Michigan Street Newspapers.

Homelessness is a massive issue in America.  The National Alliance to End Homelessness provides the following snapshot:

  • In January 2015, 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States.
  • Of that number, 206,286 were people in families, and
  • 358,422 were individuals.
  • About 15 percent of the homeless population – 83,170 – are considered “chronically homeless” individuals.
  • About 2 percent – 13,105 – are considered “chronically homeless” people in families.
  • About 8 percent of homeless people- 47,725 – are veterans.

There is no single silver bullet to put an end to this problem. But twelve years ago I discovered a resource, for people who enjoy reading, that assists people living without homes.

In 2004, while in the nation’s capital, one of the many homeless people I saw sold me a newspaper.  It was called Street Sense, a street newspaper that brings awareness to the community about poverty and homelessness.  Seventy-cents of the dollar I paid the vendor went to him.  It is one of 112 street newspapers in 35 countries.

DSC00001

Here in Michigan, there are three such street newspapers.

Groundcover: News and Solutions from the Ground Up is Ann Arbor’s voice for low-income and homeless people.  Established in 2010, my introduction to Groundcover came at the 2012 Ann Arbor Art Fair where the organization has a booth in the nonprofits section on Liberty Street.  The twelve-page monthly provides a variety of features including topical articles on poverty and homelessness, informational pieces on agencies, health features, book reviews, vendor interviews, and first-person pieces and poetry written by vendors.  And, as with the typical daily newspapers, there are coupons, recipes, a comic strip, a crossword puzzle and Sudoku.

DSC00004

In February, I attended a symposium hosted by the Michigan Journal of Race and Law and the University of Michigan Law School titled Innocent until Proven Poor: Fighting the Criminalization of Poverty.  The two-day symposium included Vanita Gupta*, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and Head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division as keynote speaker, panel discussions, and workshops covering topics such as Ferguson, MO, policing and regulating the poor, jailing the poor, and others.  Susan Beckett, publisher of Groundcover, wrote insightful opinion pieces on the topics of “pay or stay” sentencing (a judge’s order at sentencing for the defendant to pay fines & costs or go to jail), money bail, and indigent defense in the April, May, and June 2016 editions, respectively, based on information presented at the conference.

Usually, you can find vendors selling Groundcover on the streets of downtown Ann Arbor.  Except during the Art Fair.  During that time, the City of Ann Arbor invalidates their solicitor permits, except for at the Groundcover booth.

DSC00330
Groundcover vendor Felicia selling July, 2015 issues, which included an interview of her, at the Groundcover booth at the Ann Arbor Art Fair, 2015.

In Detroit, Thrive Detroit Street Newspaper: Driving Sufficiency Through Micro-Enterprise is the street paper assisting the city’s low-income and homeless.  Founded in 2011, the dollar you pay the vendor puts seventy-five cents into his or her pocket.  I spend time downtown at events and such, but I have not yet been approached by a vendor.  The only copy I have I found was purchased at Source Booksellers on Cass.  But I’ll keep looking for them.

DSC00007

In November, while up in Traverse City for the annual Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan conference, I met Steve across the street from one of my favorite hangouts, Horizon Books.  He sold me  Speak Up Zine: Traverse City’s Voice of People in TransitionLaunched in 2014, the 24-page zine is worth the two-dollar donation, with a $1.60 going into Steve’s (or other TC vendors’) pocket.  The format is different, and has a more personal approach to it with vendors contributing a lot of the content.  Steve was quite proud to show that he was front and center on the cover of this issue.

DSC00009

The skeptics will ask, “How do I know the person is selling me an actual street paper and not something phony just to make a buck?”  The street papers enforce a vendor code of conduct which includes such ground rules as not asking for more than the cover price, selling only current issues, and by wearing and displaying a badge while selling the papers.  The badge or some form of outward identification is the key.  Furthermore, the vendors are not to hard-sell the public, and are not to sell additional products or panhandle while selling the paper.

Poverty and homelessness is a huge issue in this country.  The Guilty Until Proven Poor symposium offered a vast amount of information on how our society uses laws and the judicial system to penalize a person for being poor, and a recent panel discussion at Pages Bookshop with contributors to the newly released book, Ending Homelessness: Why We Haven’t, How We Can (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2016), broadened the discussion.  There is not enough space here to tackle the issue, nor is that the purpose of this article.  It can be overwhelming in considering which actions we, as individuals, can take.  We can volunteer our time and bring community together, like what is done at Cass Park on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month.  And we can choose not to turn away from a street paper vendor.  Approach him or her and buy a paper from them.  Not only will you be helping someone, but you’ll also have some thoughtful reading material to enjoy.


