Posts Tagged ‘Kindness’

a few less thoughts on gratitude

November 18th, 2021    -    2 Comments

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, it is the parent of all the others. — Cicero

It’s too hot, it’s too cold, and the passengers are attacking the flight attendants. It’s too wet, it’s too dry, and five million people have died. It’s the fires, liars, deniers, cheats, grifters and resisters. The fears and the worries (don’t get me started on the judges and juries.) Oh, the bother, the trouble, that sister, that brother! It’s too late, it’s all over, it’s goodbye. And now they say even pies are in short supply. How are you supposed to conjure gratitude out of all this bitterness, rage and bad attitude?

It’s pretty hard, but it’s pretty simple.

A few weeks ago I talked to my podcasting friends Lori and Stephen Saux about this very topical topic. Where does gratitude come from? Empty your head, open your eyes, and look around. Start to see, really see, what’s being offered to you right under your nose. It’s not what you think.

You can’t be charitable, you can’t be kind, and you can’t be genuinely loving unless you are first grateful for your life. But if you never see your life clearly — without anger, judgment or expectation — you will never know gratitude.

Thank you for not expecting more than this.

Listen to the podcast right here or right here: Practicing Gratitude Without Expectations 

Photo by Andrew Dunstan on Unsplash

life lessons in bubble wrap

November 10th, 2021    -    10 Comments

It wasn’t long ago that I took a trip, my first trip in what seemed like forever. So I was out of practice, which made me nervous, and I forgot a number of important things along the way. That’s what this story is about.

Practically speaking, when you take a morning flight out of LAX you’ll have to leave home in the middle of the night to get to the airport on time. I left home in the middle of the night, and before I’d driven half a block I realized I’d left my computer power cord plugged into my bedroom wall. I kept going, though, since I didn’t believe a trip to LAX for a pre-dawn flight allowed for any U-turns.

You see, when you arrive at LAX at any time of the day or night these days you will immediately realize that you are not in proverbial Kansas anymore, and furthermore, you are not in any zip code, time zone or nation-state where you thought you lived. You are instead in a raging flow of people, sounds, languages, lights and chaos, a rough-and-tumble reality otherwise unseen, and one in which your only ambition is to mind your own business and keep going.

I landed in New York City later that day entirely intact except for my missing power cord. Crazed with doubt that they even made power cords for my obsolete eight-year-old laptop which no longer holds a charge or even closes all the way, my first stop was the Apple Store, where an utterly unruffled representative behind a pristine white counter swiped through a catalog on her handheld device and said three words that chimed like crystal to my stopped-up ears: We have it.

Four days later I left my Kindle on a side table in my daughter’s apartment, a sad fact realized mere moments into the trip to the Newark airport and a flight bound for the furthest regions upstate. I’ll send it, my daughter texted, and I eased back into the contoured seat of my ride.

Six days later I left two prescription bottles in the bathroom of a hotel room, a grave certainty grasped as I boarded an airport van for an all-day return trip home. We’re checking the room right now, I was told, my life now held in the hands of a reassuring front desk clerk back in Buffalo.

The Kindle arrived in a bubble mailer, double wrapped in another bubble mailer, on which my daughter had written her aim, For extra protection!

The prescriptions came encased in a weave of bubble wrap so impenetrable it could have contained the crown jewels and not my teensy thyroid and blood pressure pills.

I was overcome, really, at the repeated acts of such service and care, attention and concern. How thorough, how reliable, how very noble and good! And not just with my replaceable things, but with each irreplaceable other! We are going to have to count on people, I realized anew. We’re going to have to help each other. We’re going to have to give a damn, and not spend so much time being fed up and bothered. And we’ll probably have to step outside our cozy little bubble to learn it.

