Two Hands Full of Dust

I am at the Garden of a Thousand Buddhas, just north of Missoula, Montana, where I have come to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. My mom, my sister, and I have taken a day trip to see this sacred place, carved out in the middle of nowhere. When I first heard of this Buddha garden, I envisioned lush green grounds, with a thousand different Buddha statues spread throughout a labyrinthine Eden.

Like much of the rest of my life, the place I now find myself in no way resembles my preconceived notions of where I thought I would be. This “garden” is flat and arid, stark and dry, surrounded by mountains, with very little greenery. It is much more open and unobstructed than I had envisioned, somehow simultaneously desolate and beautiful.

The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas is designed in the shape of an 8-spoked Dharma Wheel, and the one thousand Buddha statues are placed along the spokes of this wheel. According to the written summary we received at the gate, “each of these handmade concrete statues contains prayers, mandalas and blessed substances.”

After the unexpected delightful circumstance of meeting the current Buddhist abbott at the entrance, my mother, sister and I decide to go our separate ways, exploring in our own manner, at our own pace.

I take some time to sit on a bench and just take in the scenery, do a little writing, breathe out some of the tension I’ve brought along on my trip west. This fall has seen me take on a new endeavor–teaching Spanish to middle-schoolers–an unexpected bend in the road that is my life’s journey. I’m sure there are lessons I’m learning, am supposed to learn, at this stage of the game. But do they have to be so difficult, so taxing, so painful? I feel like I’ve been doing nothing but whine for the last two months. Even I am tired of hearing my constant litany of complaints.

And I think about family. Families can be so complicated sometimes, I think.  Or maybe we make them more complicated than they need to be. Maybe families are just everybody doing the best that they can on any given day, and sometimes getting it right, and sometimes missing the mark. Sometimes it’s about learning to find your voice and saying “no’. Sometimes it’s about learning to say “yes”. Sometimes it’s about “I’m sorry”, and hopefully it can be about “I love you.”

And if you weren’t born into that kind of a family, sometimes it’s about saying “I’m sorry you can’t see my beauty, and I deserve to find people who do”, then finding a place where people love and value and respect who you are, and claim you as their own. That can be family too.

After breathing out my teaching stress, and my family stress, and my rushing from the classroom to the airport and making it through the security line stress, I finally relax into my bench, and become aware that there is a prayer wheel some twenty yards to my right, making a rhythmic ringing noise as it spins. It is a large brownish metal cylinder, which rotates continually, covered by a triangular “hat” and a larger protective canopy. The prayer wheel has symbols carved into its surface, symbols whose meaning I don’t know, but can only guess. And I am finally restored enough to explore.

I meander back and forth through rows of seemingly identical white Buddha figurines, and discover that some of them are marked at the base with small nameplates. These list an individual’s Tibetan name, followed by an English name, such as “Protected by Dragons”, “Pinnacle of Wisdom”, or “Best Intellect”, and seem to describe the breakthrough moment when these individuals (are they perhaps the equivalent of Catholic saints?) “first generated the mind of enlightenment”. Now I am intrigued. What great deeds or prayers, I wonder, might take one from the realm of the daily, the ordinary, to the “mind of enlightenment”?

I read the inscriptions on the plaques, several of which mention people doing grand deeds, but more often than not, point to very kind and simple deeds and offerings. One, I read was “a hunter who offered to point out the way on the road.” Another, “the daughter of a prostitute, when offering a mirror”. A third was inscribed as “a seller of dried cow dung fuel who offered it so that the Tathagata known as Praised by the Wise could wash his begging bowl.”

The one that finally stops me short, strikes me to the core, and brings me to tears,  reads: “he was a young boy who offered a double handful of dust.”

For weeks I have felt desperate because my knowledge and meager attempts at teaching have seemed so woefully inadequate.  I am constantly overwrought, insecure. Never mind that everyone tells me that this is normal for first-year teachers. It doesn’t feel normal to me. Those murky demons named “never good enough” and “not ok to make mistakes” have reared their ugly heads and are battling mightily for possession of my soul. Many days they win.

And yet, I read, one boy first generated the mind of enlightenment by humbly offering a “double handful of dust”. Even I, woefully inadequate as I often feel, can offer that much, I am most certain. And some days, that’s the very best I have to offer.

