Remarks At My Mother’s Memorial

Before I talk about Mom, I want to say a few words about hospice.

In her story “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” flash fiction author Kathy Fish suggests a group of hospice workers be called a grace. I wholeheartedly agree. They are angels on Earth. For weeks these kind souls came into our home and made Mom’s passing as easy as possible. We will be forever grateful.

***

I am convinced the reason the elderly repeat the same stories over and over is so you’ll get the details right at times like this. We don’t have the time for me to tell you all of Mom’s stories. So this is the Reader’s Digest version.

My mother, Anna Karolina Badum, grew up in Nazi Germany. Her small farming town in Bavaria went largely untouched by the war, save for those sons and fathers who returned wounded, or never returned at all. Mom’s father, my Opa, had been a railroad engineer on the Russian front. He never said more than that about what he did in the war. When the Americans finally came through, they camped in the fields around Mom’s house. She recalled they had plenty of chocolate. When President Roosevelt died, they fired artillery in tribute. The concussion shattered windows in the house.

After the war, Mom was sent to live with her grandmother and maiden aunts in the 14th century stone tower that is Höchstadt’s primary landmark. I know this sounds like the set up for some dark German fairytale. But Mom loved her grandmother and her aunts, and this is where she learned to cook and bake and to make her own clothes. Her grandmother was regularly hired to cook for weddings and other celebrations in town, and her aunts had a thriving cottage business making dresses. They had no phone, so it was Mom’s job to run around town taking orders, delivering finished dresses, and collecting payment. She did very well on tips.

Living with her grandmother also meant she went to church every day and twice on Sunday. Her friends gave her the nickname “Holy Anna.” They always saved her a seat at the movie theater on Saturdays, when she would be the first one out the door at church, running across town and only ever missing the newsreels.

Like most girls in Germany at that time, Mom’s schooling ended with eighth grade. She moved back home and told her mother she wanted to get a job. Mom was told she needed to help out at home and take care of her brothers.

So she ran away from home. She found work and lodging at a small inn outside Nürnberg, cleaning rooms and helping in the kitchen. Her brother Hilmar was the only one who knew where she was, and he kept her secret. By the time she was eighteen, she had saved enough money to come to America by steamship.

She first stayed with an aunt, and worked keeping house for a retired Army colonel and his family. The colonel knew German, and this is where Mom started to learn English. She then went to live with her Uncle John’s family, and went to night school to improve her English. She also put her sewing skills to work in the embroidery shops of West New York.

My father was a bus driver there, and my mother met him while taking his bus to work. Dad was 16 years her senior, and apparently a real smooth talker.

We lived in West New York until I was five, when we moved to a house in Bergenfield which my father – a veteran of WWII – bought with help from the GI Bill. I will always be thankful for that. It’s where I forged cherished friendships, and where music became such a big part of my life.

Dad was the musician in our house, playing guitar and accordion by ear, singing his kids to sleep. But Mom had the best records: Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette. Her hunk of burning love was Elvis: She had all his records, saw all his movies multiple times, even named her miniature schnauzer after him. Later she succumbed to the boyish charms of Glen Campbell. I have fond memories of the whole family watching Campbell’s TV show together. She bought me my first Beatles album – Meet the Beatles. By the end of high school I was putting together bands with my friends and rehearsing in our back basement, sometimes well after Mom had gone to bed. I once asked her why she put up with that, why she never complained. She said, “Because I knew where you were.”

Dad had a heart attack in 1967 that forced his retirement from bus driving. So Mom went back to work at the embroidery shop that had been asking her to come back for years. Often times she’d put in an 80-hour week, that second 40 being paid as overtime. She belonged to the textile workers union, but she didn’t really need them: she was so good at her job she could cause a slowdown at the factory all on her own. So she generally got what she wanted.

I get my love of Star Trek from Mom. When it was first on, when I was nine years old, she let me stay up to watch. I never made it to the end of an episode. But we happily devoured it later in reruns. She loved Captain Kirk. Who didn’t? She loved that women in the 23rd century wore mini skirts. Mostly, she loved its optimistic, inclusive vision of the future. As hard as it is to do sometimes, I still hang on to that vision. Mom did, too, even though it occasionally manifested itself in the phrase, “What the hell is wrong with people?” For Mom, the 23rd century couldn’t get here fast enough.

