The problem is


So while I’m busily non-thinking about this question of whether motherhood is a job or a relationship during my silent meditation retreat last weekend, I remembered what my husband said recently as he glanced over my sagging shoulders:

“The problem is, you spend too much time doing things that don’t pay.” Meaning, I guess, teaching meditation and yoga, volunteering and writing the things I most love to write, including this blog. But not meaning, I presume, taking care of our house, yard, dog and daughter, because at least to him that is my job. (To be fair, he was being supportive, and given the source of my discouragement, accurate.)

“The problem is,” I think in quick retort, “you don’t.” Meaning his absence of hours, days, nights and vast distances, whether miles away or just on the computer at home, working, always only working apart from the rest of us. I’m reluctant to recognize even for a moment that his job also provides him with a whole world of companionable and rewarding relationships.

So where exactly does the distinction occur? Where, as Kathryn and Chris commented yesterday, is there a line drawn between jobs and relationships and how does it get there? This question matters, because most of the time, we see our life delineated into little sections. There’s a job over here, and a relationship over there. There’s work, and there’s family, and then there’s everything else, each with its own time, place, name, definition, merit and value. All these jillion pieces seem to jostle and compete with each other, confounding us, like a jigsaw puzzle that won’t fit.

And so then, completely immersed in the oceanic no-mind of deep, wordless meditation, I made a list in my head of the essential components of relationships, I mean jobs, I mean well, you know what I mean.

After investing hours in this invigorating internal debate with myself, recalling and reliving the discussions of days and even months earlier, I said to myself, admittedly self-satisfied, from the profound state of unutterable egolessness, “See Karen, meditation really works for you!”

I will share the list with you tomorrow when I hope to remember the darn thing.

And as a gentle reminder, every time you comment this week your name will be entered in a drawing to win a paperweight provocative prize. I promise you this prize is not something you have; it is not something anyone yet has, not even me, and I have grave doubts that anyone would even want it. Good luck!

Mom: are you a job or a relationship?


I’ve just come from a weekend retreat so I’m feeling frisky and ready to mix things up.

The always energetic and informative Amy Tiemann of Mojo Mom had a post awhile back (waaay back in January) about whether motherhood was a job or a relationship. She came down convincingly on the side of relationship.

Now this is precisely the kind of thing that can set our heads to bobbling. Is it this way or is it that way? Are we one thing or the other? I want to take a look this week at how we deal with this question – how we see ourselves and the life that lies before us.

So tell me: is motherhood a job or a relationship? There are plenty of good arguments on either side. You don’t need to be a mother to have an opinion. Just tell me where you stand. Weigh in on any of our conversations this week, starting now, and you’ll be entered to win a doorstop an intriguing gift at week’s end. Keep the comments coming. I can be influenced by your effort, swayed by your attention, and romanced by having you near.

But wait – I reveal too much.

Let the bobbling begin.

The last word on happiness

Buddha held out a flower to his listeners. Everyone was silent. Only Mahakashyapa broke into a broad smile.

– Zen koan

Get it?!

I’ll spell it out for you: 🙂

If you’re out of practice, this could help.

Happy now

two-scoops-sugar-cone“Momma, are you happy now?”
– A certain pipsqueak

Someday, I will write a book about happiness. Oh wait, I already did, in a roundabout way.

This week I’ve joined the chattering class, the quotable notables, who make their life’s work out of happiness. Three days and I’m nearly done. I don’t quite understand how anyone can make their life’s work out of it. I don’t know how you can make a project out of something that takes less than an instant. You can make a project out of writing a book. You can make a project out of writing about writing a book. But happiness itself takes no time at all because we possess it already.

But let’s clarify what we call happiness. Let’s get wise to it. Let’s discern the difference between pleasure, which is sensory and fleeting, like an ice cream cone, and happiness, which is our fundamental nature, like an ice cream factory. Let’s not confuse the double scoop, which is temporary, with its source, which operates 24/7. So let’s call the factory of happiness by a different name (choose any or all): joy, contentment, satisfaction, bliss. Put your name on it. It’s you.

