a map to the heart

It’s not surprising that we can feel so disconnected from life, people, community, and purpose. But in this world of pain and suffering, you don’t have to go out of your way to see what needs to be done. You are being asked continuously and with deep humility to do something that seems ridiculously small and yet is infinitely kind. Can you do it? Of course you can.

“Where is the Love” a new dharma talk

Photo by N. on Unsplash

beginning zen

A free workshop Sat., March 13, 9-11 am CST on Zoom. Registration closed.

Learn the nuts and bolts of Zen meditation at a free, two-hour workshop on Saturday, March 13 from 9-11 am CST on Zoom. Receive instruction in seated and walking meditation with Zen’s particular emphasis on posture and breathing, which are the fundamental tools for settling the body and quieting the mind. The workshop includes a Dharma talk, informal Q&A, and an introduction to chanting.

Registration for this event has reached capacity and is now closed. If you have pre-registered, you’ll receive advance instructions and the Zoom link by email.

 

sheltered in place

They say Shakyamuni Buddha was enlightened after a week of sitting under a tree. How well I can picture a canopy of leafy branches giving cover from hard rain and heat, fear, doubt, fatigue, and the nearly irresistible temptation to give up.

It’s been almost a year of what we call stay-at-home or lockdown, but I rather like the sound of shelter-in-place, a phrase that means “seeking safety within the building one already occupies.” It’s hard to believe that the best place to be is the one you’re in, but that’s rather central to my faith. Is it possible to be sheltered in this flimsy, fragile world? Well, we’ve made it through a tumultuous time just now and the center held. The center held.

Four years ago—and many times in the years that followed—we might have felt the urge to flee from this country’s terrifying descent. Where would we go: Canada or France, Norway or New Zealand? We fumed and we fantasized, but nearly all of us stayed. We stayed, but we got to work on changing things. We put in time and effort; we set aside selfishness and cynicism; we were guided by a belief in truth and empowered by persistence. In short, we took responsibility for the whole rotten mess.

Today, it seems like it worked. Of course, we don’t know, but for now we feel the cool shade and shelter back over our heads.

There is a ceremony in Zen called Jukai, which means “taking precepts.” It’s when a student takes vows to live in peace, patience, generosity, respect, and truth: the enlightened path. Sometimes taking the precepts is called taking refuge, which reminds me of sheltering in place. When you take Jukai you don’t go anywhere and you don’t get anything, but you make a conscious turn toward doing good and away from causing harm. Because of COVID, my practice group went totally online this year, and during that time we’ve had several people take Jukai. I always give a talk about the person and their new Dharma name, a Japanese Buddhist name that evokes an attribute of enlightenment. It’s been one of the most encouraging parts of this pandemic for me. Because the talks are personal, I usually keep them off the blog. But I’ve changed my mind. You might find something to take from them — a moment’s rest and a way to keep going while going nowhere at all.

Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash

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“Opening the Eyes” dharma talk for Kirsten Kaigen Sopik
“The Best Days of Your Life” dharma talk for Doreen Mitsu Kunert and David Munen Sparer
“True Peace” dharma talk for Ranya Ansho Mike

walking it off

Where do we go from here?

I went for a walk today. I was going to type, “I went for a long walk today.” That was what I announced before I went: I’m going for a long walk today, the way I would have said it the day before yesterday or last week or last month. In the days before yesterday if I went for a walk it was to accomplish something, get my steps in, the 10,000 that would set off the Fitbit buzz on my left arm, so I could feel good about what I’d done.

But today I went for a walk just to walk, because at this point I don’t have a scheme or a fix, a goal or a get. After long-pondering which way is forward, I know that the only way forward is forward. It always leads somewhere new.

It’s really that simple, but it’s sad, too, because the world is so very fucked up right now. Who can even picture what comes after?

In the old days when I had a dog and wrote books, I’d be muddling over a metaphor in the middle of the day when my pup would put her lovely head on my lap and wiggle her butt, the sign that it was time for a walk, which always seemed like the worst possible time to go for a walk, but I would give in and take the walk around the block that took all of 15 minutes and come back and realize that the muddle in my mind was gone. I was freed from the word trap that paralyzes a writer trying too hard, which I usually was. Trying too hard to say something.

And so I set out today and the air was cool but the sun was warm, and I saw that Christmas decorations are still up, poinsettias on porches, icicle lights along the eaves, and then I remembered that it is still just the first week of January although the weeks are years and the years are eternities, and I am so very tired.

The other day someone who sits with our Zoom group said that I look like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders. In the truest sense I do have the world on my shoulders—we all do—and as for the weight, I wondered aloud, I did have my very unhappy daughter home for half the year, because COVID came and her life collapsed, and the relentless fires, my husband’s surgery and its setbacks, the sickness upon sickness that is American life and politics, the panic, the fear, the dread, the death. Yeah that. And now this.

