Posts Tagged ‘Chop Wood Carry Water’

8 steps to happy laundering

July 3rd, 2016    -    12 Comments

You might think I’m using a metaphor when I say that my spiritual practice is doing the laundry. Metaphor or not, laundry is the practice of seeing things as they are. Take a look at how to go from the hamper to happiness in eight steps.

Empty the hamper – Laundry gives us an honest encounter with ourselves before we’re freshened, fluffed and sanitized. It gives us a mirror to the parts of ourselves we’d rather overlook, and makes us take responsibility for our own messes. Self-examination reveals the pure wisdom that resides within each of us.

The instructions are in your hands – The tag inside a garment tells you exactly how to care for what you hold in your hands. Not just clothing, but very bit of life comes with instructions when we are attentive enough to notice. Doing it well may take more work than we’d like, but the effort is always worth it in the long run.

Handle with care – It’s inevitable: everything shrinks, fades and falls apart. Nothing stays brand-new. The most precious things we have are fashioned of flimsy fabric. Be mindful with each moment you have and you will experience your life in a different way. read more

dare small things

March 31st, 2015    -    12 Comments

Become the least grain of sand on the beach. —Maezumi Roshi

I’ve had this quote on my mind lately, because it’s so easy to be distracted by the waves.

A few years ago I spent considerable time running the streets around my neighborhood. I told myself I was training to do a great and worthwhile thing: a marathon. I didn’t yet know that the truly great thing was taking even one tiny step.

Since I ran in the mornings, I would often cross a major intersection at commuting time, and lope through the crosswalk as the cars idled beside me. I had a startlingly intimate view of the solitary drivers, which is a rare and beautiful thing. We sit behind our wheels as if cocooned in invisibility. No one looked back at me. No one noticed the small, stooped lady striding past, smiling at them.

I might have said people looked grim, but that wasn’t quite true. They had no expression. They were unaware. It was going to be a day like any other. Not a single one of them would have thought they’d achieved greatness.

But they had. They had punched the alarm and gotten out of bed. Made the coffee and turned off the pot. Packed a sack lunch. Fed the pets, scratched the sweet spot under the dog’s chin. Smeared a smudge of butter across a slab of toast. And here they were, on time or late, calm or impatient, angry or bored, feeling utterly insignificant in the scheme of things.

My heart would swell at the sight of these great people answering the noble call: to do small things, and do them everyday. That’s why I smiled, but they didn’t see.

***

My dear husband was part of a recent space landing that bore as its slogan “Dare Mighty Things,” a snippet from a stirring Teddy Roosevelt quote:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

Teddy could rally soldiers to their doom.

The space project was daring, its landing sequence worked, and it brought a wave of relief and pride to a group of people whose careers are continually being foreshortened and whose intelligence, frankly, is a bit of a cultural liability. (At least in this country.) The landing of the mission, though, was not the mighty thing. I had an up-close look at this endeavor, so I know.

What was mighty is that thousands of people woke up each workday for many, many years in several countries to log onto their computers and answer emails, stand in security lines at airports, eat crackers at their desks, tell jokes and ask about each other’s kids.

We must not lose sight of this everyday greatness, or we might as well live on Mars.

***

My teacher tells the story of hearing firsthand Maezumi’s instruction, “Become the least grain of sand on the beach.” He thought at first the old guy was telling him he wouldn’t amount to much. Aim low. Give up. Settle for less. And then he realized that not amounting to much was amounting to everything.

Become the least grain of sand and you’ve become inseparable from the whole beach. Big, mighty, or great doesn’t begin to measure what you already are. All you have to do is see it, and then, keep doing the small things. The universe depends on it.

Two more little things you might want to look into:

Beginner’s Mind Meditation Retreat April 17-19 in West Hartford, CT

Prairie Bloom: A Zen Retreat Aug. 6-9 in Madison, WI

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on the road with Brett

August 17th, 2014    -    7 Comments

10154960_10152344068466885_4491155882900185074_nI get the feeling Brett has always done things head first: farsighted, excitable, bullish.

A well-known angel investor in Silicon Valley, Brett Bullington was past the midpoint of a cross-country bike ride for charity on October 8, 2012 when he fell face-first going downhill on a highway in northern Oklahoma. He had probably been going about 30 mph. His brain injuries were severe. The prognosis wasn’t good. When he was in ICU I got an email from a mutual friend asking me to pray for him.

“I feel strongly that he has not yet passed,” she wrote at that first perilous hour. I stepped outside and said a chant in the garden.

She was right. Brett did not leave this world, but entered a long period of recovery and rehabilitation, with modest daily progress and sudden devastating setbacks. But he has been home and healthy for some time, working on getting better, and I was able to meet him in May when I visited Palo Alto.

