Two Weeks In
It’s been about two weeks now since I arrived here, so I thought everyone might appreciate a little update. All the road salt has been scrubbed off my car, and the workstation has found its new manifestation, so here goes.
The drive down was rather grueling this time, and felt a little bit more like a three-day commute than a road trip. That said, I had a wonderful stop in Detroit, where I stayed with my cousin Dan Tandy, and then again at Daniel Stoddard’s tree farm just north of Florence, Alabama. In both cases there were some wonderful details and stories I could impart if this were a travel blog. The main thing that stuck with me was talking to cousin Dan’s son Kyle about his first screen play, which I eagerly await updates on.
After pulling up in New Orleans, I had just enough energy to get the car unloaded and pass out on the floor in my new room at Mid City Zen. The next morning was Sunday and the place was packed, the energy comforting and welcoming. Following the meditation, there was a group gardening session, all of us pitching in to work on the vegetables, herbs and flowers that we grow right there in the front yard. Some of them we harvested, grilled up and ate just a few minutes later. It felt really appropriate and encouraging that the first thing I did in New Orleans this year was put some plants down into the ground. This will certainly be a unique stretch of life. Already I find myself slowing down, breathing more and paying more attention to each move I make.
Upon arrival, one thing was very clear. This place needs a new sign. The existing sign was a really interesting piece made from flat plates of slate wired to the wrought iron pillar on the porch. However, when I got here it was irreparably broken, the slate having shattered where the wires went through it. Sometimes it seems like The Universe just puts you right where you need to be. Talking to Derek, the other resident here, we decided to at least put up something temporary, and that whatever it is should echo the look of one of the house’s more prominent features:
That’s the Han. We hit it with a mallet to let everyone know it’s almost time to sit down and meditate. It has a sound that’s both sharp and warm, and makes you feel like you’re in woods walking up to some ancient grass hut to learn all about the dharma. The saying that’s written on there really describes the core of what we do here, and for me this instrument is what I always see in my mind when I think of Mid City Zen. It seemed natural we would shoot for something like this with the sign. Also, being the Yooper that I am, I can never turn down a chance to finish a piece with natural wood, so off I went.
I tried to find some awesome piece of salvaged wood at The Green Project, but didn’t really come up with much. Swallowed my pride and went to Lowe’s, where I picked out this nice piece of select pine (I couldn’t afford poplar, the next step up). Sanded the edges, did a little stain, added a little steeple-top like the Han has. I am actually more proud of the sign-blank itself than I am of the lettering. You can see below how we laid it out, just using pieces of paper to try different things. Typically, in the past I would have worked out the lettering digitally somehow, but I felt right to keep this entirely analog.
Derek was really adamant about emphasizing the words “meditation center” as much as possible. This was a good call. This place is really intended to be a welcome space for anyone who wants to meditate, regardless of how comfortable they are with Buddhism or Zen specifically, so it really makes sense. It was a little tricky to fit so many letters on such a tall thin canvas, but we worked it out by adding lots of space around those words, and I do think it was worth it in our efforts to keep the place inviting.
I wasn’t quite able to completely mimic the look of those letters on the Han. First of all, the acrylic paint I used doesn’t have the same rich black as whatever ink or paint was used for the Han, and second of all I think there maybe be specialized brushes you are supposed to use for calligraphy like this. You can also see I was a bit shaky with the letter as I did them. There must be some level of focus and training that I currently do not have as far as brushed calligraphy goes.
Either way, I think it’s an improvement on not having any sign at all, and it was a good dry run for a bigger one that we plan to do when our priest returns from a retreat to give her creative input.
As for daily life here, the biggest adjustment has been the little household things. Remembering to put the toilet seat down. Washing every dish as you make them. Scrubbing the counters clean after each use. Really these are normal adult things that you’re supposed to do anyways. These little details have a practical purpose; the house is public space, and needs to be kept up. However, there is a deeper reason why they are important in this practice.
Today I picked up Tenzo Kyōkun, which is Dōgen’s instruction manual for the kitchen master at his monastery in 13th century Japan. In it, he says, “When you prepare food, never view the ingredients from some commonly held perspective, nor think about them only with your emotions. Maintain an attitude that tries to build great temples from ordinary greens, that expounds the buddhadharma through the most trivial activity.” So it is with the toilet seats and the dishes, I suppose. We don’t simply attend to these little household activities out of habit and necessity. We focus on each detail and fully experience every step as a living breathing part of our experience in life. That’s the goal, anyways. To what degree I will be able to live up to that, we will see.
What is already clear, however, is that it all starts there, with the simple things. In the past, I have always seen these little tasks as obstacles getting between me and my work. I'm trying now to view these things as opportunities. If I cannot maintain focus and mindfulness as I finish going to the bathroom, how can I ever bring those things to my work? And once again, the paradox arises: the point of being grounded isn’t just to improve your work. The point is just to do it.
Then there is the other side of the paradox! Wouldn’t a more peaceful lifestyle dampen one’s creative output somehow? Is there some truth to the argument that a genuine creative experience is messy, noisy and full of turmoil? Our society often tells us “To be an artist you must have wild extremes; manic high and lows!” Probably so. In that case, can we take a step back and embrace the creative turmoil, fully accepting it as just one very real part of our experience, and thus stay grounded in the suchness of the moment with manic messy highs and lows included?
Well enough for now. I have no answers. More to come.