Posts Tagged ‘Time’

hair, teeth, and nails

July 27th, 2020    -    4 Comments

You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives. — Dogen

I once heard about a man who spent four hours a day for 25 years writing down what happened every five minutes of every day. “You might say I’m a nut,” he said, although it’s the kind of nut we all are, by degree. By that I mean we make monuments out of minutia, keepsakes from what we cannot keep. Maybe that’s why we do it: as proof that we have no proof.

7.30-7.35: “We changed the light over the back stoop since the bulb had burnt out.”

This fellow typed a diary of 37.5 million words that eventually filled 91 cartons. It was a world record. If we dug through all the detritus we could learn his body temperature at different times of day, blood pressure, medications, and everything he ate, read and did, including descriptions of his urinations and bowel movements. He recorded his dreams, but slept only two hours at a time so he wouldn’t forget them before he wrote them down. He taped a piece of his nose hair to a page.

8.45: “I shaved twice with the Gillette Sensor blade and shaved my neck behind both ears, and crossways of my cheeks, too.”

A few months into the pandemic there was much made of hair, because it grows out. And then, what grows in doesn’t look like the old you, but rather the old you, which is altogether a different thing. Whenever I ask, my daughter rakes a cordless clipper across my scalp. When the inch or so of snipped hair falls to the patio where we do this, I imagine a bird building a nest from it. It’s a nice thought, but I won’t have proof of that either. Not the hair, the bird, the nest or the thought.

7.00: “I cleaned out the tub and scraped my feet with my fingernails to remove layers of dead skin.”

Back in April I was surprised to learn that oral surgeons were essential workers. This was after my daughter complained about pain from her wisdom teeth. I made one call and in a couple days she had all four teeth extracted. Afterwards, the doctor handed her a little plastic bag with the four big teeth inside. “I grewww theeese,” she said, drawing out the words in dazed astonishment. That might have been the anesthetic talking. I don’t know where the bag ended up.

3.20-3.25: “Humidity: fifty-one and a half percent. Porch temperature: fifty-six degrees. Porch floor temperature: fifty-one degrees. Door jamb temperature: seventy-four degrees.”

This year has put us in touch with what is untouchable. Namely, time. Days flowing upon days, dissolving indistinguishably without measure or mark, nothing left over and nothing left out, no falling behind, no getting ahead, and so on, and so on.

12.20 -12.25: “I stripped to my thermals.”

“It would be like turning off my life,” the diarist said in 1994, when asked what would happen if he quit. That wasn’t the case. The diary ends in 1997 when a stroke disabled him. Was that pain or paradise, to be released from his obsession? He died ten years later. His name was Robert Shields. You might say he reached a state of timelessness.

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

Photo by jim gade on Unsplash

a chain of daisies

March 31st, 2020    -    11 Comments

The other day I did something I don’t ever do. I sent an email to my best friend, asking her if there was a good time I could call. I really wanted to call her because I don’t ever call her. As much as I preach about staying in touch with others, I’m usually on the receiving end of someone else’s kind thoughts and selfless concerns.

At that instant, my phone rang. It was my friend. She said, “You won’t believe what just happened. I was typing an email to you when I got yours at the same time!”

I did believe it. This kind of thing actually happens a lot, although we might not notice. When we do notice we call it coincidence, serendipity or synchronicity; a fluke, an accident, a chance, all the ways we brush off events that defy the separation of time and space. We just think about someone and they appear. We just talk about something and it materializes. We need and then we miraculously get.

The fact is, there isn’t any separation in time or space. There isn’t any separation between any of us, or any time, or any place.

Obviously, this is not conventional wisdom, but it is wisdom. You can see it in the Buddhist or Hindu mandala, which diagrams the living reality of the universe; or in a wheel and its spokes; or in a daisy with its petals. Each of us is the center, the hub, the eye, of a circle containing everything and everyone else; a spontaneous infinitude of interconnections through all space and time.

