Posts Tagged ‘Beginnings’

Change with a capital G

January 10th, 2008    -    20 Comments


Did she win? Can we vote? Is it time?

We pause for this political message, which I hope is not political.

My daughter has always had an interest in the election process. She learned to read by sounding out the Kerry/Edwards bumper stickers in the preschool parking lot. She has accompanied us to the polls. Of course she’s aware of laws, and wars, and her parents’ occasional invocation of the former and abiding aversion for the latter. Her reaction sweetly mirrored our despair when she said in 2004, “Have we ever voted for anyone who won?”

This season I am not particularly attracted to any candidate and repelled by only a few. You can see how I’m teetering on the knife’s edge of an opinion. I am inspired, however, by my daughter, because she is purely, gleefully, hopelessly, and totally for the girl.

Perhaps this is the state of mind when you’re a girl in the state of 8. She and her friends are totally, unabashedly, fearlessly girls. And by that I don’t mean anything in particular, but that they are completely free and unafraid to love themselves. They love themselves and they love each other. They adore one another. They hug and kiss each other endlessly. They have not yet acquired any reason to withhold themselves, to judge themselves as too this or too that, to hide any part of their hearts or minds. Of course they notice the boys, they like them too, in silly ways that you can tell will soon be too much.

“The boys all love me but I only love Amy,” she said last year in first grade.

This year she has new crushes and allegiances, and one of them is Hillary. “Because she would be the first lady president!” she says while jumping up and down. In her unbiased and uninformed view I see something I no longer see in myself and hardly anywhere else.
I see a place that I fled, through pain, cynicism and calculation, many, many years ago. I see the place that my daughter herself may abandon as she feels the weight and strictures of the world we live in. I see the Girl’s Team, and I wonder if I shouldn’t glance back over with an open mind.

I don’t call myself a feminist. I try not to call myself anything. And believe it or not, to be a Buddhist is to work your whole life on getting rid of the -ist. And so I read with unexpected awe this eye-opening essay by Gloria Steinem earlier this week, “Women are Never Front-Runners.” Oh, I know what the arguments are, the feelings, the hunches, the dislikes, the gossip, the distaste. But when I see the brutal lash of cynicism, the extraordinary criticism, the arrogant, all-knowing, analytical, dismissive discounting of what and who this woman is, I flinch. I flinch because we are so much harder on her than the boys. Have I been this hard on myself, just for being a girl? Am I sending my daughter into this cruelty, where she will never again jump up and down for the girl?

In short, when my girl speaks, I listen because there is a message in it for me. There’s a message in everything that comes our way.

The other night I told my daughter that the girl might not even be a candidate for president, and I told her who it might be.

“Would he be the first African-American president?” she asked.

Yes.

“Cool!” she said, her eyes once again twinkling with the possibilities.

The good towels

December 31st, 2007    -    17 Comments


It’s a good time of year to institute change. It’s the time of year when change is instituted whether you think it’s good or not. Fact is, it’s always that time.

If you have a particular notion of what Zen means, you might think that we don’t go in for setting high-minded standards such as New Year’s resolutions. It’s true that we don’t go in for setting standards and making judgments. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t see when our favorite pants no longer snap. No one blisses out when that happens and so, resolutions can be useful.

The best resolution I ever made was the only one I ever kept. About five years ago I resolved to floss my teeth every day. My friends got a chuckle over that, thinking perhaps that a Buddhist priest would have a more noble aim. But that’s the problem with noble aims. They rarely hit their mark and you could develop gum disease in the process.

Having spent the greater part of my life as a cynical, wise-ass, know-it-all, I never made New Year’s resolutions before that. I didn’t believe in New Year’s. Hell, for most of my life I didn’t believe in anything, except maybe that hard work trumped all. I believed that at the end of the long, bitter, bare-knuckled crawl up the crest of the rainbow to a better somewhere, there was a pot of gold with my name on it. The name would have been Karen K. Scrooge.

