Category Archives: Musings of the Zen Master

Like Water Through A Mountain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur house was built in 1913 and when Luisa and I had the main bathroom renovated, we had them tear out the tub that had clearly been installed in the 1950s and replace it with a claw foot tub we’d found in a store downtown, one cast in 1913.

That was 1999.

If you’ve never had an old claw foot tub, you can’t know the sounds one makes. I can sit downstairs and hear the shower and the particular hum of feet rubbing on the bottom of the tub, like a bow across strings in staccato. I can tell when someone drops something in it because it rings, a deep bass that is unmistakeable. Recently, Miguel was showering and I heard the sound of his feet sliding on that old cast iron, heard the low thump of something dropped–something smaller than a bar of soap because I know that sound well. When he finished showering, I asked him what he had dropped and he said, “The fingernail clippers.” That made sense–small, metal on metal, a different pitch.

And then I wondered when he had started to trim his own nails. It must have been some time ago because I don’t remember the last time I did it for him but I stood in the bathroom overwhelmed by this small milestone that had passed without notice. Before getting into the shower myself, I sat with the nail clippers in my hand and went to trim my own nails only to realize that I couldn’t because I had taken off my glasses and I wondered when that had happened, when I’d stopped being able to trim my nails without them.

We bought a claw foot tub in 1999 without knowing that someday, we’d bathe our tiny babies in it. We couldn’t imagine toddlers with soft, fine hair giggling and playing with boats and small rubber ducks and telling us stories with adorable lisps.

And now, we have a 13 year old son and our youngest will turn 10 tomorrow and the boats and ducks remain in a basket near the tub but the kids take showers now and the toys haven’t been touched in some time.

That day, as I stared at the tub, I thought about all we know about water and the way it can cut through a mountain in time, mapping its own course to an unknown end. Though I’ve always understood that power intellectually, it seemed mysterious and magical until that moment when I realized that time is passing and the courses of our lives are changing and yet we can’t always see it until the unexpected pulls our attention back from the details. We have been changed. The rush of water, the hum of feet, a deep bass that you feel in your chest–all of it leading us onward.

 

What Coming Out Taught Me about Compassion

When I came out to my mother in 1990, she paced and yelled and threatened to disown me before finally saying with a low growl, “I will never accept this.” She went to her room and slammed the door and I sat in the living room–shaken. My mother lived deep in southern Missouri on the Lake of the Ozarks and I had no friends there. There was no email or texting then and it was too late to call anyone that might provide comfort. It was probably the most alone I have ever felt.

I eventually left the house, went down to the lake, stripped my clothes off and slipped into the still water. It was a clear night and I floated in the water and stared at the stars. The quiet and the water and the sky held me, giving me time to think, to realize that I had little control over what my relationship with my mother might become. I knew only two things for sure that night–I was at peace with myself and I loved my mother.

We didn’t speak for a few days but I thought a lot about her during that time. She grew up working class and hadn’t gone to college. She’d spent almost her entire life in Kansas, a place not known for progressive ideas. Her world was so much smaller than mine. And all of this distilled down to a single thought–this must be hard for her to understand.

When we did finally speak, I didn’t argue and I didn’t flinch at her continued rants and insults, I said only this, “I know this must be hard for you.” She was silent and narrowed her eyes suspiciously, “It is.” I nodded, “I understand. Just know that I will never give up on you.” And I walked away.

That moment was a simple beginning and my ongoing compassion for her struggle changed our relationship forever.

She was there to strip wallpaper and paint when Luisa and I bought our house. She was there when Luisa and I had our commitment ceremony. She was there to hold and love our two children, to celebrate birthdays and holidays together.

She was there. That is the power of compassion.

I was not a saint at 21 when I first showed my mother compassion and I am not a saint now. Luisa and I strive to teach our children compassion and we talk to them about taking the high road and building bridges. But the truth is that there are days on the high road when I have my hands on a jackhammer and could easily flip the switch, days when I stand before bridges with a match and a gallon of gasoline.

Compassion is not always easy and not always without pain. It is work that requires patience and there is no guaranteed reward.

I don’t like the phrase Family Values because it has long been used against families like mine, wrongly connected to morality. But every family has their values and our family values compassion. If our son’s note is any indication, I think we’re passing that value on to our children.

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 This post was written as part of 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion. To learn more, visit the site or follow the hashtag #1000Speak across social media.

Even Children Get Older

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I began taking guitar lessons in the fall of 1976, shortly after I turned eight and just about a year after Fleetwood Mac released their self-title album that held the song Landslide. It is not surprising then that Landslide was one of the first songs I learned to play. I can remember sitting on a hard chair, holding my borrowed Yamaha guitar, while my guitar teacher scribbled the lyrics and chords on a tan piece of notepaper. I was too young to understand the lyrics but the melody and rhythm and emotion of the song touched me and, because of that, I played the song for years. I never mastered the precise picking pattern because I was lazy and content to play a version I felt was “good enough” though I knew the rhythm was off.

