During the Presidential debate the other night the inevitable question was eventually asked. I have to say the answers were much as expected, exactly as scripted, and while “correct,” each candidate missed a golden opportunity. “On January 21, what will be the first thing you will do as President?” Most of the world’s problems made the list, immigration, climate change, wealth inequality, you get the picture. It was never mind that almost none of the things listed could be solved by an executive order, their hearts were in the right place. But no one hit the real mark. Ask me and the answer’s simple. My first act as President is to appoint the official White House herpetologist. It is a two for one appointment, after all. I get someone who can help me deal with Congress, members of both the Senate and House. But better still, when it hits the fan, and we all know it will, repeatedly, I have an expert who can explain that yet again, it is all the snake’s fault. That one has worked since Adam, and even the evangelicals and Catholics must agree on that one.
It is incredibly frustrating that no matter how long I spend in discussion with the egret, he will tell me nothing of his life, of what it is like to be able to perch on long legs, and then take glorious flight. The limpkin will speak endlessly on this topic, but he really has nothing to say of any importance. Still, I’m not giving up hope, for a friend said that he had it on good authority from a passing wood stork that the egret is planning to write a tell all book, once he figures out how to use a computer.
Birth, he said, is the first and only real terminal disease. You only realize that, of course, when it is far too late and there is nothing at all you can do about it. Cancer and all manner of diseases merely shift the timeline, but once you’re on the path, there is only one way off, and that is a step few are willing to take. For some, this is a source of terror, for others it is no more than a slow walk around the block, with the promise you’ll eventually arrive back at the place you began, although it is no longer the place you began but one from which you begin, not again but anew. Again. This is what the Buddha said 3000 years ago, more or less. He confirmed that the just the other day, outside the soup kitchen. “Hey,” Buddha said, “even the once or twice enlightened need to eat from time to time. Join me?”
The gong reverberates, its depth hangs in the air, fades like a slowly retreating army.
The zafu is at once coarse and caressing, nestling me as I settle down into becoming one with the earth, the zabuton, a fluid translator. The mokugyo’s rhythm lies deep within my chest. The incense settles on my tongue, an acrid sweetness, and there is absolute silence where my breath is an onrushing freight, passing quickly and departing to clear the way for the next, and the next, until even that fades and there is nothing, and there is everything, and there is me and not me, you and not you, and here is no longer.
The gong reverberates like a single hand clapping.
A cloud envelopes the forest. The trees believe it is they who pierce the cloud, impaling it, its essence drained onto their sagging limbs. The shower passes and we walk the forest floor. In a small clearing we lie down on a damp bed of needles. They do not pierce our skin. Four birds gather on a nearby limb. They stare at us, we back at them. I pull sandwiches from the picnic basket, a bottle of wine. You open the small blanket. The birds seem to find this interesting. They chitter among themselves. We only think we understand what they are saying. The tomato is pressed tight against the mozzarella, basil leaves floating above. Crumbs from the ciabatta fall on the blanket. I am distracted by a motion on the edge of vision. I turn and think it is a doe standing many yards off, in an odd stand of birch that seem lost, dwarfed by the surrounding pines. Bits of roll fall on the ground. The birds pause and take careful note of this. They are certain when we carefully pack up, the last drops of wine spilled on the ground, our forgotten scraps will be their meal. As we walk from the forest we watch as the trees release their grip. We see the cloud slip away into a sunlit sky.
“Call your mother,” she says. She speaks in the voice of my mother. It grates on my nerves in just the same way it always did. I listen carefully. She repeats herself. I reminded her that she died two years ago. I tell her I tried to call for months after her passing, but there was never an answer. I tell her it is clear that she no longer accepts calls. She asks, “why should that matter? Call your mother,” she repeats, “it doesn’t matter if she answers, and anyway you never called when I was alive.” This I know to be unfair, untrue. I know she is pushing buttons, a skill she had long mastered. I speak in my defense, “I called at least once a week or more. Back then. Don’t argue with the dead,” she says, “and whatever else you do, don’t argue with your mother.”
