Monthly Archives: June 2013

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.

Five

The arc on the old swing is short
and the set rocks uneasily
from so many seasons
in the snow and rain.

He has known it
for all of his five years,

but now runs to it less often,
lingers not as long.

Just the other day
he asked me for a push,
one he doesn’t need anymore —
a big one, he said,
and laughed
as he rose and fell
straining back,
reaching upward.

The blue sky was clear
and closer than it used to be.

Completing the set with companion pieces Ten and Almost Eight.

Dukkha and the Essence of Fatherhood

A few years ago I attended the funeral for the father of a good friend and colleague. My friend’s father had been an important public figure, serving as a Justice on the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. Many speakers at the service described his important contributions to civic life.

When my friend stood up to speak and remember her father, though, she talked about dinner. While her father held an important position, she noted, and worked almost fifty miles away (no small distance in Massachusetts traffic), he always came home for dinner. She described how he always seemed to make it to his children’s sporting and school events – and my friend has nine brothers and sisters. I came away that day and in the years since thinking a lot about his example, about the effort he had made in his life to be present for his children and family.

Days like today, I feel like I have utterly failed to live up to that example. My son has a t-ball game tonight. But here I am, at work, waiting for a meeting. Not there.

Again.

I’ll arrive home later and find him asleep, his glove tossed aside on the front porch, his uniform crumpled in the dirty clothes hamper. In the morning, I will ask him how his game was, but I will feel a certain emptiness when I do. Then I will drive off to work as he pours cereal at the kitchen table.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish I had made different choices, pursued a career that would allow me to be more present, to be home with my wife and children. But maybe this isn’t simply about my career choice. I am reminded of my friend’s father; he was a Justice on the state’s high court, after all.

So I wonder, what am I doing wrong?

There is a possibility that the answer to this question is quite simple: nothing. This nagging wish that my life were different is real. It is raw. It exemplifies the dukkha, or suffering, that Buddha taught comes from attachment and that characterizes so many moments of our lives. My impulse is to try and fix it, to take it away, to do something about it – and perhaps I still can make different choices in my life.

First, though, my Zen practice reminds me to meet myself right here and now. Zen reminds me of the possibility of sitting with this disappointment, this regret, with the wish to be something or be somewhere for my children that circumstances prevent.

Perhaps, in the end, this regret and disappointment are simply the essence of fatherhood.

Not every moment, surely. But right now, behind my desk, imagining my son reaching into his glove to throw the ball he just caught, his determined grin cast in a direction that I cannot see.