In Zen we have a saying: Open mouth, already a mistake. This means as soon as you say one thing, you’re already wrong because the opposite is probably just as true. As you can probably surmise, I have a huge problem keeping my mouth shut, so already I’m making many mistakes at every given moment. This blog? HUGE mistake. So read everything that comes out of Zen Mama’s mouth with a huge grain (or two) of salt, because she’s just talking trash.
Yesterday, of course, I went on and on about how Zen retreats aren’t relaxing. They’re tough! You need to be strong to face your mind! Blah blah blah ad infinitum. This morning, though, I have to admit it: yesterday’s retreat was wonderful. Although I’m not sure that “relaxing” is the word to describe a day that started with Chris, a friend of ours named John, and me sitting on the side of the road in a broken-down car, the day ended up with me reuniting with a handful of dear friends.
I knew my solidly pregnant friend Jen was coming from Massachusetts to sit the retreat, but I didn’t know that she was bringing my nun friend Ji Hyang as a last minute surprise. So when I arrived at the Catholic contemplative prayer house where we have our retreats (thanks to a large-minded Catholic nun who said “No problem!” when a group of crazy Zennies approached her about using her chapel), I was greeted by a loud, enthusiastic chorus of “Doctor Lori!” The scene was chaotic and terribly un-meditative, with new people milling about looking confused, mats & cushions strewn everywhere, and my mind abuzz with a list of to-do’s that Chris had given me while we were waiting for a tow truck. (Thanks to our friend X, host of that infamous Boys’ Weekend, for giving me a lift to the retreat while Chris stayed with the car. I guess now I really owe X a strip, eh?)
The beauty of Zen, though, is that it recognizes that it is precisely these un-meditative chaotic moments where beauty dwells. In the instant when I realized that there was no way of accomplishing those to-do’s, I allowed a space for the retreat to just simply happen. No need to control it, no need to micro-manage it, just let it blossom of its own accord. Suddenly new people were chipping in to get the chapel organized. Jen stepped forward to teach meditation. Zen Master Mark arrived with his usual “No problem” attitude. By the time Chris arrived, having borrowed a car from the mechanic who was miraculously available to fix our car for no extra charge on a Sunday, we started the retreat only about 15 minutes late. If you keep a “no problem” mind, things just work out.
In his intro talk, ZM Mark said the first of two things that defined my day. “Today we have the opportunity to let things be.” Ahhhh….that’s it. Let things be! I’d been so busy running and stressing about organizing the retreat, about catching up with school work, about this and that and the other thing, I’d forgotten to let things be. Of course Zen retreats are relaxing…if you let everything be. Silly me, I’d gotten in the habit of thinking that I have to pick things up and carry them: if I don’t do it, who will? Well, the answer to that is simple. If I don’t do it, they’ll carry themselves. The result might not look like what I had envisioned, but it will suffice.
The second defining moment came after lunch. By another miraculous synchronicity, a women’s group was having a retreat right across the hall from our retreat. Although they kept distracting our silent meditation with their loud and boisterous hallway chatter (“Marlene! I just love your hair!”), there was an upside: the women in charge of cooking their lunch also prepared ours…and they cleaned up after! So after lunch instead of doing dishes, we all got a good long break to spend as we’d like.
“You should use this opportunity,” ZM Mark reminded us, “for individual practice. If you take a walk, walk in silence. If you walk with a friend, which is wonderful to do, walk in silence with that friend.”
After lunch, I had to take registrations from retreatants, so all my friends had gone their separate ways by the time I was done. Instead of looking for a walking buddy, I went out into a sunny blue spring day to walk the streets of urban Manchester alone. Ah, how I wished I’d brought my camera, but it’s probably best I hadn’t since those miraculous synchronities seem to shy away from the lens. I didn’t mean to walk down past Saint Patrick’s church, which is about 10 blocks from Sainte Marie’s church, their geographic proximity and distinct ethnic makeup (Irish vs. French) suggesting a great deal about this particular Manchester neighborhood. But for whatever reason, I turned the corner toward St. Pat’s and saw none other than solidly pregnant Jen ambling toward me.
