Life lessons


Heart-shaped

Like many across the nation, I watched Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony at work on Thursday, streaming C-SPAN on my phone during my office hours. I found Ford’s calm, quiet voice to be devastatingly powerful and entirely believable. Like many women, I resonated deeply with the obvious terror and trauma she felt at being pinned down, groped, and muffled when she was a teen at a party.

Yew berries

I had classes to teach during Brett Kavanaugh’s corresponding testimony, but I watched clips from it later, and I was horrified by his partisan rancor and angry defensiveness. Nobody can blame Kavanaugh for being angry at the humiliation he and his family have faced in the media, but Ford has been subjected to the same treatment, and she didn’t rant or rage. A confirmation hearing is a glorified job interview, and given the serious issues the Supreme Court decides, I had no patience for Kavanaugh’s angry tantrums and disrespectful demeanor, especially toward Senator Amy Klobuchar. Regardless of whether Ford’s accusations are true, Kavanaugh’s true temperament was on display on Thursday, and his performance didn’t convince me he’d be a calm, measured, or impartial justice.

Tiny mushroom

The full impact of both Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimony didn’t hit me until afterward. When I woke on Friday morning, I felt the same oscillation between sadness and rage I’d felt the day after the 2016 election. Although I’ve never experienced an assault as violent or traumatic as Ford’s, like most women I have my own history of uninvited encounters: groping and self-stimulating creeps on the T, a massage therapist who insisted on kneading my thighs and backside even after I repeatedly directed him toward my stiff neck and shoulders, and countless staring strangers and cat-callers.

Pink and blue

To be a woman means being constantly on guard, something so ingrained it’s easy to forget that men don’t have the same worries. Without thinking twice, I check the backseat every time I get into my car; in parking garages, I quietly weigh the dangers of getting trapped in an elevator versus getting cornered in a stairwell. When I hike, I realize that if I were to be mugged or raped, I would also be blamed for that attack: what was I thinking when I ventured into the woods, even with a dog? On a daily basis, I envy men for the simple luxury of being able to walk outside after dark, and I wonder what it’s like not to see every lone stranger as a possible predator.

Clematis virginiana

Years ago when my then-husband and I lived near a state forest with brown bears, we bought a shotgun for home defense. The first time I fired it, I was overwhelmed by its deafening sound and earth-shaking recoil. Never in my life had I, a petite woman, made such a strong and loud impact. “So this is what it’s like to have a penis,” I thought, immediately realizing that if I walked through the world with a weapon on my hip, nobody would mess with me. At that moment, I understood I’d been conditioned my entire life to see myself as prey: a small, vulnerable creature, ever on the defensive.

Barberry leaves on misty morning

On Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford found something more powerful and earth-shaking than a shotgun: the power of a courageous voice. From where I sat, Ford’s calm and sometimes quavering words were more powerful than all of Brett Kavanaugh’s shouted rancor. I have no doubt the Republicans will confirm Kavanaugh, regardless of what a weeklong FBI investigation finds: patriarchy always defends its own, and the party of Trump has become the party of angry and aggrieved white men. But in the aftermath of Ford’s testimony, countless women like me will continue to do what we’ve always done, gestating our rage into resilience and simmering our sadness into a hidden elixir of resolve.

Rocco in window

On Friday night, J and I put Rocco the cat to sleep after a two-year battle with small cell lymphoma. We’d lost our cat Groucho to the same disease in November, 2015, so we were familiar with the typical progression: weight loss leading to diagnosis, sudden improvement and weight gain with chemotherapy, then a gradual and irreversible decline when the drugs stop working. In our experience, feline chemotherapy works very well until it suddenly doesn’t.

Rocco resting

Although Rocco had been gradually losing weight for the past few months, until Friday he hadn’t acted sick. All through the summer, he was still eating, interacting with our other cats, and pestering for attention. But on Friday, Rocco was lethargic and aloof, and when he finally defecated on himself and didn’t even try to clean himself, we knew his spirit had given up before his body had.

Rocco reads

This is the third pet we’ve euthanized this year: we put Cassie the dog to sleep on New Year’s Day, before the start of spring semester, and we euthanized Gumbo the cat at the end of April, as the semester was ending. I don’t know why so many of our pets die at the beginning or end of my academic semesters or why their final throes so often happen on nights and weekends, when only emergency vets are on duty. As another fresh-faced vet–we never seem to see the same one twice–prepped Rocco for the procedure, she asked if we’d ever been present for a euthanasia. I had to stop myself from saying, “We’ve probably been present for more pet deaths than you have.”

Rocco on window sill

The passing of a pet is an emotional and even spiritual experience: a journey to the border between the Here and the Hereafter. Watching a pet slip away at the quiet push of a plunger makes you realize how tenuous and ephemeral this mortal life is, and the quiet absence you face when you get home reminds you of how outsize even the smallest creature’s soul can be.

