Posts Tagged ‘lineage’

the man on the wall

February 12th, 2017    -    13 Comments

A couple of days ago some visitors dropped by to see the garden. Before we went outside we sat around the dining room table chitchatting. One of the guests pointed to an old-timey portrait on the wall and asked who it was.

The fact is, I didn’t know for sure. I’d been told it was my father’s grandfather, my grandfather’s father, whose name I only guessed at because nothing had ever been told to me about him except that he had died young and left his family destitute. This old-fashioned, hand-tinted photograph turned up after my grandparents died and if I hadn’t claimed it, it might have been tossed out of the shed along with everything else. This side of my family didn’t waste much sentiment on the past, for reasons you know if you’ve read Paradise in Plain Sight, but still there was a little bit of mythology that we granddaughters clung to, as some of us do about historical fictions. First, we’d been told ours was a clan of railroad men, iron tough but weak to the degradations of drink, and that somewhere sometime they’d come from Ireland. That sounded like a romantic beginning to an American fairy tale but my grandfather didn’t have a wisp of interest in spinning it, nipping our questions about the old country by saying “if there had been anything worth remembering, we’d have never left.”

But things being what they are these days, and the question coming across the table at me last Thursday, I thought I would try to verify the simple facts of the mysterious man who has been hanging on my wall for the last 20 years, peering at me through the same liquid blue eyes that have marked the scoundrels in the family for at least a hundred years.

***

We all have an immigrant story. Some of us were right there in it at the start, clutching a hand, crossing a border, coming ashore; for others, it’s a story covered in dust and thick with make believe. When my daughter was 12, my sister and I took her to New York City and then by ferry to Ellis Island, where we heard a less lyrical history of the place than I would have ever guessed from the words in the national anthem. Here I thought I was a good American student, but I was shocked and sad to realize that immigration has always been as much about keeping people out as letting people in. And so the hollow caverns of the Statue of Liberty National Monument are haunted with the desperation of not just those who survived the cull, but those who didn’t: the ones judged defective or diseased, crippled or criminal, cross-eyed, insane, unemployable or unlucky enough to cough that day, folks who were put back on the boat to sail the other way. I don’t know what you’d have left to say after that kind of cruel passage, which was not just the end of the worst but a hard start to what would prove to be harder still.

So I went looking for a thread to connect those liquid blue eyes from one generation to the next, from father to son, to find the name behind the frame that came to be hanging on the dining room wall. I found it and something else too. I found out how much my family was like every other immigrant and refugee family: they damn sure wanted to be Americans.

The man on the wall is Grover Cleveland Tate, my great-grandfather, who was born in Illinois in 1885 and died in 1919. His wife, my Grandpa’s mom, was Mary A. Cox, born in 1883.

Grover C. Tate’s father was George Washington Tate, who was born in 1850 and died in 1928, father of 10. And although all these many lives were lived in Illinois, the 1900 US Census shows that, sure enough, G.W.’s father had been born in Ireland.

Sixty years later, his blue eyes turned up in my grandpa, George James Tate:

And then again in my dad James Allan Tate:

None of these men amounted to much except what little comes from hard luck, hard life and hard times. Not much to show for all their work and woe other than me and my sisters and all the lives entwined in a galaxy with ours, my daughter and nieces and great-niece and great-nephew-to-be, each and every bloom of fruit on this fertile plain, all the sons and daughters of George Washington and Grover Cleveland, the weak, the strong, my family, my heart, my home, my country, my countrymen and women waiting to cross over and become one of us. I don’t have a political position on immigration; I don’t have the slightest idea. What I have is a life. What is it that you have?

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I really want you to come

October 28th, 2014    -    8 Comments

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Sunday Morning

By Bobby Byrd

Two old guys walk single file
Slowly and wordlessly around a room.
A white curtain filters the sunshine.
Outside is the hot desert sun.

The two men are shoeless. The smaller,
the guy in front, is limping because
40 years ago in Vietnam a kid in black pajamas
shot him in the head and almost killed him.

The other guy dodged that war,
lived in the mountains, lived in the city,
wife and three kids, drank a lot,
wrote some poems. A candle flickers,

incense burns. The floor is clean
because these two men cleaned it.
Three others were here but they left.
The man in front slaps two wooden

clappers together. The sound startles
the man behind. He takes a deep breath.
The men stop walking. The first man
lights a stick of incense and places it

in front of a statue of the Buddha.
They bow to their cushions on the floor.
They sit down cross-legged and stare
at the wall. Their legs ache. It’s been

three days now. Not much longer.
One of them is the teacher
one of them the student. It doesn’t
make much difference which is which.

