“Famous,” they say.
It’s what disturbs me about me, too.
We have a new motor vehicle law here in California. It is a good law. There are about a billion worthwhile reasons to have it. Along the roadways there are portable lighted signs with the newest prohibition spelled out on them. It’s jarring to see, because I am flabbergasted that we actually need a law to inform and correct this behavior. And yet, it doesn’t go far enough.
Don’t text and drive.
Don’t sleep and drive.
Don’t read Braille and drive.
Don’t needlepoint and drive.
Don’t stir fry and drive.
Don’t tie shoelaces and drive.
Don’t repot plants and drive.
Don’t braid hair and drive.
Don’t count pennies and drive.
Don’t crack nuts and drive.
Don’t finger puppet and drive. Don’t even think about it.
The other day I was passing time in one of my many embarrassingly self-stimulating pursuits when I ran across this comment about my book:
“I think I will eventually buy it cheap and used online.”
I don’t know the person who wrote it, but we are all careful about our purchasing decisions these days. What struck me is why she would broadcast her intentions in a way that seems both self-congratulatory and deprecatory about the value of a book – my book in particular. What price is so much cheaper than $9.56 new? Or even $11.95 list?
I’m not here to rail on anyone about the end of the publishing industry. Like a lot of industries collapsing these days it has long engaged in a stubborn suicide spiral. Publishers seem to have been blindly unconcerned with writers, readers or the revolution in content delivery. (Beware, beware, those of you awaiting publishing knights in shining armor. No one rides in on a white horse. You, yes you, the writer, remain your sole means of transport. So saddle up and get going.)
No, what I want to rail against is the peculiarly uncivilized value system during this, the decline and fall of our civilization. A system in which we can spend $10 a week on coffee in a cardboard cup, but scrimp on the $9.56 for a book.
And don’t worry: I’m indicting myself here. My husband and I don’t dare live without our $12 pound of connoisseur coffee beans each week.
One early Saturday morning about a month ago I stopped by Starbucks for my ritual tall-drip-with-room-for-cream $1.60 cup of slightly stale coffee on the way to the Zen center. Normally I make a pot at home but don’t want the roar of the grinder to wake the dead at the dark hour of my departure. There were about half a dozen folks ahead of me in line. The stock market had fallen, oh 700 points or so the day before, yet here we all were, living proof of our unshakable values. We could, on this day of our lives, own a share of Citigroup, the largest financial institution in the world, for $4. Or, we could have a grande vanilla soy latte. We all know how that story ends. It’s not a happy ending.
And so I make a toast today, a toast to a better tomorrow; a kinder, gentler, nobler nation; a toast to quiet circumspection, art and imagination; to our wiser selves awaiting revelation in the turn of a page.
A toast not just to the book or the bookshelf; not to the library, no, not just to the borrowed book; but beyond that, to the hard currency of words worth owning.
To the bookstore! Where everything is already dangerously, precariously, woefully half off and going out of business.
This entire post was written by hand in 15 minutes flat in the pages of Jen Lee’s magical Don’t Write: A Reluctant Journal while my hard drive was being replaced in yet another cruel case of ill-timed obsolescence. Get your own journal today. It’s not just a blank book. It’s a white horse!
Never again believe what you read.
Never again fly on the most overbooked air travel day of the year.
Never again go via this airline through this airport.
Never again be in a hurry to get home when fog socks in your destination.
Never again leave your dog at home with a dogsitter who misunderstands/misreads/forgets when you are returning.
Never again get the smell of fear, anxiety, panic and dog poop out of the rugs.
Never again use sudsing detergent in your new front-loader.
My nine-year-old is a professional. A professional beggar. She was the last in a cast of dozens given a role in our little town’s live theater performance of “A Christmas Carol.” She is deep into final rehearsals and costume fittings, and this is where our story turns. She was cast, or so we presumed, as a beggar girl. The costume is for a beggar boy.
You don’t have to tell me that to a nine-year-old, the difference between a boy part and a girl part is unfathomable and untouchable. And although she has been counseled by her parents that there is little to be done at this late and desperate hour, no fix or balm; although everyone has tried to convince her that playing a boy is Oscar bait for pretty girls, she cannot be sold or satisfied.
Because she is safe in expressing all of herself to me, her deep and dark feelings, she does. Every morning and night she tosses them up to me, her worrisome frets and ceaseless spins, about how to change the costume, how to replace it, get around it, make one more phone call, concoct one more reason, convince the powers that be, etc. etc. chapter and verse. (Mind you, she does not under any circumstance want to quit the show. She is an actress, first and last.)
