A Crow Funeral

The crows are back. My neighbor told me a story recently that sort of shifted my thinking around these annoying, yet smart birds. Apparently, a large neighborhood cat killed one of the younger crows. My neighbor, a nice guy, buried the crow out front, under the telephone wires. He told me that the next day, the crows just lined up on the telephone wires for hours, and made all sorts of noise. We concluded that they were grieving. I mean, I’m sure they’re also freaked out that they could be next, but do crows grieve? Research has shown that a lot of animals do grieve. There are two researchers up in Washington, professor John Marzluff, and one of his graduate students, Kaeili Swift,  who are looking into this idea of a “crow funeral.” If you have 20 minutes, check out this podcast to hear her story.

The scientific term is “cacophonous aggregration,” but the human term is “crow funeral.” Apparently, my neighbor’s experience with the squawking crows was not an isolated one. Whether it’s grief or rage  (is there that much of  a difference between the two?), when a crow dies, the other crows get very vocal. They produce what is called the “scold” call, which is the traditional caw-caw sound that we are familiar with. They make this call consistently, gathering the other crows, until ALL of the crows are making this sound. They go from tree to tree, calling every crow they know, and squawk away, and then suddenly, they just go silent. And they all sit there, on a power line, a tree branch, a roof’s edge, in a prolonged silence. Then, they disperse.

Swift, the dedicated scientist, doesn’t assume what is happening in a crow’s brain is similar to what is happening in a human’s brain.  She thinks when the crows respond this way to another crow’s death it could be just “danger learning,” which is an opportunity for crows to learn more about their environment. What is safe, what is not safe? Who is safe, who is a predator? Her advisor, John Marzluff, is leaning towards the idea that the crows truly are grieving. This summer, he is actually going to scan a crow’s brain while showing the crow a taxidermied crow that appears dead. It is quite possible that the same circuits that humans have around grief will light up in the crow’s brain. So what will that tell us?

What is the difference, really, between “danger learning” and “grief?” When you think about it, death is one of those things that most humans are afraid of. It’s inevitable, yet we don’t like to talk about it. It’s easier to fear it, yet, it’s going to happen to all of us.

The subject of death hit my family this past week. I learned that my nineteen year-old cousin died of a heroin overdose. It’s no coincidence that I waited four paragraphs to mention this. We don’t like to talk about death, remember?

My cousin’s mother, my aunt, texted me on Sunday morning to tell me. I was shocked at the text. I mean, I know that death is inevitable, but we all know that when a young person dies, it just turns our world upside down. I remember when my mother died at the age of 50, my grandmother, a young 70 year-old, just never got over it.

“It’s not natural.” She used to say, over and over again. “It goes against the cycle of nature when the child dies before the parent.”

Without getting into the details, my family has its own dysfunctional quirks, which is why I was the only person in my immediate family who my aunt communicated to about my cousin’s death. I then notified my side of the family, and was happy to hear that one of my brothers drove all the way from Maine to Massachusetts to attend the funeral. Because of the nature of my cousin’s death, my brother expected to see “dopers, lots of tattoos, and chain smoking” at the funeral, but instead, he said in an email, “it looked like a senior prom.”

“Kids were in sport jackets, girls well-dressed – clean cut and well spoken. I thought it was a disconnect. My naivete…”

I wasn’t surprised by my brother’s description. After receiving the text from my aunt, I jumped onto Facebook, and found my cousins’ page. I went into his friends’ pages, and learned more about his death, and frankly, more about his life. He grew up in an upper middle class suburb of Boston. Heroin is all the rage in these communities. So accessible and cheap, and so “hip” to explore.

My cousin and I weren’t close. The last time I saw him was at my grandmother’s funeral five years ago when he was a shy fourteen year-old kid. I specifically remember walking into my grandmother’s house, and seeing him run upstairs to avoid me. I didn’t take it personally. Because it was an old house, the staircase was steep, so he was actually crawling quickly up the stairs on all fours, as if this position would obscure my view of him. He reminded me of a cat –  shy, attentive, protective, aloof. Judging from his friends on Facebook, he was a well-loved young man who just got hooked on drugs at fifteen. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he turned to drugs just a year after my grandmother died. They were very close. She knew him well. I can relate to that. Despite my grandmother’s aloofness, I always felt that she knew me well, and that she never judged me.

Apparently, my cousin’s escape into drugs started with pot, then pills, then crystal meth, then coke, until he eventually  landed in the lion’s den of heroin addiction. I actually don’t think that marijuana is the gateway drug. I think when an addict discovers a way to get high, enough is never enough. And my cousin wanted to escape. He had a challenging life. His father died when he was eight, and it sounds like his new step-father had his own challenges. In the world of Buddhism, we call it karma.

Karma doesn’t mean “you get what you deserve.” It means that we are born into and continue to re-create certain causes and conditions of our lives. It’s when we let these causes and conditions control us that karma is happening. When we have the self-awareness that it’s maybe not the life we want, we *hopefully* create enough change in our life to alter these causes and conditions. That’s when the dharma (the truth, the Buddha’s teachings) is happening. Not as easy at it sounds. Like when I first got sober, I remember my AA sponsor saying to me, “Caren, no worries. You only need to change one thing in your life.”

“Really?” I asked, dumb from sponge brain. “What’s that?”

“Everything.” she said with a smile.

My cousin’s death has been a shock to all of us. For me, it has brought up some painful memories of my mother’s side of her family. I have been thinking about my aunt a lot these past few days. She has had her struggles. Losing a child to a drug overdose can quickly put a parent into overwhelm. The guilt, the shame, the remorse. What will I say to her in my consolation card that I will mail to her this week?

After she texted me the news, she sent me a video of my cousin doing some weird dance in his driveway –  a young lively, quirky teenager, free in his body. I imagine she will spend hours looking at videos and images of him, re-reading his posts on Facebook and Instagram. “Scolding” herself, so to speak, on her own perch of grief.

When I think of all of those young people at my cousin’s funeral, I wonder if any of them, like the crows, are keen to the “danger learning” from my cousin’s death. (There have apparently been six, yes, six deaths to heroin overdose in this small community this year alone). Or will they continue to not think about death, like most teenagers, and continue to live on the edge, forgetting all about my cousin’s death very soon when something more daring and exciting pops up and lures their attention?

