Leaf Falling

Falling Leaves -Karen Laslo

Falling Leaves -Karen Laslo

In the woods, I watched a sycamore leaf fall from the high branches of a creek side tree and drift down through the cushioning air to the ground below. How much time passed from the instant the leaf let go until it settled at the tree’s base? In the mind’s eye the leaf hung suspended in air long enough to witness its slow descent in tiny durations of mathematical increment, whereas it couldn’t have taken longer than a second or two by clock time.

This variability of duration is the common human experience of time, which is felt as distinctly other than clock or calendar time. A friend of mine hit a patch of black ice on a mountain roadway some years ago, and in the few seconds it took the car to flip upside down and plunge over a cliff onto the rocks below, his entire life passed through his mind. Events that had taken a lifetime to accrue were telescoped into the few scant seconds it took for the car to drop onto the rocks below where he found himself suspended upside down by his seat belt, miraculously unharmed and able to rescue himself.

My brother, Rowland, died of Myasthenia Gravis in March 2005 at age seventy-five. Had Rowland not died, he would have been eighty-four years old the year of this writing, which means he’s been dead for nine years. How long is nine years? Measured by the events of family, friends, nation, and world that have occurred since Rowland’s death, the duration of his absence is strung out like suspended entries in a diary. Were it not for the disease that so suddenly overtook him, he would have been present when grandchildren graduated; he would have answered the phone when I called to wish him happy birthday; he would have argued politics with me; he would have insisted on picking up the check when we went out for breakfast at Ernie’s. When I measure the duration of Rowland’s absence in terms of actual occurrence, time is inseparable from event. Experienced that way Rowland’s not being here and doing things with me seems painfully prolonged, and it’s hard for me to grasp that he’s been dead such a long time. But at other times, it seems as if Rowland died just yesterday, his death an injury still raw with fresh hurt. I look at the current calendar date and see that it’s the month of November 2014, and yet it’s as if I’ve just this moment turned away from Rowland’s death bed, having said the last goodbye.

What’s clear to me is that the human experience of duration, whether the duration of a leaf fall, the time it takes to plunge into a creek bed, or the duration since the death of a brother, stretches or compresses in ways having little necessary correspondence to any mechanically agreed upon means of measuring time. We simply don’t experience time as so many clocked minutes or hours, and in fact often have to check our watch or cell phone to know how much measurable time has elapsed during a particular activity. This is true even of the duration of time measured by the earth’s revolutions and the passing of seasons. While these natural elements of experience can be shown to correspond to mechanically measurable durations, anyone can testify to the fact that the seasons and years don’t pass through human experience with anything remotely like standardized durations. Human time consists of our experience of passing events, not the clocked measurements of them.

Human time is therefore inseparable from self, and self is simply time being. What I refer to as “I” is an instrument of continual change wherein time is determined in variable increments of leaf fall, suspended duration in face of imminent death, and expanded and contracted hours of grief and loss over a brother’s death.

When time is no longer perceived as an external separate from self, self flows from movement to movement in the most natural manner. The duration of a leaf’s fall is the nature of leaf itself: it’s present being consisting of its downward drift. Once settled on the ground, its being consists of a settled leaf. There is no leaf other than this leaf of the moment. When I realize this interchange of duration and event to be the nature of my being as well, I can give myself to the present circumstance without reserve. A loosened leaf falls into the care of air and light and cushioning earth, just as a loosened mind falls into the care of the moment’s circumstance.

In the woods, leaves are falling to the forest floor. I sit a mile from the woods at the keyboard of my computer typing these words that you now read. We, all of us –woods, leaves, typist, reader- occupy the duration of the moment. Together we drift down from branches overhead, together we engage the same printed page. This is the movement of the single and only self of which we are one.

Willoughby’s Rock

Under the Oak

There were several of them on the hill above the road lying in the shade of an oak tree. The one Jack wanted was the largest of them all, a weathered granite boulder nearly twice the size of the others. I doubted whether Jack and I could move anything that big. But Jack was the boss and he insisted it was no problem. Nothing I could say had ever deterred Jack from what he’d set out to do.

It was three o’clock on a damp April afternoon when Jack and I started digging the rock out from under the oak. I was working my way through college, and Jack, who had just gotten his general contractor’s license, hired me to help him build a house in Blossom Hill Estates, a subdivision Jack’s father owned. Jack was given to sudden inspirations. So when the buyers, Mark and Elaine Willoughby, dropped by the building site that morning to tell Jack they wanted an ornamental rock for their landscaping, Jack said he knew where to find just what they were looking for. Jack rented an equipment trailer, and the two of us headed from San Jose into the Santa Cruz mountains. And in less than four hours, we were headed back to Blossom Hill Estates with the Willoughbys’ ornamental rock chained to the trailer bed, Jack exclaiming all the while what a beauty it was and how good it would look in the Willoughbys’ yard. He was right. It was a beauty. At first I was as enthusiastic as Jack was. But then I began to doubt the whole thing.

We’d found Willoughby’s rock on a grassy hill under an oak tree whose limbs bent over it to form an enclosure. It felt private under there, the kind of place that makes you want to talk softly. Sunlight leaked down through the leaves onto the rock. It was furry with moss interspersed with patches of lichen the color of burnt amber. The base of the rock was sunk deep in rotting mulch. Our boots stirred up the smell of it. Jack was explaining how we’d go about getting the rock loaded on the trailer, more or less thinking aloud, talking more for his own instruction than for mine. When he stopped talking, a hush as still as the rock itself settled on us.

Thousands, perhaps millions, of years before Jack and I came along, the rock dropped from the cliffs above and came to rest with its two sister rocks on the slope below. And the oak tree that shaded the two of us was there before either of us was born. Now Jack and I were going after the rock with a pick and a couple of pry bars. But I knew somehow that the rock belonged where we’d found it.

