Keep Your Paper

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It is Sunday morning and I am drinking coffee and waiting for the New York Times to arrive on the porch. I open my computer to see what’s happening on email and Facebook. A friend from high school has posted another article about the firing of Times editor Jill Abramson and I am reminded of a conversation I had last night with my husband about this topic. When the Abramson story first broke I reserved judgment thinking there’s always more to it than the simple narrative. But days later and with lots of journalists keenly interested in finding out what really happened, it doesn’t seem like much more than those old boys just didn’t like her.

It really probably is as simple as that. They didn’t like her for reasons that are deeply embedded in who they are and how they see the world. They can justify it with examples, but I think the truth is they didn’t like a strong woman who is competitive and doesn’t care if people like her. This is something that liberal progressive politics cannot talk them out of.

I could just say, damn that’s sexism. If she were a man they wouldn’t hold her to the same standard. And then I’d move on to the next story. But this morning waiting for my newspaper, suddenly I feel sick about it.

Walking to the porch to see if the paper is there, the girls in Nigeria come to mind. Somehow this seems related. The men kidnapping them as though they were objects to be stolen. News media and politicians rising up in protest. The slogan: Bring back our girls. I heard a story on NPR recently about people in Nigeria feeling glad that the world was suddenly paying attention to their plight with Boko Haram, but also wondering why it took this incident with the girls to get them to notice. A report last November from Human Rights Watch showed that Boko Haram routinely abducts women and girls and uses children as young as twelve to fight as soldiers. The group has been terrorizing and killing people in the region since 2009.

I am glad the world is paying attention to what is happening in Nigeria and like everyone else I am horrified at what happened to the more than two hundred girls. I hope sincerely that they are returned safely to their families and communities. When I first heard about it, I thought of their parents and my heart sank with fear and grief.

I wonder if it were a group of boys kidnapped to be soldiers, would the world respond in the same way? I have two boys and their innocence and hopefulness for the future is no different than any of the terrific girls we know in our community. Last February, an attack by Boko Haram in the middle of the night at a boarding school killed twenty nine boys, many of them burned to death. We didn’t hear much about it.

Why do we make this distinction? It cuts both ways. On the one hand, being female can cost you the job of your dreams, the one you worked for your entire career and devoted your life to. On the other hand, being female can save your life and maybe turn around the fate of an entire country.

In Buddhist writings about feminism, the interesting topic of essentialism is raised. In this short article in Tricycle magazine, the author quotes Nancy Baker, a professor of philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College. “There’s a strong streak of anti-essentialism in feminism, just as there is in Buddhism,” says Baker. “It is the understanding that something like gender is not fixed or absolute, that not all women or men have some masculine or feminine essence that defines us. To put it in Buddhist terms, gender has no ‘self-nature.'”

Wouldn’t it be better if we could let Jill Abramson do what she does well (the paper won eight Pulitzers under her leadership) and let her be herself without fear of losing her job? And wouldn’t it be better if we felt the call to action as much for those young school boys who lost their lives in Nigeria as much as we do for the girls who are missing? How are we serving ourselves or each other with these notions of gender? Maybe I’ll think about that today instead of reading the newspaper. Which, by the way, never came.


What She’s Given Me

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Recently I was over at my friend Cristina’s house. Just as I was leaving to go home, she looked right at me and said thank you. I looked right back at her and thanked her just as hard.

What were we thanking each other for? On some level I knew why she was thanking me. Fifteen months ago Cristina was diagnosed with brain cancer. Since that time we have spent many hours together, talking and walking, eating meals, sometimes visiting the hospital, often just sitting around chatting like we were that day. Having company and help when you are going through something as cataclysmic as this is essential. Many people have stepped forward to offer their support.

But there was more to it, I knew. Her husband had mentioned it to me a few times. It was my willingness to go as far as I could with her to where this thing is ultimately headed. She was thanking me for that too.

It was also the reason I was thanking her. When all this started I remember thinking that this was a terrible thing happening to our friend. Along with the shock and grief and fear, I felt an acute sense of separateness. This was happening to her, not me. I would do all I could to help her through it, but it seemed like in the end she would go and we would all stay. Something about that separateness felt painful to me and not exactly true either.

