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Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

happiness and our marvelous brain

BrainInHeart I usually say the aim of life is to be happy. Our existence is based on hope. Our life is rooted in the opportunity to be happy, not necessarily wealthy, but happy within our own minds. If we only indulge in sensory pleasure, we’ll be little different from animals. In fact, we have this marvellous brain and intelligence; we must learn to use it. ~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama

I love this saying. Maybe because my intellectual life is important to me. Maybe because I’ve always thought that ‘mindfulness’ means you have to use your mind as well as your heart. Maybe… well, who knows? But the thought is the reason for the heart & mind illustration.

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The other night one of my writing workshop students told me that she was afraid her writing bored people. “I write about ordinary things,” she said. “Who cares?”

The Buddhist in me succumbed to righteous indignation on her behalf. And on the behalf of all of us. “Those are the hardest things in the world to right about,” I almost hollered. “And I can’t think of anything more important!”

But here’s the deal: writing about — thinking about, appreciating — the ordinary (ordinary mind, as Zen calls it) does bore manyordinary  mind folks. But it’s critical. And surely it’s what our brains can do for our hearts…? Or maybe it’s what our hearts do for our brains…?

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To be happy within my mind, I have to let go all kinds of attachments. Some my own, some cultural. I have to let go youth, and the dream that I will ever be that kind of agile again. I have to let go of the belief that what I have learned is important on any major scale. Mostly, I have to let go of ego (attachment :)) on so many levels I can’t even count that high!

I have to let go — most difficult of all — of the belief I need to change the deeply held beliefs of others. If — as happened recently —  my own deepest beliefs conflict with those held by a beloved family member, I have to sit within the heart of the pain. Think within the mind of the disconnect. And not feel threatened. And still know love.

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Damn near the hardest task I’ve undertaken lately. And I don’t know how I would even begin the task w/out the benefit of my marvelously unreliable brain. Because wouldn’t the brain be part of that ordinary mind(set)? Thinking it through certainly has helped, I have to say.

Zen imageBut when I can still my monkey mind (not the same as the marvelous mind the Dalai Lama is referencing, I suspect) and just be mindful — like eating the pistachios beside me on the desk, feeling the shells split open to release the green kernel…savouring the salty flavour — life is infinitely rich. When I can breathe calmly when people I love follow their own paths, I glimpse something larger. Those rare and lucid moments when I let go — unattach like a floating seed pod on the autumn light — I almost get it.

Whatever it is, it teaches me about being happy. About beginner’s heart. In a way that the wild excesses of youth never did.

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mammograms, gratitude, and ordinary life

mammogramToday was a good day. Even though — in part because of? — I had a mammogram.

An aside: no woman in her right MIND enjoys a mammogram. But as the sister of a 13-year breast cancer survivor, I’m so very grateful for the process. And I’m grateful for being  insured, since right-wing politics have made it increasingly difficult for the uninsured (re: the less-than-comfortably-well-off) to get them.

But there’s one problem, as a Buddhist woman waiting for the results of her mammogram: Buddhists are always trying to put themselves in the other person’s place. Which means that while my mammo is routine — just a check on my annual physical to-do list — some other woman this week is sweating her results, wondering if the lump she found is cancer.

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I don’t think I have cancer. Still, as I wait for the expected results, I am connected with that other woman. My ordinary life — this brilliant fall weather, the great salad I made us for lunch — is perfect. There’s nothing special about this day, but I realise that for someone, the next few days may be her last days w/out the spectre of cancer shadowing her ordinary days.2012-09-09 version 2

So I’m offering up my gratitude for a day full of pulling out grapevine, even though the blackberry stickers left me bloody. And a day of light sunburn from the warm fall light. A day of great tea, drunk on the deck while the birds squabble over the feeders (as if there weren’t enough!). I offer the elderly cat at the bird saucer, the dog chasing a cicada, the blue Oklahoma sky to the women whose lives may well change radically this week, in gratitude that mine (probably…hopefully!) will not.

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the 2nd best and most important job ever

taylor mali and zen pencilsTwo of my favourite things — actually four, if you include the ‘zen’ and ‘pencils’ as material objects… :). Teachers & poetry. And if you include social activism on behalf of teachers? You have knocked that homer out of the PARK.

Because only family makes a bigger impact on a child than his or her teachers do. Only family can love you more than a dedicated teacher. And only teachers do it in spite of cultural warfare against them.

