grabbing the gearshift

I chuckled as I sat down on the zafu, because the invitation to sit dokusan with my teacher came at the last minute as it sometimes does, and I had no idea what I wanted to ask him.

I decided to start with some gentle teasing.

“I’ve been reading Fire Monks” (the book that just came out about the monks at Tassajara in the 2008 Basin Complex Fire).  “The book says you often shout at your students, but you’ve never shouted at me.  Should I be worried?”

“That’s funny,” he replied, “because as you sat down I was thinking to myself, what is it going to take to go deeper?”  It wasn’t shouting but it was fierce; he answered my teasing with a challenge.

In the service of taking things deeper we talked about the events and situations in my life that affect me the most, and he probed into my thoughts and feelings about them, my beliefs, my responses.  We looked at the language I use to describe these situations, whether the language was neutral or non-neutral.

The line of questioning, seeming to examine how well I knew my own state of mind, left me agitated.  Is this what he thinks has been missing in the two plus years we’ve been meeting?  Does he think I’m a shallow person, avoiding contact with my inner emotional states?  My system objected. Aren’t we cultivating equanimity here?  Isn’t my psychological stability one of my best assets?  And is he asserting that it’s built on a false base, that in reality I am disconnected from my own experience?

This great doubt, it is not fun.

One time in a workshop I was asked to walk a timeline of my life and stop whenever I came upon an experience in which I felt wronged or resentful.  Before I started walking the line I thought ‘oh no, this is going to be a disaster – I don’t have any lingering resentments, not me.’  And then I walked the line and stopped on almost every major relationship I’ve been in.   I would stop and see a mental picture of the person and my disappointment in them was right there, I didn’t have to go searching.  And this was almost immediately followed by the “extenuating facts” voice in my head that wanted to excuse the person for doing the best they can and bring up my own shortcomings and disappointment in self in that relationship.  But because the workshop exercise wasn’t about that, I was forced to just look at the resentments as separate events, see them for what they are, to notice that they exist.  How illuminating!  This is what I do.  I move so quickly to the wide view that I skip the original experience.

So perhaps my teacher has a point, if indeed that’s the point he is making.  It’s not equanimity if I’m glossing over the events of my life and jumping right into the it’s-all-good mantra to steady the ship.   Equanimity pulls from deeper waters and is ready for all storms.  Equanimity knows where the disappointments and resentments are, and includes them in the appropriate response.

Sometimes I look at my face and I don’t recognize myself.  I look old and tired, weighted down in a way that I don’t identify with.  Perhaps my face shows the sadness of my ancestors, their pain and bitterness coming through in physical form even though my life is unfolding in a way that feels less limited by my convoluted family soul, or ancient twisted karma, than it used to.  But I also wonder if I’m missing something; perhaps my face knows something about me that I’ve forgotten or never wanted to really look at in the first place.

This is my koan for today:  No one can know what my internal experience is but me; what is it that I really feel?

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back in the saddle again

Sometimes the universe screws around with you a bit.

I am back to being head chiden at the temple again.  In the same weekend I was invited to again be head chiden, my boss’ half-time scheduling support (at my day job) left to be full-time support for someone else, and I was invited to again be my boss’ executive assistant.  There was less “option” involved in this invitation than with the return to the head chiden gig. I was originally hired to be the boss’ executive assistant, and then the job grew and I got promoted, and now I am scheduling again until we find a replacement.

I struggled momentarily to find some grand meaning in the fact that I was once again head chiden and executive assistant, fearful that one way to look at it was that I was losing ground.   Perhaps the universe was telling me something?  That I had forgotten a lesson, that I needed to go backward along the path already traveled, pick up something I had missed?  For so long I had the idea that I had to keep moving forward.  I thought I had to accomplish one thing after another and that each accomplishment had to rest on top of the last.

Both of these gigs, being head chiden and being executive assistant, are roles I love.  I was reminded of that when a couple Saturdays ago during the dharma talk I looked at the beeswax candles on the altar and noted that the main candle was dripping wax down the side, a result of causes and conditions, perhaps an asymmetrically loaded wick or unstable base combined with inadequate seating of the brass follower that cradles the top of the candle.  I noted the drips dispassionately at first until I remembered that I was again head chiden and that one of my duties was to care for the beeswax candles, and that I would be the one to carry the candle down to the chidening area, lighting it to warm and soften the wax, trimming the candle to a level surface, cleaning the wax out of the follower.  I would be the one to watch how the candle was performing after that, visiting it after service in the morning, slightly twisting and seating the follower again if all was well.  Some part of my mind is reserved for observing these candles now, monitoring their well-being, giving assistance in the form of continued seating and trimming if necessary, supporting the activities of candles fulfilling their destinies to live complete temple candle lives.  It is how I imagine a mother always has one part of her mind observing the activities of the child, watching and listening perhaps even without conscious attention for any assistance that might be helpful to offer.

