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.”

Judgment

Judgment

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.

Galilee

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 evidence but of heart,
born of a child’s innocence.

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.

 Tenzo

Tenzo

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)


Earth Lineage

"Sitting with Ancestors" by Karen Laslo

“Sitting with the Ancestors” by Karen Laslo

Of course, there’s always the traditional Buddhist lineage in which the Buddha mind is passed from teacher to student. This passing of Buddha mind is actually an acknowledgement of the presence of Buddha mind already residing in another. Soto Master Houn Jiyu Kennett, Abbess of Shasta Abbey once bowed to me and said, “Buddha bows to Buddha, Buddha recognizes Buddha.” With that recognition, I’d inherited a lineage of Buddhist ancestry reaching from the time of Shakyamuni Buddha down through the centuries, where, by virtue of the Houn Jiyu’s acknowledgement, now included me. I was taken thereby into a family that extended beyond my own individual genetic one and was given a scroll, which when opened revealed in generational sequence the names of eighty-five ancestral teachers of the Soto Zen lineage. The last name on the list was that of Houn Jiyu, followed by the notation “Lin Jensen, New Ancestor.”

I’ve always treasured this little document, for I can recite any or all of the ancestors listed there, knowing that each of them has received the very same refuges and precepts as I have, and that they have held them in good order so that they might be passed on to others such as me. This lineage is called the bloodline of the Buddhas, the veins of which are the precepts of moral and ethical behavior. It’s no casual thing to receive the precepts, for they constitute a lifetime vow that can’t be fulfilled without the utmost sincerity and devotion to purpose. I’m humbled by the generations of ancestral teachers who, in an attitude of joy and gratitude, devoted themselves to the precepts long before I knew that such even existed.

What I want to acknowledge here is another lineage, an earth lineage that exists outside the formal framework of traditional Buddhist lineage and for which I’m equally grateful. Among these is a personal lineage of teachers who brought a knowledge of earth home to me. Many I’ve met solely through books they’ve written, though putting it that way suggests that an encounter by way of a book is somehow less intimate than an encounter in person. But anyone who has read much can attest to an intimate meeting of mind and heart between writer and reader that sometimes goes deeper than is reached in any other way, even in the daily exchange one has with family and friends.

Walden

Walden

For me, an equivalent to the Pali Canon of Indian Buddhism is a canon of teachings in English that inquires into the human relationship to land. It’s an ancestry of earth literature that includes writings as disparate in time and kind as that of the Middle English Piers Plowman, in which Piers, the humble plowman of the title, appears and offers himself as a guide to the truth, passing through such works as Henry David Thoreau’s mid nineteenth century Walden down to such contemporary teachings as those of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Just as every Buddhist scripture or koan, regardless of its discrete content, is invariably about what Buddhists term essential nature or Buddha nature, so too do these writers of earth scripture reach through and beyond the specific content of their works to give voice to the essential nature of our human exchange with earth.

Piers Plowman was written somewhere between 1360 and 1387 by a Middle English poet, William Langland, a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer. I first read this long narrative verse poem at Stanford University while studying under a fellowship. I was still fresh from a life of farming, and perhaps that’s what accounts for my attraction to a poem that finds ultimate virtue in the life of the land. In the poem, Christ has reappeared as the humble plowman Piers.

urlLike Christ, Piers spoke on behalf of the poor: those who farmed the acres of the landed gentry, those who crafted the essential goods, swept out the stables and cleaned the houses of the rich, those who had little and made do with what life offered. I discovered Langland’s poem one afternoon in the rare books section of Stanford’s library and read it in its entirety seated at a little alcove desk by a window there in the stacks. Will, the narrator in the poem, along with a knight, and an assembly of townsfolk comprised of housewives, milkmaids, carpenters, wheelwrights, farmers, and such were on a quest for Truth with a capital “T.” It was a religious quest actually, and what they wanted to know was how best to conduct their lives so as to bring themselves in accord with what they thought of as heaven’s enduring values. It was then that Piers the plowman came upon them, and turned their thoughts from the sky toward the earth with which they were already so intimate. The little group questioned Piers regarding their quest for truth because despite his apparent lowly and common stature, he possessed a composed and assured presence of person that encouraged them to hope he might be the bearer of the very Truth they sought. So they asked for the Truth.

ForkSitting there in the Stanford library stacks that afternoon, I don’t know what heavenly advice I expected to hear from Piers, but what he told these truth seekers found its way into my heart and gave voice and shape to something I already carried within. Piers told them to “sew the sack to keep the wheat from spilling.” He told them to “spin wool and make flax.” “Conscience,” he said, “counsels you to make cloth to benefit the poor and for your own sustenance.” And then he added, “For I shall see to their sustenance, unless the land fail.” “Help him live,” he said, “who obtains your food.” The knight at this point spoke of his regret that he knew nothing of plowing and working the land. And Piers told him, “I shall toil and sweat and sow for us both, and labor for those you love all my lifetime.”

