in medias res

home stilllife

2012 was an embroidered hem, 2012 was a frayed cuff, 2012 was a wide sea serged with a single thread. Time running like a chain stitch, a sovereign without an heir. Far shores glittered with snow. Last January’s footprints, salt-sodden and shapeless, point toward a horizon on a collision course with itself. There’s a thread in my hand, a crewelwork rosette on my tongue. Musa, mihi causas memora. We are always in medias res. The year is dead; long live the Year.

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simple things

October 23. Drizzle today, despite a brilliant morning, warm with incredible blue skies. I had swung out of the Zen Center driveway and down the street on my bike toward campus, wandered around after my Chinese midterm, gotten a hot cider to celebrate being finished. I sipped the cider outside my second class, enjoying the fine weather. But when I stepped out of class about an hour later, it was overcast and clearly going to rain. I rode home for lunch in the first spatter of drops.

§

October 24, morning. Woke with a headache and a stiff neck to the sound of rain. Dreamed near dawn of going to a suburb that looked like a soot-smudged, dystopian version of my neighborhood growing up. I was traveling there to meet up with my family. A cousin found me in a department store bathroom as foul and gross as any I’d seen in the neglected stations of India; he had a mohawk and my backpack and I was glad to leave as soon as he handed it over to me. I then found a puppy wandering the streets, a small warm brown thing who snuggled up under my chin when I held her. I took her home; my sister arrived; I said, “Mol, look! I found a puppy!” And Molly gave me a look that said everything in dream-speak: I have my own dog, a new baby, and a husband. That puppy is your problem. Meanwhile, my mother arrived. The atmosphere was leaden, as if the sky itself were lowering, like one of those rigged set-pieces at the theater. It began to rain in fat, globular drops.

§

Went out to brunch with a friend. Walking to the restaurant, we admired the sidewalk, mottled with scarlet leaves plastered down and shined by rain. Walking home, we stopped across from a tree that had turned completely to fiery ochre but hadn’t yet lost its foliage. The constant rain had blackened its trunk and branches, giving them a charred look. Then the wind picked up for a moment, and the leaves flew.

§

Afternoon. Came out to a coffee shop to work: I work well in coffee shops, always have. My literary Chinese professor showed up, laughing: he and I have run into one another nearly every week at the coffee shop, usually when I’m working on his homework. Today, however, I’m working on answering emails and the footnotes for an academic paper translation I am very late finishing. The rain drives people indoors, not so much physically as emotionally. People have a more settled, furred feeling about them on rainy days. It’s as if I can feel them becoming warmer, more inward and yet also more welcoming to friends, in this weather; conversations seem more intense, people’s energy seems more directed toward the domestic, indoor world on days like this. It’s just an impression. Maybe I like coffee shops because I get to participate in the thickened weave of affection and attention that loops and twines through the atmosphere.

§

I keep not wanting to quite admit it, but this has been an emotionally taxing fall. The job I came out here to do didn’t work out, and while I believe it was for the best, nonetheless, there have been repercussions. Another of this situation’s shoes fell yesterday, one shoe of what is turning out to be a multi-legged creature. I hope that it likes going barefoot, and will soon be done treading noisily on the borders of my life; I’m nearly overwhelmed as it is, and have to work to release the clenched knot that appears in my gut. A process, not a quick one nor one that holds any guarantees against vicissitude. So I just get on with what I can deal with, trying to let go of anticipation of either good or bad results, and breathe. I’ve booked train tickets to Providence to sit a weekend retreat at the Zen Center there, and can look forward to the arrival of dear friends in Colorado in a few weeks. “The simplest thing,” my friend said to me this morning, “Is the answer. How do we deal with things? By simply being present in the world.”

the corporeal home

I went for a run today up the Farmington Canal trail. It’s a new thing, or rather an old thing given a new life, since I last lived in New Haven. The old Canal has been filled and paved for much of its length, and runs from New Haven’s harbor all the way to Northampton, Massachusetts, only 84 miles; I think about walking or biking it. It would be entirely doable, especially on a bike. Two easy days of riding, and I’d be up in Northampton; spend a few days, come back down on the trail, and that’d be a very pleasant week in late fall or early to late spring. Already I’m in settlement mode, imagining adventures to be had with this as my home base. But where is “this”?

