Life lessons


Rain slicked

Every morning, I follow the same basic routine: a daily liturgy that involves taking the beagle out and in, loading the dishwasher, taking out the trash and recyclables, cleaning the kitchen litter box, and filling various food and water bowls. It takes me about an hour and fifteen minutes to do these mundane chores, and I do them every day: weekdays, weekends, days when I feel like it, and days when I don’t.

Skull

Because I’ve repeated this same set of chores so many times, I’ve streamlined the process. I don’t do these tasks willy-nilly; instead, I do them in the same order every day, one task following the next like a wheel rolling into a well-worn track. Because my body knows exactly what it needs to do, I don’t have to think about what comes next: I don’t have to think about anything at all. When I set my feet on the floor, they know where to take me.

Wall at Central Square

I’ve come to see my morning routine as its own kind of meditation. When I lived in the Zen Center, I had a different sort of morning routine that involved bowing, chanting, and sitting rather than dish-washing, litter box cleaning, and bowl-filling. When the Zen Center wake-up bell rang, you stumbled out of bed and into the Dharma room, and practice happened whether you were properly awake or not. Because you’d bowed, chanted, and sat so many times before, your body knew how to complete these actions whether or not your mind really “wanted” to.

Wall at Cenral Square

To many, this might sound like the epitome of mindless practice: you just go through the motions whether you feel like it or not, as mindless as any automaton. We live in a culture of emotion that believes the heart is the highest authority, so it’s downright criminal (or worse, hypocritical) to do something when your “heart isn’t in it.” But Zen isn’t a way of the heart; it lives even deeper in the body, down in the rooted tangle of the gut. Anyone who’s lived in a Zen Center knows that following a mindless routine is the way to mindfulness: because you don’t have anything to do but show up, your mind is free to pay attention without equivocation.

The Wall at Central Square

C.S. Lewis famously argued that the routine monotony of liturgy is what makes it a transcendent experience. Only when your body and mind are trained by the predictable repetition of a church service is your spirit free to commune:

Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it “works” best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

ZEN

When I’m immersed in the routine of dish-washing, litter box cleaning, and bowl-filling, my mind feels free and unfettered, free to wander where it will. An entirely ordinary but profoundly satisfying kind of peace arises when you don’t have to wonder what comes next: you just do your job. In the evening, I repeat a routine that complements my morning chores, taking the beagle out and in, emptying the dogs’ water bowls, and mopping the floor. There are moments when I’m leading the beagle to or from the dog pen when I wonder whether I was a farmer in a past life, the simple routine of animal husbandry—food and water in, waste out—feeling both familiar and reassuring.

No comp

I’m currently reading Brad Kessler’s Goat Song, a nonfiction narrative about the pastoral joys of goat-tending and cheese-making. I’ve never tended goats or made cheese, but what Kessler says about his experience of goat-milking sounds so akin to my experience tending a menagerie of pets, I suspect only the details of our respective practices differ:

Maybe it’s just the routine, the same objects in the same place (the wipes, the teat dip, the feed bucket, the scoop). The smallest change upsets the balance; the repetition builds a kind of faith (milk stand, hoof trimmers, hay knife, stool). Rote is the nature of prayer. Incantation is repetition. Saying and doing the same thing over and over until entranced. Ritualizing the same physical motion with your body as Yogis do. My movements here on this milk stand are a kind of davening, a morning prayer with goat.

After dark

“Rote is the nature of prayer”: this is a line I could live and die by, a mantra truer to my lived experience than any creed. Every day, the goats need to be milked; every day, the dishes need to be washed, the litter boxes need to be cleaned, and the water bowls need to be filled. Your life isn’t what happens before and after you’ve done your chores; instead, your chores are your life. Only after these tasks have become routine can you settle into the comfortable monotony that is prayer.

Staircase mural

Last week, I went to City Hall to drop off a red plastic container of used hypodermic needles. One of our cats, Snowflake, was recently diagnosed with diabetes, so since January we’ve been giving him twice-daily insulin injections. Used syringes (or “medical sharps,” as they’re officially known) are a health hazard and can’t be tossed in the trash, but the local Health Department accepts puncture-proof containers of used needles for safe disposal.

USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere

It took a lot of wandering inside City Hall to find the Health Department: the building is literally a bureaucratic maze. Newton’s City Hall also doubles as a War Memorial, so while I was lost and wandering, I had ample opportunity to admire the dioramas in the hallways, each depicting in miniature a significant scene from American military history.

Pickett's Charge

Dioramas are like windows into another time or place, depicting a particular moment frozen in time, but they are also a kind of box, cleanly containing a discreet moment that exists separate and apart from the present. Viewing miniature models of soldiers dying on the battlefields of Gettysburg or France, for instance, I can imagine what it was like to be there…but I’m not there. The pane of glass between me and a diorama scene safely contains the story it depicts, so I can peer into the box of another’s pain without having to touch it.

