Posts Tagged ‘Sadness’

after the before

May 11th, 2020    -    4 Comments

My mother’s first round of chemotherapy was successful, or so it seemed to us. She revived. Her hair sprouted. Her vigor returned and she went searching for something, anything that could restore what she could no longer conjure up: feeling like she did before. Before chemo? Before surgery? Before the c-word? Before carcinogens, cyclamates, hormone replacement therapy or second-hand smoke? Before the first cell made its disastrous detour toward mutation? She tried acupuncture, herbs, juices, vitamins, music, laughter, meditation and some of the internet remedies and rumors sent her way. I didn’t tell her there was no “before;” no place, no time, no single fixed point of certain health, certain safety or certain anything. I didn’t tell her because I, too, wanted her to find it.

When I went to Los Angeles to meditate with Maezumi Roshi for the first time it was, by coincidence, the weekend of my thirty-seventh birthday. I told him the occasion, but otherwise I was covering up a lot that weekend, or so I thought— my heartache, my loneliness, my endless longing and my fear at moving beyond. He gave me a handmade gift: a freshly inked calligraphy of the kanji Chinese characters for “spring” and “fall.”

“Would you like to see my inspiration,” he offered, and he pointed to a line of delicate print in a leatherbound volume:

No matter how much the spring wind loves the peach blossoms, they still fall.

— from Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood

***

This seems ever-more appropriate now, when we are so far beyond the beginning, and infinitely before the after. And so we wait in faith and pray.

“Faith, Prayer and Song” a new dharma talk.

Photo by Stella Tran on Unsplash

it’s okay to be angry

April 23rd, 2020    -    31 Comments

It’s okay to be angry. Be totally angry. You don’t have to build it, bury it or chew it. Anger incinerates itself, and it will end.

It’s okay to be sad. Be sad. You don’t have to drug it, drag it out or plumb it. Sadness subsumes itself, and it will end.

It’s okay to be tired. Be nothing but tired. Fed up, over, out, done. You don’t have to fix it. Tiredness tires of itself, and it will end.

Be angry. Be sad. Be tired. Be as you are, not as you think you should be.

I bet you feel better already.

through the cracks

March 13th, 2020    -    21 Comments

Last night I was dreaming when my mother spoke. I heard her calling my name in the way only your mother says it, the way you’ll never forget, and I woke from a menacing darkness to that single unmistakable sound, “Karen.” It’s been so long. I was so relieved.

At that very instant I heard the mechanical voice on my phone saying, “Message from Georgia Miller.”

I’ve taken to leaving my creaky old cell phone on the nightstand the last couple of weeks, when the first hairline cracks appeared in this thing we call the world. She might need me in the middle of the night, was my thinking, or first thing in the morning. Perhaps I knew what was coming. Not even two weeks ago my daughter was auditioning for the chance to spend next semester studying Shakespeare in London. Oh, I know how lucky she’s been. I know how favored. It was a lark, a dream. It was yesterday. But today it is nearly impossible to conceive of a next semester, or spending three months in London, or London, for that matter. She called that day to say she loved her life and that she was so fulfilled. Really, she said “fulfilled,” and hearing it, so was I. On Monday her college announced the temporary end of in-person classes, today they told her they wouldn’t resume for weeks or maybe months. She is coming home for how long we don’t know. Who, on this day, could say they know a thing?

My whole life is falling apart, she says. I don’t argue.

I console her tears and shock by saying this is a time like nothing else and never before, except perhaps a world war, which most of us who think we know it all only know from a book. I am so sorry for her and her generation, which could be another generation of lost time and lost chances, made great by their shared trauma, extolled for their resilience. I’m sorry for everyone, because every one of us will lose something or someone dear, a loss incalculable and irreversible.

It is not nothing, you know, this disaster. It is not an accident. It is a call, a bell, a beacon, and yes, a wake-up from the arrogance and ignorance of thinking we know what’s possible and what’s not. We have been sleeping for a long time.

Packing up to come home for what used to be the blink of a spring week—a frolic, a folly—she told me she would need to bring the big suitcase to hold all her books and sadly, all her shoes. It’s the shoes that make it real, that bring it home.

