Words of wisdom, Hannah Grimes Marketplace, Keene, NH

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted a picture of the chalkboard outside the Hannah Grimes Marketplace in downtown Keene, but it is the first time I remember this chalkboard sporting such profound words of wisdom. As I hurried the dog around Central Square today, I was thinking of the laundry-list of things I have to do this week, the last week of summer classes at the three different places where I’ve been teaching. I’ve been long looking forward to the end of this term since next week will mark the first real “break” I’ve had since finishing and defending the dissertation back in April, and I’m feeling burnt out. Teaching these past two months has felt like I’ve been sprinting on a treadmill right after finishing a long-distance marathon: I need a break, but the finish line keeps retreating.

There is an old Zen story about a monk and his young attendant who are traveling from their isolated mountain monastery to the bustling town that lies in the valley below. As they approach their destination and crest a ridge that reveals the expanse of shops, inns, and taverns on the outskirts of town, the attendant starts to step up his pace, excited at the prospect of getting away from the mundane drudgery of the lonely monastery. “Wait,” the old monk says as his hand reaches out to grab the hastening attendant’s shoulder. “This place is good, too.”

Roses, Keene, NH

Most of us don’t have Zen monks grabbing our shoulders to remind us to enjoy the moment, and only some of us encounter shop signs to that effect. Instead, most of us have to rely on our own inner compass, the awakened eye that notices a tendril of newly-blossomed roses curling around the edge of our own house: a purely private, typically overlooked reminder. These ephemeral signs point to the utter randomness of days that offer both beauty and brutality mixed in nonsensical profusion. On the same day that Kim Sun-il was beheaded in Iraq, a cluster of roses bloomed in Keene: surely there can be no connection between the two? And yet upon hearing yet more heart-breaking news, I responded the only way I as a Buddhist, as a heavy hearted human, knew how, by chanting the same bodhisattva-evoking melody that I intoned years ago when my father was diagnosed with cancer, when my grandmother died of Alzheimer’s disease, when I myself could barely breathe much less chant, my lungs laden with asthma and a winter’s bout of bronchitis. In the midst of flowering beauty, mortality blossoms: the ultimate sign of life’s randomness. These roses bloomed outside the window where I chanted, the words I sung ever pointing to the fact that breath is finite, that flowers and followers alike will eventually find their destined end. In the meantime, we all would be well-served to enjoy the moment, since we so easily forget that this is all we ever truly have.