The Piece Work of Breathing

images Labor Day – a national holiday celebrating the strength and many contributions of American workers.

I am a piece worker.  I work breath by breath—trying to manage one at a time before I go to the next.

I am a peace worker.  I start with me.  Each morning I wake up to meet the many mystifying people that I might be.  If necessary, I enter the fray to try to break up the disputes between the different parts of myself.  It is dangerous work.  I often end up beat up.  One self refuses to relinquish its cherished certainty and will not stop.  Sometimes there is pushing and shoving and insults are hurled in every direction.

I try to keep my head about me even words of venom spill from hateful mouths.  When my safety is not certain.   Sometimes the fear simply slides around and over me without even touching.  Sometimes they lodge in my heart like an arrow with a poison tip.

It’s not an easy job, but it’s endlessly fascinating.  These many characters that I am—sometimes wise and patient, sometimes anxious and confused.  Day to day, I never know who I will be.  But morning is usually the hardest time—before the momentum of the day is established—before I remember the things I used to know.

I wake up in the middle of forgetting—like my soul has traveled too far during the night.  Wandering through the many universes, not wanting to return, it waits till the last minute to scramble back into my body just before I begin to wake up.  Breathless from its cosmic travel, my soul barely remembers its day job of being me.

So I come to consciousness slowly.  At first I can’t distinguish dream from daylight.  Am I the figure of my dreams?  What life am I living?  Am I ten years old and about to start sixth grade with Mrs. Hamilton again?  Will the sweet and cute Joanie Darrow be in my class again?  Will the other boys still let me play baseball with them even though I blew that easy pop-up yesterday?

I write a lot about waking up.  I’m sure there are people for whom this is not a big deal—who wake up and bound out of bed with the familiar assurance of a brain bathed in seritonin.

Taking a moment to insure the scientific basis of my writing, I read on Wikipedia that “Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and is found in all bilateral animals, where it mediates gut movements and the animal’s perceptions of resource availability.” 

Somehow, it’s comforting to think of myself as a bilateral animal.  My two feet have ten toes carefully divided between the two.  They unfailingly take turns when I walk—the left always respectfully waiting for his partner, the right, to take a turn before he steps again.  (Of course except those rare occasions of frivolity (or disaster) where hopping and skipping are required.)  I suppose I would still qualify if I had four feet as well – as long as there equally distributed on either side.

But it’s the resource availability that really catches me.  What a lovely way to reduce the peregrinations of my mind.  The real questions are:  “Will there be enough food and water?”  “Will there be enough shelter?”  “Will there be enough human connection?”  The primal questions.

Of course, my experience has been one of extreme abundance in the food, water and shelter category.  But the human connection has, for some mysterious reason, always felt tenuous to me.  I don’t have any real reason to doubt, just that doubt is so deeply planted in my brain—planted a place so deep and inaccessible I can’t get there to reason with it.  What if she doesn’t come this time?  What if my diaper never gets changed?  What if my brother takes all the food and there’s none left for me?

So, for the time being, I’ll keep my job as peace-maker and negotiator.  When I can, I’ll do the piece work of watching each breath.  And I’ll try to remember that though walking is much more efficient, sometimes skipping is a much better way to go.

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Consider the Hosta: A Brief Love Song

A bright and cool dawn has come after last night’s wild storm..  A perfect day for a walk or bicycle ride.  The morning leaves, still held high aloft on the garden trees, are illuminated from the northeast, though, already the sunrise is already trending toward the south—toward the winter sun that rides low in the sky.  Soon the day will start in earnest, but for now, I am content to sit here on the porch and allow everything, including myself, to be just as we are.  What more could be necessary?

In a flowerpot near my feet, the cream and green crinkled leaves of the hosta are suspended effortlessly on the ends of perfectly engineered stalks.  Nothing is straining or planning.  All is resting still right where it is.  Looking closer, I see the stillness is really an illusion.  The airy leaves are slightly wagging on the ends of their stems, happy for the micro-currents of air I can barely perceive.

