Living Well

I stayed up late into the night on Thanksgiving talking to my youngest daughter about my life, and in that magical and timeless window looking into her affectionate eyes, I realized that my 72 years have been filled with a wonderful array of opportunities, adventures, and discoveries.  I felt so inspired by this awareness that by the time I staggered off to bed at 1am I wasn’t even sure I was tired enough for sleep.   Yes, this has been – and is – a life of substance and love, one that often unfolded unconventionally, but a significant journey nevertheless.

I have spent too much time in my life bemoaning the loss of love from my mother, the absence of intimacy as I find myself incontrovertibly single, and the abandoning of a teaching career that seemed to mean the world to me … Writing my memoir entitled Bowing to Elephants for over two years forced me to focus, and sometimes wallow, on loss of a sense of self, loss of love, and endless yearning to find safety in the world.  Writing a personal narrative is intense, and in order to make it the best of all possible books you must persevere like a dog with a bone, continually peeling away the layers of comfortable and familiar information until you arrive at the painful (and beautiful) heart of your story.  Once I felt my memoir was ready for the outside world, I set about trying to find a publisher for it.  Then came a test of my determination — could I continue to offer this quirky intimate story and face the endless rejections that came?  The answer is yes, oddly enough.  I seem to have put on a new hat now, that of spokesperson for a piece of work that I think is wonderful and will move people’s hearts.

The reason this book will move people’s hearts, I believe, is that it is a lot about finding love – for yourself and for others.  It is about stepping back and seeing the breadth of a life:  the travels around the world searching for beauty and truth, struggling to reconcile with the eccentric selfish soul of a mother, the adoration of a grandmother who had love coming from every pore, the courage to develop my heart and mind as a piano player, a student of literature, a writer, then becoming a mother at a very young age and feeling lost, losing deep love more than once… and finally it is about finding inside the love of humankind in the Buddhist teachings that would free me to touch  kindness and know myself profoundly in any given moment.

I believe that the “substance” of a life springs from the numbers of mindful connections you make with your fellow beings.  And my connections are many.  There was a great French lady who taught me piano when I was 8, a friend who first looked me in the eyes at age 4 and has stayed in my life ever since, a woman who taught first grade to my daughter and showed me the brilliance and joy of being a teacher, a young Italian man who played his guitar for me when I was 14 and made me believe in love for the very first time, my grandmother whose gentle care kept me safe when my mother couldn’t handle the job, a Buddha-like teacher who showed me the joys of service, and all the people who have opened doors for me – to museums, restaurants, bookstores, and such.  The cast of characters is vast, and from all of these encounters, I learned about myself.  I learned I was smart, loved communicating and making things with my hands, adored eating and reading, and playing Bach on the piano, that I had a true and loyal heart, was a good hugger, and was always inspired by beauty.  As I write this, I see a rainbow of colors spraying outward like fireworks, and then weaving back in with one another.  These colors symbolize those I have been touched by and have touched.  I smile and know that those stories I spun for my daughter the other night are inspiring, heartbreaking, and funny — they speak of a full, meaningful life.  The meaning lives in the loving connections.

When I worked in hospice care as a volunteer, we often reflected on the rituals that would most help those who were dying.  Letting go, life reviews and such…  One question kept coming up for both those in the bed and ourselves:  have I lived (loved) well?  For, if you can look back and see your canvas colored by loving connections and kindness,  you can then say, “I have lived well.”

Let this be so.  For myself, and for all beings.



The Heart Does Not Lie

I sat a ten day retreat up north last month and discovered – again – that I could not rationalize or argue my way out of outrage and anger about what’s going on in this world of ours.  Instead, I found my way back to compassion and equanimity that lie in the “brahma vihara” practices of Vipassana meditation.

Many people I know have been suffering from this spinning of the mind, as they watch the affairs of the world play themselves out relentlessly and cruelly regardless of our best wishes and intentions.  I plodded up the hill to the meditation hall and felt that I was literally carrying — like so many of my friends –  heavy baggage indeed: Charlottesville and the burning torches, a horrific shootout in Las Vegas, hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico, wildfires in Northern California, and so on and so on….  And all of this overseen by a government which has clearly lost its way in matters of the heart and conscience.  Cruel, unfair, unspeakable.  We go about our days in a claustrophobic world, reeling here and there to find some way to help ourselves and our fellow human beings find relief from pain.

