This is the transcript of a teleconference I gave for the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) on April 9, 2014
On March 1, 1997, when I was 52 years old I went out to dinner with friends. Four months later I returned home in a wheelchair. A blood vessel had burst inside my spinal cord, leaving me instantly paralyzed from the waist down. I now use the wheelchair full time.
In the years since, that blood vessel has taken my mind, body and spirit on a journey I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. In a split second, my life took off in a dramatically different direction than I thought I was headed. When my life turned upside down, I was forced to learn how to make sense of senseless random events and to learn how to rebuild a satisfying life. I was forced to learn what is like to be disabled, how to circumvent hostile environments, and how to endure ridiculous government policies.
My coping skills were forged in a multicultural crucible. I am Caucasian/Apache woman raised in Hawaii by a Zen Buddhist. I am also a lifelong lesbian with a passion for civil rights. Before the burst blood vessel, I had long career as a community organizer in the national offices of women’s organizations in Washington DC. The inspiration for my recovery has come from my Buddhist practice and also from author Byron Katie who both have taught me that you will suffer in life to the same degree you wish things were different.
I could wish that I were not in pain 24/7, or that I could once again walk along the water’s edge feeling the waves wash over my feet, I could wish that my income had not been cut in half and that I was still independent living and working where I pleased. I could wish all these things and suffer magnificently…but I choose not to.
Everything about my disability has been a lesson in how nothing stays the same. I thought I was at the height of my career, earning a good income and would retire sometime long in the future. But you never know…
But you never know…since I have been in the wheelchair I have broken five bones in my legs at separate times, had a recurrence of breast cancer, my gall bladder removed, my thyroid removed, a pump installed twice in my abdomen, two surgeries just last year to fix a mistake made earlier in the year and yet here I am, happy as a clam, living a good life in Hawaii. I think life is a hoot! I live on Social Security and live well, I travel, I have all I need of material things, I go out to eat a lot. I am in pain 24/7 and you would never know unless I told you. Life is good.
Jean Shinoda Bolen said in her book “Close to the Bone” that every cancer patient is taken on a journey close to the bone, stripping away all the pretense and illusion. I propose that every event in our lives that changes things dramatically takes us on the same trip. You think you know what your life is about and then Boom! Things are not the same anymore. You can’t walk, you can’t talk after a stroke, you can’t think straight after a whack on the head, you have a baby and you will not have a free moment to yourself for years, you contract diabetes and are faced with having your foot amputated. You never know what is going to happen to you.
I make the point in my book that you will suffer in life to the same degree you wish things were different. Well, over the years I have realized that all suffering, just as the Buddha taught, is caused by wishing things were different and hanging on to the original idea. So when some tragedy strikes your life, who you were has disappeared and who you are about to become is rising up before you. Hanging on to the disappearing self will cause you to suffer. Expectations limit the possibilities. Hanging on to what was limits what could come your way. Giving up the expectations unleashes your energy to explore the future. Hanging on just makes you miserable in the present.
The present is a wonderful place to be, it is where everything is happening. You just have to open your eyes and see it. I was sitting by the ocean the other day and friend was going on and on about how badly her mother had treated her when she was child. This woman was in her early 60s…I said to her when was the last time your mother was mean to you? She thought about a minute and said well she has been dead since 1992 and we actually patched things up when I was in my 30s so about 30 years ago. I said Let it go, what difference does it make now, you are retired, happily married, have two great children and we are sitting by the beautiful ocean in Hawaii and you are getting all worked up about what happened 30 years ago. Wake up!
My brother is fond of telling stories about our father and how mean he was to him. I suggested that he could start telling people how wonderful our father was and my brother was horrified. If he did the energy around those stories would be changed and he would have to give up part of his identity. No wonder he was horrified.
I routinely ask my counseling clients when they tell me they are depressed, unhappy or down in the dumps because their partner left them or they got fired or whatever the tragedy du jour may be, is anything happening to you this moment? Is your partner yelling at you this moment? Are you being fired this moment? Of course the answer is always no…why then are you upset? They are upset because they are living in the past and hanging on to what they wished was reality.
I saw a video of Bryon Katie talking with Oprah. Oprah’s mother had recently passed away and she was talking about how sad she was. Katie said why are you sad? Oprah repeated slightly incredulous that her mother died. Katie said I know your mother died and what you need to know is she is never coming back, you will never talk with her again, you will never see her again, and that is the reality. Oprah was shocked! Katie said you are sad because you wish she hadn’t died, but she is very dead. Katie asked her, did you like your mother? Yes, said Oprah I loved her very much and we were very close. Why then are you not celebrating her life and telling everyone how wonderful she was? If you accept the reality that you will never see her again then the only thing left to do is celebrate.
So, people have asked me, do this mean that you just lay down and let life roll over you? Do I mean that you can have no opinion, take no action, or want for a better world? No, it means take a good hard look at what the reality of the situation is and take action on it. Give up wasting your energy on wishing it wasn’t so.
I was recently asked to co-facilitate a 12 week workshop on Sexuality Education for older adults and the coordinator wants me to take on her 27 year old son who lives at home with his parents, has no job and is remarkable unambitious. At the facilitator training he always wanted to interpret the material as if his opinion was better explanation than presented by the trainers. It was not. On one hand I do not want this doofus co-facilitating with me on the other hand the program standard insist there be diverse co-facilitators and he is the only straight male with the training. I get to choose to be miserable and fuss and insist that I will not teach this class under these circumstances…or could I instead face the reality of the situation and drop my objection and take on this kid and teach him a few things about facilitating. And once I do, not look back and revisit or regret my decision. And as I do not know much about a young man’s sexuality, he could have much to teach me as well. I get to choose.
We all get to choose each moment of the day. You don’t have to have a tragedy to practice letting go. Look at what makes you angry. I can bet without knowing what it is that you are desperately hanging on to a wish that things were different. Look to see what that is, let go of the wish, and then take action on the reality presented there.
