Monday, December 29, 2008

Musings from a snow-covered houseboat

What makes community, REAL community? I mean people who take care of one another, not because they've made a New Year's resolution to be a better neighbor or friend or church member, but as naturally as one would reach behind for a pillow in the middle of the night, without weighing the trouble or effort.

In some places this wouldn't even be a question; I don't think my African brother-in-law spends a lot of time wondering about how to create community - he's part of many communities, as simply as drawing breath. But some of us seem to have lost the knack. As a neighbor said to me once years ago, with a perfectly straight face, "I'm from southern California. We don't believe in talking to our neighbors." I have a few thoughts on the ingredients of real community: proximity, mutuality, interdependence...all the usual suspects. But after the last week, I think there may be one ingredient often overlooked by the urban planners and idealists: genuine hardship or danger - the kind that makes everyone remember that none of us can make it alone.

I spent Christmas week snow-bound on my sister's houseboat in Seattle. It began snowing the week before Christmas, and just never stopped, and the snow piled up deeper and deeper on the twenty or so little Victorian-era houseboats tied cheek-by-jowl on her dock, whispering down on to every surface, turning all but the water white. Every morning I would wake to the grating of many snow shovels just outside the window of my room. I would peer between the wooden slats of the Venetian blinds, and would see all the men of the dock out clearing the snow and ice that had accumulated overnight, working together to keep us from slipping off into that cold, dark water on either side. There was talk and laughter amid the serious work, and by the time we went outside with my sister's two month old baby, the long dock was cleared of snow.

One night after dark, as I was singing to the baby so that my sister could get some work done, a neighbor came to the door, a woman in her sixties. She had noticed that the snow had slid off our roof on to the deck around the first floor, and she was concerned that the snow would unbalance us. She had two shovels; one for herself and one for my sister. Another morning I heard a commotion on a neighbor's roof: she and several other neighbors were on her slanted roof shoveling the snow and ice into the water, seemingly calm in the face of the danger of sliding into the water along with the snow. A houseboat unbalanced by snow is no joke: each is held up by a system of underwater air-filled barrels, and too much weight on one side could cause serious trouble, for the boat itself and for the whole dock.

All the houseboats are tied to the same dock with many lines, and so a problem for one becomes a problem for all. All of us had to negotiate the slippery dock to make it to the street. There was a strong sense of camaraderie and tolerance for one another on the dock, and I felt that if we had needed anything, a dozen hands would have reached out to help. It felt very different than an ordinary urban neighborhood: closer, warmer, more interdependent. But then again, people had chosen to live this way - in small spaces, close together, on floating homes that are vulnerable to the natural forces in a way we land-livers don't usually consider.

Years ago, I spent three months in the depths of winter at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, deep in the Los Padres Wilderness Area east of Big Sur. That January, it rained without ceasing, and all of Monterey County was declared a disaster area, wracked by floods and mudslides and tremendous difficulty. Tassajara is a cluster of mostly unheated buildings, surrounded by wilderness, and 15 miles in on a road that is rough even on a good day in midsummer. Multiple slides on the road blocked us from the outside world for days at a time, but we were fine, better than most of the rest of the county. There were sixty people there; we had food and geothermal energy and strong hands and a commitment to take care of each other. What would have been dangerous in an ordinary suburban community was just another winter day at Tassajara.

This summer Tassajara faced even more extraordinary challenges: a huge wildfire raged for weeks in the mountains, and eventually the fire-fighters retreated. It was too dangerous to stay and fight the fire, they said. But some of the residents of Tassajara stayed, and when the fire arrived from four sides simultaneously, they saved the place (see the dramatic story here).

We live in a big, seemingly anonymous country, where many of us feel isolated and inconsequential, disconnected from others and from our own power to be helpful, to be bodhisattvas, whether by shoveling a neighbor's roof as the water looms below, or fighting a fire to save a place you love. (Instead our biggest contribution, we're told by the news, is to go out and spend our dwindling dollars to "save" the economy.) We think we choose this way of life, like my neighbor from Southern California, but we're also trapped by it, and by the coldness it breeds in the heart.

