MEDITATING IN K-TOWN

I spent these last 5 days in the Zen Center of Los Angeles working with its abbot, Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, on our book of householder koans (2 syllables, not one, i.e. ko-an).

For those of you without a Zen background, koans are stories, tales, and aphorisms to help Zen students gain intuitive insights into reality instead of depending on thinking. Most of the koans Zen students work with are Chinese, over a millennium old, involving monks in a monastery. Our book, we hope, will do the same thing only using koans out of our own Western lives, lived by people with families and jobs.

It was wonderful to spend time in one of America’s great mother temples and centers, always hospitable and generous, and it was great being in Los Angeles. The weather was warm in the day and cool-cold at night, air clear, no gray pollution, just blue skies and a very warm, much-needed sun.

ZCLA’s meditation hall is not large, most of a ground floor of a medium-size house. I caught a photo of it at dusk, with spots of golden sunlight. It’s simpler and humbler than other much bigger meditation halls, with a funkily-arranged configuration due to its architecture. Pilgrims who come to pay tribute to the center that “mothered” numerous other centers, monasteries, and temples around the world are often surprised by its size and lack of grandeur. Nothing fancy there, which makes me that much fonder of it.

Meditation takes place early, and starting at 7:30 in the morning the drilling begins. The foundations of the house need to be secured to safeguard it from the next earthquake, according to new government regulations. And a good thing, too, because from day to day the crew discovers more and more cracks in the main columns and base holding up the house.

This building and its downstairs meditation hall hold so much history. So many people came in, played their roles, and then moved on. So many learned to meditate here, raised deep aspirations, made lifelong vows. So many births and deaths, and everything in between.

If the house came down in an earthquake I’m sure the Center, under the leadership of its very capable abbot, would raise the money to build a new meditation hall, more modern, probably bigger, without the funky arrangements of cushions and altar. A big gain, but something lost too.

And while I loved being in the middle of Korea Town, or K-Town as it’s called, I was stunned by the number of people I saw all around who were without homes. On the one hand the streets were dense with family life, children playing on the sidewalks or dancing on the grass outside some old, somewhat crumbling but still beautiful homes, teens boarding the buses to school carrying heavy, ambitious backpacks, mothers selling fruits and vegetables on the streets right outside restaurants advertising their food mostly in Korean. I’m told that K-Town is one of the densest places in the country and I loved looking into alleys and tiny streets teeming with energy and busyness.

But everywhere were people with no homes. They seemed to dot every street every time I left the Center, and especially in the early morning, pushing shopping carts, leaning against a fence, limping in or out of a coffee shop asking for coffee, leaving blankets on the ground like the pink one below.

ZCLA has provided an apartment for a young man who had no home, just as it has provided a spiritual home for so many people for half a century. It’s not just renewing the foundation of its meditation hall, it’s renewing the vision of what our practice is as human beings. Leaving me full of gratitude.

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IS A FALL AN EVENT?

Two nights before I left to Los Angeles, Bernie fell. He sustained a deep cut on his right temple and the next day came down looking like he just lost a boxing match—badly.

“This is your way of discouraging me from going to LA,” I said accusingly over breakfast. “You fell on purpose!”

“I did not!” he said.

“In a year and a half you haven’t fallen, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, I wake up to a smash and find you on the floor.”

“That’ll teach you not to leave us,” says Stanley. “Not to mention that you didn’t follow MOST instructions.”

“You mean, the MOLST form Bernie signed about how he doesn’t want to be resuscitated in case of an event?”

“Aha!“ says the Man. “I had an event and you resuscitated me.”

“I didn’t resuscitate anyone. There you were, lying in a small pool of blood, unconscious, so I called out your name. A couple of times. A little hysterically, maybe.”

“I blacked out and you brought me back to life. You didn’t obey my instructions!” said Bernie.

“I didn’t do CPR or anything like that,” I said, “just called out Bernie! Bernie! And falling on the floor isn’t considered an event.“

“If you ask me, it was a dress rehearsal,” opines Stanley.

“Nobody’s asking you. Beside, where were you all that time, dog? I saw you scurrying downstairs even as I helped the Man up. You left the scene!”

“I was so traumatized I ran downstairs and lay down next to my food bowl.”