What will be, will be. It will be hard. It will get worse. And one day there will be a call that shatters the dark, and you will wake as if from a dream, so relieved that the night has passed and that you are loved.

Dear friends, I’m glad you are here.

Photo by Umberto on Unsplash

after the winds

February 9th, 2020    -    9 Comments

Last Sunday evening the wind picked up until it rose into a roaring gale of flying limbs and leaves and it didn’t stop for two days. These are the Santa Ana winds, downslope desert gusts that can rage any time of year, a hated harbinger of force and flame. When the calm finally descended I was sunk as low as yard waste. There would be days of work ahead, hard work, yet knowing that the labor would somehow save me, I went out back and started dragging broken branches into mounds. I’d already quit when I heard a blower out front but I didn’t think it could be in my yard because our gardener Tomas wasn’t due for another two days. But lo, it was him, breezing through heaps of fallen leaves and needles as if parting a sea.

Tomas once told me that he’d worked here since he was 15, and somehow we figured out we were the same age. I’m a late beginner to this life’s work, but he abides my interference. No matter what you think of the racket, those blowers can tidy up a mess, so when Tomas left after an hour, my mind was lighter. A little later I brought a folded slip of paper in from the mailbox:

Dear Customer,

I will be going out of town for a family emergency. I will be out for a week. Sorry for any inconvenience, and thank you for understanding.

It was from Tomas. He’d be driving to Mexico and back, and he’d delayed the emergency to swing by, leave this note, and do what he could to ease my way. I marveled at his goodness. Then I realized that even after 48 years, he’d be afraid his job could disappear in a sudden gust.

It was a hard week all over, or so I heard from folks. Kids are sick or sad; the old and young are dying; the world, so dark and doomed that we are afraid to look ahead. I can’t do much for those in trouble, but I try to ease the way.

Around here now, the paths are swept, the ponds are clear, and all the things that fell or broke are stacked in piles four feet high. We go on, you see. We get through. The way forward is hardly ever what we want to do or where we want to go, but it brings us back.

Thank you for understanding. Understanding each other goes a long way.

***

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

caring letters

November 24th, 2018    -    5 Comments

When he was 23, Jerome Motto led an Army truck regiment in World War II. He drove through mile after mile of devastation, surrounded by enemy fire and praying that he and his 39 men would be safe. His prayers were answered with the occasional cargo drop bringing food, supplies, and the one thing he would later credit for keeping him alive—letters.

There was a day last week when I looked at the papers strewn across my desk and thought, “What a good day.” I had just opened and read three letters: one each from Illinois, Wisconsin and northern California. It isn’t such a strange thing for me to receive or send letters. One or the other happens several times a week. Hearing recently that the Forever stamp would go up by five cents at the end of January, I bought three sheets on Monday. These days, stamps feel like the only investment that will pay off.

Jerome Motto got letters from his family, of course. They wrote about their worry and hardships, and wished he would write back more often. He felt sad and guilty that he couldn’t help them. Surprisingly, the letters he most looked forward to were from a woman he’d met but barely remembered. She wrote about commonplace things, he said, like weather and songs on the radio, and she kept writing whether he did or not. He felt a connection. She was interested; she cared. And although he wondered what might come of their friendship, nothing did. He survived the war, living another 60 years without ever seeing her again.

Two years ago I invited people to write to me, promising that I would respond. The world seemed broken. We were disconnected, alienated and at war. At first, a lot of letters came. And then, as you’d expect, enthusiasm waned. I know: it’s hard to keep correspondence going. I never meant to imply that people could only communicate with me by letter, but there is something intimate about putting words on paper, folding and creasing, then closing, addressing, stamping and posting the envelope. It is personal. It is a person.

I have a thing about letters.

After the war, Motto became a psychiatrist. He happened to read an authoritative paper suggesting that the most disturbed patients could be helped by a feeling of connection to another person. So he came up with a research project. He and his staff would interview patients being discharged from a psychiatric hospital—3,000 in all—and half of them would be sent a series of letters—24 letters over five years—asking how they were doing. The letters were simple and short, intended to create a sense of kinship as if sent by a friend.

