August 2004


Inquisitive seagull

This time last year, as a way of dealing with a mid-dissertation/identity crisis, I flew alone from Boston to San Francisco in search of beaches and a week of solo hiking. Call it an Edna Pontellier-style gesture, but something told me that only the ocean could salve a soul that no longer wanted to strive toward a destination–the doctorate–that I’d been struggling toward for nearly a decade. As I’ve explained before, it was there in California, in the hills and along the coast north of San Francisco, that I found the strength to return to Boston and then New Hamsphire to face my life and ultimately finish the dissertation. But Lord knows that wasn’t a smooth path.

Edge of land & sea

This year I don’t have time to hop on a plane to San Francisco, so today I’m not hiking the Laguna Trail to sit on Santa Maria Beach, part of the lovely Point Reyes National Seashore. Instead, I’m driving my thoroughly doctoral self (woo-hoo!) down to Massachusetts, where I’ll meet my friend A (not her real initial, of beer and burritos fame) to drive together down to Crane’s Beach in Ipswich, MA. Yep, we’re beach-bound, baby: I don’t know if we’ll have beer and burritos at the end of the day, but you can bet we’ll have some good conversation, a lot of laughs, and a good long walk, as we have before. It’s fine and good to cocoon, but sometimes even a pupa needs to crawl out of her shell for a little sand and sun.

Buddha altar

Just like Clarissa Dalloway, I bought the flowers myself.

Unlike Mrs. Dalloway, I’m not planning a grand dinner party…but lately I have been obsessing about the decor and decorations here in my apartment. In the past two weeks I’ve bought three new lamps, one new desk chair, a full-length mirror, a new set of sheets, two new saucepans and a pair of new bath towels. In the past two weeks I’ve started buying myself flowers: last week, a single bouquet of daisies for the end table by my office easy chair; this week, two bouquets for the Buddha altar and a third for that office end table. When I’ve not been buying stuff, I’ve been tidying and cleaning, deriving a huge amount of pleasure from the simple act of giving away old stuff and shredding piles of old, no-longer-needed paperwork. Apparently it’s the season of out with the old, in with the new.

Comfort food

This morning I went grocery shopping and felt the same sort of “nesting” sensation I’ve experienced while shopping for housewares. These days I’m consumed by a curious desire to hoard and to stockpile, to make sure I have plenty of food, light, warmth and beauty around me at all times. In the past when I’ve mentioned similar bouts of nestiness to people, they’ve argued this sensation is triggered by the proverbial biological clock, but that’s not right. These days I’m not nesting because I want babies; I’m nesting because I want to be babied. My desire for wholesome food, fluffy towels, crisp sheets, and lots of sweetness and light comes from a desire to be coddled, nurtured, and protected. It ain’t about babies, baby; it’s all about me.

Nestled nook

So instead of calling this outbreak of domestic obsessiveness “nesting,” I’ve decided to refer to it as pupating. These days I’m feel as if I’m on the brink of some sort of unseen transformation, but in the meantime I’m small, soft, and vulnerable. So like any caterpillar or grub, I’m surrounding myself with a warm, safe, protective cocoon into which I’m retreating, alone, to await Nature’s own gradual and inevitable transformation. Drained from the final stages of finishing the dissertation and uncertain about my next steps (should I go on the job market? should I stay in Keene? should I pursue professional publication for my writing? if so, where?), I’m pausing and, well, pupating, waiting to see what kind of creature emerges from this still-opaque chrysalis.

Reflecting

In the meantime, I have a comfy apartment–my own version of a clean, well-lighted place–to retreat to. There’s plenty of light to read by, plenty of food (and wine) to savor, plenty of bright-blooming beauty to enjoy, and a warm, soft place to retire when I’m through with all that. I might have a heart attack when my credit card bill arrives…but financial shocks notwithstanding, it’s all good here in my cocoon. For the price of three bouquets of flowers, bought for myself, I can enjoy all the reflective tranquility I can stand.