 

 

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ARE EYEBROWS AN EVENT?

“Stanley, we went to the doctor today and—”

“You went to the House of Horrors!”

“Don’t be silly. We went to the doctor and Bernie signed a MOLST form.”

“Nothing good ever happens in the House of Horrors. MOST what?”

“MOLST, Stanley, not MOST, MOLST. Medical Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment. It says that if an event happens, like another stroke or a heart attack, Bernie doesn’t wish to be resuscitated. Right, Bernie?”

“Right,” says the Man.

“What happens if you break a finger?” asks Stan.

“It depends on what finger,” says the Man. “Did we write on MOLST that if I break my index finger I don’t want to be resuscitated but if it’s my thumb I need to think about it?”

“You two are being silly. The MOLST Form is about what to do if something serious happens.”

“You mean, if I get pregnant?” wonders Bernie.

“What about if he loses his eyebrows?” demands Stanley. “Now, that’s serious. You know how he feels about his eyebrows!”

“I don’t want to live if I lose my Bodhidharma eyebrows,” says the Man. “Arms, legs, brain, no problem, but if anything happens to my eyebrows I want to go.”

“You two are driving me up the wall.”

“You’re sitting right here,” says Stanley.

“The MOLST Form is used in case an event happens. A stroke is an event. A heart attack is an event. Losing eyebrows is not an event.”

“It certainly is,” says the Man. “In that case, no resuscitation, no feeding tubes or breathing machines, no special life-sustaining treatment.”

“What about roast chicken?” inquires Stanley.

“What about it?”

“Roast chicken sustains life like nothing else I know. So in case of an event, just give me your plate, okay?”

“That’s a terrible thing to say, Stanley. Are you saying that if something happens to Bernie all you’ll think about is eating his food?”

“I will be taking life-sustaining treatment out of his grasp so he is not tempted to prolong his suffering unnecessarily.”

“What about if something happens to you, Stanley?”

“I want all the life-sustaining treatment you could think of, but only if it’s edible.”

“You could probably do that in any event,” says the Man. “For example, in the event it gets dark tonight, Stanley wants his life-sustaining treatment.”

“And in the event a new day dawns tomorrow, I want it again,” says Stan. “I want it for every event.”

“This is no laughing matter,” I tell them.

“Everything is a laughing matter, “they tell me back.

 

 

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TI ADORO

Come Bernie, Anthony sent you an email with the download of Pavarotti’s arias, let’s listen to them.

I don’t know how to make them play, slowly says the man who once prided himself on all things computer. He lies down in bed, eyes closed. He can’t open them because of tears coming down, blurring his vision. He can’t open them because of pain. So he just keeps them shut, and still tears come.

You’re crying for the universe? I tease, watching him blindly stretch out for tissues. Come, let’s get happy.

I was at the dentist’s chair, of all things, when I heard Pavarotti sing. Luckily the assistant hadn’t yet begun her cleaning because I shot up in the chair. Had his voice always been so powerful, the words so clear and flowing? The whole world was in that voice, life was in that voice! Another aria proceeded that one, and then another, so I knew this wasn’t office music piped in by the Gods of Musak.

What is this? I asked the dental assistant.

I don’t know, I’ll ask Dr. Kim, she said. It’s one of his CDs.

Instantly I thought a whole lot better of Dr. Kim. And when he came in to check my teeth he told me it was one of his favorites and wrote the name of the album down for me: Ti adoro.

Now it’s evening. Ti adoro is on Bernie’s iPad, somewhere in Google universe, and I struggle with the ID and password. I get lost in folders of Excel sheets of conference attendance and financials, notes upon notes of 21 years of Auschwitz retreats and dharma talks and bios of senseis and roshis and plans and mandalas, ah, the rich, rich crazy world of Bernie Glassman, who now can’t find an album of Pavarotti’s arias.

I do. The first aria is Il Canto, and since Bernie is turned away from me, eyes shut, I lean down against the edge of his turned-away body and we listen together. Sometime, around Come aquile, he turns to me blindly and reaches for my shoulder, as far as he could reach lying down, and we listen to 8 more arias of Pavarotti.