In much the same way, being an executive assistant is supporting the activities of the CEO fulfilling his destiny to live a complete CEO life. He has other roles to be sure, but my concern is limited to just this.   When he is in the office I have his daily calendar with me, either mentally or on paper, and whatever else I am doing that day I am also following his day, knowing when meetings are running over and the participants of the next meeting need to be informed, or perhaps going to stand silently by the door of the meeting room, where even just by my sudden appearance he might bolt out of his absorbed huddle and look at his smartphone to see if he’s supposed to be going somewhere else.  I am following his day to see that he gets fed, that he has the materials he needs for his meetings, to see if he has time for a quick phone call with someone who urgently needs to speak with him in Mexico or DC.

To me this is all about love.  I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, because I don’t have a specific attachment to either beeswax candles or this particular CEO.  These candles and this CEO are certainly worthy of love, but I felt this way even about supporting the famous scientist I worked for before, who was not nice to a lot of people.   They are all worthy of love, nice or not, but it’s not even about that – it’s about the warm feeling I get in the center of my chest when I think about taking care of things and people, paying attention to them, honoring the activities of their lives, honoring the nobility of things and people taking their place in the universe.

Sometimes things are changing in a way that seem to be moving your self and your life forward, moving toward something or away from something, and then you look around and the idea begins to form that perhaps the movement lacks purposefulness or directionality after all.  This idea, when it strikes, it is not comfortable.  I don’t think this current crop of humans enjoys the idea of directionlessness.

But just to love: isn’t that everything?

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The whole universe invites you …

Saturday was our monthly one-day sitting, required for all residents.  Actually it was a triple whammy Zen day:  a one-day sitting, the middle day of a three-day sesshin (meditation retreat), and the end of the spring practice period.  But I was only in for the one-day sitting. 

 The day was a celebration of simplicity. I managed to escape getting assigned complicated and responsible duties and could just “follow the schedule,” going to the zendo when the densho called, getting up to do kinhin between sitting periods, going to lecture or work circle when it was time to do that. The assignment I did pull (everyone gets an assignment) was on the serving crew for oryoki.  Oryoki is a formal, choreographed meal in the zendo and the role of the servers is to execute the instructions of the soku and head server, bearing pots of food into the zendo and being mindful to enter with an open and generous heart.  This isn’t really different than what is required of any other moment (perhaps if you substitute “the request of practice” for “the soku and head server”), but somehow taking away all the distractions I associate with more fussy activities made it easier to focus on just that.  I felt relaxed and appreciative.

After serving the oryoki breakfast the serving crew sat down for their own silent meal together, playing out an abbreviated form of the formal oryoki we’d enacted in the zendo.  Oryoki has a lot of specific rules, and one of the rules is that you don’t mix the food from your three bowls unless it is announced that the Tenzo (head of the kitchen) invites you to do so.  This announcement, when it happens, is a Zen version of Monopoly’s “Get out of Jail Free” card, a release from the constriction of a tightly scripted ceremony. We sat in silence with oats in the first bowl, pumpkin pudding in the second bowl, and toasted almonds in the third bowl.  As I picked up my almonds one-by-one with my chopsticks, I longed to dump them all into the pumpkin pudding.  I looked at the soku to see if perhaps he’d spaced out about announcing the invitation, but he did not seem to desire being prompted.  So I made the mental shift to remember to fully take in what the universe was offering, and settled in to eat my pumpkin pudding and almonds separately, tasting each in my mouth and experiencing their individual characteristics.

It was then that the soku broke the silence, saying “The whole universe invites you to mix your second and third bowls.”

There were some quiet chuckles as we all appreciated the soku’s twist on the usual announcement.  We don’t always find the sweet spot we’re looking for, and it never stays with us when we do find it, but it does pass through on occasion, affording an opportunity to make contact.  I luxuriated in the sweetness of the moment, as it seemed that the whole universe was offering up its generosity and kindness without discrimination to me and all beings.

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Bye bye chiden, goodbye

One of the things that has changed recently is that I am no longer the head chiden.

There are many jobs at the Zen Center – house jobs, bathroom jobs, kitchen jobs, dish jobs, staff jobs.  Chidening falls under the classification of doanryo jobs – the jobs that keep the temple going — chidens take care of the temple’s altars.  I have been head chiden for about a year now, primarily responsible for setting up altars for special ceremonies, which we do quite often around here.

Special ceremonies are a bit like Thanksgiving dinner, which I experience as hours of preparation, the food getting devoured in minutes, followed by hours of cleanup.  For a Zen ceremony, the set-up consists of moving things around, taking tables out of closets, changing ceremonial cloths, preparing offerings (sweet water, tea, and rice, or sometimes cakes or manju or pyramids of oranges), pulling out chant cards, lighting up charcoal and candles. Each ceremony has its own arrangement.  Then the ceremony takes place, lasting from ten minutes to two hours, and after that everything has to be put away again.

