Season of Wonder, Star of Light

It is a lazy, rainy December 24th here in my Virginia woods. My Jewish friends are lighting the last light of Hanukkah tonight, and my Christian pals are planning to read the story of Jesus, a baby in a manger who is the reason for their celebration. Buddhist mentors are meditating the gratitude of this day, like every day, and atheists are eagerly anticipating family, friends, presents, candy and laughs. Even those grouchy folks who mutter “I hate Christmas” are starting to soften a bit. By this time of the year we’ve figured out that we are not as different as we are the same in mid-winter – we all celebrate the light.

light

Well, maybe not cats.

The message in this season – whatever season it may be – is one of definite clarity. In the midst of darkness light still shines. The miraculous light in the temple, the light of the Christ, the lightness of being or the light of loved ones. Light shines. This year I know of no better message for all of us.

For my two dear friends who each lost a spouse to death this year – the light of their love is still with you.

For my friends who grieve loved ones long lost who still haunt and call their name – the light of your love is still with them.

For artists and writers looking for doors to open, work to do, people to reach – the light inspiration beckons you to keep going.

For prisoners and captives, slaves and sufferers who are chained to dark situations – we remember you; we are seeking ways to free you – in body or in mind. Keep hope. Keep light. It’s shining. I promise.

For happy people who embrace their blessings and love their lives – you are the beneficiary and also a source. Keep sharing the light.

For New York, Ferguson, Florida, Wisconsin and every place struggling with injustice, malice, racism, anger and loss – there IS light  – we must work together, we must find it – because it’s there, and we all need it.

For a world ravaged with hunger and disease, violence that dares to call itself “religion”, economic fear, and military presence – There are people in every one of those places who have the potential to be helpers, healers, and hopeful carriers of light. Let’s support them; let’s empower them. Let’s rekindle their light.

For a world filled with the most wonderful things, scientific discovery, amazing cuisine, beautiful lands, lovers, poets, dreamers and children – shine, shine, shine, shine. We call on you to shine.

This spring we will experience another group of celebrations all competing in the same space – Passover, Easter, Spring Rebirth, Ohigan (a Buddhist ceremony celebrating the spirits of the dead reaching Nirvana), and Bahai New Year – and they all have one message too.  The death angel passing over, the resurrection of Christ, the rebirth of the earth, spirits receiving bliss or a new start – it all tells us – “Death is NOT an end.”

But that is for another time – for now – let us look to the light.

light2

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Here’s 10 MORE Great Gifts for Writers

The most popular blog post, by far, of 2013 was my 10 Best Gifts for Writers post. To keep the joy and words flowing – check out the original ten, and if you’ve already given your favorite writer all of those – then here’s some more great presents for your wordsmith.  

Fresh Fruit – Writers aren’t the healthiest people. We sit inside for long periods of time hunched over notebooks or in front of computers drinking massive amounts of caffeine to get us through the next draft. What we really need is some strawberries, oranges or healthy snacks to keep us going. We aren’t likely to turn the computer off long enough to go to the store. So drop off a bag of healthy snacks every once in a while.

Chocolate of the Month – It’s important to remember writers face a lot of pain in our work. There’s the pain of editing (what Stephen King calls “killing your darlings” – doesn’t that sound fun?), the horror of proofreading, and the complete torture of the query process (where you face your fears about rejection by experiencing some almost every day – until the sweet victory of a sample-call happens).  We hurt!  We need comfort. Godiva, Ghirardelli and other companies have “Chocolate of the Month” clubs.  Send a little sweet love our way.

Museum Membership – Writers need reasons to get out of the house. We don’t want to just waste our time doing things like mowing the lawn or walking aimlessly in a park somewhere. We want to fill our cup with sights, sounds and wisdom so we can go write some more. Give the gift of a membership to a local museum, gallery, or group that fills your writer with joy and get his or her butt out of the chair.

Postcards from Penguin – A writer who doesn’t love books is like a chef who doesn’t like to eat. Writers and books are the definition of a long-term relationship. Indulge your writer’s great affair with these wonderful postcards featuring 100 covers from some of the most iconic Penguin books. It will bring a smile, and inspiration, for a long time to come.

