Category Archives: Om Mani Padme Hum


As I was cleaning on New Year’s Day, an old cookie fortune flittered out of a pile of papers onto the floor. “You’re a perfectionist,” it said, in deceptively friendly typeface. “Don’t spoil it.” I think I saved it because it is obviously the most annoying fortune ever.

If you looked at my house, my car, my fingernails, my life – “perfectionist” is probably one of the last things that would come to mind. Unless, maybe, you know something about perfectionism.

In action, perfectionism doesn’t really look like “a place for everything and everything in its place,” although I suppose that it might for some people. It has more to do with deluding yourself that it’s possible for everything in life to be perfect — you, your environment, your career, your relationships — and punishing yourself or paralyzing yourself when it isn’t.

In my life, this has manifested in simple ways, like letting my desk or the kitchen sink or a room go to mayhem before I put them back in order, because I won’t do anything until I think I have set aside enough time to do everything. (Thich Nhat Hanh’s Miracle of Mindfulness, motherhood and the Flylady* have helped bring me miles past where I used to be on this.) Or sadder ways – I don’t want to go out as often, because I’m not the skinny minnie I once was or because I think people won’t accept me because I talk and think too much about being a mommy. Or I don’t invite people over unless I know their perception of “disaster area” is similar to my own. Or worse.

Writing has always been a space where I’ve felt willing and able to do battle with perfectionism. And I think that it is one place where I’ve managed to whip it more often than it’s whipped me. About a year ago, a friend joked and called me “the great, glorious she-hack” while we were talking, then immediately worried that he might have offended me. Maybe it was because we were in the basement of a Buddhist temple at the time (where ego is often more in check), but I felt, and assured him, that I wasn’t. “I think I might put that on my business card,” I joked.

I think I’ve learned to rein it into something useful in writing and research – a sort of meticulousness or attention to detail that I usually give to the story first and the writing second. Mistakes happen, you cop to them and you write again. But that has been a long, weird and sometimes painful process. I’ve had editors change things for seemingly no other reason than to have done something. I’ve had copy editors edit mistakes into my work and survived the embarrassment.** And I’ve lived with the demands of writing for the space allotted, not necessarily to the story, for much of my career.

If I let perfectionism control my writing, I would never have been able to make a dime doing it without tearing all of my hair out. I would have had to go into academic writing, where there is more editorial control, or become a weekend novelist who made her money in landscaping or as a circus clown. Instead, I have become the “great glorious she-hack.” It’s not on my business card, but it is one of the titles I give myself on my rotating email signatures. If I could make my expectations of life more like my expectations of writing, I think I’d be a healthier person.

My spider senses are up about this because I’m beginning to see signs of perfectionism in my son. Many skills come to him easily, and some of the ones that don’t can give him emotional vertigo. Before the holiday, one of his teachers told me that perfectionism is common in oldest (check!) or only children, who often compare themselves more to adults than to other children. And the two things she told me I could do to help him were to praise the process when he worked hard on learning something and to model failure for him.

As grating as that cookie fortune was, it was fortuitous that it fell down n front of me on the one day when I’m usually consumed by contemplating resolutions and consuming good luck food. And this year, I was feeling like a failure because I was in a terrible, fatigued mental space that did not lend itself well to reflection.

It helped me resolve to not have resolutions this year, because the very nature of resolutions predisposes me to failing – or not accomplishing as much as I would like to – in an ungraceful or unforgiving way. Aspirations, on the other hand, are less quantifiable and forgiving. I can advance a psychic millimeter or a light year – all that matters is that I advance. Or move on if I do not or cannot, because that would be an advancement too.

And so I am figuring out a few aspirations for myself, some of which I will share here in the next few days, or weeks, or seasons. Feel free to join me if you’re so inclined. I’d love for us to help each other to not be so hard on ourselves.

* The Flylady’s prose is a more than a touch precious, but her ideas about managing domestic life in the face of perfectionism are sound. My Christmas tree hasn’t come down yet, but my sink is very shiny. I currently like being in 75 percent of my house, and that’s not so bad.

** Note to editors I work with who read this blog: These things have not happened with anyone I’m currently writing for. Seriously.

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“The darkness doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s just a little bit famous.”

“I want to dance in Saturn’s rings.”

“Don’t forget to focus!”

“You are the dark side of the moon.”

“You are just a clock.”

“You are a scientific FACT.”

“Silly makes you a man.”

“I was born in the bulge.”

“I’m having a metamorphosis!”

“I am terrible of the dark.”

“I am just trying to get to the end of the dark.”