I wonder now why I never objected. Well, of course, I needed the job. How else would I ever make it through college? It wasn’t the first time I’d compromised principle and done the very thing my heart told me not to do. And it turned out not to be the last either. Sometimes my life seems nothing but a history of such compromises. But it wasn’t the Willoughby’s or anybody else’s rock to be had for the taking. It was its own self, and if I hadn’t come along and dug it out, it would have held its place on its hill for a lot longer than the years allotted to me for making compromises.

The Willoughbys loved their rock. Within a week, they planted a clump of birches beside it. They smoothed the ground around the rock and seeded a lawn. They installed sprinklers so that the rock would be splashed with water, hoping to keep the moss and lichen alive. The rock was beautiful. But whenever I looked at it, I thought of a patch of raw earth beneath an ancient oak on a hillside in the Santa Cruz Mountains.


Mother’s Last Chess Game

Another bad move

Another bad move

Certainties subtract themselves these days faster than I can accumulate them, so by simple mathematical consequence I am rapidly approaching a sum of no certainty at all. I used to be certain that it was best not to be angry, taking it for granted that anger didn’t help. But lately I’ve remembered some occasions that raise doubts, one of which is the occasion of my Mother’s last chess game.

My father liked a game of chess in the evenings. Mother, on the other hand, had little talent and no inclination for the game at all. But she would accommodate Father from time to time when he didn’t have anyone else to play with. This arrangement might have gone on indefinitely except that Father wasn’t content with an easy win; he wanted challenge. He considered each of his moves at great length and he wanted Mother to do the same. He wanted her to be competitive, and this required of her intelligent play. My mother was perfectly intelligent, but her growing impatience with watching Father study his moves for absolutely interminable periods of time wore on her as the game drug on. In addition Father had the irritating habit of humming to himself while he was plotting strategies. So sometimes when Mother’s turn came she simply made the first move that occurred to her, hoping that she would lose quickly and the whole ordeal would be over.

But a dumb move on Mother’s part spoiled the game for Father. “Lucy!” he would protest, “you don’t want to do that.” He would stare at the board and shake his head in disbelief and try to get her to take the offending move back.

Whenever I visited my parents, Father would try to press me into service. But I wasn’t much help because I knew next to nothing about chess at the time. Father could hardly get much satisfaction out of reminding me of the names of the pieces and in what directions each were allowed to move. Despairing of getting much competition from me, Father would coax a game out of Mother. It was in this way that I was privileged to witness the last game of chess the two of them ever played.

It was after supper and Mother was playing the white. They’d been at it about an hour. I was seated on a sofa reading some poems of Wordsworth’s from a volume of The Lyrical Ballads. Father was humming a lot. Mother was trying to screw her attention to the task of making intelligent moves. Father, typically relentless in his concentration, was sort of hovering over the game, never relaxing his attention, never sitting back in his chair or looking about the room or engaging in any unrelated conversation. Even when it was Mother’s turn, he studied the board with an intensity that seemed designed to will her into making the best possible move. The atmosphere was positively suffocating. And then I heard the familiar, and this time, fatal incantation. “Lucy! You don’t want to do that.”

Perhaps fate had allowed Father a certain quota of this aggravating and oft repeated combination of words, but if so he must have finally exceeded the limit. Hearing him this one last time, Mother was released on the instant from all further obligations, practiced behaviors, restraints, or accommodations she’d ever imposed on herself for the sake of Father’s chess games. Sitting there on the sofa, I felt this shift in her on the instant. Father didn’t seem to notice. He was still locked into the game, trying I suppose to make the most out of the mess Mother had made of it. He was sort of hunkered over the board and he was humming again. Mother had her eyes fixed on the top of his head, the spot where his hair was thinning out. Something was about to happen. I felt the imminence of some unprecedented action on my Mother’s part.

At length, Father apparently felt it too. He quit humming, and he looked up. And when he’d given her his full attention, Mother, in one brilliantly executed sweep of an arm, knocked all the chess pieces off onto the floor. “There! Morris!” she said, “ how do like that for a move?” What I recall more than anything else was the briskness of the event. It was as if Mother had thrown open all the windows in the house, ventilating the stale air with a fresh night breeze. It was all so crisp and final.

Yet, Mother didn’t storm out of the room or anything like that. Instead the two of them sat looking at each other across the vacant chessboard with faces of mutual defiance, mixed with what you’d have to say was the simple affection of wise old couples who’ve scattered the pieces of their lives more than once. At length, Father said, “I guess that’s a checkmate.” And then the two of them were down on their knees, laughing and retrieving chess pieces.

Since Mother’s last chess game, I no longer conceive of anger in the absence of love. Anger seems more like love’s protest than anything else, a way love has of voicing its complaint when slighted or ignored. Before the week was out, Mother had bought Father a computerized chessboard that he could “scold and hum over,” as Mother put it, “until the cows come home.”


Sierra Range -Karen Laslo

Sierra Range -Karen Laslo

My love affair with California’s Sierra Nevada Range began with a sophomore high school reading of The Sierra Nevada: Range of Light, a book published by Vanguard, edited by Roderick Peattie, and featuring an introduction by Donald Culross Peattie. The book wasn’t an assigned class reading; I just picked it up on my own for reasons I don’t recall. Unlike many who skip over the introductions to books, I read them, reasoning that they must have been written to some purpose. What I found in Donald Culross Peattie’s introduction was the expression of his own love and intimate knowledge of the Sierra Nevada Range. His words won me over. Even before I got into the body of the book, my young mind was awash with images of things I’d never seen first hand – from the sheer granite face of Half Dome rising above Yosemite Valley to the transparent depths of Lake Tahoe and to the peaks strung along the high country glowing in the evening light. I also learned that the topography of the Sierra Nevada Range could be understood as a predictable and repeatable pattern of twenty-four major watersheds such as those of the Kern, San Joaquin, and Merced rivers that collectively comprised the one vast watershed of the entire range.

