Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Super Friends

I recently spent a weekend visiting my dear friend Kaye Zusmann in the beautiful city of Asheville, North Carolina. We had seen each other in eleven years. Yes, eleven years!
When you're threatened by super-villians,
true friends always answer the call—
or accept your Friend request.
   Kaye and I were colleagues and single-girl compatriots in our Turner Broadcasting days. We gossiped in the halls of the Techwood offices. We spent many weekends and evenings together, comparing notes on our latest love interests and career challenges. Once, we even traveled to St. Thomas together on vacation. When I left Turner and, soon after, became engaged, Kaye was right there, cheering me on. I remember being slightly anxious when I introduced Kaye to my betrothed. I greatly respected her opinion, and when Kaye signed off on him, I felt surely I made the right decision.
   The night before my wedding, we held a bachelorette party of two, and I spent the night at her condo. We laughed and talked well into the evening, but after we retired, I lay awake, contemplating that in less than twelve hours I would be married, my name changed, and a chapter of my life sealed closed. I didn't confide my 2 AM doubts to my good friend. I didn't want her to worry, but I also didn't want to admit them to myself.
    I settled into married life, and the life of a freelance writer, while Kaye continued on the corporate path. Soon after, she was offered a fabulous job in L.A. as a television producer. We saw each other one time after she moved, when I visited the west coast for business. After that night, our lives spun out in different directions. We lost touch. Years passed.
   Then, last summer, at the height of my Crisis, I found Kaye's gorgeous face staring at me on Facebook. I tried to recall why it was we had lost touch. Had I done something to offend her? Did I forget her birthday? Or not return a phone call in due speed? Nothing came to mind, but you never know. I extended a Friend request and held my breath. Would she begrudge me for falling out of touch all these years? Had the statute of limitations run out on our friendship?
   To my great relief and pleasure, she accepted my friendship in record time. A two-hour phone call later and we were right back where we left off, as though a bookmark had been placed in our relationship. That, of course, is the true test of friendship. We had gone off and traveled our divergent paths, but the relationship remained intact, a gossamir thread holding us tightly together. As with all of my dearest friends, Kaye was there—right there—by my side, and I with her, even when we were thousands of miles apart and disconnected from phone or email.
   We quickly caught up, though there had been many, many adventures during our off-season. The big news was Kaye was getting married the following spring. (That would be now.) Yes, the irony was not lost on us that at the very time I was engaged to be divorced, my dear friend was engaged to be married. Our divergent chapters were opening and closing, but her happy news cheered me. She had met her true love, and the story was quite impossibly romantic—her real life happy ending was just beginning.
   We planned to see each other last fall but Life had conspiracies against our reunion. Kaye's mother became gravely ill and required her full attention. Her recovery was long and arduous and Kaye, of course, made her mother's health her priority. She even postponed her wedding from March to July to ensure her mother would be able to attend. It seemed we might be destined to live like star-crossed lovers, ever planning but never fulfilling our plans to meet. Then in January, Kaye invited me to visit her at her vacation home in Asheville, NC. We set a date in stone: May 13. After not seeing each other for eleven years, what were a few more months? During the months that followed, we continued to talk on at least a weekly basis, and Kaye held my hand across the miles during more than one crying jag. I would like to think I was there for her, too. Caring for a hospitalized parent is one of the hardest tasks we face, and I tried to lend my compassion to her as best I could during that time.
   Winter turned to spring. Tornadoes raged. Flood waters rose. Finally, finally it was May 13 and I drove up the winding roads into the Blue Ridge Mountains to meet my long, lost friend. We had a music festival to attend and bridesmaid dresses to pick out. (Yes, I'm going to be a bridesmaid again...) Best of all, we could finally sit and talk without having our ear pressed to a cell phone or receiver. You can imagine the girlish squeals that echoed across the Blue Ridge when I finally pulled into her drive away and she ran to meet me. We were right back where we were more than fifteen years ago, when we first met, cast back to the time when all things were possible. Yes, we are older and wiser, but that spark of friendship was there, burning bright.