The results were dramatic. The suicide rate among the “contact group,” those receiving letters, was half that of the control group to which no letters were sent. The lower incidence continued even after the letters had stopped. His was the first experiment to ever show a decline in suicide rates. But still, not many people ever found out about the work.

Around the time the bounty of letters landed on my desk, I read about Jerome Motto and the legacy of his letters in this in-depth article. After you read it in full, you might reflect on yourself and the people in your life. Should you ever feel alone and in despair, perhaps a caring letter will come. Or perhaps you will send one. Either way works.

 

I just want to encourage you

May 1st, 2018    -    11 Comments

My first Zen teacher was Japanese, and although he spoke English, he was nearly impossible to follow. In his soft voice and heavy accent, a good part of what he said was indecipherable. Because of that, he had a reputation for giving terrible Dharma talks, or teachings, and this caused him regret.

“I just want to encourage you,” he would say as he set off on a discourse that no one could make heads or tails of. But that was enough, at least for me. I’ve realized that encouragement is the essence of teaching. I think it’s just about all we can do for one another, and all we need to do. With encouragement, you see, people can do anything and will. A little encouragement goes a long way. You might even say it lasts forever.

Nowadays I’m grateful for the encouragement I’ve been given, which seems to be the most useful thing I can pass along.

A few years ago there was some new research into how toddlers learn to walk. The study said that a baby learning to walk falls on average 17 times per hour. 17 times! Can you imagine that? Seventeen times the shock, hurt, and tears. More than 200 failures in one 12-hour stretch! And 200 times to start over at square one. Even with all that, there has not yet been a baby who gave up on the whole enterprise. It’s a remarkably efficient learning process. Forward motion dissolves fear.

This information has factored into a lot of the advice I’ve given to people since then. Most of us, most of the time, encumber ourselves with the terrible weight and responsibility for teaching our kids everything so they turn out to be something. By that I mean something successful or prized, happy or well. Starting out, we look at them as shapeless clay, putty, or goop. I like to remind parents that we don’t actually teach our children how to walk, how to eat, how to talk, or how to sleep, regardless of how many expert opinions we seek on those subjects. An acorn becomes an oak, I say, lacking any other explanation for how human development happens. And on this basis, our children are completely and wholly themselves at every age and stage, lacking nothing, only absorbing time and encouragement to keep going.

Back when my daughter was in preschool, her teacher made a handout for parents called 4 Steps of Encouragement. When your kids are about 4 years old, you might start to worry about the really important stuff they aren’t doing, like riding a tricycle, holding a pencil, writing their name, or drawing a person with arms and legs. You’re pretty sure they’re already behind, and then where will they end up?  The teacher assures you it’s not late, there’s no hurry, children learn and grow at their own pace, and for heaven’s sake please confine your contribution to repeating these four things:

1. “I understand, I know it’s hard.”
2. “I think you can handle it.”
3. “Want to give it a try?”
4. “When you’re ready . . . “

Last week my daughter texted me during a school day, one of the last of her senior year, and said “I’m getting sad to leave.” I was surprised to hear her express affection for high school, but that wasn’t it. She meant sad to leave home, which really means sad to grow up. Isn’t that true? Isn’t reluctance at the root of all sadness? The reluctance to change, let go, fall down, get up and move on?

Of course we can give help where it is needed, attention when it is lacking, and patience when time is short. But there’s one more thing that bears repeating.

I just want to encourage you.

the myth of the teachable moment

July 6th, 2017    -    28 Comments

Teachable moment a learning opportunity for a child to acquire new information, values, morals, a new behavior or a new skill, or a new way of expressing and coping with an emotion.

I’m a failure at teachable moments. By that I mean I’m a failure at teaching teachable moments. I’m so lousy at teachable moments that I’m declaring myself an official dropout. I don’t know how to teach a moment when the moment is always teaching me. What the moment teaches me is to accept.

In truth, my heart abandoned the endeavor once I got a good whiff of the notion that whatever moment our kids are having isn’t quite enough. Not instructive enough, powerful enough, or motivating enough. The concept that what life needs is a lab assistant – me – someone to add and extract value from the raw materials. Someone to turn the crank, press the button, squeeze the lemon and add sugar. The moment I bailed on teachable moments may well have been my first successful teachable moment.