As I’ve said before, one of the benefits of having a dog is it forces you to walk. Dogs also come in handy when you have nothing of interest to blog about. Is your life too boring for the blogosphere? Just slap up a cute doggie pic and call it a day! This picture shows Reggie resting during our recent hike up Lovewell Mountain. Not only does Reg like to hike, he likes to share snacks when we take a break. So when we stopped to admire Lovewell Mountain’s southeastern vista, Reg and I shared a handful of almonds before stretching out to enjoy the sun: me on a flat-topped rock; Reg on a smooth patch of ground. Who says it’s a dog’s life?

I have no idea who Captain Chad Fisk is…but golly, I’m glad that he made it home from Iraq safe and sound. This sign and its accompanying flags and banners are attached to the fence that surrounds the bronze sentinel who stands at the head of Keene’s Central Square. This island of greenery at the center of downtown’s bustling main rotary has been the site of Saturday anti-war protests since the war in Iraq began. I don’t know about you, but I love a town where anti-war protests, home-made welcome home signs, and patriotic banners can coexist right beneath the sheltering gaze of a statuary soldier.

My employer, Keene State College, is putting out a different kind of Welcome Home sign for returning students. After tolerating an entire year of noisy construction, dirt, and relocated classrooms and faculty offices, returning students will be greeted by KSC’s brand-spanking-new Science Center. Since I teach in the English department, I’ll probably never set foot in this building…but it’s nice to know it’s there, just as it’s nice to know that Captain Chad Fisk is relaxing in the safe comfort of friends and loved ones.

Today I went to campus to run a handful of teaching related errands and to remind myself that classes resume the week after next. When you teach for a living, you fall into a strange seasonal cycle based upon the academic calendar. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you never snap out of the strange seasonal cycle that school children are governed by, where summers are a time for free-form laziness and fall is the time when everything kicks back into gear again. All I know is that I feel as if I’ve only now gotten “into” the swing of summer: after too many months of “naturally” waking up early, only recently have I acclimated to the notion of sleeping in late and being able to take midday naps whenever the need arises. (Incredibly, I still seem to be sleep-deprived and/or Post-Traumatic Stressed over the grind to finish the dissertation.) So the thought of teaching 8 am classes once again is somewhat daunting: who, me? You expect me to be awake, coherent, and “inspiring” at 8 am?

Although I always tell myself in June that I’ll spend the summer “leisurely” preparing for the classes that will begin in the fall, I never keep to this resolution. Instead, “out of sight, out of mind” seems to govern my teaching habits. Although I haven’t taken the summer entirely “off” from teaching–at the beginning of the summer, I taught a full courseload spread out at three different colleges, and over the past few months I’ve taught one writing course online–I haven’t spent much if any time thinking about my fall semester classes. Only this weekend did I get around to getting a copy of the research guide I’m assigning in my Expository Writing classes: although I’ve previously used one of the books I’m assigning, the other book is one I’ve never assigned before. And although I’ve started reading this year’s Summer Reading Program selection, a book that we’ll discuss in my Freshman Writing classes, I haven’t finished the book much less decided how to incorporate it into my lesson plans.

So, I’m feeling not-at-all-ready for re-entry into the academic world: I hope Captain Fisk is settling in at home better than I am dealing with the thought of settling back into the school year. I can only imagine the culture shock of leaving a war-zone to return to the sleepy summertime comfort of Keene, NH: compared to what Capt. Fisk has faced for the past few months, my whining about starting back to school sounds like, well, whining. Ready or not, the doors of that brand-spanking-new Science Center will open when classes resume; ready or not, I’ll walk into my 8 am class on Tuesday, August 31 to greet yet another gaggle of groggy-eyed freshmen. Welcome to college, kids: if you’re apprehensive at the thought of starting over in a new place, rest assured that your been-here-before professors feel surprisingly the same. Welcome home to new and old faces alike: whether you’ve been through the wars or have merely protested them, the doors will be wide open to usher you inside.