*Ms. Gupta’s keynote remarks and other articles based on the symposium can be found in Volume 21, Issue 2, the Spring 2016 issue of Michigan Journal of Race & Law.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Sunday at Cass: June 13, 2015

Sunday at Cass
June 13, 2015

sundayatcass003

I drove through a drizzle into Detroit for this Sunday morning at Cass.  But by the time I arrived, the rain stopped.  The only time we got wet was when the wind blew, causing the droplets on the leaves of the canopy of trees to lose their grip.

Last time, I had brought a platter of cookies that I purchased at Meijer the night before.  People gladly took them, however they were loose.  I was concerned that if not consumed at the park, they’d end up crumbs after being packaged with all the other food and supplies our guests take home.

I did something different this Sunday.  I bought four 20-count boxes of chocolate chip cookies at Meijer, along with a package of fifty zip-lock sandwich bags.  At a card table in my basement, with a turntable spinning vinyl, I packaged two cookies to a zip-lock bag, making them a little more convenient for our friends.

sundayatcass004

It seemed to work well, and thus this has become my practice.

Chocolate chip cookies are my addiction.  And I refuse to recover.  I am especially addicted to Meijer’s chocolate chip cookies from their bakery.  The practice of placing two cookies in each bag, these delightful treats, with thoughtful intention, knowing they are going to be enjoyed by someone who needs them more than I, enhances appreciation for all that is around me.  I have been fortunate.  A small catastrophe, and I could be on the other side of the table.  Giving what I can, when I can, just feels right.  The fresh, chocolate aroma stimulating my senses, adds to the powerfully good feeling of giving them to our friends at Cass.

DSC09562 DSC09564 DSC09565 DSC09566 DSC09567 DSC09568 DSC09569 DSC09573 DSC09576 DSC09577 DSC09579 DSC09580 DSC09581 DSC09583 DSC09584 DSC09585 DSC09586 DSC09590 DSC09591 DSC09592 DSC09593 DSC09594 DSC09595 DSC09596 DSC09599 DSC09600 DSC09602 DSC09603 DSC09604 DSC09605 DSC09607 DSC09608 DSC09615 DSC09616 DSC09617 DSC09620 DSC09625

2016 Goals? None

DSC04163

December 31, 2015.  What are my goals for the New Year?  None!

For a period in my life I swam in the waters of “positive thinking”; of goal-setting with the focus on living in prosperity.  I read the books and listened to the cassettes, and attended a church that was infused with what Oliver Burkeman in his book, The Antidote:  Happiness for People who can’t stand Positive Thinking (Faber & Faber, Inc. 2012), called the “cult of optimism.”  Since 1991 I drafted and tracked goals on a semi-annual basis.  Some goals were accomplished, others not, and others abandoned because my heart was never into them when I first committed them to paper. I stopped after 2001 because life was traveling at a dizzying pace.

Goal setting creates a mindset that you’re not “happy” or “good enough” or “successful” in the present moment.  So you set a goal for a future event that will define you or your work as a success, and thus delay happiness to that point.  To quote Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, the future is defined as “(t)hat period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness assured.”

In the chapter titled “Goal Crazy: When Trying to Control the Future Doesn’t Work,” Burkeman demonstrated how goal setting backfires with, in some cases, deadly consequences, such as a 1996 Mount Everest climb that took the lives of eight people.  Chris Kayes, a former stockbroker who became an expert on organizational behavior and was one of the surviving climbers, links the deaths to goal-setting, as they were “lured into destruction by their passion for goals.” (Burkeman, pg. 78).  “In theology, the term ‘theodicy’ refers to the effort to maintain a belief in a benevolent god, despite the prevalence of evil in the world; the phrase is occasionally used to describe the effort to maintain any belief in the face of contradictory evidence.  Borrowing that language, Chris Kayes termed the syndrome he identified as ‘goalodicy.'” (Burkeman, pg. 78-79).  In Kayes’ studies of business organizations and their goals, he found that when a business’ goal was not being met, the business put forth a larger investment in effort and resources to pursue the goal, resulting in making the chance of accomplishment worse.  (Burkeman, pg. 79).