 Online Gift Card to the Writer’s Digest Shop – If you’re not a writer, it is hard to know what your writer might need to help learn and grow in the craft.  The Writer’s Digest Shop has books on all kinds of things – Character Development, Querying a Manuscript, Plot Twists, etc. Since we aren’t likely to tell you our weaknesses (we don’t want to think about our weak background characters, let alone admit them to you), just give a gift certificate to the Writer’s Digest Shop. Or – give a subscription to Writer’s Digest.

Foot Massager – If you pass on the chocolate, but are still tired of your writer being so stressed piano wire looks easy-going – consider giving a little physical comfort to help sooth those rough sentences out. Foot massagers help provide circulation (remember, we don’t move around a lot), stimulate new ideas though invigorating the nerves, and just make you feel loved. Don’t get the kind that requires water, though. Nobody has time for that.

Writer’s Market or Publisher’s Marketplace Membership – If your writer is finishing up a manuscript and is ready to begin submitting it to agents and publishers, he or she is going to need a lot of love, comfort AND a good resource of where to find the best place for the work. Writer’s Market allows you to track submissions and gives you searchable, verified information about agents and markets.  Publisher’s Marketplace gives you lists of available agents/markets, tracking information about your book, sales info for self-publishers and connections. Think of it this way – if your writer’s manuscript doesn’t get in – at least he or she didn’t have to pay for the rejection. If it does – then YOU just helped someone get on the ground floor of a dream come true. It’s a win!

Story Cubes – Fun for the whole family, and a great way to get your writer to spend some time with you for a change. Story cubes also work wonders for sparking creativity, inspiration or provide tools for writing exercises. The game can be played alone or others (get a few drinks in your writer, throw the dice and watch the adjectives fly!) and is a good source of word oriented amusement.

Tequila Mockingbird – Speaking of getting a few drinks in your writer – Liquor (like the chocolate or the foot massager) is a great gift. But, if you don’t want to be responsible for your writer drunk sexting the beta reader who didn’t like the book’s ending, just give this delightful book of drink recipes based on literature.  Funny and delicious – Tequila Mockingbird is sure to please.

Lounge Pants – One of the best thing about writing is that there is no “uniform” to go with it. You don’t have to dress up, or even wear business casual. Word casual is where it’s at. Buy some lounge pants in your writer’s favorite motif (Star Wars, Football, Simpsons…) and give the gift of comfort. You’ll also be giving yourself the gift of peace, because your writer will finally have pants on!

So – toss away the boring old notebook, unused pens, weird old dictionary and the deluxe edition of Words with Friends – and give something your writer will really love. Remember, it is the thought that counts – and the thought writers need most is:  “Keep writing, you’re doing great!”

CHristmas 2 writers


A City of Two Tales: Dealing with the Dissonant Narratives of Bill Cosby

I’ve been silent about the accusations and media surrounding Bill Cosby because there are so many voices clattering the sound of mine is unnecessary and unlikely to be heard.  I’ve also been engaging in my own process of shock-grief-acceptance.

My process looked like this:

Eye Roll: I saw a trending article on facebook that comedian Hannibal Burress called Bill Cosby a rapist.  Reaction: “Geez, that’s low.”

Curiosity: The next day I asked some friends if they had ever heard that Bill Cosby might have raped someone. One of them said, “No, I love him.” The other, an 82 year old woman nodded. She said quietly, as if confessing a deep secret, “I’ve heard that before.”  Reaction: “I want/need to know.”

Research:  Google: Bill Cosby Rape. Read many documents from credible sources – the kinds of places that research and fact-check – not just “Cracked”. Different women, each with the same story, with names, dates, times. Let’s face it – there is more circumstantial evidence of this than there was of WMD’s when we voted to invade Iraq. Reaction: “I’m shocked.”

Reflection:  Trying to combine what my head tells me (This man is probably a serial rapist) with what my heart tells me (This man made me laugh and think). Reaction: “I am so sad.”

Resolution:  Humans sometimes do beautiful things. Humans sometimes do ugly things. And many times – it’s the same human doing both.  Reaction: Acknowledgement of this very human tale.

We are Books, not Stories.

