Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

“Every snowflake falls in the right place”– Zen Koan


A slip of the tongue or pen, forgetfulness, misplacement of objects, or other error thought to reveal unconscious wishes or attitudes.

At the end of a long walk, my father quickened his pace on the downhill before his house. He was tired, his wife was behind him, saying “Slow down!” And he found he couldn’t slow down, couldn’t make the turn, caught his foot on an edge and fell hard, in parts, as he stepped into the driveway. He hit his head, scraped his hand, tore his cheek, and required an ambulance and about 25 stitches to sort things out. That day he couldn’t remember the year or the president of the United States. He looked pretty terrible in the picture he sent me, so it seemed as good a time as any to keep him company.

We had a good visit. My father is a remarkably fast healer, when it comes to the healing that can go fast. By the end of a week he looked nearly normal, so I headed home. Driving out of LA, my mind meandered; I looked for the the Pacific Coast Highway. I had left later than I’d planned and felt guilty for getting the time wrong. So of course I took a wrong turn and found myself speeding in the wrong direction up a hill with no place to turn around, cursing myself. As I finally found a driveway in which I could turn around, I remembered a time when I took a great number of wrong turns.

Seattle via Rachel Boughton's cell phone

I dropped out of college at Oberlin when I was 19, even though I was doing fine, because I was having a tough time figuring out how to be happy. I thought maybe I needed a job and a real grown-up life, so I headed home that winter and then I drove up the middle of California looking for, but not finding, a place to settle. I went on, driving north through Oregon, until I finally stopped in Seattle. I leaned on a friendship and got a job stage-managing at a tiny theater and, because that didn’t actually pay the rent, I got another job too. I found out that it was easy in those days to get work as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home. I was used to nursing homes since I had a lot of really old relatives, so it seemed like something I could do. And the best thing about it was that the shift I wanted was the shift that was available, 11pm to 7am.

I had never worked nights before, but I was invincible, and working those hours gave me a whole day in which to have a life before heading for my evening theater job. I got a few weeks of training about death and how to pick people up and then started the job. I made rounds every two hours through the night, checking on people to make sure their beds were dry. If there was a wet bed, I learned how to change it with the person still lying in it. I also learned how to get a very old and sleepy person out of bed and to the bathroom and back again without either of us falling. With the exception of the occasional paranoid demented person, most of the patients were kind and tired and cooperative. And in the early morning I punched my timecard and headed home.

Heading home is the small part of the story I remembered as I took the wrong turn in LA last week. Every morning when I was done with work at the nursing home, I got in my 1965 Valiant and attempted to find my way home. It should have been easy, a 15 minute drive, but I don’t think there was a single time, all that fall of 1980, that I managed to drive straight home. Normally people learn to do such things after a few tries, but all that I learned during those months was how to get lost. As I drove into the early dawn, I always knew it certainly wasn’t going to be right to go the way I went yesterday, so I’d go a different way, which was also wrong. I would often end up on some freeway or crossing some bridge. There are lots of bridges in Seattle, and not a lot of turning around on bridges. The sky was always different, bright reds with orange grey clouds you wouldn’t believe. There was always the sunrise, and also clouds reflected in the water, water everywhere—lakes and Puget Sound. There was the big mountain glowing in morning pinks and blues. As I got lost I was always so happy, although also frustrated that I couldn’t just once get home in less than 45 minutes.

In the same way that psycho-analysis makes use of dream interpretation, it also profits by the study of the numerous little slips and mistakes which people make — symptomatic actions, as they are called […] I have pointed out that these phenomena are not accidental, that they require more than physiological explanations, that they have a meaning and can be interpreted, and that one is justified in inferring from them the presence of restrained or repressed impulses and intentions.

– Freud, An Autobiographical Study (1925)

What’s a mistake? I’m not sure I know. I’m wondering if I might do the sorts of things I do for a number of reasons. Deus ex machina—out of my mistakes steps the divine, the dream, the thing I needed. My father fell and it becomes clear that I am falling, too. There’s something I, too, can’t slow down, something I can’t avert, something that I need to see even if I don’t want to. I get lost when I’m going home and it gives me the time I need to rest, to not be on my way somewhere, to have a sunrise, a memory, and to notice how shaken I am at the way things can change in an instant.

As I was standing in the driveway saying goodbye, my Dad was apologizing for being such a mess and for throwing his face at the concrete, for falling down, for letting everyone down. And, as I wondered how to reassure him, looking at the ground and at the piles of dirt from the new plantings, it suddenly hit me: what a piece of work it is to return to dust.

“We’re all going to be that someday,” I said. “And there are going to have to be a lot of disasters between now and then.”

“Aw, hell!” said my Dad.

Field Notes

– Laurie Anderson, “Walking And Falling”, from “Big Science” (1982)

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