Burkeman also sites a study that shows that those motivated by a goal are more apt to cheat.  There are big name positive-thinking gurus who site the Yale Study of Goals.  A group of researchers found that 3% of the students of the 1953 graduating class of Yale University formulated specific, written goals for their lives.  The researchers returned twenty years later and allegedly found that those students amassed greater financial wealth than the other 97% combined.  Compelling, eh?  That’s why so many motivational gurus cite it.  The problem is, the study does not exist.

Goals are more of a hindrance to living a happy life than not. In a survey commissioned by Steve Shapiro, 41% of adults agreed that achieving their goals had failed to make them happy, or had left them disillusioned, while 18% said their goals had destroyed a friendship, a marriage, or other significant relationship.  Steve Shaprio, Goal-free Living (Hoboken, New Hersey: Wiley, 2006) cited by Burkeman.

Seriously. It can’t be said any clearer than this:

The optimism-focused, goal-fixated, positive-thinking approach to happiness is exactly the kind of thing the ego loves. Positive thinking is all about identifying with your thoughts, rather than disidentifying from them. And the ‘cult of optimism’ is all about looking forward to a happy or successful future, thereby reinforcing the message that happiness belongs to some other time than now. Schemes and plans for making things better fuel our dissatisfaction with the only place where happiness can ever be found – the present. ‘The important thing,’ (Eckhart) Tolle told me, ‘is not to be continuously lost in this mental projection away from now. Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.’ Another staccato chuckle. ‘And that’s a revelation for some people. To realize that your whole life is only ever now. Many people suddenly realize that they have lived most of their life as if this were not true – as if the opposite were true.’ Without noticing we’re doing it, we treat the future as intrinsically more valuable than the present. And yet the future never seems to arrive. Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Faber and Faber, Inc. 2012) p.116.

After graduating from law school in 2004, and prior to studying for the Bar, I revisited my goal setting process. The process was superficial and empty to me due to my deeper practice and study of Zen during the break from goal-setting. In re-reading the entries from the twice-a-year logging of goals achieved, shelved, and committed to, I found that there was a lack of satisfaction. There were some things that created great memories. But it felt like an unending checklist that, once some goal was achieved, there had to be something else to replace it. And worse, concepts like being “prosperous” or “intelligent” or “wealthy” or “something better” lacked substance. What is wealthy? When does “wealthy” become achieved? It was like the hungry ghosts of Buddhist teachings, where the ghosts’ mouths are so small, yet their hungry bellies are so large, that no amount of “wealth” or “prosperity” or “intelligence” will be enough to fill them.

I sought to reconcile this and came upon a talk by Sangharakshita called “Nirvana”   In the talk, Sangharakshita discusses “The Psychology of Goal-setting,” which can be found in the Essential Sangharakshita: A Half-Century of Writings from the Founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order by Urgyen Sanharakshita (Wisdom Publications, 2009). He describes a goal as something that you strive for.

“You could, if you like, draw a distinction between striving to be and striving to have. But actually, the two come to the same thing: ‘having’ is a sort of vicarious ‘being.’ A goal is in the end something that you want to be.” (Sangharakshita, pg. 116).

This makes sense to those who have goals of being wealthy, or being intelligent. Then, Sangharakshita takes it to the next step.

“There is one really crucial (if obvious) precondition for setting a goal: it must represent something you aren’t. You don’t want to have or to be what you already are. You can only want to be what you aren’t – which suggests, obviously, that you’re dissatisfied with what you are. If you’re not dissatisfied with what you are, you will never strive to be what you aren’t.” (Sangharakshita, pg. 116).

This dissatisfaction ultimately is a desire to achieve happiness. No one seeks unhappiness. And these concepts of “prosperity” or “intelligence” or “appreciated” or “respected” are never ultimately achieved. Why? Because at any level, there will be a need to be more prosperous, or more intelligent or more appreciated or more respected, or for something better. They are the empty bellies of hungry ghosts.

What does Sangharakshita suggest is the fix to this? A change of attitude.

“Rather than trying to escape from ourselves, we need to begin to acknowledge the reality of what we are. We need to understand – and not just intellectually – why we are what we are. If we are suffering, well, we don’t just reach out for a chocolate. We need to recognize the fact that we suffer and look at it more and more deeply. Or – as the case may be – if we’re happy we need to recognize that fully, take it in more and more deeply. Instead of running from it into guilt, or into some sort of excitable intoxication, we need to understand why, what the true nature of that happiness is, where it really comes from. And again, this isn’t just intellectual; it’s something that has to go very deep down indeed.” (Sangharakshita, pg. 119).

