Posts Tagged ‘Writing Life’

Ready for something amazing and true*

June 25th, 2009    -    8 Comments


*A hope note given to me by Jen Lemen.


The other night at the bookstore I handed out a list of my recommended summer spiritual reads, and even though I’ve shared some of these before, and even though one of them has been around for two thousand summers, I thought I’d share them again. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for something amazing and true.

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and Stephen Mitchell – my favorite translation of the ancient Chinese text that informed the ancestry of Zen. Easy, accessible, beautiful and intuitively meaningful.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – a hauntingly honest and powerful response to the question of life’s meaning, particularly to those still chasing idealized notions of love and work.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi – a lovely book “not about Zen,” but rather the spirit of Zen conveyed in talks given by this 20th century teacher. Effortless and spare, this slim work satisfies as a full meal.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – Pulitzer Prize winning novel and modern spiritual classic. An aging country preacher testifies to the plain and lucid miracle of existence in a memoir left to a young son.

Endpoint and Other Poems by John Updike – A collection of poems written by the late novelist in the last seven years of his life and assembled shortly before his death. Clear-eyed, stunning and resonant.

My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Noemi Remen, MD – The kitchen table storyteller uses recollections of her rabbi grandfather to spiritualize everyday life.

***
Off for a weekend in San Francisco with family and new friends. Bay Area denizens: Come and get your zenagains!

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Look, ma, no hands

June 20th, 2009    -    5 Comments

Offered as a prayer of love and thanksgiving on this, what would have been my mother’s seventy-sixth birthday. Her silent ovation never ends.

Dear Karen,

Thank you so much for writing Momma Zen, or as the title is in Dutch: Zen Mama! I enjoyed every minute of it. You helped me so much with all kinds of struggles that I have had as a mother. Your book inspired me to look at life differently, to see all the beauty that is around me, in my children, in my marriage, in my work. I am kind of a hyperactive person some times and after the birth of my youngest daughter, I lost all my flexibility in life. I could no longer look at the bright side of life, felt so guilty towards my daughter at not being able to solve her problems and really fought hard to get myself back on track. Then I read about your book, ran to the bookstore, started reading and could not stop for a couple of hours. I think I never quoted a book so many times in conversations with my husband because you used the words in your book that I was looking for.

You have no idea what you did for me and my family. I am so happy at the moment, enjoying every minute of my two beautiful girls without doubting if I am a good mother. Thanks Karen for everything!

Every friend of mine that celebrates her birthday will receive your book for the coming years.

***

I have 27 pages of emails like this, 9500 words, from four continents. They are the world to me.

Now, give yourself two chances to win a signed copy of Momma Zen at the wishstudio or at Elissa Elliott’s Living the Questions blog. Visit both and be greedy! It’s a birthday.

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Look how far you can go on a box of cookies

June 19th, 2009    -    2 Comments


Thanks to our friends, customers, neighbors, fans and unexpected benefactors on a journey into this wild blue wonder.

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The angel of Assisi

June 16th, 2009    -    24 Comments


Here’s a little story about spiritual pilgrimage for those of you who are traveling to my city of angels this weekend for the Mother’s Plunge – and those of you who aren’t. The extraordinary response to the first splash has me planning a countrywide tour of backward steps. Where should I bring the retreat next? Minnesota? Arizona? Kansas? Tell me.

Even the man at Marshall Field’s who had sold me the yellow travel umbrella had said it: “You must go to Assisi.”

Everyone, it seemed, had said it – You must go to Assisi! – and so the fifth day of a solo trip to Italy became the day for me to go the distance. It would require a car, which I obtained from a rental agency a few blocks from my hotel in Florence. It would require getting out of town, which I accomplished with an angel on the dashboard. And it would require a couple hours’ drive south on the Autostrada, which I high-tailed in the slipstream of the surging traffic.

