Tag Archives: family

Saving All Beings

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.


Coveted Space

My sons might be ignoring me
across the space of the kitchen and family room.

In the minutes that just passed,
they had shared only glaring complaints
and intrusions into coveted space
in the struggle to get teeth brushed
and clothes exchanged for pajamas.

Now they have settled next to each other,
one reclining deep into the corner of the couch,
slowly turning a page,
and pulling on a fingernail with his teeth;
the other kneeling up to the cushion,
working the pieces of a wooden box puzzle,
alternatively holding his breath and exhaling with concentration.

I’ve called them to bed
but can’t repeat myself.
The silence brushes my skin
as I stand absorbed and unmoving.

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.

Surrounded by Dust and Calloused

As a wedding present for my wife
I rebuilt an antique dressing table
that I had found discarded on a sidewalk.
Coaxing the yards of inlay
into the old grooves
wore away awareness of time.

I’d like to make furniture,
and leave my shirts and ties in the hallway closet.
Surrounded by dust
and calloused,
silent inside the cacophony of tools.

If only I had planned for that life,

I could run down from the top floor of the barn
and watch the children step off the bus.
I could speak slowly about my day
and show my wife the curve in a piece of ash.

Big Trucks

My daughter went to see the nurse at school yesterday, not feeling well, and she came home early. I wish I could have been there for her. Not because she needed me – her mother was there for her – but because it was a moment that I missed. I would have loved that hug.

Even though my wife teases me that I wouldn’t be able to manage all the day-to-day muck work that she does – and I think she’s right – I’m jealous of what she gets to witness. I would love to be there for the game of crazy eights with our five year old after his older siblings have gone off to school, for the trip to the library after school to see all three of them pore over books, for the trips to the pediatrician to watch them have their reflexes tested.

Monday morning, a holiday, I took the boys to Home Depot to buy concrete for a basement project. I bought new filter masks for them so they could help without filling their lungs with fine portland cement, and we came home and poured concrete. They poured the water and acrylic fortifier, talking eagerly about which one they liked best. Look at the concrete dust, they said, fully aware, fully present. Meanwhile, not wanting the concrete to set, I spoke too quickly to them as I moved in the tight spaces.

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Zoe & A Boy

I can remember my body shaking the same way when I was a boy. My lungs trying to pull air back in, but the convulsions from my crying making each breath stutter. I remember, too, a feeling that I shouldn’t be this way, that I should stop as soon as I could.

I saw it happening to my son as we stood in the rain of Hurricane Sandy. I searched for ways he could help me as I dug the final resting place for Zoe, our cat euthanized the night before. Between the rocks in our New England soil and the roots from the Hemlock tree above, the digging was slow – and too much for seven year old arms. But he had asked to help. And he stood there, steadfast, arms at his side, as my crow bar and shovel made slow work.

He doesn’t often stand so still. He’s much more likely than his older sister or his younger brother to be a blur, one with volume pegged high, childhood silliness taken one-half step too far. The kind of exuberance that some people label as “a boy being a boy” – the kind that looks like he’s moving way too fast to possibly stop and think, to stop and feel.

But he stood there. Not completely still, because he shook, just as he’d done the night before when, after the vet had come to the house and gone, he had asked to read a story. Sure, I said. Maybe a Pooh story, he asked, meaning one out of our vintage A.A. Milne hardcover that has long since lost its monetary value, its binding loosened by overhead reading, cover marked in crayon. It wasn’t his usual choice, at least not since he willed himself to be enough of a reader to catch up to his older sister in reading Harry Potter. I read, and he laughed with sincerity, as any child will do if you read them a Pooh story with all of your own. As he got into bed, though, the gaiety of those stories fell to the pain of his first loss. His bravado, which compels him to be faster, stronger, or funnier than all comers, which would have him best his four year-old brother by any means, his bravado fell too. He didn’t stop shaking for a long time.

I told him then that this is what makes him special. I told him his sadness, the way he lets himself feel it, is what make him a good son, a good brother, and why Zoe loved him so much. It’s more than okay for you to feel this way, I told him. It’s what makes you who you are. It’s your gift.

We had gone in to get the rest of the family after the hole was finished, and he almost didn’t come back outside. But he was so desperate to help, to feel the connection that he needed, as much as it hurt. He took the cardboard box from the barn as we walked toward the back of the yard. It hardly weighed anything at all, but looked so heavy in his arms. The effort was in his heart and in his lungs drawing in air.

We filled the grave and his brother and sister walked back toward the house. He simply stood, still and soaking. Can we mark it, Dad? What will we use? I’ll get a flat rock, I replied, I’ve got a few on the stone wall. It has to be at least three feet tall, he said. Three feet, I asked, why three feet? Well, he said, the snow can be up to that deep.