April 2004

Still standing

Today I’ll spend the morning conferencing with my Expository Writing students, then I’ll attend a talk by a colleague, then I’ll resume the seemingly unending task of playing pedagogical catch-up as I continue chipping away at the immense backlog of student papers that built up as I was finishing the dissertation. While I slog on, here are some random tidbits I’ve been meaning to mention:

  • Thanks to my friend Kathleen from unsettled for taking me out to lunch in celebration of my diss-completion. In her subsequent post-lunch summary, Kathleen referenced my comment about our waiter’s ass being “flat as Nebraska.” In the interest of fairness–and to avoid charges of the kind of plagiarism Jenny mentions over at Mulubinba Moments–let me point out that the term “flat as Nebraska” as an ass-epithet is one I blatantly stole from Andi at Overboard, who used it to describe her own pre-gumdo-toned posterior. Actually, Andi’s giddy paean to her own hiphop-shakin’ ass is one of my favorite blog-posts from the past week or so: you shake that thang, girl! You can check out Andi’s ass-relishing here (scroll down to her April 13th entry. On your way there, you might read her April 16th thoughts on “Evanescence,” which makes passing reference to Andi’s and my shared appreciation for girly clothing and sexy lingerie).
  • While you’re checking out bloggers’ body parts, be sure to head back to unsettled where Kathleen comes tantalizingly close to showing us her face. Apparently once you’ve shown the blogosphere your cleavage, showing a sunglass-shaded eye no longer seems quite so provocative…
  • Over the next 20-some days, “that girl” from Thinking Out Loud is hosting a collaborative prose-project, 47 hours, consisting of eleven writers producing a tag-team narrative, each anonymous installment of which will appear 47 hours after the previous. A blogger with whom you are at least minimally acquainted will make an appearance at some point over the next 20-some days; she may or may not wear sunglasses, but she will take care to wear sexy lingerie. As none other than Virginia Woolf said, “call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please–it’s not a matter of importance” since “‘I’ is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being.” You can read the first and subsequent posts here.

Enjoying spring

Today in New Hampshire promises to be sunny with a high in the 60s; yesterday it was sunny with a high in the 80s. The students at Keene State College (and a certain restless, post-dissertating KSC prof) were itching to be outside. If fate finds you in a mild clime, take time today to go barefoot somewhere, anywhere: find a spot of sun and indulge in a moment (or more) of mindless idleness. Whether it be gumdo-toned or flat as Nebraska, please take the time to shake that thang.

Electrical right-of-way, Keene, NH

Today down in Massachusetts it’s Patriot’s Day, time for the annual Boston Marathon; today here in New Hampshire, it’s just another Monday. When we lived in Boston, Patriot’s Day meant a day off from teaching, a chance to head downtown and stand on the marathon sidelines, cheering tired runners down to the finish line. Now that we live in Keene, there’s no one to cheer as we drag our sorry souls to work on yet another Monday morning: just another same-ol’ same-ol’.

But that’s not disaster. As the cliche goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Last week while I was wandering along the Ashuelot River, I picked my way through the aftermath of the annual right-of-way clearing, when machines that look like they rolled straight out of the pages of Dr. Suess’s The Lorax come to mow down undergrowth and trim back tree limbs along the power lines. In some parts of the state, a wandering band of sheep does the dirty work of clearing vegetation under powerlines; here in the bustling metropolis that is Keene (or not), we get massive machines.

“Ah, they really messed things up!” an older woman exclaimed to me as she picked her muddy way through the wreckage, camera in hand. “But I suppose it has to be done!” I too was walking with my camera, and the dog, but I’d like to hope I wasn’t scowling as furiously as she, her obvious bitterness twisting her face into a brutal mask. Trees fall in the forest all the time, after all, whether or not there’s someone there to hear the sound, and undergrowth was made for grazing or trampling or burning. Nature is remarkably resilient–she always bounces back–so I don’t see how a fringe of already adaptive trees growing in the ecological edge between strip mall and river can’t stand a little pruning. Animals like deer love not deep woods but the edges of woods, and some plants will grow only on disturbed ground. Had a beaver rather than a chain saw felled these trees, we’d wax poetic rather than shaking an angry fist.