I believed in the reward system, and I held myself to it. I would save today for a rainy tomorrow. I would put the new shoes at the top of the closet, the pricey liquor at the bottom of the cabinet, the jewelry at the back of the drawer. I would save the good towels for company and the good dishes for a special someday. Everything had a better use, a brighter day, some other day.

The thing is, somedays never come, and that’s why we call them someday. I saved my china and crystal in the boxes they came in, and after my eleven-year first marriage, I sold them that way too. In the original bubble wrap. No worthy meal had ever been served on those painted plates; no lips had ever taken a salutary sip from the gold-rimmed stemware.

It’s easy to fall into that trap. That someday trap. Someday have a party. Someday treat yourself. Someday go somewhere. Someday have fun. Someday celebrate. Someday be happy. Someday raise a toast to the life you’ve been saving for.

2008 Someday Resolutions

1. Use the good towels.
2. Get a lot more good towels.
3. Dump all the crappy towels in the house and replace them with good towels.
4. Wear the diamond necklace.
5. Wear the silver locket.
6. Wear the gold chain.
7. Damn it, wear all the real jewelry I keep in the back of the underwear drawer.
8. Wear something else from the back of that drawer.
9. Celebrate with a martini.
10. Use the special martini shaker and glasses we’ve never used.
11. Wow, these are good.
12. Let’s make another batch.

The Morning After Someday Resolutions

1. Blllechhhhhuuuuuhhooowwwwwwhhhhhh.
2. Use the good towels.

And tell my husband every day that I love him.

There comes a time

December 29th, 2007    -    7 Comments

To simply say goodbye.

To ferry you through the dark distance of being gone

December 21st, 2007    -    11 Comments





The more things stay the same, the more things change.
Greetings of this timeless season
from our home to yours.

The many-colored mosses are as abundant as ocean waves.
– From the calligraphy on our front gate

Christmas stories

December 16th, 2007    -    6 Comments


Round about the time my first marriage ended, then after the love of my life left town, and when the mad flirtation with the 23-year-old waiter wound down to its wretched end, I began to wonder in earnest how my life would turn out. This was about 15 years ago, but it might as well be today. We all do this a lot – wonder how our particular story will turn out. This kind of wondering can be the chief occupation of our lives. As I was busy wondering how the drama would play out, all I had to work with, in terms of leading characters, were the people I had already known. All I had to work with, in terms of events, was my past experience. All I had to work with, in terms of the story, was my stunningly unoriginal imagination. Still, even with those splintered bones and rotten dregs, I busied myself night and day stewing about who, from all the people I had ever known, was going to leap out of some past sad scenario, have a thrilling change of heart, swoop into the present, and escort me into some fantasy happy ending.

Something did happen about that time in my life. My whole life happened about that time in my life, but it involved no one from the past, nowhere I’d been, nothing I’d done before and no version of anything I’d imagined. We don’t ever know how our lives will go, but they go, and by and large, they go much better than they might if we were the authors of our own worn-out life story.

We never know.

And so, this particular Buddhist suggests, whatever your chosen religious dogma or absence thereof, it’s a damn good idea round about now to believe in Santa Claus.

Your heart is in your hand

December 11th, 2007    -    15 Comments


“I need instruction. How, HOW do I realize that I am enough?” -– Lisa

I am honoring Lisa’s plea from yesterday in this post. Here, I’m going to speak as directly as I can about what true practice is. Then tomorrow I will tell you how to find a practice center. Because, for all of us, time is wasting.

There’s a lot of bullshit talk about practice. There’s a lot of talk about spirituality, wholeness, wellness, self-improvement, happiness and all that rot. I say rot because talking and reading about it is crap. It misses the point entirely. The point of everything I write is the same point of everything I do: to bring my practice to life, not just to tell you about it. Zen makes it clear that doing makes all the difference.

