This is the stone, drenched with rain, that points the way.
One of the side effects of Zen practice that I enjoy most is a softening around my insistence that “This isn’t It.” When the universe serves me something unexpected, I am more likely to trust that it’s for me, even though it may not appear to be what I ordered. Maybe I think my eggs are too runny, I should have done college better my first time through, or that someone needs to change before I can love them. But rather than insisting on how I think things ought to be, I keep finding that it’s easier to just trust the way things are. Navigation is simpler that way and it sure beats paddling upstream all the time. Here is a story about not trusting.
For the past few weeks, I have been preparing to move to Texas. I never thought I’d live in Texas. In fact, I was pretty sure my next move would be back to the West Coast. But then, things just move in the direction they move, and it seems right to move with them. So I’m moving to Texas.
Moving is full of changes and, for a time, it becomes more clear that changes are themselves the material of my life. I wrap up some relationships with friends and colleagues and devise ways to continue others. The true intimacy of a relationship can become more clear very near the end, just as waves heave up as they begin to break. My relationships to things change also. I have much to sell or give away, and managing ads on Craigslist becomes a full-time job.
Out of all the things I intend to cut loose, my car feels the most pressing. It is no spring chicken and I’m anxious about the chances of selling it for a decent price in the little more than a week left before I leave Virginia. I spend hours scrubbing the car inside and out, and in the process I develop a deep appreciation for all the time we have spent together. (The true intimacy of an relationship can become more clear very near the end.)
I’m feeling pretty good about how the car looks and drives, but there are a couple of seemingly minor issues that need to be addressed before showing it to potential buyers. A leaky hose prevents the air condition from blowing cold and I have not yet installed an aftermarket stereo system given to me by a friend. In my excitement, I post an ad on Craigslist before they are addressed and almost immediately, emails asking to see the car start pouring in.
Without noticing it, I have drifted into dangerous territory. I am advertising something I do not have. I’m getting ahead of the universe and hoping that it won’t notice that there’s nothing behind the curtain. Looking back, it seems like it could be the plot of an episode of I Love Lucy.
I parry my way through a melee of emails while the car is in the shop, waiting for the A/C hose to be replaced. Of course, the parts dealer’s computer system is down, so the mechanic doesn’t know when the repair will be finished or how much it will cost. (Only later do I realize that I have not factored the potential cost of the repairs into my asking price.) Then there is the aftermarket stereo I advertised, which has not yet been installed (did I mention I’ve never installed a car stereo before?).
It’s strange to experience the elation that comes with each interested buyer mixed with the stress of having to manage what feels like a lie that is becoming less and less white. I push suitors out to the next afternoon, hoping the car will be finished by then. I schedule the first one for 6:00pm, the next for 5:30pm, 5:00pm, 4:30pm, and I can feel the pressure mounting between present and future as I bet more and more on cards I can’t see.
I am getting out of hand. My mind is swirling. I’m short-tempered with my fiancee, who is only trying to help, I’m pushy with the mechanics, and I’m frustrated with myself for putting us in this position. I am the poster boy for dogged willfulness, and it seems the only strategy is to continue digging to save face and a sense of control. (As I’m writing this, I notice my breathing has become shallow and I am gently grinding my teeth.) There is some faint voice reminding me periodically about trust and koans and my practice, but I shut it out because it’s not useful for manipulating things in my favor.
The time finally comes to show the car to the first suitors and the A/C hose has still not been replaced. There is a whole separate mini-drama surrounding the installation of the stereo, but that’s another story. The suitors arrive early and are walking up to my door as I give the new stereo the final push into the dashboard (it works great, by the way). They seem like very nice people and they test drive the car and tell me they’ll think about it and I say of course.
Lost in my fog of obsessions, I have not eaten in several hours. I make a quick trip to a fast food joint up the street to grab a snack before the next showing, and as I’m turning into the parking lot, a car zooms up and collides with mine. In the split second before impact, I have just enough time to say, out loud to the universe and anyone else listening, “Are you f***ing serious?”