One morning as I was washing out ceramic bowls and the pot I cooked the rice in and folding up the cloths and generally straightening up, I was thinking about how much effort went into this whole affair.  Everything comes out and then goes back in the closet.  It comes out and goes back, over and over again.  If you think about it with a supposedly rational mind, it makes little sense. Why do we bother?

On that morning I went to my room and spotted the vase of flowers I keep on my dresser/personal altar.  The flowers were moderately fresh but the water was murky and needed to be changed. I vow not to let a container of steadily decaying organic matter fester on my altar, so I keep at it, but with the same thoughts as I had about the pointlessness of setting up for ceremonies – so much effort, and for what? Isn’t it so much easier to do away with the flowers and I don’t know, put a nice statue there or something?

But I do like this ceremony of keeping fresh flowers: I like the constellation of sight/sound/feeling I have when I see the flowers on my dresser and I like the sight/sound/feeling while I’m in the activity of changing them. This state of mind evokes something like optimism, of there being a purpose to activity although there is no goal, even as my thoughts trigger deep questions about whether feeling purposeful is rational.  Perhaps it is in opposition to my sense of defeat, to the inevitability of the entropy that conquers all hopes for “getting anywhere” with all this activity, that I find hopefulness itself, standing apart from the notion that something must be achieved.  Perhaps intimately witnessing the uncomplaining exertion of life propelling itself into the universe is found just here in the act of repeatedly gathering flowers that are doomed, like all of us, to die, having gotten – nowhere. Can this be true?  And is that why we do all these ceremonies, to remind ourselves of that, to drive hopefulness deeper into our bones through repetition?

Letting go of the head chiden role is another death accompanied by mourning.  I rather liked being head chiden; it was a good outlet for my love of forms, for using activity to create beauty and order and offer it in love to my sangha the same way I offer fresh flowers to my personal altar. The organizational structure of the Zen Center hasn’t come out of nowhere though – it’s been passed down for thousands of years, with cultural adaptations, from the practices that foster realization of the dharma in monastic communities.  In this system everyone is encouraged to experiment with nonattachment, and rotating out the jobs instead of assigning people for long periods based on aptitude and preference is part of that.

I’m fascinated by the forms of the temple and how they manage to be preserved over time given the high turnover.  I learned how to be head chiden from my predecessor, who learned from his predecessor, and so on.  But each head chiden also imprints their own ideas and preferences onto the role, so the role is a fluid, evolving entity.

Some of the forms for being head chiden are written down, but not every detail. I start to worry that if the details aren’t sufficiently passed to the next chiden, they will be lost forever.  Me being me, I am exact with the details.  But sometimes my own ideas about details prove to be wrong and my insistence on exactitude misplaced.

For instance, the Suzuki Roshi Memorial we do every month is two ceremonies, one in the evening and one the following morning. The form I was taught is that after the evening ceremony everything is put back to “normal” as if nothing had happened between then and the morning ceremony. I somehow generalized this into a philosophy about all ceremonies that said the setting up should be as invisible as possible and not interfere with temple activities that happen outside of the ceremony. So for a year I have been careful to not start setting up for the morning Full Moon Ceremonies until after the doshi has been in the Buddha Hall for the morning offering.  Imagine my surprise when the new head chiden brought me typed instructions for the Full Moon Ceremony, written years ago under an entirely different regime, which clearly stated that some of the setup was to take place the night before!

As the transition takes place, it’s fun to see how long it takes to let go of feeling responsible for things getting done and to note that as I watch the new head chiden all my thoughts of how it “should” be done come merrily rushing in.  Intellectually I know the new head chiden will realize the position in the way that her own personality channels the dharma, and it will all be just fine.  This place will carry on the way it will carry on, becoming what it will become and not conforming to my ideas about what it should be, for as long as there is need or desire for it to exist. The forms are important, but only as an instrument of focus, and if they stop performing that function then we must be willing to let them go.

As the great teacher Kosho McCall said to me once: keep your eye on the movement, not the object.  Perhaps another way to say that is: stay with what’s happening Now.  The Now includes the dying flowers in my vase and the sadness of loss and the hopefulness of just getting up every day to do it all over again anyway, whether the world conforms to my liking or not.

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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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jake gets his night

I’m stalled trying to find time to finish my next post, so I thought I’d amuse you in the meantime with this. Jake has been yammering inside my head for awhile now and I decided our Skit Night at the Zen Center two weeks ago was an appropriate platform for him to say his piece. Think of this being performed in front of an audience as you read.  I wasn’t recording that night, but this is approximately what he said.

