Life lurches forward through cataclysm—
not the continuous blossom of possibility
we had hoped, but rather a variable speedism
so extreme the fabric itself seems rent.
This normal aberration of expectation
undoes us all—suddenly reorganizing
us out of our previous selves into some
new liberation that begins in darkness.
What we thought solid is lost into
the fearful reality of insubstantiality—
perhaps just a lively trick by the God of all things
to demonstrate the truth behind the curtain:
we are all merely wriggling ephemera,
appearing momentarily certain of self,
only to fall back in awful reverence
as we find ourselves reborn with regularity.
So next time you situate yourself
in front of the porcelain bowl,
savor the fleeting freedom
of perching on two feet and
the treat of holding your own.
Like life itself—this is
only a passing extravagance.
I was happy to read this morning in my New York Times briefing that mentions that Republicans think that Donald Trump has the best chance to be elected and that the migrants fleeing from the Middle East have found northern route to Western Europe now that the southern route has been closed—happy to read that today is National Play-Doh Day.
I didn’t even know that the ubiquitous multi-colored clay that smelled so good was spelled Play-Doh and not Play-Dough. But just saying the name brings back the bright colors and the slightly damp, sweet fragrance. When our daughter was young, we used to make it at home – not a difficult recipe, but you could never match the particular color, smell and silky texture of the original stuff.
Doing a little armchair detective work (consulting Wikipedia) this morning, I discovered why. Play-Doh’s current manufacturer, Hasbro, reveals the compound is primarily a mixture of water, salt, and flour, while its 2004 United States patent indicates it is composed of water, a starch-based binder, a retrogradation inhibitor, salt, lubricant, surfactant, preservative, hardener, humectant, fragrance, and color. A petroleum additive gives the compound a smooth feel, and borax prevents mold from developing.
No wonder we couldn’t get it just right. We were missing the secret ingredients.
I wonder if I could get a small bottle of ‘humectant’ on line? I wonder what humectant even is? Further research (clicking through on Wikipedia) discloses that a humectant is a substance that keeps things moist—the opposite of a desiccant which most of us know as something that comes in little packages that say ‘Do Not Eat This’, which of course makes me want to offer it to someone near me to munch on. I mostly resist this tendency except when around those I love.
So my world is slightly larger this morning. Along with an increased vocabulary and technical knowledge, I smile as I remember the fantastic Play-Doh factory that extruded an endless stream of shapes as we pressed down on the lever. But it’s the smell and the bright colors that are most vivid. The stuff of the lumpy things we made and called horses and people and houses and flowers and gave to our mother.
I wonder if it’s the humectant or the retrogradation inhibitor that has kept the memories so fresh and tangy?
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.