Piers Plowman, Langland’s Christ of fourteenth century England, was a common field laborer. The Truth he brought to those who sought truth was the truth of necessity, the truth of the essential interaction with earth. The scripture he wrote was the scripture of love’s labor, the back bent to task of bringing forth the miracle that springs from the soil under foot. Is this too simple a religion to credit with our salvation? Ask yourself that now when earthly disregard and misdirection threatens us on all sides. We could do a lot worse than adopt a religion that puts its faith in tilling the earth. Dirt is our proper heaven.

Thoreau

Thoreau

Thoreau, like Piers so many centuries before him, found faith in tilling the soil. In Walden, he wrote, “ I went to the woods . . . to front the essential facts of life,” and he found those essential facts in the cultivation of a few acres of beans, peas, and potatoes. When the weeds began to take hold, Thoreau realized he’d planted too many bean rows and found it to be a daily labor just to keep the weeds down. “What was the meaning of this, so steady and self-respecting, this small Herculean labor, I knew not,” he wrote. But then, despite the extent of the task, Thoreau confessed, “I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.” Thoreau has got it exactly right here. Antaeus of Greek mythology was famous for the great strength he derived from his mother, Gaia, the earth. He could defeat even Hercules as long as he remained in contact with the ground.

It was from this same immediate contact with the earth, the literal physical proximity of seeding, hoeing, and harvesting, that Thoreau drew new strength. And this was not strength of body alone that the earth passed on to him, but strength of spirit as well. It led Thoreau to ask, “What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?” And then, perhaps unwittingly, he answered his own question, “I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work.” I ask myself, what sweeter consequence could there be than finding my day’s work?

Thoreau termed himself “a very Agricola laboriosus,” a field laborer, a tiller of the soil. He liked to walk his bean rows barefoot. He must have known a naked dependence upon earth of a sort that we, in our high-rise condominiums far from the fields that succor us, so often forget. We lose the connection because the essential labor is so often done by proxy in a field remote from our presence. And when that persists, we lose our source of strength like Antaeus who, when deprived of contact with the ground, was crushed by Hercule’s overpowering force.

Emerson

Emerson

In nearby Concord, Thoreau’s contemporary, Emerson, wrote his remarkable essay, “Nature.”

Here [in nature] is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find Nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men who come to her.

And then again in a later passage, Emerson acknowledges, as Buddhists have done for centuries, the seamless bond between all manifestations of being, human or otherwise:

We come to our own, and make friends with matter, which the ambitious despise. We never can part with it; the mind loves its old home: as water to our thirst, so is the rock, the ground, to our eyes and hands and feet.

Emerson would have us know that nature itself is the abiding teacher that ever brings to us the dharma of earth:

Every moment instructs, and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence until after a long time.

Perhaps it has been a long time coming, but there have been those, like Emerson and Thoreau, who did guess the essence of the moment in which wisdom is infused into form and have thus prepared for one such as I am an articulated dharma of earth as witness to what they found. Wisdom is manifest in the very stuff of the earth, and that realization draws our eyes back from the heavens to look out upon the surrounding landscape. We find our way through life by consulting what lies at hand. What can this rock, leaf, moth, field of grass teach me?

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Schumacher

It was E.F. Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful; Economics As If People Mattered who first taught me to see how critical the scale of our economics is to the relationship we humans have with work. He saw that the advent of assembly-line manufacture was a soul-destroying enterprise in which work was divided up into disparate and meaningless segments where no worker experienced the construction of the whole. Just hammer in your five rivets as the chassis passes by; never mind the hours and years that are spent without you ever witnessing the car take shape in its entirety; clock out, pick up your pay check; buy yourself some fun on the weekend. Schumacher grasped the heart of Buddhist economics, which honors all activity as Buddha’s activity, and sees work as essential practice. He would not have us expand an enterprise to the point where we can no longer bring the whole of it into view.

Dillard

Dillard

And then, as in any religious practice, Buddhist or otherwise, there’s an area of the unknown requiring of us a respectful modesty that acknowledges the mystery of our lives. I have among the books I keep at hand, a copy of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek so worn that the image on the cover of the book showing Annie seated at the creek side is so faded and worn as to be something of a mystery itself. But her whole book, every chapter, is rich with the wonder of an earth of unknown origin–not entirely unknown of course in its material origins, but an earth in which speculations regarding its spiritual origins leave us with more doubt than certainty. Annie’s words restore me to proper doubt and return me to the mystery of earth. “We don’t know what’s going on here,” she wrote. “We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it . . . Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”

Colin Fletcher

Colin Fletcher

Langland, Thoreau, Emerson, Schumacher, and Dillard are just a few of the generations of earth writers that figure importantly for me in my own personal earth lineage. Other writers and books are equally significant in their own ways: Colin Fletcher’s The Man Who Walked Through Time, Wendell Berry’s Home Economics, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, and such fictional works as Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of The Pointed Firs and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. But there are other teachers of earth dharma that have simply walked into my life from the most unlikely directions and who are unknown as such by anyone other than myself. Some of their teachings are of so simple and literal a nature that they might seem of little or no significance. Yet the most unlikely person and event may occasion the very Dharma most needed.

