writer’s block

icebergThis old teaching is like a tall, cool drink to this blogger, increasingly reluctant to use daily life and family as a writing prompt:

The first thing to be remembered in character-building is to understand the secret and character of human nature. We must know that every person in the world has his own object in life, his own interest and his point of view, and that he is concerned with himself. His peace is disturbed when you wish to interest him in your object of interest. If you wish to force upon him your point of view, however near and dear he may be to you, he is not pleased with it. Very few consider this; and they wish to pour out their own troubles and difficulties upon someone near to them, thinking, “Everyone has the same interest in my subject as I myself and everyone has the same point of view as myself; so everyone will be glad to hear my tale.”

There is a story told that a person began to speak before a new acquaintance about his ancestors. He continued so long that the patience of his hearer was thoroughly exhausted. In the end the acquaintance interrupted the story by asking, “If I do not care to know about my own ancestors, what do I care to know about yours?”

There are many who are very keen to let their neighbors know about every cold and cough they may have; every little gain or loss, however small, they would be glad to announce with drums and bugles. This is a childish quality; this tendency shows a child soul. Sometimes it frightens away friends and helps the foes. People who work noisily accomplish little, for they attract by their noise ten more people who come and interfere and spoil the work which one person could easily have finished.

Noisiness comes from restlessness, and restlessness is the sign of Tammas, the destructive rhythm. Those who have made any success in life, in whatever direction, have done so by their quiet working. In business, in industry, in art, in science, in education, in politics, in all directions of life, a wise worker is the quiet worker. He tells about things when the time comes, not before. The one who talks about things before he has accomplished them is like a cook who is announcing dishes before they are cooked, to the whole neighborhood.

Hazrat Inayat Kahn
Founder, Sufi Order of the West

Courtesy of Naader Shagagi, my dear yoga teacher

 

the age of undoing

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In the end, what ties everything together is how predictably it falls apart.

Like everyone, I must have seen heaps of leaves all my life, but I never really noticed the part where they fall to the earth.  When you watch a tree drop its leaves, it will change you. It will alter your ambition and interrupt your agenda. There’s nothing like the sight of falling leaves to give you a glimpse of reality, especially if it’s in your own backyard.

It was my forty-first birthday. I was looking out the garden window in our guest room, also called our office, but which would be lost to either use when a baby took up residence a year later. I was alone, in the middle of the day, amid September’s melancholy stillness, with nothing to do except give undue consideration to the sad landscape of my recent loss. Three months earlier I’d left my job, planted my savings into this decrepit house, sacrificed my slim claim to fame and greatness and brought myself down to earth. And for what? I was no clearer on the why. Then it began to rain, more like the suggestion of rain, a translucent veil that fell like lace from the crown of the sky. Did this even qualify as rain? I had to wonder, being a transplant from the land of whipcracking cloudbursts and tornado warnings with sudden raging floods that crested two feet higher than your front door. That was rain.

I remember this event not because of the birthday, one of many that would come after the year I stopped counting, but because of the delicate mists that carried the first leaves down from the sycamores, leaves still partly green and as wide across as my two hands. What a show—the water, the light, and the leaves gliding into a soft landing of letting go.

I was forty-one years old before I ever saw a tree lose its leaves. After that, everything I saw was a falling leaf. Everything came down. read more

oak tree in the garden

big-oak

This is an excerpt from my next book Paradise in Plain Sight, coming next spring from New World Library.

A monk asked Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?” Joshu said, “The oak tree in the garden.” —Gateless Gate, Case 37

From the beginning, I called it a grandfather tree, the oak tree in the garden. The reasons were self-evident. It was tall, broad-shouldered and thick around the middle, like my grandfathers. Plus, I had an album of photos that showed it standing at full height before I was born. Only later did I learn that there wasn’t even such a description in arboriculture. What I called a grandfather tree was instead grandfathered, protected from removal by a village tree ordinance. But that made sense, too. It’s impossible to remove your grandfathers from the line of life you’ve been given. When you’re little, they hold you. You look up to them. They might teach you something useful that no one else has the time or patience for. In time, they slow down, grow feeble, drop things—but you can’t do a damn thing about it.

