Rising from the Dead

The other day when I arrived at work, my boss inquired how I was. Although I’m never sure whether people are asking a real question with that, I decided to treat it as one. I’ve had the flu and two colds over the past month, so I answered honestly, “I feel like Death, but I’m working on a resurrection.” Being a minister, he understood and seemed pleased that at least I had Easter on the brain despite being a Buddhist, which was why he didn’t want to hire me at the church in the first place. (Initially I considered his objection narrow-minded, but over time I’m beginning to understand it.) However, that’s not today’s topic.

My theme today is this: rising from the dead is a skill every adult needs to master sometime in life, just to survive. Erica Jong said, “Surviving means being born over and over again.” And she’s right. A life fully lived will naturally require a series of rebirths — if this isn’t happening, we’re staying too small. And with apologies for stating the obvious, to be reborn you have to die first.

My first demise occurred after leaving my marriage. Although I knew this was the right thing to do, it still hurt. A lot. And I felt dead, or barely alive, for a while. One day I escorted my zombie self to the farmers’ market in Monterey, California, amidst a bustle of people and gorgeous produce and smells of handmade quesadillas, and I ran into a fluffy dog the size of a small bear, with silvery, black-tipped fur. I remember the shock: There are still beautiful things in the world. When I touched his improbably soft coat, everything shifted — I’d been born again.

The next death happened not too long afterward (this was the time of my Saturn Return, and when you live in California, it’s helpful if your meltdowns accord with astrological phenomena — it makes explaining them much easier). I suffered repetitive motion injury in my hands and elbows, bad enough that I couldn’t hold a coffee cup.

Afraid I’d never be able to write again, I considered killing myself. I was determined that if things got to where I had to depend on my family or friends to take care of me, I’d check out early. My roommate and best friend at the time said to me, “I know it seems impossible, but there will come a day when all this will be behind you.” I was dubious, but figured there was no harm in waiting to see if his prediction came true. Killing yourself is something you can always do later. And he was right. It took a while, but everything turned over again.

I haven’t died lately, but I wouldn’t put it past myself; I’m prepared for as many lives as it takes to get through this one with whatever aplomb and grace I can muster. To live large in the sense of experiencing all I can, preferring regrets of commission to those of omission, collaborating with life instead of resisting it, not indulging self-pity, inertia, or fear. At least not for long — inviting them in for coffee is okay; I just don’t let them make themselves at home.

The writer Wallace Stegner said:

Largeness is a lifelong matter…. You grow because you are not content not to. You are like a beaver that chews constantly because if it doesn’t, its teeth grow long and lock. You grow because you are a grower. You’re large because you can’t stand to be small.

So how do we do it? Where’s the Youtube video on how to resurrect yourself in five easy steps?

Suggestions, anyone? Amazing true stories of coming back from the dead? I believe anyone who’s truly risen to the occasions of more than a few decades has pulled a Lazarus at least once — has died to the self they used to know, and lived to tell about it. And the thing is, if you pull it off even once, you forever know it can be done, which changes your experience of every death thereafter.

To life. 

April Fool’s Manifesto

I believe nothing stays hidden, so lying is a waste of time.
I believe in bravery.
I believe in taking nothing for granted.
I believe in loving those around me to the best of my ability.
I believe all weather is worthy.
I believe in signs and synchronicity.
I believe I could die anytime and be at peace with my life.
I believe if we pay attention and live long enough we’ll come to learn what matters.
I believe in winning and losing with grace.
I believe espresso makes life better.
I believe in not being limited by what people think.
I believe everything changes, and this is a beautiful thing.
I believe in the future even though it’s hypothetical.
I believe in making my own happiness.
I believe in not believing everything I think.
I believe tradition makes a lousy excuse for not thinking things through.
I believe in a thinking heart and a feeling mind.
I believe in passion.
I believe in balance.
I believe in keeping things simple unless you can’t or they aren’t.
I believe in the fundamental equality of all things.
I believe in listening attentively.
I believe in smelling everything.
I believe in looking beneath surfaces.
I believe this country could do way better.
I believe in people who grow up and keep growing.
I believe more in questions than answers.
I believe home is where you make it.
I believe in adventure.
I believe mirrors have nothing much to say.
I believe in ideals and in reality.
I believe in the power of words.
I believe in silence.