The trick of course is how you know what the reality is. I use meditation as my reality preceptor. I focus on my feelings in meditation, where is it charged with extra energy? I breathe in and out, in and out, and let my consciousness drift all around the problem. I know myself well, I know that challenges to my ego are problematic to me and that I have trouble believing anyone else knows as much as I do…a dialog sets in, on one hand it says, you know how to facilitate a workshop, done it dozens of time, one the other hand, every time you have set your ego aside and let some new experience happen it has been good thing. So, come on, let go of that ego and co-facilitate the workshop with the young man and stop calling him a doofus.
Easy to say now but the road here was bumpy and long. I was raised in Hawaii by man who embraced Zen Buddhism when I was child. My father was a mixed race man, Caucasian and Apache. He was raised by his Native American mother who threw over her native beliefs for spiritualism of the 20’s in California. My mother was Caucasian raised by the daughter and granddaughter of Baptist ministers who never questioned one thing about her beliefs. My mother was religion-neutral, I asked her once what her belief was and she said simply that she believed in God and that was it.
I only went to church once as a child. My Baptist grandmother came to live with us and we all went to a Baptist services that met in the cafeteria at the elementary school. My grandmother was from Maine but this congregation was definitely Southern. My dark-skinned father was clearly not welcome, my grandmother was embarrassed and we never went again.
In high school, I made friends with a girl who parents had been sent here as missionaries, in the 1960’s from Texas no less. Her mother asked me if I would agree to read the New Testament. I agreed and read the whole thing in a little red leather bound copy with tissue thin pages. We discussed it when I had finished. She, of course, was hoping that I would be born again with the reading of God’s holy word and embrace Jesus as my lord and savior. Well, I said it was an interesting story but how some man dying for my sins 1,960 years ago made no sense to me. We talked about a lot of other things and finally she said that she was amazed for a heathen (her word exactly) like me could be so kind and decent and Christian like without believing in Jesus. This was the first time she had ever lived outside of her little Texas town the first time she met people who were not Christians. I wish I had kept track of her, I bet she returned to the little Texas town a very different woman.
My father shared his insights on Buddhism and the world at talks at the dinner table. Of course at 12 years old I would roll my eyes and pray this was going to be a short talk. Years later, though. I would hear echoes of his dharma talks at other dharma talks I attended with Buddhist teachers. He taught me early on about becoming one with the world by teaching me to shoot a bow and arrow. He instructed me to pull the string back to my chin and hold it until I felt at one with the universe before I let the arrow fly. Really good lesson in getting in touch with your chi….he also signed me and my brother up for karate classes. The old Japanese man sensei, a man of few words, had a stick that he would whack you with across the shoulders while you stood in meditation, all the classes together in rows in our ghi, hand inside fist, everyone quiet and not moving. We learned in our lessons how to never meet force with force, we learned instead how to step aside and use our opponent’s energy against them. Like the archery lesson we learned to channel our chi so that we were at one with the universe. Powerful lessons for a young girl. But this really didn’t hit home until I was 47 years old.
I had nothing to do with religion in my 20’s but in my early 30’s I felt a longing, a calling, a something to make better sense of my purpose for being here. I joined a big steeple Presbyterian Church and was baptized at the 11 o’clock service one Sunday. I cried through the whole thing, very moved by the ancient ritual. The next Sunday I was attend a woman’s retreat and was recruited on to the Synod Committee on Women. Most folks serve years in their church committees and then move up to a Presbytery committee and then maybe never to a Synod but here I was one week a Christian and the next week on a Synod committee. I was happy in the Presbyterian Church, we had a huge choir with paid soloists, all sorts of events and dinners and I went along happily for years. I moved to Washington DC and eventually wound up at Silver Spring Presbyterian with Margee Iddings. Within three months I was ordained as an Elder and was serving on the Session. The first issue we had to deal with was it became clear that the previous pastor sexually abused several older widows in the church. Margee’s leadership in dealing with that crisis was genius. The second crisis on the heels of the first was the sanctuary was riddled with termites and had to be torn down and rebuilt. I used to joke that I was not sure that the two events were related but they might be.
Margee’s sermons were enlightening and caused me to think deeply about my faith. At one session meeting we were reviewing the application of a flamboyant gay man, self-professed pagan to become a member. A tight assed lawyer who was raised by missionaries opposed the application saying that he must profess Jesus as his lord and savior. I said it doesn’t he must profess Jesus as his only lord and savior and at that moment I realized that I did not want to belong to any church that had membership requirements. It was a slippery slope from deciding who can join to deciding who can be ordained as a minister, who can serve on the session, etc.
Shortly after this I attended the General Assembly of the denomination where the good Christians once again voted down the motion to ordain LGBT folks as ministers. That was it! I was done with this hypocrisy. Hypocrite: anyone who professes to believe in teachings of Jesus and flagrantly discriminates against someone.
About this same time my father became ill and I went home for 12 weeks to be with him as he moved from this world to the next. We talked and talked. He reviewed his life, I reviewed my life. He repeated the dharma talks of my youth. It was a most glorious time of my life. I returned home and joined the Mintwood Zendo.
I was now 47 years old. I went on retreat with Bobby Rhodes (Soeng Hyang) of the Providence Zen Center. She gave me a koan about something existing from the beginning of time to end of time, like a cloud, etc. etc. I struggled with it and struggled with it. In a session with her, I said I got it, it is like the Cheshire cat, yes she said like that but without the cat, just the smile I said, and she said yes but without the smile and I got it! I got it! I saw in an instant flash how everything is connected from the beginning of time to the end of time like a cloud, I was this vast network glowing and twinkling. I was breathless and speechless and I started to cry. Just like that, Bobby said, just like that. That sense of connectedness has never left me, that moment irrevocably changed my life.
It that enlightenment? I don’t know…the lessons continue to come, the challenges continue, and yet through it all I maintain some sense of equilibrium.
One piece missing for me since I left DC in 2003 was community. Until last year I struggled with finding a spiritual home, or a satisfying social network. I was very lonely but kept present about it and tried not suffer and did pretty well. Then last year I went to the Unitarian Church to support a friend who didn’t want to go by herself and I found a spiritual home. The minister is a Chinese gay man raised in the Philippines and who used to be the MCC minister here in Hawaii. He quotes from the Dalai Lama and Thich Nat Hahn often. He spent some time at Plum Village in France before coming to Hawaii. But the biggest treat is the congregation. We are diverse in age, race, philosophy, gender, No dogma, no creeds, no doxology, and no one god. I love it.