It doesn’t shock me that crows make a lot of noise, a “cacophonous aggregration” when one of theirs dies, just like it doesn’t shock me that we humans find a place to go and scream or cry it out of our system. Tears cleanse our bodies; Screaming lets the monsters out.

What I do wonder about is when those crows, after gathering and squawking, then suddenly go into silence, a prolonged silence. Why do the crows do that? Why do they collectively sit in silence? What is going on in those moments? What does that mean for us humans? I know the only time I am silent like that is when I am perched on my meditation cushion every day, committed to just one thing, paying attention to my breath. Of course, that lasts for a few seconds, and then my mind is off and running – into the past, into the future, into a fantasy. Then, the emotions pop up – all of them – and even more that don’t even have names. Then, there are the narratives that arise, “Oh, if this person only did this,” yadda, yadda, yadda. Then, it’s back to my breath, focus, dropping the judgment, back into the moment. Over and over again, day in, day out. Not to seek enlightenment, but simply to feel more connected to my world, more sane. More able to handle a text from an aunt about a cousin’s death.

My guess is crows aren’t seeking enlightenment either. Maybe like us humans, they’re just trying to connect. And maybe like the crows, after the funeral, we humans disperse back into our lives, trying to make sense of things like heroin overdoses and challenging relationships. Life, really. The funeral is the pause to remind us just how precious life really is.

Even crows seem to know that.

James Kimball Carlesen 1995-2015

May you find peace.

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An Uninvited Guest

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We have a bird family that comes back to our porch light every year to build their nest. I think it is a sparrow family, but I’m not up on my local birds. My partner agreed that this would be our last year to “host” this family because it’s too risky to have these birds so nearby. For one thing, we can’t turn on the porch light when the nest is set up, which is a bit of an inconvenience that we have been able to live with for the past couple of years. Also, last year I recall a murder of crows making all sorts of noise when the sparrows’ eggs hatched and the fledglings were squirming hungrily in their nest, creating an even larger hunger in the scavenging crows who circled our house for days like death’s maitre de. Our porch is too small for even a smart crow to dart in and access the nest, but that didn’t stop them from hovering around the porch for hours at a time, hiding in the nearby pine tree, or lining up on the telephone wire, waiting for that one opportune moment. It was quite strategic of this sparrow family to choose our porch light as their nest, despite the aviary drama that they created around our house.

There did end up being one casualty last year. A baby bird fell from the nest. We discovered it when we came home one day. The crows were swarming around, so my guess was they did actually take a shot at the nest, bold creatures that they are, knowing that there weren’t any humans in the house. There is a reason the Tlingits and Haidas in Alaska worship the Raven, and call it the Trickster. It was so sad to see this little fledgling, dead on the ground, and I remember resenting my partner in that moment, swearing that we would never allow this nest to be built in our porch again. But we did.

This week, one of the parents of the nest flew into our house. I had left the door open for a few seconds because my partner and her daughter had just returned from a bike ride, so I had opened the door for them to let them in. I was recovering from some nasty food poisoning that landed me in the ER the night before. I had become so dehydrated, that I could no longer hold anything down, so I needed to get rehydrated intravenously. So, I was pretty out of it, both mentally and physically. When I looked out the window, my partner said, “I think a bird just flew into the house.”

I turned around, and sure enough the bird was flailing around, trapped, feeling stressed. Our cat, Crown Kitty, was squatting down on the floor, watching the bird with anticipation. I quickly started to open the windows of the house. My partner and her daughter were quickly getting off of their bikes and working their way into the house. I knew the back door was open, so I was hoping the bird would find its way to the kitchen where it would free itself. It did find its way into the kitchen, but Crown Kitty was quickly trailing it. By the time I arrived at the kitchen entry way, literally ten seconds later, the bird was dead. My guess is the bird hit the window, and became weak, and Crown Kitty batted it down from the air. A few feathers were already floating, and Crown Kitty had a firm grip of the bird’s entire body in her mouth. It wasn’t until I picked up Crown Kitty by the back of the neck that she was forced to let go of the bird. Of course, I still held out some hope that the bird was alive, but she wasn’t. A few seconds later, my partner’s daughter came in, and I told her to stay out of the kitchen.

“It’s dead. Crown Kitty got it.” I said tersely, annoyed, insensitively.

I got a dust pan and rolled the bird onto it, and tossed it into the trash outside, saying a quick chant, and bowing to it.

“May all beings be happy.” My heart ached.

A few minutes later, I quietly barked at my partner in a private moment, “This is exactly why I didn’t want to have that nest this year.”

It has been a sore spot between us. She had even called some ornithologists this year, and they said it was okay to allow the nest in our porch, and that it’s actually illegal to touch nests.

I remember being so annoyed when I heard that.

The truth is what lies beneath my irritation is my struggle to see these birds suffering, knowing that I really can’t do anything for them. Last year’s battle for survival against that murder of crows, for example, was difficult to witness. Here, this small sparrow family, was trying to keep their three fledglings alive, and dozens of crows were collectively planning an assault on these fledglings. It was fascinating to watch as a human. I would watch the crows maneuvering the landscape – some settling on the telephone wire, squawking to another pair across the street in the acacia tree, who in turn would squawk to the trio on my neighbor’s roof top. The fledglings would just screech for their parents who I knew were hiding somewhere nearby, waiting for that safe moment to fly into the nest. Meanwhile, people would be walking by with their dogs, driving by in their cars, walking their babies, clueless to this drama that was playing out all around them. We’re too busy with our own dramas, like food poisoning, and worried about being judged by colleagues for missing three days of work.

If I hadn’t been sick, I wouldn’t have been home at that time, and that bird would never have gotten into the house. Of course, we all know how dangerous the word “if” is. The cynical side of me says that although I was the one who opened the door, I didn’t invite the bird to fly into my house.

What happens when an intruder enters your home – an uninvited guest? Or rather, what happens when someone enters an element where it does not belong – an unnatural element – a bird in a house – a bacteria in a body. It is unwelcome, it does not belong there. There are consequences. In this case, a bird died. And the added consequences will be that because it was probably a parent bird, that the eggs will not be protected, and more birds – the offspring – will die. This is nature.

