All my fish are little



I thought you would have bigger fish to fry, she said,
so as not to be a bother.

Ideas are big
Plans are monumental
But all my fish are little.

Ambitions are high
Visions are grandiose
But all my fish are little.

The future is vast
The past, well that’s a whole other story
But all my fish are little.

All my fish are little.
My feet step one at a time.
My hands each hold one palm.
My heart beats beats beats
A single beat
A subtle flutter.

All my fish are little.
Can’t be otherwise.
Never think differently.
Never hesitate
To say hello.

Because all my fish are little
But the ocean is so big.
And look
Here we are face to face.

Turn here


When we were little, my mother would drive us to our babysitter’s house early each morning so she could go to work as a schoolteacher. My big sister and I walked to our elementary school from there. My little sister, who was about 2, stayed at the sitter’s all day.

The three of us sat in the backseat as my mom drove the familiar few miles of the daily route. This was before car seats– egad – it was even before seatbelts, so you won’t be shocked to hear that my little sister stood on the hump of the floorboard and gripped the back of the front seat as we rode. She would stand like that and speak into my mom’s right ear, saying:

Turn here! Turn here!

My baby sister wasn’t giving my mom directions to the sitter’s house; she was giving her directions away from the sitter’s house. It was so funny: as if just hearing the words would cause my mom to steer away from the same old, everyday destination.

My mom, of course, couldn’t turn. But I can, and I do, every time I remember.

As always happens in the dharma, or your life, the very conversation you’re having gives you the inspiration you’re seeking. The very question you ask contains the insight you need. And so it happened in a dialogue yesterday about towels and trash and teeth flossing.

Why is it so hard to do what we know we should do?

Because it takes self-discipline, I replied. All practice is the practice of making a turn in a different direction. Toward one thing, away from another: the particulars in any situation don’t matter because we always know the right way. A different way. With practice, you get better at turning.

Even as I responded I was remembering a fascinating article I read in the paper a year or two ago. It was an account of the rather startling finding in the “Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance,” a book based on a study of how people get really good at what they do. The book shocked everyone by disputing the notion of talent. How people get really good at something is not because they have more talent but because they practice more.

Specifically, they do deliberate practice. Not just mindless repetition, but mindful repetition – directional, correctional and concentrative.

Turn here! Turn here!

Friends, this is my practice. This is Zen. It is not anything new you need to learn about. It is not some new information you need to study. It is not anything you haven’t heard before. It is just a turn you might not have yet made, or made again, and again, and again.

Maezumi Roshi used to say he was so sick of himself. So sick of hearing himself saying the same thing over and over again. Nyogen Roshi, my teacher now, says the same thing.
As a student, I get sick of hearing them say the same thing over and over again too. I’ve heard the same thing about a million times over. But then, for the first time, I might actually hear it. And then I might actually do it. And when I do, I arrive in a different place altogether: into the wide-open, beautiful, limitless and unknowable life right in front of me.

Turn here! Turn here!

Someone who advises me on my writing usually bounces things back to me with the encouragement to try again, reminding me that readers like to be taken on a journey. I’m sure that’s true, but this advice frustrates and perplexes me, at least momentarily. My readers are already on a journey – a desperate, painful, heart-wrenching, anxious, chaotic, and unfulfilling journey. They take this journey every day and night, incessantly, and even given the information and encouragement to go somewhere else, they usually never do. They might die on the same forsaken highway, having missed all the exits.

My practice is not a journey. Or if it is, it is a journey of one turn.

Here.

The good towels


It’s a good time of year to institute change. It’s the time of year when change is instituted whether you think it’s good or not. Fact is, it’s always that time.

If you have a particular notion of what Zen means, you might think that we don’t go in for setting high-minded standards such as New Year’s resolutions. It’s true that we don’t go in for setting standards and making judgments. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t see when our favorite pants no longer snap. No one blisses out when that happens and so, resolutions can be useful.

The best resolution I ever made was the only one I ever kept. About five years ago I resolved to floss my teeth every day. My friends got a chuckle over that, thinking perhaps that a Buddhist priest would have a more noble aim. But that’s the problem with noble aims. They rarely hit their mark and you could develop gum disease in the process.

