If you’re the one who lost your grocery list and coupons last Sunday outside my house, don’t worry, I have them and will keep them until the organic power greens coupon with a 75-cent savings expires on January 31st. But the two-or-more avocado coupon with a savings of 40 cents expires on January 3rd, just a few days from now, so there’s some urgency about the avocados. Both coupons are attached to your grocery list with a paperclip, and I see from the list that you have company, possibly all of them vegetarians, but vegetarians with a sweet tooth. Brussels sprouts, leeks, beets, red and white wine, olive oil, butterfly noodles, finished off with whatever delightful dessert calls for mascarpone, most likely tiramisu. And I’ve learned that a vegan tiramisu can be made with avocados, so I’m feeling more certain about where that mascarpone is headed. Your handwriting, by the way, is surprisingly legible for someone in a hurry. It’s hurried but legible, and just so you know, the r in mascarpone comes after the second a instead of the first. I can certainly understand the confusion of marscapone vs. mascarpone, the former reminiscent of at least one mobster.
Speaking of Italy, here’s the word on tiramisu: Its translation is “pick me up,” and it was created as an aphrodisiac and served to the brothel clientele of a town called Treviso. The point was to keep everyone invigorated and eager to pay for the next pleasure-seeking session. Nothing like rich, sweet, caffeinated food to accomplish that with no complaints!
So, it’s the end of the year, in the way my culture measures years. I’ve tried to glean some message from your lost list and this is what I’ve come up with: Every lost thing becomes something to be found. Every found thing becomes something to be lost. Like Janus, the Roman god of doors, gates, and transitions, we stand in the world facing forward and back, future and past, planted yet divided, encompassing the is and isn’t. Your list flew from your hand or your pocket or your purse and landed in the winter tangle of my Virginia creeper where I spotted it hugging the fence. Perhaps it called out “Pick me up!” or perhaps I was feeling the overabundance of recent lost things and needed a found thing, even if it was two coupons and a grocery list. Pieces of paper blown across sidewalks and into bushes and yards have always interested me. Every one represents an expectation or a transaction. Sometimes it’s a receipt from the cleaners but sometimes…sometimes it’s a confession of love or a short work of fiction or a kid’s drawing of the planet we call home.
How many things—entities, beings, ideas, convictions and hopes have you lost this year? And how many new ones found? I won’t keep a lost list, not on this late afternoon in late December when the light itself is lost and the temperature is dropping and my family has gone home and my dear friends and I are getting older by the minute, losing sight and hearing and even smell, yet alive still, mostly alive. A found list, though. That’s different. It starts this way:
Satisfaction in being by myself
New trails to walk at the end of the day
A story to tell
The ability to be patient
A way to express what’s on my mind
Cookies on my front porch
A feral cat under the house
A pair of scratched Ray-Bans
2 coupons and a grocery list
What have you lost this year? What have you found? Keep in touch.
Last night we watched the planets collide. Or so it seemed. And it got me thinking back to the three kings bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh, the magi astride their camels. What confidence, curiosity, or desperation does it take to follow a star, even if that star is actually two planets conjoining?
And what are the stars I follow, even when I can’t see them? Friendship, community, family, work, attention, keeping the gutters clean. It’s a good list to consider. Easy to fall into abstractions. But watch the concrete tangible stars emerge when you think of how you spend your days. You cut someone off in traffic and a sinking feeling creeps into your gut. That feeling is a star you follow. You remember it before you do the same thing again.
In my family version of the Christmas story, everyone—kings and shepherds alike—finds their way to Bethlehem by the light of the star. It’s a story, and we liked that version of the story, so that’s what stuck. When I think of the heroes of the Christmas story I think of the sheep. Maybe because I was a sheep in our first grade Christmas play. We were a chorus of baas surrounding the manger where the baby lay—the baby was a sack of sugar wrapped in a blanket. Our instructions were simple: Baa and keep baaing except when Mary or Joseph speaks. A couple of years later, in his own school play, my brother played the Virgin Mary and had to deviate from the script to tell the sheep to settle down.
I think of the sheep because, of all the players on that cold desert night, they were the ones who didn’t follow the star; they followed their shepherds. They weren’t oriented toward the cosmos; they were far more worldly than that. They weren’t dreamers, as the kings and shepherds were, they were hungering for anything that looked like grass, or a few juicy sprigs of rosemary. Pragmatic, those sheep. Irreverent. Practically profane.
In nativity scenes, whether painted by one of the greats or a three-dimensional homemade thing sitting outside in your neighbor’s yard, the sheep are there, swarming the manger. Some of them have that bored expression you find in snapshots of relatives who’ve overeaten. Others look fondly at their shepherds. And still others are nibbling on the baby’s cushion of straw. Who could not love these sheep? They are exactly who we are. They bring themselves—their full selves—as gifts for the occasion, because what else would they do? Who else would they be? If this is an occasion, I hear them say, every day is an occasion. Nothing special, nothing extraordinary. Even the cosmos is enacting what it enacts without effort or guile. The star is beautiful, the star is grand and handsome, but isn’t also a single juicy blade of grass?
December 8th is Rohatsu in the Zen tradition, commemorating the moment of the Buddha’s awakening. According to legend, it happened in the early morning, in the presence of Venus, the morning star. Siddhartha sat unmoving after a rough night of temptations by the demon Mara, until finally he came to a deep understanding of the cause of suffering. Can you see him there? Above him the leaves of the fig tree rustle like clapping hands, and the fragrance of the figs themselves remind him of his own appetites, his own preferences—human things. He’s been a practicing ascetic for many years. He’s close to death by starvation. Then clap! Here comes the smell of figs—the whole tree gives off the scent of abundance—and he laughs aloud. He’s enlightened!
I like this version because it involves the sensual world. The smells, the tastes, the sounds of our human lives. In another story, before Siddhartha sat beneath the tree, he lay on the ground, close to death, and a child came to him and fed him a pudding of milk and rice to restore his strength to live another day. And what a day it was. It was the day and night and early morning of his awakening, when Siddhartha became the Buddha and one of the great spiritual teachers in our human history. His life was prolonged by a child. And she (she’s portrayed as a girl named Sujata, but of course she’s anyone, everyone, just as the Buddha is anyone, everyone) represents compassion in this world. Compassion and wisdom are the two roots of Buddhist tradition. In the poet Jane Hirshfield’s words: “One great tap-word of Buddhism is compassion, which is the deep affection that we feel for everything because we’re all in it together. Be it other human beings, other animals, the planet as a whole, the creatures of this planet, the trees and rivers of this planet. Everything is connected.”
About five years ago I made a decision. It arose out of my experience of anorexia when I was a twelve-year-old, and again when I was in my early twenties. I decided to make a practice of saying yes to any and all food that was offered to me, if it was offered in friendship. I learned to enjoy cookies this way, if they weren’t too sweet. Cookies were a big step for me. Then I began to discern all the other areas in my life where I said no, and I vowed to open my mind to yeses. This has been a tremendous practice for me. It’s a practice of ahimsa or kindness to self. Like the child Sujata, I offer compassion to the starving one, the ascetic, in the form of food or praise or the encouragement to go fishing in the middle of the day. I embody the child and the ascetic both, as most of us do. The jailer and the jailed.
This is the time of year when ceremonies and rituals abound. Rohatsu has just passed, Hanukkah is upon us, soon enough Christmas and Kwanzaa. Take one of William Stafford’s poems with you as you walk out into the world today. This one’s called “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”:
If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe --
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
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