You can make your life’s work out of finding pleasure (and we do). It takes up your whole life because pleasure doesn’t last, there’s never enough, it takes a lot of work, and I can guarantee it doesn’t satisfy. You keep running around, making lists, checking them twice, trying one thing and then the other to produce the feeling of pleasure. Now maybe this pleasure isn’t tied up in a fancy house or jet skis. Maybe it’s just the feeling of being “better” or “good enough.” What a terrific feeling! That doesn’t last either, and how I wish it did! This is not a contemporary problem. Remember how the founding fathers called it the “pursuit of happiness?” That’s what human life consists of. A pursuit of something rarely found and never kept, but still, we’d all prefer to be free to keep looking fruitlessly.

When you stop pursuing and settle where you are, when you smooth your brow and unclench your knuckles, when you give yourself a break from finding the next, next, next great thing, your lucky day, the open sesame, the magic flute, when your little one looks into your haunted eyes, your perpetual frown, and asks “Are you happy now?” all you have to do is say “Yes.”

Say yes.

And then you can all go out for ice cream and be happy six ways ’til Sunday.

Could it really be that simple? Tomorrow I’ll give you one more clue.

This is the third in a series of posts on happiness. If you haven’t read the first two, look here and here or just keep scrolling down.

Picking and choosing

If you wish to know the truth, then hold to no opinions for or against anything.
– Seng-tsan

A reader wisely pointed out in yesterday’s comments that the things I identify as my sources of unhappiness are probably also my sources of happiness. Exactly! I alone choose how to view them: as a plus or a minus, a keeper or a weeper. That choice changes all the time. I’m forever judging every aspect of my life. As I make those determinations, I’m using what we in Zen call “the picking and choosing” mind. The deliberative, evaluative, ruminating mind. I’m particularly fond of this mind. This is the mind that each of us calls “myself” because it is the mind that we use to talk to ourselves.

This is the voice that pipes up and says, “This is good. I like this. I’m happy.” Or that might say, even about the very same circumstance that once gave me pleasure, “This is not good. I’m tired of it. I’m not happy.” Very often, nothing has changed about the circumstance but my determination of it. One time my mom let me eat a whole bowl of whipped cream to my heart’s content. (I think she knew what she was doing.) I ate myself sick and I never liked it again. The whipped cream didn’t change. My view of it did.

In Buddhism, we call this endless cycle of like, dislike, good, bad, up, down, happy, sad, hot cold, in, out samsara. There’s nothing new about it, even though it might seem like we’ve become particularly aggrieved with our lives lately. There has never been a human being who lived anywhere else but samsara. But we can escape it, and we do, whenever we don’t pick or choose. Now I don’t mean that we go brain-dead. That we can’t tell right from left or our arms from our legs. I just mean that we stop blaming the whipped cream.

There’s a survey published every year by the very smart people at the Harris Poll that tells us The Most Popular Places People Would Choose to Live. Reading the poll, you might surmise that – no surprise – the most popular places to live are California, Florida and Hawaii. But then I noticed the question that they ask people. They don’t ask, “Where would you choose to live?” No, they ask “Where, except where you live now, would you choose to live?” At first I wondered why they asked it that way. Then I realized that if they asked the first question they might not have a poll at all. Perhaps people would say, “You know, I’m just fine right where I am.” I’ve lived a lot of places, and the thing is, my home is always my home. The poll question is nothing but a grass-is-greener question. It’s a pick-and-choose question. It’s a “Gee, come to think of it, I’m sick of whipped cream” question.

My first teacher Maezumi Roshi was famous for saying simply, “Appreciate your life.” He didn’t mean conjure up some contrived sentiment of gratitude, or humility, or abundance about your life. He didn’t mean count your blessings. He meant don’t count anything. He meant don’t pick and choose. Make your life your life and swallow it whole. When you do that, things have a way of getting happier right quick.

The happiness question


Last week the Times reported on a growing “happiness gap” between men and women. Women are increasingly unhappy. Then came the earful of opinions about the many reasons for this. Why are women unhappy?

I can think of three very persistent reasons right off the top of my head. My husband. My kid. My dog. And then, the neighbor’s dog, the neighbor, money, not enough money, my work, my lack of work, my belly, my age, my wrinkles, the dust, the pollen, dog hair, the shoes in the hallway, the cooking, the laundry, the kitchen sink, the race, the chase, the nights, the days, the fleetingness of days.

