Posts Tagged ‘Love’

the ministry of presence

April 21st, 2022    -    4 Comments

All evil karma ever committed by me since of old,
On account of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance,
Born of my body, mouth, and thought,
Now I atone for it all.

It can be unnerving to come across this verse, which is routinely chanted in Zen ceremonies when we take precepts, or vows, and as part of the monthly ritual of atonement called Fusatsu. Gone are the sweetness and light, the fairy dust and moonbeams that might first attract us to Buddhism. Things suddenly take a serious turn. Evil? But I’m a nice person. Karma? It wasn’t my fault! Ignorant? Who are you calling ignorant?

The verse is not a confession of sin or an admission of wrongdoing. It is a statement of responsibility. I can make my life whole, and only I can do it. In performing atonement, we acknowledge the suffering caused by our own ignorant view of ourselves as separate from the world we inhabit. Our ignorance of the truth gives rise to greed and anger. The verse serves the same purpose as all Zen chants, which is to transport us beyond the self-centered view that judges, blames, sets boundaries, destroys peace, and splinters the world into opposing sides — our egocentric mind. It affirms the aspect of ourselves that is eternally present, selfless, generous, patient, and compassionate — our Buddha mind.

The voice that speaks these words has the power to stop suffering in its tracks. It has the ability to instantly restore harmony simply by invoking it now. It is an awesome responsibility, but it only takes an instant.

New dharma talk: Love Without Ending
If you listen to the talk, you might also be interested in:
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Julian of Norwich
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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

we all fall down

December 10th, 2021    -    12 Comments

Yesterday it rained. It rained all day, which is a major event in and of itself, a genuine freak of California weather. When it rains here in late fall and early winter, it doesn’t only rain drops. It rains leaves. The leaves—oh my goodness, yes—are ready to fall, needing only a plonk of water to let loose.

That’s how it feels these days: like we’re all ready to drop, quit, let go and fall apart. I spoke to someone this week who could do nothing but wipe her eyes and cry. She couldn’t say a word. Even when things are getting better they feel worse and going forward feels backward and when will it all be over?

And then I catch a glimpse of what I’ve always known about this time of year: it’s dark, it’s dank, wet, windy, and never-ending. There is no break, no rest, no peace, and no place to find. That is, until there is, only it’s not what we were looking for, not what we were wishing for, not better, not like before. We were looking for a place and time we remembered and what we got was a lean-to, a shack, a roof with a hole in it, a disaster of Biblical proportions.

We all suffer losses. Some lose what they love. And some lose what is better off gone. Either way, there are absences, hollows, and estrangements. Lines crossed, words said, luck run out, spirits broken, hearts bereft.

Before the new year comes, 400,000 leaves will drop from the sycamores in my backyard. (It’s a fact.) I always think: oh no, not again, not now, not me. But what will I do? I will love the trees, the leaves, and especially the rake. I will love the sky, the wind, the rain, and the pond scoop. I will love the fall and the fallen. I will love my life, which is yours too, and I will cry your tears.

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.

already you

June 7th, 2021    -    8 Comments

You have always been you. It sounds a little bit silly to say that, because it doesn’t come close to expressing what I mean. As the person who has spent every one of last 8,000 days and nights in silent wonder and raging worry over every aspect of your life—your eating, sleeping, feeling, and thinking; your hair, bones, blood and skin—I mean it as an admission. It wasn’t me. It isn’t me. It will not be me that makes you who you are.

I have a memory of the first time you waved bye-bye. A sitter was holding you in her arms near the front door and I was walking out of it. When your baby waves bye-bye to you it’s a moment that really sticks. But it’s not quite right to say you were a baby then. You were already you when you did that, already a perfectly functioning human being. You were on a path that was uniquely yours, that had begun in a time and place before me, and that would progress in a completely intact and natural way after me.

Why did I think I had so much to do with it?

Every now and then my Zen teacher will say something (that he has said many times before) to point to the truth of life. It goes sort of like this: “Once you were a little child, then a teenager and now an adult. You were 10 then 18, 30 or 50. Was any of that hard to do?” No, we chuckle to ourselves, since it’s a given. It happens by itself.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin.

A lily does not become a stalk of corn either. It never becomes anything but itself, by itself. This is another revelation that sounds stupidly obvious and unremarkable. But we should reflect on it. We should study it: the obvious and effortless perfection of the way things are and how they come to be.

I grew up in another time, a time before the dawn of the Industrial Parental Anxiety Complex. This is to say that my mother did the mothering, such as it was, and my father did the fathering, for better or worse, but nothing that they did or didn’t do was formed by this new attitude of expertise called parenting. Parenting is not something that anyone knows how to do or will know how to do. It cannot be taught, except by children, who have the sometimes charming and often infuriating ability to be no one but themselves.

My mother never once hid broccoli in the mac and cheese. She never hounded me to practice the piano as a way to elevate my math scores or letter in lacrosse to polish my college prospects. These kind of manufactured agonies were simply beyond the few extra hours available in her day. She had other concerns, great matters, and her children did not appear to be chief among them. Oh happy day!

Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

This is not to say that we don’t have our hands full, as parents. Not to say that there isn’t much to learn or do, but it concerns our children far less than we think. Our job is to raise ourselves upright as half-decent people and self-managing adults. To be honest and reliable. To be patient. To have confidence in ourselves and trust in nearly everyone else. To keep going through the rough patches, with a resilient hope and idiotic optimism that all will be well. To shine light equally on the lilies and the thistles, the flowers and the thorns, the rocks and the mud and the grass that grows every which way in the field without applying a fence or force. To simply be, faithful and true, because that is how our children grow strong in themselves as themselves, lacking nothing, functioning perfectly, the amazing humans they already are.

Originally published Feb. 26, 2018. Still counting the days and nights, and will be, forever.

blessing for the unknowable road

April 12th, 2021    -    4 Comments

The other day my daughter asked me when my mother died. “Was it twenty years ago, then?” she said, and I was surprised at the sound of it. Yes, twenty years ago it was, when my daughter was twenty months old. She has no memory of my mom, she only knows her through me. Someday, I suppose, I will forget this day as it comes and goes, April 13. I will forget her voice, her smile, her laugh, even as I still speak her words. Her words always come like a blessing, a benediction to take on the unknowable road.

I wanted to share a few things with you about my mother. I’m sure you already know them. They are what bring you here today.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, she said some things that I wanted to pass along. She has probably been saying them to me all my life, but I suspect I heard them, finally, for the first time.

Just last weekend she looked at me, clear-eyed and steady, and told me what I’ve come to recognize as her final instructions.

“Be yourself,” she said. “And take good care of your family.”

Now you know that my mother could never, for one minute, be anything but herself. Honest, unselfish, unpretentious, lighthearted, optimistic and, in a way, so ordinary. So ordinary that she was, in fact, extraordinary. It drew people to her, to her comfort and ease. So open and accepting. So authentic. And so happy!

She kept all the cards and notes you all sent over the course of her illness. Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even a thousand. She kept every one and everyday, more came. She was so uplifted, and in a way, mystified at the magnitude.

I told her that they showed how much she was loved. “Yes,” she said, and she shook her head in disbelief. “And just for being me.”

“Take good care of your family,” she reminded me. She reminds us all. For my mother, family was not just family. You were all in it. And her family grew in number every day. It began with her mother and dad, sisters and brothers, to whom she was, quite simply, devoted. There were cousins, so many cousins, it seemed, to fill the whole state of Texas. There were the nieces and nephews, and grand-nieces and nephews, each one special in her heart. The schoolmates and colleagues and lifelong friends. And then, of course, there were the children. Thousands of children in dozens of classrooms over 30 years’ time.

Education was her life’s work, but more than that, it was her life. She had seen for herself that, no matter where you begin, or what the conditions, if you take what you’re given and do your best, you can do anything. Her heart expanded with every single child’s achievement, and of course, her heart broke with every one of their disappointments.

At the end of her career, as an elementary school principal, she would wait for hours with the little ones, already so poor and sometimes forgotten, when no one came to pick them up from school. She waited. And soon, she retired.

Finally, there was our family, the ones at home. Perhaps this was my mom’s last mission. We were all so far along in our lives, so far apart and busy. And we have all come to see – my sisters and I – Mom’s illness as a remarkable blessing. We came together, so close, in respect, love and appreciation for one another. Mom gave us the opportunity, and we took up the task. You can speak of my mother’s strength and courage, and I will tell you that, here at the end, my father matched her mile for mile. And we are so grateful.

I want to tell you something Mom said several months ago, when we began in earnest to prepare for today and imagine how it would go. She said, “I know it sounds egotistical, but I don’t know how you all can live without me.”

I told her quickly then, and I know it to be true, that I would never have to live without her.

I ask you today, in your everyday kindnesses, in your bright hopes, your easy laughter, your generosity and your own good hearts, to help me keep my promise to her. Be yourself, and take good care of your family, and we will keep her with us forever.

My eulogy to my mother, who died on April 13, 2001, delivered at her service on April 17, 2001.

She came again to comfort me here, in a conversation about all the ways we are afraid.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

upstream

March 14th, 2021    -    2 Comments

Not long ago I heard from a couple I’d never met, parents of a child with Down Syndrome. They host a podcast called “If We Knew Then” to share useful conversations about Down Syndrome advocacy and parenting. The situation was this: in navigating the school system on behalf of their son—and also in everyday outings to the park and grocery store—they’d consistently come up against negativity, resistance, and insensitivity. They were tired of fighting society. They were frustrated and angry. They’d lost trust in the experts and institutions, over and over. Would nothing ever change? And what should they do with all these bad feelings?

I wasn’t sure how useful I could be. We had different lives. But we talked, and then we talked again. They shared their experiences and I shared mine. Along the way I realized that the circumstances didn’t really matter. Parents are parents and people are people, and we all face challenges we can’t get ahead of. Don’t you ever feel as if you are paddling alone against a tide of greater forces just because you are trying to do something good and right? Trying to make things better? We all do.