Mom could knit and crochet like nobody’s business. Sweaters, scarves, bedspreads, pillows, stuffed animals. Truly remarkable work. I believe it was her form of meditation. That her children and grandchildren can wrap themselves in her handmade blankets for all the winters to come brings added meaning to the word “comforter.”

Then there’s the baking. Bread. Cakes. Danish rings. Christmas cookies. Growing up, my favorite time of year was from Thanksgiving until Christmas, when Mom’s kitchen was a feast for the senses. Almost as good as those Christmas cookies was stealing pinches of cookie dough from the fridge and trying to cover up the evidence. A few years back, when Mom said she could no longer make those cookies, it was like a favorite sports hero retiring.

When I let people know Mom had passed, my buddy Andre sent a message of condolence. Shortly after, he sent a second message: Did you get the recipes? Yes. They were in a shoebox under her bed. Of course, they’ll never taste the same. But we’ll give them our best shot.

Lest I paint too rosy a picture, let me say: Mom could be ornery. She could hold a grudge like a champion. And for most of her life, she wasn’t one to verbalize her feelings. I think a lot of the difficulties she and my father had could have been ironed out if they had just talked more with each other, been a bit more vulnerable. My mother didn’t tell me she loved me until I was in my thirties. I never doubted her love for a moment, but it was a joy to finally hear her say it. And it was easier to say from that day forward. That day, she was having radiation treatments. Yes, Mom beat cancer, a disease that had claimed her older daughter. It didn’t stand a chance this time around.

In the last couple of years, when she was done telling the same stories, Mom would reflect and say “I’ve had a good life.” It was good to hear her say that. The last time she was able to come to our house for Thanksgiving, I caught her looking wistfully at a photo of my dad we had hanging in the dining room.

“He was handsome, wasn’t he?” she said.

Yes he was Ma. And you were beautiful.

So Heaven just got a lot more interesting. It certainly tastes better now. Seriously. If you can’t bake in Heaven, the place doesn’t deserve the name.

***

I want to close with a couple of favorite passages.

The first is by Walt Whitman. I read these words at a friend’s memorial some years ago. I tried to find something different for Mom, but it’s tough to top old Walt. I hope someone will read these same words when my time comes:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed … and luckier.

This last passage comes from Mom’s favorite philosopher. He’s one of mine, too:

Live long and prosper.

[2018]

God is a Loaded Term

I’m a regular reader of CNN’s Belief Blog. More often than not, the blog’s contributors have refreshing takes on the role of faith in American life. They also don’t shy away from addressing the subject from the point of view of non-theists. (CNN in general has become a magnet for theist/atheist arguments; they seem to crop up in the comments section of many of their articles, even when the article isn’t about religion.)

This past week, the blog highlighted the response to an iReport by Deborah Mitchell, a Texas mother of two teenagers. (iReports are stories sent to CNN’s website by users — an exercise in citizen journalism). Mitchell’s report has garnered the second highest number of page views of any iReport, and the most comments of any submission.

The title? “Why I Raise My Children Without God.”

Predictably, there was considerable backlash in the comments section. Some tried to have the report flagged as inappropriate in an effort to have it removed. But many others — including more Bible-belt moms hiding in the atheist/agnostic closet — applauded her bravery. Yes, bravery — because non-believers may well be the most hated minority in the country.

I have quite a bit of sympathy for freethinkers (the term I use for atheists, agnostics and all manner of religious skeptics). This was the road I took to Zen Buddhism. It was Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian that helped me shake off the last vestiges of my Catholic guilt. Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll are two of my heroes, freethinkers unjustly ignored by American history. I am truly saddened that Christopher Hitchens is no longer among the living.

Like Deborah Mitchell, my wife and I also decided not to raise our children with organized religion, and to be free and open with them concerning questions about God and spirituality.

When our daughter was born, we did not have her baptized. Much to my relief, this did not cause any problems with the more devoutly religious among our friends and family (perhaps one of the perks of living in New Jersey). In fact, my wife’s grandfather, who had been an officer in the Knights of Columbus, never once questioned us about it, never tried to sway us, and never changed the way he treated us. I found this so incredibly decent that I decided we could meet him half way. We had our daughter baptized when she was eighteen months old (which I know pleased my mother-in-law as well as her father) and also our son shortly after he was born. But that was the extent of our involvement with any formal church.

