Posts Tagged ‘courage’

beside still waters

March 15th, 2017    -    15 Comments

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He leadeth me beside the still waters:
he maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his namesake:
he restoreth my soul.

This is not quite how it goes. I know it is not quite how it goes. I don’t remember how it goes, but I mumble it anyway. It is the least and the most that I can do.

Standing by the bed in the ICU, the respirator inflating my father’s chest like a pipe organ, I leave aside the Buddhist incantations that I’ve memorized and whisper remnants of the old soul song. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

This is a passage from Hand Wash Cold that I’ve been thinking about lately and a lot. Soon after my father died 10 years ago, I told my sisters that I would take his dog to live with me. That’s how the old girl ended up here, in a picture I took this morning.

On the far side of 15, she’s not quite on her last leg but clearly on her last three legs, as arthritis hobbles and sometimes topples her. I’ve pulled her from the pond twice. And yet she still wants to wander in and out, not hearing, perhaps not seeing, and not managing much of what she used to do so dependably. So I’m at her side most days, all day, watching for the wordless word she will give me, when we both know beyond knowing what time it is.

I’ve had a number of visitors to the garden lately, and the subject of nearly all these encounters has been life and death. Not surprising since it’s the only subject there is. Some people have seen the warning light of a crossroads ahead. Others are investigating how to be with the sick and dying. I always tell them not to make too much of the dying part, since it happens by itself and without us ever knowing quite how or when, but rather to work on the being part, since only when we know how to be can we be not afraid. Oh, to be not afraid. That is quite simply everything you can do for everyone.

I rattled around Amazon last week and picked up George Saunders’s new and brilliant novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. It is wonderful in the most daring and difficult way, and I recommend it.

The author has imagined life in the graveyard, populated by grotesquely self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are dead. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to leave all suffering behind.

I can imagine life in a garden, populated by self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are alive. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to show goodness and mercy forever.

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focus on the good

January 18th, 2017    -    41 Comments

Last Saturday, The New York Times ran a story in which a dozen women explained, in their own words, why they voted for the president-elect. It is a bit of a curiosity, that question. After I read it, I noticed that the article was not open to comments. No sense in everyone getting riled up.

He’s not perfect, one woman said. He does some terrible things. I don’t agree with him on very much. But that’s the thing about relationships, she seemed to say. “You get through the bad and you focus on the good.”

Reading that reminded me of what my own mother would say after my father did something cruel, insensitive and selfish, which was pretty much all the time. “He really loves you,” she would tell us. Her words were like a wish blown onto a dandelion.

I’ve read the piece several times since then, looking for the “good” that attracted these voters and I couldn’t find any. They didn’t seem to be motivated by the good at all, but by the bad. Most were expressly anti-immigration, some were anti-Obama or anti-Obamacare, one was clearly anti-welfare, and nearly all were anti-Hillary Clinton. They were afraid of the whole world, or at least America, and looking for protection from the enemy who moved in next door.

In the days immediately following the election, someone wrote a conciliatory comment on my then-Facebook page, where people were posting about how terrified they were by the outcome. Although I voted differently, this person said, I did it out of concern for your safety.

And so the fear has been unleashed upon those who were not yet afraid, not yet exiled or outcast, not yet silenced or disenfranchised, not yet bound and gagged, imprisoned or forgotten. What can we do in the face of this overwhelming, incapacitating fear?

I will focus on the good, which will forever outweigh and outlast the bad. I will be marching with my sisters this Saturday in the Bay Area: Oakland in the morning, San Francisco in the afternoon. We will move our feet and raise our fists and sing out the truth. The forecast is for wind and rain. For sore throats and aching feet. For darkness and dejection. For courage and endurance. The forecast is for a long winter and a frosty spring. But one day, a field of dandelions.

***

If you’re marching in one of the hundreds of protests planned in cities around the world this Saturday, let everyone know in the comments.

