How Not to Become a Zen Master

“That’s right. Blame it on Zen,” my neighbor, Grace, says.

With Zen, I just don’t hold onto names or nouns anymore was what I was thinking, aloud it seems.

Grace is a Zen master not because she is 90 but because she is contemplative in all ways. She was born to it. And she attends tai chi twice a week. Her whole life is a practice. She would never label herself a Zen master.

We were in the middle of a project that began simply enough but soon involved another neighbor. Specifically, I opened a package that was not mine.

The package was one of four I was expecting but as you can see, there are five packages. The shocking pink garment stunned but it was the thank you card that intrigued–one American meme of gratitude after another, the length of a paragraph.

I read the card aloud to Grace.

“Which company?”

“Doesn’t say.”

All these packages were dumped in the mailroom of our apartment complex on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. They were there for the taking and so I did.

It was not until I straightened the cardboard boxes Grace had so beautifully broken down with her seriously sharp knife that I saw the name on the box of great gratitude was not mine.

And now I was writing a card of explanation to a woman whose name I kept forgetting. Grace selected the blank note card, rejecting the polar bear in favor of the fir of a mountain. Appropriate for any occasion.

“Well, when you decide to get dressed, I’ll take you.” Grace was sitting on my leather loveseat, waiting, with her small knife lying next to her.

She wasn’t taking me anywhere in a red polo shirt so large and so long it was more skirt than shirt, nearly covering my khaki shorts. The logo read Elder Affairs.

I finish writing the card and read it to Grace. “That’s classy,” she says.

“I want her to know what I did in case she’s not there when we return the package.” And with that, I pick up the flat cardboard box that is not addressed to me.

“You’re not going to tape that back up, are you?”

“Trust me, Grace. Perception is everything. I’m admitting my guilt but I’m returning a taped package.”

Just another of the many ways I avoid becoming a Zen master. I was born to it.

KMHuberImage; St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge; Florida; USA

And so, we began our journey to Grace’s car. I with my three-wheeled walker and the re-wrapped package tightly cornered into my walker’s lower bag, and Grace with her walking stick in one hand and under her other arm, four cardboard boxes now flat.

Grace decided who took what. She is Sicilian. We do things her way.

We drove halfway across the apartment complex before I told Grace, “I forgot the card.” We look at one another and then, Grace turns the car around.

Again, we drive across the apartment complex and we score the nearest accessible parking spot, the one near the elevator. As we ride to the second floor, I try to channel Grace, but I am who I am. Still, my focus remains mountain.

I tell the woman what happened, as it happened, all the while holding her package. She does not take it from me.

“Do you know how many people would not even bother to do this?”

I wasn’t clear. She doesn’t realize I opened her package. I should not have taped up the box.

As I look into the kind face of the woman accepting her package, I am determined not to burst into her life but I tell her my story, again, with profuse apologies and my concern about the boxes being left unattended.

“You’re an angel,” she says. I assure her I am not and introduce Grace who smiles and stays silent. We leave.

As we drive back, Grace says, “You know, I think she would have difficulty getting to the mail room.”

“I’m no angel.”

Grace laughs.

On this day I have Grace, and for that, there are not enough expressions of gratitude in any form.

Shoving My Snark Elsewhere

There was a time I whittled my wits for social media, a kind of  “computer warrior” as a friend calls them. I sought battles that may have not been there. Seizing on one word or phrase and letting go of context.

Snark. You know the drill. I wasn’t any good at it. Zen showed me how bad I was. Embarrassing, actually.

I haven’t given up on social media. Just the opposite. Rather than preparing for battle, I just take a stand when or if it is necessary. Awareness is my armor and suits me better than snark ever did.

I’m wondering if worldwide connection is changing battle and its field. Connection is changing everything else. There is no absence of compassion but in its lack evil lurks, more patient than any of us might credit.

Awareness reveals evil as easily as compassion and in comparison, evil withers, kind of like snark, unable to stand the long light of day. Scrutiny. Either way, we are revealed; our hearts clench and open in response.

We’re seeking the security of the steadfast but awareness is shaky ground, ever shifting. And that is tiring. So why not throw some shade. Maybe give up for a while. Nothing seems to last because nothing does.

I think social media makes that clearer than any doctrine. All of life is an experience, one after another, the coming to and going from any one moment–all on shaky ground.

We’re like tectonic plates, and sometimes there’s an earthquake. And still, there is existence in spite of it all. In that, I am in awe.

So why not, as Pema Chödrön says, “be generous with your joy.”* Why not, indeed. Joy does so much with so little. Sort of like snark in that regard but joy is never-ending. Snark is more of a single position and like evil it evaporates for there is always more joy, and it comes from unusual places.

