Posts Tagged ‘Time’

the bony end of a branch

July 16th, 2012    -    16 Comments

Where do you come from?

In the same way we have a physical lineage we have a spiritual one, although you may not yet know about yours. In the same way fruit derives its flavor from the soil, it takes it from the sun. Anything and everything that comes to us comes through a lineage, because that’s how life works. Nothing comes into existence any other way.

You might still think it’s weird that I’m a Zen Buddhist—not a choice you’d make—but you wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. That’s how lineage works. It’s not a choice of this or that. Not like inventing a new last name—make mine Rockefeller. Or like doctoring your eye color—I’ll take periwinkle blue. In lineage as in life, you get what you get. And then somewhere along the way, you get upset.

In my spiritual lineage, tracing more than eighty generations of Zen wisdom, one question is asked over and over again.

A student comes to meet a teacher, and the teacher asks, “Where do you come from?” The student replies, and from this, the teacher sees who stands there.

How would you answer?

Where do you think you come from?

From your parents? From your parents’ parents? From a place? From the place before that? From a time? Or the time before that? Before that? Before that?

How far back do you have to go to realize that you don’t know? How long before you know that you can’t ever know?

We are one family of unknown origin, the fruit of beginningless time, the descendents of everyone who has ever lived. The most we can know is that we do not know where we come from, and from that point on, everything becomes possible.

I am 55 years old. As the mother of a near-teen, I’m in the uneasy breach before the onset of an overthrow. My hair has grayed enough for me to be called gray-haired. Some of the freckles on my face are really liver spots, and the wrinkles are not just laugh lines. Life’s major milestones—those birthdays we call “The Big Ones”—have slipped past my reliable recollection. I have begun a stage of life where I am irritating to a precious few and invisible to everyone else. All these changes are as plain as day, but still, I can hardly believe it.

Here I am, petering past my prime, and here you are, just beginning that aching reach to sweetness. What will pass between us? What can I share?

Only this: the fruit on the bony end of a branch.

routine and ritual

March 15th, 2012    -    13 Comments

String enough good days together, like a macaroni necklace, and you’ve made a priceless treasure out of what you already have on hand.

This is a transcript of a talk on parenting wisdom that I gave at the local library. We all live at such a distance from one other I thought I’d just put it all up here. It’s geared to parents of children under age three, but the lessons are forever. Please share.

——

Often we approach our job as parents like this:

“I don’t know what I’m doing!”
“I’m over my head!”
“I’m lost!”
“I’m ruining my kid.”

So we seek more information, come to workshops, and pick up new tips. We want to give our children a solid advantage and even a head start. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I take a different approach. I like to help you find the wisdom you already possess, help you find your own way, and help you feel more secure in your everyday life so that you can say:

“We made it through. We did OK. It was a good day.”

String enough good days together, like a macaroni necklace, and you’ve made a piece of art, a priceless treasure out of what you already have on hand.

They say that children don’t come with instructions, so I’m not going to give you any new instructions. I want to talk about two tools that you already have, but that you may not be using enough. read more

they grow up soon enough

January 15th, 2012    -    18 Comments

We spent the day emptying drawers, sorting “keep” or “go,” hauling bags of trash and giveaways, swiping piles of dust. My husband and I have relented to buying my daughter a new bed, a bed entirely of her choosing, to match her self-image and sensibilities, a “teen” bed which will endure as the last blasted bed we buy her. It delivers tomorrow, and so today we cleaned out her room, meaning we cleaned out the most beloved 12 years of our lives. A day like this reminds me that all days are like this. I can’t say it any better than I did in Momma Zen:

“Form is emptiness,” Buddhism teaches. “And emptiness is form.” What could it possibly mean? It means this. It means I cried on the night of Georgia’s first birthday.

The bakery cake was ugly. She bawled in bewilderment at the crowd around the table. The presents didn’t interest her. She fled my arms to the cuddles of her babysitter. My shame was complete, but it was something else that brought me to tears. It was the finality. My baby was done with her first year. And despite my hurry, I was not. I had chosen this night to box up her baby clothes, refolding the tiny come-home things, sobbing at the poop and spit-up stains. They were already relics. How could it be over?