If you can’t tell from my giddy expression in the above picture, Jen is one of my dearest friends. I love Jen. We lived together for my entire stint at the Cambridge Zen Center, and she was one of the main reasons I cried when we moved out. If you’ve seen the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, you might remember the scene where Loretta Lynn learns from the radio that her friend Patsy Cline has died. “Who’m I gonna talk to now?” Loretta wails, and that says it perfectly. If there’s nothing else to be learned from shows like Sex in the City, it’s that women NEED their female friends: they NEED a Patsy, Charlotte, Miranda, or Samantha to talk to. In my case, Jen’s all that rolled up into a wise-cracking, bawdy-joking, quick-to-laugh package. In a past life, surely we were sisters. So seeing her glowing face and big round belly walking straight at me, entirely unplanned, was the high point of the day.
ZM Mark’s words came back in a flash: “If you walk with a friend, which is wonderful to do, walk in silence with that friend.” And so when Jen saw me and started laughing with her wonderful boisterous smile, I started laughing, too, them comically, over-dramatically, I threw BOTH hands over my mouth in a classic “Say no evil” pose. I walked straight up to Jen and made like I was walking past, then I made an exaggerated, goofy turn to come around next to her…
We walked the full 10 blocks or so back to Sainte Marie’s church, and it was wonderful. I usually am a brisk walker, but I didn’t mind walking slow, matching my steps to Jen’s. Without a word between us, I could feel she was tired and her back ached, but her spirits were good: I could feel the power in her belly, the combined power of that unborn baby and her own inner Buddha, rooting her to the ground with each step. The day was golden with the sun gleaming in a blue sky: everything was good. It was like we’d never said goodbye, like I’d never moved to New Hampshire, like she’d never moved to Malden. It was like we still lived together in Cambridge, where at any time night or day a simple door-knock would bring us together again to talk and laugh.
At one point in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s Ray Smith remarks while hiking with his buddy Japhy Ryder (a semi-fictionalized version of the poet Gary Snyder) that it felt like they’d walked these same or similar paths alone together long, long ago. In Kerouac’s case, he’s alluding to the famed friendship between the “Zen lunatics” Han-shan and Shih-Te, who wandered alone together in the mountains of China drinking wine and writing poetry. In every single painting of Han-shan and Shih-Te, the two of them are smiling and laughing boisterously: big, deep belly laughs.
Yesterday as Jen and I walked alone together, in silence, I felt something similar. Maybe sometime in a past life, Jen and I were two little old ladies living in urban Manchester, NH. Maybe one of us was Irish, maybe one of us was French; maybe we’d gone to the same or to neighboring parishes. Maybe we’d grown up listening to the rosary-clicks of the other; maybe we’d wiled the hours over a backyard fence, sharing stories of children and grandchildren, sick and dying spouses, grieving. Maybe on some bright spring day years ago, our old doddering paths crossed and we took a slow shared stroll, footsteps matched in time and sunny silence. We didn’t talk, these old, old friends, because we didn’t need to: we’d already shared the same stories time and again, and maybe one of us was deaf and the other had forgotten to put her teeth in. Whatever the particulars, I bet we had a great time on that imaginary day long ago: loving to walk alone in our own aged silences, we loved even more to walk alone together in a silence we could share.
When we returned to the Joseph House, the site next door to Sainte Marie’s where we had our retreat, Jen went straight to the bathroom, as usual, while I sought out a hidden hallway to do yoga stretches, as usual. We didn’t say goodbye since we’d see one another in the Dharma room in a half hour or so, and we’d do the usual catching up over dinner and more laughter after the retreat was done. Still, I felt a stab of sorrow when we walked through the door, me to my life and Jen to her’s. Sure, we’d chat over dinner; sure, we’ll keep in touch now via email and Christmas cards, emailed baby pictures and occasional Zen Center gatherings. But it’s not the same, a friendship of correspondence, a friendship of words. Once you’ve walked alone together, in silence, with a dear, true friend, there’s so much more to say than words can capture. Open mouth, already a mistake. Sometimes only shared footsteps and sun-drenched silence can sum up one’s true sentiments. Someday in a future life, perhaps, our paths will meet again.