I was sixteen at the time of this reading and had my driver’s license and a 1930 Model A Ford I’d acquired from my brother who’d owned it before. So in the summer of my sixteenth year, my high school buddy John Perkins and I drove into Yosemite Valley and I saw first hand what I’d only previously imagined. It was one of those times in my life when the most elevated expectations weren’t disappointed by ultimate reality. There as I’d pictured them were the immense granite shoulders of the valley – El Capitan, Half Dome, and, in the distance, Clouds Rest. And there were the falls I’d read about -Nevada Falls, Vernal falls, Yosemite and Bridal Veil falls. And these waters from the high country plunged from the rim above the valley to swell the Merced River on its rush down to Hetch Hetchy. I was seeing first hand the structure of a living watershed.

In subsequent years of backpacking into the high Sierra, I seldom stuck to the trails, and found that by following the logic of any watershed I could go off trail without becoming lost. A watershed makes sense; its branching tributaries are born of necessity and can only be as they are. Any running stream offers the hiker two options: move upstream toward its source or downstream toward its destination. Downstream will lead you to an increasingly larger body of water until eventually you arrive at a lake or ocean. Upstream will lead you to a multiplicity of converging sources in the form of dozens, even hundreds, of feeder streams that flow downward to form the seaward movement of the entire watershed.

What attracted me more than anything else was tracing these feeder streams to their origins. On the upper San Joaquin watershed, I once came upon a tiny falls dropping from an overhang above the main river. Tracing this trickle of water, I scrambled through brush and over rocky slopes until I came out upon a tiny meadow not much larger than a quarter acre and enclosed on three sides by vertical rock faces. Everything there was miniaturized and intimate in the way that a familiar and inviting room might be. And there I found the source of the tiny rivulet I’d been following. It was seep of clear sweet water emerging from a fissure in a vertical rock face where moss and leafy fern seemed to thrive on air and water alone. Here the greater world of the mountain was compressed into this little microcosm of delicacy and compactness.

Cirque -Karen Laslo

Cirque -Karen Laslo

On another occasion hiking the upper Kern River watershed I followed a stream uphill through a series of lakes, circling each lake from outlet to inlet and further on. This went on for two days until I came upon a high glacially carved cirque where melting snows had formed a lake on the very crest of the Sierra’s eastern ridge. Not a single tree grew at this elevation, and there in late July, spring was just touching with faint green the narrow band of grasses at lake edge. I camped alone there for the night and when the sun dropped away and the night air chilled, the stars came out. The lake was suddenly a universe of its own, aglow with the light of an inverted sky. I’d come upon a star lake, and found its source in the ultimate feeder stream of the night heavens.

In all this early tracking of Sierra feeder streams to their sources, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that both upstream and downstream were journeys to the source and that there was no fixed beginning where a river like that of the Merced, San Joaquin, or Kern could be said to either begin or end. These rivers were but movements on a circuit of exchange between sea and mountain and back again. I was learning in my mountain explorations that the source was wherever I happened to be. It seems important now to acknowledge this because it figures so significantly on where I myself stand in the circuit of my own life. I too am but a momentary river of mind and matter midway between points of origin where beginning and end, going and coming, are one indivisible movement.

Oak - Karen Laslo

Oak – Karen Laslo

I have come to see this branching and gathering pattern repeatedly duplicated in nature. A tree for example forks upward from its main trunk into a pattern of spreading branches and downward into a pattern of spreading roots. In both directions, whether reaching up toward the life giving sunlight or down toward the sustaining moisture and nutrients of the soil, the tree is reaching for the essential sources of its existence. It seems apparent to me that we humans branch in that way as well. Human life, whether singly or collectively, is analogous to a living watershed and receives itself from the countless feeder streams that constitute its source. Like any watershed we humans continually gather and disperse only to gather once more, circles without beginning or end. Unity forever manifests as division; synthesis and analysis are but the movement of one essential whole. The tiniest leaf on the furthermost upper branch is as much the body of the tree as is its central trunk. This is the natural structure and movement of our being.

This is obvious as regards the human body, but perhaps less so as regards activities of the mind. Still, it’s apparent to anyone who pauses to notice that mind, like body, is a river without fixed origin. Ideas flow into us from all sides. Our minds are awash with the thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs of parents, teachers, and culture, the influence of which we’re often unaware. Things we’ve read in books, seen in movies, heard on the radio, overheard in conversation shape the nature of our thought and color the assumptions were making often without our even knowing we hold such assumptions. It is by such accidental means that collective mind shapes itself in individual thought: the proximity of the whole natural world, the living earth and the culture of human community giving us our mind minute by minute.

So it can be said that what I call my mind is not actually my own in the sense of its existing independently of the myriad conditions of which it is formed. For one thing the very capacity to think at all is subject to limitations imposed by the nature of the language community into which one is born. If your native language is English, your thoughts will be shaped by the grammar and lexicon of English. To speak English is to think English, the bounds of which you can only escape by learning another language so well as to be able to think in that language without conscious translation. We create language to express our thoughts, but then this language of our creation feeds back on us so that the logical construction of a particular language conditions the nature of thought available to the speaker of that language. But while the shaping influences of thought and language are mutually constraining, the mind of which they are expressive is a vast watershed of as yet unmeasured proportion. To know that the stream of your mind is inseparable from that vast universal watershed is to free it from all its small constraints of language and culture and upbringing, knowing it to be the mind born of this very moment.