“Earth is a good boy.”

“Jupiter doesn’t make any sense.”

“Your hair is like a book.”

“I’m the human that was born in the puzzle of modern physics.”

“If you have a problem, you can talk to me. If you have a bigger problem, talk to the tree.”

“Saturn has rings.”

“Galaxies fade away, all stars merge.”

“Just the right speed, just the right angle!”

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Karma bombing

I believed in karma long before I knew the word. I imagined it as though it was a cosmic superhero, capable of righting all injustices. It’s also known by the grandma wisdom that spills forth when you’ve been hurt by someone else: “don’t worry about it, he/she will get what’s coming to them eventually” or “what comes around goes around.”

Maybe because the golden rule was the rule of law in my childhood home, heaven and hell made less sense to me than the idea that at our life’s end, our soul would be momentarily shattered by a karma bomb. It would be one thing to be presented a list by St. Peter, another to realize fully who we’ve been and how our actions hold up. Every piece of a karma bomb’s brilliant shrapnel would fill us with an empathic experience that would help us vividly understand the joy and pain we inflicted on others during our lifetime.

This belief has been a salve I’ve used on my ego in painful situations, particularly when I’ve needed to accept defeat or, really, reality. It was there when I needed a way to cope with feelings of powerlessness in the face of infinity, or, more often, in the face of one of the world’s big mean jerks. I sometimes went so far as to let it keep me from promoting or defending myself, instead thinking that this cosmic force was going to somehow let the real me, my real intentions, be seen, appreciated, and especially understood by whoever was that I needed to have understand it.

I’ve spent too many wee hours searching for the components to construct my own small karma bombs – usually words. I’ve searched for some kind of truth in language that I hoped would suddenly bring another person to a full-bodied understanding of how their mistreatment of me, or worse, of someone I care about, truly felt. It would let them know all about the parts of the story they don’t know, or fail to look at, powerfully and instantly. And for all of that time I’ve spent laboring, these letters are largely unwritten and unsent.

Some of my journalistic peers say things like “our readers aren’t interested in reading about X,” because they have marketing data that they’ve come to trust beyond their own, far less limiting, human instincts. And X is almost always something that illuminates a social concern, something that asks the reader to consider life outside of themselves. I’ve seethed over our lack of faith in people.

I have heard morally questionable actions repeatedly excused with “it’s only business.” I’ve also seethed over this regularly in my karma bomb-making quarters, because in my mind, business doesn’t get to exist without people. Business is people. Period.

But I’m guilty of trapping ideas about other people under glass myself. Once we grouse about a friend or family member or colleague as thoughtless or incapable or difficult or uncaring, it’s hard to back off of that precipice and learn to see them any other way. The late Randy Pausch has a simple-sounding remedy for this in his Last Lecture — he basically says that every person has a good side, we just have to wait for them to show it to us. And that good side is always, always worth seeing. I believe that, whether or not I can find the patience or the time or the desire to do the searching that uncovering that thing may require.

The more I’ve learned about karma, the more it’s come to mean something else to me… something that’s not about righteousness or judgment or berating myself for being passive or mentally bombing people with my version of reality. My karma is what I do with it. It’s about being loving, taking responsibility for my own actions, sowing what good I can in the world and seeing people if not for what they are, for the way that they ask me to see them, if only just to know what that might be. My karma bombs are useless on everybody but me. Or maybe everybody, including me.

What about you? Do you make them?


By now, you’ve probably guessed that this is little more than a pointed pep talk meant to help me convince myself to stop mentally swearing at bullies, editors, politicians, queen bees, unpaid bills, the life I thought I deserved and mosquitoes so often.

Now back to deep-fried garlic mashed potatoes on a stick.

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Medicine mantras

Today, hundreds of people are pulling for Whymommy, a scientist and the mother of two young boys (ages one and three), who has candidly, bravely shared her struggle with Inflammatory Breast Cancer online. Dozens of people have joined Team Whymommy to build a “wall of support” for her over the last seven months, but all good wishes from strangers (or, as she calls them, new friends) are welcome at her blog. She is undergoing a double mastectomy today and her husband will be reading all of the comments and well-wishes that are left online for her as she recovers from the surgery. The hope, after weeks of chemo, is that there will be clear margins around the cancer, so that it may all be removed safely from her body.

Also, a woman who gives an unbelievable amount of time and energy to the Buddhist temple where I have learned so much will be waiting through her mother’s extensive surgery today. The doctors will be trying to find and remove multiple tumors from her abdomen in a procedure that will take several hours. Some members of the sangha will recite the Medicine Buddha mantra, Chenrezig’s compassion mantra or the Tashi Prayer and dedicate the merit to her family.