Burkeman reasons that goal-setting fails because it doesn’t address the issue we’re really trying to resolve – our uncertainty of the future.  “Faced with anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future – not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.” (Burkeman, pg. 86).

DSC01097

I know the goal-setting crowd likes acronyms, and mine for GOALS is Ghosts of Attaining Life Satisfaction. Yeah, it’s a stretch. But to chase these ethereal creatures and to attempt grasping them in order to experience a satisfied life seems to be a waste of energy and focus, and a distraction from the happiness of now.

I will look back on 2015 for the year that it was, reflect on it, savoring its joys and reflecting on its missteps and challenges. But for the future? All I have is now. This time next year I can review another collection of 365 days of now-moments.

2016 is uncertain, and I’m satisfied with that uncertainty. It is foolish of me to set a goal, for example, of writing and publishing another novel in 2016.  If something happens to alter that goal I’ll have excuses or disappointments to chastise myself with. And what do I really mean by setting a goal of publishing a novel?  What am I not by seeking to achieve it?  That I am not a writer unless I achieve it?  How can I feel that with a whole page on this website listing my publications?  Instead, I’ll just look back and see what good was created in 2016, and be all the happier for it.

And I just might be surprised at how awesome and challenging a year it can turn out to be – like 2015 was!

DSC02842

 

 

Vinyl Memories #9 – Herschel Bernardi’s Show Stopper

DSC04432

This Vinyl Memory is not about a record from my past.  My distant past, anyway.  The first time I listened to it was less than a week ago.

I was in my basement, where the turntable sits and spins when I am either free-writing by hand or doing some other arranging, organizing, or sorting through the collection of memories beneath the ground level of both home and mind.  This evening, it was putting a few items out on the Internet’s largest garage sale.  As I worked, a couple of Monkees albums played, followed by a Frank Sinatra LP.  With a few items left to list, I decided to sample a freebie.

The record store I frequent – Weirdsville Records in Mount Clemens – will package records by the dozen that they just can’t sell, and give them away for free in the form of a “mystery box.”  The caveat being you can’t bring them back.  Herschel Bernardi’s Show Stopper was one such album I discovered in a mystery box I took home one day from the store.  Tonight, I thought I’d give it a spin.

I’ve never been one for musicals, though that is changing.  Since our first trip to New York City and seeing Rock of Ages on Broadway, my hopes for the next trip there are 1) staying in one of the boroughs so not to spend so much time on the train in and out of the city, and 2) to take in a Broadway show at least every other night during the vacation.

DSC06751

I put Bernardi’s record on.  It’s a live performance of him singing a variety of songs from musicals, explaining that he was raised in the theaters of New York and was different from the other kids he grew up with.  He sang, and I listed items on the website.  Side One concluded, it wasn’t terrible, so I got up and flipped it over to Side Two.  While working, a song played which made me stop.  The lyrics struck me.  I rose, walked over to the record player, lifted the needle and gently lowered it back to the beginning of the track.

Damn.

South Pacific is a Broadway musical which premiered in 1949 by Rodgers and Hammerstein.  Based on James A. Michener’s book, Tales from the South Pacific (1947), the story’s theme is racism as two characters become involved in romances that cross racial boundaries, and the decisions based upon their conflicts.  I have never seen this musical, but I’ll be on the look out for it.

The song struck me, at first, because of the lines:

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Yeah.  At first I thought that I did a good job of ignoring what I had been taught.  And though I was able to disregard the specifics, I was still taught how to hate.  The words of this song had come to me less then a week after MLS Cup 2015.

On December 6, 2015, the Columbus Crew SC hosted the Portland Timbers FC in the MLS Cup in Major League Soccer’s 2oth season.  Since 2002, I’ve traveled down to Columbus to catch the occasional match – the Crew being the closest MLS team geographically to Detroit.  I’ve grown to become a fan of the Crew.

DSC04230

When Portland entered the league in 2011, I enjoyed watching their home matches on television, as their supporter group – The Timbers Army – was a powerful force of fan enthusiasm.  The team dates back to 1975 in the old North American Soccer League and three years later, I was introduced to professional soccer through the Detroit Express.   Then, in 2012,  Detroit City FC was born, from which emerged the Northern Guard Supporters.  It is my understanding that the NGS had roots to and were inspired by the Timbers Army.