   How does that happen? How is it that Kaye and I have remained friends all these years without even seeing each other, and hardly speaking to each other until a few months ago? How is that possible when other relationships—including my marriage—have fallen away? The answer is this: We held no expectation of each other. Kaye did not hold it against me that I was out of the loop when she was having health problems a few years back. Likewise, I never considered her absent in my life when my parents died or I lost my job. In those times, if either one of us had reached out, we certainly would have been there for each other. We trusted that our friendship remained, waiting to be tapped when the need arose, like the Bat Signal Police Chief Gordon shines when Gotham City is in peril. And yet, somehow we knew that now, at this point in our lives, we did need each other again. And our need was mutual and fulfilled.
   In this way, friendship becomes a wonderful exertion of Buddhist Practice. When I feel the tug of need from someone in my life, I can hold up this example of unconditional love and examine my sense of attachment that is causing my unhappiness. Romantic relationships often carry the weight of expectations that we never foist on friends. Why is it that I can go for years without hearing from a girlfriend and not feel a twinge of slight, but if a boyfriend fails to call at the prescribed moment, or doesn't properly acknowledge a birthday, I feel disappointed? What tangles up romantic relationships in attachment? What is it about love that makes us so blind? Why do we ask so much more of our significant others than we do of our platonic friends? I mean, if my (future) boyfriend were to say, "Hey honey, I love you but I have some other things to do right now. I'll be back in ten years!" it's doubtful I'd respond by saying, "Okay, darlin', that's great! See ya when you get back." But why? If we really loved and trusted each other, why would it matter? Why is it that we expect our lovers to be there for every sniffle and laugh? Why do we require our mates to validate us constantly, and grow angry or distant when they do not meet our expectations?
   I don't have the answers to this double-standard, but asking the right questions is a good first step. As I move out into the world and begin dating again, I hope I can put into practice the lessons in loving-kindness that I've learned from my dear friend. When people truly care for each other, the love is just there. Unconditional. Constant. Bat Signal or no. True love is just there, ready and waiting when the need arises. There's definitely something to this double standard, and even if I don't know the whys or the hows right now, perhaps I'm finally getting to the heart of the matter.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Eat. Pray. Eat.

Last weekend I traveled to a Vietnamese Buddhist Monastery. No passport required, I hopped in my Honda Civic and headed west—not east—and drove to Mississippi, almost to Memphis. There, in the heart of the Bible Belt, in the middle of cotton fields and white clapboard churches with dizzying steeples, resides a tranquil community of Buddhist practice called Magnolia Grove Monastery.
    From the winding country road, Magnolia Grove looks much like a Girl Scout camp with a modest buildings scattered along 120 acres of lush, rolling landscape. There is a common dining hall and simple dormitories for men and women. One distinguishing characteristic gives it away as a Buddhist retreat: A large, pale statue of Buddha, which stands nobly on an island in the middle of a lotus pond. As I drove up, I noticed half a dozen or so monastics, dressed in a brown robes and conical straw hats, arranging bouquets of bright wild flowers at the base of the statue.
   Magnolia Grove is home to thirty Buddhist monks and nuns from Vietnam who have claimed this remote southern locale as their retreat. Each has traveled his or her own journey to arrive at this slice of Nirvana. They are all followers of of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who was nominated for a Noble Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Vegan fare never looked, or tasted, so good.
The secret ingredient? Mindful intention.
   Far from the hum of highway traffic, the air was eerily quiet and yet filled with the familiar hum of birds, crickets and frogs. I quickly acclimated to the absence of commercial sound.
