Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

time & transience ~

Yesterday, we thought we might be godparents to a skein of goslings — tiny yellow-grey fluffballs hatching from the goose we hoped was nesting, not resting, in our front yard. (Note: Canadian geese — at least in our neighbourhood — give new meaning to the term ‘silly goose’ when it comes to nesting in front yards,)

Instead, the wild honking my husband heard late yesterday afternoon was not a celebration of eggs but the last dirge of a dying bird. Perhaps a car hit her — he saw two young men turn around in their car to drive back by her as she flopped into the hollow of the yard. Perhaps, like a sparrow that fell from the sky  onto my windshield one cold day, she simply died. But today, he wrapped the limp body, wet from last night’s rain, in a garbage bag and set it on the curb for dead animal pick-up. There will be no goslings.

Today a dear friend called to tell me he is moving out from his 15-year relationship, into an apartment of his own. The couple I thought would be together until death do us part — even w/out benefit of clergy — has cracked into brittle halves, jagged shards of pain all around them.

And tomorrow, we will drive 90 miles to discuss the sale of my father-in-law’s dreams: the farm he bought piece by piece with the thin savings from two jobs. The house he designed the plans for, and contracted himself. Dad is gone, Mom is a drowsy shadow of her former vibrance, and the farm is no longer anyone’s dream.

Life is full of hairpin turns, a road that may end up anywhere. Love melts like sugar candy in the rain, and even wings can be stilled. Dreams fade like brittle photographs. There is nothing that is permanent.

This is what the Buddha tells us. DukkhaSuffering is how we translate dukkha. But it isn’t that simple. The pain the goose felt as she died? The pain my friend feels at the slipping away of his relationship? The loss of a large part of my husband’s childhood? These are all dukkha. Physical pain, impermanence, dependence. Each one part of a word that doesn’t really fit into English. But that moves like a scarlet fissure through our lives…

Tonight, I breathe for a dead goose, feathers soft & beaded with raindrops. I breathe for my friend, and his partner. And I breathe for my husband, his childhood, the parents I love perhaps as much as he does… And I bow my head to dukkha…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lent for Buddhists & non-Christians ~

You don’t have to be a non-Christian to be a Buddhist. Or a Unitarian. There are Christian Buddhists (some famous ones, in fact: I think of Thomas Merton). And (probably) Christian Buddhist Unitarians. But what can Buddhists get from Lent?

I love the idea of Lent. I love the Lenten Rose — hellebore. And the communal commitment to a better future. Like Ramadan, that other Abrahamic holiday of empathy, Lent requires us to go without. As so many in the world do, daily. It sharpens our empathy on the keen point of ‘without.’

I still plan to do Ramadan. Last year, the year I was all prepped to go for it, I was ill for most of the month. This year, it begins in July, when I will be helping my son, daughter-in-law, and new grandson move cross-continent. So I may not do Ramadan completely this year, either.

But I am doing Lent. And in the spirit of the endeavour, I am trying to give up something that is meaningful to me. Don’t laugh — I’m giving up FaceBook, where I connect w/ the many friends I have throughout the country. It’s my window on a diverse and messy world, and I love the way it strings strands between each of us, like the web it inhabits.

I was committed to doing this even before I read, in a discussion of Lent, that you get Sundays off. Hence the 40 days period: it allows for 5 Sundays off, plus the week before Easter.

So Sundays — when Christians are supposed to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus – are forbidden to fasting or other forms of self-denial and abnegation. Which means that you are welcome to ‘indulge’ in your sacrifice (even encouraged), to feel happy about the resurrection.

How cool is that? As Buddhists would say, Moderation in all things – even, occasionally, moderation. Don’t go nuts over being self-sacrificial; it’s not healthy. Nor celebratory, certainly. :)

I’ll still Twitter occasionally (so many cool things to share, like poetry!), and read FB on Sundays, but only in moderation. Because it’s good to realise that nothing is ‘given’ us, only lent through our good luck. I have the great good fortune to have a college degree, a husband w/ a college degree, and the income two degreed professionals have managed to save. So we have computers, iPads, Internet. And FaceBook . :) But I don’t take that for granted — too many years spent in countries far poorer than middle class Oklahoma.

Tomorrow will dawn, and I’ll check email after coffee or tea, as usual. But I won’t turn then to FaceBook. Will it make the world a better place? Bring peace & plenty? Of course not. But it will help me  remember — daily — to count my many blessings.

 

Year of the Snake ~

I love Chinese New Year. And Buddhist New Year (and they’re not the same, just FYI). As a child in Việt Nam, I would tag along with Chị Bốn, our amah, to her family’s farm, or to temple. There would be great food, dragon dances, and the ceremonial burning of spirit gifts: the paper money & clothes, the papier-mâché furniture & food. All for the beloved dead.

It seemed to me the best kind of ritual: remembering those we love w/ the things they loved. And the paper money, clothes, & other gifts were sooo cute! To an eight-year-old girl, it was beyond memorable.

