Posts Tagged ‘Death’

what my mother taught me

April 13th, 2017    -    12 Comments

It was an attribute of her deep faith and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper when, in facing certain death, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them. Months before this day my mom had taken quiet confidence in me, telling me what she wanted for her funeral, what she wanted for her body, and asking me to write her obituary. Permission was thus tacitly granted to each other to proceed as we must. At her funeral I rose to say these words. They were not the first thing I had ever written, but they were the first thing I had ever written for myself, to be spoken in my own voice. This is the kind of thing that a mother can teach you. I have remembered it always, and especially on this day every year.

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

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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the rules are broken

December 12th, 2016    -    6 Comments

Last night I saw my neighbor at the gas station in town. We didn’t recognize one another at first even though we’ve lived next door for 17 years. A sad sign of the times. We immediately fell into each other’s arms, saying what needn’t be said, that every day it gets unbelievably, horrifyingly worse and that our country is dead. I told her it feels like the flags should be flying at half-mast. She said she feels sorry for our teenage daughters, a year apart. There was a contract we thought we had, a contract with the future that depended on our effort, intelligence, honesty and decency. Did you ever feel that? It was fragile, to be sure, but it’s what we grew up believing.

The rules are broken, I said.

A night or two after the election my daughter came into my room as I was sitting. “Mom, if you let me get a tattoo . . . ” she launched into a proposition that she knew was absurd, “would you get one with me?” She explained that since she was under 18, she could only get a tattoo with a parent’s consent.

Every institution in our country is collapsing and what comes up in the middle of the fall is the tiny matter of a tattoo.

I did not straight away say no, because of the realization that has taken hold in me: the rules are broken. We’re going to have to depend on something else, you see, than what we thought was allowed. How we thought things worked.

I said yes.

I told her about a certain phrase in of one of my books that has inspired quite a few people, words that I wrote with only her in mind. I suggested that if we got identical tattoos based on that message, even though people all over the world have shared it on the internet, we would be the only two people in the world who shared it in real life and knew what it really meant.

And that dialogue has since caused piercing pain for me, but total amusement and pride for her, and considering the way the world is going, it has made us both very happy to have each other, two blossoms blooming on a branch that will never break.

not the story you wrote

September 27th, 2015    -    61 Comments

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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.

nine eleven fifteen

September 11th, 2015    -    9 Comments

Is this the year that memory fades? The date unremembered until looking over, turning back, taking stock,
you see what you have missed until now?

In this hush
between the rising and dusk
of one minute and month
a season arriving
a circle recycling
we see sharp and know cold
that not one thing stands
or stands still
Not one thing untouched
but all carried intact
by love
deep, far and beyond.


 

what to tell the children

June 18th, 2015    -    11 Comments

She taught me everything by the time she was three. But I keep forgetting.

The tsunami hits the day before we fly to Hawaii for a holiday in paradise. The long trip and the time change are numbing enough without the odd narcotic of the disaster: a sky-falling, earth-swallowing event of incomparable horror. We traverse a few thousand miles across a now deeper and more ominous ocean. Our extended family from two states reunites, in one piece, in time to light candles beside a whispering night sea. We are all grateful.

There is no talk about what has happened elsewhere. My daughter is a preschooler and, at home, we have entered what will be a long stretch without a working television. We have disabled it: unplugging the non-stop signals that are still collected by the satellite dish on the roof and pulsed to that place in the living room where no one waits or watches. Like most solutions, this one is temporary, but it has provided all the relief we need right now. It has freed us from the need to police and intervene; it has released our child from a junkie’s craving and stupor; and it has liberated us from what the mass media seems to suggest is the most prevalent issue in modern parenting: What to Tell the Children.

This is what the media serves up to us over and over again, within hours of natural and unnatural disasters: 9/11, floods, fires, hurricanes, wars, beheadings, shootings, earthquakes, rampages, murders. Even contested presidential elections. “What to Tell the Children,” they intone, delivering their expertly articulated opinions. They are, indeed, quite expert at giving this advice. It’s the same advice dispatched after every catastrophic story — stories we believe, by virtue of the ever-widening screens in our homes, to have happened to us. We say that these events have entered our collective consciousness. But if we stopped long enough to consider how they got there, we might realize that “What to Tell the Children” is incidental to “What to Tell the Parents,” which is to turn off the TV.