Having spent the greater part of my life as a cynical, wise-ass, know-it-all, I never made New Year’s resolutions before that. I didn’t believe in New Year’s. Hell, for most of my life I didn’t believe in anything, except maybe that hard work trumped all. I believed that at the end of the long, bitter, bare-knuckled crawl up the crest of the rainbow to a better somewhere, there was a pot of gold with my name on it. The name would have been Karen K. Scrooge.

I believed in the reward system, and I held myself to it. I would save today for a rainy tomorrow. I would put the new shoes at the top of the closet, the pricey liquor at the bottom of the cabinet, the jewelry at the back of the drawer. I would save the good towels for company and the good dishes for a special someday. Everything had a better use, a brighter day, some other day.

The thing is, somedays never come, and that’s why we call them someday. I saved my china and crystal in the boxes they came in, and after my eleven-year first marriage, I sold them that way too. In the original bubble wrap. No worthy meal had ever been served on those painted plates; no lips had ever taken a salutary sip from the gold-rimmed stemware.

It’s easy to fall into that trap. That someday trap. Someday have a party. Someday treat yourself. Someday go somewhere. Someday have fun. Someday celebrate. Someday be happy. Someday raise a toast to the life you’ve been saving for.

2008 Someday Resolutions

1. Use the good towels.
2. Get a lot more good towels.
3. Dump all the crappy towels in the house and replace them with good towels.
4. Wear the diamond necklace.
5. Wear the silver locket.
6. Wear the gold chain.
7. Damn it, wear all the real jewelry I keep in the back of the underwear drawer.
8. Wear something else from the back of that drawer.
9. Celebrate with a martini.
10. Use the special martini shaker and glasses we’ve never used.
11. Wow, these are good.
12. Let’s make another batch.

The Morning After Someday Resolutions

1. Blllechhhhhuuuuuhhooowwwwwwhhhhhh.
2. Use the good towels.

And tell my husband every day that I love him.

There comes a time

To simply say goodbye.

They also serve


What can be said? Can the world be more insane? More predictably inhumane? More corrupt? More abrupt? More aflame? More inane?

In the darkness of this dark world, oceans away, I’ve said my piece. I penned it too. And although time still stands before the day, I’ve stood with other mothers, encircled in strength and multiplied by each our own true account: Enough.

Forever enough, until the seas gather and swell into an irreversible tide of we.

Who only stand and wait.

One voice among those in this forthcoming title, which will not arrive in time to soften the long shadows of this day, but to enlighten and uplift another.

To ferry you through the dark distance of being gone





The more things stay the same, the more things change.
Greetings of this timeless season
from our home to yours.

The many-colored mosses are as abundant as ocean waves.
– From the calligraphy on our front gate

Silent night

All is calm, all is bright.

Can’t you hear the quiet? We all seem to be shutting down the works this week. My friend who put her blog on semi-permanent pause; the others wisely taking hiatus hither and yon. The email slows, the work dries to a dribble and stops. We stand still and then what?

This slowing down, this shortening of the day, does it make us anxious? Does it make us afraid? Or do we hurry up elsewhere to compensate? Quick! Find a crowd. Create a stir. Start a fight.

Within light there is darkness, but do try to try to understand that darkness.

This article in yesterday’s paper lit a bulb for me. Once again, it shows us something about ourselves that we do not see. Or rather, when we do see it, we only see it superficially and seek to change it. It’s about Seasonal Affective Disorder, the name given to the obvious fact that when the days shorten we go dark as well, withdrawing into ourselves, becoming less alert, less social, and less cheerful. What struck me about the story was not the symptoms described, which seem quite normal, natural and appropriate.

Light and darkness are a pair like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.

What struck me about the article was the use of the word “disorder.” Talk about a disorder! Of course I realize that the pharmaceutical industry drives the disordering of our world, but in buying it we show what a narrow range of life and time we accept as “ordered.”

Each thing has its own intrinsic value and is related to everything else in function and position.

Winter is winter. Cold is cold. The branches are brittle and bare. The quiet glistens. The darkness shines. Winter is its own time, and it passes in its own way. Right now, can you appreciate things as they are? You, as you are?

Sleep in heavenly peace.

Wishing you every comfort of the season, every calm, every hush, every star blazing full in your perfect silent night. Amen.

Combining the poetic brilliance of “Silent Night” and “The Identity of Relative and Absolute.”

