Heavy Rain Events

About a week ago, after a long meditation, I started feeling as if I had the flu, a gentle, weird kind of flu, reminiscent of the giardia I experienced my first winter at the zen center. I went to the library for DVDs and found myself face-to-face with a poster about Lyme disease. And then I remembered the tiny tick bite a few weeks back.

The last ten days have been full of research. And cascading emotions: frustration at the bureaucracy involved in finding a doctor and the politicized disagreement on Lyme diagnosis and treatment, anxiety about making the “right” decisions amid many unknowns, and simple fear.

A friend joked about “working my zen magic” and I admitted that zen seemed to have flown out the window this week. Which reminded me of a teacher’s comment: “I want a practice that will see me through blindness, cancer, death, through anything.” That always made sense to me — that spiritual practice (which is essentially an expression of love) has to be unconditional to be meaningful.

For me practice means how we live our lives day to day, a way of being in the world that we can embody no matter what’s happening. That’s the theory. How to make it real in every moment, including the scared, sick, uncertain ones?



“I was waiting on a moment
but the moment never came.
All the billion other moments
were just wasting all away.
I must have been dreaming.”
— The Flaming Lips

I love this song and its title, “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell.” Ego tripping by arrogantly rejecting the actual moment for an idea (usually flawed) of a moment that would be better, if only it were real. Better for whom? What’s the calculus for the moment we have in mind? Anytime we deny or dismiss what’s occurring, we escort ourselves to the gates of hell. We can’t love everything that happens, but we have to respect its reality. Embracing the real is the condition for living in this world rather than an idea of it, the prerequisite for both cherishing and transforming it.



First, a disclaimer: I’m thinking now that half a margarita before dinner and writing might have been a mistake. Although a delicious one, as some mistakes are. So I’m drinking the other half with a mug of green tea, hoping they’ll balance each other out.

I’ve been wanting for a while to write about creativity. A recent cartoon in The New Yorker was titled “Creation: The True Story”.

“On the first day, God created nothing, because there was plenty of time. Second day: same deal. ‘Why rush?’ On the third day, He created a list. On the fourth day, He was not in the right mood. On the fifth day, all this stuff was going on. You don’t want to know. On the sixth day, God created the whole shebang. On the seventh day, He rested.”

For me this captures the creative process precisely: riding the tides of mood, energy, confidence, inspiration, and distraction while desperately holding on and hoping something worthy happens eventually.

Creation, like everything else, depends on relationship — with yourself, with your audience, with whatever you’re making. Historically this relationship has been personified through the muse.

Growing up, I found the muse trope annoying, mainly because of its gender stereotyping: muses were women, the artists they inspired, men — everyone knew that. I resented the assignment of stereotypically feminine characteristics to the muse: capriciousness, for example. For a long time, I had no truck with the muse racket; people had to shoulder responsibility for their own inspiration, that was that.

Somewhere along the way, my thinking changed, as it does, possibly not often enough. These days I envision the muse as someone to talk to: someone who listens, asks thought-provoking questions, makes inspiring contributions, and never interrupts — the ideal conversation partner.

A muse might be someone you know, or want to be known by. Someone you’re trying to inspire, convince, entice. In this case, your agenda will determine your expression. Or the muse might be anonymous — an otherness of undefined qualities, nothing to cater to or defy.

I go back and forth between these conceptions (capricious, I know). What matters most is that I imagine someone listening. Because if not, there’s no point to talking. Although I do sometimes talk to myself and let people eavesdrop.

I started this blog in January with the admirable goal of posting daily, the mere contemplation of which makes me tired. I didn’t tell anyone about it or take measures to help people find it. I did let it slip once in a call with my sister who, ever alert, inquired why she hadn’t heard this before. “Well, it’s a secret,” I answered lamely, demonstrating my mastery of the explanation that explains nothing.

“A secret? On the internet?” she cross-examined, demonstrating the impeccable logic that has lanced many a fine delusion. Then she offered the suggestion which is probably responsible for the survival of this blog to date. “You might find it easier to keep writing if you told people, so they could read it and talk back.”

The truth is, everyone who writes or has ever written has been talking to someone, a someone either particular or hypothetical, phenomenal or absolute. I’m ambivalent about the proliferation of technology, which has exponentially increased the frequency of communication to the detriment of its quality — depth, beauty, and thoughtfulness. With words, more isn’t better.