I’m aware that the metaphor of a watershed with its branching streams as analogous to the human circumstance is hardly original with me. It’s a cliché, but like any cliché, it persists because it’s metaphorically accurate and thus seemingly indispensable. Perhaps the metaphor comes to us naturally because our bodies are mostly water, or because we exist within and are sustained by a weather cycle that circulates water endlessly from sea to mountaintop and back again. Our dependency upon this great global watershed without which we would perish is so obvious that we can’t really ignore the fact. Annie Dillard began one of her paragraphs in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by declaring, “There are seven or eight categories of phenomena worth talking about, and one of them is the weather. Any time you care to get in your car and drive across the country and over the mountains, come into our valley, cross Tinker Creek, knock on the door and ask to come in and talk about the weather, you’d be welcome.” Of course you’d be welcome and for good reason. We humans are so inextricably bound up with the weather that to talk of the weather is to talk of oneself.

Chico Creek - Karen Laslo

Chico Creek – Karen Laslo

My particular spot in that greater watershed happens to be on the banks of Chico Creek which comes out of the mountains to the east and flows right through the town park and the university campus on its way to the Sacramento River and the sea beyond. Life itself seems to me like one long creek side watch. And one thing I’ve seen is that the creek sometimes runs counter to itself. While the force of the stream in its near entirety will be running seaward, little eddies of backwater sometimes form whose current runs against the flow. I once watched a leaf that had fallen into Chico Creek being carried downstream where it was caught in a backwater eddy that turned it back upstream. I watched the little leaf circle in the quiet water along the far bank from where I stood. But then it got snatched by the main current again and carried downstream. But once more it was drawn into the backwater and once more it flowed in opposition to the dominant flow. This went on for several more revolutions and I found myself wanting the little leaf to prevail somehow in its counter current rebellion. But in time, the leaf was taken on downstream until I lost sight in the long flow of seaward waters. It had its moment of individuality and self-assertion but, for all that, the very backwater eddy that it rode upon was generated by the force of the downward flow of the creek. We’re like that. We have our individual choices and movements to make, but choice and movement itself is a grace given of the greater whole.

At eighty-two, I’m a good way along on my travel downstream toward the ultimate sea. It will be like going home to where I began – to where all life began before the first of our ancestors ventured onto land. In person, it has been a watery journey for me from the little salt sea of my mother’s womb through the many diverse waterways of accumulating years. As in all watersheds, cause and consequence have been interchangeable, a river whose end is its beginning. For all its apparent linearity, a watershed of feeder streams and rivers rushing to the sea is in fact on a journey of its own return as the ancient waters close circuit. We have but to trust ourselves to the current.


Least Brethren

Jesus on the Cross

First, let me clarify that I’m not a Christian, nor do I consider Jesus to be a god of some sort or the Bible to be the word of a god. Nonetheless, the Bible as a work of literary imagination, contains elements of intrinsic ethical insight too valuable to be disregarded.

The story is told that Jesus sat with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, where he answered their questions and spoke to them of the ways of God. One passage in particular speaks from the heart of charity and tells of the consequences that flow from our behavior toward those among us who suffer and are in need. Jesus describes how there will come a time of judgment when those who acted from a heart of generosity and kindness will be differentiated from their counterparts who acted from greed and indifference, each sent their separate ways. Speaking to the disciples in parable, Jesus tells them what such a moment of judgment might be like:

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

For I was hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of these the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

The parable continues with the King enacting judgment upon those on his left hand, the goats of the parable, whose lives have been characterized by greed and indifference and who by natural consequence of their behavior are turned away to suffer the misery they have purchased for themselves in their failure to care for others. And when they ask Jesus, “When saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?” Jesus answers as before, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”



The ethic in Matthew is profoundly clear: to neglect one is to neglect all. We can’t preferentially separate the body of humanity into those who are the foremost of brethren and those who are the least, setting apart those whom we consider deserving from those whom we don’t, though in saying so I’m aware of the contradiction implicit in the parable of the sheep and goats in which just such preferential treatment is enacted. But taken as a parable demonstrative of the inherent consequence of ethical behavior rather than an enactment of divine judgment, does not the judgment day portrayed in Matthew accurately foretell the inevitable hell fashioned by lives lived in greed and indifference? Do we not make our own hells? And by the same inherent consequence, cannot those whose lives have been characterized by generosity and compassion be said to have fashioned their own heaven? The “king” portrayed in Matthew who decrees final judgment at the gates of heaven and hell speaks in the voice of our own conscience. Fate is self-enacting, an outcome foretold in its precursor. The destiny that awaits us is shaped by our own choice.


Matthew reinforces the truth of the “golden rule” as a universally recognized human right that calls for just treatment and equal consideration of all beings: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Well, “prophets” put aside, it’s the law of human nature. Here as in the parable, Jesus reinforces that we are each of us least brethren, himself as well. This deeper self of which we are comprised, this soul as some would name it, knows no distinction between the barefoot god of the streets of Jerusalem and the homeless wretch searching the trashcans on Fourth and Main Streets: each walks heaven and earth alike.

On a rainy December evening, Karen and I were walking from the Naked Lounge, Chico’s locally owned coffee shop, on our way to Lyon Books where I’d been invited for a gathering of local authors. I was wearing a new corduroy jacket and was concerned to keep it dry. At Second Street and Broadway, the traffic light was against us and so we ducked in under the cover of a storefront. But out in the rain with no hat or umbrella for protection was a woman picking aluminum cans from the trash. We both saw her, and then the light changed in our favor and I said, “Let’s go,” and started for the crosswalk. But Karen wasn’t following. Instead she was out in the rain, standing at the curbside talking to the woman at the trashcan, the wet soaking into the two of them.

 least Brethren

Ministering to the least Brethren

From where I stood watching, they were dark silhouettes against the light of oncoming vehicles. Karen was saying something, the woman responding. I would learn later that Karen had asked the woman if she was all right and did she have any money. The woman had told her she had five dollars. Karen said, “Now you have ten,” and handed her the last five she had of her own. I’d caught up to where they stood by then and found another five to give the woman. Karen said, “This is my husband,” to which the woman nodded acknowledgement. She gathered the wet folds of her coat collar about her neck, thanking us, and walked on into the rain and darkness. Later, Karen would say with tears catching in her throat, “What’s the matter with us in this country that a middle-aged woman has to pick through the trash in order to survive?”