People will tell you so many things, passing on their hindsight and regrets. Love them when they are little. Cherish the early days. I would say it all again but I’m not sure you can hear it until you reach the other side, open your eyes and let the tears of recognition come. There is not one piece of life that you can grasp, contain or keep, not even the life you created and hold right now in your arms. I confess I never tried to slow it down, ever pushing forward to some imagined place of competence for me and independence for her. On this night, though, I could see how fast it all would go. How fast, how sad. Every happy day brimming with bittersweetness.

This is how it passes: no matter where we are we think of someplace else. The place before nighttime feedings, the place beyond twelve-a-day-diapers, the certain bliss that beckons from a distant shore.  This is how we spend our lives; this is how we spend their lives, motoring past milestones as if collecting so many merit badges.

We can be forgiven for this tendency, in part, because childhood is full of tests and measures, percentiles and comparisons. Bring your baby to the doctor’s office and they will plot her as a dot on a growth chart. I inscribed these glyphs dutifully on my calendar ­– how many pounds now, how many inches now – satisfied that we were safely on course to get somewhere. Where is that somewhere? Where is that place that I can relax the tension on the reins, ease off the accelerator?

Not one bit of life is a weight or a measure, a list or a date, a tick or a tock. It is never a result or an outcome. What it is, is a continual marvel, a wondrous flow without distance or gap, a perpetual stream in which we bob and float. We are buffered from nothing and yet never quite fully immersed because our thinking mind keeps eyeing the banks, gauging the current, scoping for landmarks and striving for some kind of perfect, elusive destination. There isn’t a destination. Life keeps going. It keeps going within us; when we’re not attentive, it keeps going without us. read more

be careful of the words

January 9th, 2012    -    68 Comments

This probably puts me in the category of a Kevin Costner sympathizer.

I’ve begun thinking in apocalyptic terms about what seems certain to be the demise of the US Postal Service. Admittedly, I’m a cultural throwback. I still think of writing as something that you do on paper, with your whole hand, in a cursive script that is elegant and intrinsic, like your DNA. I still think of community as consisting of people with bodies, using arms and legs and good manners to stand in line patiently at the post office, where we buy stamps, grouse about the three-penny price increase, see somebody we know, say a kind word, conduct our minor essential business, and go on our way, until next Monday or Thursday or tax season or the holidays.

I’ve noticed that they’ve started selling greeting cards in my little post office, which is ingenious, really, in a demoralizing way, since the only people who enter a post office these days are the sappy has-beens like me. People who saw those lame Kevin Costner movies in the 1990s predicting the disappearance of the post office, global warming, and the end of the world as we know it. And now we really do know it. read more

in a word, love

December 23rd, 2011    -    3 Comments

The mountains have more snow. Georgia dragged her jacket out today and went outside for one minute before she agreed it was too cold. She was happy to read and play inside today.

My sister sent me an envelope in the mail this week. She attached a short note:

“I found this today while going through a drawer of old letters. I think I found it in Mom’s room when cleaning up after her death. Regardless, it belongs with you. Now that Georgia is all grown up, it’s especially poignant.”

She ate a good supper of chicken and vegetables all by herself. When the spoon proves inefficient, she just digs in with both hands.

The date of the letter was Feb. 14, 2001. I think it was the last letter I sent to my mom before she died.

She thought the doctor’s office yesterday was one big hoot but the wait was boring. She is 20 lbs and 31 inches. She was very happy after her long nap and danced backwards and forwards to Barney before her Daddy came home.

Georgia was 18 months old. Not knowing what else to say to a dying woman, I put every little detail of my daughter’s day on the paper. I wanted my mother to be in her life. I wanted my mother to be alive.

Last night she had a bath in the big tub, and while she was squatting in the water, she pooped. That was a fast bath and a long cleanup. I bought her a small potty chair for her to look at and she thinks it is a waste of time and money. Good for holding Cheerios but nothing else.

I see how I was mimicking my mother’s style of correspondence. My sisters and I used to laugh at the quotidian details she put in her letters. Perhaps we thought she should make better use of the time and space to expound on worldly matters, things that would interest daughters like us.