Gay Marriage Hawaii. It has been a long battle starting back in the 90’s. The battle went back and forth with much political and legal maneuvering between the legislature and courts and finally was shot down. In 2011 a Civil Unions bill was passed after several bloody years of battling the religious right. In 2013 the Marriage Equality Bill pass in a special session and was signed into law by the governor.
It was a strange two weeks while the special session debated the issue. 5,184 people testified on the bill and after some of the most ridiculous allegations by an ignorant, mis-informed, opposition the bill easily passed the Senate and the House.
After the bill had been passed by the Senate and was waiting to be heard in the House, many members of the Christian clergy supporting the bill held a press conference in the outdoor rotunda. People in opposition to the bill surrounded the press conference and chanted loudly and repeatedly, let the people vote. The chanters were quite violent and started pushing people aside and were amazing disrespectful of the Christian clergy gathered there. One person tried to wrestle the microphone away from the moderator. The clergy joined hands and started singing Amazing Grace. One of the women opposing the bill shouted at them, very angry, “that’s our song, you can’t sing our song!” The people opposing the bill finally moved off a short distance but kept chanting, let the people vote, their chanting drowned out the press conference and kept on for several hours after the press conference was over..
And if that was not bizarre enough, when the vote was taken in the Senate an openly gay Democrat (lesbian) voted against the bill. It was two weeks of amazing drama in every direction. Amazing power struggles even for Hawaii. The opposition claim to be Christians but I think we need another name for them. From now on I will call them snaits, Christian spelled backwards is snaitsirhc, snaits for short.
The opposition comes from a very large non-denominational church called New Hope, the Mormon Church and the Catholic Church. It seemed to me from observing those people who came to the Capitol that the opposition was made up for the most part of immigrants from the South Pacific and the Philippines.
The US and French governments bombed many Pacific islands during the A bomb testing years. The natives on these islands were moved to other islands disrupting their culture and lifestyles. They were put on welfare and food stamps and they have remained that way for several generations. But, they are sick, high rate of cancer of all sorts. So many move here for medical treatment. And join New Hope and come to the Capitol under orders from their preachers and scream in my face that I am going to Hell. I don’t mind that they think I am going to Hell (I point out to them that you have to believe in Hell in order to go there…) They had signs that said Gay Marriage will ruin straight marriage. I am not sure how that works exactly but they were very concerned. An amendment was attached to the gay marriage bill that said churches could not be fined if they refused to do a gay marriage. They thought they would be forced to marry gay couples. What gay couple in their right mind would ask them? Desperate and very frightened.
I have been so very surprised at my anger at them and how quick I was to stereotype them and distain them as people who are slow to learn English, happy to remain on welfare and food stamps like they got back home and live 15 people in the one bedroom apartment. I have always thought myself as a tolerant person but my anger at them blindsided me here I was trashing these folks because they refused to see my side of the argument.
When I take a breath and take a good look at my anger, I am relatively sure that if I appeared on their doorstep as simply a disabled old lady in a wheelchair suffering from chronic pain, in need of transportation to a doctor’s appointment, company and meal now and then, they would embrace me. They would visit me in the hospital, stick by me through cancer treatments and hold my hand when I died. Of this I am sure. I am sure that except for the LGBT issue they are “good Christians” following what they believe to be the teachings of the Christ.
I take another breath and try to walk a mile in their moccasins. What if a group of people I find abhorrent rose up demanding their civil rights to live their lives the way they see fit. What if, for instance, pedophiles demanded their right to love anyone they choose and demanded the law be changed so that pedophilia would no longer be considered a crime. I would be outraged! I would never understand how it was a right to cause children such damage. I might be tempted to call them names when they refused to enter into a dialog with me, when they refused to see the reason of my position.
I take another breath and try to get in touch with their fear for they appeared to me very fearful and desperate. They carry their Bibles with them everywhere. I breathe in again, a feel their need for answers in this complicated world where there is no black and white. Anything goes. There was a time not so long ago when the world was pretty much black and white. It was easy to discern good from evil. My grandmother born in 1874 had few doubts about what was right until the time she died in 1960. Good was white people, Christians, Americans, heterosexuals, everything else was bad or to be pitied. And then the world changed, a horrible bloody World War I left the Western World with PSTD, WWII sent our “boys” into many foreign lands where it expanded their horizons, and off to Korean and Vietnam Wars, and now, the Gulf Wars. These modern “Crusades” shook up American ideas of just about everything. People who were our enemies now it seems they are people just like us.
With the advent of modern communications we now know every detail about every atrocity in the world. We see horrifying pictures of the mutilated dead whether it be from man-made or natural causes. There was time not so long ago we only knew what went on in our neighborhood. And if we knew about an earthquake in Peru in was in a story in the newspaper with a photo or two. We are bombarded 24/7 with news that has nothing to do with us. We are told about genocides, skin heads attacking immigrants, students shooting up the school with automatic weapons. I too wish this all made sense and I can see why a charismatic preacher who shouts from the pulpit, we know right from wrong here, I am the Way follow me attracts a following. And having an identifiable enemy strengthens their cause. Mob mentality takes over very quickly as was demonstrated at the press conference. I too wish for a simpler world, but as an author I admire once said, you will suffer in life to the same degree you wish things were different.
I forgive those fervent Christians, I get it. I am scared too. But I think we need to huddle together in our fear, support and understand each other not yell in each other’s faces. I would like to start a dialog with the members of New Hope, I would like to sit down over lunch and talk about our families, our hopes and dreams. I want that woman who was so angry about Amazing Grace to experience grace, I want her to know why every Christian church in the world sings that song.
When I moved back to Hawaii from Washington DC in 2003 I decided to stop buying books and instead check them out from the library. A good plan, it would seem.
I was riding along the Ala Wai Canal one day not long after I arrived with a library copy of Kate Chopin’s Awakening in my basket. Suddenly, Kate leaped out of the basket and dove into the water. I went to the library chagrined and had to pay $6.95 to replace the paperback.