I hadn’t walked too far across town when I came to the middle school, the site of so much preteen pain. I crossed the street for a closer look when I saw an art display fastened to the fence at the front of the school. They’d had a themed art contest, perhaps for Thanksgiving, with students making posters illustrating gratitude for someone or something in this desolate year.

Thank you, Dodgers! said one, because let’s not forget the first World Series win in 32 years, although two months later that seems oddly quaint and woefully irrelevant.

Thank you, Essential Workers! Those are words we won’t soon be able to forget, even though I’m not completely sure what they mean. I have a friend who works at a plant where herbicide is made and she is considered an essential worker, putting in 80-hour weeks with no time off, risking her health for the urgent purpose of killing weeds till kingdom come. But, yes, we can hardly express enough gratitude for doctors and nurses and teachers, grocery clerks, transit workers, the postal service and delivery drivers. On the last leg of my walk I passed a driver picking up waste from a portable toilet, and the stink radiating from his vehicle made me realize how very unsung his essential work must be.

Thank you, First Responders! Thank you, Firefighters! California was incinerated this year, despite Trump’s imbecilic advice to rake the forests. No thank you, Sir.

There were tributes to Black Lives Matter and Greta Thunberg, lifting my hopes that middle-schoolers could well save the world or at least never stop trying.

There was one poster among all of them that stood out and stayed with me on the walk home, because this is what I’m most depending on for the survival of my soul and sanity. Thank you, Joe and Kamala! For taking the lead on what will be a very long walk to a very distant day when we can once again sit back and feel good about what we’ve done. And while I’m at it, thank you Raphael and Jon! Merrick, Xavier, Miguel, Pete, Janet, Deb, Alejandro, Marcia, Antony, Jennifer, Lloyd, Tom, Denis, Gina, Marty, Isabel and Don. With you good people at work and in charge, I can walk off the weight of a world nearly destroyed by a vulgar and traitorous despot. I’m not counting the steps or the days or the years. I have complete faith in the direction we’re heading, because the only way forward is forward.

May it be so.

Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

the barn’s burnt down

The barn’s burnt down,
now I can see the moon.
— Mizuta Masahide

 

Wishing you the spacious skies and fruited plains of a beautiful new year
and all it brings:
a deep breath, a fresh start, and the faith to see you through.

 

 

Photo by Guillaume Issaly on Unsplash

with exceeding great joy

The other night I lay sleepless for hours after midnight and thought about how my sisters and I slept in the back of our station wagon on long trips, because even short trips were long to us then, squished together on a hard pallet of blankets and pillows—and I wondered how it is that these days I can toss and turn the night away in my own comfortable bed.

These are terrible times, more terrible than last year’s terrible, and terrible beyond the terrible twice removed, just a terrible terrible, even though there is less terrible on the way.

When I talk to people these days we usually mention the good that has been shown to us in this harrowing trip over rough country. For one thing, we now know how much we can do without.

And I’ve also noticed how this Christmas reminds me so much more of the original Christmas, or at least the original Christmas story, the one with no room at the inn. And although they don’t tell us how Mary and Joseph traveled in those days, she was great with child, and it couldn’t have been comfortable in a cart or on a donkey, even less on foot, which they likely were, over dusty plains and hills, for ninety miles. Ninety! And even when they got to their ancestral home, there was no rest to find, no place to stay, no one to take them in, and so like us they had to scrabble together under a rotting roof in their own humble way.

There were animals with them, animals being more hospitable than people and altogether a finer sort of company. Eventually some shepherds showed up, and they were raggedy too, living out in the open as they do, grubby but good-natured and kind.

It was night, it was dark, and there was solace in that, not fear. It was the dark that made the station wagon peaceful. It was the night that made the shepherd’s sky so bright. It is the deep shadow of uncertainty that has taught us to wait for the light. It is humility that makes us great, and terrible things that bring us to wisdom.

And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. — Matthew 2:10

Photo by Blair Fraser on Unsplash

crumbs in the toaster

I washed the shower curtains today. Then the curtain liners, rods, and rings. I scrubbed the tubs and tile, and took off the shower head and soaked it in a bucket of chrome cleaner to dissolve the hard water scale. I don’t often do any of this. I mean, never. So when it occurs to me to do it as it did this morning, it most certainly is the right time. Doing it sets me clear and straight — smack on the path of sanity.