One morning in the spring, I went for a mammogram. I sat in a room with other women, all of us wearing thin cotton robes after the images were taken waiting for our consultations with the radiologist. As the others got called in, I waited. And waited. Finally they called me in, saying they needed to take more pictures on one side. Heart thumping, I consented. Then I waited again. And again they wanted to take more images. Then an ultrasound. In the end, it was nothing. Throughout the time I was there though, I watched the other women come and go from their appointments with ease. I never felt more isolated and scared in my life. 

I knew then that the separateness went both ways. I felt separate from Cristina’s tumor and she most likely felt separate, in a much more painful way, from my lack of illness. Later that day we were on a walk and I mentioned what had happened. “Oh you’ve had a hard day!” she said. What love. She got it of course, that it hurts to feel so alone. 

There was something else that caught my attention. It was the surprising level of denial in our culture about death. As Cristina cried deeply for her love of her husband and children or asked the universe why this was happening to her, I could see how painful and scary these matters are. It is heroic to square up to this stuff. Most of us spend our time distracting ourselves with our goals, ambitions, desires, and grievances.

And here’s where the beauty comes in. I have loved every moment I’ve spent with Cristina over this time. Right from the start, all of the things that we usually use to measure our value – our careers, our accomplishments, our clothes, looks, cool boots, whatever – none of it mattered much. We could chat about these things or reminisce, but it was clear what really matters is love. Here and now, in this moment. That’s when separation starts to fade.

Recently I have heard some Buddhist teachings on the topic of death. My teacher here in Seattle, Rodney Smith, worked in hospice care for many years. He gave a talk the other night in which he asked us to feel the difference between that which is impermanent (in each moment things are constantly changing) and that which doesn’t change. I looked for a stillness surrounding the ongoing movement of life. He said it is this stillness, the quiet spaciousness, that doesn’t die. Everything else goes. 

I don’t have great answers. But what I’m beginning to understand is that death isn’t just about the big moment when I go from being me to being nothing. In some way it is constantly happening, the arising and the passing away of life that is happening all the time. And so whatever this is, it isn’t just happening to Cristina. It is happening to all of us, all the time. The letting go is living. We have no choice.

I still feel afraid. I still feel like me and I don’t want Cristina to die. My heart hurts a lot of the time. But what seemed off to me way back when we first started to confront death, the separation and the idea that it was just happening to her, that has shifted. We’re all in this together. This crazy ass hand we’ve been dealt. This beautiful, mysterious, difficult life. 

So thank you, Cristina. You amazing, funny, smart, creative, strong person who helped me grow. You are loved completely.


The Difficult

Next weekend I am going to run a marathon. My friend and I have been training for four months and after completing the last of the long runs – 19 and 22 miles – I feel ready. I also know that the end of the run is probably going to be painful. I’m just going to run right into that pain.

When runners talk about marathons, they talk about hitting the wall. This is the point in the run where the mind reacts to the pain in the body by saying a whole bunch of unhelpful things like maybe the runner should just quit and wouldn’t it be better to be watching a movie right now. So then not only is the runner dealing with physical pain, she has to provide counterarguments.

Or not. As a meditator, I’ve got some practice at dropping thoughts. After many, many occasions of sitting on my cushion supposedly following my breath and then realizing I’m planning which snacks to pack for the kids between picking them up from school and going to soccer practice, I’ve learned how to drop it and come back to the present moment.

With the pain of running, the thoughts are centered on ending this unpleasant experience and starting one that is more enjoyable. In the midst of that it is good practice to keep running. You learn how to deal with pain. In his book Running with the Mind of Meditation, Tibetan Buddhist Sakyong Mipham says not to ignore the feelings.

One could say that life is at least 50 percent pain. If we do not relate to pain, we are not relating to half our life. Everything is fine when we are happy, but when we are in pain, we become petrified. The inability to relate to pain narrows our playing field. When we are able to work with pain and understand it, life becomes twice as interesting. Relating to pain makes us more fearless and happy.

Over the last two weeks my husband and I have learned that a beloved friend is sick. We hope and care deeply that she will become well.

I see my mind trying to escape the feelings I have about this. The dread, the fear, and the worry. My mind keeps jumping from one thing to the next, trying to land on something that might make the truth not what it is.

This morning I found some comfort in an essay by Norman Fischer, a Zen priest and poet.

