majestic

“What is it like to live in a painting?” a guest once enthused about the view from my kitchen sink.

It’s not a painting. It’s life, and being life, it’s equal parts death.

So I recognize the shape that is too fleet to be seen, the finality that is too grim to grasp. It’s the heron! One of the reapers that cull our fish on flights north, then south again, two seasons a year.

Up close, herons are exquisitely beautiful. An audience with a heron can freeze you in the shock of good fortune. Only these visitors don’t come for a swim, and the good fortune doesn’t extend to the fish. Even for a Buddhist, it’s difficult to take this sort of outcome sitting down.

These days the heron is observing a stay-at-home order. May is typically two months past the migration north, but his stony gray stillness is perched over the pond in the early morning and late afternoons. I suppose there’s no reason for him to go anywhere, no hurry, with food stocked, and all the time in the world. The rules and routines are broken. For all of us.

People are awed by herons. They call them majestic. True. But they come here for only one reason.

So too the hawk I saw swoop across the yard last week. I heard a frenzy of songbirds before he made his elegant approach. Then no songbirds.

It’s hard to appreciate a predator’s appetite, his relentless power and precision killing.

But this is how it is. This is how it is.

Photo by Caroline Cameron on Unsplash

after the before

My mother’s first round of chemotherapy was successful, or so it seemed to us. She revived. Her hair sprouted. Her vigor returned and she went searching for something, anything that could restore what she could no longer conjure up: feeling like she did before. Before chemo? Before surgery? Before the c-word? Before carcinogens, cyclamates, hormone replacement therapy or second-hand smoke? Before the first cell made its disastrous detour toward mutation? She tried acupuncture, herbs, juices, vitamins, music, laughter, meditation and some of the internet remedies and rumors sent her way. I didn’t tell her there was no “before;” no place, no time, no single fixed point of certain health, certain safety or certain anything. I didn’t tell her because I, too, wanted her to find it.

When I went to Los Angeles to meditate with Maezumi Roshi for the first time it was, by coincidence, the weekend of my thirty-seventh birthday. I told him the occasion, but otherwise I was covering up a lot that weekend, or so I thought— my heartache, my loneliness, my endless longing and my fear at moving beyond. He gave me a handmade gift: a freshly inked calligraphy of the kanji Chinese characters for “spring” and “fall.”

“Would you like to see my inspiration,” he offered, and he pointed to a line of delicate print in a leatherbound volume:

No matter how much the spring wind loves the peach blossoms, they still fall.

— from Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood

***

This seems ever-more appropriate now, when we are so far beyond the beginning, and infinitely before the after. And so we wait in faith and pray.

“Faith, Prayer and Song” a new dharma talk.

Photo by Stella Tran on Unsplash

serve literally everyone

This is the door to the hospital. The ER is what faces the community. I grew up seeing that there was a need, and I wanted to be in the part of the hospital that serves literally everyone. — Dr. Yvette Calderon, chair of emergency medicine, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City, in The New Yorker

Each day I am inspired by the kindness that comes my way, and awed by the selfless service in places I hope to never be. So here I am, keeping the door open and sharing what I can: two new dharma talks on responding to this world of suffering.

An Abundance of Compassion, April 26
Time to Give, May 3

a way of life

Last night my daughter came in the front door carrying a foil-covered pan with a note taped to the top. It was from a neighbor. “Thank you for the lemons!” the note read, “Enjoy.” And we did. The lemon muffins were something else.

For a couple of days last week my husband placed a box of lemons from our tree on the sidewalk with an invitation: “Take some! Untouched by human hands.” I never saw anyone take one, but folks sure did, and when the box emptied, he’d fill it again.

I can’t remember the last time I borrowed a cup of sugar from a neighbor, if you know what I mean. I can’t even remember the last time I knocked on a neighbor’s door. There’s a field army of delivery people who know all the names and addresses on every street in this country, but I’ve never met the family two doors down. The quarantine has awakened a spirit of neighborliness that had all but died around here. Before that, we were all so busy and bothered, lacking nothing, having plenty of everything on hand, and a Trader Joe’s right down the street, what did we need neighbors for? What was their name again? And are their kids grown up and gone already?

Some politicians are rationalizing the lifting of restrictions right now, saying it’s not just about saving lives but saving “the American way of life.” I don’t know what that way of life is, well, I do, but as I recall it wasn’t exactly alive. The American way was becoming ever-more mean, self-absorbed and greedy, not awake or aware, not humane or even human. It didn’t knock, it didn’t speak, it didn’t care, and it certainly didn’t go out of its way to trade a lowly lemon for a batch of the world’s best lemon muffins.

Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash

 

it’s okay to be angry

It’s okay to be angry. Be totally angry. You don’t have to build it, bury it or chew it. Anger incinerates itself, and it will end.

It’s okay to be sad. Be sad. You don’t have to drug it, drag it out or plumb it. Sadness subsumes itself, and it will end.