I wonder a bit, as things get harder economically, whether there may be a place for real community to grow again, like grass in the cracks of the sidewalk, born of actually needing each other just a little bit more, born of hardship, of discovering that we are truly like my sister's houseboat community, all tied to the same dock, knowing that when one is in danger, all are at risk, and when one is helped, all are made more whole.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

More Slipping Glimpser

Because when I’m falling, I’m doing all right;

when I’m slipping, I say, hey, this is interesting!

It’s when I’m standing upright that bothers me:

I’m not doing so good; I’m stiff.

As a matter of fact, I’m really slipping, most of the time,

into that glimpse. I’m like a slipping glimpser…..

(Wllem de Kooning, Sketchbook1: Three Americans, 1960)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Winter in the Bosque

One of the most beautiful sights I know in this whole wide world is the rising up just after dawn of thousands upon thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes from the wetlands of the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico. Seeing this is like....seeing the first day of creation. For three winters now I've been able to make my way to this place, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, sometime between November and February. It's become a winter ritual, an annual renewal of wonder.

We stay nearby, then wake up in the cold New Mexican dark, an hour or more before even the faintest glimmer of dawn light, and drive to the refuge. We huddle in the car in our winter jackets with thermoses of hot tea and chocolate, sleepy and a little disoriented. The refuge is big, and we never know which shallow pond will be the one the birds have chosen to roost in for the night, so we drive with the windows open to the cold night air, listening for the speaking of geese in the dark, the stars big and bright above us.

Finally we choose our spot. By then there is a hint of light to the east. We can see the water,but not the birds - just their sleepy calls, beginning to build in intensity out beyond our sight. All around the refuge are our fellow pilgrims, waiting too, some of whom have traveled from across the country to see this daily miracle. The air is bitingly cold, that cold that descends at the last hour of the night. We pile out of the car and wait, binoculars ready.

Then time speeds up somehow, and the light is coming fast, and we can see the birds. Spread out before us are hundreds - no, thousands - of sleeping sandhill cranes, knee-deep in water, their heads still tucked into their warm tail bustles. A few begin to move like slow dancers. And between them and beyond them like a drift of snow are the geese, wide awake, calling to one another louder and louder, an urgency surging through the flock. The water is still, mirror-like, and the birds are reflected in it.

A few geese leap into the air, but the others aren't ready to follow- though the calls are deafening by now. The eastern horizon is stained with orange and pink. The human anticipation is building one of the most popular spots, huddled people line a wooden deck with spotting scopes and cameras, nearly silent as they wait.

Then, without warning,it's time for the geese to rise. With a sound like a freight train, voices lifted and thousands of wings beating the water and then the air, two, three, ten thousand geese rise up at once into the now-blue sky, the black tips of their wings only accentuating their utter, snowy whiteness. Sometime they fly only a little way over our heads,and we lean backward, half in flight ourselves, as if we were briefly members of that ecstatic flock. I have felt like my heart was going to leap from my chest as the geese circled higher and higher, headed out into the dawn.

And then the geese are gone, their calls fading. But there are still the cranes, slower and more dignified in their entrance to the day. They drift across the ponds as if still dreaming, wreathed in mist,sometimes calling in their strange purring, bugling voices, sometimes leaping in the air for a moment, a prelude to their spring courtship dances. Then they too begin to fly, lifting their huge wings in the first sunlight, and eventually the ponds are nearly empty, a few pintail ducks floating about, a few downy feathers scattered across the surface.

To see such a sight in this 21st century is to be reminded of the almost unimaginable abundance of wildlife that once filled the skies and water and land all over the world: the red shoals of salmon nearly blocking the northwest rivers, the great migrations of bison, the passenger pigeons darkening the sky for hours. Now there are just glimpses, like this one, reminders that this is what life does, given half a chance. It sings in cranes and rises up on ten thousand snow geese into the dawn, and it sings in us too, inexplicably. Whatever our troubles as a species, and they are myriad, we are also animals that would come to this place before dawn and stand here together, just to be reminded of the deep grace at the heart of the world.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Paradox and submission

I'm posting a quote I found recently....provocative, and not something a free spirit like me really likes to hear, but a powerful suggestion for the spiritual path.

