Zen & the Arts - Field Notes


All week I had been in Kentucky, where turtles dodge raccoons among the oak leaves. Now I was leaving.

Several times on this trip, men called me “bud.” It’s interesting that old men don’t use this language with me. It is almost always men only slightly older than I am. I remember using “bud,” too. It’s the sort of language that frat boys, who I once aspired to be like, use to assert subtle dominance over others. I remember telling people not to call me “bud.” I remember fighting over “bud.” Today, I just smiled at the offending TSA agent, but my smile wasn’t true and added to a speedy, alien feeling in my body.

Just before leaving for the airport, I had gone for a walk. At first I planned to visit the Muhammad Ali Center and an art museum called Speed, but Muhammad and Speed evidently don’t like Mondays, so I headed for a state park with waterfalls instead. A couple of people told me about a former train bridge converted to a pedestrian walkway that would lead me from Louisville to my new destination, the Falls of the Ohio, across the river in Indiana.

My teacher had presented at an inter-faith conference all week, and I attended to her. Much of this attending is stagnant and I wanted to move. I was going to take a car to the falls, but walking seemed wiser. The idea of safety crossed my mind, followed by the assurances of my teacher’s friend. He said Louisville was safe, except for a few neighborhoods taken over by opioid addiction. I was unsure of this new friend, unsure if his words were also code for poor, brown areas of the city. I kept quiet.

Walking, I carried the speed and unease, aware that safety for me wasn’t exactly the same as safety for my teacher’s friend. The scariest scenario in my head wasn’t being mugged, but innocently wandering into a white supremacist town or mob. White friends had described unease in Charlottesville, where a white supremacist mob had just marched. I knew this was a difference between us, and probably why some of them didn’t find fault in the entirely black wait staff of nearly twenty people and the total of two black guests at a white bourbon baron’s house party we attended. They don’t make the connection between my specific unease and the larger country. Only blatantly belligerent acts warrant a closer look. Indeed, most don’t know my unease exists and I can imagine them trying to convince me otherwise.

My ethnic background was requested and guessed more than a dozen times on this trip. It became clear to me that white people, though not always white people, in Kentucky don’t hide their thoughts as often as they do in California. I was grateful to some extent. No longer wishing to gradually assimilate into whiteness, I appreciate people not thinking of me as only white. It is almost always annoying, though. I realized that the most important question many people wanted to ask me, and for some the only question, was whether or not I was indigenous.

“May you be loved, be healthy, be free”—I extended this meditation to everyone, but mostly to myself. Meeting the eyes of strangers while walking, I smiled at the grimaces, the returned smiles, the avoiding faces. Loving-kindness doesn’t pick and choose, so I thought my smile could do the same.

Occasionally a bird or dandelion would be my focus and I’d extend the phrases the same way.

I paused briefly to speak with a man I had met earlier in the week. We talked about Hepatitis A and its spread among people who live homeless. Businesses refuse to allow them entry to bathrooms, so they are forced to crap on the street. The man said he understood that it was a tough decision—some people misuse the bathrooms. He said that didn’t excuse the level of indifference for humanity. I agreed with him, but wondered if, in his case, the hunting knife strapped to his thigh might impede bathroom access. I had no cash. The Tibetan monks, from the temple my teacher and I had visited a few days earlier, had given me a baggy of blessed fruit and candy. I had set out with the intent to give the food away. He didn’t want it. My speediness increased as my expectation of how the man should behave was extinguished. He said, “They keep me well-fed, they just won’t let me shit.”

A colorful display next to a garbage can, cherry blossoms next to White Castle—these presented opportunities to take meaningful photos for my Dad as I continued walking. Thinking there might not be time, I chose to skip the memorial to Abraham Lincoln on the way. Later, I realized there was time. The memorial was by a wide river, the Ohio, which eventually turns into the falls I wanted to see. The walking bridge extended over the river just past Lincoln. The ramp that leads up to the bridge seemed more fitting for cars than people. I stopped to photograph the entrance of the bridge with its bright yellow “NO PETS” sign, then speed-walked to the middle of the bridge because I had a sense that an older, white person thought I was following them. Looking back from the middle, I saw that they had stopped at the first bench.