One such occasion occurred when I was attempting to grow vegetables in Sierra Valley, a high mountain valley with a cold climate and short growing season in which a hard freeze could occur any month of the year. When the locals saw what I was up to, they told me, “Forget it. It can’t be done,” and in truth I couldn’t find a single garden in the valley that appeared even remotely successful. But when I voiced my disappointment to Ron McCaffrey who’d been born and raised in the valley, he said his mother, Edith, had been keeping a garden there for years. I checked it out, and sure enough, there was Edith McCaffrey’s garden filled with rows of lettuce, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, peas, potatoes, squash, and even a half dozen tomato plants hung heavy with ripening fruit. How had she done it under such difficult circumstances, I asked her. “I learned,” was her answer. Before I left, she handed me a worn and yellowed notebook with entries in it. “You can borrow this,” she said. “It might be helpful.”

"Hand Tools" by Karen Laslo

“Garden Tools” by Karen Laslo

That evening, when I looked into Edith McCaffrey’s notebook, I saw that it was a detailed journal of her experiences in gardening. The first entry was dated 1959. I was reading the journal in 1989. What I’d been given was thirty years of gardening in Sierra Valley. It was as if I’d found a previously unknown sutta of the Buddha’s teachings. Edith McCaffrey was the teacher I most needed at the time, the first teacher of the ancestral lineage of Sierra Valley gardening. I stood to be the second. Edith’s own teacher was earth itself. Everything she knew about gardening had been taught her by the dirt in her backyard. I may seem to be making a big deal out of a couple of inconsequential gardens in a mountain valley, but agriculture on any scale is an intimate exchange between teacher and disciple wherein earth itself is the ancestral teacher whose lineage dates back to the birth of a solar system.

(Earth Lineage is reprinted here by permission of Wisdom Publications.)

Sex in the Monastery

043-buddhist-retreatThere wasn’t any sex in the monastery that I’m aware of. There was instead a concerted effort on the part of all resident monks and nuns to see to it that there be none. The monastery community had sworn itself to celibacy, thereby giving rise to a worried prevention of sexual feelings, the suppression of which required a constant vigilance. I’d never before seen a community more preoccupied with sex.

I need to tell you that I have a great affection and respect for the residents of this small monastery. They’re devoted to their practice and wise in certain specific ways not characteristic of lay communities. Most notably, they live a life of voluntary simplicity where want never outstrips need. The monks have few personal possessions; instead everything is shared among them. They’ve thrown their lives together, a fact that has bonded them each to each in mutual need. This Soto Zen monastery community located in the mountains of western United States is comprised of about half men and women. The title of “nun” has been discarded and all residents are indentified as “monks.” Monastic leadership and responsibilities are conducted with a total regard for gender equality. To enter the monastery for a period of training is to enter a place of welcoming warmth and support, yet the vow of celibacy has taken a toll on the otherwise intelligent, capable, sincere, good people of the community.

This small community of monks don’t’ spend their days immobilized in hours of meditation but are physically active. They tend a large subsistence garden, split firewood for the winter months, repair and service the single truck and few automobiles they have, maintain a well equipped maintenance shop for carpentry, plumbing, and other domestic needs. In addition to these, the monks sweep the walks, scrub floors, cook their meals, and wash up after themselves. But while they honor and depend upon the capacity of their bodies to such an extent, the monastery monks came somehow to judge negatively of the body’s sexual capacities.

fishThis particular development has a history that’s revealing of the need for the degree of protective measures undertaken to ward off this assumed threat. At the beginning, the monastery wasn’t celibate and there were several married couples that were fully robed monks of the order. But as it was explained to me upon inquiry, the presence of the married couples “bedding together” (as it was put) was a distraction to others who weren’t married and “bedding together.” “Particularly the young novices,” I was told. The apparent concern was that the desire to “bed together” –a euphemism particularly revealing for its avoidance of even the ordinary language of sex– was impairment to the spiritual aims of the community. I can imagine that it might very well be difficult for a potentially romantic and sexually responsive youth of either gender to put out of thought their own desire for someone to have sex with.

The question I would ask of celibate monastic communities is by what reasoning is sexual intimacy to be judged as antithetical to religious pursuits? I don’t know if that question was ever asked before the monastery adopted a celibate life or if traditional monkish celibacy was simply assumed to be beneficial. But what happened was that married couples were required to leave the monastery. Several of these couples were designated “lay ministers” and still participate in some, albeit reduced, monastery practices. But none are allowed to be resident and so have found outside residence nearby.

