Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Morning Walk with the Moon

            The full moon waited overnight for me.  She called to me through the east window as I went to bed last night, but I pretended I didn’t really hear.  But this morning, my internal mother joins in the call and I am roused out of the house in the early morning darkness.  Her cold beauty now floats in the western sky.  I turn and walk toward the light.
            The morning is cold, but I have the hat I bought thirty years ago at an EMS store on the second floor of the now, I am sure, defunct Hartford Mall.  We call it my duck hunting hat.  Pale green with a visor, ear flaps and fuzzy inside, it’s the kind of classic that remains out of style throughout the decades.  But I am devoted to its unconditional warmth and consistent refusal to bend to convention. 
            The moon sticks firmly in the black of the lower sky – unbothered by the headlights of the few early morning cars headed in to work.  I walk by the darkened church whose billboard instructs me to wait for Lord Jesus and eventually come to the never-ending lights of the 24-hour convenience store that rests directly under the moon.  I buy one quart of whole milk and some half-and-half, though I know I should buy only fat free milk.  I walk home.
            Though the light has not yet come, I know this day will not be shorter than yesterday.  We have crossed a timeless threshold.  The ancient cells in my body rejoice.  Perhaps we have not been abandoned to the darkness.  Perhaps God will send the light and not let us perish in this cold. 
I know that longer days and more sunlight come long before the warmth, but I am somehow buoyed by it all.  For the short green amaryllis bud in the pot on my desk and for me too, something is stirring. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Just Drinking Coffee

Yesterday morning, I used the birthday money my mother sent me to buy a pottery mug at the Worcester Center for Crafts annual fair.  The mug is amazingly beautiful and cost an unreasonable amount.  The marks of flame and ash from its wood-fired origins are the natural decoration on this smallish drinking vessel. The cup itself was pushed in as the handle was attached, so the sweet memory of soft wet clay lingers with the finished piece.  The handle itself is elegant, chunky and reliable.
I paid a wild forty dollars for the mug and probably wouldn’t have done it with ‘my own’ money.  But as a birthday extravagance, I could justify the purchase.  Having been a professional potter many years ago, I suspect that the maker of my mug works long days, both in the making and in the selling of his creations.  And if his annual net is thirty thousand a year, I’m sure he considers himself quite successful.
            Later in the day, I went to my local Ace Hardware store to buy a replacement halogen bulb for one of the space-age light fixtures that fly in the Temple kitchen.    Ace is the chain store that drove the previous locally owned hardware store with wooden floors and guys who knew how to fix things out of business ten years ago.  They often have great bargains because now they are hanging on for their economic life due to the Home Depot that recently opened just a few miles away.
            On the way out, in the center aisle, which is the seasonal bargain display, I saw a four-cup coffee maker along with the snow shovels and window scrapers.  I have been half-heartedly looking for a small coffee maker ever since I gave away our old one to my father last Father’s Day when he was passing through town on a RV camping trip and had forgotten his coffee maker.  So I checked the price on the coffee maker, and when I saw it was an amazing nine dollars, I scooped one up -- along with my tiny, don’t touch with your fingers, seven-dollar halogen bulb.
            Later this morning, I will go into the kitchen, turn on my seven-dollar light bulb, make ten-dollar a pound dark roast coffee in my nine-dollar coffee maker, and then drink a small cup of Joe in my forty-dollar mug.
              This all makes me conscious of the invisible webs of relationships I support as I live my economic life.  I know who made the mug, he lives in Maine and I am happy to share some of the money that people give me with him.  The people who made the parts and assembled the coffee maker and packed it and put it on the trucks and put it in the center aisle of Ace Hardware are more hidden from my imagination – I suspect most of them, like the potter, would be happy to make thirty thousand a year.  I feel virtuous about supporting the potter (even though it was my mother’s money).  And while I am happy to save money on my new coffee maker, I feel vaguely uneasy about the relationships I foster with my frugality.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Considering the Falling Leaves

