Saturday, July 11, 2015

Just Do What is in Front of you

I've been reading David Carr's commencement speech to UC Berkeley School of Journalism. I like to read commencement speeches by people I like, and he was one of them. He died of metastatic lung cancer, worked till the end - was found in the NY Times newsroom February 12, 2015. This talk was published three days later - a fitting monument.
David Carr

In it he refers to the places where the homeless congregate as "open-air mental health wards."  Here's another passage in which he tries to inspire those journalist kids to look for the story somebody has to do, meaning research it, write it, get it published.
Right now there are people who are spending enormous amount of times deciding what kind of car to get because they have so much money they don’t know where to put it, but because it’s San Francisco they don’t want to buy a car that’s going to make them look like they’re rich. That’s their real problem, is trying to figure out how do they manage the optics of being wealthy? Very young people, very rich people, driving through — as I pointed out — open-air mental health wards. I think somebody should do a story about that.
Somebody should do a story about why we tolerate the disparity of wealth in this country, and the "open-air mental health wards," the gatherings of the homeless. Maybe he's talking to me. There is a story I know mental health wards. I've written a little here about my own journey pretty much on my own through the mess we call the mental health system of America. Maybe I haven't written enough. Maybe having a life with this chronic illness was a heroic journey worth telling.

I just finished Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, reading it, not writing it - wish I had. She inspired me to go read some of her column Dear Sugar on The Rumpus and then order an encouraging coffee mug so obscene that I'll hide it from my house cleaners. After that, just wanting to keep enjoying the book, I read an intelligent article by another smart, talented woman, Kathryn Schulz, that suggested one reason Wild is so popular is that it is a record of a pilgrimage. I love that word, don't you? I had a friend who wanted to take one, and the internet was getting in her way in her life, and she disappeared from it, and then I had to change my email, so I don't know. Connie, are you out there?

A pilgrimage may seem like a walk to your Holy City or a year at Walden Pond, but it is always a journey to yourself. With a serious mental illness you don't go from having lost yourself to being perfectly found, despite what some writers want to tell you; once bipolar, always bipolar. You journey from bowled over by a life-threatening illness to learning to function, then to looking for a life.

Some of the things Strayed writes about are devastating even to read. I don't now that I would be able to write about them, or to relive my own story. Like many MI, I am emotionally sensitive. The past is too near to me as it is.

Near the end of that speech, Carr pounded away at his theme. "Just do what is in front of you. Don’t worry about the plot to take over the world. Just do what is in front of you, and do it well. . . . Just do what is in front of you. Don’t worry about the plot to take over the world. Just do what is in front of you, and do it well." That's so Zen. If you don't think it is, after that he says, "Be present."

Artist Kiki Smith at work

Above, an artist who is quoted as saying much the same thing; this happened my way on Facebook today.  ""Just do your work. And if the world needs your work it will come and get you. And if it doesn't, do your work anyway." 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

How to be Intermittenly Not Unhappy

I was going to join the crowd and title this "How to Be Happy," but I just couldn't. That implies Happy all the Time!!!
It implies ~


"Fun fun fun till her daddy took the T-bird away". Life does take things away. The line in the Five Remembrances gets it: "All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change." (The whole chant is at the bottom of this blog.) Fun is especially ephemeral. Every series has a finale, and sometimes it's a great disappointment.

The alternative is to invest yourself in the world. I thought I'd suggest one way to do that: Listen to someone else.

I don't mean listen the way therapists do, with intent to help you change. Don't do that. You don't know what someone else needs. And definitely don't listen the way most people do, thinking of the next thing they will say, even downright impatient. Just pay attention to that other person.

You can briefly take in yourself at the same time. Your self might be cringing before someone else's misery or bored with their same old story. Maybe at some later time you should examine that cringing or boredom that is taking the space where there could be compassion. Meanwhile, why not let them talk - they must have a reason for repeating that story - and just really listen, look. You can nod. You don't have to say anything. Or fix them. In fact, they'd probably pay you not to.

Listening to other people is actually a good way to chip away at our devotion to Wun, my term for our own constructed selves, that Wun who seeks everywhere for happiness when, in fact, the moment is right here.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Please do not sit on Buddha



Since things are perfect and complete
just as they are,
beyond good and bad,
without adopting and rejecting,
one just bursts out laughing!