   My friend, Morgan, who visited Magnolia Grove a few months ago, traveled with me. I was grateful she filled me in on the customs during our four-hour drive. No sooner were we out of the car, stretching our legs,we heard the low moan of a gong. Morgan, who was chatting excitedly like a little girl returning to see her favorite grandmother, stopped in mid-sentence and bowed, and I quickly followed her lead. At the sound of every bell—even a cell phone chime—it is tradition to stop in silence and bow—like a spiritual version of musical chairs. This was one of the many mindful traditions practiced at Magnolia Grove. Here, every action—walking, meditating, talking, not-talking, eating, even washing dishes—is performed with mindful intention, underscoring the sense of meaning in every single step of life.
   Soon, a nun who spoke English with a beautiful Vietnamese lilt came to welcome us. We bowed deeply to her, and her to us. She showed us to our bunks in the women's dormitory, and asked us to join the Sangha (Buddhist community) for dinner.
   "Do you like vegan food?" Morgan asked me tentatively as we settled into the modest quarters. "Sure," I replied. "I mean, I guess I do." I admit I've been an omnivore most of my life. I did a brief stint as a vegetarian years ago, but found it impossible to resist the sweet, salty, smokiness of bacon. Yet, I felt certain that for twenty-four hours I could politely eat whatever was served by our gracious hosts. 
   The dinner bell rang and after our customary bow, Morgan and I walked to the dining hall. The aroma of the food told me I had nothing to fear. This was not going to be a meal of seeds and lentils. The food was laid out buffet style on a long table, and we were invited to help ourselves to the fragrant dishes. A large caldron of noodle soup, punctuated with fat, round dumplings floating amid tomatoes and mushrooms, perfumed the room. There were other Vietnamese delicacies, too. Dumplings wrapped in banana leaves and gelatinous, pale triangles that resembled flan were pilled upon trays. At the end of the table, a large wooden bowl overflowed with fresh greens and herbs. My stomach let out a happy gurgle.
  I watched as Morgan bowed before picking up her bowl, and I followed suit. Yes, I felt a bit conspicuous bowing to Chinette, but no more than I did bowing my head in prayer in the middle of Lubby's Cafeteria when I dined there with my parents. In that moment of pause, before I selected a large plastic soup bowl and wooden chop sticks, I gave thanks for entrance to this world, which was so very different than the one I left behind only four hours ago. Then I moved along the table and ladled steaming soup into my bowl, garnishing the top with clean-smelling cilantro. I piled greens in a smaller bowl and carried my dinner to the communal tables outside.
   We ate in Nobel Silence—which is a pretty way of saying, "Don't talk with your mouth full." This practice of focusing on the act of eating reminded me of the imposed silence in Jack's school cafeteria. The children are required to eat without talking for the first 10 minutes, but the sole purpose of that rule is to encourage them to actually eat! Here, Nobel Silence provides a means to truly appreciate one's food. Since you are not distracted by chatter, each bite is savored and appreciated. (And yes, using chop sticks to eat noodle soup was a practice in patience for me.)
   The food was simply delicious. Any swanky, five-star health spa would be proud to boast such fare. Consumed in Noble Silence, I tasted the exotic, yet comforting food as if it were my very first meal. It was exquisitely prepared, to be sure, and made from the purest, freshest ingredients, but the deliciousness of the food was magnified by the sense that I could truly relish the complex texture of the dumplings and each sweet note of fresh mint. I considered, too, the time it took the monastic chefs to prepare this feast. Hours had been spent chopping, rolling and steaming. Of course, preparing meals is opportunity for mindfulness practice, too, each dumpling created with intention to nourish our bodies and minds. (As much as I'd like to believe that the guy behind the counter at Subway gives a lot of thought to how my tuna on whole wheat, no cheese, is going to influence the rest of my day, I highly doubt that's the case.)
  Once finished with our meal, each diner took his or her plate to the wash station, which consisted of a series of six water-filled basins lined up on a table near the dining hall. The first basin contained clean water for rinsing off food particles. the second and third, warm, sudsy water, for washing. And the last three, clean water for rinsing off the soap. I followed Morgan as she dipped her dishes into each basin, and scrubbed and caressed each piece, until finally, bowls, cups, chop sticks and plates emerged clean at the end of the line. In this way, even washing dishes became a ritual of Buddhist practice. Yes, I actually enjoyed doing the dishes, and felt a twinge of guilt for all my teenage complaints regarding my mother's lack of electric dishwasher. This was a lovely way to end the meal.
