Tuesday, January 27, 2015


I recently had my three-years-after-DCIS mammogram and, even though the risk of a recurrence is low, I was relieved to get an all clear. Also, the bathroom off the waiting room was particularly pleasant. It was warm, and smelled of the greenery just outside the window.

(Click photo to enlarge.)

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Best That Can Happen

I have the idea that it’s good to do things on New Year’s Day that symbolize what you’d like your year to be full of. If that’s true, this is going to be a splendid year, but in any event, it was a great day from beginning to end. I got up at 6:30 and did some writing and put up a post here, meditated, had breakfast, did my physical therapy exercises and had an excellent chat on the phone with David and Lisa for an hour.

Then I went for a walk with the friend I walk with from time to time. For about two and a half hours, we wended our way through the Mission and down Market St., coming back via Folsom, talking all the while. We ran into a fellow, known to my friend, who told us about the place where he lives. It was brand-new when he moved in, so no one had lived there before him, and he has his own kitchen and bathroom, and a two-burner stove, and free wi-fi. It costs one third of his monthly “income”—his General Assistance check. That comes to about $265. I was delighted for him. It sounds truly perfect. I wish every homeless person could have the same.

I had two writing assignments due for my chaplaincy class the following week and was starting to be worried about having enough time to get them done, but after I got back from walking and after I had lunch, there was enough time to do a good solid draft of both assignments, and they both ended up being done on time.

Then, on New Year’s Day, it occurred to me I hadn’t talked to Margaux in a while, so I gave her a call and we had a really nice talk, for perhaps an hour. She is a strongly faithful Christian, and I had never understood how that happened, since when we met, at 13, she was a nice little Jewish girl, so I asked about it and she explained the whole thing. It’s entirely due to my chaplaincy class that I was interested in learning about this. It turns out that Margaux was already a stealth Christian when we met. Amazing that it took 40 years to actually have a conversation about it. One aspect of her faith is a very strong commitment to service. Whatever job she has is always well aligned with her desire to serve others, plus she does a good deal of volunteering. She says if things are going well in your life, you should be giving back constantly, giving all you can. That is inspiring, and getting caught up with Margaux was a lovely way to end a very perfect day.

A few days later, I went to volunteer at Laguna Honda. During one of my visits in December, Bob had conversed with a resident solely in Spanish after apologizing for having a rather rudimentary capability (“Tengo pocas palabras” — “I have few words”). When we left the person’s room, he asked me, “Do you think you could do that?”

On my first visit early in the new year, I ran into that same resident in the hallway and did indeed converse with him entirely in Spanish. I’d prepared a cheat sheet that included several of the things Bob had said in his simple conversation. I didn’t have to look at it, but it was helpful as a mental reference, and the resident had to say only one word in English for me. I’m excited about this opportunity to improve my conversational skills.

After I got back from Laguna Honda, Carol Joy came to visit. We went to the Mission Creek Café and played two games of Sneaky Pete, the rummy-type game we often play. We were literally the only people speaking in the café. There were 10 or 15 other people in there, but every last one of them was staring at a laptop. Kind of creepy, like being the only living people in a morgue, until the end of the afternoon, when a man with beautiful long blond hair sat down next to us and asked what we were playing and was generally very friendly. We gave him the printed instructions for the game when we left. Carol Joy always brings them along, because I always have to reread them before we play.

Then we walked over to Hecho, on Market St., a restaurant co-owned by Carol Joy’s next door neighbor in Novato. It was quite loud and, for $24, I got enough food to constitute dinner only because I ate 99 percent of two bowls of complimentary tortilla chips and salsa. In addition, they like to bring dishes out of the kitchen in a large, dramatic cloud of choking chile smoke. The next day, my glasses were coated with a sticky film that had to be removed using soap and water. That’s fine, since I was in there for only an hour, but isn’t everyone who works there going to end up with a horrible respiratory illness? That is to say, I won’t be returning, but what we had (fish tacos and fried avocado tacos) was delicious (if tiny), and I could certainly recommend trying the place once. Maybe bring a discreet gas mask.