Hi there, my name’s Jake.  Thanks for having me come talk to you tonight.

What I’ve got to say tonight is a story about my own troubles that I am hoping you can help me with. 

I was up at Polk and Eddy one night, trying to hook up with some buddies of mine, and I was standing on the corner there, when I see this unusual character on the other side of the street.  This was not your usual Tenderloin character, he was different – the guy was kind of fat, and wore a robe of some sort, had these beads around his neck. And he had these huge earlobes dangling down around his neck and this weird bump on the top of his head.

As you know, there are some strange folks in San Francisco. But this guy was not like one of those hippie freaks you see down on Haight Street.  He reminded me actually of one of those big statues you see in Chinatown.

And actually he looked so much like one of them statues that suddenly I realized, this was the BUDDHA, right there in the middle of San Francisco.  I knew it was him because when I looked at him: I saw complete..utter… peace.

I know a little bit about what I’m talking about.  I’ve spent some time at places like this, and I’ve listened to your monks, and what they said made a big impression on me.  That was a time in my life when things were not going particularly well for me, and what those monks said made some things come together in my head which I am grateful for.

One of the monks said something to me like, “if you see the Buddha on the road, you should kill him.”  And I have no idea what that means, but as I was standing on that corner that night, looking across the street at the actual Buddha, I thought well, maybe that sort of thing actually makes a great deal of sense.  See, I have not been a saint in my life. I have done some things.  These monks seem to want this Buddha fellow dead, and if I’m the one to do the deed, well, I’m a hero then, aren’t I?  Maybe this was my chance to atone for my sins, get on the good side of things for once.

And as I was contemplating this sort of thing, that Buddha fella started crossing the street toward me. So I thought, okay, I’ve got to think fast.  Because one is not necessarily prepared for an assassination-type killing every day.  I ain’t no saint, but I never killed nobody before, and I don’t carry no gun on me, or even a knife. So I was searching my pockets for how I was going to do this thing, looking around me to see if I could find something that would do the trick.  All I could find in my pockets was a ballpoint pen, but I’m no Jason Bourne, you know what I mean? Where was I going to stab him, in the neck?   And it’s one thing to think about killing a man, another thing to actually do it.  Killing a man at close range – man, I was flashing on what a mess that was going to look like, and I hadn’t even done the deed.  It all seemed so … crazy close all of a sudden, like I was going to suffocate just thinking about it, and I got kind of queasy.  Like I didn’t want to get that close to the blood and guts of the guy.

So the end result is, I didn’t do nothing, I just froze. And all that time that Buddha guy was walking toward me, and as he was getting close I could see he had this strange smile on his face like he’s just had the best thanksgiving dinner of his life.  And then I saw that he was looking at ME while he was wearing that smile – and I got the creeps from that, you might believe. Like he knew what I was thinking or something.

I couldn’t move from my spot, but then the strangest thing happened:  As that Buddha guy got closer and closer, he kind of started to get a bit fuzzy, like he was made out of some kind of filmy smoke or something.  He still had that big smile looking right at me, and it’s like he faded into some kind of fog and walked right through me and kept on going.  I was sober as day, my friends, and I know what I saw. I turned around to look and there was that big guy walking away from me down Polk Street.  Maybe he was heading to the symphony or something.

Well that whole scene messed me up pretty bad.  I told some of my buddies about it and they just kind of laughed it off, said I was having a flashback or something.  But it wasn’t like that.  It was real, I’m telling you.  I couldn’t sleep after that. The guy kept coming into my dreams, I kept seeing that smiling face, taunting me, and I’d wake up in a cold sweat.  This went on for days. 

During the day I started seeing him around the City everywhere I went.  I’d be heading into the corner store and I’d see him down the street, just rounding the next corner.  I’d see him on BART sometimes, but he was always getting on when I was getting off and I couldn’t catch him.  Or he’d drive by me in a taxi and look at me through the window.  I was getting seriously freaked out. I knew I wasn’t mental so I kind of kept it to myself, but those were some tough days.  I kept in my apartment a lot, closed the blinds and just laid on my couch all day.  I was tempted to start boozing it up to get him out of my mind, but you know I’m done with that.  I was determined to sweat it out. 

But at some point it got so bad that I had to leave the apartment, and ended up walking the City for three days straight.  Slept in the park a couple nights, but otherwise was just walking, walking, walking. I walked all around downtown, up to Twin Peaks, all the way out to Ocean Beach.  If I stayed moving, the anxiousness wasn’t so bad.   When I was walking like that I didn’t see him, neither, so that was good. But I was tired. Man, I was tired.  I found myself down by Fisherman’s Wharf and there’s that nice lawn next to Ghirardelli Square and it was a nice day so I just sat down and was resting there.  And I was watching the boats out on the water, and it was peaceful.   Just really satisfying.  And just when I thought maybe I had finally kicked this thing and found some peace, coming under the bridge I saw this container ship, and I could not believe my eyes but there was a gigantic Buddha sitting on the bow of that ship.    That Buddha was maybe 100 feet tall big as King Kong.  He was sitting cross-legged at the bow of the ship, his big old Buddha head with his big old ear lobes, and that big old grin on his face just staring out in front of him, like he was the captain of the ship just guiding it into the bay or something.  Just floating on into San Francisco Bay to haunt me. 

