Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Mississippi Triangle

It was long drive to Starksville on Friday night. I picked up my buddy from the temple and we flew over the causeway, into the forests, and conversation ensued.

A lot has transpired at the temple and I'm not sorry to have missed it. Sounds like the good old royal rumble is still going on. My friend is the new "first assistant" which is a vague term and it probably means he's responsible for everything and nothing. It will no doubt piss off the current first assistant, who acted as shusso when I was living there. Of course, being pissed off in a Zen temple looks a little different than it does in the streets of New Orleans, but it's still disruptive. When someone hits the han like they're cracking home runs or rattles the gong like some low-fi tape deck, you know a Zennie is pissed off.

I only know from first hand experience what it's like to have a cursing match with the shusso at 5 am about the air conditioner.

But sounds like it's still going on over there, despite our teacher's recent involvement. He moved in around July. I shouldn't say despite- he quite likes the rude stuff. Or doesn't dislike it.

I'm not sure how I feel or where my place is in judging the royal rumble. Or how close I can stand to it without going off the top rope.

But we were on our way to our teacher's one and only dharma heir, Tony. Five hour drive up north to a quiet neighborhood that I always experience as dense with growth-grass, ivy, pecan trees. And it's always very damp and cool. It wasn't different, and after getting lost, we arrived at 12am, wandered into the zendo, found our mats, and fell asleep. Not so comfortable. Mosquitoes, that damp carpet. Weird dreams. Early wake up bell, like I never fell asleep.

Intense rain pounded the roof, thunder and lighting rattling windows, and so samu was canceled. Tony added two more periods of zazen, for a total of 9 sitting periods before 5pm. He gave a short kusen (dharma talk during zazen) to announce what sesshin is about, and how sesshin is supported by interdependence. He also announced there would be no more kusen and no teisho- just zazen.

It had been a couple months since I last practiced formally. I hadn't chanted in about a month. I was frustrated with myself and determined to just sit- just let the temple go, just the let the idea of becoming a priest go, and think about (or not think about) what was important, which was practice. Sincere practice. And this small 5 person day of zen, in a residential neighborhood, was perfect. The rain was perfect. I sat and struggled. I didn't know what sincere was going to be, but I decided it was going to be still, that I wouldn't (as I have in other sesshins) let my little feet sneak around under my robe, sometimes letting my ankles fall from lotus to Burmese style. I wasn't going to "relax." Sincere was going to be simple. Stretch the backbone, knees press the earth, head presses the sky. Don't talk back to the mind as it rambles on. Just sit there as I sit there when someone is gossiping- let it run itself out.

Well, I did move on the 7th and 8th period of zazen. Let the feet slip. Loosened up. Never helps, that pain just relocates. On the 9th and last, I got through it. I heard the bell once, then heard the bell twice, and it could have been a minute or it could have been an hour. It didn't matter, because at this point in my practice, I know it's forever. I can't quit sitting, so it doesn't really matter.

Not sitting is as hard as sitting.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Where do we act from?

Monday turned into a dark day. I decided to stay home because I didn't feel quite right. I felt overwhelmed by the work I didn't finish and by the news that I'll be a big brother again. Funny, that news didn't prompt me to think about the future. Instead, I thought of the past.

I couldn't access how I felt. I was completely alien to myself. I wasn't doing anything I was supposed to. Depression started in on me after I tried to evade it by spending money on home improvements. The entire time I knew I should be at school, knew that hiding away from the world was a symptom of being an Alcoholic. I felt it coming, and I let it come.

I turned off all the lights in the house. Ran a bath. Lit candles. Sat in the bath until it was cold. Had incoherent thoughts about what I was doing wrong in life, followed by incoherent thoughts about what I should do different. Of course, the monastery always comes up as a place of refuge. At this point, I don't further the fantasy by thinking that I'd be happy at a monastery. I wasn't "happy" when I did live at the temple. For 9 months, I was the same person who struggled to touch the here and now. The incoherent thoughts said, "So what. You're unhappy, so you might as well be unhappy at the monastery."

After the bath, after all the thoughts, the words, I did the only thing left to do: Sat Zazen, in the dark, still wet from the bath, my rakusu carelessly hanging from my neck. I didn't care. And that's the great thing about Zazen. The zafu is still there, even when you don't care. You may not like the zafu or the wall, but it's still there for you.

I don't know if I was doing the next right thing, but I went from moment to moment, letting my body do what it wanted. Bath;Zazen; Bed.

I woke up feeling completely different. Just like usual, though without drinking the usual came in a night, instead of weeks or months of fog. Nothing magical happened. I just submitted to the feelings. Just went through them. Felt silly, felt ridiculous, and now I feel humble. Even after of six years of practice, 10 months of sobriety, I am still susceptible to all the old things, all the old suffering. And that will never change.

But I think about all the decisions we make in our lives. To become teachers or to become monks. Where are we acting from when we make the choices? And does it really matter?