As our children grew, questions about religion would come up. I would always try to answer them by starting with “In the Christian tradition” or “In the Jewish tradition.” When they would ask what religion we were, I would tell them we were all baptized Roman Catholics but we don’t go to church, and that I was now a Buddhist. I told them they could claim to be either. As near as I can tell, they usually told their friends they didn’t have a religion. And again, this doesn’t seem to have caused any problems.

Questions about God were trickier, because “God” is such a loaded term. When I was younger, my stock response to the question “Do you believe in God?” was “Define your terms.” Of course it was always God as they imagined him in the Bible. I say imagined because I’ve found that a good many people who profess to believe in the God of the Bible have actually read very little of the book. And then my answer is “no.” I’ve felt for a long time that whatever God may be, he or she is in desperate need of better PR.

I have told our children what others believe God to be while admitting that I just don’t know (and that no one else does, either). I’ve always found agnosticism to be the only intellectually honest position, since theism and atheism both seem to require a degree of certainty that I feel is unwarranted.

My children are acquainted with the basics of the Tao and of Buddha-nature. This is how I’ve approached the idea of God, and this seems to make sense to them. One day I’ll also tell them about Emerson’s Over-soul. I know our children don’t believe in a God that sits in judgement up in the sky, dishing out rewards and punishments. They understand that doing good, that acting from a kind heart, doesn’t require these.

I’ve also tried to teach them to appreciate the value others find in religion, and the difference between private faith and religion-based social policy. There is a time and a place for understanding personal needs of the spirit, and a time and place to defend freedom of the mind and heart.

I really do miss Hitchens.

[2013]

We Are What We Consume

WHEN MY daughter was very young, we were watching TV together. I don’t recall the program, but it wasn’t a cartoon, and at a certain point, one character hit another. It wasn’t slapstick; it was mild TV violence by my standards.

Not by my daughter’s.

She was horrified. She had never seen anyone do that to another person. I felt like the worst parent in the world. I turned the set off and did my best to explain that what she had seen wasn’t real; it was acting.

But even then, I knew her reaction was the right one, the true one.

Today, her reaction to the massacre in Newtown, Conn., is like so many others: Wouldn’t the world be a better place without guns?

Once again, her reaction is the right one, the true one.

When I was a younger man, I wrote impassioned letters to the editor of my local newspaper about the need for gun control. I’ve had little personal experience with gun violence, other than the story of how my paternal grandfather had accidentally killed his younger brother when they were mere toddlers with a pistol found under their father’s pillow. I can only imagine the effect on him and his family. The only clues of which I’m aware: His parents divorced, he named his first child after his slain brother, and he died a hopeless alcoholic and rests in an unmarked grave.

No, most of my experiences with gun violence come from the news. I’m old enough to remember the Kennedy assassinations. Dr. King. John Lennon. And far too many special reports of carnage in every corner of America. In other countries as well: I haven’t been this shaken since the slaughter in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996.

I would love a world without guns. But time has made me realize that will never happen. I do believe in strict gun laws at a national level, so one cannot circumvent one state’s laws by simply going to another state.

The Founding Fathers could not have imagined the weapons that are now our reality. It was a simpler time, and the means of defense were much simpler, too. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was meant to ensure a well-equipped militia in lieu of a standing army, which was seen as an instrument of government tyranny. But now we have a standing army, and the idea that armed citizens could reasonably do battle against it is laughable to me.

In that regard, the Second Amendment is almost as quaint as the Third, prohibiting the quartering of soldiers in private houses. As for self-defense: I have no quarrel with it. And sports? If you need a 100-round magazine to hit a paper target or take down a deer, you’re no marksman. Limits must be set. Just about every other industrialized democracy on the planet has shown that reasonable gun regulations reduce gun violence. Surely, we can follow suit.

For the record, I am a gun owner, of the kind the Founders would actually recognize. I have no use for the National Rifle Association.

So why do I find it so difficult to write another angry piece to a newspaper editor about gun control? Because the problem is bigger than just guns.

We are what we consume. That doesn’t just go for food. It means books, movies, television, games, music, magazines, websites — everything we take into our minds and hearts, and everything we allow into our children’s. Garbage in, garbage out. This is a dark side of the free market: Sell the people what they want. Satiate every impulse and desire, and we end up valuing the wrong things. More than wealth, status, appearance, possessions, ego — we should value each other.