A wild bird doesn’t belong in a house; particularly in a house where a cat lives. Can we really blame a cat for following her instincts? Can we blame anyone for following their nature?

It took me four days to recover from that food poisoning. My body purged every ounce of those  toxins out of my body until I was literally dehydrated. An unnatural element invading my body. Consequences.

Who said that life is going to be comfortable?

Hell, even the Buddha was rumored to have died of food poisoning. Trust me, I thought of that this week when I was hurling my guts out in agony, feeling more powerless than I have felt in a long time. There’s nothing like physical pain to level the human ego.

I guess you really never do know what’s on the other side of a door until you open it.

 

Mu

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There is this famous zen koan about a dog having buddha nature. It is known as the “Mu” koan, but of course, I prefer to call it the “dog” koan because I’m a huge dog person. A koan is basically a short riddle which provokes great doubt. The process of “answering” the  “unanswerable” riddle (or at least in attempting to answer the riddle) measure a zen student’s “progress”. Notice how I use all of these words in quotes because, really, there are just so many descriptive words in that last sentence, it makes it challenging to identify any sense of “buddha nature”.  With that being said, koans are one more way for a zen student to get stuck in her head for hours at a time – or not – depending on her “progress”. In my particular case, I have been going back and forth on this koan since I first heard it five years ago. But not because it’s the koan that can supposedly lead one to enlightenment, but simply because it’s about a dog.

Often, when I am walking my dog, and I see how happy she is, I think of the Mu koan. Other times, particularly when I am at Pt. Isabel (the largest dog park in the U.S.) I think of the Mu koan. I think of the Mu koan at these times not necessarily because I’m thinking of how “happy” the dogs are, but rather how “happy” I feel when I see these dogs in their element. I think, “Wow, these creatures bring me such joy, they gotta have buddha-nature.”

There are several versions of this Mu koan because of the multiple translations (Ancient Chinese to Ancient Japanese to modern English, and other such variables etc.). Here is one version:

A monk asked the Master Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?”

The master Joshu, said, “Not (Mu)!”

The monk said, “Above to all the Buddhas, below to the crawling bugs, all have Buddha-nature. Why is it that the dog has not?

The master Joshu said, “Because he has the nature of karmic delusions.”

There are two important factors here in trying to “grasp” this koan. The first factor is the word “Mu”. There are several different translations of this word. While the more common definition that we laypeople tend to grasp is “no” or “not”, a more complex definition is “pure human awareness prior to experience or knowledge” or another definition, “The original nonbeing from which being is produced in the Daode jing.” The second factor to consider is the historical and social context of this koan. While we modern westerners are ridiculously (and I do mean ridiculously) in love with our dogs, ancient China viewed the dog as dirty little flea bags that were always begging for food. And that is why I have recently renewed my interest in this koan.

While five years ago, I naively thought that a dog does have buddha nature because of all of that lovey-dovey kumbaya feeling they give me, I now see that there is another level to this. Dogs just want to eat. They are ravenous, manipulative, self-serving creatures whose sole purpose is to eat. And my dog, Sadie, is the worse kind of food-obsessed canine, and she only seems to be getting worse.

Sadie had her annual exam several weeks ago. Sadly, she is in the very early stages of disc degeneration. Among other preventative treatments that I am taking to ensure her health, the vet said that Sadie will need to lose about five pounds.

“The less pressure on her discs, the healthier she will be.”

Projecting all of my own personal food issues onto Sadie, I said to the vet, somewhat anxiously, “How am I gonna do that? You don’t understand this dog. She’s so compulsive, she’ll eat anything.”

The vet looked at me, a bit awkwardly, (vets are trained to read the dog owner, not the dog), and then said, “Well, with dogs it can be pretty simple. You would just feed her eighty percent of what she eats now.”

I said to the vet, in a pathetic nonpleading-but-pleading way, “But how do I compensate for that twenty percent? I mean, surely there has to be something that she can eat.”

The vet assured me that adding raw fiber to Sadie’s diet is one way to supplement her diet.

“Will she eat broccoli or carrots? Some dogs are fussy.“

“She’ll eat anything.”

I was too embarrassed to disclose to the vet Sadie’s compulsive eating history. I immediately thought back to a few days before when my girlfriend said to me, “Sadie ate my daughter’s poop out of the toilet today”. I mean, what does a dog owner say to something like that?

There was one period in Sadie’s life when she would eat the paper napkin off of my lap at dinner time. At the time, I thought is was “cute” how she would subtly remove the napkin from my lap and sleek away with it, sometimes without my seeing her until it was too late. Or recently, just a few weeks ago, Sadie found an old piece of french bread on the sidewalk where my girlfriend managed to tear it out of Sadie’s mouth a few days before. Yet, she found it again, a week later, hidden under some ferns, and ate the rest of the hardened french bread, breaking it down with her teeth and jaws like a desperate wild animal. By the time I got to her seconds later (she was on a 10-foot retractable leash), there were nothing but crumbs left dangling from her jowls, which she quickly lapped up, wagging her tail in bliss.

But the piece de resistance occurred this past week. N, my girlfriend’s daughter, was excitedly posing for a picture that J, our awesome family friend, was taking. N and J had spent the entire morning working on a diorama of a 17th century Puritan village. It was time to take the picture. N posed while J took the picture, and I while I was a few feet away, I busted out my cell phone to get a picture. Important plot point here: moments before N posed for the picture, she took a Samoa Girl Scout cookie from the box, but hadn’t eaten it yet. She was holding it in her hand. We know where this is going, right? In the next few seconds, while N was posing for the picture, Sadie somehow managed to sneak up, and snatch the cookie from N’s small hand. N was shocked. We were all shocked – except me. I was not surprised. I turned to our friend J, and smiled.

“Sadie is on a diet. It’s not going very well.”

We all had a good laugh, especially when we realized a moment later that we had actually captured the crime on film. You can see Sadie in the first picture, inches away from N, eyeballing the cookie. N’s innocence and excitement to pose in front of her diorama is so sweet. While, inches away from her, Sadie has other motives. Her laser-focus is frightening. She is calculating in her canine mind when and how she can quickly, yet subtly (“can’t bite the kid’s hand”) she can remove the cookie from N’s hand. Then, in the next picture, N’s sweet, proud face transforms to one of shock and horror, and dare I say, even a tinge of joy. Which is ultimately what Sadie brings to all of us – most of the time – joy. Which is ultimately what creates that complexity of the human condition – to want, to crave, to joy, to bring joy.