Then one day not long after that I checked out The Little Prince as I was re-reading books from my childhood. I finished it one night while reading in bed and put the book on the floor next to the bed. In the middle of the night the water heater which was stored in the closet broke and spilled gallons and gallons of water out into the room. The Little Prince, I am sorry to report, drowned.
I took the soggy book back to the library and told my sad tale. This time I had to pay $12.95.
A few months later I was visiting my brother for Christmas. I was reading a very large book on Samurai culture. I put in my bag with a bottle of Campari my sister-in-law had given me. My brother loaded the car, tossed in my bag and my wheelchair on top of it. You guessed it, the bottle of Campari broke and baptized my book. Back to the library where my credibility was now zero and it cost me $35.
My good intentions were clearly not in, as they say, the books. I am happy to report, however, I have not had to replace any other library books but I do have a fine for some reason unbeknownst to me every time I go.
After a nine month drought the skies opened up at precisely 1:00 pm, the exact moment the campers started to arrive. I was standing at the gate, with no shelter, the list of who was supposed to go where dissolved. So I just asked how old they were and assigned them to the units by age. After everyone was in, all hell broke loose at the office. We had asked the girls if they wanted to be with a buddy and in my random assignments I was clueless about who was buddies with whom. Angry parents, weeping children, confused staff and me just about on my last nerve.
But, we got everything straightened out and the parents left and the girls stopped crying. A Girl Scout Council Board member was one of the parents dropping off her daughter. She was the last parent to leave and as she drove past in the parking lot on her way out she held out a brown paper bag to me.
“I think you probably need this.” She said and drove off.
Inside the bag was a can of maitais.
Just prior to opening the camp, I took a tour of the pool area to make sure it was secure and all the equipment we had been using for counselor training had been put away. My little dog, Caleb was with me. He was a “champagne colored miniature poodle and the dumbest dog I had ever met. He was gift from a friend who, I have no idea why, thought I needed a dog.
Caleb was across the pool from me when I called to him to leave. He ran in a straight line right into the pool. I was astonished! Astonishment quickly gave way to panic as I realized that he was not able to keep his nose above water let alone make his way to the side to get out. This damn dog is going to drown I said to myself and jumped in to save him. We made it safely to the side. I was dressed in my very best camp director outfit, starched white shirt, lanyard with name tag, green Bermuda shorts, leather belt with roadrunner buckle, long green socks with red flashers and sensible oxford shoes. I now had about two and one half minutes to change before the campers arrived at the gate. And you know how that went.
This was my first summer directing camp. I had never been to overnight camp as a child. I had been a naval officer for the previous two years and the powers that be at the Council office thought this is some way prepared for this job. I had majored in Physical Education in college. Not that I had any great love of teaching sports, I didn’t. It was just that as it got to the middle of my junior year I had not declared a major and I like taking PE and was a good athlete and my advisor suggested going with the flow. I got a D in Teaching Team Sports, a D in Teaching Individual Sports and a D in Ballroom Dance but that is another story altogether. In my defense I got an A in Kinesiology, an A in Physiology of Exercise, and an A in Anatomy and Physiology. I ran afoul of the leadership in the department and they refused to admit me to the School of Education where I could get a teaching certificate. I didn’t want a teaching certificate and luckily a cute Navy recruiter came to my rescue. I would have followed her anywhere.
So I joined the Navy and got out two years later and went to work for the Suncoast Girl Scout Council in Tampa, Florida. Two years in the Navy did not prepare me well for recruiting and training Girl Scout leaders either but I did all right.
I loved being at camp. We were our own universe, a miniature community out in the woods. The girls had fun and the adults had fun. We had two international counselors, one from France and one from the Netherlands. It was a great introduction to cultural stereotypes, the French woman was arrogant and aloof and the Dutch woman was like a large dog, always friendly and sloppily affectionate. I fell madly in love with the French woman, needless to say.
This was 1970 in the south. We had been ordered to integrate by the American Camping Association and had done so. I hired and trained black staff and recruited black campers from the City of Tampa Social Services. I was sitting in my office one day preparing for a visit from the Board of Directors that evening when I say one of our black campers walking toward the front gate. She had her little sister in tow. I asked them where they were going. Home, was the answer. The older girl had had enough of sleeping out in the woods, using a pit latrine and eating weird food and she was going home.
“It’s a long walk, about 50 miles to Tampa.” I said. “You might need some food and water for the trip.” As luck would have it, the cook was baking cookies and the smell permeated the area. We went to see the cook about getting some cookies for the trip. We sat in hallowed ground on the cook’s porch, no one, not even the Director was allowed to sit there without an invitation. The cook has been at this camp for years. As the girls sat there eating their cookies and having a glass of milk the cook said to us,
“Director, we do not have enough fish for tonight’s dinner and someone has to go fishing.” Well, we both knew that fishing was the favorite activity of the black girls of all the dozens of activities we offered.
“I can’t go,” I said, “the Board is due here any minute.”
Both of the little girls hands were waving in the air. “We’ll do it, we’ll do it!” they said together.
So, there I was sitting on the dock with these two when the Board started arrive. I explained and they were quite sympathetic.
The black children did not like being in the woods. The cabins were made of wood, resting about three feet off the ground. There were large screened windows and shutters that lowered to keep out the rain. The first night they were there I did a walking tour to make sure they were OK. There were four girls to a cabin and eight cabins near one another in the unit. The counselor’s had their own cabin in the unit. The first cabin I came to was shuttered up tight even though it was about 95 degrees. I tried to open the door and found it blocked by four beds and the girls huddled together all in one bed scared to death. The next day I moved all the black girls into a brick building we usually did not use in the summer and kept for the Brownies during the year. It had a cement floor, electric lights and flush toilets. All very OK with the girls. After that they got used to being at camp and I think finally enjoyed themselves as did most of the white girls.
One morning while I was eating breakfast one of the campers came up to me with a bowl of granola in her hands and tears in her eyes. Cook made the best granola in the world and I could not imagine what the problem was.
“I can’t eat this” she said tearfully.
“Why not? I asked
“Because my mother doesn’t want me to eat hippy food.” She replied.