Granted, in a free society, we cannot condone censorship. We can, however, exercise discretion in the marketplace: Turn your back on junk culture, and it will whither away. That seems as likely to happen as getting rid of all guns, but if we at least move in that direction, things can only get better. Not perfect, but better.

Some have claimed the increased violence in our society stems from driving God and religion out of public schools and the public square. I disagree with that reasoning, but not with the larger point.

There is a spiritual aspect to our nature. We neglect it at our peril. We don’t necessarily need to get religion, but we each need to acknowledge that part of ourselves and care for it as surely as we need to care for our physical, intellectual and emotional well-being. It’s the part of us that knows we’re all connected. We’re born with it.

My young daughter’s first reaction to violence was the right one. We’re born with that awareness, and we too easily let it slip away. We need to honor that awareness every day.

[2012]

Originally published under a different title in the December 30, 2012 edition of The Record.

Kyron Horman

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer. ~ Bertrand Russell

It has been just over a year since Kyron Horman disappeared from his school in Portland, Oregon. Much money and manpower has been spent looking for him, and authorities don’t seem any closer to find him or explaining what happened to him. His stepmother, who was the last person to see him, is not a named suspect. But most people who have followed the story believe she knows more than she has said.

I have been following his story from day one. I don’t know why, but when I saw Kyron’s picture, I took an instant liking to him. Perhaps it’s because he reminds me of my own son.

Some have been critical of the amount of attention Kyron’s story has gotten. They point out that children go missing every day, and ask why Kyron’s story is so special.

A lot of the attention has to do with the tremendous efforts of Kyron’s parents to make sure their son is not forgotten, and to make sure that people keep an eye out for him. I can only applaud their efforts. My heart breaks for them.

My heart breaks for missing and abused children almost every day.

Every time I read of some tragedy committed against a child — all too often by someone they trusted — I whisper “I’m sorry,” as if there was something I could have done to save them. I swear, if I could be granted a super power, it would be to know whenever a child is being harmed, and to be able to bolt to them in an instant to stop it.

I’d never have a moment’s rest.

From a Buddhist perspective, am I causing myself to suffer by clinging to these thoughts? Maybe so. But I find it difficult to be dispassionate about such things. It’s one of the aspects of Buddhism with which I struggle.

There is a scene in Woody Allen’s film Radio Days in which the family is listening to a live radio broadcast of the rescue of a little girl who has fallen down an abandoned well. The scene was inspired by the true story of three-year-old Kathy Fiscus back in 1949. The ensuing rescue effort was broadcast live via radio as well as the still-novel medium of television. I remember my dad telling me about it. The world was riveted by the story.

In the film, as in the real-life incident, the little girl did not survive. The family in the film is quietly devastated by the news. The father, holding his own little girl on his lap through all this, holds her a little tighter, barely able to contain his tears.

In the absence of any super powers, this may be the best I can hope for. These terrible stories will continue to come. I will hold my children a little tighter. And I will keep a watchful eye on all the other children in my small corner of the world.

[2011]

Gaining Perspective

Last week my children had two experiences that helped broaden their outlook. One close to home, the other on the far side of the world.

Two Sundays ago we had dinner with our friends Bob and Mary and their kids.  (The visit was partly social, partly business. Bob is an accountant and he looked over our tax returns before dinner, since I now work for myself and our taxes have become a bit more complicated. Thankfully, it was not as painful as I had imagined. But I digress . . .)

Mary’s father had just had a pacemaker put in and was still in the hospital. She said he was doing well.

Wednesday morning, Bob called me to say that Mary’s father had died. The wake was set for Friday, and the funeral for Saturday.

My kids have been to a funeral mass, but not a wake. They wanted to go to this one as a gesture of support for Bob and Mary’s kids.  We were also dealing with local flooding, so my wife said she’d stay behind to keep an eye on our basement as we continued pump it out.

My daughter and son were expecting the wake to be a sad and somber event. What they found was a loud and genial gathering of friends and relatives paying their last respects to Mary’s dad. Tears were certainly shed, but laughter was more abundant as stories about the late Aldo made the rounds. It was good to see a life being celebrated more than a death being mourned.

