Saturday, December 3, 2016

Thank You!

Written to the prompt of W.S. Merwin's Thank You: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/thanks

Do we just say thank you for the good things that have been happening? Are there even “good” things, or is everything a mixed bag? Does everything glitter just a little? Are we being over dramatic when we say “this is bad”?

It was so cold we invented the furnace. Someone's kids moved far away, so the telephone was invented. Is it not worth saying "thank you" for anything?

Buddha was continually harassed by Mara, who tried to take him off the path. Some say Mara was evil and even the devil. I think we should say “thank you” to Mara, who so skillfully kept Buddha on the path by challenging him over and over again. How steadfast would Buddha have been without Mara? Would his journey be worthwhile if it wasn’t met with challenges?

On a beautiful day, my wife had to walk to pick up the kids because her car didn't start. “This isn't how I wanted to spend my day,” she said. Thank you. David's electricity was turned off. Thank you. His life became a little more surprising. Thank you.

I bought really good five cheese for my four year old. He didn't say "thank you", nor would he eat it. So I bought kid’s mac and cheese tonight. “Take the cheese off,” he said. “Thank you for four-year-olds,” I thought.

Gomer Pyle said “Thank you thank you thank you.” (Or was it, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!"?). He pretended, at least, to be really appreciative.

It seems so easy to bemoan that the world isn't as we'd like it to be. But if it was, it would be boorrriinnng. So thank you for that. I'll wake up tomorrow morning and say "thank you"... because I don't know what the world will serve me for breakfast. Just like when I sit zazen. What will come into my little noodle? Or when I open my mail. What will I see? Will someone scold me because I was a little too this or that? Will someone tell me that I won the lottery? Will faux Microsoft Bodhisattvas call me to tell me that they will fix the virus on my computer? Will all my machines work right? My gadgets? Thank you (I hope they don’t… they’ll have time to rest).

I love surprises. I like when the car doesn't start. I love when I'm at Home Depot and told that I should come right home. I love when I try to go home, and the road is closed. Thank you for making this life so unpredictable and so exciting.

What will happen next? Will I say "thank you"? When my four-year-old says thank you he doesn't look up. So I say to him, “Charlie,” and then he remembers and looks up, and says once more, this time with a smile, “Thank you!!!!!!”

Sunday, October 9, 2016

“I Want to be a Better Person.” “Really?”

Me?

Something feels wrong about trying to be a better person. We talk about changing a lightbulb but we really don't do that, rather, we replace it. Come to think of it, most of my life I've wanted to be someone else. A full replacement.

And that's sick!

I used to think that it would be cool to be Babe Ruth or Einstein, but they are both in pretty bad shape right now. So I’ll nix that idea.

Then there was Picasso. Yes, he was some artist, but some of his personal life wasn't very artful, and I'd hate that.

I guess this urge to be someone else is like playing hopscotch and wishing you were playing croquet. Is one game better than another? I don't think so.

So how do I go about life without being engulfed in fantasies and pipe dreams?  What does it take to just accept the cards I was dealt?

There are a few parts that couldn't be improved. I'd love the two inches back that I’ve shrunk. I'd love to be the athletic star that B was in high school though I wouldn't want his illness or bum leg. And this list goes on and on.

Someone this morning was saying he wouldn't get married because he only wanted someone he'd be super proud to be seen with. I didn't have the heart to tell him that beauty fades, even with seemingly perfect people.

So the remaining problem: should I get that one wish from a genie—who will I choose to become? Me?

—Kim Mosley

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Dance With the Stars

The world isn’t the way I want it to be.
The world is just as it is.
What am I going to do about it? 

I mentioned that if someone wrote a screenplay about the world as it is, no one would believe it.

Then I started thinking about what the world might be like if it was how people would like it to be. I'd like to eliminate all the meat and candy from Central Market. And also all the wine. Who needs that stuff anyway? People just do the wrong thing when they drink.

But then D came by and he wanted peanuts… just peanuts, so then the world changed and CM had only peanuts. And so on. So that might really be crazy if things were how we’d like them to be.

Actually, in retrospect, our delusions often let us believe that the world is how we’d like it to be… for those incredibly short moments. Even today, I mentioned that I was 1/2 of my world. A crazy delusion!

Yesterday I was talking to T about the way it is, and he mentioned another aspect that I didn't even consider. What it is is not just what we read about in geology and biology textbooks. It is also how we feel about it. So I'm driving on Interstate 35 and there is lots of traffic. That is what is. And I'm feeling frazzled… mad, wishing that I had left a few hours earlier before all these people got out of bed. So "what is" is not just the traffic... it is my mind agonizing over what is. Imagine someone looking down onto Earth. Someone who only observes and doesn't react. She would see you and me and the cars... And we'd all be what is.

And then the tough question. What will I do about it? I can run, I can endure, or I can change. Or I can do nothing. Just sit there like a “bump on a log,” as my sisters would say when one of us wouldn't play.

There is an event coming soon that I would rather didn’t happen. I can avoid it, hoping it will just not be. I can go, but not really go, hoping that I can satisfy both the need to go and not go, or I can really go, fully embracing the situation authentically.

Complaining and disparaging might take place. Bad qi might permeate the space. Is that doing something about it? Or is it just wishing that things were different? And if things were just like we’d want them to be, would we like that? Or would we complain about that too?