§

I’ve been staying at the Yale Graduate Club, a shabby-genteel* place housing an interesting collection of international graduate school exchange students, visiting professors, and the occasional odd character like myself. My employer had set me up there, figuring that with the odd hours we worked in the Buddhist chaplaincy and the need to be close to campus, that was a good place. It was, for the brief time I was with that organization. I’ll move into the New Haven Zen Center at the end of September, however, overall a far better situation for me than the Graduate Club. Charming as it is, next to the campus and across from the city green, the Graduate Club is really for people with an official affiliation with the University; and I am no longer one of those types. I’ll miss, I suppose, being next to campus: waking up and rolling right down the back stairs of the Club to Blue State Coffee, which has claimed the status of Most Favored Coffee Shop with me. I’ll also miss the hum and buzz of an active and unusually high-powered student body. The peripheral energy highs that you can catch just standing too close to a bunch of undergraduates is pretty intoxicating…but, for the most part, I have little nostalgia and even less longing for that particular phase of my life. I was one of those undergraduates, ten years and more ago. And while I appreciate what these brilliant young adults are capable of, I don’t want to be one of them, anxious, smart but inexperienced, savvy but for all that still young, focused and driven but maybe too much so.

Moving from the Graduate Club to the Zen Center is a basic move that orients me, physically and spiritually, within the life I chose years ago, practicing in community. I’m looking forward it. The move will put me up on Mansfield Street, a veritable no-man’s land for the average undergraduate. It will also give me the distance I need from the campus. I’m neither student nor faculty, neither formal researcher nor employee. There’s no reason for the University to be the center of things for me. I’ll take advantage of what this place has to offer, including several editions of various Chinese canons, numerous academic works and translations of critical works that I’ve been aching to read for years (and can’t get in Asia without considerable cost), and secondary research. But I’ll also try to learn the city on its own terms, what it is beyond and in some ways before the University.

§

I took a run up State Street the other day, looking for the CrossFit gym someone had mentioned. My sister Molly got me into CrossFit out in Idaho, and I liked it. (A college friend who does CrossFit exclaimed, “CrossFitting nuns!” neatly summing everything up.) I’d never been that far out on State Street, jogging under the highway, East Rock to the left. Today, I ran past CityClimb, the new indoor climbing gym. It’s just down from Mansfield Street off the Farmington Canal trail; and not long after that I ran past a sign that read, “Hamden City Limit.” I felt a thrill: I’d left New Haven by a new route (and on foot no less). It reminded me in its own way of Hailey, Idaho, where my sister lives with her husband. On a bike, the entire valley and a fair number of the road-riddled east-west canyons, are open to you, and my brother-in-law John rides the 12 miles or so to and from his job in Ketchum, up-valley. On the Canal trail, it crossed my mind for the first time that with a bike and some commitment, all of Connecticut was open to me. Heck, everything from Boston to New York.

Today is beautiful. Connecticut is lush, even though the maples in the city are already turning to gold and fire. The sky’s that kind of thick blue that looks like it came straight from a tube of oil paint. Sunny and crisp, just beginning to get cold; I dreamed last night I found every bit of winter clothing I needed, in gray wool, in a second-hand shop, a very literal dream but one that made me think, yet again, of settling down. The Farmington Canal was a New Haven I’d never seen before, a Connecticut I’d only ever glimpsed from car windows. Now I’m without a car, don’t even have a valid license, and better, I have no need to get anywhere fast. The pedestrian life, maybe a two-wheeled life if I can find a decent used frame, but one without haste and under my own locomotion. I like that. It gives me a sense of being at home in the world, that I’ve begun walking and biking it, tasting its air, being out in its moods.

§

I think I’ll re-read Thoreau this fall.

§

One thing I promised myself was that I’d be more physically active for the duration of my sabbatical from Korea. The summer was a bust, too much Tibetan and a bad summer cold derailing my attempts. Running, while invigorating, compromises my already bad knees. Molly’s introduction to CrossFit in Idaho was fun. I like the intensity of it, as well as the emphasis on form. Once I’ve settled into the Center and have a better idea of how the weekly schedule will work I’ll probably give the CxFit gym a try for a couple of months. I’m haunting Craigslist and the local bike shop for a decent used frame, because (without a car or inclination to drive everywhere anyway) a bike gives me both mobility around the city (and state) and a way to get out and be active without ruining my poor knees. The first month here was unsettled and unsettling, and my focus now on physically and emotionally establishing a routine is a reaction to this. I think, though, being fair to myself, that it’s also a response: for ten years, I’ve had the chance to carefully consider what goes into creating a satisfying life for myself, what is needed to balance what out. Walking, running, sweating it out, the washed, clean feeling in my bones after a good workout, the delight in being out under the sky, breathing hard, lungs working…all of that has a place. And I’m ready to give those things a place again, now that I’m able to.