One of the wonderful things about living in southern New Hampshire is the abundance of scenic drives. No matter what direction you point your car, it seems you can quickly and easily find a marvelous stretch of road offering refreshing vistas of mountains, woods, and rock-rimmed pastures. The above foggy, not-ideal view of Mount Monadnock, which I took back in July on my way to meet Kathleen for a cemetery stroll in Jaffrey, shows one version of a southern New Hampshire drive. I’ve seen prettier views of Monadnock and have in my mind’s eye prettier pictures of New Hampshire drives…but since taking photos while driving is both difficult and dangerous, I’ll have to rely on words and your imagination to illustrate the sort of ever-changing views that await drivers in my neck of the woods.

Last night before dark descended, I took your usual, run-of-the-mill Sunday drive. The sun was setting and I’d been out running errands; it was too late to go walking but too early to settle into nocturnal inwardness. I had a to-do list that I was in the mood to avoid waiting for me back at the apartment, so after running too many errands and spending too much money, I did what I should have done earlier in the day: I hit the road.

Now, when I say I hit the road, you have to understand that I didn’t venture past the outlying areas of Keene and her handful of contiguous towns: Marlborough, Troy, Chesterfield. Basically, there is a handful of tiny hamlets right around Keene, and these communities offer the things that downtown Keene lacks: cow-filled pastures, stone walls, barns and wood sheds. These are the kind of places where you can drive past houses with handpainted signs hawking bantam hens, fresh eggs, and tender piglets, homegrown. Within a stone’s throw of Keene, you can see grazing donkeys, goats, and horses, and yesterday was one of those days when the sight of such pastoral delights was more appealing than my waiting apartment, laptop, and lengthy to-do list.

One of my favorite local drives goes past Stonewall Farm. Yesterday, though, I took a wrong turn onto what I thought was Chesterfield Road, so instead of passing a familiar farm, I ended up exploring some new-to-me back country roads. When I say “country roads,” you need to picture winding byways that are shaded by forest, punctuated by rural mailboxes and long-wending driveways, and rent by bright-lit pastures that reveal the geologic structure of outlying mountain ridges. Criss-crossed by death-defying chipmunks and fringed with mossy stonewalls, these roads twist and turn unpredictably so the next vista always comes as a surprise no matter how familiar the drive. This catch-your-breath unpredictability is a large part of Sunday driving’s charm.

One of yesterday’s new-to-me roads offered a particularly special surprise. After just rounding a corner just past a handful of woodsy houses, I slowed to pass a couple out taking an evening stroll. On the quiet road ahead of me, what I took to be a large black dog–about the size and shagginess of a Newfoundland, but leggier–galloped across the road. Galloped? More like gallomped, a flat-footed, rolling, but impressively graceful gate…and entirely unlike any running dog I’ve ever seen. It was, I realized a split second after it vanished into the woods on a snowmobile trail, a black bear, one of Keene’s outlying, seldom-seen neighbors. Here in the heart of Keene, we worry about skunks trolling our trash; on the outskirts, though, the rubbish-raiders are larger and less malodorous.

During the four years we lived in Hillsborough, NH, our house was nestled in trees right across from a state forest…and only once did I see a bear “in the fur” even though there was ample sign of ursine presence in the woods where the dog and I walked most days. Sometimes animal-spotting is a matter of preparation and prowess: if you know the kind of habitat a particular animal prefers, you can plan to be in the right place at the right time. But the rest of the time, animal-spotting is largely fortuitous and even accidental: was that couple loaded or even looking for bear as they took a leisurely postprandial constitutional?

When Chris and I first visited Hillsborough with the thought of moving to New Hampshire from Massachusetts, we saw a moose cantering down a pastoral stretch of road, his loose-limbed gait as casual as an old shoe. “Cue the deer,” we joked in reference to a line from an old Chevy Chase movie where a couple tries to sell their disastrous country farmhouse by rigging wildlife spottings to charm prospective buyers. Was that years’ ago moose trying to lure us into moving to Hillsborough? Was yesterday’s bear trying to convince me to stay in Keene, as if I ever considered leaving? Whether there are accidents or not–and whether the passing of moose and bear, like the flight of crows, can sometimes carry oracular intent–is a question beyond my ken. In the meantime, it’s good to know that there are actual bears in them thar hills: it’s good to know that even Sunday drivers can take a wrong turn and motor onto happenstance.