***

I’ve been traveling some lately. I’ve been traveling enough that when I sit down in my own living room, I feel like a piece of cheap, soft-sided luggage tumbling out of the baggage claim shoot on Carrousel 4.

When I go someplace, I never know who’s going to show up. A fair number of the people I expect to show up are nowhere in sight, but the empty spots are always taken by the otherwise ordinary folks who walk through the door.

I was about to head over to Las Cruces, New Mexico earlier this month when my host asked me if I could spend a part of the visit sitting with Bobby Kankin Byrd and his sangha in El Paso. “He really wants you to come,” she said, telling me that Bobby Byrd was the “Dalai Lama of El Paso.” Meeting him, I could see why. If His Holiness is the embodiment of the great monastic lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, then Bobby Byrd is his counterpart in El Paso. He’s a rumpled guy with a head of gray stubble and a giant smile, a fellow who cares a lot about many important things but who is never more than half-serious about himself. He’s a poet, a publisher and a Zen priest, which must be the holy trinity of lost causes, especially when you do them in El Paso. He and his wife Lee are the founders of Cinco Puntos Press, a small and very independent publisher of artfully rendered and lovingly cultivated books. They treat their books like you would your children if you adored your children every minute of the day. He sits with a group of die-hards every Sunday morning in a zendo about the size of a toolshed, a magnificent toolshed I should say, in a blooming backyard. I came because he asked me to and I liked it there an awful lot. I liked the people very much.

Bobby gave me the latest book of his poems, Otherwise, My Life is Ordinary. This poem came from it. It tells you exactly why I will haul myself off to the next who-knows-where to sit with who-knows-who happens to be in the room that day. One will be the teacher and one the student. It doesn’t make much difference which is which. What matters is that we come anyway.

***

Poem excerpted from Otherwise, My Life is Ordinary ©2014 by Bobby Byrd. Printed with permission of Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso.

 

oak tree in the garden

July 5th, 2013    -    14 Comments

big-oak

This is an excerpt from my next book Paradise in Plain Sight, coming next spring from New World Library.

A monk asked Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?” Joshu said, “The oak tree in the garden.” —Gateless Gate, Case 37

From the beginning, I called it a grandfather tree, the oak tree in the garden. The reasons were self-evident. It was tall, broad-shouldered and thick around the middle, like my grandfathers. Plus, I had an album of photos that showed it standing at full height before I was born. Only later did I learn that there wasn’t even such a description in arboriculture. What I called a grandfather tree was instead grandfathered, protected from removal by a village tree ordinance. But that made sense, too. It’s impossible to remove your grandfathers from the line of life you’ve been given. When you’re little, they hold you. You look up to them. They might teach you something useful that no one else has the time or patience for. In time, they slow down, grow feeble, drop things—but you can’t do a damn thing about it.

Even approaching a hundred years old, the oak tree in our garden was a fount of life. It cradled nests of marauding rats and raccoons. Noisy squirrels chased the length of it all day long. Jays shrieked, hawks roosted, and the wind flew through its wide-open arms. Its canopy shaded a teahouse built by a groundskeeper in the 1920s for his kids to play in. That’s a lot of hide-and-seek and games of tag: generations of joy and laughter. Two years after we got here, our daughter Georgia was born. Suddenly, we saw only peril in a yard full of rocks and water, not to mention dirt. If it had been left to me, fear would have kept us locked indoors. But Georgia kept proving that she was born to play in the garden, as we are all born to play in the garden. She watched her step; she knew her place. Before long, the neglected teahouse was crawling with kids for parties and play-acts: revivals of The Wizard of Oz and Little House on the Prairie, stories about making yourself at home wherever you are, stories retold with every generation.

The oak tree in the garden drops more than two thousand acorns a year. Each acorn is both a culmination and a seed; each carries its own ancestral imprint and the full potential to evolve. In California, the principal propagator of oaks is the scrub jay. A jay picks up thousands of acorns and stores them underground in the fall, and when it’s time to eat, remembers where nearly all of them are placed. Nearly all. A few stay undisturbed underground, and those are the ones that sprout. The lineage of the coastal live oak depends on what a bird forgets, and the survival of the Western scrub jay depends on what a live oak leaves behind. It sounds like a willy-nilly proposition, only it isn’t.

One acorn in ten thousand becomes a tree. On the one hand, what a waste. On the other, it works. In the crapshoot of life, you—I mean you—turned up. You rose from the ground of your ancestors, their dust in your bones. Without accomplishing another thing, you are the complete fulfillment of all those who came before you. How can you doubt yourself?