Each year, when the Chinese zodiac clicks over, I try to remember to send wishes for health, wealth, & happiness to my friends & family. I don’t send out the beautiful red packets of gilt, or burn paper money for my dead, but I remember. And I honour the 12 animals that mark the cycle of years.

Some translate well: Dragon & Tiger, Horse. And then there are Snake or Rat, those unloved-by-Americans years. Yet in Asia, Snake is known to be wise & sympathetic, while Rat is intelligent & brave. My own year’s cycle is over, Dragon’s flash giving way to Snake’s quieter magnetism. I’m fine with that. Animals we vilify in the US are respected in China, Thailand, Việt Nam, and the cycle continues.

This year, as the New Year dawns, I thought about what gifts I would ‘take with  me,’ knowing I can’t. But when I think of what I would burn for my mother, the actual burning is of far less significance — even to this Buddhist, who is more superstitious than she often acknowledges! — than the stopping to remember. Mother would want mocha hot chocolate, and watermelon hard candy. She would want clothes in vivid colours, and money for impulse purchases. In my mind I conjure up plants for her garden — iris & roses & peonies, flowers for a table, plenty of mysteries to read. And tea w/ too much sugar.

Me? I want books & tea, for sure. :) But I also want pen & ink, and journals to write in. Birds of all sorts, and a large garden for them to frequent. Sun & trees overhead, the sky filled with the movement of leaves. Cookies on a china plate and letters in the mail.

This life. This ordinary human life. Draw it on coloured papers, burn it, and let the smoke curl into the night. Whatever year it is, where ever I am in the cycle, I’ll be quite happy just to live it all one more time.

 

re- framing/claiming my mother ~

My mother would be so happy: TWO pink things came in the mail for me. Although orange & red were her favourite colours (w/ lashings of turquoise), she loved for me to wear pink.

When I was a little girl, she was always saying, “This would be so pretty on you.” And “Why don’t you try the pink?” I HATED pink. It was so… GIRLY. Nope, it was black, and navy, and the occasional cream or ivory as I grew.

But a couple of days ago, my favourite writing supply store had a sale, w/ NO SHIPPING! Online shoppers love those words. :) My iPad could use a new smart cover and sleeve — they get a LOT of wear — so I clicked in to see what was available.

Surprise! PINK! And somehow it seemed perfect — bright, cheerful, and proud to be female. Like my mother.

Digression: for years after my mother died, I could only remember her as she was during the last, awful years: her own ghost, haunting some dim empty room that used to be full of her bright wit & quick mind. All I could see, when I thought of Mother, was the wasting shell whose face would — too rarely — light up when I sang to her.

If you have lost someone to Alzheimer’s (or worse, are losing them now…), you understand all too well what a wicked thief it is. Bit by bit Alzheimer’s stole my mother’s memory, until before I knew it, mine were gone as well.

I don’t say this for sympathy, but because today I realised I’m remembering in other ways. Like the Buddha says, everything passes. It’s all change. But the heart-breaking change that was my mother’s piecemeal loss until finally she slipped completely into darkness also passed. And today, showing my pink iPad cover & sleeve to my husband, my ‘old’ mother returned.

This past week I’ve been going through boxes of old photos, letters, cards, & paper memories. Looking at photographs of baby showers & weddings & Christmases & births, I began to reframe my memories. My mother was beautiful. Far more beautiful than any of her four daughters. And she was whip-smart: top-secret classification during The War, as she called it. Majoring in French in her 60s. She deserves better (and so do I) than being remembered as the curled-into-herself shell of her last days.

In one picture, Mother is holding my elder son, who is wrapped in a blanket that matches her yellow hospital gown. My father stand next to her, dwarfing them both. Their faces are soft with the awe that babies bring. I wish I could tell her that Nathan is expecting his own first-born, another son. I wish I could share how happy I am with his wife, their marriage.

Christmas in another picture, and she is wearing one of her favourite holiday sweaters, vivid and vital. She is smiling there, too. Happy to be surrounded by all of us, too loud for her to distinguish who is saying what, but the best of chaos.

At a baby shower for my youngest sister,   Mother sits with her younger sister. In still another picture, she stands with her own three sisters, close together, as we stand now, her four daughters.

This is how I am reframing that most difficult year — my mother’s last. As I culled the boxes — part of a long-overdue closet cleaning — I laid first one, then two, then three and four and finally a small stack of pictures of my mother on my desk. Along with my sister’s wedding shower table, at Mother’s house. A table laden with my mother’s silver tea set — my own so like it — a basket of roses — like the ones on the deck – a tablecloth – one we bought her in Hong Kong. All this time I grieved, angry that Alzheimer’s had stolen my mother? It’s over — passed. And ultimately, like the Buddhists say about our inner Buddhist nature, the bright colours of the stone are washed clean, and shine again. One of them is pink. It is not my mother who has changed.

 

 

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