And I say to myself now, “Why didn’t I take her home, feed her a good meal, launder her soiled clothes, see that she had a hot bath with soap and clean towels, a bed to sleep the night in? I did none of these things; instead I handed her five dollars and went off to Lyon Books where I would later hear my writing praised. I’d come that night in the streets of my own hometown upon one of the least brethren of Jesus’ parable, a stranger that I did not take in. I haven’t had to wait for the prophesied judgment to be given. It arrived with the swiftness of regret, a confession of human failing, a vow to do better next time.





Bad Neighborhoods

Photo by Karen Laslo

Photo by Karen Laslo

Emily, a former Zen student of mine, wrote me recently from her new address in Sacramento. She said, “I don’t think I could have imagined the difference that sitting even for just a half hour a week…would make for me – but the results have been very practical – the bad neighborhoods in my mind are a lot safer now that someone is watching and the lights are on at night.”

It’s an irony of sitting [meditation] that it invites to mind the very thing you’d like to avoid. If you undertake the practice of sitting in the hope of finding a little serenity and peace of mind only to discover that your mind runs riot with all sorts of troubling memories, apprehensions, and trivia, it’s understandable if you think your sitting is a failure. It isn’t of course. An intimate acquaintance with the bad neighborhoods of the mind is indispensable to dispelling the threat these neighborhoods pose. The simple practice of sitting has the capacity to walk you down every bad street of the most fearful neighborhood your mind can concoct. It can bring you to the threshold of every door that unlocks on every bad room with every bad occupant that thought can entertain. But however distressful this might be, the ultimate consequence is that sheer familiarity will rob the mind’s worst neighborhood of its power to threaten you. Or as Emily wrote, the bad neighborhoods “are a lot safer now that someone is watching and the lights are on at night.”

One of the worst neighborhoods of my mind is a memory of the time I was very unkind to a man who’d been kind to me. His name was Harold, and we worked together on a turkey ranch out of Palmdale, California, in the Mojave Desert where I’d been hired as field foreman. Harold operated the incubators and hatchery for the ranch. He’d been there for some time, and when I first arrived, he had me in for supper and afterwards made himself available for companionship or advice. Harold was a stutterer, slow and halting of speech. He was fat to the point of obesity, and the other hands on the farm had nicknamed him “the pear.” To my present dismay and shame I fell in with this belittling of Harold, wanting perhaps to fit in with the majority who tended to treat Harold as something of a joke.

And what’s worse is that I mentally rewrote the history of my behavior in such a way as to justify the betrayal of someone who’d offered me friendship. Souls are lost this way, not Harold’s soul, but mine. One of the worst neighborhoods of the mind is the neighborhood of history rewritten to avoid the shame, regret, or guilt of a wrongdoing. Only the full acknowledgement of the truth will atone for such a wrong. That’s why I have here told you the truth about Harold. I haven’t done so to punish myself for something bad that I once did, but rather to fix firmly in mind the truth of what I actually did. Past existence unlike present existence is not itself amenable to change, but being held up to the light of present understanding, the past can facilitate change. I have learned in my hours of solitary sitting to own the bitterest of regrets, genuine regret being essential for the redemption of any wrong.

Emily said that she couldn’t imagine the practical difference a little sitting could make. But I have lived to see the worst neighborhoods of my mind made a little safer now.

Front Porch Sitting

Three Generations Sitting

Three Generations Sitting

Biking my way into town on a summer’s evening, I pedal down the 200 block of East Sacramento Avenue and come upon Ken and Melinda sharing tea and cookies on their front porch. They call me to join in and I climb the steps to the porch and settle in for a little front porch sitting.

Here in the Sacramento Valley town of Chico, California, remnants of front porch sitting survive. California style bungalow houses like that of Ken and Melinda can still be found with garages off the alley and roomy front porches facing the street. Front porch sitting is a social custom wherein one’s presence is available to anyone who chances by. A front porch sitter gets waved to by passersby and waves back, gets spoken to and speaks back in a veritable culture of waving and speaking

I grew up in the 1930s and 40s in a southern California farm community where front porch sitting was a common tradition. Whenever I had an occasion to pass by the Reeder farm, I was likely to find Mabel Reeder and her thirty year old retarded son, Paul, sitting on the farmhouse’s broad front porch. Mabel would wave to me and then Paul would follow suit, waving enthusiastically and apparently unable to stop until Mabel caught his hands and held them still. You’re not likely to see such as Paul waving from a front porch these days, and it’s a loss to us because the Pauls of this world needn’t be kept out of sight.

But with the advent of the contemporary subdivision house plan where the street side of houses is designed to accommodate cars rather than humans, who isn’t kept out of sight? Drive up to the typical subdivision house and you’ll be greeted by a broad concrete driveway leading to a two-car garage door that if you happen to be the owner will open for you at the touch of a remote. Once parked, the door lowers behind you and you can step into the kitchen from the garage without being exposed outdoors. A consequence of this modern convenience is that the front door entries of houses aren’t much used these days by anyone other than guests. And even then the sidewalk to the front door most often branches off from the driveway so that guests can only reach the front door by walking an entry set aside for cars. In homage to the automobile, front porch sitting has been abandoned to practices more private and selective than public and neighborly. I’m fortunate that here in my eighty first year I can still find Ken and Melinda sitting on the broad front porch of their 1930’s bungalow where they can be seen and acknowledged as never could they were they hidden behind the blank face of a subdivision’s garage door.

