The Brown Sisters

In 1975, and every year after, the four Brown sisters were photographed by one sister's husband, Nicholas Nixon. You can see the photographs here and read responses to them by members of the Zen Writing Group below.


Defiance and melancholy,
independence and frailty,
stoicism and pleading,
a shrinking in, a quiet strength:
I can't help feeling that my opinions
about these photos are a lot less
interesting than the photos
or the people themselves.

—R.B. Bojan



The Brown Sisters

Girls on the verge of womanhood;
They are almost young women.
Two are tomboys,
Determined to defy labels.

It was 1975.
The labels were all changing, anyway!
Why not?

The third sister is pensive and sad,
As if a premonition hovered near.
She is a delicate, wistful beauty.
I imagine her hair is red.
She sunburns worse than her sisters.
What does she see that makes her so sad?

And who is this fourth sister with her arms crossed?
She is at once flirtatious and defiant.
Miss Independent.

And now.
It is 40 years later.
Who are they now?

Independence hugs her sister close,
More Hestia than Miss Independent.
More Earth Mother, her arms no longer crossed
But now open to embrace.

The delicate wistful beauty
With red hair and delicate skin:
Was her premonition that
Age would not be kind
To her delicate skin?
Is she comforted by the embrace
Of her once defiant sibling?

Those tomboys, how they have changed!
What have they seen?
What have they experienced?
Where are their labels now?

One looks strong and proud.
And one, perhaps the eldest,
What has life brought her?
What has she endured?
Worn and weathered as the Texas Plains.
Strong? Perhaps. She is a survivor for sure.

Life has not been easy nor age kind.
These women are
Strength, endurance, patience.

—Janelle Curlin-Taylor



When I Was 14

I was always the youngest, it seemed. I had two older sisters...and (obviously), two older parents. I was the one who had to go to bed the earliest.

I was a young freshman in high school. A new crop of students joined our class that were a year older because we had all done 7th and 8th grade in one year. And then, as I just turned 17, I went off to college. A few years later, I was the youngest grad student, and a few years after that, the youngest faculty member.

I couldn’t connect to the other faculty members, who seemed old enough to be my parents. I had many students who were older than I.

Sometimes I’d remember when I was 12 or so, that I took groups horseback riding in the woods or on the beach. Some of the men though they were cowboys and wanted to run their horses. I had to boss them around. I was as short as I was young. But somehow I managed those cowboys.

And then I had a crisis when I turned 40. I finally morphed into someone who wasn't the youngest anymore, but was far from being the oldest. I was in kind of a la la land. And by then I had a wife and couple of young kids. So what was I, a husband/father or a kid?

I was intrigued with learning about young art forms and technologies. If it was new, I wanted to have it or do it. I think I identified with these newly-born babes to see how they'd fend in a world full of seniors.

When my parents retired in 1980 I had this idea that they'd be waiting for death. Nothing was further from the truth. They lived another 20–25 years, but I had trouble imagining how they could be anything but the hard working parents I had known.

Then my wife’s parents retired. I got to know them pretty well because they spent a couple of years helping us add onto our home and build a studio. They were waiting for death, expecting it to knock on their door at any time. Funny thing is, due to the miracles of modern medicine, they are still kicking around in their nineties.

And now I'm 68. I feel better than I have for a long time. And I don't see me as the old guy. I'm older than most, but not all, of the people I see in the course of a day. I look for young doctors who will be around when I'm too feeble to find a new one.

And now I'm 68. It is hard for me to wrap my toes around that. My dad always wore a suit. When he was dying, he was looking forward to me wearing his suits. I brought some of them to Texas, but soon gave them to goodwill. I'm not the old guy in the suit. That's Mr. Rogers.

And now I'm 68. I have to keep repeating that because I can't really believe it. Last year I went to my 50th high school reunion. How my classmates had aged! I was still 14.

And now I'm 68. My wife tells me I’m going to live 16 more years, according to the actuaries, who now give us two more years than they did previously. That’s 84 or so. Will I still be writing these posts then? Will I still be 14?

—Kim Mosley

Tea Ceremony


“I’m thirsty.” Angie said. “I want a Coke. Buy me a Coke, sister.”

Maxine was looking after her younger sister for the afternoon. Their parents had left Maxine enough money to go down to the McDonalds and buy a Coke, but Maxine didn’t want to go.