This isn’t the first story to be given an alternate view:

  •  Every Martin Luther King Day some know-it-all grad student posts articles talking about Dr. King’s known problems with plagiarism and women. They are schooled quickly that there are 364 OTHER days to discuss the issue.
  • Columbus Day has become an out-and-out war over the story we are told in school about the discovery of America and our growing awareness of what an inaccurate tale that is and the monstrous truth of that conquest.
  • A new translation of the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales reveals the Pied Piper actually drowned the children, and the queen in Snow White was forced to dance to death in hot iron shoes.
  • My own city of Richmond is struggling to cast Shockoe Bottom as the entertainment district and family center of town so voters will approve a baseball park there. Except, there are a lot of people reminding us that the place designated for the kid friendly fun zone is actually the spot where the slave market and jail that sold Solomon Northrup stood.

The problem is the cognitive dissonance (that uncomfortable feeling when a story we tell ourselves doesn’t match the facts presented to us) between the story of the Bill Cosby I knew and the stories I did not.

My first memory of him was watching Fat Albert on Saturday morning, not Bill Cosby the jet-setting actor who hung out with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Club.

  • He was the Jell-O spokesman.
  • He was the kindly, smart, funny Cosby dad.
  • He was a huge proponent of education and scholarship provider.
  • He was a curmudgeonly old man telling parents to get with it and kids to pull up their pants.

Then, in a matter of a few weeks – He was a serial rapist.

No – that doesn’t match.

At. All.

This is NOT the way the story goes.

Except, it is.

There were clues to this hidden narrative. Some crew members said he was hard to work with and had a temper. A few characterized him as controlling (often calling it “he’s his own man.”). Scholars and advocates in the African American community complained he was pandering to popular opinion (largely the opinions of white people) in his criticisms of culture and dampening a young generation’s experiments with identity as a way of making the majority clap for him

But now – this new narrative isn’t just an add-on or sour grapes – it’s a whole different story!

The truth is – human beings are not just one story. We are books, made of more than one narrative. In some of our stories we are kind. In others, we are cruel. In some stories we are passionate. In others, we are too tired to care.

We are the brilliant respected electronics visionary who didn’t give a dime to charity.

We are the peace loving song poet, martyred in death while young, who abandoned his first wife, slapped women, and treated his first son with total contempt.

We are the football star and luggage jumping airport runner who was on trial for murdering his wife and in jail for armed robbery.

We are human beings and our books contain many tales.

How do we Deal with this New Book?

There are several methods to discovering someone you admired is not a novel, but collection of wildly different images:

Catch and Release: Some people will pick one story out of a book and ignore the others. For some Bill Cosby will always be the role model. For others the rapist.

Not My Circus:  Other people will just toss the book away and read something else. Collections of short stories aren’t very popular. Anyone who has queried a literary agent has seen “We do not represent short story collections” a million times.

Elementary, Dear Watson:  Some will reach for psychiatry, interpretive sociology and any expert they can find to attempt to explain the differences until they are more comfortable with the details.

Accept the Struggle as Part of the Journey: People of any faith are used to the idea of conflicting narratives – because faith life is full of them.

Christian people spend time trying to deal with the idea that the God who says, “I am your God and you are my people” is the same one shown playing a game with the devil and saying, “Sure, you can torture my servant Job.”  Jesus tells us the story of a God who forgives (and want us to forgive) but doesn’t really address the God who kills a guy with lightening for breaking a rule while saving the Ark of the Covenant.

Buddhists who like bacon and have affirming views of the GLBT community have to struggle with the ancient ideas about eating and sexual behavior. Decisions across the spectrum have been made to reconcile modern practices and dogma.

Muslims struggle with the Quran – a document (like many sacred texts) both beautiful and savage.

Dealing with conflicting narratives is the fire that refines our metal. Bill Cosby’s story(ies) gives us a chance to show compassion for all who are hurt, to stand against rape, to encourage the truth, to comfort and to learn. We can’t un-know and we aren’t going to be able to separate one story from the other. But we can move forward – a little bit wiser for having read this book.