Living a Fine Life


In honor of the old New Year’s Day (today), I thought I’d offer some new old words — the text of a sermon I gave about a month ago. It’s a bit longer than my usual post, but you’re free to stop at any point — I’ll never know!


First of all, I need to admit that the title of this morning’s sermon comes from the cork to a wine bottle. I feel a little bad about that, though obviously not bad enough. The full inscription reads: Living a fine life is an art form. I like this. It did lead me to wonder what Robert Mondavi considers a fine life. Probably safe to assume it includes a lot of wine.

Whether or not we paint, play music, or dance, we’re all the artists of our own lives. Although we sometimes experience the events of life as random, true randomness is rare. Everything has a cause, and even when we’re not trying to make a design, patterns are created.

The circumstances of our lives sometimes feel beyond our control, and in fact they often are. But this is part of the art: every medium has its potentials and limits, and it’s these idiosyncrasies that make creativity possible. Creativity isn’t making something out of nothing, or out of anything; it’s making something out of a given set of materials and conditions.

The sculptor Andy Goldsworthy makes art in nature, using materials he finds at hand: arches and cairns of ice and stone, leaves of rainbow colors sewn together with thorns. He has a vision of what he wants to make, and then his vision meets the conditions of the given day – temperature, light, wind, rain.

He says, “Perfection in every work is not the aim. I prefer works that are fashioned by the compromises forced on me by nature, whether it be an incoming tide, the end of the day, thawing snow, shriveling leaves, or the deadline of my own lifetime.”

We’re given certain bodies and minds, talents and shortcomings, families and environments, and challenged to make something of them. We do this through a lifetime’s worth of choices—how we spend our time and energy, what we think about, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives.

These stories, our interpretations of our lives, are powerful. They can give us enthusiasm and inspiration for the future, or mire us in a version of the past, accurate or not, that saps our vitality and will. In our effort to create lives we can believe in and be inspired by, some of our greatest obstacles are the force of habit, the weight of who we think we are, our conditioning.

How do we liberate ourselves from these habits of mind that impede our freedom of action and choice? We pay attention to our patterns, imagine alternate ways of thinking and being, and fire our determination to transform ourselves and our world.

This is a kind of artistic alchemy … turning bitterness into beauty. An oyster does this instinctively, transforming an irritating grain of sand into a pearl. We have to use our creativity. Although we have limited power to control the experiences we have, we get to choose how we interpret them, what we make of them, and most importantly, what we allow them to make of us.

In our daily lives, we can ask ourselves, What am I doing exactly? Am I really doing that again? Yes, I am. I’m doing that pointless, destructive thing againAnd you watch yourself doing that stupid thing for awhile, as if you were a character in a movie. Part of you is shouting at the top of your lungs, “Stop!” The rest of you is moving like a robot on autopilot, unstoppable.

It’s painful, because you know how this story ends; you’ve seen it play out a million times. You know it’s not a happy ending, and yet you can’t change it. And it feels like you never will. But after a lot of attention, instead of noticing your pattern belatedly or as a crime in progress, you start to see what you’re about to do before you do it. This is good. Although you still might find yourself powerless to intervene. You know you should, but you can’t help yourself. Yet.

However, each time there’s a fraction more space between perception and action. And one shining day, there’s enough space that you can take a few deep breaths and say, “You know what? I’m not going to do that thing this time. I’m going to do something else…ANYTHING else.”

Each time you choose to do something else, you exercise your freedom, and your freedom grows stronger. And each time you see the results of taking a different action, you’ve conducted a successful experiment in cause and effect, which gives you more data to inform your next choice.

We believe that the past influences the future, and that’s true. But it’s one of the strange and wonderful properties of art and life that the future also alters the past. History, memories—these things are revised continually in light of new insights and unfolding events.

We have one experience of a story or a life in the moment, and then we have different understandings and experiences of it, depending what happens next, depending how it ends. Miles Davis said, “If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you play that determines whether that note was good or bad.”

This means that our lives are completely redeemable in each moment, depending what we do now, what we do next. This moment is the culmination of everything that has happened before now, and the seed of everything to come. So nothing is lost or wasted. Although some things take a long time to learn. “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.” This is how delusion becomes enlightenment.

