Tag Archives: attachment

The Spiral and The Path

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The fist time I made the spiral, I didn’t do it on purpose.

A few winters ago, I ran into the backyard after the first snow, and kept going until I had left a path of ever-smaller concentric circles. As will happen with snow, the path remained, and I walked back out along the same way. The kids, much younger then, noticed the design and enjoyed walking on it, too.

As much as being made of snow meant that the path wouldn’t disappear immediately, it eventually faded and was replaced by spring grass and flowers. Yet winter returns each year, and I anticipate the moment on the morning of the first snow of the season… Can we make the spiral, Dad?

Most years, subsequent snows pile on top but leave the pattern discernible underneath, and we walk it over and over to freshen the path to the inside. Other winters, the first snow melts away before the second one comes, and we have to remake the spiral several times over the course of a season. The kids will comment as the spiral disappears, You can still see it…but it will probably be gone by tomorrow.

A few years ago the snow was relentless, its crushing weight on the roof creating dams of ice that forced leaks into our nineteenth century windows. Over and over, I spent hours hours on a ladder, dangling precariously twenty-five feet up, spraying steaming hot water from a hose, melting away the damns. I would climb down the slippery ladder, encased in ice and exhausted, knowing the process would only have to be repeated in a few days time. The inner point of the spiral provided a respite at the end of this work; sitting seiza style in the bitter cold became easier than inside on my maple bench by the heater.

A couple of weeks back, my boys were running through this year’s spiral. We had recently gotten nearly three feet of snow in a storm, so it was tough going even though I had made the path smooth with snowshoes. The boys kept tripping and falling, laughing and shouting.

Be careful, I called.

That three feet of snow, of course, meant that I needn’t worry about them getting hurt. That would be impossible, and wasn’t why I had warned them to be careful. Instead, I was concerned about damage to the spiral.

Be careful.

The absurdity struck me before I finished saying it. The spiral comes and goes with the season and with the weather; it is the definition of impermanence.

Standing there, I knew the undisturbed edges and smooth path of the spiral aren’t real. They are simply my preferences, and aren’t likely to change anything, or to survive the transience of a path made out of snow – or survive the transience of this self I have grown attached to.

The spiral is beautiful after a fresh snow, when its lines are smoothed out. Just like my life, though, the spiral changes form, is disturbed, is re-created over and over, and inevitably disappears. Does it matter if it succumbs to a soft April morning or to my boys’ exuberance?

Buddhism and Zen urge us to practice renunciation, but this isn’t all about giving away our property or joining a monastery. It means letting go of preconceived notions and thoughts, of attachments to the ways we wish things were.

Like the spiral.

Letting go of the spiral, in fact, may open space to be more intimate with the path that is here today, right now. The one where my boys are tripping and falling, laughing and shouting. The one I am walking with my wife, with our children, the one with the rough edges and the sunshine, the snow and flowers, the sticks and the mud.

Fatherhood, Reality, and the Promise of Zen

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.

Worn into the Fabric

A pair of corduroy pants
sit folded on the ironing board,
their faded blue almost grey
in the early morning light.

They have passed in turn
from each of our children
to the next,
stories of young lives
worn into the fabric.

The ridges have been
diminished by the seasons
in places where they have bent
for a doll or a puddle,
or knelt for a story,
leaving nearly smooth,
but still patterned,
softness.

They are now too small
for any of our family —
yet my wife has pinned
a piece of cloth,
edges folded and ironed
neatly for sewing,
over a hole in the knee.

She’ll stitch them carefully together
one evening as we sit.

I haven’t asked her why —

perhaps she hopes our youngest
may wear them one more time,
or there is something else
her patching might repair.

Refuge

I was tired, and my family was most of the way through dinner when I walked through the door. I would have only an hour to spend with the kids before they would go off to bed. I joined them at the table, anticipating stories about the day. Instead, I heard complaints about what had been prepared for dinner. Shortly afterward, calls to clean up blocks and legos brought tears. Short voices from children and adults alike arose from attempts to complete homework that had waited too long.

I needed refuge.

I looked for it in the memory of the night before, when I had lain down next to my five-year old son after tucking him into bed. There had been a few minutes left before our usual lights-out time, and he scooted to make room as I moved the spare pillow up next to his. He noticed that his older brother was reading in bed, and sensing an opening to keep me right where I was, grabbed a book of his own. He asked me about each of the pictures in the book of trains and made comments about which ones he liked best. He came to the end of the book and glanced at me, perhaps expecting I would get up to say goodnight. When I didn’t move, he leaned over the edge of his bed for another book.

It’s Go Dog Go, Dad. I’ll read it to you.

I watched him as he concentrated, listened as he matched the words to the pictures, rescued him when a page was just too tricky. The wind chill blew well below zero outside, but the room was hushed and I felt warm in the embrace of my son’s company. When it came time to turn out the light, he reached for a sticky note on the floor beside his bed.