The bridge of his nose doesn’t heal. New skin cells aren’t forming correctly to finally close the incision. There’s white stuff there instead, stuff I’m supposed to clean out only I can’t because it hurts him too much. Me, too. Can’t inflict such direct hurt. Indirect hurt, lots. Direct, not so much.

On Monday the surgeon was surprised the incision wasn’t healing. Yesterday his general physician was also surprised. She’s practical and positive. Fifteen years practicing medicine on us don’t seem to have changed her temperament. It’s not coming together, she said. But you know, she added brightly, radiation discourages the healing of the skin.

Discourages the healing of the skin? And what had the surgeon said a month ago? Cancel berates the body. Berates! I’m back to my usual indignation about words. It’s a bridge, I feel like telling them, the bridge of the nose. Bridges come together, otherwise they’re not bridges.

In 2+ years of this I’ve gotten good at affirming life. I mean the life of life, not the other component. Great at listening for birds first thing, great at noting when the sun comes up, still loving the white snow on the slope lingering at end of March.

I’m also good about doing the things I love, won’t let go of writing word after word long after I stopped knowing why. God gave each person only a certain number of words and when you reach your quota you’ll go mute, the old grandfather warned me, wagging his finger. Saba, I tell him quietly now (that means grandfather in Hebrew), I’ve reached my end of words years ago, what’s coming out now isn’t words, I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s Bernie’s tears only in me they come out as words.

Doggedly (sorry, Stanley!), I sit at my desk and think: I’m not going there (meaning the bedroom), I’m staying here and working. Preparing for Saturday’s intensive. Reviewing householder koans for next week when I’m supposed to go to ZCLA to work together with Egyoku Nakao. Supposed to, I say, because right now I don’t know what I’ll be doing the next minute, but I’m trying to live my life, do my things, do my things, the mantra that has pushed and prodded me, that I take out like a winter coat when the weather gets rough.

Only this week something broke. It happens once in a long while. The wind gets too much and tears that coat to smithereens. Koans go out the window, notes and ideas go out the window. I stare out there at birds feeding desperately at our feeders and nothing comes up. The sky lowers and I feel the heaviness of billions of stars and planets right on my shoulders. Everything gets really, really small.

So last night I got up on my feet and went to the other room: Shall we listen to Pavarotti?

I can’t get it, he muttered weakly.

Let me, I said, picked up his iPad from the small adjustable table we have by the bed. And finally, after finagling here and there, we listened to the first, Il canto. He cried because his eyes hurt, I cried I don’t know why.

Deep, deep in my heart I know why I hide out in the office, staring at two screens, and even at the third screen of the window showing a snowy slope peopled by squirrels. Because here, lying against the edge of his body as he weakly strokes my shoulder, lies brokenness. For me. For Bernie, I don’t know, he’s not the one writing this blog, nor is he the drama queen in the house, as Stanley puts it. Only for me. His body is thin and the edge is narrow. I lie in a place that’s deeper than hope or faith or anything, it just is. I lie there as long as I can, till sometime, around Stella, I have to turn and change position because it’s too painful for the joints.

It’s a goddamn bridge, I tell myself in between arias. Bridges come together. By definition.

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SPRING ON TOP, BROKEN PLANTER AT BOTTOM

Every spring, after changing the clock, I look out after dinner and see the sunset west of the house, retiring over the Berkshire Mountains. We don’t have much of a view where we live because we’re in our own little valley in the Happy Valley, surrounded by trees. But I love that early evening light.

This time I also caught below the broken big planter that has been out in front of the house since we moved here more than 13 years ago. One of two big planters out front, it’s finally been done in by the snow and ice this winter.

Spring on top, broken planter at bottom.

I didn’t go to the zendo this evening. Bernie needs care after his radiation treatments, and I was so focused on other things I didn’t even notice till around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, when it hit me: What am I doing in the zendo when I’m needed right here?

There isn’t a day that this thought, in some form or other, doesn’t come up at least a dozen times: What am I doing writing when I need to see to the wounds on his face? What am I doing on my way to a yoga class when I need to talk to him as he gets up? What am I doing working on this or that in my office, talking to this person or that person, when I need to put a cool wet towel on his painful eyes?

No, don’t call it Jewish guilt. It’s holding contrasts together, keeping each opposite in a separate hand, fist closed tightly around it, and saying: So where is it now? Where is it now?

