When you’re afraid of what might happen, remember that all you have is now.

By Norman Fischer


No Beginning, No Ending, No Fear
Photograph by PlainPicture

The Buddha has many epithets. He’s called the Enlightened One, the One Who Thus Comes and Goes, the Conqueror, the Noblest of All Humans Who Walk on Two Legs. He is also called the Fearless One because he has seen through all the causes of fear. His awakening moment, coming suddenly after six years of intense meditation, shows him that there is actually nothing to fear. Fear—convincing as it may seem—is actually a conceptual mistake.

What is there to be afraid of anyway? Fear is always future-based. We fear what might happen later. The past is gone, so there’s no point in being afraid of it. If past traumas cause fear in us, it is only because we fear that the traumatic event will reoccur. That’s what trauma is—wounding caused by a past event that makes us chronically fearful about the future and so queasy in the present. But the future doesn’t exist now, in the present, the only moment in which we are ever alive. So though our fear may be visceral, it is based on a misconception, that the future is somehow now. It’s not. The present might be unpleasant and even dangerous, but it is never fearful. In the full intensity of the present moment there is never anything to fear—there is only something to deal with. It is a subtle point but it is absolutely true: the fear I experience now is not really present-moment based: I am afraid of what is going to happen. This is what the Buddha realized. If you could be in the radical present moment, not lost in the past, not anxious about the future, you could be fearless.

If you are suddenly threatened by an intense-looking guy pointing a gun at your head, you will likely be frozen with fear. But even then, it isn’t the appearance of the man and the gun that you are afraid of. It’s what is going to happen next. It is true, though, that in that moment you are not thinking about the future. Your experience is immediate, body-altering fear. Your reaction is biological; you can’t help it. As an animal, you have survival instinct, so when your life is threatened your reaction is automatic and strong. But you are a human animal with human consciousness—a problematic condition, but one with possibilities. It is possible that you could overcome your animal fear.

There are many recorded instances in the scriptures of the Buddha’s life being threatened. In all such cases the Buddha remains calm and subdues the threat. Though the stories may or may not be mythical, they certainly intend to tell us that we are capable of overcoming the survival instinct and remaining calm even in the face of grave danger. The truth is, in many dangerous situations the ability to stay calm will keep you safer than your gut reaction of fight or flight.

But what if your life weren’t actually being threatened? What if the only thing actually happening to you was insult, disrespect, frustration, or betrayal, but you reacted with the alarm and urgency of someone whose life was at stake? And continued, long after the event, to harbor feelings of anger and revenge? In that case, your reaction would be out of scale with the event, your animal instinct for survival quite misplaced. You would have taken a relatively small matter and made it into something much more unpleasant, and even more harmful, than it needed to be.

Impermanence is the basic Buddhist concept. Nothing lasts. Our life begins, it ends, and every moment that occurs between this beginning and ending is another beginning and ending. In other words, every moment we are disappearing a little. Life doesn’t end suddenly at death. It is ending all the time. Impermanence is constant.

Although we all understand this when we think about it, we seem not to be capable of really taking it in. Buddhism teaches that behind all our fears is our inability to actually appreciate, on a visceral level, this truth of impermanence. Unable to accept that we are fading away all the time, we are fearful about the future, as if somehow if everything went exactly right we could be preserved for all time. To put this another way, all our fears are actually displacements of the one great fear, the fear of death.

These days we have fears that seem to go beyond our personal fear of death. Climate change is a catastrophe. In the fall of 2018 we had terrible forest fires in California. Even as far away from the fires as the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, you could smell the smoke. You couldn’t go outside, the air was so bad. But even worse than the experience was the thought that this is the future, this is how it is going to be from now on. There are going to be more and more fires, hurricanes, typhoons; the ice caps are melting, sea levels and summer temperatures are rising, the planet is slowly becoming uninhabitable. This may or may not be true, but there are good reasons to fear that it is true. So we feel afraid not for our own death but also for our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren. What will happen to them in the future?

I have a friend who is a great outdoorsman and environmental activist. Some years ago, when the US government was just beginning to become active in denying climate change, my friend got really upset. He was upset about climate change realities but even more upset that people weren’t paying attention to them, were denying or ignoring climate change, because the government was casting doubt. Here we were in a desperate situation, something needed to be done right away, and people were going on with their ordinary business as though everything were fine.

My friend was in despair over this, and he would tell me about it. As the years went on his despair and upset grew and grew.