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the girl on the train

June 8th, 2016    -    17 Comments

wallpaper-railway-photo-05

When I was little I took a train trip halfway across the country. It was at Christmastime. I remember it as a luxury, a measure of how modestly my family lived otherwise. The train seats were upholstered. I had a bag of brand-new puzzle books and snacks. The porter brought around pillows in creased pillowcases. They cost a dollar apiece to rent. It took three days to get from Union Station in Los Angeles to Austin, Texas.

The train traveled through the empty desert and mountains, across days and nights. We stopped at unfamiliar places in the dark and snow, at old depots in dying towns. People got on and off.

I was only six years old then, in 1962. I was not afraid. My sisters were with me, and my mother was across the aisle.

We got off the train on the third night and were met by the grandparents I hardly knew. My mother’s whole family was waiting to see us. They missed her so much and she lived so far away. Only lately have I realized how hard it was for my mother to miss her mother every day for so long.

I’ve been remembering this since last night when I heard the first woman to become the presidential nominee of a major party saying she wished her mother could be with her right now, a mother who taught her that she could grow up to be anything.

You may not like this particular girl. It doesn’t matter. Some of my own friends call her corrupt, a piece of shit, a snake, things that shock and horrify me, and not because she is a girl—no, not that. They always assure me it’s not because she’s a girl.

This morning I read an article about this girl’s mother, the one who inspired in her daughter such determination and courage. Her mother, you see, was once a girl on a train. Abandoned by her parents at age 8, traveling with her sister to live with people who didn’t want her. By 14 she was on her own again, cleaning houses for strangers during the Depression.

And so today I ask myself this: what do I inspire in my daughter? Do I believe she can go anywhere and do anything? Do I trust, admire, and uplift her? Do I console and encourage her? Am I good company on her long trip to a destination I will never see? Have I taken every opportunity to give my daughter the reassurance my mother still gives me?

Because, you see, a mother may disappear, but a mother never leaves. She is at your side, just across the aisle, for a billion miles across the empty sands. She buys you snacks and books and a fresh pillow. She stays awake through the long night hoping that you will rest. She weeps in humility at how little she can do, and infinite pride at who you have become.

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in the backseat

October 14th, 2015    -    No Comments

Downtown LA view from the backseat of my friend's car

There was a shadowy presence, and I was afraid.

This summer I had a dream. In the dream my daughter was driving a car. In the backseat there was a shadowy presence. I could not see who it was, and I was afraid.

I’d been feeling a little wobbly since my daughter declared last fall that on February 12, 2015, she would be 15 1/2 years old and eligible for a learner’s permit under California motor vehicle law.

I braced myself.

Suddenly she was speeding through a series of tight turns, each more unexpected than the last. She had already researched online driver’s ed and would I please sign her up? You mean today? And having finished the course, would I schedule the permit test at the DMV? Are you sure you’re ready? And having passed the test, would I arrange for the six hours of driving instruction? So soon? And if I was going to the grocery store, could she drive? Right now? And could we go to the mall and practice parking? Tonight? And could she drive home in the dark? And in the rain? And in traffic? And on the freeway?

Freeway driving I scheduled with her certified driving instructor, and they drove off one Saturday morning in September. When she got home two hours later, I asked how it went.

Fine.

Where did you go?

I took the 210 to the 134 to the 101 to Studio City and then the 101 to the 5 to the 134 to the 210. (Forty-five miles round trip.)

Doesn’t he know you can’t drive? I didn’t say.

***

One day she saw a used car for sale in the parking lot at In & Out Burger. It was the exact car she wanted! She took a picture of the car, the license plate and the phone number. Two months later, the car was still for sale. She took it to our mechanic, who gave it a thumb’s up. Then she passed the driving test. The last question was: could she buy the car?

I didn’t answer. I didn’t have to. Before she died 15 years ago, my mother sent a gift for Georgia: some money to save, which turned out to be the exact amount of the car. I can imagine what my mother was feeling as she was about to let go. Her last grandchild only a year old, all her journeys still to come. She must have wanted her to feel loved and strong, confident and free, always.