It’s okay to be tired. Be nothing but tired. Fed up, over, out, done. You don’t have to fix it. Tiredness tires of itself, and it will end.

Be angry. Be sad. Be tired. Be as you are, not as you think you should be.

I bet you feel better already.

the covid improvisations

A month ago when the big one hit and the world shook loose, communities began to gather online. That’s when I started offering weekly zazen and dharma talks to the group of students around the country with whom I practice regularly. The talks are recorded and publicly available, but I am posting them here so you won’t have to go looking. Each talk is 20-30 minutes and informal, arising from the mood of the moment. They are arranged here chronologically, but you can play them in any order that strikes you. Just to pause for that long and listen could keep you afloat.

On my site, you’ll see embedded players below. If you receive my blog via email without the embedded players, the links to each talk are here:

Peace Is All That’s Left, March 29
We’re All Hermits Now, April 5
Beyond Stress & Anxiety, April 12
Breathing Makes Beautiful Sense, April 19

Above photo by Sam Wermut on Unsplash



the last outpost

I walked down to the post office again today. By again, I mean for the second day in a row. I’m partly motivated by my personal mission to save the postal service as the last outpost of our once-civil society. Yesterday I bought stamps; today I mailed a book. Yes, I wore a mask and gloves and kept a social distance. I could have driven, but walking matters. Walking can save the day.

Twenty years ago I moved here from a place where walking outside was not something you’d ever be able to write about. You just didn’t do it. You lived a kind of pneumatic existence, riding a blast of air conditioning from one enclosure to another, entirely avoiding the heat, humidity and mosquitoes. Oh the humanity.

Once I got here I saw real live people unseal their windows and doors, step onto the sidewalks, and mosey about all day long in the wide-open air. At first, I thought less of these slow pokes: they clearly had nothing better to do. And then I learned that there was never anything better to do.

When a crying baby came I found out what a walk to the post office would accomplish: a miracle. Her upturned face warmed by the pure light of the sun, skin cooled by the soft caress of the wind, senses delighted by birdcalls and coos—a few blocks in her stroller would calm the baby and silence the cries. All was well that day and every day we made it down to the post office.

I had one child who outgrew the stroller a long time ago. Now she gets around by herself. But there’s another crying child, restless and fretful, who still lives here. When she’s tired and cranky, past her limits, worn out from worry, I take her out for another walk to the post office. As long as there’s a post office, I believe I can keep going.

***

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

what my mother taught me

It was an attribute of her deep faith and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper when, in facing certain death, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them. Months before this day my mom had taken quiet confidence in me, telling me what she wanted for her funeral, what she wanted for her body, and asking me to write her obituary. Permission was thus tacitly granted to each other to proceed as we must. At her funeral I rose to say these words. They were not the first thing I had ever written, but they were the first thing I had ever written for myself, to be spoken in my own voice. This is the kind of thing that a mother can teach you. I have remembered it always, and especially on this day every year.

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.” read more

rainy night, lonely road

It was raining hard. It was dark. My dad had pulled off the highway onto a road I didn’t know. A road that wasn’t the way.

I couldn’t have been more than three or four. We were in a surf green late-50s Chevy sedan that rode low and the water was high. The roads were flooded and the water was high. My dad was up front clenching the wheel. My sister and I were in back. We were wide awake in the nighttime we were wide awake.

We were coming back from somewhere, where could that be? And the rain wouldn’t quit and the wipers couldn’t keep up and we were awake and afraid.

My father was afraid. It was different, that was. He could be scary but I’d never seen him afraid. We were late.

He pulled into a gas station. What was that for? Not for gas. Not for a smoke. Not for a beer or a break. It was to make a call. We were late.

We were late in the rain and we didn’t know how to get home. But we did, after a while. We got home.

I am remembering this now and I don’t know why.

Oh, I know why. Because we got home.

Take heart, friends. It’s a rainy night on a lonely road that takes us home.

The nearer the dawn, the darker the night. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

***

Photo by Amir Borhan on Unsplash

10 tips for a mindful home

1.Wake with the sun
There is no purer light than what you see when your eyes open first thing in the morning.

2.Sit
Mindfulness without meditation is just a word.

3. Make your bed
The state of your bed is the state of your head. Enfold your day in dignity.

4.Empty the hampers
Do the laundry without resentment or commentary and have an intimate encounter with the very fabric of life.

5. Wash your bowl
Rinse away self-importance and clean up your own mess. If you leave it undone, it will get sticky.

6. Set a timer
If you’re distracted by the weight of what’s undone, set a kitchen timer and, like a monk in a monastery, devote yourself wholeheartedly to the task at hand until the bell rings.

7. Rake the leaves
Rake, weed, or sweep. You’ll never finish for good, but you’ll learn the point of pointlessness.

8. Eat when hungry
Align your inexhaustible desires with the one true appetite.

9. Let the darkness come
Set a curfew on technology and discover the natural balance between daylight and darkness, work and rest.