One day when he was telling me about it, I thought, It isn’t climate change he’s upset about. I said this to him, and he got really mad at me. I didn’t really know what he was upset about. But it seemed to me that although he believed it was climate change he was upset about, actually it was something else. He stayed for a while and eventually he said, You were right. So, what is it you are upset about? I asked him. He said, Yes, I am upset about climate change, but I didn’t realize until you brought it up that there is something else I am upset about: I am getting old, I can’t climb mountains like I used to. Who knows how long I will be able to ride my bike for hundreds of miles or do all the things I love to do. I am upset about the climate, but what makes me feel this anguish is that I am scared of my aging and dying. The planet really is under threat. And so am I.

So it may be true that the power of our fear always comes from our fear of endings—our own ending being the closest and most immediate of all endings. When we think of the world of the future, we can feel sorrow, grief, and disappointment that we human beings cannot reverse course and do better, that we seem to be unable to solve a problem we ourselves have caused.

But fear is different, fear is desolation, desperation, anguish, despair, and sometimes anger. Grief, sorrow, disappointment are quiet feelings we can live with. They can be peaceful and poignant, they can be motivating. When we feel these feelings, we can be more compassionate, kinder to one another, we can be patiently active in promoting solutions.

When we understand the real basis of our fear, we can see through it. Will our lives end, will the world end? Yes. But this was always going to be the case. All difficult moments occur in the present, and the present moment, no matter what it brings, is always completely different from our projections about the future. Even if what we fear about the future actually comes to pass, the present moment in which it occurs won’t be anything like the moment we projected in the past. Fear is always fantastic, always fake. What we fear never happens in the way we fear it.

Photograph © Brigitte Lustenberger, courtesy Christophe Guye Galerie

There’s a traditional Buddhist practice to contemplate beginnings and endings, called the five reflections. The reflections gently guide the practitioner in meditating on the fact that old age, sickness, and death are built-in features of the human body and mind, that no one can avoid them. Life begins, therefore it has to end. And being subject to beginning and ending, life is inherently vulnerable.

The point of this meditation isn’t to frighten; quite the opposite: the way to overcome fear is to face it and become familiar with it. Since fear is always fear about the future, to face the present fear, and see that it is misplaced, is to reduce it. When I give myself over, for a period of time, or perhaps on a regular basis, to the contemplation of the realities of my aging and dying, I become used to them. I begin to see them differently. Little by little I come to see that I am living and dying all the time, changing all the time, and that this is what makes life possible and precious. In fact, a life without impermanence is not only impossible, it is entirely undesirable. Everything we prize in living comes from the fact of impermanence. Beauty. Love. My fear of the ending of my life is a future projection that doesn’t take into account what my life actually is and has always been. The integration of impermanence into my sense of identity little by little makes me less fearful.

The reflection on beginnings and endings is taken still further in Buddhist teachings. The closer you contemplate beginnings and endings, the more you begin to see that they are impossible. They can’t exist. There are no beginnings and endings. The Heart Sutra, chanted every day in Zen temples around the world, says that there is no birth and so there is no death either.

What does this mean? We are actually not born. We know this from science, there is nothing that is created out of nothing—everything comes from something, is a continuation and a transformation of something that already exists. When a woman gives birth, she does not really give birth, she simply opens her body to a continuation of herself and the father of the child, to their parents and their parents before them, to the whole human and nonhuman family of life and nonlife that has contributed to the coming together of preexisting elements that we will see as a newborn child. So there really is no birth. This is not a metaphorical truth.

If no beginning, then no ending. There is no death. In what we call death the body does not disappear. It continues its journey forth. Not a single element is lost. The body simply transforms into air and water and earth and sky. Our mind travels on too, its passions, fears, loves, and energies continue on throughout this universe. Because we have lived, the world is otherwise than it would have been, and the energy of our life’s activity travels onward, circulates, joins and rejoins others to make the world of the future. There is no death, there is only continuation. There is nothing to be afraid of.

Excerpted from When You Greet Me I Bow: Notes and Reflections from a Life in Zen by Norman Fischer © 2021. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications.


One of my favorite writers and poets … rŌbert


“A poem is never done,” the writer Sandra Cisneros told me in July, over dinner at La Posadita, a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, the Mexican city where she’s lived for almost ten years. Wearing a black-and-white huipil and her hair in two small, high buns, Cisneros ordered platters of fideo seco and nopales for the table. We had met to talk about her new poetry collection, “Woman Without Shame,” just out from Knopf. Though it’s been twenty-eight years since she’s published a book of poems, she’s never stopped writing them. “I’d throw my poems under the bed, like Emily Dickinson,” she said.

