I get annoyed when someone says, “I’m on a spiritual path,” even though I, too, am on a spiritual path.
If someone says, “I have a spiritual practice,” I’m interested. I want to know what that person’s practice consists of and how consistently it’s practiced. When did they begin to practice and how has the practice changed over time?
I’m not against paths. As a walker and hiker, I appreciate well-marked trails. I’m grateful for those who created, cleared, and maintain the pathways along which I tread. Though I love the thought of bushwhacking, my nonexistent sense of direction (and several adventures involving being lost in the woods after dark) has convinced me of the usefulness of paths, as well as maps. Continue reading Why I Dislike the Term “Path”
I walk to the law school library to see if the Ruth Bader Ginsburg memorial is still there. It isn’t. Only a few bouquets of fresh flowers where all the photos, notes, drawings, flowers and candles had been.
I sit at a picnic table and wait for something to happen—a scene of some sort. Big drops of rain begin to fall. Not many, but enough to make the ink run on the page. Not enough to make me run for cover. Not yet. Continue reading RBG and the Bugs
You can’t tell, but I first wrote these words with a fountain pen, a Lamy Safari with a charcoal-colored plastic body and a fine steel nib.
I bought the pen online in late April, during COVID lockdown, when friends were sewing masks and baking sourdough bread. Writing with a fountain pen seemed like an equally old-school endeavor, something that required supplies and a bit of know-how.
As a writer, the right pen is important to me, like shoes to a runner or a knife to a chef. I’d already found the perfect disposable ballpoint pen: a Pilot G-2 with an 07 point. The G-2 has a rubber grip, a retractable point, and gel ink that flows smoothly and rarely blobs up.
I probably would have continued writing with the G-2 for years, if several things hadn’t happened.
I grew disenchanted with how quickly I used up the ink in a G-2 and had to throw it out. When I worked in an office, I didn’t notice how often I tossed one. I had a drawer full of G-2s, and when my supply ran low, I emailed Lars in accounting to order a new box. A few days later, a fresh supply arrived. I had only a vague sense of how much they cost.
In my first months as freelancer, I used up all the G-2s that had made their way home from the office. At the same time, I became increasingly aware of the environmental impact of plastic: the statistics of how much we produce and how little we recycle. I’d seen photos of the floating islands of plastic in the ocean, of dead birds with tangles of plastics in their stomachs, of sea turtles choking on plastic bags.
I wanted to reduce my contribution to the trash heap. Rather than throwing out each G-2, I looked into replacing the ink chamber, but the chambers were hard to find, and when available, each chamber alone cost more than a whole new pen. Lunacy.
I bought a 20-pack of G-2s and swore it would be my last.
In December, my friend Volker visited from Germany and presented me with a fountain pen. It was a compact Kaweco Sport that came with a couple of ink cartridges. I’d never wanted a fountain pen. They always seemed a bit pretentious or Ye Olde. Yet Volker always brought good house-guest gifts, so I gave it a try.
The Sport was less fussy and fragile than I’d expected. The ink cartridge was easy to pop in. I didn’t get stains all over my fingers, and the pen didn’t leak—both things I’d assumed would happen.
The blue ink on a blank page looked beautiful. Seeing the ink made me realize my father had written with a fountain pen his whole life. The watery blue reminded me of the letters he wrote on his yellow legal pads.
He always used the same pen: shiny metal at the top, dark green at the bottom, with a certain heft. He kept his pen on top of his desk or in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He must have kept a bottle of ink in his desk drawer, though I don’t remember ever seeing him unscrew the top to fill his pen. I never asked to write with it.
I texted my brothers to see if either of them has it—if they picked it up off his desk when we cleaned out his apartment two years ago. “I don’t think so,” they both texted back.
“Could you please look?” I asked.
Several weeks later, neither of them has found it. No one knows what happened to the pen. It saddens me to think that such an intimate object, one my father used daily for decades, is lost.
I used the Sport for first drafts and journal entries. It moved smoothly across the page, but the medium nib made a thick line, with letters too close together for my liking. It was hard to reread what I’d written.
The nib couldn’t be changed and I went through the plastic ink cartridges in a couple of weeks, so I forsook the Sport when the ink ran dry and went back to my G-2s.
Rather than write one morning, I opened my laptop and spent hours looking for the perfect fountain pen: one that was affordable, refillable, and allowed writing to be the sensuous act that it should be. I was willing to pay for a good pen, but not so much that if I lost it, as I’m prone to do, I couldn’t easily replace it. Just before lunch, I ordered a Lamy Safari, some refillable cartridges, and a bottle of blue ink. The pen cost just under $30.