§

Place and home, both something we give and something we’re given, like a welcome. The corporeal home, a place in the world, an emotional being in the body (at home in it), a house and sometimes a physical community, too. Monastics are called “chul-ga-ja,” “those who have left home;” but I’ve heard this interpreted as meaning that we need to know how to make our home anywhere, and to find a way of being comfortable anywhere and everywhere. A joyful resilience and curiosity about presence and what it means to be any one place at any one time…or, at least, that’s how I’m looking at it on this September morning in Connecticut.

 

* I’ve borrowed this term from Charles Dickens; it’s very apt.

miscellany (living hagiography 9.19.2012)

In the night the train whistle sounded closer than I thought the tracks to be; either that, or in the strange storm air the blasts carried differently, more greatly. More urgently: maybe the storm had left debris on the tracks and the train was giving alarm. At around 10 pm, however, I was already in bed and half-asleep, and I let the whistle become the property of dreams, rather than pursuing it with active imagination.

§

I’ve been back on the East Coast, in New Haven, Connecticut, for about three weeks now. The job I originally came out here for hasn’t worked out and I’ve spent the past several days working with the various pieces of my life, trying to see what fits together how, now that the anticipated pattern of things has fallen apart. It’s a puzzle with mutable edges and many relationships; and it seems to be coming together (again). In a conversation with one of my sisters, the inimitable WSSN, she said, “Sometimes things work out by not working out,” and I tend to agree. Although first plans have fallen away, I am nonetheless in New Haven in September, a beautiful season. I biked to the top of East Rock, looked out over the Long Island Sound, watched the indigo storm-clouds ruffle themselves over the Connecticut landscape, while that same landscape slowly turns ruddy with autumn color. And I am nonetheless amid and amongst the (faux) Gothic glories of Yale University. Corridors and cloisters, courtyards and crenellated towers. I went up into the stacks of Sterling Memorial Library with one of the curators yesterday afternoon, and ran my hands along the spines of part of their Buddhist collection, smelling in the beloved book-dust of millions of volumes, some barely ever taken out, others surprisingly well-used. Of the latter, an example is Leo Pruden’s four-volume English translation of De La Vallee Poussin’s invaluable French translation of Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosabhasyam, a set I spent considerable effort acquiring for my own collection and one I treasure. Here it was in Yale’s stacks, and for a dense and difficult, and not entirely popular if critical corner of Buddhist philosophical development, it had an impressive check-out list.

§

Walking to Christ Episcopal Church—a favorite quiet place since I was an undergraduate—I saw a Catholic nun up ahead of me. Her black habit and white veil made me think she was Dominican; but in full traditional habit, it would make more sense if she were cloistered, and if that were the case what was she doing walking along Broadway Avenue in New Haven with a handbag hitched over her shoulder? That last made me pause. I’ve never known a Catholic nun to hitch a leather handbag over her shoulder. I looked more closely, noticing that the habit failed to fall in the straight lines I usually associated with habits, and that her veil had what looked like a lace pattern on the edge. Then I realized it was a woman in hijab, white, over a long full black dress, in front of me, not a Dominican sister. I shook my head. The old clues fail me, in remarkable and wonderful ways. That, and I need new glasses.