Sometimes on Patriot’s Day I get nostalgic for our days living in and around Boston, the Hub of the Universe: as much as I love Keene with her trees, mountains, and river, she ain’t no Boston. Leaving any cherished place feels at times like losing a limb: part of you stays there. At least once every couple of weeks a student or Zen group member corners me on this: “You guys used to live in Boston…how can you stand living in Keene?” My answer varies, but it usually involves some sort of disparaging remark about Hillsboro, the even tinier town where lived when we first made the hop from Massachusetts to New Hampshire: Keene may be no Boston, but she ain’t no Hillsboro, either.

Ashuelot River Park, Keene, NH

People live with loss all the time, and so do trees. Come summer, the fringe of river’s edge under and along the powerlines will be green and choked with flowers; today’s muddy ruts will be cloaked in a fecund mantle of weeds and briars and loud-singing insects. Nature recovers with or without all her limbs, and so do we. Boston or Hillsboro, Hillsboro or Keene: which do you prefer? In Boston, I walked sidewalks; in Hillsboro, I strolled forest paths; in Keene, I skirt the river. We like trees set down roots wherever we find ourselves, our strength determined not by what branches out but by that which drives deep.

It seems to be impossible for me to talk about place without simultaneously talking about time. As I sit here typing these words on our back porch, the spring sun warming my bare feet, I naturally and inevitably think back to the first time I sat writing on this porch. It was September and the day was hot: one of summer’s last hurrahs. Then as now planes flew overhead; I remember feeling depressed and disconnected, a newcomer in a place where I was another anonymous face. Then in September I wrote by hand in a notebook, seeking solace in silent pages. Only later did I type and edit those words, sending them to other anonymous faces in the form of an essay that searched for the one thing we all secretly crave: connection and recognition, some indication that we indeed are not alone.

Sometimes, remarkably, the blank page talks back. A handful of readers–people I’d never met–told me they found solace and comfort in what I’d written: how could that be? When I’d written it my heart was breaking with that nondescript loneliness that marks the margins of our days, the unnamed ache that bubbles to consciousness only when we stop our hurry and look deeply into the limpid flow of time. If we’re all destined to die–and secretly we all know we are–then what is the purpose of this mundane march of time? If ultimately we face our individual fates alone, what is the purpose of human interaction? Feeling the abandonment of a motherless child, I wrote out of desperation and despair: somewhere, anywhere, is there anyone listening, be it God or man? Somewhere, anywhere, in this time or any other, is there meaning to be found in specificity, the insignificant crawl of a spider inching his forgotten way across a window screen?

Yesterday, feeling more restless than depressed, I took the dog walking along the river. The Ashuelot River runs through campus and through Keene; behind various local businesses runs a fringe of semi-abandoned riparian woods, Ashuelot River Park, that offers a quick getaway for town-worn souls. Yesterday was warm and sunny; I walked in short sleeves, shorts, and sandals. The Park was full of mothers with strollers, parents with bicycling children, kissing lovers and roaming herds of bored-eyed teenagers, all moving and congregating in a flowing swirl of human activity.

The dog and I walked alone through these anonymous faces: the dog and I nearly always walk alone. Dodging embracing lovers and wide-eyed toddlers who asked, awed, if they could pet the nice doggie, I took another photo of a lone maple tree I’d photographed last October. Then in October, this tree shimmered with neon hues of orange and yellow; yesterday, in April, it looked barren and dead, forgotten on an isolated shore.

They say you can’t step into the same river twice, but it seems that both writers and photographers continually try to use memory as a bridge between then and now. If I hold dear in my memory the image of an October maple, will it be granted a provisional immortality, burnt into nerve cell and synapse, a pattern that can be quickly and spontaneously recalled? And if I share this dearly held memory with another–with you or any other willing anonymous face–will a connection be cast across space, time, and souls, my memory becoming your memory, a bridge not only to span but to stem time’s flow?

