Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

Qian Stayed – Corey Hitchcock 2020

 

Gone! 

Fire season’s hot breath scorched on into November. After five unnerving months I was still alive, but not unscathed. Raw, edgy and worn out by power outages, wind alerts and small, dangerous fires. Then the weather demons did a turnabout and a final fire outage-alert yielded overnight to a dizzying snowstorm. Within a week of the big snow, as things began to new-normalize, I answered a breathless call from one of my sisters. Our youngest niece was gone, dead by her own hand. I felt myself tip and fall, like Qian, into bed. Fire is dangerous, but alive. This death had snuffed out my ordinary joy in living.

A Ghost

What is this?’, I asked the I Ching, Oracle of Change. ‘Bound!’  the Oracle responded. That cautious hexagram’s moving line (me) had no field of activity. Exactly, I thought. No volition, no spark. I cooked tasteless meals, and woke unrested. Even small tasks were impossible. I was at once anxious, restless and paralyzed. One night, as I lay stiffly in my bed feeling into that numinous state between waking and sleeping, a ghost man came through the wall, completely attuned to his own misery and loneliness. Breathing with effort, he got into bed beside me. Not young, not old, he was dressed for a funeral and lay down fully clothed on top of the covers. He did not look at me, nor was he particularly frightening. I am not even sure he knew I was there. I’m attracting ghosts, I said out loud. Maybe I’m becoming a ghost.

 

A Dream  

The next night I dreamed:

I have in my closet a wonderful ancestral dress. It is cream colored and composed of many layers of lace and veil. It is a ritual dress, long like a wedding dress but not to be worn at a wedding. I meet a man I don’t know well who admires the dress. Thinking, ‘I don’t really need it’, I give it to him. This causes my father’s face to loom in fury at my disregard for this dress I’ve been given. Was it given by him? He does not speak, but glares fiercely and I feel intense shame that I have carelessly given away my ancient and precious heritage.
 

Another man appears carrying a drum and a small wooden ‘puzzle box’. He is ritually dressed and identified as an ‘ancestor’. Attached to the box is a small curved dagger, and inside is an amulet, finely engraved with the image of a woman wearing that wonderful dress.  The ancestor uses this curved dagger to sever the strange man’s attachment to my dress. ‘It must be returned!’, he shouts. And in this dream moment I feel relief because I know his words have made it so.

Breath fills my lungs again.

Breathing in the Dark

After the dream I discovered a fingernail hold of courage to peer further into the darkness. Its atmosphere seemed suffocating. How could I meet it? It was killing. I pictured myself holding onto an enormous stone and sinking. When I hit bottom, I breathed into the dark vastness, tentatively at first, and then in huge satisfying gulps. Instead of Dante’s fearful inferno, I found the comforting warmth of a hearth.

Memories and pleasant sensations flooded me. Colors returned and dazzled me – shimmering coral, the exact blue of a Bluebird’s wing, the delirious green of new grass. My beloved grandmother was there, sitting quietly, radiating her unconditional love. My brother long dead, so full of intelligence and wit gazed at me with affection. The stunning opalescent light of my birth city, San Francisco, enfolded me in the salty shimmer of the bay. Singing with friends, comforted by a herd of deer, running in moss; moments of deep play, swimming in warm ocean water. Smelled seaweed, horses, Plumeria; touched the honey colored pine walls of a favorite cabin. I fell back into endless summer afternoons, watched shadows, waves, insects, fish. All my long-dead cats bathed and purred beside me. I felt the depth of friendships with people I did not see often enough – we were still connected. Our separation was tenderly held here. All this was alive in the dark below.

 

Western Bluebird Blue

Qian Stayed

From this contented dark center, I took a new look at the place I‘d fallen from. Up there, in the light of day, I briefly practiced re-appearing . I sketched an image of my head popping through an imaginary portal into the light above. To my horror, I had drawn myself as a somber puppet head.
My zones had reversed – the place I had feared to inhabit was now alive and familiar, a pulsing, sourced center. Now the light of day flattened everything, including me. A deep reversal in my determining atoms had occurred. Something akin to a polar shift wrenched me around to see the truth and richness of my entire life. What I had held as deadly I now saw as vital. Had I received a turning word? I don’t know. Could I live in both places? Had Qian?

What about the Qian who stayed?

The one who is lying unconscious in her childhood bed. Did she fall into her own dark center to save herself? Was Qian returned to herself the way my ancestral dress was returned to me? This Qian who stayed drew me close in a sisterly embrace. I had thought of her as confined for years in a grey room between life and death. I saw now that she had sunk down and been protected and nourished by her ancestors. She had sheltered that hidden vastness that dwells at the center of every life. Held there, she allowed herself to return, lifting the father’s inadvertent curse.

Me too! An ancestor brought the dress made just for me. I allowed myself to put it on. The dark materials I had feared would snuff me out now rippled with the beauty and fullness of my life. I thought I had lost this dress, this gift, forever. Now I saw that was impossible. And so, yes, I could live in both worlds, because they were one in me. I had the freedom to choose my treasures, to ‘take them and use them however I wished!’ 

Qian and I could wear our dream dresses, we had returned.

 

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