Today, it’s a global pandemic, a contagion without boundaries or exemptions. More proof, as if we asked for it, that we’re all in this together. Now we can see for ourselves that little things make a big difference, and that Good Samaritans are strangers.

The other day I did something else I don’t ever do. I received an email from a friend inviting me to participate in a chain letter of sorts, a chain to exchange poems. I don’t do chain letters, and I have enough poems, thank you. But this came from a good friend at a time friends have never been so good. So just this once I participated without any expectation that anyone anywhere else would do likewise, or that I’d ever see any poems out of it.

Over the next few days, dozens of messages arrived. I’d open one to find a familiar verse, or more likely one I’d never seen before. They were poignant, masterful and sweet, delivered to me as gifts from people and places far beyond my knowing. Some came as photos taken from books or journals; one included a recipe for “comfort cookies.” Each was like a ray of warmth, a beam of light, a link in a chain of daisies springing up as if from nowhere.

This is our hope and blessing: each other.

Beannacht
by John O’Donohue

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

from Echoes of Memory (Transworld Publishing, 2010)
Photo by Kristine Cinate on Unsplash

reality dawns

March 18th, 2020    -    6 Comments

Daylight followed by darkness followed by daylight.

Many years ago, more than I can entirely recall, I went to one of my first meditation retreats in the mountains. It was to be the longest retreat I’d ever sat, more than a week. I was riding the edge of newness and enthusiasm about this thing I was doing, making myself well and happy. I half-hoped something would happen to me while I was there, some kind of wonderful thing. I’d spent a long time waiting for something wonderful, maybe my whole life.

The conditions were tough. It was winter, cold and dark. Sometimes it snowed. Sometimes the wind blew all day and night. My meditation seat was near a window, and I could see out of it. All day long, from the dark of early morning, to the bright of midday, to the shadows of the evening, in my still, silent spot by the window, I could see.

Somehow, seeing what was in front of me, hour after hour, day after day, I wasn’t afraid of the mountain or the deep winter or the sharp cold. I wasn’t confused about what to do. When the retreat was over, a friend asked about it. Did anything happen while I was there? Yes, something had happened.

Daylight followed by darkness followed by daylight.

These are hard times. I won’t compare this to any other time, or any other source of fear and uncertainty, or any other kind of pain, sickness, loss, or trauma. Comparing is pointless. I haven’t read the news today, so I don’t know how bad it is today. Bad is bad enough. Hard is hard enough.

Last Friday, as this new reality dawned, I heard from people. One was a stranger. She had read a book, and would I be willing to talk to her about it? Sure. We set a date in April.

April now seems like the dark side of the moon. It’s full of things once imagined that will never see the light.

A few minutes later, she contacted me again. Could we talk on Monday instead?

Her name is Kristen Manieri. She asked very good questions, and recorded our conversation for her podcast, 60 Mindful Minutes. I hope you listen, because if I had an hour to spend with you today, this might be how our conversation would go. It helped me to connect, share, listen, laugh and breathe. I hope it helps you.

You can listen wherever you listen to podcasts, if you do, like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or iHeart Radio. Listen right here, in the middle of eternity, as unknowable as it is, on this great earth and under the vast dancing light of the everchanging sky.

Photo by Marcus Cramer on Unsplash

through the cracks

March 13th, 2020    -    21 Comments

Last night I was dreaming when my mother spoke. I heard her calling my name in the way only your mother says it, the way you’ll never forget, and I woke from a menacing darkness to that single unmistakable sound, “Karen.” It’s been so long. I was so relieved.

At that very instant I heard the mechanical voice on my phone saying, “Message from Georgia Miller.”