The truth is that after a certain age, we’re responsible for how our lives look, for what they are. To the extent that we shift this responsibility onto circumstance or other people, we deprive ourselves of our creative agency, our power, to make and remake ourselves and our lives according to our deepest values.

The meaning of life isn’t something “out there,” an objective truth waiting to be discovered; it’s something each of us makes for ourselves, a tapestry woven from within. The writer and photographer Wright Morris says: “The final act of coherence is an imaginative act, and the person who created the parts of a life must create the whole into which they fit.”

The point isn’t to fashion your life or your self to fit some ideal image. Instead, it’s a matter of attending to what’s real, to who you are and what your life is. How can you create beauty and meaning, according to your own definitions, from the raw materials of your life as it is now? Because the quality of your everyday life is your most honest answer to the question, “What do you love?”

And this brings us to the motivation for this life’s work of choosing and refining, of crumpling paper into a ball and starting over. The motive isn’t only aesthetic, the appreciation of a good story, the desire for a happy ending. Making our life into something of beauty is an offering to the people and things we love.

The poet Rilke wrote: “Love does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?). [Love] is a high inducement for an individual to ripen, to become something in himself…to become world in himself for the sake of another.”

I believe this is the greatest offering we can make, not only to those we love, but to the world at large: the gift of creative engagement with our lives, the gift of our attention and reverence. I love winter, but lately my mind’s been turning to thoughts of summer. So I’ll end with a poem some of you may know.

The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

This is the question life asks us, freshly in every moment. It’s never too soon, or too late, to answer.

Thank you for your attention.



All the Pretty Horses

Long before morning I knew that what I was seeking to discover was a thing I’d always known. That all courage was a form of constancy. That it was always himself that the coward abandoned first. After this all other betrayals came easily. I knew that courage came with less struggle for some than for others but I believed that anyone who desired it could have it. That the desire was the thing itself…. I could think of nothing else of which that was true. — Cormac McCarthy

I’ve always aspired to be a person of courage. This word comes from the French for “heart,” and I’ve thought it would be enough if my tombstone read, truthfully, “She had heart.” In his beautiful novel All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy writes that the desire for courage is the thing itself, but I’m dubious of this assertion, poetic though it is.

One reason I can’t claim bravery is the sheer number and variety of my fears. A partial resume: heights, enclosed spaces, large animals, small children, public speaking, hospitals, power tools, electrical outlets, introducing myself to people I don’t know, driving in large cities, dying alone, making the same mistake over and over. It seems new sources of trepidation are added (or emerge into consciousness) daily. Even worse, obstacles don’t cease to intimidate me after I’ve cleared them once or twice, or even dozens of times. Which seems both counterintuitive and downright unfair.

To me there’s a continental divide between longing for a quality and embodying it. Unless the longing is accompanied by a huge effort. One of my resolutions this year was to pay attention to the specter of fear, and how I engage with it. I have plenty of opportunities to do this because one of my jobs regularly requires me to do things that terrify me.

Why did I take this job? I thought it would be interesting to see what happened: whether I could do the things I was afraid of or not. And I believe the work is meaningful, so there’s reason to persevere past the fear, or hurtle over it. Although otherwise not a fan of track in school, I loved jumping hurdles. It felt true to life: that you run along, and up pops one thing after another, and you have to find a way over or around or under them. Run, leap/dodge, repeat. I found this rhythm more interesting than straight running — thrilling, even.

I once asked a psychologist sitting next to me at lunch: Why are the things we fear and those we love often the same? He looked at me quizzically and said, “I don’t think most people are like that.” I thought he must not be a very good therapist if he made people who talked to him feel they were weird. Or maybe it was just me. Perhaps if I’d introduced myself?

Unlike track, life doesn’t usually offer prizes for meeting mundane fears and refusing, politely or defiantly, to stand down. But once in a while, there’s a photo.

I saw this guy all the way down the beach, rearing and kicking his hind legs. Telling my companion, “I’ve always been scared of horses,” I planned to give him a wide berth. But as we drew up, I thought, How often does this happen? This is an opportunity; he’s right here. I walked over to the young woman holding him and confided my misgivings. She gave me a carrot to feed him, and I patted his forehead. (I’d like to point out that although we look the same height in the photo, he was MUCH bigger.) Just when my breathing was stabilizing, the young woman remarked brightly that she’d trained him to kiss — on the mouth. I looked that day’s gift horse in the mouth and decided we didn’t need to rush. “We just met,” I demurred. “Maybe next time.”