I saw a friend and reader over Thanksgiving who had some advice for the next book. She said, “Include more about meditation, because I can’t really do it.” I said: Exactly! Even though I encourage you to meditate at home, even though I encourage myself to meditate at home, I can’t really sustain my effort by myself, and I’ve been practicing for 15 years! My teacher recalls something said by Maezumi Roshi after he’d been practicing most of his life – more than 40 years at least – while recognized as one of the foremost Zen masters in the world. He said, “I think I’m finally starting to do it.”

The “it” I’m referring to is zazen, or Zen meditation. I’m not going to recite how to do it in this post. You can follow the instructions here, and do your best. Or you can read this book, a classic, featuring the instructions of my dharma great-grandfather. Or better yet, you can find a place that will welcome and support you and a teacher who will guide you.

There are many answers to spiritual questions and many traditions that ensue, but I will only tell you what I know from personal experience: Zazen will do what Lisa asks. It will show you that you are enough. It will show you that, in fact, you are the only thing. You are the whole world, the earth, heaven and stars. Even when you aren’t yet able to see the truth completely, zazen will totally transform your life. It worked for Buddha. It’s what the Buddha taught, and how the Buddha lived.

Now here are some responses to the questions that I imagine you might have.

What makes Zen meditation different than other kinds of meditation? It is not visualizing. It is not ruminating. It is not contemplation. It is not wishful thinking. It is not a relaxation technique. Those are all OK; they just won’t transform your life. Zazen is not done with your eyes closed. It is the discipline of stilling your body and watching with precise attentiveness – and your eyes open – to how your habitual worries, fears and anxieties rampage and ruin your life. And when you finally notice that, it helps you to kick those gangsters out of the house.

What is it supposed to be like? Here are two warning signs to watch for with meditation. (1) Beware if you like meditation, because you’re probably not really doing it. Sorry. At least for the first 39 years (joke), meditation is difficult. Your mind and your body will revolt against it. It is a discipline. It is a crisis intervention. You are withdrawing from your lifetime addiction to your self-involved, ego-driven thoughts. Hear this: you are not destroying your ego; you are not going brain dead; you are putting your overblown head on a diet. (2) Beware if you don’t like meditation, because no one does at first, and if you think you’re the only one who doesn’t enjoy it you will stop right there. This practice works when you keep doing it in spite of your preferences. This practice IS going beyond preferences, your picking-and-choosing mind. When you keep it up, practice deepens. It grows. It takes time to recognize and relax into peace of mind instead of darting madly for the exit. Misery, you see, is an addiction too.

How do I prepare myself? There is no way and no need to prepare yourself. You simply begin. Telling yourself you have to prepare before you begin a meditation practice is just setting up false expectations of how it is supposed to be. The best preparation is the state of mind expressed in Lisa’s question: heartfelt insistence, urgency and the raw vulnerability of having nothing left to lose. That’s where I started too.

Tomorrow I will tell you where and when to find people who can help you. And because that’s not soon enough, you have in your hands the means to find it yourself. Start right now. Do it all wrong, because there is no wrong. Do not waste another minute waiting for the right way or the right day or the right place or the right anything.

I wish I could say more, but I cannot say enough. Please see it for yourself.

And if you’re not interested in meditation practice, forget all this, but be sure to visit Lisa anyway and practice kindness. It’s the same thing and in equally short supply.

A good night to see the moon

November 26th, 2007    -    14 Comments

A comment over the weekend had me remembering that my father died two years ago this Thanksgiving. Or rather, he died the day after Thanksgiving, but only because we delayed him on this side of the door until the dinner dishes could be cleared. His death was swift but a long time coming, unexpected but unsurprising, inconvenient but flawlessly executed.

I hope you understand when I say my father’s death was his finest hour. I was proud of him, something I never genuinely felt before.