My house is too small. No room for a ping pong table. Next day, when vacuuming, the house is too big. No time for anything but cleaning it. And on and on.

So I guess facing the music is all that I can do. I can embrace and embody things as they are. That's all we have to work with. I can observe it, and me within it, reacting, responding, hating or loving. I’m a half of what is... It is real to me, but not for you.

Do we live in the same place? Hardly. But we can meet somewhere, somehow, and dance with the stars.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ten Preceptions (a.k.a. Be Nice)

Note: This was written for my second “taking of the precepts,” also called a Jukai ceremony. Some don’t do windows (glass and Microsoft). I don’t do assignments, so instead, I’m giving one pithy personal example for each of the precepts, as stated by the San Francisco Zen Center.

1. A disciple of Buddha does not kill but rather cultivates and encourages life. 

Gentle

Adults often tell 
kids what to do. 

When I took my 2 year old Nate 
to the park,
I let him lead 
and I just followed. 

Life and freedom 
feel interwoven. 

When Nate was the leader—
the explorer—
he became his own
person. 

He stood up
straight, and said,
“Grandpa, come follow 
me around the park.”


2. A disciple of Buddha does not take what is not given but rather cultivates and encourages generosity. 

Giver

I tore up the postage stamp 
that was not cancelled—
After rationalizing
many justifications. 

The use of the stamp 
had not been given 
to me. 

Though a nominal sum,
it was like a (single) vote 
in an election. 

One vote doesn’t matter 
until it joins 
another. And then 
we have, or have not, a post offices,
morgues, and bad karma.

Smiling equals generosity. 
suggesting to others:
something is right 
and see this joy in life.

I rarely say “no.”
I don’t see myself 
separated from others. 

I’ve been feeding chickens
and, against my vegan ethics,
ate a few of their eggs. 
Only for science,
was my excuse.

I felt my heart
open to them 
when I held two warm, 
recently minted,
and well-constructed
eggs in my hand. 

I cared about those chicks,
visiting them
between
feeding time. 

Were they ok? 
Did they have water? 
Was their gate latched
to keep out the coyote?

The neighbors’ garden hose 
and sprayer were leaking.
So I repaired them. 
“It needed to be done,”
said Mother Theresa,
and “Yes, I like to fix things,”
said Rube Goldberg.

Even things should 
not suffer, even if 
they are “inanimate.” 


3. A disciple of Buddha does not misuse sexuality but rather cultivates and encourages open and honest relationships. 

Desire

Sexuality is a force 
that drives us.

I thrive on open 
and honest relationships. 

When I’m opening up,
others tend to do that.

I’m challenged to moderate 
distance between myself 
and others. 

When should I speak
or not?

Linda was reading 
when I woke up 
this morning. Do I 
interrupt her and 
say good morning?

Does she know 
I’m feeling that? 

So I haven’t talked to her, 
realizing that she needs space 
after watching 
two-year old Nate
for four days. 

Sexuality is really 
connection and non-connection
for me. It is finding the space
between us.


4. A disciple of Buddha does not lie but rather cultivates and encourages truthful communication. 

Deceit

I lie. And
not only at night
in my bed.

It is another dance,
knowing when to talk
and when to shut up.

I read the book
on Honest. You’d
think that would have 
been enough.

How much truth
do you want? 
How much can
our relationship
sustain?

What should I overlook,
even when I can’?

When I ask,
should I tell the truth?
You say yes,
and (soon) regret it.

Is that why, T.S. Eliot, 
“the women come and go
talking of Michelangelo”?


5. A disciple of Buddha does not intoxicate self or others but rather cultivates and encourages clarity. 

Meth

My intoxicant is distraction… 
on the Internet, on Earth. 
Not saying no. 

Believing that I have unlimited time. 

Others appear to
have great focus. 

It takes me too long 
to finish things—

“driven to distraction.”


6. A disciple of Buddha does not slander others but rather cultivates and encourages respectful speech. 

Slander
I slander in my mind and in conversation.
And I did not know it. 

Am I supporting life? 

Yes, no lie here. 

But do I speak a belief 
as if it is the truth?

Usually.

Sometimes thinking that
the end justifies the means.

And even sometimes,
as I’m doing it,
I wish I wasn’t.

I just slandered my chicken friends,
calling them lazy,
because, 
after laying 13 eggs in two days,
they are taking a deserved
break. 

See, I used their 
human shortcomings, 
as justification,
for my slanderous tongue.


7. A disciple of Buddha does not praise self at the expense of others but rather cultivates and encourages self and others to abide in their awakened nature. 

Humble

I wonder when I bragged a little, 
telling how I was once this or that.

As I said it, I wondered
if I should have said,
what I did.

I wondered, too,
 if saying something
I had done 
would accomplish the end
in my mind?

If so, does that justify it?

Hardly.


8. A disciple of Buddha is not possessive of anything but rather cultivates and encourages mutual support

Mine!

What do I own that was only mine?

Shouldn’t Iacknowledge 
where it came from?

Is it really mine 
when I depend on you
to protect it 
and be with it 
and invent it 
and…?

I say “my computer.” Ha. 
What did I do 
to help it 
come into my world?


9. A disciple of Buddha does not harbor ill-will but rather cultivates and encourages lovingkindness and understanding. 

Spite

Somedays I feel like pinching people,
for no reason except I felt pinched
yesterday or the day before.

I know it is silly, 
because pinching will never
break the pattern.