“You will see it on the hill,” another advisor had told me rapturously. And I did, in a purple haze of trees and tile and imagination. I steered my little vehicle onward in the soldierly direction, ascending the hill and circling the top, passing the marked parking lots with all the beached buses, inching slowly alongside the streams of tourists who had come for the St. Francis experience, motoring up the wrong streets and down again until I mustered my purpose and pulled over on a narrow hillside shoulder. I angled in among the other likeminded pilgrims who were committing, I hoped, the pardonable sin of illegal parking.

I strode upward to the Basilica de San Francisco. It was big, too big, outsized for its namesake, and oddly uninspiring, I thought. Inside to more frescoes, more pews, more people, and decidedly more organization than in the other sacred spots I’d stopped. This, I could see, was a system.

I headed down into the crypts containing St. Francis’ tomb and there uncovered the day’s only treasure. “Scusa, scusa,” the ushers whispered to those, like me, who had barged in to bystand at the wedding ceremony underway in the underground chapel. I lingered in the shadows at the rear, charmed by the elaborate smallness of it. A local couple surrounded by local people, wearing uncomfortable new clothes for the biggest event of their lives.

Leaving, I wandered the winding medieval village. The heat had turned the streets into baking stones.

“You will feel it in the air,” another friend had confided. I felt stifling languor and epidemic disinterest. Wandering into an antique shop, my idle browsing did not disturb the mistress at the back watching American TV soap operas dubbed in Italian.

Then the divine message arrived.

Every place is holy.

It was my departing thought, a conclusion and a comfort, and I headed home, satisfied.

True north is due north

June 7th, 2009    -    6 Comments


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not now, I’m working

June 2nd, 2009    -    39 Comments


It’s the full-time job of a writer to keep reading, so I just finished two delicious books to send your way with a chance to win and a 100 percent guarantee that either is worth buying anyway. Leave a comment below to enter the giveaway. But let me whet your appetite first:

Eve: A Novel of the First Woman – You will love this sumptuous tale of Eden’s Eve and her troublesome family. Ever since I read The Red Tent I’ve been convinced that bible stories could bear retelling from a woman’s point of view, because then they become stories I want to read. Author Elissa Elliott made this tale real and recognizable to any woman. I’m no biblical historian, thank heaven, so nothing stopped me from appreciating the sheer magic of the fiction. This is Elissa’s first book, and writer-to-writer I just can’t imagine how she made the whole thing up. Let this inspire your deep wondering about who we really are. I have a hardcover copy to give away.

Mating Rituals of the North American WASP – Now for a different slice of the apple. Here’s a love story spun in a wickedly comic way by Lauren Lipton about a girl who wakes up married to a guy she doesn’t even know, gets engaged to another she hardly ever sees, and dates someone she can’t even stand. I know, it sounds dangerously close to reality, but unlike my life story, this one will be a movie. Funny, smart, likable and the perfect fit for any summer tote bag. Let this inspire a day at the beach, the pool or the hammock. I have a paperback copy to give away.

Leave a comment including a way to reach you through your blog or email. I’ll draw the winners (and I’ll decide what you win) after this Friday at 6 p.m. PDT.

***

Our hard-working winners: Latisha for Eve and Kristin H. for Mating Rituals. Good job!

Calling all summer readers! There are more words of wisdom in store at the Mother’s Summer Reading Salon with Mojo Mom Amy Tiemann and me on Tuesday, June 23, 7 p.m. at Sierra Madre Books. Learn how a little light reading can change your direction this summer.

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After the ecstasy, the ecstasy

May 20th, 2009    -    10 Comments


For the before, click here.

Dear Karen,
Thank you for helping us doing our book. You are a very good author. Yesterday at the book tour I was kind of shy to read it but then I was very excited to do it. The kids asked us how many months did it take to do the book. We said it took us about 2 months. We kind of got like every kid’s question. They loved us and they loved our books a lot. One of the kids said I want to be an author too!

You are the best author ever in the whole wide world!

