Cathy Heying and the Lift Garage

Social workers are a hard working lot, often working long hours for little pay, with their hearts proudly and humbly worn on their sleeves. Social workers encounter more than their fair share of impossible situations, often impossible situations that are miles outside the range of their agency, (both personal skill range and institutional scope of mandate). It can be enough to leave you feeling helpless and hopeless. And for some it is. But not for Cathy Heying!

Cathy Heying is a social worker in Minnesota. Minnesota, the land of Lake Woebegon where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average. Cathy Heying is both strong and above average for sure. While she worked as a member of the pastoral staff at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church she noticed that many of those who passed through her office were financially struggling because they had lost their jobs. And being a keen observer of the interconnectedness of life events she noticed that many of those folks lost their jobs because their cars broke down and so they were unable to get to work on time. Single mom’s had it particularly bad because they had work schedules, childcare schedules and bus schedules to coordinate. Car repairs were simply out of the question, there was no money in the budget for such luxuries. But no car repairs meant no car, which came to mean a collapse of schedule coordination, a loss of job and a near complete deterioration of the budget, and too often homelessness for the family. Far too often a family’s war on poverty was lost for the lack of a bolt!

Some social workers would have seen this as overwhelming. Some social workers would have seen this as a system failure in the community’s public transportation system and would have launched into a campaign for better bus schedules. Some social workers would have seen this as a lack of compassion on the part of employers, and would have advocated with particular employers for individual clients. And maybe Cathy tried those things too. But, what we know Cathy did was that she recognized the need for client access to affordable car repairs. So, Cathy took the bull by the horns, enrolled herself in the Dunwoody Institute, as one of a few women amidst the 18-year-old young men, and she earned her auto technology degree.

Cathy Heying didn’t just stop there. Working with others, she has created The Lift Garage which has state non-profit status, so that it can now operates as an independent 501-c3. Currently the garage is open on Saturdays to individuals and families who have been referred by a social worker or who demonstrate financial need. Services offered range from basic maintenance, such as belts and batteries, to full service repairs such as suspension and steering. The Lift charges a flat fee of $15/hour plus parts, for anyone who has recently taken a car to a garage, you know this is way below market price.

After I heard Cathy’s story, my first reaction was, “this is GREAT!!” And then I thought, well, but what does this change? And then I remembered the story of the starfish thrower, and then I remembered the community building practice of ‘each one reach one’ from the civil rights movement. And I thought, well, this is something. And that’s a good thing.

So, go check it out at It is a struggling new venture; maybe you have a few dollars to send their way?

Eva: three years, three months, three weeks and three days towards enlightenment

When she was a young woman, Eva was able to arrange her life circumstances so that she was able to travel to a remote area in California to study Zen with Shunryu Suzuki for a three year period. At the end of the three years, feeling no sense of accomplishment, Eva presented herself to Master Suzuki and announced her departure. Shunryu Suzuki said, “Eva, you have been here for three years. Why don’t you stay three moths more?”

Eva agreed, but at the end of the three months she still felt that she had made no progress toward enlightenment. Once again she told Master Suzuki that she was leaving, and he said, “Eva, listen, you’ve been here three years and three months. Stay three weeks longer.”

Eva did, but still with no success or even any progress. So, once more she told Shunryu Suzuki that absolutely nothing had happened, he said, “Eva, you have been here three years, three months, and three weeks. Stay three more days, and if, at the end of that time, you have not attained enlightenment, then commit suicide.”

Towards the end of the second day, Eva found enlightenment.


When I first read this story, I laughed. I loved it. How wonderful I thought. What a great example/illustration of the importance of deadlines. But then I realized that Eva blew through three deadlines with no effect. Then I thought OK, so deadlines with consequences. And I kind of stopped laughing, and started really thinking about the deeper meaning and implications of the story. I started to search out any misogynist undertones. I looked for feminist highlights. I really teased the story apart in my head until I grew a new furrow line between my eyebrows and got a nasty headache. And I realized that I wasn’t laughing anymore.

So, I reread the story once more with feeling. I let the delight of the aha touch me again with a new freshness. It was there all the time, the laughter, the enlightenment, the love. It is all always already there. We just need to let go of all the other crap, open our hearts and let it in, let it out! It’s there in the silence, in the space between, if only we will pause long enough and listen – really listen to what is, not demand to hear what we expect, what we believe should be. Just listen to what is.

