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Snippet 2 of Taoist Mystery: Being With Nothingness

Obviously, the only reason I’m putting a few of these very first draft, rather random sections of my work ‘in progress,’ I’ll call it loosely, is to find out whether any readers out there would be the slightest bit interested in continuing if they stumbled across this: would you want to know any who, what, why, when, where? Please remember, compassion is a very mindful trait.

Snippet Two:

And now I was staring at a ditch that didn’t exist yesterday at the edge of a woods that was mostly brush and scrub pine with a roommate who I didn’t even really know at a retreat lead by a mad monk. “Everything changes.” “Accept the Now.” I was trying very, very hard to do just that but  was also thinking about why the ditch had appeared, who had put it there and where did it begin? Or end? Somewhere up in the pines above the dunes. Without saying more, I began to climb the hill. Sam followed, his rolling lumber heavier than mine as was his breathing. As the hill went up, the path turned from slushy grass to rocks and then to no path at all. But the ditch was still there beside us providing a trail when the trail had given up.
Finally, we stopped. The ditch stopped. The trees stopped.. We were in a clearing, a hole in the woods, nothing but dirt and a few wisps of bad grass with a few stumps dotting it. And at the very edge of the ditch, face down, head on one side, torso the other, lay a person. Or “once was a” person because she looked very, very dead. I knew I was letting my expecting mind get in the way. There really wasn’t any certainty that the body was a she. There was very long white-blond hair but it wasn’t like I had never run into a metal band before; and the figure was slight and didn’t look very tall but one of my favorite friends was a 5’ 3” drag queen so that meant nothing. And really, even the “dead” part, was I so sure about that? Who knows how comfortable lying face down across a ditch to sleep off a drunk might be, after all?

A few years before, I had taken a CPR class and I remembered at least the first part—the whacking and shouting part. To be absolutely correct I should first shout “Call 911” to Sam but there were no cell phones allowed at the retreat so that seemed a bit needlessly dramatic. I skipped straight to step two: I walked over yelling “Are you ok? Are you ok?” and started hitting the—person—on the back with the palm of my hand. Hard. There was a girl in the CPR class who had just said in a quiet voice “are you ok?” and she got reamed out by the instructor. I wasn’t making that mistake. “Are you ok?” I screamed as loud as I could and thwacked the—person—again.
“What the hell are you doing?” Sam snarled. “You can tell she’s dead.”
“How do you know it’s a ‘she’? Aren’t you bringing your expectations to this? Shouldn’t you approach it with ‘beginner’s mind’?”
“Well, she or he or it is still dead.”
I paused my back slapping, looked at the unmoving—body—the new position I had just promoted the person to.
“Yeah. What do we do? We can’t call the police; there’s no phone anywhere around. And in all the good detective shows, you learn not to touch the body, so we shouldn’t, but…”
“But you’re really jonesing to find out whether it’s a he or she, aren’t you?” Sam said, tilting back his neckless chin to peer down his nose at me. “Well, do it. Don’t keep me waiting,” he went on, smiling like the good little enabler he was.
I thought about at least waiting until we told Leon, the director of the retreat, the “monk” who ran the place like Mussolini on meth but I wasn’t sure the “mad monk” would be the best person to do the turning over. I already had him pegged as a main suspect. So my slapping hand now became my turning hand and I rolled the—woman–because she had now had a second promotion—over.

Snippet from early stages of my Taoist mystery

The ditch didn’t exist yesterday. Then again, I didn’t exist yesterday, at least not the “I” that was standing at the edge of a ragged ditch stretching from three feet to my left up the dunes into the trees. Right. Everything Changes. I knew that part. But a ditch doesn’t just become a ditch overnight.

Sam came up behind me.

“That ditch wasn’t there yesterday.”

He bent over the edge, looking into it as if the answer to its birth would be gazing up at him from its bottom.

“Nope.”

“Well, how did it get there? Who dug it?”

“Everything Changes,” I said, knowing that I might as well just have said “Your mama’s so fat….”

“Don’t give me that crap. A ditch doesn’t just become a ditch overnight.”

Excellent. Something we could agree on out here in the middle of nothing at the end of nowhere.  Sam and I had come out here so he could ‘find’ himself. And the first thing we found was a ditch.

‘Bash It Out Now; Tart It Up Later’

Whether or not that’s really what Nick Lowe used to tell the bands he was producing, it’s an excellent method of doing…well, just about anything. So here goes, bashing:

I want to write. I want to write daily. I want to write as “the thing I do.”

I don’t want to do this because I’m a good writer. Once I might have been an ‘ok’ writer but that was in graduate school so maybe I’m just remembering the hubris of every grad student in literature. Mercifully, I didn’t save any of my writing from 40 years ago so I’ll never be able to dismay, despair or disabuse myself of this idea. No, I’m a pretty bad writer.

I don’t want to write because I get pleasure out of it. Writing sucks. Writing is hard. Writing is both torturous and tortuous because it twists my brain into the kind of little bundles socks and underwear come out of the dryer in. I hate sitting in front of a keyboard or picking up a pen whether I’m writing a blog piece, an email or a birthday card. I used to tell my students that was what made me a good writing teacher: I knew just how much they hated it and wanted it all to just go away. No, I don’t get pleasure out of writing.

I want to write because writing is there. Inside my head, thoughts are thoughts and they can grow and play and saunter around all night but they are never ‘there.’ Never within a moment; never here. Only by writing them down do they become the plum, become the juice of the time that I have right now as I dangle on the vine between the tiger above and the tiger below. I want to write because writing is being.