This is the view from the summit of Lovewell Mountain in Washington, NH. Lovewell isn’t a high peak: it’s only 2,473 feet tall, well under the height of New Hampshire’s famed 4,000 footers and substantially shorter than our own Mount Monadnock, whose 3,165 summit is, along with Mount Fuji, one of the most-climbed peaks in the world. (For the record, although I’ve climbed Monadnock several times, in the five years I’ve lived in New Hampshire, I’ve only climbed two 4,000 footers. I’m a great walker but not much of a climber.)

Although Lovewell Mountain isn’t a challenge for true mountaineers, it’s a wonderful day hike: the portion of the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway that goes up and over its summit wends through lovely rock- and fern-dotted woods, and the trail is never crowded. On a beautiful Saturday when the parking lots at Mount Monadnock were probably brimming, the dog and I had the mountain to ourselves, the only other humans we saw being a threesome of incredibly fit, lycra-clad men who pedaled to the summit and then “interrupted” our solitary enjoyment of the mountain’s southeastern vista. Although I encouraged these fellows to stay while I enjoyed the view (did I mention they were incredibly fit and lycra-clad?), they opted to head up to the southeastern summit before descending the mountain, and the dog and I saw nothing more of them after that. Alas.

After having visited Washington, NH on my own about a month ago, yesterday I decided to ReTurn with the dog in tow in order to ReVisit Lovewell, which Chris, the dog, and I had climbed with our friend X (of Boys’ Weekend fame) a summer or two ago. I remembered Lovewell as being a moderately heart-pounding but not dauntingly strenuous hike with a vista (and accompanying solitude) that made it well worth the effort. It had been a while since the dog and I had been hiking, so the thought of ReVisiting a semi-familiar place was appealing.

When you ReTurn to a place you’ve been before, one thing you inevitably do is compare then and now. One of the most noticeable changes at Lovewell Mountain is a current real estate boom: not only are the cottages on Halfmoon Pond Road on the approach to Lovewell Mountain dotted with a striking abundance of “For Sale” signs, the woods bordering the fireroad at mountain’s base sport realtors’ signs as well. Although the summit of Lovewell Mountain itself lies within the protected jurisdiction of Pillsbury State Park, the base of the mountain does not: the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway, like the Appalachian Trail, runs through a mix of public and private land. In light of my recent posts on human construction, I thought it only fair to post a picture of a scene that broke my heart: although people admittedly have the right to buy and build wherever the law allows, I’d much prefer that folks build and reclaim property within the already tampered with confines of cities and towns (even if that does translate into “urban blight”) rather than clearing isolated plots of forest land. In the sake of fairness, Lovewell Mountain is crisscrossed by centuries’ old stone walls: this used to be pastureland. But the landowners who ordered this land cleared are presumably looking to dwell in woodsy solitude, their own mountain version of Thoreau’s pondside idyll. I’m sure these landowners “love nature”: they love it so much they want to live right in the middle of it. But the sight of such “nature-loving” construction sobers me more than the bulldozing of some birches next to a factory: by yearning for country solitude, these folks are destroying tranquility in the process of acquiring it. In a word, the philosophy of “not in my backyard” begins only after you’ve built that backyard: once you’ve cleared your own 10 acre plot, then you can start telling others that they shouldn’t clear theirs.

Once you’ve turned onto the Greenway trail from the fireroad that skirts the base of Lovewell Mountain, though, it feels like you’ve ReTurned to an older, more pristine land. It isn’t accurate to call this “land that time forgot” since the signs of civilization are everywhere. The Greenway itself is well-marked with white blazes on trees and rocks. Small wooden signs point toward water sources and vistas, and at the summit itself there is a trail register where you can note the date and conditions of your hike along with any comments you’d like to immortalize. (The entry previous to mine was from a “Florida girl” who’d summitted the mountain several days before: “Just like Miami, but no espanol.”) Although the desire to be the first or the only person to capture a summit seems as deeply pervasive as a toddler’s unwillingness to share her favorite toy, the fact remains that Lovewell Mount has been loved, and loved well, by countless people both past and present. I’m sure every hand that touched the trail register loved their time on Lovewell; I’m sure the cattle and cattle-owners from the days when this land was grazed loved it well as well. You don’t have to be the first to happen upon a place to love it as if it had never been loved before; you don’t even have to be a first-time visitor to love it as if for the first and only time.

