Waiting is the Hardest Part

Last night, I participated in an interfaith concert event called Tangible Hope, which was put together by the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative (MIC). Every year we have an interfaith summit event, but this was the first year is was turned into a concert at the Wilma Theater.

It was a wonderfully diverse concert, starting with bagpipes and ending with a Christian rock band, with a hand bell ensemble, community choir, and local singer/songwriter sandwiched in between. Included in the mix were also a couple of speakers and two storytellers, which is where I came in.

After weeks of preparation and a workshop session with our local storytelling pro Marc Moss, who runs Tell Us Something here in Missoula, here’s what I came up with along the topic theme of Tangible Hope:

In the fall of 2002, when I was 23 years old, I started a weekly meditation group called Be Here Now, based in the Buddhist tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. And for the first 8-years, I was the sole facilitator of the group. Flash-forward to present day, we are now over 15 years old and have grown from a small meditation group into an active, vibrant, and relatively large sangha. And in Buddhism, the word sangha means: spiritual community. In our tradition, sangha is one of the most important and highly emphasized components that we are called to develop and strengthen in our daily lives. Sangha is an action verb; and it’s a quality of heartfulness that propels us in the direction of cultivating brotherhood and sisterhood. And for me, when I practice to fully embody the spirit of sangha, I’m also able to encounter it wherever I go.

As an example: I remember a time a few years ago when I was standing in a long security line at the LAX airport. I had just spent 4-weeks on a retreat at Deer Park monastery, which is based in our tradition located in southern CA, so I went from this beautiful, sequestered and quiet environment to a place that was decidedly quite different: LAX. And as I was standing in that security line a wonderful insight arose, which was that I didn’t feel as though I had left a lovely setting with my extended sangha friends and was now tossed into a hectic and unpleasant environment filled with grumpy strangers; I felt as though I had simply transitioned from one sangha to another – from my monastery sangha to my air traveling sangha. This insight allowed me to interact with the space and the people around me in a different way – a way that was more open, friendly, caring, and kind. So, when I look and operate through the lens of sangha I experience it wherever I go, all around me because I carry it with me and I actively create it.

Our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says that sangha is more than a community, it’s a deep spiritual practice. So, it involves relationship building, spending time together, learning how to communicate and negotiate with various personalities and ways of doing things – it involves interacting with everyone around us in a way that promotes love and connection. And oftentimes the work of sangha building, of community and relationship building, is not easy. I’m reminded of our very first Be Here Now council meeting, which took place in November of 2010. There were 7 of us in attendance and it was the first time we were delving into the group becoming more of a collective endeavor, vs. just me holding down the fort. People shared a wealth of feedback and input mostly centered around all the changes they wanted to see have made; things we weren’t doing that we should be doing, things we were doing that we shouldn’t be doing, format adjustments, and so on. And what I recall most about this first meeting is getting home afterwards and breaking down crying. I was so overwhelmed, wondering how we would be able to incorporate everyone’s ideas and changes they wanted to see made and I was filled with worry that the simplicity and loveliness of our group was going to be lost. So, while it took some time to adjust and find our way together as a council and we had some growing pains, it was also the most beneficial thing we could’ve done to help ensure the health and vibrancy and stability of our group. So while it’s often challenging to do this work of sangha building, it’s also incredibly important that we do it.

And I’m so very grateful to be part of a tradition that ushers us in this direction and that we have the great fortune to be partners with the MIC in this regard, so that we can extend our capacity for sangha building outwards to include our interfaith sangha, which then ripples out to include our citywide Missoula sangha, our statewide Montana sangha, our nationwide American sangha, and our global worldwide sangha. Because the good news is: we’re all in this together, truly, there is no separation. And for this reality – and the opportunity that we have to be part of this interfaith collaborative – I am filled with joy and appreciation, because it’s this work that will allow us to continue beautifully into the future.

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Everyone Has A Story

To listen to this post being read on my podcast, click here.

This post is in honor of World Storytelling Day, which by happenstance was yesterday (March 20th), the same day as was arranged our quarterly live storytelling event here in town called Tell Us Something (TUS). A pairing which was entirely coincidental by its orchestrater, Marc Moss.

The TUS guidelines for storytelling are as follows: they have to be about true personal experiences, fit in the span of 10 minutes, centered around the chosen theme, and must be given without the use of notes. Last night’s theme was: Right place, right time. 8 local storytellers got up on stage at the Wilma Theater, in front of a well-packed 850-seat venue of friendly faces, ready to listen.

Here’s my account of the evening, in order of appearance on stage:

1. Alex wore an orange Marty McFly vest and jazzy 80’s decor ball cap to regale us with a story about his last excursion to ComiCon, and encountering not 1, not 2, but 3 Deloreans, one of which he got the lifelong lasting pleasure to take a ride in. With the delightful confidence I’d never seen in a 13-year-old, he kicked off the evening with a breath of hope for our future, which I’m certain translated to every member of the audience.

2. His name was Michael, which meant I liked him right away, as derivatives of that name have followed me around in droves all my life and have always treated me well. He spoke artfully of his 70 years of life in the span of just 10 minutes, somehow managing to weave together having had a heart-attack, both in the literal and metaphorical sense, when his wife left him for another man, self re-invention, and travels over-seas.

3. Sarah opened with a mention of Ani Difranco, calling her a “weapons grade feminist folk singer,” which meant I liked her right away, too. The topic of divorce also made a cameo in her story, having left her husband for a woman whom she now has a child with. I saw fit to pen these two quotes from her in my pocket-sized notebook: “Whatever you do out of love, you can’t do it wrong,” and “I can only be where I am when I’m there.”