I’ve taken to leaving my creaky old cell phone on the nightstand the last couple of weeks, when the first hairline cracks appeared in this thing we call the world. She might need me in the middle of the night, was my thinking, or first thing in the morning. Perhaps I knew what was coming. Not even two weeks ago my daughter was auditioning for the chance to spend next semester studying Shakespeare in London. Oh, I know how lucky she’s been. I know how favored. It was a lark, a dream. It was yesterday. But today it is nearly impossible to conceive of a next semester, or spending three months in London, or London, for that matter. She called that day to say she loved her life and that she was so fulfilled. Really, she said “fulfilled,” and hearing it, so was I. On Monday her college announced the temporary end of in-person classes, today they told her they wouldn’t resume for weeks or maybe months. She is coming home for how long we don’t know. Who, on this day, could say they know a thing?

My whole life is falling apart, she says. I don’t argue.

I console her tears and shock by saying this is a time like nothing else and never before, except perhaps a world war, which most of us who think we know it all only know from a book. I am so sorry for her and her generation, which could be another generation of lost time and lost chances, made great by their shared trauma, extolled for their resilience. I’m sorry for everyone, because every one of us will lose something or someone dear, a loss incalculable and irreversible.

It is not nothing, you know, this disaster. It is not an accident. It is a call, a bell, a beacon, and yes, a wake-up from the arrogance and ignorance of thinking we know what’s possible and what’s not. We have been sleeping for a long time.

Packing up to come home for what used to be the blink of a spring week—a frolic, a folly—she told me she would need to bring the big suitcase to hold all her books and sadly, all her shoes. It’s the shoes that make it real, that bring it home.

What will be, will be. It will be hard. It will get worse. And one day there will be a call that shatters the dark, and you will wake as if from a dream, so relieved that the night has passed and that you are loved.

Dear friends, I’m glad you are here.

Photo by Umberto on Unsplash

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

making a wish

September 26th, 2019    -    20 Comments

Today is bulky trash day at our house, the day that a special garbage truck comes to take items too big for your bins. Bulky trash day comes around once every twenty years or so when you clean out part of your garage. Cleaning a garage is the painful process of recalling the usefulness you once expected to get from otherwise useless stuff. The items we stacked on the curb for pickup by the sanitation service looked like a pile of thingamabobs from broken-down whatchamacallits, their original function long ago lost to age and decay. Even before the trash truck could come some of the stuff was scavenged, which is a hopeful thing. Who knows? Our bulky trash might have years of obsolesence yet to give, idling in the forgotten corner of someone else’s garage.

It’s been a month of clearing out. Last week I called the veterans’ group to pick up more sacks of clothes; after that I swept through bathroom drawers and shelves, where some of the medicines were—get this—pediatric. A close inspection of your medicine cabinet can tell you what you don’t want to know about yourself. Like why in the world are you keeping this 10-year-old earwax softener and two packages of wart-removers, not to mention the eight boxes of Band-Aids accumulated during the age of boo-boos?

At a certain time of year, as with a certain season of life, thoughts naturally turn to what you no longer need and what you no longer have.

Lately I’ve been nursing the visible and invisible wounds of a minor fall. Not an old-lady fall, but an old-lady fall from a bicycle on the boardwalk at the beach. You might not even know you are an old lady until you fall from a bicycle at the beach. The scrapes on my left knee and elbow were deep and bloody; I cried. But later on I realized I’d torn up the insides of my shoulder too. I’m due for physical therapy, which right now sounds to me like “assisted living.” This is no big deal, but still, I’m shocked at the loss of what I never appreciated: an arm and a leg.

The climb is long, they say, but in the end, it’s bulky trash day.

I’ve been thinking about how old my mom was when she died, only 67, and about how young she was when I was born, 63 years ago today, and that calls for a wish.

May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be well.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be free from suffering.

Photo by Ritu Arya on Unsplash

church time

June 27th, 2019    -    18 Comments

Growing up I spent every Sunday morning in church. The Sundays were always the same although the church moved around a bit. At times, it was on a hill near a misty ocean, stuck in the summer hell of Texas, or in a double-wide trailer parked on the barren fringe of a brand-new suburb. I’d be a good girl during the rounds of mournful hymns and mumbled creeds until we got to the sermon when I’d go numb and cold. But then, before my stiff body could be lowered into its final resting place, the pastor would stand up and face me straight on, holding his arms out like the sun shattering death at dawn, and say these mysterious and melodious words of salvation.