Just this past week I received a mint plant whose roots were all but bursting from the top and bottom of its plastic pot. Some strands had found their way through air holes. Life searching to stay.

I have not “shared” my apartment since feline EmmaRose left. There are fewer and fewer insects but I celebrate those who pass through. “We are always in relationship” Pema Chödrön once remarked regarding the insect in the room.

And now, it is a mint plant with rust on its leaves and a few shoots struggling for life.

I asked neighbor Grace for her expert assistance. What she teaches me about flora and fauna is such a gift. Within 24 hours, we visited the nursery where Grace once worked to select the proper potting soil, drainage rocks, pot, and tray.

It was a celebration of Grace and her years tending the native plants and the friendships of her life. She gave me the complete tour, including the goldfish pond.

When was the last time I knew such joy in the morning amid native species that somehow make room for me and my kind. Only they know why.

And that is what we brought home to the mint. With the care that comes with years of living, Grace aerated the soil around the squared roots, opening up more life, as we provided the breath of carbon dioxide.

Offering life for life. It’s existence, this joy.

*The idea of being generous with joy is from Pema Chödrön’s The Compassion Book: Teachings for Awakening the Heart, page IX.

 

Sail More, Land Less

Life ajumble, presented in pieces disordered, or at least in an array I have yet to understand. It’s up to me to find what I need. Availability is not the issue. It’s awareness, a matter of rearranging, turning round each piece.

How else perspective, for none of the sides are the same.

I find this in writing as well. Not every story fits a frame, a structure, and some pieces remain snippets but none are without worth. There is no lack unless I write it.

All of this is to say I’m back among my pirates, again. It’s a big story, beyond an essay and larger than a novella. It’s a novel, I am not a novelist, and that doesn’t matter.

So, why go there?

No story is ever wasted, not on me, anyway. What else is life other than stories and questions about stories, which often result in yet more stories. It’s how we live.

A trip to a pirate ship rearranges the pieces of my mind, it’s a new view, but not for long as whether it’s 1865 or 2018, the mandala of human nature is only so varied and quite repetitive.

A dip into the past puts me in the present in a way I never am. The questions I bring from 2018 are outmoded in 1865. How can that be?

The irony of life ajumble, finding new perspective in the past for the present. Maybe that is knowing history. I doubt that it matters how I find more relevance in 1865 than in 2018.

It is like reaching into the future to find my limitations, my biases, and yes, my prejudices, all of which are alive and well on a pirate ship, as I write wrongs that seem to know no death.

It is with a fervor I do not live, disappointing but true. Sometimes I have to stay on the pirate ship to accept truths about myself. Lately, I’ve been there a lot, my questions insufficient, but the lives of the pirates lead me to new ones.

They have few possessions and what they treasure is buried on land, where they cannot stay, no matter how they try. Afloat on the seven seas, they are in constant danger of losing their lives but they never do. It is only on terra firma they die. It lies in wait.

Almost obviously, the working title of this pirate story is “Fish on Land,” as they fly any flag that will get them into a port but with boots on the ground, they get lost no matter how good their map or how well thought out their mission. So often, some die trying to return to the safety of the sea.

That’s how it seems so far. I don’t know all of the pirate perspectives yet, not having looked round or even met all the characters but being human is to know that “it’s always something,” especially in fiction, the world must turn and twist.

Life ajumble, so many pieces, each a unique perspective, more stories than a single lifetime affords. It matters not the vessel, just that we sail and maybe, land less.

The Peace in Thinking Bigger

Who is not looking to live with peace of mind, to rest in the reality of every day, to frustrate the frenzy in favor of calm. No one wants to ride the roller coaster forever. It’s exhausting.

My way is Zen, which provides perspective but not escape. I don’t get to detach from the chaos–create an echo chamber–mine is to sit in the middle of life, to “think bigger” as Pema Chödrön says.

It is more than sitting in meditation or feeling the prana of yoga. Those are powerful, pristine moments, truly a touch of peace, but like Heraclitus’ river, each experience is its own. No do overs.

Yet in the experience is the yen to return.

Some days I sit on its banks, having finally found my way around a horseshoe bend or oxbow but it is to the river I return, always at peace, a place to think bigger.

Where I accept that all of life is an experience. I trust it. And each time I drink in these waters, I am slowed, as if in the sip I experience life to no exclusion.

Every time I go off on another meander, yet another promising tangent, the river does not slow for me but trusts my return. Of course, the river is endless but my experiences are limited to one life.

I begin at the river, mind and body balanced, but soon one is ignored in favor of the other, leaving me vulnerable and impatient, probably defensive, which is what I bring to the world.