Trying very hard not to laugh, I assured her she could have peanut butter and jelly that was always kept on the sideboard if someone didn’t like the meal. Hippy food! Can you believe it?
by Margaret Mann, author of A Dramatically Different Direction
My first memory of Kwan Yin was my father smashing her to pieces. He was suffering from a chemical imbalance that caused him to have out of control rages. The tall graceful porcelain statue normally resided on the shelf used for flower arrangements. He was roaring through the house smashing things left and right. I stood frozen, totally incredulous that he could smash the Kwan Yin, of all things, the bodhisattva of compassion. My younger brother and I ran into the bathroom, locked the door and held on tight to each other.
My father was an Apache/Caucasian man who had embraced Zen Buddhism after moving to Hawaii in 1949. Our house burned down when I was in the third grade and he had it rebuilt as a Japanese house with tatami matting, shoji windows and the tokonoma room with two alcoves. The statue of Kwan Yin graced one side and a scroll of a carp swimming upstream hung in the other. Between them was a polished plum wood pole. I spent hours in that room lying on tatami matting reading books under the peaceful gaze of the Kwan Yin. My father often gave dharma talks at the dining room table. When I was twelve, of course, I would roll my eyes and pray he would stop talking. Later as I studied Buddhism as an adult I would hear echoes from my father’s talks in what the teacher was saying. He had laid a good foundation for me. He was actually a very nice man, very gentle and peaceful, except for the brief period before the medications became effective. His rages were phenomenal, real Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde stuff. Thank goodness he got over them.
Until he smashed her, the Kwan Yin statue was prominent in the house and in my father’s thinking and teachings to us. He taught us how to shoot a bow and arrow but we had to hold the bowstring drawn back at our cheek until we felt at one with the universe, then we could let it go. Powerful message for a teenage girl for you can’t be one with universe and have no compassion for it. He enrolled me in karate classes where I learned from an old Japanese man how to meditate and how to carry oneself peacefully in the world. My father also taught me to body surf by putting me on his very broad back and catching a wave. He bought me a surfboard and we would surf together at Waikiki.
After a relatively calm adult life at age 52 I was disabled by a small blood vessel bursting in my spinal cord leaving me paralyzed from the waist down. My life in the 15 years since has been, to borrow a phrase, the best of times and the worst of times …Best in that I have grown spiritually in ways I am sure I never would have otherwise, I now understand the compassion of Kwan Yin at a very deep level. It became clear as my life in the wheelchair progressed that compassion for myself was at the core. It is no accident that the heart sutra metta starts with oneself. I did nothing to cause my disability, no one else caused my disability, it just happened and I had to figure out a way to deal with it.
It was hard to adjust to having half the income I had before, hard to deal with all the agencies that were supposed to help and didn’t, and hard to endure the pain 24/7. The worst of times…a broken hip when the scooter tipped over, a broken leg when I fell down at the swimming pool, a broken ankle when I caught my foot in the door and didn’t realize it, gall bladder removed after gall stone attack, thyroid removed after a large goiter grew there, breast cancer recurring resulting in a double mastectomy. And through all this I was alone, no partner, 6,000 miles from home. Friends came and went though all this.
Shortly after I was disabled I attended a silent retreat. I was having a hard time with my anger in the sittings and a friend seeing that I was distressed put candies on my mat during a break. This act of kindness infuriated me, I threw the candies across the meditation hall (which luckily was empty). It didn’t occur to me then, but it occurs to me now, that my father might have been feeling the same when he smashed the Kwan Yin. The act of compassion was so painful and I was so out of touch with my own compassion that rage took it’s place.
When the sangha reassembled I left the hall and went to my room for I was afraid that I would scream out loud. I put the pillow over my face and screamed, and screamed and screamed. The screaming finally subsided into to sobbing. I was bereft, alone, isolated and totally miserable. As I sat there crying little by little my Buddhist practice came back to me. The metta, Kwan Yin’s gift to us…I wish for myself happiness, freedom from suffering…compassion for my situation. Breathing in, breathing out. After a long while I stopped crying and returned to the meditation hall. Everything was beautiful, my fellow retreatants looked so serene, dust motes were floating in the air, a slight fragrance of incense filled my nose, and the little Buddha statue sitting on the altar looked so peaceful. Breathing in, breathing out. I knew then I was going to survive.
A year or two after that I went on retreat with Bobby Rhodes (Soeng Hyang) from the Providence Zen Center, Rhode Island. While in dokusan with her, I experienced a profound connection to the universe. We had been talking about the koan she had given me and suddenly I got it. I “saw” (felt, knew, sensed, realized, became aware of, understood) in a deep mystical way how we are all connected from the beginning of time to the end of time, in every direction, and with every animal, plant and mineral. That realization continues to reside deep in me. I am reminded daily by the Kwan Yin statues that grace my living room. She is a daily reminder to be kind to everyone I meet…to myself as well. Her peaceful face is a model for me. Her peaceful pose demonstrates a total relaxation for me follow. She appears to me as having “got it” big time.
A year or so after that while recovering from surgery I was given an anti-nausea drug. I had an allergic reaction to it that caused a full body spasm. My head was pulled over to one side, my hands curled up and my toes splayed out. I thought, this is it, I am going to die, I will not be able to take another breath. But in that nanosecond I remembered that I had a practice and thought to myself, I am ready to go, I have no regrets…I was peaceful and calm as Kwan Yin. But then of course I continued to breathe and did not die. But this was a hallmark moment, I had never faced physical death before. Death of my life as I had known it, yes, but actually leaving the planet, no. Yet, one experience informed the other. Giving up the fear of death actually allowed me a greater freedom to live in my everyday life. Don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff became my motto.
Before the near death experience I was curious about how I was going to manage and spent several years in my “let’s find out what we can do” stage. I was determined to be independent. I learned to drive with hand controls, I went back to school and got a PhD, and I worked for disability advocates.
But, after the near death experience things changed to the “OK, this is how it is going to be” stage when things settled down into routines. But, the routines were not working out well for me in Washington DC where I was living. I was finished with school, a potential partner dissipated, friends moved out of the neighborhood, my job lost its funding and I decided to go home to Hawaii to be with my family. I packed up my Kwan Yin collection and headed home.