For a bookmark, Dad. We can start there tomorrow night.

And so tonight, as everyone’s dissatisfaction with the present moment was apparent, I was desperate to climb back onto his bed, find that bookmark, and pick up right where we had left off. We struggled through the rest of the evening routine as best we could, then he and I flopped onto the bed, our book right where we had left it. He propped up his stuffed Eeyore doll under his arm – to help him read, he said – as I retrieved the spare pillow at the foot of the bed. We settled back to where we had been the night before.

My refuge disintegrated.

His reading was halting as he struggled with almost all of the words. I grew frustrated when, line after line, he encountered the word around, yet he somehow couldn’t read it. The phone rang and the light didn’t seem quite bright enough for reading. To my dismay, nothing felt the same. Page after page, I wanted the world to flow just as it had the night before. My attempts to help, to give us both that little nudge, couldn’t turn the calendar back a day. Time was passing too quickly, and each page too slowly. We picked a place to stop and I stood up to turn out the lights.

As I kissed him goodnight and walked across the room to my other son to stroke his cheek, I rested briefly in my frustration – and finally found my refuge. Right where it had been waiting for me all along, in the Buddha nature of the moment as it was, in the Buddha nature of my sons, in the Buddha nature of disappointment. Not in the memory of a moment gone by.

Standing there in that moment, I knew that by reaching back to try and recreate the night before, I had been trying too hard to take refuge. That’s what the vow says, after all – I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma. Perhaps it is a relic of translation from ancient Pali, or maybe just an unfortunate semantic coincidence, but there’s nothing there to be taken. As if refuge were something that I could grasp or a place that I could go.

How many times have I gone down that path?

Refuge, instead, finally came from letting go, from an acceptance of what was already there for me. And while refuge can find foundation in a vow and in the great determination of Yuanmiao or Hakuin, it blossomed tonight in the suddenness of resignation, finding purchase in the ceasing, for just a moment, of longing for something more. In openness and softness.

Both boys were asleep within moments as I headed downstairs to stand with my wife at the kitchen sink, where the dinner dishes still awaited.

Let me rest 
against your extra pillow,
the embroidered one 
from your crib years gone by,

while you lean back 
amongst the blankets
and read to me.

Go ahead and ask me
what each page says,
and tell me,
in your right-up-close voice,
which ones
are your favorite pictures.

Scratch the turning page
against the flannel sheets
until the very last one,

then offer me another reprieve.

Reach down to your
old apple-crate bookcase, 
and murmur to yourself
about which book
you might choose next.

The Lure of Accomplishment

My teacher often says that Zen is not a self-improvement project. And it isn’t. But it has changed me. I have noticed that I spend a lot less time planning my career, thinking about my degree, or fretting about how much money I’ll end up with. For that matter, I’ve pretty much let go of any idea of enlightenment beyond what I already have. Yet it seems that I still get caught up in trying to accomplish things – they’re just much smaller.

My mother stopped by on Sunday to spend some time with the kids. She and my daughter sat animated at the kitchen table, chairs pushed close together. They were piecing together a plastic cup, sponge, string, and some googly eyes, making a toy my daughter first made when she was she was five or six years old. If you wet the sponge, squeeze it tightly around and slide it down the string just so, it sounds an awful lot like a gobbling wild turkey.

(I am completely enamored of my daughter’s love for this sort of thing. She’s almost 10. I sometimes catch myself realizing that I expect her to be older by now, and that I’m so happy she’s not. But that’s mostly another story.)

This was just the sort of moment that I complain about not having the chance to witness or be present to. The possibility of being with my family, absorbed in something together, absorbed each others’ company. Except that I didn’t join them. I stood right there, leaning up against the butcher block counter, thinking about getting the lawn mowed one last time before winter, about getting the family budget balanced, about the need to roll out insulation in the attic and fix the broken glass in the window up there.

So much to accomplish.

There is real suffering in the desire for the moment to be something other than what it is, for it to be simpler. And there is a sense of impossibility in these moments, too. Graciously accepting what a moment has to offer could mean dropping away my own concerns and being fully present with my wife or child. But it also must mean accepting the part if me that feels the conflict, that part that is pulled away by a nagging mind wanting to do and to accomplish. In the world of emptiness, one isn’t better than the other. In the world of form, of fatherhood, of the kind of impermanence that means childhood years are short, I sure know which one I prefer.

For all of the regret that I might muster on my drive to work or in the quiet hours after bedtime, though, that moment in the kitchen has already passed. Zen practice is very reliable in that all that it asks me to do is to sit down. Perhaps there is no answer to the lure of accomplishment, either, but to sit down – or stand up, or run around – and play when someone comes asking. The small change may come. Or it may not. But I’ll be there.