I am rereading I Am That, a collection of interviews conducted by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, and came upon his advice to let one’s entire personal life sink below the threshold of consciousness, a rather thrilling idea. He says that we don’t have to think about how to breathe or how to digest food, and that we don’t have to think about a lot of other stuff, either. He doesn’t mean that we would be unaware that we are making a phone call or walking down the street, but that we can let go of the story that generally accompanies our every move. Things will happen without our doing so much conscious management.

Yvonne Ginsberg said something similar the first Tuesday evening in January, when she was filling in for Howie. She talked about noticing thoughts as they arise and not following them to their oft-repeated ends, which simply digs the grooves in our brains that much deeper. When we can notice a thought and let it go (probably most easily accomplished by putting our attention on some aspect of our physical experience, or by just noticing that we’re thinking), we have a chance for a fresh, unconditioned encounter with the world.

She said the best that can happen in any situation will arise from the intention to pay attention. Our very best move is to notice this moment, and this one, and this one. “Let’s see how much well-being we can tolerate before we make trouble for ourselves,” she advised. She also pointed out that we Bay Area meditators are living indulged, luxurious, wonderful lives, which could not be more true.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Let the Invisible Hand Work

Over the holidays, Howie was away, and Yvonne Ginsberg filled in for him for three weeks in a row. The first week, she said that we are actually more powerful when we let go of our defenses—when we are at our most vulnerable—because then we have access to more of our interior resources. I have a feeling that’s going to stay with me. (She once said, regarding impatience and wanting things to be as we prefer, “Let the invisible hand work.” I’ve never forgotten that.)

She also said that the awakening to which the Buddha refers is awakening from the trance of thought. I guess I’d never thought about what specifically the awakening was. Maybe I thought it was awakening to direct knowledge of our cosmic oneness or some such. However, I do believe that any moment when we’re not lost in thought is a moment of enlightenment, so I loved what Yvonne said. Fortunately, the idea of “becoming enlightened” didn’t persist long into my meditation career. I think that idea causes a good amount of misery for some.

On Christmas Eve there was a splendid luncheon party at the soup kitchen, which had been decorated for the holiday. There was a Christmas tree. Instead of standing in line, the guests were served a special lunch at their tables, complete with cake for dessert. Usually the soup kitchen doesn’t serve sweets (or coffee). The executive director had told me they’d have live music, which I interpreted to mean a folksinger with a guitar, but in fact it was a wonderful Latin-flavored band, complete with percussion and trumpet player.

There may be 20 volunteers there for a typical lunch, but on this day, there may have been 80 or more volunteers. It’s a major undertaking, both the preparations and the day itself. I was a busser, and with the surfeit of volunteers, I didn’t have all that much to do. There was one lone, brave woman—tall and skinny, in tight red trousers—dancing expressively all by herself. She saw me tapping my foot and came over to encourage me to dance. I’m not that intrepid, but then I spotted a fellow volunteer, a sweet person who often wears one enormous comical hat or another. On this day, he was wearing a lavender jacket and a huge bamboo hat that came to a point at the top. I asked if he’d like to dance and we turned out to be perfect dance partners. We danced for several songs in a row, and for one of them, the executive director came out and joined the tall woman, so it was the four of us. Very fun.

Then Tom and I drove to Sacramento in dense traffic, four hours to get there instead of two. We and Ann had a lovely dinner at Steve and Julie’s. Steve received Ann Patchett’s book of essays from Ann, which I immediately borrowed. I gave Ann Rod Kiracofe’s latest book about quilts, which is gorgeous. Tom and I slept over at Ann’s and in the morning we all went over to Paul and Eva’s for stockings, and got to see Chris and Kristin, and Sarah and Farid.

The Saturday after Christmas, I made Egyptian Bean and Vegetable Soup from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, which is delectable. On Sunday, Ann came from Sacramento and she and Tom and I had lunch at Thai Street Food, and then we saw Red Hot Patriot at Berkeley Rep, with Kathleen Turner in the starring role. I never regret going to see live theater, but this show will not be remembered as a favorite. I did get some sense of Molly Ivins’ career, but I don’t know if the idea of using Molly Ivins’ relationship with her father as the framework for the whole show was a good one. It didn’t seem quite organic, and Turner seemed stiff and uncomfortable, even unsure what to do with her hands. Watching her was not a relaxing experience.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Or, if You Insist, The Magnificent Onion and Fruit Organization

My father, who never comments on my blog because he (wisely) declines to have a Google account, but now and then responds to a post via email, wrote me this:

“Did you perhaps intend to write: ‘The Magnificent Onion and Fruit Organization’?”

