Last Saturday I sat all day with the Green River Zen community, so came Sunday morning, sunlight abounding, I decided to take a hike. Together with Lori, my housemate, Aussie and Henry the canines, we went up the Robert Frost Trail, which goes north from South Hadley up to the Wendell State Forest, some 42 miles.
We catch the trail close to home. It starts with a steep climb up a hill’s edge, but then levels into woodland of slope and valley. Maintaining a fairly brisk pace, we pause only to look for the red markers, admire the multi-colored mushrooms, examine the large wet stones we used to cross happy streams, and give small snacks to the dogs whenever they come back from their carefree meanderings.
We arrived at Pigpen Ledges almost 2 miles in, tall, ancient rocks enclosing a wide area. The red markers pointed us towards rocks that climbed up in a jumble.
Lori shook her head. “I don’t know if you or the dogs could make it,” she said. She did the climb herself, while I tried to raise my left leg high enough to catch some kind of foothold, with no success. The dogs leaped up on their back legs, then settled back down and whimpered. They couldn’t make it up, either.
I walked along the bottom perimeter, trying to find another way up. Suddenly I looked up: “Aussie!” She’d climbed up and was looking down at me, tail wagging gleefully. “How did you get up there?”
The next one to look down on me was Henry, the little chihuahua, and I groaned. Then I vowed: If Henry could make it up there, I could, too.
Sure enough, there was a sharp rise on the other side that founds its way up through large cracks in the rocks. You had to squeeze tight between boulders and climb through dark holes and then out into the light. This time the rains helped out; the rocks were dangerously wet but the ground was just muddy enough for my feet to sink in a little better, giving me more stability on the steep ascent.
I made it to the top and joined the others on a ledge looking down. I have arthritis in one knee and am hardly as fit as I once was, yet the big ledges called out to me. No way I was going home without giving it a try.
Much of my life I’ve responded to calls: to practice, to work, to write, to love. At certain times these seemed irrational to many, and still I followed them. When people ask me why I continue to live in the house I lived in with Bernie rather than move somewhere else, I tell them it’s not out of attachment to a past but because I feel no call to go elsewhere.
Most of the times that I’ve moved—and those have been many—I moved to follow a call, not just because someplace else was nicer or even more convenient. The Zen Community of New York called me to come to Yonkers, the Zen Peacemakers called me to go to California, New Mexico, Massachusetts. Woodstock called me a long time ago because I wanted to try living in the country, and Manhattan called me because, well, it was Manhattan.
Now there is no call, just practicality (Live somewhere smaller and simpler without a housemate!), and so far I haven’t responded.
I talked with a good friend this morning. Life is good, I told him. There are old, ongoing projects I wish to bring to completion. It will take a couple more years, but somewhere out there I could see an ending, somewhere out there I could see more space. What I’m missing are new callings, I told him, like the call of the Pigpen Ledges. I miss new passions, new stirrings of the heart.
It’s like the difference between an inhale and an exhale, he said.
Following this metaphor, I miss the inhales, letting in some fresh oxygen, a new scent that intrigues the senses, challenges my mind, and excites the heart. Something new, something I haven’t done before, that will call on whatever skills and experience I have and demand I create something out of them. Activating the Zen Peacemaker Order in this country, which I began to do after Bernie died, is such an inhale.
But the rest feels like a long exhale. Making sure that things are in place, publishing what I’ve written, bringing things to fruition—a long, long exhale. Exhales are good, in fact I’ve always favored them over inhales. My meditations are often grounded in long, drawn-out exhales, which create a sense of vast space. Exhales permit me to pay more attention, examine the new beehive by the corner of the garage, the new beaver dam being created a mile down the road, maple leaves turning west towards the sun and shivering when the rains approach. Exhales are for planning Thanksgiving travel and catching up with friends and family. Exhales are for gratitude, for the miracle that’s the essence of every mundane moment.
But inhales! The intake of breath when I get a new idea, when something opens up on my horizon. An excited to life, when I challenge my lungs to take in new air, open wide, become full once again. When I don’t worry about my asthma and instead take in lots and lots of new oxygen.
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