Zeca has been learning various picking patterns and every Wednesday, I sit in the music store where she has her lessons and listen as her fingers struggle to find the right strings in the right pattern at the right time. She makes mistakes and starts again, sometimes more frustrated with herself than others, and her guitar teacher encourages her while I sit with my phone and sift through emails and scroll through Facebook or read articles online. I don’t always pay close attention to her lesson, not because I am not interested but because I find that when I focus on her, I am drawn to things that are unimportant–the exasperation, the slumped posture, the sighs as her teacher asks her to play something again. Though I could have taught her guitar, I turned it over to someone else for a reason–because I knew that I wouldn’t have the patience to be the teacher she needed. So, while she strums and picks and struggles, I stay out of it.

Yesterday, she had her lesson and I listened as she played one of the picking patterns for her teacher and he told her he was going to accompany her but he wanted to show her a video first so that she could see how the parts fit together. He scooted closer to her, his phone in his hand, and the video began and I heard the unmistakable first notes of Landslide. I lifted my head and watched the two of them huddled together and then Zeca nodded and he set his phone aside and they began. No longer absent of context, I listened as the pattern my daughter had been practicing for weeks became the melody of Landslide.

I thought of my eight-year-old self trying to perfect the picking pattern and my nine-year-old daughter doing the same. I thought of a small room in an old house in Kansas City with two chairs and a music stand and this small music store in Minneapolis with the same and the distance between the two. I thought of the years and all the decisions–large and small–that brought us here and sat in awe of the strange and unpredictable circle of life.

And, though neither of them sang, the lyrics were clear in my head,

But time makes you bolder

Even children get older

And I’m getting older too

Be Bold

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I have 15 cassette tapes and they’ve been neatly stacked on top of my dresser for years. There are tapes from radio shows I did in college, from concerts that I gave on campus, and even a demo tape I made when I first moved to Minneapolis. Mixed in with those, there are tapes my mother and I exchanged in 1988, during during my first months at Grinnell College.

I have been vaguely and intermittently aware of these tapes but they weren’t part of my everyday thoughts and blurred with the others until they were simply My Pile of Tapes. But one day recently, I thought of those tapes from my mother and felt a sense of urgency to listen to them. I ran down to the basement to get our old tape player and ran back upstairs, plugged it in and put the first tape inside and pushed play. It didn’t work. I called one friend and then another–one could bring me an old Walkman the following day, one had a cassette player in her basement but found it didn’t work either. I then I realized that Zeca had a CD/Tape player in her room and I grabbed that one and brought it into my room and put the tape in and pushed play again. Nothing. I texted Luisa who was at a meeting and she thought she might still have her Walkman and I briefly considered running out to by a cassette player or a digital converter.

I needed to listen to the tapes immediately but I waited.

When Luisa got home, she realized that she didn’t have her Walkman anymore but she looked at Zeca’s tape player and realized that I had both the play and pause buttons pushed down. It turns out that I had forgotten how to use a tape player. She released the pause button and suddenly, my mother’s voice filled my ears, “I miss you so much and I hope you’re doing ok up there.”

The tapes are 27 years old but her voice sounded just as I remember it. She told me about going to the State Fair and things they’d done to the house. She talked about the weather and told me she was getting over pneumonia. She was charming and funny which I expected but I was surprised because she also sounded like a mother. I know that’s an odd thing to say but my mother was never one to encourage or nurture. Good behavior and success was expected. We never talked about feelings or things that were hard. That was not how we related to each other. But that tape showed a different side to my mother, one I’d forgotten. Maybe she could say things on a tape that she could never say to me face to face or on the phone, things like, “I miss you,” and “I love you,” and “I have faith in you.” The first tape ends with my mother saying, “Not a day goes by I don’t think of about you. You just hang in there, work hard, have fun, and just be bold.” I burst into tears because of the beauty and love in those words, because it felt like she was sending me a present day message too but also because the sentiment was so inconsistent with the kind of mother she was. Even now, a few weeks later, I am confused and wonder what I have right and wrong about the past.

I listened to the first tape I sent her and can hardly believe I was ever that young–an 18 year old girl with a southern twang that has long since faded, telling her mother about parties and dances and opening a checking account for the first time.

I haven’t listened to the rest though I’m not sure why the urgency has passed. Maybe it was enough to hear the voice of the woman who played both hero and villain in my life. Maybe it’s too hard or weird or creepy to listen to the words of a woman who has been dead for six years. Or maybe on some level, I want those words to be her last, a reminder I didn’t even know I needed–work hard, have fun, be bold.