a quiet room

For zazen, a quiet room is suitable. — Dogen Zenji

Chapin Mill Retreat Center
Batavia, NY
Oct. 7-10, 2021
Registration Open

Midway between Rochester and Buffalo, New York, Chapin Mill is a quiet refuge on 135 rural acres. Here, in a meditation center built expressly for Zen, we return to the traditional practice of sitting together in person. This three-day retreat is open to all levels of practitioners and includes sitting, chanting, walking meditation, Dharma talks and the opportunity to meet privately with a teacher. Silence is practiced throughout. More information and registration here.

 

already you

You have always been you. It sounds a little bit silly to say that, because it doesn’t come close to expressing what I mean. As the person who has spent every one of last 8,000 days and nights in silent wonder and raging worry over every aspect of your life—your eating, sleeping, feeling, and thinking; your hair, bones, blood and skin—I mean it as an admission. It wasn’t me. It isn’t me. It will not be me that makes you who you are.

I have a memory of the first time you waved bye-bye. A sitter was holding you in her arms near the front door and I was walking out of it. When your baby waves bye-bye to you it’s a moment that really sticks. But it’s not quite right to say you were a baby then. You were already you when you did that, already a perfectly functioning human being. You were on a path that was uniquely yours, that had begun in a time and place before me, and that would progress in a completely intact and natural way after me.

Why did I think I had so much to do with it?

Every now and then my Zen teacher will say something (that he has said many times before) to point to the truth of life. It goes sort of like this: “Once you were a little child, then a teenager and now an adult. You were 10 then 18, 30 or 50. Was any of that hard to do?” No, we chuckle to ourselves, since it’s a given. It happens by itself.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin.

A lily does not become a stalk of corn either. It never becomes anything but itself, by itself. This is another revelation that sounds stupidly obvious and unremarkable. But we should reflect on it. We should study it: the obvious and effortless perfection of the way things are and how they come to be.

I grew up in another time, a time before the dawn of the Industrial Parental Anxiety Complex. This is to say that my mother did the mothering, such as it was, and my father did the fathering, for better or worse, but nothing that they did or didn’t do was formed by this new attitude of expertise called parenting. Parenting is not something that anyone knows how to do or will know how to do. It cannot be taught, except by children, who have the sometimes charming and often infuriating ability to be no one but themselves.

My mother never once hid broccoli in the mac and cheese. She never hounded me to practice the piano as a way to elevate my math scores or letter in lacrosse to polish my college prospects. These kind of manufactured agonies were simply beyond the few extra hours available in her day. She had other concerns, great matters, and her children did not appear to be chief among them. Oh happy day!

Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

This is not to say that we don’t have our hands full, as parents. Not to say that there isn’t much to learn or do, but it concerns our children far less than we think. Our job is to raise ourselves upright as half-decent people and self-managing adults. To be honest and reliable. To be patient. To have confidence in ourselves and trust in nearly everyone else. To keep going through the rough patches, with a resilient hope and idiotic optimism that all will be well. To shine light equally on the lilies and the thistles, the flowers and the thorns, the rocks and the mud and the grass that grows every which way in the field without applying a fence or force. To simply be, faithful and true, because that is how our children grow strong in themselves as themselves, lacking nothing, functioning perfectly, the amazing humans they already are.

Originally published Feb. 26, 2018. Still counting the days and nights, and will be, forever.

metaphor

You are on a plane, a plane like a troop carrier with people squeezed together on all sides and although you can’t turn to look you know your daughter is behind you but just then you see waves splashing up against the windows and feel the fuselage dragging and you don’t know if you’re on top of the ocean or already below it and then you are in the air although it’s not the sky but way down close to the ground, I mean like inches, a massive flaming machine dodging buildings and bridges (there’s no way planes can fly like this) but then you’ve landed somewhere and you recognize it as the airport from another dream, a terminal far away from where you need to be and not enough time to catch the connection you have to hurry hurry and then you see your daughter go out the door and disappear down the gateway and you’ll never know the rest.

hanging up a hat

The other day I was on a Zoom call when I looked out the window and saw Thomas walking up to the front door of the house as if to knock. A few minutes later my husband came to get me. Thomas was here to tell us he was retiring.