Somewhere in France

Once I found the Health Department, I was surprised I didn’t have to fill out any paperwork or show identification to prove I’m a resident. Instead, when I announced I had medical sharps to dispose, a man silently rose from his desk and barely made eye contact as he solemnly walked me down the hall to a locked closet where a large, deep box—large enough to curl up in—was filled to almost-overflowing with red biohazard canisters and used detergent bottles, each filled with puncture-points of pain.

Valley Forge

After adding my contribution to the box, I got to wondering about its contents. The box, like a diorama, was both a window and a container. As a container, it safely held sharp, potentially infectious things that need to be handled (and disposed of) with care. But as a window, the box offered a glimpse into the pain of my anonymous neighbors. Behind each needle-prick lies a story of suffering: patients and caretakers, sickness or addiction, pain and relief. Maybe this is why the man with the closet key averted his eyes, in part to preserve my privacy (needles freely accepted: no questions asked) but also to protect the sanctity of an unshared story.

The diorama of daily life contains so much suffering, a jaw-dropping accumulation of countless pricks and jabs. Who among us has the courage to look it in the eye?

Office decor

Yesterday I brought a roll of posters to my office at Framingham State: posters I hadn’t seen since I took them down from the walls of my old office at Keene State some three years ago. Some of these posters I’ve had for decades, like a series of Korean watercolor prints depicting the four seasons my ex-husband bought when we lived in Toledo more than 20 years ago. I also found (and promptly taped to my wall) a promotion poster for a stage adaptation of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! I saw at Saint Anselm College when I taught there in the early 2000s, something that feels like a lifetime ago.

The four seasons

Unrolling these posters felt like opening a time capsule containing my own personal history. All of these items are things I chose to put on my office walls over the years, so they all have some sort of connection with my life history. Ironically, though, I didn’t remember many of them until I removed them from the cardboard shipping tube I’d stored them in, memories spilling out as I unrolled each one.

Van Gogh and Cather

There is, for example, a print of Van Gogh’s sunflowers that I bought when I was a grad student at Boston College. It hung in my office in Carney Hall when I first started teaching, and I chose it largely because its earth tones complemented the dated ’70s decor of that office, which featured harvest-gold walls and an avocado-green desk and chair. I somehow managed to keep and carry this poster from one office to another, but I have no idea what became of the print of The Painter’s Honeymoon I used to take down from my office wall to tape to the blackboard in my classroom and ask students to write about. That lushly romantic image also complemented the gold and green decor of my first office, but I either jettisoned or lost it over the years.

Office decor

Also on my wall is a double-fold magazine ad featuring a doleful-eyed dog in the process of eating someone’s homework. This artifact dates from roughly the same time as the Van Gogh print: I think I first displayed it in my grad-student office at Northeastern when I started my doctoral studies there. It’s a poster I’ve taped up and taken down countless times in my 20-year career as an oft-itinerant adjunct instructor, and it strikes me as remarkable that a simple magazine ad could have such staying power.

My humble office

Among the posters I’d forgotten and then found was an enormous movie poster for A River Runs Through It, which I’d bought and hung on my office wall when I was a PhD student, one of my dissertation chapters focusing on Norman Maclean’s novella of the same name. The poster shows Paul Maclean–played to mischievous perfection by a young Brad Pitt–casting an impossibly long fly-line, its trajectory sun-lit and frozen in time. “Nothing perfect lasts forever except in our memories,” the tagline wistfully observes, and this remark would have served as an apt epigram for that dissertation chapter, which compared Maclean’s novella with Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: two books about rivers that commemorate dead brothers.

Four seasons

It’s been more than 10 years–more than a decade!–since I finished that dissertation, and I’ve forgotten much of what it was about, the work I do as a teacher of writing having little to do with my academic training as a literary scholar. It doesn’t really matter, though. The river of time rolls on whether you’re ready or not, with some things getting lost or jettisoned and others being preserved. Like that movie poster likes to remind me, nothing perfect lasts forever except in our memories, and our most precious memories don’t mind being tightly rolled and stored away.

We out here though

This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, and as always there was a pot of hot tea waiting for me when I went into the interview room to begin. Sunday mornings when I give interviews are hectic: I have to get up early enough to do my morning chores before I leave, so by the time I arrive at the Zen Center, I’ve already taken the beagle out and in, loaded the dishwasher, cleaned the kitchen litter box, and fed the cats. It feels good, in other words, to sit down to a hot pot of tea someone else prepared: a chance to play guest.