Could it be that I am not called to do an exceptional job, to be successful, even to feel like I know what I’m doing? Every day I go to school, I am in relationship with friends and family, I cross paths with strangers. Can it possibly be enough to simply offer what I have available–a compassionate heart and two willing hands, full of joy, or hope, or some days, simply dust? Somehow, I think it can.

The prayer flags posted around the perimeter of the garden are tattered, weathered spirits holding sacred intentions. As are we. And in the distance, the prayer wheel is still ringing, and the prayers continue to rise.



Once again I find myself at the ARC retreat center, with a comfortable pen, a familiar chair, a well-worn journal, and a spectacular vantage point. Here I give myself permission to just be me, allowing myself time to simply sit and breathe, to let the accumulated layers of worry and exhaustion and stress drop away one by one by one. This place reminds me to let my body relax, convinces my mind to step out of its self-imposed hamster wheel, and frees my spirit to float ever-so-gently to the surface.

Last night I dreamed that a woman I didn’t know told me she needed some space–that she needed to break up with me. I was slightly anxious, but even more confused. Had I been married to this woman? And if so, why didn’t I recognize her? I looked around the house to see where she’d been a part of my life, and there was no evidence of her anywhere—she’d never lived at my home, so how could I have been married to her?

Obviously, this woman represents an important part of me, one that’s been underfed and unattended to. She’s my soul, saying to my ego (who thinks SHE’s all there is of me): “I need to separate from you and be my own person.” I’m sad to realize there hasn’t been room for her at home. She’s the one who has brought me to the ARC. She’s the one who urges me to take a nap.

After napping, I decide to walk the labyrinth. For this short journey, I bring along a glass of water and a piece of chocolate cake. I enter the labyrinth with the intention of letting go, of leaving behind everything that isn’t useful anymore, of unloading old habits and messages, as well as other people’s baggage that I seem to carry, whether they’ve asked me to or not. As I wind my way inward, I notice a small feather, and nearly stoop to pick it up. I catch myself just in time—I don’t need to add to my load.

I reach the center, stand still for several moments, and visualize myself removing a heavy backpack and laying it to rest at my feet. My, that was heavier than I realized. I sit cross-legged, rest awhile, and eat my sumptuous repast. I am reminded of Elijah under the broom tree, ministered to by ravens and angels. I breathe deeply, taking in the crisp fall air, and imagine sending my roots down deep, far to the center of the earth, down to the world’s well of deepest wisdom. “Is there anything else I need to let go of?” I ask. I wait. The still, small voice answers: “Self-doubt.” Again I ask, “What do I need to take with me on this journey?” There is a long silence, and I finally get it. This part of the journey is about letting go, not about taking on more.

A song runs through my head. It starts faintly, and I recognize it from “Pinocchio”: “I’ve got no strings to hold me down, to make me fret, or make me frown. I’ve got no strings, so now I’m free. I’ve got no strings on me.” I laugh and resume my journey.

I wind my way slowly out of the labyrinth. Again I see the small feather I had noticed on my way in. This time I choose to take it with me. I have room for it now. It’s a lot lighter than the heavy burden I left behind, a reminder of the weightlessness of letting go. As I approach the gateway at the end of the labyrinth, I take my shoes off. I tread more lightly now, aware that, back in the “real” world, in my everyday life, I’m treading on holy ground.

Walking back up the hill toward the retreat center, enjoying the feel of the rough ground and crunching leaves beneath my stockinged feet, I receive the answer to the question I asked earlier, “What do I need to take with me on this journey?” The question that was previously met with silence. “You already have everything you need for this journey.” You just have to remember to stop picking up things that aren’t yours to carry, and to make use of that most important instrument of all—your own inner compass.”

Blessedly, I’m no longer afraid of dying, but I am afraid of never having lived, so I direct my compass to take me home, back to my heart’s desire, where my long-lost soul has a fire burning in the hearth, and a kettle on the stove. She is watching for me from the window so she can be the first one to greet me and welcome me home.

Everything’s Kosher, Except the Ham

Offering hospitality has long been an important value to me—I love the idea of welcoming, embracing, of making room. Of providing rest, respite and sanctuary to others. But being on the receiving end of hospitality can sometimes be more challenging. This is the story of how, one Christmas season, hospitality came to me in a very powerfuI way.

The call came early. It was still dark. My stepmom cried out in anguish—“he’s gone, Cindy, your father’s gone.” And so he was.