May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace

***

Nowadays if I write you a letter I might go on a bit about the wet spring and the cloudy summer. I might mention the lemon crop or the jasmine bloom; recount the ailments of a dog or the antics of a cat. Unless you’ve asked me to tell you something or the other, my letters won’t be about anything in particular. They won’t say anything new and they won’t get there in a hurry, because I’m not in a hurry.

The other day a fellow sent me a very nice message by email.

Please write another book. TY

I can’t say I haven’t given it thought, but I haven’t given it much more than a thought. I replied to him asking which book he’d read that impressed him so. It does make me wonder. He said he’d read all of them and one of them five times. That’s easily four more times than I’ve read any of them. But even that kind of appreciation doesn’t budge me off my butt. It occurs to me now that I’m living on church time, and I feel like I could sit here forever.

***

A good friend sent me this link to an essay that sums up the sad state of our cultural creed, so to speak, the sick addiction of being “crazy busy.” I’ve read a few articles like that, and no doubt have scrawled a desperate message across these pages more than once: slow down! There are various “slow” movements afoot, but we have to be careful that we don’t turn “slow” into a pious virtue, a weapon or a magic wand. It’s deeper than a desire to have a better life, a less anxious mind, a healthier gut or a smarter kid. It’s spiritual.

On Tuesday I tried to put gas in my car. Rounding the corner to the filling station, I saw two or three cars lined up waiting, which in my town constitutes a jam. The front of one pump was opened to its insides. I couldn’t tell what was going on but I repeated my mantra of the moment, “another day” and drove home. I had the time and enough gas to make it.

Yesterday I went back to the station and the same thing was going on but there was only one car in front of me at the pump so I stuck it out. A really old fellow got out of his Honda and looked around like he was confused. Honestly, I wanted to go up and mercifully pump the gas for him. But he gradually shuffled over to the little convenience store and I thought oh my god he’s paying in advance with cash. And that took an eternity and when he came out he stopped and fussed with his money, trying to get the bills back in his wallet before doing anything else, which is what any reasonable person would do, but his hands shook and the money wouldn’t go in and I was boiling. You know then that he struggled with the gas cap, and then he pondered the front of the pump for who-knows-how-long and then I started to calculate how much gas he was going to put in, god forbid, and when it shut off pretty quick I figured that’s about what twenty dollars will buy you. But then I realized oh shit he’s going to have to get that gas cap back on and just like that it wouldn’t go and it wouldn’t go and it wouldn’t go. Eventually he got it on so that the little door to the compartment would shut and he got back in the front seat and I waited. It was eons before he started the car and shifted into drive.

That’s when I realized that I was on fire because something that I expected to take three minutes had taken all of six.

Who said I wasn’t crazy? Who said I wasn’t busy? Who said I was past all that? What’s the point of all my babble if it doesn’t keep me from cussing out my ninety-year-old neighbor for being ninety?

About then I found myself back in church hearing the lovely strains of the benediction. I suddenly knew it wasn’t really about God looking down and smiling at me, but me, looking up and smiling at God driving off in the Honda, with twenty dollars in his tank.

Photo by Josh Applegate

soft focus

April 30th, 2019    -    4 Comments

We were walking down the street when my daughter looked over at me and said I hope I inherit your DNA of aging.

What do you mean? I’m an old woman.

Your face doesn’t look like it.

That’s not DNA. That’s lifestyle.

The flattery was nice, and the science might have been correct, but I wanted to kick that train of thought in its little red caboose. It’s not so helpful for a 19-year-old to believe that she’s nothing but a double helix of nucleotides unleashing an irreversible code of predeterminants that she can’t tinker with.

