Tag Archives: dukkha

I Don’t Want My Dukkha Here

This story might be easier to write, might be simpler to read and digest, had I been writing all along about our experience living for a year in France. Had I written about the early stages of discovery, about the long settling into a different sort of Zen life (as I referred to it in my mind), then giving words to my current state might come more naturally.

But these last few days—with only weeks left before we leave what has become our home—have been filled with a question.

When does discovery become death?

We went for a hike as a family today, up a steep trail in the forest behind the town of Yzeron. The shade of the trees was welcome on this humid day. The kids gathered sticks to walk with, and Jessica and I pointed out flowers along the path. We came through clearings that held a sense of energy and mystery, and into a field of wheat that sloped down into the farthest distance, our home somewhere in between where we stood and the impossibly far-off horizon.

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I yearned for a feeling of wonder and newness, and it seemed to be just within reach—yet was somehow wrapped in discontent. Instead of the sense of discovery I expected, there was the death of a sense of ease, an intruding sadness of a bitter goodbye.

Is this another experience of the home-leaving practice of Zen?

If it is, I don’t care for it.

It’s quite different than leaving for retreat. But then, of course, I always had the sense I would be coming back. In what way was I truly leaving? Was I—in the Zen sense—having my cake and eating, too?

When we first arrived in France, everything was new. The town, our home, the language, the kids’ school, the bus routes into the city. The light, the birdsong, the scents in the air. Each morning’s run was a new discovery, each visit to the marché, each conversation was an exploration. Each season was a chance to wonder what it would bring in this new home of ours.

After a time, of course, things became familiar—but the sense of discovery persisted in the act of settling. We were becoming part of a new fabric, and a simpler (if not always simple, being so far from what was familiar) life than what we had left aided the sense of discovery even after novelty receded from the surface. For most of eleven months, this carried me and contended me.

And then, recently, almost suddenly, it has changed. Things don’t feel as they should. Encountering a new place or a new word or tradition or story feels not like discovery, but like loss, becoming sadness at what we must soon leave behind. The same experience, instead of being embodied with a sense of discovery, feels somehow diminished. Somehow thinner.

Why should a sense of losing something diminish my ability to revel in its discovery?

I can hear the words of my teachers, those alive and from centuries of lineage. There are no shoulds, especially in how we feel. And this sense of loss, this discomforting, is no surprise. This is the life of a human being and the suffering that comes with change. This is dukkha. I try to let it come. I can’t change it, after all.

But still. I don’t want my dukkha here.

After our walk, we came home and planted flowers in the small raised beds, the ones up against the stone wall with terra-cotta shingles. We pulled weeds from the ground around the beds and smoothed the gravel.

Lazy Ovals

I’ve scolded my son for riding
the old green bike
(the one with training wheels that used to be his)
when he runs to get it before his little brother can,
riding it gleefully away from him.

Today, though, his brother wasn’t home;
so he pedaled slowly
around the driveway, pulled gently
at the duct-taped edge of the handle
as he rode.
I heard him talking softly to himself and
humming as he made lazy ovals
in the bright sunshine.

He kept going
until his sister called to him from the porch,
asked him what he was doing.

I heard the first words of the story
he began to make up,
then turned away so I wouldn’t
hear the end.

Earnest Offering

I’ve gone through half an eraser;
there’s some danger I might believe
that the thoughts I used to have
were better,

the way they made images
when captured in my notebook.
So much more evasive now,
I struggle to evaluate their worth.

The night insects, though,
make their earnest offering
through open August windows —
calling and calling.

But it is all just noise —
I sit distracted

by the tears
my son couldn’t show me
when we argued this afternoon,

by the cars outside
moving too quickly down the hill.

Six

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he knows now how to read.
he won’t pass through kindergarten again.

he won’t bring home another packet of sight words,
tape them to the wall
over his largely-unmade bed,
lie in the darkness,
read them by flashlight.

that moment,
that emerging,
that world,
that lifetime,

that he-and-I
is gone —

and I want it back.

Buddhism might one day free me from suffering, but not from being human. If anything, I feel my joy, my sadness, anguish, loneliness and contentment more acutely. Buddhism promises the possibility of welcoming each one. It has taught me, even, to welcome my attachments, to not run away from even my clinging.

My relief from suffering, when it arises, comes not from stoicism. Instead, it arrives when I allow the joy and dukkha that are the essence of fatherhood to be together. It comes when I turn and face them both and say, Yes, all of this. This is now. This is fatherhood. The wanting and the letting go. This is love. This is it. All of this. This is it.

How the Children have Grown

He means well and offers connection
when he remarks how the children have grown,
that it won’t be too long before they aren’t around.

My daughter blinks her eyes
while my son mouths to me that
it isn’t true.

My own sense of the truth of his words
doesn’t make them welcome in the moment
of which they are now an indelible part.

Pride, Love, and Putting the Bucket Down

I was never more proud of my son than I was that day, just a few weeks ago. Thank goodness that has worn away, so I can keep loving him for who he is.

My wife and I have been working on a landscaping project at the house, converting a thousand-square foot area from grass to perennials and herbs. Grass never grew well in this south-facing area, and I am excited about having even more fresh flowers to cut in future years. As a part of the project, I decided to replace a section of fence with a dry stone wall and to install a border of paving stones between the driveway and this new garden.

A couple of weeks back, the day’s work involved digging a trench for the pavers, sixty feet long and about a foot wide. Being next to an old asphalt driveway laid on top of New England clay soil, there wasn’t much easy digging. As I went, I worked to save the small rocks that came out of the ground, since they would make good fill around the base of the stone wall. This meant sifting out the dirt and sorting the stones into different piles. One foot at a time, on a very warm August Saturday.