DSC04192

That said, the prospect of a Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew MLS Cup was a no-lose proposition for me.  The Crew are my favorite MLS club, and the Timbers my third (NY Red Bulls became #2 when Thierry Henry joined them in 2010).

DSC04120

The thing about Supporters Groups is that the focus is all about supporting the team, and contempt for every opponent.  Sunday reminded me of this.  In a place where I would be happy with either team winning, there were a few NGS folks at the game rooting for the Timbers and hating on Columbus and Ohio, not just the team, but the whole state.  You see, some Michiganders are taught to hate Ohio (and I’m sure vice versa), most likely through the sports rivalry between the University of Michigan and Ohio State University. (Another view is that Ohio is the state Michiganders are forced to drive through in order to get to where they really want to go).

I’m not exempt from such sports-driven hatred.  I could have chosen the Chicago Fire to follow, however my hatred of that city and all of its sports teams guided me to Columbus.  There are three hockey teams I root for – the Avalanche, the Devils, and whoever is playing the Red Wings.  Even distance doesn’t prevent the growth of hate, for as an Arsenal fan of the Premiere League, I’ve come to hate the Manchester teams – both United and City.  The hate for these teams and locations did not emerge from me at birth, but emerged from experiences with their fans and organizations.

With all that is going on in our country right now, where we have one 2016 Presidential candidate whose campaign foments with fear and prejudice, first against Mexicans, most recently stating he would ban Muslims from entering the United States; where a county clerk in Kentucky refused to carry out her duty to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples; and with the unending institutionalized racism against African Americans, You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught strikes a chord which still rings true today.  And though the message of the song speaks to racial prejudice, we learn to divide ourselves and cultivate hatred on many levels, which include sports rivalries.

Hatred is one of the three poisons the Buddha warned us about.  Because we want our life to be pleasant, comfortable, and satisfying all the time, we create conflict with those who would disrupt that.  Obviously, if we have a strong bond or connect our identity to our sports team, and another team defeats ours, we’re drawn to disliking them, perhaps even elevating our feelings to hatred depending on the stakes of the game.  It’s as if it is a personal blow against us.  The Buddha identified the poison, and provided the antidote: loving-kindness, compassion, patience, and forgiveness.  If we’re open to the complete experience of life, there will come times of defeat and loss.  Yes, it is the other team that delivered that blow to our team, however hating them is not going to eliminate the pain we feel from it.  It may, instead, amplify it.  Being patient and forgiving the errors that were made which resulted in the loss is more effective.

I still have work to do on this when it comes to the teams I hate.  But I’ve come a long way by letting go of the hopes of winless seasons for Chicago teams, the Manchesters of the Premiere League, and the Red Wings.  My energy is better served rooting for and supporting the teams I love.

You never know what you’ll uncover in a free “mystery box” of record albums.  Teachings manifest everywhere.

One million words

Remember these high school assignments: Write a 500-word essay on _____.

The struggle.  The agony.  Five hundred words?  How many pages is that?  You’d write something, then count the words.  Only three hundred and ten?  How am I going to add another one hundred and ninety words to that?  (Yes, I know.  Today’s word processors have the ability to tell you the word count.  For me, this was back in the day where the electric typewriter was high-tech!)

In high school, being a writer was not on my radar.  But then college happened, and well, getting these kinds of assignments became challenging in a different way.

Write a short story under 2,500 words.

The rough draft would come out to be almost twice that.  How am I suppose to cut all this?  The same would happen in law school and as a law clerk, only with page-count restrictions.

Briefs cannot exceed 25 pages.

When the factual details in the case were intricate, and faced with conflicting legal theories, I wondered how I was going to tighten up the brief in order to make the strong argument within twenty-five pages.  Shrinking the font to an unreadable size was not an option.

DSC09018

On August 1, 2012, I finished reading Dinty Moore’s little book, The Mindful Writer – Noble Truths of the Writing Life (Wisdom Publications, 2012).  It is something that was written in the Afterword that clings to me today.

It is said that the writer Andre Dubus would end his writing session each day by marking down his word count.  How many words had he managed in those four hours?  After the number, whatever it was, he always wrote the words “thank you.”

So, on August 1, 2012, I took a small spiral notebook, and began tracking.  Fifteen-hundred and twenty-two words were written that day (no “thank you’s” written due to space, but thank-yous were said).