Sadly trauma such as this doesn’t beget solutions or relief or any sense of clarity, as we crash into the psychic walls that have emerged inside our heads.  As we continue to crash, we suffer, largely because we are desperately trying to use our minds to unwind the tangle and discover the good plan.   As brilliant as the human brain is, it has its limitations – especially those brains that haven’t had the benefit of training in mindfulness… This wild obsessed mind seems to be incapable of seeing clearly.

And what is to be seen, then?  Suffering, plain and simple.  Along with the breathtaking beauty of the ocean, a symphony by Beethoven, the smile of a child, or the flight of a hummingbird.  Back when we all started this journey, we weren’t ever informed that we’d have to take the bad with the good, and so we inevitably feel outrage and resistance to pain and suffering.  I remember saying more than once to my mother as a young child something like:  “this isn’t fair!”  And she responded matter-of-factly: “well, as John Kennedy always said, my dear, LIFE ISN”T FAIR!”   Of course I hated this.  It felt as though I was being discounted.  I see the wisdom all these years later in JFK’s quote, which appears quasi Buddhist as it asserts an essential truth.  Here is the dharma that we meditators spend much of our waking hours witnessing and coming to accept.

Up in the Marin hills, I sat on my cushion and practiced lovingkindness and compassion – the lovingkindness for myself, and the compassion for both my daughters.  And as I breathed and looked inward, keenly aware of my whole – quite vulnerable –  body, I felt my heart expand in my chest, and move in response to these aspirations.  And as I stayed with the breathing and well-wishing, I realized that the evils of the world that I had dragged up the hill with me were not mine to resolve or fix.  They certainly deserve my deepest compassion and love, and perhaps some good works when feasible, but they are in fact just another piece of vast complicated tapestry of human history in which we find ourselves.

When we stop to tap into the heart, we realize the power that the human being has to be in community with his fellow beings.  This power certainly rivals that of our prodigious mind dancing all over the map seeking answers. And it brings us closer to creative constructive change in the end… If we humans can still the mind, then it will hear the voice of the heart reminding us that we are love, we are community.

Questions about Navigating through Dark Times

I have been struggling lately to find and give voice to my feelings and thoughts about the divisive, scary nature of our national landscape lately.  I live in a privileged city, in a lovely neighborhood, surrounded by many comforts, and yet I am anxious and distracted and fundamentally unhappy.  What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, broke my heart, but then so does the almost daily hate-filled speech of our president, the condition of the homeless in our city, the 60 Minutes report about a long term Guantanamo prisoner, the killing of large numbers of black people in so many communities in this country, the ignorance of those shout “lock her up” in robotic fashion, the epidemic of deaths from opioids in poor communities, the plight of those who are Muslim in our country, and the list could continue on and on…

I have been careening about in my comfortable life trying to find my footing, trying to discover a way of coping with this vast sea of darkness and injustice.  This weekend there will be a major right-wing, Neo-Nazi rally in my beautiful city of San Francisco, which on the face of it appears to be the last location in the country where this could be welcomed and accommodated without serious consequences.  Or is it?  San Francisco’s history of alternative life styles, of bohemianism, of ethnic diversity and rich deep cultural history, may just be the place where the hate-filled language of the alt-right can spew forth without harm, where people can just stand in witness to this dark, terrifying human vision rather than instigate further hatred and violence…. I simply don’t know.  Or, when we show up in counter-protest, are we simply legitimizing a historically and socially unacceptable world view?

In the meantime, my instinct is to pull back, to go in the opposite direction of confrontation despite my powerful opposition.  This makes me uncomfortable and almost embarrassed.   As a number of activists lately have said, this is not a time for indifference and inaction.  To shirk participation and defending our beliefs is to aid the very movement we wish to stop.  It is cowardly, gutless.  I guess there are times when it was enough to stay quiet and reflective, locked away in our private spaces, perhaps doing our creative work in the hopes that would change the world.  But what about now?