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No one is bashing on parents, grandparents, aunts & uncles. But the whole country seems to feel that teachers are individually & collectively responsible for every societal evil, from illiteracy to violence.

Really, folks? What happened to respect for a very difficult job, made increasingly  more so by completely unrealistic standards, ‘accountability’ strategies, and the spiraling poverty of so many American families? What happened to the respect shown by other cultures (where, interestingly enough, kids are ‘testing’ far better) to teachers?

I adore this poem by Taylor Mali. I’ve sent it to many friends, referenced it in lectures, and otherwise honoured it. I also love the cartoon blog Zen Pencils, where Buddhism meets popular culture. Put them together w/ a profound love & respect for teachers, and you have a trifecta.

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If you don’t believe teachers are the 2nd most important job around, think again: Who taught you to read beyond the ABCs of home? Who taught you to write? Who was there for you when you struggled with math that gets you through everyday functions? Who read misspelled, ungrammatical paper after paper, checking first for content before s/he corrected the errata? Who honoured your voice, your thoughts, your own heart? Can any of us who attended school say there was never a teacher who made a profound difference in our lives?

I’m an education junkie, to be fair. I seem to be unable to stay away from school — in one form or another — for most of my life. Either I’ve been in it, been volunteering at my sons’ schools, or I’ve been teaching. Since … well, kindergarten (rather a long time ago, just FYI).

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So my list of folks who influenced me is darn near as long. Mrs. Parker in 3rd (or was it 4th?) grade, who made work harder than the other kids who ‘weren’t capable of more.’ Madame Sabatini in elementary French, who instilled in me a love for the liquidity of French that has not abandoned me. Mrs. Gatti, who taught me that World History was fascinating — another love that has changed the way I see all things. Mrs. Saluja, who turned me on to Russian lit, and gave me windows into how people have lived for centuries.

And don’t forget the professors I had in college — Dr. Weathers, who showed me that literature was more than who wrote it: it was also how we read it. My beloved ersatz godmother, Fran, who showed me that poetry is wings. And her husband Manly, who showed me it was also a window.

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Not to mention my sons’ teachers, who taught me that teaching is a gift given daily, to the children in our care. Mrs. Aydelotte, who turned my sons on to learning. Mrs. Lady-in-the-Office, who showed my younger son that science needs discipline.

And the mentors who got me through graduate school — both colleagues and professors. Who gave me craft that has sustained me, theory that has deepened me. And the wherewithal to make my passion into a living (however modest!)

In other words? Teachers have always been there for me. And for my sons. And yes, a few — a very few — aren’t great. But overall? There is nothing except family ties I find more important. And I’d trade several family members (no one who reads my blog!) for teachers I know. Because Taylor Mali is telling it EXACTLY like it is:

Teachers make a difference.

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in praise of grandparents

granddad letter to homophobic daughterI LVE this letter from a grandfather to his gay-hating daughter. The idea that there is shame attached to gender makes me crazy. I can’t imagine disowning a child for anything, and something as fixed as gender identification?? If it ever came to not speaking to one of my sons — which seems impossible — it would be far more likely to be in a case of overt cruelty, like this mother.

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Once, many years ago, race occupied a similarly fraught place in American culture. (Some of us would contend it still does, if a bit differently.) For a young white female to date a black boy was heresy — not to be condoned. Even in an international community, old prejudices lived and breathed.

But when my father had me formally deported as a result of my declared intention to marry my African-American boyfriend (deportation being necessary to prevent me returning, as I was 18), my grandmother — a Texan born & bred, from a time when that normally meant racial ‘attitudes’ — took me in and loved me.

She said nothing to reprimand me, and although my father had said I could never see my sisters or my mother again, my grandmother assured me that things would change. She held my shattered heart in her arthritic blue-veined hands and helped it heal. Such is the power of grandparent love. Emma

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This letter reminds me that grandparents are necessary. No one questions that parents are critical. But as children grow and decide their own life choices, there is need for love that does not question. Love that accepts a child as s/he is, not as prejudices and hate might desire. I miss my old ladies: the grandmother who rocked a big 18-year-old girl in her lap and soothed her tears, the great-aunt who never asked a single question about my precipitous, unaccompanied return — just cooked me cobblers & creamed corn.

When I think of the best kinds of love, I think of grandparents. I remember what it is to be accepted w/out question. Just held and loved and loved some more. And I wish I was capable of it more often.

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