Smiling would be 
a whole lot better.
Stop pinching 
even if it seems warranted.

As humans are precious, 
pinching is never warranted…
even if it is so easy
when the target appears 
to beg for it.


10. A disciple of Buddha does not abuse the Three Treasures but rather cultivates and encourages awakening, the path and teaching of awakening and the community that takes refuge in awakening. 

Nurturing

As he said we need
to take care of things,
he put his holy book
into a puddle of soda.

I felt wounded, 
wanting to snatch
the book away,
and save her
from that 
indelible stain.

++++++++++

Personal Spiritual Ancestors:

Note: I have no idea what spiritual means, but I’ll try.

People who gave me broken machines to take apart so could figure out how they worked.

My grandpa, who let me fix stuff and who believed in me.

My grandma, who told me continually about her brother the rabbi… and whose love of music inspired me to do art.

My neighbors who went to church and had a stained glass window in their living room (in the wall with electric lights behind).

My first art teacher, Robert Erickson, who recognized something in me and gave me permission to break rules.

A philosophy teacher Joseph Agassi who let us explore and be scholars instead of students.

Two art teachers in college (and many others), Peter Bodnar and Art Sinsabaugh, who believed in me.

My Rin Tin Tin dog, Blackbeard, who found me and stuck around for ten years.

Kids and Grandkids, Josh, Melissa Jasper, Dash, Charlie and Nate, who taught me so much, esp. that other people, even kids, are there own people.

My wife, Linda, who calmly stuck around, told me the truth, and made everything she touched turn beautiful. 

Hans, Francois, and Susan, who have been friends for most of my life, who were there over and over again.

Carl Jerome, my first Zen/Chan teacher, who tried so hard to move me from my discursive mind to my wisdom-heart.

Countless sentients who gave me so much, and were around at just the right time, challenging me so much.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Smile!

”A ferocious troll sat under a bridge with his laptop, and when the villagers concurred, “Let’s give money to this wonderful cause,” the troll yelled, “Get off your ass and go volunteer in your community!” And when the villagers said, “Let’s go volunteer in our community,” the troll yelled “F..k Youuuuuuu!” And when the villagers said, “That’s not a nice thing to say, the troll yelled, “Free speech!” And the villagers tried reasoning, and shaming, and yelling back. But nothing stopped the troll. Until one day, the troll said, “You’re a f..king moron and I hate your children!!!!,” and the villagers said, “Hi there, Mr. Troll. We love you. What a fine use of exclamation points!” and the troll got confused for a while until he realized it felt quite good to be loved, and he moved into a cheery house with yellow curtains and got a nice big dog.“ —Emma Skogstad
++++++++++

My daughter taught 2nd grade and she'd tell her students that in the 2nd grade we are nice to each other. 

Imagine what a world would look like if people were nice to each other. If people smiled. I used to go to Trader Joes in St. Louis if I had a hard day at work because the check out clerks were always so nice. 

Once I took a seminar in how to deal with difficult people. I remember two things I learned. One was that people are different. For example, some people like surprises and others don't. Expecting that people are like you doesn't work. The second was that even if a person is difficult, you can find a nice side in them, and you can address that.

One teacher called us all Mr and Ms with our last names. He expected us to be professionals. And we tried.

I think we are especially struck today because of people in the news who aren't very nice to others. A friend has an X who isn't very nice to her. I told her to smile. How could one be mean to someone who is smiling?

My daughter asked me to make her a painting with the word smile. I have it almost finished. I started it about 15 years ago. But she reminds me, every time the painting shows up. Today I found it, again.

Smile. Be nice to the troll and find a way of complimenting him, even if it is the number of exclamation marks he uses. I guess this must have been a text message conversation, because how would they know how many explanation marks he used. 

Smile. And he had lots of typos which I corrected. I wrote Emma and told her I corrected them, and she said that trolls make a lot of mistakes. I didn't get that earlier, thinking he was saying rather than typing. But now I get it. 

Smile. I had an aunt who told me that everyone who worked for her was incredible. I knew she had the knack for bringing out the best in people. When I hear a teacher talk about the great class they have this year, I suspect that it is more about what they elicit in the students than the students themselves.

Smile! Smile! Just Smile! Let the trolls know you love them and they won't be trolls anymore. Smile.

And keep smiling!

—Kim Mosley

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Proposed Litmus Test

Trump’s idea of only letting people into America who pass a litmus test is interesting to me.

To become a citizen, you are tested on what you know. Here are sample questions. And I believe you have to “pledge allegiance.” How does what you know contrast to what you believe? Are there beliefs that are un-American? Is that what McCarthy was about? I realize that becoming an immigrant and becoming a citizen are different. Yet being an immigrant is the first step toward becoming a naturalized citizen.

Imagine that you wanted to limit how many people could immigrate to the US in a given year? How might you decide? Would it be first come, first served? Would it be a lottery? Would it be to only allow those that have a means of support? Would it be based on what they believe? Or what they know?

Is it un-American to believe that the constitution should be changed? Is any belief “un-American”?

Sometimes it appears that too many people live in Austin, TX. The infrastructure (esp. the highways) cannot support its current population. We limit how many people should go into an elevator or a restaurant. Should we limit how many people can move to a city… or a country?

One more question: Is it possible to think about these questions without becoming triggered? Can we have a belief that doesn’t make opposing beliefs “wrong”?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Listen to Everyone and Believe Noone

One of my favorite teachers would say, “Listen to everyone and believe noone.”