I photographed the rusty joints and bolts of the oxidized metal bridge. At the half-way point there was a sign telling passers-by that forty-two people had died during construction. It said the bridge has been hailed as a monument to their lives. I saw no names. I wondered what they looked like—if it was another way to erase people of color from history.

The slight speed and unease continued, as did the sense, or projection, that white people felt I was following them. Still, I was happy and fine with unease coming along. Looking at my phone, time seemed a problem, so I speed-walked to the end of the bridge. Later, I realized there was time. My phone read 1.3 miles left to the state park. I thought about safety again, though more seriously this time. I thought, if harm were to come, it would be more likely in these smaller towns I was entering. I decided to walk anyway.

At the bottom of the spiral ramp on the Indiana side, a police cruiser, lights flashing and blocking part of the street. I remembered my Dad. Sending him the pictures of the bridge, I included one of the cruiser with some joke about immediately seeing a cop after crossing the border. He didn’t pick up on it and asked if I had been stopped. I told him it was a joke. I kept walking.

The first city I walked through, Jeffersonville, had a wall erected along its borders. The walls between Jeffersonville and the other small town, Clarksville, were twice as high as those between Jeffersonville and Louisville. Within the borders of the walls: one of the most spectacular dogwoods I had ever seen. I photographed it,as well as an old, rusty Chevy pickup in the driveway. I didn’t hang around for as long as I would’ve liked. I felt I should keep moving.

My Dad’s worry stayed in my mind. It isn’t inconceivable that I would be stopped. “Why am I walking?” I kept thinking. “Because I need exercise,” I kept responding. I could tell it wasn’t true. The response was too loud. Why did I feel so uneasy? Why did I have so much adrenaline now? It didn’t feel like only fear.

Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite. I feel I haven’t earned the right to consider my experience. I find it difficult to consider things that I have perpetuated, and perhaps continue to perpetuate. I feel the need to follow up every description of my experience with a “but.” “But, I can be cruel too.”

I realized I had a desire to be hurt. And, I realized I had idealized suffering. I wanted John Lewis’s experience. Somehow, I thought that to be brutalized, dominated by a mob consumed by hatred, would bring more truth to my experience. The speediness wasn’t fear that something may happen, but preparation for something to happen. I realized I believed experience was made valid by blood. I wanted to solidify myself. Being the person who was bloodied is a much firmer place to stand than being the person who feels they will be bloodied. I wanted to be the one who would love in the face of hatred, as if love is made more real when paired with brutality. Like a koan, the question, “I want my body to be hurt?” appeared and I began to cry.

At the entrance to the falls, an incredibly dizzy feeling. I was heaving by then, letting the breath out as I wept, and gasping for air when it was all gone. I sat down at a park bench because my body felt strange. I felt like my whole body, having fallen asleep, had suddenly stood up.

I felt sad, but not sad. It was as if something hidden had been tapped and now the energy was free. While writing to my Dad about what was happening, I decided to be present, so I put my phone down and sat there. The crying and heaving fluctuated, and so did my attention. I noticed I wanted to hold onto the sadness even in the moments I didn’t feel at all sad. I remembered my practice and asked, “Who is sad?” Everything opened and I saw, maybe for the first time really, that this didn’t have to have an explosive quality. Everything was simply there. For a moment, the buzzing feeling, the cardinals, the sadness, the trees, the okayness, the river, a peanut butter smell, and none of them. I felt connection and spaciousness, and thought, “I’m happy here.” I grabbed that for a moment. Not asking anything this time, I just looked and everything opened. The inconsistent heaving, the heat, the robins, the grass, the helicopter noise, the tightness in my chest, and none of them. Then the thought, “What playful robins.” And I smiled. And the thought, and smile, and robins, and speedy energy, and none of them.