I could not believe this.  So there was this lady sitting next to me on the grass and I said to her, do you see that Buddha sitting on that container ship out there?  And she said to me, what are you talking about; there’s no Buddha. 

So that was awhile back, and it’s kind of like that still, but I’m doing better with it.  I still do see him wherever I go though – coming out of churches like he’s some guest at a wedding, sometimes he’s the conductor of the streetcar or he’s just helping some little old lady cross the street or something. 

And you know, I still think about killing the Buddha but he never seems to get close enough to me since that night for me to actually do the deed.  I’m ready for him now, though.  I wish I could – not just for the atonement and getting in the good graces of people like you folks here, but also just to get that sucker out of my head at this point.  Always when I seen him he’s smiling at me, and I just can’t get that, because given he’s the Buddha–he must know I mean to kill him. 

So I’ve come here tonight to see if you can help me.  I figure the guy must come around here a lot, right?  Maybe we can work together on this one.  If you see that guy, will you help me kill him? Will you help me, sir? 

Will you help me?

Posted in Stories | 2 Comments

the textures of amaranth

Richard pointed out this morning that once again, I was cooking amaranth for breakfast. If it weren’t for Richard I’m not sure I would believe that this particular grain has a higher probability of rotation through my Tuesday morning breakfast shift than for anyone else’s shift.  Still, we’ve had this conversation before and there I was cooking amaranth again, so perhaps he has a point.

I am friendly toward amaranth, so whether it is by accident or by design, I don’t mind that it shows up on the menu with some regularity.

I love the textures of amaranth.  (My friend Westina explains to me that this blog should not be “the texture of ordinary” because each post is “A texture,” not “THE texture.”  Similarly – amaranth seems to have many textures.)  Amaranth starts out as tiny spheres, spheres that resist surrendering their separateness to my quest to make them a continuum of nutty goodness.  The spheres are dense, too, sinking to the bottom of the pot.  As the water comes to a soft boil, air bubbles bring the spheres from the bottom to the surface creating vertical clouds, thunderheads of amaranthness.  And then, subjected to simmering of moderate length, a gelatinous ooze appears that glues together the individual grains.  Where does the ooze come from? Does it rub off the surface of the particles?  Or do the particles become leaky from within?  Either way, continuum is finally achieved.

Seeking to understand the mysterious properties of this grain, I come upon the following on a Google search:

Electrochemical Studies of Amaranth at Surfactant Modified Carbon Paste Electrode: A Cyclic Voltammetry

The paper is so dense with chemistry-speak that I can’t tell whether it answers my questions or not.  I want to know about amaranth attachment style.  I think the dispersive characteristics of the spheres may have something to do with hydrophilia, but it’s been a long time since I played with the electrochemisty of particles so my theories are not well-developed.  The internet is not cooperative in explaining the textures of amaranth.  Perhaps someday I’ll ask my father the chemist if he knows anything about this.

Whatever the grain, there is a point in making hot breakfast cereal when the grain decides to stick to the bottom of the pot.  Some grains are stickier than others.  Cracked wheat – big stickiness problem. Amaranth – not so much, clean up is usually just fine. But I’m fascinated by transitions.  I can stir the grain in the water every couple of minutes for quite a long time, feeling its separateness, its heaviness, the spoon or whisk moving through it.  And then one time I’ll return to the pot and the spoon or whisk will hit an obstruction on the bottom.  How do I keep missing that moment when the grain decides to stick?

It reminds me of zazen, naturally. I’ve been sitting in that zendo for a couple of years now, watching my thoughts come and go. I’ve seen my tendencies toward distraction and daydream.

There are long moments when it’s just me paying attention to my breath, to the sounds in the zendo, to the cars rolling by, noticing how much the traffic sounds like waves crashing against the shore, noticing what it’s like to hear a horn or the startup of an engine and not label it with a meaning, or not link the sound in one second to any sounds that just preceded it.

And there are also familiar moments when I feel the urge to go away somewhere, to fantasize or make a list of plans for the day, and there’s that little bit of biochemical joy juice that floods my body when it starts orienting in that direction, and there’s the biochemistry of longing or lack that comes just before the joy juice that the distracted thoughts are an antidote to.

But never once in my hundreds or thousands of hours of sitting have I been able to observe the moment when I slip from being present with what’s happening to the state where my thoughts have carried me far away. It’s always moments or minutes later that I notice and go oh yeah, doing that thing again, am I?