This was never so true as when I hitchhiked with a German Shepard to visit Linda in Elgin, Illinois (before we were married). People picked me up and chastised me for being so stupid for hitchhiking with a German Shepard. “How could you be so stupid to think than anyone would pick you up?“ they would say. And once we got past that, they were all very nice people.

There was one couple in a VW Bug who stopped to pick me up, and then realized their back seat was filled with stuff and they had no room for me. But their heart was in the right place.

A state trooper picked me up. Again, he scolded me and then we had a friendly talk as he drove me for many miles.

Today someone said, “No one wants to watch a 50-minute video of a class.” My mind goes back to that summer of 1969. I know that’s the conventional advice… and I also know to believe no one.

I like better to remember that “the proof is in the pudding.”

Friday, August 12, 2016

Totally Confused


I kept imagining a timeline, with a moment in the middle, and the past and present on either sides—each as long as the other. I'm in the middle now. I’ll always be in middle.

I asked a physicist once where I was in the universe. “Was I in the center?” “No,” he said, “you are more like a 1/3 of the way in or out....” I don't remember which.

Well, that's space... And, like time, it defines where we are. 

It worried me thinking about dementia the other day. I don’t want to throw away my past or future. I want it all. The richness of a given situation seems to depend on what we can bring to it, and what we can take away.

I took a mindfulness workshop many years ago. I asked a young monk if you could be in the moment and think about the past. He talked on and on. I "got" that you could, but didn't understand what he was saying. 

So what is the difference between daydreaming, and “being here now” thinking of the good old Beach Boys? Is one state more “present” than the other. 

It is costly to be asleep. There was a $20 bill lying in the street that I missed while I was seduced by a pile of trash someone had thrown out. Someone else found the $20 and asked me if it was mine. “No,” I regretfully had to answer.

In a daydream am I in my daydream? What is so bad about sitting on a couch and thinking of some rich moment in the past, or yearning to fulfill some fantasy in the future. I could even use the meat argument... that God wouldn't have made chickens if we weren't suppose to eat them (God wouldn’t give us fantasies if we weren’t meant to fulfill them). 

I told my wife that when you enter the Buddhist stream, you become fully enlightened in no more than seven years. “Who makes up this stuff?” she asked. “I don't know,” I answered. Maybe seven is a code word for someday. 

I marvel at race car drivers, gymnasts, and others who have demanding challenges. They need to concentrate 100% all the time. I heard of a Zen priest (Philip Whalen) who could do the same. He'd count his breaths to ten over and over again for each entire period of meditation. No daydreams there!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Obstructions

Lisa quoted Rumi on Facebook "There is a field beyond right and wrong. I'll meet you there.”

I’m thinking of the gas chambers like Zika. The gas chambers made sense to Hitler. The problem with Zika is not solved by condemning the mosquitoes. We can’t coexist with the disease as Jews (and many others) couldn’t coexist with Hitler or ISIS. I think we can let go of the judgement because it is not productive. We can focus on the problem.

My mom used to say, solve problems, not people. Condemning others seems like a waste of time. Zika is just trying to do what diseases like to do—thrive. It isn’t “bad.” But it is a problem for us, so we try to stop it. We feel we need to judge another as evil or wrong to stop them. Beyond that field of right and wrong we see obstructions to our lives. Hatred just eats us up. Dealing with the obstructions do not.

Uphill

We read about how, when we enter the stream, we go against the flow of water.*

Not to be guided by habitual habits or by already acquired karma, we create new karma.

It is not an easy path. If we let go for a moment, the stream will take us by force and carry us away.

The stream path ends at its beginning where a few drops of water come over a rock.

Branches and debris block our way, but we persist.

No, life is not easy. Living is not succumbing to the flow.

In Qigong we learn to stand with our knees slightly bent. A giant cannot push over a tiny old master. 

P.S. I was wrong here... we go both with the flow and against the flow:

“Māra, the personification of reactivity, is conquered not by eliminating every last reaction from one’s mind but by finding a way to become impervious to his attacks. We acquire freedom from reactivity yet without the reactivity ceasing to occur. If we observe these impulses and do not feed them, they will die down over time and diminish in frequency. But, as this text makes clear, Gotama continued to be subject to Māra’s attacks even after his awakening. As long as we are embodied in flesh, nerves, and blood, reactivity will be part and parcel of what it entails to be human.

I doubt that the Buddha used the same word sota (stream) in two conflicting senses by accident. Here he says that the practice of dharma “goes against the stream,” but as we saw in the previous chapter, he described the practitioner of the dharma as one who “enters the stream.” In the first case, sota denotes the stream of reactivity; in the second, it refers to the stream of the eightfold path. By combining these two metaphors, we arrive at an image of two streams of water encountering each other head on: the stream of the eightfold path flows into and goes against the stream of reactivity. The result is turbulence.”

Batchelor, Stephen (2015-10-28). After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (p. 64-65). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.


I guess “not by eliminating every last reaction” would be not to live in a protective shell, not going on long jaunts to far away places. Perhaps the idea of Buddhism bringing peace has to be replaced with Buddhism bringing turbulence.