That’s what I thought of when I looked out at dusk and saw the spring sun, and the broken planter in the garden. But, too, the sun sets and the planter can mend. As Roshi James Ford wrote me, quoting Hemingway: The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But I also love how Wendell Berry described the sycamore not far from his house:

Fences have been tied to it, nails driven into it,
hacks and whittles cut in it, the lightning has burned it.
There is no year it has flourished in
that has not harmed it. . . .

It has risen to a strange perfection
in the warp and bending of its long growth.
It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.
It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate.

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THE TRUTH IS, YOU’RE OLD

Going out with Leeann in warmer days. Photo by Leeann Warner.

What’s with the Man’s nose? Stanley asks.

He’s been sniffing around the Man’s face when the Man’s resting. Lots of smells there to attract his attention.

Bernie finished his radiation treatments, which have left his nose very red and swollen, with small blisters opening, bleeding, drying, then opening again, tiny envelopes of skin expanding then flattening, a crack above the flap covering the surgery that has opened, bled, dried, etc. over the past few months, and swollen tissues round the inner eyes and lower corners of his Bodhidharma eyebrows.

Toughest are the eyes. He wore a mask during the radiation, and they also piled up small lead objects over his eyes for additional protection, and still the eyes hurt and tear for much of the day, he dabs at them all the time, and as the hours progress he finds it harder and harder to keep them open. They say this will ease in a few weeks, but the distance between the doctor’s office in Springfield and the upstairs bedroom in a home surrounded by bare maples dipped in snow feels long indeed.

We wait, we joke, we talk, we try ointments and salves and eye drops. All the stuff that other people needed, but not us.

The winter is a long one this year and outside, everybody’s hungry. For the first time big black crows are coming to the birdfeeders, chasing away the smaller sparrows and even the squirrels, and the other day a deer patrolled the fence’s perimeter, looking for food. These are the days when they starve, late winter, trying to make it till the first shoots finally arrive.

Everything outside is so much at the edge, Stanley, it’s easy to miss all that when you stay inside a warm house with a full refrigerator.

What full refrigerator? I’m starving.

Actually, you’re leaving food in your bowl. I think you’re losing your appetite, Stan.

And why am I not on an outing with Leeann today?

She wrote me that you’re having a hard time with the snow outside, Stanley. It’s not easy walking in all that snow in the woods, so she wrote me to keep you home for a few days.

That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I can run with the best of them, I’m as loose as a moose.

Actually, you’re now mostly in back of the pack, Stanley, and since you can’t hear anything and your vision’s bad, they have to keep a special eye on you.

That’s not true, I’m part of the herd, just like a bird.

Not from what I hear. It’s getting harder for you to catch up.

I have the spunk of a skunk. I’m a hunk like a—like a—

Chipmunk. The truth is, you’re old, Stanley!

I have the flair of the bear.

You have denial up the aisle, Stan.

I’m a running force, like a horse.

With verses perverses. You’re old, Stanley, accept it.

Aware as a hare. Clear like a deer. Alert like a – like a – like a–

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LEAVING EVERYTHING BEHIND

Do you think you could feed me now?

No, Stanley, I have to feed the birds.

The birds! Again the birds! Excuse me, I know those feeders are only three-quarters full, which sends you into a panic, but I’m starving.

I’m sorry, Stanley, but this is what I was taught by my grandfather. The only thing I remember from all those reminiscences about the shtetl in Rumania is that before you feed yourself, you feed the animals.

I’m the animal around here. Not you, not the birds, moi!

They also had dogs, Stanley. They had two with Rumanian names, like Altu or Banu, something like that. Too bad they had to leave them behind.

They left behind their dogs?

When they went into exile. They were given 2 hours’ notice to leave their village of Stefanest and walk all the way to Botoshan, a city far away.

They left behind their dogs?

They couldn’t take anything with them, Stanley. I think they even left them chained,

I’m getting sick! They left their dogs behind, chained?

I know, it’s kept me up at nights thinking about it, but what could they do, Stanley? They couldn’t let the dogs follow them into exile, there was no food or anything. Beside, do dogs even go into exile?

They left the dogs chained? That’s who you learn your behavior with animals from?