For the rest of the day, I savored a quiet jubilation. “I patted a horse,” I reminded myself, less in triumph than wonder. “If that can happen, what can’t happen?”

I think this is what I love most about walking into fear: it widens the world of possibility. What I’m seeking to discover is a thing I’ve always known: anything can happen — the root of all our fears and also the reason for hope.

Reverend Who?

It’s been three years and three weeks since my ordination, and I’m still figuring out what exactly I did that winter morning, and why. I had a feeling then that answering this question would take a lifetime, or what’s left of it anyway.

A daughter of two dyed-in-the-wool atheists, I was raised to be mistrustful of religion as the source of (or at least the excuse for) much conflict, persecution, and general woe. When I asked my parents whether there was a god, they duly answered, “If you believe there’s a god, then there is one.” A clever locution, and true as far as it goes, but it was too reminiscent of what they’d said about Santa, and we know how that turns out.

I don’t like groups, rules, labels, dogma, or hierarchy; even the mild-mannered word “community” makes me itchy. So how did I end up like this: a zen priest, with a credential paving the way to emptiness: no post or salary, just a life spent doing something hardly anyone (including me) understands, wearing an outfit that puts people in mind of a somber penguin?

I have only one ambition in life. I want to inspire, empower, cajole, provoke, and if all else fails, berate people into living the best lives they can: lives that bring the greatest joy with the least collateral damage to themselves and others.

I’d like to say I’ll use any means necessary, just because the phrasing sounds cool (I was very taken with Machiavelli in junior high), but the means turn out to be pretty straightforward as far as I can see: marshaling the beauty of words to express a version of the truth, being open to anyone I meet, considering the consequences of my actions, and trying not to contribute further bullshit to the existing totals.

It doesn’t sound too hard, does it? Or too elevated either. And yet it’s a job, and a full-time one at that. Time to get to work.

Valentines 50%

Driving home tonight I saw the sign above, which inspired this belated V Day post (the holiday that never goes away, even when you wish it would).

I gave a sermon at church this past Sunday about love and other wonders. I quoted my favorite lines on the subject, from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Love does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?). [Love] is a high inducement for an individual to ripen, to become something in himself…to become world in himself for the sake of another.”

Here and now, at the age of 45, I’m not confident I can say what love is. This is just one of many things I feel less able to define now than twenty years ago. At this rate, I won’t be capable of asserting anything by the time I die. Which is a bit of a professional liability for a writer and minister. Although if I run out of certainty at the same time I run out of breath, there’s good timing (and poetic justice) in that.

On the upside, I feel more clear on what love isn’t. This might be a habit of mind acquired from hanging in zen circles, where concepts are often elucidated through negation, like “Not one, not two” or “No form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness.”

Be that as it may, here’s what I think love isn’t: it isn’t one person saving another. I’ve tried to rescue people I loved, and failed miserably. Either the project is fundamentally flawed, or I’m lousy at it. Both are possible, but I lean toward the first interpretation. In my experience, people save themselves — by dint of imagination and awe-inspiring hard work; that’s pretty much what it takes to free a person, as far as I can see. And I believe it’s by definition an inside job.

At the Indianapolis airport, there’s a mural that lifted my heart like a bird every time I saw it. In aqua and azure glass, the Mari Evans poem “Celebration”:

I will be bringing you someone whole
and you will be bringing me someone whole
and we be twice as strong
and we be twice as true
and we will have twice as much
of love
and everything

Ready when you are.


Shoveling Snow with Buddha


I’m a bit written out at the moment because of preparing my sermon as guest minister at church this Sunday, so I’ll simply offer this poem as an emblem of life in the Northeast over the past several days; I think Billy Collins has captured it beautifully — “so much better than a sermon in church”!