Monday, August 8, 2016

A Moment is not on a Timeline

Yesterday I had the idea that being in the moment isn't about choosing this moment as a point on a time line, but rather it is about not using time as our lens to view our lives. Beyond time. When we stop seeing our life as linear we are brought to this moment as a collection of all moments. The past, present and future are no longer separated and become one. (Past is not what happened yesterday, but our dream today of yesterday. The future is not what will happen tomorrow, but it is our dream of what will happen tomorrow.) (In the link below, here is the definition of “Right View” as being about stress: “And what is right view? Knowledge with regard to stress, knowledge with regard to the origination of stress, knowledge with regard to the cessation of stress, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: This is called right view.”

When you close a book, you can embrace it as a “thing” rather than as an event that occurs in time. 

Small mind distinguishes and big mind brings them together. Seeing both, seen through a different eye, allows us to both be in our dream and to see our dream as being outside of time. Of course, seeing our dreams is just another dream. But there is a little more perspective there.

P.S. If you want something not to think about today, don't ask yourself this: “Do you control your mind or does your mind control you?” I just received that from my first Zen teacher. Is controlling one’s mind like trying to control one’s life? How does it connect to the Buddhist’s “right view.” (See: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-ditthi/ for more on right view.)

Saturday, August 6, 2016

We Are Not Our Banana

I heard this a few weeks ago: “What we think is real but not true.”

I think that can help with creating equanimity. Though we passionately believe stuff, we should also realize that they are beliefs, not truths.

We can’t know the truth because we are just seeing the world from our vantage point, and we don’t know how things will turn out.

We can believe that one horse will win the race. But until the race is over, we don’t know who won. And in a photo finish, we may never know.

Think about times when you’ve believed something completely and then learned it was false. That’s how (I think) we should hold all our beliefs. Lightly. Ready to let go when the information changes.

We are not our beliefs. We are richer than that. If a belief was a banana in a jar, we can put our fist around it and get stuck, for then neither the hand nor the banana will come out of the jar.

Or we can turn the jar over and the banana will come out on its own. Equanimity is not holding onto the banana with a closed fist. We are not our banana.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Awesome Poem

“From a young age, our parents impressed on us the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect. They taught and showed us values and morals in their daily lives. That is a lesson that we continue to pass along. And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

Awesome Poem

I told my wife 
“I’m going to write 
a poem tonight.”

And then 
Caroline brings this prompt, 
and it didn't seem like a prompt,

at all.

At least, not one
to inspire 
a poem, 

at all. 

I've started to notice,
more and more,
how some things tick me off. 

As we read the prompt,
together in unison, 
I  found myself 

somewhere between 

being ticked off, 
(very) supremely ticked off,
and wondering if 

these words were part 
of Michelle Obama's 
wonderful speech 

the other night (at the DNC).

Today 
I read 
she had no political intentions 

in her speech—
unlike the others 
she followed.

And yet, 
after the speech, 
many said, 

”she ought to be president.”

The prompt seemed dated, 
perhaps it was from 
the Cleavers 

in the 50s. 

My wife said at dinner 
something about how,
if we had better schools, 

things would be different. 

We ended up realizing
it would take about 
three generations 

to really make a change... 

A profound 
change,
that is.

I think this tirade started 
with her 
wondering 

how so many people 
could vote for 
a bully. 

I told her 
that the odds were…
he'd win.

Oh…. 
My friend just texted me, 
“”write something awesome.”

If I didn't know better,
I'd….

So there, 
I tried to write 
an awesome poem. 

And then I wanted to say
“I'd pick my nose”
and you can't say that 

in a poem. 

In high school, 
did you ever read a poem 
about nose picking? No!

Or even about bullies, 
or the Cleavers? 

I heard the other night,
on NPR, 
a poet was told 

he had a terminal illness.

He became very depressed 
and wrote 
the best poems of his life. 

I thought, God, 
grant me 
a terminal illness. 

Oh, just kidding, God.

Let me try again:

The lime I stole from
the Zen center was so
delicious, it made my 
smoothie so great that
my friends drank it 
with such gusto—
so much gusto, 
in fact
that I didn't have 
any left today.

That's a dumb poem. 
Glad there are only 
two minutes left.

I can blame 
the advancing clock 
on my not writing 
anything close to awesome. 

Or I can blame it
on my lack of
having a terminal illness, 

Or maybe 
I wasn't raised right, 
like my neighbors, 

who had their mouths, 
washed with soap,
when they swore.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Lost and Found


I search and search... The perfect this and that. One day it is searching for the perfect diet, then the perfect exercise, then the perfect shampoo, then the perfect friend. The dissatisfaction is looking for the perfect me... How would I really like to be, what would I like to know?

I totally confused a man at the free sample sushi table at Central Market today. I've never seen it without someone handing out samples before. There is a little story here. A few weeks ago I was handed a piece of sushi by an Asian looking guy. He said, have a kamikaze roll. I wondered if he knew what it meant and finally found out that it also referred to a drink that was a mixture of various ingredients.

So I figured that kamikaze must have more meanings than the one who gets in an airplane and rams it into an enemy plane, killing all. 

Today the chef/pilot was nowhere to be seen. I was a little worried about him. 

An old man was there, also waiting for a sample. I put a sample in a cup and handed it to him. He declined the gift, and so I ate it myself. Then he said, “Oh, that was very nice of you." So I said, “Yes." I think I more surprised him than anything... but probably should have responded better.

How would the I who I'd like to be respond? If I'm already me, who was it that was responding? Would/should we be the person who'd we like to be? Since our friends like us as we are (I don't think they'd wait around), would we have to find new friends?

