A Buddhist’s Christmas Present


“Give oranges,” said the voice.

I looked up from doing Christmas cards on our dining room table. No one else in the room. It was a grey, cold Sunday afternoon. Maria was lost in a frenzy of baking. She bakes the way Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Maybe even the way Gandhi walked the dusty streets of a village.

Christmas music filled the house and fueled her every motion. The football game played without sound as the Chicago Bears played with heart this year.

“Give oranges,” I heard it again.

“Honey, I got to get something upstairs, I shouted into the kitchen as she danced from the stove to the sink and sang, “OK.”

Climbing the stairs and walking into my closet where all the important stuff that wouldn’t fit anywhere else was tossed in a big white plastic bin, I pulled out the yellow envelope and slipped out the death certificate.

January 12. 2007. Yep. My Aunt Mavis, the Buddhist, was still dead.

Almost three years now. Still sometimes I check. Especially when I hear a voice saying things I don’t understand. Like, “Give oranges.”

It’s usually her.

Walking back downstairs and looking out the front window at the tiny bare tree on Grace Street where I could sometimes feel her presence, I remembered the Zen “Koan.” One of those stories that demands a second read before it even begins to make sense. She loved those kind of stories.

“One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?” Manjusri replied, “I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?””

I heard Mavis laugh and clap her hands with delight and then recognized her voice saying once more “Give oranges!”

Walking into the kitchen, I pulled a book off the shelf that I had bought just after she died. “The Seat of the Soul.” It was by the author of “The Dancing Wu Li Masters,” one of Mavis’s favorites. I bought the book thinking about how I’d never get to talk to her about it. Then put it on a shelf unopened.

Today I opened it. It had been long enough.

What if, the book said, there were more than the 5 senses we humans use to make sense of the world?

Imagine how good that orange would taste. Tossing up the orange and catching it, I can see and touch its skin. Shaking it up next to my ear I can hear a faint sloshing. A taste like a thousand summer nights. And the smell is heavenly. But that’s just 5 senses. What if there were more?

What if a “multi-sensory” (as author Gary Zukav calls it) person; could expand the channels through which they take in the world? What if my personal frame of reference somehow grew to the size of a blue and endless Montana sky?

Then I heard her say again, “Give oranges!” And I still didn’t understand.

I walked into the kitchen where Maria was unraveling dough like an ancient rabbi rolling out a Torah.

“Well, this year didn’t turn out like we planned,” I said. “Turns out the world didn’t change in a year.”

“Does the world ever change in a year?” she asked.

“Probably not, I answered. But I sure wish we could buy each other all sorts of cool Christmas presents. I wish we could take that trip up north.”

“I know. But we’re making it. We’ll get by. We have enough.

“I think what I want for Christmas is an orange, “I proclaimed.

She’s used to hearing things like that. It’s been almost 15 years now. So she just smiled and said, “OK!” Then she ramped back up into her baking speed and I went back to the dining room to finish up the Christmas cards.

I sat down, picked up the pen, and as I did, I heard Mavis say, “So you’re not really giving up writing are you?”

“No.”

“What will you write about? Especially all those times no one reads what you write.”

“Stewardship. Taking care of something I don’t own. Something infinitely bigger than me.”

“What does that mean?”

“Mavis, I said, (now it was my turn to roll my eyes) you’re the one who’s dead. Why are you asking me? Don’t you know?”

“I do. But we’re talking about you here. So, do you have a story to share right now?”

“Well yeah. I didn’t write it. It’s kind of long. 4 minutes.”

“4 minutes is long huh?”

“Well I. . . .”

“And maybe the point is not whether you wrote it. Maybe the point is whether or not it’s a good story. Hey! Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” I answered.

“What I just told you. The part about the good story being the point. That little pearl is your present. That’s YOUR present.”

“So, no IPADS you could pass along from heaven huh?”

“That’s right smart ass. Now one more question. Would a Buddhist like this story?”

I answered. “As much as a Buddhist would like emptiness?”

And that’s when I heard her laugh the loudest. I looked outside and it had begun to snow in Chicago. A gentle snow that stilled the troubled ground.

“Ok, I said, “I’ll share the story. It’s called “The Train. It’s by a group called “Celestial Navigation.” I don’t know how much you’ll like the middle part. But I am certain you will like the end. Maybe we could talk about it when we’re done? Maybe if you just told me where I could find you? Where you’ll be?

And Mavis answered, “Remember Steinbeck’s story? Remember what Tom Joad said to his mother when she asked him that question?”

“I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be ever’-where – wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise, and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

“That’s where I’ll be,” she said.

“So what do I do now?”

“You listen. Listen for stories like the one you’re about to share. Never you mind if they are YOUR stories. You pay attention to whether they are GOOD stories. Stories that prompt people to think”

“Ok. I can do that. But what’s next? That’s the scary part! What’s next? What do I do next?”

“Give oranges, Roger. Just keep giving oranges.”

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