She stands there graceful and serene, Avalokitesvara, on the corner of my camphorwood chest. Tall and tan and lovely she is in ivory and sepia. She looks as though she is carved out of an ivory tusk but she’s not and no elephant died for her sake. In her left hand she is holding a basket full of flowers and her right hand is in the gyan mudra and also holding the willow branch for the ease of suffering. Buddha in gasho rests in her hair. She has long earlobes and little bindi on her forehead. Her curved body fits nicely in the crook of my arm.
Next to Avalokitesvara on the camphorwood trunk in a relaxed pose is Guan Yin almost the same height, in bronze and copper patina. She sits peacefully with one knee up and her arm resting on her knee. She is holding a ball in her right hand and leaning down on her left. She has an ushinsha, long earlobes and a little bindi. She sits on a rock ledge. She is covered in gold necklaces, mardi gras beads, and a dried lei from a celebration.
Next to bronze statue is a white porcelain Kwan Yin from modern China. She is holding the willow branch in her left hand and a vase with the Waters of Compassion in her left. She is sitting on a pink lotus. As I picked her up just now to get a better look at her crown of Buddhas I was compelled to hug her. Something I have not ever done in the eight or nine years I have had her. It felt very good.
Overseeing the camphorwood trunk is a poster from Honolulu Academy of Arts of the life sized wooden Chinese Kwan Yin from 1000 AD that resides there. When I was little girl I would often sit at her feet and tell her my troubles. In those days she was located in the corner of a courtyard and you could get very close. But now she is up on a platform at the end of the Buddha gallery and not touchable.
I believe the Ancient Goddess never left us and Kwan Yin is her modern emissary. She may have been overrun by the male figures of Jesus and Buddha but I suspect she went underground. I understand that almost every household in Asia has a statue of Kwan Yin. The Catholic churches I visited in South America and Mexico all featured Mary prominently and Jesus off to the side. I think all the female saints are just the Goddess taking a form accessible to the women of that time.
Well, whatever the history may teach us, I am happy here with my little collection. We live happily together on the 25th floor overlooking Honolulu harbor. Rainbows appear quite often stretched out across the sky and the sparkling white fairy terns dance a pas de deux over the city. Life is good.
October 10, 2012
by Margaret Mann
I have been to graduations. I have been to graduation parties. But this was the first time the graduation was the party!
Heald College Graduation April 2012 was held at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Coral Ballroom. My client Robin who had come to me years ago with self-esteem issues was now graduating with a 4.0 average in Business Administration. I was so very proud of her, I could have burst my buttons were I wearing any.
The elevator to the ballroom was very crowded. We had to wait a long time as the people on the lower floors filled up the cars before they reached us. For some reason the stairs ended on the floor below the ballroom. We found out later there was an escalator connecting the floors.
The room was laid out in typical graduation style. A center stage, empty chairs for the graduates in the center of the room and chairs for family and friends in a huge semi-circle around them. A delightful student took our tickets but was clueless about where the wheelchair should sit. But, she was an earnest young woman and got a hold of two other earnest young women, rearranged the chairs and put me in the front row next to the graduates.
A group called the Academics was singing onstage. Seven young men all dressed alike in suits and ties singing a song like those you hear on those on American Idol. A faculty member called the group to order and asked the graduates to process in. And of course they played Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance over the PA system.
The invocation was delivered by a Pentecostal minister. It was long and spoke often of God’s plan for us. Turns out she was the psychology professor. Hmm…
After the graduates were seated a very loud, very vivacious group of men (most likely Samoans) whooped and shouted their way to the stage where they commenced to do a very loud, vigorous, stamping, arm slapping, dance. I have to admit this was a very different start to a graduation than I had ever experienced. A young woman sitting directly behind me was clearly related to the young men as she whooped and shrieked in an ear-splitting support of their performance. She continued to do this almost every time something happened on the stage. As did the people sitting to my side. A little disconcerting to say the least.
Heald College is a community college dedicated to training of pharmacy aides, hospital aides and para-legals and small number of business administrative assistants. The crowd was a wonderful representation of modern Hawaii. The audience as well as the graduates was 99% people of color. The majority of the assembled were South Pacific islanders and Filipino representing immigrant Hawaii. There was a small smattering of haoles (the name for Caucasians in Hawaii) in the audience and the majority of the faculty were older haole women with sensible shoes. Polite applause for the old haole women, but loud screaming and whooping and hollering for the “local boy” Student Services Director and his staff most of whom were previous graduates from the school. The clear favorites.
There were awards given for the students who earned anything above a 3.5 average. The color lines divided at the 4.0 level, almost all of the eight or ten haoles among the graduates earned a 4.0. The Outstanding Student Award went to a single mom who had earned good grades and participated in a number of service projects. The most surprising award was one for Perfect Attendance…at a college. There were many award categories. I suspect this was deliberate on the part of the administration. Many of these graduates had just attained their highest level of education they were ever going to earn and deserved all the credit they could get.
There were two graduate speakers elected to the give a valedictorian address to the graduates. Both women were single mothers, both had graduated from high school and gone on welfare and now both were moving on seeking a better life for their children. The stories moved me to tears and I found myself earnestly praying that they succeed, that all this effort leads to something good.
The Student Services Director gave the keynote speech. Closely related the Pentecostal preacher but funny. Had the audience in stitches. But was keen to make the point that 85% of children born to parents who earn degrees also go on to earn degrees. He stressed that their graduation was going impact their family for generations for come. He pointed to a group of small children playing near the stage. You are doing this for them, he said. A very different theme from the usual college graduation address where the graduates are told that they are the ones who are going to change the world. Clearly pharmacy and hospital aides and para legals are probably not going to change the wider world as we know it, but there they were setting about changing their world.
The Mistress of Ceremonies had the students who were the first in their family to earn a degree stand. One half of the graduates stood up. She also asked the single parents to stand. One third of the graduates stood up.
The Academics came back on stage and Director of Student Services joined them, as did a female staff member who was an excellent singer. The whole ceremony was light hearted and fun. The administration does this three times a year and had it down to a science. The graduates collected their diplomas and very well orchestrated march across the stage and we joined the swirling mass of graduates and their large extended families in the foyer. The excitement was palatable as moms, dads, grandparents, children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, buried the graduates in leis.