Any good cat will tell you that there is absolutely no good reason to distinguish between here and there, night and day, good and evil, and the list is virtually endless. Cats will admit, if you ask them nicely, that they have no need for such dualities. Cats understand gray in all of its gradations, but black and white is simply wrong, a cat will say. They don’t comprehend why people need such dualities, for cats know that what they have, at any given moment, is enough, it is all really, to just simply be. A cat will tell you in secret that while Lin Ji gets all of the credit, it was the cat who shared its wisdom with him, reminding him, “When walking, just walk. When sitting, just sit. But above all, don’t wobble.” Cats will assure you that they do not wobble. They will tell you that having “only” to legs is hardly a good excuse for wobbling. Cats live in the moment, for it is all they have and they know it. This is their Buddha nature in practice. That, and their claws that they are more than willing to use to draw you back to the moment when, on the zafu in meditation the mind wanders. And, they note, it is more effective than any keisaku.
The sun is obscured by half-lidded eyes. We are standing together on a small beach. Twenty toes are curled in the wave packed sand. We are in Cascais, or perhaps Estoril. The waves spread their foam capped fingers through the rocks and cradle us. He wants to drive down the coast, to see the boats at Sesimbra. “The bay is calm there,” he says.
He is shorter than I expected. Fathers are supposed to be tall, that’s their lot in life. His face is burnished by the sun, the same sun against which he shields my forehead. He knows I will tend toward leather. He stands, hands resting lightly on his hip bones, in his sleeveless T-shirt. A Gauloise dangles from his lip, its ash growing, until as he speaks, it breaks loose. It skitters down his chest, a tiny sand crab in a manic dash for the rocks. He imagines himself Errol Flynn. He rests his hand on my shoulder, and stares out, beyond the waves, just past the horizon. It is what he imagines a father would do. He started to tell me of life in Lisbon, in the Diplomatic Service, as a Jewish businessman, a deckhand on a fishing trawler. He was all of these things, he said, and none of them.
I walk slowly along the Avenida de Liberdade, toward the Praca do Marques de Pombal, staring deeply into the sun-creased faces of elderly men. I stop for a coffee, sitting along the walk. The old woman, at the finely formed wrought iron table, stares at me, I at her. A smile crosses her lips as I lean toward her and ask “Tēm voce visto meu pai?” She clucks, tilts back the small cup and snatching overburdened shopping bags, shuffles to the street, silent. I walk through the park in the fading light. turning to a middle-aged woman, her vast hips spread across the bench, “Mim estao procurando meu pai, voce via-o?” She reaches inside her purse, slowly withdrawing a metal compact, its face reflecting the fire of the setting sun. She opens it lovingly, thrusting it at my face. “Eere,” she says in school drilled English, “eere.” I stare into the mirror.
I found it on a map this morning. I had been there once before but wasn’t looking, so I missed it I suppose. It is a place where poetry is born, where it wells up out of the earth, seeping across the landscape, casting an enticing light. It is a magical place to which few ever go, even fewer ever really see. It is open to all, silently inviting. It is so obvious, you tend not to see it even as you pass through it. Most passing through are going somewhere else, and all of the there’s on the way to somewhere Yet in that place I would not search for words, would not try to grasp wildly at and crystallize ideas, would not pare away the noise, in the search of perfect silence. There poems would come into being, the creator undemanding, unthought of, and I could gather them up, like apples ready to drop from the tree, like grape cluster burgeoning on the vine, imagining themselves wine. I know it is just down the road from Paia, nestled along the ocean where the waves lap the shore and whisper Haiku.
There was supposed to be a cat in this story, one being chased by a dog. It could have been a fox, I suppose but they are not seen here that much anymore. It might well have been a crow chased by a hawk, that happens around here with fair regularity but writing about the sky is so very difficult from an earthbound perspective. The mind may take flights of fancy, but has focus only when well anchored. Anyway, the dog never got off its leash and the cat seems to have found another bird feeder where the birds are a bit less smart and the squirrels a bit less mean than ours so there was no cat either. I do get that this means little or nothing to you, but is probably because the only chase scenes you like involve cars, and that doesn’t happen around here all that often. Perhaps the dog will tear free of its leash tomorrow, the cat will return and this story will find its conclusion, and then again, perhaps not. You will have to ask the cat, when you see him.