One true sentence

I’m half Jewish, half Buddhist and half Christian – Georgia Miller

Only the sublime logic of a child can sort through messes like the one I have. “I wish our street was called Miller Street so our whole family would live here!” she offered up one day, seeing through ideological distance with the wide eyes of a sage. Everything she says is so wholly true, it breaks open my heart, and much later, it might even lift my eyelids.

Lately I’ve been overcome by the oneness of it all: called by name, caught and dragged out onto the street to see how completely alike we are. The woman last week trapped in the deep recess of depression calling for a way out: I know that place. The friend who recently confided the tawdry abasement of a romance gone wrong: that was me too. And then this morning the email from a self-described gay curmudgeon who recovered in my memoir the stunning certainty of his own mother’s unfailing love. We are children, all. We are mothers and fathers, too. We are the mothers and fathers of our own true lives. Can we see it?

If you read nothing else today, I want you to read what this remarkable man wrote on his own blog, because he writes so perfectly to and for us all. This fellow said something else to me many years ago that he won’t remember but that I’ll never forget. He said, “You have written one true sentence.” What writer wouldn’t be gratified by that, but he gave me the only encouragement I’d yet been given to keep writing, and to keep making it true.

And now I’m called to live it true too.

My husband is Jewish. I am what I am. My daughter insists that she can be everything. And she can! Can I?

The problem, I tell myself, is not me. It is my husband’s family, more precisely, his brother, who has elected to live a most extraordinary Orthodox Jewish life in Israel. Of course, he objected to our wedding. He ultimately came but did not enter the ecumenical sanctuary for the Reform Jewish service. He cannot, by his law, touch me to shake my hand. He says next to nothing to me. I feel awkward and excluded in the midst of this family, and I imagine they feel it too.

That’s what imagination does: create boundaries that we then project out onto the street, the street that is not named Miller Street. Onto the family that does not love us nearly enough.

Recently my cousin recounted some family lore of my own. She said that my aunt, my mother’s sister, surmised that my mom must have been outraged when I became a Buddhist. But she wasn’t. What my mother said to me at the time was, “Now I don’t have to worry about you anymore.” She was a true Christian.

Can I be as true? As transcendent? By what calculus do I define my limits, my parameters? My share, my heart, my home?

Last week my Zen teacher, who knows too well my tired saga of religious persecution, called me by name. “Maezen,” he said, which always gets my attention. “When are you going to Israel?”

“It will be good for you,” he said. With a mother’s love. A father’s love. True love.

I told my husband and daughter that we will go to Israel next summer for sure. Everyone is thrilled. Like Georgia, I want to be half of everything. Like my friends everywhere, I want to be whole.

I want this one sentence to be true.

“God bless us, every one!”

Christmas stories


Round about the time my first marriage ended, then after the love of my life left town, and when the mad flirtation with the 23-year-old waiter wound down to its wretched end, I began to wonder in earnest how my life would turn out. This was about 15 years ago, but it might as well be today. We all do this a lot – wonder how our particular story will turn out. This kind of wondering can be the chief occupation of our lives. As I was busy wondering how the drama would play out, all I had to work with, in terms of leading characters, were the people I had already known. All I had to work with, in terms of events, was my past experience. All I had to work with, in terms of the story, was my stunningly unoriginal imagination. Still, even with those splintered bones and rotten dregs, I busied myself night and day stewing about who, from all the people I had ever known, was going to leap out of some past sad scenario, have a thrilling change of heart, swoop into the present, and escort me into some fantasy happy ending.

Something did happen about that time in my life. My whole life happened about that time in my life, but it involved no one from the past, nowhere I’d been, nothing I’d done before and no version of anything I’d imagined. We don’t ever know how our lives will go, but they go, and by and large, they go much better than they might if we were the authors of our own worn-out life story.

We never know.

And so, this particular Buddhist suggests, whatever your chosen religious dogma or absence thereof, it’s a damn good idea round about now to believe in Santa Claus.