This is what carries me over the squally waters: the dailiness of things, the dishes and the dust. Up until two years ago, a woman would come twice a month and do most everything. Everything I didn’t even know needed doing. And then she disappeared. I don’t know why. But now I see that her leaving was right on time. I have been rescued. Saved by the windows and carpets, coffee spills in the kitchen, breadcrumbs at the bottom of the toaster oven. The whole pile of it restores my faith in—not quite sure. What remains of faith in these disappearing days? Oh yes, life. The fact of life.

I am astonished in this late season of the drama to look up and see the sky—the real sky—still beaming that not-quite nameable shade of blue, the color of better days. Shocking, yes, that when so much falls to pieces, the sky still holds its place, one fact reigning above all the lies and treacheries of small men in broken countries.

A half-turn of my head and I see the regal green of lofty palm and citrus trees, lime-colored moss carpeting a grove of giant bamboo. Doubts do not grow branches and leaves.

Carry on, old girl. You belong here, between heaven and earth, with the soap scum and mildew, water rings on the coffee table. This is the way. Not difficult if you don’t pick and choose.

Verses on the Faith Mind (Hsin Hsin Ming), the first poem in Zen
“The Fact of Faith,” a new dharma talk
Photo by Dovile Ramoskaite on Unsplash

thanks but no thanks

With every passing day there seems to be less outrage, less hot air; more ventilation and less hyperventilation. It feels weird to me, this return to gravity. Will it hold, I wonder, a government of people that quietly and competently do their jobs with malice toward none?

Absent the flood of fear and fury to distract me, I might have to actually do stuff. Attend to the priorities at hand—staying put, watering the grass, chopping onions, taking out the trash—and be satisfied. It’s a curiously quaint proposition.

It is customary at this time of year to be grateful for what you have. But this year, I am more grateful, indeed, overjoyed, for what I am suddenly without: distrust, disgust and despair.

Perhaps no year in our lifetimes has brought as much menace to our doorsteps as this one. The losses have been great and unspeakable. Rescue and recovery is still far distant. But just for now, I am content with what I lack, and I wish you a day of health, a day of peace, and a day of rest on the solid, steady ground of home.

Photo by C Drying on Unsplash

song from a well

It’s like we’re in a well. That’s what I say when people tell me about their angry and overwhelmed children, collapsed businesses, lost jobs, bankruptcy, overdue bills, sick and lonely parents, dead relatives, meltdowns and panic attacks, insomnia, and terror of going back to the classroom, the workplace, the polls. How can we begin to describe the descent we’ve taken into a darkness beyond reach or rescue?

It’s like a well, I say, we’ve fallen to the bottom of a well. I could never describe it quite right until I remembered that day in October 1987, a day I can still picture vividly.

She was 18 months old and 22 feet below ground.

No one knew how she ended up there. One minute she was in a yard of toddlers at her aunt’s house in Midland, Texas. The next minute she had disappeared down the top of an 8-inch-wide well casing. Rescue workers came within minutes and they thought they’d have her out within hours.

But it didn’t go quick.

That day, workers finished the first part of the rescue. They drilled a parallel shaft and started to bore a horizontal tunnel to reach the spot the baby was stuck. But the ground was rock, and jackhammers didn’t work when you tried to drill horizontally. The first day turned into the second and then the third. They had to come up with something else.

They weren’t sure she could make it that long.

Oxygen was piped down the shaft but there was no way to get her food or water. They dropped a microphone down and listened to her breathing. A space that small and deep is dark and stays dark. Alone and afraid, she cried and moaned and shouted. And then they’d hear her singing a children’s song and knew she was still okay.

It took 58 hours.

After an eternity, with everyone in the world watching anxiously, she was lifted up into the glare of lights on live TV and then kept a month in the hospital. There were many surgeries but she grew up like any baby to have what you’d call a normal life, with normal joys and pain, normal love and sadness, everything that goes along with life above ground. She has no memory of the events that happened 33 years ago last week, but some of us can’t forget.

We are in a well right now.

But we can remember the light. We can remember the song. People are helping, and we’re in it together.

The rescue of Baby Jessica on TV.
Photo by Steven Wright on Unsplash

one tiny bird

We are doing the best we can in the middle of this fire. Whether or not you are a quarter-mile away from a wildfire, you too are in the middle of a fire.

We all feel the heat of samsara, this ignorant, angry, greedy world that we live in, and it is too much to bear. It is too much to bear.

What do we do when everything is out of control? When the world is crumbling into ash and rubble? When we feel the urgent need to flee, even from what was once secure: our homes and, perhaps, our country? To answer that, let’s remember the story of one tiny bird trying to save his forest home from flames. He, too, is doing the best he can.

“The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire” dharma talk
Photo by Victor Sauca on Unsplash

the safety pin sutra

I went to the dry cleaners the other day. It wasn’t because I had any dry cleaning, at least not like before, when my husband went to work every day wearing collared shirts that he liked laundered with light starch. That meant I went to the cleaners every week to drop off and pick up. But who needs the cleaners now? They’ve cut their hours in half.