So might one think, but when I used Duck Duck Go (which does not track its users or their searches) to discover what people would find if they did a search for “mofo,” the final word of the previous post, I came upon “The Magnificent and Onion Fruit Organization.” I had never heard of the Magnificent Onion and Fruit Organization to begin with; garbled, it was irresistible.

At December’s chaplaincy class, we had a wonderful, funny guest speaker. He demonstrated how someone he knows explains the concept of boundaries: Holding his hands a few inches from his chest with his palms toward himself, he explains, “Robert.” Turning his palms outward: “Not Robert.” After class, five of us had dinner at Bangkok Bay, in Redwood City.

In mid-December, there was still no sign of B. or D. at the soup kitchen. A week later, after an incredible amount of rain, I noticed that sun was streaming through a round window near the big stove, and the next time I stepped outside, there was D., giving weight to my theory that he’s the kind of person you only see when the sun is shining. It was a pleasure and relief to see him. He told me about a person he knows who, like him, lives in an RV, but with 12 dogs. His wife, reasonably, lives in a different RV.

That evening, I went to the Civic Center Plaza for the Annual Interfaith Memorial Service for Our Homeless Dead, co-sponsored by the San Francisco Night Ministry and the San Francisco Interfaith Council. Speakers included Rev. Lyle Beckman, Senator Jay Leno, and Jana Drakka, of the San Francisco Zen Center, who does street ministry.

She runs a meditation group at Glide Memorial Church, which serves the homeless. Carlos used to go to the group now and then, and I went with him a handful of times. Jana is Scottish, funny and very down to earth. She came to Carlos’s memorial and gave me a small green Quan Yin figure, which she said reminded her of Carlos’s nurturing qualities. She led us in a loving-kindness meditation at the memorial at the Civic Center.

All the folks who live at Thomas House were there, and they said it was twice as large as in past years. We held candles and listened to the speakers and sang. I was evidently the only person who had to consult the lyrics for “Amazing Grace.” These were people who knew five verses by heart (or all five verses, as the case may be). I didn’t see any apparent homeless people. This was mainly a crowd of those who serve or care about the homeless, maybe 125 such people.

The names of the dead were read at intervals. On the printed list, it said, for instance, “John Doe #6, John Doe #7,” but when the names were read aloud, the speaker said, “John Doe. John Doe.” That was a nice touch. Bad enough to die with your name unknown and no one at your side. Worse to be recalled as “John Doe #6.”

That Saturday I went to Laguna Honda for the second time. I’ve wanted to work at a hospital for a long time, and getting to walk around one with a clipboard in my hand and a badge hanging around my neck might be as close as I’m going to come. I’m thrilled to be there.

Bob has assigned me to the rehab unit (physical rehab, not drug) and particularly wants me to visit residents who have just arrived at the hospital. “Resident” is the term preferred to “patient,” and is appropriate for the 80 percent of the population who will live there always; it might not make as much sense for people in rehab, most of whom will be discharged. I met E., who has necrotizing fasciitis, which he said had eaten through his butt nearly to the point that a bone is visible. He has blazing blue eyes and is a drug addict and fast-talking charmer. We had a lengthy, entertaining chat.

I saw a guy in a wheelchair in the hallway who I’ve seen every time I’ve been there and said, “Hi, David.”

He answered, “Why do you keep calling me ‘David’?”

“Isn’t that your name?”


“Are you sure?! Wait a minute—are you one of those guys who changes his name every two weeks?”

He convinced me his name is F. and always has been. When I saw him again five minutes later, I said, “Nice to see you,” and he agreed, “Always!”

I visited A. again, shot in the back by an unseen assailant and paralyzed from the waist down. He had been issued a wheelchair and was in the dining room, visiting with other residents. His hair and beard had been neatly trimmed—he looked great—and he said he is taking a computer class! Another resident called for a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) to help him open a small carton of milk, and A. wheeled over, opened the carton, and said, smiling, “I can still do stuff with my hands.”