Even approaching a hundred years old, the oak tree in our garden was a fount of life. It cradled nests of marauding rats and raccoons. Noisy squirrels chased the length of it all day long. Jays shrieked, hawks roosted, and the wind flew through its wide-open arms. Its canopy shaded a teahouse built by a groundskeeper in the 1920s for his kids to play in. That’s a lot of hide-and-seek and games of tag: generations of joy and laughter. Two years after we got here, our daughter Georgia was born. Suddenly, we saw only peril in a yard full of rocks and water, not to mention dirt. If it had been left to me, fear would have kept us locked indoors. But Georgia kept proving that she was born to play in the garden, as we are all born to play in the garden. She watched her step; she knew her place. Before long, the neglected teahouse was crawling with kids for parties and play-acts: revivals of The Wizard of Oz and Little House on the Prairie, stories about making yourself at home wherever you are, stories retold with every generation.

The oak tree in the garden drops more than two thousand acorns a year. Each acorn is both a culmination and a seed; each carries its own ancestral imprint and the full potential to evolve. In California, the principal propagator of oaks is the scrub jay. A jay picks up thousands of acorns and stores them underground in the fall, and when it’s time to eat, remembers where nearly all of them are placed. Nearly all. A few stay undisturbed underground, and those are the ones that sprout. The lineage of the coastal live oak depends on what a bird forgets, and the survival of the Western scrub jay depends on what a live oak leaves behind. It sounds like a willy-nilly proposition, only it isn’t.

One acorn in ten thousand becomes a tree. On the one hand, what a waste. On the other, it works. In the crapshoot of life, you—I mean you—turned up. You rose from the ground of your ancestors, their dust in your bones. Without accomplishing another thing, you are the complete fulfillment of all those who came before you. How can you doubt yourself?

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what happens in Texas

6C8055389-tdy-130626-wendy-davis-shoes-3p.blocks_desktop_mediumOf all the things I could share, what matters is that you are not alone, and I will never judge you.

All things pass but not all pass gracefully. Years ago I found myself easily, impossibly, pregnant. I was not alone, but I was unmarried. It was the year that what I thought was true love had come and then spun around and left.  It had not yet left on the day suspicion overcame doubt and I mouthed the most shocking of certainties when I came out of the bathroom with the telltale pink strip.  He had smiled. To me, he looked boyish. This had happened to him before, but it had never happened to me. I felt suddenly and totally on my own.

I’ll support you in whatever you decide to do, he said.

Encouragement had never sounded so feeble, not that I was listening.  Before my belly had bloated into the slightest round I had turned against it, mean and quick, making furtive calls to a yellow-page ad answered by a receptionist who counseled, Honey, you have to wait at least six weeks.  When that day came, I drove myself to the clinic and back to work, making false excuses but taking no blame, making no apologies, seeking no comfort and giving none in return.  It was August 27.  And I had thought then, too, that I had my life back again, in charge, in control, to do all the right things in my own time and my own way.  Then everything else happened instead, because things are never what you think.

We make of our life what we must, and we learn from it. But we do not judge, because we are always doing our best, and no matter what, it hurts. I hope this helps someone.

anything helps

In much of the country today it is really hot, and anything helps.

I’m usually in the center lane when I stop at this light, ready to shoot straight through the intersection on green.

Most days there is someone or another on the corner with a sign. I don’t always turn my head, but today I knew I had a dollar in my purse.

He was old – probably not as old as he looked. It was sunny today, hot. He was sunburned and dirty. I rolled down the window and he came right over.

Thank you, bless you, he said, his face crumpled.

Thank you, sir, I answered, and rolled the window back up.

When the light turned he was back on the corner, waving at me. I waved back.

He blew a kiss and cupped his hand to his heart. I saw the sign then. It read, “Anything helps.”

Anything helps. How true, how kind, how wise. For a dollar.

how

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How can we live fearlessly?

With more freedom, kindness, joy and compassion?

By living differently.

1. Blame no one.
2. Take no offense.
3. Forgive.
4. Do not compare.
5. Wash your face and leave it bare.
6. Forget about your hair.
7. Grow old.
8. Have no answers.
9. Seek nothing.
10. Go back to 1.

Last weekend I gave a dharma talk in Kansas City based on this list. You can download a recording of the talk by clicking here. (Be patient; the podcast takes several minutes to load and 38 minutes to listen in full.)

a beautiful day

Nowadays I spend most of my time sitting in a chair pounding into a keyboard. It’s long and silent work, and I lose myself in it, but I know where to go for a kick of adrenaline. I click over to a social media site where I’ll find a new skirmish gathering speed, inciting the community’s opinion, anger, and rebuke. I understand why we do that—I, too, can be self-righteous—but I am battle fatigued. The world cries for compassion. It craves acceptance and belonging. It needs our attention, a kind word, a smile, a wave, a handshake, or a hug. Are we against everything? Angry at everyone? Sometimes it seems the only thing we’ll speak up for is a fight.