Front porch sitting is something the body does, the doing of which elicits a corresponding frame of mind. The body goes first and mind follows, though stimulus and consequence are mostly instantaneous. Of course sitting isn’t the only way the body influences the mind. Bowing as well is another gesture of the body with mental correspondences. The clasped palms, lowered eyes, and forward curve of the body speak a universal language felt by all. It is an absolutely wordless communication that requires neither language nor thought, something the body knows to do on its own. The mind is drawn into the bowing unawares, rendered expressive of a gentle and yielding nature without necessarily being conscious of being so. You don’t need to know why you bow or what its affect is on you. The bowing itself does all that for you.

Much the same sort of thing can be said of handshakes, smiles, frowns, the most subtle adjustment of facial expression or posture, the whole realm of body language with which so much of human communication and understanding is transmitted. The body is forerunner of mind in so myriad a number of ways as to draw question to Descarte’s citing of thought (“I think; therefore I am.”) as the basis of individual being. We are as much creatures of immediate bodily sense perception as we are of thought, and an accurate metaphysics of being needs to acknowledge this primacy of body over thought. We can verify this in such instances as the bodily fatigue and inadvertent yawn that precedes any thought of rest or in the hunger that already resides in the body when it triggers thoughts of something to eat, the precipitous rise in blood pressure and rapid heartbeat that signals the perception of threat, the bodily symptoms of sexual arousal that predate the seeking of a partner, or in the sudden catch in the throat and rush of tears that precede grief. In all this, the body is most likely to lead the way, with the mind is obliged to tag along applying thought to what’s already occurring.

I knew a fellow soldier while stationed overseas who literally walked in his sleep. He’d get up from his bed and wander about the barracks, opening and closing doors, straightening up things in his locker, and then after a bit, typically a half hour or so, he’d go back to bed. On my first occasion to witness this and not knowing he was asleep, I asked him if he was okay, and when he didn’t answer, I shined my flashlight on him and saw that while his eyes were fully opened they were glassy and unseeing.

One night in the barracks room we shared, I woke up to find his bunk empty. That being not all unusual, I fell back asleep only to wake up later and find him still absent. He’d never been gone so long before and I went looking for him and found him clothed in fatigues and boots standing at attention outside company headquarters. It was two in the morning and he’d already fallen in line for the seven o’clock reveille. It was a most remarkable incident of the body apparently acting on its own. Not wanting to leave him out there in the cold and dark, I persisted until I’d managed to wake him. His having known for years that he sleepwalked, he didn’t seem particularly surprised to find himself out there. But the occasion gave me an opening to ask what he was thinking when he suited up and went out for reveille. He said he could never recall thinking anything during his sleepwalks.

I’m wondering to what degree any of us “sleepwalk” our ways through our days. I often think I’m in charge of what I choose to do, when in retrospect I can see that I was moved toward outcomes by forces of bodily response and circumstance other than those of thoughtful choice. I trust the body’s intelligence now more than when I was young and more willful. I could do worse than hold dialogue with the direction my feet are taking.

October Porch

October Porch

When my feet take me up the steps to Ken and Melinda’s front porch, my mere bodily presence telegraphs an invitation to the world of a sort that a garage door closed to the street does not. I can’t relate in any human way with a garage door like I can with a neighbor on a front porch, and I miss that. But there are contemporary alternatives to front porch sitting such as the ubiquitous cell phone, Facebook page, Twitter account, or blog that like the front porch sitting of earlier times signal the same availability to leave a voice message or text. These innovations of the Internet and wireless communications of all sorts don’t so much substitute for the face to face encounter of front porch sitting as extend the range of such encounter to encompass a vastly larger and immediately available community of contacts.

I recently watched three young girls sitting round a table in a popular lunch spot in downtown Chico. They were all three engrossed in their cell phones and for a moment I thought how isolated they seemed from each other. But then one of them found a text message to show to the other two and the three of them with their heads huddled together were gigging over whatever text it was that was being shared. And then they were comparing messages on all three of their phones, laughing all the while and talking with their mouths full with bites of the sandwiches they’d ordered. I then saw that rather than isolating them, the cell phones drew them together. It was an instance of front porch sitting except that the front porch the girls sat at was a little round table in a restaurant and their passersby were not limited to a single sidewalk but were distributed across the face of the whole earth. I left the restaurant that day feeling pretty good about what I’d seen there.




The High Price of Property

29,500,00 View of Emerald Bay

$29,500,000 View of Emerald Bay

There are long stretches of the California coastline where you can’t get to the beach without trespassing. The wave-washed rocks and strips of sandy beach lie beyond reach, somewhere behind the walls and gates of those whose money has bought themselves a view of the ocean for their own personal benefit. I don’t see such behavior as driven so much by the wish to exclude others as by some curious lack of pleasure in things one doesn’t own title to. It’s like not being able to enjoy the presence of a beautiful woman or a marvelously expressive work of art or an ocean landscape without your enjoyment being diminished by lack of possession.

Yet, while the idea of owning things is real enough to those who think in such terms, the actual owning of anything is questionable. We’re all here for a finite duration, and as it’s often said, “You can’t take it with you.” So the best one can claim for ownership is that it constitutes a term lease on the use of certain resources and properties. But since everyone in the world depends upon these same resources and properties, and since these resources were already here and in use when I arrived on the scene and will be used by others when I’m gone, it’s folly to think that any of it is mine.

