Monthly Archives: February 2013

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.

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.

Simple Day

The circles from our meeting
have rippled out
across the years,
growing faint for a time
from interruption,
and then stronger still,
rolling though seasons,
gardens and snows
and the voices of our children,
over quiet mornings
and hinted joy.

Let me kiss your forehead
and touch your hand,
look outward toward the sea
for just a moment
with a half smile —
another wave on this
simple day.

Worn into the Fabric

A pair of corduroy pants
sit folded on the ironing board,
their faded blue almost grey
in the early morning light.

They have passed in turn
from each of our children
to the next,
stories of young lives
worn into the fabric.

The ridges have been
diminished by the seasons
in places where they have bent
for a doll or a puddle,
or knelt for a story,
leaving nearly smooth,
but still patterned,
softness.

They are too small now
for any of our family,
yet my wife has pinned
a piece of cloth,
edges folded and ironed
neatly for sewing,
over a hole in the knee.

She’ll stitch them carefully together
one evening as we sit.

I haven’t asked her why —

perhaps she hopes our youngest
might wear them one more time,
or that there is something else
her patching might repair.