And Ms. Cream-and-green-crinkle has a neighbor.  Sprouting from the cylindrical abode next door, there’s the silver green hosta with leaves more upright and decorated with vertical lines.  Unrumpled, she holds herself in upright elegance. Her larger leaves on taller stems hold a stationary wave along the edge—still undulating—a momentary profile of the rolling swells on the smooth ocean.

Both hosta leave live a distance from the dirt in the pot.  They have both  made a concerted effort to give space to the leaves – to spread the reach of these decorated sun catchers.  Up and out.  Cantilevered into the open air.  Related yet different—as if each was given the same instruction book but interpreted the directives differently.

Now I appreciate the shape of the stems.  Not flat, not round, but each stem a rising gully of green.  To what purpose?  A river bed to guide rain water toward the center of the plant itself?  Additional strength to support the cantilevered leaf.?  I wonder if the stem is working hard?  I don’t think so.  It’s not hard work to fill the function for which we were designed.  The trick, for us humans, is to find out what that work is.  It’s not like we’re handed an instruction manual.  (Though neither, I suppose, were the hosta.)

For us, it’s all trial and error.  Since each one of us has never before happened on the face of the earth—never before happened in the incomprehensibly deep and vast history of the cosmos.  We have to make it up as we go.

But we make it up only as we are, as we find ourselves.  At its root, it’s not an act of will.  We can’t choose to be someone else, we can’t live someone else’s life.  We can only be the person we are right now.  The body we have in this moment is the body we get in this moment.  All of our wishing and hoping and resenting are to no avail—a misguided attempt to control the universe, to try to bend the reality of the present to conform to some small idea we have of what should be happening.

Our two-legged freedom is life-changing, but wildly limited.  We have the freedom to discover our gifts – to discover what has already been given.  And then, if we choose, we can use who we are to make a difference in the world.  We can give who we are toward some purpose larger than our limited and complaining self.

The hosta in the pots on my porch don’t, of course worry about any of this.  They leave the dreaming of words and the poking at the laptop keys all to me.  I don’t think they feel worse for themselves for not having this capacity.  And I imagine that the cream and green hosta does not begrudge the gray-green hosta its more elegant and upright inclination—does not berate itself for holding its carefully rumpled leaves closer to the ground.

Everything appears to be content to be itself except this unfortunate two legged creature.  We have been given the demanding gift of perceiving the world as being composed of discreet objects.  These supposed objects can be manipulate in our minds to create possible worlds of difference..  These marvelous and troubling minds.  This magnificent perception of separation causes so much suffering and yet is also the path through which we can awaken to the joyous realization of non-separation.  We might say that the division is God’s gift.  The separation is the universe’s way of appreciating itself.

Sometimes it does seem clear that my true job is to appreciate the world—to sing songs to celebrate the glorious green life forms that inhabit the Temple gardens—to marvel at the variety and sweetness of the two-legged life forms that stroll the garden paths.  I am happiest in the morning, when I take the time to see what is already here – when I babble the praises of this most inconceivable life.

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Just Digging

The last Tuesday in August.  Morning twilight spreads toward full daylight with the slightest brightening through the eastern trees.  A cool breeze ruffles dryly through the nearly autumn leaves of the trees in the Temple garden.  Cars rush by sporadically on their way to another necessary week of work.

0626121554I sit quietly on the porch looking out over the new bed of variegated Solomon seal we planted back by the gazebo on Sunday.  My dear friend and master gardener Fran dug up thirty or forty slips from her garden in Connecticut while others had prepared the bed.

The area used to be full of day lilies.  I’m sure they were put there by the landscape designer who created the garden in the 80’s.  And I suspect, at one time, the lilies were thriving.  But these past years, either the shade from the trees had grown too thick, or the plants themselves just ran out of energy.  The formerly lush display of foliage and flowers had degenerated to a few meager blossoms and quickly wilting greenery.

So we dug up the remaining roots from the dry ground.  Ryushin, one of our Temple guests from Great Vow Monastery in Oregon, put in some hours over the week and the participants in our monthly Sunday morning family service also contributed some caretaking practice.  And even the old Abbot (that’s me) joined in toward the end of the family caretaking practice.

