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5. Marion Howard at his desk, Longfellow School

“All composite things,” declares the Diamond Sutra, “are as a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a dewdrop, a flash of lightning.” I am often reminded of those verses when I summon memories from my childhood. From my present vantage point, the images, names, and places that constitute those memories sometimes resemble fragments from a dream or dispatches from a foreign land.

Such is my memory of Longfellow Elementary School in Clinton, Iowa (pop. 27,000), my scenic hometown on the banks of the Mississippi River. I attended Longfellow School from the ages of seven to eleven. Situated on Iowa Avenue, a quiet residential street, and facing the First Church of God, this two-storey brown-brick building bespoke a reliable solidity and an austere sobriety. Erected in 1927, the building housed some thirty classrooms. Together with its spacious playground and baseball diamond, it occupied a city block. To the vulnerable schoolchildren who approached this imposing edifice, it presented a formidable if not forbidding aspect.

Not so for me, however. To this day I remember the school fondly and intimately, not only because it was there that I learned to read, write, and do arithmetic—and to hold my own with the playground bullies—but also because my father, Marion C. Howard (1905-1971), was the school’s principal. Far from being an alien, oppressive institution, Longfellow School felt like a second home.

Marion Curtis Howard grew up on a farm in Ankeny, Iowa, the eldest of six children born to Rose and Benjamin Franklin Howard, after whom I was named. They were progressive farmers in their day, and their farm was one of the earliest in the state to enjoy the benefits of rural electrification. Marion, however, was not cut out to be a farmer. Instead, he put himself through college by doing odd jobs and went on to earn a master’s degree in education. After stints as a teacher and superintendent of schools, he took the job at Longfellow School in 1949 and remained there until his retirement in 1970.

My father occupied a modest but well-lit office near the entrance to the school. On the glass door of his office, he had posted a framed copy of the Ten Commandments, its ornate gold letters set against a pitch-black background. I suspect that those stern admonitions sent shivers down the spine of many a miscreant ordered to report there. But to me, my father’s office was a warm, welcoming space, to which I often accompanied him. Sitting by his desk, I pestered him with questions about his work. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out what, exactly, he did.

Next to my father’s office was the dimly lit supply room, which I would often explore when my father was busy. Its long shelves were stocked with such paraphernalia as ruled tablets, boxes of Crayolas, # 2 pencils, construction paper, Elmer’s Glue, and little rubber-tipped bottles of Mucilage. I loved the feel and the smells of those supplies. And in the late summer, every year, I helped my father allocate and distribute them to the classrooms. Not only did this task bestow a sense of privilege and importance. It also afforded an opportunity to explore the empty classrooms, particularly the one assigned to Miss Faust, the pretty first-grade teacher on whom I’d had a schoolboy crush.

Back in the foyer outside my father’s office, two objects held my sustained attention. One was a black button at the center of a circular bronze fixture. By pressing that button, preferably when my father was too preoccupied to notice, I could ring the loud outdoor bell that summoned the children back from recess. How powerful I felt, sounding that distant bell.

The other object of interest was the framed sheet music of a song. Accorded a place of honor in the foyer, the song was entitled “Over at Longfellow School” and was composed by Frank Swanson, the school’s “singing janitor,” a portly, grandfatherly figure whose red suspenders matched the sweeping compound he used on the floors. “Here’s a ditty I’ll sing,” the opening bars began, “Just before the bell rings / Over at Longfellow School.” The ditty went on to describe the children arriving with their “pitter and patter,” their “chitter and chatter / bidding the time of the day.”

Soon after came the swelling chorus:

Over at Longfellow School

            Over at Longfellow School

            That’s where I work from morn till night

            That’s where the kids fill my heart with delight

And last, the quiet concluding stanza:

When my day’s work is over

            My life is in clover,

            Thinking of Longfellow School

In the ensuing decades, living far away from Iowa and the scenes of my childhood, I too thought of Longfellow School. And when, in the mid-1990s, I brought my then-fiancée Robin out to Iowa to meet my sister and her family, I took Robin on a tour of the neighborhood where I’d grown up. After I’d shown her the little white frame house on Barker Street where our family had lived, we drove up Iowa Avenue toward Longfellow School. I was especially eager to see and touch an item I’d viewed only in a photograph: a bronze plaque in the front hallway honoring my father’s twenty-one years of service.

Coming down a hill that I’d remembered as steeper, we arrived at our destination. There, looking as stolid as ever, was the First Church of God. But across the street, where Longfellow School had stood, there was now a green, well-tended sward. Every trace of the school, including the plaque, the bell button, and the song, had disappeared. Inquiring as to what had happened, I learned that the building had been demolished in 1999, asbestos having been discovered in its walls.

Longfellow School was indeed a composite thing, a bubble in a stream. But how fortunate I am to have that bubble among my stream of memories—and to have, in living memory, the examples of two men of humble origins, one of them my father, who loved their work and their place of work and were grateful for their lives.