The dog, not being burdened with the questions of human consciousness, has no thought for time. Instead, he lives in a perpetual now where the past does not exist, the future is as close as the next savored smell, and you can jump into, joyously, the same river twice, three times, four, and again. To humans aware of their own mortality, rivers are a symbol of time and its passage; to dogs attuned to their own noses and bellies, rivers are an excellent source of cold spring mud and the secretive smell of still-hibernating turtles. The dog has no memory of either September or October; the dog has no worry or care about time, no need for notebooks, photos, or scribbled pages. Neither alone nor apart, the dog has never been struck from the float; instead, he, like Whitman is forever held in solution. In springtime, while skirting rivers, my spirit watches the dog with envy and with shards of stolen, vicarious joy.

After bowing

Yesterday morning when I saw this week’s Photo Friday topic, I actually groaned. “Oh no…not a self-portrait!”

Yep. Like a dropped gauntlet, there it was staring me right in the face. “Take and post a picture of yourself. I dare you!” And since there are two primary ways to get me to do something I don’t want to do (the first being a dare and the second being the statement, “You can’t!), I knew my die had been cast…

This is what I look like first thing in the morning after bowing. When we lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, we did bows at 5:15 am, in knee-length gray robes; during retreat, we’d bow at 4:45 in the same gray robes. Now that we live in Keene, far from any Zen Center, I do bows whenever I get up and in whatever I darn well please. Bowing is a great way to wake up, get the blood moving, and clear the mind of any thought more complicated than up and down, huff and puff, 100, 101, 102…

If you’ve ever practiced with me, you know this is my “at ease” pose, a posture for unwinding after practice is done. If you know anything about traditional Buddhist iconography, you know that this posture resembles the royal ease pose of the Bodhisattva of compassion. This Bodhisattva goes by many names: in Sanskrit, Avalokitesvara; in Japanese, Kannon; in Chinese, Kwan-Yin or Guanyin; and in Korean, Kwan Seum Bosal. From culture to culture, this character takes on different forms and even different genders: the original Avalokitesvara was a princely disciple of the historical Buddha whereas Chinese and Korean depictions of this same Bodhisattva are decidedly feminine.

Some years ago a dear friend of mine started a Buddhist sangha at a prestigious women’s college. One of the necessary steps to starting any meditation group is acquiring the necessary “stuff”: mats and cushions, candles and incense, meditation bell, chanting books, etc. When it came to gathering altar accoutrements, Ji Hyang acted with her usual clear-eyed direction, buying the most beautiful bronze royal-ease Kwan Seum Bosal she could find. It’s important for women, she remarked, to have female role models: a Buddha statue, after all, is supposed to be a visual representation of one’s True Self. So why should women practice to uncover a True Self that is male?

“Damn, that’s one sexy statue!” I remarked when KSB came out of her box. Ji Hyang agreed. “Yeah, it would be, well, distracting for guys, I’m sure. But women will find it empowering!”

And I think she’s right. Kwan Seum Bosal in her “royal ease” pose suggests that women and their True Selves can be simultaneously strong and sexy, embodied and ethereal. Kwan Seum Bosal can kick back and relax because she’s at the top of her game; her eyes are open and her mind is wide. She can bring home the tofu and fry it up in the pan. Saving all beings? No problem. KSB will do that any day of the week, and like Ginger Rogers she’ll do it backwards and in high heels. The earth-watching Bodhisattva of compassion, Kwan Seum Bosal has moved beyond mere Zen Mama status: she’s the cosmic Dharma Queen.

At the same time, though, “royal ease” shows only one side of the equation. Last night Chris and I went to see Uma Thurman in the delightfully warped second installment of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. During most of the film, luscious Uma is covered with blood (her own and others), sweat, and lots and lots of dirt after attending what is euphemistically termed a “Texas funeral.” During a flashback which explains how “the Bride” acquired her kick-ass martial arts abilities, we see a sweat-grimed Uma lugging back-breaking bucket after back-breaking bucket of water up steep monastery steps to a humorously hirsute Chinese master. Hard practice is empowering, but it ain’t pretty. Sometimes even KSB needs to get off her bowing-toned ass and get down to business.