If you are advocating for a child in the school system or a family member in the healthcare system, if you are advocating for progress against a world that is standing in your way, I encourage you to listen to our conversation. At first, you might not think it applies to you, but there’s medicine in it. The medicine is love. And as it turns out, the medicine was for me too.

If We Knew Then podcast

Photo by Andrew Draper on Unsplash

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

lone tree

August 10th, 2020    -    4 Comments

At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet. — Plato

Like the well to the water

the drip to the dry

as the wind draws the dust

so the sun pulls the sky

Like the tree makes the shade

by standing still

on a hill

look around now

and meet everyone, everything

with great love.

From a weekend traveling the golden hills of Interstate 5

Photo by Sean Brown on Unsplash

after the before

May 11th, 2020    -    4 Comments

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

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

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

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

— from Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood

***

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

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

Photo by Stella Tran on Unsplash

what my mother taught me

April 13th, 2020    -    19 Comments

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

I wanted to share a few things with you about my mother. I’m sure you already know them. They are what bring you here today.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, she said some things that I wanted to pass along. She has probably been saying them to me all my life, but I suspect I heard them, finally, for the first time.

Just last weekend she looked at me, clear-eyed and steady, and told me what I’ve come to recognize as her final instructions.

“Be yourself,” she said. “And take good care of your family.”

Now you know that my mother could never, for one minute, be anything but herself. Honest, unselfish, unpretentious, lighthearted, optimistic and, in a way, so ordinary. So ordinary that she was, in fact, extraordinary. It drew people to her, to her comfort and ease. So open and accepting. So authentic. And so happy!

She kept all the cards and notes you all sent over the course of her illness. Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even a thousand. She kept every one and everyday, more came. She was so uplifted, and in a way, mystified at the magnitude.

I told her that they showed how much she was loved. “Yes,” she said, and she shook her head in disbelief. “And just for being me.” read more

just give yourself

March 26th, 2020    -    15 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the jewelry box

January 13th, 2020    -    6 Comments

The Tiffany Building, New York

When you die can I have your jewelry?

My daughter must have been 7 or 8 years old when she said this. It was one of those bugle calls our children regularly give us without guile or guilt. You are old and going to die! At other times, she asked for certain fancy dresses and pointy shoes post-mortem. I took it as a thief’s form of approval.

When I was in my twenties, my apartment was burglarized. A pair of professionals had watched me leave for work. I didn’t think I owned anything that was worth stealing, but was nonetheless relieved of an old television, spare change, a modest stock of jewelry and all the prescriptions in the medicine cabinet. When the police came I noticed that two silk flower arrangements were missing. Silk flowers were a thing in the early ’80s, but I didn’t believe anyone could fetch a dime for a handful of fake flowers. The policeman set me straight.

Those are for their wives.

I was being crafty when I handed my daughter a trash bag one morning last week, saying if you throw out your old makeup, bath, and hair stuff I will give you my jewelry. I wanted a clean bathroom, you see, and it worked. When she reported back, the duty done, I took a step ladder to the closet shelves and brought a dozen or more little boxes down from the farther reaches where they’d been forgotten. We opened them one by one.

There were iconic robin’s egg blue boxes, dainty ring boxes and long black bracelet boxes, a Baccarat crystal necklace, a box each from Barney’s New York and the Met, and a collection of treasures from a certain antique jewelry purveyor on East 57th. I told my daughter I once had a wealthy admirer who shopped for me whenever he was in the very city which is now her city. Shown the evidence, her eyes widened in appreciation.

Victorian Period
Fifteen Karat Gold Brooch
Made in England
Circa 1880

There were a few souvenirs from my first marriage during a decade when the size of my hair, shoulder pads, shoes and rings coalesced in New Jersey mobster chic. I took out a dusty Rolex watch, a rope of black pearls, and a chunky choker in blazing gold. My daughter demurred.

Some things are too fabulous even for me.

She made an exception for the watch.

After all that, I opened the little wooden jewelry box that I’d kept my wearables in, cheap jewelry chosen by me and not someone adorning me. Most of the clasps were broken. These really were valuables. I’d worn out the stuff. There was one last bracelet rimmed with miniature charms: a statue, a building, a bridge, all the landmarks of Manhattan. I’d once loved it for holding the promise of a new life, a world yet unseen. My daughter claimed it.

I wish I’d known you then.

She said, as if there was ever a single moment separating us.

***

“You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives.” – Dogen Zenji

Photo by Benjamin Jopen on Unsplash

a mother’s diary

August 3rd, 2019    -    3 Comments

April 5, 2002

Today Georgia found this forgotten diary in my nightstand and called it hers. I slid it back to my spot after a lapse. So much is different. Saying nothing says it all. Her dad is far away on a long trip and Georgia has had her fill of me. I am so tired. I have gone and given everything away again. There she is crying out in her sleep. I covered her and rubbed her back. She will feel it 50 years from now.

***

Photo by Akshar Dave on Unsplash
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