Grounding in beauty and friends along the path
On Sunday morning, I walked in circles around a patch of garden at a friend’s house in Berkeley. On the first loop, I was caught by my thoughts: avoiding the ferns leaping onto the gravel path, speeding up or slowing down to not bother the folks around me, wondering which direction was clockwise (and why we were walking counterclockwise!).
On the second loop, I saw the stone Buddha statue resting; on the fourth, sprigs of mint dancing.
It was not until the tenth loop or so that I saw the forks. Plastic forks of every height were encircling flowers and dotting the soil landscape. I laughed in surprise and delight: how had I missed fifty forks in my first few loops around the garden? Was it fairy magic that caused these forks to appear out of nowhere?
The garden suddenly opened up in its wild and mysterious beauty. There was the caution tape around the deck, the purple irises, the grasses. The light on the faces of people walking with me, the sacred nature of our being together.
When the bell finally sounded, signaling the end of walking meditation, I breathed in gratitude. Thank you, dear Earth, both inside of and around me, for the reminder that true beauty is always available. When I cannot see it, maybe I just need another look at the situation, another loop around the garden. If I take my time, the beauty of forks and flowers can emerge in the darkness of suffering and doubt.
Present moment, wonderful moment
In this present moment, I am feeling nourished by the friendship of my dear friend Lisa and energized for the work ahead: facilitating a retreat at Plum Village for thirteen Palestinian kids and adults.
It is a miracle that this is all unfolding. Our Palestinian friends have their visa applications submitted and plane flights booked; they will fly from Amman to Bordeaux in just a few weeks. I am struck by the vision and generosity of the French school teachers who invited and financed our Palestinian delegation, by Lisa’s persistence, and by the selfless resolve of Sajida and our friends in Bethlehem over the past months.
I hold this joy and excitement for our trip with the feeling of not being quite ready to leave home. The midterm elections are looming. I feel shame when I think about not volunteering in the election; perhaps I am shirking my duty as a citizen to imagine change and to take action.
The political climate here is tumultuous, charged with a divisive energy of “us” and “them”. In my own mind, I have declared my allegiances and read the commentaries about how to “win” in November. But who or what is winning? And if “my” side wins, who loses? I see the effects of this political division in my own heart; if I am not careful, reading the news can manifest in hatred and close my heart to others. When I read the liberal and conservative newspapers and see how different they are, I fear that we are moving away from inclusivity and love.
I am afraid to turn away at this moment in history, and yet staying to volunteer come election week would mean missing Plum Village with my Palestinian and Israeli friends. I have chosen where to focus my energy and dedicate my time.
My flight to Paris leaves in one hour.
Stop cursing the darkness and light a candle
After the elections in November 2016, I vowed that I would not let fear motivate complacency. Instead, I would practice the following:
- Cultivating love and inclusiveness within my heart and my communities;
- Standing up to hatred and bigotry based on differences of race, gender, economic status, country of origin, sexual orientation, and/or age; and
- Supporting others in becoming self-sufficient by providing tools to earn income, find housing, and touch peace.
Fueled by anger, love, and hope in collective power, I began attending rallies: a protest outside of the ICE building in New York City not long after the “Muslim ban”, a rally for LGBTQ folks and their allies near Stonewall, consecutive Women’s Marches.
I cultivated love in my own heart: finding peace in my family and at work, taking refuge in my beloved sangha, volunteering to teach writing in local elementary schools.
I held space for a book club focused on social justice and activism, reading books about mass incarceration, growing up in poverty in the Appalachians, feminism, educational inequality, and the Vietnam War.
Over two years on my commute to work, walking from my house at 25th/Capp Street to 24th/Mission BART, I saw growing numbers of homeless men and women on the streets: camping in tents, huddled in shop doorways with blankets and sleeping bags. I was devastated each time I saw a person asking for help and I walked by without helping. I saw that my own hurry and obligations to work did not allow me to stop, to ask how I could help, and to be of service.
In February, I stopped working in technology because I wanted to stop rushing past people in need, to start acting in love for all beings and not just for my own security and happiness. I wanted to serve others with an open heart.
For two months, I studied Soto Zen teachings, meditated, and tended to the farm at Green Gulch Zen Center near San Francisco. In June, I took refuge in another Buddhist monastery, Plum Village; there, I walked among the trees, played in the clay, nourished myself in deep and beautiful friendships, and committed to a path of peacebuilding and teaching.
In July, I walked the Camino de Santiago for forty days practicing aimlessness; in August, I ventured to Jerusalem to facilitate summer camp for Palestinian children living in the Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps in the West Bank. In September, I reunited with my family in Kyoto, and saw my brother Ryan off to school at Waseda University in Tokyo. For the past three weeks, I’ve been home in the states: visiting family, brainstorming at Mariposa, dancing at weddings, reuniting with old sangha and work friends.
Finding purpose in peace-building
In Jerusalem, I touched joy and clarity of purpose: Lisa and I will build the foundation for a women’s collective and academy in the Palestinian West Bank. Our intention is to create a self-sustaining ecosystem where the efforts of women and girls directly finance their education, provide them with healthy meals, and support much-needed services in the refugee camps. It’s a beautiful and energizing vision, one that calls me from across the Atlantic back to Israel and Palestine. Our first projects are as follows:
- Sabaya Academy, a trade school for girls aged 15–18. Starting in January, I will teach coding and English courses for six months for a small group of girls, with a goal of enabling them to find paid contract work and full-time engineering roles upon graduation.