I push back from the fray and step out into the garden where the leaves rustle and bend in gentle rhythm with the wind. The air is fresh. The sky is blue. It’s an amazing place we live in when we’re not at odds with it. Who can contain the love that this one life brings with it? It is boundless.

On the street outside the gate, a woman walks a dog. I’ve glimpsed them nearly every day for what must be years. Her dog is old and the woman goes slow, the two now inseparable on the steepest part of the hill.

“It’s a beautiful day,” I say.
“It sure is.”

Someone once asked Maezumi Roshi why he practiced.
“To make my heart tender.”

– from Paradise in Plain Sight, coming next spring.

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broccoli in the mac and cheese

MacCheeseBrocCaulThere comes a day when you realize you have accomplished nothing because there was nothing to accomplish.

I have a strange relationship with readers. Or rather, they have a strange relationship with me through my books. Some of them are new to parenthood, and so they find me musing about the first terribly shocking and sincere years of raising a child. Some of them are at a later stage and so they find themselves on the outer edge of midlife with grown children. And then there’s me and my family, defying the demography, crossing the currents, merging the streams.

And what I want to say is that it doesn’t work. My conclusions have been premature. The early signs were irrelevant. We do not raise our children. They do not conform to a graph, a glyph, or a stamp. We do not mold them. We have been thoroughly misled and mistaken.

I started clapping before the scene was over; stood up to leave before the encore. There’s a twist, an alternate ending, an extra feature, a director’s cut!

They grow up to make their own choices, and it doesn’t matter if they liked asparagus at age three.

It doesn’t matter if you hid spinach in the meatballs, zucchini in the muffins or broccoli in the mac and cheese.

They have their own interests, and their passions are not based on how many evenings you read them to sleep.

It doesn’t matter if the preschool aide called them a “genius.” I, for one, will never forget that day.

They don’t floss just because you nagged them nightly until they were twelve.

They don’t care just because you do.

Nothing was lost by waking up four times in the middle of the night; nothing was gained by sleeping through.

They have their own hearts, and you cannot mend them.

Their own feet, and you cannot steer them.

Their own voice, and they do not speak the words you sounded out for them so long ago.

My child will not be a giraffe when she grows up (her first choice), not a superhero, a princess, the president’s daughter or a cowboy. She probably doesn’t even know what a cowboy is. Or was.

My daughter was born premature, but I was the one ahead of myself. Every expectation has been erroneous. I can finally admit that I don’t have any idea what will happen next or when. I’m eavesdropping through a soundproof door.

I no longer think of my daughter as something for me to do, or parenting as something to accomplish. We are ordinary people who love and need each other in ever-changing and unpredictable ways. Let’s hope I can keep the broccoli out of it.

Counting the days ’til The Plunge Retreat in Boise.

fresh picked

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I forgot the way I had come. —Kanzan

The buds appear in early winter and bloom through early spring. Theirs is the perfume of youth, the scent of morning. They number in the thousands, perfect star-shaped flowers caressed by eager breezes until nearly all of them loosen and fall. Those left behind—about one in a hundred—have been spared by the iffy wind and weather. They stay on the branch until they form a tiny fruit, hard and green, hidden among the dark leaves. Plumped on full sun and fed by deep water, they grow round and soft. Their skin becomes thin; their color turns radiant.

One tree can produce up to three hundred oranges per year. Mature fruit lasts for months on a branch without ruin, long enough for two crops to be stored on the tree at once: the old and the new. Pick an orange from a tree in my front yard and its rind may be dirty or scarred, slightly shriveled, the color uneven, bulbous, shrunken: no two are alike. But under the layers of skin, scars, and dust, there is goodness, you see, pure goodness untempered by time. Once you taste it, you know for sure.

If you were offered a glass filled with life at its undiluted prime, would you refuse, preferring to gnaw on the bitter rind? That’s what we do when we cannot move past the past: we keep swallowing the sour and never reach the sweet.

Of all the splendors in this patch of paradise, these old trees are most dear to me. They are susceptible to disease, afflicted by parasites and flies, brittle and arthritic. On appearance, they’ve exhausted their stay. But season after season they carry on in continuous production. Their aroma is always fresh; their taste wakes me up. Oranges are in my blood. They are the family business. My grandfather grew oranges and he taught me how to eat them. He was the best grandfather you could ever have. The best ancestors teach you to forget, and when you learn their secrets, they give you the best reason to forgive.