I return to the pot, put the whisk in the water and bump against the grain sticking on the bottom of the pot.  Yep, missed it again.

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The Simple Past of Be

“The Simple Past of Be

I was riding on the Muni tonight when I glanced over at the book of the passenger next to me and saw this heading on the page. Before any meaning even registered into consciousness, I sighed, my body relaxing into itself.  The words Simple and Be were just what I needed after a long day at the office spent tracking complicated communications across continents and oceans.

My friend Shannon fell so in love with the pleasurable essence of a certain cotton fabric that she bought a hoodie that was unfortunately obscured by the words ABERCROMBIE  AND FITCH appliqued across the front, and, not feeling aligned with the commercial intentions of her purchase, ripped off the letters one by one until all that was left was the BE, relocated to the center.  There, that’s better; although that particular BE seems to have had a rather complicated past actually, so perhaps there is some argument against the premise in my fellow Muni passenger’s book.

I wished to avoid triggering stalker alarms on the Muni, so I used my best peripheral vision to gain on the nature of the phrase in question.  (I get plenty of practice at this, trying to catch the bowing of the person coming to sit next to me in the zendo; this requires interpreting movements of someone at about 120 degrees from straight ahead, and as I see it, if I were meant to see something that far in back of me, I would have been given sideways-facing eyes.  But I make do with my forward-facing eyes, and have learned to cheat liberally when necessary.)

I rather like the poetry of “The Simple Past of Be” even though the book turned out to be about English grammar instead of poetry or philosophy.

Because, IF Be were to have a past, I do think it would be a simple one. That simplicity would be an improvement over complexity, would contain a clarity and peacefulness that only comes when things are as simple as they need to be, and no more.  Be seems like it would roll like that.  A word with only two letters has simplicity in its DNA.

But recent philosophical discussions have lead to more questions about the nature of Be. Always, there is Dogen Zenji, mucking things up:

“Firewood becomes ash.  Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before.  We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off.”

Because this is a translation from Japanese characters to English words, I don’t know if I fully understand the distinction between “before” vs. “past,” and “after” vs. “future,” but I do have a hallucination that this all makes sense to me, that the “before and after” are contained in the dharma position of firewood (or perhaps, Be) and not linearly strung out in a sequence of one condition becoming another the way we conventionally see things moving through time.  So.  Be has a “before” but not a “past.”  What might be in Be’s “before?”

My thoughts about the Simple Past of Be are just a fun story I tell myself on the commute home on a crowded train, but I don’t think this particular delusion is harmful.   It’s like when people use the word Zen when they are not representing anything close to what I think of as Zen practice or Zen philosophy. In popular culture it might be a nice relaxing massage with warm rounded river stones, something that helps you be serene in the midst of stressful chaos, or perhaps a certain Japanese esthetic in clothing or garden paraphernalia.  The Zen I know has been a brutal, gruesome practice of willing myself to face the actual moment of existence in spite of every fiber of my being saying “I” am going to die in the process.  But who is right?  I certainly don’t have a deep understanding of Zen myself, and probably neither view is correct; or they both are.  And as someone once pointed out to me, the popular culture view of Zen is of something positive and inviting – and that’s not a bad thing at all.

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The dharma of fava beans

My girlfriends and I have been getting together for potluck brunch every month or two for over seven years now, taking turns hosting at each other’s homes. I haven’t hosted at the Zen Center because I don’t have a private living room there, but this month I tried the experiment of hosting brunch in the conference center next door.  The conference center was originally a Victorian home and has been converted into offices and meeting spaces. It includes a living-room-sized sun room with big comfy chairs and couches and a coffee table – perfect for half a dozen women to catch up on the intimate details of their lives.

Sundays are “open kitchen” days at the Zen Center, and residents wander in and out of the kitchen getting coffee or bagels or cooking scrumptious delicacies and bonding over small talk and spontaneous philosophical discussions.   Normally I hole myself away in my room much of the day or jet off to outside activities, but for this occasion I pulled out my slow cooker and made my favorite fava bean recipe.  While the fava beans cooked I processed a liquid salad in the Robot Coupe and fielded a dozen questions in the form “what’s in the crock pot?” followed by the corollaries “what’s a fava bean?” or “is that your crock pot?  It’s a nice one!”  This required much more of my extrovert toolkit than I am used to on a Sunday.

At around 9:30 I walked next door to assess the situation in the sun room and that’s when the mishaps began: the door between the sun room and the rest of the conference center was locked and I couldn’t get in. I reluctantly roused both the work leader and the director on their day off to take care of the situation, but no one had a key.  After various phone calls and visits and trying out many keys on large key rings, the verdict was that this particular door was never locked, or as they put it “had never been locked,” and there was no key.  We had to come up with Plan B.