Primarily, fundamentally, to live is to embrace each moment as if it were the first, last, and all moments of time. Whether you like this moment or not is not the point: in fact liking it or not liking it, being willing or unwilling to accept it, depending on whether or not you like it, is to sit on the fence of your life, waiting to decide whether or not to live, and so never actually living.

I find it impressive how thoroughly normal it is be so tentative about the time of our lives, or so asleep within it, that we miss it entirely. Most of us don’t know what it actually feels like to be alive. We know about our problems, our desires, our goals and accomplishments, but we don’t know much about our lives. It generally takes a huge event, the equivalent of a birth or a death, to wake up our sense of living this moment we are given – this moment that is just for the time being, because it passes even as it arrives. Meditation is feeling the feeling of being alive for the time being. Life is more poignant than we know.

Do I have the courage to get off the fence and be there even when it hurts? This weekend’s marathon will give me a chance to practice.


Beginner’s Mind

When my yoga teacher asked the class to set an intention for the day’s practice yesterday, the words “beginner’s mind,” floated into my head. It’s a phrase I have heard a few times since I began mindfulness meditation a year-and-a-half ago, but being a meditation novice, it hadn’t meant very much to me. Here it was making an appearance on my yoga mat, a place where I have spent many hours and developed more than a beginner’s mentality.

Beginner’s mind is a Buddhist notion that encourages a person to constantly look with fresh eyes. The famous book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Suzuki Roshi seen above, opens with this saying: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

While trying out beginner’s mind, I experienced a different yoga class than I expected. I practiced as if I had never done it before, asking myself questions like, “What is this pose trying to get me to do with my body? Where should my foot really be? How is my breathing now? What does this feel like?” At one point I looked over to the clock and the 75 minute class was almost over. It felt like I had been there for half the time.

From Suzuki Roshi’s book:

In the beginner’s mind, there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.

To my surprise, the intention carried forth outside the yoga studio and throughout the rest of my day. When it came time to cook dinner, I considered ordering Chinese food because I felt fresh out of ideas and inspiration. Then “beginner’s mind” popped up and I went to the pantry, pulled out a jar filled with orzo, and decided to make something with it precisely because it was an ingredient I had not used much before.

Forty minutes later I sat at the table with my two kids eating steaming bowls of orzo risotto and peas. I like this beginner’s mind. It feels spontaneous, open, and curious. Suzuki Roshi says the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind. “This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner,” he writes. “Be very, very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner’s mind. It is the secret of Zen practice.”


A Kindness

Today I am recovering from strep throat. Yesterday I was sicker than I have ever been in my life, lying in bed mostly sleeping and when I was awake, feeling all sorts of uncomfortable. Early in the day it occurred to me that as the mom in the family, it is often my job to take care of others when they feel badly. With my feverish mind leading the way, I started slipping into self pity. “No one will take care of me!” Then I asked my husband for help and he stayed home from work to manage the kids and give me the TLC I needed.

But surprisingly, another person stepped up to the plate. My son Sage, who is eight, feigned illness to stay home with the rest of the crew (my five-year old has strep too) and so he was around watching me get sicker over the course of the day.

At first he would come periodically into my room to say hi. Then he wrote me a get well note. Finally he provided his favorite teddy to keep me company. At about five o’clock he came back to see how I was doing and offered to take my temperature. I suggested he read to me. He picked out a couple of books from the kids’ book basket in the hallway and sat next to me on the bed reading. With my head on the pillow I listened with my eyes closed, occasionally opening them to watch him read.

I was comforted by the sound of his voice, the earnest expression on his face as he concentrated on reading aloud, and by his presence. In Judaism it is considered to be a good deed (a mitzvah) to visit the sick. In this essay on the Jewish way of healing, the writer talks about this important teaching.

A fundamental feature of Jewish spiritual healing is bikur cholim (visiting the sick), which responds to two of the greatest burdens of contemporary life: isolation and lack of community. At a time of illness, bikur cholim offers us the comfort of human connection and interdependence, a sense of community we so desperately need.

The mitzvah of bikur cholim helps fulfill the obligation to “love our neighbor as ourself,” and it is required of every Jew (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Laws of Mourning, ch. 14). Like comforting mourners and performing other acts of kindness, bikur cholim brings goodness to the world (Avot de Rabbi Nataii 39:1).