And yet, that’s precisely the way some of us approach our lives: with grim resignation. You’re born, you pay taxes and you die.

No one can argue against DNA, but do you know, really know, what your DNA is and what it foretells? Of course not. What I’m talking about here are the hard lines of our foregone conclusions, the unyielding beliefs we hold about who we are, what we can do, and how it will turn out.

I once told an audience of women who were easily 25 years younger than me that I was an older mother. I can’t deny it and I don’t try to hide it. A rumble erupted in the room until one of them demanded to know why I called myself that. I asked what was wrong with being old. Why is it a thing we’re not allowed to be or even say?

When I first started to practice Zen, my teacher said that women who practice become more beautiful with age. They soften, he said. I wondered why he told me that. Was it so obvious that I was a panicky 40-year-old staring into the maw of middle age and what comes after? Why yes, it was obvious. Nothing is hidden. But it’s also true. When you relax and release the grip of vanity, fear, resistance, and self-obsession, things change. You’ll probably be the last to know, since you no longer spend time in front of a mirror fussing with what you find there. You no longer have the interest.

So when I say I’m old, it’s not a criticism or complaint. It doesn’t come from self-pity. It comes from being free. And yes darling, I really hope you inherit that too.

Here is a talk about body acceptance and the courage to be what you are.

jewels in the dust

August 7th, 2018    -    13 Comments

When my daughter was three, she played all morning in a broad and shady yard at her preschool. There, she was instructed in the most ingenious way by having free range to climb, run, sing, swing, laugh, cry, fall down and make stuff up. The teachers had spread bag after bag of tiny beads and plastic jewels into the sand, and she and her friends made a treasure hunt of them every day, perfecting the pincer skills necessary to holding a pencil and using scissors, the final summit before kindergarten. The girls hoarded these shiny baubles into collections that were the subject of much intrigue and negotiation between them. A good day meant Georgia came home packing equal parts dirt and dazzle in her filthy pockets.

These days folks send me kind solicitations about the “transition” or “passage” I am going through as the nest empties. “I can’t imagine the feelings you must both be going through,” or “Let me know how you are handling it,” and I am embarrassed because the truth is mostly that I can’t wait. It feels the way it does when you are too pregnant and ready to burst. You’re not relishing the thought of labor but you can’t stand the delay of another day. I tell people that this is all natural and organic and such, that our current relationship is unsustainable because it is hard to share a home with someone who is 1) never home or 2) won’t come out of her room. At some point your child can come to feel like a stranger and worse, a squatter.

I’ve told most people that it reminds me of when she was three, the very age of all those treasure beads. Age three is competent enough to become bossy, as I recall, with none of the sweetening that surfaces at age four. A friend once told me that when her sons were young, her exasperation would reach a pitch where she would think, “If they don’t change I’m going to throw them out the window,” and right then they would change. In the old days I read books that affirmed this very thing: child development goes through cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium, ease and difficulty, compliance and rebellion, with the goal that everyone simply gets out alive and with a good probation officer.

It’s interesting too that all this is happening in the same month of her birth, an unforgiving August of incinerating heat and astrological omens: lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, and that pesky Mercury gone retrograde. I don’t know what any of that means except that the dog got sick, the AC died, the dryer broke, the garden gate collapsed, and the bears are tearing into the garbage cans nightly. Today I was rescued by my trusty appliance repairman who made it out to fix the dryer. It was a simple thing, just a two-bit fuse, but there was a rattle in the drum, probably spare change trapped in the cylinder, so he would open it up and fix that too.

A little bit later he’d finished the job. In front of the dryer he’d swept up a 20-year mound of dust, topped by a myriad tiny jewels once washed out of her preschool pockets. They’d been rattling around all that time, but here they were, freed at last to shine.

it always comes out of nowhere

June 29th, 2018    -    13 Comments

We have more money and more brains and better houses and apartments and nicer boats. We are smarter than they are. We are the elite. — Trump in Fargo ND, June 27, 2018

In the light of an early morning last week, I was on a 58-foot boat motoring the 22 miles to Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. The sky was gray, the clouds were low and the water, smooth. We hadn’t seen much—a handful of seals, a scattering of water birds, and nothing at all on the horizon—when the island suddenly penetrated the mist.