Book


The Tyranny of Calendar Man: 3 Tips to Happiness at Holidays

One of the lesser known villains in the DC Comic Universe is Calendar Man. Traditionally a Batman villain, he was created in 1958 (Detective Comics #289) by Batman co-creator Bill Finger.  His traditional costume is a garish red and white suit with calendar dates as shoulder pads. In later incarnations he is shown as a bald man with the months of the year tattooed on his head.

His thing? Committing crimes based on the holidays or special days on a calendar. His name? Julian Day.  He’s not a well-known nemesis of the Bat Family because his crimes all happen around holidays so it’s easy to figure him out, and he doesn’t really have any super powers or connections so Batman puts him away pretty quickly. Besides – look at him!

I'd like to see Christopher Nolan handle this guy!

I’d like to see Christopher Nolan handle this guy!

The moral of sad Calendar Man’s story is always the same – when you are trapped by the calendar and expectations of certain holidays, there’s little room for anything but misfortune. That’s as true for us as it is for Gotham.

Holidays are supposed to be a time for fun, remembrance, celebrating, spirit and food (oh, the food). But every year as social media shares our season of discontent with everyone around us, holidays are becoming big sloppy slices of complaining topped with judgment.

  • Christmas music before Thanksgiving? WRONG! Stores are greedy!
  • Retail stores opening on Thanksgiving day? CRISIS! American family is falling apart!
  • People choosing to shop on Thanksgiving or wait for Black Friday! MATERIALISTS! Putting a flat screen TV ahead of their family!
  • People saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas? HEATHEN ATHEIST WAR-MONGERS! There is a war on Christmas and these people take it away from JESUS!

I’ve seen so many posts about Target and Kmart being open on Thanksgiving I’m thinking of building a bomb shelter because it clearly must be one of the horses of the apocalypse. While everyone is moaning and gnashing their cranberry-stained teeth, the innocence, fun and fellowship we are supposed to be feeling disappears before our very eyes. All because – like Calendar Man – we are addicted to a date on a page.  Here’s my 3 tips to enjoy this time of year without the drama.

  1. BE HERE NOW

In meditation and mindfulness we are taught to focus on the now. We are encouraged to learn from and let go of the past, and move toward but not expect the future. We don’t measure our heart on the calendar – a man-made time-line placed atop our lives like a waffle iron – we measure it in the moment – what we feel, who we love, how we move.

The truth is Thanksgiving is not the only day people have to eat, laugh and love with their family. You can (and should try to) experience that ANY day.

Cultivate thankfulness as a daily practice. Eat more meals around your dinner table or pick a day in the week to make a special meal with special food. If you have to work Thanksgiving day – no one is going to take your family away from you – find a time when you are off and tell them how thankful you are.  We don’t need Thanksgiving to feel gratitude, we don’t need Christmas Day to give presents and tell people we love them, and we don’t need New Year’s to start over.

Free yourself from the calendar. Be in the now.

 2. STOP JUDGING

I mentioned on a facebook post that my wife is a nurse and she is working Thanksgiving and Friday so our Thanksgiving is Saturday. I said the point of the holiday is gratitude, not the worship of Thursday.  A few who worked in retail also wrote that they LIKED working the holiday because of time and a half, and the energy of goodwill in the stores.  What did I get back?

  1.  Doctors, nurses and police are ESSENTIAL. Target employees are not. We can live without Target for a day.
  2. Target doesn’t NEED to be open Thanksgiving. They are just greedy!
  3. People who go shopping put material things ahead of their family!

They seem like sound arguments – until you see them for the bucket of judgment they represent.

 It’s unfair to suggest what one person does is more essential or important than what someone else does.  I’m a writer. It’s at the top of the list of “non-essential careers” – but it means the world to me. Is a nurse worth more? Does a doctor’s work make mine meaningless? No. It makes it different.  Someone who works at Target may not be essential to you – but that salary, and the good work that person does at their job, is essential to them. Get off your high horse – airport workers, retail clerks, people who fix broken heaters are just as essential as doctors and EMTs – to someone.

Retail runs this country. YOU might not think Target needs to be open Thanksgiving, but the accountant for Target might. They call is “black Friday” because it helps retail stores move from Red (financial loss) to Black (profit) for the year.  Maybe it’s more important than you think. Maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. And, really, unless you are a retail accountant – neither do you.