They were refugees, Stanley! Like the refugees we get from Syria and Vietnam and Afghanistan. At least, we used to get them. When you’re a refugee you leave your home behind, your job, probably your family, you leave everything and everyone behind.

Did they shave their heads?

Why should they shave their heads?

Like those people in Asia.

You mean, Buddhist monks? That’s different, Stan. Buddhist monks want to leave things behind. Refugees don’t, and they aren’t given a choice.

Do Buddhist monks leave dogs behind, too?

Now you’re getting silly. You don’t understand anything about suffering, Stan. What could you possibly know about the Holocaust, you didn’t go through it.

Neither did you.

True, but there are things I just feel in my bones. You, on the other hand, Stan, have had it easy all your life.

I have not. I’m getting older, I’m stiffer, Leeann is dead—

Leeann isn’t dead, Stan.

She’s not? Then where is she?

On vacation.

What’s vacation?

Stanley, vacation is when you don’t go out on outings with dogs, you just lie around doing nothing.

See, I told you she died.

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TENDERNESS LOST

One of the reasons I write is to impose some kind of order on a very chaotic world. Another reason I write is to tear everything down and explore the chaos.

Zen practice is a way of letting go of the fear and the need to control, all those voices in the brain that want to make things fit according to some idea or story, getting closer and closer to the wild, unpredictable pulse of things.

I’ve been thinking about people who have a hard time meeting the world on its terms. Three young people have recently come to my mind. They are on anti-anxiety and anti-depression meds, along with many, many of their peers. This was unheard of when I was growing up; I guess the meds weren’t around then, either.

They have a hard time encountering the world. A few end up going into schools and shooting their peers and teachers, or doing the same in churches and bars, sometimes focusing on those with darker skin. We call it evil; we call it racist, because some get enamored of white supremacy groups. But when you actually listen or read what they say, when you look at their faces, they seem to be people who just can’t meet the world on its terms.

I have been remembering how I was as a teenager. I also had a very hard time meeting the world as it was. As soon as I had my own bedroom I retreated there and wouldn’t come out. I heard calls to meals as calls to join a difficult family scene that fed me physically but not emotionally. I’d hunch my shoulders self-protectively, take a deep breath and go out the door.

That’s how I went to school, too. I went to a Jewish school far away and a van would take a group of us there, so every morning I had to join this group of young people in the close quarters of a crowded van. This was an ordeal. There was a lot of teenage griping and pissing. When the girls talked about clothes, hair, and Saturday night, I felt a little safe because I didn’t have much to say about any of that. But it was just a matter of time before all that turned into malicious gossip, lions tearing into teenage Christians who stood out or didn’t fit in. I feared the moment when the banter turned nasty, when someone made a crack at my expense, then others joined in, and suddenly I felt torn into pieces for no reason other than that I existed, and that I was somehow different from others.

I had to survive those trips in the van twice daily. Often I preferred to miss the van and take 4 subways to get home, not to mention a long walk home in the dark. My parents, who had to scrounge up the money to pay for the van, told me to toughen up. The driver, who ran a laundromat and dry cleaner and was a real mensch, was often laughed at by the richer, middle-class kids, and I would cringe in my seat even as I grinned alongside the rest of them, trying hard to belong.

I think of this when I read of these young shooters. Their parents and friends say they were okay, just real quiet, preferred to stay in their rooms. Just as I did.

I think of Donald Trump. He impresses me as the kind of guy who also had trouble meeting the world on its terms, and decided he was going to meet the world on his terms, nothing less, and became a bully. He learned to say to the world You’re Fired! every time he felt insecure.

I think most of us did that, too, only we did it to ourselves. We “fired” ourselves, or parts of ourselves, the sensitive parts that loved life without reservation, that wanted to live it according to our own individual rhythms, like squirrels making their own paths in the soft snow. But the world wasn’t soft snow, and in the process we lost many things, not least of all our tenderness.

Tenderness, yes. Dylan Thomas wrote:

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

I knew just what he meant from the first time I read that great poem. And what could he do with his lost tenderness, poor poet, but drink himself to an early death?

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OH, HUSH!

Digging up a marrow bone

What’s a hush agreement? asks Stanley

A hush agreement,  Stan, is when someone pays you to hush, to be quiet.