I am very glad I went.
April 21, 2012
by Margaret Mann
This story appears in “Old Lesbians and their brief moments of fame
,” by Joy D. Griffith
, Karen Gibson and J. Ross, Xlibris Corporation, 2012
My name is Margaret Mann. I am a 64 year old, Caucasian/Apache, lesbian, Buddhist who uses a wheelchair to get around. I was raised in multi-cultural Hawaii by an Apache who wished he was Japanese (oh, the stories I could tell…). After a wonderful career working on behalf of women and girls on the mainland, I retired home to Honolulu, Hawaii in 2003.
In 1984 I was working in the national office of the League of Women Voters in Washington DC. I was a community organizer where it was my job was to support the local chapters. I was sent to Raleigh, North Carolina to do a workshop. The first issue they raised was: How do we expand our chapter to include women of color? We invite Black women to attend our meetings but they never come.
I said, “Well, it’s not a problem, just invite your Black friends and neighbors to attend. Or, you could join the local chapter of National Council of Negro Women and attend their meetings.” There was dead silence. It took two clicks for the message to sink in. They had no Black friends or neighbors and the thought of joining NCNW was abhorrent to them.
We had a great discussion afterwards. We talked about how the problem was larger than the LWV, that if we were to address the issue we were going to have to think outside the box. They understood clearly their own reluctance to go to an all Black neighborhood to attend NCNW meeting but they had little understanding why a Black women did not want to go to an all White neighborhood to attend a LWV meeting. We talked about how Black women usually come into White neighborhoods as maids and how a Black woman who wasn’t on her way to work might be treated with suspicion. We talked about how uncomfortable it would be to be a minority of one in a group. And they were clear that they didn’t want to be the “one” minority at a NCNW meeting. They were very well meaning and sincere in their quest, but just a little ignorant of how race plays out in real life. The story, however, has a happy ending. At my suggestion, they contacted the local chapter of NCNW to ask if they would be interested in conducting a joint voter registration campaign.
Back in Washington DC, I had been meeting with my counterpart in the national office of NCNW so I was fairly certain that they would have a warm reception. The LWV national office had hired Melva Ware, (one of two Black women in the 75 person national office), to design a program to integrate the LWV. They did not give her much of a budget and little support. I became her lifelong friend when I suggested that she purchase black shoe polish with her tiny budget and distribute it to the chapters. That way they could paint their faces black and have Black LWV members just like them. It was Melva’s idea to contact the NCNW and get the two national offices talking to one another and we cooked up the idea of joint campaigns.
About this same time, the LWV national office hired a PR firm to produce a membership brochure which would reflect the integrated membership they hoped to attain. The traditional brochure was red, white and blue with pictures of White women. The new brochure was green and white and had pictures of Black and White women working together. The members hated the new brochure and refused to use it. We had our work cut out for us.
Back in Raleigh, at the first joint meeting several months later two women, one White, one Black had a tearful reunion. They had worked together in the sixties integrating the schools and had not seen each other in years. It was very touching and sad at the same time. They clearly liked each other and had worked hard together on a difficult task and yet the segregated society in Raleigh had kept them apart all those years.
by Margaret Mann
I wake up each morning and sit on the edge of my bed dreading the day ahead of me. Not because I have an overwhelming list of things to do but because I have nothing to do. Except for an occasional doctor’s appointment or luncheon engagement I rarely have any reason to leave the house. This persistent idleness terrifies me. I feel lonely, isolated and useless. Something deep in my psyche is terrified that if I have no purpose, no reason for being here that I don’t exist. Carl Jung’s annihilation. A deep existential terror that I do not matter to anyone, I could leave the planet tomorrow and no would care all that much. No one will throw themselves on my coffin and wail. My friends and family would be sad for a short while and then go on about their lives. Four friends about my age died this past year. I envy them for checking out early and not having to endure this agony. I could be dead a week and the maintenance man will discover my stinking body before anyone knows I died. I could move out of town and no one would know until I told them.
It makes no difference if I get up at 6:00 am or 10:00 am. It makes no difference whether I eat breakfast now or later and it makes no difference what I eat. It makes no difference if I watch TV, read a book or stare at the wall. I have no demands other than what I invent. I can shop any day of the week. I can do my laundry any day of the week. I can wander aimlessly around the shopping center and no one will know or care. It is a huge burden to think up things to take up the time until I sleep once again.
I notice that I am no longer listened to. I applied for a job recently which years ago I am sure I would have gotten. I used to be a successful grant writer but in the last two years two different directors of agencies have ignored my work and failed to submit the proposal I wrote, both time denying me a job for a year. I feel like they would not have dared to dismiss me like that when I was 40. I feel ineffectual, unimportant and that I am sitting on the sidelines. I once was valued for what I knew and now I am not. I used to be in the know and now I only have memories. I speak now more of the past than the future. I have entered the realm of becoming an entertaining, eccentric old lady who is patronized, patted on the head and thought…cute. When did the worm turn? When did I become marginalized?
What happened to my busy, purposeful life when I had no time to do anything? What happened to getting up on a Saturday morning after working all week, going off shopping, coming home to chores around the house and garden, having interesting people over for dinner, or going to the theater with friends with whom I shared season tickets. I can no longer afford season tickets. I live in an apartment with no yard and my friends are scattered across the country.
What’s the strategy to prevent me from throwing myself off the lanai railing? Do I simply assign myself a life? It’s contrived but if I don’t examine the smoke and mirrors too carefully it could seem like a purpose. Did I always do this and just didn’t notice? I assign myself tasks, swim twice a week, go to Tour and Tea at the Academy each week, sign up to be a docent at the museum with a two year training program and take classes at night to fill up the empty hours. Should I try to find people to go with me on these adventures so it seems like a pressing obligation? Or do I just suck it up and go alone to the festival in the park? I dream up projects and set about organizing them as though they mattered. My deeply terrified psyche is sure they don’t really but it is nice to pretend that I have a purpose if only for that moment.