"Because paradox is at our very core, the spirituality of imperfection suggests that only be embracing the dark side of our ambiguous natures can we ever come to know the light. We find ourselves only by giving up our selves, we gain freedom by submitting to the will of others...Saints and sages throughout the centuries have maintained that it is in the willingness to give up the self and give in to others that the road to human wholeness can be found. And for those who would give up "self" the first step is to give up certainty."

Ernest Kurtz The Spirituality of Imperfection

The photo is of my dear friend Michael Sawyer, a few months before his death from Parkinson's. He deeply embodied this way, in his willingness to submit to the many indignities of his disease, in his humble acceptance of dependence, and in the way he embraced all the paradoxes of being human, the dark and the light.

To see some of Michael's wild psychedelic Buddhist art, go to

Anam Cara: soul friend

“….so anam cara in the Celtic world was the ‘soul friend’. ….it originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the ‘friend of your soul’”

John O’Donohue, Anam Cara

I have been thinking about spiritual friendship recently: what it is, how it is different from other kinds of friendship, how I recognize it, what it means in my life.

In the last few months I’ve been spending time – for the first time in many years – with someone who was a soul friend, an anam cara, when I was a child and a young person. I knew, even then, that there was a different quality to this friendship, and that I needed it the way young fish need the water, or the way young birds need the air. As a teenager I entered a long time of darkness and depression, and the light of this friendship was the only light I could see. I didn’t have a name for it then. What I would say was, “Without Colleen I wouldn’t have any hope at all.”

Colleen was a student of my mother’s, thirteen years older than I was, and a Christian Scientist. You could say that we had little in common, in a relative way. But what Colleen showed and shared with me – above and beyond her love for me, which was a great gift – was the life of a person – a woman - on a spiritual path, Homo spiritualis. That was the hope that sustained me as a teenager: that a spiritual path was possible, even if I was lost, even if I didn’t know how to find it. She gave me faith and hope to walk through the darkness….showing me that the darkness itself is a prerequisite to the path.

Now, thirty years later, when Colleen and I meet, as we did the other day in the courtyard of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, sitting and talking beneath the delicate green leaves of the ironwood trees, we meet outside time, outside the particulars of our lives. Our concern is always, “What are you seeing? What are you learning? What is the leading edge of your understanding about how to live this life?”, and this concern and leaning forward is surrounded by our love for one another, which flows as easily as breathing. Without “teaching” each other anything, what each of us has come to understand shines a light on the other person’s understanding, like two ladders side by side, leaning against the sky. We walk away nourished and widened by the field between us.

Since Colleen first offered her friendship to me, I’ve been graced (and graced is the word) with an extraordinary number of anam caras, soul friends. And this is the strangest thing: in many cases these friendships have transcended every possible human difference – age, culture, faith, race, education – all that matters so much in ordinary relationships. It’s a recognition that goes beyond divisions. My friend Willie Cooper was an elderly Lummi Indian woman, married at fourteen, thirteen pregnancies, a person who loved spirituality in any form, from a weekend tent revival to the deepest secrets of traditional Salish religious practice. My friend Echodu is a Ugandan, an evangelical Christian who has witnessed sufferings that I can barely imagine. My new friend Patricia is 87 years old and sitting in a retirement home, trying to find her way. But when we look each other in the eyes, there’s just two souls meeting.

In each case we recognized each other, very quickly, as if the heart knew something the mind could barely imagine. “This person is on the path. No matter how different it may seem from my own, we are walking together.”

Time and space are shockingly irrelevant to anam caras. Colleen and I have sometimes gone years without speaking or seeing on another. It doesn’t matter. Willie Cooper is gone now, but I still hear her wisdom and feel her love. I have met people just once and felt that deep recognition, and yet we’ve never crossed paths again. Others have been life-long friends, or lovers, or teachers. But however often we meet, or whatever we may speak about, there is only one thing being said: “I know you, I see you, I understand.”

