Posts Tagged ‘Grace’

unto us a child is born

December 16th, 2015    -    9 Comments

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A woman came to the retreat in Kansas City in October. With her doctor’s permission, she had driven three hours from Iowa to be there. She was 34 weeks pregnant and, as you might expect, radiant. But in her case there was a little more to it: after nine years of infertility, miscarriages and stillbirth, here she was. The chance had been so slim, the journey so grim, she never believed she could get this far.

The truth is always like that: unbelievable.

She smiled all weekend. Fear and doubt had fled her face. She was beginning to let herself feel blessed. After we parted, I kept an eye on her as the remaining weeks passed. The baby was late. In the final days she went to and from the hospital over and over in false labor. Her burden was heavy. Nothing seemed to happen. The good news never came. I was worried.

Up close, possibilities seem to disappear.

Two days ago she sent me the first pictures of her newborn son swaddled in her arms. One look and I recalled that wide-open sense of wonder. Love surpassing all pain, resting in the infinite circle of light. The night has passed! The baby has come! Suddenly, everything is perfect, everything is possible. Not one thought creased either brow. Together they have attained grace.

Mother and child are doing beautifully.

The promise of a spiritual path is like this: to return to the natural state of fulfillment and ease. The old masters call it “the circle of wonder.” In it are the boundless love of a mother and the eternal innocence of a child. To be sure, the journey is difficult. Obstacles mount. Expectations fail, hope sinks, fear overwhelms, and you have to do it alone. Alone! Not even the helpers can help.

Who among us is willing? Who indeed.

Last weekend I sat a retreat with many newcomers. Newcomers uplift me, and yet, I worry. Silent retreats are always powerful, but this one struck like thunder. Not everyone could ride the storm. Alas, in Zen as in life, there’s no shelter at the side of the road. No avoiding, no denying, no way out. Fear must be overcome. Peace must prevail. Near the end of the retreat, the newest newcomers came by ones to see me alone. How is your retreat? I asked, although the awed stillness on their faces told it in full. Wonderful, came the quietest replies. Amazing. Lovely. Indescribable. Life-altering.

Doubt fled my heart, and I let myself feel blessed. The night has passed; the prophecy has been fulfilled. Now peace is at hand and the possibilities are endless.

Let it begin with me.

And he shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. — Isaiah 9:6

Merry Christmas Everyone. Peace on Earth. Goodwill to Men.

it will be OK, mom

November 23rd, 2015    -    16 Comments

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Last week I walked into my 16-year-old daughter’s bedroom, an occasion equivalent in a teenager’s life to an armed invasion. There I sat down, wound myself up, and started in on it.

I had allowed — indeed, encouraged — her to join the brilliant cast of a marvelous play with two weeks of rehearsals and three weeks of performances, and now I was afraid. Yes, I want her to pursue her passion, realize her potential, follow her heart, live life, have fun, be herself, yes, yes, I want all that, but the sky was suddenly clouded by the ominous shadow of late nights, missed school, botched tests, tardy term papers and the pitch-black importance that is modern high school.

I questioned how everything was going to get done, doubting whether she could avert the threat of regret and failure. Maybe not, but it’s possible I was this paranoid when she was in kindergarten or third grade, when she was 6 or 8 or 12, and perhaps I was. Good grief, I think I was.

She sat there and let the storm subside, let my every qualm and warning wash over her and then she said a few words.

I think it will be OK, mom.

Sometimes I regret having written so much about parenthood for these many years, to have implied that I knew anything about doing it differently. The process has revealed itself as one step forward, two steps back, one step forward, ten steps back, one step forward, ten billion steps back, back, back, until it’s just you with your lonely fear and worry ’til the day you die. My first Zen teacher Maezumi Roshi said that worry was a mother’s occupation, and that occupation isn’t the kind that pays. It doesn’t bear fruit or fulfillment; no, it’s an occupation that consumes you day and night until you are just a stalking, zombie husk of a mother that scatters every living thing within her doomed reach to seek the wide shelter of an opposite shore.

Those few words of hers, so simple, comforting and kind, sounded like what I might have said once, and should say, and will say, and hope to say in some future moment of selfless grace and faith, when I get the chance, if I get the chance, to be her mother again, when it will all most definitely be OK.

