Tag Archives: suffering

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.



I have been holding my breath again,
not leaving you much choice
but to wait.

This has always been my first response
when frightened —
but you learned this years ago.

I feel
your yearning
to speak
after the children have been tucked in
(we wouldn’t be interrupted)
and as the tea kettle births
steam onto the darkened window;

your abiding
in the deep quiet
(so ripe)
that hours later
envelopes us in our bed.

But exhalation
gives life to fear —
merely scratching out a poem,
lightly and in pencil,
would risk too much.

So you bear the silence for us,
even as our skin touches,
the cold back of your thigh
reminding me
you are there,
giving me everything
just by lying still,
waiting for me to breathe.

A Son’s Gift

As we turned the corner in the grocery store, my five year old son walked a step ahead of me, clear about where he was going and full of intention.

Making trips to the grocery store isn’t my favorite activity, and the number of cars in the parking lot told of a large crowd inside – but I didn’t mind making this Christmas Eve outing. As we drove to the store, I watched my son clutch the dollar bill that he had pulled from the old tea container on his dresser, preparing to contribute it towards his big brother’s Christmas gift. I listened to the assured way he spoke, without revealing everything to me, about what he had decided to give to him.

He marched confidently most of the way down the toy aisle and stopped. This one, he said, pointing towards the shelf. I followed the direction of his hand and saw the blue box of eight matchbox cars. He pulled it from the shelf with both hands, bringing it to rest against his winter coat as he examined it closely, then turning towards me as I caught up, hopeful I would approve his choice.

It was the same gift his brother had gotten for him the year before. The same gift he had loved. I remembered him opening it Christmas morning, how he couldn’t imagine his good fortune at receiving a box of eight new cars, all at once. What could speak more clearly of his love for his brother than wanting to reciprocate, a year later, with the same?

Yet, as I stood there with Robin looking up at me, all that ran through my mind was how to get him to choose something else. His brother True is seven and a half, and hasn’t played a lot with cars and trucks in the last year. I knew he would be gracious in receiving the gift, but it seemed an awful lot of cars if he wasn’t going to spend much time with them. And at $12.99, well, it felt like a lot.

Let’s look around, I said, see what else is here. I suggested the small Lego sets that were in the same aisle – True loves Legos, doesn’t he? I suggested card games and even some smaller sets of cars. Robin dutifully obliged and examined that the alternatives I offered, but his heart wasn’t in it, and I knew it. I could feel the way the big set of cars pulled on him, even as we stood at each different shelf, motionless. He dismissed all the other options without words and returned back to pulled the box off the shelf. As he did, I thought I saw my opening in the form of a box just behind, a sort of combination track and ramp for matchbox cars that could be set up from a table to send cars flying. He’ll go for that, I thought, as I pointed it out it to him.

He looked, but didn’t take long. No, he said, I want to get this one for him.

He wasn’t demanding – just trying desperately to show me his sincerity, sincerity born from the warm feeling that still lasted from the previous Christmas, and his desire to share that with his brother, to get him the perfect gift, just like the extra large box of tea he had picked out for his mother.

Every bit of me could see that, could feel it, yet for some reason still struggled against it.

You don’t want this? I asked, holding up the track again. You could have races to see which of the cars you already have goes the farthest. I tried to paint a different picture than the one he had composed, the one he was holding dear. No, he replied, this one. Don’t we already have those cars? I flailed. No, he pointed out, these are different. He’ll love these.

There was nothing left for me to say. I could have flatly said no, that the set was too expensive. Or told him I didn’t think True really wanted eight new matchbox cars. But I couldn’t do either.

So instead I did something worse.

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Fatherhood and the Five Remembrances

As a part of our sutra service at the temple, we regularly chant the Five Remembrances. Intended by the Buddha to ward off an impression of permanence in our current existence, these ancient words remind us that we are of the nature to die, and that we cannot escape separation from those who are dear to us.

It is stark reality – but it isn’t while chanting at the temple that I feel the weight of this realization.

Last night, in the brief interim between the frenzy of the day and the full silence of night, my wife and I were talking about our children. I commented about the way in which our youngest son had greeted me when I arrived home from work. He ran to me with a stack of coupons he had cut out of a junk mail flyer from the local warehouse store. We stood in the middle of the kitchen, the table being set, the oven opening and closing, his brother and sister whirling around us. He wanted to sit right there, right then, and show me. Later on, I wondered aloud to my wife about what had held him there. Was it the coupons themselves that he was so eager to share? Was it his pride in the careful cutting? Or was it just the chance be together, no matter what was at the center of it or what was going on around us?

My son is always reaching into my back pocket, looking for my phone to take pictures. He takes snapshots of crayon boxes, books on the floor, our feet together on a stool, cookies cooling on the counter, and toy dragons on windowsills. Pictures of each room, doorway, lamp, and family member. Hundreds of them at a time. It clogs the memory on my phone, and we try not to have our kids spend too much time with electronics. But I always give in when he asks. Each time I hear the shutter click, I feel his joy and his presence in that moment.

So when he was perusing and clipping these junk mail coupons earlier in the afternoon, my wife remembered, he had paused when he came across a camera. Could I get a camera, he asked her. She replied that maybe he should put it on his Christmas list. She showed me how his eyes brightened as he offered, Or maybe I should get a phone.

I could see his face in my mind as my wife finished this story and as I walked toward the kitchen to make the next day’s coffee. I could imagine his deep pleasure at the idea of having his own phone with which to take endless pictures. I reveled, as I reached into the cupboard, in how much I adore him.

Then, in the time it took to pull down the box of coffee filters from the second shelf, the warmth of that adoration was swiftly swallowed whole by the remembrance of change. My change, his change. The remembrance that I am of the nature to die, of the nature to be separated from him. From everyone. From everything. The feeling sank deep into my gut, an impossibly heavy mixture of sadness, anger, and confusion.

Some say the words of the Five Remembrances help them to live in the present moment. I didn’t have the sutra in mind then, but I did make an effort to stand in the kitchen and accept all that was being offered, that koan pulling deep inside me. Mostly, it was a moment filled with wanting desperately to go and wake up my son, to watch him walk about taking pictures, then sit closely and talk about the ones we liked best. Would it matter how tightly I held him?

The Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to grow old.
  There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
  there is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
  There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature of change.
  There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds are my closest companions.
  I am the beneficiary of my deeds.
  My deeds are the ground on which I stand.