My father’s death was sudden, and, for me at least, unexpected. Although he lived with several chronic illnesses, my father’s health had been stable—there had been no recent decline. He was 76 years old.

Days later, we held the memorial service for my dad. Although he was not technically Jewish, his wife was; her mother always joked that her son-in-law the doctor (my dad held a PhD in Chemistry) had a Jewish soul, and so it was that we held his memorial service at a nearby synagogue. Practical joker that he was, he would probably have been amused to know that his ashes inadvertently spent the memorial service inside a Target bag in the rabbi’s study.

That evening, we sat shivah at my home.

As an observing Methodist, my experience with the custom of sitting shivah was only literary. I was aware of the Jewish tradition of accompanying the bereaved in their home for several nights after the death of a loved one.

In theory, sitting shivah sounded like a beautiful concept. As a practical matter, I wasn’t so sure. I was somewhat apprehensive about the prospect of 200+ friends and acquaintances descending upon our mid-sized home. My dazed, grieivng mind could not embrace the logistics. How would everyone fit? Where would we put them? How would we feed them all?

It was, both my stepmom and the rabbi assured me, not my problem. It would all be taken care of. All I had to do was show up.

Accustomed as I was to midwest Protestant memorial services followed by church basement luncheons that inevitably included some form of jello salad (an oxymoron in and of itself) I tried unsuccessfully to wrap my mind around how this would all work. My brain broke, and I did the only thing I could do—I threw up my arms and let go.

And amazingly, miraculously, magically, without my doing anything more than opening the doors, we sat shivah for my father in our home, and the hospitality came to us.

The shivah committee arrived an hour or so before the guests, set up the dining room, brought chairs and serving dishes, and took over the kitchen. I was continually and good-naturedly shooed away. Christian tradition has so pounded into our collective psyche the adage that it is “better to give than to receive” that we are often unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with being on the receiving end of hospitality. Sitting and doing nothing while strangers took over my kitchen was anathema to just about every social rule I’d been brought up with.

Guests began to arrive, many bringing with them sweet treats, as is the Jewish custom—providing something sweet to take the bitterness out of grieving. Some people I knew, many I did not.

One especially welcome guest, the teenage son of a good friend of mine, arrived with a very special contribution, accompanied by an earnest introduction that would have done Garrison Keillor proud: “My mom sends this with her love. Everything’s kosher except the ham, and the hot sauce is Lutheran, so it’s pretty mild.” There ensued an intense consultation in the kitchen regarding what to do with the ham. I didn’t want to offend Jewish sensibilities (particularly my stepmom’s) by putting it out. The shivah committee assured me that it was my home, and I could do whatever I wanted.   As I recall, we put it in the fridge and dined on delicious ham throughout the week.

Back in the living room, the service was about to start, and I was greatly comforted by the gathering of so many, both known and unknown to me, to honor the memory of this contentious man I loved and argued with and wDsc02561c2as honored to have called my father.

There was special music, there were prayers in Hebrew and in English, there were strangers and friends. There were Christians, Jews and my devout Muslim friend who is dearer to me than a brother.

After the service, there was food (I was not allowed to serve myself—a plate and beverage were brought to me.) There were stories and memories and poems, and there were kind and caring words of condolences.

All in my living room. All lifting my burden. All helping my father’s soul make the journey to its next home. And all I had to do was say yes, open my doors, sit down and let go. Maybe I should try doing that more often.

Traveling Light

Traveling light, both physically and metaphorically is something I’ve had due time to consider over the last ten days. I’ve discovered that what looks like a light load when assembled in piles on one’s bed appears a lot heavier when measured against miles of airport concourses, train terminals, city cobblestones and metro stairwells.  The two suitcases I purchased for this trip have been worth the investment for the wheels alone; they turn on a dime and are easy to manipulate.  The expandable feature, however, has been a mixed blessing; it’s allowed me to squeeze extra items in, but makes the suitcases fall forward unexpectedly at inconvenient moments. So far I have been successful at maintaining YouTube anonymity throughout my journey.  One may wish to be known worldwide, but I prefer that my ten minutes of illusory fame (if and when they arrive) might not involve a humorous video starring me, my luggage, and an escalator.