Meeting Brett is not like meeting anyone else.

He might tell you straightaway, for instance, how many hours he slept last night or last week, along with his recent nightly average. How many steps he has taken today or yesterday. Who he saw this morning. Where he’s going this afternoon. What he’s planting in his garden. What he ate, what he read (his wife Diana reads books aloud at night) and again, how many hours he slept.

His doctor told him that walking and sleep are vital to brain recovery, so he records his progress on his Jawbone UP fitness band and posts it everyday on Facebook. People like to hear about his improvements, he says, and their appreciation fuels a continuous loop of feedback.

During our visit, we had dinner with friends and meditated together. Sitting still for several hours took a toll on Brett’s walking totals that day, but he did great. After I returned home, he friended me on Facebook. There he posts pictures of the people he meets on his daily walks, some with his dog Trudy. He puts up his Jawbone tallies, which might constitute a good day or a reason to do better tomorrow. His focus is resolutely optimistic and straight-ahead. I am always struck by the unintended profundity in his notations. Everything he does is upfront, pure and simple. In contrast, I’m embarrassed by my own clumsy efforts to say something deep and quotable. read more

the gardener is patient

March 11th, 2012    -    12 Comments

A letter received in a hand-addressed envelope in the mail:

Dear loyal customer,

I have been in the hospital since 3/5/2012 and will be undergoing surgery on Friday 3/9/2012. After surgery, I will be out of commission for 2-3 weeks due to recovery. I would like to continue to work for you in your garden after my recovery and hope you can be patient until then. I do apologize for this inconvenience.

Sincerely,

Mr. J.I.

This gentleman is close to 80 years old. Today, he swept away inconvenience and pruned my impatience. I will never take his work away from him. His work will never end.

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Invocation upon arrival at peace

December 11th, 2011    -    16 Comments


I’m home. Stop. The yard looks nice. Stop. But the weeds took over. Stop. The dog is shedding. Stop. The hair is everywhere. Stop. The mail is high. Stop. All bills I bet. Stop. The fridge is empty. Stop. The floor is muddy. Stop. What to do first? Stop. Unpack my bag? Stop. Maybe the laundry? Stop. Clean up the kitchen? Stop. Collect the trash? Stop. Write on the blog? Stop.

Too much to think about! Stop. My head is pounding. Stop. Hear the racket? Stop.

Just stop.

And then go.

And don’t stop.

Rules for waiting, and a giveaway

March 15th, 2009    -    32 Comments


Spoiler alert: Blame it on the early stages of a woozy flu, hormone depletion, sleep deprivation, or the dark bluster of the Ides. This post is somewhat post.

The other day I was talking to my friend Amy Tiemann on the phone. On the phone, that’s right. How very 1.0. And she and I were in mutual agreement that life in these times can be summarized as follows: “How can people live in this world without going insane?”

Ain’t that the truth? But it’s not a new thing. More like an awakening to the way sentient beings have always been. These days the race to the next next next next new thing seems like a 75 rpm refrain. Rpm? How vintage! Everything is in an accelerated state of obsolescence. We cannot get to the next thing fast enough. As though it leads somewhere else, somewhere other than here.

Newspapers? History. Banks? Yesterday. Jobs? Obsolete. Conversation? Over. Time? Out.

These days you read a lot in these parts about Is the Blog Dead? I’m old enough to remember when that question was leveled with far more gravitas as Is God Dead? It’s spelled differently but it’s the very same question. It’s a kind of intellectual diversion from the real question; the only question there is which is Am I Going to Be Dead?

Or as I ask myself, Am I Going to Be Dead before I Twitter?

This is the kind of chatter, or should I say tweeting, that just exhausts me. I’ve been present at far too many revolutions already. They last a blink, a nano, before they crest into the oblivion beyond. Oh ye of unrelenting enthusiasms, aren’t you tired yet?

***

I’ve been reading far too much about Jane Fonda. I can’t quit. Ever since I read this profile in the Times about her brave return to Broadway at 71, and picked up on the fact that she was chronicling every inch of the ascent on her daily blog and Twitter. I’m obsessed with her, and it looks like she shares the obsession. Fonda is the icon of obsession for my generation, but she always seemed to hold herself at a remove. She always seemed to immerse herself in the great matter and the real questions. You can now read that in her dotage, for instance, she dotes on a dinky fluff-dog. You can read about her self-doubt and insecurities and think for a minute she’s just like us. Then you see pictures of her A-list BFFs: Redford, Tomlin, Hanks. “Oooooh I am so happy. I’ll twitter during my breaks.” She never stops, even though of course one day, and relatively soon, she’ll stop. In the meantime, she’s miniaturized herself, at least in my view, into 140 characters. To say that she is connecting with other people in this self-directed way is to say that these people from another story in Sunday’s paper are “making love.” Nothing could be farther. (Made ya look!)