When the Safari arrived, I liked its clean design and light weight, but the grooved grip took some getting used to. As did filling the ink cartridges. I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I looked on YouTube and found how-to videos from The Goulet Pen Company, dozens of videos about all things fountain pen. I watched most of them.
The Safari grew on me the more I used it. Its nib gave me the line I was looking for. When I bought it, I thought maybe I’d write with it for a while, then move on to a more expensive pen, but its simplicity was exactly what I wanted.
I do get ink on my fingers when I refill the cartridge, but a little less each week. There’s a little less plastic in my trash, though I use the remainings G-2s for the grocery list in the kitchen or doing crosswords at the beach.
On days when work feels difficult, I sit down with a fresh cup of coffee and uncap the waiting pen. Its soft scratching sound provides a certain pleasure as the blue begins to flow.
I am trying to learn from the cat. We’re outside, on the second-floor porch. It’s a late summer morning. I’m reading, book in one hand, cup of coffee in the other. I look up and see Lula watching the birds in the neighbors’ yard below.
“Is there anything else you want?” my father asked?
There wasn’t, but I knew no was not an acceptable answer.
“Take anything,” he insisted.
This was 1999. We were in the garage attic of my parent’s house, looking at the trunk that held my grandmother’s belongings—my father’s mother, Alda. I never knew her. She’d had rheumatic fever as a child, which left her with a weak heart. Alda died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1936 when my father was 10. He couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t sick.
I’d already taken the pink Depression glasses: a few small juice glasses and several larger water glasses. They were wrapped in newspaper in a pile next to the trunk.
I picked up the girl doll with the porcelain head and cloth body. She was big, about two feet long, with dark hair that felt human and eye lids that opened and closed. She wore a green velvet hat. If the hat were life-sized, I would have worn it myself. Continue reading Alda’s Mirror
When we got to the top of the mountain, I didn’t take my phone out of my knapsack. But my hiking companion did. To document our being there, at the modest summit, on a late August afternoon.
She asked me to sit on a rock ledge; I complied; she took my photo. I complied again when she turned the phone’s camera inwards and photographed us with our heads together. I politely offered to take her picture, then centered my friend in her phone’s video display with the surrounding valley as background. I tried to keep the four radio towers out of the frame.
The library reopened gradually. First, the lime green tape that blocked the mouth of the book drop was removed. A few weeks later, an email announced that library books requested online would be available for pickup. Patrons were required to make a reservation, then show up, masked, at a table outside the library, where a masked librarian would hand over the goods in a brown paper bag. Getting a book had never felt so dangerous. Continue reading You Just Saved $16
The first record I ever became obsessed with was the Beatles’ Let It Be. Music wasn’t a part of the house I grew up in—not that my parents were against it, they just weren’t interested. When my older brother got a record player, I’d sneak up to his attic room when he was out and listen to his collection of 45s. Let It Be was the one I played over and over and over.
At the time, the message escaped me. Like most kids, if I had a scab, I’d pick it. If there was a puddle, I’d jump into it. The song made me sad, though I wasn’t sure why. Or why, if it was sad, I continued to play it.
As an adult, I fear inaction—a particularly American anxiety. If I’m wondering whether or not to do something, my default position is that it’s always better to do than not to. I regret the things I haven’t done, rather than what I did, no matter how bad the outcome. Continue reading Listening to Let It Be
I felt distinctly guilty—almost accused—when Joseph Goldstein said, “If Buddhism is more than just a hobby to you . . .” I don’t remember how he finished the sentence. I was one of a hundred or so students in the meditation hall. I’d never met the man, yet I felt like he was directly addressing me. Is Buddhism just my hobby? I wondered.
My fear, of course, was that I was an amateur Buddhist, a dilettante, a poseur in a lotus t-shirt. Clearly, I was not a professional. I’ve never listed Buddhism as my religion on a questionnaire. And though I’m all for enlightenment, it seems unlikely I’ll realize it in this lifetime. It’s not even on my to-do list.
In a good week, I meditate seven out of seven mornings. In a bad week, I may not sit at all. How often I sit is the sort of thing I sometimes discuss with others meditators, though it seems a lot like asking married friends how often they have sex. Everyone, I’m sure, imagines everyone else is doing it more than they actually are.
When I got home from the retreat, I looked up hobby in the dictionary. “An activity or interest pursued outside of one’s regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure,” was the definition.
Hmmm. If you substitute sanity or well-being for pleasure, maybe I am a Buddhist hobbyist. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.
When I first read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind years ago, Shunryu Suzuki’s simple text inspired me to try to meditate for the first time. I somehow trusted the author’s words and his shaved head and kind face in the photograph on the back book.
Twenty years later, I’m still trying. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve made any progress or if it’s all been an enormous waste of time. No. Yes. No.