Goes well with martyrdom


Feel her forehead, take temperature, stay home, make soup, make tea, try lemon, try honey, try every old wives’ tale, call doctor, call school, cancel babysitter, stay home while hubby goes to awards dinner, take temperature, start medicine, cancel another day, drag her to the post office, and so forth, no change in sight, rub her back, be patient, be tender, ask how long can this go on, cancel four days of everything, make that five days, make muffins while she curls up on the kitchen floor, call the doctor again, clinch jaw, husband says I’ll take her this time, I’ll cancel my meeting, I say no I’ll go again I just don’t know how to get her better in time for your trip to see your folks this weekend, wrap presents for hubby’s family, lose temper, lose faith, lose the whole week, shout at daughter while she signs gift cards, tremble, call teacher, she says be sure she stays home until she’s well, accomplish not one lick of work or anything I want, go to doctor again, get the tests, get the shrug, get the look that says, it’s just a virus.

Feel the familiar tickle in the back of your throat.

As close as I come to baking bread


I know. Any way you slice it, going someplace else to practice is going too far. I used to live three states away from my practice center and that was too far. Now I live 19 miles away and it’s too far. Believe me, I understand how far it can be.

I also understand that bread doesn’t bake until you turn up the heat and close the oven door. When you are ready for results – when your life and everyone else’s depends on it – you have to take your lumpy rumpus on the road.

People always ask me if it is necessary to have a teacher to have a practice. The answer is yes and no. No, because you can cruise along for quite some time on your own power. Yes, because cruising along on your own power rarely gets you anywhere else. We all, naturally, find a comfort zone for ourselves, by ourselves, and we stay there. A teacher helps you recognize your sticking points. Comfort zones become discomfort zones, and a teacher won’t let you wallow. So a teacher is your best, worst friend.

At the same time, practicing with other people in the room gives you amazing power and encouragement. It is like family, only better, because you never have to speak to one another!

All of this gets scary and most people opt out right there. But consider this: We might go to a chiropractor to fix our back, a therapist to fix our head, a facialist to squeeze our zits, a fitness studio to squeeze our glutes, a stylist to cut and color our hair, a manicurist, a nutritionist, an acupuncturist, a massage therapist, a naturopath, a palm reader, and so on. You get my point. We do all that and more, and sometimes in one day! But it’s too far out to go to a Zen center and sit in solitude for an hour.

Here’s your first stop to see if there’s one near you: a roster of centers from the American Zen Teachers Association.

Here’s an even easier way: Madison, Philadelphia, Chicago, Montreal, Boston, St. Louis, Houston, San Diego, Minneapolis, Portland or Washington DC. Otherwise just Google it. If you found me, you can find out where to go in your own backyard. If you’re lucky, you can try a few places to zero in on one that fits.

This is the time of year when we naturally turn inward. We celebrate the light illuminating the darkness, the dawn of the new. It is an auspicious time to reflect. If you go looking, you may find a way to participate in part or all of a New Year’s retreat, like this one in Silver Spring, Maryland in the company of one of our own, or this one in Los Angeles at my own practice home and haven.

This is the last I’ll post on practice for a while. I always, however, welcome your questions publicly or privately, just so you know.

***
In spite of my daughter’s fever, my ill temper and all those missed appointments (see above), we did get out to sign a stack of books headed for you know who, making it the best kind of day. You can still order inscribed copies of Momma Zen for Christmas or any occasion by visiting here.

Your heart is in your hand


“I need instruction. How, HOW do I realize that I am enough?” -– Lisa

I am honoring Lisa’s plea from yesterday in this post. Here, I’m going to speak as directly as I can about what true practice is. Then tomorrow I will tell you how to find a practice center. Because, for all of us, time is wasting.

There’s a lot of bullshit talk about practice. There’s a lot of talk about spirituality, wholeness, wellness, self-improvement, happiness and all that rot. I say rot because talking and reading about it is crap. It misses the point entirely. The point of everything I write is the same point of everything I do: to bring my practice to life, not just to tell you about it. Zen makes it clear that doing makes all the difference.

I saw a friend and reader over Thanksgiving who had some advice for the next book. She said, “Include more about meditation, because I can’t really do it.” I said: Exactly! Even though I encourage you to meditate at home, even though I encourage myself to meditate at home, I can’t really sustain my effort by myself, and I’ve been practicing for 15 years! My teacher recalls something said by Maezumi Roshi after he’d been practicing most of his life – more than 40 years at least – while recognized as one of the foremost Zen masters in the world. He said, “I think I’m finally starting to do it.”