This is not to denigrate other kinds of relationships and friendships, or to elevate the anam cara to some special position. I am grateful for the people who have shared my life in all sorts of forms, and where love is between two people, what one calls it hardly matters. But I’ve come to see that I might not even be alive today without this particular kind of friendship. I might have gotten lost and never found my way. At Lummi it was understood that someone who chose to walk a spiritual path assented to a special kind of vulnerability, and they needed all the help and protection that those around them could give them. I feel that vulnerability, though I think I was born that way, rather than choosing it. I felt strange and alone as a child, different in some way I had no words for from the people around me.

My anam caras have shown me that I’m never alone.

This, I say, is what is broken by no chances, what no interval of time or space can sever or destroy, and what even death itself cannot part.” John Cassian, Conferences

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

God's filling station

This religion thing...

I'm a Zen Buddhist now, a Zen Buddhist priest, but I was raised by a mother who was and is a secular humanist, and proud of it. On my mother's side, I have to go back three generations before I find a church-going ancestor. My great-grandfather founded a Unitarian church in the tiny prairie town of Cherokee, Iowa, around about 1890. Unitarians- those apostles (if I may be so bold to use the term) of religious and intellectual tolerance - are not even considered Christians by most Christians, and often don't consider themselves Christians. Needless to say, my great-grandfather's church was short-lived. What was he thinking? That farmers wanted to drive into town to hear about tolerance on Sundays? Later generations dispensed with church altogether. There were better things to do on Sunday mornings. Gardening. Reading the Chicago Tribune. Sleeping late after a night of drinking and talking. Oh, the possibilities were endless.

So it's hard for me to connect with Christianity as a belief's just not in my family culture. I grew up in a Midwestern Bible belt town, and not being Christian was like....being a communist (even now I feel like whispering), but I wasn't Christian, so I kept pretty quiet and went to my friends' churches some Sundays. When I visited my father, we went to the Episcopal Church, well washed and well dressed. But Methodists, Mormons, Episcopalians and Catholics were all equally mysterious to me, and I would listen to the readings and sermons like an anthropologist hearing of strange aboriginal rituals. As an adult, I watched the rise of the Christian right, as we all have, and I was frightened by what seemed like a movement opposed to all I believed and all I was. Over the years, as I became a more religious person myself, I developed a deep appreciation for Catholic monastics and others who give themselves fully to their faith, but I was and am still afraid of evangelicals and the world they seem to want.

But maybe all this would have been relatively abstract without a personal connection. I have a beloved person in my life who is a strong evangelical Christian. I think I can write with some certainty that she wishes with all her heart that I would wake up one day and be done with this Buddhist stuff, and for her, that wish is part of her love for me. I struggle not to take personally her sense of the deep mistakenness of the religion that has brought so much joy and depth to my life. And if I'm honest, I have to admit that I wish she practiced a different form of Christianity, one more open to the beliefs of people like me. I wish she could celebrate my happiness as a Zen Buddhist, rather than mourn it, and in that way I'm also intolerant, also wanting her to be different, as she wants me to be different. I write this calmly, but it's been a potent source of suffering between us for years now, and sometimes a barrier in our connection with one another.

I don't like where I stand with all this. I can feel my own intolerance and fear,and I know in some ways it's justified, but I still don't like it. Finding a way beyond it has been elusive, but there are little glimpses, now and again.

I got a little glimpse on election night this year. I was standing in the brightly lit lobby of the local community college, exactly 50 ft. from the polling place as per regulations, handing out fliers from the local Democratic Party on the Democratic position on each of the many, many state propositions, including one (which ultimately passed) creating a constitutional amendment that stated that marriage could only be between one man and one woman. I hate doing stuff like this, I hate the polarity of it, but I felt that I had to participate, so I nervously handed out my fliers to those who were interested, and, coward that I am, hoped that no one would start yelling at me for my political beliefs. A nicely dressed woman walked by me and politely refused my flier. After she voted, she came back out and started chatting with me. She was a Republican, and not just a garden-variety Republican, but a fundamentalist Christian and a stalwart member of the local Republican Party. She and I talked and talked, there in the lobby on election night as history was unfolding, knowing that we stood opposed to almost everything the other believed.