If I am not feeling equanimity, I’m not giving it. No amount of positive thinking/action will make it so. If I promise what I am not certain, offer words people want but I doubt, the river will wash out those bridges.

I am back where I began. My mind pulls up similar events and while memory is not 100% reliable, I am reminded I do not step in the same river twice–not ever–no matter how similar the results.

I add to my experience bank as I sit at river’s side, purposefully not moving, to still the body’s sensations, even the ever-present numbness/tingling in my hands. They who never quite wake appreciate the stillness of meeting the dawn as an act of breath.

It is a recent revelation for me, having my body still my mind rather than the other way around. It is not that I didn’t know, it is that I did not do. My mind is more cooperative because it doesn’t have to fight for its turn. No more meandering…well…less trying to step in the same river twice.

We are living impermanence on a grand scale, and it is not always what we would choose, but the river is not selective in its offering. How we accept experience defines us. Do we meet the dawn or run the meander only to return where we began?

 The main question is, are we living in a way

that adds further aggression and self-centeredness

to the mix, or are we adding some much-needed sanity?

Pema Chödrön, Taking the Leap:

Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fear, page 2

Are we thinking bigger?

 

Monday Morning 9 AM Social

Grace and I talk a lot about community (or lack thereof) within our apartment complex. There are four buildings, perhaps pockets of community within each, but together, we are factions.

Management sends out a monthly calendar of clubhouse events. Every Monday, there is a 9 a.m. social and has been for as long as Grace and I can remember. Her memory is encyclopedic.

Grace and I share an apartment wall. As she says, “it makes a difference if you know who is on the other side.” So, we decided to find out what a Monday morning social is rather than just surmising.

We meet outside the clubhouse, telling each other how nice we look, and we do. We have brought our own beverages, mine a lime-green insulated cup and hers, a silver thermos, which she raises as she whispers, “community coffee,” a flash of the ironic in her smile.

Ruddy-cheeked and wide-eyed at the world, she is captivating at 90, 20, 50, or 70. Tai chi three days a week. At 66, I am the one with the walker and “black tea,” now conspicuous in its lack of a label for the occasion.

“What does that say about me?” I ask both of us.

We are friends with rhetorical questions, Grace and I; they usually begin or end our conversations. We have little regard for answers, they of the limited run, always replaced by another question.

So on this Monday morning we are open to what we meet in the “kitchen area” of the clubhouse, three women intensely involved in a card game using a star-shaped board with pegs.

Five bid each other “hello,” and three return to their play. Grace and I choose a table in the middle of the room, and I take my walker to a side wall. All other tables are empty.

“Is this it?” Grace asks.

“I think so.”

We had given considerable thought not to arrive early (with Grace, one is never late) but as it turns out, we were on time. We had come to be social, which was not to interrupt the game. Their chatter immediately resumed after “hello” with counting and card shuffling.

Grace and I kept our voices low as we sipped our beverages, telling stories we had left untold during the visits to each other’s apartment, when talking over the phone, or sitting on the wooden bench outside our three-story, white stucco building with red shutters.

It was as if we were meeting for the first time, and that may have had something to do with our age difference.

I look older than my years. Grace is curious but would never ask. That would be rude. Besides, she enjoys putting together pieces of life, moving them around for effect. Until Monday, I had walked around her efforts.

When Grace began, “I am not sure exactly what age span is between us….”

“I am 66 and you are 90.”

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, and she let her breath out slowly, indicating the span with a spread of her arms, her arthritic hands still dexterous. Was it a bridge too far?

“I’m a historian,” I said, wanting worth I may not have.

She tells me a story of blackouts during World War II, of many nights sitting with her bed-ridden grandfather who said, sometimes, he wanted to die. Teenage Grace telling him he did not.

“My mother asked me to do it and I was glad to do it. I loved my grandfather.”

I don’t know where in New York State that Grace’s family lived but it was closed to an air field. With a bit of pride, she tells me how quickly she learned to identify the different planes and wing spans. Hesitantly, she admits “it was all a bit exciting.”

“It is the way of children, isn’t it?” I say, as if I know, but how else to get through a world war. And I think of Grace’s teenage angst buried in the memory of bombing drills and identifying warplanes.

I don’t know that but I have been reading many World War II war novels (The Women in the Castle) and biographies like Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.I tell Grace about them.

“Well, without the women in the war…” Deftly, she drops in an ellipsis and lets it sit. “They did everything. They kept it going.” She sips the last of her coffee. “And then,” she says, as she opens the palms of her hands to the sky.

“It is time for women to come forward again,” I say. “And I think it is beginning to happen. This time, there is no going back.” I offer this with more conviction than I carry most days.

Grace looks at me for a while before offering “Yes,” with the finality of belief that won’t bend with the wind.