The aim of all my years of Zen practice has been to get to this point: the point of seeing what really happens in my life. All that sitting still and staring out during meditation is for the sole purpose of glimpsing the difference between what occurs in front of me and what occurs in the inaccessible, inexhaustible reaches of my imagination. In this way, Zen practice is frequently misunderstood as disengaging from the life around us. Fully realized, Zen practice disengages only from the life of the ruminative mind; it is not for one moment disengaged from real life.

Attuned then, finally, to what is, a person might actually pick up a rather shocking bit of news. Despite all the talk about talk, contrary to the rarefied status of the spoken word, regardless of all the good press about interpersonal communication, there’s hardly ever very much that needs to be said.

We can learn this by spending years on a meditation cushion. Or we can learn this in three easy lessons from the children in our midst.
~
“What did you do at school today?” This is how Georgia and I always begin our drive home from preschool. I do the asking, studying my daughter’s face in the rear-view mirror to intercept the visual clues that I decode into conversation. There is a smear of paint on the curve of her jaw; she sucks a grimy thumb while she gazes out the window. She never answers this question to my satisfaction. No kid ever answers this question to a parent’s satisfaction.

“I don’t know,” she says.

She sounds like a troublesome teenager already. I dunno.

I hear it like a challenge. I take it as an affront. Is that sullenness? Is that concealment? What really went on today? Is she unhappy at school? Bored? Bullied? Ignored? Or worse? Silenced by unspeakable trauma? How can it be that nothing remarkable happened at school today to this most remarkable child?

I sound like a troublesome mother already. You never call. You never write.

The topic is communal around the school. It comes up at Parents’ Night when a father suggests that the teachers in our class of 22 four-year-olds might busy themselves composing a little narrative report about what each one of our kids do every day. Our children’s accounts are so insufficient, he reasons, so lacking. The teachers’ eyes widen and roll. I find myself responding on their behalf and answering my own question in the process.

“What we have here is a gap between what we need to hear and what our children need to tell us.” I say the words to the other parents, but I am soothing myself. As addicted as we might be to information and assessments, to texts and tweets, to executive summaries and PowerPoints, to journals and blogs, to news and gossip, our children are altogether blessedly free of all that. They don’t process their day as a set of events; they don’t bullet-point it for easy recitation. There are no highs or lows. They just live it: playing, singing, climbing, painting, kicking, digging, shoving, crying, and who knows what all, completely immersed in the flow. When it’s over, it’s over, with nothing left to talk about.

“I don’t know,” my daughter says again the next day, and I catch the drift, the wisdom of the ancients. Not knowing is most intimate.
~
Sometimes I engage Georgia in talk just for entertainment. Everyone does this. We ask the little ones what they want to be when they grow up. It’s funny to watch them wobble forward into this strange place, this neverland of the future, and concoct something out of the wisps of the unreal, something charmingly unimaginable and sometimes biologically impossible. “I want to be a giraffe!”

We don’t see the risk in this; we don’t see the lesson. We ask a child what she wants for her birthday next month and — whoops — dislodge an avalanche of desires. We murmur about the doctor visit next week and — gee whiz — ignite a fireball of anxiety. We think out loud about our vacation plans for next year and — never mind — stir up restlessness. We don’t realize how many times we aim to curry favor, tame tempers, or just distract ourselves by talking about what is going to happen tomorrow. It doesn’t seem strange to us to spend so much time talking about what isn’t. It’s where we adults live most of the time.

“What day is tomorrow?” my daughter asks. I’m pleased that she has learned the days of the week.

“Wednesday,” I say.

“No, what day is tomorrow?” she asks again.

“Today is Tuesday, so tomorrow is Wednesday.”

“But when is it tomorrow?”

I’m no longer sure what she is asking.

“It goes Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” she ticks them off. “But when is it Tomorrow?”

When is that day called “Tomorrow,” that factors so eternally in our plans and schemes? I gape at her clear-eyed misperception, at her supremely intelligent confusion. How many times have I lost her in the mists of my ramblings about that never-to-come day? Her question reverberates and I hear anew the last word of the immortals. Just this.
~
Surely there’s more than just this to take care of, we might argue. Surely there’s more than just our own spilt milk to cry over. In the face of so much pain and suffering, calamity, bloodshed, hunger, and homelessness, surely there’s something more we can do somewhere else.