As I struggle today and this weekend with my sense of being pulled apart inside by differing views, I put this out there to those who are reading my words.  What intentions do you have as you navigate the dark landscape of today’s America?  How do you want to play the part of citizen in this culture?  The Buddha taught that hatred never ends by hatred, but by love alone … and of course Gandhi and Martin Luther King preached and manifested the power of non-violent resistance, the carrying forth of love for one’s fellow beings.   But just how do you manifest love in the face of wildly irrational hatred?  How do you bear witness and hold your ground these days and stay safe at the same time?  I’m speaking of the fear that lurks inside many of us, for our safety, for our life, I guess.

Can we really take this fear out onto the streets and stand up for our beliefs and help to change the course of history?  I wish I had answers and a clearer sense of the “one true thing” inside myself, about what my authentic self needs to do.

Right now I pause, take deep breaths, listen to beautiful music, and try to listen to the voice of my heart.  Because, as my wise Buddhist teacher has said many times, “the heart never lies.”



Why is the practice of equanimity so hard?

I was trying to answer the question in my handout from the “One Year to Live” class which said:  What attitude or state of mind do you wish to cultivate and live with daily?  I jumped on this one, sure that I had a response worth pondering.  Yes, I want to bring about steadiness of mind and equanimity as I travel through these last chapters of my life.  It was clear to me as I began to reflect that this was not something that would just come to me in some grand insight and remain with me forever.  No, it was something I had to turn my attention to every day as I faced a vast array of experiences.  Of the four brahma viharas in Buddhism it is thought to be the hardest.  It does all come back to love in the end, but that is a complex story…

So what is this challenging state of mind?  It is the acceptance of the continual arising and passing away of phenomena, and these phenomena can be as small as a headache or as giant as the threat of nuclear annihilation.  It could be facing a broken heart or being disappointed that your favorite eatery no longer serves clam chowder!  Both joy and sadness are impermanent.

The longer I live the more I realize that I – and the rest of my fellow human beings – have little control over much of what occurs around us.  Yes, we can smile at a passerby on the street, give a gift to a friend, or make a beautiful meal for our family, but in the end we cannot really change the trajectory of other people’s lives, and we cannot alter what they think or how they feel.  It is hard enough to change some of our own thought patterns that are unhealthy, like obsessive self criticism or a phobia about riding in elevators, let alone trying to change someone else’s emotional or intellectual state.  We can go to the polls and vote for candidates we approve of and whose values we share, but anyone who looks at the political narrative over recent decades knows that we often don’t see our own vision or dreams being fulfilled by those we have chosen.

Equanimity can be painful at times … when we see our values being trashed by those we trusted to take care of our society, when we wake up day after day feeling the weight of our life winding down, when we say we’re sorry to someone and know that the hurt still remains in their heart, when we face our occasional failure to live by our own values, when we look out at the ocean and feel the heart hurting for a very old loss, or when accept our physical limitations …  The pain arises because we cannot act, we must allow it all, and because as humans we carry an innate inclination to make things better, to heal wounds, to bring a smile to a sad face.

When my youngest daughter was a little girl she used to remind me that I helped her bad dreams go away, and when she said this my heart went all warm and mushy and I felt she had paid me some ultimate tribute.  I had the capacity to drive away the darkness.  Or did I?  I think I simply witnessed her fears and put my hands on her and the nightmares eventually floated off into space.  There’s something fairytale-ish about this, and it reminds me of the profound burden of motherhood: the job we take on of making things better.  And this is where love comes in.  We hang in there with love, and often we can help the pain of another recede.  But sometimes we can’t…

Our lives have become more complicated, we live in a fragmented, techno-driven culture where closeness and trust and intimacy are more and more of a challenge, and  dishonesty and greed seem to be standard qualities that people manifest. This simple direct touching of one another with love and bringing about comfort seems harder and harder to come by.  That doesn’t mean that we give up.  We have to continue to extend ourselves with love and compassion, even as we sit with all that we cannot change and practice equanimity.

Because love is who we are.  No matter what.  And we can’t weather the storms ahead with out it.


Living Differently

One of the many philosophical questions up for reflection in our “One Year to Live” class is this:  Knowing you will die in one year, how do you want to live differently?  What habits would you like to break?

I want to no longer take my life for granted.  Instead I’d like to make conscious each day that I wake to the sun, the rain, the wind — no matter what storms are brewing in my brain or heart.   I’m thinking of keeping a little notebook in which I write down each day just one thing that’s particular and vivid, whether it’s the sight of a hummingbird, seeing a great art exhibition, or eating a perfect fried egg.  Pause, reflect, and know that you’ve had an interesting day.