  On Sunday night, I returned to Birmingham and western civilization with a greater appreciation for the simple tasks in life, and an affection for the traditions upheld by these Bible Belt Buddhists. As it happened, later in the week, I was given the perfect opportunity to put into practice what I learned there.
   I was asked to prepare dinner at Birmingham's Community Kitchen. The Kitchen is run by St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and serves daily hot lunches to homeless men and women. But in the wake of the recent tornadoes, the Red Cross asked the Kitchen to provide an evening meal as well to accommodate victims of the storms.
   So on Tuesday afternoon, I found myself in St. Andrew's commercial kitchen preparing pasta for 125 people. I have done this type of work before—about fifteen years ago—and I've watched more episodes of Iron Chef and Kitchen Impossible than I care to admit. I wasn't intimidated by the task. In fact, I looked forward to it. With so much in flux at this point in my life, getting out of my own drama and doing something for others is a great reality check. Inspired by my experience at Magnolia Grove, I planned the menu, adding one special ingredient to the grocery list: Fresh basil.
    Some friends, including Morgan, joined me in the kitchen. We didn't uphold Noble Silence, nor did we prepare vegan fare, but as we stirred enormous pots of steaming pasta over the large, hot stove, I did think about the men and women who would eat this food, hoping they would enjoy it.  I found a renewed affection for browning thirty pounds of ground beef and sauteing piles onions and garlic. When the red sauce simmered near completion, I added the fresh basil. The sweet, spicy scent permeated the air. Would the hungry diners notice the delicate brightness this fresh herb added to the otherwise hearty ragout? Maybe not. But it was an ingredient I would include if I were cooking sauce for my closest friends and family, so why provide anything less for this meal? I feel sure that's what the nuns at Magnolia Grove would do—if they were to forgo their vegan ways and find themselves stirring pots of meat sauce, that is.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

You Never Know

Most of the time, we go through life without an appreciation of how our presence effects others. We're busy doing all the things we must do to get through the day, the week, the month, the year. Usually, we're hurdling through space at break-neck speed to get to somewhere, anywhere. Along the way, we end up bumping into others, often without taking notice. Most of the time, we're too self-centered to see the connections and relevance. We think we propelled ourselves with little or no help from others, and we have little or no effect on them either. And yet, without exception, those intersections yield a variance in our course and within the lives of those we touch. Okay, enough conjecture and theory, here's example.

My past life as a marketing exec at TNT.
Pictured from left: Me, Tom Wages and Laura Dames.
   In 1995, I resigned my job at Turner Broadcasting. I had been at Turner for five years, and although successful by every measure, I was growing discontented and unhappy. Some might call it burn out, and surely that was part of it. I traveled frequently, was under constant pressure to meet deadlines, spent way too much time going from meeting to meeting, and was working in Marketing and Advertising, which was not exactly my bliss. I loved my colleagues and made many friends there, but something was missing. Ultimately, I quit to develop my skills as a writer. It was a very difficult decision to make, stepping off the edge of the known into the unknown, but I knew I had to do it.
   The decisive moment came when I was on a flight to New York. I nodded off upon the gentle rocking of the jetway taxi, and when I awoke mid-air, the thought crystalized with urgency: I've just got to quit my job now! Accepting my fate was exhilarating and terrifying. I had always wanted to write, but I had not taken the traditional path of attending journalism school, or getting my masters or Ph.D. in literature. I majored in English and then went straight to work in advertising, finding that the most compatible and lucrative means of supporting myself. So to leave behind a paycheck, insurance, 401K, stock options and the corporate ladder was a major step into the abyss. Still, I knew I had to go and follow my bliss. (And if this sounds familiar, yes, this was my first Do Over Life.)