CelibacyBy the time I first visited the monastery, celibacy was the established practice and a number of safeguards against possible sexual temptations were in place. For one thing, visitors were forbidden to wear shorts even in the heat of the summer and shirts and blouses must have normal length sleeves so as to avoid too much visible exposure. It was over a hundred degrees when I asked if this rule could be waived for outdoor tasks such as mid-day gardening or putting firewood up for the winter. But I was told that such “skimpy” clothing might prove “disturbing” to those involved in serious Buddhist training. Other such safeguards included a rule that no monk could travel alone outside the monastery without taking along a second monk as witness, nor could a man and woman travel together regardless of their ages or years of celibate practice. The point seemed to be that one must also have eyes upon him or her as a sort of deterrent chaperonage. These rules applied whether you were driving into the nearby town for groceries or 150 miles downstate to lead a retreat at a dharma center.

But how serious can the training be if it survives by a protective exclusion of natural bodily appetites. What these rules reveal more than anything is the distrust of self (and I must conclude of each other) to control one’s own sexual behavior. Sex is being treated here as an enemy to one’s body. These gentle people of modest aims and open heart take on the character of something like a clenched fist whenever the vow of celibacy is at stake.

The monastery monks will point out quite rightfully that romantic sexual relationships are often difficult involving appetites that lead to possessiveness, jealousy, dependency, envy, and requiring continuous emotional adjustments of one sort or another. And that’s true. Of all the potentially disruptive elements of a relationship, I can think of few as consequent of alternate bliss and misery as that of sexuality. But sexual attraction and mating is central to all animal life. What sense does it make for the monks to exclude sex from their religious experience when all other aspects of relationship are absorbed and dealt with as a fundamental aspect of religious training? The monastery monks formed a functional community that dealt realistically and effectively with the difficulties stemming from human greed and hatred; they brought their angers, resentments, jealousies, envies, fears, and delusions of all sorts onto the path. They knew these afflictions from within the ethics and practice of their own intimate experience. But resultant of their own arbitrary exclusion, they knew little or nothing of the responsibilities and ethics of sexuality. This particular bodily appetite was left outside where its very absence troubled the mind.

Circle DoorWhat is true of sex is true of virtually all human experience: we must fully enter our places of greed, hatred, anger, fear, wrongful temptations of all sorts. This is not to say that we act on such feelings but rather engage them when they surface negatively in our behavior. To deny the presence of a greed or anger or sexual arousal is to deny the very self-awareness essential to making an experienced and appropriate decision about what to do with such feelings. It’s humanizing to recognize one’s anger toward another and the monastery monks have done this well, but it’s equally humanizing to recognize one’s lust for an inappropriate partner. And the one who knows first hand the consequences of anger and lust is best able to deal kindly and modestly with these circumstances.

Still, it must be acknowledged that the chastity toward which celibacy aims shares a common nature with the ancient Greek practice of agape, a disinterested love that asks nothing for itself in return. It is a pure unconditional love without need to possess the loved one either bodily or emotionally. It is a love that stands outside preferences of any sort and so applies to all equally. This may sound like a merely theoretical love, but I reason that those monks practicing celibacy within a community of intimate, ongoing relationships must understand something of a love outside personal need. But wouldn’t the understanding run even more deeply were it experienced within the sexuality of lovers who give their bodies to each other for the other’s sake. A fully disinterested love can’t be based on a bodily denial that’s aimed at spiritual gain. The measure of agape is that it invests no interest in personal gain. The monks at best stand to realize only a guarded and partial understanding of selfless love, a knowledge that paradoxically can only be known to those who risk the self fully in love’s embrace.

Yin YangThe married lay ministers expelled from the monastery live nearby in an enclave of their own where sexuality is just another element in their practice of living kindly and selflessly. They’re the ones most likely to know that being sexually abstinent isn’t necessarily being chaste, and that a vow of celibacy only confuses the distinction. Being chaste can involve abstaining from sex but it can also involve being sexually faithful and even more pointedly being pure in thought and deed. The monastery monks in their enforced celibacy are anything but chaste; they are instead caught up in a system of rules and denial exclusive of any genuine chasteness of heart and mind. They’ve put themselves in command of the very bodies they were gifted with, an approach lacking modesty and wonderment. In respect to their inherent sexuality, they’ve forgotten that being chaste means being plainly and honestly yourself. It means being sincerely who you are.


The Catching Crate

Turkey FlockThe catching crate was a structure designed by necessity and arrived at by means of error.  It took its eventual form from what was left after the mistakes were discarded.  What the crate was intended for was to catch turkeys.  Several times a year, each of the hundred thousand turkeys that were distributed over a 360-acre hillside of weeds and dust had to be caught for vaccination, breeder selection, or marketing.  The catching crate figured so importantly in this need that it is hard to imagine how we could have managed without it.