We laughed at our differences, we talked about writing - she was a freelance writer - and the economy and her business and my health. She would sometimes catch someone walking by who I had missed with my fliers, and she would say, motioning toward me, "This lady has something for you." Astonishing. We talked for nearly an hour, standing in front of the polling place. Talking with her was a great balm for my spirit, because even though I knew that my candidate had a good chance of winning that night, and hers of losing, I desperately wanted to go beyond the divisions that separate so many of us. That night, we met, she and I, and we did go beyond those divisions, without ever losing our integrity. I don't know how - it felt like a kind of miracle, an election night miracle, what I would have most wanted that night.

Another miracle happened last night. I was driving the long stretch of freeway up, up, up from the desert to the mountains and Flagstaff, and I was listening to Terri Gross on Fresh Air. She was interviewing the Reverend Richard Cizik, the vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, a powerful lobbying organization that represents 45,000 churches. I got a big surprise as I listened to the interview: he had a calm thoughtfulness, a sense of a deep personal moral compass without the concomitant judgment of others I can easily associate with evangelicals. He said that he believes that contraception should be available to prevent unwanted pregnancies. He said that he believes in the importance of caring the the earth, and that he's worked hard to bring global warming to the table in his organization. I thought, "If I found myself across the table from this man, I would like him, I would respect his views, I would feel that we could talk." I found it tremendously uplifting and hopeful, to hear an evangelical voice that didn't scare me. I could have hugged him, then and there.

It's a long road toward peace, and that's how I think of it. There's a quiet war (and sometimes not so quiet) war going on in this country, and even in my own family and my own heart. Although I don't want to be naive, I also don't want to feed that war. I want to see beyond it. Every once in a while I do, and I realize how much I wish to live in a world where all religions, and their deep commitment to goodness, can flourish without impeding one another.

If you'd like to listen to the interview, go to Fresh Air:Cizik

Monday, December 1, 2008

The view from The Peaks

I just spent the evening with Patricia Bradley, 87 years old and a new resident of The Peaks, a retirement center in Flagstaff, AZ. Patricia and her daughter came to a "gratitude circle" I hosted before Thanksgiving. A "gratitude circle" is a small group that meets to explore the cultivation of gratitude in our lives (see, and Patricia floored me by saying this that night:

"I've explored a lot of religions in my life, and I know one thing for sure now. There is only one true religion, and that's the religion of love."

After the gratitude circle, I knew I wanted to get to know this person, who had been so honest about herself and how hard it was to know how to be at this time in her life: without her home, without her beloved husband of more than 60 years, without the clear mind she had once had, without independence, without the sense of meaning we find in our work and how we give to others. I was moved by her, by her spirituality, and by her clear expression of a deep question about how to find grace in the midst of old age and all its difficulties.

So I visited her tonight, in her little room with a single bed, like the cell of a nun: a few books from what were once walls full of books, a photo of an Indian saint dressed in orange on her night-stand. Her white hair is neatly waved, and she is well dressed and sprightly, somehow too alive to be in this place of walkers and oxygen tanks. She tells me again that the big question in her life now is how to be, here, in this place, at this age. When she was younger, she was a healer, teaching and working with a healing system called "Creative Healing", along with husband, going all over the world. Before that she and her husband were in the Peace Corps. This is a person who knows about service and about leading a spiritual life, but what kind of service to others is possible as you sit in your little room at the retirement center, trying to remember what once came so easily to you? What kind of spiritual life is possible?

These are not glib questions; these are koans - deep, difficult, knotty life questions that only she can answer. It is humbling and beautiful to be in the presence of someone who is asking those questions. Sacred questions.

And so we sat in her little room, our eyes occasionally filling up with tears. The great mystery of being human, alive and well in the heart of this person sitting across from me, and in my own heart. No answers.