Yesterday, surveying the empty toilet paper aisle at my local Fred Meyer, I was reminded of this Bible verse I was once taught, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns… Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
One of my biggest worries remains that of having to lug and store an excess of things in advance of an imagined inevitable move, especially when I’m not even sure if those things mean anything to me anymore. Worse, I worry that managing excess home & work stuff stopgaps me from what I imagine I should be doing instead. Perhaps these worries are rooted in a childhood of being moved from continent to continent, with treasured things and friends and languages and routines I loved, left behind along the way. (I’ve written yet-unpublished poems about that.) Whatever the reason, since the start of the year, I’ve been working in earnest to consciously shed about 75% of my office stuff, to unbury the lesser percentage of books & papers that I can tell vibrate with joy & present tense value for me. Marie Kondo often uses a word that has become my latest favorite to pronounce: discard. The word reminds me of those old-fashioned fruit candy drops.
I’ve reacquainted myself with the fact that really looking at something, like an abandoned-yet-kept writing project, and really deciding about it, and really letting it go, takes an infuriating amount of time—or at least seems to, like a bad tasting everlasting gobstopper. (Why can’t I just spit it out?)
Having completed two writing-related master’s degrees back in that frustrating transitional period between analog and e-everything—those years between dial-up AOL & high-speed Gmail—I’ve collected a lot of paper. Some of it is to guide me through an impalpable mess of inconsistently named or even lost e-files (not my fault; you used to not be able to fit many characters in the document name). Still, so far this year, I’ve discarded whole reams of paper to the recycle bin, where it will hopefully be turned into toilet paper to restock all the store shelves emptied in viral procurement.
In my determination to stop saving things for later, and to become more present with my work, I’m also slowly but surely tackling my To Read stack, much of which is dusty but surprisingly, still resonates with me, and which includes everything from a mostly unread 2011 subscription to Poets & Writers magazine to more of my Little Free Library finds that I’ll soon send back to the wild.
This morning I read this:
“The great Japanese Master Hakuin wrote, “If you take up one koan and investigate it unceasingly, your mind will die and your will will be destroyed.”
Sounds painful, I thought.
But I kept reading.
“It is as though a vast, empty abyss lay before you, with no place to set your hands and feet.”
Why would I ever want to “take up a koan”?
“You face death and your bosom feels as though it were on fire.”
That’s a nightmare.
I read the last sentence (ellipsis theirs): “Then suddenly you are one with the koan, and body and mind are cast off…. This is known as seeing into one’s nature.”
Just like that, huh.
Okay, I think I get it? It’s like a moment I often experience on my bicycle after moving past traffic: it’s bright mid-morning and any car is finally at least 30 seconds away from me, and I’m pedaling under a tree sonic & ringing with birds after they’ve eaten, the most uplifting jazz.
But then I think, what if that’s not it. I should read further about koans, make sure I understand their complexity. I find this article, Zen and the Art of Nourishing Life, which looks to be a more challenging read than the pithy Little Zen Companion, and quotes that same “so it is with the study of the Way” passage by Hakuin, in less condensed form. In skimming Ahn’s piece, I notice it also addresses illness brought on by stagnation, from sitting too long.
Juhn Y. Ahn writes, “In short, the mind must carry out the seemingly impossible task of regulating itself and the body in both quietude and activity for primordial energy to remain strong. Hakuin presents a similar conundrum as the ideal model of the mind.”
But I’m already tired of thinking about this. It’s only keeping me from sorting though my files, making good time.
So much less of a conundrum to just listen to birds.
But wait. That’s the most perplexing koan so far today.
Birds may not stockpile goods, they may not worry, per se, but they can be quite territorial. They migrate familiar paths. Meanwhile, you & me—the humans collectively making up the cities that pass ordinances to widen roads upon the groves where trees were, in which nests were woven, to make cars fit five lanes to a road, which people will drive to buy all the toilet paper—we’re kind of forcing birds to live koans meant for us to solve. Where a landmark tree along the migration route was, is now no place for a bird’s feet.
For the time being, birds continue to sing in their abyss. As if they don’t know it is one. As if there’s no point in intellectualizing lost nests; today’s trouble. As if there’s no tomorrow to need a nest for.