Driving home from a week’s meditation retreat, stopped at a traffic light in the steamy summer heat, I see a man, his face crumpled, holding an old McDonald’s cup. He’s weaving through the idling cars with a sign. I don’t think; after a week’s retreat, I don’t have to. I reach into my wallet, where I know I have no smaller than two untouched twenties, and I drop one into the cup. His eyes and mouth break open as he looks inside and blesses me.

I’ve talked about this kind of thing with my daughter. Explained, touted, preached. “When we come across people who need something, we give it to them,” I say as I hold up traffic, tossing a dollar bill to the guy who stands on the corner at Lake Avenue.

The first day back at home the phone keeps ringing.

The university calls. “We’re asking all alumni . . . ” the woman starts. I cut her off.

“I’m happy with what I’ve given so far.”

The next time I pick up a call, it’s from someplace called the Cancer Recovery Center. I end it quickly with a curt refusal.

“Who was that?” my daughter wonders at my swiftness.

“Someone who wanted money.” I bear down on the last scurrilous word to close the case.

“Maybe if they need it, we should give it to them,” she says, and I’m face-to-face with the profound. The great Way knows no difficulty.
~
Hawaii is now a memory. We holidayed by a crystal bay where sea turtles bobbed on a seamless gleam and baby waves broke at our feet.

One night, months later, I open up a favorite picture book for a bedtime story.

“‘Hello, ocean, my old best friend,'” I begin the rhyme. “‘Amber seaweed, speckled sand, bubbly waves that kiss the land.'”

Georgia interrupts. “And sometimes the ocean comes way up and covers everything,” she says, as sure as an eyewitness.

I freeze. She has seen it. She was there when we turned on the TV, in vain search of a forecast so we could sightsee on a sunny day. She was there when we clicked back and forth and back again to that mesmerizing footage of the ocean retreating, then towering, then tumbling forward into a bottomless, screaming blackness.

Now. What to Tell the Children?

“Sometimes it does.”
~

Originally published in 2006 at Literary Mama

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value the child

May 11th, 2015    -    6 Comments

My daughter went to a wonderful preschool that had a slogan on its brochure: Value the Child. I liked the sound of that, but it took me time to realize what it meant. It didn’t mean what I thought at the beginning. I’m not sure how many other parents ever got the gist of it. To them, the value might have represented the price of monthly tuition. We already valued our children so much that we wanted them to have the best, and the most, and the first, and the highest.

In other words, we didn’t value our children at all.

When I say that my daughter went to the preschool I really mean that I went to the preschool, because I did, for part of every day. Gradually, I learned what the devoted, loving and talented teachers were showing me: what it means to value someone else. It’s not a lesson to learn once.

It doesn’t mean to prize.
Not to elevate.
Not to demean.
Not to impose.
Not to judge.
Not to expect.
Not to push.
Not to accelerate.
Not to withdraw.
Not to label.
Not to conclude.
Not to give up.
Not to coddle.
Not to do things for them.
Not to do things to them.
Not to do.

To value a child is to value them as they are. To support them where they are.
To show them the immeasurable and eternal value of love. Yes, I know: a mother’s work is never done. But the next time you see your child, act as if it is, and smile.

when all else fails*

April 29th, 2015    -    15 Comments

Prayer_flags_Hogle

This week we had the horrific earthquake in Nepal and the riots in Baltimore and so all at once I heard from people I haven’t heard from in a while. Something was in the air. I love hearing from people, just not quite as much as I love meeting face-to-face with those same people. What brings us together is always the same thing.

Terror, sheer terror.

People contact someone like me because they are afraid. To one degree or another, we are all afraid. We are afraid because we thought life would be different. We thought that we would be happy, for instance, or at least be able to handle things. That our work would satisfy, the money would be enough and the marriage would last. That our kids would be okay. And that their kids would be okay. That we would be one of the lucky ones, safe and in control. We wouldn’t get old. We wouldn’t get sick. And no one would die.

Spring is sweet and summer is easy, but one day you’ll find yourself in the middle of a hard winter.

I try to keep things sunny around here but then I remember what line of business I’m in. I’m in the getting old, getting sick, and dying business.

Life is suffering. Everything falls apart. It’s overwhelming and irreversible. There’s no place to hide. What the hell are you supposed to do now?