This time I took one pair of linen shorts and five safety pins. The shorts were mine but the safety pins were theirs. I could do without the shorts, but I wanted to take in the pins. I wanted to do something, even a little something, to make things better, to even out the loss. The little somethings are what keep me going now, keep me upright and moving forward.

The safety pins came from the numbered tags they pin on your order. One day I was returning hangers to the cleaners and they said I could bring the safety pins back too. That sounded like it could be helpful, so I collected them in a little pile, like the books I used to take back to the library, the glass bottles that went back to the grocery store.

It seems to me that safety pins used to have a bigger role in life, maybe even a vital role. We always had them around, and used them too. We used them to pin a falling hem, or to close a gaping neckline. When I was a teenager, I used a safety pin to hold my bra strap in place, and other intimate things that must be kept hidden under your clothes.

A safety pin was for safety, really, the kind of safety you were worried about back then, not now, when there is no such thing as safety and there really is no way to hide.

Last week I left home because the fire was too close and the smoke, too thick. I was safe where I went, at least safe from some things, but it was there that I realized that I couldn’t be safe from anything. I stopped sleeping. I kept searching for a shred of good news about the fire, the air, the wind, the earth and the evil running amok, real evil, the evil that destroys rampantly and without remorse, the evil at our heels in flaming red cloaks, with torches and pitchforks. I wish it weren’t so.

After five days I returned home. Don’t worry, everything is intact. No one stole my Biden/Harris  yard signs, which was a principal concern. But then, as now, I was overcome with the scale of the things to do, the dangers yet to overcome, the damage to repair. I am laid low with grief and feebleness, with the sad admission of what I can’t bear, can’t fix, and can’t turn back. The first morning I made a list to settle my mind, to ground me in what is still real and good and useful, things that don’t even need a list, but here it is, my David against Goliath, a fervent, tearful prayer for a kinder, better world.

Empty suitcase
Start wash
Get mail
Feed birds
Return safety pins

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

being free

dsc_0937

A Manifesto for a Sane World

Get off Facebook. It has destroyed truth, corroded society, and degraded our intelligence while enriching a single misanthropic person to inconceivable wealth and power.

Quit Twitter. It serves no purpose now other than to elevate the ego of one dangerously corrupt and self-obsessed human being.

Watch no cable news. Never set eyes on Fox. Subscribe to a newspaper, if you can still find one, but not any newspaper. These days the Washington Post is the standard of excellence and independence.

Protest with your mouth, your feet and your dollars. Open your eyes. Get out of your chair.

Realize that every moment spent scrolling, clicking and typing into your device amounts to silence. Silence is doom.

Know enough to be afraid. Without fear, there is no courage.

Have no hope. Hope is a slogan that will divert your attention from the reality at hand.

Believe nothing. Investigate for yourself. Search the internet the way you used to. Look for evidence, not false assurances. The truth is always the simplest and most obvious thing in the world.

Be sane. A sane mind creates a sane world.

If you need a friend, contact me via my website. Send me a message asking for my mailing address and then write to me. I will respond.

Originally published on Nov. 26, 2016.

 

by no means useless

Not seeming to protect
The paddy field,
Scarecrow standing
On the hillside –
By no means useless.
— Dogen

This is a time of despair. During the Democratic convention, I felt such a sense of buoyance and belonging. I felt as if I had a community, a real live community! And it was huge. But after the last week of lies, corruption, fear, fury, and hate, I no longer feel as if I have a country or any place in it. I’m afraid.

Why aren’t things getting better? Are all my actions, all my words, all my efforts in vain? Why can’t good things happen? Why won’t people do the right thing?

I found this poem by accident, which is how we find everything. While we’re looking for something we want, we find something we need. It was in the last line, by no means useless, that I found encouragement.

Don’t you ever wonder if all your efforts are useless? That you won’t make a difference? That your hope, faith, and good intentions are for naught? That there’s no point?

I sometimes like to examine where I’m at, or where the world is at, compared to the world the old masters lived in. We might think, for instance, that life is so much harder for us, the world so much more evil—and that this ancient practice originated in a simpler time, a better day. But that assumption, like most assumptions, is wrong.

Even as the world seems to be falling apart, there’s a reason to believe in the promise of life, goodness, and supreme usefulness. There’s a reason to be here, now.

By ourselves and for ourselves, we accomplish nothing. These times are terrible, and we are afraid. But this practice is by no means useless. Because open your eyes and look! The Dharma never dies.

“By No Means Useless” dharma talk
Photo by Kiril Dobrev on Unsplash

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