the serious business of simple

Back in May it was time to clean the rain gutters. I knew it was time because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done it. When your house sits under giant bamboo on one side and redwoods on the other, the gutters clog up like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve made it my job to muck them out every year, which might easily turn into every other year or longer if I lose track, and I’ve been losing track. I told myself that at my age I could fall off a ladder and break a leg, so I tried to hire someone else to do it.

In what I now think of as “the old days” there seemed to be more people you could hire for handiwork. A neighbor might give you the name of a reliable fellow who made a decent life that way. These aren’t the old days so I went on Yelp. I found a guy who advertised himself for cleaning windows and gutters and I phoned him.

He asked me to text him since he only communicated by text. When he showed up the next day to give me a bid he walked around looking up at the roof and said one hundred and twenty-five dollars. It sounded like a fair price to keep from breaking a leg, so I agreed. He said it would only take an hour or two, which struck me as peculiar. As I knew it, the job took two days if I was ambitious and two or more years if I wasn’t.

A week later he texted that he was on the way over to do the job. He got on the roof with a leaf blower, which surprised me, since my approach was more basic. Pretty quickly he came down and knocked on my door. The gutters were full of mud, he said, and he didn’t want to blow it all over the sides of my house. The job would have to wait a week or two until things dried out. He wouldn’t charge me for what he’d done so far. I appreciated that. After he left, I walked around the house and saw the mud that had splattered all over the sides and would end up sticking there.

I never heard from that individual again, which was pretty good news.

The other day I hauled out the ladder, climbed up and started in using just my hands. It was good work, and it felt good. I quit after half a day and picked it up again the next. By then I’d had a major breakthrough. My legs are not broken. My hands are not helpless. My thinking was crooked, but two days at the top of a ladder can straighten that out. Nothing is as complicated as we make it out to be.

Here’s a new talk on the practice of Zen, or the serious business of keeping life simple. If you’re facing something you think you can’t do, it might be time to listen.

Photo by Xin on Unsplash

gone

Today my daughter turned 20.

It was not a birthday that she was keen to reach. It means the end of the countdown. Rather, it means the end of the count-up. The end of the forward lean, the chase of ages and stages, the climb over the wall and into a thing called real life.

She spent the day with friends and I didn’t hear anything from her after she left the house. Last weekend I was away at a retreat and I sent her three texts without response. This is a new phase in our relationship, a reversal. I imagined that she looked at those three texts and said each time, It’s just my mother. My texts must all sound the same, like a baby’s wa wa to be fed. She’s not supposed to feed me. I stopped sending them. A day late, but I stopped.

It’s not hard to let go of what’s already gone. It’s hard to hold on.

To bring it home, here’s a brand new talk on letting go.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

 

a prayer for the last responders

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.—George Orwell

We now recognize it. It is the quiet of the dead after the gunshots stop. It is the horror of what we have become, the silent scream of disbelief, and worse, belief. We really can believe this happened again. Of course it happened again. It is allowed and yes, even encouraged, to happen over and over again.

The words we say have all become clichés. Active shooter. Thoughts and prayers. Victims and families. First responders. Their very utterance is our condemnation. We are so damn well rehearsed in the theatre of it, the pathetic script of it, the hollow sounds that hide the heinous horror of life in America.

These are the words that feign concern for those for whom there is utterly no concern: the actual people who are now and forever gone. People who did something completely unheroic and unremarkable, like wake up on a Saturday morning or go out on a Saturday night. Get groceries, see a friend, buy school supplies, go to church, go to a garlic festival for god’s sake, pray in a synagogue, dance, drink, flirt, listen to music, go to school, go to work, be a teenager, be a first-grader, be alive. And they did this as though they were free! We all do. We live as though we are free when all the while there is a target on our backs. We are not free. We are imprisoned by blind greed and exalted self-righteousness. It is callous and cruel to the point of bleak comedy.

It is the self-interest of wicked profiteers. The petty pretense of certain clueless or crassly cynical daughters. The lame defense of ex-governors or future ex-governors, the piteous pantomime of senators, the fakery of the fakest fake who ever pretended to give a shit. And then of course, it is us, some of us, who fall back on the Charlton Heston version of misanthropic rage that equates the loss of a single, beloved firearm with death itself. Pry it from my cold dead hands, the battle cry goes. But haven’t we seen enough real death by now? We have, and yet, we haven’t.

We the people are the last responders.

So I heed the calls for thoughts and prayers, but my prayers are for the last responders. I pray that we will see and cease from evil, and that America will once again be a safe place to buy pencils.