People who are new to Zen or other meditation forms usual come to practice through the sedentary and intellectual way of books. Although there’s nothing wrong with reading (or writing) books, words give only a partial picture of life and of practice. Believe me, every book-gleaned notion what Zen is or isn’t “really” about goes out the window on your first retreat when that wake-up bell rings at 4:30 am and you find yourself 15 minutes later huffing and puffing your way down to the mat and back up again, 1, 2, 3, 4… It’s monotonous, maddening, and sweat-inducing: at some point during the 11 minutes it takes to crank out 108 bows at a moderate clip, you’re going to want to collapse, run out of the room, or head back to bed. And at some point during that same 11 minutes, you’ll find a second or two (maybe even more) when you find your own blissful stride, your body flowing down and up like an inundulating stream.

If you’ve never done 108 prostrations before, you will hurt (unbelievably so) the morning after your first full set. And even if you’ve done 108 bows–or more!–every day for weeks, months, or years on end, you will find yourself panting and sweating every single morning: that fact of biology never changes. Our True Selves, you see, aren’t ethereal spirits who float up in the stratosphere, far from the travails of blood, sweat, and tears; instead, our True Selves are down here in it, bleeding, sweating, and crying with the rest of us.

So this is me at approximately 6:11 this morning, panting and sweaty, taking a self-portrait before letting the dog out. No, it ain’t pretty, this mundane gritty life, but it’s oh-so-real. If you practice long and hard enough starting right now, your True Self is guaranteed to agree.

Goose Pond, Keene, NH

I’d wanted to get away this weekend; I’d wanted to take at least today off to enjoy the sun (sun!) that we’ve so eagerly awaited here in Keene. Instead, though, I’ve spent the day running seemingly endless errands, the kind of chores that take all day and leave you feeling like you’ve accomplished nothing but another trivial check-mark on life’s infinite to-do list.

I’m still behind with grading papers, commenting on student drafts, answering email. I’m still behind with housework and book-keeping, and there is (yet again!) another week’s worth of laundry and another sinkful of dishes waiting to be done. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day…surely Shakespeare’s Macbeth was talking about such chores done ad infinitum, ad nauseum, to the last syllable of recorded time.

There’s nothing like a natural memento mori to shake you back to your senses. How many mundane days did it take this tree to reach mid-sized status only to be laid low by a beaver’s jaws? How many tomorrows, and tomorrows, and tomorrows did it take moss to cover that beaver’s claw marks? How long has that beaver himself laid dead, perhaps, or dormant, the industry of summers past left to mildew in spring rain? And who laid the stones that mark the border that both tree-root and beaver-foot traversed? Only an industrious farmer would have taken such care with his stone-bound borders, yet now his land lies neglected, fields covered with reclaiming trees.

Today’s papers, drafts, dishes and laundry will eventually pass, as will I, each one destined to be replaced by others in time’s perpetual treadmill. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…then what? What will stop this rolling wheel of time, what will pause the inevitable check-marks that count down even our mortal days? We all are such busy beavers; like dwarves we whistle while we work, not knowing it is our precious lives we are expending like breath. The best laid plans of beavers and men often go awry…right now what can you, each of you, do to step off this crazy treadmill of recorded time?

Goose Pond, Keene, NH

Now that the dissertation is finally (finally!) finished, I’ve been trying to reclaim some semblance of a life. Although I still have stacks of papers and other to-do’s to sift through, I’m trying to tackle such work slowly and methodically, taking time (and care) to tend to my own mental health. Slowly, slowly I’m remembering the simple joys of simply walking, sitting, breathing…all those things I’m accustomed to doing with the cloud called “dissertation” looming over my head. Now that this particular cloud has passed, I’m consciously trying to enjoy life, slowly.

Last weekend Chris and I got together with our fabulous Brazilian friends and their college English professor, a colleague I used to work with when we both taught here. It was great to see MP–Doctor MP–after several years of not seeing one another. The first thing out of my mouth when he asked how I was doing was, of course, “I finished! I’m a Doctor!” He laughed and we exchanged doctoral greetings, and he let me in on a secret I hadn’t predicted.

“You never get used to it! Every time someone calls me ‘Doctor,’ it’s still thrilling!”