The director suggested I hold my brunch in the main meeting room.  But the main room had no chairs or tables, and the zabutons and zafus were stacked up in the sun room which I could see through the windowed door but not get into, so I began to carry zabutons and zafus from next door at 300 Page street, pulling them from the Ino’s closet downstairs, up the stairs and out the front door, up the sidewalk to 308 Page Street, and up the front steps into the main room of the conference center.  As I hauled, I imagined the scenario for the next couple of hours:  the six of us sitting on cushions in a large sterile room, every once in awhile getting up to gaze longingly through the window in the door to the sun room at the big comfy chairs, just out of reach.

And then the work leader was there in front of me, saying “Gretchen – come with me.”

I followed him out through the back exit, where a set of stairs leads down to the side courtyard of 300 Page Street.

“I’m going to try something. But I need you to stand here while I do it.”

He stepped down a few steps and pointed up to an open window above, and through it I could see the sun room.  A portal!

He continued, “I don’t know exactly what I expect you to do, but I’m going to try to go in through that window.”

I stood downstream of him, waiting to leap into unspecified action.  I felt poised on the brink of the Now, knowing that the course of Right Action and its manifestation in movement would have to be downloaded in simultaneity, if it came to that.  I couldn’t hang out in daydreams of how it would all turn out. I had to be in a stance of open readiness.

But the work leader pulled off the maneuver, hoisting his long, agile body up onto the staircase railing and pulling himself up through the portal into the room beyond. My part in Right Action was completed simply by standing in awe of his gracefulness.  He walked across the sun room, unlocked the door from inside, and I met him on the other side.

Additional mishaps were miraculously and thankfully avoided. It turned out the main meeting room had been reserved by a meditation group, who arrived around noon to begin setting up, so it was a good thing we hadn’t decided to spread ourselves out there.  My girlfriends and I spent the next few hours behind the closed (but not locked) door of the sun room, eating and talking and shhh-ing each other when our voices and laughter started to get too loud, trying – trying – to be mindful of the quiet contemplative stillness in the next space.

By the end of the day I could proclaim overall success, and I was particularly pleased that the fava beans with their liquid salad topping were well received.

I was reminded of a story from a few years ago, when I worked for a famous scientist as his executive assistant. This scientist had advanced a model for how a certain class of diseases originates, a model that was once considered scientific heresy; when he persevered to find evidence to support the model it eventually became accepted in the mainstream and he became famous.  As a result he attracted attention from nonscientists, people who wanted to meet with him or interview him for an article or wanted him to take on their personal medical cases or validate their own scientific (or pseudo-scientific) endeavors.

There was the woman who sent a ten-page handwritten letter to him describing a dream she had had that she was sure would “crack the code” of finding a cure for the diseases he studied (he has been able to describe their unfolding but not how to cure them).  One might think a scientist known for scientific heresy would be open to alternative avenues of inspiration, but the heretical ideas of others were not something he particularly seemed to gravitate toward.

Another woman came unannounced all the way from New Jersey to ask the scientist to diagnose her with a specific disease she was certain she had (a colleague of mine diplomatically responded to her, “that’s quite interesting, as up until this point we have never found that disease in humans, only sheep.”  The line was exquisitely hilarious, but the woman’s suffering and mental deficiencies were not, so we kept our laughter in check until she had gone).  The woman claimed that because “the government was monitoring her movements” she couldn’t use a telephone or email, and her stories filled the room with sadness while we all scrambled our brains thinking of what to do with her – other than having her meet the scientist, which would not do.  At that moment the scientist was working in the room next door and she could have seen him through a window in the door if she had looked.  My one hope was that if she looked through it she wouldn’t recognize the man who had aged twenty years from the most likely photograph she would have seen of him.  There was high tension in the office waiting for something dramatic to happen, but she did eventually leave without further incident.

I sometimes felt sad about the time these people invested and the earnestness of their communications, which seemed to be dispersed into the darkness like a rocket’s payload sent out into empty space.  Something big in their lives was asking to be transmitted, some suffering or hope or idea or need that was ejected outward to find its resolution.  Was it random and misplaced that they had identified this scientist as the logical repository of their hopes?  Or was there resolution, and I just didn’t know how to identify it?

I tried to respond humanely and at least send back some human warmth as I gave them bad news – he is unavailable that day, he is traveling, he said your project looked worthwhile but he has too much on his plate right now and he wishes you luck. Perhaps I could complete the circuit for them in some small way.  Perhaps some circuit was completed for me as well – the universe is working in strange ways all the time.  My colleagues and I in the middle of this interaction became actors in the unfolding drama, a point of intersection in the net connecting all things.  We weren’t unnecessary or irrelevant to the moment.  Knowing this I took my job seriously, and defined it broadly.