In my dream I couldn’t see, but now I know who’s in the backseat riding with Georgia, and my heart is at rest.

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not the story you wrote

September 27th, 2015    -    61 Comments

lista

A couple of weeks ago I saw one of those charity appeals scroll past on my Facebook feed. Someone was sick and needed help. I let it pass at first, and then it came back again. So I clicked on the link. It was for this fellow I’d never met, who lived across town, a Facebook friend who was always kind and—get this—encouraging. He’d been hit with a triple whammy on the health front: lymphoma, kidney disease and congestive heart failure. I hesitated before I signed up. My choices were to give money, make a meal, or ignore it altogether. His location wasn’t exactly convenient, so maybe money would suffice. Or I could drive a meal over. In the end, I decided that if I couldn’t do that little, my friendship wasn’t worth that much. So I put my name next to a date, cooked that morning, and showed up on his doorstep.

I apologized when I got there, because the food I brought didn’t even taste good. There were dietary restrictions to follow, and anything cooked without salt ends up tasting like wet cardboard. But it turned out we had a lot in common and had a nice visit. The meal I brought, and the meal he needed, wasn’t my tasteless stuff in the plastic containers. The meal was the company we shared. I told him I could drop by and hang out anytime, and I meant it.

The next day he learned that his lymphoma had progressed even further throughout his body. He was devastated.

This isn’t the ending you’d like for this story, is it? And yet, it’s the ending we all share.

There’s a New Age mantra that tells us if we own our story and reframe the story we can rewrite the story. We can turn down into up, failure to success, pain into promise, and fear into courage just by changing the way we talk to ourselves. It’s true up to a point, and it’s not a bad way to spend a few days if you find yourself in a career or lifestyle funk. But the suffering I see all around me is too real for that.

The other night I flipped open a Buddhist magazine and saw what are called the Buddha’s Five Remembrances. These are the remembrances that we spend our whole life trying to forget.

  1. I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.
  2. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
  3. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
  4. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
  5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

With every true thing staring me in the face, I stopped flipping through the pages.

***

The response American crowds gave to Pope Francis last week was not surprising. We are drawn to his being because we suffer deep ills that cannot be fixed by ego’s clever devices, wounds that cannot be healed by the shallow salve of American self-help. We need a real priest for real times. The times we’re in.

So here’s the purpose of this post: I’ve been handed two beautiful books that I’m going to give away to folks who are ready to read them. If you’re interested in winning either one or both, leave a comment on this post by this Saturday, Oct. 3. Let me tell you what you’re in for.

410mchq-dOL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Taste of Silence: How I Came To Be at Home With Myself  by Bieke Vandekerckhove. This is the most profoundly brilliant book I’ve read in a long time, and it took me completely by surprise. When she was 19 and in college, the Belgian author was diagnosed with ALS and quickly became paralyzed from the pelvis up. Facing the certainty of approaching death, she took refuge in the silence of a Benedictine monastery and Zen practice. Remarkably, she experienced an unheard-of remission, and from her extreme forbearance came this small book of shining teachings. A week after I read this long-awaited English translation, I learned that Bieke had died after 27 years with the disease.

41HyRSSg4xL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness by Toni Bernhard. Fourteen years ago, Toni was traveling in Paris when she fell ill with an acute virus. She never got better. She is still sick. Toni is no longer a law professor or college dean. She is instead a tireless author of books about the unavoidable presence of pain and the power of sickness. Her work is wonderfully honest, practical and wise, proof that living ill can be living well. From the midst of suffering, Toni is generous and clear. This book is a bountiful gift to caregivers too, so they can keep giving when they’ve given just about everything.