I don’t know if MP’s entirely right about this. I think life without “Doctor” is just as fine as life with it: it’s all good. But yes, there is a certain giddy glee that rushes over me whenever I see someone for the first time after the defense: “I’m done! I’m a Doctor!” Just this past Monday, for instance, I met for the first time with a “Women’s Literature” class at this adult education center, and I paused to save the moment of writing my name on the board: “Dr. Lorianne Schaub.”

Goose Pond, Keene, NH

“This is the first time I’ve written this!” I gushed to my students. “You all can call me Lorianne, of course…but I just have to write it this way, just to look at it!”

And just yesterday at school, I got the latest of two packages, both books, sent to me by two faithful blog-readers: G and I, you each know who you are, and thanks. Both packages were addressed to, you guessed it, “Dr. Lorianne Schaub,” so there was the double-delirium of receiving packages with books (its own blissful delight) formally addressed to my new professional persona. Perhaps this indeed will never grow old…

One of the biggest benefits of being done with the dissertation, of course, is I get to read for pleasure again. When you’re an English professor, you read for a living. Whether analyzing literary texts, grading student papers, or proofreading your own scholarly work, you’re always reading, reading, reading. People who become English profs are drawn to the biz because they love to read, so the job’s greatest perk is simultaneously its greatest liability. If you love to read but read for a living, what then do you do for fun? It’s the classic conundrum of the bus-driver’s holiday: where do you go to get away from it all when your job involves such travel?

Long before he had reason to address any packages to Doctor Schaub, my friend Tom Montag from the Middlewesterner sent me a generous assortment of books, thereby endearing himself to me forever. (Did I mention I’m a sucker for books?) Because short essays are my preferred genre, and because I was looking for something entirely non-diss related that I could read in those occasional moments I could steal from my research, I started with Tom’s collection of essays, Kissing Poetry’s Sister. I started reading it in bits and pieces months ago, and I’m less than halfway through. Needless to say I’ve been reading very, very slowly, methodically, with multiple interruptions, like a sloth crossing a highway.

Goose Pond, Keene, NH

I chose this particular metaphor since sloths, particularly swimming sloths, will now perpetually remind me of Tom Montag…and of Mary, his sharp-witted wife. My so-far favorite of Tom’s essays is also, conveniently, the last one I completed: an essay called “Poet in the Water,” about Tom’s experience learning as an adult both to swim and scuba-dive. Although my favorite line in the essay has to be Mary’s come-back when Tom remarks that his particular, peculiar swimming stroke resembles that of an aquatic sloth and Mary replies “Except the sloth is graceful,” my favorite paragraph comes near the beginning of the essay:

    For sheer terror for the Iowa-farm-boy-poet-at-age-53 there is nothing like putting his face into the water and taking that first deep breath; breathing in water is not natural! I struggled to do it. I was having a good stout argument with myself: my head was saying “Go ahead, go ahead” while my heart cried “No, no, no!” My instructor watched me wrestling with myself; he said to the other students: “Look at Tom, he’s doing a Zen thing.” I was. By sheer force of will I was going to take my first breath underwater.

Tom’s description struck a close-to-home nerve since I had a full-blown panic attack and had to be saved by our instructor when I tried to go snorkeling in, yes, Cozumel (the site of Tom’s first dive) during nothing less than my own honeymoon.

Unlike Tom, you see, I never learned the first rule of either scuba diving or snorkeling, which is never to hold your breath. I didn’t mean to hold my breath on that fateful snorkeling trip: in fact, when I was a child learning to swim, I had to be told that you couldn’t breath under water. (Yep, the first time I put my head under water, I inhaled, deeply, an experience I learned never to repeat.) Unfortunately, though, I have this unconscious habit, acquired during childhood, of holding my breath when I’m nervous. When I was a baby, for instance, I turned blue whenever my parents took their car through the car wash, which terrified me. When I first started teaching, I tried to deliver an entire, adrenaline-soaked lecture in a single enormous breath, which resulted, of course, in all sorts of bemused reactions in my students, entertained to the point of glee by their huffing, puffing, blue-faced professor.