Suzuki Roshi said, “You are perfect just the way you are... and you could stand a little improvement? Could both parts of the statement be true? If I am perfect just as I am, why do I have to do anything? And also, why do I have to change.

A high school classmate recently wrote, “You don't marry the perfect spouse. You marry to become the perfect spouse.” But where do you start? I’m full of loose pages and frayed edges and need a lot of tender conservation.

I certainly often think it is better on the other side of the stream. I waited breathlessly until I could get a drivers license... but by the time I did get it, at 23, it wasn't such a big deal. And I waited breathlessly to get through with high school, to get through with college, to have a real job, to retire from the job, to this and that. I waited breathlessly for what would make me happy. All things on the other side of the river. Where is the boat to take me across?

Wait, the wise man says that I'm already there. Can't he see I want to be on his side, where the grass is greener? How can I be satisfied with this stuff that isn't the perfect this or that... or is it?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

We're 100% Responsible!

There is a similarity between the two recent events in Orlando. In one case, a kid escaped the bonds of his mommy into the mouth of an alligator and in the second, a sad and tragic slaying of many in a night club.

In last weeks Torah portion (“Naso”), the inventory of what each tribe gave to the temple is repeated twelve times. Given the idea that there are no extraneous words in the Torah, why the repetition? Wouldn’t it have been enough to say each tribe gave A, B, and C? No. No tribe was better than any other tribe. They were all responsible for any sin that was committed in their community.

One thought that goes through my head when I read of tragic events is a kind of self-congratulation that I didn’t let my son into the mouth of an alligator, and that my kids weren’t at the night club. It was the same feeling when another kid was kicked out of class for doing something “bad.” In addition, I think that I had no responsibly for what happened. 

Last night I remembered Werner Erhard's definition of responsibility: 
Responsibility begins with the willingness to be cause in the matter of one's life. Ultimately, it is a context from which one chooses to live. Responsibility is not burden, fault, praise, blame, credit, shame or guilt. In responsibility, there is no evaluation of good or bad, right or wrong. There is simply what's so, and your stand. Being responsible starts with the willingness to deal with a situation from the view of life that you are the generator of what you do, what you have and what you are. That is not the truth. It is a place to stand. No one can make you responsible, nor can you impose responsibility on another. It is a grace you give yourself—an empowering context that leaves you with a say in the matter of life. 
It has led me to believe that we are 100% responsible for everything that happens. This is tough for people to wrap their heads around. And it is obviously illogical as are most ideas that interest me.

And here’s the idea: the options we have in our lives are unlimited. The zoo in Orlando has unlimited options. The way that society creates and then deals with individuals who are agitated and mad are unlimited. We each have the opportunity to change the world. If a butterfly can flip its wings and cause a tornado on the other side of the earth, why can’t we? 

This idea is not meant to shame us all because we didn’t do something in the past, but rather to suggest that we take inventory of what we are doing now. Are we complaining at the zoo because their cages are “attractive nuisances”? Are we finding help for those in our community who are mad and angry? If not, we could do more… like the little boy in this story:
In this classic tale an old man finds a boy walking along the beach throwing beached starfish back into the ocean. however there are many starfish washed up on the beach—far too many for the boy to get them all. the man questions the boy, "how can you possibly get them all, why bother?" the boy acknowledges his limitation but retorts by picking up one sand dollar, just one and saying these words, "you're absolutely right mister, i can't get them all. but you see this starfish? i can save this one. it's worth it for this one..."

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Out of the Box

Drawing by Ken Brown
Out of the box. Older than the box. I'm stuck. And I keep doing the same thing over and over and over again. So often I'm choosing between A and B and don't even consider D. What courses should I take? English or math? Wait, I'm supposed to be thinking outside the box. How about being a bus driver or a skid row bum?

Out of the box. It is easier for me to write about why we should be outside of the box. I can think of artists who did good work because they thought outside of the box.

Breaking rules is part of the trick. Breaking through the box is fun. How many constraints do I have because I live inside of a box. What freedom I  have here, and I just paint within the lines.

I once was criticized because I said it is more important to be interesting than good. The good has been done to death.

What is the sound of one hand clapping? Is that thinking out of the box?

What would happen if we were all someone else? If we are in the wrong body and we have to find where we belong.

What is the solution to the violence in the world? Gandhi thought outside the box. Are there many in the history books who did not.? How about the founders of the country. Did they think outside of the box?

The box tells us exactly what to do... If we want to lead a boring life. What would it look like if we really went out there? Why don't we? Why is it so hard? Why why why why? Are we in chains? What keeps us from opening the window? Why don't we take more chances with the one life we have?

What would it look like if we thought outside of the box. What would if feel like? Would it encourage others to get out of their box? Is that what liberation is about? Who is this devil that is laughing at us believing we don't have more choices?

Friday, June 3, 2016

You Are Too Impressionable

"Be still and know that I am God"—Psalm 46:10 (another illustration for book)
Bruce asked me to go to church with him. Both of my neighbors that I played with went to church every Sunday. They never asked me to join them. Why? Bruce did. I asked my mom. She was taking clothes out of the dryer, and I stood by the door of the utility room. I was framed by the doorway. We were about the same size since she was hunched over getting out the clothes and putting them into a wood clothes basket with wire handles.

“Mom,” I asked, “can I go to church with Bruce on Sunday.” “No,” she said. “Why,” I asked. “Because you are too impressionable.”