Don’t get me wrong. If my daughter asks me a question, I answer. If she comes to me to talk, I listen. That’s never a problem.

The problem is only when something happens that I don’t like or want.

Let’s look closely at what it is we’re supposed to be teaching. No one is telling us to teach our way through the easy times. We’re talking about teaching our way around what we don’t like: disappointment, sadness, jealousy, and frustration, for starters. We’re trying to teach our kids out of what they are momentarily feeling, thinking and doing, or at least I am, every time I am confronted with what someone tells me is a teachable moment. read more

weather

March 18th, 2013    -    18 Comments

JR70297-red-tree You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather. Pema Chodron

Ohio in March? The weather would be iffy. For months before last weekend’s retreat in southwest Ohio I crossed my fingers about the weather. The brink of spring in Ohio was like—what exactly? Now I know the answer. Ohio would be like Ohio. A chilly day of filtered sun, the rip-roar of thunderstorms preceding a bright and balmy afternoon, an overnight freeze and snow flurries on the way out of town.

Welcome to Ohio, everyone said, with a tinge of dismay, since it was, after all, Ohio. Nothing to write home about. Oh but it is! Here I am at home writing about it. I found everything about Ohio to be utterly wonderful and illuminating. What a marvelous place to observe the whims of the weather, and learn by it.

Weather changes. Weather moves. Weather does not linger. It is not to be understood or analyzed, because it doesn’t last. No one, I hope, believes they are irreparably shaped by the misty rain they encountered walking home from school in April of the fifth grade. Or by the heat wave that stultified the summer of 2006. Or by last night’s wind or this morning’s fog.

Everything, it turns out, is like this. Everything we see, hear, feel, and think. Every bit of life plays out in a phenomenal flicker, and then it’s gone. We are able to accept this impermanence in the weather; we are not so foolish to expect one day to be like the next. Welcome to Ohio! But we are terribly foolish in other ways. One is the importance we give to our feelings, especially our difficult and uncomfortable feelings. We think they have value—high and lasting value—giving insight into our being, our soul, our self, the who, what and why that we are. We are obsessed with our feelings; we are confused by them; we are entertained by them. On a perfectly ordinary day when nothing at all is happening to us we rummage back into old feelings—I’m afraid, I’m angry, I’m sad—as if these faded footprints formed the meaning and substance of life.

When we identify so totally with the weather we do not see where the weather comes from. We do not see our true nature, the infinite and eternal spaciousness that gives rise to a single momentous thunderclap or the billion snowflakes that melt into a square foot of March mud. We do not see that we are the sky, a vivid and unpredictable vista that is never once marred by the frolic of light and vapor across its flawless face.

This is what I saw in Ohio. I saw the sky, and I loved it. I loved everything and everyone who roamed with me across that wide open field, like birds at rest and play. They leave no trace.

Now, come see the ocean in June.

 

the last fall

March 5th, 2013    -    12 Comments

12778814-oranges-in-ground-who-fallen-from-tree

I want to tell you that the baby won’t fall
the tooth won’t break
the skin won’t scrape
no row of stitches at the hairline
you never saw it coming
I want to tell you that the teasing won’t hurt
the teacher won’t frown
the kids won’t laugh
her name won’t be the last one called
because I suck at kickball that’s why
I want to tell you that your heart won’t rip
your eyes won’t mist your breath won’t catch
when she disappears into her lonely self
beneath a sweatshirt two sizes too big
a widow
to her babyhood
I’m not that girl anymore
I want to tell you that the flowers won’t bloom
the leaves won’t bud
the fruit won’t dangle and drop
that nothing fades and nothing dies
nothing hurts and nothing leaves
you’ll never see it going
but it will go
it will go home
the way a period ends a sentence
the earth is our mother
she heals even the last fall.

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momma time

September 18th, 2012    -    15 Comments

Reprinting this, because it’s about time.

Last week I received this message from a young mother. I asked if I could respond to her via this post so others would benefit. No matter what our stage of parenting, we could all use a little time out to reflect and refresh.

I have two little girls, age 3 1/2 and 1 1/2. They are wonderful and show me what aspects I need to work on as a person and a mother.