Thomas has worked  as a gardener since he was 15 and now he is 67. A few years ago when I posted a video of the garden on YouTube I had a message from a woman who lived in Pennsylvania. She said that when she was a child her grandmother had lived here. As a girl she’d spent her summers here and did we still have a desert turtle and a gardener named Tommy? No turtle, but yes, Tommy was still here.

We gathered at the door and Thomas said that he didn’t want to retire but he couldn’t do the work anymore. It was his knees, and he pantomimed the pain of stooping and hauling. I realized then that while Thomas used to come with a two-man crew and spend an hour, for the last 10 years or so he’d come alone and the job would take him two or three hours each week. The trees keep growing and the wind keeps blowing.

You had that little baby, he said to me, is she still here?

She’s 21 and lives in New York.

The little baby had adored him. I suppose it was a sign of just how quiet her life was, how dull for a toddler to have no one but a bored mom to look at. She would thrill to the sight of Thomas and I would carry her out to see him and she would laugh and baby-flirt.

It was hard to admit how long it had been since I’d talked to Thomas, whose visits were so reliable that I stopped saying a word when he was here, only occasionally waving from the kitchen, or from inside my car as I drove off somewhere.

He never missed a week except for the first week in May, when he would return to Mexico for festivals at his family village. He was honor-bound to go back and do them, he said, with his father dead. It would bless the crops, was how I understood his explanation, and it was important now because the world was crazy. I agreed.

I asked if he would go back to Mexico when he retired. He told me that he would go back but wanted to be able to stay for three months instead of a week. Our families grow old, you see, and 67 is a good time to take the time.

He’d lined up a new gardener for us who would come on Thursday, he said. And on Thursday the new gardener did come and when he told us, by way of introduction, that Thomas had sent him, he pronounced the name Tomás and I knew then how long it can take you to really see someone and know them and appreciate them. It can take more time than you have.

Thank you for talking to me for so long, he said, after the three of us had stood there together at the door for all of 15 minutes out of the last 24 years, and you can tell I’m wiping a tear for all the times I didn’t.

Photo by Denisse Leon on Unsplash

blessing for the unknowable road

The other day my daughter asked me when my mother died. “Was it twenty years ago, then?” she said, and I was surprised at the sound of it. Yes, twenty years ago it was, when my daughter was twenty months old. She has no memory of my mom, she only knows her through me. Someday, I suppose, I will forget this day as it comes and goes, April 13. I will forget her voice, her smile, her laugh, even as I still speak her words. Her words always come like a blessing, a benediction to take on the unknowable road.

I wanted to share a few things with you about my mother. I’m sure you already know them. They are what bring you here today.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, she said some things that I wanted to pass along. She has probably been saying them to me all my life, but I suspect I heard them, finally, for the first time.

Just last weekend she looked at me, clear-eyed and steady, and told me what I’ve come to recognize as her final instructions.

“Be yourself,” she said. “And take good care of your family.”

Now you know that my mother could never, for one minute, be anything but herself. Honest, unselfish, unpretentious, lighthearted, optimistic and, in a way, so ordinary. So ordinary that she was, in fact, extraordinary. It drew people to her, to her comfort and ease. So open and accepting. So authentic. And so happy!

She kept all the cards and notes you all sent over the course of her illness. Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even a thousand. She kept every one and everyday, more came. She was so uplifted, and in a way, mystified at the magnitude.

I told her that they showed how much she was loved. “Yes,” she said, and she shook her head in disbelief. “And just for being me.”

“Take good care of your family,” she reminded me. She reminds us all. For my mother, family was not just family. You were all in it. And her family grew in number every day. It began with her mother and dad, sisters and brothers, to whom she was, quite simply, devoted. There were cousins, so many cousins, it seemed, to fill the whole state of Texas. There were the nieces and nephews, and grand-nieces and nephews, each one special in her heart. The schoolmates and colleagues and lifelong friends. And then, of course, there were the children. Thousands of children in dozens of classrooms over 30 years’ time.