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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.

face time

February 28th, 2013    -    11 Comments

blog-wilted-house-plantNext time you want to grow a plant, set it in front of a screensaver of the sun and see what happens.

Excuse me for pointing out the obvious. The sun is not a picture of the sun. An internet connection is not the same as a living connection. Life is not a picture of life. It is the transmission of living energy and not the transmission of digital data.

Or as an old Zen fogey said in far fewer words, “A rice cake is not a picture of a rice cake.” Which one will satisfy your hunger?

There were a couple of events that brought this to mind this week. One was the decision by the CEO of Yahoo to suspend the struggling company’s work-from-home policy. The stated reason turned out to be controversial: people who work together benefit from actual face time. And I do mean “face time,” not the phone app FaceTime for video chats, another example of a digital surrogacy that has brought living proximity to near-extinction. When I read the arguments against the new (old) policy on my computer, I said to my husband, “That CEO is right.”

He sat at his desk looking into his own computer and said, “Yes she is.” This spoken exchange is called “having a conversation.” From time to time we sit in the same room and speak to one another. Granted, not often, but stringing together these occasional proximities is what used to be called “a relationship.” He travels quite a bit in his job to have one-day meetings with his co-workers around the world because it makes quicker work of their complicated labor. Something happens in the space between living things—something visible as well as invisible. Something shared: a force, a bond; the circulation of energy, thoughts, feelings, sound, motion. Get it?

Few do. Not long ago I heard a young couple talking about their communication style. The fellow preferred texting; he said phone calls were inefficient and exasperating because “talking wastes time” when data can be conveyed instantly. I smiled and had a sense of where that non-conversation would be taking them in the next few years.

We all know better, really we do. That’s why we call that kind of disengagement “phoning it in.” I know doing things in person isn’t always convenient, but do we really have to argue the merits? I guess we do.

Last weekend at a beginner’s meditation retreat I was asked how many students I have. “That’s a good question,” I responded. “Lots of people ask me if I’ll teach them online, but I don’t do that.” It’s wonderfully clarifying for me that I practice in a line of teachers who have carried the living Dharma down from antiquity as an oral tradition. Teachers and students practice in living proximity: in the same room, two people sitting together having conversation, sharing sound, motion, breath. Get it?

Few do. Just about anything that looks like what we do in a meditation hall can now be done online via email, downloads, Skype, discussion boards, even meditation apps. Do it in your own home (where you won’t do it)! As an e-course! I don’t get it. This is not the Dharma I practice. Not the Dharma I teach. Whether you can see it or not, something happens in the space between us. Something intimate, wise, and generous. Something real.

You have to experience the light and warmth of the sun to stay alive.

This fascinating video called “Finding the Visible in the Invisible” will give you a look at the face time I’m talking about. But don’t mistake the video for the magic of real life. The video may pique your interest but it will not satisfy your hunger.

the bony end of a branch

July 16th, 2012    -    16 Comments

Where do you come from?

In the same way we have a physical lineage we have a spiritual one, although you may not yet know about yours. In the same way fruit derives its flavor from the soil, it takes it from the sun. Anything and everything that comes to us comes through a lineage, because that’s how life works. Nothing comes into existence any other way.

You might still think it’s weird that I’m a Zen Buddhist—not a choice you’d make—but you wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. That’s how lineage works. It’s not a choice of this or that. Not like inventing a new last name—make mine Rockefeller. Or like doctoring your eye color—I’ll take periwinkle blue. In lineage as in life, you get what you get. And then somewhere along the way, you get upset.

In my spiritual lineage, tracing more than eighty generations of Zen wisdom, one question is asked over and over again.

A student comes to meet a teacher, and the teacher asks, “Where do you come from?” The student replies, and from this, the teacher sees who stands there.

How would you answer?

Where do you think you come from?

From your parents? From your parents’ parents? From a place? From the place before that? From a time? Or the time before that? Before that? Before that?

How far back do you have to go to realize that you don’t know? How long before you know that you can’t ever know?

We are one family of unknown origin, the fruit of beginningless time, the descendents of everyone who has ever lived. The most we can know is that we do not know where we come from, and from that point on, everything becomes possible.

I am 55 years old. As the mother of a near-teen, I’m in the uneasy breach before the onset of an overthrow. My hair has grayed enough for me to be called gray-haired. Some of the freckles on my face are really liver spots, and the wrinkles are not just laugh lines. Life’s major milestones—those birthdays we call “The Big Ones”—have slipped past my reliable recollection. I have begun a stage of life where I am irritating to a precious few and invisible to everyone else. All these changes are as plain as day, but still, I can hardly believe it.