And while one goes through these existential dilemmas, the sentient beings aren't saving themselves. It affects so much. Like Bob Marley said, the bad guys don't take days off.

Monday, September 21, 2009

I'll be a big brother, again.

My dad informed me last night that I'll be a big brother again. I'll be 28 years older than this one!

I gathered that my sister, who lives up north, is upset. It's about the past. About how our father was back then, as a young gungy marine with a drinking problem.

He's much different now. That old person is gone as far as I'm concerned. I don't think the sister really feels that way and still seeks some reparations.

I'm not sure how I feel, but because I met with my father last night, I didn't get a chance to do any work, so I took today off. While I don't feel upset, I feel something, and I'm taking sometime to figure that out. I'll figure that out as I scrub the floor, dissemble an old couch, and buy a new one.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Saturday Day Trip!

After a great week of work (students were tested on irony, motifs, foreshadowing, theme, character traits, and did well!) I'm taking my new car, The Millennium Hawk, to Vermillionville, in Lafayette, Louisiana. Mr. C is my co-pilot. He's a social studies teachers.

Vermillionville is a Cajun village. I'm not sure what else to say about that, except I've never been to one, so I'm excited to go. I'm also excited to drive the Hawk, because it's a turbo, and I really want to open it up on the highway. I was also lucky to purchase some great cds (On sale + teacher discount): Elvis Costello, The Police, Blink 182, Fiest, and Elton John.

Well, I'm on the road again.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


What a cruel thing for a Monday morning: rain. After the alarm went off at 5 am I had to gently address the self for five minutes; remember, that ½ hour extra feels like 5 seconds and is never worth it; remember, you have to make yourself sit now; remember, books don’t write themselves and most of the magic that goes into a novel is used just by waking yourself up to write the damn thing.
And so I got to the zafu five minutes late. I took a ten minute break from writing to eat and listen to NPR. But I got it done! Monday wake up is over! Now for the shower. School opens in 15 minutes and we’ve got 3 days of review before the test on Thursday. Professional Development Friday.

Tuesday Morning

Didn't sit this morning. Ate breakfast instead. I think I need to wake up just a little bit earlier. Which may sound crazy, since I'll be reaching into the 4am hour. I think this has less to do with breakfast, though. I've noticed my sitting practice starting to deteriorate. And I've noticed more worry, more stress, and more character defects starting to emerge.

It's always tough to make judgment calls about practice. Actually, I've always been told not to. But with my patience waining, my mind seeks to blame something. Wants to say, "You cursed today. You were picky with your girlfriend. You couldn't let go. And you haven't been sitting."

This was the danger of leaving the temple. I didn't just leave; I stopped going all together. I don't have a good reason beyond a felt sense that things weren't right there. So since then, I sit on my own, and I went to a Unitarian Universalist Church, searching for a sangha atmosphere, really. But nothing feels right. Since nothing feels right, should I just accept what's there? Go back to the temple?

I have been enjoying my mornings. Usually, I wake up a little early- like 4:45 (my alarm is set for 5) and I start sitting right away, which gives me about 15 minutes before writing at 5:30. That 15 minutes is the best part! I make coffee, eat, and listen to NPR. That 15 minutes is my favorite part of the day. Then I write for a half hour, take a coffee break on the porch, which is my second favorite part. My neighborhood is usually loud with DJs, football, and regular urban sounds. When I take my coffee break, all you can hear are church bells and birds. After that, I write for another half hour, and then head over to work.

A really nice life, despite what the radio says. I'm not sure why I listen to NPR. I hear too much about money and too little about Bhutan, which has happy forests of trees...

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Empty Pockets

All the way at the top of state, in Bastrop,Louisiana, I don't need any of my effects. No phone, no money clip (really a card clip), and no keys jingling at my side (after living at the temple, I amassed many keys to many doors, which conceal rooms I can't remember).

We drove for 7 hours to get here- a 1/2 extra for being confused and an 1 1/2 for traffic, but it was worth it. I really love driving, or as on this trip, playing navigator. This was my first trip with my I-phone, and I kept referring to the purple line we kept on. My girlfriend would ask me if I had seen a sign, and all I saw was the purple line, the purple line! Opps, we went past the purple line! And once or twice, I wanted her to slow down, because the satellite couldn't keep up with her. Poor, old, 3G.

We must have got the last cabin in Louisiana. It's very cute and comfortable, and very modern with its flat screen TV and the wireless Internet. I'm wondering why I ever stay at hotels.

The weather is much cooler this far north and less humid, too. It smells like fire wood. The porch is screened in and it's where we have spent most of our day. We had no plans but to drink coffee, read, and enjoy each other's company, but we did manage to go for a walk.

The lake here has been drained and sits empty, cracked mud and cypress, soggy in the sun. It was really neat to walk down into it! It felt like, like land of the lost, with tall green grass sprouting up here and there, big snakes crawling over logs. Saw one snake and one red fox.