On the way to school on Friday morning she lifted her chin and said again, as if anew, “I still really need to change that costume,” perhaps hoping that phrasing it as a need instead of a want would score results from her miracle-making mom.
I stopped cold and said icily, in a voice that would freeze your eyeballs: IT’S NOT IMPORTANT!
And it’s true, it’s not important. It just wasn’t a very nice thing to say.
We are beggars, the both of us. She is begging me to do something. And I am begging her to do nothing. We are, each of us, nearly always begging for what we don’t have.
A long time ago I had a Buddhist boyfriend who dumped me (but that’s another story) and as he got sick and tired of me he started to say abruptly rude things. They were probably true, but as the saying goes, I wasn’t ready to hear them. I hear them now! One thing he said was that I needed to learn the difference between need and want. He probably said it in the context of my complete debasement, in the midst of vain and endless pleading, while I clutched his pants leg, being dragged across a parking lot, wailing But you can’t leave! I need you!
The difference between need and want? I hadn’t a clue at the time. He set me wondering even as he set me wandering and I presumed that he had achieved some lofty kind of Buddhist understanding far beyond a groveling earth-dweller like me.
(Beware any Buddhist who appears to have attained any understanding, particularly the lofty kind.)
He hadn’t achieved anything, but he was right. I really didn’t need him, although my “needing” of him did set me off on this path to satisfy my wants, and I really did need that. We all do.
What is the difference between need and want? One starts with an “n” and one starts with a “w.” That’s about all I can distinguish. They are just words we either like to use or don’t like to use, choose or don’t choose, to label our dissatisfaction, our unfulfilled desire. Because really, whether we sanction something as a “need” or not, do we really need it? And when for a breathless moment we want something, do we really want it for long? I guess not, because look how easy it is to live without all the things we once wanted, and none of the things we don’t have but still think we need.
Life really is pretty easy by itself, unless we need or want for something different.
Needs and wants are the things we beg for, whether it sounds like begging or not, whether we are aware or not, no matter what the circumstance, no matter what the costume. Begging is the role of a lifetime. The curtain rises, and we start begging. The curtain closes, and who knows what becomes of the beggar? The real question is this: when, in the brief span between the rise and the fall, will we ever stop? When will we ever enjoy the show?
Shhhhh! It’s starting.
A reminder to put my whole self in the cup, and get the world in return.
Photo originally uploaded by Alastair Bird.
I’m breaking my silence for a bit of nitpicking, which I’ve gotten pretty good at.
Quick! Give me two words that unnerve you more than:
Terrify you more than:
Paralyze you more than:
Hurricane Ike, Josie, Kyle or storms beginning with the letters LMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ
Nah! Bring on all those lightweights!
It’s HEAD LICE, the mantra of my week in the here and now. Should this catastrophe ever befall your household, smack dab in the middle of your self-imposed meditative solace, I will tell you what works (two treatments, four comb-outs, and ferocious use of scissors; spending eight back-breaking hours over two days peering through a magnifier at each of 100,000 hair strands; and doing five loads on hot at the laundromat because the WASHING MACHINE BROKE last week). Here’s what doesn’t work (anything less because believe me I tried).
And my neighbor survived the train crash with the blessings of two broken ribs, a broken leg and a completely intact sense of gratitude. May we all be so rich.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what sent me underwater a mere twelve hours after our seven-hour drive home from six days of vacation. The parking ticket on the car we left behind? The opaque algae bloom in the fishtank? The stinking carload to unpack and sort? That assault awake at dawn? No food in the house? No milk in the fridge? No cream for the coffee? The dog’s persistent whine to eat, to chase, to go outside? My daughter’s breathless urgency to make French Toast for breakfast? Then open her own restaurant? Write the menu? Make a flyer? Charge premium admission for patrons seated in the backyard? Have a lemonade stand? Have a bake sale? Have a Labor Day party for the neighborhood?
And all in the first 45 minutes of the day.
By the time my husband wakes I’m already over my head in dread. I’ve remembered what it’s like now to be home. A ranch manager. A playground supervisor. An animal handler. A carnival barker. So not me.
What’s the one thing I could do for you so you have a better day, he asks when I’ve sunken from view, just a telltale bubble on the surface. So not me.
I’m dumbstruck by the question. One thing? For me? A better day? There’s not one thing that can be done for me, I think to myself, because I’m not even here. There’s no room for me here. This is all so not me.