What does all of this have to do with justice and human rights? Well, I’m thinking that if we are going to change our world to be one of fairness and respect for dignity, we first need to be able to envision what that world will be like. We need to become enlightened to the possibility, the real, practical, pragmatic, awareness that it can become so. Then we need to act on that vision, that believe.  

And many of you will say, but I tried, we tried. And many of you will be able to list off lots of efforts, and then you only need to point to the world we live in to demonstrate that we are not there yet.

And I will say to you, remember Eva. You have tried for so long, try a bit longer, try three more months, three more week, try until three minute before you die. Maybe even during those last three minutes, you might could change the world.  But, I will also offer this to us all. Don’t ask the world to change – it will likely say no, or fail to hear your request. Change yourself. Be the peace, the fairness, the respect, the love that you want in the world. Be unconditional peace, fairness, respect and love. Yes, I do mean that, unconditional. No matter what the conditions around you, be peace, fairness, respect and love. And of course it will not be easy. But if we all, each of us could be the peace, fairness, respect and love for 5 or 10 minutes a day, and then for 10 or 15 minutes a day. And if each day a few more folks joined in the practice, well, that would be something. Imagine.

Rosa Parks: sit, walk, run and fly for freedom, dignity and justice

Rosa Parks was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, AL. She died on October 24, 2005, in Detroit, MI.  Looking at her life from the outside, I want to say that she lived a rich and full life during her 92 years. But what do I know about her and her life, really? What can anyone know about another person’s life? Probably not all that much. But there are stories worth telling and retelling about her life. …

Rosa Parks came into national public awareness in December 1955 when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus.  Her refusal is credited with sparking the Montgomery bus boycott – a 13 month struggle to desegregate the city buses that ultimately led to a U. S. Supreme Court ruling that public bus segregation is unconstitutional.

And so many stories are nested within that one story.

One story says that Mrs. Parks refused to move because she was feeling too old and too tired.

But, in her biography she said of that day: People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

Another story portrays Mrs. Parks as an individual pioneer, the first to conceive of the notion of planting herself in a seat reserved for whites, acting on her own whim of frustration.

But historical records show that in March of 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had in October 1955, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith were each arrested for refusing to give up their seats to white passengers. But Rosa Parks was not a teenager. Rosa Parks was also not an isolationist. She had been a member of the NAACP since 1943.  By 1949 she was the NAACP Youth Council Advisor.  In 1954 Mrs. Parks participated in the Highlander Research and Education Center’s social justice leadership training school where Septima Clark became her friend and mentor.  By the time of her arrest in 1955, Rosa Parks was well known within her community. She was not only well connected with key community organizations, she was an active member of the Voters League and the secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP.

On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks boarded a city bus in Montgomery Alabama. She sat in the section designated for “colored.” As the bus continued along its route, the white section filled.  While Montgomery law indicated that no passenger would be required to move or give up a seat and stand if the bus was crowded and no seat were available, the custom and practice was that bus driver would move the sign indicating the white only section requiring black individuals to move when there were no white-only seats.  This was not Mrs. Parks first encounter with discrimination in the face of this law. On other days she had seen buses pass her by. On one day she boarded the bus, paid her fare and the driver told her to enter the bus again from the back door. She exited the bus, but before she could gain access to the rear door the driver drove off, leaving her to walk home in the rain. On December 1, Mrs. Parks boarded the bus, paid her fare, and sat in the colored section. The bus filled, the driver moved the sign. Three other Black passengers got up and moved. Mrs. Parks sat, refused to move or to give up her seat. 

When she was interviewed about  the incident for Eyes on the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Parks said, “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.’ She was arrested.  The next evening she was bailed out of jail. Friends from the NAACP and the Women’s Political Council consulted and began to distribute handbills announcing a bus boycott. On Sunday December 4, 1955 plans for the Montgomery Bus Boycott were announced in Black churches in the area and in an article in the Montgomery Advertiser.

On December 5 Mrs. Parks was convicted of disorderly conduct, fined $10 plus $4 in court costs. She appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation. That day the Women’s Political Council distributed 35,000 copies of the handbill calling for a Bus Boycott. In part the handbill read, “We are…asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial … You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.”