All of us -my father, my brother, Rowland, and me, the farm hands, even my mother and little sister- called this simple structure “the catching crate.” It was a name spoken in reverence and aversion.  To catch turkeys in the thing was to know that misery is relative.  We were always thankful that our situation wasn’t worse.  Since “worse” would have been more or less intolerable, we looked upon the catching crate as a sort of saving presence, and our loathing of the task associated with it was tempered with a grudging yet heartfelt gratitude verging on the religious. This needs explaining.

Turkeys are hard to catch.  Just to get them into some kind of enclosure and keep them there long enough to get your hands on them is an ambition fraught with serious difficulties.  For one thing turkeys can fly, not well, but well enough to get them sufficiently airborne to clear an eight-foot fence.   So you can’t just herd a bunch of turkeys into a fence corner and expect to hold them there long enough to catch them.  As soon as you grab for one, the others, frantic to escape, explode upward in a colliding tangle of thrashing wings.  They pile up against the fence, claws scratching for a foothold, straining to get to the top, some scrabbling over the fence and dropping off on the back side, a few managing to get airborne and, in a directionless frenzy of flight, crashing into the fence or each other or into whoever is trying to catch them.  The dark side of this absurdity is that the birds trapped on the bottom of the heap are being smothered to death, their bodies raked by the claws of those above them.

When you realize what is happening and start throwing turkeys off the top trying to save those underneath, you find yourself reaching down into a pile of limp turkey carcasses, their feathers wet with smeared manure and blood.  When my father first went into the turkey business, we tried to catch turkeys this way.  We ran a bunch of them into a corner and started grabbing.  It was a method abandoned on first try.

Tom & Hen

Tom & Hen

A second difficulty in catching turkeys is that they’re big.  A full-grown tom can weigh as much as forty pounds, a hen thirty.  A lot of that weight is concentrated in the breast muscle, and it is this powerful muscle that drives the wings and legs.  This accounts for the third major difficulty, which is that turkeys are strong.  So even if by chance and adjustment you eventually design a catching crate that is portable, strong, yet light enough to be moved, a crate that restricts the birds’ flight, and prevents their piling up, you will still find that the thirty to forty birds you hope to contain in the crate will simply walk away with it unless it is staked to the ground.

The aesthetics of beauty has always recognized simplicity of form as a fundamental virtue.  This is not to say that we should admire any object that happens to lack complexity; such a thing might be merely dull.  The simplicity I speak of has an inevitability about it that suggests that a form cannot be otherwise than exactly as it is.  It is frequently a form required by utility.  The lines of a canoe or sailing ship, for example, bear a clean and unadorned beauty necessitated by function.  The catching crate was like this.  It could be nothing other than what it was.

After all the modified fence corners, the cages of various designs, the darkened and lidded boxes, and the adjustable squeeze chutes which could never be made to accommodate more than a dozen turkeys, the structure that finally emerged was a simple three-sided containment that could hold up to three dozen turkeys at a time.  It consisted of two right-triangle side-pieces fronted by a gate, which could be shut after the turkeys were driven inside.  The back of the crate –and here is where the genius of its design was realized- was a panel angled at forty-five degrees, which prevented the birds from piling up on one another.  The crate was built of slats, because we discovered that although turkeys balked at entering a solid structure, they walked unperturbed into one they could see through.  They would try to push right on out the back, thus wedging themselves into the slant.  With the gate closed, there was just enough room for a single man, kneeling on pads, to reach in and grab the turkeys by their legs. Shaped by necessity, the catching crate with its slats and baling wire reinforcement was a most unlikely candidate for a kind of spare utilitarian beauty that even the dullest of us who worked with it tacitly acknowledged.

The catching itself was a ritual requiring a fair amount of skill, poise, and self-containment, especially if you hoped to survive the ordeal with any of your dignity intact.  For one thing, it had to be done kneeling.  For another, it exacted of the catcher a discipline of some severity in order to stay at the task for more than a few minutes.  Catching turkeys required character.  To catch a turkey, you must put on a pair of stout leather gloves, get down on your knees in the opening of the catching crate, pick out a pair of legs that belongs to a single turkey, and make a swift, hard, backhanded stab at them, hoping to pin the legs together in your grip so that you can yank the bird off its feet before it loosens one of its legs and claws itself free of you.

A frightened turkey always shits.  Fresh turkey shit is a smeary mess of yellows, greens, and whites that smells utterly vile and has the unfortunate consistency of soft pudding.  When the catcher yanks the turkey’s feet out from under it, those feet are invariably standing in a pile of this stuff, which flicks back on the catcher, again and again, until the catcher is plastered with it from where his knees contact the ground right up to his throat and, not infrequently, even into his face and hair.  As the hours go on and load after load of turkeys is herded into it, conditions in the crate grow worse.  The catcher’s clothes stiffen with accumulating layers of drying turkey shit, and there in front of the whole crew he suffers the humiliation of spitting out filth and wiping shit from his eyes.  No one ever offers help.  No one ever laughs.