A couple of weeks ago I sat a beginner’s retreat on the East Coast and this time nearly everyone who came was a beginner. Oops. In the dining hall before the retreat started I looked around at the mostly middle-aged and older group of total strangers and was afraid. They would never be able to handle the sitting, I told myself. I’d oversold the whole Zen thing again. Whatever they thought they were in for, none of them was ready to face the reality of Zen, even so-called beginning Zen, which is no different from advanced Zen, which is no different from life as it is. They were probably as terrified as I was. I made silly jokes and hardly ate a thing.

But then we began sitting, and sitting some more, and every time the bell rang to sit again everyone showed up in their little spot, day in and day out, in silence, sleepy and sore, emptied of bright ideas and escape routes. It seemed like forever but a minute later the last bell rang on the last day. They had survived.

Before the end, everyone spoke for the first time. An old fellow said his wife had died last year and he was restarting his life. This was his first step.

One woman had returned after the first night without a wig to cover her head, and she was bald from chemo. She didn’t say one word about it and neither did anyone else.

Another woman said she’d woken up a year ago and realized that although her job was to heal children and families, “I was the one who was sick.”

The woman next to her said she had three children and she loved them but sometimes she had to get far, far away from them.

A man said he had bought one of my books for his wife but she wasn’t much of a reader so he read it and then he went on my website and now they were both here together. He smiled a lot, and she did too.

“It was a hard winter,” the next man said before tears overcame him and he thanked everyone just for sitting with him all weekend. “It made a difference.”

Nearly everyone cried. And everyone laughed. Hearts were light and minds, clear.

They’d done the only thing you can do when all else fails: sit down for a while, and then get up and go on back home.

*and it will.

 

letter from my 16-year-old self

February 19th, 2015    -    28 Comments

mailbox-396694__180Today’s news has brought this old post to mind. Looking at life straight on, death is always at hand.

Yesterday I reached into the bottom of a drawer and rediscovered my English Composition notebook from my junior year in high school. I knew that I had kept it, and flipping through the pages of my tightly curled script, spaced so sincerely between faded blue rules,  I remembered why.

We often think that if we had the chance we would go back in time to illuminate our younger selves with mature insights, to foreshorten expectations and prevent cruel disappointments. Drop the notion that you’re wiser now than you were then. What did your 16-year-old self know that you’ve forgotten? Before your last hour, can you remember again?

My Last Wish
English III
October 23, 1972

My life is a collection of small occurrences. In looking back over sixteen years, I remember incidents which, when they happened, seemed quite forgettable. A handshake with a friendly dog, a gift of bubble gum from my father, and a playground chase are a few of the scenes that come to mind.

When confronted with the possibility of only one more day of life, I immediately respond with a desire to experience all of the thrills our earth has to offer. But, after considering further, I reject that idea as a way to conclude my life.

What experiences, after all, has my memory chosen to include in its vast enclosures? The everyday happenings remain most clearly in my mind’s eye. They have influenced and molded me into the complex person that I am.

If I had one day left to live, I wouldn’t want to circle the world or sail the seas. I might wash my hair, play cards, clear the dinner table, fight with my sister, say my prayers and go to sleep.

We must become the ones we always were. How else to explain the sublime recognition when we meet ourselves again.

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the end of us

March 14th, 2014    -    4 Comments

The eighth-grade girls cried after last night’s spring musical. They are onto something.

I wrote the following on a notecard, on a plane, about eight years ago, flying east to my father’s deathbed. I’ve carried it with me ever since, suspecting I would one day put it somewhere. And so I’ll put it here, yesterday’s bouquet.

“This is the end of us,” Georgia says, pointing to the airport out the window. She means this is the end of our ride to the airport or this is the end of our time together before I get on the plane. Or what does she mean? It could be anything. It could be everything. It is so completely true. It is always the end of us.

“You be sure to go to the toy store and buy Georgia a Barbie today — a wedding Barbie!” I wag my finger in mock lecture to my husband. A wedding Barbie is proof of heaven to this six-year-old. Georgia brightens in the midst of the abyss. I need her to. She is onto something that I dare not face.

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no comment

January 26th, 2014    -    7 Comments

MEC-TTA-March-1024x681

It’s kind of weird that I should toss up such a long post on the subject of silence, but that’s how it is. I just haven’t wanted to say anything for awhile. That’s not true, I’ve wanted to say a lot, but I haven’t said what didn’t need to be said.

The world seems awfully noisy these days. When I manage to quiet the first impulse to talk back, I find that nothing needs to be said. There’s a thought: maybe nothing at all ever needs to be said! Should I ever confirm that for myself I won’t be talking about it, so I encourage you to investigate silence for yourself.