We are adorable and lovable, and we are riddled with this thing called craving. Dog or human, we crave. We all want that cookie. Of course, that’s what makes us so complicated as humans, not only the craving, but the awareness of the craving, and that vicious thought process that circulates around the awareness. Dogs, on the other hand, they just crave without thought. Their base instincts lead them to food. They want what they want when they want it. Sure, we can ‘train’ them to be ‘obedient’, but they’re not stupid. They know at the end of the “sit” directive there will be a treat. Even if there isn’t a treat all the time, they know that there is the possibility of a treat maybe some time in the future. Of course, i’m not really sure if dogs think about the future. Apparently, they don’t spend too much time in the past, which is why you’re not supposed to punish them an hour after they have done something wrong. If they could talk, they would say, “I’m just lying down, what’s the big deal? I don’t understand anything you are saying. Oh, wait, are you playing that Guilty and Pathetic Look game? Is that what you want me to do, look guilty and pathetic? Okay,  I’ll do that…will there be a treat coming?”

Will there be a treat coming?

Mu.

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Craving.

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“Success”

Mu.

Sweating on Pi Day

I went up to Lake County this weekend to tend to my firekeeping duties for a women’s sweat lodge. It was unusually hot (high 70’s), which made for a hot, tiring day for both the fire keepers and the women attending the sweat. This is my fifth year as a firekeeper for L, a wonderful crone who pours the water in the sweats and leads the women in a day of ritual and prayer.

L goes by the name “Grandmother” because she is – well old and wise, hence appropriately a grandmother. One could argue that she also chose that name for herself because one of the roles of a firekeeper is the “grandmother”, which means there are “extra special duties of honor” that are assigned to that particular firekeeper. (There are multiple firekeepers that are needed to keep the fire going all day). Point being that there is something significant about the role of the grandmother in our culture. Interestingly, I call her by her name, L, and that might have something to do with the fact that I met L right around the time my maternal grandmother died (at the ripe page of 91). L and I have a very special relationship. I adore her. She is irreverent. There is that stereotype of crones and sages being wise and sweet. L is wise, but sweet? She is a hell raiser, and when she wants to be grumpy, she is grumpy. I guess that’s permitted when you hit 80. I’m amazed at her physical flexibility and endurance to crawl in and out out that lodge. Once the women enter the lodge, they are asked to stay there for the duration, which may be as long as 4 hours. (We open the door after every round, and there are four rounds, so there is opportunity to feel some fresh air). L, who is 80, remains seated in her spot the entire time. It’s quite impressive. In addition to having the endurance to sweat for up to four hours, L also does an impressive job of “holding the space”, and leading the women in prayers throughout the day. Women step out of the lodge feeling purified and always express how grateful they are for L’s offerings.

But here’s what I really love about L: Her irreverent sense of humor. For example, yesterday when I was talking about how I would be driving home, she said to me, “make sure you’re feeling grounded enough to drive over that mountain.” I tried to assure her that I would drink some coffee before hitting the road, and she was quick to remind me that she was talking about “being grounded.” Then, with a smile, she said, “Do I have to bitch slap you to get you to hear me?” My partner happened to be attending this sweat, so I teased Grandmother back, saying, “Not in front of my partner.” Then, Grandmother basically chased me a few feet with a mischievous smile on her face until she hugged me, whirring I lightly slapped her on her butt, and she did the same to my butt. Now that’s some grandmotherly love!

In all seriousness though, what made yesterday so special was that I felt comfortable enough to bring my partner I, and and her 10 year-old daughter, N, with me. Grandmother asked N to be a “junior-junior-firekeeper-in-process”, which N was thrilled to do. While all of the women were in the lodge (including my partner), N and I hung out, tending to the fire, watching deer, and talking about nothing important. N is dealing with 10 year-old tweenie stuff that comes up now, and I think a day in nature was good for her. Nature has that way of absorbing all of the crap that we keep stuck in our heads, the biggest piece of crap being our ego. And I am definitely seeing that little 10 year-olds already get caught up in that ego stuff. It’s hard to watch.

At one point during the ceremony, when the door was open, L leaned over to me and whispered over and over again, “I need you to be grounded right now. There’s some stuff coming up right now in the sweat, so please be grounded, grounded, grounded.” I have some specific physical ways of grounding myself, such as planting my feet and heads firmly on the ground, and drawing out the bear energy, but in this case, I felt that I needed more. I found myself chanting the Heart Sutra to myself as  the pipe was being passed around. By the time the pipe got to me, I had finished chanting the heart sutra, and felt more grounded. It really helped.

I later thought about how there have been other times when I have offered buddhist chants to the circle during sweat ceremonies. Now that buddhism has found its way over to the west, I suspect that we will see more blending of traditions such as Buddhism and the Native American Church. They have a lot in common, particularly when it comes to the interconnection of all beings. I remember one time when we were all talking about meditation, L said to me, “That’s what we’re doing in the lodge the entire time, is meditating. It just looks a little different.” She’s pretty accurate when she says that. When you look at the neuroscience behind it, you probably would see similar brain activity changes in people who attend both sweat lodge ceremonies and people who sit in traditional vipassana or zazen meditation. I think that could make some interesting research.

To completely digress, it was also fun to have this sweat on Pi Day, but THE Pi Day, the one that we only see once a century. I and N made some pies the night before and brought them to the sweat. The goal was to eat them at 9:26 a.m., but that didn’t happen. (We came close; we ate them at 9:35 a.m.). It was a fun way to start the day, eating pie, talking about irrational numbers, as the deer grazed in the meadow not too far from us.

deer in harbin meadow.

Deer grazing in the meadow

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The fire in its early stages with the lodge in the background.

Elephants on Clouds

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A couple of weeks ago, I attended a one-day sitting at the San Francisco Zen Center. It always feels good to return to the “Mother Ship” for a mind/body cleansing.One-day sittings at the Zen Center are a bit more than just sitting all day.