And this week’s Monday morning 9 a.m. social ends, much as it began. The players still playing but now in silence and with a smile, they say “goodbye.”

Like Grace says, it makes a difference to know who’s on the other side.

Of Bombs, Washing Machines, and Missions

In the early hours of Saturday in Syria, bombs fall, a first world response to do as we say and not as we do or else. Mission accomplished, whatever that means.

Later that same morning, my washing machine fills with water and stops, refusing to start the wash cycle no matter what I say or do. Sometime later, the repairmen (it takes two) tell me it is a Monday problem, at which time they will return to empty my washer of water and clothes to see if the machine is worth fixing.

I know a bit more about washing machines than bombs but not enough about either. Although I am at fault in evaluating one with the other, I can no more afford to replace a washing machine than I can offer a solution to world peace.

Why is that?

Somewhere in the truth of that false equivalency is an answer on whose surface I skate every day, hoping it will hold until it doesn’t. Like Saturday.

Prior to the arrival of the repairmen, and perhaps coincidentally, I meet one of my neighbors in the hallway of my apartment complex. I am on my way to guide the repairmen to a parking place. In actuality, none are available for all are assigned, some to people who do not live here but occasionally visit.

I am among the lucky who have an assigned space, by virtue of being among those who have lived here longest but I know that assigned parking does not mean having a place. Freely, the phrase “parking Nazis” is bandied about but no one is quite sure who they are. Just that they are.

In my cell phone conversation with the repairman I do not explain everything but I do mention parking Nazis in hopeful emphasis, for I have yet to be a cause of parking concern and don’t want this to be that day, too.

As is, mine is not to meet the repairmen in the parking lot.

“Aren’t you a Buddhist?”

It is Vicky, hers is a smoker’s voice, husky and helped by tubes attached to the oxygen cylinder lying in the basket of her walker. Her dog, Teddy, tethered to its handlebars.

“Well, I see myself more as Zen.” Why I never just say “yes” to being Buddhist, I do not know. I just won’t.

“What does that mean?” Vicky asks, wary that I might actually try to explain. I can all but see the amount of oxygen increase in her transparent nose tubes.

KMHuberImage; oneness; St. Mark's Refuge FL

She is not looking to understand the many schools of Buddhism (as if I do) much less the distinction of labels. Just like me, she has only her kind of love to give, and on this day she is offering it, doing her best to ask about something she knows nothing about other than it is important to me.

“It means open to everyone.” And for once, I stop there.

“So, do you do tai chi?” And we find our way to conversation.

If I hear her, I will find something to give in response. Nothing magical, just helpful. She’s in so much pain, much of it physical, and I tell her about my gentle yoga practice. It does not take much to begin a practice, just a DVD I tell her, and she is relieved. Maybe it will be a way for her. Maybe.

While Vicky and I talk, the repairmen are in my apartment examining all the parts of my washing machine, where distinctions matter. What began on Saturday must be met again on Monday. As always, mission ongoing.

Only later do I remember the parking Nazis.

Spreadsheet Zen

Each year is a workbook of 12 monthly spreadsheets with columns and rows by category. That is how I account for my life. It does not escape me that what it orders most in my life matters least, money.

From time to time, a friend and I talk about the carryover on our credit card, having paid the monthly amount but not having quite enough to pay the entire balance. We might pay no interest but the sheet is not clean.

Yet, if I look beyond my current expenses, I project balances that do not exist. I cannot know next month so I confine myself to the columns and rows that I can complete. But this spreadsheet is not without its Zen.

Every month I mine my finances, drilling down to every penny, as I record each receipt. It’s not that time-consuming as I don’t have many receipts. There are advantages to being “almost poor.”

Not the least of which is letting go of living in lack. That in itself is quite a discovery, having enough, and exploring all that I might do with it. Working within my labels, and looking forward to it, something I used to dread.

It was not the actual labels of personal care or household supplies that confined. It was lack. Before I looked at what I had, I was sure the month would outlast me, as if it were a contest, which it never was. It was a spreadsheet of columns and rows, choices.

Sounds like spin, and it may be, but living in lack is wandering a wasteland with no way out. Life in an infinite loop. Everything is never enough.

When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you. 
Lao Tzu

I dive into each budget category, to its bottom dollar. It will always be 100 cents but shifted here or there, it becomes a receipt paid. It’s expanding the category, understanding that in some months the label of household supplies pays for personal care.

Rent remains rent even when it increases, like utilities, phone, and Internet. Bandwidth and a roof over my head are among the first paid. And then, food.

Life is not constrained by any label, and every time I try to make it fit, all I find is lack. It’s not the label, it’s my attachment to it. Best to roam the range of labels, keep my boundaries loose. That seems the Zen of it.