Three perfectly good appliances are sitting in my partially ripped out kitchen waiting for new homes. I’ve never done this before, never remodeled a kitchen. The old one was perfectly serviceable, but a little tattered and not beautiful. I’m ambivalent about our decision to make it new. Shouldn’t things be allowed to run down by themselves without interference?
Of course not.
We must shore things up. We must constantly renew what is here—work hard to prolong the life of what is in perpetual process of falling down. And this seems good and true – to take care of things – to repair what is broken (and not accumulate deferred maintenance with our institution’s physical assets). Change the oil before the pistons freeze up. Replace the roof before the leaks damage the interior of the Temple.
But this morning, I’d be content to let things collapse—to stand back and allow everything to reach its horizontal destiny. I’m tired of this unrelenting uprightness. Let’s just stay in bed. Let’s not do our jobs. Why start another initiative? Why take on another project? Let’s take our foot off the accelerator and let the car of our life roll slowly into stillness.
Why this endless allegiance to accomplishment? In the end, doesn’t everything fall apart anyway? Why not just appreciate the natural trajectory toward dissolution?
II. MISTAKEN IDENTITY
The world is slowly (and quickly) falling apart and we do our best to piece it together. But what if our job is not about protecting, not about keeping the momentum of accomplishment going, not about shoring up the castle walls and defending the territory? Is there something more important than furthering and protecting me and my interests?
While I know the answer to this question is yes, I sometimes find it hard to trace my way back to that place of inspiration. I get lost in the feeling that my job is to keep the world moving forward. I imagine that I’m responsible for maintaining the momentum and for continuing the continuity. Though in the light of day, this is a ridiculous illusion, in the moments of darkness, it can be truly a crushing burden.
But then, somehow, at some point, I remember that I am not God. (I get us confused so often.) The mysterious source of all things is the destination of all things. There is only this vast coming and going we call life. Our lives are only a briefly borrowed ripple on the vast ocean of time and space—only a momentary incarnation of delight with lots of opportunity for getting lost.
Maybe my job is not just to prevent falling things from reaching the ground. Maybe I’m not in the world to make sure the energy of a million projects keeps moving forward. Maybe I can step back a little – even just a micromillimeter. Back from the cutting edge. Back from the pushing edge. Back from the illusion that it is all up to me. We are all, of course, being carried along not by our own efforts, which are truly puny no matter how heroic, but by the current of life that has sustained us from the beginning.
III. PLANTING SEEDS
How do I get out of my self-appointed job of keeping things going? Can I remember a purpose deeper place than the fear of things falling apart? I am a leader in the Sangha and I do start things going. But maybe I don’t start things, maybe I just notice what is wanting to come into being and make little openings – name and invite what is already beginning to happen – and then see what happens.
How about if I just dream and plant seeds? That sounds like more fun. I don’t have to make sure the plants grow, I just have to make my best guess – dream my best dream and then appreciate what follows – the rising and the falling.
So maybe with the appliances and with the kitchen remodeling and with the Sangha, I can just plant seeds and arrange seedlings—just allowing the mysterious process of life to be dreamt and enacted through me.
That feels more doable.
And by the way, I still have a 30 inch Kenmore gas stove that is looking for a good home.
Look down and take small steps.
Or you will easily violate the precepts
by flattening underfoot, of one
of these tender and unsympathetic beings.
Then there’s the importance
of not getting lost
in the curving beauty
of the rolling hills
or in the delight of the sea-breeze
that dances across the fields
or tall grasses and bending wheat
along the path.
Look down and take small steps.
But stay alive to the wisdom of the wind
and learn, if you can, from the sinuous
contours of the gentle landscape.
And if you make it through these trials,
there’s the tantalizing mealtime spread
of Fred’s Flying Saucer food –
a table full of unlabeled creations
of visual, gustatory and olfactory enchantment.
Fred would certainly have been banished
from any self-respecting Zen monastery
for causing so much delicious
Look down and take small steps
as you fill your plate. Then relish
each bite, even if you have once again
taken more than necessary.
Small steps and looking down
are of no avail as the heart opens
to the shared pulse of life itself.
Don’t bother to resist.
Opening and closing,
tears and laughter are
the exact medicine needed.
In the glossy magazine that magnifies the glories of travel and consumption, stashed in the too close seatback in front of me while flying to Finland, I first learned of the Annual Finnish International Wife Carrying Competition.
On the surface, the strategy for this bizarre sport might seem straightforward: you want to be a burly man of some heft and girth and you want to choose a slender but sinewy bride who doesn’t mind fiercely clinging upside down to your back with her crotch glued snuggly to the backside of your neck while you swiftly run the obstacle course and win the prize.
But knowing all sporting events have intricacies of calculation beneath the simplicity of the surface romance, I looked harder and discovered that the winner’s prize is his wife’s weight in beer. So the slender wife that seemed such an unalloyed boon proves to be the critical limiting factor in the rewards of victory. One would want a more robust wife. But then there’s the carrying.
And so I began to appreciate on a new level, the Finns’ purported passion for this arcane and glorious sport.