My mother ran interference for Dad in our lives. Despite her frequent assurances that “Your Daddy really loves you,” my father did not love easily nor was he easy to love. Although no child could be expected to know or compensate for it, my father showed us what a lifelong submersion in pain could look like, and how insidiously it could spread. As soon as I could steady myself on two feet, I kept my distance. For the rest of his life, nearby or not, I cultivated ways to buffer myself. I owe my strength, resilience, independence, intelligence, humor and oddly enough, peace of mind, to him.

My sisters and I would sometimes imagine my father’s decline into illness and incapacitation. We would stew in the cynical certainty that the burden would befall us to be kind to an unkind man and generous to a self-centered scrooge. We weren’t at all sure we could do it.

Suffice it to say that isn’t what happened.

About a year before he died, my father began to do some strange things. He imagined a new life, or death, in a new place, far away. And he set about, with the intention and resolve he had lacked in nearly every other year of his life, to accomplish this. He gave away or sold all the stuff we were so sure we would be saddled with sorting out. He sold his home, the albatross we’d already hung around our necks. He loaded up his dog and his truck and moved to a mountain home where six months later he could no longer breathe.

When I arrived at his bedside, he was not breathing on his own. I sat for two days to the rhythm of the respirator while we waited for a pathology report delayed by the holiday hiatus. There was no hope, nor was there need for any. We saw so clearly the perfect plan and timing, the wisdom, the care, the great responsibility he had stepped forward to shoulder for his life, finally, and his death, and weren’t they one and the same?

The last night, I felt his life rush out like the tide, and I lost my footing. I could not stand. I could not walk. The nurses wondered if I had the flu and if I should go to the ER.

“No,” I said, “it is my father dying.” They could only assume that it was an emotional response. But it wasn’t emotional. It was physical. I clung to my chair like a raft lest I flow out in the undertow. And then I felt, as never before, that my father was me.

When all was said and done, we turned off the machine and death came. It was simple and effortless. It was easy and on time. I spoke prayers, verses and encouragement, and I found out I could. I owe my compassion, faith and fearlessness to him.

I owe him my life, and my dog.

Good night, Daddy.

The risk of life

November 20th, 2007    -    12 Comments

When I realize I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I realize I am everything, that is love. And between these points I live my life.

In this big, wide world that fits on the head of a pin, in this universe of infinite possibilities and yet identical experiences, I often find my voice in the words of readers or find my readers in mine. Such was the case today when this post prompted a drip and then the outpouring you find in the puddle right here.

This is what I have been longing to say.

Living involves an incalculable level of risk. It is the riskiest thing we do. And not because it could be fatal. There is a 100 percent risk of fatality, and that cannot be called a risk, but rather a guarantee. No matter what false comfort we take in our age, our habits, our attitude, or our genetics, none of that changes the bottom line. We all die. In spite of that irrefutable end, living with our whole heart, our whole mind and both feet is a risk that few of us are willing to take.

Few of us are willing to take on the risk of being alive. By that I mean being fearless and free, spontaneous, creative, generous, expansive, trusting, truthful and satisfied. To risk accepting ourselves and our lives as they are. To risk forgiveness. To risk not knowing. To risk messing up and starting over. To risk life’s inevitable cycles and sequences. To risk something new. To let hurts heal. To let bygones be gone. To face the fact that the narrow, familiar, comfortable idea we have of our self is just that – an idea – and to let that idea go. And not to be replaced by any other newer, better idea of who we are. To realize every name, every definition, every label, every story, every boundary, every fear, every feeling, every diagnosis, every conclusion, everything we claim to know about ourselves, is just an idea. And to let every bit of that go too.

The truth is, we know nothing about life. It can’t be known. But it can be observed. This is what we can see.

Life wants to live. Watch a friend or family member face death, or have a health scare yourself, and see how much life wants to live.

Life wants to grow. Plan a family, or struggle with infertility, and see how much life wants to grow.