We have been very honest with our children about death. They each had moments when they were younger where they comprehended the seeming finality of it, and were understandably upset. We talked through it, and they now see it as a normal part of life (at least that’s the way they talk about it). The wake demystified another aspect; they weren’t as upset as they thought they might be by viewing the deceased. I’m sure the reaction would be quite different if it were someone close to them, but it was an important step nonetheless.

All this took place against the distant backdrop of the devastation in Japan. While not experiencing it firsthand, the news coverage still makes the tragedy more immediate than reading about such things in the past. My kids are witnessing the destructive power of nature, and how fragile we are in the face of it. It’s a reminder that, while death is certain for us all, the time and place are not.  We all travel different paths in life, but two things we all have in common are that we were born and we will die. What we do in between, and how mindful we are about it, is what matters.

At the wake, it was obvious that Mary’s dad had made every day count. I hope we can do as much.

[2011]

Breathing Life Into the Printed Word

I read to our kids every night when they were very young, and listened to them read aloud as they were learning their words. But as they became more accomplished in their reading, we all became more private readers.

Sometimes my teenage daughter would get nostalgic for bedtime stories, and she’d ask me to read a favorite, like Goodnight Moon or a dramatic presentation of Green Eggs and Ham.

As a variation on this one night, I read her the short story Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut. She loved it, and it prompted questions and discussion for a good week.

Lately, though, we’ve all gone back to being private readers.

As part of my daily Zen and Taoist reading, I decided to read aloud to myself. As a result, I’ve rediscovered how much more power the printed word has when it is given a voice.

I can be moved by something I read silently, but it’s another experience altogether when I get a catch in my throat reading something aloud that has really hit home, when the words resonate through my body and not just my mind.

With this reawakened appreciation for the spoken word, I asked my son if he’d like to make some time before bed so I could read to him. He really liked the idea, and we decided to read The Tao of Pooh. (I told him if he liked it, we could also read The Te of Piglet. He then asked if there was a Ching of Eeyore.)

I forgot that The Tao of Pooh — despite being based on the classic A.A. Milne children’s books — is really written more for adults. But my son has really taken to it, suggesting he read the actual Milne excerpts and I read the rest. To my endless delight, he’s grasping the Taoist ideas, too.

I’m going to suggest something similar to my daughter. Since the Vonnegut piece was a hit, I’ll stick with the short stories. And if her very hectic teen schedule seems to leave little time for a bedtime story, I’ve got several volumes of Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction.

[2011]

A Mostly Minimalist Christmas

My family knows that I have embraced minimalism. They witness the gradual uncluttering of my home office, the extra time spent in the basement, and the extra trash bags set out each week. But I avoid any sort of proselytizing.

I never came out and said I wanted a minimalist Christmas, beyond saying there was really only one thing I would like as a gift (the John Lennon box set).

That feeling wasn’t anything new or necessarily tied to my current pursuit of minimalism. I’ve felt for as long as I can remember that Christmas was far too commercialized.

It’s a point of view I can probably ascribe to repeated viewings over the years of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. And to an “aha” moment I had almost 20 years ago.

We were giving Christmas presents to my two-year-old niece. On Christmas Day, we presented her with a doll and baby carriage. And she was thrilled. She was all smiles and hugging the doll as if it were the only thing that mattered in the whole world. If that had been the only thing she’d gotten that Christmas, she would have been perfectly content.

But it was just the beginning. Gift after gift was laid at her feet. Tearing through the wrapping paper of each successive present, I could see the joy in her face give way to a kind of numbness. Where the doll and carriage had been special, now nothing was, just a growing pile of things and very little time to feel anything special about any of them.

The image haunts me still.

But lo and behold, we had a mostly minimalist Christmas this time. And it was just as merry as any other.

My wife and I exchanged just a few things (including the Lennon set).  The kids got some things that they really wanted, but none of the silly “filler” items that used to be part of the deal.  Well, OK, they did get sea monkeys. But there were no outlandish, big-ticket items.

Perhaps nicest of all, the kids seemed to treasure the visits with family and friends as much as, if not more than, the presents.

Now, it may just be a sign of the economic times (I did get laid off this year, though we’re still financially sound). And there have been some marital fractures in our extended family recently, which did draw us all a little bit closer.

