Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

questioning death and impermanence ~

My students are struggling with death. This has been a week where two have lost childhood friends — close friends — within 48 hours. Their grief, disbelief, and questions fill the classroom. Why? they ask me. It isn’t fair.

I’m struggling with death as well. My beloved mother-in-law — as dear as my own mother — is fading like an old photo, losing memories like leaf fall. This is the third time I have watched an elder slip into the role of child. The fifth time I have seen my childhood wiped from someone’s eyes. Heard the falter of dementia replace my name on someone’s lips.

And no, it doesn’t feel fair. But I try to remember that everything passes. Nothing will outlast the gradual unwinding of it all. Everything passes. That’s what Buddhism teaches. That to the things that pass, that do not come, brings suffering.

Right now? My students and I are suffering. We are wanting something else: life to be restored. Mind to be clearer. Love to last forever. None of which will happen. Which is pretty much what the Buddha said two thousand years ago. It’s just as hard to listen and accept today as it probably was then.

This is not what I offer my students. Them I wrap in hugs. I listen to their grieving. I breathe through my own sadness, offering it for them. It doesn’t change things. But it helps.

I guess that’s what the Buddha meant. It won’t stop the pain, right view. But it helps…

beginner forgiveness ~

In my relatively happy life, I have had to learn to forgive. Fragile creature I am not, but people have still stabbed right through me — sometimes intentionally, sometimes w/out malice. And there were times I felt I could not possibly survive.

I share this because I have learned — painfully, the hardest of ways — that very few people wake up planning to hurt me. Even the most grievous of injuries (often inflicted by those who love us deeply) were never about me. Sometimes those who hurt me were unaware, and I suffered in frozen silence. Sometimes they made choices I couldn’t accept, a different kind of wound. Other times injuries spiralled from misunderstanding, from poor communications, from bad timing. And there were times when people were simply not themselves: ill, medicated, in altered states for whatever reasons.

In other words? There are as many reasons people hurt us as there are broken hearts. And very few of those reasons grow from dislike. Some even grow from love, paradoxically.

My beginner’s heart flinches, wants a shell, craves armour when people fight. I am not afraid of snakes, carry even large spiders outdoors, don’t run from wasps, and think bats are great. But fight in front of me, and I am a puddle of quiver and quake. I am six years old, and my parents are screaming. Even these many years later, I have nightmares when people fight.

Because I can never fix it. Long ago and in a time far away, someone told me: Britt — you didn’t break it. You can’t fix it. But I want to. I always want to.

So here’s what I have learned about forgiveness: read Thich Nhat Hanh’s Taming the Tiger Within. At one time, the anger I felt was like an illness — a lethal fever that consumed me. I have rarely been as devastated, as hurt. But Thich Nhat Hanh asked me: What if this person you love died? Is this anger what you want to remember? If you knew that this person was going to die tomorrow, what would you do?

I would forgive, I thought. I would let it go. It just wouldn’t matter then…

I won’t pretend it was easy, learning to forgive. It may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But the pay-off — the reward — grows. Once done, you know it can be done again. And again. And the person I forgave did not take advantage of me, thinking I was weak. Nor did I have to accept the behaviour — I still fought that. But I let go the anger, the resentment, the hellish fire that consumed me. And I healed. Every night for weeks I breathed: in/out; in/out. I bought a wrist mala and slept with it. I reminded myself that forgiveness is not about the villain but the victim. Is about healing for the wounded, not mercy for the thief.

As a year of the dragon, I am all about fire. But anger is fire at its worst — nuclear, Hiroshimic. Forgiveness is fire that comforts — warm blankets when you’re chilled, coming inside after snow. I am cooling down the fires in my beginner’s heart to comfort levels, not conflagration. :)

So there you have it. One of the hardest lessons I am still learning. But one of the most important my beginner’s heart knows.

why I write ~

In honour of the National Day on Writing (October 20th — just  FYI), and w/ respect to my day job for National Writing Project, this column is dedicated to why I write. And what that has to do w/ beginner’s heart, teaching, and the whole 9 yards…

I spent last night with amazing women. Smart, funny, thoughtful, spiritual. Writers. And I would never have met them if I didn’t teach writing. I wouldn’t have heard how they struggle to find time to write, how they have overcome loss, debilities,  grief and anger through putting them each on paper. I wouldn’t have learned even more about writing.

Today I will go to my job, 90 miles northwest of my home, and work with students who are struggling to find their voices, move beyond the 5-paragraph essay, learn to teach. I wouldn’t be of any use to them if I didn’t write.  And what great conversations and learning I would miss! I’ve learned about parenting from them — what to do and what not to do — about spiritual growth, about strength and courage and love. About writing.