So naturally no one really wanted to do the catching, a fact that obligated every one of us to do our share. This is no small matter. The manner in which labor is distributed measures the heart and humanity of any work community, even if it’s just a bunch of ragged farm hands trying to make a living or a family maintaining a household.  Many (perhaps most) communities fail, forfeiting the one point of honor that gives their work lives its integrity. Who cleans the toilets, washes the dishes, picks up after the party, takes out the garbage? To ask this question is to inquire into the heart of fairness, where justice either succeeds or fails. Of course, those of us on the turkey crew never spoke among ourselves about the justice of anything, but we we’re nonetheless bound by its dictates. But what I want to suggest here because I feel it so strongly myself is that this is not a matter of principled behavior but one of love. It is a natural sympathy for others that moves us toward fairness, and it is this sympathetic capacity that brought each of us in turn to put on the kneeling pads and get down into the filth of the catching crate.

Yet there was a time when we lost faith, a dangerous time, a crisis that happened to coincide with my own childhood initiation into catching.  It was also the time when Hector Berrens, driving home from the farm with the sun in his eyes, crashed into the rear end of a parked truck.

There were five hired hands on the farm who, along with my father and my brother, Rowland, and I, could make up a crew of nine.  The hired hands had been taken on over the years as the turkey flock grew.  Al Messeral had been the first, hired when I was just a baby.  From my viewpoint, Al had been around as long as my parents had.  Pete Haney came next, a refugee from depression-era Oklahoma; then Bob Townsley, who had lost his sharecropping rights to a small plot of gravelly ground in southern Arkansas.  Hector and his brother, Ernie arrived only a year before the accident.

Hector had come asking for work when the eighty-acre lease he horse-farmed was sold and he was left with no way to care for his aging parents and for Ernie, who was retarded and couldn’t make it on his own.  Hector had never married.  He had been unwaveringly obedient to his father’s request that he “stay home and take care of things.” He had no pretensions, yet he carried himself with a degree of dignity that even a child such as I could sense.  He came to my father’s office, standing dark and stocky in the doorway, a powerful man, big boned, with a thick neck and broad forehead.  He took his hat from his head, stepped up to my father’s desk, and asked for work.  He offered Ernie, at half wages, saying that Ernie was a hard worker but that they would have to work together since no one else could understand him.  Father, realizing he needed more help, took the two of them on.

The next morning Hector was there at dawn, wearing new work gloves and carrying a lunch pail. His face that morning bore a certain characteristic flatness of expression that suggested reserve or resignation perhaps, or maybe just dullness.  Ernie trotted alongside him in little spurts and stalls like a squirrel that can’t quite make up its mind whether or not to cross the road.  He clutched his lunch pail in both hands as if he thought someone might take it from him, and his eyes, a little wild, darted from face to face.  Hector had to calm him, show him where to stand, and separate him from his lunch pail so that their lunches could be put up in the lunchroom.  It was later that same day that a danger, grave with consequence for us all, first arose.

We were in the midst of breeder selection on that first day of Hector’s and Ernie’s employment, which meant that in the space of a few weeks every turkey on the farm would have to be caught. As the day began, Al, Pete, and Bob took turns catching.  Except for an occasional grab at a turkey or two, I had not yet taken my first turn in the catching crate.  I was small and thin for my age. It was understood that catching was still beyond my strength and beyond that of Rowland as well.  I never saw Father catch.  He was the one who selected the breeders and it seemed obvious to me that he had more important work to do.

About mid-morning, Hector, seeing how things were done, strapped on the kneepads and took a turn.  He made the usual mistakes of a beginner: he grabbed only one leg and the turkey clawed itself loose with the free one; he failed to guard against the bird that had turned itself in the crate, and all forty pounds of it launched itself from the back of his neck out the opening.  He learned through sheer error how to look away at the right moment, his eye glasses, with their scratched lenses taped onto the frame, so splattered that he had to wash them off under a faucet in order to see what he was doing.  But by the time Hector had finished his turn he was doing as well as anyone could expect.

As near as I can remember, it was a little before eleven when Al told Hector that he would take over for a while.  I heard Hector say something to the effect that he would take a turn for Ernie, since we could all see that Ernie was not up to the task. How this could have happened I don’t know but, after the mildest protest, Al let him do it.  We all let him do it.  We let Hector go back down on his knees and catch the turkeys Ernie couldn’t catch.  As a child, I simply remember feeling that something was terribly wrong.  When we shut down for lunch that day, Hector was still in the catching crate.

After that the situation worsened.  Hector, first insisting on catching for Ernie, later resisted being relieved from the task at all.  He would be the first one in the catching crate in the morning, and it was hard to get him out of there.  He took on this hardest and dirtiest of our labors as his natural lot, as though by right of some inherent virtue lacking in himself, the rest of us deserved better.  He deferred to us in everything, anxious to sacrifice himself to us as he had to his father.  In the beginning the others tried to take their turns, but when he declined, they were willing to let him have his way.  By the second year of Hector’s employment, no one even made a pretense anymore.  Hector did all the catching.