It rained that Monday. And the Black community pressed on with the boycott. Some carpooled, some took cabs, most of the 40,000 black commuters walked, some as far as 20 miles. After the success of the one day boycott a group met to discuss further strategies. The Montgomery Improvement Association was formed. At the same time other leaders gathered together with Mrs. Parks to plan their strategies for appealing her case.

The boycott continued for 381 days. The US Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. Montgomery repealed it law after the Supreme Court decision.

In 1958 in his book Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. described Rosa Park’s action as the catalyst rather than the cause of the protest. He said: “The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices . . . Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.'”

After the boycott was ended and the segregation law was repealed, Mrs. Parks continued to be harassed within her home town. She ultimately moved to Detroit to find better work opportunities. Even when victory is won, the struggle is not over. Mrs. Parks continued to work for civil rights until her death in October 2005.

“Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Obama could run. Obama ran so our children could fly.”

And now it remains to us to sit, walk, run and to fly in the footsteps and on the shoulders of the giants who walked together in community before us. Together we too must sit, walk, run and fly in communities for freedom, dignity and justice.

The War Prayer by Mark Twain


Mark Twain surely was one of America’s great authors. He may be best known for his books “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry  Finn.” Both are fine books, not without their flaws or controversy, but quite fine. However, my favorite piece of his writing is the War Prayer. It too is not without its flaws or controversy. All the more reason then to give it a read. …

So, here it is, please have a read – all the way to the end if you would, please? Then, do let me know what you think? it is after all a think piece…

 The War Prayer   by Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory with stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came — next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams — visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender!

Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation:

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest,
Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory —

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord and God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside — which the startled minister did — and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think. “God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, and the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer — the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it — that part which the pastor — and also you in your hearts — fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard the words ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —

For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Chop Wood, Carry Water; Lay down your burden, then pick it up again

 Each moment is part of an era. Each era is part of a time. I like to think of myself as a child of the ‘60’s. In my mind, the ‘60’s were dramatic and romantic. The ‘60’s were the era of hippies, they were the time of free love. They were the time of deep social unrest and protest, of fighting for civil rights and to end the Viet Nam war. The ‘60’s culminated in Woodstock, “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” at at Max Yasgur’s farm in of Bethel, New York.  Woodstock happened in 1969 and brought the ‘60’s to their fulfillment.  I wanted to be a child of the ‘60’s. I wanted to be at Woodstock. I found out about it after it was over. I was a child of the ‘70’s.

In college I discovered Asia. I took a course in world religions, and discovered Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen. I fell into deep infatuation with Zen Buddhism, and began to aspire to enlightenment. Some of that occasionally seeps into this blog, I think.

Today I am remembering a book I read a while back: Chop wood and carry water. The essence of the book is that before enlightenment we must chop wood and carry water, after enlightenment we continue to chop wood and carry water.  In my youth I used to play with this and say that we should chop water and carry wood. Then it was funny because it was clear that I was playing with the words. Now that I am older, when I play like that people are inclined to think about early onset Alzheimer’s. I am a bit more aware of who and where I play now. It is important to remember and respect the era within which you walk as you play. If you would be with me, it is also important to be aware of the depth and luminosity of the twinkle in my eye. Sometimes playing is just playing.

There is a Zen story that I’m fond of (there are many actually, but here is one of them). It reminds me of “Chop wood and carry water.” The story is called “Lay down your burden then pick it up again”

A troubled woman named Tan could not figure out how to live. So she began meditating to find some answers. After many months she felt no progress, so she asked the temple priest for help. 

The priest said, “Go see old Jah.” 

So she hiked to old Jah’s village and came upon the happy-looking old man coming from the forest under a heavy load of firewood. 

“Excuse me, honored Jah,” she said. “But can you teach me the secret of life?” 

Jah raised his eyebrows and gazed at Tan. Then with some effort he twisted out from beneath his great bundle of firewood and let it crash to the ground. 

“There, that is enlightenment,” he said, straightening up with relief and smiling. 

The troubled woman looked on in shock at the prickly firewood scattered over the ground. “Is that all there is to it?” she said. 

“Oh, no,” said Jah. Then he bent down, collected all the scattered sticks, hoisted them carefully up on his back and made ready to walk on. “This is enlightenment, too. Come. Let’s go together for tea.” 