“I’m not buying you a Coke, Angie,” she said. “You drink too many Cokes anyway.Go make a cup of tea instead.”
“Are you kidding me?” Angie just stood there with her hands on her hips. “I don’t drink tea… not that hot stuff anyway. Besides… I don’t know how to make it.”
“Well, you should learn, Angie,” Maxine said. “Come on, nuisance. Come in the kitchen and I’ll show you how to make a cup of tea.”
Angie rolled her eyes, but she followed Maxine into the kitchen, resting her elbows on the counter, her chin in her hands. She would watch.
“First,” Maxine said, “we need water.” She turned on the tap and out came the water. She filled the electric kettle, placed it back on its base and and flipped the switch to “on”.
“How does the water get into the tap?” Angie asked.
“Oh.” Maxine said. “I think it comes from the lake.”
“How does it do that?” Angie wanted to know.
“Pipes. Pumps. Filters – lots of stuff.” Maxine explained.
The two girls stood there, arms crossed, looking at the kettle, waiting for it to boil.
“Where did the kettle come from?” Angie asked.
“Target,” Maxine replied.
“Where did Target get it?”
Maxine sighed. “Probably from China, nuisance little sister. Don’t ask so many questions.”
“You mean people in China made our kettle?” Angie was looking at her reflection in the side of the kettle, making faces. “How did it get here?”
“Probably on a ship,” Maxine said. “In a big box inside a ship, I think. Then in a truck to get to the Target store. And people put it on the shelf. And we bought it.”
“What about the electricity to make the kettle get hot?” Angie said, poking at the electrical cord with her finger.
And so it went. The water, the kettle, the electricity, the tea, the little paper bags the tea was in, the ceramic mugs, the spoon, the honey. Angie kept asking and Maxine – getting into the game after a while – kept answering.
Finally Angie and Maxine sat down at the table with their two mugs of tea. Angie stirred her tea thoughtfully. “You know,” she said, “that’s a lot of stuff that went into this cup of tea.”
“Yeah,” Maxine smiled. “A lot of stuff.”
Angie sighed. “But I really did want a Coke.”

—Donna Birdwell

One Drop at a Time

Painting by Kim Mosley

Churning, yearning, burning Earth

The forest fire blazed, consuming desire, compassion, love, children, deer, ants, and snakes. Tree branches reached towards the sky twisting into arms filled with resistance. Their hands gestured protest. Unable to reach one drop of dew, one drop of the well, one drop of source that would quench.

—Bobbie Edwards



The bird put out the forest fire one drop at a time. The brown leaves of the trees reached up to her. Save us, they cried. And all the air was red with flame. Pity moved her wings.

Great-hearted bird, she was the tenderness of the universe.

—Sarah Webb



The bird in the picture reminds me of the planes I drew in the backs of composition books in fifth grade. My planes rained down bombs on tanks and guns that returned the attack. The bird rains down drops on a fire that returns updrafts and heat. Both conflicts between high and low. Gravity aids the high and hinders the low. Fire will spring up among the bombed structures, threatening the high and the low. Does the fire care what it threatens?

—Jeffery Taylor



The Bird Put Out the Forest Fire One Drop at a Time (carried in his little beak)



The title lets us know the bird was a success.
“Put out the fire” the title says.
Tiny drops are painted below its beak.

Suspend judgment. Believe.

Without the title—despair.
The fire is so big.
The bird so small.
One drop at a time.

Imagine. The bird did not despair.
He filled his little beak.
That is what he had—a beak.
The forest fire was put out.

Sit with this.

Remember the huge forest fire in Yosemite?
Ash fell in the streets miles away.
The smell invaded our clothes, our hair, inside our car.
Food stuck in my mouth as flames leapt in the air, so close.

The bird put out the fire one drop at a time.
The bird has wings.
Wings to fly away, escape.

And yet, one drop at a time.

What daunting blaze might I put out with what I have?
One moment at a time, one breath at a time,
One listen, one presence, one listen.

Suspend judgment. Believe.

—Janelle Curlin-Taylor









The cool breeze above the forest was the little bird’s playground.
He soared and swooped and
Joyfully flapped his
Precious wings,
Reveling in the cool, white sky.

But then, hot winds roared in
And the little bird saw trees being devoured by
Brilliant, red flames.

The burning trees now danced and jumped,
Belching smoke that turned the sky dark.

The little bird witnessed the inferno,
And its heart burst into a flame of love
For his friend the Forest.

He wept with compassion.

Each sweet tear from his tiny black eyes
Was magnified a thousandfold by
The Mercy of the Universe.

And the fire was extinguished.

Sangye O’Mara



Someone was telling me the other day that some people are lazy, and that is why they are poor. She's run in over 50 marathons and her father is an engineer who makes telescope lenses for major observatories.