So when faced by the prospect of being dropped from a boat into the bottomless sea with a snorkel I’d received only a cursory introduction to, I did what came naturally: I put my face in the water and held my breath. When I ran out of breath, I did (really!) try to breathe…I tried to force myself to breathe…well, yes, I actually did force myself to puff a couple of breaths in and out. But in the meantime, my brain was sending all sorts of warning signals (“No! No! Don’t breath while you can see underwater!”), and my lungs responded by doing what they do during a panic attack, which is spasming, hyper-ventilating, the works.

There I floated on the surface trying to catch my breath, trying to regain calm in the face of a budding panic attack. And I would have been fine, I’m convinced, if everyone had left me alone, if only I’d had the time and space to try out that snorkel gradually, slowly, methodically, at my own not-unlike-a-slothlike pace.

But instead, Chris tried to help me: a big mistake.

Chris, you see, used to be a lifeguard. So when he saw me bobbing and treading on the surface, hyper-ventilating and looking entirely panicked, two impulses kicked in: a new hubby’s natural impulse to save his bride, and a seasoned lifeguard’s trained impulse to save a struggling swimmer.

What Chris’s short experience as a husband and his training as a lifeguard hadn’t taught him, though, was Rule Number One of Living with Lorianne: never, ever approach Lorianne when she’s freaked out and panicky. If ever a woman “needed her space,” it was at that moment while I was treading water, which I’m quite good at, and trying to catch my own breath, something no one else can help me with. So when Chris swam over and moved to grab me–the standard body-hold that lifeguards use to pull struggling swimmers back to shore–I completely freaked out.

“Don’t touch me!” I screamed between hyperventilations. “Leave me alone, and stop hanging on me!” At this point I was kicking, screaming, punching and pummeling: the works. Chris’s soothing words had no effect, and all that training was for naught. They’d trained him how to save struggling swimmers, human swimmers, and I’d suddenly transformed from a slow-swimming sloth to some sort of cornered, panicked, kicking and thrashing beast: a hyperventilating, white-eyed Leviathan with attitude.

All our instructors saw from the boat, of course, was two people thrashing and screaming in the water: they had no way of knowing that Chris was a trained lifeguard and I was “only” having a massive panic attack. So on my own honeymoon, I had to be saved by a lifeguard other than my husband: they literally threw me a line, someone jumped in the water, and they pulled me back to the boat.

It was, of course, the most embarrassing moment of my honeymoon, and it wasn’t even that sort of honeymoon moment. And so here I am, like an idiot, sharing it with you…

You can read more about Tom’s infinitely more successful first scuba-dive here, and you can read Trey’s account of his own scuba travails here. Both Trey and Tom, of course, are to blame for this post: had Trey not talked about scuba diving, Tom wouldn’t have posted his response and then emailed me about Kissing Poetry’s Sister. Me and my big mouth, of course, had to mention I liked “Poet in the Water” because I could relate to it and all, so here I am sharing my most embarrassing moment…after, of course, swearing Chris to secrecy all those years ago. (“You must NEVER TELL ANYONE that I made an absolute fool of myself on our honeymoon!”)

Ah, who needs spouses to make fools of us when that’s what blogs are for? You don’t need to be called Doctor to be a high-class, self-deprecating fool…

Goose Pond, Keene, NH

Although I still have a huge stack of papers to grade, I couldn’t resist the urge to go walking yesterday. The dog, of course, is a great excuse: he needs to be walked somewhere everyday, so why not walk dirt paths versus sidewalks? Around 11 am yesterday, there was a lull in our incessant spring rains, so we headed to Goose Pond.

Goose Pond, Keene, NH

I love walking when it’s almost-but-not-quite raining, or after a rain, or even during…basically, I love walking in all weathers. Yesterday we were shielded from intermittent mist by overhanging trees: Reggie returned to the car wet and muddy from dunks in the pond, not from rain. The earth was moist and soft underfoot, the tree trunks were damp-darkened. The air smelled of mud and crushed dead leaves: spring tea, a thawed earth steeped in tannin.

