“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.”
|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.
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.
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?
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.
The cool breeze above the forest was the little bird’s playground.
He soared and swooped and
Joyfully flapped his
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.
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.
|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.
Just floating in the current moment.
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,
I swim in the boundless ocean of being.
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.