The sixty-seven-year-old Cisneros is the author of short stories, personal essays, novels, and three previous poetry collections. But she is best known for “The House on Mango Street,” a semi-autobiographical novel in vignettes that conjures a hardscrabble childhood in nineteen-sixties Chicago. First published by Houston’s Arte Público Press in 1984, and reissued by Vintage in 1991, it has become a coming-of-age classic, one that’s read in classrooms across the country and has sold more than six million copies. As Ricardo Ortiz, an English professor at Georgetown, told me, it helped make Cisneros an “indispensable voice.”

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The only daughter of a Mexican upholsterer father and a Mexican American mother, Cisneros grew up with six brothers in Chicago’s West Side, a neighborhood so divided by racial and income inequality that, in 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr., moved into one of its slum tenements in protest. Throughout Cisneros’s childhood in the sixties and seventies, she and her family regularly went back to Mexico. Cisneros expressed her sense of dislocation by writing poems in her bedroom, whose door didn’t close, leading to continual interruptions.

Cisneros attended Loyola University Chicago, and, in 1976, she entered Iowa’s poetry program, where she studied under Donald Justiceand Louise Glück, learning alongside Joy Harjo and at the same time as Rita Dove, both future Poet Laureates. Iowa’s poetry and fiction programs were separate duchies, but Cisneros merged the disciplines by writing prose poems. “It was a new form, but Donald Justice thought it was a waste of time,” the writer and historian Paul Alexander, a former classmate, said. Back then, teachers admired confessional poets such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. “We had no voice,” Harjo said, describing her and Cisneros’s feelings of being outsiders at Iowa. “Culturally, it was sideways. . . . We come from places that are land-centered, Indigenous. Our relationship to land and language is essentially different.” Cisneros has said that she felt “homeless” at Iowa, and, although she went on to teach, she never found a permanent place in the academy.

While Cisneros was at Iowa, she started writing what would become forty-five lyrical vignettes—a book she titled “The House on Mango Street.” Influenced by the experimental Latin American Boom novels, she wrote the book in the voice of Esperanza Cordero, who observes the poverty surrounding her Chicago family. “Dead cars appeared overnight like mushrooms,” one passage reads, describing a vacant lot where she and her friends play. Reading “The House on Mango Street” has become a rite of passage for many Latinxers. David Bowles, a Texas-based Chicano novelist, encountered it as a child and felt recognized. “My mother and my brothers and I had lived several years in Section 8 housing,” he said. “It made me feel seen.” The Latina writer and artist Carribean Fragoza studied it in fourth grade, during a summer writing camp, a moment when she remembers being “surrounded by white kids for the first time.” The book helped Cisneros win, among other prizes, the Lannan Literary Award, the American Book Award, and a MacArthur “genius” grant. The same year she won the MacArthur, Cisneros started teaching a class in San Antonio that developed into the Macondo Writers Workshop. Now in its third decade, Macondo offers workshops to a diverse student body on subjects ranging from young-adult literature to translingual poetics.

Cisneros’s home in San Miguel’s San Juan de Dios parish is named Casa Coatlicue, after the Indigenous goddess, and Latina archetypes such as Coatlicue and La Llorona echo throughout her work. Cisneros, along with writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Ana Castillo, and Cherríe Moraga, was an integral part of a late-twentieth-century Latinx movement that celebrated the subversiveness of Indigenous folktales. She was one of the first Latina authors to write books to mainstream publishing success that feature abused women, and today her influence can be seen in writers such as Natalie Diaz and Reyna Grande, whose complex poetry and memoirs limn violence in Native American and Latinx communities. “Discovering Sandra’s book [“The House on Mango Street”] was a revelation,” Grande said, in an e-mail. “She gave me permission, and her bendición, to embark on my own writing journey.”

Cisneros’s success, and her support of programs such as Macondo, have given her a totemic reputation. “It’s like Sandra’s existing in this heaven, this other space,” Fragoza told me. In conversation with Latinx writers, I heard numerous tales of Cisneros’s magnetism and outsized generosity. The Chicana novelist Helena María Viramontes said that when her husband was ill, Cisneros invited the couple to her house. Speaking with emotion in her voice, Viramontes recalled, “She read to us as a present. It almost chokes me up.”

Cisneros’s magnanimous gestures occasionally backfire, as when she blurbed Jeanine Cummins’s 2020 book, “American Dirt,” a thriller about an Acapulco woman whose family is murdered by a cartel kingpin. “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas,” Cisneros wrote. After it came out, the book was widely criticized for its racial stereotypes. Backers such as the actors Gina Rodriguez and Salma Hayek and the poet Erika L. Sánchez walked back their praise of the novel. But Cisneros refused to retract her endorsement, inciting viral criticism, especially in the Latinx community. Fragoza said Cisneros’s blurb is a “betrayal” that “revealed some serious disconnections between Sandra and writers today, with Sandra existing as the untouchable queen of Chicana Latinx literature, and the rest of us are just bottom feeders, trying to get into publishing.”