My mom was the expert on me, yet I was an Island.  I picked “Island” because I wanted my initials to be “K.I.M.” She named me after the character in Rudyard Kipling’s book, Kim, where the character by the same name was independent and resourceful at an early age. She wished me to be independent, yet insisted she knew me (and others) better than I knew myself. Could we expect less from a psychiatric social worker, raised on Freud?

I couldn’t argue with her because words were not my forte. I felt disconnected from her. As I look back, I see that I had come from a different time and place. I was her son in this life. I was tied to her, but yet what I’m seeing now is the opposite. I was not her son. I had something in me that yearned to understand the mystery of life.

I believed that Hell was behind the fence at the Catholic Church a block away. I couldn’t see beyond the solid brick fence, and I imagined a deep pit inside that went on forever. I later went to that church and marveled at the Latin that the priest recited. I felt that I had time traveled to a place that felt very familiar.

Behind me, in that kitchen, was a man. My mom could not see him and I did not know he was there. He was the witness to my life. I called him up today and asked him how my mom’s “you’re too impressionable” affected me for my soon to be 70 years.

In Zen, we talk about needing to step off a 100-foot pole. We need to give ourselves to something beyond reason. It is the important orgasm that we are all afraid of reaching. Somehow my mom was right. I was too impressionable. But now I realize it wasn’t to new experiences, but rather to finding out who I was. I feel like the adopted kid who wasn’t allowed to meet his real parents. It touched me deeply in one of the Carlos Castaneda books that Don Juan decided to trash his last name. That's where we came from, but not who we are. In the same way, The Prophet, by Gibran talked about how
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
The man behind me touched my shoulder. I was walking down State Street in Chicago and he pinched my arm. I thought at the time he had shot heroin into me, and that I’d somehow know where to get my next fix. But no, he was telling me something different. Remember who you are. Remember who you are. Remember who you are. I say that three times because we didn’t do that last night reading something Buddha wrote that it was suppose to be written three times, perhaps as a mnemonic device to help us remember it.

I used art all my life as a means to tell people who I was and what I was feeling. Yet, it wasn’t enough, because I had kind of figured that out and it (or me) seemed like a closed system.

What I was looking for was something very very very big. Something that encompassed everything. The next week I went to six churches.

And years later, my mom would tell us of her extensive conversations she’d have with the black birds that would come to her kitchen window.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Payday Loans

I read an article this am about how PayDay loans were now going to have to adhere to lower interest rates. One of the arguments for these new regulations is that the industry was making great profits at the expense of those unfortunate people who aren’t “making ends meet.”

If this were such a profitable business, I wonder why new companies don’t come in and offer the same services at a lower rate. I suspect they don’t because it isn’t such a great business. Many of these loans are never paid.

I had a student once who had a choice of a “like new” camera at $100 at the Click Shop, or a $250 camera at Best Buy with a high interest rate credit card. He bought the $250 camera, which probably cost him $350 if it was ever paid for completely.

Fortunately I’ve never been in that situation. It is unfortunate to have to be there. Yet what is the solution? What was solved with the regulation?

The Payday loan industry claims that where the average store would have a yearly profit of $37,000 now they will have a loss of $28,000. So the regulation worked against the industry. Perhaps there will be no more Payday loan stores. What this means is that more cars will be repossessed and more people will not be able to pay rent.

I think this may be one of those situations where we were correct in identifying a problem but not correct in identifying a solution. I suspect that few will benefit from this regulation and many will suffer, from the industry to the individuals.

What are the solutions?
Education, for one. Many adults, including some with a college degree, can’t figure out how much 17% of $250 is.  
Education too on how to live on a limited budget.
And a host of other initiatives are possible. The obvious one might not be the right one.
4. Obama administration unveiling new rules on payday loans
The Obama administration is expected on Thursday to unveil federal rules to extend federal oversight to the $38.5 billion payday lending industry. The rules proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would require lenders to assess a borrower’s ability to repay, and discourage rolling over loans, which can pile up lending fees. Lenders say the new rules, now opening up for public comment, would gut the industry. Consumer advocates say the rules are necessary to protect borrowers who can be ruined by loans with effective interest rates that can exceed 390 percent. —From This Week, a online (and paper) news service.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Big Stories

I've been thinking about big stories.

Putting on the market a 1895 house that my wife's family has lived in for 68 years is a big story, yet, as we went through every piece of paper that had come to the house in those years, we kept getting caught in the little stories.

Just as the old man with the gray beard listens to a bird, I try to listen too. My car won't start. What are my options? How do I go from the exasperation of the moment to seeing how fortunate I am to have a car at all. And so I have to walk. At first I complain because I paid someone to fix my car, but then I realize that birds are singing as I walk.

Why is it so hard to step back? How much wisdom that man must have had to listen to the bird. He could be complaining about his fading memory or his aching body. But no, it is the bird that catches his attention.

There is a dark cloud above him. Is this telling us that something bad is going to happen to the man? And his hearing might be going, which is why the horn is placed on his ear like a hearing aid.

My sister-in-law asked me what my big story was in five words. I said something about wanting to connect different belief systems. She said I used too many words.

These simple joys, like listening to a bird's song, take us away from our miseries. The big story... It is not the story with consequences. It goes beyond time, place and circumstance. There is so much petty stuff that the man could be obsessing about. How will he divide up her property when he dies? Did he pay his bills? Does he have food for dinner?

