“I have rejected things with nothing so strong to replace them, and I am floundering.” So I wrote to my Zen teacher twenty-nine years ago. And in the way of the cycles of life, twenty-nine years later, I find myself at this point again. (As an aside, this appears to be where we are at as a country, also.) We humans build up our internal infrastructures, relying on their existence for our sense of meaning, forgetting that infrastructures, too, get outdated and need to be refurbished. Life demands growth, and growth is change.
The realization that what worked for us in the past no longer does, is part of a natural cycle of growth. But just because it’s supposed to happen, doesn’t mean it feels great. As a matter of fact, it often feels so un-great that people have developed stock coping mechanisms. Some buy the little red sports car. Some throw off their partners for someone younger, some abuse alcohol and drugs—all to avoid feeling the pain of growth.
What did my Zen teacher write back to me? “If you are floundering, then just flounder” adhering to the Zen teachings of just experiencing your life without attachment.
No stones are left unturned in our lives (try as we might to keep them face down) because we are growing, thinking beings. A time of questioning beliefs, priorities, and values comes to everyone.
I forget sometimes, because it is so damn scary, that the best course of action is to sit right in the middle of it, experiencing (and not reacting to) those uncomfortable feelings. The floundering, like the curve in the road, brings us to the next place in our lives.
It is a soft, wood thrush morning this morning and sure enough, as soon as I step outside in the misty half-light, I hear him. An ethereal, bamboo flute song that echoes the mystery of the morning.
Hearing it coaxes out my child-wonder and I breathe in deeply and fully. A gentle and magical beginning to my day.
A dear friend of mine died this week and while it was not unexpected, still…
It came as a shock to realize that he no longer exists in this world, creating currents. He now only exists in my mind as memories and I am left with only the currents of my own memories. Sometimes a person changes your life and he did mine. I am now a birdwatcher because of his introduction; I discovered the balance of Zen because of him. Like many friendships, ours lurched with some misunderstanding, but it stood the test because underneath all the whitecaps, we had a vast ocean in common.
There was nothing left unsaid or undone at the end. He visited me in my new house, approving of it all, and when we last spoke, we said goodbye without actually saying the words, just extending to each other the understanding.
The loss created at first, an aching emptiness. But as I sifted through what was left to me, I came to realize that the emptiness was a gift. The emptiness, created by the wrenching free of what used to be filled with all the intertwining threads of a relationship, was also space. And without space, there can be no growth. And without growth, there is no life.
Grief is necessary. It is necessary to sift through the memories, holding each close and deciding whether to keep it as something precious, placing it in the space we now have, or to let it go, as something outgrown,
making more room for life.
When I was growing up, my father at dinner would ask us—each of the five kids in turn, going around the table—what did we do to improve the world today? And I remember feeling squirm-ily inadequate. Even though he always praised us for our paltry attempts to improve the world—“I babysat for Mrs. So-and-so,” “That’s helping!”—I held myself to a higher standard. Apparently his innocent question resonated with something deeper inside of me. And I thought everyone wrestled with this question.
I remember asking a boyfriend when I was in high school if he wondered what it was all for—an off-the-cuff question for me because of course everyone puzzled over this. I was shocked when he not only said “no”, but further said that if he ever did think about it he would probably just tie a rock around his neck and throw himself into a lake. Huh? It’s your duty to worry about the meaning of your life. I mean you can’t just live it, can you? As I get older, I realize that most people pretty much just live it and try to enjoy doing so, as far as I can see.
So is life a gift to be enjoyed, or a responsibility to be lived up to? What makes a good life?
Me, I lean toward the responsibility end of the spectrum, but every now and then I get moments of just living it and I must say, it feels like playing hooky—no wondering if you’re doing it right—no wondering if you’re living up to whatever you’ve been put on this earth to do…It’s a great and freeing feeling, but I also know that it is only, for me, the responsibility that gives the gift its value.
So I think what makes a good life is becoming a person you want to be with—realizing that you’re fine just the way you are.
