Using what’s at hand


Using what’s at hand, he finished up the yard. He could use it and know when to quit.

–Zen koan

In my aim to demystify time, I’m devoting today’s post to the magic of the plain, old, ordinary list.

1. Make a list every night before you go to bed.

2. Use whatever you have at hand: the back of an envelope, a scratch pad, even waste paper. You do not need a special system or calendar. You do not need technology. You only need discipline and a moment’s attention. Do not let anyone convince you this is more complicated than it appears, although many people are in the business of doing just that.

3. Keep your list simple.

4. Put the things on it you want to do tomorrow, even things you don’t need to list in order to remember. Scratching things off the list is a marvelous activity, and marvelous activities tend to be repeated. For instance, write “Do laundry.” Notice that I did not say, “Finish laundry” because that isn’t realistic and your reward would be too long delayed. See item 5.

5. Be realistic. For instance, do not write “Lose 10 pounds.” Write instead “Walk the dog.” Do not write “Become millionaire by 30.” Write instead: “Skip Starbucks.”

6. Do not list things to think about. Write only things to do. Contemplation is overrated.

7. Now the magic part. By writing things down, you take wandering thoughts and persistent anxieties out of your head and bring them out into the real world.

8. Things in the real world have form.

9. Things in the real world take place. You will be amazed at what you do simply because you wrote down that you would, even if you never look at the list again. But do yourself a favor and look at the list again. Keep it at hand and use it.

10. At the end of the day, be satisfied with what you did, and make a new list.

Having the time of your life


I often tell people they have all the time in the world. They look up from their frantic scramblings, their scattered minds, feeling overwhelmed and bogged down, and they think, to put it nicely, She’s insane.

So let’s say a word about time. But let’s not say what everyone else says. Let’s not say, for instance, that time flies, or time runs out, or that time waits for no man.

Time itself is being, and all being is time.

Time isn’t something we think we have. We think it escapes us. We think it flees. We think it sneaks up behind us and delivers a sucker punch. Time’s up! Time, it seems, always has the upper hand.

We see this front and center in our lives as parents. Even though our children change every day, we don’t always notice it. We don’t notice it until we clear out the baby clothes, then – snap – how did all that time disappear? What seemed like forever is now forever ago. And all of those special times we intended to have! All those precious moments we were counting on! We use most of our time feeling displaced and distraught, or even depressed.

Time is not separate from you, and as you are present, time does not go away.

We think of time as being separate from us, an entity – no, an adversary – unto itself. A grandfather, robed and bearded, keeping score and exacting a toll; a swift second hand; a relentless march. What looks like time passing is actually evidence of the profound, true nature of life: impermanence. Everything changes. But time doesn’t change. It’s always the same time. It’s always now.

Life, we think, could be so much more, if only we had more time. When real life seems to detour us from happiness, it can seem like we’re held prisoner by time. We feel as though we’re held in place, only marking time, only serving time.

Things do not hinder one another, just as moments do not hinder one another.

These days, I can see too clearly what time it is. The broad canopy of my giant sycamores turns faintly yellow, and the leaves sail down. This would be a poetic image except that they fall into my ponds where they temporarily float and eventually sink until I hoist a net over my shoulder and scoop out the mucky yuck of wet leaves that would otherwise displace the pond itself. Someone has to do it. (Someone being me.) A part of every day from now until December finds me fretting and fuming at the simple sight of falling leaves. Then, I get on with it.

Tell me, while I’m scooping and hauling leaves ’til kingdom come, is it getting in the way of my life? Is it interfering with my life? Keeping me from my life? Only my imaginary life, that other life of what-ifs and how-comes: the life I wish and dream of.

I will be unable to accept my MacArthur Genius Award at the present moment because I am scooping leaves from the pond.
I missed the call from Oprah’s producer but at least the ponds are clean.

A sudden gust kept me from writing an international bestseller.


At the moment I’m in the muck, at the moment I’m doing anything, it is my life, it is all of time, and it is all of me.

We look for time the way we look for meaning, purpose and happiness. We never find it because it is already in the palm of our hands.

I am time. You are time. But this is getting long, and I don’t want to unduly occupy you. Come back tomorrow, same place, same time, for more timeless, wide-open secrets to mastering time.

You can spare the wait, because you have all the time in the world. And every moment is nothing but the time of your life.

All the quotes herein (other than those of the neurotic voice in my head) are from “Time-Being,” a teaching by the 13th century Zen master, Dogen Zenji. Please don’t confuse one for the other.

If you lived here


When I stepped outside the door a few months ago I was hoping to run into some familiar faces. That I did, but I also nosed around the neighborhood and discovered the most fascinating strangers right next door. You’re invited to a block party this weekend to mingle with:

Anonymous Mama – who writes about biracial marriage, autism, love, longing, and every sort of addiction between s and x with such power, passion and truth that she regularly singes my eyebrows. She brings us a main course every time she drops by.