Love,
Wendy

The last 19 books I didn’t write

May 17th, 2009    -    76 Comments


About mid-way through this school year, my daughter started griping, I’m bored. I thought, whatever. She nagged me to volunteer in her class. I thought, no way.

When a four- or five-year-old uses the word, bored, it’s a safe bet they are playing with the word. But when they are eight or nine, it might be time to pay attention. When I did, it changed my life.

I like Georgia’s historic, charming, well-staffed, well-intentioned public school. She does too. This post is not about the shortcomings of her school. It is about the shortcomings of my attention.

My daughter and her classmates are being taught superlatively well how to write to rules and rubrics. But to write freely, for fun and without judgment? That’s a different story.

Stuck in my own nowhere of creative momentum, I plunged instead into a new adventure. I proposed to Georgia’s teacher that I lead a classroom project in something I’d never done, but that amounted to the only thing I could contribute. The magnificent teacher did her part: she said yes. Then, over a four-month period, she and I worked together with 19 third-graders to write their own creative nonfiction (and a bit of fiction) stories.

We tell our children stories. We read books aloud, and prod our kids to read for themselves. So they read about famous people, folk tales and legends, biographies, historical fiction and fantasies. But do they realize that their own lives are stories? That they have the experience and imagination to create and share stories that come entirely from themselves? Based on their own remarkable lives and the future they envision?

Well, of course, they can. Give them tools and attention and you will be amazed. I was amazed. I was encouraged. I was uplifted and transported. I was repaid a million times over, with the only payment that counts or lasts.

I want you to know that wherever your child goes to school, or doesn’t, whatever their age or grade level, they are brilliant. They are geniuses. They are authors. I am convinced already. I am their first fan.

I word-processed and printed out each three-chapter-long book on my computer. They drew illustrations and a cover design that we laminated. They wrote author bios and I snapped their photos and we put that together on the last page. We spiral bound everything together and then they went on book tour reading their stories aloud in classrooms of younger ages. We’re having a book festival next week where the kids will read their stories to their fellow authors and everyone gets a literary prize. An eraser. Oh how I prize my own, because the most important thing about writing is not that you finish. It’s that you start, and then start all over again.

What did they write? To keep it short, I assembled 19 lines from their work into this abridged life story. It gives you an idea of the treasure they handed to me.

My story is unlike any other.
I was born early because I wanted to go places.

My first smile wasn’t a real smile, it was my “about to cry” smile.

It was like being sad and happy at the same time.
When I was little I liked excitement. I put Cheetos in the microwave.

When people asked how many friends I had, I said, “It would take a long time to count them.”
It seems like I have friends all over the world.
Friends are magic, movies are magic and spelling is magic because people can read your writing.
Making people feel happy and safe is the most important thing there is.

Everywhere we went, we went fast.

I thought a lot about growing up, but my parents thought about when I was little.

That’s what parents do.

Sometimes you have to lose something to find something better.

What you love never really goes away.

I used to want to work in an ice cream store, but something tells me life will be more interesting than that.

The day you read this I may be 9 or 90.

Now my energy goes up in the daytime and down in the nighttime.
The funeral lasted three hours.

Somewhere I’ll be watching, and I’ll be happy if you are good citizens.

I could go on forever, but my heart is bursting, and I find I have some writing to do.

***

If you are a parent or teacher and you would like a copy of the lesson plan I created for this project, “My Life Story: A Creative Nonfiction Project for 3rd Graders,” just leave a comment with a way to contact you, or email me and I’ll gladly share.

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What to make of it

May 10th, 2009    -    11 Comments


Last night at a neighborhood party, my daughter and her nine-year-old friends put on a show that was shocking and lewd.

I was embarrassed and alarmed.

Frank Rich’s column in the Times includes this fact “more than 60 percent of Twitter users abandon it after a single month.”

I’m still afraid the future will sail without me.