I want to stop wasting time.  There’s a long list of “to do’s” I have been carrying around that look like good antidotes to time wasting:  read Shakespeare again, play Bach on my grandmother’s piano, tell someone I care about that I love them, buy myself some flowers, return to Italy, or make a really good soup…  Within reason, you can be the creator of your life here on earth.

I want to stop looking away from that which is sad, annoying or ugly.  “There but for the grace of God go I” comes to mind: the perceiving that I am one with the homeless man sleeping in a doorway on a damp morning, or the rude taxi driver that disrespects my rights as a pedestrian, or the arrogant young weekend drinkers at the local sports bar who disturb my carefully held serenity and quiet.  We are all struggling to navigate this complicated human landscape, each of us carrying our hopes and aspirations, our fears and our fragile sense of self.

I want to stop accumulating things I’ve convinced myself I should have… more clothes (always!), more books, and jewelry for starters.  I look around me now and feel hemmed in by the “stuff,” and all I can think of is how it will feel to my family to face my life’s accumulation after I die, remembering those tedious and sad days I poured through my mother’s drawers, her purses, and boxes to see what I could do with this confusing residue from her life in the form of bobby pins, frayed photographs, powder puffs and chipped porcelain.

I want to stop waiting for the right time.  “Do not wait” is a precept we reflected on regularly when I worked as a volunteer at Zen Hospice Project.  We were trained not to rush forward reactively or urgently, but to respond mindfully and promptly when there is clear need, because the impermanence of phenomena requires continual attention and waiting will often get us to a place where our care is no longer relevant, where the connection we so wish for vanishes.  We live in a world colored by uncertainty, and we need to learn resolve.

And lest you think I need to remain on this lofty plain, here are some habits of a daily and mundane nature that I might consider re-thinking:  late night chocolate mint chip ice cream, ignoring my seat belt, ranting about Donald Trump, drinking more than one margarita in a sitting, watching another of those detective story re-runs out of boredom, eating too many salty chips, playing with my I phone when I could be attending to my world, putting off another dentist appointment, watching too much news (even on public television!), starting yet another knitting project, staying up too late at night…

This life is a gift, yes … and in order to fully receive this gift, we must pay attention, we must take loving care of ourselves and others, and see ourselves as yet another little piece of the giant puzzle.  Oh, I just remembered something else:  we must let go more often, and we must laugh!


Finding Peace by the Sea

It occurs to me more and more these days that my mental health is dependent on creating quiet space for myself, getting out of the urban landscape I used to love so much, and retreating to the ocean where the main sounds I hear are: the roar of the sea and the chirping of the local birds.

This age we live in is filled with an overwhelming amount of noise, information, static, false information, and an unattractive resurgence of that “me first” attitude.  It is frankly exhausting.  Even if you don’t turn on your TV or radio, your system becomes permeated with this nervous energy and ends up feeling ragged and annoyed.  It’s in the very air that you breathe and thus becomes part of you.  So, what to do with all this hyperactivity of the thinking mind?  Well, how about digesting more and more news from all kinds of great websites, getting the scoop on the latest disappointment in Congress (the gridlock and the elevation of a conservative judge)), or the latest verbal gaffe by our mentally challenged press secretary in Washington (the small mistake about Hitler and chemical weapons) ?  Yes, and one you’ve ingested this information, then what the hell do you do with it?

Well, I pack up my car, including Peaches the dog and both cats, and I head for the beach house in Bodega.  Because even though I’m only 1hour and a half from the big noisy city, I feel very far from all the clutter and excitement, and aggravation.  I sit at my dining room table by expansive windows that look out onto the rolling waves of the dark blue Pacific, and the meandering little creek filled with little ducks, some geese, and the occasional river otter.  I sit at the table and I return to the quiet and thoughtful world of my memoir, poking away at some of its imperfections, paring down some of the excesses of language.  I listen to classical music, I hear the waves, and I watch the wacky collection of local birds feeding out on my deck: doves, red wing blackbirds, finches and blue jays and sometimes quail.  I become intimate with the mystery of wildlife, in much the same way as I do when I go to Africa and stare at elephants and lions and giraffes.  My mind stops craving information, I breathe deeper.

