Tag Archives: regret

Earnest Offering

I’ve gone through half an eraser;
there’s some danger I might believe
that the thoughts I used to have
were better,

the way they made images
when captured in my notebook.
So much more evasive now,
I struggle to evaluate their worth.

The night insects, though,
make their earnest offering
through open August windows —
calling and calling.

But it is all just noise —
I sit distracted

by the tears
my son couldn’t show me
when we argued this afternoon,

by the cars outside
moving too quickly down the hill.

At the Small Table

When I catalogue my regrets
at the end of the day,
I won’t include the moments we spent sitting
at the small table in the living room.

The old-fashioned fire whistle,
remnant of summoning volunteers
across the town,
punctured our long silence —

you picked up your head only briefly
from the sea-blue magic marker
before returning to your work,
tongue pressed in concentration
against your cheek.

We laughed gently about
a pair of dogs we could see
through the window
and across the street
jostling in the slanted afternoon sun.

You asked me not to leave —
yet there was never any chance;
my movement only a reach to the floor
for the morning’s leftover mug and a
sip of luke-warm coffee.

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.

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.

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?

The Lure of Accomplishment

My teacher often says that Zen is not a self-improvement project. And it isn’t. But it has changed me. I have noticed that I spend a lot less time planning my career, thinking about my degree, or fretting about how much money I’ll end up with. For that matter, I’ve pretty much let go of any idea of enlightenment beyond what I already have. Yet it seems that I still get caught up in trying to accomplish things – they’re just much smaller.

My mother stopped by on Sunday to spend some time with the kids. She and my daughter sat animated at the kitchen table, chairs pushed close together. They were piecing together a plastic cup, sponge, string, and some googly eyes, making a toy my daughter first made when she was she was five or six years old. If you wet the sponge, squeeze it tightly around and slide it down the string just so, it sounds an awful lot like a gobbling wild turkey.

(I am completely enamored of my daughter’s love for this sort of thing. She’s almost 10. I sometimes catch myself realizing that I expect her to be older by now, and that I’m so happy she’s not. But that’s mostly another story.)

This was just the sort of moment that I complain about not having the chance to witness or be present to. The possibility of being with my family, absorbed in something together, absorbed each others’ company. Except that I didn’t join them. I stood right there, leaning up against the butcher block counter, thinking about getting the lawn mowed one last time before winter, about getting the family budget balanced, about the need to roll out insulation in the attic and fix the broken glass in the window up there.

So much to accomplish.

There is real suffering in the desire for the moment to be something other than what it is, for it to be simpler. And there is a sense of impossibility in these moments, too.¬†Graciously accepting what a moment has to offer could mean dropping away my own concerns and being fully present with my wife or child. But it also must mean accepting the part if me that feels the conflict, that part that is pulled away by a nagging mind wanting to do and to accomplish. In the world of emptiness, one isn’t better than the other. In the world of form, of fatherhood, of the kind of impermanence that means childhood years are short, I sure know which one I prefer.

For all of the regret that I might muster on my drive to work or in the quiet hours after bedtime, though, that moment in the kitchen has already passed.¬†Zen practice is very reliable in that all that it asks me to do is to sit down. Perhaps there is no answer to the lure of accomplishment, either, but to sit down – or stand up, or run around – and play when someone comes asking. The small change may come. Or it may not. But I’ll be there.