I wish you could see it all with my eyes, I say, knowing the complete impossibility of that request. Because it’s all me.
One thing I’ve noticed since I installed the new bloglist down the right hand column, the one that shows the title of the latest posts from everyone, is how often we write about the same thing at the same time. Themes seem to dance among us like the waves of a desert mirage. We write about power one day, belief the next, hope, wish, and the eternally cherished first day of school.
You might call this coincidence. In Buddhism we call it no coincidence. There is only one mind, you see, and it is what you see. The mind that is always in front of you is the mind we all share, although the filters we perceive it with are uniquely our own.
We share one mind, and in that way we share one life, but we do not share the view of it. The judgment, the resentment, the desperation, the dread, the fear of drowning, is only me.
There are a lot of things you can find on vacation when you’ve temporarily lost sight of the crumbs, the weeds, the dog hair, the fish tank, the empty fridge, and the overdue registration on the car you left parked on the street outside your house.
On vacation, it can seem like you find yourself. But what you’ve really found is that vast field beyond yourself, beyond your limited views and habitual perspectives. You find mind, the mind so easily lost when all we see is the drudgery of a daily grind. And you wish you could live in that boundless space. In truth, you already do.
On my vacation I found an oasis in a tiny shop in Carmel, a shop oozing with rich comforts and colors and drenched in herbal fragrances. I bought two flavors of these delicious shower gels, the one thing I can give myself to wash away the dread of the day. No one else can do it for me, thanks honey.
Then I realized, because we share this vast mind and all things in it, one of these gifts is most certainly yours.
The better to drown with.
Leave a comment on this post anytime by the end of this Friday, September 5 and you could drown yourself in 8.4 fluid ounces of bathtime bliss.
Oh! And you’re all invited to our Labor Day lemonade stand and bake sale. It’s a party for the neighborhood, you see, to celebrate the drowning of me.
I just love when this happens! This giveaway was won by one of my dearest drowning buddies: Lisa at Sunset Pig.
Plus we made $20 at the lemonade and bake sale.
“Mom, are you ever going to grow your hair out again?” she asks for the trillionth time, while I am sitting at the kitchen table trimming her nails for the billionth time. This after one of those long, full exhausting Sundays of overdue chores that quite nearly empties me out. (Quite nearly.)
“No,” I snip in reply. (I am a Buddhist priest and what length of hair I still have tells you everything about the ego I’ve yet to let go.)
She looks away and says nothing, and I feel the temperature climb up my spine to a rolling boil.
“Why would I?” I erupt. “I’m just a slave around here!” (Did I say that? Or was it my mother, or her mother, or the ancient mother of all mothers?)
It’s quiet as I finish up her hands and feet, then she skips up the hallway to her room.
“Here, I want you to have this,” she says when she returns, holding out a folded bill. It’s $10 from her savings.
I shake my head in remorse.
“It’s for helping us,” and here she pauses to find the words, “to live.”
(Leaving me to repay the favor.)
Him: Are you really going to quit?
Me: It’s just that in the face of this pain, the only thing that makes me keep going right now is ego.
Him: Isn’t that true of everything?
Me: No, when I do what needs to be done, that’s not ego. I would run 16 miles to go get help if the house was on fire. But when what keeps me going is pride, or shame, or obligation, or obstinance, or the idea that I’m accomplishing something or overcoming something or the fear of letting someone down, that’s ego.
Him: (dejected) I just thought it was a pretty neat thing for you to do.
Me: Like that.
I’m looking out the window
for my baby to come home
because today I spilled over,
supersized with my own wonderfulness
when I asked, “Want some Coke?”
(Which I never do, you see, since Mommy says it makes kids stop growing
and that settles that.)
I poured this one-time specialness over ice in a cup,
toasting my good-motherness,
handed it to her
and instantly it spilled,
emptied over homework and folder,
onto table and chair,
soaking the Crate and Barrel rug.
The poison rose in me like foam over a tumbler
streaming down the sides
puddling on the counter
my long tongue lashing out the blame
lathering the shame
my arms and legs erupting
in a crazy-lady dance
saving wet pages
letting her wet face dry by itself.
How awful, how inane, over a pause that refreshes?
Sugar water and dye.
I’ve had my pause. I’ve died.
I’m sick and sad and sorry to be
looking out the window
for my baby to come home
where I can catch the first gleam
It’s what moms do
we do it forever
even before we are moms.
The waiting is worth it.
* * *
For Denise. In fullness. Of time.