A taste of hard wisdom offered with love and delivered to your doorstep. If you could use the company, just tell me so.

shoveling gutters

February 22nd, 2015    -    10 Comments

18335467I’m biding my time today until the sun is higher in the sky, the air warms a bit, and I can get out and clean the rain gutters. This is a chore that stands in for all the snow shoveling that might go on where you live. It is a solitary job. No one but me notices that it is time to do it. No one but me will do it. It does not diminish me. On the contrary, cleaning the gutters will give me power and purpose, direction and rhythm: spiritual guidance that doesn’t come when I spend the day merely thinking about what I could be doing, say, tomorrow.

My dear and sensitive friend Katrina Kenison recently sent me a marvelous book, out of the blue, which is what makes something a gift, descending like a bird into your hand from who-knows-where, a memoir by Mary Rose O’Reilley, a poet and author hitherto unknown to me, who once apprenticed herself to a sheep farm. Going to work every day in a barn made no sense in a literal way, her lofty mind knowing nothing about sheep or lambing or castration or shearing or sudden virulent sickness and death, any of the activities that make up the muddy substance of a sheep farm. Perhaps she had an inkling that the experience would spiritually ground her, rescue her from the reaches of her poetic inclinations, and it did. The farm rescued her, and reading about it rescued me too.

I haul the ladder from the garage and put on oversized gloves. I always start by using a trowel to dig out the gutters but before long I’ll pitch the gloves and tool because they don’t quite get at the depth of the matter, the sweet oozing muck, the marriage of last summer’s dust, wind-brittled leaves and December’s forgotten rain. You have to use your hands.

Sometimes, to tell you the truth, I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel greatly alone and sad. Especially these days, I have to remind myself that I keep company with the earth and sky, and that I alone mother the myriad things in-between. That I am a farmer and a friend, and still an apprentice at both. I have to come back to this wholesome earth and shepherd myself in the best way I can. That’s about the time a gift arrives, and I am saved.

The ladder is shaky because at no spot around this house, which sits on a mountain, is the ground level. I’m not afraid. This old path is muddy, but my aim is straight, and maybe I’ll see a bird.

Going out now.

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a long life

August 5th, 2014    -    10 Comments

Day after day, day after still day,
The summer has begun to pass away.

When my husband walked past me on the way to work this morning, he asked what I was going to do today.

I did not say what I was really going to do, such as “Wash a week’s worth of towels” or “Iron that clean white shirt of Georgia’s that ended up in the laundry just because it got wrinkled in her suitcase,” or “Make Katrina Kenison’s favorite recipe for gazpacho.” No, I didn’t say any of those things because they seemed trivial compared to the daily march of important activities in which I am no longer employed.

Instead what I said was, “Clean out a few closets.” And I saw the shadow of terror briefly crease my husband’s face, the shadow that crosses whenever I throw out what to him is safely out of sight. By my thinking, closets are where things go to die, and by die I mean lose vitality and disappear from use. Such is my ambition in this eighth month of every year as summer slows and autumn knocks. I become a teeny bit preoccupied with cleaning off the shelves. It’s my thing.

A failing light, no longer numinous,

Now frames the long and solemn afternoons

Where butterflies regret their closed cocoons.

I have just a few closets in my small house and they are in awful shape because I have now lived here longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere. As long, and soon longer, than I lived with my parents. Longer than the time spent with my grandparents, whose undying devotion gave me an eternity of perfect memories. Longer than any home I fled or wrecked. A very long time, and the closets show the count.

When I was packing week before last for a family vacation I went hunting for umbrellas, having seen the forecast, and found our “new” umbrellas encased in grime from layers of daily dust creeping through a slender crack in the closet door. Where in the world do closeted umbrellas get dirty through lack of use? My house, that’s where, in the closet I’m aiming for.

But that’s not what this post is about. I will get to the closets, or someone will. This post is about time. I’m feeling it, aren’t you?

Time, time, time. Next week my precious rosebud of a daughter turns 15. Next month I’ll be 58. We are so blessed.