As I was preparing my piles before actually packing my suitcases, I spoke with a kindred spirit, a dear friend of mine who often packs more, rather than less.  She would have made the ideal contestant on “Let’s Make a Deal” the game show where, among other things, women were routinely rewarded for bringing a variety of unusual items to the studio in their purses.  An umbrella, a hatchet, a roll of duct tape?  No problem.  Shoelaces, a tube of super glue, your kids’ immunizations records?  Right here.  Nose hair  clippers, corkscrew, map of Rhode Island?  Never leave home without them.  My friend is one of those people who’s ready for anything.  Whether at work or away on vacation, if you need something, she’s got it.  We talked about the pros and cons of packing this way and she recalled: “one of the first major trips I packed for was a journey to West Africa, where nothing would be available, and I seem to have been packing that way ever since, regardless of where I’m going.”  I never travelled to West Africa, but I was raised on the Girl Scout motto: “Be Prepared.”  But does that motto translate to packing every item you might possibly need, or does it mean being ready improvise or search out whatever you might need if the occasion arises?  Part of the habit of over-preparedness stems, at least for me, from the notion that if I need something I’ve forgotten to pack, I’m going to have to ask for it in Italian or French, which feels like a daunting task.

Before packing each item, I weighed the pro of having it if I really needed it vs. the con of hauling it around without ever needing to use it.   So I opted to include the first aid kit (which I blessedly haven’t needed) but left home without a sewing kit (which I could have used).  Turns out, in Italy, there are pharmacies readily available, but I have no idea what kind of store sells needle and thread.  I did buy good walking shoes, (thankfully) and brought along moleskin for blisters.  But the foot pain I’ve had has little to do with feet rubbing on shoes, and everything to do with centuries-old, deformed cobblestones jutting up every which way, and grinding daily into the soles of my feet, good shoes and socks notwithstanding.  I brought a water-proof layer (thankfully) but left the umbrella at home—good call, as in Italy, umbrella salesmen pop up at the first hint of rain, and accost anyone not already carrying an umbrella.  I packed a pillow and light blanket as well (pillow helpful, blanket superfluous) for the transatlantic flight.

I started off so proud of my light packing efforts.  One medium suitcase, one carry-on piece, and a large handbag; not too bad for a three-week trip abroad, I thought, especially considering that one third of my large bag was full of gifts and goodies for my college student children.  Unimaginably, I had limited myself to two pairs of shoes, but the change of season provided a bit of a packing challenge, for which I carried several layers of outerwear.   Not knowing how available laundry facilities might be also compelled me to bring more clothing than might have been necessary otherwise.  Although my stay in Rome was at a lovely efficiency that came equipped with a washing machine (right where the oven should have been—I’ll write later about attempting to cook Thanksgiving dinner), my one try at washing my clothes in Rome netted a lovely set of soggy and well-rinsed garments that the soap never touched.  In the cool Rome weather, this clothing took over two days to dry in the bathroom, so that even after receiving clarification from the landlord as to which receptacle of the washing machine the soap belonged in (section II rather than section I) I didn’t dare wash again for fear that I’d be transporting a suitcase full of clothes that, while clean, were still quite damp.  So I awoke today to find that the only item of clean clothing I had left to wear was my Choo Choo Bob’s t-shirt.  Some part of me thought I might clean up my act and be fashionable in Europe.  The universe, apparently, is having the last laugh.

Yesterday’s travel challenge: the Rome to Rennes leg of my journey: a 13-hour sojourn that involved a six-block walk, a local train, a two-hour flight, a shuttle bus, the Paris metro, a three-hour wait in the Paris train station, a two-hour train ride, another metro and a local bus.  Home for the week is a sweet flat in Rennes on–you guessed it–the fourth floor.

I am reminded of images of the remains of travelers on the Oregon trail.  The further west they travelled, the more of their belongings were left strewn on the prairie; what once appeared to be an item of estimable value eventually became a burden and was jettisoned to improve one’s chances of survival.  Not a useful comparison, perhaps, for my brief European tour, but one that gives me pause, nonetheless.  I have several unplanned days next week at the end of my journey, and I find myself weighing the pros and cons of my options based, to at least some degree, on the hassle of hauling all my stuff around with me.

So my physical baggage (the French is plural “bagages”) is getting in the way of my free spirit.  Hmmm.  Some more food for thought.  And what about the other kind of baggage?  Those attitudes and expectations that keep us from traveling light?  That, my friends, will have to be the topic of another post–all the baggage hauling from yesterday has prepared me for that famous international afternoon activity–the nap.



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