It's been...over a year since I've been on a vacation, and longer if you don't count 20 day stays as a guest student at Green Gulch Zen Farm as vacations. I came here with no intentions other than to read a Stephen King novel and a book of Roald Dhal short stories. It's wonderful to have worked hard all week for this respite.

Friday, September 4, 2009

All Before My Morning Coffee.

Today is going to be a good day, and not even an attack will change that.

On my way into a coffee shop, a man asked me for a dollar. I him how his day was going, and I think he called me rainbow bright.

As I stood in line, he came in and started harassing customers and asked me again. I asked him if he took plastic.

As I went to sit down, I made eye contact. I make eye contact, I can't help it, and it usually leads to love or fighting. The love is worth the staring problem. As I reached my seat, he "Iffed" or fainted a blow at me. I'm glad I didn't move. At least that made me feel manly.

And I told him I'd knock him out.

He left...and I stayed, thinking he must be outside, and that I could go out there show him what's up.

Right in front of the school I teach at. Where I tell kids to stay their hands, that only their actions matter.

Well, I didn't go fight him. This is a big thing for me- invitations to violence are hard to resist. And actually, there is a superficial feeling that tells a person he needs to police the world and teach lessons.

I'm glad I didn't hit him. But I know I still need to walk past. Even if he's out there, I need to walk past and go teach my class. Even if he hits me, I need to remember my students. And that my actions count. And we're not talking about self defense, he won't kill me. My reaction is ego defense.

And besides, it's labor day weekend. Back in the day, I'd be going to a clam bake with Griffin Masonry and I'd be drunk from 12 today until Monday. Tonight, I leave to go read, cook, and love in a cabin with my girlfriend.

But really, he's lucky I hadn't had my coffee yet.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

They give out chips, and I like to count.

It's always amazing to watch people have just one drink. I had dinner with my girlfriend's parents for the first time and her father drank one beer. As a little boy, my legs would get tired from carrying beer for my father.

And I remember sitting in clubs, waiting for dad to get done with a meeting. I remember eating watermelon one day, and people were watching us. As my sister methodically picked seed after seed, they said, "Oh, She's an Al-anon."

As I buried my teeth to the rind, sucking the taste out of the green, they never said anything about me. Never even knew they were saving me a seat.

Cunning and baffling as this condition can be, it's always surprising to find my conviction sway: I am an alcoholic; I am not an alcoholic.

I think everyone is a little or a lot of something, and I see the range between Al-anon and Alcoholic. Some people are completely balanced and walk right down the middle. They require very little maintenance. Then there are people like my sister and me, the children of one alcoholic and one addict. At any time, one of us is too far right or to far left. We need programs.

I find my program in the fellowship of people who share my story. The similarities are uncanny among garden variety drunks. Some of us have been thrown out of country clubs, squats, or temples- but we've all been thrown out and we never knew why anyone would to throw wonderful people like ourselves into the streets.

There's something wonderful that transpires in a meeting, something that is effacing and inspiring at the same time. It's only been nine months, but my life has changed.

When I walked into the Zen temple 2 years ago, of course, I wanted peace. My teacher looked me in the eye and said, "If you're looking for peace, I hope you brought some with you." He explained that the way wouldn't solve all my problems, but that sitting Zazen everyday sure would bring them up, like a pot of boiling water. I think I've been boiling a little.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tuesday morning after the storm.

I was still trying to get a hold of my father and step mother on this day four years ago. I had left New Orleans about two weeks before. It was a summer spent waiting tables at a fancy restaurant on Bourbon and Beinville...a place that would send me home fore wearing the wrong socks, and my face was never smooth enough for the Matre'D.

I remember the tropical storm we had earlier that year. It tore ancient live oaks out of the ground. Crayfish literally ran through the streets in St. Bernard parish, their claws held high.

When I heard about the storm, I was in Pennsylvania, starting my student teaching. I'm pretty sure I cried because I thought my parents were dead. No one was sure. I remember sitting there with my mentor teacher and supervisor, and we were debating whether or not I should commence with the classroom or wait to hear when we could go back. I didn't go back.

This is a dividing line between New Orleanians. When I was at a little grocer in the quarter on Friday night, a drunk woman who was selling roses, demanded to hear my grievance and loss list, she wanted to know if I lost everything like here, lost people, and wanted to know if had stayed to watch the floating bodies. I couldn't reply.

Maybe I'm alone on this, but I've always simultaneously wanted to share suffering and shirk it at all at once. I think this is why I'm attracted to the military, Antarctica, and run-down, corrupt, public schools. I just don't want all that suffering to go to waste.

And at the same time, when I put myself in a situation, I want parlance with all that I knew was waiting for me. Join a Zen temple, but I don't want to shave my head, or water plants, or have my teacher share his opinion.

I can't understand it. I just say a prayer to St. Francis, which starts,

"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.Where there is hatred, let me sow love;where there is injury,pardon;where there is doubt, faith;where there is despair, hope;where there is darkness, light;and where there is sadness, joy..."