Georgia misses her Grandpa to chase around the dinner table. She runs a circuit around the table or sofa every night. Where is he?!?

Mom died on April 13, 2001. Dad died on Nov. 25, 2005.

I will not tell you how my parents failed me; I will not tell you I despise my kin. I no longer indulge those conversations when there are more important things to say.

Our love and thanks for another day,
Karen & Family

My holiday wish for you.

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out of the chifforobe

October 28th, 2011    -    10 Comments

Staring from family photographs, we look
older than we are. Even as children, our faces
are shadowed with doubt and parental disappointment,
as if to say to those looking years from now:
We persist. We persevere. We do this for you.

– from “In the Olden Days” by Richard Newman

My grandmother’s house held the scent of a mothballed century. Time had locked itself in a cabinet called a chifforobe. The very word was one of the secrets it contained. I considered it a double mystery: first, that a country washerwoman would have a chifforobe, and second, that she would call it by that name, the frill of the double consonant like a vestige of lost extravagance.

Inside hung the few fancy dresses worn by my mother and her sisters to dances and weddings. On summer visits we granddaughters made charades with them. (Such frocks are kept for the sake of girlish fantasy.) But there were other things that held me for a longer stretch — old photographs of the dead and unnamed — my phantom ancestors. I would flip through shoeboxes full of sepia images, staring into the stiff and grim faces of related strangers.

My mother’s people were Wends, an odd and oppressed sort of religious colony, which like all colonies, no longer exists. Run out of Prussia in the late-nineteenth century, they settled in the purgatory of Central Texas where they were mostly poor farmers. (Except for my grandfather, who out of enterprise or foolishness later made himself the town barber, ensuring that he would remain the poorest among poor relations.) The Wends were serious about faith, hard work, and economy. The wedding portraits captured their high sobriety: the brides wearing black to signify the life of toil awaiting them. This foresight was not in the least bit faulty.

These were my kin, somber in face and fashion, weighted by work and gravity, and much younger than they looked. On the backs of some photos, salvaged from frames or torn from albums, were half-vanished names written in thin pencil.

What brings this to mind today? Is it the season? A poem about olden days drifted into my hands and moved me. I have been taken of late with the matter of lineage, and how we have largely disposed of its umbrage. We are a do-it-yourself culture. We believe we can manufacture anything with independence and initiative. Our heroes are the self-made who suggest that by clever sorcery we can conjure our own mythology. Perhaps it is my age that turns me back to face the accident of my birth, which was no accident.

I am not self-made. I have come from the persistent. I am the heir of disappointment and doubt. I came out of the chifforobe and I will yet join the ranks of its unremembered. Like all those before me, I do this for you, and it is all I can do.

Leaving me to wonder and to grieve.

Also inspired by the work of Michael Douglas Jones.

in the middle of forever

September 19th, 2011    -    8 Comments

The plane home was very late last night. The car battery, nearly dead. The house was dark. My mailbox was full. The violets on the kitchen table, wilted. To leave others at peace, I pulled a quilt from the hall closet and settled on the sofa, my mind still lit with the radiance of a weekend under the sun, the moon and the stars.

Sometimes you think you’re in the middle of nowhere. And then you look through the pitch blackness of the night and into the inconceivable shine of a mountain sky and know exactly where you are. You’re not in the middle of nowhere. You’re in the middle of forever.

If you can’t see the stars, see the moon. If not the moon, then the sun. And if you do not see the sun, watch your step and keep going.

Because this is what I found in my mailbox last night.

***

Where to learn how to watch your step:

The Plunge one-day retreat in Pittsburgh Oct. 1 (Now with a partners’ discount)
Beginner’s Mind one-day meditation retreat in LA Oct. 9
Love Beyond Limits parenting workshop in Athens, GA Oct. 22

the longest day of my life

August 30th, 2011    -    8 Comments

It’s the day before the start of middle school. I take my daughter to the campus to pick up her sixth grade class schedule. Half hidden by their summer growth spurts are the kids we’ve always known and yet never seen before.