“It always comes out of nowhere,” the captain said.

I’d never been to Catalina, although I’d long heard that there wasn’t much there. As soon as the clouds lifted we set off walking. To my mind, the only way to get to know a place is on foot. A mile-and-a-half stroll across the tiny harbor town takes you a century back in time to the island’s brief heyday, when a chewing-gum magnate bought the whole of it and vowed it would never leave his hands. Mr. Wrigley aimed to turn his investment into “the people’s island,” a tourist mecca to be known all over the world.

It didn’t take me long to reconstruct what happened instead. The Wrigleys built their mountaintop home here 1921, their son’s mansion in 1927, the country club in 1928 and the Casino boasting “the world’s largest circular ballroom,” in May 1929. Yes, that 1929. In the long and great aftermath, who would dare to boast? The island was closed to visitors during WWII. Big bands died, and with it, ballroom dancing. Commercial air travel would soon make far more exotic locales accessible to tourists. Dreams disappeared like mist.

Decades later the island remains what it has always been, a lovely little spot to see the endless wash of wind and waves, which leave their mark without a word.

Can anything be imagined so ridiculous, that this miserable and wretched creature [man], who is not so much as master of himself, but subject to the injuries of all things, should call himself master and emperor of the world, of which he has not power to know the least part, much less to command the whole? — Michel de Montaigne

This sad week has felt, politically speaking, as if nothing will ever change, that the deck is stacked, the course is set and the outcome is irreversible. The vain and vile talk of “more money, more brains, and nicer boats” recalled, for me, the nicest boat of all, the world’s largest ocean liner, built by the richest men with the biggest blindest egos and ambitions, a vessel that nonetheless took only 2 hours and 40 minutes to submerge completely under the North Atlantic and a scant 5 minutes more to reach the ocean floor. All because something always comes out of nowhere, and things really do change overnight.

Photo by Matthew Johnson

I just want to encourage you

May 1st, 2018    -    11 Comments

My first Zen teacher was Japanese, and although he spoke English, he was nearly impossible to follow. In his soft voice and heavy accent, a good part of what he said was indecipherable. Because of that, he had a reputation for giving terrible Dharma talks, or teachings, and this caused him regret.

“I just want to encourage you,” he would say as he set off on a discourse that no one could make heads or tails of. But that was enough, at least for me. I’ve realized that encouragement is the essence of teaching. I think it’s just about all we can do for one another, and all we need to do. With encouragement, you see, people can do anything and will. A little encouragement goes a long way. You might even say it lasts forever.

Nowadays I’m grateful for the encouragement I’ve been given, which seems to be the most useful thing I can pass along.

A few years ago there was some new research into how toddlers learn to walk. The study said that a baby learning to walk falls on average 17 times per hour. 17 times! Can you imagine that? Seventeen times the shock, hurt, and tears. More than 200 failures in one 12-hour stretch! And 200 times to start over at square one. Even with all that, there has not yet been a baby who gave up on the whole enterprise. It’s a remarkably efficient learning process. Forward motion dissolves fear.

This information has factored into a lot of the advice I’ve given to people since then. Most of us, most of the time, encumber ourselves with the terrible weight and responsibility for teaching our kids everything so they turn out to be something. By that I mean something successful or prized, happy or well. Starting out, we look at them as shapeless clay, putty, or goop. I like to remind parents that we don’t actually teach our children how to walk, how to eat, how to talk, or how to sleep, regardless of how many expert opinions we seek on those subjects. An acorn becomes an oak, I say, lacking any other explanation for how human development happens. And on this basis, our children are completely and wholly themselves at every age and stage, lacking nothing, only absorbing time and encouragement to keep going.