Sit, Black Dog, Sit

My, I have been silent a long time, haven’t I?

St_Johns_dog

The image of depression as a black dog is usually that of a Baskerville-like hound, running at the heels, biting and snapping. And yet that seems terribly active for the depressed state, one where the sufferer is more likely to simply wait to be devoured than to run away.

My black dog seems more likely to settle in at my side, head dropped on paws, unmoving and unmovable. He just sits. Is he waiting for me to make the first move so he can then spring up to block my way, stopping any forward progress I might try to make? No, I don’t think so. He knows I’m not going anywhere; he knows I don’t have the mental energy. He’s really quite content to hang with me, to be my wing man (if that’s not too confusing a metaphor for a dog). When he nestles beside me, my black dog of depression seems almost calm and friendly rather than threatening and ravening.

He sits. I sit. I do what has to be done. And when I return from those chores, he’s there, waiting and sitting. If I stumble into a burst of activity, he isn’t threatened. My black dog knows I’ll be back, that I’ll always return to him. And sit with him. And he will sit with me. Calm. Strong. Stronger than I. Lowered head, sad eyes, knowing eyes. How could I ever leave him?

Re-Versing Time

20111229-224052.jpgWe did a lot of “Om”-ing back in the ’70s. Meditation was practically a competitive sport. We’d sit Lotus position, eyes only half closed so we could sneak looks at those around us. “How does she get her foot that high on her damn thigh?” “Oh, c’mon, look at the math geek–half lotus, how sad.” Not only did we not empty our minds, we practically hoarded, adding as many random thoughts as we could cram in. Forget about “gently bringing the puppy back”; we might as well have been at a dog park.

I was a Lit major then. But we all were, weren’t we? Literature or Philosophy:  two perfect majors for those who believed a decent salary was a tool of the Devil. I prefer to think I naively believed I could make a living wage teaching Jane Austen under an oak tree–but that life is truly another story and this story rolled together in that most basic of beliefs: Everything Changes.

What struck me recently is that I might have had some sense of the value meditation would bring as I aged, even as I played it like a varsity sport, when I read a collection of Louis MacNeice poems. I loved MacNeice in college, especially “BagPipe Music.” And when I reread it, I thought: “Yes, maybe I wasn’t totally clueless about the depth meditation can bring to life.”

“Bagpipe Music”: The title says nothing about the content but everything about the lope of the poem from line to line, the bouncing repetition whose gentle lilt hides the darkness of the lines caught in opening couplet:

‘It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw,

All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.’

And in the last two lines, after much ill omen and ill will and images of young urbanites trying to outrun their fate, I might have first wrapped my brain–as a young urbanite trying to outrun my fate–around the importance of the “now.”

‘The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,

But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.’

Yup, Everything Changes and you can’t stop it so…

Which led me to my other favorite poem from college and one that I chose as a reading at my third wedding–when I was older, hopefully wiser, and had finally ditched the Philosophy majors: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.”

Put two of its most resonant lines with that last couplet of MacNeice and there it is: Mindfulness; Everything changes; Be Here Now.

‘The grave’s a fine and private place

But none, I think, do there embrace.’

My Lotus position was never that great anyway.

The Parable Series: Where Are My Damn Keys?

Public Domain Sketch

Public Domain Sketch

And so the parable goes:

There was a very wealthy man who kept all his money, jewels and gold locked inside a box inside his mansion. One late night, he wanted to go count his loot but couldn’t remember where he left the keys. “I know I had them in my house last I looked but I can’t remember where I put them. Now where could they be?” (Note that he did remember what a key was just not where it was–not a dementia tale here.) The house was quite dark, the fires already having been drawn down for the night, but outside the street lamp was still lit. So the man went outside and began searching and searching under the street light becoming more and more agitated as he looked. A friend saw him and came up, saying “What are you doing, old friend?” And the wealthy man answered “Looking for the keys to my treasure box. I can’t find them anywhere.” The friend began to search with him, both looking everywhere under the street light but finding nothing. At last the friend said, “I can’t see them anywhere! Do you remember exactly where you last saw them?” And the wealthy but keyless–and clueless–man replied, “Oh, yes, they were in my house. But it’s so much easier to look out here where there is such bright light!”

And so the parable ends.

Easy one, right? When I first read this parable, I felt slightly insulted to be presented such a simple puzzle. Well, of course, it means that we shouldn’t be looking for answers in the outside world just because that is easier. We must look only within for the key to the meanings and treasures of life.

Or should we? If that’s all the parable means, I think I have just cause to cry foul, because can all answers really come from within? Of course, many times I find myself reaching for the easy solution or quick fix that the latest diet guru or purple pill might provide when I know that this probably isn’t going to  mean I’ll become rich and skinny–or poor but enlightened. And introspection and meditation certainly have given me far more insight (by definition!) than self-help books.

But what about that friend? I keep coming back to him, the man willing to help our buddy under the street light. Didn’t he play an important role as well? Wasn’t his willingness to stop and take time ultimately likely to help the wealthy man “see the light”? I can imagine the next scene of the parable being the friend saying, “well, then, let’s not waste time out here. C’mon, I’ll grab a flashlight and we’ll go inside and look for the keys where you think you saw them last in the house, old buddy.”

Of course, looking for the easy answer outside won’t lead me to my deep treasures. But I’ll be better off with a friend with a torch than alone in the darkness looking only inward.