Rabbi Mommy – who flavors her cooking with unexpected combinations, and tosses up the kind of hearty and nutritious dishes you’ve never tried before.

Utah Mom – Faithful and freethinking, she dollops her confections with an irresistible streak of rebellion. She brought me this cup of sugar today.

And you? Just bring an appetite for adventure, and make yourself at home.

wash your bowl

blue-bowlA monk said to Joshu, “I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me.” “Have you eaten your breakfast?” asked Joshu. “Yes, I have,” replied the monk. “Then you had better wash your bowl,” said Joshu. With this the monk gained insight.

Two days ago I had a letter in my mailbox from Seattle. I let it sit a bit before I opened it, while I percolated to ripe fullness with its fragrant possibilities: the gushing thanks, the unexpected accolade, the irresistible offer that it contained.

I live this way a lot, squinting around the curve, anticipating what I’m about to get. Don’t we keep expecting to get something? In particular, to get “it”? To figure “it” out? To reach a culminating resolution, reward, complete understanding, wisdom, clarity, closure, the right answer, the holy grail? That very expectation fills us up and weighs us down.

The letter was nothing I dreamed of. It was a note from a long-lost cousin lately relocated from Japan here to the States. She has adopted a daughter, a Japanese girl, and wouldn’t it be lovely for our sisterless girls to each gain a cousin?

I cried at the long circumference of the circle.

She told me that she had a woodblock print of a fountain at the inimitable Ryoanji Zen temple in Kyoto. The print reads, “I am content with what I have,” she wrote. No, not quite, she corrected herself, capturing the subtle depth of the teaching, “I am content with what I lack.”

 

Dropping off

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

It’s remarkable how profoundly intense the first 90 minutes of the morning can be for a mother like me.

Gotta get up, gotta make coffee, gotta make breakfast. Gotta pack lunch, check homework, gotta get her dressed, hair combed. You’ve gotta brush your teeth! You’ve gotta change those shoes!

Oh!

Gotta feed the dog, gotta unload the dishwasher, make the beds. Gotta feed your fish!

Oooh!

Gotta jump in and out of the shower, gotta get myself dressed, gotta do something with this hair, gotta grab a hat!

We gotta go!

Gotta hurry, no time to walk, we gotta drive!

With minutes ticking toward the 7:40 a.m. school bell, the pace pounds.

Gotta find a place to park, gotta get out and walk her into the playground, gotta see her off and in line with her teacher, gotta be a good mom, gotta do it right, gotta do it all, gotta run because I’ve made us late, late again!

Then from the backseat, with the sagacious calm and steady poise of her eight years, with her serenely impeccable timing, she offers the morning’s benediction, the first sane words that have passed between my ears since I flew into action at dawn.

Mom, you can drop me off.

She turned a rosy cheek to me then, like a gift, a floral tribute. I kissed it, and that was that.

Miracle infertility cure


We pause our regularly scheduled programming for this miracle.

About a year ago, I fumbled my way onto a blog of someone just like me, just like you, who was writing bravely about her hope, ambivalence, fear and conflicting desires about becoming a mother. She was afraid she had waited too long, afraid she didn’t want it enough, afraid of miscarrying again, afraid of trying and afraid of not trying. She had lots of good reasons to feel this way. I contacted her, just to be a nuisance, and assured her that it was not too late, that no reason why not was ever good enough, that miracles do happen, and sent her my book as proof.

Please join in my deep joy as we welcome Claire Georgia Harper, born Sept. 8.

My heart explodes. The love rolls on. That’s how the cheerio goes.

Last laugh


When it appears in a spread, this enigmatic card heralds unexpected events and sudden inspirations. He may foretell breathtaking coincidences which have the power to upturn an ordinary life. He represents, above all, the transformational spirit of anarchy and the impersonal forces of destiny. We are foolish to believe we can totally control our own or other people’s lives, he says.

The school calendar tells me that this is the last day of summer. These ten weeks have been a riot, and not necessarily a laugh riot. But something tells me all that is about to change. I feel a take-off rumbling; I feel a buzz. This kind of a turning point calls for a little review. This was the summer that:

We traveled cross-country to witness the rocket launch that wasn’t.

The household plumbing pooped out and required emergency neurosurgery.

The new pipes caused a pressure surge that broke the washing machine.

The repairman mixed up the hot for the cold and I shrunk my new cotton cargoes.

Our new neighbor turned out to be a dastardly developer who built a menacing addition overlooking our century-old garden, then put the property on the market where it remains empty, overpriced, unkempt and unsold. (Wanted: rich new neighbors with a friendly 8-year-old girl.)

Posthaste we put in a fifty-foot stretch of exotic bamboo, a stash of cash and a fountain of tears into this old patch of dirt to vainly recapture what used to be.

Last night, in the thick of concocting a casserole for this morning’s teacher appreciation breakfast, the oven died. (I’m broken up over this one.)