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come together in grace

November 23rd, 2014    -    7 Comments

knives forks and spoons in cup of dry food dishes“From an early age I knew that I was different.”

Last weekend I went to a place far away that I’d never been before and sat in silence for two days in a small room with people I’d never met. All of us who find ourselves in that kind of predicament — even if we’ve done it a hundred times — are a bit uncomfortable at the outset. First, we don’t know the people we are sitting with, we don’t know what will happen, we don’t know what we are doing, and we aren’t able to talk about what is bothering us.

So when it was over, we went around the room and said our names and gave a parting word or two. What I said was that, no matter what we presumed about the strangers sitting next to us, everyone in the room had been sitting in a world of hurt. It is a guarantee.

No matter what, we hurt. We have trouble in our lives. We have pain. We have pain even when there’s no pain because the things we cherish won’t last. This universal suffering, this eternal ache, is our greatest blessing, in a way, because through it we realize that we are not different, we are not better or worse, we are not special or chosen, we are just alike, and this recognition allows us to get over ourselves and care deeply for one another. Very few realize it, and so we live at war, wars big and small, public and private, and they go on forever. Our world is a world of hurt. It is a guarantee.

There is a kind of standard-issue biography among spiritual entrepreneurs that goes something like this: “From an early age I knew that I was different. Teachers recognized that I was spiritually gifted. I possessed a profound awareness that I was meant to do something special. I decided to go out into the world and share what I was born to do.”

From an early age, know that you are not different.

Being different has not been a transformative experience for me. Neither was it the experience of Buddha, who from an early age knew that he was not different. His spiritual awakening began when he left the phony shelter of his delusions and realized that he would get old, get sick, and die. Like the rest of us, he had no special gift, no deferment, no way out or around reality. This stone-cold clarity is the root of wisdom and the source of compassion.

I offer this up today so that we can be a bit less uncomfortable in the days ahead. So that we can experience things in a new way. We can be tolerant of one another. We can be generous. We can be forgiving. We can be at ease in a crowded airport, house or kitchen. We can clasp hands around the table, giving thanks not only for life’s abundance, but for its scarcity, its brevity, and its painful guarantee of impermanence. Until we realize that we are not different, we can never, even for one moment, come together in grace.

Amen.

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prayer for a woman becoming

August 26th, 2014    -    5 Comments

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May you be strong
Look ahead
Go alone
Hold your own
Speak your piece
State your name
Take your place
Love your face
Bare your skin
Wear it tough
Wear it thin
Cry it out
So many nights
So many sighs
So many wondering whys
Then find yourself
Make your way
Know your heart
Trust your gut
Use your feet
Make a stand
And be utterly, totally, awesomely
unmistakably
you
Leaving me well enough, far away, evermore
behind.

Amen.

For a daughter turning 15.

You may also want to say the Prayer for a Girl Becoming, the Prayer for a Mother Becoming, and the Prayer for a Wife Becoming. It’s becoming a good time to pray.

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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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the appetite

January 6th, 2013    -    24 Comments

7244511-rice-on-a-blue-bowlAnd he took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. — Luke 22:19

The communion ritual fascinates me. I suppose for some it can seem an outright lie or ignorant superstition. Even as a girl who came to church solely for the sake of obedience, the words drew me into their mystery, and I partook. I still take communion whenever it is offered to me. I take my sustenance in the mystery.

Last week I was tenzo, or cook, at a five-day retreat, preparing three meals a day for 25 people. I have participated in countless Zen retreats, maybe a hundred, taking many more hundreds of meals, and never cooked. Let me express my deep gratitude to every cook who has ever prepared my food. I had no idea.

Having no idea is the doorway to realization. It is the essential ingredient, you might say, in the miracle.

They sat down in ranks of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. They all ate and were satisfied. — Mark 6:40-42

At first my assistant and I were inept and overwhelmed, chased by the doubtful hours and disappearing minutes. We rushed and scrambled. We erred in composition and quantity. Every bowl we set out was returned empty. The diners seemed insatiable. The food was not enough.