I think when most people hear the word Zen they think of some old white man just sitting on a cushion all day; and then when those mysterious  old white men talk, they say ambiguous poetic stuff like “walk like an elephant on a cloud” or something “profound” like that. The truth is, zen life in the monastery is quite busy, and there is a strong practical mindset to the daily practice. For example, a one-day sitting lasts for 13-16 hours. (In this case, it lasted 13 hours). Of those thirteen hours, you only “sit” for about nine hours, which includes the meals (oryoki), which I’ll expand on in a moment. In addition to the sitting, there are afternoon chores, which are after lunch, and done in silence. I remember the first time I did soji, which is Japanese for “chores”, a woman said to me, “When the bell rings, stop what you are doing, even if you aren’t done. Because it’s not about the work, it’s about the working”, emphasizing the “ing” part of the word working. That really resonated with me, the progressive present tense idea of the task at hand. It’s about staying in the present, and not being concerned with results of the future.

Other jobs at a one-day sitting are serving the meals in the zendo, washing the dishes in the kitchen, and prepping the tea and snacks in the afternoon. So, when you show up at 5 in the morning to start your one-day sitting, you not only read the daily schedule, which is posted in the front foyer and on the bulletin board near the zendo, but you also read the list of jobs, scrolling down the list until you find your name. In my case, I was assigned the task of serving lunch in the zendo. I smiled to myself, thinking back to five years ago, when I had my first oryoki meal in that very same zendo. It was a somewhat harrowing experience for a plethora of reasons, including some childhood trauma that unsheathed itself on me that day. It felt nice to just sort of smile at the idea of serving lunch, rather than being anxious about it, which is how I felt for my first three months while living at the Zen Center. I always joke that trying to figure out all of the forms, the services, and everything else at the Zen Center reminded me of marching band in high school. All of that pressure to perform in front of an audience, learning as you go along. It is no coincidence that the words angst and anxiety share the same suffix. Anxiety is derived from the Latin root metus, which means fear or dread, while “angst” came later from the Germans, Danish, and Norwegians. (Keirkegard and Freud turned the word “angst” into a common term at dinner parties).

Many zen students have this feeling of angst when they first enter their zen practice, and all of the forms that come with the Zen Center seem to be this perverse litmus test to the zen student’s angst threshold. In my case, it was the oryoki, particularly serving the meal in the zendo that practically sent me over the edge. Now, I can look back, and be way more chill about it. But I was reminded of the anxiety that comes with it when I was sitting down in the student lounge with the lunch serving crew at the recent one-day sitting. The soku (head of serving crew) busted out the diagram of the zendo’s seating chart, which basically looks like a complex matrix of patterns. It’s a bird’s eye view of the zendo seating chart, basically a “who’s who” of temple positions: abbot, central abbot, tanto, ino, jiko, jisha, director, president, vice president, etc. But the key players are the abbots, tantos, and inos (the ancient roles). And that is where each server begins serving their dishes. Then, of course, there is a particular way to serve the dish, keeping your barefeet pointed away from the altar, serving the Buddha bowl first, and so one.

So, on this day, while the soku was going through the diagram with us, there was a new guy in our crew asking a ton of questions. I felt the guy’s struggle. I mean, he knew what he had signed up for when he signed up for a one-day sitting. He was very open to the whole experience, but he was also pretty anxious about serving the meal. He reminded me of myself five years ago, asking tons of questions, with this low-grade anxiety just percolating beneath the surface. As he was talking, I felt myself starting to become anxious about serving, second-guessing, and doubting myself, but then I caught myself, and joked with myself that this is marching band all over again, but that I’m 47, and quite frankly, I really don’t care about what other people think of me. I’ll do my best while serving, and leave it at that. After all, it is that very anxiety that hinders us, and serving lunch in the zendo provides yet one more opportunity to address that nasty anxiety. Furthermore, all of the forms in zen provide an opportunity to practice mindfulness.

As it turns out, we made some mistakes while serving. I’m not even going to bore you with the details. Because they’re just mistakes. And it’s not the end of the world. Everyone was served their food, everyone ate, all was good. The growth for me was when I was making my mistakes (notice I didn’t make just one mistake), and it was being pointed out to me, I quietly smiled, and just kept doing the best I could, trying to correct my mistakes. Nobody can hurt me any more than I can hurt myself with negative self-talk. And on that day, five years later, I was quicker to catch the self-talk, and to smile rather than scowl.

We’re all doing the best we can, even those old white guys talking about elephants on clouds.

“Not oryoki again!” (The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893)

 

 

Lovely

I talked to my father this week, after receiving a text from my stepmother. She had texted us earlier in the day from Boston to say that my father was scheduled for his third attempt at a cardio version this year, and to please be thinking of him. The last two attempts never even happened because of a blood clot that doesn’t want to go away, no matter what type of medications they are using to thin his blood. A few hours later, she texted my three brothers and me again, saying, “Cardio version could not be done due to blood clot. There are no more scheduled. If the doctor went in your dad could have a stroke. He will live with the a-fib controlled with the medication.” He just turned 81 this month, and although his mind is healthy, like most octogenarians, his body is beginning that inevitable process of decline.

I called him on my way home from work later that day. As usual, he was excited to hear from me, and didn’t want to talk about his appointment, but instead, focused on the snowstorms that have been plaguing Boston this winter. My father lives in the North Shore, about twenty miles north of Boston. It has been a brutal winter.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this bad.”

“Really? Not even the Blizzard of ’78?” I take a perverse pride in “surviving” the notorious Blizzard of ’78, though my memories are quite different – a week off from school to play in mammoth snowbanks while the adults scrambled to shovel, plow, buy groceries, and help their neighbors.

“That was different.” My father’s analytical tone kicked in. “It was all one blast in ’78, but this winter we just keep getting new storms coming in. As soon as it lets up, we have a day or two where its okay, then – bam! – another storm. Plus, it’s so cold. You go to bed at night and it’s fifteen degrees, and you wake up and it’s zero degrees. It’s unbelievable.”

His awe with the winter’s relentless continued, “There’s so much snow, they don’t know where to put it. It’s piled up so high, I can only see the second floor windows of my neighbors across the street. The neighborhood association hired someone to move all of the snow down to that cul de sac near our entrance.”