4. Heather wore a flower-print dress and continued in comradic fashion the theme of divorce. Like the others, it wasn’t in a sad country-song accord but more of a hard heart moment mentioning that spurred a re-posturing of a life once thought figured out. She spoke about her travels to Malawi, Africa, being a dancer, and ended by saying: “The Africa I went to see was not what I wanted, but it was what I needed.”

During the intermission, I shot up from my seat and went to stand against the wall next to the aisles, to write frantically in my pocket-sized notebook. Here’s what I wrote in mildly illegible form, as the theater sprang to life with a mixture of chatter and rustling about: (NOTE: while I’m tempted to make slight edits to this bit of writing for the sake of clarity and ease of reading, I’m resisting the urge and will include it just as I wrote it, hoping it makes some sort of sense)

These stories cut like butter on the battlefield of what it means to be human – and I pulsate with electricity like a bolt of lightning tossed to a tree top, firing up the atoms of everything in sight. I listen, absorbing inspiration like ears to sound in the wake of stories being told – and it’s words that matter, maybe it’s all that really does – I’m juiced up, ready to steamroll anyone in my way like an avalanche – shoot, I’ve got so much to say that I can’t write fast enough – this freekin theater is packed with story listeners being given permission to live their lives without shame, becoming unburdened by the fact that we stand in our own way when it comes to learning how to love and be loved, unfettered and free – and I want to take up shop situated on the shoulder of every person here and listen to their story, so I can keep on learning how to be myself amid the fray.

 

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Good or Bad? We’ll Have To Wait and See

Photo Credit: Mike Williams Photography, posted on twitter

Yesterday morning, in my twitter feed, I came across both of these photos I’m including in this post (see other one below). They were taken by the local landscape photographer Mike Williams, whom I enjoy the work of. This above pic was accompanied by the hashtag: badroads, while the pic below had hashtags such as: backroads and fallcolor. Gathering from the hashtag distinctions of what seemed to amount to the classic – and what I would judge to be un-beneficial – determining of what constitutes as “good” and “bad,” I was reminded of the sharing of a version of the story below, that our local dharma teacher Rowan told during our open mic night at the Open Way Mindfulness Center on Saturday evening.

 

The Old Man and his Horse (a.k.a. Sai Weng Shi Ma)

Once there was an old man who lived in a tiny village. Although poor, he was envied by all, for he owned a beautiful white horse. Even the king coveted his treasure. A horse like this had never been seen before — such was its splendor, its majesty, its strength.

People offered fabulous prices for the steed, but the old man always refused. “This horse is not a horse to me,” he would tell them. “It is a person. How could you sell a person? He is a friend, not a possession. How could you sell a friend.” The man was poor and the temptation was great. But he never sold the horse.

One morning he found that the horse was not in his stable. All the village came to see him. “You old fool,” they scoffed, “we told you that someone would steal your horse. We warned you that you would be robbed. You are so poor. How could you ever protect such a valuable animal? It would have been better to have sold him. You could have gotten whatever price you wanted. No amount would have been too high. Now the horse is gone and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”

The old man responded, “Don’t speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”

The people contested, “Don’t make us out to be fools! We may not be philosophers, but great philosophy is not needed. The simple fact that your horse is gone is a curse.”

The old man spoke again. “All I know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest I don’t know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say. All we can see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?”

The people of the village laughed. They thought that the man was crazy. They had always thought he was a fool; if he wasn’t, he would have sold the horse and lived off the money. But instead, he was a poor woodcutter, and old man still cutting firewood and dragging it out of the forest and selling it. He lived hand to mouth in the misery of poverty. Now he had proven that he was, indeed, a fool.

After fifteen days, the horse returned. He hadn’t been stolen; he had run away into the forest. Not only had he returned, he had brought a dozen wild horses with him. Once again, the village people gathered around the woodcutter and spoke. “Old man, you were right and we were wrong. What we thought was a curse was a blessing. Please forgive us.”

The man responded, “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. State only that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not? You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read only one page of a book. Can you judge the whole book? You read only one word of one phrase. Can you understand the entire phrase?”

“Life is so vast, yet you judge all of life with one page or one word. All you have is one fragment! Don’t say that this is a blessing. No one knows. I am content with what I know. I am not perturbed by what I don’t.”

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Mundane Moments Brought to Life

One of the writing avenues I’ve been traversing upon lately, involves working on my second book, for which the subtitle will help you glean its premise: Short Stories of Alleged Humor & Insight – my plan being to include non-fiction stories by which I can insert both elements. I use the word alleged because one of my greatest and ongoing hopes is that my own brand of whit and wisdom has the capacity to travel outside of my own use. While I routinely find myself extremely delightful and funny, the question always remains: Will anyone else? And so, as a writer, it is my sincere hope that my words are  translatable.

Something worth mentioning: I’m not a skilled storyteller. While you wouldn’t know it, based on how much I write here on my blog, I am a less-is-more sort of gal, in terms of verbal dialog and social interactions. My idea of a face-to-face response to the question: How did you meet your husband? would be something like: Through some mutual friends. I would then just stop talking, considering that answer good enough. My husband, on the other hand, would tell the whole lovely and winding tale, consisting of all the kismet qualities that bring it to life and create interest for those hearing our story for the first time. And I am quite aware that his version is far more engaging than mine.

So, given that I’ve decided to craft a book in which I’m really not qualified to write, I’ve taken to composing stories about mundane or otherwise seemingly uneventful moments, which on the surface seem not to posses much of anything in the intrigue-department, in order to actively practice honing the art required for the book I’m writing: the art of storytelling. I’m happy to report that the practice is going well. And, since I need all the practice I can get, here’s another hopeful attempt:

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