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. 

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