***

Last week I had a disturbing and provocative dream. My husband, daughter and I were groping our way, on white-knuckles and knees, up a Sisyphean incline. It seemed we were going somewhere. Inching forward, sliding back, defying gravity. Ah yes, to the beach! At the peak of this grueling pitch, you could see the endless sky and ocean filling the horizon beyond. The massive swells and darkened depths. My husband and daughter hurried ahead, carefree. I had reservations. Gripping a paper shopping bag, I was anxiously collecting things you might think you need for a day on the sands of life: snack crackers, juice boxes, water bottles, seedless grapes, string cheese. I was desperate to fill my bag. Not yet, not yet! As I clutched after snack wrappers, my family disappeared into the downward slope. Just then the sea rose up to a perfect, towering vertical tsunami like the height of the stock market in October 2007. Everyone, everything would be swallowed by it. Everything would go.

This was no day at the beach. This was the answer to the unspeakable question.

Also last week I got an unexpected delivery in the mail. A special book, Rules for Old Men Waiting, a debut novel 23 years in the making, sent from a bygone friend. This friend is an elegant and erudite fellow from the old school. Someone who has illumined my life with intelligence and manners. I haven’t heard from him in awhile. The note with it said, “I just finished this book and thought of you throughout. I found it be richly told, wonderfully crafted and lovingly profound. That’s you.” Maximized in 140 characters.

I’m reading it now. And when I finish it, I’m going to return the favor to someone who has made it this far, on white-knuckles and knees, to the precipice of this post. I’m going to share the wisdom I’ve been given, the gift of true friendship, a living connection, with one of you. Because that alone is what keeps the world sane.

Leave a comment and take your prize. It is bittersweet fulfillment to know this chance won’t come again, and to let it go.

Update: The book has gone to Kelly, who has a short time left in a long wait.

Song for reasons of eating

February 26th, 2009    -    10 Comments

There were several items in the New York Times this week that got me salivating. But the one that cut closest to home was this one about the minstrel and erstwhile Zen Buddhist monk, Leonard Cohen: “On the Road: For Reasons Practical and Spiritual.”

As you might expect, the writer finds it paradoxical that Cohen has decided to re-take the stage at this late age. The story’s hook is that Cohen’s road tour is a mystical mingling of the sacred and the secular. The writer thinks that is notable, but I’m certain Cohen doesn’t. He’s not mingling anything. He is simply singing for his supper, because he’s broke.

Can anyone relate?

Cohen doesn’t pit the practical against the spiritual and make a divine quest out of it. There is no difference between the two. There is no either and no or. That ideological distinction is only in the mind of the writer. And it might be in your mind too. When you’re hungry, and you are broke or near-broke, it’s a good time to get your ideas about spiritual versus practical out of your mind and strap them to the bottom of your feet. And then walk the heck out of them.

Eating is a divine act. It is a mingling of the practical and the spiritual. Pass the ketchup.

A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger. – Zen saying

Cohen is the kind of icon to whom we all lay claim. In truth, I have no claim. I was born a poor, illegitimate music lover and I heard my first Cohen when he was all but done as a singer, living as a mountain monk, and his Ten New Songs was released in 2001. A fellow Zen practitioner gave to me. When I heard Cohen’s bottomless voice surfacing from somewhere deep beneath his navel, when I heard the pure, raw, spare simplicity of the words, I was amazed. “Damn,” I thought, “this guy has spent serious time on his butt.”

But there’s a time to get up off your butt, and it’s about the time you realize that coming or going, walking or sitting, standing up or lying down, you’re always on your butt. Run out of money and what are you going to do? Put your butt on the road.

“Past mind is ungraspable. Future mind is ungraspable. Present mind is ungraspable. With which mind will you eat this rice cake?” – Zen koan

So everyone’s struggling now. Who’s not struggling? Since last summer, every idea I had of my illustrious future has been chewed up and swallowed. Every previous source of income has vaporized. These days I do many, many things, and I do anything for money. Little dribs that come when I need it most. Little sums that get me through. Funny, I actually see more possibilities now. There’s far more tunnel, to be sure. And there’s more light that shines in from all those cracks in the way I thought my life would go.

So come on now, everybody, sing along. Let’s sing and then have supper. You’re invited to my place for dinner, you see, because it’s all one place.

Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

– Leonard Cohen

PS My friend Ted says you can find the unfiltered Leonard here. And you can find Ted here.

Meet the parents

January 20th, 2009    -    12 Comments


Imagine if someone you hardly knew – equipped with only their stubborn insistence, vague navigational skills and a bag of spinach – arrived at your home one morning. What you would make of it?