Instead of trying for “firsts,” I think it’s more fruitfull to try for ReCollection. What was the weather like the last time–the first time–I set eyes on this cairn: was the sun in a similar or different quadrant of the sky? Yesterday I saw a plump gartner snake sunning himself on the trail only to watch him retreat into piled rocks as I approached: how many snakes did I see the last time I walked here? Who was it who laid these summit-leading stones, and when; how many different hands have painted and ReTouched these countless white blazes? Every step we take on mountains and elsewhere is a new, never-before-taken step…yet every step we take is also a step into someone else’s or even our own prior footsteps, every turn a ReTurn, every place a RePlace.

I think that instead of lusting after our own plot of “virgin” land, we should seek out and then love well those lands that are, like that ’80s Madonna classic, like a virgin: lands that don’t care whether you’re their first or last or somewhere in between, but that love you well and unabashedly. Even mountains that have been tamed and then abandoned and then tamed again–even lands that have had an endless string of hikers and bikers and farmers and homebuilders and real estate agents loving and even abusing them in succession–can sometimes stun you into silence with the shocking green of new moss: surely this spot has never been seen or touched before! And yet I’ve walked this trail before…I’m sure I thought the same thing last year, and I’m sure that Florida girl felt the same thing–en ingles o espanol–only a few days ago. In a word it doesn’t matter how many times (or how many lovers) Lovewell Mountain has loved, only that she loved me well when I needed her, and with an exuberance that suggests she never loved before and never will love again…until (of course) next time I or someone else happens to RePlace me.

    This is my contribution to the Ecotone topic, RePlace.

    AND, please note that Hoarded Ordinaries now has “RePlaced” itself at a new URL: http://www.hoardedordinaries.com. Although your old bookmarks and blogroll links will redirect to the new site, I encourage you to update to the new address. Thanks to Chris for his hard work in effecting this migration.

Rusted

Go ahead: call me perverse. You won’t be the first. Call it Thoreauvian contrariness–an insistence on arguing the opposite of whatever everyone else is saying–or call it plain old outright ignorance. Go ahead and call me on this: go ahead and argue that I’m an Evil Capitalist Imperialist Pig who’s in bed with The Man, or go ahead and tell me I need to wake up. Go ahead: I dare you. Whatever accusations you sling at me, I ain’t budging: for good or ill, like it or not, I’m posting these pictures of, yes, evil environment-eating earth-movers for today’s Photo Friday topic, Tranquility.

Maybe it’s the fact that I actually know people who work blue-collar jobs, but when I see bulldozers and other heavy equipment at rest, I think several things. First, curious Lori wonders what they’re building. Second, transgressive photo-snapping Lori wonders whether she can get away with snooping and taking pictures. Third, environmentalist Lori wonders about the longterm ecological effect of this construction: haven’t these workers read The Lorax, for goodness sake? Fourth, tomboy Lori thinks, “Cool: huge sandbox toys!” And fifth, daughter-of-a-truck-driver Lori sees these machines as a paycheck: here are the tools of hardworking men and women who are simply trying to feed their families. Again, I know people who work blue-collar jobs: that’s where I come from. So whenever I hear upper-crust environmentalists whine about urban blight, part of me wonders who built their house and out of what materials. It’s easy to throw stones when you live in a glass house, and it’s easy to denounce deforestation while surfing the Web from a house built with, yes, tree carcasses.

My sister’s ex-husband used to work for Caterpillar, so my sister at least spent a good many years literally in bed with The Man, or at least a man who was himself in bed with the Evil Empire. As a carry-over from those days, my father has a sweatshirt with a Caterpillar bulldozer emblazoned on the front and the caption “Very Pushy.” My Dad can be pushy at times…but now that he’s mellowed with age, the caption seems more quaint than threatening. Yeah, earth-movers are pushy, and they wreak environmental havoc…but somewhere under the pushiness I see the image of my father, a hard-working man who over the years wore down the carved design on his wedding ring from sheer manual toil. Until you’ve pushed a mile in these caterpillar-treads, do you have any right to condemn?