My son shuffled towards me relatively early in the day. Can I help, Dad?

I thought for a second about what he might be able to do. My initial reaction was that he wouldn’t be able to help. The pick axe is too heavy for him, I thought. The weight of stones themselves, while small, would add up quickly, and they needed to be piled a good fifty feet from where I was working. The wheelbarrow is too big for him to manage.

Sure, I said, still thinking. Go get a bucket, one of the big ones. And put some good shoes on.

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fading
somewhere past paper thin

wisps of mourning
unreclaimed images

Many of my poems recently have been starting our long; I let them sit and then find myself stripping away words and lines that seem to clutter the feelings that first prompted me to write. Some moments I think I could write more without disturbing the essence if I were a better poet. Other moments, it seems just right.

Dukkha and the Essence of Fatherhood

A few years ago I attended the funeral for the father of a good friend and colleague. My friend’s father had been an important public figure, serving as a Justice on the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. Many speakers at the service described his important contributions to civic life.

When my friend stood up to speak and remember her father, though, she talked about dinner. While her father held an important position, she noted, and worked almost fifty miles away (no small distance in Massachusetts traffic), he always came home for dinner. She described how he always seemed to make it to his children’s sporting and school events – and my friend has nine brothers and sisters. I came away that day and in the years since thinking a lot about his example, about the effort he had made in his life to be present for his children and family.

Days like today, I feel like I have utterly failed to live up to that example. My son has a t-ball game tonight. But here I am, at work, waiting for a meeting. Not there.

Again.

I’ll arrive home later and find him asleep, his glove tossed aside on the front porch, his uniform crumpled in the dirty clothes hamper. In the morning, I will ask him how his game was, but I will feel a certain emptiness when I do. Then I will drive off to work as he pours cereal at the kitchen table.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish I had made different choices, pursued a career that would allow me to be more present, to be home with my wife and children. But maybe this isn’t simply about my career choice. I am reminded of my friend’s father; he was a Justice on the state’s high court, after all.

So I wonder, what am I doing wrong?

There is a possibility that the answer to this question is quite simple: nothing. This nagging wish that my life were different is real. It is raw. It exemplifies the dukkha, or suffering, that Buddha taught comes from attachment and that characterizes so many moments of our lives. My impulse is to try and fix it, to take it away, to do something about it – and perhaps I still can make different choices in my life.

First, though, my Zen practice reminds me to meet myself right here and now. Zen reminds me of the possibility of sitting with this disappointment, this regret, with the wish to be something or be somewhere for my children that circumstances prevent.

Perhaps, in the end, this regret and disappointment are simply the essence of fatherhood.

Not every moment, surely. But right now, behind my desk, imagining my son reaching into his glove to throw the ball he just caught, his determined grin cast in a direction that I cannot see.

Mother’s Day Tea

Last Thursday, my son woke up early and called to me in his still-morning voice, Daddy, this morning at eight forty-five is Mother’s Day Tea!

It is unusual for him to be excited about something like a Mother’s Day Tea. Special events tend to bring out what shyness he has, and he is not nearly so keen as his older brother on wearing a collared shirt and tie. But sure enough, he had even picked out a special sweater to wear and laid it on his bed.

My wife has been to a lot of these Mother’s Day Tea events over the years as our children have attended the same preschool in turn. Our youngest son is now five and starts kindergarten next year. This year’s Mother’s Day Tea was the last.

Later that same afternoon, I sat with my son on his bed while he showed me some of his new library books and told me about the cookies he had at the tea. He had changed out of his formal shirt and tie and was wearing a dark blue t-shirt emblazoned with pictures of different small whales and the words Nos Amis les dauphins. I love this shirt, and like our preschool and annual Mother’s Day Teas, all of our children have passed through it. One day soon, though, there will be a final wearing as our youngest grows out of it.

We don’t have another child to grow up and go to the next Mother’s Day Tea, or grow into the dolphin shirt. This realization has been arising much more frequently lately, and usually with it the impulse to turn my head to the side and close my eyes, as if turning away from something I would rather not witness.

At first, I was upset with myself for feeling this way. I would take it as an indication that I wasn’t living in the moment. I would scold myself for not being fully present with my children and instead worrying about how we would change as they grew older. Yet as I sat with my son on his bed that afternoon, my deep sadness about this phase of my life changing and receeding was quite real, very much the essence of the moment.

If Zen has begun to teach me anything, it is that the present moment encompasses all of my experience – all of the universe. This includes the desire not be in that moment, or the wish for it to go on forever, despite being fully aware of its impermanence.

I started out my spiritual searching looking for, desperate for, something that would make everything all right. I’ve come to realize, though, that everything isn’t all right – at least not in the way I had hoped.

There was something exquisitely joyful about those moments with my son. And something painfully sad, too. But all of it is my life. The deep intimacy of my life with my children, and the loneliness that comes from knowing we are all of the nature of change. All of it.

Recognizing and being grateful for all of that, that’s what might be all right – and maybe, just maybe, what I have been longing for.

Last Light

I know the first hints of leaves
are the lightest green.

Yet they appear black
against the wisps of clouds
and a sky growing pale
just before darkening.

He comments on them
looking up from his bed,
and asks to leave the curtains open.

It sure is nice light, I reply
and stroke his hair.
His stillness is perfect
even as he turns his head
for me to brush his other cheek.

A father and son will argue sometimes —

but the morning and its disappointment
are forgotten
in the last light
of this day.