No matter. We all saw a Christmas that was more about what we had and less about what we got. And it was great.

[2011]

Mindfulness Hike in the Mountains

The kids and I were supposed to visit Zen Mountain Monastery this month for their youth program. But my daughter had some school projects due, so we opted to stay home.

I love taking them to ZMM, because for a few hours they are immersed in a broader Zen culture than Dad’s altar, incense and cushions, and they really enjoy it.

I still wanted to have some kind of Zen practice with them, and I spontaneously hit on the idea of going on a mindfulness hike.

Where we live, there are many great hiking trails in and around the Ramapo Mountains. I decided to take them to a favorite trail at the historic Long Pond Ironworks; wide trails, flowing water, old buildings, and some nice wooden observation platforms that I thought might be good places for some outdoors zazen.

The day was perfect for a hike with the crisp autumn air and the sunlight playing through the clouds. I decided we would just hike, pay attention to whatever was around us, and talk about whatever came up. Anything resembling formal Zen discussion would only happen at the platform.

I brought along my copy of Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. I wanted to talk to my kids about “Right Speech” — what Bhante G calls “Skillful Speech.” Of all the aspects of the Eightfold Path, this seemed to be the one that needed the most attention.

I didn’t want this to be a pedantic exercise, and Bhante G’s book was perfect for the task. Each chapter has a wonderful, bullet-point summation at the end, and this was the only part I read aloud once we arrived at the platform. It was short and sweet, and left space for questions and discussion. These are the Key Points for Mindfulness of Skillful Speech:

  • Skillful Speech requires that you abstain from lying, malicious words, harsh language and useless talk.
  • Lying by omission is still lying.
  • Malicious talk is speech that destroys other people’s friendships or damages their reputations.
  • Verbal abuse, profanity, sarcasm, hypocrisy, and excessively blunt or belittling criticism are all examples of harsh language.
  • Harsh language hurts others and debases you.
  • Gossip and idle talk lead to quarrels and misunderstandings, waste your time, and create a confused state of mind.
  • All unnecessary speech not motivated by generosity, loving friendliness, and compassion is harmful.
  • The test of Skillful Speech is to stop and ask yourself before you speak: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Does it harm anyone? Is this the right time to say something?”
  • Using mindfulness to strengthen your resolution to say nothing hurtful and to use only soft, well-chosen words can bring harmony to any difficult situation.

And I added one last item: Skillful speech includes the words you use in e-mail, while texting, and on Facebook.

It was a relatively quick talk. The kids had some good questions, and then we sat zazen for about five minutes out there in the woods. They commented on how vibrant the sounds of the wind and leaves and water were when just sitting still.

Make no mistake, skillful speech is still in short supply at our house. My children are, after all, 11 and 14, and we parents still have a way to go in carefully choosing our words and tone in the heat of the moment. But perhaps the most skillful speech that day was just talking about it.

[2010]

Old Photographs

All we have is now.

This perspective, so central to Zen, has helped me immensely. The past is gone.  The future does not exist.  There is only now.

And yet, I have found that photographs of the past have a way of fostering compassion.

One way is having before my eyes representations of the world in which my ancestors lived. It’s one thing to hear the stories. It’s a bigger thing to have the stories illustrated.

I’ve been researching my family history for 15 years now, and one of the great joys is acquiring photos of the people and places I learn about along the way. It creates an appreciation for all those who have gone before me, whose lives made my life possible.

Old photos have also been helpful when it comes to family members who are still very much alive. I first discovered this while compiling photos from my mother’s past.

My relationship with Mom is very good. But like anybody else, she can be difficult at times, and of course there are those rough spots in our past that sometimes resurface when you least expect it. Letting go, it seems, is a full-time job.

But ever since I uncovered a photo of her when she was five years old, looking somewhat lost while sitting on a makeshift merry-go-round in Germany back in 1940, I see her in a different light. She had no idea what was going on or what the future would hold. And for all our life experiences, this still holds true for us as adults.

It’s now very easy for me to remember this when I look at her, age 75, and it brings up this wellspring of compassion that I would have felt for that lonely little five-year-old girl if I had crossed her path way back when. That’s not to say I don’t have compassion for my mother to begin with — I certainly do — but any transitory irritation or anger that may come up is immediately vaporized by the memory of that photograph. It’s a remarkable thing.