Newsflash:  Not everyone has a family. Or a nice family. Or thinks spending all afternoon eating is the best way to be with their family. Or can make memories laughing while shopping instead of silently sitting in front of the Cowboys football game.  Truth is, not every family looks like this:

thanksgiving-family-dinner

Sometimes they look like this:

fighting

So getting out of the house and doing a little shopping or going to a movie until things cool down might just be the better option. When you assume the reason everyone shops is materialism – then it is likely YOU who is the materialist.

 3. BE A GOOD GUEST

Let’s face it. As living beings –we are all guests on this planet. We don’t own the ocean, nature, sky or weather. We are all blessed to be guests on our mother Earth’s surface. So as we get into December – a place where a lot of religions, people, and ideas are all trying to experience joy, birth, goodness, and light in the midst of winter – let people do what they do without correction or criticism.

If you were a guest at a party, and you saw some people eating the meat out of soup with chopsticks – would you walk over and say, “You people are WRONG! Beef stew is eaten with a spoon! YOU HATE SILVERWARE!”?   No – probably not.  You might say, “wow, that’s different from how I do it,” then pick up your spoon and eat.

A Christmas gift called "compromise"

A Christmas gift called “compromise”

So – since we are all guests at December’s spiritual party – some people are going to say Merry Christmas, and some people are going to say Happy Hanukah, and some people are going to talk about Kwanza, and others are going to talk about “Happy Holidays.”  Get over that. Say what you say and let people say what they say.

Jesus might be the reason for YOUR season, but other people have other reasons and celebrate other seasons. Accept a happy greeting in the spirit it’s given, and move along. Every time you complain about this kind of stuff at Christmas an angel sets its wings on fire.

What was Calendar Man’s ultimate capture?  In the mini-series Dark Victory, Calendar Man tries to capture another villain called “Holiday” who is stealing his thunder by killing on holidays. What happens to him? Holiday’s sister catches Calendar Man and nearly beats him to death, leaving his tied up body for Batman to find. Holiday territoriality is clearly a bad idea.

Don’t be trapped by the lines on a page or the fantasy about “how it is supposed to be.” Be in your present. Be in the now. Just be, and let the world be too.


Good Notes from Bad Music

I have the world’s worst taste in music. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s some testimonials: Three years ago a college intern working in our office said to me, “You know, for an older lady – you have the worst taste in music I’ve ever seen.”  I didn’t take the intern too seriously because:

  1. Intern
  2. I was 46 at the time.
  3. Intern
Intern

Intern

Then, last year a friend visited us for Thanksgiving. He’s not the kind of guy that’s famous for keeping his opinions on the inside (or even using his inside voice). So, after driving him around over the weekend, he turned my car radio off and said, “All you listen to are ‘bubble gum sluts’.”

I didn’t take him too seriously because

  1. I know more adults who chew gum than kids.
  2. The only person’s sex life I care about is mine.
  3. If Lady Gaga spent all her time on that music just so she could buy some bubble gum, more power to her!
Bubble Gum - the motivator of artists everywhere.

Bubble Gum – the motivator of artists everywhere.

But, yesterday – my own wife, whose opinion I actually do listen to, said with a withering voice, “I wouldnt hear any of these songs if it wasn’t for you.”

So – there you have it. Truth is, I listen to all kinds of music for different purposes:

  • Housecleaning: 80’s Music (Madonna has cleaned many a bathtub with me).
  • Relaxing: New age-y meditation, instrumentals, Spanish guitar.
  • Writing or studying academically – Classical – particularly baroque.
  • Writing fiction: Whatever my character would listen to is what I put on.
  • Fantasizing I’m a Medieval Queen – Medieval Baebes/Celtic (This takes up a large portion of my day)
  • Thanksgiving to New Years: Christmas Music, Baby 24/7.
  • Boxing – Rock, harder the better.
  • Driving, Exercising, Living, Breathing, Most of the time: Dance, Synthpop, Hip-hop, Pop, Rap, Top 10, etc.

So, yeah. Worst taste ever. Before your write off my musical appetites as apocalyptic – I will say that pop music offers some good life lessons.