There was a forest fire and all the animals left. One bird, however, kept flying back to the forest, with one drop of water in its beak. The other animals watched their home burn. The one bird however, when asked what it was doing, explained that it was putting out the fire, drop by drop. The other animals laughed at the stupid bird. As the fire became bigger and the bird became exhausted it could fly no longer. Finally it fell into the fire.

There is a similar story about a girl on a beach covered with millions of sand dollars. The girl knew that the sand dollars could not survive the hot sun, so she started to throw them back into the ocean. “What are you doing, you silly little girl.” “Oh, I'm saving the sand dollars—one by one.”

There is a third (ancient) story of the Myth of Sisyphus that Albert Camus appropriates. Sisyphus pleaded to the Gods to let him come down from the heavens for a short visit with his wife. Breaking his promise, he refused to return, so the Gods sentenced him to roll a boulder up a hill each day, only for the boulder to roll back down at the end of the day.

None of these stories are about laziness. All three characters have futile jobs. And none of them are lazy. Sisyphus, for Camus, emulates our own lives. We take one step forward, and then one step backward, over and over again. And yet we persist, dropping water on the fire or throwing sand dollars back into the ocean.

Why do some watch their homes burn, and others try to put out the fire? We could view our lives as futile. The best that can happen could be what my father wished for: that he wouldn't die of anything serious.

Why is it that some will persist with impossible odds and others why give up so easily? I asked a writing teacher in college if he had read the great writers when they were 18, like me. “Yes” he said. “And?” I asked. “Well, they weren't any good, but they wrote lots.”

I'm not sure why some can run marathons and others get tired just thinking about it. It wasn't, necessarily, that it came easy. Even Moses, picked by G_d to be his spokesman, had trouble speaking. Yet his words shaped most of our lives in one way or another.

—Kim Mosley

Another Painting by Donna and Four Responses

Painting by Donna Birdwell

She does not see the golden flecks of sunlight swirling over, around and through her.
Or the velvet footprints of passion she has made.
Or the horizon that marks here from there.
Or the soft, swirling container of mystery that cradles her.
She is sleeping.

—Sangye O’Mara

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Just floating in the current moment.

—D. Royak

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

In what am I contained?
Where are the boundaries of what surrounds me?
Splashing through blue water the color of sky,
Gazing up at sky the color of water,
I find no boundaries,
No container.
I swim in the boundless ocean of being.

—Donna Birdwell

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I'm not a believer in either original sin or karma...I don't think. But I'll give this a try. Like a bad scientist who decides what he'd like to prove before he does the experiment, I will look at this.

But first there is a difference in how Buddhists and Judeo-Christians see birth. I'm looking at a painting by Donna Birdwell that shows a woman floating in the water in an almost embryonic position. There is a path of petals on the surface of the water, and more petals rising from the woman as she breathes.

Dark petals are coming from her feet and hands. These petals tell me where she came from, while the light petals show where she is going.

The distinction of how birth is seen in Buddhism and Judeo-Christian belief is critical here.

In Buddhism there is no birth and death, nor any beginning or end. Our lives, though they appear to many as linear, are more like a circle or a spiral where “what goes around comes around. Though with each “rebirth” we get a fresh start, we inherit much. Call this karma if you want.

I read some years ago that someone taught planarian to avoid light (see: http://community.dur.ac.uk/robert.kentridge/bpp2mem1.html) and then ground up the planarian and fed it to little ones and then the fed planarian could learn faster to respond to the light. So it is with karma. Like height needed for basketballs or big brains needed in physics, we inherit karma. It is with what we start. If we were bad in the past we'd have a lot of stale stick stuff in us and we'd have to work hard to clean it up.

Original sin seems to differ from karma. Because Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit humans will forever have to pay. In the original sin scenario, no matter what is done in this life, the next time around you are born as a sinner. (Note: I don’t accept this view of Genesis.)

In the karma model, you could start as one in previous lives had done much harm. This is different existentially from one who is a sinner. In the Judeo-Christian baby, the kid is off on the wrong track from the get go, while the Buddhist Babe is born with Buddha nature, and yet may need to work through a karmic legacy to retrieve that innocence.

The baby in the painting floats in the water. There is a circle formed with her arm and head. She will wake up and see what challenges arise for her. She is naked with only the inheritance of who she really is—her Buddha nature. Her karmic legacy is what she carried from her previous life. It is not who she is, but rather that the opportunities and challenges she will meet.

—Kim Mosley

Donna's Painting and Two Poems

Anthropomorph III (Ambivalence)—Donna Dechen Birdwell

The first woman
arrived in the night,
after the sun
fell asleep.

She popped up
like a bean stalk,
with feathers
on her arms.

Her feet rooted,
unable to go
and nothing to see
and only one job to do:

to wonder.
What else might there be
and are there others
like me?