A similar reaction happens when dealing with my children. They’re only 10 and 14, and I have vivid memories of them at every stage of their lives. I try not to fall into the trap of longing for a time when they were younger and seemingly more respectful of their parents and kinder to each other. But a photo of either of them around age five does wonders do disarm my anger.

Yes, we only have now. But I have to wonder, since most of us meet the other adults in our lives as adults and not as kindergartners, if it would be a good idea to carry photos of ourselves at age five, and to share them at the moment we’re about to act out of anger.

[2010]

Zen and the Art of Bicycle Riding

My son has put off learning to ride a bicycle for almost his entire walking life (he’s 10). Despite training wheels, our best encouragement, and the example (and teasing) of his older sister tearing around the neighborhood, he just wasn’t interested. Until now.

He’s at the point where getting together with his friends is not about his parents arranging play dates but about his friends coming to call, usually on their bikes. Peer pressure has succeeded where parental prodding has failed.

The training was going to be similar to what we did for his sister: take him out to the school parking lot and run along with him while barely holding onto the back of his seat until he seemed comfortable, then letting go. I was also going to do this one-on-one; his mom and sister would have to sit this one out. Too many cooks, etc.

But once we got to the parking lot, my approach abruptly changed. I knew he had a better sense of balance from riding his Razor scooter. And he was a bit bigger now than when we first got him the bike, so I thought he might have a little more physical confidence.

He was already on the same page. We parked the car, took the bike out of the trunk, and he got on and adjusted his helmet.

“I can do this,” he said.

“I know you can,” I replied.

He started off, head down, and quickly stopped before toppling over.  He repeated this a few more times. I could hear the frustration rising in his voice.

I had him bring the bike to one end of the lot. And I said something to him that just came to me at that moment, and said it only once.

“You already know how to do this. Don’t look down at the pedals. Look forward to where you want to go, and just go. Don’t think about it. Just go.”

And he did. I will never forget the look on his face or the feeling in my heart. Back and forth he went — stopping abruptly sometimes and saying “I’m thinking too much” — until the sun went down.

[2010]

Grasshopper Moments

I had to admit sometime ago that the TV series Kung Fu may have been my earliest exposure to Zen. It made sense once I’d read the stories about Bodhidharma bringing Buddhism to the Shaolin temple, and also giving them the foundations of what would become the martial art called kung fu.

I was a big fan as a kid, and probably made my parents more than a little crazy with my endless attempts to mimic David Caradine’s moves. But as much as I enjoyed seeing Caine kick butt in the Old West, my favorite parts were always the flashbacks depicting different lessons with his masters.

Because of that show, the word “grasshopper” (Master Po’s nickname for the young Caine) has become synonymous with “student” or “apprentice.” So when I see one of my kids demonstrate some aspect of Zen in their own life, I call that a “grasshopper moment.”

Now this certainly isn’t a monastic kind of thing, not any kind of formal training (and I’m certainly in no position to be that kind of teacher). What I’m hoping is that I can at least walk the walk (not just talk the talk) and have Zen be the way I am in the world, without any outward advertising that it’s “Zen” — just life. That takes some doing, but my other hope is that my kids pick up on this by example, that it’s just a way to be without necessarily knowing what it is.

My recent grasshopper moments were from my daughter on, of all things, Facebook.

I’d found clips on YouTube from an 80s documentary on Kurt Vonnegut and posted a link to them on my Facebook page with the comment “I miss Kurt.”  A short time later my daughter added this comment: “Well . . . Everything does have to end sooner or later . . .”

Talk about “getting” impermanence! I think Kurt would be impressed.

Then, a few days later, she felt the need (like so many of us Facebook users) to post a pithy saying to her Facebook status. And this is what she wrote:

“Don’t wish for what is not already here, do what you can, with what you have, where you are right now, and that should satisfy.”

My first thought was that she had somehow managed to channel Emerson. Then my more rational thought was that she may have started reading something other than “Twilight.” I had to know who she was quoting, and I asked her.

“I made it up” was her response.

“Really?” I asked, trying very hard not to be insulting. “Since when do you use the word ‘satisfy’?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “It sounded smart.”

So like any proud father would, I posted this comment about her status: “That’s my girl.”

And like any embarrassed daughter would, she quickly deleted the comment.

That’s my girl.

[2010]