Posts Tagged ‘Fear’

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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practice no harm

October 4th, 2015    -    2 Comments

Cracked_Pavement

When folks begin to practice Zen, they can be set back by how hard it is. They might have expected to be good at it—for certain they expected something—but what they are good at is something else altogether.

Why is it so hard to just breathe? Because you’ve been practicing holding your breath.

Why is it so hard to keep my eyes open? Because you’ve been practicing falling asleep.

Why is it so hard to be still? Because you’ve been practicing running amok.

Why is it so hard to be quiet? Because you’ve been practicing talking to yourself.

Why is it so hard to pay attention? Because you’ve been practicing inattention.

Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress.

Why is it so hard to trust? Because you’ve been practicing fear.

Why is it so hard to have faith? Because you’ve been trying to know.

Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad.

Whatever you practice, you’ll get very good at, and you’ve been practicing these things forever. Take your own life as proof that practice works as long as you keep doing it. Just replace a harmful practice with one that does no harm.

***

For the benefit of those who will be practicing with me at any of these places, and especially for those who won’t be able to make it.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, Oct. 18
Introductory Zen Retreat, Kansas City, Oct. 23-25
Zen Retreat at Meadowkirk, Middleburg VA Dec. 10-13
Meditation as Love, Kripalu, Feb. 5-7

Excerpted from Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

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my practice isn’t working

August 20th, 2015    -    20 Comments

If my practice doesn’t make me more tolerant, humble,
and generous,
my practice isn’t working.
If my practice doesn’t make me more respectful, loving, and
sympathetic,
my practice isn’t working.
If I can’t forgive and forget
begin again
stop, drop
turn around
wake up
say hello say goodbye
be kind be quiet be still
listen laugh
cry it out
give it time
sit down stand up
get over myself
smile
admit I don’t know
then my practice isn’t working.
If I’m not less cynical, less critical, less arrogant, less mean
then my practice isn’t working.
If my practice doesn’t fill me with wonder, gratitude,
fearlessness, faith and trembling doubt
my practice doesn’t work.

Does my practice work?
Only when I practice.
Let’s do it. Soon.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, Oct. 18
Introductory Zen Retreat, Kansas City, Oct. 23-25
Zen Retreat at Meadowkirk, Middleburg VA Dec. 10-13
Meditation as Love, Kripalu, Feb. 5-7

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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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commencement address

May 28th, 2015    -    13 Comments

beautiful-rain-photography-3

Two mornings ago, dropping my daughter off at the curb, her mind a muddle of wind and worry with the end of the school year, I turned on the radio for the ride home.

A set of triplets has been admitted to MIT, where the admission rate is less than eight percent.

It’s the time of year the waves seem flooded with this kind of triple-rainbow success story, however rare it occurs in real life. The lower the odds, the more is made of it. I remember this one because of what came after it.

Twenty-four dead in floods and 13 in a tornado, including an infant sucked by the storm out of its mother’s arms.

And I am overcome by the cruel arrangement of high and low, the valedictorians and the victims, among them four vacationing children flung from a floating house into the tidal surge of a timid river, now but a whisper on the lips of a radio news reader.

My daughter tells me she is anxious these days, and I can see why. She has been wrestling with questions that have no answers. Where is the right place, the right way, the right time, the right choice, where should I go, who should I be, what can I do, what do I want. Some would say her thinking is precocious; some would call it a curse. I cannot save her from these waters. She has to swim across, and I have to watch and wave. The wind drowns out any instructions I shout from the shore.

They made incredible sacrifices growing up by taking the most difficult courses, their father said.

And I wonder when it all became so difficult. The river so high, the odds so low, the rain, the wind, the storm that twists a mother’s entire life right out of the baby carrier on her chest.

There is no higher ground, people. No safety, no shield, no fix for the fix we’re in. I can’t say more without getting carried away. Watch the news for yourself, if you can bear it. Love everything and let go.

One will be speaking at commencement and her message for other students is simple: Just relax, have fun and do what you love.

 

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.

 

when kids say what we can’t hear

March 20th, 2015    -    10 Comments

IMG_0951

It was an unpleasant morning in our house, the atmosphere thickened by resistance. You know the kinds of things your kids can throw at you sometimes. Our children are really good at saying what we don’t want to hear. Annoying things. Inconvenient things. Alarming things. Things that interfere with our expectations for them and make us feel angry, afraid, and let’s face it: like bad parents.