So you must get a lot of money because you’re quiet a lot, says Stanley. You’re quiet all night, you’re quiet right after you get up, and then you’re quiet at your desk.

That’s because I’m a meditator and a writer. That’s a lot of quiet, Stanley

Well, all that quiet is finally paying off. I never understood what it was good for, I love a little more hoopla myself, but now you could finally get paid for that quiet. The way you go, you’ll become a billionaire!

That’s true, Stanley, but nobody’s paying me any hush money.

Why not?

Because I don’t have any secrets to tell. You see, they don’t pay you to be quiet, they pay you to not tell a secret.

I have a secret, says Stanley. I know where I buried that marrow bone you gave me after Rae made that vegetable soup. Nobody else knows it’s buried behind the big rock under the green birdfeeder. How much will they pay me if I agree not to tell anybody?

You buried the bone? Instead of enjoying it you dragged it out and buried it before a snow storm? What a smart dog you are, Stan.

So what do I get for not telling you any of that?

Nothing, Stan. Nobody cares about the whereabouts of a marrow bone, they care about important things, like whether the President of the United States had sex with a porn star or not.

They care about that and they don’t care about the whereabouts of a marrow bone?

That’s right, Stan.

You are a dumb species.

Not as dumb as dogs that get juicy marrow bones and bury them right before a 10-inch snowfall. Stanley.

I have contacts in the animal world, see, and every single one of them agree: there’s no dumber species than humans.

Oh yeah?

Yeah. And I’m not arguing with you anymore. No money to find a marrow bone! Humans are just too dumb to argue with.

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A SNEAKY BUDDHIST

We had a big snowstorm Wednesday that went into Thursday. I woke up early, did the usual, Bernie slept (he tires out more and more as the radiation treatments continue), and at 8 am I looked out at our snow-laden driveway and thought to myself, no radiation today, our driveway isn’t plowed.

Two minutes later I heard familiar scraping sounds, walked to the window on the other side of the house, and there was the plow, cleaning up the driveway, giving us a fresh new exit out of the house. I called the hospital. Yes, they were open for business, so finally there was nothing left to do but wake up Bernie. He could barely open his eyes.

But it’s snowing, he moaned, sounding a little like a child who feels cheated of a snow days because he has to get up and go to school..

I know, sweetie, but we just got plowed, the hospital is open, Rae is coming down from Greenfield, you can go for radiation.

He groaned, then got up.

The previous day I’d spoken to the radiation oncologist. Bernie’s nose is purple and swollen and his eyes hurt so badly that in the evenings and first thing in the morning he can barely open them. We douse the nose with aloe vera, bee balm, and an anti-inflammatory cream where the surgery took place, not to mention drops in his eyes. But by now, as the treatments are coming to a slow end, everything hurts.

The oncologist hmmm’d some, said that of course it was our choice, but if it was up to him he wouldn’t stop now but would finish the radiation treatments. Bernie, knowing he only had five more to do, agreed. I drove him back, remembering what the surgeon had said over the phone to me a month ago: Cancer berates the body.

Berates? I fumed inside. Who taught you English? You mean hurts, don’t you? How about harms? How about torments and tortures?

Sometime during that slow, snowy drive home I realized that there are times that just feel like shit, plain and simple. Because of pain, because of illness, because of grief, because of failure, whatever. And I also understood, somewhat shamefacedly, that I continue to have that sneaky feeling that Zen practice will spare me suffering and hurt, that I’ll find a way out.

Yes, I know that it’s supposed to be more of a way through rather than a way out, that it’s about being fully present, blah blah, but you see, that’s what’s so sneaky about it. Anytime I think of a way out of anything—by going through, going around, meditating, bearing witness, being fully there, whatever—I’ve fallen into the trap, made practice a kind of crib sheet which I could use to cheat on the exam of life. There is no way out of anything.

I knew that, but I’m a sneak, see? I knew there’s no transcending anything. Still, I thought, there are different ways of going through things. But different can also be a sneaky word, a voice says, so stop sneaking around and thinking that if you’re quiet enough, stable enough, present enough, gentle enough, etc., you’ll find the way out. You won’t.

And actually, when I get to the bottom and see that clearly, when I stop fighting, that’s when things feel lighter. But I have to be careful not to be a sneak and try to use that as a way out, too.

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