Are things like this
or different?
Will I get tired...here?
And where is here, anyway?

I hear something—my feathers are blowing.
Why can't I remember
where I came from?
My mind is empty.

I reach in
the darkness
to see
what else is here.

I lift up one foot
and then
another.
I can take a step.

But where am I—
where will I go?
Oh I see something now—
over there.

How bright
that is!
What comes next?
I will fly.

—Kim Mosley

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MY FLOCK

Roots have always eluded me.
As a child, I lived first one place, then another. Then another.
I have lived in at least a dozen different towns or cities.
Sometimes in a sequence of houses.
I have tried to be married. Three times.
My children are perhaps the only constants in my life.
But you could hardly call them roots.
Even as adults, they continue changing, moving.
But there is something that connects us.
An energy of love. Shared memories.
Caring for one another.
Always maintaining
That space in which the other feels safe and happy.
We chatter to one another across phone lines
And internet like a small flock of birds.
Calling, always connected,
Even while on the move.
Yes, they fly away.
But then they return
Or they call to me from the other trees
Where they build their own nests.
My children's freedom is as important as my own.
Our roots are in the sky.

—Donna Dechen Birdwell



What The Window Washers Did

Donna Dechen Birdwell

A window is a tentative, limited passage.
It welcomes light,
A breeze,
A few bugs and flying things,
Once, a bird,
The smell of rain,
Before we run to close it.

A door is more profound.
The light and the breeze come in,
As do the small creatures—
not so earthbound as we—
which also enter windows.
But the door also welcomes my friend,
My neighbor's dog,
At certain seasons of the year,
A pumpkin
Or a Christmas tree.

What of these other windows, then,
These windows of the soul?
These too collect grime,
Become obscured
By organic accretions of time
and neglect.
What of the open door of the heart?
Sometimes it lets in a sudden
Boisterous gale of wind—
Sometimes a thief.

Every threshold,
Every window,
Every door
Has two sides.
Maybe you and I can work together
To cleanse the windows
To mind the doors.
Meeting there,
To teach our hearts, our eyes
To trust openness
And light.

—Donna Dechen Birdwell

Is Buddha Fallible?

Lately the news has been getting me down. Between Ebola and the war in the Gaza Strip, I can hardly stand up. When someone says they don't listen to the news I feel a certain jealousy, thinking that no one deserves that kind of peace when so many are suffering. And then I think they are being irresponsible, as if to say, if you listened you could affect change and all would be well.

I like to tell this story about a girl who needs help but is turned down by a yogi in the sixth realm of consciousness. “Don't bother me,” the yogi says. “I'm almost there.”

I've been thinking about the difference between the Buddha, the man, and the Buddha, a stone statute. Did you know that stone and bronze statutes came about six hundred years after the Buddha lived? Earlier, there were sculptures of his feet, but nothing else. Feet are very special. After the Buddha ate, his attendants would wash his feet. That's a bit different from what we do, isn't it?

So the question came up about whether the Buddha was fallible. I thought he was not, but then my teacher said that not only was he fallible, but that he [my teacher] would never follow someone who wasn't.

So there are Buddhas and there are Buddhas. The stone ones probably don't make too many mistakes. They sit there and don't flinch no matter what we do. On the other hand, the human Buddha needs to negotiate every turn in the road.

The Dalai Lama was asked if he got excited when he saw a beautiful woman. I expected him to say, “of course not, I'm way beyond that.” But instead he said, “Of course, and then I realize the ramifications of an involvement with her.”

So would a perfect Buddha be like a stone? Would he always say the right thing? In fact, if he were really good, wouldn't he be able to end suffering instantly?

The bluebird sings, reminding us of a different world than that of disease and Israeli Hamas cease-fires. Is the bird irresponsible for not paying attention to the ills of the world? Is there a little message in the bird’s song that could resolve some of the world's conflicts? Perhaps!

—Kim Mosley

A Path of One's Own

When the Zen master asks, “Can I show you the path?” the proper answer, I imagine, falls somewhere between “yes,” “please,” and “thank you!”

A couple months ago, asked by the head teacher at the Austin Zen Center “Can I show you that path thing?” my response was, “Show me the path?? That’s why I came here!”

My path this past summer involved a two-month trip to Texas, Missouri, and Nebraska, the majority of which I spent in Austin. The centerpiece of this sojourn was a residential period at the Austin Zen Center, the home of my first consistent, shared Zen practice, the place where reading, dabbling, and solitary meditation found fertile ground in ritual and community. Separated from that community the previous year, I wanted a chunk of immersion, a chance to recharge the batteries of my practice and reconnect with friends.