I figured out shortly after returning from the Women’s March in Washington that I am not cut out to be an activist, no matter how strongly I believe in our citizens’ responsibility to participate in their political world, especially when it appears to be highly dysfunctional and frightening.  I can write letters, give money, send emails, make phone calls, but I think that is about the extent of my activism.  I am very gratified at the increase in political energy that we see now, the mobilizing of so many people young and old who had been quiet and reticent before, and I include them in my meditations on gratitude that have become part of my practice.  I simply can’t hit the streets or go to meetings, and because I am 72 and officially an “elder,” I think I have the right to pick and choose how I spend my mental and creative energies.

My book is symbolic for me of the importance of manifesting my thoughts and beliefs in the world in such a way that I hope readers can relate to, can feel a kindred voice.  And so I return to her (yes, I see this memoir as distinctly feminine!) to respectfully tend her and get her ready to be published.  Every once in a while, the “Angel in the House” – otherwise known as the inner critic – tells me I’m a fool to expect a publisher to take on this quirky little book from an older, unpublished writer.  But I think about the pain and suffering of Virginia Woolf who coined the name for this critic and suffered at her hands, and I put my head down and keep persevering.  My life is filled with way too many unfinished works, incomplete dreams.

I love my refuge by the ocean in a way I love just a few things, like my children and grandchildren, and my four legged creatures, and my piano, and I relish the peace and wellbeing that comes to me here.  When I’m at peace here I feel my heart fill up with love and compassion for all people:  I want everyone to find refuge in their lives so that they can navigate our complicated and scary landscape, can find their path of contributing to this amazing world, and discover that at the core of everything we do is love.  More than our brilliant ideas, love helps us have authentic, beautiful lives, and without the love, our ideas hardly know where to go…

What I Just Learned from Miranda

Since last Saturday I have had the music of Lin Manuel Miranda in my brain, dancing and thumping and feeling like a heartbeat, and as I search for a way to articulate the epic experience of Hamilton, I now sit and listen to this phenomenal parade of musical numbers blasting from my sound system … all so full of heart and humor and – yes – enormous intelligence.  I want to learn to rap! I want to prance down the street singing a line or two of truth!  Truth.  What a great concept!

I am now plowing through my 240 page memoir in an effort to edit and re-tweak some parts to elicit more drama and texture, and I struggle … What with?  Making it great, so great that people will sigh with pleasure when reading it, put their hands on their hearts, and feel tears fall from their eyes.  All of us who give birth to something original, and that certainly includes Lin Manuel Miranda, want to offer the world the very, very best.  So, I return to scour the pages for places where I have trailed off into discursive thought and led my reader away from immediate experience.  I can still remember sitting in the theater last week and crying with joy at the exquisite immediacy of Miranda’s Hamilton.  You could feel it in your bones, running through your body, the wildly varied music and dance driving it all the way.  I want the prose on the pages of my story to vibrate with the same immediate truth, and tangible, palpable life.

This intimate story I tell of my life unfolds in the tradition of Henry James and other essay writers of the 19th century … writers who chronicled their experience with beautiful attention to detail and a reverence for ideas and the life of the mind.  When I read the lines on the page I feel I am at times channeling the brainy Mr. James, and sometimes that pleases me.  But then, but then, there’s the question of just who out there in the world cares about a solitary privileged white woman’s reflections on Italian food, elephant families in Africa, cremation of the dead in India, or Monet’s water lilies?  The older I get the more I realize I’m becoming more isolated —  part of a dwindling community of “elders” moving more slowly and deliberately, feeling more vulnerable, and more in love with the simple riches of a human life.  So, the tale being told in Bowing to Elephants is one of a physical and intellectual coming of age, of growing up and learning about wisdom and letting go.  It is told in the manner of an impressionist painting, with layers and layers of color  being laid on one another in delicate strokes, these sometimes transparent layers emerging from a memory bank that struggles with recalling the concrete experiences of childhood and early adulthood.