All this is to say, I love you.

a map to the heart

February 16th, 2021    -    No Comments

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

the urgent work of crying in the night

June 1st, 2020    -    2 Comments

The Urgent Work of Crying in the Night dharma talk

after the winds

February 9th, 2020    -    9 Comments

Last Sunday evening the wind picked up until it rose into a roaring gale of flying limbs and leaves and it didn’t stop for two days. These are the Santa Ana winds, downslope desert gusts that can rage any time of year, a hated harbinger of force and flame. When the calm finally descended I was sunk as low as yard waste. There would be days of work ahead, hard work, yet knowing that the labor would somehow save me, I went out back and started dragging broken branches into mounds. I’d already quit when I heard a blower out front but I didn’t think it could be in my yard because our gardener Tomas wasn’t due for another two days. But lo, it was him, breezing through heaps of fallen leaves and needles as if parting a sea.

Tomas once told me that he’d worked here since he was 15, and somehow we figured out we were the same age. I’m a late beginner to this life’s work, but he abides my interference. No matter what you think of the racket, those blowers can tidy up a mess, so when Tomas left after an hour, my mind was lighter. A little later I brought a folded slip of paper in from the mailbox:

Dear Customer,

I will be going out of town for a family emergency. I will be out for a week. Sorry for any inconvenience, and thank you for understanding.

It was from Tomas. He’d be driving to Mexico and back, and he’d delayed the emergency to swing by, leave this note, and do what he could to ease my way. I marveled at his goodness. Then I realized that even after 48 years, he’d be afraid his job could disappear in a sudden gust.

It was a hard week all over, or so I heard from folks. Kids are sick or sad; the old and young are dying; the world, so dark and doomed that we are afraid to look ahead. I can’t do much for those in trouble, but I try to ease the way.

Around here now, the paths are swept, the ponds are clear, and all the things that fell or broke are stacked in piles four feet high. We go on, you see. We get through. The way forward is hardly ever what we want to do or where we want to go, but it brings us back.

Thank you for understanding. Understanding each other goes a long way.

***

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

caring letters

November 24th, 2018    -    5 Comments

When he was 23, Jerome Motto led an Army truck regiment in World War II. He drove through mile after mile of devastation, surrounded by enemy fire and praying that he and his 39 men would be safe. His prayers were answered with the occasional cargo drop bringing food, supplies, and the one thing he would later credit for keeping him alive—letters.

There was a day last week when I looked at the papers strewn across my desk and thought, “What a good day.” I had just opened and read three letters: one each from Illinois, Wisconsin and northern California. It isn’t such a strange thing for me to receive or send letters. One or the other happens several times a week. Hearing recently that the Forever stamp would go up by five cents at the end of January, I bought three sheets on Monday. These days, stamps feel like the only investment that will pay off.

Jerome Motto got letters from his family, of course. They wrote about their worry and hardships, and wished he would write back more often. He felt sad and guilty that he couldn’t help them. Surprisingly, the letters he most looked forward to were from a woman he’d met but barely remembered. She wrote about commonplace things, he said, like weather and songs on the radio, and she kept writing whether he did or not. He felt a connection. She was interested; she cared. And although he wondered what might come of their friendship, nothing did. He survived the war, living another 60 years without ever seeing her again.

Two years ago I invited people to write to me, promising that I would respond. The world seemed broken. We were disconnected, alienated and at war. At first, a lot of letters came. And then, as you’d expect, enthusiasm waned. I know: it’s hard to keep correspondence going. I never meant to imply that people could only communicate with me by letter, but there is something intimate about putting words on paper, folding and creasing, then closing, addressing, stamping and posting the envelope. It is personal. It is a person.

I have a thing about letters.

After the war, Motto became a psychiatrist. He happened to read an authoritative paper suggesting that the most disturbed patients could be helped by a feeling of connection to another person. So he came up with a research project. He and his staff would interview patients being discharged from a psychiatric hospital—3,000 in all—and half of them would be sent a series of letters—24 letters over five years—asking how they were doing. The letters were simple and short, intended to create a sense of kinship as if sent by a friend.

The results were dramatic. The suicide rate among the “contact group,” those receiving letters, was half that of the control group to which no letters were sent. The lower incidence continued even after the letters had stopped. His was the first experiment to ever show a decline in suicide rates. But still, not many people ever found out about the work.