§

Mary Mother of God, dressed in blue and wearing a white veil that recalls Guan Yin and the woman in hijab I saw a moment earlier, occupies a dim corner of Christ Church. There was another man praying in the alcove when I arrived, and we sat barely a moment together before he left, genuflecting and crossing himself in the aisle. I noticed the light directed at the crucifix above the gates to the main altar hit a spot above Christ’s head, as if urging us to look beyond His passion to the blank space of the cross above Him. I read the scene in Dharmic terms, of course, that even a Bodhisattva’s career is oriented within emptiness, rather than bound strictly in suchness. The two balance once another, make each other possible at all.

morning work (living hagiography 8.10.2012)

In the living room, my mom scolds my sister’s puppy, Hanna: “No, I don’t want you up there! No, I don’t want you on the couch…” I gave up disciplining Hanna concerning the couch. She is far more single-minded in her pursuit than I in mine (regarding her, at least) and it also not my couch. I feel less loyalty to it than to Hanna’s pleasures, which so far in her small eager life include lying on couches, gnawing on bones and shoes, and having her belly rubbed while she lies in the cool evening grass.

§

I keep trying to write. Anything, other than small stones. To restart the cold mountain series. Or something sustained, with a narrative, a structure: and I keep shying away from it. I cite more looming deadlines as an excuse. I cry exhaustion; it was a long summer in Virginia, in classrooms the majority of the day, with work accompanying it. I flatter myself, saying it’s because I want to write something “good.” But in honesty, fear is the dominating reason for not writing. One of the other students on the program this summer is a photographer. He and I talked a bit about commitment, fear, and intimacy in any creative endeavor. I learned a lot about writing listening to him talk about photographs, going over different photographers with me. How, when I realized intimacy in someone’s work was what I responded to, I began to notice right away when it wasn’t there, and how so. And then I realized I needed to become more honest as a writer, to get up against the skin of things, even inside the skin, if I wanted to write. I won’t say “be a writer.” I don’t know what it is to “be” any one thing. But the commitment aspect, that however you label yourself, you have to commit to not just a particular craft but to practicing it, working at it, cultivating yourself within it: that’s partly where the fear comes in. Because you don’t know what that commitment will demand of you. I say that as someone who has a major commitment in life, has a central vocation, and has had to negotiate the difficult demands it makes of me. I balk at making another commitment. But then I balk again: if I’m not going to commit, then what? The question rears in front of me, and I waver in front of it in return.

§

Virginia sunrises were like the breaking of an egg over the world: a sudden crack, and then light ran everywhere, insistently flooding every corner and crack and heating the moisture-laden air. In compensation, the evenings were long blue affairs, the light lingering and deepening until finally the stars began to come out, soft, as if they didn’t want to intrude. In Idaho, however, the dawn arrives a little later and more gently than in Virginia. Here the morning sun is a gentle wash without heat. Yesterday I walked up a nearby canyon. Every color there was velveted, the sharpness gone. Sagebrush dominates the hills here, fragrant, silver-green. I don’t know why I ever left the West, I wonder to myself. I was young, though, and the need to leave was stronger than my ties to the land. Then. Now I feel the homecoming of light and land, and I wonder how I’ll leave this time, and when I can return.

cold mountain (56)

Call friends over when you have wine

Four aspects of the table:

1. The cardinal’s morning song, sharp bright sounds that seem, to my simple ear, like a Marsh Tit’s characteristic “squeaky wheel,” but with more force. It’s a welcoming sound, without alarm or elaboration. Our cardinals live in the four-story magnolia in front of the house and dominate the yard with their chirps and ruddy visibility.

2. The magnolia’s enclosing shade around a sturdy lace-work of branches, perfect for climbing. This is a southern magnolia, an American magnolia, and not like the small, delicate trees of Korea. The blooms here lasted several week, like sculptures of flowers more than flowers themselves, regal and enduring, gleaming.

3. The grit of bark in my eyes, the rough skin of it against my indoor-soft palms and soles. We climbed the tree yesterday, slipping through the lowest hem of leaves into a shaded, musty place. First one of us clambered up, agile, and sat with animal comfort seven or eight feet off the ground. Then another, more cautiously, finding a younger set of trees which rose at an angle: she walked partway up, before lodging to watch the comings and goings of the house, unseen. I tried, shimmying up a low-slung bough. My feet stung: examining them this morning, I realized the skin had torn, like tissue paper giving way to the stronger hands of the world.

4. The heat of the day lingering in the brick and black of walls and roofs, and that heat along our entire spines as we, supine, watch the night sky. Satellites flashing and fading, airplanes, the hospital’s helicopter, the generators, the stars flickering against the light pollution of the city and university, bats, updrafts and downdrafts, intermittent rain, and once, fireworks…

 
Chinese and English on pp. 74-75, here.