Rust and fallen snow
rest upon cracks and fissures
revealed by soft light,
confirmation of failure
weathered by time’s measured grace.
As we turned the corner in the grocery store, my five year old son walked a step ahead of me, clear about where he was going and full of intention.
Making trips to the grocery store isn’t my favorite activity, and the number of cars in the parking lot told of a large crowd inside – but I didn’t mind making this Christmas Eve outing. As we drove to the store, I watched my son clutch the dollar bill that he had pulled from the old tea container on his dresser, preparing to contribute it towards his big brother’s Christmas gift. I listened to the assured way he spoke, without revealing everything to me, about what he had decided to give to him.
He marched confidently most of the way down the toy aisle and stopped. This one, he said, pointing towards the shelf. I followed the direction of his hand and saw the blue box of eight matchbox cars. He pulled it from the shelf with both hands, bringing it to rest against his winter coat as he examined it closely, then turning towards me as I caught up, hopeful I would approve his choice.
It was the same gift his brother had gotten for him the year before. The same gift he had loved. I remembered him opening it Christmas morning, how he couldn’t imagine his good fortune at receiving a box of eight new cars, all at once. What could speak more clearly of his love for his brother than wanting to reciprocate, a year later, with the same?
Yet, as I stood there with Robin looking up at me, all that ran through my mind was how to get him to choose something else. His brother True is seven and a half, and hasn’t played a lot with cars and trucks in the last year. I knew he would be gracious in receiving the gift, but it seemed an awful lot of cars if he wasn’t going to spend much time with them. And at $12.99, well, it felt like a lot.
Let’s look around, I said, see what else is here. I suggested the small Lego sets that were in the same aisle – True loves Legos, doesn’t he? I suggested card games and even some smaller sets of cars. Robin dutifully obliged and examined that the alternatives I offered, but his heart wasn’t in it, and I knew it. I could feel the way the big set of cars pulled on him, even as we stood at each different shelf, motionless. He dismissed all the other options without words and returned back to pulled the box off the shelf. As he did, I thought I saw my opening in the form of a box just behind, a sort of combination track and ramp for matchbox cars that could be set up from a table to send cars flying. He’ll go for that, I thought, as I pointed it out it to him.
He looked, but didn’t take long. No, he said, I want to get this one for him.
He wasn’t demanding – just trying desperately to show me his sincerity, sincerity born from the warm feeling that still lasted from the previous Christmas, and his desire to share that with his brother, to get him the perfect gift, just like the extra large box of tea he had picked out for his mother.
Every bit of me could see that, could feel it, yet for some reason still struggled against it.
You don’t want this? I asked, holding up the track again. You could have races to see which of the cars you already have goes the farthest. I tried to paint a different picture than the one he had composed, the one he was holding dear. No, he replied, this one. Don’t we already have those cars? I flailed. No, he pointed out, these are different. He’ll love these.
There was nothing left for me to say. I could have flatly said no, that the set was too expensive. Or told him I didn’t think True really wanted eight new matchbox cars. But I couldn’t do either.
So instead I did something worse.
Dear ones lie still,
near and peaceful,
yet quiet has settled too deeply,
darkness persistent, final —
can these shallow breaths
be the full completion of Dogen;
truly buddha nature;
I’ve gained nothing
from the practice,
instead losing some
of what I used to have.
What I looked for isn’t here.
bitter at separation —
softened against the day
and quicker to tears.
My daughter’s pockets
are filled with shiny rocks,
just like mine.
I salvaged a set of antique doors
that were piled in a yard
close by the ocean
with other detritus
from a torn-down house.
Hoping the owner would let me take them,
I talked with him
and listened to his stories
about who had passed through them,
what rooms they had separated.
It isn’t easy to find ones just so,
with the hardware still intact.
Perhaps if I hold on to them,
and shape them here or there,
they’ll fill up gaps —
shut out the draft from the
old ice-box pantry,
dampen the kitchen noise that drifts
so easily up the stairs
when our children are sleeping.
Not waiting for dark,
when merging is effortless,
clouds, hills, and fields reach across
quiet gaps and outstretched space.
(A Tanka poem. Photograph from a New England late afternoon, 8 December 2012)
I was very late coming home from work last night – it was after 11 o’clock, and the whole family was asleep. I thought for a moment, as my wife turned over when I entered the room, that she might be awake in our bed, but she was quiet and still by the time I joined her. And so when I awoke this morning, I was anxious to see them all. I knew that the kids would have to run off to school soon and I would have to return to work, but I looked forward to the short time we had as I walked down the stairs.
Which made it all the more painful when, minutes later, I took the box of cereal from my son’s hand as he poured it, and sent him away from the breakfast table.
I would tell you that I long for simple moments of being with my children, times when notions and expectations drop away. I had just such an opportunity at the table this morning, as my boys found themselves possessed by silliness – each look from one brought the other practically to tears from laughter. Their voices rose as they called to one another, taking turns making faces just subtle enough to hold the expression for the few seconds it took to send his brother back over the edge. Knees knocked against the underside of the table as cereal squares spilled and milk droplets dripped off of their spoons.
I had the opportunity to witness and join them in this playfulness, this joy. Instead, I found myself simply wanting it to end. My body pulled back, my breath quickened. They laughed. I tensed. I told them that it wasn’t time to be silly and reminded them about their table manners. I sent them away.
I suppose there are legitimate reasons to help my children shape good table manners; in our relative world, they are important. But what am I teaching them about their laughter? And it goes beyond the table. My boys’ joy often finds its expression in moments that are loud and frenetic, unconstrained by any adult’s ideas about how it should look or sound. As they laugh and jump, as they delight in any noise they can make, they are meeting the world, living fully in what is offered. Unfiltered. Present.
In receiving the ten Grave Precepts of Buddhist practice, I vowed, recognizing that I am not separate from all that is, I vow to take up the way of not killing. This precept is often applied to the choice of whether or not we eat meat, or how we respond to a mosquito in the bedroom. But it also speaks to asking my boys to calm and quiet themselves, to experience and express their joy differently than the way in which they have found it. What dies then?
In receiving the Pure Precepts, I vowed to save all beings. But when I ask them to be something different because their expression of themselves is impeding the quiet I was hoping for, what does my response mean to them? What do they make of that experience when the world presents something so real, and their father tells them it isn’t right – not right now, not right here?
What am I teaching them about their laughter?
Back at the breakfast table this morning, I sat alone and wanting the moment, like many before it, to be different. Not because it was too noisy, but because it had now grown far too quiet. I went and spoke to my son and asked him back, telling him I knew he could use his best manners while he finished his breakfast.
At dinner later in the evening, he told me that he had tried to buy a gift for me at the school holiday fair. It was a baseball bat that was engraved with World’s Greatest Dad. He had seen it the day before and brought his money into school. I looked at him in silence for a moment as he finished telling me the story, about how they had sold out by the time he got there. I asked him to come sit on my lap. He had trouble sitting still, as still as I would have liked after another long day at work. But you can’t always sit still when you’re busy saving all beings. Or at least your Dad.