Around the time the bounty of letters landed on my desk, I read about Jerome Motto and the legacy of his letters in this in-depth article. After you read it in full, you might reflect on yourself and the people in your life. Should you ever feel alone and in despair, perhaps a caring letter will come. Or perhaps you will send one. Either way works.

 

how to be useful

January 28th, 2018    -    13 Comments

I’ve been thinking about writing a post for a long time, which is a good way to not write a post. Last week I felt sick and overwhelmed, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on either the “sick” or the “overwhelmed.” People really are terribly sick all over but I’m not. The heater has been broken for five days and won’t be fixed for another three, but you can’t get much overwhelm out of that when you’re wintering in California with a high of 80 and a low of 50. No, it was more that I had accumulated unreturned messages and unanswered letters and I knew too many people who were praying for real help, miracles and such, tumbling into sorrow and fear, and doubted that any of my pearly words could repair the broken. I didn’t think there was much I could do.

My teacher has always made a point of emphasizing why, whether we know it or not, we come to a spiritual practice, which is the very same reason Shakyamuni Buddha began his spiritual practice which is the very same thing that not a single one of us can do anything about. Namely, that we get old, get sick and die. Come face-to-face with that and it might tie up your tongue for at least a week or two.

I have been wondering lately what I’m supposed to do with my little old self, and I’ve lit upon an answer. I want to be useful, just a tiny bit useful, and you might argue that I’m already handy in that way so what I mean is that I want to be a tiny bit more useful. Useful is always good, you see. It’s not fancy, but it gets right to work for better and not worse.

And about the time you hit on the word, useful, up comes a chance to do something useful, and not because you’re feeling right-minded or decent, either, but just because you look up and see what you need to do.

In early December I heard that an old friend of mine had died without warning and all alone. He had been a priest with me until he left the temple and made his life as best he could on his own. He was without close kin but had an ex-wife who was big-hearted and she called me after it happened just to talk about all the things that had been left to her to iron out. I told her I would help, and I didn’t do much, but she felt she had some company in taking care of what comes after. Everything got sorted out and we did as much as we could to dignify his life and distribute the leftovers. She kept insisting that she wanted to pay me for my trouble, my mileage or my time and I refused because I hadn’t done a damn thing. But last week a card came from her with a crisp bill taped inside that had one of your more electrifying presidents printed on it. I shook my head and maybe muttered a curse or two but I said thank you because I could, in fact, use up a $100 bill in a single trip to the grocery store. I put it in my wallet.

The next day I was coming up to the corner of Lake Avenue and the 210 overpass when I saw my regular buddy working his spot where we cross paths two or so times per week. The light was red and as I stopped beside him I reached in my wallet for a dollar. I rolled down the window and we exchanged our familiar hellos and when I asked how he was doing he cocked his head and said “Well . . . ” Seems he’d just been given a $250 ticket for walking into the second lane of traffic when someone had waved three dollars at him and he hadn’t seen the patrol car until it was too late and he was cited for being a pedestrian outside of a marked crosswalk. The ticket was going to make him late on his rent. He was old and often sick, but he and a partner had worked themselves to the precarious point that they had a place to sleep with a roof over it, and every single day was a test of whether or not they could keep it. And then I remembered what I’d been given, and how I could share the merit of a friend’s life, pass on the generosity of another, and be a tiny bit more useful in this crooked world.

I handed him the crisp $100. He looked at me in disbelief and concern, which you can actually see when someone is thinking of you and not themselves.

“Are you sure you don’t need it?”

And then I was really sure.

###

You might find it useful to read what a friend of mine wrote after his son died from the flu: “What I learned when my son died.”

the last word

December 21st, 2017    -    10 Comments

A few days ago I got a letter in the mail. The letter was written almost a year ago, after I’d quit social media and invited people to write me letters instead. Funny thing was, the letter had somehow disappeared into a stack or a drawer (like the one on the left side of this desk) and never been mailed to me. When the writer found it again after all this time, she sent it along anyway. Turns out everything she’d written about herself still applied, and all the questions she had for me naturally remained unanswered, so I wrote her back.