The artist’s job as far as I can tell is to take a small seed of an image, thought, line, or dream, and build on this, following your own unique inspiration.  Miranda did this using a rather epic “seed” – an 800 page tome about Hamilton’s life.  We invent and we shape our work using our particular creative juices and connection to life, and we must trust those juices.   What makes any play great is both heartbreaking truthfulness and inventive voice, and I think the same holds true of a story, whether it’s a novel or memoir.  Truth must be present, and so must the beating  individual heart of the writer.

In the beginning of my book, I am a very young girl with an urgent question for my mother:  to know the truth about my family.  I reveal myself as a seeker.  At the outset of Hamilton, he says: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean, by providence, impoverished, in squalor, Grow up to be a hero and a scholar.” Here he shows us exactly who he is and what he wants of life.   And the entire play is driven by the strength of this edgy character.  My story is propelled, I believe, by an insatiable need to discover reality, my own and that of many other cultures, so I may hold my place in the world.  The two stories are very, very different, they’re dressed in very different garb, but their significance as creative works may not be all that far from one another.  They are both works in which a complicated and troubled soul becomes more and more revealed to us, and to him (her) self.

Well, I must say that when I began my reflection here I didn’t know I’d end up seeing any parallel between my work and the magnificent Broadway play … that goes to show you that the “creative process”takes us on a mysterious journey.  We must give ourselves to it and have faith.  We must hold this faith because without it we might never be able to offer our own creative gift to the world.  And that, I think, is the job for all of us no matter where we live, how old we are, and what we look like …



A Year to Live…

Stephen Levine wrote a visionary work called A Year to Live in which he reflected among other things on the preciousness of human life and the importance of rededicating ourselves – each of us – to our own journey.  What he’s really talking about is taking the time to see clearly the priorities for one’s life.  What is deeply important?  What does it all mean?  Despite the inherent uncertainty that the human journey holds, we do have choices for how to be in the world, how to speak, treat our fellow citizens, how to hold ourselves in times of great challenge, how to be agents for the good.

I want to imagine the finite amount of time I have left, and explore just how I wish to navigate this uncertain terrain.  What thoughts and visions will I put my mind to, what choices will I make, how will I care for myself and others, how will I manifest my truth?   Here are the aspirations that rise to the surface:

PEACE  – If there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that I want to live in peace, in harmony with my universe.  I’m sure studies have been done proving that it’s much healthier in the long run to be surrounded by those who live peacefully, but for me it’s about knowing this in a very direct and intimate way in my body. When I sit quietly and listen to my breath, feel my body’s ease, I know there is little else to be done, that I am complete, just me and my loving heart…  Cultivating inner peace helps us spread it out into the world, as the Dalai Lama has said many times.  First you must discover and nurture it for yourself.  You must bless yourself with peace.

HONESTY –   I was born on George Washington’s birthday and those of us who remember old legend learned that our first president was reputedly incapable of telling a lie.  I carried that aspiration a lot of my life, though there were challenging times when I forgot how to be brave enough to tell the truth.  I now feel passionate about truth.  About seeing and telling the things as they are.  There’s a lightness, a clarity, a spaciousness when you are speaking honestly … no skeletons in closets, no ghosts lurking around the corner.  Here’s what I really think about truth:  it makes us more who we really are.  I have been writing much in my life to locate and own this very truth.

SERVICE – To offer ourselves —  help, support, gifts, words, actions — to others is the path toward healing in our now injured society.  When we offer a hand, we move from our self-referenced consciousness to forging community with others, to understanding fully the rich, complicated world we live in, and playing an active part in that world.  I have sat with the dying, coached young high school students in writing, served lunch to the homeless … and in each of these instances I became more vitally a part of my world, and saw at the same time an expanding of the heart, ever so quiet and subtle, as this happened.  The Buddha saw service as one of the significant paths to an enlightened life, and I get it.

BEAUTY –  I can’t help it – All my life I was trained to love beauty in many different forms:  art in Italy, music at the piano, great food at the dining room table, inspiring literature in all the books on all those bookshelves.  I had a life of privilege and that included the tasting and falling in love with that which is beautiful.  These were the rich vibrant colored threads that were woven into my life’s tapestry…  To look at a great painting or listen to a Bach Fugue isn’t just a “beautiful” experience, but rather a reminder of man’s infinite capacity to create and galvanize those of us who witness into action and creativity.  Art in all its forms is like a marvelous glue that binds the varying characters in society, as it tells its own story and becomes our history.    Art creates community and can become a message for change.