As I sit in front of the wood stove on this stormy-snowy morning in March, I hope that this will be the last of the snow. There is still a foot of it on the ground and I can’t even see my gardens, much less plant things. I have started some flower seedlings indoors and they are up and tenaciously growing—little inch-high things under lights in the dining room. Normally I start seedlings in the living room where the southwest windows bring in tons of light. Normally. But this spring has been unusually gray, not much sun at all, so for the first time in five years, the seedlings are under the grow lights.
But even as our climate, our planet, our home, is becoming more unpredictable; I am reminded of something Bernie Glassman said. Bernie is one of the authors of The Dude and the Zen Master—he being the Zen master part and Jeff Bridges being the dude. I bring this up because it is this iteration of him that people may be familiar with. But I met Bernie way back, in the 1980’s, when I was an ardent student of Zen and he was my teacher’s teacher. I used to, back then, go on zazenkai’s (day-long meditations) at the zendo in Long Island. And during one of these zazenkai’s, Bernie sat across from me. That day, as I sometimes used to do, I cast my mind out, seeing what I could pick up—was he fidgeting? Ego-bound? Thinking about dinner? I prided myself on being able to read energy somewhat (which is, looking back on it, quite obnoxious, since it’s all about power and control).
But at any rate, my point is, from Bernie, I could read nothing. Nothing. It was as if he was not even there. And that meant, of course, that he was the real deal. Because if you have fully realized, you walk in step with the world, not pushing through it. You are one with it.
That day, Bernie said something that has stayed with me all these years. He said, “We try to improve a little, but we are who we are.”
Well that struck me like a big, warm hug. I was comforted and freed and validated all at once. Because if there’s one thing I’m always insecure about, it’s that I’m not good enough.
“We try to improve a little, but we are who we are.”
There is a place to rest inside those words.
I am taking a few weeks off from posting new writing, but I am reposting something I wrote last year when I was first starting out and didn’t have the readership I have now. Maybe you haven’t read it and maybe you’d like to. I hope so. When I re-read it, it comforted me in this winter-weary time and I especially like looking at the photo (all that color!) I took it a few summers ago on Prince Edward Island.
I recently read an early draft of the novel, Passion Blue, published in 2012. It has been well received and I am eager to read the published version. The story revolves around Guilia, a girl living in fifteenth century Italy, who is trying to change what she believes is a deleterious fate. Her horoscope (and casting horoscopes was considered a science in fifteenth century Italy) seems to indicate that she will never marry. In the fifteen hundreds, females had very little rights and it was only through the protection of marriage that they had anything like a secure life. Or so Guilia thinks, so she tries to change her fate through sorcery.
When she gets sent off to a monastery, where she discovers the world of painting, it becomes obvious that this, not a husband, is where her passion and security lies. However, Guilia stills holds to her original idea of a husband. She thinks she knows better than the stars what her fate should be and to that end she tries to command them to her will. The consequences of her decisions are the plot of the book.
The book’s theme, that of free will versus fate intrigues me. It opens up the idea that, with our limited scope and experience, we think we know the way our world should go, and try to arrange events accordingly. It makes me wonder if most of the heartache in life comes from trying to force our idea of free will on fate. Which is not to say that we can only let things happen to us. There’s a finer distinction here that I’m struggling to understand.
I once read in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, something that went like this: “if you want to control a sheep or cow, give them a bigger pasture.” That seems counter intuitive to the idea of control, but I think what that phrase is doing is challenging our idea of control altogether. That it is saying that control in the larger sense is about the control to let things become what they are meant to become. We cannot see what the overall tapestry is, since we are only one thread in it and have the viewpoint of only seeing the threads nearest us. So we try to arrange our limited threads to a picture that does makes sense, not realizing that the bigger picture is already perfect.
Toward the end of Passion Blue (at least the draft I read) one of the nuns tells Guilia: “there is always sacrifice, you always have to give something up”. And I’m wondering if that is the free will. What do you give up, to obtain the freedom to live expansively within your fate. I’m thinking that ultimately what you give up is the idea that you have anything to give up–that free will and fate are anything different at all.
Sometimes I don’t sleep well. I’ll fall asleep right away, but then I wake up, usually about 2 or 3 am, when the liver meridian is strongest. One of the liver’s jobs is to synthesize the events of the day before, deciding what to keep and what to discard. So when I don’t sleep well, I guess there’s so much to filter through, that it wakes me up.
