Thanksgiving Morning

Window shades lighten
as dawn arrives
gray light, chill.
The house is quiet,
still, each of us
in our cocoons.
Soon, the fire must be laid
and lit. Shades lifted
for the short day’s light.
My heart is soft
with long life,
with all it knows
about love and loss.
My father, mother,
strangers and friends,
war and famine, disease
and disaster. Yet comes day
with its quiet joy
stirring the blood
and rousing me
to prayer: may all beings
be free from suffering.
My riches are safety,
warmth, shelter, food,
health, and love. And knowing
they are not free. They
are not free.

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Benediction: A Consideration of the Novels of Ken Haruf

Sometimes you come upon a book, an author, by happenstance. My partner saw a book in a giveaway pile at the library, and the title caught her attention: Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. She brought it home with a pile of other books from the library, but the title caught my attention, so I picked it up and looked at it.

It’s a very slender volume and has a pleasant, somewhat benign cover. I started to read. How had I never heard of Kent Haruf before? Where had he been? Where had I? It turns out to be his last book, Ken Haruf, at 71 dying of cancer, writing about two elderly people who find each other in a small town in Colorado and in each other find solace and companionship.

There’s something about aging that tenderizes us, our hearts, and this novel about elderly people coming together in this way moved me deeply. A widowed woman approaches a neighbor, a man also widowed and asks him if he would like to sleep with her. Just sleep. To lie together in bed at night, side by side, maybe holding hands, and talk until they sleep. It takes him aback, not surprisingly, as it took me aback, but he agrees to give it a try. Slipping secretly through the back alley to her door, he is informed that he should come to the front door. The woman is not afraid of who sees or what they might think. The novel unfolds in ways that are surprising and at the same time, given the characters and their situations, predictable. But not predictable like the outcome of a poorly conceived thriller. Predictable in the way of life’s unfolding.

Discovering Ken Haruf has been a gift of deep proportions. On the basis of Our Souls at Night, I tracked him down online and discovered that he’d written a trilogy of novels all set in the same small, fictional town in Colorado, Holt. The series contains Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction, three books that follow a cast of characters across time in this small Colorado town. I started at the end, with Benediction, because it’s what the library had available. I will read my way back to the beginning, to Plainsong. It feels right, somehow, to start at the end, at the (impending) death of “Dad” Lewis, the return to town of his grown daughter, Lorraine; the Johnson women, mother, and daughter; Bertha May and her orphaned granddaughter Alice. To all the heartache of being human. Of loving and losing and continuing to love. Families, stray children, the night sky, life itself.

I’m only about one-third of the way into Benediction, and yet its benediction envelopes me. The plain truth about our human lives, our broken hearts, our mistakes, and our glories. Ken Haruf lived and died in Colorado under its expansive skies and soaring peaks. He wrote about the place he loved and lived. I’m so grateful for the way fate brought him to me at this time in my slowly aging life. I recommend him to you. Let him lead you into the territory of the heart with his golden prayer in your ears.

Surrendering to the Sweet Mystery of Being

Something miraculous happened yesterday. A confluence of realizations that encompassed my whole Being.

For the last six weeks, I’ve been in the throes of extreme nerve pain radiating down the left side of my leg as a result of two bulging discs in my low back. Despite the maximum dose of a nerve pain medication, Ibuprofen, and a muscle relaxer, I have found each day a trial, functioning just above my pain threshold. Waking in the morning felt as if a faucet of pain had been opened. I rose painful from bed wracked with discomfort, contracted, crunched, humped, and whimpering in an attempt to walk from one room to another, to get my pills, start a fire, make breakfast, slowly, slowly feeling the pills unraveling my muscles until I could crawl, then kneel, then walk haltingly from support to support. In this manner, I’ve taught my classes two days a week and done the various forms of work I do from home on the other days.

