Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

one week into Lent ~

It’s a bit more than a week since Lent began. But the vaguely lighter feeling that modest sacrifice generates is still warm. And I don’t feel particularly ‘without.’ Perhaps I should have picked something more important…

In the past, I’ve given up most of the things listed: chocolate and coffee more than once. Since I no longer drink, alcohol isn’t an option. And not drinking really includes sodas, as they’re not one of my favourite things.

I do swear too much, but I’m trying to give that up completely. And it’s noo sacrifice, just a lazy bad habit. Ergo, no offering up involved. Same with fast food & sugar — I wouldn’t miss them, as they’re not big draws now.

The point for non-Christians following Lent seems to me to cultivate empathy & compassion for the many without, as I’ve written before. I understand it’s far more complex an observance for Christians, but I see it as a way for me to remember how lucky I am to have my life, just as it is.

This past week I had the amazing good fortune to listen to several men & women discussing how the Holocaust impacted their lives, their families’ lives (& deaths). One, my wonderful mentor & dear friend Eva, is a survivor of the camps. Bea, a new acquaintance, is a survivor’s widow. David’s family lost uncles & aunts & cousins; Marcel’s father also was a survivor, as was Mark’s mother. As they shared stories with us, David said something I think about often: It’s just a stroke of luck that I was born here & not there. Buddhists say:How lucky we are to be born into our precious human lives. And as the Dalai Lama reminds us: Why would you disavow your happy life?

I respect people of faith — all faiths. And Lent is a lovely way to show that respect, and also mark how very lucky I am. In fact, I almost feel guilty that I don’t miss Facebook more. I haven’t visited it on Sundays, as some religions allow with Lenten sacrifices. It’s just not part of my daily routine these days.

But the remembering? That is. For which I am also very grateful ~

 

technology, non-attachment, and feeling flaky ~

Sometimes I have a hard time understanding the difference between detachment & non-attachment. Detachment is not a Buddhist virtue; non-attachment is. But when technology becomes my framing metaphor? I get it. Believe me, I get it.

I had an important conference call today. A meeting of a group of people I respect & admire, doing work that is significant — both to me and, I believe, to the state. So what happens? The conference call software drops me. Three times. Then, when I try to call back from my cell — thinking my landline may be screwy — I can’t make the passcode work. Sheesh.

And here’s where I began to see Buddhism in the whole mess: I don’t want these people — to whom I am a new & relatively unknown quantity — to think I’m a flake. That’s attachment, folks. I’m not a flake, so why should I be worried? It really isn’t my fault that the technology is squirrelly. So I texted my immediate contact — the executive director — and told her what happened. Guess what? The technology works FINE for Mary Ellen. Grrrr….

So there you have it: attachment (to an image of myself). And I can detach, certainly. But what I have to do, according to practice (which I know, but do NOT do nearly often enough) is live in this horribly uncomfortable feeling that somehow I screwed up royally, and move through it. THAT is non-attachment: acknowledge the here & now (oh! feeling flaky, are we? interesting…) and just go on.

Yeah right. Well, at least I know what I should do…:)

 

teachers, ‘my kids,’ & lovingkindness ~

This is a photo (of me) that one of my students photo-shopped a couple of years ago (no, I wasn’t really wearing a troll mask…). It went out on our class listserv. A private joke — well, not toooo private, I guess, if the whole class is privy. It represents the best things about teaching: the students. Which is why we (teachers) become so incredibly attached to our students.

A dear friend says he wouldn’t continue teaching if he wasn’t always learning from his students. And what I miss most about teaching is just that: learning. Every day, something new. Every class period, a new perspective, new music, a term or a book or an idea. Day in, day out.

Recently I read a meme on Facebook that said students are always ‘our kids,’ once we’ve taught them. Irrespective of their ages, or how they grow, once in my class, you’re my kid.

But a colleague contends that this is one of the problems teachers face in the popular culture: by calling our students ‘our kids’ we infantilise teaching. Turn ourselves into moms/dads & babysitters. I’m not so sure about this… My students never treat me like I’m their mom, nor their babysitter. It’s more like I’m a valued teacher… (gee, ya think?)

This makes me look at my own teachers — spiritual, academic, professional — through a completely different lens, now that I’m fielding the questions I once used to ask. What should I write in my teaching statement? How should I answer this interview question? What should I WEAR?? :) I wonder if the man who told me to follow my dreams even if I didn’t think they would pay would agree with the warnings of penury I offer my students (teaching is NO get-rich scheme — quickly or otherwise!). And what about the teachers who couldn’t believe I submitted A papers for revision? Did they think I was a total OCD nutcase?

And the answers? I have no idea. But somehow, remembering what it was like to be a student is good for the teacher in me. And looking back at the men & women who so generously answered my questions, helped me along my professional path, and took time to mentor me is — still — a kind of learning.

I know not all teachers LOVE their students (I’m thinking of a dear friend & colleague who would be shaking his head in dismay at the thought!). But it’s so very hard NOT to. And nooo fun. :) Lately there has been article after article about what makes a good teacher. And you know what I think? Love. Love maketh a good teacher.  Actually, lovingkindness — Buddhists actually have two words for lovingkindness: metta and karuna.

Metta has the connotative meaning of a state of being — a generally positive attitude towards all beings. Karuna is more active — more of a kindness, even (as some sources say) a kind of pity. I don’t pity my students. Although my heart sometimes aches for the burdens they carry: poverty, depression, abuse… The general travails of today’s messy, complicated world.

What I miss most about teaching is lovingkindness. My own, for them. And if your life is, as dharma instructs us, a kind of theatre for us to polish our buddha natures, I suppose it’s time I figure out a way to translate that feeling of general benevolence into other venues.

Teaching was just a LOT easier. And more fun.

a case for poets ~

When you think of people who are useful, poets probably aren’t high on your list. After all, who needs poetry? (Well, I do, but that isn’t typical, I realise :) ) And yet, when there is sorrow, or great joy, or tragedy, or high emotion of almost any kind — a birth, a death, a marriage — what do we want? Words. In the right order. Poetry…

My sisters are always talking me in to things. I have three, which means I’m often over my head in one thing or another. Today, it’s poetry. And yes, I know all my education is in poetry(most of it, anyway). But despite the common perception, poets don’t really write much ‘occasional’ poetry these days.

It used to be that poets were commissioned at all rites of passage. The celebration of birth, the grief of loss. Personal & political, poetry served them both.  War beginning? The poet pens a blessing. War over? Another sings in joy. Part of any self-respecting poet laureate’s job was to write poems for every occasion.  Hence the term ‘occasional poetry.’ :)

We don’t do that so much these days. Unless you’re my family, where death is marked with words. Too often mine. Let people hear you’re a poet, and lose a loved one, and you begin to have value. At least of a sort. :) Besides, when it’s your sister’s childhood friend’s brother (not as tenuous a connection as it may appear), from the family that lived once upon a time in your own empty house, how can you refuse?

So here I am: trying to fit words to the shape of a stranger’s life. A man whose life is as  unfamiliar as the shores of death. I don’t know how, really, to pay respect to the unfamiliar dead. My own dead were hard enough to mourn. It took me years to write about my father, my mother.Wondering why words always fail when we need them most.

Tomorrow, I will be offering my own far too inadequate voice for the inchoate grief of a family I have not known in many years. But today, I am thinking — as I discard one hesitant line after another — of the thousands of years poets have sat at words, written on clay, papyrus, scroll & stone. Bearing up to the occasion. This one so very sad.

 

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