So Tan walked along with Jah. “What is old Jah showing me?” she asked. 

Jah replied, “this is life, this is enlightenment. First, yes, you suffer a heavy burden. Many do. But, as the Buddha taught and many have realized, much of your burden and much of your joylessness is your craving for what you can’t have and your clinging to what you can’t keep. 

“Then you can see that the nature of your burden and of the chafing you experience as you try to cling to it are useless, unnecessary, damaging, and then you can let it go. 

“In doing so, in awakening to this awareness you find relief, and you are freer to see the blessings of life and to choose wisely to receive them.” 

“Thank you, old Jah,” said Tan. “And why did you call picking up the burden of firewood again enlightenment as well?” 

“One understanding is that some burden in life is unavoidable — and even beneficial, like firewood. With occasional rest it can be managed, and with freedom from undue anxiety about it, it will not cause chafe. 

“Once the undue burden is dropped, we straighten up and see and feel the wonder and power of being. Seeing others suffering without that freedom and blissful experience, we willingly and knowingly pick up their burdens out of compassion joining and aiding others in their various struggles for liberation, enlightenment and fulfillment.” 

“Thank you, Old Jah,” said the exhilarated Tan. “You have enlightened me.” 

“Ah-so,” said Jah. “Your understanding is enlightened. Now to make it part of your living and your spirit, you must go follow the eight practices and meditate. Then you will learn to detach yourself from your useless burden of cravings and to attach yourself to the profound source of being out of which life, creativity, joy and compassion form and flow.” 

And so Tan went and did. And understanding the truths gave her comfort. And practicing the good behaviors kept her from harming herself or others anymore. And concentrating on the deep blissful potential of life gave her a continuing sense of companionship and joyful awe and of well-being in his spirit, no matter what else of pain she had to deal with. 

So it is as well with our work for social justice and human rights. It is a process, a path we choose to walk. Some days we feel like Sisyphus  continually pushing the rock of fairness up the hill only to have it roll back down on us. But, as we let go of our attachments to what should be and open our hearts and minds to what is and what can be, we can begin to notice and celebrate the progress that together we are achieving. We are each of us a drop in the ocean, and together we are the waves that wash ever more powerfully on the beach of fairness and dignity. Let no one doubt the power of the ocean and the tides.

We may lay down our burdens, and we will take them up again. We will chop wood and carry water. The times they are a-changing. Peace, justice and dignity will reign across our land.

Please call me by my true names by Thich Nhat Hanh with comments from Ivan M. Granger

I have been in love with this poem by Thich Nhat Hanh for years. Every time I read it I am touched more deeply by the implications of the poem, by its call for compassion and justice. By its demonstration of the inherent unity of all that is, of all of us. And then recently I cam across a discussion of the poem by Ivan Granger. Beautifully said, Ivan (who I don’t know — yet). so, I thought I would share both with you all … think deeply, please.  … Mary

Please Call Me by My True Names

by Thich Nhat Hanh (1929 – )

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.


— from Call Me by My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This is a lovely, unflinching meditation on how all of being and all of human experience weaves together into a single tapestry of the whole. It can even draw comparisons with Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” where everything, terrible and beautiful, is one, is witnessed, and is found within oneself. 

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow — 
even today I am still arriving.

Most of us have learned to anticipate what will happen next, and we end up mentally dwelling in our fantasies and fears about the future. But the future is merely an idea; it never has reality. The present moment is all that is ever real. And that is where we must dwell if we want to truly be alive and know what is real.

The present is a state of “still arriving.” Because the present moment is not a fixed space in time, you can’t say that anything encountered in the present is fixed and settled either. The present is a gossamer thin and moving point of light where all things are just barely stepping into the visibility of being… as the moment keeps moving. Everything, everyone, in every second is always just arriving. The present is a continuous becoming. 

Look deeply: every second I am arriving 
to be a bud on a Spring branch, 
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, 
learning to sing in my new nest…

Another fascinating thing is discovered when we truly, deeply perceive the present moment: Not only are we and all things “still arriving,” but the illusion of boundaries and separate being falls away. The notion of identity expands and recognizes itself just as naturally in all things witnessed. We find we are not just the person watching the bud on the Spring branch, but in our arriving we are equally the Spring bud, the young bird, the caterpillar in the flower, the jewel waiting in the stone. This is not some poetic game of words; it is what we actually perceive.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death 
of all that is alive.