ANIMAL LIFE – I have grown up around four legged creatures, and have for as long as I can remember felt an affinity with them:  dogs, cats, birds, and elephants in particular.  They all are teachers.  They show us intelligence, the power of instinct, they show us how a family is raised, and how affection can be communicated.  They manifest magic, as in the soaring birds that lift us off this earth as they rise into the sky.  They remind us of mystery – very important.  We need to make room for mystery…  They also remind us that we ourselves are animals, and that gift is priceless.  Taking on a little humility in this way helps us be part of the whole as opposed to remaining an observer.  I have imagined myself in all these forms, and it brings love and laughter into my heart to do so.  And who doesn’t need love and laughter?

FAMILY – What can I can about this except that the children and grandchildren that I have watched grow for these many years have perhaps been my greatest teachers.  And how we need teachers to guide us along the path! …  Teachers keep us honest, they inspire, they remind us of our own unique gifts.  The older I get, the more humbled I feel as I realize I am still learning from these dear ones.  They bring joy and and love.


I will rest here for now, and contemplate these particular marvels in my life.  These beautiful gifts have colored the landscape of my life in wondrous ways, each of them inexorably tied to my heart through the power of love.  Yes, it really does all boil down to love in the end, doesn’t it?



They are Closing the Doors

I woke up this morning to read that a number of immigrants traveling to this country are now being held in detention here or are forbidden to travel.  The news that these earnest, hard-working Muslims from Iraq, Iran, and Syria will not be able to enter the U.S. feels like one of my worst visions come true.  Yes, that man (don’t want to name him) ranted and raved on the campaign trail about closing our borders and keeping out the foreigners, especially the Muslims and the Mexicans whom he claimed were fiercely and inherently dangerous.  But, I didn’t/I couldn’t believe that as the president he would go through with such a  bigoted and cruel decision.  Since he became president he has been acting like an absolute monarch, signing proclamation after proclamation, and I assumed that most of those wouldn’t come about without the help of the congress.  Guess I was wrong.  Our democratic system does allows for a president to make sweeping decisions in dire times, but I’m sure the Founding Fathers could not have had a clue what that would mean in the hands of an unstable, mean spirited person.

It breaks my heart to think of people who have fled their country, having endured countless cruelties and injustices, coming to seek refuge in America and being told they can’t come in.  I have always believed that this country stood up for justice and humanitarian action.  And this nation has harbored immigrants since the very beginning of its history, some with white skin, some with black or brown skin… Over time we would become a multi-colored population.  On the Statue of Liberty travelers see these words:  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ….  ”    We are a country built on and enhanced by immigrant energy, we are a vast ethnic quilt of humankind.  But then, the man in the White House doesn’t read, doesn’t know history, and has lived his whole life in a bubble.    He is tragically ignorant.  And he is loaded with fear that he wants our citizens to share.  When I think of the vast power of fear over living beings, I become terrified myself.   It is primal, irrational, and brings us deep into our primitive mammalian selves, where there is no reasoning and no heart.

Build a wall! Close the door! Keep the bad guys out! …. especially those with darker  skin and strange customs … Mexicans who trade in drugs but also come here to work harder for their families than the white folks.  And those dark eyed folks from Muslim countries who look so different, have complicated names and wear burkas, and who are deeply spiritual, praying daily to Mohammed.  Without discrimination or thought of any kind, our government now chooses to exclude those who are deemed alien, and a threat.  Tragic, because there is no coherent thought process happening here.  Just raw fear.  And the unstable monarch…

These are really complicated times.  It is true that we have been harmed by people proclaiming their allegiance to Islam. We are despised by many in that part of the world, and that historical contempt is also complicated.  It is also painful to contemplate.  It is essential that rational good minds prevail and sort out how we serve grave humanitarian needs while still protecting our country from terrorism.  There are good minds out there who have been on that mission, I know there are.  Many of those minds were hard at work in Washington during Barack Obama’s tenure. At this moment, however, it feels as though the good and sane minds are not in control, and we are careening through time and space, yanked this way and that by a man who is driven by racism and ill-will.