And within the last 10 days I have found, on two separate and creepy occasions, a Joker card mysteriously placed under my bedroom rug by an unknown interloper. Two cards from a deck we do not own. The police have been called and precautions taken.

All of this culminates just as I have resolved to stop all my bellyaching. There are many out there who are much better at it than me (the bellyaching) and drop-dead (funny) to boot. With my next post I will go back to the basics, my own calling card, and make a practice of demystifying the enigmatic Zen teachings that eternally perplex us in plain sight, tricking us, surprising us, upturning and illuminating our deluded view of ordinary life. Who else but me can do that? Who else ever would? No, the world will never notice. And so it will ever be.

And just for the record, should something else untoward happen – should the Joker reappear for one last laugh – here’s a clue: Colonel Mustard, with the candlestick, in the Conservatory.

Numbers game

I know this seems afar from my usual field of dreams, so excuse me while I soapbox.

Sometimes I can barely read the paper without paroxysms of fury. Correction: I cannot read the paper without paroxysms of fury. The lies, the sorrow, the greed, and the crimes are so startling that I tremble in outrage. How can we abide this? Answer: I know why we abide this.

There on the front page of the Business section of the Sunday New York Times was the whole of it: the good and the evil, the up and the down, the victor and the vanquished. At the top of the page is the Eggleston family of Maple Heights, Ohio, the last family standing on a block of subprime foreclosures, in a sinkhole of a real estate market, in a good town going irretrievably down the tubes. They are living the life we most fear.

Three inches below is the story of a man enriched by his acumen and aggressiveness in marketing college loans. Not financial aid, mind you, but private, non-subsidized, high-interest-rate loans that regulators have now noticed bear a remarkable resemblance to subprime mortgages and the financial ravages they invoke. This fellow now lives the life we most desire: cashed out, piloting his racing yacht off the coast of Newport, R.I. He calls his yacht Numbers. I can only imagine what a shrewdly sweet upward ride those numbers have given him.

We abide this cruel dichotomy because success is our creed; more so, our religion. Just listen to the capitalist gurus co-opt the language of the church to articulate their values and their mission. Who among us hasn’t sung the refrain?

I confess: success is my religion too. Oh how I want to succeed by every conceivable measure. Oh how I want my ship to come in. Oh how I want to ride the crest of the waves. And then I see a page like the one in Sunday’s paper, inviting me to step off to the sidelines of this deadly, ceaseless, torment. I lift my arms in grief. Oh what have we become?

I’m going to say a service for the Egglestons. I’m going for broke, and the good news is, I’m almost there.

Me TV

We all wait in vain for our 15 minutes. Wouldn’t you know I only got 5? Here’s a short video interview with me about Momma Zen. And the must-see part: it’s in my own backyard. Because what’s Labor Day without a telethon?

Not swallowing it


Backseat backtalk to the car radio:

Mom! WHY are they making a HAPPY commercial for that DISGUSTING allergy medicine??

Fan mail


Moments ago, I finished Lisa See’s astonishing Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It is a lovely work, rich with authenticity. Magic words like hers hint of the invisible realms here among us; they gather sounds from who-knows-where and convey truth never before told. These words become the songs we can’t forget, the stories we call our own.

This is the tale of two Chinese women, two laotong, or “old sames,” betrothed in friendship nearly all their lives – lives shared at a distance by the exchange of secret writing known as nu shu. Isolated, afraid, bound by status and duty, they speak to one another via the brush strokes written on a fan shuttled between their farflung homes. And in these few, rare marks, they tell each other everything.

She had not written to leave a good name for a hundred generations. She had written to tell her friends of her thoughts and emotions, and they had written her in the same way.

Reading these words earlier today I thought instantly of this. And you. And me. And the thousands and millions like us, who write because it opens the heart on a hard day, or eases the hurt on a lonely night. We write by ourselves and for ourselves, an audience of one that is by this very reading an audience of two, sharing a secret, silent song that is no different from those on the hidden and long-forgotten fans, because we are indeed the same, we are all the same, and our song is the same never-ending song.

It is for now a close cousin to my favorite book, which I wish with all my heart that you too would read.

Nearly full

Tonight I laid awake for a long time. I went into my daughter’s bedroom and watched her sleep. I saw the deep shadows and the midnight glow. She did not stir.

I went because the nights are numbered, and I do not know the count.

Dem bones

1. I never play along. I never forward chain emails. I’ll never do a meme. I don’t even know what the word means.
2. But I’d do anything for Isabel.
3. First, I’m not a victim of anything or anyone.
4. Second, I’m old enough to be your mother.
5. I might even be your mother.
6. Except that I have no other children that I know of.
7. Two years ago, I was bedside at the death of my father, who was a hard man in the sudden grip of a long-expected cancer. I felt his life recede like the tide, and my legs grew weak. He did it all beautifully, and it was his finest hour.
8. We adopted his dog Molly, who surprised us by being the best dog in the world. She made our home complete, and she never leaves my side.

Isn’t it amazing how things turn out?

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