State of the Gretchen: Week 108 in the Zen Center*

The month of May came and went, and I passed my two-year mark of living in the Zen Center.

When I’m sitting down to dinner with someone I haven’t met before and we’re running through the usual inquiry of how we came to be talking to each other in the dining hall of 300 Page Street, often the question is framed as “have you lived here long?” and I’m never quite certain how to answer, as having just met the person, the common meaning of the word “long” seems ill-defined.

This is a place where people come and go, or stay, and if you plotted the residencies of people who arrive, from those just visiting for a few days, through those here for a two-month practice period, and on up to people like Blanche or Victoria who have called Zen Center (at one location or another) their home for 40 years, the curve would be heavily skewed toward the shorter lengths, but the location on the curve where a “short” stay becomes “long,” I just don’t know.

Mostly I didn’t plan to live here, not for long, or not at all.    Not like the Midlife Monkeygirl, who framed her intention around living here as a year-long journey with a definite endpoint.  Moving in for me was divine happenstance – I was in housing transition and simultaneously deepening my practice here, and the idea to move in was found suddenly, in the breach of those conditions. I said to myself that I would stay through the end of 2009, and then I’d see. Then the end of that year came and I thought perhaps I would stay another year.  And then another, but who knows what 2012 will bring?  I keep taking more of my stuff from storage to the Goodwill or selling it on Craigslist.  If I do move out of here, whether on my own or with a push, there might not be much stuff left to move by then.

Some people in my life say that I have changed, tagging on “since you’ve moved into the Zen Center.” They say it lovingly, admiringly even.  I am not sure I agree with the implied attribution, as there was a lot in motion even before I moved in, but perhaps I can agree that all that motion has had a chance to take hold and become visible under the gentle and watchful eye of sangha life.

Since I last posted, though, I have gone through a bit of “itchy feet syndrome,” one of those periods where my system seeks relief by telling me stories about how I really need to rearrange the furniture or start a new hobby or quit my job or get rid of my boyfriend, if only I had one.

Itchy feet seem inevitable from time to time.  It’s not actual dissatisfaction, it’s more like existential crankiness, the same thing that makes me want to constantly check my inbox at work or make shopping lists during zazen, just on a bigger scale.  But to not just get up and fly with those feet means to sit in discomfort.

While I sat I catalogued all the things I give up to live at the Zen Center, and then I catalogued all the things I would give up if I moved out.  In the end it seemed like exchanging one set of challenges for another, but who really knows?  I was able to lash myself to the mast and get through the itch, so it looks like I’m going to just carry on as I was, going to the same job, coming home to the same 10’ x 12’ room, for awhile longer.  Perhaps by then I will have lived here “long.”  But it was interesting for a month or two, inside my head.

Feeling the itch and remaining still afforded an opportunity to reconnect with my experience – didn’t I remember how I love my simple life, relinquishing personal ownership of so many objects that now I don’t have to take care of?  Didn’t I remember how I love surrendering to the wakeup bell every morning, taking the decision point out of zazen, rolling out of bed and down two flights of stairs to find myself in the zendo at 5:25am?  Didn’t I remember how I love taking care of the temple, the people, the kitchen, everything that supports the life we live together?  Didn’t I remember how I love the lessons of every thing and every person in this building, the schedule, the ceremonies, how they remind me to soften and open, soften and open, to give up the silly ideas I have about who I am and how things are supposed to be?

And then there’s the sometimes philosophical, sometimes funny conversations around the breakfast table, the new beehives on the roof, the readings and performances on some Friday nights, the small victory of helping someone exit the Rubik’s cube of the Buddha Hall without triggering self- or other-criticism, seeing people return for the second or fourth or twelfth time, taking lunch in the courtyard sun on a spring day (those rare days when spring is really spring in San Francisco), coming home from work and running into a bold new flower arrangement on the first stair landing, serendipitous conversations and connections in the hallway, in the small kitchen, in the big kitchen, in the student lounge.

Sometimes you just have to boost the signal-to-noise ratio to get the system re-calibrated.

So here I am, starting week 109 in the Zen Center, and it all seems just fine.  The State of the Gretchen is pretty darn good, actually.  Some small things have changed, and I have some thoughts rumbling about in my brain that I’ll get out sooner or later.  It’s good to be back on the blog in the meantime.

*  Homage to Caren McDonald, the Midlife Monkeygirl.

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About gretchen

Gretchen lives in San Francisco. She writes about Zen practice and mundane moments on a planet that is increasingly ... hot.
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One Response to State of the Gretchen: Week 108 in the Zen Center*

  1. Gretchen,

    Such a sweet, thoughtful post. Thank you for your kind words. Sigh, the itchiness – itchiness, indeed. Your writing is a breath of fresh air. I look forward to hearing more about sangha life and all of the lovely dharma gates that open up for us.

    Deep bows.

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