Shoveling Snow With Buddha

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

“Here We Are, Living in Paradise”

Back to so-called reality after four days of silence and slow time — four largely exhausted and distracted days, this time around. But that’s all right. Sometimes the best you can say of an experience is that you didn’t give up, and I can say that at least. And a few more things…

I consider the place I return after these meditations “so-called reality” for two reasons. First, there isn’t only one reality; each of us lives in her or his own, which makes for a rich life together. And many misunderstandings too. Also, I want to challenge our common assumption that the world of jobs and relationships and errands is more real than the landscape of thoughts, feelings, and dreams.

There’s a zen story about a man waking from a dream of sipping nectar and shimmering gauzy wings: for a moment, he’s uncertain whether he’s a man who was dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly who is dreaming of being a man.

When I began intensive meditation, I was very clear on which was the real reality, and sitting seemed a vacation from it. I’m now a decade less sure. Having experienced how strongly our invisible inner world colors our experience of the visible outer one, I’m no longer willing to say which is more real. So I take the easy way out and concede they’re equally real — the trick is acknowledging this and learning to navigate gracefully between them: the narrow, winding middle way.

Which might explain why when I headed to my favorite coffee shop the morning after and sat with an espresso, listening to Yo-Yo Ma on the radio and looking out the window at snow falling diagonally, I felt I was doing exactly what I’d been doing for four days; I’d just changed the scenery.

Later in the day, feeling I needed to be “productive,” I decided to tackle my underwear emergency and managed to make it to the laundromat next door. This felt like a decisive step in the direction of the “real” world: fluorescent lights, trash overflowing its bins, sickly sweet detergent smell. I must be “Back” now. Then I caught sight of my reflection in the washer door: sitting perfectly upright on a metal folding chair amidst hyperactive brightness, watching clothes whirl around like the errant thoughts and feelings of the past days. I’d gotten nowhere again. Maybe because there isn’t anywhere to get? Because it all really is one world?

My zen teacher said once that if you’re really practicing, meditation isn’t part of your life; life is part of your meditation.

Butterfly or man?

Into Middling Silence

Things will be quiet on the blog for a while; I’m about to enter into my version of the “great silence”: four days of sitting meditation from whenever I wake up until it’s time to go to bed. I thought I’d try to explain why I do this, since it’s a question I’ve never felt able to answer adequately when people have (quite reasonably) asked.

The school of zen that I study offers lots of arguments for why meditation is a good thing, although at the same time it emphasizes that you shouldn’t do it for any of these reasons — that you should practice without a “gaining idea,” because any agenda you adopt will corrupt your practice. You should sit purely for its own sake, just as you should cook for the sake of cooking and not for the meal to come, and work for the sake of the work rather than the salary or status.

There’s a lot to be said for this approach; it has purity and integrity to it, and it frees a person from dependence on results, which are at least partly outside one’s control. I find it relaxing to do something with no ulterior motive, nothing to be gained or lost, no way to succeed or fail.

It’s also a remarkable experience to step outside time for a few days — no need to look at a clock, no sense of pressure or deadlines or expectations; nowhere to go, nothing to do. Which isn’t to say four days of staring at a wall is easy; it isn’t. I get bored. I get tired. Knees hurt. Back hurts. Parts of my body I’ve never heard from before hurt.

But the stillness and solitude let me experience what I think and feel when left to my own devices, without distraction or influence. So I’m reminded who I am in a fundamental way. It also brings home, again and again, moment after moment, the unsettling truth that our experience of our lives is completely conditioned by our minds. Depending what I think about and how I think about it, I’ll feel joyful or sad, frustrated or angry. For four days, nothing is happening — I’m sitting facing a wall. That’s it. So anything I experience is my full responsibility; there’s no blaming anyone else! And how many rich and colorful experiences parade through my mind and body over the hours: memories, fantasies, reflections, daydreams — all with their attendant emotions, as intense as any I experience “in real life”.

The insight that enticed me into zen practice was a simple one: I realized that stress I perceived as being imposed on me by external events arose entirely from my approach to them. I wondered how many other things in life were like this? Seventeen years and countless hours of wall gazing later, I’d say most are. There are ways to think about the world that compound the natural suffering of life, and there are ways that mitigate it. Being able to choose between them is the most important kind of freedom.

So there’s an argument for “silence and slow time,” as John Keats called it. And I could claim that’s my reason for sitting; it sounds pretty persuasive, at least in this moment, having just written it. This is the explanation I’d give if I were speaking about meditation as a zen priest. And I don’t doubt meditation’s potential to spring us free of our self-forged chains, especially if we don’t pursue it with that goal, or any goal.