It might be a harmless enough folly to imagine that we actually own things if we didn’t take our ownership rights so seriously and if we weren’t so readily capable of destroying what we “own” in order to keep it. In the minds of most Americans, rich or impoverished, the possession of property rights is nearly synonymous with freedom and personal autonomy. It’s an unfortunate confusion that leads to the worst and most violent of our behaviors. People will readily kill each other over the ownership of things, mistakenly equating possession with freedom. The notion that I can do what I want with the things I own leads to the ambition to purchase individual freedom through acquisition, as if freedom were a commodity to be bought or stolen or fought for as the need might be.

Henry David Thoreau, who understood literally and intimately the self-canceling consequence of linking freedom with property, observed that wherever he happened to be at the moment the landscape radiated around him accordingly and that he already “owned” everything in sight as fully and completely as one holding legal title might. “Enjoy the land, but own it not. Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.” A freedom that relies on exercising control over territory has the diametrically opposed consequence of enslaving us to the very means we employ. We are left struggling to acquire through indirection what we already directly possess.

E. M. Forster in his essay, “My Wood,” tells of having bought a small property in the English countryside, and then proceeds to ask, “If you own things, what’s their effect on you? What is the effect on me of my wood?” Among several psychological effects of owning a wood, one such effect is worth quoting here at length for its obvious relevance to the adverse relationship between freedom and territory:

My bird

My bird

It makes me feel it ought to be larger. The other day I heard a twig snap in it. I was annoyed at first, for I thought that someone was blackberrying, and depreciating the value of the undergrowth. On coming nearer, I saw it was not a man who had trodden on the twig and snapped it, but a bird, and I felt pleased. My bird. The bird was not equally pleased. Ignoring the relation between us, it took flight as soon as it saw the shape of my face, and flew straight over the boundary hedge into a field, the property of Mrs. Henessy, where it sat down with a loud squawk. It had become Mrs. Henessy’s bird. Something seemed grossly amiss here, something that would not have occurred had the wood been larger. I could not afford to buy Mrs. Henessy out, I dared not murder her, and limitations of this sort beset me on every side. . . . . Nor was I comforted when Mrs. Henessy’s bird took alarm for the second time and flew clean away from us all, under the belief that it belonged to itself.”

In the end Forster sees no help for his predicament other than “I shall wall in and fence out until I really taste the sweets of property.” And a bitter sweetness it is, having finally contrived to literally imprison himself within the confines of his purchase. Forster’s ironic portrayal of the effect of land ownership on the human psyche is perfectly accurate as far as I can see. And he leaves us as an alternative the teasing image of the bird that can’t be walled in or fenced out and, like everything else, belongs to itself.

I hold my entire life on loan in common with everyone else. If I can dispel from mind the vanity of possession and relax my grip on things, passing on whatever comes to hand, I will come in time to know things for themselves and not as belongings of any sort. Ownership is anathema to true freedom not because ownership is evil as such, but because ownership is an intrinsically divisive delusion that inevitably leads to grasping and coveting.

To own something is to be owned by it. To free myself, I must let go.

On Reading Herbert J Muller’s Uses of the Past

Even before reading Muller,
simple reason alone had
discarded church theology
with its virgin birth,
its God risen from the dead,
its empty promise of life everlasting.

But reason hadn’t discarded the Jesus
who took to heart and hand
the little children, the prostitutes,
the unfortunate souls of all sorts,
the Jesus who blessed the poor
and honored the peacemakers,
who taught us to love our enemies,
to forgive and not judge others.

And it hadn’t discarded the Jesus
whose dusty barefoot travels
took him from Jordan to Galilee
to the fateful streets of Jerusalem
where his twisted body hung nailed
to a cross on a hill named Golgotha.

But that was before a fellow soldier
at Germany’s Friedberg Kaserne
led me to the regimental library
where he put into my hands
Muller’s Uses of the Past.

By the time I finished Muller,
I knew more than I wanted to know,
a sweet ignorance lost for good,
the whole text of the Jesus story
reduced to a grudging accord
of clerics at the council of Nicea.

But whatever the story’s origins,
there is yet the truth of it,
not of history but of heart.

Even now in my late life,
a Jesus with bare feet walks
the unfettered pathways of my mind.

(Chico, March 2014)

The Ordinary

Panning for Gold

Panning for Gold

If you’re panning for gold, anything else that settles in the pan is just waste. Stones, moss, silt, the nymphs of aquatic flies are just so much debris to be discarded in favor of even the smallest particle of that one rare metal that you’ve priced above the ordinary.

Zen Master Dogen cautions against preferences that elevate one’s tastes above what’s commonly at hand. In the Tenzo Kyokan, Dogen instructs those who would undertake the practice of chief cook in a Buddhist monastery: “It was once said by a great teacher that priests do not differentiate between various foods just as fire does not differentiate between various sorts of firewood. If we are sincere when cooking, even the coarsest food can help us to exhibit the seed of Buddhahood.” Dogen’s teaching is one of the value of the ordinary, and the truth of the teaching has been shown me repeatedly in my life, but never more so than in the incident involving the sighting of the blue-phase Ross Goose.

– – – – – – – – –

pan71One winter, several of us from the Monterey, California, local Audubon group traveled to California’s central valley to view waterfowl. We were especially desirous of seeing some Snow Geese and with luck even a few Ross Geese. The trip had produced lots of Snow Geese but not a single Ross Goose when late afternoon brought us to a field of corn stubble being gleaned by a flock of 10 to 12 thousand Ross Geese. Now the concept of rarity is postulated on a principle of relative abundance. A few equals “rare.” A few more equals “not so rare.” So 10,000 or more of anything in one place at one time is a lot and makes for considerable local commonness. Whereas our group had previously been high on the prospects of finding a few Ross Geese, now, confronted with this mob, the initial oohs and aahs soon subsided into searching the flock for something more stimulating. That’s when Alan Baldridge, scanning the flock with a spotting scope, called, “Blue phase!”