  1. Collaboration

Ellie Goulding’s ethereal voice blended with Calvin Harris’ electronic mix skills (I Need Your LoveOutside), Jessie J’s writing, Ariana Grande’s voice and Nicki Minaj’s rap rhythm (Bang, Bang), and of course any song featuring Pitbull (he’s provided a feature line on over 80 songs for other artists) will show you that pop musicians love to flavor their music with other voices.

Collaboration makes songs great because of the diversity found in the music. In Western culture where we are constantly placed in competition and taught to live in a “me first” world, the ability of musicians to work together consistently, and invite differences into the mix is a breath of fresh air. Working together never sounded so good.

  1. Sampling and Covers

Pablo Picasso famously said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Nowhere does that happen more than in pop music and it’s awesome. I love the music of my teen years (80’s) but I don’t want to live in the past. So, nothing makes me happier than to hear Rihanna’s sample (2006) of the tag line from Soft Cell’s cover (1981) of the Gloria Jones hit (1964) Tainted Love.  See – 40 years of music collapsed into one song and I can dance to it.

Sampling and covers not only bring back the good old days – but can make me hear an old song in a new way. I know as part of the GBLT community I’m supposed to adore Elton John (I think it’s in the contract for my lesbian card) – but I’m not a fan. Even the “big songs” leave me a bit cold – except “Crocodile Rock” – I love that song.

Who doesn't love this song?

Who doesn’t love this song?

One of Elton’s songs I never connected with is “Your Song” although many of my peers adore it. I found it dull, obvious and over-dramatic. Then in 2010 Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons produced Ellie Goulding’s cover of Your Song and …wow…I finally got that song – better yet –  I felt it.

  1. Name it, Claim it.

As a fiction writer I am always threatening to toss my name into books the way rap singers make sure their name is featured in a song. I can see it now:

Rebecca turned toward Tom, ready to confess the secret she’d kept like a worn penny in her shoe. She gazed into his soft, brown eyes not daring to believe in his forgiveness. “I know I’m not Kellie Schorr,” she said. “But I have something to say.”

Okay, so – maybe not.  But I adore the way musicians work their name into things – some well (Nicki Minaj) and some painfully horrible (Jason DeRulo – who finally announced he was retiring from singing his own name).  Narcissistic? Yes. But at the same time there’s something encouraging about any artist who says “this is me – this is my work, this is what I do.”  Artists sign paintings, writers put their name on the binding and singers get their due as well.

I celebrate diversity and working together, bringing new life into old efforts, and being proud of your creative work. Because when the iPod runs out of power and Pandora is offline – those things will still exist. Music can make us better people – no matter what genre we love.


Eat the Blame: A Zen Invitation to Forward Motion

What’s the number one rule of the internet? Don’t read the comments. What’s the number one truth of the internet? You read the comments, didn’t you? The comment section is the thorn in the rose of every thought provoking article, news story, or cat picture the 24 entertainment cycle can throw at us. And yet, we always want to know what people are saying. At least – until we see it. Then we are trapped with all that jumble of bad spelling, poor grammar, anonymous “studies,” misapplied scripture and the blame. Oh, the blame.

"Oh, the blame, Blame, BLAME..." (c) 1966, MGM Television.

“Oh, the blame, Blame, BLAME…”
(c) 1966, MGM Television.

They blame the victim.

They blame the system.

They blame the “ism”

Or the political schism…

(Apologies to Dr. Seuss – I start rhyming like this every Christmas…)

Our world is filled with people who know exactly who is to blame for nearly everything. Blame is so much a part of our DNA that it sheds from us like skin cells, dropping from our mouths into the environment as so much judgmental dust. Before we polish our coffee table and pretend we don’t know what’s happening, think of the many times you’ve said, heard, or come across these questions?

  1. What was she wearing the night she was assaulted? Why was she in his apartment?
  2. Why was he jogging at 11:00 PM? Doesn’t he know he could be robbed?
  3. If they can’t afford three kids, why did they have them?
  4. Why don’t they get a job?
  5. Why didn’t he just do what the cop said, even if it violates his rights?
  6. If she didn’t want diabetes, why did she eat like that?

And so on…

Take a handful. There's enough for everyone.

Take a handful. There’s enough for everyone.

