Saturday afternoon was bright, sunny, and perfect for walking, so J and I took a brief break from our household chores to walk to Hemlock Gorge in Newton Upper Falls, where we crossed (and photographed) Echo Bridge before turning around to head for home. It’s been over a year since I blogged photos of Echo Bridge after having visited with Leslee and a mutual friend: how quickly water flows under this or any other bridge.
It’s been more than five years since I finished my dissertation and became “Doctor” in the spring of 2004; it’s been almost five years since I separated from and then divorced my then-husband in the summer and fall of that same year. Looking back on the past five years, I’m amazed at how smooth the flow of time seems. Finishing my PhD was a major milestone, and divorcing was a major upheaval…but as soon as the shock of those two life-changing events quieted, things quickly returned to a state of “normal” that has remained, for the most part, uninterrupted. Whenever I talk to people who are currently pursuing a PhD, I have a hard time believing I used to chase that same goal; whenever I for some reason remember that I used to be married, it feels like I’m remembering some other person, not “me.” How can the skin of time knit so flexibly over what once felt like an open wound?
Karen Maezen Miller recently blogged about the differences between her first and second marriages: “I’ve stopped thinking that one husband is different than the next, or even that my husband is different than yours.” It’s an interesting and relevant observation. When I first divorced, I worried that all future relationships would follow the same doomed pattern…and here, almost five years later, I find myself almost-married once again. I could count the ways that J is different from C, or I could count the ways that J and C are remarkably alike…but what would either accounting add up to in the end? Almost five years later, I still face the same old “me” in the mirror every morning: the title “Dr.” doesn’t change the same old mind-habits, nor does a status switch from “married” to “divorced.”
One of the things I’ve learned from years of Zen practice is that everything changes…except, of course, the things that don’t. The images of Echo Bridge I snapped on Saturday don’t look substantially different from the ones I shot in 2008, or from the ones featured on 19th century postcards. Seasons change, and so might the names of one’s spouse, friends, or very self, but some things remain the same. Rivers still flow and grass still grows; regardless of whom I’m in relationship with, I still face my same old insecurities, irritations, and shortcomings. Am I doomed to repeat in this relationship the faults, flaws, and foibles of a failed marriage? Of course I am: that’s exactly what Buddhists mean when they talk of karma. Until I figure out how to divorce myself–an act still outlawed and impossible in every state–my same old behaviors, impulses, and inner tantrums will repeat, repeat, repeat, as incessant as echoes.
But where exactly is the problem with that: why is it a bad thing simply to repeat? When I teach writing, I encourage my students to revisit and revise the same old page, same old paragraph, same old sentence. If at first you don’t succeed, they say, try, try again: one way that writing is better than baseball, I tell my students, is that you can take as many swings as you like without striking out. As Zen Master Seung Sahn was fond of saying over and over and over: “Only go straight – don’t know! Try, try, try for ten thousand years, non-stop, get enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.” It’s not the having nor the getting: it’s the trying that counts, time and again.
We want liberation from our Groundhog Day lives, presumably, because we can’t stand the monotony of yet another Saturday spent on household chores, but perhaps the repetition (and presumed stupidity) of our same old selves making the same old mistakes over and over is the Universe’s way of inundating us with second changes: an act of both generosity and grace. Do we extend to ourselves the same courtesy? Can we forgive ourselves, not just our fellows, the Biblical seven times seventy? Our karma leads us to make the same old mistakes over and over, but our precious Dharma–the fruit of our life-practice–allows us to forgive ourselves–our spouses, our friends–an infinite number of times, if necessary. Only then, it seems, have we made progress, taking a step up while the rest of our lives, like sound waves, echo back again and again across time.