Bobbi in the window

Last week, our credit card company contacted us, suggesting our card had been compromised. There were no unauthorized charges on the account, but apparently there had been a breach at a business where we had used the card, so the company cancelled our cards and sent us replacements just to be safe.

Where's breakfast? #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

I’ve often thought my credit card account must be incredibly boring to monitor for fraud, as I typically go to the same places again and again, often on predictable days and at predictable times. I go grocery shopping at the same store every Friday afternoon, for instance, and I typically stop for gas on the way. During the summer when I’m not teaching, J and I frequently go to lunch at a handful of places, always at the same time. I frequently buy things on Amazon, I take one or another pet to the vet every few weeks, and I occasionally buy shoes on Zappos. Any charge outside those predictable parameters was Probably Not Me.

In Frankie-speak, this translates as "Please scratch my head, but don't you dare touch my belly."

Spending habits aside, J and I are predictable by nature: I’ve always thrived on routine, and recent circumstances have only deepened that already-existing rut. Tending a houseful of pets, for instance, is good reason for regularity. Dogs in particular thrive on routine, and we’ve trained ours to rely upon a religious schedule of meals, walks, and exercise times that is almost monastic in its regularity: a domestic liturgy of the hours.

Bobbi chills out. #catsofinstagram #bobbithecat

Having three diabetic cats–our Insulin Girls–only underscores the need for predictability. Whatever else might be happening on any given day, J and I know that one of us has to be at home to give Bobbi, Hillary, and Frankie their meals and twice-daily insulin injections at the proper time. This routine has become so regular, the Insulin Girls are trained to follow me into the kitchen when I sing “Breakfast” or “Dinner” while our non-diabetic cats stand back, knowing they get second-dibs at mealtime.

She knows she's queen. #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

When we adopted Hillary, the shelter said her previous home was chaotic, with a constant coming and going of roommates who were never quite certain whose responsibility it was to feed and give her insulin, or when. An erratic meal and medication schedule is disastrous for a diabetic of any species, and Hillary, Bobbi, and Frankie have all thrived under the steady routine of our household.

Bobbi in morning light

Last week, J and I rented The Incredibles, as we wanted to watch it again before seeing its sequel sometime this week, when J has time off from work. After revisiting the animated adventures of Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Violet, Flash, and Jack-Jack, I announced to J that we too are superheroes. “We’re The Predictables!” I declared. “Our super power is extreme punctuality.” J laughed and ran with the joke. “Our uniform is matching T-shirts with Red Sox hats…and no capes!”

It's been just over a year since we adopted Frankie. She has one eye and twice the attitude. #catsofinstagram #frankiethecat #oneeyedcat #SNELovesPets

Imagining oneself as a superhero is fun, but being the king and queen of dependability has its downsides, too. J and I can’t (and don’t) drop everything for spontaneous social events; if we want to be away from home for an evening, we have to gradually adjust both the Insulin Girls’ medication schedule and the dog’s exercise routine accordingly. Because of our pets’ special needs, it’s been years since J and I have traveled together. Like farmers who can’t leave the livestock for long, we can’t trust the household to just anyone, so we take turns going places so there is always one of us here tending the pets.

You know you want to pet me. #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

What J and I lose in spontaneity, however, we make up for in reliability. There is a great security in routine, as any monk would tell you; when Thomas Merton entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, for example, he described himself as taking shelter in “the four walls of my new freedom.” J and I lead a fairly boring life, but we see more of the outside world than a cloistered monk does. We’ll go see Incredibles 2 at a movie theatre as planned this week; we’ll just make sure to go to a daytime showing so we’re back home in time for the Insulin Girls’ dinner.

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.

Grief personified

I recently started reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel that several of my online friends have raved about. I saw Ward read from the book at Harvard’s Memorial Church in early May, and I’ve been waiting for the leisurely days of summer to start reading the signed paperback copy I got at that event.

Jesmyn Ward signs my copy of Sing Unburied Sing

Because I’m currently reading several books, I’m reading Sing, Unburied, Sing slowly, which means the story is working its power incrementally. The novel starts simply. Initially, it is a story told by JoJo, a thirteen-year-old boy in rural Mississippi who is helping his grandfather slaughter a goat. Later the narrative shifts to JoJo’s mother, Leonie, who is addicted to drugs and intent on traveling to the state penitentiary at Parchman Farm where her boyfriend–JoJo’s father–is set to be released. For the first half of the book, the narrative alternates between JoJo’s and Leonie’s perspectives, but when the family arrives at Parchman, the “unburied” of the novel’s title start to sing.