10. Sleep when tired
Nothing more to it.

a chain of daisies

The other day I did something I don’t ever do. I sent an email to my best friend, asking her if there was a good time I could call. I really wanted to call her because I don’t ever call her. As much as I preach about staying in touch with others, I’m usually on the receiving end of someone else’s kind thoughts and selfless concerns.

At that instant, my phone rang. It was my friend. She said, “You won’t believe what just happened. I was typing an email to you when I got yours at the same time!”

I did believe it. This kind of thing actually happens a lot, although we might not notice. When we do notice we call it coincidence, serendipity or synchronicity; a fluke, an accident, a chance, all the ways we brush off events that defy the separation of time and space. We just think about someone and they appear. We just talk about something and it materializes. We need and then we miraculously get.

The fact is, there isn’t any separation in time or space. There isn’t any separation between any of us, or any time, or any place.

Obviously, this is not conventional wisdom, but it is wisdom. You can see it in the Buddhist or Hindu mandala, which diagrams the living reality of the universe; or in a wheel and its spokes; or in a daisy with its petals. Each of us is the center, the hub, the eye, of a circle containing everything and everyone else; a spontaneous infinitude of interconnections through all space and time.

Today, it’s a global pandemic, a contagion without boundaries or exemptions. More proof, as if we asked for it, that we’re all in this together. Now we can see for ourselves that little things make a big difference, and that Good Samaritans are strangers.

The other day I did something else I don’t ever do. I received an email from a friend inviting me to participate in a chain letter of sorts, a chain to exchange poems. I don’t do chain letters, and I have enough poems, thank you. But this came from a good friend at a time friends have never been so good. So just this once I participated without any expectation that anyone anywhere else would do likewise, or that I’d ever see any poems out of it.

Over the next few days, dozens of messages arrived. I’d open one to find a familiar verse, or more likely one I’d never seen before. They were poignant, masterful and sweet, delivered to me as gifts from people and places far beyond my knowing. Some came as photos taken from books or journals; one included a recipe for “comfort cookies.” Each was like a ray of warmth, a beam of light, a link in a chain of daisies springing up as if from nowhere.

This is our hope and blessing: each other.

Beannacht
by John O’Donohue

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

from Echoes of Memory (Transworld Publishing, 2010)
Photo by Kristine Cinate on Unsplash

just give yourself

On a walk around town yesterday, I passed a house with glitter-painted rocks lined up along the sidewalk. It looked like a cute way to jazz up a yard, but then I saw the hand-lettered sign taped to a nearby telephone pole.

Adopt a Rock!
(I promise they’ve been Lysoled)

On the way back home, I passed the house again. It didn’t look like any rocks had been taken, despite the invitation. I intended to take one, but then I took two because I couldn’t choose. Plus, I didn’t want to be stingy with the adoption. I have the room to foster a lot of rocks! After I finish jotting this down I’ll take them outside for a photo so you can appreciate them. Like the rest of us, rocks want to be seen, touched, and heard. They want to belong.

We’re all trying to reach out these days even though we can’t really reach out. The Italians set the bar with their sunset serenades across deserted streets. Every evening in Madrid, people throw open their windows and give a round of applause for healthcare workers. Musicians share mini iPhone concerts. A neighbor down the street gives away painted rocks, and me, I do this thing with words.

I’ve been writing quite a bit, in case you’ve noticed. A few years ago I lost interest in it. Writing about kids, or about Zen, or about trees, pets or plants just seemed like a blabbering conceit. I couldn’t stand the sound of myself anymore. After suffering enough pain and penury from publishing I told my Zen teacher I was going to stop writing. He chuckled.

What are you going to do then, he asked. Write?

He had me there. Writing isn’t a matter of what you write about, or who you write it for, and certainly not about praise or profit. Writing is just writing, like a rock is just a rock, and it’s a fine offering, a simple medicine that restores our common humanity while jazzing up the yard.

If you’re sitting at home like I am, wondering what you are supposed to give to a world ravaged by pain and terror, just give yourself. That’s the most beautiful thing.

all is calm

The blue jays call. The squirrels chitter. Otherwise, nothing and no one stirs.

My daughter is behind a door with a handmade sign reading “In Class.” My husband is in the office staring at a screen. I am in the living room pecking on this keyboard, with only my thoughts to disrupt.

We can hardly keep from napping in the afternoon, retiring without turning on the TV. The hush that has pervaded this place seems other-worldly. But it isn’t another world. It is the sound of a world that always sounds this way. So peaceful, so natural; so ordered, so right. What a shock to realize that human beings make all the noise, cause all the crush, summon the haste and fury.

To be instantly free from ourselves, ah, that is the gift of letting go.

This morning walking by the kitchen window I saw the garden shimmering in its everyday light and I recalled the words of a hymn we all know, a song that praises the silence before waking, the stillness before breaking, the dark that beckons the saving grace of a new day.

All is calm, all is bright.

May we each remember a peace long forgotten, a noble way of being with all beings, beginning in our own backyards.

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