  When I left TNT at the end of February, my job as Director of Advertising had yet to be filled. I hoped to train my replacement and make the transition a smooth one, but that was not the case. I loaded my trusty 1982 BMW 320i with my portable, manual typewriter, an early version of the macbook (which weighed almost as much as the portable typewriter) and an assortment of books and CDs and headed south. First stop, Seacrest Beach. Then on to New Orleans, and finally, San Miguel, Mexico. I traveled for two months before returning to Atlanta.
   When I got back, my old job was still unfilled, but it never occurred to me to pull the Prodigal Daughter routine and ask to return to the Turner fold. Although I still had no concrete means of supporting myself, I knew my decision to leave was sound.
  Soon I heard that my replacement had been named. I met her and we talked for a while about the job and then went our separate ways. Turner became my best client for my freelance writing and my replacement went on to enjoy a great run there. We hadn't had reason to connect in all these years.
   This weekend, while I was visiting a dear friend from my Turner days, a call came in from my TNT replacement, who is now running another cable network. As my friend chatted with her about a business proposal, she mentioned I was visiting. A moment later, my friend relayed a message: "She says to thank you for providing her with the big break in her career."
  I laughed. Imagine that! I left Turner because of my long-held desire to write, but I never imagined the implications my departure would have on someone else's career. If I had stayed there, my replacement would not have found her bliss. She would not be where she is today. No doubt, she'd still be successful, but in different way. I suppose if I wasn't happy with the way my life turned out, I might look at her success and say, "Well, that could have been me," but that was not the life I wanted, nor the path I chose. So I was thrilled to hear of her success and that my decision helped her—without my even knowing it. Nor did I take in this knowledge with a sense of self-importance. Rather, it was humbling to think that by following my instincts about what was right for me, I had set in motion a series of events. Perhaps other people left in my wake were not so positively effected. I will never know. But the sense that what we do in this life does effect others in so many ways gives me pause and encourages me to step lightly and with mindful deliberation.
   We don't know whose life we touch, for better or for worse.The best we can do is attend to our actions with the knowledge that we do constantly effect others. Our actions are stones that create ripples in a pond. We cannot control how the ripples will spread, but we must acknowledge that they will  be created and they will spread. The ripples will continue out to the shore, overlapping and connecting us all in seen and unseen ways. No matter how self-centered and unaware we are, our actions will effect others. We cannot control those outcomes, but we can make decisions for ourselves that are true in purpose and compassionate in nature. Give it some thought. Whose life will you touch today?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Bin Laden v. Tornado. What would my Dad say?

The death of Osama Bin Laden came at a strange time for those of us who live in cities devastated by last week's tornados. What Osama and a tornado have in common is devastation. Both the acts of terror on 9-11, for which he took credit, and the tornados that hit the south last week were unexpected and, at least for the victims, completely random. Both of these disasters, one man-wrought, the other natural, ripped holes in our landscape and in our hearts, and left fear and, yes, hatred. It seems we need someone to hate when bad things happen. Of course, Bin Laden made that easy. It's hard to hate a tornado.
   The outpouring of jubilation over the death of this murderer was disturbing to many, including myself. I have no doubt he was guilty of inciting, if not inflicting, great sorrow on the world. But does his death really solve anything? Does rejoicing in his absence make our world safer, or happier? Some say we are at a greater risk now because of the actions taken to hunt him down. The truth is, we were never safe. It is a hollow victory, an illusion, at best.
   Friends have asked me what the Buddhist perspective is on the killing of Bin Laden, and I've been somewhat surprised that I know the answer. It is this: Buddhism prescribes that killing any sentient being is wrong; however, there are exceptions. Buddhism isn't totally pacifist. In fact, one could argue that Buddhism is quite the opposite. Buddhists are activists of the highest order. Action, fueled by right intention, is part of the Buddhist path to enlightenment. We don't get many points for sitting around just thinking good thoughts; and we never get points for reacting to a situation. Action rather than reaction is always the goal. And this brings me back to the point: If one kills with the intention of saving lives, or ending further suffering by curtailing the evil actions of someone (ie: killing in self-defense), the action is justifiable. And yet, killing is never a laudable act in Buddhism, and the operative term is with the right intention.