Here in New England, the days have grown quite short now.  And just the other day we had our first wet snow of the season.  The nasturtiums that grew riotously over the slope behind the pergola now lie flat – victims of the hard frost a couple days ago.  The marigolds too, once bushy and covered with flashy orange blossoms, are brown and wilted.  Only the carcasses of tomato plants still stand erect.  The stakes and cages that once kindly held the weight of their fruit are now superfluous and seem almost cruel.
        Only the giant beech tree by the road seems to have missed God’s seasonal memo on the timeliness of letting go.  She stubbornly grips her green leaves, even while her partner, the majestic oak has dropped his leaves at her feet.  She studiously ignores his entreaties and holds fast to her own sense of things.  But even for her, it won’t be long.
This fall, though I have continued to love the endless falling of the leaves, I have been thinking more about the finality of the activity.  Of course it’s part of the cycle and I know these same trees will sprout new and amazing leaves in the spring.  But for the leaves that fall, this leaf identity, this leaf-life, is nearly over.  They won’t jump up in the spring and say ‘just kidding’ and find their way back to the branches from which they fell.  They’re not migrating birds who miraculously find their way back to their birth place.
In the midst of the cycle of the seasons, of light and dark, of life and death – there is also this one-way movement.  The job of the fallen leaves is not to rise up but to fall further apart – until there is nothing leaf-like that remains.  I rake them onto tarps and drag them ceremoniously to the six-foot pile by the back fence to await their dissolution.  Some day in the spring, several years from now, I will spread the humus of their remains back over the garden.  Or perhaps someone else will be doing that work by then.
I don’t mean to be morbid, but this dying business is not merely poetic.  It feels important this morning to find my way into both the closing of the season that only precedes next spring’s opening – as well as into that which is fully lost - the parts and pieces of life that only throw themselves forward into the future through completely dissolving.  I know that I too, in the midst of the cycles of the days and the seasons of my life, am slowly being called toward this dissolution.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

My New Friends

Last night I went into Boston to hear my potential future son-in-law – or perhaps I should say my current ‘son-in-law,’ Kevin, give a talk at Harvard Med School.  He’s a graduate student in immunology as was speaking as part of a series by a student run organization called ‘Science in the News.’  The topic last night was explaining some of how microbes (bacteria) function in our bodies. 
I learned:
            My body contains more bacteria than the number of people on earth.  Though if you scraped them off my skin and collected them from all the surfaces within and without of me, their total mass would amount to only about five pounds, they outnumber the actual cells of my body.  The densest concentration of these microbes is in my large intestine.  This is where, I learned, food stays for an average of three days as these microbes work to break down what the rest of my digestive system couldn’t.  There are so many different microbes that have such interdependent functioning in the large intestine that we don’t even know all of what is there.  Many of these microbes are essential to our well-being where they are, but could kill us if they travel to other parts of the body.  Some are so secretive that even scientists in their white lab coats can't culture them outside the body.
            I’m fascinated by all these parts of me that aren’t me.  These microbes are like independent contractors that have their own agenda.  I can’t order them around and I can’t survive without them.  On the bright side, I am the whole world to them.  But on the down side, I am just a food source, just a place to live.  As long as the nutrients keep on coming and I stay away from powerful anti-biotics, they are content to go about their microbial way and I should be grateful.
            So this morning as I go put the trash out, I have just a little more respect for the miracle of my large intestine – ‘the densest concentration of microbial variety on earth.’  I think I’ll start eating yogurt regularly as my way of saying thank you to all my unknown friends and allies down there.
            (for more fascinating microbial information and links to the talks – visit Kevin’s blog )

Monday, October 25, 2010

When No One Is Looking

            I light a small stick of incense and step into the fine mist that hangs in the morning darkness of the Temple steps.  It’s a ritual now, when I return from a trip, to offer incense to the big Buddha.  I’m just back late last night from leading a three-day retreat with Rev’s Jay and Karen Weik and the Toledo Zen Center.  Out in their farmhouse zendo in the country, we sat under the big sky and appreciated the harvest moon which illuminated our nights. 
But this morning, I offer incense to the big Buddha that presides over the entrance to the Temple.  He doesn’t seem to mind about all my comings and goings.  I ask him if he thinks I am too busy – whether I should slow down and do less.  He doesn’t say yes and he doesn’t say no.  The cars rush by on Pleasant Street and the air is moist against my cheek.
During my absence, the little pumpkin that was in front of the Buddha by the incense holder has made its way into the begging bowl the Buddha holds in his lap.  I imagine him reaching down one silent stone arm in the middle of the night – or even in broad daylight when no one was looking.  Reaching down with gentle slow-moving fingers to pick up this fleshy orange fruit for his bowl.  But then I think that if big Buddha is operating in the deep time of his native granite, the little pumpkin which is so solid to me, must be nearly invisible to him as it flashes into being and disappears again.  In that case, only his great powers of subtle awareness allow him to see the momentary reality of something so transient as a pumpkin – or a human being.
            I suppose I am more like the pumpkin than the crushed stone that lies under the Buddha.  More like the leaves on his lap [did he go walking quietly around the grounds collecting his favorite colored fall leaves or did the trees drop them there purposefully?] than the mountain of granite out of which he was carved.  My hopping around here and there is just part of my coming and going nature.  But when no one is looking, I sit very still in the middle of the incessant movement of my life.  I am private and invisible.  Just as he, when no one is looking, has adventures we can only begin to dream of.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Smelling and Choosing