I asked Cisneros about such responses, and she said that the reaction to “American Dirt” “was as bad as the extreme right that bans L.G.B.T.Q. books.” Perhaps candor and contention are to be expected from a writer who regularly takes up taboo subjects ranging from poverty and violence to female sexuality.

Cisneros’s fearlessness runs through “Woman Without Shame,” whose poems capture her solitude, erotic longings, and life in Mexico with rich language and sharp humor. I spoke to her in a series of interviews in San Miguel de Allende, and in subsequent phone and text conversations. The following has been condensed and edited.


Dieciocho at Casa de Lane (Tim) Rio Blanco Chile

Fiestas Patrias in Chile or “Dieciocho” / 18 Sept

Fiestas Patrias in Chile or Chilean Independence Day is held each year on 18 September to celebrate their independance from the Spanish Conquistadores.

Tim & son Vicente

Tim & Don Frank

Part of the crowd with Colin Mitchell

What Hemingway left in Cuba


By Robert K. Elder

  • Sept. 21, 2022

In an untitled, three-page short story, Ernest Hemingway casts F. Scott Fitzgerald as a scrappy boxer who leaves the ring battered and disfigured but ultimately victorious.

He sketches out a novel he’ll never write, “A New Slain Knight,” calling it a “picaresque novel for America” that will follow his protagonist through a prison escape, a bank robbery and noirish double-crosses.

Wearing his American Red Cross uniform and smiling at the camera, an 18-year-old Hemingway huddles in a trench with Italian soldiers during World War I, just days before he was wounded by a mortar shell and machine-gun fire, an experience that inspired him to write “A Farewell to Arms.”

And in a notebook entry from 1926, there is a three-page meditation on death and suicide — 35 years before he took his own life.




By M.H. Miller

Photographs by Thibault Montamat

  • Sept. 15, 2022

THERE’S A COMIC by Robert Crumb from 1979 called “A Short History of America.” It’s 12 panels, all portraying a single spot of land. In the first, we see a bucolic field abutting a forest, birds flying overhead. In the second, there are fewer trees and a train rolling down a track, ejecting plumes of black smoke. Soon, there’s a log cabin, then telephone poles, then asphalt and cars. Then the trees disappear entirely and the house becomes a general store, the general store becomes a gas station, the gas station becomes a used-car lot and the sky, once so big, is almost completely obscured by crisscrossing electric wires. A small box in the final panel, containing the only text apart from the title, asks, “What next?!!”

This is the work of Crumb’s I keep thinking about on the summer afternoon I arrive in a medieval village in the Cévennes region of southern France. Crumb moved here in 1991 with his wife, the comics artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and their daughter, Sophie, who was 10 at the time. They found a place that feels like it’s almost protected from the march of progress. Cars aren’t allowed in town; to get to the Crumbs’ house, I have to walk across a weathered bridge that traverses a murky canal. Affixed to the front door are what appear to be Catholic prayer cards though, on closer inspection, they depict Elvis Presley in a state of religious ecstasy. Inside, we go upstairs to a dimly lit office, with shelves of 78 r.p.m. records, mostly from the 1920s and ’30s (Crumb owns 8,000 of them; he’s been collecting “old music of all kinds from all over the world” since he was 16), a bulky metal drawing board, various instruments (he’s an accomplished musician), stacks of faded newspapers and books with titles like “Because Our Fathers Lied,” “UFOs and Nukes” and “Grey Aliens and the Harvesting of Souls.” (“I’m very interested in fringe things like that,” Crumb says.) I ask the couple, who have been together since 1971 and married in 1978, how they ended up here.

“Ask her,” Crumb tells me, gesturing to his wife. “It was all her doing. She comes from a long line of salespeople, and she just sold me on the idea of moving to France.”

In the ’80s, the couple lived in California’s Central Valley, in a small town called Winters nestled between Sacramento and San Francisco. “The fabulous ’80s,” Crumb says grimly. “Not a good decade in the United States.” (“It was like now,” says Kominsky-Crumb, “but not quite as bad.”) AIDS was killing their friends. A rising conservative Christian movement was accusing Crumb of being immoral. President Ronald Reagan had cut education funding, just as he’d done as governor, so there were no longer art or music classes at Sophie’s school. The Crumbs volunteered, teaching drawing, though at a certain point fewer students began showing up. A local preacher had been telling families that the Crumbs were “agents of the devil.”