When we finally see this truth then, for the first time, we can truly witness the world as it is. And that is what this poem is most about: witnessing. Thich Nhat Hanh invites to courageously witness the panorama of life, wonders and horrors alike. Through this form of true witnessing, we are not spectators watching others from a distance; no, it all unfolds upon us and in us. We are witnessing ourselves in many forms. We recognize that anything that happens anywhere in the world, is truly happening to ourselves and no other. And everything done, is done by ourselves and no other.

Please call me by my true names, 
so I can wake up, 
and so the door of my heart 
can be left open, 
the door of compassion.

This is why compassion is not altruistic and service is no effort. When we finally see things as they are, it is all oneself. When we offer our heart, when we offer our hand, we are simply helping ourselves. Who among us, when he touches a hot iron, doesn’t immediately pull back and then soothe the burn under cool water? That’s not altruism, it is the natural response to pain in one’s body. When we see clearly, we see we are all of one body, and the joys and pains of any other is yours as well. 

Compassion and an open heart are the natural result of being awake to this truth, and no effort at all.

Harry, The Lord Gives and the Lord Takes Away and The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

For the most part, I focus on posting stories in this blog that point to paths towards respect for all human beings and the increase of justice in the world.  As I type the words “point to paths” I am reminded of the Buddhist injunction to not mistake the teacher’s finger for the moon. Of course we need to pay attention to the pointing, but we need to keep our focus on the goal. Our eyes should be on the moon. (Which is not to say that we should be mooning over justice and human rights, but then, this may be that kind of free associating blog? So stay awake. Watch out for slippery slopes!)

 So, here is a story for you. A bit of an old chestnut (well worn story) I think.

 Once upon a time in middle America there was a god fearing farmer named Harry. Harry was a devout member of his church, a well respected and generous member of his community, married with a son and daughter. He and his wife, Matilda, were deeply in love. They worked together tending the farm that had been in Harry’s family for untold generations. From the farming, some crafts they sold, they managed a comfortable living. They worked hard, but by and large life was sweet.

 And then Harry’s wife was taken ill. They used up all of their medical benefits, and still the doctors could not diagnose her illness. She just kept wasting away. Harry prayed. All the members of the church and community prayed. But Matilda’s illness persisted. Harry consulted with the local pharmacist to see if Kohlberg might be right, but the pharmacist had no remedy to suggest, not for any price. And all too soon, Matilda passed gently into the light at the end of the dark night.  Harry was bereft. And then his faith carried him, he dried his eyes, looked up to the moon, and with a heavy heart said to his children, “the good lord gives and the good lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the lord.” And life on the farm went on.

 And as time went on, Harry Junior was walking down the road to school when a drunk driver struck the boy and killed him. Harry Junior’s death was instantaneous. Harry Senior was inconsolable for a time. And then, he heaved a sigh, looked up to the moon, and said to his daughter, “the good lord gives and the good lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the lord.” And life on the farm went on.

 And life went on for a while. And then the draught came. And Harry had to take out a mortgage on the farm. And he and his daughter worked even harder to make ends meet. And then the daughter got wanderlust, enlisted in the army, was sent to Afghanistan and was killed when her truck drove over an IED.  Harry was devastated. He wept – an act that was unheard of for a middle American farmer, but he wept. And then, sighing deeply, he looked up to the moon, and said to no one in particular, “the good lord gives and the good lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the lord.” And his life on the farm went on.

 And then a draught came, Harry had to take out a mortgage on the farm to pay the bills. His heart was breaking. One day he was out in the middle of the fields working the land that he loved. The land that he had grown up with. The land that had nurtured him body and soul. The land that was now so dry he could barely coax subsistence from it.  And the winds began to pick up. Soon the winds were howling.  As Harry looked up from the field where he was working, he saw a tornado the size of a New York skyscraper thundering right towards him. Before Harry could think to react, the tornado was on him. It lifted Harry and the tractor like they were bits of wheat, tossed them about like a child playing with her first baseball, and then dropped them like a hot potato – with the tractor landing squarely on top of Harry squishing him like a pancake. Harry died, walked toward the light, and found himself at the Pearly Gates where indeed he met his maker. Harry looked up, took a deep breath, and said, “Dear god, why? Didn’t I honor you? Didn’t I follow all your commandments? Didn’t I …”

 And at that point, god grimaced, and said, “Harry, I don’t know, there’s just something about you that pissed me off.”