But I suspect my real motive is simpler. It sounds flimsy as a reason, and I don’t think it helps anyone else meditate, so I usually keep it to myself. But the truth is, I like it. Scratch that. I love it, for reasons I don’t understand any better today than the day I began. But that’s all right. Where there’s love, who needs reasons?

Back in a bit.



This Saturday marked the six-month anniversary of my move to Maine, a place I’ve been drawn to since childhood, when I came here a few times with my family.

On that morning, I woke up early to prepare to give my first zen talk here. I’m amazed I’ve been able to do this so soon. I assumed it would take a long time to find interested people, and that I’d be living my zen life privately, like a hermit. I wasn’t bothered by this prospect; in some ways it felt comfortable and safe. But a friend invited me to give a class at her house, and to our surprise, people responded with curiosity and enthusiasm.

I should have been nervous that morning; I can be shy, and at some level I don’t feel comfortable putting on a uniform of priest robes (four layers of them!) that sets me apart from other people. It offends my sense of democracy, and my conviction that everything in the world is teaching us in every moment, if only we care to listen.

All that notwithstanding, I’d committed to talking to a group of people, many of whom I hadn’t met, about impermanence and how to love it. This is the central vow I took when I ordained — that I would share whatever I learned and try to help people in their quest for joy and meaning. This is what I promised to do. But as a private person, talking about the things that matter most to me isn’t easy. What if people don’t understand? What if they fall asleep? What if I walk away feeling I should have done better?

As I was attempting to gather myself, I got to the bottom line. The bottom line is that for better or worse, this is me — the deepest thing I have to offer of myself. All I can do is muster the courage to make the offering; I can’t control how it’s received.

So I donned the four layers and rang my friend’s beautiful crystal bell and opened my mouth. I felt like myself. And at the end, instead of the silence I expected, other people shared themselves in return, offering questions and insights from their own lives.

To me there’s no better feeling in the world than offering your self, and having it be something that people actually want.


When I first started studying zen, a teacher asked a group, “What would you tell someone who was old and felt they’d wasted their life?” She was preparing for a trip to New York, where she felt she might be asked this question by her audience. I was thirty at the time and appalled by the idea of someone feeling this way when it was basically too late to do anything about it. It reminded me of a line from the film Out of Africa: a character declines a marriage proposal by saying, “I don’t want to find out one day that I’m at the end of someone else’s life.”

Somehow it’s hard for me to imagine a worse fate, although I know there are plenty available and experienced daily all over this planet. This is a privileged person’s dilemma, certainly, but a dilemma nonetheless: awaking suddenly from decades of cozy somnambulation to the nightmarish realization that somehow one has wound up in the entirely wrong life.

How does this happen? Societal brainwashing? Fear? Practical exigencies? Habitual dishonesty? Or a gradual turning of attention away from one’s inner voice and life; like any voice responding to years of neglect, this inner witness finally gives up and stops talking.

“To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you that you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive,” promises Robert Louis Stevenson. What he doesn’t explain is how to do this exactly: how to discern what you, in the deepest reaches of your complicated self, actually want, and how to muster the courage to refuse the myriad alternatives urged on you in the name of various modern-day gods: reason, security, success, popularity. In short, how to save your own life — not because yours is better than any other, but simply because it’s yours, and it fits.

I’ve often thought it would be enough if I can just make my own mistakes, fiascos unfolding naturally from my own character and experiences, rather than my misguided attempts to be someone else.


Ideas of Order Revisited

“Hang on tightly; let go lightly.” That’s the motto of the protagonist of the movie Croupier, and it has a lot to recommend it. We all have visions of how we’d like things to go, and it’s worth working toward them with resolve and integrity: this effort helps lend meaning and purpose to our lives. At the same time, what actually happens results from myriad causes and conditions, many of them beyond our control. Which means that letting go is as essential a skill as holding on: knowing what to let go of, and when, and how.

Robinson Jeffers offers a beautiful image of this delicate balance between hanging on and letting go in his poem “Rock and Hawk”:

I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,

But this: bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final

Life with calm death; the falcon’s
Realist eyes and act
Married to the massive

Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud.