This is no longer a litter box. #catsofinstagram #roccothecat

Rocco was the last remaining pet that J had when I first met him in 2007: the end of an era. When I met J and did not (due to allergies) think myself a cat person, it was Rocco who helped win me over.

Anyone who thinks cats don’t have personalities should have met Rocco, who was positively dog-like in his gregarious, goofy, and (yes) dogged demeanor. Rocco was not a shy or retiring creature; like a dog, Rocco would come right up to anyone who entered the house, walking on bowed legs that made him look like a hockey goalie in leg pads. When Rocco reached you, he’d collapse in a furry heap right under your feet, forcing you to either pet or push him away. One of the final signs that Rocco was not long for this world, in fact, was his complete indifference when I dried the dishes on Friday afternoon. Healthy Rocco would have pestered me by rubbing my legs, flopping at my feet, or trying to climb into the dishwasher, curious.

Rocco helps unload the dishwasher

People who have never euthanized a pet sometimes wonder how you will know it’s time, but in my experience it it always abundantly clear when an animal is ready to die. If you know how your pet usually acts–if you know their most basic and obvious joys–you will notice when they no longer are interested in those things. If you listen deeply to your pet, you can’t fail to notice when their spirit leaves and it is time for you to help their body follow. Throughout his life, Rocco pushed and pestered for affection, and on Friday night we gave him the last dose of love he needed to cross to the other shore.

Halcyon Lake

Last night I finished reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I’d mentioned earlier this week. Many reviewers have compared Ward with both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, and I agree that the novel is reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Morrison’s Beloved.

Great blue heron

The other novel I kept thinking about as I read Sing, Unburied, Sing is George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which was also published in 2017. Saunder’s novel is told through a series of historical and ghostly fragments as Willie Lincoln, the President’s newly deceased son, finds himself in the transitional place between the Here and the Hereafter. The narrative format of Ward’s novel is far less experimental, but both Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lincoln in the Bardo are ghost stories that speak movingly about loss, grief, family, and compassion.

Solomon's seal

As I read Sing, Unbured, Sing, I found myself wondering why stories about race in America so often feature ghosts. Is it because our history is particularly haunted, or because we so often fail to believe and heed the truth tellers from our past? Perhaps the perspective of magic realism is the only lens that can accurately portray the true nature of time, death, and eternity.

Hiding in plain sight

Both Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lincoln in the Bardo call into question our conventional view of time. Since we typically view time as linear–moving, that is, from past to present and then to future–we fall for the illusion of progress. How many times (for example) do people respond to current events by exclaiming “But this is 2018” as if the ghosts of the past aren’t still alive and active?

Dogwood

If we take a circular view of time, all eras are now, and with them, all errors. We don’t outgrow or move beyond the mistakes of previous generations: instead, we are tempted time and again to repeat and relive them unless we make a conscious effort to revise and reject. If we take a circular view of time, both individuals and societies carry not only the promise of who they will become but the burden of everything they have ever been.

Star of Bethlehem flower

We want to believe history is a line because we want to believe that Back Then was radically and intrinsically different from Nowadays. But human nature hasn’t changed; we’ve just grown tired of fighting it. Humans were bigoted and cruel during the days of slavery and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, and humans are still as bigoted and cruel as they allow themselves to be.

Trillium

So, what should we do with the seeds of hatred and cruelty that lie buried in the soil of our psyche, either dormant or fully sprouted? Earlier today I heard an NPR story on Fred Rogers that featured a vintage audio clip of him explaining to parents how to talk with their children about the political anger leading to the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Rogers didn’t suggest denying or eradicating anger; instead, he helped children (and their parents) interpret anger by acknowledging the various ways different families, countries, and cultures might express it.

Eastern kingbird in ginkgo tree

Have we come to a place in history where we need a dearly departed children’s television host to help us make sense of our feelings and where we need novels about ghosts to teach us the true nature of history? Perhaps. It was, after all, Faulkner himself who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Yellow iris

We want to leave the past behind, and in fleeing from it, we tempt it to chase us. What novels teach us, however, is that the spirits of the past are always with us. As the character of Mam in Sing, Unburied, Sing explains as she lay dying, “We don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.” When we realize the past has never left us, we can sit face-to-face with our ghosts and learn every song they have to sing.

Thou shalt not steal beer

This past weekend, J and I went to the annual open house at Spencer Brewery, the Trappist brewery located on the grounds of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA. I’ve been to the Abbey Church at Saint Joseph’s before, so I’ve seen where the monks pray, and this weekend’s open house gave me the opportunity to see where the monks work.

