We finished our sesshin, or Zen retreat, yesterday, Sunday. I was tired till today, Monday, when I woke up from a nap at 3 in the afternoon and finally felt some blood coursing through my body, wide awake and ready to go.
But go where?
I know, I know, I shouldn’t compare present to past. I shouldn’t be thinking of how, in past years, I would do a consuming Zen retreat and the very next morning be on my feet and back to work. Or else, at the end of the retreat, hurrying to pack and leaving to the airport the very next morning. The thought pops up even as I know that comparisons of almost any kind are a waste of time.
Over the past few years, I’ve learned not to schedule things after sesshin but to do what Aussie is doing right now. I see her through my window lying on her belly on the dark, moist ground, head up, looking around, relaxed but alert, at peace. Soon she’ll come in and ask for food, and after that we’ll go for our second walk of the day.
This morning I took both her and Henry for the morning walk to the beaver dam. That’s what we call the stream over which beavers have cut down trees and built dams. I hadn’t been there in a long time and was stunned by the ferocity of the water. Yes, it is spring when the water levels are high from melting snow, but I think it was yesterday’s heavy rain that fed the tumult and spray. The waters sped past us with passionate intensity, as though knowing exactly where they wanted to end up, a cacophonous roar of certainty.
I worried a little about Henry, under 15 pounds, who was keeping up with Aussie. Both dogs were full of energy after a rainy day at home yesterday and Aussie ran everywhere, including along the gushing stream. Henry stayed with her, and I called to him often. He’s a clever little bugger but lacks her common sense, and had he fallen into the water it would have rushed him down mercilessly to our own miniature Niagara Falls a quarter of a mile away; he wouldn’t have had a chance.
But the beavers have been busy felling trees, causing small pools to form, quiet ponds that don’t foam and rush. In fact, they were so tranquil they formed skins of algae, remaining still even while, just ten feet away, the rest of the stream roared past.
At a certain spot I could see both the quiet, barely moving pools and the racing water. All my instincts were to be with that rush of passion and conviction, the urgency that knew just where it was going and couldn’t wait to get there, braving fallen trees, rocks and abrupt curves before the cataract that finally smashed down below. This is how I’ve liked to live my life, headstrong, certain, in a hurry to get where I was going.
I completed my tenure as co-spiritual director of the Zen Peacemaker Order. It involved a lot of work and I didn’t ask to renew the term. I also took three months off from related administrative meetings, though as a veteran member, I plan to continue to attend online gatherings.
To make room for what? Haven’t a clue. I thought to myself that my life is now more like the placid pool created by the ever-busy, ambitious beavers, seemingly still, seemingly not going anywhere even as the events of the world continue their turbulence and spray.
A strong feeling built up over the months that it was time to turn the page and support the leadership of the next generation. Time to stop living life like that rush of white water and try something else, slower and more thoughtful. Time to reflect on the changing seasons outside and in my life and look more closely at the new flowers that are coming out of the ground. Time to live with question marks rather than destinations, inquiry rather than a finish line.
I still teach locally, but this week after sesshin we are off, and the computer calendar reveals days with no meetings or Zoom appointments, no structure other than the self-inflicted structure of day-to-day life: sit, feed dogs, walk dogs, answer emails, clean, go to post office and bank, make a meal, make some order.
It’s not enough; I am well aware of how mundane tasks can fill up the day, at the end of which you look around and ask: What did I do today? And why am I so tired?
No, that life is not for me. I need some other drive, I need to penetrate a new question. Maybe I’ll write more. Over dinner a friend casually mentioned something that gave me an idea for a short story. Maybe I’ll stop toying with it mentally and actually write something down.
And this blog, yes, this blog that I do three times a week.
I also want to reflect on my efforts on behalf of the local immigrant community. My contact with them has lessened significantly for the first time in three years (I began that work in April 2020, when covid began). What is that about, I wonder. Where am I being led?
“I don’t know what I am going to do when I grow up,” I wail to my sister on the phone.
“Something will come up,” she says patiently. “It always does.”
Whatever it will be, I doubt it will be like the turbulent streams of yesterday, the rush that work can give you, that deceptive feeling that you matter, that maybe, just maybe, you’re even important. No, perspective has reached even me. The woman who could barely do anything till mid-afternoon after sesshin is not about to conquer any worlds. It’s time to linger longer over tufts of new grass, name more birds, walk outside at night even when the moon is new and the sky is dark. Get closer and closer to the mystery of existence.
“Sit like a mountain,” we say in Zen. The retreat ended yesterday; a new one begins.
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