Whatever your belief system, try and make a little space in your thoughts and hearts for these women and the people that love them.

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The origin of the name Tiny Mantras

(Image: A sculptural representation of Milarepa).

When Declan was about four months old, I took a rare evening to myself so I could attend a teaching by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. It was to be, I believed, a dharma talk for Buddhist novices like myself, replete with a tantalizing title about the “purity” of desire, stupidity and anger.

After the Rinpoche and his translator entered the room and took their place in front of the group, they compelled us to sing. We sang a verse about the purity and oneness of desire and forms, followed by the same verse, only this time about the purity and oneness of desire and feelings, then about desire and discriminations.

For the first five rounds or so, it felt novel and fun. I sat with friends who brought their weeks-old baby girl, singing along cheerfully, confident that this was an overture for an illuminating lecture. But as we kept on going past four to five, six and seven verses, my friends and I looked at each other, and at the list of 100-plus virtues, vices, senses, feelings, elements and emptinesses that we were marching through.

“We aren’t going to sing all of these are we?” One of us whispered. There were shrugs all around. I started to feel vaguely annoyed. I wondered if I had chosen to spend my precious evening alone for nothing more than an extended Buddhist version of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”?

But as a few more verses came and went, I resigned myself to this fate. Singing these lines would have to be my lesson. Once I accepted that, I enjoyed it immensely, the way that I had found that breathing and accepting the requirement to be still often made breastfeeding a time for meditation, rather than a struggle.

Somewhere during those verses, I let go of some of the noise in my head. I let go of some of the new, protective anger that motherhood had brought me, and the unfamiliar fears. After more than an hour of singing 60-plus verses, I did get the dharma talk that I had hoped for.

Now, I’m no great scholar or practitioner of Buddhism. I started attending dharma talks at a local Kagyu temple soon after I got pregnant for completely selfish reasons – I wanted to find more ways to deal with stress in my daily life. I felt more vulnerable than ever before. And I especially wanted hope for the future in the face of a war I did not support and a president I did not support (who had just been tipped to reelection by my home state). In the sangha, I found some people seeking the same.

Of that night of singing and the talk, what I remember learning best was that things like anger and stupidity can come through us in a neutral and benign way. It’s how we grab at or cling to them, the pentimento that we make of our experiences, that propels us to do hurtful things to ourselves or to others. And simply put, it’s a lot harder to cling to your past or your fears or your ego when you’re singing. (Or chanting prayers or mantras.)

A little over a year beyond that night, Declan’s hunger for language became overwhelming. He went from saying a few words to learning the name of every color, shape, animal and household item in his proximity as quickly as he could. One of his favorite words was “space.” He would jump up and down and cheer “space, space, SPACE!” in front of various Star Trek series’ openings, marveling at the planets, asteroids and stars.

Wondering if his interest would extend to science as well as science fiction, we started saving space documentaries on our DVR. Declan would watch them, and pick out and modify lines from the narrative to repeat over and over while he played, ate breakfast, tackled the dog or took a bath. His earliest mantras included the ominous-sounding “galaxies fade away, all stars merge” (from “Unfolding Universe“) and “just the right speed, just the right angle!” (from “If We Had No Moon“). Others were simpler, like the one he has most frequently yelled up the stairs at me while I try to get work done: “Saturn has rings, MOMMAY!

There is such joy on his face when he says these things – an abandon in his mastery of language, in his strange desire to process the workings of the universe. And because of the vastness and mystery of his favorite subject, his mantras have a special depth and gravity (pun intended). Now that he’s a full sentences kind of guy, he still has a remarkable skill for picking up on soothing concepts, many of which still have to do with space. He also finds them in other places, like the latest wisdom from Blue’s Clues: “Stop. Breathe. Think.” A reminder he’s offered me three times today.

I’m still not very good at managing stress, and I am probably not any closer to being able to let anger and stupidity announce themselves without climbing on for the ride. But Declan’s mantras, like that night of singing, are often the things that remind me that forgetting myself and being in the moment are possible.

This is my 200th post!

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Earth boy

Wisdom, while enjoying a “blueberry Mars” popsicle last evening:

“Earth is a good boy.”

He considers this for a minute, then corrects himself.

“No, Earth is not a boy. Earth is a good ball.”

At bedtime, he turned to Dan and said:

“It’s a nice sunny day downstairs.”

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What I am grateful for

With Thanksgiving almost here, I’ve been enjoying a lot of posts about gratitude, like this one, this one, these and these.