Yet it’s an incredible boon for anyone with a computer to be able to express herself freely and feel, rightly or wrongly, that someone out there is listening. So here’s the deal: I’ll keep writing once a week or so. You keep reading when you can. And maybe drop me a line once in a while?


What Then Must We Do?

I was going to write about muses today, but I’m in a different kind of mood after driving by an assembly of stuffed animals getting rained on a few streets away. The animals are gathered next to the sidewalk because a man killed his family and himself in the apartment building there a couple of weeks ago.

I’d been resisting reading about it, the way I often resist the news, because most of the time it doesn’t help. But after I drove by, I knew I’d have to read the story, if only as an act of witnessing. The police said the man had financial problems and was depressed, and his wife was being treated for drug abuse. The neighbors said they were a nice family. One man offered, “If you want to kill yourself, that’s one thing, but Christ, give your kids a chance to have a life, to have something.”

I think one of the hardest things to accept is that actions, no matter how crazy they seem on the outside, usually make sense within the framework of the actor’s perceptions. This is profoundly disturbing, that there’s an inner world in which killing three young children could “make sense”. It feels better to say we don’t understand, to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and such a world.

I’m thinking of a scene in Sam Mendes’ movie Away We Go, about a couple searching for a suitable home for their coming child. Lying in bed one night, the woman turns to her partner and asks, “Are we fuck-ups? Maybe we’re fuck-ups.”

Who hasn’t felt that sometimes? If you feel it long enough, and if you have three young children, it might come to seem an act of mercy to spare them the world you know, the one you’ve made with your life. I’m not saying this thinking is right, but I don’t find it difficult to understand. Of course, I don’t know what was in the father’s mind; no one does. And the time for help has come and gone.

So what can we do with this? From another film, one of my favorites, The Year of Living Dangerously: “I support the view that you just don’t think about the major issues. You do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light.” Not that pondering the “major issues” is bad; I just find it incapacitating, much as I find reading the news incapacitating.

What helps is to do something, to do anything we can for the lives in front of us, and to keep doing things, even if we sometimes wonder if we might be fuck-ups, or the people around us might be. To continue asking, what’s the best thing to do right now?

Right now I need something easy. Lay towels under the leaking roof, do the dishes. It’s been raining all day here; I keep thinking those stuffed animals, wet as they are, must be the brightest things around.

Double Standards

Just back from four days of meditation, so if the following is less coherent than usual, blame it on enlightenment 🙂 Which is described in a beautiful poem by Charles Wright as “Some dead end — no one to tell it to, / nothing to say it with.” I’ll take his word on that!

I’ve been wanting for awhile to write about being a minister and some of the demons that get wrestled with…nothing as exciting as The Exorcist (so far), which might be a good thing.

Bear in mind that it’s only been three years since my ordination, so I’m still figuring this out. But one of the things I’ve noticed is the startling projections that arise. I consider these a kind of demon. As long as the projections stay external, where they belong, they’re limited in the harm they can cause. But I refuse to start believing them; that’s when weird ideas become dangerous.

After a lesson, one of my English students was confiding her romantic traumas. I said something like, “I just hate when that happens!” She looked shocked and said, “Being a priest, I thought you would have transcended all that.” I responded, “You mean, transcended being human? I don’t think that’s in the cards.”

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to have transcended. Having emotions? Loving people? Sometimes being disappointed by them? Which part of living and being human was I expected to transcend, exactly? One answer I run into is that longtime spiritual practice should mean you don’t get upset or angry.

This is wrong. Contrary to a common misunderstanding, zen’s “goal” is not to make emotionless robots of people. Nina Hartley, daughter of two zen priests and former porn star, noted in an interview: “Buddhism says that to experience any of your feelings, you have to experience all of them.” This has remained one of my favorite statements of Buddhist practice since I read it several years ago.

Experiencing all one’s emotions is vital, as is experiencing all of life; this is the very definition of vitality. Psychologist Alice Miller wrote, “The opposite of depression isn’t gaiety; it’s vitality,” which she defined as the ability to experience the full range of human emotions. Feelings, even very painful ones, are not the problem; what we do with them can be.