Later in my lovely stay in this land where August darkness comes at eleven p.m. and dawn is a scant five hours later, my Finnish friend Petri told me of the Finns fascination with unusual competitions. I suspected that these sports were a symptom of the seasonal affective disorder from the long months of winter darkness. He thought it a worthwhile hypothesis but hazarded no opinion of its accuracy.
Petri did, however, mention swamp soccer (properly called swamp football) which I immediately saw would appeal to children of all ages and also to those of us who like to wear and eat our mud as well as play with it.
But my mind stopped, as did some of the national mania for weird competitions, with a sauna contest in which one of the finalist was disqualified because of death. Apparently, the two men sat in side-by-side saunas, separated by a window from which to view their competition. There they sat hour after hour, pouring water on the hot stones at regular intervals.
If you haven’t been in a sauna recently, or even if you have, the water poured on the hot rocks in the sauna vaporizes immediately with a pleasing crackling and intensifies the heat. The steam first ascends and hits your head. You can almost see the cloud of hot coming your way. As a newcomer to this delightful cultural practice, I perfected the art of casually bending over to examine my toes until the blast passed and it was safe to sit up again. But if there’s enough water splashed, the searing moisture begins to descends and there is no escape.
In a perfect sauna, at the end of a long day of Zen meditation, it can be quite delightful. Heat soaks into your weary bones as the sweat rises to the surface and drips away. And when enough hot happens, you take your naked body to the showers to rinse off and then perhaps to the pool for a slow swim the cool wetness to release the heat and regulate the body.
But these two finalists in the sauna competition were not in it for the health benefits or the easy camaraderie but for the bearing of the pain and the winning of the prize. And in a country where nearly every home and apartment has its own sauna, one can only imagine the honor of being the best and toughest sauna man—the last man sitting. Respect, endorsements and women (or men) would certainly come your way in abundance. (Occasionally, I have to admit to competing in the Zen equivalent of this, with little success and few rewards.)
I’m sure it was great TV drama. Two men sitting sweating—the camera catches them only from the waist up and we imagine their nakedness though we don’t see anything untoward. Two men locked in a weird and mortal competition. Oblivious to physical sensation, they completely ignoring all signals of moderation and care. Two men, expert at not listening to their bodies. One so skilled that he was able to kill himself on national TV.
So, after my trip, I rethink my commitment to the wife-carrying competition and decide instead to invest my free time on Sunday afternoons to sitting on the comfortable couch and watching twenty-two men in tight pants chase a small ball while trying to inflict grievous bodily harm upon each other.
It’s nice to be back in country that makes sense.
We’ve already plowed into July and some small part of me is still waiting for June 31st. It’s like this every year; we’re rushed into July when I would prefer to linger just a little longer in June. But this year, I’ve grown so tired of blindly following the dictates of our corrupt and arbitrary culture, that I’m ready to take action.
I’ve decided to propose legislation to the Worcester City Council that would officially make June one day longer. I can’t imagine there would be any opposition to such a common-sensical proposal.
June is clearly one of the sweetest months. Gardens are in full and profligate bloom with no sign of stopping. Nights are cool while the days are long and warm with an occasional hot thrown in.
This year we’ve had loads of rain that has had the good manners to come in clumps between the abundant sunshine. The water is now deep in the soil. The annuals and the perennials alike are smiling with the deep delight that water brings us all.
The five scrawny coleus I put in the pot that was way to big for them have branched and grown to form multi-colored clump—a round mound that already overflows the pot itself. Three would have been enough, but I am happy for the abundance. The cool evenings have held back the morning glories and the marigolds, but even they are thriving.
And the sleeping has been easy. Nothing hot and sticky – no need for fans nor the dreaded air conditioner. Most of the summer, the air conditioner sits on the floor of my bedroom. I try to keep it out of the way, in a corner, but I don’t want it too far away – for when the summer heat comes and the days don’t cool down and the window fan only blows hot air into my bedroom – then I toss and turn and almost every summer break down for a night or two to put the a/c in the window and run the dreaded and blessed thing.
But back to my motion – my legislation to elongate June. I suppose we’ll have to figure out which month will give the extra day. My first thought is February – but with only 28 days that has certainly already been the victim of previous day-stealing legislation. (I suspect May and October as the beneficiaries.) How about January? Certainly we don’t need 31 days in the coldest month of the year. Whose idea was that in the first place?
So this is my proposal: to officially take a day from January and give it to June. We’ll call it the ‘January to June Bill’ or JJB for short. While I’m sure JJB will pass easily, I realize there may be opposition from pre-school teachers. This small and obviously beneficial reallocation of resources would obviate the old jingle ‘Thirty days has September, April, June and November.’
So how about ‘Thirty days has September, April, January and November? I’ll grant that the single syllable ‘June’ is a better fit for the rhythm of this little bit of doggerel, but is the rhythm of language enough of a reason to deprive us of one more day of glorious June weather? I don’t think so. Especially when compared to the short cold days of January.
And think of the boost it would give to Worcester tourism! ‘Come to Worcester, the city that has an extra day in June!’ Who wouldn’t want to come to a place that has a shorter January and a longer June? It’s a no-brainer. Now I just have to settle on the wording and send it on to the mayor.
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.