Thursday, October 11, 2007

Just When I was Feeling Inadequate

Last night I let Stryker skip a large neighborhood event -- a big potluck in a community center that drew over 50 neighbors who've been working to build community and prevent crime through on-line and on-the-ground activities.

When queried, I reported that Stryker had a lot of homework. I lied. He had homework. He stayed home for Play Station 2. He skipped the people for the screen, specifically a game purchased that day, Dance Dance Revolution. Even worse, his successful lobby for the game drew exclusively from Dr. Phil's counsel. I didn't even know he watched. Does it help that he paid for (most) of it with money earned walking a neighbor's dog?

I was thinking about this during the School Day Morning Fights. Sure, the rest of you get television's Sunday Morning Shows: our schedule rolls out fights five days a week. This one was simmering through the van while I ruminated (again) on a desperate plea from one of John's friends. After teaching in India for ten years--surrounded by children but not a mother--she returned to the States and spent some months with friends in suburban Colorado.

Her plea? Give these kids religion! This, from an atheist. Religion, outrage, a sense of social justice--something. She was shocked by our theological shortcomings, by a culture consumed with itself for the fun and feel of it all rather than any greater good.

Dance Dance Revolution. Just makes you want to hum and tap to It's Good to be an American, doesn't it?

Now click on the link (in the list to the right) and listen to just the first 17 minutes and thirty seconds of Kerry Kennedy's Midday speech (today, MPR). The first five minutes are introductions of various sorts, and you're allowed to skip them.

Straighten your desk, dust, check your email, but listen.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Theological Traffic Jams

Another one of my neighbors who will never read this blog routinely brings our family all kinds of sumptuous treats: pot stickers, nut breads, cookies, rice noodle soups. How lucky to live near a retired restaurateur!

But the neighbor also believes that I am a Nichiren Buddhist. Nichirens areBuddhism's Southern Baptists: full of fervor and invitation. Nichirens follow the teachings of the thirteenth century Japanese monk of the same name; generalizing, the beauty of the belief is that every one of us can achieve enlightenment in this lifetime--and live to enjoy it, too. All the disciple needs to do is routinely kneel before the Gohonzon (a mandala devised by Nichiren) and chant Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo and if you're inclined for the entire service, you toss in the Lotus Sutra, too.

Now, I don't necessarily not believe this.

But how did my dear, older neighbor come to be convinced that I was one of her people? So certain (and happy) that she spends hours in the kitchen on my behalf: thinly sliced sushi, ginger and orange curried shrimp, caramelized onions in a mushroom sauce drizzled over catfish?

Who wouldn't be a believer?

Our family has been practicing members of Clouds in the Water Zen Center for several years, a Japanese Zen tradition. But I was raised Catholic. Really Catholic. You can prostrate yourself before Buddha ten thousand times but you can't take the girl out of the uniform.

So I'm a bad Zen Buddhist, half-hearted at best. Lazy and drawn to rosaries.

Enter yet another neighbor (not the chef), another Nichiren Buddhist. He may be the dearest human on the planet. Certainly the sweetest and funniest. Knowing I'm of the Zen bent, he invites, encourages, extends in that down South Baptist People's Religion tradition --and he does this for years. "Come chant with me. Join us!" I walk the dog, mow the lawn, take out the recycling -- and there's my dear neighbor. Come join us!

Finally, I relent. I love him so, all I want to do is say yes. So I do. Yes! It's wretched to reject someone for years. I'll chant. I'll go to the Community Center. I love chanting. Go Nichiren!

He's so happy that I actually get up early for weeks and chant Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. In the basement, so I don't wake anyone up. I'm infested with discord: I don't want to lie; I want my neighbor happy and approving; I want to be all Buddha to all people; and when I die, I want a priest and Last Rites. And I wear Guilt like all those nursing babies, tucked solidly to the breast.

The situation darkens. I recklessly agree that I'm ready for the Gohonzon, the mandala or shrine. My kind and attentive neighbor offers to stop by and drop one off: nine a.m. on Sunday, okay?

Of course, I forget so when neighbor calls to say he's crossing the street, I'm cursing like an Italian Catholic trucker, running through the house shoving dirty wine glasses in cupboards, toys under the furniture and everything else in closets and corners and wishing I had something other than pajamas and glasses on.

I swing open the door to my beaming neighbor--and the 15 strangers there for the ceremony.

The living room thermometer reads 91 while we chant. Sweat sends my glasses to my chin and my guests--brothers and sisters in Buddha--are drenched. Every so often one my children wanders through and yells: what's going on? My husband turns the corner, takes one look at the rows of chairs and makeshift ceremony (and me in my pajamas, night creme barely off the face) and runs upstairs as fast as he can.

Finally, we're meeting and greeting and wrapping up as I apologize for the lack of care given the entire event. "If I had known you were coming!" There wasn't even enough coffee. Every single person was more gracious than I've been in my lifetime; I knew then that I deserved every second of Guilt's fingernails ahead.

That's how I became a Nichiren Buddhist- at least, sorta kinda in a socially 'please like me' sort of way. Remember, I dream about saints and go to a Zen Center. Things aren't simple on the theological plane.

So my OTHER dear neighbor, the chef, learns of my apparent conversion and takes on my family. After all, we share a common religion.

She brings me sesame bread, pickled plums and sticky rice topped with nutmeg and cinnamon flakes. I leave Whole Foods tea and chocolate on her doorstep and run, hoping we're even.

Finally, she rings the doorbell. "Stop bringing me stuff. You good Buddhist. Just chant with me someday, okay?"

Oy. Isn't one of my great-grandmothers Jewish?

Maybe tomorrow we'll find blackened red peppers and curried beef on the doorstep.

Sunday, October 7, 2007


I'm in the black hole that masquerades as Scarlett's bedroom, clawing my way through with a plastic garbage bag and vacuum (never look under the bed). Merrick and his friend Lachlan, and Lachlan's three year old sister are playing in Merrick's bedroom, right next door. Merrick and Lachlan have been wearing quite authentic looking police hats for the past three hours; they carry a vast arsenal of weaponry.

Lachlan: "Hey, that's my flashlight - I left it here and now it's broken!"

Merrick: "Stryker broke it. Sorry."

Lachlan: "Let's shoot him."

Merrick (with genuine regret): "We can't. Because he's not home right now."

Lovely. He's a bona fide American, ruled by the clock rather than a moral compass.