I want to quit.

I’m sad.

I’m afraid.

I don’t want to go to school.

I feel pressure.

I need help.

It’s not fair.

I’m stupid.

I can’t go to sleep.

I hate myself.

I’m ugly.

Nobody likes me.

I don’t want to grow up.

I’m worried.

I can’t do it.

I forgot.

I made a mistake.

You don’t understand.

It’s hard.

I’m not like you.

There was another teen suicide last week in Palo Alto, a community that more or less represents the epitome of achievement in our competitive culture.

I’ve struggled with writing anything lately. No one has asked me to. No one needs me to. And I guess that’s my point. I realize I’ve said too much at those times when all I needed to do was listen.

Listen.

I don’t have any explanations for what’s happening, although it’s pretty obvious why some of our children are tormented by anxiety and depression. All feelings are mutual. We live in an anxious world advancing insidiously high standards in our children as a way to soothe this anxiety. And I contribute to the problem when I ignore, resist or reject my child however she is right now.

Whenever I won’t listen.

There are some wise individuals out there who are saying sensible things about how to survive the madness. How to find peace, contentment, and belonging.

One of them is probably your child.

Listen.

 

 

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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best laugh

January 7th, 2015    -    8 Comments

il_570xN.664617919_ill0They don’t give awards to people like me.

My daughter said this right before the eighth-grade graduation ceremony, when I learned that there would be awards for certain graduates that night. The fact is, I was instantly uncomfortable. I don’t like awards. I don’t like that we live in a competitively obsessed, elite-driven culture that creates phony contests out of false comparisons, but I tried to stay positive. Maybe you’ll get one, I had said.

There were lots of awards that night, for basketball stars and class officers, for those with perfect attendance and perfect grades, for teacher’s favorites and then two very special top awards for the one boy and one girl who in the principal’s opinion did absolutely everything best. My daughter was correct. She didn’t get one.

I sometimes forget how life really is, or at least, how life is for my daughter. As a parent, I’m usually tripping out on toxic levels of either false pride or fear. Oh, how I want her to do well! Oh, how I want her to keep up! Oh, how I want her to get in, get out, and move on! Oh, how I want her to be happy! Oh, how I want her to be liked, and loved and noticed! Oh, how I want her to be someone who does something important!

A few weeks ago the holiday cards started to arrive, and with them, the holiday letters. We still hear from folks we haven’t seen since our kids were in preschool or kindergarten, in scouts or swimming lessons, kids who are in high school now, where the pressure is amping up toward that final launch into . . . where, exactly? Our sophomore loves Pre-Calc and Latin and is extra busy with AP/Honors course work, staying up late every night and weekends while on the soccer team, volunteering, and taking ballet 18 hours a week.

I’m not that keen on holiday letters either.

Monday was the first day back at school, a cold and unwelcome day when my daughter would find out the results of finals and her semester grades. I texted her at lunch to see how she was doing. She was overwhelmed, she told me, and then came this. Apparently the class votes were tallied, and:

I won Best Laugh in the 9th grade!

She also won Best Friend.

She was right. They don’t give many awards to people like her, but that doesn’t matter to people like her.

***

Above: The most wasted of all days is the one without laughter. — a quote by E.E. Cummings hammered on a vintage, silver plated spoon on Etsy.

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a voice in the night

December 14th, 2014    -    57 Comments

41Jec+cLZXLMomma Zen is now available as an audiobook, read by me. Here’s a chance to win a free copy for yourself or a friend.

I can’t remember writing this book. I can’t remember what I wrote. But I can remember the moment when I began to write. I had never written in my own name before. The moment of birth went like this:

Me to my husband: I need a laptop!
Him: Okay.
Me: I need to go away and write!
Him: Okay.
Me: I’m going to write a book!
Him Okay.

The labor, as all labors, continued for quite a long time after, in every kind of circumstance. It was years before I had a sense of what I had done and, more to the point, who had done it. I can see that Momma Zen is not really like the books I’ve written since. One reason is that it reflects my maturity as a Zen student, mother, and writer at the time, which were all three nil. I used to wonder how in the world I had pulled it off. Now I think I know.