 Now, that was a too long story. And what does it have to do with respect for human dignity, what does it have to do with human rights and social justice? Not much – except that sometimes we just can’t know. Sometimes you do all the right things and everything goes wrong. Sometimes there is no knowing why. But all the time, you just have to dust yourself off and keep going. Because even as we gaze at the moon, even at the time of the waning moon, we can always know that the sun will come out tomorrow!

 Be of stout heart and good cheer … the sun will come out tomorrow. And then together we can sing our songs of hope and peace.

Happiness: exuberant, shy or essential

Mostly I post stories in this blog. Stories that I’ve written or revised or that I found here or there and like a lot. Today is a bit different.  Today, I want to share three quotes about exuberance  and happiness with you.

The challenge to you – to each of us – is to reconcile the three quotes.

Have a read … think about it …

From Natalie Goldberg’s Waking up to Happiness. In Shambhala Sun July 2012, p. 26. . . . Happiness is shy. It wants to know you want it. You can’t be greedy. You can’t be numb – or ignorant. The bashful girl of happiness needs your kind attention. They she’ll come forward.

From Living My Life (1931) Emma Goldman. . . .  The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a sane society.

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. (p. 56)  A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having. If I can’t dance, I won’t be part of your revolution.

And from that great American Bard, Mark Twain: Sing like no one’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching; and live like it’s heaven on earth.

Happiness may well be the heart of a world where respect for the dignity of all living beings is the foundation of societies of compassion, peace and justice.  Let work together to build a world where the gross national happiness is more carefully measured than is the gross national product!




Laughter the path to Justice and Compassion; The Gift of the Festival of Song

Once upon a time, in a land very near, our Native American sisters and brothers tell us that there was a time when the human race knew no joy. Their whole life was work, eating to keep body and soul together, and sleep. Every day went by like every other day. People worked and struggled, they ate plain food, they slept, and they woke to return to work. The tedium and dullness of their relentless routines rusted their minds, hardened their hearts and corroded their souls.

Our Native American Ancestors tell us that in those days there was a couple who lived together in their home not far from the ocean. They had three sons, each committed to being good hunters like their father. Even as young children, each young boy worked hard to become strong and to develop his stamina and endurance. The couple was proud of their sons, and trusted that the sons would provide for them as the couple aged and could no longer provide for themselves.

As the couple’s boys reached near to manhood, one day the eldest son went hunting and never returned. Some weeks later, the middle son left to go hunting and to search for his elder brother, and he too was lost to the family. The parents grieved deeply, and kept an ever closer eye on their youngest son keeping him close to home and carefully under their close protection. But, after a time, the son grew in size, strength and wisdom, and he could not be kept tied to his mother’s apron strings nor his father’s side, and so eventually he set off moose hunting.

One day, as he was stalking a moose, Ermine saw a grand and glorious eagle circling in the sky near to him.  Ermine pulled out his bow and arrows, but his inner guide held his hand still and he did not shoot. As he watched the eagle flew down and perched on a small tree near where he stood. As Ermine watched, the eagle took off his hood and transformed into a young warrior who said to him:

“It was I who killed your two brothers. I will kill you also unless you pledge to hold a festival of song when you return to your home. Will you give your pledge?”

“Most certainly I would give my pledge, but I do not understand your words. What is a festival? What does this word ‘song’ mean?”

“Will you or will you not give your pledge?”

“How can I pledge what I do not understand? I will pledge if you will teach me these things.”

“Follow me then and my mother will teach you what you don’t understand. Your brothers scorned the gifts of song, dance and laughter; they would not learn. Their morose ignorance saw to their death. Upon your pledge, you may come with me to my mother, and when you have learned to make words into a song and to sing it, when you have learned to dance with joy, when you have learned to honor the gift of laughter, only then you shall be free to go to your dwelling and make your hearth a home.

“Let it be so,” answered Ermine. And off they set.

Together the two walked ever farther inland, across prairies, through valleys, towards the highest mountain, which they began to climb. “On top of that mountain top stands our home,” said the young eagle warrior.