I feel like this blog is already full to brimming with reasons that I am thankful to be a mom. But another one occurred to me this afternoon as I looked at Declan napping in his car seat. There were dark little circles under his eyes and the flaky evidence of an oncoming cold under his nose. He has been extra fussy the past 24 hours or so, feeling slightly feverish, waking in the wee hours of the morning to wail, for unknown reasons, “I need a bath!” over and over, inconsolable for twenty exhausting minutes.

He yelled at me in Neander-toddler more than once today: “Unh! Unh!” his arms outstretched, his feet stomping, his needs or desires completely unclear. And more than once my voice strained in frustration as I told him “I can’t understand you! Please take a breath and try and tell me what you want!”

But then there was a time today when I just held him, felt him collapse into me and recognized the obvious — that “unh!” was simply grunt-speak for “comfort me.” There was also a moment when I almost snapped and yelled, but didn’t because I looked in his watery eyes and remembered that my yelling today would likely mean his yelling tomorrow.

I am grateful for all of the moments when he has reminded me to be a kinder person. I am grateful for the moments when I remember that telling him about the kind of person I’d like him to be doesn’t compare at all to showing him.

Life soundtrack: Velvet Underground with Nico, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” Launch

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Surrounded by saints

Thirteen years ago today, Dan and I were on our first trip together, just a few short months after we met.

We both wanted to explore New Orleans. He thought Halloween would be fun. I agreed, but mainly because I wanted to be in the city on All Saints Day.

We spent the first five days at a guest house in Treme – an old downtown neighborhood between the French Quarter and the city’s impoverished 9th ward. We had to board a bus called Desire whenever we wanted to ride into the French Quarter. The streetcar had long since stopped running.

The fact that an area with such stunning poverty would be labeled with a name like “Desire” still strikes me as the heart of the city’s nature. It’s a place so well-acquainted with death and disaster, and so strangely able to burlesque tragedy, particularly its own.

Among the tourist attractions in New Orleans are its above-ground graveyards. Because of the high-walled, narrow walkways that the graves create, a few of the most famous sites can be ripe picking for armed robbers. Every travel book I read recommended that they only be visited with organized bus tours on any day of the year, save one: November first.

On All Saints Day, the city’s cemeteries fill with fresh cut flowers, handwritten notes to loved ones who have passed, gifts, sticks of burning incense, people whispering secrets into crypts. The chapels are warm with candles lit for the dead. The graveyards are so populated with people honoring loved ones that your purse and camera are more likely to be safe as you go searching through the outdoor corridors for the real tomb of Marie Laveau because you heard the locals whispering that the one that the tourists are shown isn’t real.

There are a few sights from that trip that have never left me: The glassy, yellow-red possessed eyes of the Voodoo priestess as she danced with a snake in Congo Square, and the way that they became pearly soft and kindly, like a schoolteacher’s, as she ate forkfuls of cake with pink frosting moments later. The houses on stilts as Dan and I drove out of town to Delacroix on a quest to see the End of the World together. (The adventure ended with little more than a painted sign: “The End of the World Marina.”) Dan decided to be a mime for Halloween, which was awkward not only because people really do seem to hate mimes, but because by total chance, we ran into a local musician who was walking through the Quarter with jazz legend Diane Schuur, who is blind. There were several moments of wild gesturing before Dan realized that this might be the one point in the night where breaking character would be best.

Above all, though, I remember the prosthetic limbs that lined the walls of the side room of the chapel at St. Roch cemetery on All Saints Day. The were crutches and braces surrendered to “the patron saint of invalids,” who was said to have miraculously healed Italian plague victims in the 14th century. The room also had a statue of St. Lucy, patron saint of blindness, holding two eyeballs on a dish. I remember how this cemetery, more than any other – and we went to five or six that day – swelled with colorful blossoms and banners and cards and people who flattened their palms against mausoleums, eyes closed, remembering.

I was raised protestant, so saints weren’t much of a part of my religious vocabulary growing up. And yet, somehow, it was my grandmother’s wish when she died that a brass band would play “When the Saints Go Marching In” as her casket was taken from the church to the hearse. We made that happen, and it was beautiful.

As I understand it, All Saints Day is about remembering the people no longer with us, who still live under our skin — the ones that we look to for guidance, even if we can only imagine what they might say to us now. I try to think of those people in my own life often, but work and trick or treaters and traffic and phone calls get in the way. Today, I will make a point to remember them, one by one.

Life soundtrack: Louis Armstrong, Live, “When the Saints Go Marching In”: Launch

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