Besides these personal reasons for seeing something other than evil in the lines of an earth mover at rest, the Zen teacher in me sees an opportune moment of insight. I’m sure that today’s Photo Friday submissions will consist mainly of conventional notions of tranquility: mountain lakes, forest streams, sunset beaches. There will be few if any people in these photos: there won’t be any sign of work or toil. In a word, most folks’ notion of “tranquility” is what you find on vacation or, better yet, on a vacation brochure: a far-off, unreachable place entirely divorced from the day-to-day realities of bumper-to-bumper traffic, boss-inflicted deadlines, and screaming children. Of course we can’t find tranquility in our daily lives…because we define tranquility in a way that excludes our daily lives from it. If tranquility has to be quiet, clean, and sweet-smelling, then most of our life doesn’t qualify.

I heard a story once about a Zen monk who moved to New York City to start a meditation group. Having very little money to get his Zen group off the ground, the monk rented the cheapest place he could find: a junky but spacious warehouse in a working-class district. The monk spent months clearing the warehouse of junk, polishing the old, beaten wood floors, and painting the walls. When he finally opened for “business,” the space had been transformed into an open, airy, beautifully meditative place.

Except, unfortunately, for the noise. Because the warehouse was in a working-class district of a huge city, the street outside roared with the sound of thundering trunks and honking taxicabs. Workmen in neighboring warehouses shouted to one another, and someone insisted on blasting their radio at an ear-shattering level. Because this meditation hall was an old warehouse, one entire wall of the room consisted of a large floor-to-ceiling freight door which rattled and reverberated with every passing trunk or booming stereo beat. In a word, meditating in this space was like sitting in the middle of a sonic wind-tunnel.

The monk, however, sat silent and unmoving in his meditation: his mind being clear and quiet, his entire surroundings were clear and quiet. Although he would have naturally preferred to have meditated in a quiet mountain monastery, he realized that the heart of the city was where people are: if he wanted to teach people how to meditate, he had to go down and get his hands dirty in the places where people actually lived and worked. And so the only thing that troubled this monk’s meditation was the grumbling he heard from his students. “This place is too loud! Why’d the old man pick this place to start a meditation center?”

So one day the old monk did what any self-respecting Zen Master would do: he called his students out. In the middle of meditation as he heard his students sighing and squirming, distracted by the noise, he leapt to his feet and shouted, “You want quiet? I’ll give you quiet!” And with that he rushed over to that huge freight door and opened it wide, the sounds of the street spilling into the room like a tsunami. “If you can’t find quiet here, you’ll not find it anywhere,” the monk said as he returned to his seat and his students returned to their meditation, chastened.

The place where my Zen Group meets isn’t in bustling New York City, but we are around the corner from the fire station and in the line of passing traffic. There’s always at least one siren-sounding emergency during Wednesday night practice, and there’s always a continuing parade of passersby talking loudly and drivers honking. These days we’ve been sitting to the sound of Wednesday night open-air concerts in the Square around the corner: noisy, distracting stuff. And yet as I tell newcomers who come to the group looking for tranquility, peace comes from within, not without. What difference, really, is there between one person shouting to another and the song of a bird? Or between the squeal of tires on pavement and the wingbeats of passing geese? We label one “sound” because we like it and the other “noise” because we don’t: that’s the only real difference. And because we think our everyday lives can’t possibly be havens of tranquility, we never find peace there because we aren’t open-minded enough to see tranquility in all its forms.

Many Christian-influenced meditators take comfort in Psalm 47:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Taken out of context, this is a statement of tranquility…and yet the rest of the psalm describes the tumult of earthquake and warfare: “Come and see the works of the Lord, the desolation he has brought on the earth.” God, it seems, is the ultimate earth-mover: he don’t need no stinkin’ bulldozer. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” Finding God in quiet and tranquility is fine and good…but can you find God when the earth around you is movin’ and shakin’? Can you find God in downtown New York City, or Buddha in the gears of a machine? If God and Buddha aren’t in these places, they ain’t nowhere, sweetheart: if you can’t find tranquility right here, right now, you ain’t gonna find it anywhere. And you can go ahead and call me Very Pushy for saying so.