Longchepa (1308-1364)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Creature Comforts


There's this kind of camping, where you carry a home with you. But that's not what we meant by camping when I was a child. We meant this kind of camping . . .
. . . though we never ran into a bear. And the tent wasn't nice nylon with mesh windows, but canvas (it was the 1950s), which smelled faintly of mold, despite my parents' good housekeeping.

Daddy Longlegs sprawled here and there on the walls of the tent. Beyond the painfully bright Coleman lantern there were a million mosquitos and the darkest dark.  You used a smelly outhouse a long way away or squatted behind a bush.  No friends, no books, nothing to do.

When as a grownup I tried it with a friend, I further realized that the ground beneath the air mattresses was lumpy and unforgiving.  The fire that was inviting at night was dead by morning, and it took a long time to get a fire going and make coffee. Once I had used up a roll of film and hiked moderately, there was still nothing to do but become increasingly aware of how uncomfortable folding chairs really are..

Living as if the technological advances of the last hundred years had not happened seems to have a sacred quality for some people. It does for me too. I'm not being sarcastic when I say I love nature, especially as seen from the windows of my air-conditioned home, which has flush toilets, hot running water, a real refrigerator, and a gas stove. What I like most to do in nature is sit with coffee when no one else is awake, and gestate a poem. I would also like that a lot at a cafe in Paris. You see what kind of person I am. Maybe people are different in New York City, but in the Midwest you feel a kind of shame for being so thoroughly urban.

I did for several years go to the church's annual Labor Day campout. It was in nature, and not air conditioned, but there were things to do with people I liked, the cabins had toilets, other people cooked for you. One year I asked a man I knew whether he was going, just making conversation. Sal was a big guy, an executive who had a lot of money and who seldom spoke, and was thus generally esteemed. In response he chuckled as if the very idea was absurd, and said, "I like my creature comforts."

Creature comforts. Into my mind sprang a memory of the best hotel I've ever stayed at, which had one of the first glass elevators in America. The lovely shower with lots of fluffy white towels. Room service. Several restaurants. These are the luxuries of civilization, the things that give us comfort.  Like many who have been in the trenches, I like them.

I remembered this recently after talking with a friend about living a life that matters. I don't have as many conversations about that as I used to, my energy being more limited, but I do think about it. It is very hard to help people by setting out to help them, as so many social programs have shown. On the other hand, you never know when you might help someone just by being authentically yourself.  Sal was not a religious person, but he did me an appreciable favor just by being who he was, fearlessly, thoroughly civilized.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Present moment, hummingbird moment

Yesterday I went outside to cut some basil to put with the tomatoes I was bringing to an elderly friend who had a bad fall a few days ago. At the moment I cut it the smell of freshest basil bloomed, just as the sun came out, and I thought, Life is perfect.  You might think that at my age, having practiced Zen for quite a few years, I had thought that before, but I don't think I had. Life is perfect. The sickbed, taxes, the weather. Everything.

As I say, the sun came out. And I may have been softened by some lovely things that have been happening around here. We live in a neighborhood only ten minutes from downtown Columbus, but on a ravine with woods in our back yard.

Two days ago I walked into the living room, and there outside the big window lay two young whitetail deer, munching. Both were bucks with antlers at this stage. We've had deer before, up to five once, but only one buck. Usually it is does and their young.
I moved out of the room. When I looked again a few minutes later, one had left. The other saw me again and lazily got up and left, too. I thought how lucky we are that we don't cultivate that backyard into a shade garden, which it once was. It's fine for the deer to lie on the plants and eat what they like.

Later that day I was sitting with a friend at the kitchen table when motion outside the window caught my eye, and there was a hummingbird drinking from the red petunias in the hanging basket. It darted from blossom to blossom to blossom, then gone. Present moment, hummingbird moment.

As if all that isn't enough, Saturday morning I saw a baby bunny on the front porch, a bunny small enough to hold in the palm of one hand. I just don't know anything more appealing. He fled when he saw me there.
Each sighting ruptured for a moment my usual reality, that habit of going-somewhere, doing-something, the way nature in the city does. I am aided in stopping by Zen practice, of course. I have been reading the remarkable blog of Tracy and Koun Franz, One Continuous Mistake. On a parenting blog, Mothering in the Middle, she talks about the Japanese worldview in contrast to our own carpe diem.  Ichi-go ichi-e means "one time, one meeting." Or, your only chance, right here. 
Our backyard in spring