One thing we often do with our painful emotions is pour gasoline on them in the form of our thoughts: replaying and magnifying and justifying the one-sided stories around our pain, thereby prolonging and intensifying the feeling, and preventing possible resolution of it. Another quote, from A General Theory of Love: “Humans are the only animal that responds to trauma by re-traumatizing itself.”

The natural thing for an emotion to do is run its course, like everything else in life: to transform. We tend to obstruct this process out of a misplaced assumption that life is safer if things stay the same, that even a deeply painful known is safer than an unknown. But the only things that stay the same (for awhile) are things that were never alive; they’re plastic. They aren’t even dead, because dead things also transform, which is one of the most eloquent proofs that death is actually part and parcel of life, rather than its opposite.

It seems obvious, but I need to say it: a minister isn’t holier-than-thou. I can’t do this job well if I fabricate artificial separation between myself and other human beings, or if I support them in doing so. I don’t like the word holy anyway; I think it’s meaningless. As Bodhidharma said, nothing’s sacred. Meaning nothing is more sacred than anything else. The minister narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead explains that the sabbath isn’t more sacred than other days; it’s simply the day we set aside to remind us of the sacredness of every day.

A minister isn’t more sacred than anyone else; they’re someone whose job it is to exercise as best they can a reverence for life in all its manifestations. Someone who has vowed to try to live by certain ideals, to manifest them in daily life as fully as possible in each moment. Not that you’re always doing good, but that you’re almost always trying. That means when angry or hurt, still trying.

Recently I overheard a neighbor yell at her boyfriend, “You’re supposed to fucking talk about it so we can make this better!” While this was a reminder that there are some very good things about being between romantic engagements (e.g., happily watering my plants instead of having a fight), I agree wholeheartedly with her sentiment: anger and hurt can be a path to making things better, depending what we do with them.

Helping people transmute the pain of living is one of the things ministers do. Although such help is more limited than one might wish, because the work of figuring out what matters most deeply to someone and then living accordingly has to be done by the person most intimate with a particular life. Hence the Buddha’s final words: “Be a lamp unto yourself.”

Which means there’s no excuse for abdicating responsibility to any religious institution, creed, or individual. I express myself with passion because that’s how I experience life. I hope people listen to me with openness and curiosity, measure what I say against their experiences, use what’s helpful, and let the rest go. My interest is never in telling people how to live, but in encouraging them to ask and answer that question for themselves, if it feels vital to them.


Growing Bananas in Iceland

Recently my horoscope cited the above as a fitting metaphor for the challenges ahead in my life: “encouraging and overseeing growth in a place that doesn’t seem hospitable in the usual ways…. And you must be patient, knowing that the process might take awhile longer than it would in other circumstances.”

Although I love discovering that such a feat is not only possible but happens already (in a geothermally heated greenhouse), the patience part is ominous, that virtue not being one of my strengths. The closest I usually get to approximating patience is covering up my impatience, which is no approximation at all. I always assumed I’d be more patient when I got older, but so far the magic doesn’t seem to be kicking in. If anything, I might be even less patient now than when I was a child, which can’t be good.

I’m intensely aware of time and often surprised how long it takes things to happen. I wonder if this could be a side effect of reading so much when young — an unreasonable expectation of eventfulness. In books, things happen in an artificially compressed timeframe; there aren’t many pages devoted to people brushing their teeth or running errands, usually, and if by some mistake there are, we can always skip them. But there remain large and unskippable swaths of life consigned to these and other relatively unexciting ventures.

This fact underlies David Foster Wallace’s excellent advice for young people:

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

There’s probably no easier way to make yourself miserable than constantly wishing things would happen differently…for example, faster. Everything travels at its own speed: light, sound, imagination, life. I think part of my problem is an active imagination that’s as real to me as any reality out there, and sometimes more so. Imagination generally moves a good deal faster than life.

Image Ian Vollmer

How much scenery is wasted on someone impatient for a particular view, which may never materialize? We do need our visions, and we need to believe in them sufficiently to keep trying. Part of that belief, that faith or trust, is patience. Things happen the way they can, given the myriad causes and conditions of the moment. In a letter today, a friend writes: “If the future is just more present….” This I think is true — in the deepest sense, the future is simply more of the present. It takes two years to ripen bananas in Iceland.
I wonder what they taste like?