He and I went back and forth over the worst winter Boston has ever seen. I thought it was 1978, but he was talking about 1995; then, I could hear my father’s wife in the background. Twenty-one years his junior, she is always part of the conversation.

“Ed.” She said, her Boston accent, consuming the airwaves.  “The worst storm in Boston was your birth year, 1934.”

“Oh, that’s right.” He returned to talking to me. “My mother didn’t want my father to come to the hospital after I was born, but he walked through the snow every day to see her.”

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard this story. “Dad, you’re telling me that you were born during one of Boston’s most historical snowstorms?”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s that historical, but yes, it was bad. So bad that my mother didn’t want my father to come to the hospital.”

“But he came anyway?” I asked.

“Yup. Every day.”

Somehow, the conversation shifted to his health. My father’s spirits were still pretty high, despite the change of topic.

“It’s my legs that seem to be getting weaker, and I don’t want that. I want to be able to still be mobile, so D (his wife) helped me contact a medical group that has a strong physical therapy program. It’s hard work, but I’m willing to do it.”

I teased him about needing his sea legs for all of the cruises that he and his wife go on. He chuckled for a moment, but then returned to his earnest desire to be strong.

“My mother was strong, but then remember when she fell? She was never the same after that. She was around my age when that happened.”

“I think she was a little older actually.” I thought about something else. “Geez, Dad, now that I think about it, did you know that Buddha was curious about aging? Aging, sickness, and death, those were the three things that fascinated him. He didn’t grasp the idea of those levels of suffering, so that’s what ultimately led him to seek enlightenment.”

“No kidding, really?” He returned to the memory of his mother. “She was tough.”

He paused. “Did I ever tell you about the time some guy tried to mug her in front of her old apartment on Washington Street? But that wasn’t the fall that caused her to break her hip, she was okay after that – ”

” – What?!” I interrupted him from his digression. “She got mugged when she was an old woman?!”

“Yea, that was one of her first falls. She was in her early 80’s then. She fought back.”

“What?!”

Most memories I have of my grandmother are when she was so old and hard of hearing, she would sit in a rocking chair, smile, and respond to every question directed to her with the word, “Lovely.” My brothers and I still joke about it to this day:

“Hi Grandma, how are you?!!!!” (screaming into her circa 1970’s hearing aid).

“Lovely, lovely.”

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?!!!!!”

“Lovely, lovely…”

“The Red Sox can’t stop losing, can they?!!!!”

“Lovely, lovely…”

She was that typical sweet old lady, though not little. She was a big-boned Irish woman, daughter of two Irish immigrants who came over for a better life. My grandmother’s life was a challenge. She grew up in poverty, and plowed through the Great Depression as an alcoholic, a mother, a wife, a sister, a factory worker. Back then, there was a stigma to being a woman alcoholic. It was a disease of weakness, leading to immoral behavior. To this day, my father talks very little of her active drinking days, though he emphasizes the part of when she quit, she became a workaholic, working two jobs in factories, and taking care of her parents and her ailing husband. Sometimes I wonder if it felt like a punishment to her, all of that work, those endless hours of physical labor, and caretaking, carrying with her the shame of her previous alcoholic behavior.

Then, later in life, she was “punished” again when her only daughter, M, took her drink, and quickly married herself to the disease. I can only imagine that my grandmother felt like she was looking into the mirror of her past when she would see her adult daughter come staggering into their tiny one-bedroom apartment, late at night, drunk beyond comprehension, rageful at the causes and conditions of her life. M had her own set of issues; pressured to support her elderly mother, a woman in a man’s world, refusing to marry for reasons of her own. I’ve always suspected that she was a lesbian. It was rare when she wore skirts, and she had this butch presence that both frightened and intrigued me. Her “best friend”, N, of forty-plus years, would sometimes call my father late at night for support when M was in a drunken rage. A large woman in both physical features and presence, and smarter than all of her male superiors in her city job, my Aunt M was like a bull in a china shop. Women back then, particularly women who did not fit into the feminine stereotype, were not popular. Her resistance to conform is also what drained her. No wonder she drank. She fought and fought the patriarchy, holding her own to survive, but the fight wore them both down, she and my grandmother.

Yet, apparently, as I have just recently learned, there was that one day when my grandmother was well into her eighties, when both of these matriarchs did fight back. I listened closely to my father’s story on my cell phone’s headset as I was driving down Hesperian Boulevard in Hayward at the height of rush hour.

“M pulled up in front of the house, you know that small place they had on Washington Street.”

It was a tiny one-bedroom apartment, two twin beds crowding the bedroom, and a walk-in kitchen that always smelled of ginger pantry cookies and stale cigarettes.

My father continued, “M opened the door for my mother, and helped her out of the car. Then, M went up to the apartment to open the door.”

I could picture it. My Aunt M would have had to walk up the small set of stairs to the main door, then go inside the house, and down the hallway to open their apartment door. That would leave my grandmother outside alone for a few seconds near the car.

“Some guy came up to my mother, and he tried to steal her purse.”

“Are you kidding? So he stole it from her, and that’s when she fell?”

“No!” My father started to chuckle. “My mother wouldn’t give up her purse. THAT’S when she fell. Apparently, they were both on the ground, and this young guy was trying to pull the purse out of my mother’s hands, but she refused to give it up. She started screaming, and then M came running out, and saw what was happening, so she started screaming. The guy got scared, and he jumped up and ran away.”

“And Grandma still had her purse?” I asked, in awe. ”

Yes, can you believe it?!”

Yes, actually, I can believe it. I believe that she gripped her purse the way she gripped her entire life. It was never an option to just lie down and give up. Her instinct was to keep moving, keep working, keep showing up for life, no matter what. So when that man, motivated by his own desperation, tried to take her purse, the storehouse of her economic power, right in front of her own home, she fought back.

In Buddhism, we often talk about not becoming so attached to our belongings. The third Noble Truth is all about how  “clinging” is the cause of suffering. Like clinging to the idea of the snowstorms and blood clots lasting forever, even though they eventually change due to the impermanence of nature, which seems to dictate all of us, whether or not we agree with it, or whether or not we like it.