Yesterday, I had an appointment with the specialist in Wenatchee, two hours south of here. It was a bright, crisp morning, and the drive wends its way along the Methow River through the small towns of this Valley and the vast, open spaces in between. I drove in silence without music or audio book feeling my slightly drugged mind and aching body. I was praying, as I have been recently, to the Mother of Compassion, accepting my thimbleful of the ocean of the world’s suffering as my due, offering my compassion to those who suffer. As I drove, the shadow of a bird flashed across the windshield, and I looked up to see an eagle soaring over the road from the river. I passed a sign, one of those Adopt a Highway signs that are prevalent everywhere, and beneath it was one word, Zen. In an instant, I merged completely with consciousness. I felt my body as a sort of blade slicing through the emptiness; I was both the blade and the space. I was subject and object. This feeling was deeply reminiscent of my embodied awakening as consciousness in 2011. I had been driving that time, too, and saw a bird in the New Jersey sky and a jet plane, and suddenly, there was a merging, an emergence of knowing that I was That.

In the office of the specialist, wearing the well washed athletic shorts they give me to wear before the exam, I sat in meditation while I waited. Again, I spoke to my body, honoring its process, and acknowledging the presence of suffering. When the doctor came in, I described my debilitating pain, my frustration, reliance on drugs to find a manageable edge with which I could function. As we reviewed the options for treatment, I asked him, “so you’re telling me that this is normal?” And he said yes. “You’re somewhere in the middle of this process. It could get better tomorrow, or next week, or in three weeks.” At this point, I burst into tears. “You mean I might have to continue to carry this for another three weeks?” It felt unbearable to me.

We decided to schedule me for an epidural injection of corticosteroids sometime later this month. He said, “you can always cancel it.” I got into the car and texted my beloved. “The good news is my strength is good. The bad news how I’m feeling is totally normal.” When I got home, we talked about the appointment, and I sketched out the treatment options while she cleaned up the kitchen. At last, we sat together, and I spoke my disappointment in learning that what the deep pain I am living with is normal for the process of healing bulging discs. She asked me what I had been hoping for. I’m not really sure. I guess I wanted him to tell me that he was going to fix it, make it go away. She said that when she got my text, she thought it was good news that it’s normal and felt relieved that nothing bad was happening in my body requiring some drastic invasive procedure.

Once again, the tears came, and I felt so deeply how disappointed I’ve been with this unrelenting pain. By my limitation, the constant fog of the drugs. At the same time, I realized that I’m always aware that I am resting in consciousness and can be present with all the layers of my Being, the drug fog, the pain, and my essential Being.

This morning, I woke a full hour later than usual. I was able to stretch out my legs and pull my knees to my chest to carefully roll into a sitting position. I stood up from bed. I stood up. Straight. No crunching, crushing, crouching; no whimpering. Yes, there’s still some pain in my leg, but I walked upright into the bathroom to take my pills, and then to the living room where I lit the morning fire, assembled my breakfast to slow cook on the stove. I walked back here to sit and write.

Am I healed? No. But something deep inside me has relaxed. My body, my embodied Being, has heard the news. There is a deeper surrender.

This is normal. It is normal for the body to break down. It is normal to have pain. It is normal to want to feel better. This is healing. This is how it feels to be alive in a limited, temporary, fragile body. I’m continuing to drop into this experience and savoring the sweet mystery of Being.

Joined Here Together

Like us, trees are never alone.

They stand in clusters, or solitary

yet joined to earth and sky. They

reach for eternity, high

and low, a miracle not rent

by tension. No. They simply grow

in opposite directions, down

into dark mysteries of soil

and up to breathe the breath of God.

Like trees, we are bound together:

root, branch, seed.

 

National Gratitude 

Waiting for our flight from Ubon back to Bangkok from this airport built by the US military as a bombing base during the Vietnam Nam war. I wanted to capture this image. There’s a monk sitting under the sign, so I took the picture from across the way. I’m continually struck by the relationship between the Thai people and Buddhism. Every location has a shrine to the Buddha with incense lit daily to honor their ancestors. It’s about gratitude rather than worship. Our guide was “so proud” of our familiarity with Buddhism.