I was particularly struck by the efforts of one young man named Odin.  He’s a relatively new member of our community—in fact, he’s relatively new to the planet, having arrived without clothes or any plans some eighteen months ago.  Most of us pegged him as rather immature, even babyish at first.  But he’s been studying hard these past months (with the full support of his loving Mom, Dad and older sister) and has fully mastered the upright walking trick and is also making some minor progress on the language front.  Sunday, he turned his prodigious attention to the practice of digging.

As the rest of us adults and older kids were digging in order to remove roots and stones, Oden was just focused on the process digging.  He wasn’t even really trying to make holes, he was just digging.  He would wave his tiny white trowel around a little, stick it in the soil, push it around a in different directions, then pick it up again to examine whatever had stuck to it.  At seemingly random intervals he would walk a few paces, squat down and repeat the process.  For him, there was no need for some purpose other than the digging itself.

What was he thinking?  Was it the texture of the dirt and stones and roots?  Was it the wonder of using a tool to make an impact on the world?  Or was simply the joy of joining in the activity with other members of his human species?  Whatever it was, he was fully devoted to his digging practice and utterly unconcerned about the larger outcome of his work.

Now, I am grateful to have a mind that can construct the world in such a way that I have a rudimentary understanding of some of the laws of cause and effect.  If I water the morning glories in planters on the access ramp every morning, they will continue produce those exquisite blue blossoms day after day.  And I am grateful to have a body healthy enough to carry the water from the spigot to the flowers.  (As well as a body and mind to accomplish the myriad daily tasks that allow me to live independently now that my parents are no longer willing to take care of my every whim.)

But Odin’s wholehearted activity is a lovely reminder of the joy that is possible in devotion to the task itself.  It’s not an either/or situation.  We can be practical in being mindful of caretaking ourselves and the world around us.  AND we can absorb ourselves fully in the activity of the moment—appreciating the wonder of using tools—spoons and forks, trowels and cars, computers and cups.

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Memories of Today

HPIM0021Today is the twenty-first of August.  I’m sitting downstairs in our family cottage by the lake in Vermont.  My mother and step-father are asleep upstairs and I am alone in the quiet of the morning twilight.  A light rain falls, making innumerable tiny circles appear on the surface of the placid water out the window.

August twenty-first is the day I arrived in Japan in 1969, forty-five years ago.  I was sixteen years old and pretty sure that I was nearly grown up.  I had not yet read the research, nor seen the first-hand evidence that the human brain does not fully mature until one owner achieves his/her mid-twenties.  And now, I beginning to suspect that full maturity is simply a perpetually dangling carrot that entices us forward.

But my year-long adventure as an exchange student began from here, Lake St. Catherine, Vermont.  My parents, who were still together then, drove me down to New York City on August 17th.  We were surprised at the amount of traffic on the New York State thruway.  The radio said there was some kind of music festival at a small town called Woodstock.  We thought nothing of it at the time.

I boarded the plane in New York, flew to San Francisco, then on to Hawaii where I spent the night.  There was mechanical trouble on the plane from Hawaii the next morning so we had to turn back an hour into the flight to Tokyo.  I still remember looking out the window and seeing the plume of fuel being released from behind the engine on the wing.  The pilot helpfully informed us that we had to lighten our load to be able to land.  A sign of my innocence and faith that everything would of course be OK is that I don’t remember being nervous at all.

They found us another plane in a few hours and we arrived at the Tokyo airport much later that day—which was actually the next day due to flying over the international date line.  So it was on the twenty-first of August when eight young Americans from New York State arrived in Japan to spend a year living with Japanese families.

Looking back, I’m amazed that I was over there only twenty-five years after the end of World War II.  As a sixteen-year-old, that seemed like ancient history.  But now, looking back to 1989 and it doesn’t seem that far away.   Now I realize that all the adults I met had lived through that time, perhaps as children, perhaps as adults.  Some of them must have been in the army and all of them were part of the time of great hatred and wild imperialistic fervor.