***

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

a mother’s diary

April 5, 2002

Today Georgia found this forgotten diary in my nightstand and called it hers. I slid it back to my spot after a lapse. So much is different. Saying nothing says it all. Her dad is far away on a long trip and Georgia has had her fill of me. I am so tired. I have gone and given everything away again. There she is crying out in her sleep. I covered her and rubbed her back. She will feel it 50 years from now.

***

Photo by Akshar Dave on Unsplash

church time

Growing up I spent every Sunday morning in church. The Sundays were always the same although the church moved around a bit. At times, it was on a hill near a misty ocean, stuck in the summer hell of Texas, or in a double-wide trailer parked on the barren fringe of a brand-new suburb. I’d be a good girl during the rounds of mournful hymns and mumbled creeds until we got to the sermon when I’d go numb and cold. But then, before my stiff body could be lowered into its final resting place, the pastor would stand up and face me straight on, holding his arms out like the sun shattering death at dawn, and say these mysterious and melodious words of salvation.

May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace

***

Nowadays if I write you a letter I might go on a bit about the wet spring and the cloudy summer. I might mention the lemon crop or the jasmine bloom; recount the ailments of a dog or the antics of a cat. Unless you’ve asked me to tell you something or the other, my letters won’t be about anything in particular. They won’t say anything new and they won’t get there in a hurry, because I’m not in a hurry.

The other day a fellow sent me a very nice message by email.

Please write another book. TY

I can’t say I haven’t given it thought, but I haven’t given it much more than a thought. I replied to him asking which book he’d read that impressed him so. It does make me wonder. He said he’d read all of them and one of them five times. That’s easily four more times than I’ve read any of them. But even that kind of appreciation doesn’t budge me off my butt. It occurs to me now that I’m living on church time, and I feel like I could sit here forever.

***

A good friend sent me this link to an essay that sums up the sad state of our cultural creed, so to speak, the sick addiction of being “crazy busy.” I’ve read a few articles like that, and no doubt have scrawled a desperate message across these pages more than once: slow down! There are various “slow” movements afoot, but we have to be careful that we don’t turn “slow” into a pious virtue, a weapon or a magic wand. It’s deeper than a desire to have a better life, a less anxious mind, a healthier gut or a smarter kid. It’s spiritual.

On Tuesday I tried to put gas in my car. Rounding the corner to the filling station, I saw two or three cars lined up waiting, which in my town constitutes a jam. The front of one pump was opened to its insides. I couldn’t tell what was going on but I repeated my mantra of the moment, “another day” and drove home. I had the time and enough gas to make it.

Yesterday I went back to the station and the same thing was going on but there was only one car in front of me at the pump so I stuck it out. A really old fellow got out of his Honda and looked around like he was confused. Honestly, I wanted to go up and mercifully pump the gas for him. But he gradually shuffled over to the little convenience store and I thought oh my god he’s paying in advance with cash. And that took an eternity and when he came out he stopped and fussed with his money, trying to get the bills back in his wallet before doing anything else, which is what any reasonable person would do, but his hands shook and the money wouldn’t go in and I was boiling. You know then that he struggled with the gas cap, and then he pondered the front of the pump for who-knows-how-long and then I started to calculate how much gas he was going to put in, god forbid, and when it shut off pretty quick I figured that’s about what twenty dollars will buy you. But then I realized oh shit he’s going to have to get that gas cap back on and just like that it wouldn’t go and it wouldn’t go and it wouldn’t go. Eventually he got it on so that the little door to the compartment would shut and he got back in the front seat and I waited. It was eons before he started the car and shifted into drive.

That’s when I realized that I was on fire because something that I expected to take three minutes had taken all of six.

Who said I wasn’t crazy? Who said I wasn’t busy? Who said I was past all that? What’s the point of all my babble if it doesn’t keep me from cussing out my ninety-year-old neighbor for being ninety?

About then I found myself back in church hearing the lovely strains of the benediction. I suddenly knew it wasn’t really about God looking down and smiling at me, but me, looking up and smiling at God driving off in the Honda, with twenty dollars in his tank.

Photo by Josh Applegate

don’t use a word of this

“You are an experienced meditator, aren’t you?”

Perhaps only an experienced meditator would be stumped by this question, but I answered yes to be cooperative.

“Something happened after I meditated and I wanted to ask you about it.”

She told me that she’s been meditating more and she was getting good at it but the last time she did it she had made it through all the chakras and it was going pretty well and she meditated for longer than she ever had and afterwards some good things had happened to her but then later that day she felt sick and lightheaded and had to lie down and had I ever heard of that and what did I think it meant?

“That does sound like a kind of sickness,” I said.

Which part? she asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t even know where my chakras are.”

***

Something happens when you meditate, but it will never be what you expect.