Perhaps what I write here will be a little like that. This time of year always brings the cycle back around to where we started.

A year ago I got off Facebook and Twitter because I thought the election provided pretty good evidence that social media corrodes our society and degrades our intelligence. Research is coming out that says just that. Several months later, I began using Facebook again, not because I changed my mind about it, but because people no longer seem to read email, and I need to reach folks in a more reliable way than telepathy. The fact that people don’t use email much anymore means that our ability to communicate with one another in a measured and thoughtful way has been further diminished. Why take the time to pound out so many words when what you really want to do is scream!!!

It’s hard for folks to realize that social media is not a human connection in the same way that a conversation is. We are addicted to it (I hope that no longer needs to be debated) and so we run the risk of behaving digitally in the same uninhibited way we might if we were drunk or on drugs. We don’t put ourselves in the place of the person or persons we are “talking” to because they aren’t even there. So what we post on Facebook or Twitter runs the risk of being about as scary as the sociopathic babble of the taxi driver Travis Bickle talking to himself in the mirror. (Click this link to see what I mean.)

I’m as much to blame for spouting off as anyone, but Facebook has convinced me that no one out there is waiting to hear what I think. So far, I haven’t made mortal enemies of anyone but a few fed up family members and friends. And I’m not sure that would have happened if we weren’t all talking into mirrors.

There’s a word that comes up a lot these days: “weaponized.” I suppose when you live in a world at war with itself everything is a weapon. I don’t much like it when folks stick an -ize onto a noun and make up a verb, but in this case I do believe that social media has given us a way to weaponize our words with bump stocks, making them fully automatic and firing them from the 32nd floor into a concert crowd at 9 rounds a second. I don’t much like that I’ve become familiar with those words either. So, yeah, words kill.

Despite all these misgivings, I’ve learned quite a lot about how to use social media responsibly this year, giving myself these 5 reminders to make the world better through Facebook:

1. Give encouragement. People are angry, sad, sick, lonely, and discouraged enough already.

2. Refrain from giving advice. Those who ask probably don’t need it and those who don’t ask don’t want it.

3. “Like” pictures of kids or pets, especially kids and pets in Halloween costumes. Small acts of kindness aren’t small.

4. Honor everyone’s privacy, especially the privacy of your kids. Don’t let them suffer the indignity of your pride or imprudence.

5. Only offer what you need to see yourself: words and pictures that will support, guide, calm or uplift you. After all, you’re the only one here.

If these guidelines keep you from getting what you want from Facebook, then it can’t be found there. Find a real friend instead, and do what it takes to keep them. Your life will be immeasurably enriched.

sharing everything this Christmas

December 11th, 2017    -    15 Comments

unwrapping-gift-cropped

Sharing the good stuff all over again.

It was close to 7 p.m., pitch dark and cold by California standards, and I was stopped at a red light on the way to pick up my daughter from math tutoring. The light was long and I let my gaze drift to my left, across the street, where I watched two men waiting for the bus. One wore shorts, the other jeans, both in dark hoodies. I knew they were strangers because they stood apart and ignored each other. In the same moment, each raised a cigarette to their lips, an orchestrated pair invisibly attuned. And then the traffic moved.

Earlier that evening my daughter asked me how we used to Christmas shop. “When you were little did you order from magazines?” she asked, stretching her imagination to conceive of a life without computers. For Hanukkah she was given money and the same day spent most of it on Christmas gifts for friends. The spree had made her happy and it had made me happy too, being much more fun than my grumpy sermons on generosity. She ordered everything online (with my help) and the UPS man delivered the first box today. She went to the front gate and took it from him. I think that was a first, too.

I told her about my grandparents, who seemed crazy rich to us but crazy poor to everyone else. There was a book in those days called the wish book that was really the Sears catalogue. Since my grandparents lived far away from a department store they waited for the wish book to come every year. Then they handed it by turns to three little granddaughters and told us to make a mark by anything we wanted. I’m serious. That’s what they said, and then they went in the other room. It was a big book and a tall order for us little girls, but knowing that I could have it all made me less greedy. I remember pausing my pen over a page, empowered with a Midas touch, thinking of my grandparents, and not wanting quite so much as I thought I did.

