Tag Archives: marriage

Forty-Something this Summer

It’s supposed to be raining this morning,
but I awake without the sound
of small drops trickling from maple leaves or
spattering the old tin roof
outside our bedroom window –

either would have muffled the clinking of
spoons against the edges of
glass cereal bowls that
filters up from downstairs.

Yet well past the hour when
I often find myself alone,
you are still beside me,
only breathing;

I watch your breasts rise and fall
under the softness of your light blue camisole,
its narrow strap rising over your left shoulder
into a blur of light from the south window.

Your birthday is two days from now –
early forty-something this summer –
I should get up and settle the children’s argument,
plan for a gift.

Anniversary

This morning,
our children surrounding you
as closely as the faded sheets,

you were not mine alone
to whisper,
to touch —

the years intervening
since that day
when the air was thicker, closer,
and I climbed down the rocks
near your parents’ house
to swim through the fog in the ocean,
a ritual cleansing of my own choosing.

Each breath of that morning
had been simple,
even anticipation ceasing —

perhaps succumbing
to its own inability
to describe any truth
but an assurance of
love,
holding us both
in unborn arms,
vast oceans,
and summer rainstorms.

Beside Me (Happy Birthday)

It has been twenty of your birthdays
since I first saw you walking
in the afternoon light;

you slipped away for a time,

but later
we floated in the
midnight darkness of the lake,
timidly watched the sunrise
from granite steps.

This day bears little resemblance
outside the presence of you and I
and want of a breeze;
others in between are half-forgotten,
depending on photos in an album
to remind us —

yet still I see you walking

and wish you might come
to sit down beside me.

No Need to Pretend

A co-worker and I stood in the office kitchen this morning as she searched for a spoon. We joked about how she might eat her cereal with a fork, how it might be easier if it were cereal and yogurt. My voice was clear and my laughter sounded easy. But my heart was somewhere else.

What is the toll, I wonder, from laughing, from pretending and projecting that all is well, when the reality is something different?

My wife and kids have been away for a few days, visiting family now that the school year has ended. I stayed home, with a few meetings this week that I could not miss. Last night I returned home close to midnight after one of those meetings and went out to close up the barn. Five of our six chickens were perched up on their roosts, with the sixth lying very still and awkwardly on the floor. I propped her up on some fresh hay for the night, but this morning she was less responsive and clearly dying. By now, she’s certainly passed.

My son was devestated this past fall when we lost our cat, a dear member of the family who the kids had grown up with. I was so deeply moved by his reaction as we buried her that a story poured out of me that night; that story became the inspiration for this blog.

The chickens were a present for him for his eighth birthday in April. He said it was the best birthday present ever.

I grew up raising chickens, along with sheep and rabbits. I remember the first spring flock that I was responsible for, and my dismay when we lost most of them to an intruder in the coop, likely a fox. I like to tell people that growing up around animals was a good experience, that I learned at an early age about caring for others, about life and death. My original Tibetan Buddhist practice, too, spoke of the value of coming to understand death as a part of our lives.

I’m not so sure this morning about either of those stories.

My son will come home today and learn about this new death. I’ll want to make everything all right for him, knowing at the same time that is not possible. I could look at this experience as a gift. But it’s hard. And what will I do when the death in our lives is closer?

I can’t share any of this with the people around me. I move around the office pretending that this is just another day. I pass by co-workers and talk jovially about this and that.

A little while ago I closed the office door to call my wife and let her know about the chicken, what is awaiting her at home. In the course of that conversation, I learned that the emails I have been sending to her over the last few days, reaching out to make a connection, have gone to an account she can’t access away from home. I hung up the phone feeling more isolated, then went to sit in a meeting and discuss the ramifications of the end of the fiscal year.

I didn’t realize it when I began, but my spiritual practice has taken shape as an effort to drop pretense, to live my life as it presents itself. In some respects, I have begun to realize this through Zen. At the Temple I can sit wth the complexity of fatherhood, marriage, love, joy and sadness, or share with a friend in the sangha after the evening practice has ended. I’ve been striving to do this at home too, with my wife and children, and it has allowed me to experience both joy and sadness more fully, more intimately.

At the same time, I am more accutely aware now of the places and times that I cannot. I worry about the cost.

When I get home this afternoon, I’ll hold my son and tell him it is okay to wonder why this has happened again to an animal he loved. I will tell him it is all right to be sad, to cry, to deeply feel whatever arises. I’ll tell him there’s no need to pretend.

Morning

Expectations dashed,
morning arises just the same.

We skirt the space from last night
and busy ourselves
in living —

I understand
the rain should taper off today.

There are difficult moments in much of what I write, but I have been reluctant to post something that doesn’t somehow tie up neatly. Not all moments do.

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.

Entwined

Passing quickly in the morning
as you make lunches
and I rush to the car
isn’t what I imagined

that day we stood
in the old barn by the sea,

my hand gently touching yours,
and feeling every movement of the sweat
trickling down the small of my back.

Standing outside in the garden,
I didn’t notice the photographer
as we talked idly
between silences
about the softness of the rain —

though the pictures in the crimson binder
tucked up on the highest shelf
tell me he was there.

Let’s meet again in that garden,
where we can stand still,

my hand resting
on the laces that entwine
the back of your dress.

Touching the Heart Mind

Later today I will drive to the Temple in a likely swirl of emotions. I will leave my family behind for a four-day retreat, an opportunity that is a great gift. Yet I will be driving away from goodnight kisses, baseball and t-ball games, and chalk drawings on the driveway. Away from faces asking me why I have to go. I’ll leave behind my wife to pick up these pieces with grace and great generosity.

Sesshin, the name for extended retreats in Zen, translates as touching the heart mind. When I returned home from an eight-day sesshin last summer, the weight of this touching was almost too much to bear, too much to express. I wrote these words for my wife:

opening the door,
seeing each of you,
touching each of you,
tears not from missing you
[though how I did] --

but rising from a heart
once, twice, innumerably papered over
by each and every part
of our rushing lives.
a heart stacked upon
by ten thousand necessities
pressing down
on a space deep inside.

a heart now broken
open
so that the tears
streaking down my cheek
contain my whole life,
falling onto the rise of your shoulder.

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.