Georgia gambols over the dusty grounds with a pack of friends while I sit under my hat like a mom perched on the rim of a playground. All the action is inside the circle.

Everything moves in patterns and cycles repeating, repeating.

The temperature cools. The sunset shaves off two minutes of daylight. It’s Tuesday, so I wheel the trash cans to the curb. Standing there I recall another dusk when I carried the baby to the sidewalk, so weary, so done, waiting for Daddy’s car to turn into view so I could end the longest day of my life.

It wasn’t long and it wasn’t over. The morning will come and I will love – I will really love – this day forever.

A sad prayer and promise for my happy friend Joan, on what began as another day and ended as her last.

love stories

August 22nd, 2011    -    38 Comments

I have two books and one story to give away this week. Like all stories, they are love stories.

A few weeks ago I answered an invitation to read and review this acclaimed new book, To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal. Why am I suddenly saying yes to reviewing books? Perhaps because it’s summer; perhaps to avoid my own writing. That’s okay. When it’s time to take your time, a book is as good as a day on the lake. Here the author dips into a favorite well of mine: how we tell old stories to ourselves; how we salvage, refinish, embroider, store, and vainly, always vainly, try to relive the past. The book has a vintage feel to it, like its solid hardcover heft. The characters are old-school and middle-aged; they can ring false to one another and sometimes to the reader as well. But there is a beating heart here that is pure, placid and wide. It is romance: the romance we can only lose, since romance is by definition long gone. And then when I read that the author was 63 years old, with 12 years between his first novel and this, his second, and that he builds homes for a living, and has an orange grove on his California homestead, well, I loved all that even more than the fiction. You know I have a thing about orange trees: they hold the fruit for a long time before they let it go. McNeal clearly knows how to take his time and he knows how to spend it. I’ll gladly send this one to you so you can love time all by yourself.

The publisher sent me a crisp new copy of that book with a chapter of mine in it, Right Here With You: Bringing Mindful Awareness into Our Relationships. It’s got all the Buddhist regulars in it, and a few of us irregulars, and I’m sure it’s good because the Dharma is always good. I haven’t read it because I don’t read the kind of books that have me in them, but be sure to ask if it’s right for you now.

And finally, I’ll send you a second time to the online excerpt from my most recent magazine article, “Waking up Alone,” in the current issue of the Shambhala Sun. The issue focuses on the wisdom of love, and my article is about how we never know what love is until the love story ends.

Leave a comment on this post with the name of either or both books, if you want them. I’ll choose a winner next Monday.

Less than three weeks til The Art of Mindfulness in Houston.

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that backward step

August 9th, 2011    -    10 Comments

I remember her voice, her self-introduction, so needless and formal, on the answering machine. “Karen, this is your Mom.” I listened quickly, so I wouldn’t hear what I was hearing. How long had she been announcing herself to me that way? All along? Not to disturb, not to impose, not to assume any rank or power in my all-together independent world? Mother to mother, I could recognize something now in the subtle way she stepped back and let go, even on an answering machine. Just love. — Momma Zen

On Friday my daughter turns 12. These are the days of the backward step. I do a lot of stepping back — out of her way, off of her back, to the other side of a newly closed door — but it’s still not enough. Give me a little more time, baby, to learn to let you go.

Today someone said to me, “It seems like only yesterday.”

“Not really,” I said. “It seems like forever.”

Love.

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hello my name is

September 21st, 2010    -    11 Comments

There exists only the present instant, a Now which always and without end is
itself new. There is no yesterday or any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a
thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.
Meister Eckhart

My teacher Nyogen Roshi sent that quote to me in an email recently, suggesting that “you might find it useful in one of your upcoming programs.” Emailing is something we do sparingly, our relationship resting solely on the alchemy of face-to-face proximity. The rarity of his emails ensures that they are highly visible; the fact is, every email I receive is itself rare and highly visible to me, or my practice has lapsed, as Meister Eckhart observes.