“Home, how to know what it is when you’ve never had one?
Home, I don’t know where it is but I know I’m going.”

These lines from U2 have always resonated with me. Not that I’ve never had a home, but I’ve never really felt I chose it. There were always imperatives: educational, professional, romantic. As a result, the actual places felt somewhat random and incidental. Until last year, when I finally had a totally free choice. Since you never know how long these windows intend to stay open, I leapt through and chose a northern place without too many people, three miles from the ocean and three blocks from a river.

My one-year anniversary here is approaching, putting me in a reflective mood. Part of me is still amazed I actually made a choice and staked so much on it. I never do well in Chinese restaurants with twenty-page menus because I feel you have to look at all the possibilities to make an informed decision. Then you have to know what the options actually represent, like how chicken feet really taste, but the only way to find out is to try them, and who wants to do that? Not me. But still I feel bad on some level for having a closed mind about chicken feet, because then how many other things am I ruling out without even trying, which seems arrogant, and besides maybe chicken feet are mind-blowingly delicious and I’m missing a fantastic experience in this one and only life I believe in.*

I remember walking into a Seven-Eleven with my ex when he was still smoking despite my best efforts (this was in the days I believed it was possible to change people). He asked for a lighter and the clerk asked what color and he said, “I don’t care,” and I was taken aback. I would have to see all the colors, or at least hear them, and then pick from the available choices. I remember thinking, “This is a totally different kind of person,” which did in fact turn out to be true beyond the matter of cigarette lighters, even if they weren’t necessarily a valid reason to think so.

So you get a sense of why it’s surprising I actually made a choice out of a whole country full of places I’ve never lived in or even flown over. But it’s one thing to make a choice, and another to keep making it, day after day, “choosing again what we chose before,” as poet Wendell Berry wrote about marriage. Before I moved here, I was talking with a good friend about the mystique Maine held for me, which I mistrusted because it seemed a flimsy foundation for a long-term decision and I didn’t want to have to move again. What if it wasn’t everything I hoped? There was no way it could be, because actually I didn’t know anything about it; Maine was just an idea — a seductive one, but still only an idea. My friend said, “Well, you could ask whether a place will have enough to make you happy, or you could ask whether you’re determined to be happy there.”

This statement rang in my mind like a zen koan: how much is happiness a matter of what you find “out there,” and how much is it simply a decision? A commitment, in other words. A serious determination to be happy, regardless what happens. To me commitment has never signified a refuge from time and change; I don’t believe there’s such a place to be found or made in this world. Commitment isn’t measured by how long something lasts, but by the quality of heart with which it’s undertaken — by giving yourself completely with nothing held back, day after day, for as long as you honestly can.

So is a home found, chosen, or made? A few years ago, for an art exhibit on this theme, I wrote: Home is warmth, nature, company, solitude, sunlight on the floor, rain on the roof, a bathtub, a dog, peace, an idea of order, and a small cup of strong coffee. By these measures, Maine and I are doing well (with the exception of the bathtub and a traumatic 24-hour canine adoption that I’ll discuss another time, maybe, but which I don’t hold against the state — that one’s on me). The thing that impresses me most is that within my first year here I’ve made a handful of friends I feel totally comfortable with, at home with, if you will. That’s never happened so fast, and I’m taking it as a sign, because why not? Jung said as long as our beliefs don’t contradict proven realities, we should pick the ones that are most helpful. It helps to believe I might be home at last.


*I finally did try chicken feet with my Chinese sister-in-law a few weeks ago, and I have to say they’re not nearly as bad as they seem in your mind, like a lot of things.




This week marks a return — to Maine after a few weeks visiting friends and family, and to this blog after more than a few weeks of radio silence. June got away from me.

I feel somewhat scattered, as usual when I’m acclimating…I keep leaving objects in odd places and forgetting things as soon as I’ve thought them. The heat doesn’t doesn’t help with this, or with tempers in the ‘hood — a young woman has been swearing vehemently for the past fifteen minutes in the parking lot next door.