When my sisters and I were little – I mean really little – we used to gather around the TV on a sultry Saturday night in the late summer and watch the Miss America beauty pageant.
This is not a joke. This was in the days before we joked about such things.
We would sit inches from the screen, irradiated with anticipation, and choose our favorites even before all 50 girls had introduced themselves. Then we percolated through the rest of the program, through the talent and the evening gowns, through the arias and baton twirls, the sparkle, the suspense, the adoration and yearning, until a point of unbearable despair. A point that I discerned even at age 8 or 9, a point of tragic and humiliating desperation when I could watch no longer.
You see, there was a comic quiver in the girls’ outer thighs when they stalked the stage with mock pride and purpose (because what purpose could there be in wearing swimsuits with stilettos?) I turned my little-girl eyes aside and winced to see how earnestly they posed and yet how fraudulent they seemed, how tight and taut and twisted in pursuit of – what really? They were already pretty with perfect teeth and flat tummies and nice and friendly with bright futures and all, and here they were trying so hard to be something that they sure as heck weren’t going to be and we all knew it. We already knew it was going to be Miss Texas.
And although eventually the whole lot of us grew so smart and cynical about this kind of contest, I swear everything on TV today, everything in ads and magazines, everything on the Internet, everything in this country, everything in our lives, yes my life and yours, is just a reprise of this sad sport over and over every day. Not just about beauty, either. About fame, money, power, popularity, winning, losing and numbers, numbers, numbers. The desperate urging, chasing, yearning, selling. wishing, hoping, praying, prying, gnawing, groaning, clashing, crashing contest to be something more (or less) than what you are.
Not everyone sees this and weeps. But I do. To feel this very full and broken heart, to carry this unbearable sympathy and sadness, is to touch the very source of compassionate wisdom.
But to let go of the tortured striving for yourself? To let it all give way and lose nothing? That, dear Karen, is the path of enlightenment. What a refreshing topic to begin a new day, a new week, a new way. Which is the oldest way of all, the original unimproved, unretouched, you as you are way.
*Click here for more gospel.
There is engaging language in my spiritual tradition, in the old writing and the poetic phrases. It’s easy to take the language as inspiration or as metaphor, inclined as we are to analyze everything for deep meaning and exalted purpose. This is what religious scholars do, what intellectuals do, and it’s obvious why. We can almost never believe that things are simple or straightforward, that they are what they are. What do we use our brains for if not figuring things out? Everything has to mean something else.
I’ve heard a phrase more or less like the one above many times and thought it conveyed urgency and desperation. It does. But then I saw with my own eyes this week the startling science of extinguishing fires. How you put out a fire is exactly how you should practice. How you put out a fire on the ground is exactly how you put out the fire on your head – your insane, compulsively anxious, fearful ego mind.
Like you, I wish practice was merely a matter of writing this post, or reading a book, or making a list, or thinking positive thoughts, or losing five pounds. But I’ve seen the firefighters, and how they practice. They do not waste a moment to theory, philosophy, inspiration or appearances.
This is what I learned:
The best fire prevention is fire. When an area burns fully it does not burn again. To extinguish the fire of ego, you must burn the concept of self completely. Then it does not re-ignite or flare up in trouble spots. Have no more inflaming thoughts of yourself: what you want, what you need, what you wish, what you think, what you feel, what you don’t have, what you don’t like, your dramas and intrigues, the world according to you. It is not enough to comprehend this, though. You actually have to burn the brush away, and let the fire rouse you from the bed you sleep in tonight.
A fire isn’t out until the roots are upended. When a mountain catches fire and the flames soar from a vertical surface, the battle begins from the air. Water and fire retardant are dropped over and over. It’s impressive. It buys time, but it doesn’t finish the job. To finish the job, they send in the ground crews. Foot solders, who scale the blackened slope with picks and shovels to turn up the smoldering roots. The roots of burned vegetation can hold a fire for months, I’m told, like the roots of ego attachment, ageless embers of ignorance and anger, all the delusive ways in which you hold fast to the idea of yourself.
Fire erupts from conditions, an inextricable set of causal conditions including heat, dryness, fuel and a spark. Unfavorable conditions sustain a fire, no matter how valiant the strategy. When conditions change, the wind turns, humidity climbs and the temperatures drop, the fire goes out. Like that, it goes out.
To practice the Way is to change the conditions of your personal suffering. Like that, it goes out.
Written in haste, while clear and fresh, and with apologies to those who have no interest in these matters.