On Saturday at the Mother’s Plunge in Boston, I started the way I always start – by introducing myself. “My name is Karen Maezen Miller,” I said, and go on to tell them that “Karen is the name my mother gave me, Maezen is the name my Buddhist teacher gave me, and Miller is the name Mr. Miller gave me.” I use all three names, and in that way I carry forward three streams of wisdom inextricable to every moment of my life and work. My name is not just my name. It is my teaching. When I state my name I am also stating my practice: the realization that no part of my life is more or less important. No part battles with another because there are no parts. It is all one life and all one practice.

Among the many practical aspects of Zen training is the protocol of its form: the way certain customs are prescribed and therefore serve to eradicate self-consciousness and confusion. Zen training tells us where to put our arms and legs, for instance, which is a question of considerable consternation for most of us most of the time. Practical too is the protocol of my formal practice in the dokusan room, the private interview room within which I meet and work with my teacher face-to-face. Although I have practiced with Nyogen Roshi for 10 years, every time I meet with him in dokusan, which is at least once a week (and once a day during retreats) I begin by introducing myself. read more

give it the sun

May 4th, 2010    -    9 Comments

Gardens, like children, are forgiving; gardens grow. Love, even clumsy and unrefined, cultivates. Time, unhurried, is never wasted. Plants grow heavenward, strong and true, toward the even and ever-present light.

Right in front of me, in plain sight, I have finally seen what the full sun can do. The sun gives attention, and attention fixes everything. It is up to me to put into practice the larger lesson I’ve been shown.

If I encounter you on my way today, I’ll look at you and say hello.

If the phone rings, I’ll answer. If you send me a message, I’ll respond.

When my husband opens the front door, I’ll stop what I am doing to greet him.

When my daughter comes home from school, I will have nothing to do. We will have no place to run. We will lounge on the floor or linger on the lawn. When she speaks, I will listen, without steering the conversation to a conclusion. If she has a scheme, I’ll go along, and let her pull me off course. We will let the hours lapse and the afternoon drift. When she looks at me, and even when she doesn’t, I will embrace her in the shine of my smile.

Today, for a moment more than I think I can bear, I will give her attention. I will give you attention. I will give this world my complete attention. I will give it the sun.

Chapter 16, Hand Wash Cold

You’re just in time for two, count ’em, two giveaways of Hand Wash Cold this week: at the Wishstudio blog and at Imene’s Journey to a Happy Simple Life. Give them both your complete attention before the winners are named this weekend. Good luck!

For a pictorial reader’s guide to my home and garden, view the photo album on the Facebook Momma Zen fan page. Photos by Chris Bertrand.

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Mashed tomorrows and gravy

September 8th, 2009    -    13 Comments

mashed-potato“What day is tomorrow?” my daughter asks. She’s three years old and I couldn’t be more pleased that she has learned the days of the week.

It seems precocious, and more evidence of what I hope will be an accelerated future.

“Wednesday,” I say.

“No, what day is tomorrow?” she asks again.

“Today is Tuesday, so tomorrow is Wednesday.”

“But when is it tomorrow?”

I’m no longer sure what she is asking.

“It goes Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” she ticks them off. “But when is it Tomorrow?”

When is that day called “Tomorrow” that factors so eternally in our plans and schemes? I gape at her clear-eyed misperception, at her supremely intelligent confusion. How many times have I lost her in the mists of my ramblings about that never-to-come day?

Everything, it must seem to her, is going to happen Tomorrow. And for good reason: it’s where we adults live most of the time, straddling the yucky puddle of the here and now, teetering on our tippy toes to affix one foot on a better future. One we think we can control. It simply can’t be done, and so we keep toppling over, face first into our good intentions. We complain that our lives are out of balance, and wish we could one day learn how to live in the moment.

I hear a lot about living in the moment. I hear about how and why and when and how hard it is to live in the moment. The truth is, there is not a single person alive who is living anywhere but the moment. It’s just not the moment we have in mind. The moment we aspire to live in is a different kind of moment, a better kind. A moment of solitude, perhaps, of quiet satisfaction, of thrilling accomplishment or satisfying retribution, of deep confidence and unshakable certainty, with children asleep and ducks lined up and ships come in and an extra spoonful of gravy on top. That’s the moment we are waiting to relish.

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