As they neared the crest of the mountain, they suddenly heard a sound like echoing thunder. It grew ever louder as they approached the mountain home. It sounded like thundering hammers. It was so loud that it set Ermine’s ears began to echo.

“What do you hear?” asked Eagle Warrior.

“A powerful deafening noise, like nothing I have ever heard before.”

“That is the beating of my mother’s heart,” Eagle Warrior replied. “Wait here for me. I will ask my mother to receive you.”

In a few moments, Eagle Warrior returned for Ermine.  Together they entered a room where Eagle Warrior’s mother sat on a bed, alone, aged and frail.

Eagle Warrior said to his mother, “Here’s a man who has promised to hold a song festival when he gets home. But he says men don’t understand how to put words together into songs. They do not even how to beat drums and dance for joy. Mother, men don’t know how to make merry, and now this young man has come up here to learn.”

This speech brought fresh life to the feeble old mother eagle, and her tired eyes lit up suddenly while she said:

“First you must build a feast hall where many men may gather.”

So the two young men set to work and built the feast hall, which is called a kagsse and is larger and finer than ordinary houses. And when it was finished the mother eagle taught them to put words together into songs and to add tones to the words so that they could be sung. She made a drum and taught them to beat upon it in rhythm with the music, and she showed them how they should dance to the songs. When Ermine had learned all this she said:

“Before every festival you must collect much meat, and then call together many men. This you must do after you have built your feast hall and made your songs. For when men assemble for a festival they require sumptuous meals.”

“But we know of no men but ourselves,” answered Ermine.

“Men are lonely, because they have not yet received the gift of joy,” said the mother eagle. “Make all your preparations as I have told you. When all is ready you shall go out and seek for men. You will meet them in couples. Gather them until they are many in number and invite them to come with you. Then hold your festival of song.”

Thus spoke the old mother eagle, and when she had minutely instructed Ermine in what he should do, she finally said to him:

“I may be an eagle, yet I am also an aged woman with the same pleasures as other women. A gift calls for a return, therefore it is only fitting that in farewell you should give me a little sinew string. It will be but a slight return, yet it will give me pleasure.”

Ermine was at first miserable, for wherever was he to procure sinew string so far from his home? But suddenly he remembered that his arrowheads were lashed to the shafts with sinew string. He unwound these and gave the string to the eagle. Thus was his return gift only a trifling matter. Thereupon, the young eagle again drew on his shining cloak and bade his guest bestride his back and put his arms round his neck. Then he threw himself out over the mountainside. A roaring sound was heard around them and Ermine thought his last hour had come. But this lasted only a moment; then the eagle halted and bade him open his eyes. And there they were again at the place where they had met. They had become friends and now they must part, and they bade each other a cordial farewell. Ermine hastened home to his parents and related all his adventures to them, and he concluded his narrative with these words:

“Men are lonely; they live without joy because they don’t know how to make merry. Now the eagle has given me the blessed gift of rejoicing, and I have promised to invite all men to share in the gift.”

Father and mother listened in surprise to the son’s tale and shook their heads incredulously, for he who has never felt his blood glow and his heart throb in exultation cannot imagine such a gift as the eagle’s. But the old people dared not gainsay him, for the eagle had already taken two of their sons, and they understood that its word had to be obeyed if they were to keep this last child. So they did all that the eagle had required of them.

A feast hall, matching the eagle’s, was built, and the larder was filled with the meat of sea creatures and caribou. Father and son combined joyous words, describing their dearest and deepest memories in songs which they set to music; also they made drums, rumbling tambourines of taut caribou hides with round wooden frames; and to the rhythm of the drum beats that accompanied the songs they moved their arms and legs in frolicsome hops and lively antics. Thus they grew warm both in mind and body, and began to regard everything about them in quite a new light. Many an evening it would happen that they joked and laughed, flippant and full of fun, at a time when they would otherwise have snored with sheer boredom the whole evening through.