I work with teachers from across the country who inspire me daily. Just today one emailed me about a conversation on homophobia in one of her classes, and how she struggles to help her rural Oklahoma students find compassion. Learn acceptance.

Almost every wonderful thing in my life is tied up with writing. And even those that don’t seem to be, are here — in great part — because I write. Because almost every day of my life, from the time I was a busy bee pre-schooler at my grandmother’s, I was trying to write stories. Trying to make sense of the world around me through writing.

I write because it’s the way I’m made, probably. I write to think, to process, to reflect. To vent, to howl at the moon, to somehow channel the waves of grief when my mother died, the tidal surge of anger at corrupt politicians, the moments of lucidity triggered by ephemeral beauty.

I write because I want people to pay attention to what vanishes daily: sunlight igniting the Japanese maple’s seedling leaves. The float of a migrating Monarch butterfly on the autumn light. Time. Life.

Writing will ‘fix’ none of this. It will not stop death in its tracks. But it will, paradoxically, keep my mother alive. And it will not change corrupt politics. But it will shine the light of public attention on hypocrisy and injustice. And while it will not preserve a single moment in its purity, it will hold within each word and line a faint fragrance of beauty, of memory.

Writing has brought me almost everything I value: my friends, my work. And even my family — or at least stronger, deeper, more nuanced ties with each of them. From the lists I made during my pregnancy with younger son — the pram we bought in England, the mobile for his crib — to the haiku I write when a migration of sandhill cranes whirls in the air to the south of me, as I drive over the Keystone Bridge, writing connects me to my history, helps me frame everyday experience, record and reflect on my daily life, and make sense of the interior monologue we each carry on.

If ‘the unexamined life is not worth living,’ writing helps me avoid any such charge. Writing is my life, examined. My life recorded. A shelf of variegated journals w/ spines cracked from ephemera pasted, drawn and stapled next to words. My beginner’s heart, trying to make me pay attention to its rhythms.

Why do I write? Because I can’t imagine my life any other way.

 

Buddha dogs ~

Dogs (and sometimes cats…) are the best Buddhists. They really get ‘letting go.’ Well, except for treats…and toys you’re tugging on…But that might just be bulldogs.

Seriously — every day I learn something from my dogs. Something about beginner’s heart. Something about Buddhism. Something profound, usually, masquerading as just ‘dog talk’ (that’s what my occasionally dismissive acquaintances call my prattling about my dogs) :).

One of my dogs is neurotic. The one w/ the better childhood, paradoxically — the one we bought from a good breeder, a breeder who obviously sells French bulldogs both from love and for profit. And I don’t think the two need be exclusive :). Beautiful as he is (and no, ‘beautiful French bulldog’ is not  an oxymoron), he’s terribly insecure. About everything — he has short dog syndrome…

The other is a beta (not the fish, the subordinate dog :)). Bought from a borderline bad breeder — and the wrong side of the border — Hugo isn’t a great Frenchie. But he’s a great person :). He puts up w/ his brother chewing on him because (I swear) he knows how insecure Pascal is. But he’s not a masochist about it — when Hugo has enough, he lets Pascal know. That’s such great beginner’s heart: put up w/ folks, but not at your own expense. That’s lesson #1.

Buddhist lesson #2 is ‘go for it.’ There’s a mad-dash dog tag that P&H engage in, known among those of us w/ Frenchies as the ‘Frenchy 500.’ (really). And when they’re happy, that’s their favourite kind of crazy. They tear madly around the room, bowling each over like lumpy beach balls, wheezing and snorting and generally reducing anyone watching to helpless laughter.  It’s the most ineffectual intensity you can imagine. And it makes not only the two of them happy, but each of us who’ve seen it. Just to think about it makes me smile.

Lesson #3 is about love — a biggie for beginner’s heart. No matter if I’ve just gone to run an errand, or been gone for a week on a conference, or TWO WEEKS on vacation, I get the same jumping, twirling, amazing soar of a welcome. You were gone! And now you’re back! OMG! I’m sooo happy! Would that I could remember to pour that kind of love on the people in my life — so many — who deserve it.

Buddhist lesson #4? Another biggie — that ‘let it go.’ If I get home late, tired and cranky, and don’t have the energy to throw Mr. Squeaky across the room over & over, Pascal is disappointed. But it doesn’t last. All I have to do is reach down and pull him onto my lap and he’s a happy doggy camper. Especially if I let him lick my hand (I know, yuk – but it’s a Pascal thing…).

The final huge lesson in beginner’s heart? Listen. No matter what I say, P&H listen. They seem to be able to understand far beyond the capabilities of dogs best known for warming the empty beds of turn-of-the-19th-century French hookers… When I need company, they are at my feet. When I need space, they lay down no more than 4 feet away. And those amazing bat ears swivel at my every sigh, as they breathe for me. Noisily, but with love.

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