To be sure, no one starts a meditation practice without expecting to get something out of it—the answer, the secret, the pay-off. Just about any motivation is worthwhile if it gets you out of bed and upright for one more day, but what I experience in a room with other people on retreat is never something I’m seeking.

When I stop thinking about myself, I feel the subtle energies around me, like fear and sadness, restlessness and worry. People around me are grieving. They are in crazy pain and shame. There is trouble at home. A marriage is ending, loved ones are lost or leaving, lives are falling apart. The body is breaking, the cancer is spreading, the debt is coming due. And out of this great ache comes a flooding rush of gratitude up my spine and out of my heart because these humans have shared a moment of their lives without a get or a fix, for no good reason and absent any shred of understanding.

What happens is love.

***

Your body knows what to do, and it’s already doing it, so just breathe, I told her. Breathe from the belly, and count your breath to keep your mind still and focused. You don’t have to process anything. Everything is already processed. Try not to look for a result. Don’t judge if it’s good or bad or right or wrong or working or not. Keep it simple. Buddhism is really simple, and Zen meditation is the simplest kind of Buddhism.

“That’s really useful,” she said, even as I prayed she wouldn’t use a word of it.

Letting Go: A Zen Retreat
Aug. 8-11, 2019
Transfiguration Spirituality Center, Cincinnati

Clear Waters: A Zen Retreat
Oct. 10-13, 2019
Chapin Mill Retreat Center
Batavia NY between Rochester and Buffalo

Photo by Zoltan Tasi

a cat in your bed

“Let’s go to the Humane Society when you get home and adopt a cat. There are too many animals who need loving homes.”

It sounded like something I would say but I didn’t really mean to say it. It was more of a Hail Mary pass, an attempt to keep my daughter in the game before semester’s end. The dog had died. Her cough was worse. Sleeping wasn’t possible. She was sad, tired, lonely and ready to come home. Then she started asking for a new pet. I hemmed; I balked; in desperation I threw into the end zone. In my mind there was still time to backtrack.

My chief regret as a parent is my failure to leave well enough alone.

Our conversations changed overnight.

She immediately named the fictional kitten.  She spent hours shopping for cat furniture online. In one day she sent me seven links for different scratching posts and beds, not to mention a cat hat. (I had to admit it was darling.) There didn’t seem to be any end to her expectations.

Can we please get this bed please please please.

Depending on how well behaved the cat is maybe I can get it registered as an emotional support animal and bring it to school with me.

Before she even flew home she asked how soon after deplaning we could go and get the kitten. I bargained for time, and then I had to level with her. I didn’t really want a cat. I just wanted her to feel better.

It seems to me that there are two checkpoints in parenting. The first is when your children believe what you say. The second is when they don’t believe what you say. If you fail the first, you accomplish the second. I knew I had to keep my word. It was time to let go.

A few mornings later we were at the humane society. She filled out the forms to be a new mother. Then she fell in love once, twice, three, four, five times. She loved every single kitten. Narrowing her heart to fit the one who was old enough to be adopted that day, she made the perfect match.

My mind churned with everything I should tell her that she didn’t know—about the sleeping, the eating, and the mess. The commitment, the responsibility, and the cost. And then, like a circle completing itself, I flashed back to bringing my baby home 20 years ago this summer, and silenced myself with the sudden certainty that she had everything she needed. It’s all any of us have to see us through from beginning to end—love.

And a cat in her bed.

clear waters

Upstate NY
Clear Waters: A Zen Retreat
Oct. 10-13, 2019
Chapin Mill Retreat Center
Batavia NY between Rochester and Buffalo
Registration Open

A traditional three-day retreat including seated and walking meditation, dharma talks, chanting services, oryoki meals, and the opportunity to meet privately with a teacher. Chapin Mill is a peaceful refuge on 135 rural acres that the people of the Iroquois Nation once called “The Place of Clear Running Waters” for its abundant springs, streams and ponds.

soft focus

We were walking down the street when my daughter looked over at me and said I hope I inherit your DNA of aging.

What do you mean? I’m an old woman.

Your face doesn’t look like it.

That’s not DNA. That’s lifestyle.

The flattery was nice, and the science might have been correct, but I wanted to kick that train of thought in its little red caboose. It’s not so helpful for a 19-year-old to believe that she’s nothing but a double helix of nucleotides unleashing an irreversible code of predeterminants that she can’t tinker with.

And yet, that’s precisely the way some of us approach our lives: with grim resignation. You’re born, you pay taxes and you die.

No one can argue against DNA, but do you know, really know, what your DNA is and what it foretells? Of course not. What I’m talking about here are the hard lines of our foregone conclusions, the unyielding beliefs we hold about who we are, what we can do, and how it will turn out.