How do we inhabit this “fierce consciousness joined with final disinterestedness”? The unwavering dedication to perceiving things as they are, to fully accepting the reality of a situation while simultaneously working to transform it, and most of all, transform ourselves through it. That’s the valiant consciousness, and conscience.

And at the same time, relinquishing our ego-driven attachment to results, cultivating a “final disinterestedness” — not meaning we don’t care, but that we “win” or “lose” with grace. There’s the underlying humility and honesty to acknowledge that our conceptions of winning and losing, success and failure, can be flawed or downright deluded, narrow and selfish.

It’s been helpful to me to believe in my thoughts and feelings just enough, yet not too much. Mysticism shares its root with mystery, and part of “massive mysticism” is accepting not knowing — at a fundamental level, we’re open to the possibility that our ideas of order might be “all frogged up,” as my niece says. This window of doubt on a foundation of faith is our openness to learning from life, and to growing beyond the limits of our world as we know it.

The Idea of Order

Living on the edge today, writing in the morning before my espresso infusion. What I have instead is the intense gold of sunrise meeting the ice feathering my storm windows, so that every one looks like stained glass.

Between waking and getting up, I was thinking of a Wallace Stevens poem, from which I’ve borrowed today’s title. I sometimes work where the forces of entropy reign with even more vigor than customary. Recently I was attempting to console someone who had exceeded their tolerance for chaos on that particular day. Like me, this person is relatively organized, which makes coping with recalcitrant disorder challenging. I said, “Basically our job is to try to wrangle even a slight increase in functionality and grace out of this. If we can manage that, we’re doing great!”

In his excellent and entertaining book Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton identifies two paths to experiencing feelings of success. The first is stellar achievement; the second is modest expectations. Although the routes are qualitatively different, their net impact on our satisfaction with ourselves and our lives is the same.

More later…off to Portland now.

Here We Are. Where Are We?

I’m forty-five years old. Today I made a perfect espresso by accident, progressed two phone calls closer to either getting my car fixed or not, requested a form from my doctor that will allow me to request more forms, edited commentary on 13th-century Japanese poems, and attempted to explain to an intelligent person born in Taiwan why we say “the University of Wisconsin” but not “the U.S. society”. My explanation didn’t sound convincing to my ears, although she seemed to follow it. I wonder if it’s possible to (accidentally?) elucidate something you don’t understand yourself. I certainly hope so; in some ways I feel I’ve staked the meaning of my life on this very activity.

Or the meaning of life might be that after a day of frustration of various colors and stripes, I found myself staring at the pale green and yellow of a picture-perfect avocado on a bamboo board and thinking, “That’s almost too beautiful to be real.”

On my desk I keep a jaundiced clipping from The Japan Times, nearly a decade old now. It cites a “former Japanese Cabinet minister arrested on charges of breach of trust in connection with several failed financial institutions”:

Today’s Quote:

 “I had thought very carefully about committing hara-kiri over this, but I overslept this morning.”

This has got to be one of my favorite statements ever. Who are we to let suicidal intentions, however honorable, take precedence over a good night’s sleep? Not to condone the whole breach of trust thing, but this guy clearly has at least a few of his priorities straight.

So here we are. And where are we, again?

“Stories That Haven’t Ended Yet”

A line from a song confesses, “I’m no good at stories that haven’t ended yet.” I remember telling a friend I just wanted to know what was going to happen in my life. He said, “You know what’s going to happen–you’re going to die.”

This impatience with the time it takes life to unfold, intolerance for all the hours of not knowing, feels like a constant companion of the past forty-five years; even as a child I was in a rush to grow up, although I don’t know why. Like skimming a book for its plot, do we miss the full resonances of events, their meaning, in our hurry to resolve our suspense? Where we are now is a place too.

In these early days of a fresh year, I feel myself yearning to be further along on my projects and dreams…already! I keep reminding myself, “You’ve made a beginning; that’s enough for now.” When my students in Japan became frustrated with the pace of mastering English, I told them: “To learn anything, you only have to do two things. First, have the courage to start. You’ve done that already–congratulations! Next, don’t give up. That’s all.”

Or as Miguel de Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote: “Patience, and shuffle the cards.”