But that’s all backstory. This is the story I told my brunch friends that Sunday:

“Long, long ago when I was an executive assistant for a famous scientist, a writer emailed a request for the scientist to look at her diet book.  The book title contained the word “Biochemical,” which might have implied a relevance to the scientist’s work. She wanted him to endorse the book and the science it was based on, become a collaborator, get involved in a television series she was working on.

“I mentioned this to the scientist; he wasn’t interested in diet books. In my response to the writer I tried to embody the art of being an executive assistant: to make people feel valued and validated while firmly communicating that they will not be getting the meeting they seek.  In this instance I was not successful, and the woman continued to correspond with me, giving me more information, deeper explanations, and eventually sending a copy of the book.

“Even to the untrained minds of the office staff, the science of this diet book seemed tenuous.  But I brought it into our meeting with the scientist and waved it in front of him so that he’d have a chance to grab it if it appealed to him.  It didn’t.

“But I flipped through it myself and found this wonderful recipe for fava beans.”

P.S. While writing this post, Word has been insisting on the following correction:   It’s not fava beans, it’s lava beans.  Not sure if there’s a deeper meaning there or not.

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Thinking of Arlene (again)

I was maybe six or seven years old, home by myself or perhaps some of my siblings were around but off in another part of the house, perhaps my mom was working and there was an hour or two when we were there before she came home from work, or maybe she was just out at the store and had left us for awhile, but in any case I was messing around in the bathroom and had a thermometer in my hand and the thermometer dropped from my hand and it broke, spreading dozens of little mercury balls all over the linoleum floor.

I went immediately into horrified panic, and I wasn’t thinking that the mercury was poison that would affect my neurological development or that it would seep into the ground and pollute our water (it was a second floor bathroom and anyway that kind of abstract thought was not available to me yet); I was thinking that I would get in trouble for breaking something, something I thought was definitely precious, a Medical Device, a specialized instrument that I had no business having had in my hand so that it could break free and fall to the floor and shatter into pieces.

Mom came home but I had a good length of time to get all stewed up about it before then and she came home to find me crying my heart out in fear and shame.  She walked into the bathroom to see what had happened and I pointed out the mercury balls and waited for the bad thing that was going to happen next.

And what happened was that she scooped me up onto her lap on the top step of the staircase and held me and smoothed my hair and asked me why I was so scared.

“I broke the thermometer …it was really expensive,” I choked out.

“Do you know how much that thermometer cost?”  she asked.

I searched my brain but the word “cost” had no traction on it, so I blurted out what seemed like an enormous fortune:  “Five dollars?”

“About 99 cents!” she countered, laughing gently, rocking me, so that we both started laughing together, me through snotty tears.  And the spell was broken, and I could let go of the upset.  Five dollars, 99 cents – neither had meaning for me, but my mother’s tone of voice contained all the meanings that were relevant to a little girl, and what was imparted was that she loved me first of all and a broken thermometer could never threaten to dent that love.

Pure mom love.  Sometimes I miss it – the total trust, the love that is going to take care of everything, smooth it out and make it better.  I remember burying my head into her shoulder and melting into her without reservation.  I had absolute claim to her comforting lap, her shoulder, her face, her hair.  That was my place just as much as my own body was my place.

Later on, adolescence settled in and I threw up walls of separation, found all of mom’s faults and amplified them, anticipated what I interpreted to be her judgments of me and rejected them before she had a chance to explain about the loving place or the fearful place or just the curious place her comments and questions often came from.  I wouldn’t hear any of it from her.  So then when we touched it was as two, not one.  There was consideration of boundaries and appropriateness, of the awkwardness of touching certain places or in certain ways.  We could come together and embrace in a gesture of love but it was from two separate territories and we each had rules for the other.

I suppose this was a part of my individuation process but now, as an adult with a much-diminished charge on that particular agenda and a mother who has been dead for over four years, I sometimes mourn that we couldn’t start bridging the gap of my adolescent rebellion until we were both much older.  I knew her one way, through the filter of being her daughter. She had private thoughts and memories she couldn’t or wouldn’t share with me and I could never return to the illusion that we were one body, so we attempted to forge a different kind of closeness that incorporated all of those constraints.  But it was still a work in progress when she left.

My teacher points out that there’s a difference between fusion and intimacy, and I wonder sometimes if my system has figured out that difference yet.  When people outside of my family reflect back on who my mother was, it’s obvious how complex she was and in a way how mysterious she remained until her death.  And how loved she was – not just by those in compulsory relationships with her like “child” and “parent,” but loved by those who chose to be with her in relationships that were uncluttered by murky memories of fusion.  Perhaps intimacy begins when we can acknowledge the murkiness but keep our focus on what’s beyond it.  Could I have been more intimate with mom if I weren’t her daughter? But then, everything would have been different.

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