What interests me is not why women are unhappy, because we each have ample, intimate knowledge of the reasons. What interests me is why women say they are unhappy. What interests me is not the answer to the question but the question itself. Could the answer be rooted in the question? Do we say we are unhappy because we are asked? Do we grow unhappy by thinking about it? By hearing about it? Does unhappiness exist outside our ruminations about it? Where does it reside? And if it only resides in our minds, as it does, do “external” circumstances have anything to do with it?

We can rationalize that circumstances keep changing and growing worse for women. More work, less help, higher prices, fewer husbands, less time, more isolation, less community, more stress, fewer options, higher expectations. But I spent a summer reading each of the nine Little House on the Prairie books to my daughter at bedtime, and I had a glimpse of how hard life used to be. No money. No help. No heat. No food. No medicine. No roof. No floors. No windows. No water. No crops. Plus flood, fire and pestilence. And these were on the good days!

Or I can recall my grandmother’s life. Up at dawn. Feeding the sheep and the chickens. Making daily bread and breakfast by the heat of the stove. Laundry in the washhouse. Curing meat in the smokehouse. The trek to the outhouse. Sewing, baking, canning, cooking, cleaning and raising five kids in four rooms during the Great Depression.

Was grandma depressed? I don’t think anyone asked. I don’t think she asked.

This news article on declining happiness appeared about the same day that Georgia walked into the kitchen for breakfast, still tousle-haired and sleepy-eyed. “Mom,” she whined, “can I get my ears pierced before I’m 10?” (Our pre-existing agreement.)

“When did you have in mind?” I responded.

“Nine,” she said, and thinking faster, “THIS SATURDAY.”

We were both upset by this exchange. It happened again a day later. I could say that my daughter woke up unhappy. But she didn’t wake up unhappy. She just woke up, her eyes blinked in the glimmering light. She cast a glance around her world, her sumptuous pink kingdom, her cotton candy life, and looked about for something she didn’t have.

I’m going to write about happiness this week. I want to examine that split-second between the waking and the finding, between the question and the answer, between the hearing and the speaking, between the being and the thinking, between the little girl with everything, and the one without holes in her ears, and see what’s there. It could very well be the happiness that eludes us, the contentment the pollsters can’t find.

Life interrupted


I know I said I was going away. I’ve swept the tea house, I’ve walked the dog, I’ve scooped the poop. Later, I’ll go to Target and you know what that means.

But right now, I need to pipe up and call a spade a spade. This is a lie. A deception. Nickelodeon network is going “dark” for three hours this Saturday and advising kids to go out and play. Not. Get in shape. Sure. And then come back inside before the day is done and watch a kid’s reality show about not watching TV. On TV. Cripes.

And look! The news media gives it a pass. They wave a flag at it!

This is called “getting in front of an issue.” This is called public relations. I give myself permission to sneer because this was once my chosen profession. By the time I left it I was jumping up and down, waving my arms and hollering, “Don’t believe a thing you read in the paper or see on TV!”

I liken this TV-network-on-an-anti-obesity-crusade to my experience doing PR for a beer company. You read that right. The big daddy of brewers. We spent a lot of PR time and dollars trying to convince the media that we cared about people drinking responsibly. We had a catchy slogan for it. We wrote speeches and talking points. Then one morning the regional vice president called me at home, before work, because he was watching the early morning local TV news report of an overnight, fatal car accident in which alcohol was implicated. The news report showed footage of the police officer at the grisly scene lining up a dozen empty cans of our preferred product, all retrieved from the mangled wreckage. The VP, my client, wanted to know why I didn’t have enough clout to keep the local station from showing pictures of our brand in such an unfavorable way.

I resigned from the job that day. Soon, I resigned from everything else. After that, I began to have a life. My own ultimate reality show. The money isn’t as good but the beer is much better.

In real life, there’s a place to put Nickelodeon and this stunt that really is dark. Where the sun don’t shine. Then go out and play and don’t come back in.

Room with a view

Recounted in honor of the garden’s inclusion in this weekend’s California Garden and Landscape History Society tour of Japanese gardens:

I brightened in the backseat as the real estate agent detoured down Lima Street to tell the story of Italia Mia, the estate built in Sierra Madre at the century’s start by a southern heiress who fell in love with Italy but ended up here instead, a bon vivant who lavished her home with hillside gardens including this one – we stopped –now the oldest private Japanese garden in southern California. The little house came later behind this wrought iron fence bordered by a thicket of bamboo, beyond this garden gate with the kanji inscription that foretells mosses abundant as ocean waves, and farther on, inside the front door carved with bluebirds on a blossoming branch, and out back again into the open-armed garden, intact and exquisite, its ponds and rocks poised in amazing place since 1916, under the shifting shade of ancient sycamores, the water falling in the hushed company of a tea house, the pines pining and each perfect plant waiting patiently for a gardener.