The good news is that I’m privy to my subconscious thinking in those wee hours. Small situations of the day before loom ominously at 3 am, and since I’m awake I can, if I want to, figure out why.
The other morning I was thinking about someone I barely know and I felt funny—bad funny. Instead of shoving it under the rug I decided to poke around in the depths of me and see what I came up with. And it was this: I was comparing myself to this person and judging myself against them in a little subconscious competition. I realized if I do this with someone I barely know, I must do it with everyone. Not that it’s a bad thing–I think it is in our DNA–survival of the fittest.
But if it is a subconscious behavior it leads me–controls me. If, on the other hand, I am consciously aware of it, then it becomes another opportunity to set myself a little more free. I can realize that there’s no comparison between me and someone else. There’s no comparison between anyone and anyone else. Each of us fits into our lives, hand-made for that life. There’s no one else who can fill it or live it.
We are all incomparable.
One of the things I appreciated about my vacation last week was the perspective I had when I came back. Right now I’m going through something. It’s a growth (aren’t they all) phase, and I call it that because it is so darn uncomfortable. My insides are all churny and I feel as if the old structures that I set up to define me and protect me—the scaffolding and armature of my identity—are breaking off and falling away. The me that is growing bigger than my old façade feels unsure and vulnerable as it is being exposed and it doesn’t have the protection I think I need, hence the uncomfortable feeling.
And therein lies the rub, as they say.
Because the whole point of living is not to protect and wall off yourself, it is to feel your life. Feelings of vulnerability and lostness are part of life. And if I don’t let myself go down there and wallow in it, not only am I missing out on experiencing my life, but I’m short circuiting my process of growth by not acknowledging the feelings that herald that particular growth.
I really don’t like the feeling of not being in control. Trust is not my strongest suit. So guess what, it is trust that I have to learn to grow into. And life, in all its profound wisdom, presents me with opportunities to trust by making me feel vulnerable. I could fight it, and I have, in the past. But that only leads to a stronger, shall we say, nudge, to grow. So now I try to get what life is asking of me. I go down there and I wallow and I feel what is asking to be felt. And then I discover, to my surprise and gratitude that vulnerability is just that—a time of openness and trust. And in truth, it is filled with the joy that is the foundation of life.
I’ve taken to spinning on the deck these fine August mornings, and by spinning I mean spinning wool. I have fifteen pounds of merino I want to spin up to eventually weave into a blanket on the eighteenth century loom I finally resurrected here.
Nothing makes me happier than that loom. It is built like a house (an old house) out of squared timbers, mortise and tenon jointed. Given the age of the loom, the timber used to construct it—something fine-grained like maple—is virgin. The built-in seat is chestnut and the back beam, a massive round piece, is a tree trunk. It is a piece of machinery that was made to weave all the cloth used for a family of that time. None of this fiddly craft stuff. That is what I love about it—its utilitarian integrity. Which brings me back to spinning.
Not many people spin fiber these days, since there’s no need. Our clothes come from the store. But spinning is much more than a long-forgotten, unneeded task; it’s a state of mind. When I first started spinning this merino, I was frustrated because it was different from the wool I was used to. It had a shorter, finer staple (the length of each individual fiber) so my usual long-draw method of spinning didn’t work. I had to re-learn it. My hands had to become comfortable with a different way of doing things and my brain had to tell my hands what to do. Spinning uses both sides of the brain—the left, logical side calculates pressure and drafting angle, while the right feels the twist and intuits the motion. When it all goes properly, the logical structure set up by the left-brain becomes second nature and the intuition of the right brain works unimpeded within it. When that happens a sort of magic occurs. You are in the flow.
Spinning thread, in Greek mythology, is the metaphor for a life. Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures it, and Atropos cuts the thread to end it—the Three Fates.
When I’m spinning in the flow, I understand that life is nothing more than the doing of it. I try to spin an even thread; I try to smooth out the bumpy parts, hold my breath through the thin parts, correct the thick parts, but the most important part is to let the thread go into the bobbin, otherwise I can’t spin the waiting fibers into new thread. It is twist, try, trust, and let go.
Whether the thread is perfect or not (and it is not) is not the point. The point is to spin, ever mindful of that third Fate with her scissors.