When you come back from away, at first it’s like entering someone else’s life — you see your home as a guest might: the pictures, the bed, the order or lack of it. For the first hours and days, you feel you could choose whether to resume this life or walk away. There’s an interval before your accustomed life reclaims you, a space both free and uncomfortable, in which you’re not sure whether you belong to your life, or it to you.

It’s curious what harbingers usher in belonging. This time it was the string of pineapple lights my landlord hung on the deck as a surprise, and the Cool Whip container his wife placed under one of my plants to help it drink. Her attentiveness reminds me I read somewhere that the word diligence derives from a root meaning love. I liked this idea so much that I exhort my students with it while refusing to google whether it’s actually true.

Going away and coming home is what meditation is. And in travels of any kind, you want to take the landings gently.


Notes on a 25th Reunion

Today I’d planned to write a post about my 25th college reunion, which would be easier if I’d followed yesterday’s plan to attend it. Fortunately, lack of an experience is no obstacle to writing about it; in fact, it might be a help.

Although we usually like to live anywhere but here and now, the past is rarely my chosen habitat — left to its own devices, my mind abides in the future, the realm of dreams and possibility. I only wax nostalgic when I’m sick. Then I replay my life like a movie, to entertain myself and/or prepare for death. I find this reminiscing richly pleasurable, but as soon as I feel better, I’m back to the future again: planning, preparing, worrying, fantasizing.

I could defend my preference for the future by arguing that the past is a disappeared country; you can’t go back because that place doesn’t exist anymore — it ceased the moment it passed. And I think this is true. I’ve kept a journal going on 40 years. About a month ago, I reread parts of it for the first time. It struck me how my memories bear almost no resemblance to the way I experienced events at the time.

I suspect our memories are undergoing constant revision. Depending on our habits of mind, we remember things more or less rosily than they happened. We revise our interpretations of our history in light of who we are now, and the ever-unfolding consequences of events.

So it’s clear that the past isn’t a fixed place; it’s always shifting. But the future is hardly more real — it’s purely hypothetical. If we’re not living in the present, our choice is between things that didn’t happen the way we think, and things that haven’t happened at all. Slim pickings.

T.S. Eliot wrote, “We are only redeemed from time by time.” This is a way of saying that eternity lies in every moment, which the founder of Soto Zen, Eihei Dogen, would agree with wholeheartedly. Meaning all moments are embraced by this one: all past and all future. This feels true, since this moment is plainly the culmination of every preceding moment, and the source of every moment to come.

But what does this mean for our lives, for how we live? Maybe it means trying to live in the world, rather than an idea of it. Instead of driving down to Boston yesterday, I went to Home Depot in the next town, bought several herbs to start the deck garden I’ve dreamed of for years, made basil and garlic pesto, and walked on the beach near my house. A prosaic day.

Gazing at the tiny islands resting in the bay, feeling the powerful southerly wind sweep my mind of everything inconsequential — ideas of past and future — I thought, I’m in a place I love, trying to figure out how to do work that matters, surrounded by people I care about — who would choose to be anywhere else?

No Other Life

This week I headed south to visit friends. It was a good weekend immersed in art, springtime, leisurely southern accents, and Starbucks. One of our conversation threads was hypothetical lives — who and where would we be if certain formative circumstances had been different: family dysfunctions, geographic and chronological influences, distracting personal dramas?

I confessed to a longtime habit of comparing my actual self and life with an idea of both, which I was supposed to manifest. I often worried about getting off track. Now I wonder what track I was thinking of, and where it came from. To own any of the events of your life, I think, you have to own them all. Because if one thing were different, then everything would be, and yours wouldn’t be the life you know. A human life has this fundamental integrity; it’s interwoven.

Integrity derives from a root meaning “whole”. In talking about zen, I often say that ours is a whole world in a way that transcends what we think of it. It’s a whole world because it encompasses everything, and because each thing is connected with everything else, whether or not those ties are visible to the naked eye. In the physical realm, this is a matter of fact: the continual recirculation of elements, the interdependence of earth and sky. In the non-material realm, it may be more a matter of faith.

I’ve mostly broken my habit of comparing my real life to a hypothetical one (usually to the detriment of the former — when we theorize, why do we so often choose hypotheses that hurt?). At a painful and pivotal juncture, a teacher at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center said to me, “There isn’t some other life out there that you should be living. The only life is the one you’re in.”

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.