A cool and beautiful morning on the back porch of the Temple. The maple leaves on high shimmer golden green, illuminated from underneath by the sun’s first light.
My exotic escargot begonia sits happily in its new pot on the flimsy plastic table Melissa picked up at a junk store many years ago. The molded plastic is fashioned in the baroque style with slimly curving legs and an articulated edge that turns the square top into something much more complicated. Some people, at some point, gave great energy to designing and mass-producing this piece. I hope they enjoyed their work, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
By now, I suspect that most of these tables have been abandoned for newer and shiner cheap patio tables. They are now buried snuggly in the dark of giant landfills, waiting patiently for some future archeologist to dig up and ponder the life and aesthetics of their owners. Or they have long since been burned to ash and polluting particles in giant incinerators.
But this one small table, a lasting tribute to my wife’s great skill as a post-consumer society second-hand hunter-gatherer, still functions quite admirably. My teacup and the potted plant are holding steady above slender and pretentiously curving legs of dusty gold. The challenge of this tiny table is only evident when you want to move it from one place to another: one of the legs has a strong tendency to fall off.
All the legs were designed to be removable, but the wing-nuts that used to tighten them are now rusted beyond turning. Three legs are stuck forever in place and the fourth has become self-releasing with only the gravity of the small top holding it in place. When the table is picked up or moved, this one leg stays behind—as if it had had enough of going along with things. The slender thing balances for a moment like a ballet dancer on-point—then clatters to the ground in a rather overly dramatic way. I am always surprised and slightly irritated with this consistent performance.
Now that I think about it, this one leg of the table has evolved the capacity to walk by itself. The locomotion is limited and clumsy—it can only walk by falling down—and only one step at that. But this one step does create some freedom – freedom from function and responsibility – freedom to explore a brief horizontal life before rejoining its fellow vertical supports.
The table is on my mind this morning because last fall, some helpful person took the table off the porch stored it in the garage with the other lawn furniture. I suppose in the haste of the approaching winter, they didn’t notice the clatter of the missing leg as it performed its detached and histrionic falling. And I didn’t notice the now three-legged table until months later. I was busy with some other task so I quickly looked around the garage in a half-hearted way, but found nothing.
The wayward appendage became one of those things that floated in my mind on occasional forays out into the garage, but my desultory poking around the detritus never revealed the lost leg. It was never a valuable table, but has been a humble companion for several decades now so I was reluctantly about to move the battered table into the trash pile when the missing leg appeared—in an unexpected place. It was lying outside on the lawn below the porch.
The slender plastic leg with the rusted wing-nut must have been lying there all winter. Under the huge piles of snow. In the dark and cold. Dead to the world.
I like to think it was uncomplaining—perhaps even enjoying its cold sabbatical from the years of silent work. Perhaps it passed through the great darkness by dreaming of the adventure stories it would tell the three other legs when it got back.
For my part, I was happy to find it, but then had to remember where the rest of the table was. I found the three-legged table in a corner of the garage, hiding among the saw horses, bicycles and boxes of that cavernous space.
A large garage is a dangerous thing—a magnet for the many things of a householder’s life. If I was a good Zen student, I would organize that entire space and make sure all the tables stored there-in there had four legs. Fortunately, I don’t have that particular problem, so I’ll keep moving things around – cleaning up now and then – tidying when things get out of hand and appreciating the finding and losing that is a part of my life.
Meanwhile, I’m happy to have a convenient resting spot for my tea and will try to remember to put it away myself when the summer season is over.
Sometimes I think we humans must be in the same situation as the plants, living out our appointed lives with no awareness of the gardener who must tend our needs. During the dry times, He fills His watering can and walks to where we are planted to shower us with life-giving sustenance. And all we know is that sometimes the cool and refreshing water comes. Air, water, food, parents—all the necessities of life appear as if of their own accord and mostly we receive without awareness.
But then sometimes I begin to suspect that the multitude of plants in the Temple garden may sense my presence. They may even reach out to me as I walk by—not out of supplication, but from their generosity. They must certainly appreciate the awkwardness of my position—the one who has no roots must constantly find his way and his place—the one who knows so little about the nature of things he is always guessing.
Yes, now that I think about it, I’m sure it all comes from kindness and compassion.
The garden helps me find my way back into the fullness of life, providing incessant evidence of something more powerful and magical than the bundle of thoughts and sensations I call me. Like the slow student who needs to be taught the same lesson over and over, I seem to need constant lessons to learn the limits and joys of my place in things.
Though I have no idea how things grow—how the sprout sprouts and how the blossom blossoms—I find I possess the surprising power to help create the conditions in which these most miraculous processes can flourish. In the garden, I get to join in with this wondrous green parade of life. The tender shoots and leaves are as wondrous as the fingers of a baby’s hand and as determined as the raindrops that fall unambiguously from the clouds above. My job out behind the Temple is to watch and dream and be a part of what is already going on.
The spring garden is filled with ten thousand demonstrations of growth and dependability. Of course, within the rising fecundity of it all there is the certainty of the dying back as well. The garden’s dependability must necessarily partake of the momentary quality of all things. While we may sometimes wish it were otherwise, this ephemeral nature of the garden is reassuring. We can depend on the crab apple to blossom briefly. As surely as they come, the delicate white petals will fall away to the gestation of summer, the cherry-like fruit of fall and the bare branches of winter.