   Jack was in utero when the 9-11 attacks occurred. He doesn't understand what it meant to live through that terrifying moment in history, but we talk about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how they are wrong, yet somehow necessary. It's confusing for both of us. Bin Laden's death is easier to bring down to a third grade level because there are so many tropes in contemporary epic literature (and cinema) I can point to for example. Star Wars and Harry Potter, to name two. In both of these epics, the hero/boy must face unspeakable evil with the realization that he too has the DNA for that same evil within him. Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter both carry the scars of the evil that is pervasive in their (mythical) worlds. Luke's father, Darth Vadar, is the embodiment of evil; and Harry discovers that he has had Lord Voldemort's powers coursing through his wizardy-veins since his babydom. Both boys have been chosen and, in turn, must choose to either follow the path of enlightenment or the path of evil. And for both of these heroes the challenge comes down to this: Will they allow hate and fear to overcome their love and compassion? Will they kill out of hate and revenge, or to protect all that is good? It is what is in their hearts at the moment they strike down their foe that matters. That's Buddhist practice. So as odd as this may sound, I hope the Navy SEALS who shot and killed Bin Laden did so with love in their hearts. I hope they went into that mission, not feeling hatred and vengeance towards a man, or a culture or a cult, or religion, but with the sense that they were protecting others from future harm.
   In his final days, my father's thoughts turned to another Evil Empire: Imperial Japan. His ability to speak had been diminished by a stroke, but his mind was quite clear. He told me he now thought dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong. "So many people suffered," he said. "And why?"
   "We had no choice," I countered, trying to sooth him. "If we hadn't dropped those bombs, how many more lives would have been lost in war? Japan would not give up. The United States knew that. You knew that Dad, you were there."
Members of the 165th Infantry after "takin' Makin" island in the Pacific.
My Dad is standing in the back row. He's fifth from the right, wearing a cap, of course.
   My father—who served in the Army in the Pacific, and was involved in mortal combat on the islands of Makin and Saipan—previously espoused that the nuclear strike on Japan ensured the end of the war—and most likely saved his life. He would have been among the troops sent into Japan to fight. On Saipan, he witnessed the fierceness of Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender. He saw the horrors of those would not come peacefully from caves and bunkers on the island. He was told these soldiers chose to be burned alive by flame throwers, rather than face a fate worse than death in their culture: surrender and dishonor. In truth, the Japanese soldiers and civilians on the islands had been told by their own propagandists that, if they were captured, the Americans would torture them unmercifully, or worse.
   As his life neared its close, my Dad found a different perspective. In effect, he wished that he had gone on to the island of Japan to fight and possible die, rather than have innocent civilians killed and hideously maimed in the nuclear blasts. At the end of his life, Dad thought this military act—long justified for ending a most-bloody war—was brought about by the United States' desire to flex it's superior muscle rather than for the noble intention of ending pain and suffering.
   As my Dad would say, "What is done, is done." Yet, we should consider what these recent events mean to us as we move forward in the world. Within one week, hundreds of people lost their lives in the storms that ravaged the South, and a notorious war criminal was killed, justice served. Today, do we sit with fear and hatred towards future tornados or towards the threat of future acts of terrorism? Both are inevitable. We cannot control terrorist acts any more than we can control the weather, but we can control our reactions to the events that occur to us and around us. Rejoicing the in the death of another, no matter how evil the person, hardly seems the appropriate response. I can understand this reaction, but it does no good in the world, and in fact, may encourage more harm. No, I did not have a loved one in the World Trade Center, nor on Flight 93 or at the Pentagon that day, but I do have a sense of what it means to forgive one's enemies. And I thank my father for that beautiful example and for sharing the perspective he gained in those blessed days at the end of his life.