I was excited to have the day off today, to spend some time with the kids in the warm comfort of our home while a bitter winter wind howled outside. With dinner time just ended, though, I stood on the front porch in the eleven-degree cold. Alone. In the quiet.
Back inside, the boys where whirling around the family room. They alternately laughed and bickered with each other about the rules to a game that involved holding your breath while running and seeing who could land sideways on the couch from the furthest distance. My daughter played the flute in the kitchen in unintended accompaniment, each note a bit off since my wife was trying to fix one of the keys on the removed lower third of the instrument. It had just been too much for me, and so I found myself standing outside. Breathing.
So much of the day hadn’t seemed to line up quite right. I was trying to make progress on a project that involved working the odd and inconsistent angles you find in a 19th century New England home. Our pantry has no door, and since the space was originally designed a literal ice box, well, it’s quite cold, and that chilled air rushes into the adjoining kitchen. I worked on reshaping a rescued antique door to fit, but between the angles and the interruptions, I didn’t get very far, except for breaking the hinge that I was trying to rescue.
There were a few of the peaceful moments with my children of the kind I imagine as I look forward to a day such as this. An errand out with one son, being asked by the other to sit on the couch and watch him draw, listening to my daughter make invitations for her brothers to an after-dinner episode of Word Girl.
But each fell apart in the chaos that inevitably overcomes a household of five human beings. Someone sits too close to another, complaints about household arise, frustration at the way the toy train tracks are coming together bubbles over, and a father who sometimes just wants a moment of quiet can’t find one and raises his voice. All of it like the angles and lines of antique door frames that won’t accommodate a partner.
Yet this is the great promise of Zen. Not a promise that it will all someday get better, that if I meditate long enough, everything will become free and easy. Instead the promise is that there is nothing to fix. Nothing to do. This is it.
That’s what I’m told. That’s the lesson that has been presented to me over and over and over – yet one that is so very difficult to grasp in the moment.
Shohaku Okumura wrote in his Realizing Genjokoan that “Zazen is not a method of correcting the distortion of our fabricated conceptual maps, but rather the act of letting go of all maps, and sitting down on the ground of reality.” I read this tonight as I prepared to sit and realized I have a lot of conceptual maps that preclude the difficulties I faced today. Perhaps I draw even more maps when I write in these spaces about moments of quietude and serenity; how much I write about these moments is disproportionate to how much I actually find of it in my daily life.
The reality of fatherhood is that it involves bickering, no matter how much I wish it didn’t. It involves having a child whose natural inclination and joy is found in a nonstop stream of talking, which doesn’t always line up with my own joy, no matter how much it endears him to me in late night reflection. It involves days that don’t go the way I planned, and the self-discovery of realizing I’m clinging to something that just isn’t there. It involves disappointing my children, who had their own ideas about what this day with their Dad might be.
Fatherhood is an incomparable joy. One that comes with generous doses of frustration, loss, and helplessness. This, too, is a truth I have encountered innumerable times, but one that is difficult to meet fully. Perhaps I have been waiting to get really good at fatherhood, just as we imagine we might get really good at meditation when we first arrive on a cushion.
But this is the same lesson, the promise of Zen that I have heard so many times. Now so clearly in front of my face that I have no choice but to hear it. There is nothing to fix. Nothing to do. Except get up tomorrow morning, sit with my children and pour them bowls of cereal, quiet breakfast time or not – and it does tend to vary.