Yet he chooses a little joy. The bird's song takes him to another place. Like the bird, he is just focusing on a song. He is liberated from his car not starting, his life ending, his kids fighting over his property. The bird sings a big story. If only I could hear it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Involuntary Transgressions: Lifting up the Chair

In the Torah, Aaron puts his hands on the goat to rid the Israelites of their sins and their involuntary transgressions. I understood how sin was something that should be removed, but why should I worry about involuntary transgressions? Am I responsible for what I didn’t intend to do? Of course not.

Something nagged me to learn more. I listened to part of a talk by a Hassidic rabbi about involuntary transgressions. It seemed like a silly topic… but still, something was calling me to learn more.

I wasn’t paying much attention to the beginning of the talk… I did hear him mumbling about the problem of moving a bench. He spoke a little about the various ways we can move a bench. Then he asked, “Suppose the bench weighs 200 pounds. What then? If you aren’t careful you will leave a trough.” I didn’t connect this to involuntary transgressions. I just assumed that he was talking about something else… and he’d get to the matter at hand.

Later that evening, our Zen teacher was scolding us about how we were moving the chairs, as another Zen teacher had scolded me months ago. I should have known better, living with someone who practices Japanese tea ceremony. But as I heard the scolding, I thought of the rabbi moving a bench. Our focus might be on getting the bench from point A to point B. But in doing so, there might be collateral damage, so to speak.

Back to the lecture. The rabbi apologetically gave the too graphic example of a father whose daughter tells him that she’d like to play with a chicken’s head. So the loving father cuts off the head for his daughter. He should have known that the chicken would die a needless death, but he overlooked that with the job at hand: pleasing his daughter. If we had confronted him on his seemingly benevolent act, he’d be quick to respond that he was just expressing his love for his daughter by fulfilling her desire for a toy.

The scapegoat, so to speak, was his intention. It reminded me of the saying that we judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their actions. Certainly it is not a fair game. And I can see how one can muster up a great deal of anger from not understanding how someone might criticize us for killing the chicken, even when we just wanted to express love.

My mind thought back to when my dad, acting out of the best of intentions, disappointed me. He was a good lawyer, and as such, could find convincing excuses for whatever he had done. He also had been on the University of Chicago debate team, and could take any side of a discussion at ease. He even could do this on his death bed, while taking morphine for great pain from pancreatic cancer. But that’s another story.

I had a sick goldfish. Well, it actually had been torn into pieces by our neighbor’s cat and was floating on the surface of our pond. It was a sorry sigh and I was devastated. I insisted to my parents that we go to the pet store and get some pills. We did, and put the pills in the pond. The next day, the goldfish was happily swimming in the pond. I’m not sure if I saw the original goldfish later that day in the garbage can, or if that's something I’m just imagining… but the image is just as real. In fact, I killed a goldfish a few years later so I could watch it die. But that’s still another story.

I was very disappointed in my dad for lying to me because he didn’t want me to be sad. My parents believed that “life was for the living” and we had no time for death. Was it skillful means? Or was this an opportunity for me to learn about death, a subject painful for him having lost his father at an early age? He never saw that he had done anything wrong. Perhaps, as in the classic Buddhist story, I was in a burning house unwilling to stop playing with my toys and my father lied because it was the only way he could get me out of his house. I do know how I felt: deceived.

A few years later, I was playing with some kids and Rodney Banks (I hope he finds this so I can tell him how sorry I am) wanted to play with us. He was younger, and we didn’t want to play with him. He wouldn’t leave us alone, so I started throwing pebbles at his. One hit him just below the eye. I found out later that day, after he had gone to the hospital, that he could have lost his eye sight in one eye. In the meantime, my friends and I went to my room and made a list of 20 reasons why it was ok that I have thrown a rock at him. We were innocent, we concluded.

That was the first of 100s of 1000s of involuntary transgressions that I have done. All were very defensible (I am my father’s son), and all wrong.

In the shower this morning, I thought about how, in a Zen reading group last night, I was once again criticized for believing that Zen could end suffering. We laughed at various zen sayings. The one I’ve heard in the past is that “Zen is good for nothing.” So why in the world would you do something (that isn’t easy) for no reason whatsoever? I tried to see if there was a connection between believing there would be some gain to Zen practice, and, to up the ante, to connect this to why my friend was so mad when I suggested the other day that life is a game.

As the warm water was making my sore shoulder feel better, something started to come together. First, the rhyming words gain and game are friends. They go together. There is an end in sight, and the strategy is to get a result in the end. It reminded me of a Zen saying about how could we walk the path if one eye was on the destination. Being present means having both eyes on the path.

So what does this have to do with involuntary transgressions? The man who cut off the chicken’s head without realizing he was killing the chicken had one eye on the goal: pleasing his daughter. My dad pleased me by switching the goldfish, and also excused himself from having to explain death to his son. Saul Alinsky asked, “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?” Justify is another word for pleading innocent for an involuntary transgression.

Rather than thinking that I really don’t need to pay attention to my involuntary transgressions, I realized that most of the harm that I cause is the result of these actions. The voluntary transgressions are not so frequent. What impacts the world, and what comes back to haunt me, is all those things that I “innocently” do or don’t do that have a negative effect. I can defend them all, as my father taught me so well. Or I can “watch my step,” as the saying goes, lifting up the chair to move it.