            I like to wake up early enough to walk through the darkened house.  My eyes appreciate the slow transition.  The street light falls through the windows and illuminates dependable patterns on the walls and the floor.  In the dim light my other senses awaken too.  I hear each room humming its own particular song – a performance piece that I am apparently part of as the soft shuffle of my rubber Crocs on the wooden floors bounces off wooden floors and sundry objects of furniture.  And this morning, I notice for the first time that each room and hallway has its own particular smell.  I’m reminded of a college roommate who insisted he could tell from smelling the skin of my arm, whether I had spent the day inside or outside.  At the time I was doubtful as I suspected he just wanted to smell my skin.  Looking back, I see it was both.
            Both – it’s usually both.  While we sometimes agonize over finding the one right answer – weighing the pros and cons of a decision, it may be that the true answer is both and either.  Like me, several years ago when I was riding my mountain bike through the beautiful New England woods.  It was about this time of year, leaves were just beginning to show orange and yellow.  The sky was clear and high.  I was riding over a new trail a friend had shown me the week before.  I remembered the trail until I came to the first fork.  I wasn’t sure whether to take the right or the left path.  After a moment, the left fork looked familiar so I headed down that path.  I was relieved to soon see familiar scenery and realize I had made the right choice.  I recall feeling a lovely little sense of pride in my intuition and in making the ‘right’ choice.  There were several more unremembered forks, but each time my intuition led me down the path that continued on.
            It was only several weeks later, after I had ridden those trails three or four more times, that I realized that the two trails at these forks BOTH merged back to the main trail and that at each fork, either trail would do.  My real success was not guessing the correct trail, but rather taking any trail.  Both were the right trail. 
Now, of course there are forks in our lives where the two trails apparently lead to spectacularly different places.  There are alternatives we are faced with that pose choices of radically different futures.  But more and more I suspect that there is no one choice that is correct – that both futures – that the myriad choices all lead to our life.  The most important thing is the choosing.  The choosing allows us to move forward and to learn and grow and become ourselves.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Beginning Again

For the past three years, I have been occasionally referring, in this blog, to my writing of ‘the book.’  The book where I write about the things I talk about all the time.  The book about Zen and life-coaching.  I wrote the outline, got an advance from a publisher, and have written endless pages. But I have struggled to write about what I know in a way that is truly alive. 
For me, the challenge has been how to present the living truth that does not abide in some fixed form – that is not about rules or dogma and things outside of ourselves.  And the even greater issue of how to avoid writing from the illusory position of having figured it all out.  I have often despaired of finding a form and a voice that felt true. 
While I have written much, I have been dogged by a feeling of failure.  Even the twelfth revision of Chapter One felt stiff and clunky – like someone who is working hard to write something good for the teacher.  But about two months ago, I came to the realization that while I have been ‘stuck’ not writing my book, I have also been writing my book – I just didn’t know it.  In these pages and in my journals, I have found a voice and a way of writing that feels honest and true. 
            I’m not sure of the ultimate ‘quality’ of the writing or exactly how it coheres into a book.  But I have accepted the fact that the book I need to write, the book I have written, is a book that is my love song to the world.  Not an explanation or a ‘how-to’ manual, but rather a stepping into and a presentation my own life as the way itself.   As Issa said so beautifully  ‘The man pulling radishes / pointed my way /with a radish.’
            So now I have the first draft of my book complete.  The working title is now ‘Zen Reflections of a Life Coach: Each Step is the Destination.’  Right now it is a series of short pieces loosely tied into the cycle of one year of my life.  It contains a number of the pieces that first appeared in this blog.  As part of this process, I have cleared the memory here in this blog – taken these pieces down from the web to be revised, cooked, polished, winnowed or even left as is for parts of the book. 
            I will continue my sporadic postings and greatly appreciate the kind occasional words that come back to me in my travels.  All you who have remarked on being touched by something here.  Your small encouragements have been, and continue to be, essential as I walk the ever unknown path of my life.