On speakerphone so we could wish her a happy mother’s day, my mother-in-law asks, “What will your mommy do today?” My daughter says, “Exercise and write by herself.” My mother-in-law replies, “Doesn’t she do that everyday?”

I never know where she’s coming from.

Wish Studio posted this essay describing my creative process, which seems like a misnomer. My output is painstaking and small but I get a big kick out of looking the part.

Break the bottle, make a space and let it be.

No one you know

May 4th, 2009    -    4 Comments


After a short round of legal dodgeball, the story is posted again. Try the links, and thanks for reading.

Faith arises from mystery like the peppermints from the bottom of your grandma’s handbag.

Go straightaway and read this newest story of mine, which isn’t my story at all, but theirs retold.

Here’s what got me there. Some years ago the service liturgy at my Zen Center was appended so that when we recite the names of all the male enlightened masters in my Zen lineage (81 generations and counting) we chant the following dedication at the very end:

And to all our female ancestors whose names have been lost or forgotten.

Because, as a matter of housekeeping, we have lost or forgotten their names. That’s what can happen in patriarchal institutions of all kinds, which is what all kinds of institutions are. The women are no less integral or involved in keeping house, their names are simply lost or forgotten. Ahem.

When we first started to chant this invocation, at my teacher’s insistence by the way, I heard it as I suspect my own daughter hears the invocations I recite:

Blahblahblahyadayadaetceteraetceteraetceteracleanyourroom.

Then one day I started listening to the words. All. Our. Female. Ancestors.

What immediately came to mind was just that. All. Our. Female. Ancestors. The ones whose names I know and the ones whose names I don’t. Like my Grandma Tate or my Grandma Patschke, whose own given names I scarcely knew. Was it Irma or Erma? Cordelia or Cornelia? Alverno or Alvina? Heddie or Hattie? Did I know them at all when I knew them? Did I know anything at all of their lives of love and loss, betrayal and forgiveness, cynicism and faith? Do I know them yet?

Lately I’ve been drawn to the voices of women, voices unsung and voices unheard. I want to listen. I want everyone to listen to women of found faith and women of lost faith. Women of faith forsaken and faith restored. That’s what drew me to this story, her story, that I posted some months ago. That’s what drew me to this story, their stories, the one that runs today. Please read this one and share it, sing it, heal it, love it, as only we can. We have all waited so long for the listening.

And if you wonder or worry why I would place any article of mine in a magazine entitled Killing the Buddha (interestingly enough, it is based on a Zen teaching), the answers are easy. First, these open-eyed editors heard the deep timbre of an ancestral song and asked to broadcast it. Second, in a world of misguided institutions and ideologies, eradicating the false altar of a misunderstood and misappropriated Asian male deity is nothing other than the ultimate kindness. Like when grandma plumbed the recesses of her Sunday purse to proffer a peppermint candy, soothing your cough during a horrendously long sermon in the steam of a mid-summer Sunday in Central Texas. A miracle, I tell you.

That a group of wild-eyed religious iconoclasts would respond to this truth with such immediacy and sensitivity is evidence of the bottomless, benevolent mystery of God’s handbag. All my grandmothers have carried the very same bag. Whether you know it or not, so do you. From it, miracles come.

The squiggly wigglies

April 23rd, 2009    -    3 Comments

I’m off for a three-day retreat at my practice home starting tonight, because this silent spaciousness is where all stories begin and end.

Before I leave I want to share some recent inspiration.

First, the Shambhala Sun has reposted my piece on the Dharma of Barbie. Even after you think you’ve tossed her, the old girl never dies. And there’s always a new generation of parents for her to haunt. If you scroll down to the end of the story, you’ll see the announcement that I’ll soon be launching a blog on their site named after the stuff that is always near to my heart. Once I sort the lights from the darks, we’ll see what comes out of it. Leave a comment over there and let them know that I’m not just full of suds.

This column in the New Yorker snapped, crackled and popped my eyes open earlier this week. It’s a fascinating look that could leave you wondering about how much you’re willing to commit to yourself during troubling times.