Children are indeed wonderful. They are always showing us aspects of ourselves we aren’t familiar with. One aspect, for instance, is happiness. No one has ever made a mother feel as happy as her children do. The other aspect is sadness and despair. We’ve never felt so frustrated, hopeless or inadequate. Every day our children introduce us to a completely new human being: their mother. And although she vaguely resembles someone we used to know, at times we hardly recognize ourselves. When it becomes especially tiresome and difficult, our relationship with our children sounds an alarm. We need rescued.

I have them both at home with me everyday except for four hours each week. Perhaps I’m overwhelmed but lately I’m finding motherhood to be a total drag.

Too much togetherness is too much. Every mother needs more help. The first step is to admit it; the second step is to ask for it; and the third step is to take the help that comes. You never know where help will come from. Not every angel wears wings.

When we have help taking care of our children, it magnifies the love in our lives. When either by circumstance or choice we think we have to do it all by ourselves, we scrimp on love. Everyone suffers for it.

We don’t always have the money to pay for help, so we have to rely on family. We don’t always have family nearby so we have to make friends. We don’t all have friends so we have to be brave. We have to speak up, make calls, trust strangers, invite people over, walk the street, meet, listen and console one another. Last week I called a friend who talked me off a ledge. Just by contacting me you’ve done the same thing for yourself. And look: no one jumped. read more

no way over but through

September 4th, 2012    -    7 Comments

I’m a guest teacher this month at  Shambhala Publication’s Under 35 Project, where the topic is Experiencing Loss.

Under 35 is a site for young meditators to write about finding, beginning and encouraging a mindfulness practice. I hope you’ll visit and read this month’s submissions. If you’re a writer looking for a new venue, or a practitioner looking for support, please consider writing a short essay and contributing it to the site. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re under 35 or not. I view age limitations the same way I view loss: there’s no way over but through, and getting through is what makes a difference.

This remind me of a passage I came across in James Ishmael Ford’s book Zen Master Who? 

There are numerous stories about Maezumi Roshi’s teaching style, but one I particularly like has to do with a student who had been a professional dancer.

As recounted in Sean Murphy’s One Bird, One Stone, the student had badly hurt one of her feet in an accident and was forced to retire from the stage. Embarrassed by her injury, she always kept her foot covered with a sock. In her first interview she asked Maezumi a question about her Zen practice. But he answered, “Never mind that. Tell me about your foot.” She was reluctant to talk but he insisted. She told him the story, weeping, and even took off her sock and showed him her foot.

Maezumi placed his hand silently on her foot. She looked up to find that he was crying too. Their exchanges went on like this for some time. Every time she asked the roshi about her practice, he’d ask about her foot instead, and they’d cry together. “You might think you have suffered terrible karma,” Maezumi told her, “But this is not the right way to think. Practice is about learning to turn disadvantage to great advantage.” Finally the day came when the student walked into the interview room and began to tell her teacher about her injury, but it summoned no tears from her. “Never mind about that,” Maezumi told her. “Let’s talk about your practice.”

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat on Sept. 23 in LA.

The Art of Non-Parenting: Discovering the Wisdom of Easy, and Deeper Still: Breath & Meditation Workshop on Oct. 20-21 in Wash. DC.

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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 ones who don’t win

August 5th, 2012    -    17 Comments

Last week a friend told me the story of how her daughter learned to swim. She refused at first, terrified that she would sink to the bottom and drown.

The fear of drowning is such an intelligent fear.

The instructor asked her how old she was.

“Five,” the girl answered.

“Five-year-olds don’t drown,” the instructor told her. And thus she learned to swim.

The story struck me for the brute genius with which it obliterated fear. But, of course, it was a lie.

Sometimes we lie a little. Sometimes we lie a lot.

We tell our children little lies for most of their young lives, because the lies are in service of a greater good. We tell our children lies because we tell ourselves lies. They make us feel safe and capable. Confident in the face of staggering uncertainty. We tell lies about effort, desire and glory, about time, dreams and possibilities, success and achievement. Then we come together and celebrate rituals of competition and prowess, pageants of pride and invincibility. You can do it! You can do anything! You can win! You deserve it! The excitement over, spectators leave the stands, plumped on inspiration and daring. Maybe they’ll jog the block in the morning. read more

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