Lorianne takes five precepts

One fun side-effect of sorting through old paperwork is the occasional serendipitous discovery of old photos. I’d thought I’d lost this April, 1995 photo of me taking Five Precepts at the Providence Zen Center: at one point I’d used the photo as a bookmark in my copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, so since I’d lent that to a student only to never see it again, I assumed this sole extant image of me in my stubbly-headed days had gone the way of the proverbial dodo. Apparently, though, I had the foresight to take this picture out of that book before lending it to a student, for I found the picture sandwiched between other seemingly “important” papers in a nearly-forgotten backpack. Thank goodness for serendipity!

If you’ve never attended a Buddhist precepts ceremony, the picture deserves some explanation. First of all, you’re not required to shave your head to take Five Precepts; I was simply crazy enough at that point in my life to shave my head for the fun of it. (I’d recently been accepted into my PhD program and figured I had nothing to lose: if I ever wanted to try bald-headedness, that was the time to do it.) Second, you should know that taking Five Precepts is an official public statement of your intention to follow a Buddhist path. It isn’t exactly a conversion ceremony, though, since becoming a Buddhist isn’t mutually exclusive to being some other religion as well: I know Christian Buddhists and Jewish Buddhists and pagan Buddhists and atheist ones, too. Making a public commitment to Buddhism simply means that you think the Buddha’s teachings are one clear-minded way to live your life and you intend to try your best to follow them. In a word, you’re making a public commitment to walk a spiritual path that recognizes the Five Precepts as being guideposts to clear and compassionate living:

  • I vow to abstain from taking life.
  • I vow to abstain from taking things not given.
  • I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust.
  • I vow to abstain from lying.
  • I vow to abstain from intoxicants taken to induce heedlessness.

Meditation room

There is, as you can see, a lot of “wiggle room” in the Five Precepts. What exactly is “misconduct done in lust,” for instance? Is moderate social drinking a “heedful” use of intoxicants? Does the first precept imply a vegetarian lifestyle? Having known many a Buddhist over the years, let me assure you that there’s plenty of carnivorous, wine-swilling, flesh-enjoying stuff going on…and I’ve known plenty of abstemious types who have refrained from all three. Buddhist practice in general and the Five Precepts in particular aren’t so much about what you do but why you do it. If your life is ruled by selfish desires, you’re going to cause suffering for yourself and others whether you eat, drink, and make whoopie or not. My favorite Buddhist story involves the Zen monk Won Hyo, who after 20 years of meticulous precept-keeping attained enlightenment only after spending the night in a whorehouse where he drank wine, ate meat, and broke “more than one precept” (nudge nudge, wink wink). Nobody likes a prude, and no one likes a selfish sensualist either. Somewhere between the two is the Middle Path, and the Five Precepts try to point to that.

Dharma room altar

In my Zen school, people who take Five Precepts are given a gray bowing robe, a brown apron-like kasa to wear over that robe, and a Buddhist name. At one point during every precepts ceremony, Five Preceptors approach the altar one by one to hear their new Buddhist name read aloud; they then have to demonstrate in front of the assembled multitude that they understand the true meaning of that name. My Buddhist name is Won Jin, which means “Original Truth.” So the above photo of stubble-headed me captures the precise moment when something like following interchange transpired between me and Zen Master Dae Kwang:

    ZMDK: Your new name is Won Jin, which means Original Truth. So, Lori, what is this Original Truth?
    L: (claps hands)
    ZMDK: Is that all?
    L: Your robe is gray!

Now, in most cases that would be the end of the exchange: the Zen Master would exclaim “Very good,” the student would bow, and certificates and congratulations would be granted. But by the time I took Five Precepts in 1995, I’d already been practicing for years, and Zen Master Dae Kwang knew he could get away with pushing me a bit.