Blaming is a national pastime. But what good does it do? Little. Blame makes the victims of violence hide their experience and allows perpetrators to go free.  Blame adds a pile of shame on top of every situation, and doesn’t help anyone become stronger, wiser, better or happier. Blame doesn’t take us forward. Blame doesn’t offer us an opportunity to change.

Blame makes us feel superior, smarter and eases our fears about a world that is unpredictable, violent and out of our control. Instead of admitting there is a rape culture on many college campuses– we say, “Don’t drink and don’t wear tight clothes,” because those things we can control. Instead of looking with compassion at someone who is suffering from obesity, recognizing that most of us also have a troubled relationship with food, it makes us feel powerful to add shame/blame to the challenges they face. Instead of admitting our country has a pattern of judicial and institutional racism that we don’t know how to change (without going through the pain of real change), we blame the victim again and again. Blame is our protection plan, practiced so often it has become a cultural reflex.

Make no mistake – we blame because it makes us feel better. But – it doesn’t make us better. It just keeps us spinning bitterly in place.

How can we stop this reflex? Eat the blame.

Mmm..blame...now with flakier crust.

Mmm..blame…now with flakier crust.

There is a Zen koan that gives us a map to healthier way of living. It’s called (in English) “Eating the Blame.”

Circumstances arose one day which delayed preparation of the dinner of a Soto Zen master, Fugai, and his followers. Quickly the cook went to the garden with his curved knife and cut off the tops of green vegetables, chopped them together and made soup, unaware that in his haste he had included a part of a snake in the vegetables.

The followers of Fugai thought they never tasted such good soup. But when the master himself found the snake’s head in his bowl, he summoned the cook. “What is this?” he demanded, holding up the head of the snake.

“Oh, thank you, master,” replied the cook, taking the morsel and eating it quickly.

 What’s going on here?

The cook has made a terrible error. The monks are strict vegetarians. To have eaten a snake in their soup would have violated their vows and brought shame to them.

The cook had a number of choices when the head appeared in the Master’s bowl. He could have:

  • Blamed the Master for forcing the cook to work too quickly.
  • Blamed the gardener for allowing snakes to infest the garden.
  • Blamed the followers for breaking their own vows – they liked the soup and didn’t question.
  • Become the victim, apologizing profusely and drawing attention to the crisis.
  • Instead, he simply ate the mistake that was pointed out to him and went on.

The cook’s actions do a number of good things.

  1. It shows his compassion for the monks by not wanting to draw attention to the misstep.
  2. He eats snake too – becoming one of them – so no one is better than anyone else.
  3. He takes responsibility for his mistake in eating it himself.
  4. He allows the Master to move forward with polite gratitude.

Those are the very things we can do to stop the blame cycle infesting our culture. When you see a news story – try some of the following responses.

  1. Approach the situation with compassion for everyone involved. Instead of jumping to the “what x did wrong” scenario, instead think of how they must feel, what they’ve been through, and soften your heart.
  1. Walk in their shoes. You don’t have to become a victim or perpetrator  – but you can understand a time when you’ve been lonely, or hungry or made the wrong choice, or found yourself in a bad situation of your own making or someone else’s. Instead of being quick to judge “the other” be willing to walk beside them.
  1. Look into your own heart and take responsibility for your feelings. Often the situations that make us the most angry or judgmental are the ones that touch a part of our past or our heart that we haven’t resolved yet. Before you dump your mistakes onto another situation, own them and accept them. Awaken.
  1. Allow the situation to move forward. Give hope, and have gratitude.

If someone is in the wrong, there will be a world of people ready to make that known. Be one of the people who gives them to power to change, to overcome, and to continue to a brighter day.


Love and Cents: A Call for Introspection

I just needed copy paper. That’s all. I wasn’t looking for wisdom, seeking a path, or desiring to be part of a disgruntled community contemplating mob violence. I just needed copy paper. But, every writer can tell you a blank page is always the beginning of something.

This is how the world ends.

This is how the world ends.

Target was reasonably empty on this serene Monday afternoon, so they had two checkout clerks working. Both lines had 3 to 4 people waiting. In my line there was a woman who didn’t have children with her but the kid’s cereal (Count Chocula!), juice boxes, and snack packs indicated she had a some somewhere; a retired couple purchasing Christmas wrap for far away loved ones, me (paper, ink, Pepsi), and a college-aged young woman and her mother with a cart full of “guess who got a new apartment.”