Beer flow chart

Walking around Spencer Brewery got me thinking about the Benedictine motto “Ora et labora,” which means “pray and work.” The schedule of monastic life at Saint Joseph’s makes sense if you remember that Trappists seclude themselves to focus on these two things. The liturgy of the hours offers a structured way for cloistered monks to spend their day alternating prayer and work, prayer and work, prayer and work.

A system of pipes

The public perception that cloistered monks and nuns are inactive and quietistic exists because we divide monastic orders into the categories of active and contemplative. Monks and nuns from so-called active orders work in the world as clergy, teachers, nurses, or missionaries. Contemplative monastics, on the other hand, live apart from the world in monasteries or convents.

Tanks and pipes

Contemplative orders point to the Biblical story of Mary and Martha to justify their vocational path. When Jesus visited the home of these sisters, Martha busied herself with the household logistics of hosting a guest while Mary chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen while he teached. When Martha complained that Mary wasn’t doing her share of the domestic chores, Jesus famously took Mary’s side, saying “Mary has chosen the better part.”

The division of monastic orders into active and contemplative, however, is misleading, as all religious communities (and all religious people) are a combination of both. Yes, Trappist monks live apart from the world and lead a prayer-centered life that is largely silent. But Trappists also live in communities that strive to be self-sufficient, and that necessitates the “work” half of “Ora et labora.” In contemplative communities, work and prayer are like two hands that work in tandem. One’s work supports one’s prayer, and one’s prayer supports one’s work. In my Zen school, we say “A day without work is a day without eating,” and a Trappist would agree with the spirit of that saying.

Where beer comes from

Years ago at a Christian-Buddhist retreat at the Providence Zen Center, Father Kevin Hunt traveled from Saint Joseph’s Abbey to represent the “Christian” portion of the retreat. During the time for questions, a retreatant asked Father Kevin how he could justify isolating himself in a monastery when there was an entire world out here in need of help. Father Kevin responded by asking the woman what she intended to do when she got home from the retreat, and she said she’d probably make dinner for her family and get her kids ready for another busy school week. “Excellent,” Father Kevin replied. “When I get back to the monastery, I have toilets to clean. You take care of your family, and I take care of mine.”

Palletized

We all work in our own separate ways: some of us raise children, some of us tend pets, some of us teach, and some of us sit at desks, toiling and typing. The important thing isn’t what you do when you work but why you do it. Trappist monks make jam, jelly, and beer because they need an income to support their prayerful practice. That prayerful practice is shared with the world in turn through the monastery’s hospitality. People like me can visit the Abbey Church at Saint Joseph’s because there is someone there whose work keeps the lights on and the toilets clean.

Pretty pout

Last week I taught the Thursday night Introduction to Zen Meditation class at the Cambridge Zen Center. Afterward, I found myself wondering how many times have I taught this class over the years. How many people have walked through the Zen Center doors, had a half hour of meditation instruction from a Dharma teacher like me, and then never darkened the door of a Zen Center ever again?

Pink blob

Zen Master Dae Kwang once said that Dharma teachers should teach the Zen intro class knowing that students might never come back: the goal, he said, is to give people a practice they can take with them and employ in their daily life, regardless of whether they return to a Zen Center. The Zen intro class, in other words, isn’t a recruitment tool; it’s the handing out of fishing rods. I’m not giving you a fish, nor am I insisting that you fish next to me. Instead, I’m giving you the tools you’ll need to plumb the depths of your very own stream, regardless of where the river of your life carries you.

Tom

The most important Zen Center isn’t the one you can walk in and out of; it’s the one you carry within you. When I sit to meditate, the first thing I feel is a flash of welcome recognition: the relief of coming home. Ahhh, my soul sighs. At long last you’ve quit your rush and bustle–at long last you’ve reunited with your true self in the Here and Now. This sense of quiet calm–this sense of settling one’s soul beside still waters–arises whether I am meditating at the Zen Center, in my car, or at my desk at home. It is a deep, settled feeling that isn’t a place but a connection with This Present Moment.

Jerry

This is why I don’t say much about the bells and whistles of Zen Center-style practice when I teach the intro class. Instead, I focus on the three things you need to practice anywhere, regardless of setting or ideology. These three things things–attention to body, attention to breath, and attention to mind–are always with you, regardless of your external circumstance or trappings. If you are alive, you have a body, a breath, and mind, and you will continue to have each of them in one shape or another until you die.

Both your body and your breath are limited by space and time. However much the mind might wander, the body and breath can exist only Right Here, Right Now. If you stop reading these words to pay attention to the slouch or straightness of your back, the precise position of each of your hands, and the actual angle of your skull upon your spine, you will for that moment be present Here, because that is always where your body is.