Pipe organ

By any metric, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a heartbreaking story. Leonie is haunted by the ghost of her brother, who was killed by her boyfriend’s cousin in a racially-motivated murder, and JoJo is wise beyond his years, helping to raise his younger sister and becoming unusually close to his grandparents, who are his de facto parents in the face of Leonie’s neglect. Because of JoJo’s relationship with his grandparents, the boy is haunted by stories he’s heard about his grandfather’s own days at Parchman. Tragedy, Ward suggests, is hard to bury; instead, it arises again and again, passed from one generation to the next as a family’s most lasting legacy.

Jesmyn Ward and Clint Smith in conversation

Ward’s narrative is like a warm bath: you sink into it slowly, and it seeps into your bones, loosening and opening them. Or, to put it another way, Sing, Unburied, Sing breaks your heart incrementally, each hairline crack seeming small and insignificant until the entire thing eventually shatters.

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.

Birdbath peonies

This past weekend while I was visiting A (not her real initial) in western Massachusetts, we played a seemingly interminable game of dominoes. Each night, we’d sit in A’s sunroom playing another few rounds over snacks and cocktails, and the train of our conversation grew as as long and meandering as the lines of tiles on the table.

Rainy day peony bud

Over the course of that weekend-long conversation, A and I decided why it is that old men around the world play dominoes on porches, in cafes, and in public parks: anywhere, that is, where old men congregate. The game is slow enough to allow for conversation, it requires a modicum of strategy or at least attention, and it is equally a matter of luck.

Ornamental mint

These three things, of course, could also be said of life in general and old age in particular: a truth that groups of old men would be especially mindful of. Yes, health and longevity are largely a matter of choice and attention: cultivating good habits and taking care to avoid obvious risks are smart strategies. But health and longevity aren’t entirely within one’s control. Healthy habits and avoidance of risk won’t prevent you from getting hit by a bus, and even the most skilled and strategic player of dominoes can be brought down by a poor hand.

Two books I’ve recently read explore the role that chance plays in our lives: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer and Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.

Rainy day iris

Ehrenreich observes that we as a culture are addicted to the belief that we can control our destinies through wise choices: we are conditioned to believe that with proper diet, adequate exercise, and the miracle of modern medicine, we can fend off (or at least quickly treat) illness. Ehrenreich argues, however, that this belief is misguided, as even the most healthy-seeming individuals sometimes succumb to diseases like cancer. Whether or not you make healthy choices, Ehrenreich reminds us, we’ve all gotta die sometime.

Bleeding hearts

Kate Bowler addresses this same issue from a theological rather than scientific perspective. A scholar of the prosperity gospel–the belief in some evangelical circles that leading a pious, prayerful life will lead to both wealth and health–Bowler finds her own faith questioned when she is diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. As a wife and mother to a young son, Bowler and her husband both grapple with the unavoidable (and unanswerable) question, “What higher meaning or purpose could a good God have in killing a good woman in her prime?”

Begonias

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler address in their separate ways the importance and limitations of faith. Ehrenreich argues that our trust in medicine is itself a kind of religion where doctors visits and other forms of medical treatment serve a ritual purpose. Whether or not it’s statistically true that annual mammograms lead to increased longevity, for example, we wrap ourselves in the reassuring belief that they do.

Rainy day begonia

For Bowler, prayer and religious fidelity serve the same reassuring purpose: instead of trusting your doctor to make you whole, you trust in God. The problem with both kinds of faith, however, is the inevitable disillusionment that comes when faith eventually ends in death. Both healthy people and prayerful people ultimately die: there’s no fighting the inevitable. No matter how many times you go to the boneyard, there’s no helping a truly bad hand.

Rainy day peony

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler describe the unfortunate shaming that comes when good people get sick. Well-intentioned friends and family who believe in either medicine or religion try to explain (and thus justify) a bad diagnosis, suggesting that illness or disability is somehow the sufferer’s fault because of poor life choices or imperfect piety. As a middle-aged women with several chronic conditions, I know firsthand the judgmental looks and unhelpful advice sometimes offered by folks who think slimness, stamina, and perpetual youthfulness are guaranteed by their preferred diet, workout, or devotional regimen. It’s too unsettling even for onlookers to admit that some afflictions don’t happen for a reason.

Rainy day roses

Every old man playing dominoes knows you can do only so much with the tiles you’ve drawn: whether you complain about, try to strategize with, or ultimately resign yourself to the hand you’ve been given, there’s no fighting the luck of the draw. The secret that happy old men learn isn’t how to win the game but how to enjoy it no matter how it ends.