When I think of my grandmother rolling around on the ground that day, literally clinging to her purse, I can’t help but wonder if she was clinging to eight decades of relentless suffering, a suffering that she was oddly comfortable with, and accustomed to; a life of poverty that she had accepted, and perhaps even nobly embraced. She knew no other way. Yet, her money was her money. She worked hard for it, and was not about to give it up. She fought and fought and fought, and on that day, she won.

It was a lovely moment for all of us.

Nancy Mary Tom Anne Grandma McD circa 1980s

left to right: Uncle T and his wife, A, N (my Aunt’s “best friend” of 40 years), Aunt M, and Grandma McDonald circa 1980.

PLEASE EXCUSE THE USE OF SCREENSHOTS FOR THE PHOTOS BELOW:

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Colored photo: Grandma and Aunt M circa 1975. B&W photo possibly at a detox, circa 1950

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Grandma McDonald circa 1980. (This is what she would have looked like on the day she “got mugged”)

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Aunt M circa 1950; my father circa 1945; my father circa 1945; my father and his mother circa 1945

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Aunt M circa 1945; My father and Aunt M, circa 1945

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Headline story of Blizzard of 1934, six days after my father was born.

5 Years Later

It was five years ago right around this time when I first visited Green Gulch Farm in Marin County for a Jizo workshop. Little did I know that attending that workshop would be the beginning of a new chapter in my life. I recently re-read one of my old blog posts from my now defunct blog, Midlife Monkeygirls, which describes my new interest in meditation and Jizo, the bodhisattva who brought me to the Zen Center. It was there I met Tova Green, a zen priest from the San Francisco Zen Center. She was co-facilitating the workshop, and during lunch, she and I had a pleasant conversation about life in the zen center.

“You should come visit us. We have a guest student program that might interest you.”

A few weeks later, I did drive up to San Francisco, and spent a week as a guest student, and within days of attendance, I knew that this was where I belonged. Within weeks, I left my dried up life in southern California, leaving behind a mucky divorce, a place in the unemployment line, and a foster home for my dog, Sadie. I had to drive all the way to New Mexico to transport my dog to her foster home. I cried for an hour straight as I drove out of Albuquerque, leaving her in good hands with my friend, Kathy. It was my first lesson on the first noble truth, that in life there is suffering. Although I had obviously experienced suffering many times before this moment, the biggest difference was I now had this new awareness that suffering is unavoidable, and that the the second noble truth, there is a cause to suffering and the cause is clinging (to my dog, for example) was what I was experiencing as I drove across the New Mexican desert, drenching the landscape with my tears of loss. Of course, I can now look back and see that there was much more I was crying about that day, and that my departure from Sadie was just a symptom of saying goodbye to what felt like a failed life – divorce, unemployment, lack of “career success”, but more so, a lifetime of patterns that kept bringing me to that same miserable place, asking that same question, “how did I end up here?” I’m happy to report that Sadie and I reunited one year later, and she and I continue to keep each other’s spirits up.

In the past five years, I’ve sat so much zazen that I won’t even try to do the math. As a result of that, I feel healthier and happier. It’s that simple.

These days, Sadie and I are residing in Berkeley with my new girlfriend, I, and I’s 10 year-old daughter, N. N and I have recently decided that Sadie should be the president of the Stop Being So Cute Club, so we’ve made that official.

Although I’m no longer living in the Zen Center, I continue with my practice, and meet with my teacher regularly. I’m gainfully employed, and overall, feel more at ease in my life. These days, I’m more focused on the third noble truth, which claims that there is an end to the suffering, which leads to the fourth noble truth, which is that the way to end suffering is the Eightfold Path.

Of course, the eightfold path is a bunch of stuff, and I suspect that will keep me busy, and on my toes for the rest of my life.

Official President of Stop Being So Cute Club

Official President of Stop Being So Cute Club

Photo by Shundo David Haye

My awesome girlfriend

Recycling Breakfast and Green Tea

Some mornings at work, if I have time, I go into the bathroom and read some of the dharma. Without sounding too graphic, by the time I get to work, my breakfast of granola, yogurt, berries and green tea are ready to be recycled back to the earth. You all know the ritual, the “loose” reminder of life, of impermanence, of “oneness”. When I get to work early enough, I have plenty of time to enjoy this ritual that I learned from my father, which was to sit on the toilet and read. My latest dharma reading has been a book that my writing coach, G, loaned me, A Winter Sesshin: Ten Talks on the Heart Sutra buy Roshi Pat Enkyon O’Hara. She was the abbot of the Village Zendo in New York when the talks were given.

I learned that Roshi O’Hara is G’s zen teacher, which for some strange reason, came as a surprise to me. I was surprised because I know G from the SF Zen Center, and I suppose my limited thinking guides me into thinking that western zen begins and ends in the SF Zen Center, which, of course is laughable. I helped G move out of the ZC about a month ago. It was then when she went through some books and passed them along to me, some for keeps, some for loan.

“Here, read this; this is my teacher.” G handed me the book.

The book is a small self-published periodical, and rich in content. It consists of a series of dharma talks that Roshi O’Hara gave between December 2004 and March 2005, but the editor, Howard Thoreson, claims in his notes that he has created a “fictional framework of a ten-day winter sesshin…with he hope that is in some small way this would reflect the ‘daily return’ so dramatically experienced in sesshin. When morning after morning one comes back to the cushion, to the ritual, to the dharma talk.” I have to give the guy credit, this is what he has accomplished. There are no titles to the talks, only numbers. And I must confess that I did not read the editor’s notes until moments before writing this blog post, so I honestly thought it was taking place during a winter sesshin. The simple black and white photos of a winter landscape preceding each talk also helps set the hibernating tone of the book. O’Hara’s talks are all about the Heart Sutra, also known as Maha Prajna Paramita. O’Hara breaks it down, word for word, and being the devoted Buddhist scholar that she is, she also sprinkles in some historical context.