Then a Balrog was released from the depths of the Customer Service Desk who began breathing fire across the front end in an unending rage. Well, okay – not really – but it seemed like that.

I Want My Discount!

I Want My Discount!

Cereal Woman was holding up the line. At first we just thought she’d mistaken her Smartphone for some kind of emergency flare. Turns out, she had given the phone to the clerk to scan because she had a coupon for 20% off of her cereal  – regularly $2.89 on sale for $2.50 (the fact I know that tells you just how loud this conversation was). She was complaining and shouting to see a manager because the Target computer gave her 50 cents off instead of 58 cents. She was being shorted 8 cents.

8 cents

8 cents

She argued and waved her phone, reading loudly (and repeatedly) that the coupon says it is good for 20% OFF THE REGULARLY PRICED CEREAL NOT THE SALE PRICE. Our line backed up, they pulled a clerk from the floor to open a new aisle, which new people piled into, leaving the four of us stuck in place or at the back of the line

After a full 5 minute argument, the manager decided the best thing to do in pursuit of world peace was to remove the cereal, re-scan it, hand enter the discount, etc. So we all waited some more while she found the cereal in her bags and the befuddled clerk attempted to correct the situation. Cereal Woman turned to the older lady who was next in line and said in jet plane landing volume, “Sorry about this. But I love my family and I will fight for every penny.”

I watched the older man dig in his pocket. I would have given anything for him to hand her a dime and say, “Here you go, move along.” Standing ovation – I guarantee. Alas, not to be.

She finally pulled her cart away from the register, and things started flowing. While the retired couple watched their Frosty papers get scanned, Cereal mom wheeled over to the snack bar, bought a personal pan pizza and a coke. “You’ve GOT to be kidding me,” the girl behind me sneered to her mother with a voice made equally of acid, judgment, and Altoids.

Minty Righteousness

                   Minty Righteousness

I paid for my paper, picked up my “salad of the day” (Caprese kale) and came back to the office consumed and distracted by the experience. How am I supposed to write a light romantic murder mystery when all I can think about is the fleeting meaning of 8 cents.

Now, before you get all mommy-bloggy, little-things-add-up, #itstheprinciple on me – hear me out. I don’t care about the time she cost us, I don’t care that she thought she was “saving money” by buying the most expensive, least nutritional foods ever, and I DO NOT CARE that she had a pizza for lunch. Everybody has the right to indulge. But her choices show us this was not really about money

What I care about – what is most on my mind – is that she thinks fighting for 8 cents is somehow evidence of her love, and she needed to affirm its value. She didn’t just reveal her vocal range, she showed us desperate need so many carry inside.

This wasn’t about greed, power, or the adult bullying that unfortunately happens to retail clerks every day – this was about need. The need to prove (to herself, most likely) that she loved her family and the mistaken belief that money (any amount) was a way to do it.

Cereal Woman is not alone. We are bounding into a season famous for “things as love” (I sprung for iPhones again this year), for “time spent on things as love” (I spent 4 hours in line for that flat screen for Bobby), for conflict as love (That guy tried to get the last Non-Stop Chattering Elmo, but I beat him to it), and for “manipulation as love” (You can take the kids to their OTHER grandma for Easter. I want my babies home for Christmas. Papaw has a cough. This could be his last year, you know…).

It is time to reflect on the simple, beautiful truth that only love is love.

We love. We love our spouses, kids, parents, friends, pets – we love. In a culture so full of fear and marketing we have lost the ability to be confident in our love and let it be enough. Love is supposed to be lived. It doesn’t need to be packaged, and it doesn’t need to be proven. It just needs to be there.

As you meditate, pray, work, laugh or just think about the beings in your life that you love so well – take a moment to breathe deep, relax, and just feel good. Feel your love for them surround you, giving you priceless, thing-less, timeless, peace.

Sit with your love. Walk with it. Live in it.  If you find the center of your love and trust it over the pressures, ads, voices and Instagram likes – you’ll never need to “prove” it again.