I want to say those who had the door slammed in their face in New York and elsewhere (I must name them:  Hameed Khalid Darweesh, unnamed family of 6 from Syria, Seyed Soheil, Saeedi Saravi, Haider Sameer Abdulkhalek Alshawi, Ali Abdi, 6 unnamed Iraqis coming from Egypt)  that this is NOT the true America.  This is not the America built on the principles of all men deserving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the America where there are laws which forbid discrimination based on race, religion, and gender.  Our government was founded on humane and righteous principles, but today a vast number of our citizens who voted in the man in White House have no clue about just how sacred these principles are.  They are driven by fear of all that is different.   Those of us who cherish these principles now weep and grieve for the shameful acts of our government.  I want you who tried to enter the country to know that there are millions of us in the United States who want to welcome you to this amazing place where opportunities are bountiful, the diversity of culture is rich, and the power of community can still get things done.  I believe there will be consequences here and now for this horrible decision.  I marched in peaceful protest with 500,000 women in Washington a week ago and got a taste of the power of our democracy, our solidarity and our shared values.   It brought tears to my eyes to realize that we can be a government OF the people, FOR the people, BY the people — even if at this moment that seems to be a sham.  I promise my determination to speak out in all ways about this hateful exclusion of our fellow beings, and I know there are many, many thousands who are behind me in this.  I humbly offer my apologies for this government, I promise never to forget you and your families’ inalienable right to come here and join this amazing experiment in democracy.

Keeping the Heart Open

As the days unfolded before Christmas and I cringed at all the tinny holiday music and shopworn decorations, I became acutely aware of a tender heart that wanted more than anything to stay open so it could receive kindness and generosity, give love and hold both joy and pain.  It is a hard business, this keeping the heart open…

It means not only do you bear witness to the confusion, anger, and hurts that are right up close to you, in your family for instance, but you also allow this heart of yours to receive  and hold countless unspeakable tragedies, like a warehouse fire killing 36 young vibrant artists in Oakland, the cruel destruction of masses of human beings in Aleppo, the sinister deceits that lurk in our political system and the arrival of a truly scary individual to lead the country, the senseless shooting of a anonymous homeless couple who sought shelter in a tent on San Francisco’s streets…  The list of sorrows to be born is enormous, it seems we are confronted with one injustice after another.  How to navigate?

Last night I cooked a Christmas goose for one of my daughters and her three children.  We looked at the glossy roast bird on the table, we clinked glasses, and in that little moment we all felt protected by love.  Love is what Christ was all about, and the Buddha too, and we see its healing powers made manifest in many different places: in the kindness of strangers we pass on the street, in the eyes of an adoring dog who lives and breathes love standing at the dinner table, in sheer delight of a boy getting to know his new robot named Cozmo, a whimsical little piece of technology that imparts laughter, intelligence, and sweetness.  We must pause to receive the kindness of strangers, the dog’s affection, and the irrepressible joy of the young boy.  We could miss it if we remained in our head, caught up in our old stories and assumptions.

How easy it is to get pulled back into the old stuff – it’s familiar territory after all, like the story of not being loved enough (a particular favorite of mine), or not being charismatic or capable enough to make an impact on the world, or never having enough love.  That last is a killer.  I have lived too long with that one and know the story inside out.  So what do we do when these voices of dissatisfaction and grief show up?  Instead of getting lost in that other time zone, we could open our hearts, and say, yes, this too is grief – it is my grief, but it is not my fault.  It is not anyone else’s either.  It just is.  Because the human journey is about pleasure and pain.

This heart of ours must stay open both to love and to the sorrows of our times and our own histories.  Most of the time there is nothing to be fixed.  And the more we allow ourselves to feel it all, the wider the opening to our heart becomes.  That’s the good part!  Being with grief and darkness can be unbearable unless we summon compassion – that amazing capacity of the heart to crack open in the face of suffering.   Perhaps the greatest gift we can give ourselves is to hold open the door to our crusty exquisite heart so we can wish ourselves well on this tortuous journey, so we can wish happiness and safety and health on ourselves, as well as on the people of Syria, the homeless on our streets, the masses of hungry children in our own country, the victims of torture and abuse all over the world, the threatened elephants in Africa, those elders trapped in wheelchairs and dementia in nursing homes, the women who are stoned in Afghanistan …

This is a dark and beautiful world.  We must call upon our bravery and good intentions and go out there and take it all on.  Keeping the heart open.