After the laughter

I usually take about three sips of tea before I ring the bell for the first interview. While everyone gets settled on their cushions in the main meditation room, I get settled on my cushion in the interview room, making sure I have everything I need close at hand: a clock so I can keep an eye on the time, and a box of tissues I can offer to anyone who comes in with a heavy heart. (Sometimes I think the most important job a senior Dharma teacher can do in consulting interviews is listen without judgement while calmly doling out tissues.) Once I’ve determined everything is in place, I pour a cup of tea and take approximately three sips, breathing in the tea’s aroma, feeling the heat of the cup in my hands, and savoring the warm flavor on my tongue. The Zen Center is a ritual-rich place, and these three sips of tea have taken on an almost magical meaning for me. Before I can ring the bell that says “I’m ready to listen to whatever question or issue you want to talk about,” I have to make myself present to a simple cup of tea.

Rest in paint

A lot of profound, powerful, and deeply humorous things happen in the interview room: all that consulting interviews are, after all, is a chance for two practitioners to sit down and talk face-to-face behind a closed door. But sometimes I feel like the most powerful moment for me personally is the moment or two before I ring the bell, when it’s just me holding a cup of tea in my hands, wondering what sort of questions will walk through the door.

Je suis XXVI

Before I set my teacup down and ring the bell for the first interview, I spend a moment looking at the drawing of Kwan Seum Bosal, the bodhisattva of compassion, that hangs above the interview room mantel. In the guise of an eleven-headed goddess with a thousand hands and eyes, Kwan Seum Bosal looks like a harried mother with heads instead of eyes in the back of her head: ever watchful, and ever ready to lend a hand (or a tissue) when someone is suffering. Before I set my teacup down and ring the bell for the first interview, I silently invoke the spirit of Kwan Seum Bosal, whom I recognize as a representation of the compassion we all possess. Once I ring the bell for the first interview, I have no way of knowing what flavor of suffering will walk through the door. All I can hope for is that like Kwan Seum Bosal, I’ll find a way to be present in the face of whatever arises.

Teddy bears' interview

Last night, I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center: a chance for practitioners to have a one-on-one conversation with a senior teacher.

Teddy bears' interview

One of the best bits of advice I ever got about giving consulting interviews came from Zen Master Bon Haeng (aka Mark Houghton), who sat next to me the first time I gave a round of interviews. Consulting interviews, he explained, aren’t about answering questions; consulting interviews are about sharing an experience with the person sitting across from you.

I think of Zen Master Mark’s advice whenever I ring the interview room bell to signal the next person to come in and sit down. If consulting interviews were about answering questions, I’d have to worry about knowing enough to say the right thing. But since consulting interviews are about sharing an experience, I don’t have to know anything to give a good interview: I just have to show up, sit down, and be present for whatever arises.

Zen Master bear with Zen stick

These three guidelines–show up, sit down, and be present–are the same whether you sit in the teacher’s or the student’s seat: these three guidelines, in fact, apply to pretty much any face-to-face encounter. And as if to underscore that point, last night when I walked into interview room, I found it was already occupied by two plump teddy bears sharing a face-to-face experience that transcended human words.

Dwight Hall with turkeys

Today is my last day of teaching before Thanksgiving break, and at both Curry College yesterday and Framingham State today, it’s clear that many students and faculty alike have already headed home, either literally or figuratively. There are fewer cars in the parking lot, fewer students strolling outside, and an influx of emails from apologetic students explaining they won’t be in class because they’re leaving early to head home.

Turkey trio

On days like today, I remember something Zen Master Dae Kwang, who was born and raised in Nebraska, once said. Every Nebraskan farmer knows you can’t steer a horse that’s headed back to the barn. Once even the most obedient beast is intent on returning to his feed trough, there’s nothing either a carrot or stick can do to dissuade him.

On days like today, I realize both students and faculty alike are already headed (literally or figuratively) toward a barn called Thanksgiving, which offers troughs of tasty food, days without alarm clocks, and the hope (for faculty at least) of catching up with grading. If this morning’s class is any indication, my afternoon class will be small and we’ll end early. There’s no use wasting either a carrot or stick on a herd of obedient beasts whose minds are so obviously elsewhere.

This is my Day Twenty-Five contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Buddha and houseplant

Last night I went to evening practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, even though I still haven’t fully recovered my voice from the cold-turned-bronchitis I’ve been fighting all month. My voice is mostly better when I’m simply talking…but chanting was a whole other story, with my voice squeaking, croaking, or falling silence whenever the melody varied from the middle-monotone. It will take a while before my vocal cords are back in shape for either chanting or singing, but in the meantime, it was good to squeak by with roomful of other practitioners who filled in the melodic gaps when my voice wasn’t able to rise to the occasion.

This is my Day Twenty-Four contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

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