Life is not hard to live. It is effortless. Life lives by itself. It is what we think and feel about life that is so very difficult to endure.

Life has a way of going. Why it goes, we can’t answer. Where it goes, we don’t know. But how? That’s entirely up to us. How can you risk losing another year to fear, anger or anxiety? Another month? Another day? Another moment? How can you risk being anything but whole-heartedly alive right now?

If you or someone you know is struggling with infertility, look into the free teleconference I’m hosting on “The Mind-Body Connection to Conception” next week. I don’t know what I will say, but I promise to do no harm.

Coming home to the place you never left

November 18th, 2007    -    12 Comments


We pulled to a stop at the light on the way to the dentist, of all places.

Mom, there’s a man holding a sign that says homeless.

We do this nearly every time, handing a very small bill to this very same man in the very same spot. I roll down the window with my offering. He blesses us and the light turns green.

That’s going to take him a whole year, she says as I pummel the accelerator.

A whole year for what, I ask with imperceptible interest.

To save enough for a home.

And the curtain rises to reveal the innocence of a child, seeing the hidden dignity in the humbled, the obvious depth of the need, the unbiased purity of the gift. And I hope that in this one exchange, this folded paper passed between a crack of glass, this man has indeed palmed a full dollar’s worth of peace and comfort, a home sweet home, as he is and where he is.

He is not, of course, saving up for a home. But the rest of us are. We force and finagle. We fret, scrimp and plan. We set our sights on an impossible someday, when things are finally set, the ship comes in and the planets align. When the grass is cut and the pie crust is perfect. At last, or so we envision, we arrive at a life of ease and fulfillment. Until then we scramble like mad to recast a life with a different beginning in urgent anticipation of a life with a different ending. We go looking for home.

In this week when tradition calls us home, can we find it? Can we set aside the expectations and standards, the wishes and dreams, the old resentments, the tired conversations, the grudges, the comparisons and judgments? Can we avoid the build-up and the letdown? Can we accept, forgive, forget, make peace and pass the mashed potatoes? If we can do that, really do that, then we might find home – our true home – in the very spot we sit, and we might for once – I don’t mind if I do – just eat.

A detail from the woodcarving on our front door.

In celebration of our home’s inclusion in the remarkable new book, At Home: Pasadena.

Still crying it out

September 20th, 2007    -    10 Comments

“Not knowing is most intimate”
– Zen koan

I’ve been writing more than reading lately, and I’ve just backtracked to a fascinating article in the Sept. 17 issue of The New Yorker. Fascinating because it is sublimely inconclusive and oh, so close to home. I wish I could link to it, but it’s not online: “Crybabies” by Jerome Groopman. “The conundrum of colic” is the subtitle. My life had that exact subtitle too, for a few months back in 1999. The colic, of course, is ancient history, but the subtitle still lingers, and fits every now and then as I enter some new, inscrutable chapter.

If you’re intrigued, you can read abstracts here and here and another mother’s perspective here.

I love to read Groopman for his open-eyed examination of how little is known by medical science. I love to read him because he is a doctor, and he knows what he doesn’t know. He also knows what the medical establishment doesn’t know, the kind of unknowing that few doctors – and patients – can honestly admit or accept.

Colic seems to be related to maternal temperament. Or not. It seems to be tied to immature digestive systems. Or not. It seems to improve with babywearing. Or not. It is sometimes associated with diet. Or not. It seems to be relieved by antacids, herbal tea, rocking, swaddling, cuddling, and motion. Or not. It seems neverending. But it’s not.

Colic arrives just as you begin to think you have a grasp, a handle, a way of living in the new world. It tears that grip away from you. It steals every ounce of optimism, every hopeful conclusion. It shreds every fix and remedy. It leaves you with nothing to try or trust. Nothing but time.

Colic is the last thing you expect to give birth to. No one wishes it on anyone. But in its own ravaging wake, it leaves a gift. That’s the gift of not knowing. Not knowing when or how or if. Of surrendering to futility. Of succumbing to the tears. Of accepting the certainty of nothing but another day, and a different ending.