Last weekend we saw A Christmas Carol at a local theatre.  My daughter was in four such productions since the age of 8, so I have seen and heard Mr. Dickens’ tale brought to life dozens of times. On Saturday I saw it and cried again. I cried because you cannot receive that story and not have it tenderize your heart. There can’t be one of us who isn’t afflicted by anger, frustration, cynicism or a shitty mood around the holidays. There isn’t one of us who isn’t sometimes blind to goodness or stingy with sentiment; who isn’t isolated or afraid. To see a human being transformed by joy, generosity, and belonging — and to feel it for myself — I don’t want anything else just now.

When people say they like the work I am sharing, I look around for the work. This doesn’t feel like work. It feels like life, which is inseparably shared by all of us. If you’re not sure you have anything to share, I will understand. I feel like that sometimes, too. Then I see differently, and my heart is bared. There is good in this world. We have to see it to share it. To start, take a look right here: The Week in Good News.

7 ways to make Thanksgiving mindful

November 20th, 2017    -    4 Comments

129309418-new-york-new-york-city-stacked-plates-and-gettyimages

Of course you want it to be good. You’d like the mashed potatoes to keep warm, the stuffing to stay moist and the gravy to taste homemade. You’re hoping the pies turn out, the guests turn up and the TV gets turned off. You’ll be grateful to have it over with, but can you take a week of hectic cooking and turn it into a mindfulness practice?

The sages did, and still do.

Mindfulness practice is exactly like preparing a holiday dinner. In fact, one of the most profound and practical texts in Zen, “Instructions for the Cook,” was written nearly 800 years ago for the monastery kitchen staff. It’s a timeless reminder that kindness begins in the kitchen, and inspires these 7 ways to prepare your Thanksgiving meal more mindfully. read more

walking to rite aid

March 7th, 2017    -    14 Comments

When Friday rolled around I didn’t much feel like doing anything special. Just about every day I haul myself to a certain place for yoga, or another place for a workout, or charge up my Fitbit and conjure up a route by which to “get in my steps.” But it seemed to me that I should just use my body in an everyday way and so I decided to walk to Rite Aid and pick up a refill that was ready. I didn’t know how far Rite Aid was from me but it was far enough that I had never been there without driving. So after a half day of doing regular Friday stuff I set off.

Before I’d even walked to the end of the block I’d noticed how much was going on in my neighborhood. Three folks were having new yards put in—yards without any grass and with a lot of wood chips and rock— and two more had already completed theirs. Driving by, I’d seen it all happen, but I hadn’t really taken it in, focused on getting somewhere. Because I know what even a small landscape re-do can cost in time and money it seemed to me that my own street was a pretty hopeful example of good citizenship. It’s now fairly common in California to rip out a lawn, given climate change and water rationing, but these new yards are more than a way to save on a utility bill. Each one is not only an investment in a single household’s water savings but also an investment in the whole world’s water supply. Everyone benefits when one person does the right thing.

After awhile I noticed that a lot of rain gutters need cleaning, including mine. It’s not so bad to feel as if you have something like a mucky gutter in common because it’s, well, common. There’s grace in realizing that we all have a responsibility to take care of something messy without blaming anyone else for the trouble.