Years ago I remember sitting a retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center. I was at the time a Dharma-teacher-in-training, so I didn’t yet wear a teacher’s long, gray robes. In strict Korean Zen centers, Dharma room seating is hierarchical: a certain seat for the Zen master, certain seats for monks and nuns, certain seats for Dharma teachers. Strictly speaking, these seats are arranged according to seniority: one of the guilty pleasures of attending annual ceremonies at the Providence Zen Center is watching (and giggling over) the monks jockeying for their proper seats. “Hey! An Old Guy just walked in! Everyone move down a seat, except for Hey-You Sunim: you’re even Older!”

Goose Pond, Keene, NH

Anyhow, CZC is notoriously lax about “proper” Dharma room seating. In theory, the back row of the Dharma room is reserved for monks, nuns, and Dharma teachers, but usually Dharma teachers sat scattered around the room (and we usually had only one nun to sit in the monastic seats). But on this one particular retreat, I remember we had a handful of long-time practitioners, Dharma teachers and senior Dharma teachers, who sat side by side in the back row, backs straight and strong in their flowing gray robes.

During the talk at the end of the retreat, I mentioned how wonderful it was to sit in the presence of these strong, experienced guides: “This weekend felt like sitting in the shadow of a whole row of Mighty Oaks, tall, strong, gray…” Earlier this year newspaper here in New Hampshire interviewed me (me!) about Buddhism in the Granite State, and I mentioned this notion of the Mighty Oaks: saplings who are new to practice think Chris and I have been practicing a long time–in fact, they sometimes think we’re Zen Masters. But in truth, we’re midsized trees dwarved by those giants who started practicing long before us. It takes all kinds–saplings, midsizers, giant knobby hulks–to make a healthy forest. It takes roots and air and spring showers–and lots and lots of patient sitting–to become a Mighty Oak.

Goose Pond, Keene, NH

And so we start where we are: every morning, like an acorn, we sprout from our inertia, set down roots, and move toward the light, unfurling. Just doing this day to day to mundane day, in 300 years or so, we’ll eventually get there, each and all.

Spring in NH

This morning it is rainy here in Keene; last night we slept to the sound of raindrops on windows. The forecast says we can expect rain through Thursday with minor flooding, a typical New England spring. Saturday, though, was beautiful, so after Chris and I dropped by to ask Kathleen a particularly personal question, the dog and I walked the road near Goose Pond.

In “Walking,” Thoreau makes a big deal of the fact that he didn’t walk on roads. “The landscape painter uses the figures of men to mark a road,” Thoreau writes. “He would not make that use of my figure.” Through walking, Thoreau sought “absolute Freedom and Wildness”: for Thoreau, it was important to cast off (or to pretend you’d cast off) all remnants of civilization. In eschewing roads to walk across lots, Thoreau sought to “shake off the village” in order to “return to [his] senses.”

Spring in NH

On Saturday, though, the parking lot at Goose Pond was packed, as was the lot at the golf course where Chris wanted to hit a bucket of balls. Since walking across lots in New Hampshire will likely get you shot or arrested or both, the dog and I hit the road. Walt Whitman for one liked to walk roads; although the term “open road” makes most Americans think of car trips, Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” is a paean to pedestrian, not motorized, traffic.

Among my favorite lines of poetry, American or otherwise, are the opening lines of “Song of the Open Road”:

    Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
    Healthy, free, the world before me,
    The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

    Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
    Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
    Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
    Strong and content I travel the open road.

Spring in NH

Although evoked by the likes of fellow New Hampshire transplant Ken Burns in his ode to the automotive road-trip, Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” is about walking the public road, which Whitman figures as being unconditional in its acceptance of all travelers. Walking amidst the common material stuff of cities (“You flagg’d walks of the cities! you strong curbs at the edges! / You ferries! you planks and posts of wharves! you timber-lined sides! you distant ships!”), Whitman derives from his rambles “the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial.” Rural or urban, on dirt path or paved road, walking is good for both body and soul.