Make soup, I say.

Denise Andrade and her husband, Carsten Kroon, gave me their prized covered parking space, opened the front door to their comfy haven, and let me keep noisy company with them and new baby Cedar on Monday. I babbled them out of their quiet sanctuary and crowded them out of their kitchen. But they were most kind and accommodating, because they are new parents. And new parents don’t get much of a say, do they?

Cedar, if you hadn’t guessed, is a fluffy soft, sleepy bundle of tiny (yes, he’s still tiny) goodness. He could have cared less for me or anything I brought, because he has this:

To redeem myself, I simmered up a big pot of Italian Wedding Soup to do at least a little good on a January day and to last perhaps a day or so after.

If you need a boost, this could do the trick. If you know any new parents, make a double batch and take some over. We’ve all been called to serve others. They won’t have any choice but to let you in.

Italian Wedding Soup

Mix and brown these meatballs (or use your favorite meatless meatballs):

1 lb extra lean ground beef or turkey
1 large egg
1 minced garlic clove
1 medium onion, minced
1/3 cup breadcrumbs*
A few dashes of Worchestershire sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste

Then combine in a stockpot with this:

12 cups chicken or vegetable stock
6 oz orzo, pastina or other small pasta*
1 lb fresh baby spinach, washed and drained

If you’re making meatballs, combine first 7 ingredients in a mixing bowl. Roll 1 tsp portions into balls and brown in a skillet until done. Place meatballs and all other ingredients in soup or stockpot. Simmer until pasta is done, stirring as needed to keep pasta from sticking to bottom of pot. Serve immediately.

Based on an original recipe by Andrea In Blue.

* Modify to gluten-free like I did by substituting 1/3 cup crushed gluten-free Rice Krispies for the breadcrumbs, and use any small gluten-free pasta.

The power of powerlessness

September 15th, 2008    -    27 Comments


There was a horrific train collision near Los Angeles on Friday. A few hours ago I learned that my neighbor was one of the terribly injured. He is a reliably good and loyal customer at one little girl’s lemonade stand.

There was a colossal hurricane in my old hometown on Saturday. Millions are without electricity, and that includes many dear friends who must now be sweltering in the long dark and silent wake of the littered remains.

There is more disquieting news out of the presidential campaign, ever more staggering in its dimension of hidden truth and dire consequence.

There is an implosion in our financial markets the likes of which leaves none of us little people far enough or smart enough to be out of the quake zone. Our corner savings bank could well collapse by morning. Much bigger streets will topple, and my nest will shudder too.

I am powerless in the face of this powerlessness. I am as powerless as those without power, without truth, without safety and with a careless engineer at the wheel. In solidarity with all who suffer and to bring my mind to peace, I’m unplugging myself this week, going offline to the certain solace of prayer and meditation, steady work, wash, and walks with a very good dog.

I will take power in the only place it can be found: the right here and now.

Take comfort, friends I know and cannot reach, and friends I reach but cannot know, in my brokenhearted love.

A skort of insight

July 14th, 2008    -    15 Comments


I’m clipping a girl’s size 8 hot pink skort still warm from the dryer onto a plastic hanger in the cool quiet of a lonely house near sundown and I wonder:

How did I get here?
And oh, yeah
remembering just then (and again) to feed the fish, the turtle, the dog, the people, these people, an all-day dine,
from a fridge of their favorites, that brand, that bottle, those berries for breakfast, this yogurt not that, certainly none of it mine
Sorting the mail that’s not mine
the socks, the shoes, the glass I didn’t leave behind.
Noticing the brown tinged pine
the toppling trash, the heavy air, the weeds that taunt me everywhere.
Not mine, not mine.
The dusty car, the load of kids
we’re late, they whine
All but one, (thank god) not mine.
The days, the weeks, the calendars kept,
the dwindling time
not mine, no
none of it mine.

How did I get here?
Just lucky I guess.

How the better half lives

May 25th, 2008    -    12 Comments


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

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

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

It’s on my list.

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

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

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

Wish I could be there.

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

Do you want me to grill something?

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

Thank god. I was almost out of underwear.

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

Are you in a bad mood today?

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

Nothing. Not one word.

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

Hand wash cold

May 9th, 2008    -    4 Comments


A reprise, because somebody somewhere knows what this means.

I recently ordered a set of samue. Samue is a style of street clothing for Zen monks. This tiny piece of printed rice paper came tucked into the garment. I have no idea what it says, and for that very reason, I find it quite charming.

I imagine it could be laundry instructions. Maybe it says “Inspected by No. 12.”

It reminds me that, with only a change in perspective, the most ordinary things take on inexpressible beauty.

Ingredients on hand

March 20th, 2008    -    19 Comments


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.

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