The porch in the alley

I live in a house that’s directly behind a storefront, but it has a front porch. A pretty bold front porch. Wide, deep, big white columns. And yet now it looks out on the back of a bike shop and is hemmed in on the other side by an apartment staircase. Our house was the biggest thing around, at one point. It must have overlooked land. There may have been something of a vista. 

I’m thinking about change, impermanence. When I was in college, I thought about getting all Buddhist and zen and meditating. It seemed good for my claptrap ramshackle nerves. But it was also a lot of work, and I never went deep enough or far enough into a practice to really get a lot out of it.

Reading about it, though, I loved. And still love. Sometimes when life is being a crazypants, I look at my bookshelf and just pick something at random. Well, no, not at random. Something that, when my eyes skate over the spine, sends a telegram of a tug into the back of my mind, and I reach for it. Tonight my hand rested on Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg

About twelve years ago, Chris Pirsig, the son of Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was senselessly murdered near the San Francisco Zen Center. The killers knifed Chris and ran. They did not take a wallet (I don’t even know if Chris had one on him). I was sitting a seven-day meditation retreat in Minnesota. It was December. We all knew Chris. Rumors spread quickly during breaks, even though we were supposed to remain silent. We all awaited our teacher’s talk that morning. Katagiri Roshi was close to Chris. He would make it all better.

Roshi walked into the meditation hall, bowed, lit incense, sat down. We chanted. Then he spoke: “Human beings have an idea they are very fond of: that we die in old age. This is just an idea. We don’t know when our death will come. Chris Pirsig’s death has come now. It is a great teaching in impermanence.”

The bell was rung. It was the end of the lecture. I was furious. What kind of thing was that to say? How could Roshi be so cruel? I knew he cared about Chris.

Years later, distraught by learning that Katagiri Roshi had cancer, I cried for many weeks. In May, as I drove to the airport in Albuquerque to fly to see him, I suddenly remembered his talk about Chris. His talk had not been cruel. It was brave. He was willing to cut through all sentiment and touch the fundamental truth of impermanence. I appreciated it. What he said then helped my life now.

This is how we learn. Human life is very big. There is no short cut from Minneapolis to New Mexico. My car had to cover every mile. We learn with every cell and with time, care, pain, and love. I’m sure that many times when the marathon monks woke at midnight to prepare to run, they had an urge to go back to sleep, but the path was ahead of them. We, who are not marathon monks, wake up and have the toothbrush before us–brushing our teeth! the great ritual that gets us out of bed–and then we have the blank page in front of us, or the school bus, or the phone ringing. We all must go on down that highway. Our life is the path of learning, to wake up before we die. 

Another kind of flight

I’m thinking about moments when things begin. There’s a shift, a change, one moment that’s almost not a moment at all, it’s so small. Nanomoment?

Kerpowski and I went to Cambodia last month, together. This was, as you might imagine, fraught with tension for me. I was returning to a place that had felt so home-like, except it was no longer home. Or, not yet home again. Or, never to be home again. I did not know.

A structure fell into place around our days. A sort of grammar of our time and travel. Wake before it got too hot, free hotel breakfast, follow my meticulous spreadsheet of our plans, eat somewhere adventurous but probably safe. Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, all our days went like this. And then there was one day when things shifted. On my meticulous spreadsheet, there was the line “Koh Ta Kiev”. Which meant, this was the day we were to stay on a mostly uninhabited island. And I kept framing it for Kerpowski, over and over.

“This is the part of the trip that’s totally unknown.”

“Get ready for crazy.”

I said it so many times because I didn’t want him to think that I had not planned. He is not the kind of fellow who demands planning, probably just the opposite, but I wanted to be responsible this time. My return to the Kingdom of Wonder would involve timetables and first-aid supplies and calendars. Here, I had planned for us to fall off the map.

It was not so bold a choice. Koh Ta Kiev is actually one of the closer islands to the mainland, and I chose it because it was just over an hour by boat. A lot of the other cool islands are several hours. I was still trying to play it safe. And yet.

“No really. I have no idea what’ll happen there. I’ve never been.”

We got off the little plane from Siem Reap and while Kerpowski waited for our bags, I changed into my waterproof shoes and shimmied a pair of denim shorts up under my skirt. Then we found the little motortaxi that would take us to the coast, where a boat was supposed to be waiting.

Green countryside, fresh air, a fading sun. The taxi was swift and sure. Not crazy so far. The red-washed land around us hummed with possibility and a race against the evening light, but we were headed in one direction.

But then we got to the coast, where there appeared to be no boat. Or, there were several boats, but none were obviously for us. The driver was kind of like, “See ya…” — and I looked around in a bit of a panic. We were just – standing there. With our giant backpacks. On the beach.

My brain quieted. It’s in these situations, with just stuckness, and no obvious way forward, that I’m most at peace. I don’t know why. It’s a really odd talent, the ability to get calm only in extreme times. After a few moments, two women and a young boy showed up, speaking only Khmer. They motioned for us to jump aboard their small weatherbeaten boat, with its outboard motor, as they packed it with supplies.

Oh, THIS was our boat. This was our boat. And we’d have to get aboard by first getting into the ocean, which I’d anticipated by slipping into my waterproof shoes. I tucked my skirt into the waistband of my shorts, and was seaworthy.

I looked at Kerpowski, who realized he was a little behind, and who changed out of his sneakers and into Chacos.

And then there was that moment, where the rules are different, and we waded up to our waists into the warm, sweet-salty sea, bags hoisted overhead. That moment when you stop trying for everything to be perfect, where it’s clearly impossible to stay dry, where jumping into the ocean is just another step forward. I love that moment. Where you’re not wading anymore, you’re waist deep.

Then the boat, after a few false starts, chugged off into the sunset with us perched near the supply crates, and we tried to talk to the Khmer women, who just kept saying, “Do you like this?” But I didn’t understand what they were saying — I’d forgotten so much basic Khmer, that I just kept repeating after them, “Do you like…. Do you like…. Do you like….”