After all that trouble, all those hours of scrubbing and polishing, of agonizing over details and organizing suitors and nagging the mechanic and struggling to get the stock stereo out and trying to understand wiring harnesses…Are you f***ing serious?
As Governor Wang arrived at Zhaoqing Temple, they were making tea. When Elder Lang held the kettle for Mingzhao, it turned over. When the governor saw this, he asked the
elder, “What’s under the little tea stove?”
“The spirits that hold up the stove,” replied Lang.
“If the spirits are holding up the stove,” asked the governor, “why did the kettle turn over?”
Lang said, “You can serve as a high official for a thousand days, and then lose it in a morning.”
The governor shook out his sleeves and left.
Mingzhao said, “Elder Lang, you’ve been eating the food here at Zhaoqing Temple, but you’re straying across the river chasing after junk.”
Lang asked, “What would you say?”
“The humans lost.”
The other driver and I pull into the parking lot and exchange information. A kind police officer is nearby and comes over to check on us. In situations like these, there can be a strong drive to decide who’s in the wrong. Though I notice that I’m a bit shook up, I’m not actually angry, and placing blame seems totally uninteresting. The other driver apologizes profusely and I find myself saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” She is sweet and I like her and we chat while we’re exchanging information. She laments that she’ll catch hell when she gets home and I laugh and say me, too. I am delighted by the sheer irony of the situation. I stop on the way home to show my mechanic what has happened and I am pleased by his look of genuine astonishment. He covers his face and shakes his head and suggests that, considering my luck, it might be safer to just park the car and walk home.
Sometimes we are rescued by something terrible. As I look over the damage of the car, each new injury adds to a faint but growing sense of relief. (Ah, the fender is ruined! Ooh, the frame is buckled! I smell antifreeze!) It begins to sink in that, for all my willful scrambling, the bottom has dropped out of the situation. The stress of managing car repairs and dealing with potential suitors has been completely wiped away by the accident. The ship may have been commandeered by pirates, but at least I’m no longer sailing us straight into a sandbar.
After events such as this one, the mind often sprouts thoughts about how things might have been different–if only I’d gone somewhere else to get a snack, if only the car showing had taken 5 more seconds, or 5 less seconds, or the mechanics had repaired the air conditioning–but these explanations are always based on what we know, and any given moment is far beyond our understanding. In World War II, Royal Air Force flight crews “blamed gremlins for otherwise inexplicable accidents which sometimes occurred during their flights. Gremlins were also thought at one point to have enemy sympathies, but investigations revealed that enemy aircraft had similar and equally inexplicable mechanical problems. As such, gremlins were portrayed as being equal opportunity tricksters, taking no sides in the conflict, and acting out their mischief from their own self-interest” (Wikipedia).
The actual state of things in each moment is something I can rely on. Blame is not something that can be proven because there are always gremlins or stove spirits who are pulling strings backstage, silent partners with mysterious agendas. As I was writing this post, the repair shop my car was towed to–one I have never had dealings with before- called. They wanted to let me know that they’re backed up and would not be able to begin assessing my car’s damage until 2 days before I leave for Texas. And what of that? Well, that’s the gremlins’ business. As for me, I’m going to remove a tiny splinter from my toe and go have lunch with a friend.
Credits The first koan about the stone is a haiku written by the Japanese poet Santōka Taneda. It appears in the Pacific Zen School's Miscellaneous Koans collection and is translated by John Tarrant and Joan Sutherland. "U.S. Troops Surrounded by Holiday Mail During WWII" (1944). Unknown photographer. Presented by Smithsonian Institution, downloaded from Flickr Commons on May 8, 2014. The tea kettle koan is Case 48 of the Blue Cliff Record, translated by John Tarrant and Joan Sutherland. The wonderful flying animals art piece was done by Hannah Curry, a 3rd grade student in Cyndi Marchetti's art class at Elmont Elementary. It is presented here with her permission. "Gremlins Are Floor Greasers" (1942-43). Unknown source. Lovingly archived by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Downloaded from Wikipedia on June 2, 2016. All other images were produced by the author.