Excerpted from the upcoming book Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

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actual unretouched photo of bliss

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Nothing makes me happier than sharing my practice.
Wish you were here:
Rime Buddhist Center
Beginner’s Mind Zen Retreat June 21-23
All the details here.
Take a seat beside me.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed.
Do not squander your life.

the long way

IMG_6002“Great words of inspiration. I really admire you for embracing your life as it is.”

She wrote it by hand in a card and then mailed it to the publisher named on the copyright page and then someone at the office tucked it into another envelope and mailed it to me and I opened it on Saturday evening when my husband handed me the day’s forgotten mail while I was sitting in the green chair in the living room, and what struck me was not the words, although they did make up in small part for the last jaw shattering one-star review on Amazon, “self-centered drivel, not worth my time.” No, it wasn’t what she said in the card with the picture of a yellow bird sitting on a blossoming branch, it was the faith and patience, the few minutes of time and trouble, the paper, the pen, the flowing stroke of the letters, the tenderness expended in doing a little something the long way and sending it straight into my heart.

I’m slowly gathering materials and supplies, robes, pillows, bells, things remembered and nearly missed, for a long drive north on Friday to sit with folks for two days in lightness and dark at the ocean’s edge. Honestly, I don’t much like this part. The packing and organizing, listing, thinking, all the thinking, the miles, the money, the time. But I do it. I do things the long way. Because when I finally get to that place in the room where the silence rolls in my heart fills with the fullness of peace and I come to rest on the good ground of forever.

The long way is the straight way to the human heart.

For anyone who ever wondered if I saved the card you sent. Yes, I saved it in a woven basket of forever.

a forest of emptiness

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Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita,
Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions,
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.

Heart Sutra

Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. This single phrase is the summation of the Buddhist path, the culminating insight of the Way. But having uttered it, I’ve already strayed from it. Having read it, you’ve missed it, because now your mind is running amok trying to understand it, and here I am trying to chase after you. So let’s come back together in one big, empty place, and start over.

What looks solid is not solid; what has no shape comes in all shapes. In a physical sense, bamboo is strong because it is hollow. It is supple and resilient; it bends without breaking. It supports incredible weight. It grows unimpeded by any known barrier, spreading outward everywhere. This is true of you, too. Where do you think you begin and end? Your feet? Your head? Your skin? Your eyes, nose, mouth, ears? Your thoughts, memory, feelings? The way we limit ourselves imposes a bunker mentality and defies scientific reality.

It helps to remember what you took on faith in fourth grade science. All matter is composed of atoms. Atoms are mostly empty space. By definition you can’t see emptiness, but you can be it. Now, to live and let live in emptiness. That’s the secret to paradise.

First, be quiet. Give away your ideas, self-certainty, judgments, and opinions. Let go of defenses and offenses. Face your critics. They will always outnumber you.

Lose all wars. All wars are lost to begin with. Abandon your authority and entitlements. Release your self-image: status, power, whatever you think gives you clout. It doesn’t, not really. That’s a lie you’ve never believed.

Give up your seat. Be what you are: unguarded, unprepared, unequipped and surrounded on all sides. Alone, you are a victim of no one and nothing.

What appears in front of you is your liberation. That is, unless you judge it. Then you imprison yourself again.

Now that you are free, see where you are. Observe what is needed. Do good quietly. If it’s not done quietly, it’s not good.

Start over. Always start over.

Excerpted from the upcoming book Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

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fire and water

I have been writing seriously for several months, which means I have been seriously reading. I’ve relied on a furnace of words for warmth and light, and an ocean of wisdom to slake my thirst. Most recently, I have consumed these books, and they have consumed me. I wholeheartedly recommend them for telling the one true story of our lives.

9780670026630A Tale for the Time Being – By Ruth Ozeki. When a woman finds a girl’s journal washed up on her island shore, it becomes a portal through time. A mysterious and compelling story, as well as a fearless presentation of Zen’s deepest teachings. Brilliant.

 

age-miracles-karen-thompson-walker-paperback-cover-artThe Age of Miracles – By Karen Walker Thompson. When the Earth’s rotation inexplicably slows, the result reads like neither science nor fiction, but the revelation of our hidden nature in unblinking daylight. Observant and insightful.

 

9780307962690_180X180Wave – By Sonali Deraniyagala.  Her life, family, future and every shred of sanity is washed away by the South Asian tsunami on the day after Christmas. The sole survivor can only say this much. Each word of this memoir is a pearl. Unbearably perfect.

 

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