Everyone always outgrows colic. But I’m not sure anyone ever outgrows colic. Least of all the parent.

Miracle infertility cure

September 9th, 2007    -    2 Comments


We pause our regularly scheduled programming for this miracle.

About a year ago, I fumbled my way onto a blog of someone just like me, just like you, who was writing bravely about her hope, ambivalence, fear and conflicting desires about becoming a mother. She was afraid she had waited too long, afraid she didn’t want it enough, afraid of miscarrying again, afraid of trying and afraid of not trying. She had lots of good reasons to feel this way. I contacted her, just to be a nuisance, and assured her that it was not too late, that no reason why not was ever good enough, that miracles do happen, and sent her my book as proof.

Please join in my deep joy as we welcome Claire Georgia Harper, born Sept. 8.

My heart explodes. The love rolls on. That’s how the cheerio goes.

Last laugh

September 6th, 2007    -    6 Comments


When it appears in a spread, this enigmatic card heralds unexpected events and sudden inspirations. He may foretell breathtaking coincidences which have the power to upturn an ordinary life. He represents, above all, the transformational spirit of anarchy and the impersonal forces of destiny. We are foolish to believe we can totally control our own or other people’s lives, he says.

The school calendar tells me that this is the last day of summer. These ten weeks have been a riot, and not necessarily a laugh riot. But something tells me all that is about to change. I feel a take-off rumbling; I feel a buzz. This kind of a turning point calls for a little review. This was the summer that:

We traveled cross-country to witness the rocket launch that wasn’t.

The household plumbing pooped out and required emergency neurosurgery.

The new pipes caused a pressure surge that broke the washing machine.

The repairman mixed up the hot for the cold and I shrunk my new cotton cargoes.

Our new neighbor turned out to be a dastardly developer who built a menacing addition overlooking our century-old garden, then put the property on the market where it remains empty, overpriced, unkempt and unsold. (Wanted: rich new neighbors with a friendly 8-year-old girl.)

Posthaste we put in a fifty-foot stretch of exotic bamboo, a stash of cash and a fountain of tears into this old patch of dirt to vainly recapture what used to be.

Last night, in the thick of concocting a casserole for this morning’s teacher appreciation breakfast, the oven died. (I’m broken up over this one.)

And within the last 10 days I have found, on two separate and creepy occasions, a Joker card mysteriously placed under my bedroom rug by an unknown interloper. Two cards from a deck we do not own. The police have been called and precautions taken.

All of this culminates just as I have resolved to stop all my bellyaching. There are many out there who are much better at it than me (the bellyaching) and drop-dead (funny) to boot. With my next post I will go back to the basics, my own calling card, and make a practice of demystifying the enigmatic Zen teachings that eternally perplex us in plain sight, tricking us, surprising us, upturning and illuminating our deluded view of ordinary life. Who else but me can do that? Who else ever would? No, the world will never notice. And so it will ever be.

And just for the record, should something else untoward happen – should the Joker reappear for one last laugh – here’s a clue: Colonel Mustard, with the candlestick, in the Conservatory.

The future calling

August 8th, 2007    -    3 Comments

I m at the airp. I don’t want 2 leave at
all and I feel sick like I am gonna barf:-&
I wish we lived here sooooooo bad
I miss u and the Molly see u soon Love Georgia

About a month ago my 7-year-old picked up my cell phone and said, “Mommy can I text you?” and I said, “Honey, you don’t know how to text.” What I should have said is “I don’t know how to text,” because I was wrong about her. What do I know? Where have I been? About a month ago she was born and how she got this far already is completely beyond accounting. I look at her now, I look at her beauty, her freshness, her supreme inalterable isness and I’m weak with it still, helpless, humbled, awed by the immensity and inexpressibility of love.

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