But sitting down in the ranks transforms everything. By the third day of sitting, appetites quieted. Minds settled. In the kitchen, we moved with silent purpose. The miracle had begun to unfold. The food became a marvel; our hands, the instruments of magic. The taste was indescribable.

The cooks made an offering of the meal; the guests made an offering of their appetites. Everything in harmony; everyone blessed. By faith alone, we were all fulfilled. read more

the short story of yes

August 26th, 2012    -    7 Comments

At about 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Facebook newsfeeds were updated with the posting, “Karen Maezen Miller and Georgia Miller are now friends.”

There is a story behind this friendship, as there is a story behind all friendships, and a story behind the end of friendships.

The long version is that preteens around the world know that 13 is the magical year in Facebookland, the year when you can sign up without lying about your age. So that on the morning of a 13th birthday, when a child wakes at dawn to make a bleary-eyed inspection of her overnight transfiguration, she takes up a bleat incessantly alarming and annoying to the parental cochlea. “Can I have a Facebook? Can I have a Facebook? Can I have a Facebook?” (An expression that is peculiar to the young. People of my age might admit to being possessed by Facebook, but our children see it the other way around.) So that after two weeks of hedging and hawing, the answer is given:

Yes.

Behind every friendship is a story. And the short version is yes.

It’s not all that easy to be friends, because it’s not that easy to say yes. It’s not even appropriate to say yes, particularly not to your children. During most of our great and tremulous time together, we are not our children’s friends.

But should you care to make and maintain friendship with, say, your sister or brother, neighbors, co-workers, bosses, partners and spouses, strangers and enemies; should you care to live out your frail and frightened years with a companionship other than bitter loneliness, anger, judgment and blame; should you wail or wonder why you are forgotten, avoided or overlooked, the world shrunken and mean; should you ever attempt to make easy space and grace for the ten thousand million billions who share your blessed blink of time, you are going to have to shorten every one of your stories to one word that includes everything and leaves out nothing that really needs to be said:

Yes.

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the end of mother’s day

May 13th, 2012    -    6 Comments

Someone sent me something that renders me mute with gratitude.

Blackbirds
by Susan Mitchell

Because it is windy, a woman
finds her clothesline bare, and without rancor
unpins the light, folding it into her basket.
The light is still wet. So she irons it.
The iron hisses and hums. It knows how to make the best of things.
The woman’s hands smell clean. When she shakes them out,
they are voluminous, white.

All night my hands weep in gratitude
for little things. That feet are not shoes.
That blackbirds are eating the raspberries. That parsley
does not taste like bread.

From now on I want to live
only by grace. In other words, not to deserve things.
Without rancor, the light dives down
among the turnips. I eat it with my stew.

Today the woman’s hands smell like roots. When she
shakes them out, they are voluminous, green.
All day they shade me
from the sun. The blackbirds have come to sit in them.
Since this morning, the wind has been enough.

Image above is “Clothesline,” a painting by Heather Horton.

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2 minutes of grace

February 24th, 2010    -    28 Comments

I’m reading a biography of Grace Kelly right now. Why would I need to do that? I know perfectly well how the story ends: it’s how all stories end. One way or another, each of us drives off a cliff at the foreshortened end of a long and winding road. Still, grace stands in perennial service.

As we do with other earthbound deities, we invested so much in Ms. Kelly. We made her the paragon of the good girl, the icon of good looks and the fairytale princess of the good life. She bore it, needless to say, with grace.

I bring this up because of a message recently received in complete sincerity from a dear friend endeavoring in all ways to be good. She said she was scouring Momma Zen to re-read those parts that might help in her search for courage and patience. I told her to give that up.

Words you read won’t transform your life. Words I write won’t transform my life. Only one thing transforms my life: practice. I mean both my formal practice on a meditation cushion, and my everyday, standing-at-the-sink, emptying-the-hamper practice of giving up my chronic search for something else. The life we are most devoted to is the life we don’t have.

More to the point, I told this friend of mine that if I didn’t have a practice of silencing my inner screams, I would have hurt someone a long time ago. I would have hurt either myself or someone I profess to love. I cringe when people ascribe to me such heavenly virtues as calm, peace, patience and wisdom. They don’t yet realize that I do what I must to keep from destroying my life and everyone in it out of anger, fear, frustration and resentment. read more

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