October 14, 2011
By Margaret Mann
I would like to fall in love just one last time. I would like one more kiss that causes my universe fall into place. I would like one more passionate zap in my private parts. I would like my heart to stop when the phone rings in the hopes that it will be the love of my life. I would like to bury my face in soft skin in a neck and breathe their sweet scent. I would like to look deep once again in someone’s eyes and see true love reflecting back. I would like to walk hand in hand along the sand with a silly grin. I would like to answer the door and be greeted with a long kiss. But….
I know too much now about the physiological and psychological aspects of “falling in love.” Experience and information have put a damper on romance. I know too much about endorphins, serotonin, projected golden shadows, a 50% divorce rate and co-dependence to ever be swept away again. But…I wish I could.
And, I would also like to have faith in a “big idea” again: The Secret, EST, transactional analysis, rock and roll will save the world, being born again, peace in the Middle East or even that there is God in charge of anything. But all the big ideas have fallen by the wayside for me as I age. No big idea seems to make sense any more. Little things like friendship make a lot of sense but no big ideas like Nouveau Riche University, Rich Dad Poor Dad for me. Or even, I hate to say, the whole Wall Street protest thing lately. I see right through them.
And yes, I would love to truly believe in a political candidate once again. Not since my heart was broken when Bobby Kennedy got shot have I believed. I support a candidate now and then but I don’t believe like I used to. I spent 15 years walking the halls of Congress and I know now that any one elected to a national office has sold their soul to the devil somewhere along the way. I have seen too many “honest politicians” fall from grace with sex scandals, income tax evasions, and just plain stupid decisions.
And, I would love to truly believe in a product again. I used to believe in Celestial Seasons and Progresso Soups and now they have been bought out by some multi-national corporation. It seems that all my product decisions are now made in China. I used to believe that some products were better than others but now I am not so sure and they all seem how less than they used to be. Too many recalls, too many lawsuits, and too many consumer alerts.
So with the wisdom of age, which I thoroughly enjoy, comes a dark side that I did not anticipate. I didn’t expect to become a “jaded Washingtonian.” Well…I am not living in Washington DC any more but you know what I mean. I hate that wisdom trumped romance and innocence. I still wish something or someone would ring my chimes. But then, it will probably be something ironical like Jack Nicolson in the movie The Bucket List wishing to kiss the most beautiful girl in the world. It turned out to be his three year old granddaughter.
November 26, 2010
In 1990 I went to work for the Older Women’s League in Washington DC. It was my job to organize new chapters and support the 35 existing local chapters.
My first assignment was to attend a meeting of the Brooklyn, New York chapter. In my own defense I would like to state here and now that I was raised in Hawaii, worked with the Girl Scouts in Honolulu, a brief stint with the League of Women Voters in DC and educated in the Mid West, none of which prepared me in any way to work with the Brooklyn Chapter of the Older Women’s League.
I had been on the job one week when I arrived at the door of the meeting room. I had dressed very carefully that morning in a standard outfit that I had worn at the League of Women Voters: a blue plaid skirt, white blouse with a high collar, blue wool blazer and pumps. The conversation in the room came to a complete halt with my appearance in the doorway. They looked me over with an expression we would have called “stink eye” in Hawaii.
The national board member from that area came forward and greeted me. She steered me to a seat around a large table and advised me to observe for a while before joining in. Good advice, as it turned out. The chapter had a tumultuous history with the national office. They had at one time refused to pay their dues, another time they had sent a representative from the national office home in tears, etc.
They were wearing sweat pants and sweaters and each seemed to have a very large black purse not unlike Mary Poppin’s carpet bag, that held everything anyone would need for an overnight campout. At precisely 11 am they started digging down in these immense bags for snacks. Out came toast wrapped in a paper napkin, packages of crackers, and cookies. I came to find out that this was not a Brooklyn custom alone; it was universal across the nation at meetings of older women. No matter what had been served to eat up to that point, purse rummaging and snacks appeared at 11 am.
The meeting was to say the least, lively. She who shouted the loudest got the floor briefly before being interrupted by the next loudest person. They were rude to one another, “shut up, I’m talking here!” One said to the woman next to here. At one point everyone was talking at the same time and one woman with a cane, slammed it down on the table to get everyone’s attention. Got mine for sure!
By the end of the day, I am thinking to myself that I am going to quit this job the minute I get back to DC. But then as I was going out the door, the woman who had slammed the cane down came up to me, grabbed me by the lapels and said about 3 inches from my face….”Didn’t we have fun today!” She was serious. I blinked, took a breath, and realized that this was sport, not just a meeting. I got it! This was recreation.
These women, mostly Jewish, had been advocates for something their entire lives. They were thick in the labor movement, the socialist movement, civil rights, women’s rights, local neighborhood issues. The Jews of New York City have a long tradition of advocacy and indeed as I traveled the country to do my work I ran into New York Jews everywhere I went.
I returned in a month for the next meeting. I wore pants and a funny sweatshirt. I elbowed in to melay around the table shouting to be heard. They were unhappy about some policy issued from the national office and I did not defend it. I told them they had a point and they needed to write to the board and make themselves heard. I encouraged them to run their affairs they way they saw fit as long as they did not take a position in conflict with the national policies. They loved it, declared me the best thing that had ever come from the national office. I was now one of them, somehow.
A few months later they held a speak-out on Social Security. The first speaker was Lou Glasse, the President of OWL, a WASP from Poughkeepsie, NY. The ladies of the chapter folded their arms over their purses in their laps and glared at her. She gave a good speech but they barely applauded her. She was the enemy in their eyes, wealthy, protestant, and even worse…from upstate NY. The next speaker was Joan Kuriansky, the Executive Director of OWL. The ladies of the chapter beamed! Joan was Jewish, the same age as their daughters, she was a lawyer, raised in Stamford, Connecticut and the E.D. of their beloved OWL. Joan rattled her papers in preparation to speak, they applauded, she cleared her throat, they applauded. She finished her speech to thunderous appreciation. They gathered around her, touching her arm, smiling at her, telling her how proud they were of her. Lou on the other hand sat with me on the side. Not one person from the chapter paying attention to her.
They were to become my favorite chapter to work with. They were always up to something, totally engaged and marching in the streets, so to speak. It was a great East Coast cultural education for a kid from Hawaii.