Bugs

Similarly, if you take a moment to observe your breath as it flows in and out, you will be present Here and Now because that is the only place where breathing happens. Try as you might, you can’t make up for yesterday’s lost breath, nor can you store up breath for tomorrow. Both the body and breath are perishable–they are rooted in the present moment and are destined to pass–but the mind deludes itself by thinking it is immortal and unchanging. This is where the mind (literally) wanders astray, venturing far and wide into the past and future where body and breath cannot follow, the self divided against (and thus in conflict with) itself.

The Wall at Central Square

This is why meditation feels like coming home, regardless of where you do it. The moment your mind realizes it is wandering and comes back to where your body and your breath are, you are instantaneously and temporarily whole. This magical moment of reunion is something some people never experience, but it is perpetually at hand, right under your proverbial nose.

Leafy

This morning I awoke in western Massachusetts, where I had been visiting A (not her real initial) for the weekend. Before packing my car to head back home, I wrote my morning journal pages in bed, listening to a distant dog barking and the emphatic bursts and bubbles of house wrens, robins, and song sparrows.

Gallery

None of those morning sounds were my concern: there was no need for me to hush, feed, or clean up after that distant dog, and the robins, wrens, and sparrows of western Massachusetts kindly take care of themselves. I have my own backyard birds at home, and my own awaiting tasks. I arrived in Newton around noon, and Toivo wiggled herself in a frenzy at the sight of me, and J gratefully relinquished my share of the household chores, just as I hand over his when he returns from business trips.

Airy

Everything, in other words, has quickly returned to normal: how could it be otherwise? Both humans and dogs (and backyard birds, I suppose) are creatures of habit, and I am so far sunk into the happy rut of my domestic days, I don’t quite remember how to function outside of it.

Natural light

Zen is widely seen as a crazy, spontaneous practice–the stuff of carefree Dharma bums and zany Zen Masters–but this popular perception overlooks the sheer repetitive monotony of monastic practice. For every spontaneous outburst recorded in a Zen Master’s collected teachings, said Master spent countless hours getting up every day at the same time, gazing for the same meticulously scheduled increments at the same habitual floor, chanting the same traditional words at the same regimented hours, and going to bed at the same precise time every night to repeat it all over again and again.

Doorway

Monasticism is the heart of Zen practice, and monastic monotony is the stable, steady heartbeat that sustains occasional spontaneity. How can you be truly free unless you have no need to wonder where and when your next meal will be or where and when you’ll lay down your head? Monastics free their minds by taming and harnessing their bodies; an ox long accustomed to the yoke has infinite freedom to wander anywhere in his untameable mind.

Through

It’s been a long time since I lived in a Zen Center, but my daily routine with its chores and domestic rituals is its own kind of practice. This morning I loaded my car and drove home to my mundane life carrying a weekend’s worth of dirty clothes: after the ecstasy, the laundry.

The photos illustrating today’s post are from Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Lithographs, an exhibit at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA.

Greening

I took a moment earlier today to photograph the emerging leaves and flowering forsythia in our backyard: the same photos I take every year. It is somehow encouraging to see, again, that when the spring comes, the grass grows by itself, even while I am preoccupied with other obligations.

Forsythia flowers

Yesterday afternoon, I began discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me with my American literature students: the first time they’ve read it, but the fifth or sixth time for me. A good book, in my estimation, is one that wows and amazes you no matter how many times you read it. Emily Dickinson defined poetry as something that makes you feel as if the top of your head had been taken off, and this is how I’d describe the experience of reading Coates’ meditation on racism in America. The first time I read Coates’ book, it blew my mind with its blunt, unflinching honesty, and it stuns and shakes me every time I read it since.

First leaves of spring

Yesterday as I discussed the book with my students, I marveled at how much more politically aware they are than I was at their age. My students are saddened but not surprised by Coates’ account of America’s racist history, and they aren’t fazed by his refusal to offer sugar-coated hopefulness. Yesterday my students and I discussed the book alongside recent examples of police overreach, such as the shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento and the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks–and we watched a video showing parents of black boys describing The Talk they’ve had warning their sons of police brutality.

Spring green

These are not things I was aware of when I was an undergraduate. Rodney King was beaten in the 1990s, when I was in graduate school, and I blithely assumed his case was an anomaly, something attributed to a few bad cops rather than a pervasively systemic problem. My students today, however, don’t have the luxury of such innocence. They read the news and consider with clear-eyes the diminished promise of their own futures. Growing up in the shadow of the Great Recession, they know the American dream is a tempting fantasy that leads too often toward American disappointment.

Leafing

With hopes hardened by realism, my students are not shocked by the cruel realities Coates describes; they realize the world my generation leaves them is riddled by as many problems as promises. Like Coates, I don’t offer my students easy answers; I don’t have those answers, and I doubt any answers will be easy. But it heartens me to realize my students have open eyes and hearts that care, even as their youthful earnestness reminds me of the tender and tenuous first leaves of spring.

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