The whole thing was built for Zen, the realtor added unknowingly, knowing nothing about us, knowing least of all how to judge the silence that had frozen us in place, breathless and still with the stunning arrival in a story that was suddenly ours.

P.S. All this, plus liftoff and effortless steering, too. Happy weekend, everyone. Happy everyone.

And back next week with more on this business of happiness.

Airing dirty laundry

I once wrote a post titled “Hand wash cold.” That post generates more traffic than any snake oil in the blogosphere. It snares Googlers from Portugal to Peru, from Little Rock to Lichtenstein. These searchers come from the very places where garments that need to be hand washed cold are actually manufactured. I feel bad for these suds seekers, because they aren’t looking for anything loftier than laundering instructions. So I decided to give them what they came for. In the process, I realized that this is a zen meditation of its own kind.

1. Wipe the shaving stubble from a sink or rinse the motor oil from a pail.
2. Fill same with cold water.
3. Add a drizzle of gentle (read: expensive) laundry detergent or a spritz of dishwashing liquid to the water. Note: can also use bar soap, hand soap or no soap.
4. Slosh the water around to conjure up a few bubbles.
5. Submerge subject garment in water.
6. Let it sit.
7. Hours–or even days–later, remember.
8. Rinse it in clear, cold water. This special item is probably not the kind of thing that can survive twisting or wringing or even washing for that matter.
9. Which means that when you take it out you’ll have to hang it up over the bathtub to let the water drip out of it.
10. And that will probably cause the fabric dye to drip out of it too, creating streaks of variable density and lasting annoyance. Remember too late that the garment had some kind of warning about this too.
11. When it dries, the item will be six inches longer than when you purchased it. Or six inches shorter. Or six inches longer on one side; six inches shorter on the other.
12. You might wish that you had laid it flat to dry, which would take so long that it mildewed before you could wear it again.

All of this effort will allow you to wear the item once before you resolve to (a) never buy anything else that has to be hand washed cold, or (b) never wash it, thereby transcending all questions and eliminating all doubt.

In love with another woman

Dyson_DC18_All_Floors_Vacuum_CleanerWhen we kids used to ask my mom what she wanted for her birthday or Christmas, she would say something like, “panty hose.” No, she wouldn’t say something like panty hose. That’s exactly what she said. She said panty hose, or stationery, or stamps, or Tupperware lids. (Not needing the bowls, you see, but the lids that always came up missing.) These answers were ridiculous to us. We cracked jokes about them. We cracked jokes about her. We didn’t believe anyone could be so unimaginative, so uninspired by the opportunity to improve herself. She was only interested in the trifling, mundane things she could actually use. Snort.

I’m probably remembering this now because my birthday is this week. Birthdays are rather significant to me. I am of a substantial age. And the product you see pictured here is my heart’s desire. I realized recently that it has long been my heart’s desire, but I have not been open enough with my own heart to express its desire. I am over jewelry; I don’t object to it but I just don’t wear it. Books find their way in and out by themselves. Fine cookware, of late, has energized my meal-making, so I’ve restocked. But otherwise, when I’m asked what I want as a gift, I have to say nothing, in the most sincere way. I’m through trying to dress up the scenery.

Until this year.

So I’m thinking again of my mother and what a mystery she has been to me in so many ways. This anniversary of my birth is the anniversary of her, long ago and far away from her family, barely 23, a good girl, smart, hard-working and fresh-off-the-farm in love with a reckless and insecure boy of 25, giving birth to her second baby in as many years. There would be one more and then she would be 27 and done with the having babies part.

But not done, indeed, never done, with the raising kids, keeping house and doing laundry part; the cooking and cleaning part; the shopping, clipping coupons and scrimp-and-saving part; the worrying night-and-day part; the folding grocery sacks and changing the vacuum filter part; the get-up-and-go-to-work-part; the night school, the ever-onward to the next credential; to overdue promotions; to conventions and committees; to daily troubles and nightly heartbreaks; to writing weekly letters and stamping endless envelopes; and storing leftovers in Tupperware after every meal.

