Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

July 2014, Montpelier, Vermont

1. Morning

Red tiedye shirt left on a rock beneath a rust brown trestle bridge. A Roman frieze of shopping carts gazes mournfully from shore. I step out onto a tidal river rock to meditate in the shade of the overhead bridge. As usual, I fail. I’m texting a friend a panorama of the river when a bird shits on my neck. I wipe my neck with a leaf I’m pretty sure isn’t poison ivy and turn my attention to the water.

I’m sitting on a rock where the north fork of the Winooski and the main river meet. Too much coffee. Never mind. A bird in a bush by my side sings out a microtonal song and I’m reminded I don’t know anything about birds or poison ivy.  Surely every sine wave in the world is sung for something? I’m busy with the usual human worries of planning this, plotting that, where will I go next and will it work, and I’m thumbing words together on my phone. Finches peck at the mud beside a half-buried wool sock. The river murmurs, and a light breeze blows southeast. That feels good on my face and the restaurant air conditioner on the opposite bank hums gently, a slow pulsing wave. Who set that LFO? Is it a gamma wave? Are my chakras aligning? Will I see that girl today? Is it safe to walk the mile back up the hill in the dark? Are the hours of my zendo set by daylight? Should I get a bike? Rent a car? Bring a headlamp? Will I get laid? Will my band be good? Am I too old? A bumblebee lands on the crown of my head.

Downstream a thin rock makes a perfect shark fin. Ultramarine and emerald sparks leap into view: thin sheets of water splash against the rocky banks and down where this branch meets the main event. Right here, though, is the ribald yellow-green of oakmoss. Green above, green below, the whole world medicine and sickness. I spit in the river and a gyre whirls it in front of me for minutes. Wittgenstein: “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.” A white butterfly floats by: I wonder if she’s hungry, horny, tired.

A church bell rings. I learn that focusing on a rock in a flowing river makes me motion-sick. Oh well, keep sitting, look somewhere else. I want to sit so much because I have no talent for it. So I’ll trudge along: the world can always open up. A teacher said that at my age he sat two or three hours a day; it helped him breathe less fire. I’ll take more fire but less fear, please. Now is as good a starting place as any, I suppose. It seems that meditating to improve oneself, while a common reason to begin, is missing the trees for the forest, or the Dharma for its side effects. Like drinking whisky for dehydration. I could use a drink later, it strikes me, but I’m trying drying out.

A friend’s teen-aged daughter was smoking in front of the hospital where her mom was sick. Her dad came out, saw her, she was mortified. He asked for a smoke. They had the wet San Fransisco fog and a cigarette together. Back to failing better, however Beckett meant it.

I wish I’d get a text: Put. The phone. Away. Love, Linji.

I imagine explaining meditation to a friend, an anxious person, scientifically literate, a fellow member of the college Atheist club. In my imaginary lecture I am eloquent and self-assured and go on at some length. That feels good, then I accidentally swipe at my nose with the birdshit-cleaning hand and remember the Avian Flu. Not far from me a man about my age is fishing from the bank. Small bald spot, Oakley glasses, cargo shorts. Pecking at my phone in half-lotus, dressed in my black New York uniform, I must look like a jerk. I celebrate this and the man finishes off a big can of Four Loko; empty, the can clatters down the embankment rocks. I’m downwind of something that smells like French fries; maybe I’ll sit here all day.

2. Afternoon

Hiding under the bridge like a hipster river troll, I notice the gnats are swarming around a section of the shore indistinguishable from anywhere else in terms of light, heat, trash. A large man on the other end of the bridge throws his arms wide in the direction of land—shadows lurch—and I realize I set up my zendo where the town drunks hang out. I think of my grandfather.

In the late afternoon sun the river smells like a river, pungent, acute. No side of fries. Maybe what I’ve imagined to be anxiety in my life is very often ecstatic joy waiting to sing out. Here a crow’s black shadow drifts down lanes of shadowed trees. Here the pitch of light rakes hard through green upon green upon green and the rockmoss shows through the current, pale like the heart of a kiwifruit, stones down there the dull greenish-brown of kiwi skins. Cloud-white eddies in water are yellow with foam. Sun slashes through overhead trestles, a Jacob’s ladder spills. I wonder who wrestles the angel anymore.

I used to busk with a cellist friend in the subways when we first moved to New York. I’d sing “I Was Young When I Left Home” and “Wayfaring Stranger” and play backup guitar to his transposed fiddle reels and Irish tunes. One time somebody gave us twenty bucks for “I Was Young When I Left Home”; other people didn’t like the sad music. Sitting here beside the Winooski, I remember my voice echoing through the station between trains.

Bells ring five. Black clouds roll in slow. It looks like rain. My umbrella is a mile up the road. I think of Rhianna. I wonder if I can get from the river to a cafe fast enough, and once I’m there, have internet for long enough to work. My legs hurt. When I cross the Winooski bridge there’s a man in his thirties wearing 1970s rock ‘n’ roll velvet holding an abalone-fronted custom guitar. He pulls riffs on a bench. Women pass, his face stone-cold serious. The headstock is also abalone. It shines many colors. I wonder what I think I’m really doing.

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