As a gardener and as a human, these cycles are the rhythm of the deepest song I know—a melody of incomparable joy and sadness. The breath is always coming in and going out. Air that moves only one direction is of no use. The hand is always opening and closing. As Rumi reminds us, stuck in one position and it is useless. And the people and places I love too—all appearing and disappearing.
I vow once more this spring morning to welcome it all.
(Though I do love spring the best.)
May is speeding by. The once nascent leaves are nearly full on the trees and the crab apples now bask the glory of their few days of unrestrained bloom. Sun slants low this Sunday morning and birds chatter effusively though our bird feeder swings empty in the morning breeze.
The fullness of life is apparent everywhere.
I always want this moment of blooming spring to stay put—to freeze frame like a home movie that sticks in the projector to the delight and consternation of all. Two small girls in Sunday dresses pose and stick out their tongues at the camera as the heat of the projector bulb burns through the image until harsh white light fills the screen.
There is no stopping this movie. The unfolding will happen. What is hidden will be unveiled and what is now will be covered over. Yet the traces, the essence of what was and what is yet to be shimmer in this moment of substance.
It is all here.
It is all here.
The sign by the local church says “Jesus Wants Us Here” I am glad they know what he wants and I appreciate the wisdom of his advice though I suppose the creators were hoping for a bump up in church attendance rather than a general exhortation to be present in our lives.
I remember a trick I learned on one of my first Zen retreats. At that time, I was unused to sitting still for 30 minutes at a stretch, and some of the periods of meditation seemed to go on indefinitely. I found that no matter how hard I wished for the bell to ring to end the period, it would not come on my time.
I did learn, however, that if I could enter the moment—move into the particular quality of breath and sensation that was present, that I didn’t have to struggle anymore and could find some ease. Time—the shortness or longness of imagined experience—was no longer an issue for me. Thinking back, I see it as a kind of curious fatalism. ‘Maybe the bell will never ring. Maybe I will be sitting here, with this mind and this body forever.’ Not thinking ahead and not wishing it to be different, I found could be ‘here’ without the pressure of time.
I suspect this strategy may help with my desire this morning for things to never change. I can wish time would slow down and not carry me and everything away so quickly, or I can wish that things would hurry up and be over. Both desires are troublesome. But Jesus’ advice from the sign has the possibility of leading us beyond the world of before and after, beyond the thin slice of time that we sometimes balance in. Maybe rather than beyond time, we are just fully entering the fullness of the time of our life.
This spring morning is the whole universe. Has no beginning or end. Does not lead to mid-day or mid-summer, but exists here in its entirety. Everything else abides here too in this place Jesus and all the holy teachers point to. Our full life shimmering implicit and unmoving in the midst of coming and going. I intend to rest in this morning undiminished by time or other such irrelevant ideas.
The eager green leaves wave gently in the morning breeze. Cars park in front of the Temple to obey Jesus’ injunction literally and show up for morning mass. I myself am holding out for the metaphorical exegesis this Sunday morning.
A bright clear morning here on the porch. The bleeding hearts in the Temple garden have come into full blossom this past week. Their quick foliage sprouts up inches each day and their spectacular arches of red hearts are thrown out as casually as an arm reaching thoughtlessly for a cup of tea. But this business of growing and flowering is all life and death to them. The flowers and trajectory precisely designed over millennia to fulfill the function of perpetuation—to attract the insects (also precisely designed) to carry the pollen from the stamen to the pistol. The imperative sperm must find his way to the urgent egg for the next generation to continue onward. (With us humans too this primal necessity gives rise to the great wonder, delight and trouble of beauty, seduction and commitment.)
These bleeding hearts perform flawlessly in this most urgent of situations. Their grace and surety nearly takes my breath away. No second guessing. No wondering if they are up to the job or if next year will be as good as this year. Maybe just a deep breath in the early spring before they punch up through the cold ground, then all becomes the green fountain of life flowing toward red hearts dangled from perfectly arching stems.
The wondering is left up to me. The gift and the curse. Because I do imagine the future—how this day may play out—what I need to do before leaving on a trip next week. And this future enlivens and troubles me right here in this very moment. Part of the joy of my life in this moment is the future possibilities that I imagine. And part of my suffering in this moment is the worry and uncertainty that comes with these divergent futures that await me that may or may not turn out as I wish.
But the gift of the garden is that it holds me secure in a narrower and more pressing time frame. Right now the buds on the crab apple tree are vivid pink globes of possibility. They have appeared suddenly amidst the small green leaves which themselves materialized miraculously the other week from apparently dead branches. Now with warming weather, the tree is on her determined path to bare it all – to once more enact her ancient rite of self-exposure.
Now I see how I depend on her—depend on her annual and imminent promise to make thousands of delicate blossoms and to bring them forth in a day or two. It’s a magic trick beyond belief. I await reassurance of her beauty blooming. Like the radiant face of the mother bending over the beloved child, she whispers once again to my heart. Telling me once more that I am safely tucked into the midst of this awesome and vast field of life.