We were met at the airport by the compact and incessantly jubilant man that would shepherd us through the year: Dr. Mitsuji Iwanaga.  He was a doctor and owner of a small clinic who was the proud Rotarian who had volunteered to coordinate the exchange program for Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan.  I remember him as perpetually being on the verge of laughter.  He seemed to think life was a delightful joke that we should all share in.  His English was broken, but he was an enthusiastic communicator.  Later that year, I lived with his family for several months and was graciously welcomed in by his wife, four daughters and one son.  They were all very kind.  Including my 19 year-old sister Keiko who I thought was surpassingly beautiful.

Looking back, I am slightly embarrassed by my innocence and wild confidence.  How little I knew of the many dimensions of life swirling around me and of the many wonders and difficulties that lay ahead.  And I suppose I must be equally innocent now as well.   In ten or twenty years, I will look back at this moment, sitting here in the family cottage in Vermont with my mother and step-father asleep upstairs.  I will look back and wonder at the time that they were only in their mid-eighties—at the time they were still pulsing figures walking the shores of this lake that lives so deeply in my memory.

How could it be that things change?  Where do we come from and where are we going?  These mysteries swirl around me this morning.  Past, present and future all here in the rising of the day and the gentle falling of the rain.

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Into the Fog

A friend of mine is getting older.  In fact, all my friends are getting older, even the young ones.  But this particular friend is in the second half of his ninth decade and heading quickly toward his tenth.  Though his life has been long and healthy, now the body that was so unthinkingly dependable has become increasingly unreliable.   These days, even simple activities require a surprising level of care and attention.  The ground itself has receded to a difficult-to-reach distance and it no longer offers the stability of support that was taken for granted for so many years.

I watch closely because I know this is my fate too—the natural course of human life.  This diminishment of competence catches so many of us by surprise.  We lose so much—the trivial capacities that are impossible to appreciate until they are threatened.  If I’m lucky, the losses will come slowly.  Creeping over me like the fog that rolls so slowly in from the ocean in coastal Maine.  The innumerable miniscule bits of water are all perfectly suspended in thin air.  Impervious to wind and sun.  Functioning together, they take away the horizon, then disappear what is near at hand well.

100_0140           I remember one Sunday afternoon on Muscongus Bay, paddling out from Black Island.  Three friends in our kayaks loaded with all the necessary gear for a four-day island adventure.  According to the map, Thief Island lay a half a mile away due west.  Usually just a short paddle of no consequence.  But today, as we looked in the direction of the supposed island, there was nothing but the silent gray fog.

We didn’t have to go into the fog.  We could have stayed the night on Black Island.  But the day was young and it seemed like a good idea.  So with compasses and maps carefully laid out on our decks, we pushed away from the steady shore and out into the afternoon twilight of fog.

Paddles lapped the water quietly in their job of dipping and pulling.  After a few strokes, we turned and the land we which had moments ago been unquestioningly solid, had vanished completely.  Our slender boats, low to the water, moved forward through the small waves into the trackless water.  We stayed close together in the middle of the intimacy of visual disorientation.

That particular Sunday afternoon, enshrouded by fog and side-by-side in our boats, we made our magical crossing.  We heard the birds, then the water on the rocks before Thief Island materialized.  The silent rocks and trees appeared as if transported from another dimension.  We were surprised, relieved and quite proud of our burgeoning navigation skills.  It was a thrill to paddle through the narrow gap of visual disorientation and, relying on map and compass, to arrive at our desired destination.

Is human life like this?  Are we all paddling through the increasingly dense fog toward the island of our true destination?  I’ve heard talk of heaven, which I must confess that I mostly don’t believe.  As poet and author Christopher Wiman says, “It is not that conventional ideas of an afterlife are too strange; it is that they are not strange enough.”

For millennia, human beings have written stories and sung the songs of wanderers and exiles.  We have dreamt of finding our true home—the place where our anxious hearts can find ease—where we can lay down the sometimes heavy burden of the gravity of this mysterious incarnation.

Rising out of bed this creaky morning, I shuffle carefully to the bathroom.  Even at the tender young age of sixty-one and three quarters, I walk slowly out of necessity and remember my even older friend.  We’re both paddling the boats of ourselves toward the true island we’ve heard about in songs and seen on the maps.  May we continue to enjoy the adventure, to keep our eyes on the compass though nothing can be confirmed, and appreciate the good company on the way.

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