While five weeks of near-daily sitting were marvelous, the ten days I spent living at the center were particularly refreshing and invigorating. In addition to multiplying my daily meditation sessions, I spent a lot more time in work practice. As you may know, Zen centers supplement sitting and walking meditation with periods during which one applies mindfulness to the mundane, daily tasks of cleaning and maintaining the place. The idea is that one should bring the same concentration and close attention to cleaning a toilet, say, as to something lofty, like inner peace or enlightenment.
In keeping with the intensive, retreat-like dynamic of residential practice, these work periods ran an hour and a half each day. And thus it was that I found myself staring at a corner of the extensive grounds, with the head teacher showing me a corner of the walking meditation path. Essentially, he wanted me to construct a bypass, to round off a corner so that the path didn’t come quite so close to the street. “I’d say take it from around here,” he said, as I followed his finger, “to somewhere over there. And maybe put a curve in the middle.”

That was it for instructions. At no time did he ask if I had any experience constructing a walking trail (I didn’t), or if I had even the slightest idea what I was doing (ditto).

It was at this point that a curious thing happened:

Jackie

I lost my little brother this week
And the circumstances of his life
And his death
Have so cracked wide open my heart

I could never face his pain while he was here
Now I am unimaginably grieved and unimaginably grateful
For what he has shown me
About the pain of judgment

Things do not go as I wish they would
And yet things move and shift
And winds blow us all away

I see what I never saw
I know, really know in my heart
What I never could have thought true

I can't lose what I am
We are never lost to each other, brother.

—Georgia

Contraction, Abundance

Winter is a time
      of contraction,
eating less
      of a dwindling larder.
Lent's a virtue
      of doing without.
Will we survive
      the letting go and
find the joy of abundance
      whether Ho Tai with his
bag of treats and a full belly,
      or an abundance of sky
and roads unwalked.
      Almost more joy
at a day we've never seen,
      than we can handle
without shaking.

The juniper so green,
      so scented
it crowds out thought.

—Jeffrey Taylor

When all is said and done....

When all is said and done, we truly only have ourselves. We can spend time with people we like, people we don’t like, people that like us, or people that don't like us. In the end, it is up to us to take each situation as it is, which is sometimes hard to do.

We can find things around us to help us feel better—animals, plants, art, and sometimes even people. We can also find space and quiet so we can visit with ourselves without interruption.

Driving on an empty highway with no radio in the car has been one of my meditation retreats. It is you, the hum of the car, the scenery if it’s day, the blackness if it’s not and memories and dreams. I have relived scenes, pondered countless questions, peered into the future, and anguished over lost loves, all at seventy one miles an hour. The car is a temple hurtling down the highway, sometimes the only light for miles.

The layers peel away and I study my childhood, my children's childhoods and my father’s childhood, what I know of it.

I learn and re-learn things about myself as I climb a long steep grade. As I crest the hill and see the diamond sparkles of a small town in the black distance, I say to myself, “When you step out of this rolling temple to buy gas and a sandwich, you will be closer to God and yourself and your destination.”

—Robert Porter

Samurai Song Prompt

There is always so much going on, even when it is quiet and my body is still. Even when my eyes are closed.

We like to think we know what all of this is. We're pretty pathetic like that.

I know the light that hits the retina on the back of my eyeball presents an upside down image—the lens at the front of my eye does that. My brain makes it right-side-up again. There are glasses you can put on that flip this image over—make it look upside down, which is, of course, really right-side-up. It doesn't take long for the mind to readjust it. I know what I expect to see. I know how to be sure I see exactly that.

This is how we build the world we live in.

Eyes closed, I know clearly the sound of a creaking door. What is hard is to notice that moment before we know a thing, name it, file it, judge it. The sound I name “creaking door” is really just vibrations rippling through the air, setting the little hairs of my inner ear vibrating. Somehow my brain turns this into a sound and finds a match for it among all the sounds I have heard before, the familiar sounds, the ones I have names for.

Similar things happen with light, with smell, with tastes, with touch and texture.

I wish I could get back to that moment, that instant when a sound is just vibration, when a thing is just light and formless substance. When there is no roof, no supper, no father, no mother, no temple, no priest, no fortune, no tactic, no strategy, no thought. No wish.

This does happen occasionally and it scares the crap out of me and I'm right back in my solid right-side-up world in which everything has a name and in which I know what I like and don't like. Or at least I think I do.

—Donna Dechen Birdwell

Prompt: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/samurai-song

August

Each breath counts time for the Gulf clouds 
of August

Cruising silently 
through all the shades 
of blue

—Lloyd Bridges (Houston)