and you were as doubtful as any of us mothers that your creativity would return, that you’d ever have the time or the impetus to write songs again. Tell me how that struggle eased for you, because look, here you are!

The truth is, I think I have always had that insecurity. Even before kids. That sense that I would never write another song, or at least not another good song. Each time I do, I am so excited and relieved and surprised, and then I return to that state of not knowing. But I did wonder how I would ever have time to be alone and still enough to receive the little bursts of inspiration and follow them. And it’s true, I have much less time to explore an idea, but there is a benefit to that. I can’t afford to labor and self-judge as much as I used to or I’d never get a thing done. I realize now that it has always been about capturing those little ideas that usually come in the midst of doing something else, not in the time I’ve set aside to write. So if anything has eased with motherhood, it’s my acceptance of that fact, and my willingness to record it as it happens and not worry about the many different ways I could have played it or sang it or said it. Kinda like the way I am answering these questions while the kids watch Arthur. No time to try too hard.

I can hear you singing about your mother, your father, your kids, and your partner in these songs. Am I right? Tell me how your family inspires you.

Some people are great at making up stories and characters. Not me. I can’t even make up a bedtime story for my kids. It all comes out of my real relationships. Both of my parents have passed away now. That, coupled with having children keeps me in a perpetual state of reflection and processing of the cycle that we’re all a part of; keeps me wondering if or when I’ll ever feel grown up as I try to guide these little people. My family, and my place in it, is relentlessly inspiring.

What song on your new CD is the most personally powerful for you?

There are a few, but maybe Sweetest Days. I want to be present as it all keeps flying by.

What do you want to do with your music? With your life?

Creatively, I feel more honest than ever before, and therefore more confident. Also less competitive, which is freeing. I am connecting with other wonderful singers and musicians and exploring new collaboration. I want to be playing and writing more routinely, so that it is just woven into my life with all of the rest of my responsibilities. Then I think professional opportunities would come more easily. The practical need to be making a living makes me want to break through in some significant way: songs in films, other people recording my songs. There is not a clear path for an artist like me. It may be about some fluky little opportunity that I can’t even imagine right now (like those two sweet songwriters from the movie Once). That’s why I just want to find a “practice” so that I keep doing it and doing it honestly. I would also love to facilitate other people singing together. Especially kids. Maybe a kids’ choir?

What is your greatest delight?
Singing, singing in harmony with others, listening to my son sing, watching my daughter do sign-language and monkey bars, making soup and eating it with a good hunk of bread and a glass of wine.

***

Be greedy for love! Leave any comment this week and a sudden burst of inspiration from Jen Lemen, songs from Sally and even more could come your way. Enter your name or enter the name of one of your own sisters who could use some soul support. (And hey: the sister could be a mister too.) Prize winners drawn after 6 p.m. PST this Friday and announced on Saturday. Keep entering to win, and make sure you leave a way for me to reach you with the good news. That means you don’t need to have a blog, but if you don’t, be sure you contact me via email on my Profile page so I can get in touch.

This way comes


All this week I’m introducing you to mothers of mercy in the order of soul sisterhood. In today’s installment with Jen Lemen, we consider both small and large matters underfoot. And remember to comment here or any day this week to enter my weekend giveaway of inspirational art by Jen and others.

What is the predominant color of clothing in your closet? Why do you suppose that is?

I can’t resist the color brown – even though my little urban family often campaigns for any other color, I wear it so much. I love the way brown can feel earthy and rich at the same time, depending on the texture and the fabric.

Describe your favorite pair of shoes.

I live in a pair of chocolate brown Pumas with light lavender stripes. They’re nice and squishy and they don’t look like ordinary sneakers. When these wear out, I’ll go buy another just like them.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?

I have dreams of living for a year in Cape Town, New York or some European city, but the truth is it’s hard to beat where I live right now. My little city is a melting pot of African immigrants and every day friends from faraway places come to my house to cook or visit or tell stories. Nothing makes me happier than being with refugees or immigrants, so I feel incredibly blessed to live here.

What one thing are you going to do this year that could set it apart from any other time of your life?

International travel is not out of the question for me this year. I have a dear friend from Rwanda who would like me to go to Africa to visit the children she left behind. I can only imagine how that kind of journey would alter the landscape of my heart. In the meantime, I’ve always wanted to publish a book, and I think this is the year to do it.

* * *

Oops! She said it out loud.

And for all you seekers: here’s the link for purchasing your own copies of the poster featured above. (One of the not-so-secret prizes I’ll award later this week!)

Be greedy for love! Leave any comment this week and a sudden gust of inspiration from Jen or others could come your way. Enter your name or enter the name of one of your own sisters who could use some soul support. (And hey: the sister could be a mister too.) Prize winners drawn after 6 p.m. PST this Friday and announced on Saturday. Keep entering to win, and make sure you leave a way for me to reach you with the good news.

Something healing


She calls herself a professional blogger, but those of us who attend regular services at her sanctuary know that description hardly captures the dimension of her spirit. I asked writer and artist Jen Lemen to reflect on her life and work during a week in which I’ll introduce you to a few of my very favorite mothers of mercy in the order of soul sisterhood.

You are from a family of sisters. How intrinsic is sisterhood to your art and writing?

Sisterhood is so major for me, I almost don’t know how to talk about it. I can say this – if my work as an artist or a writer has any hint of the spirit of connectedness or deep trust in the Universe, it’s largely because of the love I’ve experienced from my sisters. We don’t always get along, and there are times when our differences feel personal and painful. But no matter what, my sisters are sewn into the fabric of my heart; it’s hard to think of myself outside of the circle of their love and support.

Do you have the sense of a calling in life?

Since I was a little girl, I’ve had a deep desire to write and also to change the world. It’s impossible for me to think of one without the other. Even now nearing forty, I still want to tell stories that change you and me forever and I want to do it in such a way that you feel inspired to action and filled with hope and love for the world around you.

What is your faith tradition?

I grew up in a Christian family of the low church, born-again variety, but all those labels really don’t do my religious heritage justice. My parents embodied a theology of kindness that didn’t have much patience for rules or dogma. They taught us how to care for the elderly, love the poor, cook for crowds, talk to strangers, show up in a crisis and have fun as a strategy for healthy living. Even though I long ago left the church, I’m still deeply invested in this particular brand of openhearted generosity.

How would you describe your spiritual practice?

My spiritual practice is mostly homemade and borrowed from various traditions. I keep a tiny gratitude journal and set up little altars in my house to mark the travels of my soul, but my real practice is to love strangers and allow the poorest of the poor to be my sage guides and teachers.

There’s more from Jen tomorrow, and more sister inspiration all week.

***
Here’s your chance to enter the sisterhood. Leave a comment, any comment, many comments this week and you could find a sudden gust of Jen Lemen’s inspiration on your doorstep. Enter your name or enter the name of one of your own sisters who could use some spontaneous soul support. (And hey: the sister could be a mister too.) Prize winners drawn after 6 p.m. PST this Friday and announced on Saturday. Keep entering to win, and make sure you leave me a way to find your email address so I can reach you with the good news.

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