- Listening circles for adult women. I am collaborating with my friend Joann, a Plum Village teacher that trains communities in body awareness as a means of building individual and collective resilience. We plan to train our Bethlehem women friends in the Community Resiliency Model (CRM), giving them the tools to facilitate support groups in our collective.
Since leaving Jerusalem, I find myself with incredible energy and passion for this work of ours. In my spare time, I’ve invested in planning for Sabaya: crafting coding curriculum, reaching out to potential non-profit partners and collaborators, applying for a grant, and identifying risks and possible solutions. I’ve jumped into study of the Community Resiliency Model, reading the book and discussing with Joann its alignment with Plum Village practice and application in my life.
In these projects, I touch my aspiration to slow down and to be with others fully in their suffering and joy, and to be of service to all beings.
And yet doubt about the sufficiency of my political activism remains. Have I done enough over the past two years? Why am I committed to work in Israel when there is so much division here in the states? Should I leave for Paris now?
Sitting with my doubt: Is my activism in the world sufficient as is?
Hello, my dear friend Doubt. Please come sit beside me on this swing; it’s quite comfortable and you are welcome to stay for as long as you’d like.
With Doubt beside me, I touch the fear and helplessness I felt after the elections. Not knowing whether I would be safe in my identity as a bisexual, Asian-American woman, not trusting those in power to protect me or my communities. Feeling powerless to stop the infringement of minority rights. I remember the “Muslim Ban”, tweets supporting racism and sexism, and the violence against African-Americans. More recently, I recall the separation of migrant families at the Mexico-US border, the attempts at banning transgender service in the military, the Kavanaugh hearings. I remember not knowing how or if I could help.
I see that my fear in not volunteering stems from my feelings of helplessness and confusion watching the election results in 2016. I fear that by not volunteering, I perpetuate my lack of control; in contrast, by heading to Modesto, Nevada, or Arizona, I imagine touching political empowerment and facing my anxiety about canvassing, phone-banking, and meeting strangers.
Is my activism in the world sufficient as is? If I don’t volunteer, am I liable for blame if these elections create more division and anger?
Taking a deep breath, I invite the Melanie that mourned for days after the 2016 election to sit with me for a while. Am I letting you down, dear Melanie? Doubt says goodbye, and this younger Melanie sits and rests her head on my shoulder. She is gentle and forgiving.
Look at how brave you are, Melanie. Look at how far you’ve come. Just rest and trust that we are all carrying this burden together. You’re not alone, my love. Please give yourself some credit for your work in Jerusalem, your leap of faith into Green Gulch, Plum Village, and the Camino this year.
Your life is your activism: you are not simply maintaining the status quo and complaining about the world. You are in the world doing your best, and there is no need to shame yourself for not being in a purple state come election time.
Trust in your friends and communities doing the work of peace.
This younger Melanie gives me permission to follow my heart. Her voice is strong and clear, even when mine wavers.
Wherever you are, you do not walk alone
Vipassana teacher Gil Fronsdal talks about trusting in awareness, a presence defined by lack of clinging (to the way the world should be, to my own anger and fear, even to my own happiness). Moving towards this state of non-clinging allows us to act from a place of interbeing, from a collective “we” instead of the usual “you and me” separation (audio recording).
When I recognize the “we” in each moment, I can start to dissolve the boundaries that define “my work, my goals, my failure”. I can see that any ownership I claim over “my work” is arbitrary: the work of peace involves each of us across personal and political borders.
I am thankful to see that friends in my communities are volunteering in the midterm elections; their work enables me to go to Plum Village, Paris, and Jerusalem to do my work. It is the same work in different form, and I can feel gratitude for them without shaming myself over the comparison.
There are also small acts I can do remotely: today, I had the opportunity to text bank 500 voters in Michigan about a law to repeal partisan gerrymandering (thanks to Marie’s tireless activism). And I can and did vote by fax.
I’ve been singing a song lately that Lisa sang to me over a voice message in WhatsApp.
Courage, my friendYou do not walk alone
I will walk with you
And sing your spirit home
The song appeared anew during my stay at Mariposa with Sugarplum friends. During a break in our planning workshops, we walked silently to the wooden bridge over the dry creek. Below us were the big grey rocks and pebbles composing the bottom of the riverbed; above us, tall sturdy oak trees and expansive blue sky.
Jonathan and My started singing this song, and our group joined in, replacing “my friend” with each of our names (“Courage, dear Melanie…”). Up until then, I hadn’t realized that this too was a Plum Village song: I was touched to tears by the magic of a song I first heard in Tokyo — sung by a friend in Jerusalem — making it home to Mariposa and the golden hills of California.
We are never truly alone. Even in the darkness of doubt and suffering, the presence of others is there to nourish and sustain us, if only we are looking. Sometimes, it takes a few loops around the garden to notice the forks in the soil. The forks are always there: the magic of awareness will help us to see them.
Dear friends, you are never alone. Know that the work you do inspires and nourishes me, and I could not do my work without you. I am grateful for your presence in my life and love you dearly.
To my friends working in any capacity on the midterm elections, whatever your political beliefs: thank you. Your work gives me energy and hope and I deeply appreciate you.
To my friends that made time and space in their schedules to see me while I was in the states: thank you. Your presence brings me joy and reminds me of the many people and communities that I love and love me back. No matter where I am, you are always in my heart.
Until next time, I send my love and gratitude.
P.S. Enjoy these photos of my time in the states — a reminder to myself of the joy and community always present in my life.