Posts Tagged ‘Goodness’

flooded with love

August 28th, 2017    -    4 Comments

A few weeks ago I went to see the movie Dunkirk. I had heard something about it, how real and human and decent it was. It was real all right—being relentlessly terrifying, conveying the experience of being trapped, desperate and abandoned.

It’s about a 10-day period during the Second World War when Allied forces retreated to the northern coast of France to evacuate from a “colossal military disaster.” Except there wasn’t really an evacuation. Hundreds of thousands of bedraggled troops massed on the beaches awaiting rescue by naval ships that were blasted to bits either before or right after they were loaded with evacuees. After two days, the British weren’t inclined to send more assets, as they say, into that certain fate. The ships stopped coming.

Knowing nothing of the history, I watched this doomsday unfold in a mounting panic as if I, too, were waiting waist deep in water for a rescue that would never come. But it came, after an eternal two hours, the rescue came and left me flooded with relief on a sun-soaked sidewalk outside the multiplex.

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After I’d spent 23 of my best years living in Houston, I came to appreciate what those years were about. They were about work, because you come to Houston to work. Sure the place can be good and plenty fun, but it’s not a cushy life, not carefree. You’ve got the heat, you see, which is not really the heat, but the humidity. And you’ve got the rain, a whole lot of it whether you’re ready or not, with skies that rupture into Biblical floods that swallow half your block and all your car before you can conjure a superior second thought. And in the middle of all that, you work.

But the work you’ll do in Houston is not just what’s visible up top. It always seemed to me that it was underneath. Soul work, you might say. Because hard places make you dig deep and find what matters in your own self. Houston is not really like some other cities in Texas. It’s a working-class town. A wide open town. With people from everywhere doing everything. I used to get asked what made Houston different. Well, I’d say, in Houston nobody asks you who your daddy is.

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So the call went out to everyday folks back home to muster fishing boats, pleasure boats, life boats and any other passable craft to come to the aid of their unlucky and afflicted kinsmen. It was a crazy, reckless, impossible thing to do, but these neighbors didn’t think twice. A hastily assembled fleet of more than 800 little boats rescued 338,226 soldiers from Dunkirk.

And yesterday a man from Texas City, launching his boat into a flooded Houston underpass, made it plain as day: I’m gonna try to save lives.

When the skies are really dark you can see the truth at the very bottom of things. There’s only one side. We are already united. We love one another. And right where you are with whatever you’ve got, you try to save lives, don’t you?

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the dharma of lincoln

June 15th, 2017    -    8 Comments

I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t in any textbook I’d read as a schoolgirl. It wasn’t at the memorial on the mall or the monument blasted onto the face of a mountain. I didn’t find it in any of the 10 million pages collected by 10 thousand presidential historians. It wasn’t even at Gettysburg, where the rolling fields of green still heave with everlasting shame. I suspect it was the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in 2012 that opened my eyes for the first time to the hidden dimensions of the human being we know as Lincoln, an odd and nearly unknowable man transfigured by grief and despair, shouldering the immeasurable wrongs of a divided people and broken nation. And then came this year’s amazing work by George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo, a fantastical rendering of an event that might have converted the man from a doubtful political strategist into a courageous instrument of compassion.

The worst times make the best leaders, and if not, we’re so much the worse.

So some days, awake and reading the news in stunned torpor, I wonder how Lincoln might have seen the day. What he might still have to say. Then I go looking for words to calm my agitation. Lincoln’s dharma, like all dharma—the truth—does not fail to illuminate the way.

What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself. — Campaign circular, 1843.

How fortunate that Lincoln didn’t distinguish himself with vanity.

Common looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them. — Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay

In his humility, he saw the One in the many.

Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally. — Speech to 140th Indiana Regiment, March 17, 1865

And the many as One.

You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.—1st Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

We must take responsibility for the greed, anger, and ignorance in our own hearts.

I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. — Letter to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864

With no promise to turn back time, but rather, to face things as they are.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. — 2nd Message to Congress, Dec. 1, 1862

Only how we respond in this present moment can save us.

An Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction! — Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Sept. 30, 1859

And this, too, shall pass away.

I have stepped out upon this platform that I may see you and that you may see me, and in the arrangement I have the best of the bargain. — Remarks at Painesville, Ohio, Feb. 16, 1861

Visit Washington and you might see the corpus of a 28-foot-tall man enshrined on the platform of a marble throne. But that’s not what Lincoln sees. Through the open portal right in front of him, he sees vast emptiness reaching beyond the horizon, and under a common sky, the good people he has vowed to serve as one, now and forever.

These days, it helps to look at things his way.

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Photo Source: Shorpy Historical Photo Archive. May 5, 1922. Washington, D.C. “Vista of Monument from Lincoln Memorial.” National Photo Company Collection glass negative.

 

 

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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zen charity

May 31st, 2012    -    10 Comments

The email read, “I’m sure you are a busy woman and I will understand if you are unable to respond.” When we are too busy to respond, we are entirely too busy. Set something down.

First, be quiet.
Give away your ideas, your self-certainty
Your judgments and your opinions
Let go of defenses and offenses
Face your critics
They will always outnumber you
Lose all wars
All wars are lost to begin with

Abandon your authority and entitlements
Release your self-image
Status, power, whatever you think gives you clout
It doesn’t, not really
That was a lie you never believed
Give up your seat
See what you are
Unguarded
Unprepared, unequipped
Surrounded on all sides
Alone
A prisoner of no one and nothing
And now that you are free
See where you are. Observe what is needed.
Do good. Quietly.
If it’s not done quietly, it’s not good.
Start over
Always start over.

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True north is due north

June 7th, 2009    -    6 Comments


The Buddha Way lies outside thinking, analysis, prophesy, introspection, knowledge and wise explanation. – Dogen Zenji

I’ve just come from two events: sitting a day at the Zen center, and performing the monthly memorial service for lost children. You might think I do these things for a reason. In a way, I do. They are acts of compassion. But in truth, I do them just to do them, because they appear due on my calendar to be done, and that is what true compassion is: the absence of a qualifying rationale. The absence of self-service. They are good, but not in a way I can know or identify. Not necessarily in a way I can see. They are good because they are not tied to the expectation of an outcome.

The first book I stumbled across when I started to look beyond hope and reason for spiritual salvation was that slender remedy, The Tao te Ching. All the verses struck me, sung me, rung me, but none more than one that went slightly like this (memory serves when memory fades):

In the absence of the Tao there is goodness
In the absence of goodness there is morality
In the absence of morality there is piety

Even in my faulty recollection you can begin to see the essence of the wisdom. You can see the erring ways we layer our value judgments onto reality, to the fundamental truth of what is, and propel ourselves farther into self-righteousness and intolerance.

Beyond the superficial clouds of reason, thinking, introspection and wise explanation is the clear blue sky of wisdom and the deep ocean of compassion.

All this is a delinquent announcement of a trip north I’m taking later this month to give a free talk at the South San Francisco Public Library on Saturday, June 27 at 2 p.m. I don’t know if anyone will be there. I don’t know many people in the area. There’s no particular reason I’m going, except that they asked me. Have compassion and come! I’ll meet you due north – true north – for no good reason at all. Perhaps good will come.

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