These are my mother’s words, after she died, reaching beyond time and space to console me in my darkest hours. When I read these words I see her and feel her; when I hear them I am her. How comforting her voice in the dark, reminding me that I am not alone. Now, how comforting my voice in the dark, reminding you that you are not alone.

Bring yourself into the fold by leaving a comment on this post. I will be awarding several free copies of the new audiobook to commenters next Sunday, the darkest night of the year.

does fear exist?

August 25th, 2014    -    5 Comments

walkin61

I can’t tell you how many times I have had this conversation with myself.

Q: Is there really fear? If there isn’t, how can we shift our state of mind to release the shackles of what we define as fear?

That’s a very good question.

First, I’ll point out this: fear only exists in your head. It is a feeling that is reinforced by your pattern of thinking.

Thankfully for me and for you, and for others who begin a seated meditation practice, what you notice is how you think. You notice how you think all the time, and what the content of those thoughts are. Generally speaking, they are negative and self-limiting, full of anxious doubt and fear. For instance, how many times do you think to yourself: I can’t do that. That won’t work. That’s not me. I don’t like it. I’m afraid. Not now.

You see, there’s an infinite variety of those thoughts that we empower. When I say “empower,” I mean that thinking alone is what paralyzes us physically, emotionally, spiritually — in every way. We end up being able to “go nowhere.” Even if we are seeking, we set in place an invisible barrier.

How can we transform that barrier? Marvelously we’re given arms and legs so we can actually transcend the limitations of our thinking with our own bodies. You have to use your feet! That’s what I’m getting at. You have to take a step. You are not going to mentally or emotionally move toward something until you’ve literally moved.

Please listen to more of this conversation below on the Inside Personal Growth podcast, and then visit my Retreats page.

as open as the sky

May 27th, 2014    -    3 Comments

kmm some people

Paradise in Plain Sight

Weekend in Paradise, practice meditation and yoga with me in Washington DC June 21-22

Spend an hour in your own Paradise, a radio broadcast.

Art by Julie Kesti

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bring your own cookies

February 25th, 2014    -    16 Comments

img_5702-1I’ve been a mother now for nearly 15 years. This is the sum total of my parenting advice: bring your own cookies.

When my daughter was in kindergarten she had a big, easy smile. She smiled all the time to everyone. Another mother asked what I had done to make my daughter like that. Her comment sent me over the moon with self-satisfaction.

I told her what Maya Angelou had said to Oprah. Angelou said always greet your child with a smile so they can see how much they are loved. A smile for a child is like handing them a cookie. Right out of the blue! This cookie is for you!

Whenever I stepped into the Kindergarten classroom at the end of the day I stood with the other parents at the back of the room and beamed. Smiling was pretty easy for me in those days. Kindergarteners are adorable. I had no expectations of performance or achievement. I wasn’t anxious about tests or grades or homework or arriving anywhere on time.

I just smiled, and the smile gave her everything and took nothing away.

Then things changed. Then I changed.

Things change all the time but they change in a big way come sixth grade, the beginning (in our school system) of letter grades, major homework and crowded, smelly classrooms of alarmingly overgrown kids who suffer daily insults that have nothing to do with their mother. There is no pack of parents at the back of the classroom, thank god, but emphatic instructions to stay far, far away and by all means stop embarrassing me!

A block up the street, she would get into my waiting car and I would ask how she was, and she would mumble something that didn’t tell me enough so I would ask again in rapid fire so that by the end of the four-minute ride home I would have pummeled her with all this and more:

How was lunch?
How was the test?
What was your grade?
What did the teacher say?
Was anyone nice to you?
Was anyone mean to you?
What’s the homework situation?
When will you start?
When will you finish?
How will you get it all done?

To my ear it was innocent enough: I was involved; I was attentive; I cared. But there was never going to be an answer that would make me feel secure with a reality that was out of my hands. I was giving her nothing but my own anxiety, as if her 25-lb. backpack weren’t enough.

It’s taken me awhile to realize what I’m really asking for as my daughter crumples into the car after a long school day. I’m asking for a cookie. Right out of the blue! Give me a cookie!

The thing is, she doesn’t carry the cookies. That’s not her job. If you want to share cookies with your kid, you’d better be the one to bring them.

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