As soon as all the preparations were made, Ermine went out to invite people to the festival that was to be held. To his great surprise he discovered that he and his parents were no longer alone as before. Merry men find company. Suddenly he met people everywhere, always in couples, strange looking people, some clad in wolf skins, others in the fur of the wolverine, the lynx, the red fox, the silver fox, the cross fox–in fact, in the skins of all kinds of animals. Ermine invited them to the banquet in his new feast hall and they all followed him joyfully. Then they held their song festival, each producing his own songs. There were laughter, talk, and sound, and people were carefree and happy as they had never been before. The table delicacies were appreciated, gifts of meat were exchanged, friendships were formed, and there were several who gave each other costly gifts of fur. The night passed, and not till the morning light shone into the feast hall did the guests take their leave. Then, as they thronged out of the corridor, they all fell forward on their hands and sprang away on all fours. They were no longer men but had changed into wolves, wolverines, lynxes, silver foxes, red foxes–in fact, into all the beasts of the forest. They were the guests that the old eagle had sent, so that father and son might not seek in vain. So great was the power of joy that it could even change animals into men. Thus animals, who have always been more lighthearted than men, were man’s first guests in a feast hall.

A little time after this it chanced that Ermine went hunting and again met the eagle. Immediately it took off its hood and turned into a man, and together they went up to the eagle’s home, for the old mother eagle wanted once more to see the man who had held the first song festival for humanity.

Before they had reached the heights, the mother eagle came to thank them, and lo! The feeble old eagle had grown young again.

For when men make merry, all old eagles become young.

The foregoing is related by the old folk from Kanglanek, the land which lies where the forests begin around the source of Colville River. In this strange and unaccountable way, so they say, came to men the gift of joy.

If we are going to build a world were the dignity of all beings is respected, where there is justice, peace and compassion — then there is an important lesson for us in this folk tale. For there to be community there must be music, celebration and laughter!

Laugh my friends like your life depended on it!  laugh.

On loving your neighbor as yourself

 I find the great invocation, “love your neighbor as yourself” which finds expression in many of our world’s religions, to be problematic, not because I have any trouble with the idea of loving my neighbor, but because as I look around my world I simply do not think that many (if any) of us love ourselves all that well. Love your neighbor as yourself. How well do any of us really love ourselves? Psychiatry, psychology, social work and self help industries would not be flourishing to the degree that they are if authentic self love flourished. Rather self love stands as an anathema, it is more often taken as self indulgence rather than acceptance and cherishing based on awareness, knowledge and insight.  More often those who begin to walk the path of self-acceptance experience a duality within themselves – good and evil, angel and demon, love and hate – and then work to nurture one side while banishing the other. But, a house divided against itself will never stand. Until we each learn to fully cherish our selves for all of who we are, in all of our wonderful, delicious complexity, there will be no loving the other well. Until we each learn to fully cherish our selves for all of who we are, in all of our complexity, and until we learn to love each other well, there will be no justice, no respect for human rights, no peace.

 ‘Love yourself well, and love your neighbor as yourself’ is perhaps a better rendition of the precept. Karen Armstrong has eloquently described a path to loving our neighbor in her book, “twelve steps to a compassionate life.” The first step: learn about compassion progresses to look at your own world; develop compassion for yourself; develop empathy with others; practice mindfulness; take action; be aware of how little we know; consider how we should speak to one another; act with concern for everybody; continuously develop your knowledge; expand your recognition; and love your enemies.

 And as I come back to ‘love yourself well’ and Armstrong’s second step, ‘develop compassion for yourself’ I find myself thinking about how little we seem to appreciate the depth and breadth of human complexity, of how the trajectory of understanding trends toward parsimony and simplicity. But we are neither parsimonious nor simple beings. To bring Occam’s razor to understanding ourselves (and others) may be nothing more than self injury and cutting at best and perhaps slitting our wrists at worst.

 Recently, as I was reading Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, on page 75 I came across a particularly apt metaphor for what I am trying to get at here:

A person designs for herself a garden with a hundred kinds of trees, a thousand kinds of flowers, a hundred kinds of fruit and vegetables. Suppose, then, that the gardener of this garden knew no other distinction than between edible and inedible, nine tenths of this garden would be useless to him. He would pull up the most enchanting flowers and hew down the noblest trees and even regard them with a loathing and envious eye. This is what we do with the flowers of our soul. What does not stand classified as either man or wolf, what does not fit neatly into our predefined dichotomies we do not see at all.

 In order to love our selves well, we need to learn to look at ourselves with open hearts and minds, with the eyes of loving kindness and fierce open hearted compassion. Then we can begin to love our neighbors as our selves. Then we can begin to work together to build a world of justice, a world where human dignity (in all of its messy complexity) is respected, a world of peace where differences and diversity is celebrated!