After finishing my writing work today, Thursday, May 28, 2015, adding 2,621 words to the tally, I have hit one million words (1,000,109 to be precise).

Two years, nine months, and twenty-eight days of writing can get you 1,000,000 words.

The thing that surprises me the most is that in order to get to that million words, I averaged writing 970 words per day over the 1,031 days.  Journal entries, writing exercises, blogs, first drafts of short stories and novels, and their revisions, all of it has added up.

The question is, did those one-million words amount to anything?

  • The final revisions of The Y in Life.
  • Two short stories published in Legends: A Literary Journal from Grey Wolfe Publishing  Summer, 2013.
  • A finalist in the 2013 Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest.
  • Two short stories and an essay published in Legends: A Literary Journal from Grey Wolfe Publishing  Autumn 2013.
  • One short story published in Write to Woof 2014 (Grey Wolfe Publishing, 2014)
  • A 50,000 word rough draft novel completed during NaNoWriMo, 2013.
  • The first draft and first revision of the novel I am currently working on (not the NaNoWriMo 2013 novel), at 91,540 words.
  • Four unpublished short stories with one currently entered in the 2015 Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest, and two others circulating amongst publishers.
  • 2,377 pages of journaling.
  • Everything written on this website, excluding this entry.

Not bad.

Being a writer requires one to write.  It is evident that I do write.  However, I still get stuck in Moore’s Four Noble Truths for Writers:

  1. The writing life is difficult, full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
  2. Much of this dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.
  3. There is a way to lessen the disappointment and dissatisfaction and to live a more fruitful writing life.
  4. The way to accomplish this is to make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves.  To thrive, we must be mindful of our motives and our attachment to desired outcomes.

Too often, I focus on writing to be published, because my ego wants that.  As an actor wants to see his or her name in lights on Broadway, I want to see my novels in bookstores, my stories in The New Yorker and The Paris Review.  This twists me into the self-defeating spiral of questioning whether I’m a writer.

A million words, Mike.  C’mon.  You’re a writer.

I start to argue with myself, that I’m not a published writer, but, there’s a whole page on this website that puts an end to that debate.

DSC09019

I read The Mindful Writer back in 2012, but it really didn’t sink in until I came across another Four Noble Truths for writers.   I found Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers (Penguin Compass, 1999) just before we left for New York City last summer.  I read it while traveling to and from New York City on the train from our Trenton, NJ hotel.   Her Four Noble Truths provided the key to unlock Moore’s Fourth Noble Truth for me.

  1. Writers write.
  2. Writing is a process.
  3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
  4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

The combination of Sher’s book and visiting New York City for the first time, brought it home for me.  Her short pithy chapters read while in a city where a day’s walking and subway travel can get you to more book stores than are located in Macomb County, had its effect.  The 732 days before the NYC trip, my average words per day was 883.  Since NYC, 1,183 words per day.  I’ve been getting out of my own way, working on the exercise, journal entry, or project for what it is, losing myself to it.

Writer, Nick Hornby felt that his formative years as a writer was hindered by the prescriptive advice that experienced writers gave him.  His advice is the following:

Walk into a bookshop and you will see work by writers who produce a book every three months, writers who don’t own a TV, writers with five children, writers who produce a book every twenty-five years, writers who never write sober, writers who have at least one eye on the film rights, writers who never think about money, writers who, in your opinion, can’t write at all. It doesn’t matter: they got the work done, and there they are, up on the shelves. They might not stay there forever; readers, now and way off into the future, make that decision.  (Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books ( McSweeney’s, Believer Books. 2013)

A million words?  The work is getting done.

DSC06526

Goals? Chasing the ghosts of attaining life satisfaction

New Year’s Eve.

I considered writing about my thoughts on New Year’s resolutions and goals, but after reading my earlier posts of Goals for 2013? None! and No Goals for 2014, I really have little to add to them.

I’m not one who is about chasing goals in order to feel accomplished or wealthy or happy.  GOALS to me are Ghosts Of Attaining Life Satisfaction; ethereal and imaginary states that declare that I won’t be happy or whatever state I think I lack unless I accomplish these things.  The problem is that once a goal is achieved (or another New Year’s Eve arrives) it is imperative to set another goal, in order to achieve happiness or achieve whatever state that you think that you are not.  It’s a never-ending cycle of lack seeking fulfillment.  A haunting of the hungry ghosts of Tibetan Buddhism, whose mouths are button-hole small and stomachs the size of the largest elephant.