Now the blue phase of the Ross Goose is fairly rare and many of us had never seen one, so naturally we all wanted to see this rare goose. But the hopes were dismal at best. There were 10,000 of the geese packed into the field and only one among them was the one we now wanted. The desired goose was beyond range of the unassisted eye and, in fact, beyond the capacity of binoculars. Only a spotting scope could give enough magnification to distinguish the blue-phase from among the others. We couldn’t expect Alan to give us a peek at the rarity through his scope because the bird was continually moving about among the thousands of others and it was all Alan could do to keep track of it himself. If he lifted his eye from the eyepiece even for a second, the bird would likely be lost to him as well. “Stay with it, Alan,” we encouraged him, since Alan’s success in tracking the bird was pretty much our only hope of seeing it for ourselves. To add to these difficulties, the sun was rapidly lowering into some patchy clouds, and in the shadowy field the whole flock was beginning to look a little blue.

pan91All of us who had scopes were trying to line up in the general direction of Alan’s scope and were scanning the field and, of course, seeing lots of Ross Geese. “How far out is it, Alan? To the front or rear of the flock?” And Alan, with only the discrete image of the blue-phase in his scope, had of course no idea where in the flock the bird was. All he could do was inform us as to whether the blue-phase was moving to his left or right or whatever. On the whole, it was circumstance classic for promoting urgency and frustration. Yet, one by one, some of us were miraculously locating the rarity, so all was not lost.

All was not lost except that an older birder among us, Margaret Moody, a woman whose age-enfeebled eyesight had reduced her in this instance to the ordinary, was watching quite another event. She herself had had a lifetime penchant for rarities. In my earliest birding days, when my talent was taxed to identify even the most frequently encountered species, I was given to extolling the virtues of “behavioral observation,” trying I suppose to rationalize my own limited capacities and to mask my unmitigated greed for spotting a rarity of my own. “It’s not so much what a bird is,” I explained to Margaret, “but what it does that deserves interest.” She had simply said, “Oh, I love identifying rarities.”

Photo by Karen Laslo

Photo by Karen Laslo

But now the identification of this blue-phase was beyond her reach. Yet she could see well enough to witness how the geese were rising into the sky, thousands at a time, on black tipped wings that lifted them by some remarkable correspondence avoiding all collision. The strokes of their wings compressing the air overhead washed down on her, past her dim eyes, to call her thoughts into flight. She watched them rise hundreds of feet in great circling sweeps that eventually brought them back to the field where they settled once again. Her binoculars hanging slack about her neck, she watched this. Again and again.

pan10a1Thankful that the blue-phase wasn’t among those who had taken flight, the rest of us were fussing with our scopes and still muttering things like, “Okay, Alan, I think I’ve got it. Going left over an irrigation ridge, now raising its head.” Alan, his eyes watering, his scope image long ago deteriorated to a scratchy blur, would confirm or disconfirm that the action corresponded to that of the bird he was watching.

Later that night at the restaurant, when those of us who had spotted the blue-phase were congratulating ourselves on our good fortune, Margaret never once complained about what she’d missed.

– – – – – – – – –

The quest for rarity dulls the palate. Simple tastes become flavorless as one prices one’s appetites out of reach of the common market of ordinary goods. The gift of Margaret’s weakening eyesight was to return her to the ordinary, where an object or event needn’t be novel or exceptional in order to be notable. She was forced to relinquish the rare and exotic. Age had brought her home once again to the interest and beauty of common things. And it wouldn’t have to take a flock of 10,000 soaring geese to get her attention, which is after all anything but usual unless you happen to be birding the Pacific flyway. It could be the patches of winter light on the far hillside or the gray winter grass underfoot or the rich odor of dampness drifting off the wetlands. It could be the itchy ride back to the motel with four of us in wet winter woolens packed into the back seat of the car. It could be the string of Yellow-Headed Blackbirds settling on the barbwire fencing beyond the steamy windshield. It could be the mud stuck to our shoes.

I was bicycling to town the other day and caught a neighbor of mine raking up leaves. I did the required bit about his taking a crack at my leaves when he got through raking his own. He gave the usual retort of telling me he’d love to rake my leaves but didn’t want to deprive me of the joy of doing it for myself. When we’d gotten these obligatory exchanges behind us, he told me he’d been looking through some of the fall issues of magazines, and in one of them, he couldn’t recall which, he’d seen photographs of the fall colors in the eastern hardwood forests. “Boy that’s something,” he said. “I’d like to see that. The colors are really something.” Well, I’d like to see hardwood forests in autumn myself, still I couldn’t help but notice that both of us were standing in a heap of brilliant red dogwood leaves at the very same time that we were both imagining how beautiful the leaves were elsewhere. And not far down the street was a cascade of golden ginkgo leaves shimmering against a blue sky.



I don’t think Dogen’s comment that even the coarsest food manifests Buddha nature was meant to suggest that we should never appreciate fine food. I think he was simply warning against disparaging the ordinary by coveting fine food to the exclusion of the coarse. And in the same way, I don’t mean to suggest that I should never seek out something special, but only to caution that I not allow the rare beauty of an orchid to dim my delight in the first springing burst of daffodils or distract me from a simple bouquet of yellow daisies or a common sprig of forget-me-not. Of course, Dogen’s not talking about literal food alone, but rather the food that feeds the mind. And when a group of birders, eager in their quest for rarity are rendered indifferent to the spectacle of thousands of white geese repeatedly rising into the air and falling to earth again, they clearly demonstrate a momentary state of mind that has priced itself out of the common beauty of things. And that’s the same state of mind that leads any of us to stand in an absolute avalanche of gorgeous fall leaves dreaming of something better.

(Reprinted here by permission of Wisdom Publications)


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