Here I am, petering past my prime, and here you are, just beginning that aching reach to sweetness. What will pass between us? What can I share?

Only this: the fruit on the bony end of a branch.

teacher

June 25th, 2012    -    10 Comments

California days seem short even when they’re not, dimmed by the sudden slant of the afternoon rays. The heat of a workday chills by four. Even in summer, our suppers were always at five.

My grandfather would open the screen door and call us kids inside. I might be kneeling under the shade arbor digging in muddy loam with a bent spoon. Might be on the side of the house corralling pill bugs into a coffee tin. Might be on the swing dragging my bare feet in the dirt. Or I might be invisibly snug under the umbrella boughs of an orange tree, sitting still and quiet. All those days in the dirt are what made the place my own.

Hearing my name rise in the air, I would come running toward the deep resonance in his voice, and in that instant, be completely accounted for. Teachers take roll, that’s what teachers do. They stand on a step and say your name. How do you respond?

Here I am!

What matters most is that you’re here. It matters most because it is the one irrefutable fact of your life. To say anything more misses the mark.

###

I am so glad that I will be here, spending two days in Washington, DC Oct. 20-21, calling your name. How will you respond?

 

the girl can write

March 5th, 2012    -    60 Comments

About two years ago I read something on the web that I loved. I adore words, and I often admire other writing. But this was different than admiration. It was as if someone cracked open my ribcage and wrote the ache in my heart.

The piece by Joanna Brooks was called There is no Such Thing as Half, a courageous bit of outspokenness against the fractional religious classification of her children, born of a Mormon mom and Jewish dad. I read it and gushed blood, then immediately wrote a fan letter to Joanna. The similarities of our interfaith families, as all similarities, didn’t end there. It turns out she was a beloved professor to my next-door neighbor’s first-born. We both came of age on the suburban rim of the California orange groves. We shared the relative obscurity of all fledgling writers, figuring out how to woo readers, win publishers, and assemble the mythical “platform” that we’ve been told will yield access to the promised land of literary inclusion.

All I could offer her was encouragement. She went on and did everything by her pioneering self, becoming the go-to media girl for progressive Mormonism, a commentator at the frontier of politics, faith and feminism. Last month she published her memoir, and I recommend it to you here.

The Book of Mormon Girl is the story of deeply loving one’s faith, surviving its narrowness, renouncing its arrogance, and ultimately reclaiming the church. It is as smartly rendered as language can be, and it is beautifully, universally true. It gives me hope. Hope for our miscounted daughters, for our misunderstood grandmothers, and for the achingly faithful hearts, like mine, still beating and bleeding for peace, tolerance, and the seemingly lost cause of human respect. It gives me hope for our common lineage: love.

Comment on this post for a chance to win my copy of the book, to be drawn this Friday.

then you start crying

February 19th, 2012    -    18 Comments

Last week I went to Indianapolis to meet people. I stood alone in an empty room, let it fill, looked into faces looking at mine, spoke and listened, each sound beginning from silence and returning to the same, let the room empty again, and then sat in a quivering aftershock, unable to understand what had just happened, even though it happens every time.

We might think that when we come together in a room and speak our names, extending a hand or a hug, that we are meeting each other. Two discrete beings at a meet and greet. But what we’re meeting is much more and different than that. It is not really two people meeting; it is minds meeting, and not as two minds, but as one. It is inexpressible, but unmistakable. Something happens, and then you might start crying. At that instant, you feel incredibly lucky. Rich, even. As if your own paltry life is suddenly revealed as a priceless treasure.

From time to time people ask me, usually from a distance, if I will be their teacher. I try not to answer that question, because it is irrelevant from a distance, and certainly meaningless over the Internet. I’m never sure what the questioner is asking for — a friend, a counselor, a correspondent, an advisor, a coach, an eye, an ear, a hand? Although I can supply a metaphoric approximation of that from a distance, that’s not what a teacher does.

The teacher and student enter a room that is not a metaphor. They stand on the same ground. What they communicate is words and not-words. You needn’t worry about how it works. To explain it is to confuse it. No one knows how it works, but it does. We always know who our teachers are: they are the ones in the room with us. It’s really not a matter of choosing or asking. What a relief.

To that end, I heard something as I was in the car yesterday driving home from the Zen Center. It was an episode of Radio Lab in which a teacher tells how she broke through the conceptual isolation of a 27-year-old deaf student who had never been given language. “Something happened,” she said, “and then he started crying.”

I did too. I hope you’ll listen past the point where you think you know what it means. That’s the place things happen.

 

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