For me, 2014 was probably a year much like everyone else; there were highs and lows, fun and challenges.  We bought a house, I had a client removed from the sex offender registry, we vacationed in New York City.  My mother-in-law passed and I was in my first car accident.  Your highlights and low-lights will be different.  In my opinion, setting goals remove happiness and instead create a sense of anxiety that I need to achieve this or that otherwise I will be a failure and unhappy.

Do I want to finish the novel I’m working on in 2015?  Do I want my bowling average to improve?  Of course.  But I’m not willing to sacrifice the present moment for them.

Is life perfect?  Do I know my future?  No.  But am I happy despite it all?  Yes.  Happiness is not an achievement; it’s the process.

May your 2015 be happy.

DSC06746

Is Buddhism the religion for those who don’t like religion?

I read a recent article by Melvin McLeod, editor-in-chief of Shambhala Sunon the growing numbers of Americans who do not identify themselves as a member of any religion.  He writes that the “spiritually but not religious” group of Americans are ” the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S.  Generally, they’re educated, liberal, and open-minded, with a deep sense of connection to the Earth and a belief that there’s more to life than what appears on the surface.”  Speaking to these Americans, he poses the question, “Is Buddhism the religion for those who don’t like religion?”

For me, the answer was yes.

My conversion to Zen Buddhism is not the exotic story of a white, suburban young man venturing across the globe and discovering a religious practice different from the Christian background he was brought up in.  Rather, it is a mundane, simple story, despite the more than four decade gap between my being baptized as a baby in the Presbyterian church to taking the Precepts and being given the Buddhist name of DoHaeng.

Photo taken at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, Detroit, MI - May, 2008
Photo taken at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, Detroit, MI – May, 2008

Throughout my youth I walked the walk of a Christian.  My parents took me to the Presbyterian church in Plymouth -where I grew up- almost every Sunday.  I was an alter boy in my teens.  When my sister and I were younger, we were enrolled in a neighborhood Lutheran church’s week-long summer vacation bible school where the biggest difference I noticed between the Presbyterian and Lutheran service was that one used the term “trespassers” and the other used “debtors” in the Lord’s Prayer.

But it occurred to me as I began high school that the God story was much like the Santa Claus story we were sold on as children.  An all-seeing benevolent being was taking note of our deeds and misdeeds, which would determine whether we would receive a reward or not at a certain time.  If there was no Santa Claus, then where was the proof that God existed?

That’s when I became an atheist.

In my early 20’s I began studying writing.  I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones.  It is a writing book that does not focus on the usual categories of grammar, plot, characterization, etc., but on “using writing as your practice, as a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane.”  Goldberg practiced Zen and referenced both writing and Zen practice throughout the book.  This intrigued me and led me to my next softbound teacher, Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken.  What I found was that Zen provided something more useful than a mythical being judging us from the beyond as a guide to live one’s life.  Zen helped peel away the layers of my mind in order to be more skillful in life.

But I lived in suburban Detroit where no Zen temples existed.  I relied on books.  For a period of seven years I attended a Unity church which exposed me to an interesting interpretation of Christianity.  Human issues between the church’s board and their spiritual leader revealed to me that the “practical Christianity” it professed wasn’t very practical in practice.

In 2002, I found Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple on the same day they opened their doors.  They had originally been holding services at a Unitarian church in Detroit.  I had found my place.  The practice and guidance of the founding teacher, P’arang, and current teacher, Koho, has advanced my practice more than two decades of book-learned Zen.

DSC07184DSC07233

As I read McLeod’s article, he listed ten reasons why Buddhism enriches the path of the “spiritual but not religious.”  These reasons, I realized, are what drew me to the Buddhist path and why Zen works for me.  The reasons Mcleod gives are:

1.  There is no Buddhist god.
2.  It’s about your own basic goodness.
3.  The problem is suffering.  The answer is waking up.
4.  The way to wake up is to work with your mind.
5.  No one is there to “save” you, but you can do it.
6.  There is a spiritual, non-material reality.
7.  You don’t have to take anything on faith.
8.  Buddhism offers a wealth of skillful means for different people’s needs.
9.  It’s open, progressive, and non-institutional.
10.  It works.

For the details of these reasons, McLeod’s article can be found HERE.

Many family and friends struggle with this conversion.  It is okay.  It’s about what works.  For me, Zen provides more insight and guidance for daily living than anything else I’ve ever been exposed to.

DSC07232