The road near Goose Pond sees a good deal of weekend traffic, so Reggie had to run on leash; still, he seemed to enjoy Saturday’s spot of spring, especially when I let him wade in a particularly muddy ditch. Spring in New Hampshire is primarily about mud, so I let Reg enjoy his sodden joys: a large part of me wanted to join him as he mucked about, oblivious of roads and leashes and Dead White Guys. I had work to do on Saturday, but I thought I’d save it for a rainy day: today as raindrops patter the window panes I shall tackle that stack of unread papers that’s been accumulating over the past month. In the meantime, on Saturday the open road (or at least one tiny stretch of it) called. As wood frogs called from the weedy marshes, I (and the dog) found all the good-fortune we could withstand.

Spring flowers, Keene, NH

Happy Easter to my Christian readers; happy Sunday to the rest. When pressed to declare my personal religious affiliation, I typically say that I’m a practicing non-Buddhist and a non-practicing Christian. When push comes to shove, though, I prefer being plain old Lorianne: no affiliation necessary.

Years ago when Chris & I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, a visiting Zen Master from a different Korean lineage told a bawdy story about interreligious dialogue. Once there was a Catholic priest and a Zen monk who were waiting to catch a train. Easter was approaching, so the priest asked the monk if he understood the true meaning of Christ’s resurrection.

“I don’t know about Christ’s resurrection,” the Zen monk replied. “But every morning I wake up with an erection.”

The priest, of course, was red-faced. “What did you say?”

“I said, ‘Of course I understand resurrection because every morning I wake up with an erection.'”

The priest was outraged not merely by the monk’s words but by the plain and matter-of-fact tone he used. “How dare you make fun of the most sacred belief in my religion!” the priest exclaimed as he started pummeling the monk, who fell to the ground under the force of the priest’s blows.

“You, a follower of the peace-loving Christ, beat me because my body arises every morning?” the monk gasped. “Who is it who really understands his resurrection?”

The priest stopped, chastened, then boarded the approaching train without a further word.

Ashuelot River, Keene, NH

I can’t say I fully understand such “resurrection,” but I know that the rivers here in NH have been rising. Last week we had flash flooding from recent rains and snowmelt, and on Thursday I walked along the Ashuelot, the river that runs through Keene State College then into and beyond town. At one point I came to an abandoned railroad trestle that crosses the river, and the waters had flooded the path before me. Faced with the question of walking over, around, or through, I chose my usual path: through. Half the fun of spring walking is relishing mud and mud puddles, so on Thursday I enjoyed one of the first of April’s firsts: the first time I got my feet thoroughly and utterly soaked as I waded through ankle-deep water to get to that railroad trestle.

I don’t know much about Christ’s resurrection, and I’m not disclosing what I do or don’t know about morning erections. (You’ll have to ask the hubby about that one.) But I do know that every spring, the flood rises then eventually falls, and every spring, the water is mind-stoppingly cold. In that instant when cold water flooded the tops of my shoes –YEOW!– there was no Christ, no Zen, no train, no trestle, just that plain and simple experience that only later allowed itself to be identified as “cold” and “wet.” Just like this, moment to moment, enlightenment (yes) arises. It’s a train that is perpetually arriving: can you catch it?

No horse blankets, please!

You have to love living in a state where they have to tell you not to launder your horse blankets at the local laundromat. Keene is a fairly large town by New Hampshire standards. We have a population of approximately 20,000, a college, hospital, and those hallmarks of the big city: Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and a spankin’ new Borders bookstore. But the outlying areas are rural, so we do occasionally see the horsey country types who are so common in other parts of NH.

Empty your pockets, please!

Some while back, fellow Granite-Stater Amy from ever so humble posted a humorous list of New Hampshire-isms. Chris and I grew up in the midwest and thus haven’t acquired all the usual NH ways. When we lived in the town of Hillsboro (pop. 5,000), though, I drove a pickup truck, we often left our doors unlocked, and I learned me how to shoot a shotgun (fairly well, I might add…)

When we moved to Keene, we got rid of the pickup truck, but we still have the shotgun. Who do you think we are…Vermonters?

    For those of you craving a different sort of “local color,” be sure to click on over to unsettled for a look-see at Kathleen’s cleavage. I’m planning to stop by her new workplace to indulge in some afternoon beverages while admiring her newly floofy hair. Rest assured that if Kathleen starts showing the twins again, I’ll be sure to take photos…

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