This morning I walked over to Kwan-yin with a stick of incense, as is my custom. It was the coldest it had been so far; we expect a snowstorm tomorrow. The incense stick leans a little sideways in its tiny holder on the pedestal where she stands, and as I stretched up, I noticed that someone else had also made an offering to Kwan-yin. Henry, the illegal Chihuahua recovering from an attack by a neighboring dog, had left a fallen branch at her feet.

Maybe the little dog had hoped she’d throw it for him, he’d bring it back, she’d throw it, he’d bring it back, etc.—and maybe she did. Right now, there it lies, a simple gift from a dog’s heart that feels truer than my stick of incense, as if it’s saying: Here is my favorite thing in the world, all for you.

Whereas I sometimes sound like: What have you done for us lately? The Middle East is burning up, Pakistan is expelling 1.7 million Afghan refugees, there’s war and famine in the Tigray region in Ethiopia, a quarter of a million people came over the Mexico-US border in December alone—where’s the compassion, man—eh, woman?

She looks deeply at me with humor in her narrow eyes: What’s your idea of compassion? and thereby shuts me up. I have plenty of ideas for compassion, but often they’re just ideas.

Our winter is here, and under the heavy gray, lowering clouds I wonder about my path in life. Not so much what will I do when I grow up but rather: What kind of beginnings are possible for me now? I think of John O’Donahue’s poem:

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge. 

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown. 

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this. 

In Green River Zen’s January newsletter, I announced that I was retiring from teaching at the local sangha as of June 30, 2024. I wished to make space for younger teachers to take over; I also had the vague sense that a page had been standing upright for a while now, ready to be fully turned, and it’s time I turned it.

Not because of better things to do.

“What will I do?” I wailed to my sister when I saw her in Jerusalem 10 days ago.

“You always find something,” she said.

She’s right, of course, I will do things. But I think my more basic question was: What will I be? I feel more stripped down than ever (even while wearing a thick red sweater this evening), less layered than before, all the extras coming off, leaving what?

I think back to a brief conversation I had in Jerusalem with a friend of my brother who’s done peace work for many years between Israelis and Palestinians. A secular man, he asked me what was meant by spiritually-based social change. I described briefly the Zen Peacemakers’ Three Tenets—not-knowing, bearing witness, and taking the emergent action. He listened, nodded, said nothing.

That very moment I felt as though I’d said too much, as though none of that was really needed anymore. I don’t need a recipe for taking action, I am action. Things are moving in me all the time, death, rebirth, death, as part of the roll and churn of life, no need to think things out too much.

When life leaves you alone, no longer tempting you with promises of fame, money, beauty, or a glorious future, you’re being pared down to walk naked in this world, occasionally looking at yourself and wondering whose skin this is, whose lines at the base of the thumb, whose hands cutting tomatoes and rinsing lentils for soup. What is this thing called me?

It’s time to leave something other than another incense stick at the base of Kwan-yin’s feet; the incense feels extra, of another age. Maybe all she wants, finally, is the thin torn branch at her feet, the biggest gift a little dog can give her.

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