Eventually, the dizzy, buzzing feeling waned until it was gone. I thought the openness was over, but, remembering to look, there it was and it seemed clear that it is always there. I took out the baggy of blessed food and ate the tangerines. I threw the peels on the grass. I dug my fingers into the core of the apple, and it cracked open. One half for the robins, the other for me. I felt closer to the birds and to the people who passed by. Reality seemed blurry. I knew this wouldn’t last, but I knew that the openness would be there even if the feeling of connection wasn’t.

Later, at the hotel bar, I read about people from Latin America fleeing death and danger, towards the Unites States. Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions warned against and condemned those seeking asylum. I knew they were wrong. I remembered wanting to have my body hurt, and knew it wasn’t terribly different from them wanting to hurt people that look like me. I felt sad that our culture propagated these people who kidnap babies from their parents because they’re black and brown, who want to punish women who get abortions, who revel in the idea that a billion dollars makes you superior, who teach their kids about the brave, American soldiers who were murdered by those crazy Mexicans at the Alamo. I had an idea that there must be repressed areas needing to be tapped within them. I knew, more clearly, that they had followed paths to arrive at these points, and that I could too, if I chose to hide instead of look—if I chose not to love our country, constantly, and instead chose to seek solidarity in the solidification of something called “us,” and in the domination of so-called strangers. I saw my face in Jeff’s face then, but also saw that he cannot see that he is me.

As I waited for my fried pickles, the bartender yelled out, “Hey bud, I’m going in the back. Don’t let any bums behind the counter. I’m serious.” I felt the annoyance in my body from being called “bud” again, and remembered the man with the hunting knife on the street. Earlier in the week, he had told me he was seventeen months sober. He told me to always take life one day at a time—that life couldn’t overwhelm me if I did. The bartender returned with no pickles. He mused with the new trainee about the obscure gender of a person in the street. “Is that a man?” he chuckled. When the woman, part of a bachelorette party donning tiaras and light colored dresses, walked in, he welcomed her and her friends, “Hello, ladies. You look beautiful.” They all smiled and ordered shots that he happily poured as he flirted with them.

I felt the speediness and unease return as the bartender laughed with his coworker over the “bums” and the women. I thought “bum” and “bud” must be connected to “Is that a man?” I knew they were wrong, and power moves seem to walk inside me and contort my stomach. I knew I wanted to broaden my love to encapsulate them and Donald and Jeff. I felt a brief clinging to hatred, even as it passed, as if any me were better than no me. I headed to the airport and kept looking, and reaching, and looking, and reaching.


Field Notes

Editor’s note: In reading Frantz Fanon for another project this excerpt from his Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952, jumped out at me. The physicality of it, the raw felt experience and disorientation of it, immediately made me think of Kevin’s piece. The way one builds a sense of corporeal self, the way one moves through the world, the obstacles put in people’s paths to the most basic things, things that we cannot take for granted. Tracks interrupted. The feeling inside of that. -AER

…then we were given the occasion to confront the white gaze. An unusual weight descended on us. The real world robbed us of our share. In the white world, the man of color encounters difficulties in elaborating his body schema. The image of one’s body is solely negating. It’s an image in the third person. All around the body reigns an atmosphere of certain uncertainty. I know that if I want to smoke, I shall have to stretch out my right arm and grab the pack of cigarettes lying at the other end of the table. As for the matches, they are in the left drawer, and I shall have to move back a little. And I make all these moves, not out of habit, but by implicit knowledge. A slow construction of my self as a body in a spatial and temporal world—such seems to be the schema. It is not imposed on me; it is rather a definitive structuring of my self and the world—definitive because it creates a genuine dialectic between my body and the world. …

[But b]eneath the body schema I had created a historical-racial schema. The data I used were provided…by the Other, the white man, who has woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, and stories. I thought I was being asked to construct a physiological self, to balance space and localize sensations, when all the time they were clamoring for more.

…As a result, the body schema, attacked in several places, collapsed, giving way to an epidermal racial schema. In the train, it was a question of being aware of my body, no longer in the third person but in triple. In the train, instead of one seat, they left me two or three. I was no longer enjoying myself. I was unable to discover the feverish coordinates of the world. I existed in triple: I was taking up room.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. (Grove Press, 2008).

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