It took me more than 40 years to comprehend a fraction of my mother’s life: the parts we shared and especially the parts we didn’t. But I’ve been coming around on this front, just as you have. We all understand our mothers better now, or so I hope for your sake. My mother wasn’t what I thought she was. She never stopped improving things. She alone kept things going. She took every opportunity to make things better. She knew all along what I’ve only learned lately. Once you put yourself into the effort, your whole heart, your undying love, there’s really nothing else you need.

But the Dyson DC 18 Slim All Floors Vacuum? That little dazzler sure can turn your head.

Written with love to my forever mother.

Your middle one,
Karen Kay

Girl on the verge

Of a wardrobe malfunction: “Starting now, I’m choosing what I wear every day.”
Of dropping out of 2nd grade: “We don’t even have Share Day!”
Of following in my footsteps: “Do these panties make me look fat?”
Of blowing her mind: “What are tampons for anyway?”
Of losing the battle: “I got all my toys out, so it’s only fair that you put everything away.”
Of stopping me in my tracks: “When am I ever going to get my own agent?”
Of waking me up at 5:30 a.m.: “Can I go on your computer?”
Of saying goodbye: “I’m 59 pounds!” *

*See “California Child Restraint Law,” or just ask Georgia, the resident expert.

Still crying it out

“Not knowing is most intimate”
– Zen koan

I’ve been writing more than reading lately, and I’ve just backtracked to a fascinating article in the Sept. 17 issue of The New Yorker. Fascinating because it is sublimely inconclusive and oh, so close to home. I wish I could link to it, but it’s not online: “Crybabies” by Jerome Groopman. “The conundrum of colic” is the subtitle. My life had that exact subtitle too, for a few months back in 1999. The colic, of course, is ancient history, but the subtitle still lingers, and fits every now and then as I enter some new, inscrutable chapter.

If you’re intrigued, you can read abstracts here and here and another mother’s perspective here.

I love to read Groopman for his open-eyed examination of how little is known by medical science. I love to read him because he is a doctor, and he knows what he doesn’t know. He also knows what the medical establishment doesn’t know, the kind of unknowing that few doctors – and patients – can honestly admit or accept.

Colic seems to be related to maternal temperament. Or not. It seems to be tied to immature digestive systems. Or not. It seems to improve with babywearing. Or not. It is sometimes associated with diet. Or not. It seems to be relieved by antacids, herbal tea, rocking, swaddling, cuddling, and motion. Or not. It seems neverending. But it’s not.

Colic arrives just as you begin to think you have a grasp, a handle, a way of living in the new world. It tears that grip away from you. It steals every ounce of optimism, every hopeful conclusion. It shreds every fix and remedy. It leaves you with nothing to try or trust. Nothing but time.

Colic is the last thing you expect to give birth to. No one wishes it on anyone. But in its own ravaging wake, it leaves a gift. That’s the gift of not knowing. Not knowing when or how or if. Of surrendering to futility. Of succumbing to the tears. Of accepting the certainty of nothing but another day, and a different ending.

Everyone always outgrows colic. But I’m not sure anyone ever outgrows colic. Least of all the parent.

Here’s the 25th hour of your day

Not one thought deserves a second thought. – Dogen Zenji

What if you had one extra hour in the day to use to your heart’s content? To have fun, relax, exercise. To write, run or sleep. To start a book; to finish a book. To plant a garden; to cook. To play with the kids. To do something big. To do nothing at all.

These are the things we think we would do with extra time. But in truth, this is how we’d probably use it, because this is how we use most of our time:

It’ll never work. I’m not good enough. I can’t do it. I don’t know how. I don’t have what it takes. I’ll never finish. It’s a big mistake.

And the classic:

I don’t have time.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that you replace these self-critical thoughts with something else. I don’t peddle positive thinking. I peddle positive non-thinking. Not all thinking is a waste of time, just the non-stop negative self-judgments that occupy nearly every waking hour. Cutting back on that will open vast new frontiers of (get this) empty space and time.

Of course, learning to disengage from habitual, self-limiting thoughts takes practice. And who has time for that?!

This concludes my three-day treatise. About time.

I’m teaching a one-day Beginner’s Mind Retreat at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 4. Is it time? Find out more.

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