Education was her life’s work, but more than that, it was her life. She had seen for herself that, no matter where you begin, or what the conditions, if you take what you’re given and do your best, you can do anything. Her heart expanded with every single child’s achievement, and of course, her heart broke with every one of their disappointments.

At the end of her career, as an elementary school principal, she would wait for hours with the little ones, already so poor and sometimes forgotten, when no one came to pick them up from school. She waited. And soon, she retired.

Finally, there was our family, the ones at home. Perhaps this was my mom’s last mission. We were all so far along in our lives, so far apart and busy. And we have all come to see – my sisters and I – Mom’s illness as a remarkable blessing. We came together, so close, in respect, love and appreciation for one another. Mom gave us the opportunity, and we took up the task. You can speak of my mother’s strength and courage, and I will tell you that, here at the end, my father matched her mile for mile. And we are so grateful.

I want to tell you something Mom said several months ago, when we began in earnest to prepare for today and imagine how it would go. She said, “I know it sounds egotistical, but I don’t know how you all can live without me.”

I told her quickly then, and I know it to be true, that I would never have to live without her.

I ask you today, in your everyday kindnesses, in your bright hopes, your easy laughter, your generosity and your own good hearts, to help me keep my promise to her. Be yourself, and take good care of your family, and we will keep her with us forever.

My eulogy to my mother, who died on April 13, 2001, delivered at her service on April 17, 2001.

She came again to comfort me here, in a conversation about all the ways we are afraid.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

together on aisle 15

I had shot number 1 yesterday. For months I’ve been bemoaning my lowly place in line, which was really no place in line. Nine months shy of a qualifying 65th birthday, I began to believe — because I grumbled it so often —”I will be the last person on Earth to get the vaccine.” Then one day in the desert it rained down bread from heaven, and in the morning I gathered up my laptop and made an appointment at a pharmacy just a few miles from my house. At the door, a kind young man greeted me as if I were a wanderer out of the wilderness and 10 minutes later, the dose delivered, I sat in a socially distanced folding chair in Aisle 15, waiting out adverse signs.

Aisle 15 was the Baby Care aisle and Aisle 16 was the Adult Care aisle, and so I perched in view of the teething toys, and stacked on the other side, the incontinence briefs. It was a blatant reminder of the one life we share on the lonely trek between then and when. A year ago I wrote about the hope and good health bequeathed to us born into the vaccine generation, the first little ones freed from polio, measles, tuberculosis and all manner of misery and plagues. As it was, so shall it be. We are and will always be saved by the grace of community, by human wonders and works, faith and fellowship, led from the bleak bondage of fear to the promised land of rest. On Aisle 15, together.

“Here For You” a new dharma talk

Photo by Birger Strahl on Unsplash

upstream

Not long ago I heard from a couple I’d never met, parents of a child with Down Syndrome. They host a podcast called “If We Knew Then” to share useful conversations about Down Syndrome advocacy and parenting. The situation was this: in navigating the school system on behalf of their son—and also in everyday outings to the park and grocery store—they’d consistently come up against negativity, resistance, and insensitivity. They were tired of fighting society. They were frustrated and angry. They’d lost trust in the experts and institutions, over and over. Would nothing ever change? And what should they do with all these bad feelings?

I wasn’t sure how useful I could be. We had different lives. But we talked, and then we talked again. They shared their experiences and I shared mine. Along the way I realized that the circumstances didn’t really matter. Parents are parents and people are people, and we all face challenges we can’t get ahead of. Don’t you ever feel as if you are paddling alone against a tide of greater forces just because you are trying to do something good and right? Trying to make things better? We all do.

If you are advocating for a child in the school system or a family member in the healthcare system, if you are advocating for progress against a world that is standing in your way, I encourage you to listen to our conversation. At first, you might not think it applies to you, but there’s medicine in it. The medicine is love. And as it turns out, the medicine was for me too.

If We Knew Then podcast

Photo by Andrew Draper on Unsplash

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

#  #  #

“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

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