With Sage there reading to me, I could feel that there really is a difference in being alone with an illness and having someone there as you go through it. The whole experience is less dark, less frightening. It is a true act of kindness and I was grateful for it.


Actually, Carpe Diem

In the last few days I’ve noticed more than a few mothers that I am friends with on Facebook linking to aHuffington Post essay by Glennon Melton titled “Don’t Carpe Diem.” The writer is a mother of three young children and she talks about the unease she feels when older people encourage her to enjoy every moment of parenting because it all goes by so fast.

Every time I’m out with my kids — this seems to happen: An older woman stops us, puts her hand over her heart and says something like, “Oh, Enjoy every moment. This time goes by so fast.” Everywhere I go, someone is telling me to seize the moment, raise my awareness, be happy, enjoy every second, etc, etc, etc.

I know that this message is right and good. But, I have finally allowed myself to admit that it just doesn’t work for me. It bugs me. This CARPE DIEM message makes me paranoid and panicky. Especially during this phase of my life – while I’m raising young kids. Being told, in a million different ways to CARPE DIEM makes me worry that if I’m not in a constant state of intense gratitude and ecstasy, I’m doing something wrong.

Melton writes well about the difficulties of raising kids, the frustrations and exhaustion, and she ends with an eloquent description of those few moments throughout a harried mom’s day when she pulls back and sees the beauty of her child’s face or feels the gratitude for the bounty she has in love and resources. It’s worth reading the article if only for the last few paragraphs.

But when I got to the end, I wondered if she’s missing the point the older women are trying to make. While they may be saying, “Enjoy every moment,” maybe they really mean, “Be with every moment.” Live it. Step into the unpleasantness of your child crying. Feel the pressure of a messy house, a meal to make, and a diaper to change. Hear the sound of your child laughing. Savor the relief in the walk around the car from buckling your child’s carseat to your driver’s door.

I think people tend to give this carpe diem advice to parents because the ever-changing nature of life is so apparent and so poignant when it comes to childhood. Our children start out as tiny babies and become people who are bigger and stronger than us. In the beginning they are helpless and dependent for their survival, but eventually they leave our homes and fend for themselves.

Maybe the old ladies are saying, pay attention to it because if you don’t you’ll feel like somehow you missed it. “It all goes by so fast.” Those women are speaking from the other side. They are saying, “Live it now, because it isn’t going to stay this way forever. And once it is over, it’s over.”

Sometimes I want to stop life from changing. The other day we discovered that my five-year old has his first loose tooth. My eight-year old congratulated him by saying, “That’s great! Soon you’ll have beaver teeth like me.”

My husband and I laughed, but I could feel a sharp pang of not wanting his cute little baby teeth to come out. There’s nothing in me that wants my little one to change. It’s not up to me, though.

So actually, I will try to carpe diem as much as I can.


Resolving resolutions

As my optimistic intentions for the new year start to sink or swim, I am drawn to the concept of resolve. Different from willpower, which scientists now say is actually a mental energy determined by how much glucose is in the bloodstream, resolve has its own quality, with less force or tension when it comes to making changes.

I recently attended a talk by Kamala Masters, a Vispassana Buddhist teacher, on this topic. She described resolve as steadfast and balanced determination, unwavering clarity of purpose.

Instead of teetering on the edge of failure, which relying on willpower always implies to me, resolve comes with a deep sense of stability. “It is not a strident oomph, but a gentle persevering energy,” she said. “It is really paying attention to the energy behind the aspiration.” When that energy starts to falter, she says, you notice and bring some strength to it.

One of my aspirations for the year is to spend more time writing. In my busy, time-strapped life it is a challenge for me to create the quiet, slowed down space I need to do this. But it is a goal that continually arises when I think of my long-term hopes and dreams. Willpower experts will tell me to set clear writing goals and plan for my writing time. These are not bad ideas and may prove to be helpful. But it may also be a set up. If I don’t achieve my goals or if I miss my writing time, does it mean I failed?

Resolve, in the Buddhist sense, allows for a more gentle way. I can set an intention without knowing exactly what the results will be. I will just commit to go in a certain direction. I will trust that this aspiration is heartfelt and I will try to honor that in some way, each day, whether by reading, writing, or paying attention to the details of my life. Wish me luck.


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