I’m continually struck by how the Buddhist precepts infuse this culture. Adjacent to our hotel in a sort of suburb of Ubon is the regional prison with its hydroponic gardens and palm groves just outside the inmate area with its barbed wire and guard towers. How unlike the typical US prison, off in some isolated no-man’s land far from families and difficult to reach without a car.

For all our religious righteousness, we often fall short of compassion. We could take a page from the Buddha’s teachings and be better for it.

Pilgrimage 

So here we are in Ubon Ratchatani in a hotel on one of the main streets. Karaoke and linen tablecloths in the restaurant. Another day of travel.

Ubon is the location of Wat Nong Pa Phong, the monastery founded by the Venerable Ajahn Chah in 1954 that put the Buddhist Thai Forest tradition on the map for Western seekers for many decades.

When I told one of the hotel employees on Koh Samet this morning that we were traveling to Ubon to visit this Wat, his face lit up. “Are you a Buddhist?” he asked me. How to answer clearly through cultural and linguistic differences?

No. I am not a practicing Buddhist today. But almost a decade ago in the depths of my seeking, I was led to Theravada through first Vipassana, then Insight meditation practice and ultimately through teachers who had trained with him, to Ajahn Chah. His writings were the metaphorical raft of the Buddha’s teaching that carried me across a difficult stretch of water. I spent a summer reading one of his books on the stoop of my house. It was, He was, my “balm in Gilead.”

I had studied with two of his students, Thanissara and Kittisaro, at the Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts and heard their stories about their time at the monastery. So when the opportunity came to travel to Thailand this year, it was an easy decision to add Ubon and Wat Nong Pa Phong to my itinerary.

Tomorrow our driver will take us there, to the place where Luang Por founded a sanctuary and passed his remarkable life. My days as a Dedicated Dharma Practitioner in the Theravada tradition are behind me, but the wisdom of Luang Por, with whom I share a birthday, and the hours of darkness lit by those who followed in his path, reside in my spiritual DNA. It will be a pilgrimage in the truest sense of the word. Decades later, I will sit with him in spirit, in reverence, in the place that he carved out of the wilderness for all who came seeking the light.

Homelife

This morning is bright and breezy. The shades slap in against the screens. It’s cold, 30 degrees below the forecast high. It’s summer. Fire season. Dry and windy.

Yesterday I picked and froze another few gallons of raspberries. There should be a word for them this time of year like pride of lions, or murder of crows. They are an army of jewels, gumdrop sized, purple shading to red, fragrant and sweet, and hot with juice. They are a monstrosity of joy. Relentlessly ripening.

In the afternoon I worked on continuing to fire-proof our yard, cutting the dead and dying grasses, raking pine needles and cones, instant tinder, and hauling it by handcart halfway down our driveway far enough away from the house to be less of a hazard. It was hot and dry and dusty. But the yard is an oasis of green: grass, garden, aspen trees, tall stately pines, all ringed by golden grass hills.

That’s where the fire was three years ago. It swept across the hills behind our house and ran downhill to a few feet from our garden, stopped by a trench hand dug by firefighters. It melted the irrigation hoses into black, geometric tattoos. We spent a day dousing brush fires around the yard, watching the groves of aspen and cottonwood along the irrigation line burn and smolder. It was heartbreaking.

But. We were spared the great loss of home. And now we tend it like our bodies. Like our selves. How can I explain how dear this is? The privilege to live here in this precious nook above the Valley floor. To hear by seasons the river, the aspen leaves’ inimitable breath, the birdsong of early morning and in winter a silence so brilliant it sings.

It is perhaps a cliche to say “chop wood and carry water,” but if it is a cliche, it is also true. We live on, in, and through this landscape. We feed it, and it feeds us. There is always work to do, the work of living so close to nature. Our best efforts are fragile and flimsy and need constant attention. We are here but a short while and by the grace of God. So another day begins.