    ZMDK: Yeah, my robe is gray: that’s plain old ordinary truth…but is it Original Truth?
    L: Of course it is!

Even before I was the Zen Mama, I had enough sass to hold my ground in front of a Zen Master and the assembled masses: I know Original Truth when I see it, buddy, and ain’t you or nobody else gonna tell me otherwise. The Five Precepts, after all, are simply about seeing clearly: right now, in this moment, what is the most compassionate thing to do? If you slavishly attach yourself to some doctrine or dogma, you’ll probably miss the nose on your face; if you try to wake up, moment to moment, what you should or shouldn’t do will make itself known. And if you know what’s right and true and have the guts and wherewithal to stick to it, not even a slick Zen Master can push you off your game.

And so I’m very glad to have found this picture of stubble-headed me way back when I was a Zen baby. It reminds me of a time when I was simultaneously strong and entirely open-minded about practice: an old hand at meditation, I was new to the notion of being a “Buddhist,” and I was wide-eyed and curious when it came to exploring the territory. If nothing else, it’s kind of fun to compare my nearly-ten-years-older, infinitely-hairier 2004 self to the young idealistic pup I used to be: you’ve come a long way, Zen baby!

If you want more reminders of what I look like now, with hair, check out my three new contributions to the Mirror Project.

You’ve seen this particular wall with this particular graffiti before. But when I was strolling around town killing time before meeting Kathleen the other night, I couldn’t resist taking this picture of the same old same old. It was around 6:30 pm when I took this picture, you see; this particular blue-painted, graffitied wall faces east, away from the setting sun. The patches of light you see on Mr. Extraordinary and the far boarded window are reflections of the setting sun bounced from the windows of the building next door: some sort of architectural eclipse whereby the shape of neighboring windows is mapped not directly but via the intercept of reflection and shadow.

These days my eye is irresistibly attracted to line, light, and shadow. In high school I was fascinated by geometry and trigonometry, by the regular predictability of angles proven and known. In my high school Physics class my teacher sensed my proclivities and lent me an old spherical trigonometry textbook over which I spent many an inexplicable late night hour: while other teenage girls had dates, I was wooed by arc and azimuth, declination and degree. Although my budding career as a mathematician went nowhere, these days I still find myself smitten by line, curve, and lovely alluring angles. When I walk the streets of Keene these days, my eyes are honed on interstice and angle, line and edge.

The wonder of light is that it perpetually makes things new. When we say we want to “see something in a new light,” we are, in a sense, longing for re-creation, the ultimate second chance. A wall seen by morning light is not in fact the same as that spotlit by sunset: this new (or indeed, exceedingly old) light that hastened across the universe to bounce off a window and then hit the wall is the agent of both change and re-seeing. Look twice, three times, even four: have you really seen that wall across the dooryard, the one you’ve contemplated over many a foggy cup of morning coffee or an endless procession of dinners? Look twice, three times, and yet again: is the wall you see at all regular and mundane or do you merely think it so, jaded from long exposure? That wall, after all, is (like yourself) lit and sustained by nothing less than the Cosmos.

On those occasions when I’ve sat longer retreats, spans of silence that stretched between one and three weeks, one thing I noticed is the way light and shadow tracks time and season. Sitting looking only at a span of wood floor immediately before me, I’d watch as shadows crept from one side of the room to the other as the hours slipped by, the angle of shadow arching and falling. Over the course of even a week, these patches of light and shadow moved. The morning light that gleamed in my eye during morning chanting on Monday would illuminate my right knee at the same time on Saturday: even the sun has places to go, things to do. If you sit a week’s retreat in the springtime, in March, for instance, you’ll notice the gradual but entirely perceptible way that the days lengthen, chants that originally transpired in darkness gradually and inevitably being lit by springly renewal.

In a word, it’s not about seeing, this brief spot of light we share; it’s about re-seeing, about those freshly illuminated perspectives that appear and re-appear in a teasing attempt to catch our attention again and again. Come here often, light and shadow coyly ask; even if we do, we’ve probably never seen the precise likes of them, no matter how many times we’ve looked.

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