Speaking of troubles, I was touched by this letter to fellow practitioners. Not just because the need is urgent and the time is now, but because of the sheer delight in seeing that, even to a Rinpoche, practice is just pretense. We must all pretend harder!

Lastly, I was so moved by Cam’s reflection on loss. It reminds me that the why that has no answer is the very why we keep going, and that love and loss are never separate.

And just for a parting grin, this snippet of conversation two days ago over a sleeping dog.

Mom, you know what I’ve figured out?

What’s that?

A well-trained dog isn’t that much fun.

Why not?

Because you don’t get to wrestle it, and have trouble with it. You don’t get to be mad at it.

I see.

So a well-trained dog isn’t the best kind.

You think?

If we ever get a new puppy can we name it Squiggly or Wiggly?

We are all Susan Boyle

April 15th, 2009    -    11 Comments

I know you’ve already seen this 5.9 million times, but this time, I want you to give yourself a “Yes” and go back to your own small village with your bad hair held high, blowing kisses to strangers.

Keep singing your song, and I will too. What else is a church volunteer to do?

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The mother at the end of my block

April 7th, 2009    -    4 Comments


Just a few months after my daughter’s birth, I saw another mother on the corner at the end of my block. – Momma Zen

Amy Tiemann’s second edition of Mojo Mom is born today. It is an updated compendium of thoughtful questions and resources about rebuilding a healthy life after you become a mother. I just read it for the first time, although it was the second time. That’s what I’m told the second birth is like: not like the first, which you can’t remember anyway.

There is a story about me and Amy that I’m not sure she knows. And the story is this: she is the mother I met at the end of my block. We all have this mother. Another mother that you meet in a jolt of recognition in those first desolate months, the other mother to whom you will reveal yourself in the mutual reflection of empathy and acceptance. The mother with an extra ziplock bag of Cheerios in her stroller when yours have run out just as you start the steep homeward climb.

Amy was that mother not for the birth of my baby, although our daughters were born within weeks of one another. Amy is the mother I met on my block for the birth of my book.

A few months before the birth of Momma Zen, I started casting a crazed daze about the neighborhood. I’d started and finished the project in a creative cocoon, oblivious to what was already out there, unaware of what anyone else had written first or best. I highly recommend cocoons for all transformative processes. It is nature’s perfect way and thankfully requires no recommendation from me.

I ordered Amy’s book, her baby, just to confirm that it was not my own. We can all envision the movie-of-the-week hysteria that would overtake us should someone else leave the hospital with our baby! I read her book to check for family markings: the ear lobes, the nose, the big toe, and came away convinced. She had hers; and I had mine.

In the years since I have confirmed that and more. Amy has her own inimitable approach to this bottomless topic of life as a mother. She has a scientist’s mind, a seeker’s eye and a mother’s heart. She is overwhelmingly generous, kind and reassuring. If I am the priest at your bedside, she is the doctor. Believe me, you want to see the doctor well before the priest arrives.

In her book, Amy asks the questions we may be afraid to ask ourselves. They are practical, not spiritual, but can seem quite impossible and intangible in the early years. Questions about work, time, space, money, childcare, self-care, power and politics. Mojo Mom will leave you energized and activated, not agitated and polarized, as so much mommy talk can.

As life would have it, as it always will, Amy and I have walked these blocks, these years, in each other’s continuous company. With mutual respect and humor. As life would have it, as it always will, we will soon be walking the blocks in my very neighborhood when Amy comes to visit me in June. She and I will host a Mother’s Summer Reading Salon at Sierra Madre Books on Tuesday, June 23.

Can you believe it? I can’t, but I can trust this life exactly as it unfolds, as surely as you can trust yours and everyone in it.

Buy Amy’s book for any mother on your block this Mother’s Day. The block is both bigger and smaller than you think, and no one walks it alone.

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