The “it” I’m referring to is zazen, or Zen meditation. I’m not going to recite how to do it in this post. You can follow the instructions here, and do your best. Or you can read this book, a classic, featuring the instructions of my dharma great-grandfather. Or better yet, you can find a place that will welcome and support you and a teacher who will guide you.

There are many answers to spiritual questions and many traditions that ensue, but I will only tell you what I know from personal experience: Zazen will do what Lisa asks. It will show you that you are enough. It will show you that, in fact, you are the only thing. You are the whole world, the earth, heaven and stars. Even when you aren’t yet able to see the truth completely, zazen will totally transform your life. It worked for Buddha. It’s what the Buddha taught, and how the Buddha lived.

Now here are some responses to the questions that I imagine you might have.

What makes Zen meditation different than other kinds of meditation? It is not visualizing. It is not ruminating. It is not contemplation. It is not wishful thinking. It is not a relaxation technique. Those are all OK; they just won’t transform your life. Zazen is not done with your eyes closed. It is the discipline of stilling your body and watching with precise attentiveness – and your eyes open – to how your habitual worries, fears and anxieties rampage and ruin your life. And when you finally notice that, it helps you to kick those gangsters out of the house.

What is it supposed to be like? Here are two warning signs to watch for with meditation. (1) Beware if you like meditation, because you’re probably not really doing it. Sorry. At least for the first 39 years (joke), meditation is difficult. Your mind and your body will revolt against it. It is a discipline. It is a crisis intervention. You are withdrawing from your lifetime addiction to your self-involved, ego-driven thoughts. Hear this: you are not destroying your ego; you are not going brain dead; you are putting your overblown head on a diet. (2) Beware if you don’t like meditation, because no one does at first, and if you think you’re the only one who doesn’t enjoy it you will stop right there. This practice works when you keep doing it in spite of your preferences. This practice IS going beyond preferences, your picking-and-choosing mind. When you keep it up, practice deepens. It grows. It takes time to recognize and relax into peace of mind instead of darting madly for the exit. Misery, you see, is an addiction too.

How do I prepare myself? There is no way and no need to prepare yourself. You simply begin. Telling yourself you have to prepare before you begin a meditation practice is just setting up false expectations of how it is supposed to be. The best preparation is the state of mind expressed in Lisa’s question: heartfelt insistence, urgency and the raw vulnerability of having nothing left to lose. That’s where I started too.

Tomorrow I will tell you where and when to find people who can help you. And because that’s not soon enough, you have in your hands the means to find it yourself. Start right now. Do it all wrong, because there is no wrong. Do not waste another minute waiting for the right way or the right day or the right place or the right anything.

I wish I could say more, but I cannot say enough. Please see it for yourself.

And if you’re not interested in meditation practice, forget all this, but be sure to visit Lisa anyway and practice kindness. It’s the same thing and in equally short supply.

Enough thoughts on practice


I thought if I grew up, did good, and made everyone proud of me, it would be enough.
I thought if I got a good job, got a better job, made money, and then made even more money, it would be enough.
I thought if I met the right person, fell in love, got married, got a house, wised up, moved on, met the really right person, got remarried, and got a better house it would be enough.
I thought if I didn’t get pregnant, or if I did get pregnant, if I had a child, or if I didn’t have a child, it would be enough.
I thought if I could ever again sleep through the night, take a shower, get beyond the first three months, get beyond diapers, get through potty training, get past the ear infections, and into the right kindergarten, it would be enough.
I thought if I could lose ten pounds, get a better haircut, get the right jeans, get a different hair color, lose ten pounds, lose the same ten pounds, or just accept my hair and body the way they were, it would be enough.
I thought if I made everything healthy, organic, and by hand, with an occasional pizza night thrown in, it would be enough.
I thought if I went to Italy, France, New York, India, Big Sur, China, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Seattle, Sedona, Indonesia, Orlando or just Kansas City it would be enough.
I thought if I ate, prayed and loved enough, it would be enough.
I thought if I could understand, explain, and express my feelings, it would be enough.
I thought it I could write a book and get it published, it would be enough.
I thought if I had the right luck, attitude, information, and inspiration; I thought if I wished, hoped, dared or dreamed enough, then it would finally be enough.
Then I thought: enough.

I practice being enough. When I do that, everything, already, is enough.

Off to get one little girl past an ear infection. Or two.

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