When I’d made it about half a mile west, I turned south to head down the hill to the shopping center. I started thinking about the last time I had made a long walk sort of like this one, not just to mark off the distance but to get somewhere. It was during the summer when I was 15 and I had a woeful crush on a boy who would never like me, and I lived invisibly in a small tract house on the barren side of town while he was living large on the leafy side, and I set out one day in the 500 degree heat that is a peculiar feature of your North Texas anguish to walk the 3.5 miles in his general direction for no other reason than I thought he might drive by and see me, the only person out walking on the sidewalk anywhere in town. Or maybe it was that I might see him, because he was someone you couldn’t help but see, being a spoiled son of an airline pilot who had given him a yellow 1973 Jaguar XKE for his 16th birthday. I try to think of how that day went and I can’t remember anything except the long stretch of hot sidewalk along Finley Road because nothing at all happened. I just made the seven mile round trip without anyone ever knowing what I’d done or how sad and silly I was. This boy’s name was Pete but a long time later I learned that his real name was an old-fashioned one, after his dad, a name that would have killed a teenage boy to say out loud, and I only learned that fact from his obituary which I certainly wasn’t thinking I’d come across anytime soon, having a persistent sense of my own youth. Reading between the lines, he appeared to have died without a family or a home of his own, no job, no biography, in his early 50s, and I saw it as the sad end of a dissolute life, a long flight from fear and pain. But what the hell do I know? I didn’t even know his name.

Then I got to Rite Aid where I couldn’t give a dime to the guy sitting at the table outside the entrance because I didn’t have a cent, but I gave him a decent hello.

How long is the walk to Rite Aid and back? About 12,000 steps and 45 years.

Today I’m starting on the gutters.

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not back

February 28th, 2017    -    22 Comments

I did something a few weeks ago that I hadn’t done in awhile. I took a post from this blog and put it on Facebook. I deactivated my Facebook account on November 24 as soon as a woman I don’t know got fed up with me and wrote, “Why don’t you delete this account?” So I did. Sometimes a remark can strike out of nowhere like a clap of thunder, and you know it’s time to get out of the storm.

The new post that went up, in my typical roundabout way, seemed to be about my ancestors but was really about immigration. I put it on Facebook so that people would see it, because not many people come to my blog any other way. Nowadays a lot of people never see anything that’s not on Facebook. That’s OK, as far as it goes, but it’s also not OK. Specifically, I wanted people to see themselves in the story, to see the larger, human need to belong that makes people leave everything behind and travel a vast and terrifying distance. These days, Facebook seems to fulfill that feeling of belonging without having to do anything at all. There are nearly 2 billion active users of Facebook, nearly a quarter of the world’s population and close to half of all Americans. Nearly 70 percent of all the time spent on Facebook is via a mobile device. I’m gonna guess that’s because the mobile device is simply never out of reach and Facebook is the only “place” there is to go on it.

Pretty soon folks began to say things on Facebook like “You’re back!” and “I’ve missed you so much.” Those messages are really nice and a lot nicer than some of the other things people put on Facebook but still they seem mistaken to me. I’m not back from anywhere because I didn’t go anywhere because there really is no place that is Facebook, other than the screen of your mobile device, and the fact that people see it as a place where real live people do real live things is what scared me off of it in the first place. We have to do a better job of seeing reality than that. We have to do a better job of living in the real world and taking responsibility for it.

Just to reiterate, the place where real, live stuff is happening is not on Facebook.

I guess it’s hard to imagine that there is a way other than Facebook to reach a person with a public website and an email and a street address and a mailbox and a telephone. I started to notice this a few years back when publishers began sending me messages through Facebook and I would think to myself, “You’re a publisher for heaven’s sake,” but people always explained it by saying “I didn’t know the best way to reach you.”

We used to know the best way to reach people. I don’t know when it got to be so confusing. When I was in sixth grade I was assigned to do a report on New York State and so I looked up the address and wrote to the information people in New York State and they sent me a big envelope full of everything anyone could ever want to know about New York State and I did a fine report and put it in a blue report cover decorated with photos I’d cut out from the brochures they had sent. Obviously, in 50 years I’ve never forgotten how easy that was. How straightforward and yet, miraculous. The whole world used to be like that, and maybe when you come right back to it, it still is.

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Photo by Kevin Klima Photo on Etsy

 

follow

September 26th, 2016    -    3 Comments

 

A road leads deep into a  Kansas cornfield in late July.

Follow the humble. They will lead you to dignity.

Follow the gentle. They will lead you to strength.

Follow the kind. They will lead you to gratitude.

Follow the silent. They will lead you to truth.

Follow the simple. They will lead you to wisdom.

Follow your heart. It will lead you home.

Follow the path. It will lead you everywhere.

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