We had lost our way.  Even I knew this.  We had forfeited the one ritual that, above all others, redeemed the misery of our work and bound us together in common regard.  In the off season we would come upon the catching crate idle in some corner of a field, weeds sprouting up through the slats.  None of us could look at it without knowing our loss.

Hector saw the truck at the last second, too late to avoid hitting it but not too late to jam on the brakes.  Ernie was thrown under the dash, which probably saved his life.  Hector, with his great power, had kept his grip on the steering wheel, the impact bending it over against the dash. He’d managed to stay in the car, but his head slammed into the liner above the windshield.  In less than a week he was back at work, his head stitched and wrapped in bandages that made his hat perch off to one side, an angry swelling above one eye.  His eyeglasses had somehow survived, though they were patched up even more than before.  We were in the midst of breeder selection once again and everyone watched Hector put on the knee pads, drop to his knees in the catching crate, and begin catching.  Father, sitting on his stool, watched him; Al and Pete and Bob watched him; Rowland and I watched him.

Before an hour had gone by, Al put on the knee pads and began catching, insisting to Hector that that was the way it was going to be.  Seeing this, I resolved that when Al was done I would take a turn.  When I asked Al for the pads, he at first looked questioningly at me, and then handed them over.

It didn’t matter now how hard it was.  Al had taken his turn and I was taking mine.  Afterwards, Pete would take his, and then Bob, and maybe even Rowland.  We’d found our way home again.  There, under the slanting roof of the catching crate with its two triangular sides and a gate that snapped in place, I knelt at the site of our return.

George Steven Gurney’s Rite of Passage

Frankfurt Germany Red Light District

Frankfurt Germany Red Light District

I didn’t much like any of the five, who seemed coarse and offensive to me. It was 1954 and I’d just been reassigned to an Army intelligence and reconnaissance platoon stationed in Friedberg, Germany. There were six of us from the platoon who occupied a small barracks room at the regimental headquarters of the Seventh Division – Benny, Sal, Mort, Henry, Gage, and me.  We were all draftees and Privates in an infantry company. The five others, the ones I didn’t like, were “good soldiers” I think you’d call them, but in the barracks or out on a weekend pass, they and I had nothing in common. On paydays, they would take their pittance of a Private’s pay and head up to Frankfurt to get drunk and laid. They knew all the bars where prostitutes hung out. Monday morning reveille invariably found them hung over and broke, with nothing left for the rest of the month but card games and the endless boastful chatter they kept up. I suppose I felt superior to my five barracks mates, but mostly I just didn’t know how to relate to them. Perhaps it was easier to dislike them than to admit to myself that I felt awkwardly disconnected and lonely in their presence. I tried to bullshit with them but the pretense failed to be even the least bit convincing, especially to me. To their credit, they tolerated me at least as well as I did them.

There was one unoccupied bunk in our room and Benny was using it to store his copies of Sports Illustrated that his parents had subscribed for him. But when George Gurney arrived and was assigned to our platoon, Benny had to give up the space. George Gurney was from the tiny town of Boswell in Choctaw County, Oklahoma. He told us this when he plunked his duffle bag down on the empty bunk and introduced himself by his full name: “I’m George Steven Gurney from Boswell, Choctaw County, Oklahoma,” he announced, and insisted on shaking everyone’s hand. When Benny’s turn came he pumped away on George’s hand and said, “Well I’m sure glad to meet someone from Choctaw County. I’m Benny Edwin Roberts from Brooklyn, New York” Everyone but George was grinning, and I knew the razzing had just begun. George, having exhausted his repertoire of prepared conversation, appeared suddenly shy and busied himself putting his things in his locker. With George’s arrival, there were now seven of us in the room, all draftees, George having been drafted right out of high school, though he’d rather have kept his part time job at the Boswell Garage.

From the start, the others were continually concocting ways of generating laughs at George’s expense, who either didn’t mind or didn’t notice he was being made fun of. Between themselves they dubbed him “Okie.” To his face, he remained “George Steven Gurney” until the humor in saying so wore out and George Steven Gurney was reduced to simply “Gurney.” But for all the rough teasing he underwent, George fit in with the others better than I had. For one thing he liked to play cards and wasn’t half bad at it, winning an occasional hand. But he wouldn’t gamble, saying it wasn’t right to waste good money, and noting rather wryly I thought that the others seldom had money to gamble with. “I don’t need any IOU’s,” was how he put it. Discovering he had some experience in auto mechanics, the Regimental commander put George to work at the motor pool. But you’d never know it to look at his hands. He’d scrub with a brush until his nails were clean and the tips of his fingers pink with abrasion. He kept his bunk neatly made and spent his first month of overseas pay to buy some fitted uniforms and a starched cap in replacement of the floppy nondescript Army issue. He was big and muscular with freckles and wavy red hair that he combed whenever he passed a mirror or window glass that reflected his image.