Everywhere there’s an argument, a cause, a rumble. An upset in the paper, a battle on Twitter, an outrage on Facebook, a side for, and another side in stark raving opposition. Perhaps this is what happens this time of year, in the fearsome dark and slogging cold (or alarming heat) of winter. We go stir-crazy. We pick fights, name names, make enemies, slam doors, close our ears and pound out open, clever, biting letters, as though our point of view is an urgent and necessary correction to the world’s spin.

Anytime I feel like my opinion is a matter of life and death I’m overlooking life and death.

Dogo and Zengen came to a house to express condolences. Zengen tapped on the coffin and said, “Is this life or death?” Dogo said, “I don’t say life, I don’t say death.” Zengen said, “Why don’t you?” Dogo said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.”

On the way back Zengen said, “Master, please say it to me right away. If you don’t, I shall hit you.” Dogo said, “If you want to hit me, you can hit me. But I will never say.” Thereupon Zengen hit him.

Some time later Dogo passed away. Zengen went to Sekiso and told him what had happened. Sekiso said, “I don’t say life, I don’t say death.” Zengen said, “Why don’t you?” Sekiso said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.” With these words, Zengen came suddenly to an insight.

This is a koan, a Zen teaching story from a long time ago. I encountered it myself a while back and now I’m realizing how deeply it impacted me.  I first came upon it around the time my mother was dying, and I thought at first that it might settle some of my distress surrounding death, and how to prepare, what I should know, how it would be, and if there was a Zen answer that I could enlighten her with. It does give the answer, completely, just not in words. read more

tacloban is calling

November 12th, 2013    -    132 Comments

Surivor in Tacloban walks among the debris after Typhoon Haiyan

This message is not for the people of Tacloban. The people of Tacloban do not need any messages from me. They are completely engulfed in a reality that eclipses the linguistic coding of sentiment or solidarity. Send money if you can. No, this message isn’t for, but rather from the people of Tacloban, because in their horrific struggle for survival and security, they have sent a message to you. It is a message you don’t want, and that none of us is ready for.

Some people have a sudden glimpse of reality, a stroke of insight, an aha moment. They might strive for it a long time – travel the world, trek mountains, study the wisdom of sages. But that’s not the glimpse of reality that matters. The glimpse that can change your life is the sight of rubble and ruin – the truth that things fall apart. We see the evidence every day, but still, it’s a hard thing to wake up to.

There was that cloudless morning in early September when most of us – roused by the radio, a phone call, or a shuddering impulse – turned on our televisions and saw the impossible.  We saw a building buckle, and then, after a breathless half-second, a rushing crush of dust as one and then another tower disappeared in front of us – a Niagara of concrete, steel, desks, and doorknobs, everyday lives conjoined irretrievably in death, a plume of ash simultaneously rising and falling and haunting the gaping emptiness we could not turn away from.

One day after Christmas, the Indian Ocean stood to reach a resplendent sky and then tumbled forward into a bottomless blackness, swallowing the earth in one gulp, stealing the doomed from their innocent idylls and the sleepy ease of paradise – paradise! A whole population was snatched from the sheltering palms of a holiday while the rest of us still celebrated ours.

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most intimate

May 14th, 2013    -    7 Comments

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This photo of my grandmother as a teenager teaches me how little any of us knows about another. She died with her secrets intact. And yet, her secret is me. How much more is there to know? Not knowing is most intimate.

She pointed a finger
in my direction
and said “You remind me
of someone.”
I said, “You remind
me of someone, too.”

Mothers and daughters
have their own stories
my mother
was an open book
nonfiction, but a
complete mystery

It didn’t stop me
from searching
her stories for clues
there was a lot
to read into

In my story
I couldn’t
save my mother
but in the retelling
of every tragedy
involving mothers
and daughters
the script is the same
regardless of setting
all mothers cry out,
“Take me! Just save
my daughter!”

She is the reason
I cannot deny
anyone food
or love
and the reason
I have known
hunger and desperation
she is the reason
forgiveness
is my first commandment

I never hold back
on telling people
how much they mean
to me
and people mean
everything to me
because of my mother

My mother is alive.
I saved her daughter.

— Taken from Mani Canaday’s memorial poem to her mother.

Posted on the eighteenth anniversary of Maezumi Roshi’s death. Don’t ask him any questions; he won’t answer.

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