Monthly Archives: January 2013

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.

Winter Haiku #2

breathless light struggles —
long shadows arrive early
in the day’s passing

I feel like I’ve been writing around the edges recently. Circling around words that need to be expressed but aren’t ready to be committed. My notebook is littered with opening lines and untitled strings of paragraphs that don’t quite go together. This haiku managed to emerge complete, perhaps a part of circling inward. It is, in any event, one step next to another step, and what this moment holds.

Exhalation

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.

Margin Notes

Thumbing through the copy of
Merton’s Birds of Appetite
she found on our living room shelf,

my wife asks me who it had belonged to,
curious about the writing in the margins.

I look and recognize the hand of an old friend;
we used to talk about Zen and Shakespeare.

She wonders if I ever hear from her —
but I have grown so much quieter,
and I can’t bear to intrude
upon spaces so large.

What would I say?

No Merit

A scroll hanging in the entrance hallway at our Temple reads “No Merit”. It recalls the conversation of Bodhidharma, who brought Zen to China, with the Emperor Wu. When the Emperor asked Bodhidharma what merit he had accumulated through his support of monks and building monasteries, Bodhidharma replied: No merit.

One of my initial attractions to Buddhism was, in fact, the possibility of accumulation of merit, the idea that through diligent work in this life, I could earn merit that would propel me towards eventual release from suffering. The idea provided me concrete and tangible comfort from my fear of loss and annihilation. There was something I could do, after all.

And so Bodhidharma’s words and this idea in Zen initially came with a sense of loss. I came to the practice for the promise of comfort, because I thought (in an interesting connection to my family’s Puritanical roots that will someday make a separate topic for writing) that I could earn my way out of my fears. As the years go by, it doesn’t feel as much like a loss anymore, and more like an example of what simply is. No loss. No gain. Loss and gain. No idea.

I’ve been thinking about this tonight because two fellow bloggers have written to recognize this blog. Yesterday, hillbillyzen wrote to say she had nominated the blog for the Reality Blogger Award. And today, Linda at mayandseptember wrote to say she was giving a nomination for the Leibster Award. I know well that none of it makes me a better blogger or writer or more worthy of reading. But I think we blog because we’re interested in sharing what we think and notice and feel, but perhaps a lot of us (or, speaking for myself) don’t otherwise know exactly how. Recognition might mean that we have met our intention.

And so I will accept the kindness, badges or not, offered by hillbillyzen and mayandseptember (you should visit their blogs), and may try to recognize some fellow bloggers (perhaps in this space). As for the rest, I still don’t know how I feel about the whole process. Neither accepting, rejecting, nor ignoring the awards quite feels right. That not-knowing does feels just about familiar, though.

A Winter’s Vacation

A long day apart
followed by another
will make these tender ones remote —

but late at night
passing an upstairs window
and caught by the moon
as it mingles with the dim street lamp,

I will pause,

and notice the overlapping snowshoe paths
behind the house,
evidence of our time together.