Zen Centers all over the world chant this sutra every day. Like Buddhism, the Heart Sutra started in India, then found its way over to China, then eventually Japan, and now, alas, it has arrived in the West. I have fond memories of chanting it every morning during service in the Zen Center. I still chant it every morning on my drive to work. No matter how tired I am, how grumpy or how resentful I’m feeling about my long commute, I still find myself chanting this chant within seconds after turning on the ignition, buckling my seatbelt, and pulling onto the road. Some days, I forget some lines, so I just start over until I get it right. Even then, I don’t get it “right”, so I just do the best I can.

I made an amateur’s attempt to write about this sutra in my previous blog, though I find that this sutra is a deep, vast well that continues to reveal new truths each time I chant it, and each time I hear a new dharma talk on it. Basically, this is the “emptiness” chant, meaning “form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form”. It is connected to the notion that ignorance is the cause of suffering. It is the essence of Buddhism, and nearly impossible to explain, which, I believe, is the point. As much as we try to break it down, to explain it, to understand it, it is really about experiencing it, being it. Which is hard to explain. But, this morning, as I was sitting on my “throne” at work, reading O’Hara’s Eighth Talk, I was struck by how eloquently she explains it when discussing the origination of the Four Noble Truths:

It is based on the early Sutras in which Shakyamuni Buddha declares that this is what he saw as the cause of suffering. He saw that ignorance – and ignorance means our spiritual separation – ignorance, our inability to see the truth, gives rise to impulses, which gives rise to consciousness, which gives rise to name and form, which give rise to sense and realms, which give rise to contact, and contact gives rise to sensations, that give rise to clinging, that gives rise to becoming, that gives rise to birth, that gives rise to suffering, gives rise to old age and death. This is a completely interdependent chain of origination and causation and you can say that it takes place in your lifetime, or in [snaps fingers] that moment. In a nen. In a nen: arising and falling, causation of suffering arises and falls.

 So this part of the Heart Sutra is saying this Chain of Origination has no separate existence, and it’s shorthand; it doesn’t go through all of them, it starts at the beginning, “no ignorance” and ends with the last one, “old age and death”. This too does not exist!

 At the end of this no old age and death the Heart Sutra says, no suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path – which are the Four Noble Truths. Even this! The Four Noble Truths are empty of intrinsic existence.

Roshi O’Hara then goes on to pose the question, “What will happen if we realize there is no suffering? What would it be like for us to live our lives without having anything to attain?”

Something to think about.

Feeling grateful for yogurt, granola, fruit, and green tea. Interesting how it recycles itself.

 

Ogres and Goblins

The  sounds from my kitchen as I am sitting here at my kitchen table. The sun to the east beating down on my left side, demanding my attention despite my resistance. I see my partial reflection in the window in front of me, my left side mostly. Left black eye glass frame, left nostril, left ear. Hair tussled. An oak tree stands behind my reflection.

But the sounds.

First, a bird.

Second, a plane – far off in the distance – miles away; Yet, it’s sound waves find my ear drums.

We really are connected.

Third, a car engine starting up, then driving off.

The birds silence for a few moments after that. Now, a few minutes later, I hear the birds again, their confidence returning. I hear the humming of the I-580 in the near distance.

A door closes downstairs.

The shadow of a micro flying insect darts over my journal, then disappears just as quickly.

The sun accents my gray hairs. Grays protruding, matched with subtle blondes.

I’m getting older. An aging butch.

To have patience with myself is to relieve suffering, according to Roshi O’Hara in the Fourth Talk on the Prajna Paramita, The Heart Sutra, recorded in the Village Zendo during a 2010 winter sesshin.

Patience.

She also tells the story of travelers in the woods late at night who are trying to protect themselves from ogres and goblins. They become separated. One finds a hut and goes in for the night, but becomes fearful when he hears something pounding on the door. So he pulls the door towards him, keeping the ogre out, as the outside ogre fights to push the door in. All night long, they battle at the door. Then, at sunlight, the one inside pauses to peek through the crack only to learn that the outside ogre is his traveling companion.

Why are we afraid of ourselves?

Suffering.

An orange pumpkin to my left, on my window sill, catches my eye. It appears more vivid this morning.

The sun is relentless, almost shocking now, even for October.

The sound of a airline passenger ebbs and flows, catching a sound wave for only a moment, until it dissipates.

A car drives by.

A smaller plane flies over – loud engine, silencing its small ancestors in the branches of the oak tree.

Leaves fall from the oak, naturally – unheard – a silent death – a sacrifice.

My left ear feels hot from the sun, though really it is on fire from the life of this moment.

 

 

 

Buddha in a Hoodie

I am still feeling raw around Trayvon Martin’s death, but also the way some people are still in denial that his death symbolizes the inherent racism that still exists in this country. The challenge for me is to not stay in the anger around his death and the denial I am seeing around his death. I work with kids like Trayvon. Trust me, they are discriminated against because of the color of their skin and because of the clothes they wear. My buddhist practice teaches me to look at things exactly as they are, even if it is uncomfortable. And this is uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. So rather than stay in the anger, I will continue to talk constructively with my students about racism, justice, and compassion. And I will share with my readers the Metta Sutra, also known as the Loving Kindness Meditation. It has been around for over 2,500 years. These words are over 2,500 years old, but still hold meaning today. I chanted them aloud today. Feel free to absorb this sutra however you deem fit.

For Trayvon Martin and his family, and for George Zimmerman and his family.

LOVING KINDNESS MEDITATION

This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise, Who seeks the good, and has obtained peace.

Let one be strenuous, upright, and sincere, Without pride, easily contented, and joyous.

Let one not be submerged by the things of the world.

Let one not take upon oneself the burden of riches.

Let one’s senses be controlled.

Let one be wise but not puffed up and Let one not desire great possessions even for one’s family.

Let one do nothing that is mean or that the wise would reprove.

May all beings be happy. May they be joyous and live in safety, All living beings, whether weak or strong, In high or middle or low realms of existence. Small or great, visible or invisible, Near or far, born or to be born, May all beings be happy.

Let no one deceive another nor despise any being in any state. Let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another. Even as a mother at the risk of her life Watches over and protects her only child,

So with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things. Suffusing love over the entire world, Above, below, and all around, without limit, So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.

Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, During all one’s waking hours, Let one practice the way with gratitude.

Not holding to fixed views, Endowed with insight, Freed from sense appetites, One who achieves the way Will be freed from the duality of birth and death.