A Maezen Grace

This is the time of year I invariably look back over the last twelve months to review, to assess, to reminisce. Was I fully present to each moment in the past year as it unfolded? No, not each one. I was mindful through a fair amount of it, though, perhaps more than the year before. Is there progress? To be honest, I am not altogether certain what constitutes progress any more. These days, life seems to me to be much like a dance. One doesn’t make progress in a dance, one just dances until the music stops. Sometimes I am able to dance gracefully, at others I am trampling toes or moving slightly out of rhythm, but I can still hear the music so I am determined to try my best.

 This past year was full of blessings not only in the sense of what did happen but also because of all that could have happened and didn’t. Life is tenuous at best, full of twists and turns, many of them unpleasant or downright awful. It seems a miracle to me that so much goes so right so much of the time. And that does not apply only to my personal life; it applies to humanity in general. For every war that starts perhaps several conflicts were averted. For every hungry child, many more are fed and happy. For every refugee, every homeless person, every beggar there is a helper, an aid worker, a compassionate helping hand. Life seeks equilibrium at every turn.

 As I get older, I find myself more appreciative of the slower, quieter ways life holds us close and soothes us—a cup of tea on a chilly afternoon, the vibrant colors of the first flowers of spring, dark storm clouds rolling in over parched earth, birdsongs to herald a new dawn and cool breezes on sweltering days. Then there is also the clever way life has of leading us to what we need—whether that be a person, a place, a passage in a book or any of a number of experiences which might deepen us, give us stronger roots, help us believe in ourselves.

 This past June I went down to Houston to meet author and Zen Buddhist priest Karen Maezen Miller. An avid fan of her first two books, Momma Zen and Hand Wash Cold, I flew down from Dallas to hear her talk at the Rothko Chapel and to have her sign my copy of her latest book Paradise in Plain Sight which is chock full of beautiful insights arising from her experiences in finding, acquiring, then tending the 100 year old Japanese garden in the backyard of her suburban Southern California home. “Come see the garden” she wrote in my book. How nice, I thought, believing the sentiment to be a metaphor.

A couple months later I was in L.A. to attend a family wedding and noticing that I was there from a post I made on social media Maezen messaged me. “Come see the garden,” she said again. Apparently, amazingly, not a metaphor. Never mind that she was in Paris at the time, never mind that I was leaving town the day after she returned from vacation. It would be, had to be, sandwiched in. Life insisted.

 And so, that is how I found myself spending an August afternoon with Maezen and her dog Molly—strolling in her beautiful Japanese garden, learning its history and leafing through the scrapbook, walking the neighborhood, sipping a cool drink at her kitchen table, finding across from me not only a kindred spirit but a dedicated and devoted teacher. With complete disregard for any need for her own privacy she opened her door and her heart to me. The extraordinary nature of that generosity pried open an inner door for me that remains ajar. I know she would laughingly tell me it was never there in the first place. And she would be right.

 Life is good. She takes us by the hand and leads us where we need to go. Very often she leads us smack into struggle and heartache because both offer gifts that are not evident from within their clutches. Then she leaves us in peace because it was there all along and we didn’t see it. We may not always want to go but she is patiently insistent and eventually she gets us there, there to the place where we learn that we ourselves are the one we have been waiting for, that now is the time we have been waiting for, that here is the place.

 As Maezen puts it, in her eloquent no nonsense style, “There is no fix and no problem, no hurry and no wait. You are sitting upside up in the echoless calm of a vast, clear ocean, no wind or waves, and you are breathing, breathing, breathing.”

How was my year? I am breathing. And that is all I really need to know.