The Diagnosis and the Present Moment

Karen outside at picnic table
Karen, October 2019

Karen, one of my best friends, was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer in September 2019. At the time, she was working as a consultant in a small town in Utah. In early March 2020, before COVID took over the world, we talked at her house in New Hampshire about how getting a difficult diagnosis has changed the way she views the present moment.

Martha Henry: How did you end up in a hospital in Salt Lake City on Labor Day weekend?

Karen: I’d been experiencing some physical discomfort for several months and then had a bowel blockage. Joe, my husband, took me to the emergency room on a Saturday night.

How did you know you had a bowel blockage?

I didn’t until they told me. It was very different from food poisoning. The vomit had different smells.

The emergency room doctor gave me a CT scan. They pumped my stomach and got me stabilized. The doctor was looking at the scans with a flummoxed face. We heard him say something about, There’s more going on here than just the bowel blockage. He was consulting with doctors from Salt Lake who said, Get her up here.

They put me in an ambulance. I had nothing with me. We didn’t pack a bag. It was the middle of the night, driving miles and miles and miles. We didn’t know what was happening. Everything was surreal,  like we knew we were in an alternate universe. Continue reading The Diagnosis and the Present Moment

Why is it so difficult to be in the present moment?

Morning. Coast of Maine. Clear after three days of fog. The horizon visible for the first time since we’ve been here. Blue water, blue sky.

I drink coffee on the shale ledge, watch the tide go out, and wait for the heron to come and catch minnows in the shallows. The milk snake that slithers across the rocks on hot mornings is nowhere to be seen. Offshore, the lobsterman pulls traps from the back of his white boat.

When I think of a perfect morning, this is what I imagine. Here is where I’ve been wanting to be for weeks. Now here, the coffee half gone, the sound of breaking waves, the smell of beach roses and seaweed. The lone gull floating in the inlet takes flight, circles, and with a gentle splash returns to the water.

Always seeing the world through words. Can I write and be present to my surroundings at the same time? Where are you as you read this? Continue reading Why is it so difficult to be in the present moment?

Matchbox Buddhas

I meditate for 30 minutes every morning. Well, most mornings. Though I’m not religious, I’ve created a short ceremony for the beginning of my practice, a pre-sitting ritual that helps me settle into a groove. I drag my cushions out from under the bed, start a timer, and light a votive candle on the small altar I’ve created on top of a bookcase.

I’m fond of fire, verging on borderline pyromaniac. Lighting a match provides a moment of focus. All senses are involved: the feel of the wooden match gripped between thumb and index finger; the sound of the match scratching against the side of the box; the Tada! sound of the spark igniting, which sounds like a one-second rain shower; the smell of sulphur and burning wood; the sight of the white-orange flame rising upward; the faint taste of smoke on the tongue.

A small act to pay attention to.

Continue reading Matchbox Buddhas

Consume Less Buddhism

My New Year’s resolution is to consume less Buddhism in 2020. Rather than slashing calories or signing up for a spin class, my intention is to reduce my intake of all things Buddhist: to read fewer books, limit the number of podcasts I listen to, and, except for my simple timer, avoid meditation apps. For years I’ve gorged on all of the aforementioned. I’m a not a glutton in other areas of my life, in fact, I’m a skinny minimalist. Continue reading Consume Less Buddhism

Camera Pointing at the Moon

I’d been staring at screens and books all day and had to get out of the house, to feel my body moving and my gaze unbounded. The sun had set an hour ago; the full moon was just rising. Leaving the dishes unwashed, I got myself out the door.

After days of cold rain, the weather had changed and the night air had a sensuous feel—teasing amounts of warmth and moisture. Sweater weather. The leaves had begun to fall in earnest, fresh piles waiting to be kicked or walked through. People were outside enjoying themselves, reveling in the mild evening. Continue reading Camera Pointing at the Moon

Approaching William James

I may have been procrastinating when I biked to William James’s grave.

I’ve been a fan ever since I read Varieties of Religious Experiences as an undergraduate. Recently, I’d checked out James’ psychology textbook. Not the monumental, two-volume, 1200-page Principles of Psychology published in 1890 that established James as the Father of American Psychology, but the lesser, 400-page Psychology: The Briefer Course, an 1892 abridgement of Principles. James’s students referred to the big volumes as James and the shorter book as Jimmy.

I’d read the long introduction to Briefer Course and was about to start the main text when the idea to visit William James’s grave popped into my head. The weekend before I’d meant to bike but had read instead. Why is it always easier to do something other than what you’re supposed to be doing? Continue reading Approaching William James

Concert for One

Though it was the first day of fall, the lunchtime sun in the plaza pushed the temperature over 90. Luckily, the shipping container was air-conditioned.

I’d come for a Concert for One, not knowing what to expect. The concerts were the brainchild of Rayna Yun Chou, a violist who, along with many of her fellow classical musicians, felt isolated from the audiences for whom she played. To remedy the situation, she created one-on-one concerts at which one musician plays for one person for one minute. Chou staged the first concerts in her native Taiwan. Now she was collaborating with Celebrity Series of Boston.

The shipping container, painted an impossible-to-miss yellow, was next to a tandoori food truck and across from two pro-gun activists, who sat at a table with a sign that read “I’M PRO CHOICE. PICK YOUR GUN.” above drawings of a handgun, an automatic rifle, and a shotgun. Continue reading Concert for One

The Old Woman on the Steps

I didn’t know the old woman, and, because it was years ago, she’s likely dead by now.

I’d seen her a number of times, sitting alone on the steps in front of her house in our run-down section of Cambridge. She scowled constantly, as if she disapproved of everyone walking by on the sidewalk.

Portuguese and Italian immigrants once occupied most of the neighborhood. Statues of the Virgin Mary still blessed a few concrete yards. The houses, mostly one and two-families with vinyl siding, were close together, nearly touching. Continue reading The Old Woman on the Steps

Meditating with My Father’s Friends

For years I’d been meaning to attend the Friday meditation class at my father’s retirement community.

When my parents moved to Piper Shores in 2001, meditation was not on the schedule. They were in their mid-70s, and everyone assumed my father, a workaholic with heart problems, would be the first to go. When my mother died of ovarian cancer a few years later, the order of events seemed incorrect. My father was alone in a way he never expected to be. I visited every month, driving the hundred miles to Maine on Saturday mornings and leaving Sunday afternoons.

While there, I meditated in the guestroom. Sometimes I’d tell my father what I was doing, other times I just closed the door. After several years, a sign saying Quiet Room appeared on a door near the dining room. . . Continue reading on Killing the Buddha site.


Title photo courtesy of Anne Worner via Flickr. 

Meditating with Trees

I’d been meaning to get to the Arboretum to enjoy the trees. To watch the leaves fall and swirl and drift their way down to the ground. And here it was, November, and somehow, though I’d left my job in June, I wasn’t finding the hours of free time I’d imagined. There were still so many tasks to accomplish, appointments to keep, new jobs to consider.

On election night I stayed up late with friends and slept late the next day. I slept past the time I usually meditate, which threw off my morning. It was a warm sunny day—likely one of the last of the season. I meant to get outside by 11:00, then noon, but wasted hours doing chores.

At 1:30, I finally made it out the door. The 281-acre Arnold Arboretum may be the best place in Boston to get a nourishing dose of nature. The park is a 20-minute drive from my house when there’s no traffic, over an hour when there is. My intention was to spend a lazy afternoon in the park, but I had to rush to get there so I could rush to get home so I wouldn’t get stuck in rush hour traffic. By the time I reached the Arboretum, my shadow was long on the ground.

Continue reading Meditating with Trees