I once told an audience of women who were easily 25 years younger than me that I was an older mother. I can’t deny it and I don’t try to hide it. A rumble erupted in the room until one of them demanded to know why I called myself that. I asked what was wrong with being old. Why is it a thing we’re not allowed to be or even say?

When I first started to practice Zen, my teacher said that women who practice become more beautiful with age. They soften, he said. I wondered why he told me that. Was it so obvious that I was a panicky 40-year-old staring into the maw of middle age and what comes after? Why yes, it was obvious. Nothing is hidden. But it’s also true. When you relax and release the grip of vanity, fear, resistance, and self-obsession, things change. You’ll probably be the last to know, since you no longer spend time in front of a mirror fussing with what you find there. You no longer have the interest.

So when I say I’m old, it’s not a criticism or complaint. It doesn’t come from self-pity. It comes from being free. And yes darling, I really hope you inherit that too.

Here is a talk about body acceptance and the courage to be what you are.

letting go

Let go and make yourself independent and free, not being bound by things and not seeking to escape from things. — Yuanwu

Letting Go: A Zen Retreat
Cincinnati
Aug. 8-11, 2019
Transfiguration Spirituality Center
Registration Open

Make peace with impermanence and find freedom in things as they are. Experience the healing presence of just sitting or walking in meditation, chanting, Dharma talks and private encounters with a teacher. Special attention and support will be given to beginners. Three nights, all meals included.

spring and fall

“No matter how much the spring wind loves the fragrance, the beauty and the delicacy of the blossom, the same wind that caresses the blossom sets the blossom free. And so we see that. We feel that. This is what life brings to us: spring and fall, the bloom and the faded bloom.

The boundless ocean of love encompasses everything—the rise and the fall. We can know the infinite comfort of love and still grieve. And still be terrified! We can be unafraid to be terrified. We can be unhindered by grief.”

Dedicated to my faithful dog Molly, 2001-2019

An excerpt from Closing Remarks at the Spring Wind Zen Retreat on April 14, 2019. Listen in full using the player shown below, or at this link.

Photo by Robbin Huang on Unsplash

still falling

Several years ago, I took a rather astonishing degree of encouragement from a study examining how babies learn to walk. I’m not sure how I found the research, but I must have gone looking for it. Perhaps I was trying to shed the expectation that as our children grow up things shouldn’t be so hard for them. I might have been thinking that I’d missed a critical element of good parenting, and had therefore shortchanged my daughter in a damning way. Just so you know, I’m not so evolved that I don’t think idiotic things.

The study concluded that as they learn to walk, babies fall on average 17 times an hour. I could hardly believe it. To realize that I’d been present as my baby busted her bottom on our unforgiving hardwoods hundreds of times a day was utterly inconceivable to me. As parents, it never occurs to us to count the falls. We don’t consider falling down to be an obstacle, interruption, or failure. From our perspective, and perhaps from the baby’s, falling is inseparable from walking. You might even say that a fall isn’t a step backward, but a step forward. Learning anything new is a kind of falling: letting go of preconceptions, expectations, and in general, whatever we think we can or can’t do.

It might sound like I’m talking about babies. But I’m talking about myself. The question I am asking is whether I am still learning. Yes, I am, if I’m still falling.

love unconditionally again

Sometimes I’d like to tell every reader of Momma Zen, “Nevermind. I’m sorry. I had no idea what I was talking about. It’s not this simple.” Parenthood is the education of a lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes. Increasingly I find myself turning to the model of my mother and her tolerance, patience, and selflessness. My daughter keeps reminding me that there is a place to be involved in her life that is still present but not hovering, and not so self-righteously involved in who she is or what I want her to be. What I’ve seen is how emotionally dependent I’ve been on my daughter being happy, doing things that I like or liking the things that I do. The real shakeup for me has been seeing the degree to which I encumber my daughter with the job of feeding my ego or meeting my emotional needs. It is really a hard lesson to not exploit our children in that way, to not judge them, and to take an even further step back as they explore difficulty, pain and their own confusion about themselves. Whereas parents in our time feel so much stress and pressure to do something right and to advantage their children in some way, our children feel that times a hundred. My daughter said to me not long ago, “Mom, I have more stress in my life than you’ve ever had in your life.” And I’m beginning to see that it’s true: academic stress, social stress, physical stress. It’s hard. The lessons never stop! How can I write another book unless it’s an apology? I’m along for this ride and the ride is long and steep. I’m trying to keep my own place and love unconditionally again.

This is what I said in a podcast recorded three years ago, which you can listen to in full at this link or via the player shown below. Although I scarcely knew it at the time, this has become the anthem of my life, my one true song. Love unconditionally again.

The photo shown at the top is of kintsugi, the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a lacquer of powdered gold, silver or platinum.

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