Back when my daughter was in preschool, her teacher made a handout for parents called 4 Steps of Encouragement. When your kids are about 4 years old, you might start to worry about the really important stuff they aren’t doing, like riding a tricycle, holding a pencil, writing their name, or drawing a person with arms and legs. You’re pretty sure they’re already behind, and then where will they end up?  The teacher assures you it’s not late, there’s no hurry, children learn and grow at their own pace, and for heaven’s sake please confine your contribution to repeating these four things:

1. “I understand, I know it’s hard.”
2. “I think you can handle it.”
3. “Want to give it a try?”
4. “When you’re ready . . . “

Last week my daughter texted me during a school day, one of the last of her senior year, and said “I’m getting sad to leave.” I was surprised to hear her express affection for high school, but that wasn’t it. She meant sad to leave home, which really means sad to grow up. Isn’t that true? Isn’t reluctance at the root of all sadness? The reluctance to change, let go, fall down, get up and move on?

Of course we can give help where it is needed, attention when it is lacking, and patience when time is short. But there’s one more thing that bears repeating.

I just want to encourage you.

how to raise an adult

April 4th, 2018    -    4 Comments

Today I walked to Rite Aid, something I’ve done a few times — okay, exactly twice. On the sidewalk ahead, I could see a bowlegged man shuffling toward me. When he got up close he pointed to the intersection behind me with his cane.

Is that Huntington? he asked.

No, that’s Sierra Madre Boulevard.

OK, he said, I just have to cross that street.

Huntington and Sierra Madre boulevards are three miles apart and not in any way like the other. So I wondered for the rest of the afternoon whether he was: 1) following a peculiar exercise regimen, or 2) genuinely disoriented and lost. I didn’t look back to see if he made it across the street, nor did I see him on the return walk home, but he stayed with me, that old traveler did.

When I encounter a stranger who tells me something unexpected — the lady in the Whole Foods parking lot who said she loved the shape of my head; Sister Imelda, a nun in full habit on the hiking trail telling me she was collecting souls — I figure they have a message for me. The message is to wake up. After 10,000 or so steps, I realized the man had given me an answer I’d been looking for.

I’ve been wanting to write a post about how to raise an adult, an activity that’s occupying me these last hundred days before my daughter leaves home. But I couldn’t, because I don’t know how to raise an adult. I was thinking I’d come up with a handy list of steps, like, say, the steps for growing corn. But it turns out growing corn isn’t that simple to sum up either. There’s the matter of soil, weather, temperature and pests: so many variables, too many unknowns.

When you’re a parent, every question you have is how, and every answer is do. All those ages and stages, milestones and thresholds, tests and percentages, transitions and regressions, variables and unknowns. But that’s in your head. In real life, to get where you’re going you just have to cross the street.

Forward motion: it happens.

Last week, a vote-by-mail ballot for the city election came addressed to my daughter. I sat beside her as she read the instructions, asked thoughtful questions and filled in the bubbles. Then she signed her name with a signature I’d never seen and wouldn’t have recognized. An adult.

Guess that’s how.

***

Coming up next:
What is Zen: A Retreat in Kansas City, April 13-15
Still Summer: A Zen Retreat in Ohio, Cincinnati July 5-8

 

no beginning no end

January 17th, 2018    -    3 Comments

Midstream
by Vicki Patschke

“So God, we . . . “
Every Sunday
our pastor begins the prayer
this way
as if already deep
in the middle
of a conversation
with God —
and we just joined in

I recall the words
of my Japanese calligraphy
teacher
the thick wet tip
of his bamboo brush
poised high above
a blank sheet of
rice paper —
The brush stroke begins
before
the ink touches the paper.

From invisible to visible
From silence to hearing
A message flows
through us
and we receive it
midstream.

“Blind Men Crossing the Bridge” by Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), ink on paper.
The poet is my cousin.

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