A few years ago I was giving a talk in Boston at which, without shame, I called myself “an old lady.” A lovely woman wearing a look of discomfort raised her hand.

“Why do you keep calling yourself old?” she asked.

“Because I am.”

“But look at you,” she said, as a compliment.

“I feel as though I’ve lived a thousand years,” I said, “and I am satisfied.”

What’s wrong with being old? More to the point, when did age become an insult? It is liberating to open the doors, sweep the shelves and discard what is no longer enlivened by use. To face the present day and the plain, pure facts in front of us.

We reach the place unripe, and made to know

As with a sudden knowledge that we go

Away forever, all hope of return

Cut off, hearing the crackle of the burn-
ing blade behind us, and the terminal sound

Of apples dropping on the dry ground.

I watched a beautiful film on the plane last Sunday, and then commenced a quasi-obsession with Coco Chanel. She was a captivating ingénue, a force of nature, a cultural legend, and she lived until she was a very old lady of 87. She died not sick, but working — and hers was the work of scissors and straight pins. She made a full, long life of doing the simplest things again and again until she was satisfied.

After a week’s trek through some of the great monuments of Western civilization, I came home from vacation to a dry, needy yard and three full laundry hampers. Four loads and three hours of weeding and I was sated. Not done, not by far, but feeling utterly content and alive. Summer nearly gone, and I’m living well past it. To the closets I come.

Excerpts from the poem “Summer’s Elegy” by Howard Nemerov
Photo: Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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what my mother taught me

April 12th, 2013    -    39 Comments

I wanted to share a few things with you about my mother. I’m sure you already know them. They are what bring you here today.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, she said some things that I wanted to pass along. She has probably been saying them to me all my life, but I suspect I heard them, finally, for the first time.

Just last weekend she looked at me, clear-eyed and steady, and told me what I’ve come to recognize as her final instructions.

“Be yourself,” she said. “And take good care of your family.”

Now you know that my mother could never, for one minute, be anything but herself. Honest, unselfish, unpretentious, lighthearted, optimistic and, in a way, so ordinary. So ordinary that she was, in fact, extraordinary. It drew people to her, to her comfort and ease. So open and accepting. So authentic. And so happy!

She kept all the cards and notes you all sent over the course of her illness. Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even a thousand. She kept every one and everyday, more came. She was so uplifted, and in a way, mystified at the magnitude.

I told her that they showed how much she was loved. “Yes,” she said, and she shook her head in disbelief. “And just for being me.” read more

a moment of shame

March 24th, 2013    -    20 Comments

Let it be well understood: once desire for the truth arises, the desire for fame and riches will disappear in a moment.
– Dogen Zenji

I worked for a few days on a blog post. It expressed my feelings perfectly—outrage, cynicism, moral superiority—but I just couldn’t bring myself to put it up. Then I saw this quote and it corrected me instantly! I was ashamed of my bluster and threw it out.

There’s a lot of psycho/spiritual talk out there. Shame on me if I add to it. All around me are better teachers innocently delivering an instantaneous correction. Who don’t busy themselves talking mighty talk while sitting on comfy sofas or chairs. The purity of their faith and the discipline of their practice humbles me.

When it comes to authenticity and humility, I’ll throw in my lot with a Pope who rides the bus. For courage and vulnerability, I’ll take the TV host who trades fame for farming. For gratitude and compassion, look to the billionaire who gives 99 percent of his wealth to charity. For a teacher, follow anyone who actually gets down on the ground and helps sick babies and teen mothers and old people, the homeless, hopeless and unwanted—while unpaid and unseen.

As for me, I hardly help anyone at all except when I roll down my window at the stoplight and hand a dollar bill to the lost soul on the corner. That’s my master class. I can really learn from people who don’t try to teach me a thing. Who aren’t selling me a credential or an e-course.  People who have more important things to be than right or wise or popular.

Let me well understand myself. Let me be quiet. Let me do good.

 

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