“The Crumb Family Covid Exposé” (2021), made with Aline Kominsky-Crumb, documenting Crumb’s paranoia during the pandemic.
“The Crumb Family Covid Exposé” (2021), made with Aline Kominsky-Crumb, documenting Crumb’s paranoia during the pandemic.Credit…© Robert Crumb, 2021, courtesy of the artists, Paul Morris and David Zwirner

“So we had to get out,” Kominsky-Crumb says. “And I guess I had some romantic idea about living in the south of France.”

“Some of that romance turned out to be true,” Crumb says. Then he adds, “Maybe you shouldn’t even mention the name of the town. I don’t want people showing up here.”

Crumb used to attend comic conventions and book signings, but now he makes very few public appearances. He never really picked up French (he relies on Kominsky-Crumb for that), and his social circle is small. Crumb’s followed in the long line of artists and writers who have exiled themselves from America, but his life abroad feels far more circumscribed than most. He doesn’t even have a cellphone. (At one point, he looks at his wife’s and says earnestly, “It’s listening to us right now.”) He uses email but “I worry about it,” he says. “Any email you write goes into the N.S.A. computer banks.” He’s only voted once in his life, for Barack Obama in 2008. Yet even living thousands of miles from America, disconnected from its culture by so many moats of his own making, he is, like many of his expatriate predecessors, a dedicated and unflinching observer of home. It was his ability to capture the id of America — in all its decadence, hypocrisy and lecherousness — that established him as an artist; that ability is unmatched nearly six decades later. He’s been called an “equal opportunity offender”: For his entire career, he’s angered the left, the right and everyone in between. It’s why his work remains, more than that of perhaps any other artist today, a litmus test for how much we’re willing to put up with for the sake of art.




The Himalayas in eastern Nepal.
Peak season … the Himalayas in eastern Nepal. Photograph: Feng Wei Photography/Getty Images

An anthropologist establishes a unique rapport with the people she encounters on this unromantic trek through the mountains

A magnet for explorers, climbers and seekers of enlightenment, the Himalayas have drawn swathes of travellers over the years. The resulting outpouring of stories can leave one wondering quite what more there is to say.

But at the outset of this extended travel narrative, Norwegian anthropologist Erika Fatland, whose previous books include Sovietistan, distinguishes herself from the stereotypes. She is not a “spiritual tourist” on a mystical journey, she explains, nor is she a climber, or a star travel writer looking to stamp her identity over people and places. The “holy grail” Fatland pursues in the opening pages is a visa, and this quest sets the tone for what is a modern and unromantic approach to her subject.

A series of thoughtful chapters lead us on a trail through Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Nepal, China and Tibet. Writing with aplomb and sensitivity, Fatland observes the sights and sounds of cities, towns and villages; she visits temples and forests and explores the high plateau. Places are carefully contextualised with geopolitical and historical detail and she weaves in geology too, grounding the work in the land itself.

The book comes to life primarily through conversations with the many people Fatland encounters. We hear exchanges with strangers on buses, discussions with rangers, bureaucrats, spiritual leaders and even a king. Each one helps her assemble a vivid portrait of the many kinds of society that exist across the Himalayas’ huge range.

Paro Taktsang (Tigers Nest) monastery in Bhutan.
Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) monastery in Bhutan. Photograph: Suzanne Stroeer/Getty Images/Aurora Open

While Fatland is not a climber, she visits Everest, hiking up to base camp. On the whole, she rarely passes judgment on those she meets but the Everest contingent represents an exception – as one proudly explains, “many of us are Type-A personalities”, and indeed she finds them impatient, ambitious and extremely competitive. Fatland endures their company as well as a bout of altitude sickness.

Elsewhere she meets women who have lived under the Taliban, former child goddesses and survivors of trafficking and sexual violence. She travels to a remote region of Nepal where women on their periods are considered unclean and sent out of the house to sleep in huts. This practice has led to deaths from snakebites, carbon monoxide poisoning and exposure.

In the part of India known as Little Tibet, four giggling nuns avoid her questions until the monk accompanying them disappears; once he has left, they switch to English and fire a host of questions at Fatland. They discuss work, family, education, relationships and childcare. Through these moments of intimacy and occasional exasperation, we gain a detailed understanding of women’s lives across the region. It is this perspective that makes this book stand out: Fatland, as traveller and anthropologist, establishes a unique rapport with girls and women leading to precious insights into lives rarely recorded.