The guys liked to quiz George about girls. Was he getting laid (a term they had to explain to him) back at Boswell High? He always waved aside their inquiries by telling them that he didn’t like to talk about girls that way. I don’t know how they pried it out of him, but they discovered somehow that George was virgin and that he’d barely tasted beer if even that. And so the scheme was hatched between the five of them to get George drunk and laid, as if his not having been drunk and laid were some sort of violation of the natural order of things. I’d already observed this rather unimaginative manhood ritual in basic training at Fort Ord, California where guys who very likely rarely drank at home and perhaps had never had sex with a girl felt suddenly compelled to get drunk and laid now that they were in the Army. To hear them tell it, they’d all had regular sex back home and were horny from lack of accustomed action. George had apparently come through basic training in Oklahoma without ever acquiring his rightful manhood. It was something that simply had to be fixed.

George Gurney's Reading Accomplishments

George Gurney’s Reading Accomplishments

At first, George refused to go to town with the guys, and spent his weekends at the base Service Club library where I thought he was a little sweet on a young German girl, Eada, who worked there. I was a reader myself and so I’d see George there and how he’d hunt out a book in the stacks somewhere, check it out, and then sit with it at one of the library tables with an open book that he never read a page of. What he did instead was watch Eada as she moved among the stacks re-shelving books. And then he’d check out another and yet another until he was peering out from behind a veritable stack of unread literature. In the meantime one of the guys, I think it was Gage, brought George a German pornography magazine he’d picked up in Frankfurt. George, though initially reluctant, couldn’t resist looking at it. After that first look, he looked a lot, and the guys started razzing him about spending so much time in the restroom.

When the second payday after George’s arrival came round, George left for Frankfurt with the other five on a one-day pass. I was asleep when the guys got back from Frankfurt and so the first I knew of their return was about 6 a.m. when George woke me with an agonized cry of “Oh God! What have I done?” What he’d done was awful. He was smeared with his own feces from his neck to his knees. How he’d managed in his sleep to distribute the mess over so much of his own flesh still puzzles me. The others were hung over, but when they heard George’s call, they staggered out of their bunks to see what was wrong. Benny was the first to see what had happened. George was trying to get up but Benny said, “Just stay put, Gurney. Don’t get up. We got to figure this out. Quit crying. We’ll fix it.” And George, with his knees drawn up in the bed, was rocking back and forth in his own mess, saying, “But what have I done, Benny.” “What you’ve done is shit on yourself,” Benny said.

They did fix it as Benny promised they would. They recruited me to make sure the hall to the shower room was unoccupied. There was no one in sight and so when I’d turned on the shower and got the water to the right temperature, I gave them the all clear whistle. Benny and Hank in their underpants and bare feet came down the hall with George all smeared with shit and mumbling “Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!” It was as sorry a sight as I ever expect to see in this life. But stay with me on this when I say it was a touching sight as well, especially when Benny and Hank got right into the shower with George, scrubbing him down and standing barefoot in the brown drizzle that washed off him. When they had George clean and toweled dry, they scrubbed the shower floor with disinfectant. In the meantime Mort, who was assigned to the post laundry facility, had stripped George’s bedding and hauled it over to the laundry to wash it. Sal and Phil hauled George’s smeared mattress over to an empty barracks and exchanged it for one of the mattresses there. The five of them, well six including me included, managed all this without outside detection.

It was almost a week later when I overheard George ask Benny if he got laid. “Yeh man. Don’t you remember? She said you were the best ever.” George looked pleased with the news. I knew better. Benny had already told me in confidence that once he got started George drank two German beers, which are about the same proof as red wine. After that he was pretty much out of it. But they’d still gone ahead with the plan to get George laid. But by the time the woman got George into one of the upstairs rooms, he more or less passed out on the bed before she could get his pants down. George simply wasn’t in shape for any sort of manhood ceremony. She told the others to come and get him that she’d need the room later on.

How am I to regard this whole episode? It was five against one with five of my barrack’s mates out to get a few laughs out of George. And I suppose they did get some laughs. But at what cost to George? Of course they didn’t expect it to end the way it did. They didn’t plan as Benny put it for George to “shit all over himself.” And when things went bad, they went all out to set them right again. Apparently, George was their buddy after all.  Even the sourest circumstance is often tinged with an unsuspected sweetness. I’ve had to learn over the years that most things come in pairs – a twin birth. What I witnessed at 6 a.m. on a hung-over morning at Friedberg Kaserne was one life’s more unlikely occurrence of these matched siblings.

After Benny’s doctored report about George getting laid, George had an unmistakable swagger about him; he seemed happy with his newfound manhood. But he was so chastened by the aftermath of his night of conquest that he didn’t try a repeat and went back to evenings in the library where he actually began to talk to Eada.


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