________

Photo: Marion Howard at his desk in Longfellow School

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In her book Ordinary Wonder, the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011) recounts the experience of one of her students, a heart surgeon on the verge of burnout. A nervous wreck at work, he came home exhausted in the evenings. To relieve his stress, he adopted a simple but effective practice. Whenever he was walking down the halls of the hospital, he focused on his feet. Rather than think about the operation just performed or the one in prospect, he shifted his attention to the feeling of his soles pressing against the floor. To his amazement, he found himself less anxious at work and less tired at the end of the day.

 As food for thought, the sensation of one’s feet doing their customary work may seem like meager fare indeed. How much better to be musing about enlightenment—or dreaming of the clear blue waters of the Caribbean. But underlying the surgeon’s humble intervention was an essential principle of Zen practice. Ubiquitous in Zen teachings, that principle has three distinct but interrelated aspects.

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248. The weight of the future

100 steps

If you have a hundred steps to climb, an ancient Chan (Zen) saying advises, “Watch what’s under your feet.” Focus on the step you are taking. If you think too much about the remaining steps, you are likely to be discouraged. You may decide not to climb the steps at all.

Commenting on this saying and the principle behind it, the contemporary Chan teacher Guo Gu observes that when we dwell on the future, “everything slows down and the process [of climbing the hundred steps] takes a long time. Every step becomes a burden because the weight of the future is in the present.” It is as if we are carrying a backpack full of rocks or wearing a belt laden with unnecessary equipment. (more…)

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247. Speech after silence

sanders

Speech after long silence; it is right.

–W.B. Yeats

Scott Russell Sanders (b. 1945) is a distinguished American essayist and the author of more than twenty books, most recently The Way of Imagination (Counterpoint, 2020). A writer with no declared religious affiliation but deeply spiritual inclinations, he has brought a searching, moral perspective to subjects as diverse as art, marriage, parenthood, community, the natural world, and, of late, environmental peril. And in two of his most personal and affecting essays, he has engaged the dual, contrapuntal themes of silence and speech, stillness and activity, solitude and social interaction. Though written long before the pandemic, these penetrating essays could hardly be more relevant to our present time.

            In “Silence” Sanders recounts his visit to a Quaker service. The setting is the meeting house of the North Meadow Circle of Friends in Indianapolis, a “frowsy, good-natured space,” where he “sank into stillness” and explored the “absence of human noise,” “below the babble of thought.” In prose as unadorned as its subject, he describes an interior silence so deep that he could hear the blood beating in his ears. Contrasting the austerities of Quaker worship with the “scripted performances” of other, larger churches in the area, he confesses his motives for coming to this one: to escape from the “human racket” and “the obsessive human story” and to meet “the nameless mystery at the core of being.” During the hour and a half he spends in quietude, he indeed descends into the depths of silence. He “touches bottom,” or seems to. Yet he also wonders whether what he has reached is the ground of being or “only the floor of [his] private psyche.”

            Whichever it might have been, Sanders’ dive into the depths of self and silence is abruptly curtailed when an elder rises to speak. Soon afterward, this same man extends his hand to the person next to him, a signal that the service has ended. There follows a period of socializing, in which the twelve people present, Sanders included, share personal anecdotes and reflect on their recent experience. Laughter ensues, and the air is “filled with talk.” At this point, the tenor of Sanders’ essay also abruptly shifts, becoming lighter, warmer, and more relational. What began as a solemn meditation on the experience of silence becomes something more complex: a dynamic study of silence and speech, introspection and social interaction.

            Something analogous occurs in “Stillness,” a later essay, although the setting is distinctly different. In this essay Sanders recalls a period of solitude spent in his newly built studio, a twelve-by-fifteen-foot cedar hut situated between a meadow and a woods. In this instance his motive was not so much to escape external human noise but to “cast off worry and grief,” collect himself, and dwell in the present. Watching dust particles floating in the sunlight, he likens their “Brownian motion” to the “mad rush” of his daily life, the unceasing professional activity driven, he concludes, by guilt, fear, and a desire to “stave off death.” Calming himself through conscious breathing, he reflects on the “wild energy” common to nature and himself. “My breath and the clouds,” he acknowledges, “ride the same wind.”

            As in “Silence,” this encounter with contemplative solitude comes to an abrupt end, as Sanders steps outside his hermitage to watch the flight of a pair of red-tailed hawks. Back in the world, as it were, and awaiting the arrival of his wife, he recognizes his urgent need for relationship. “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, and I’m eager for company. . . . I long to hold my children and catch up on their lives. I want to share food with friends. I want to sit with my students and talk over the ancient questions. I want to walk among crowds at the farmers’ market and run my hands over the melons and apples and squash.”

            Sanders’ realization of these natural human desires, occasioned and amplified by his experience of solitude, may strike a chord with those of us who have endured more than a year of curtailments, restrictions, and social isolation in the service of the common good. We, too, have longed to share food with friends, hold our distant loved ones, and walk, unmasked, in the farmers’ market. Concluding his essay, Sanders speaks of carrying “back into [his] ordinary days a sense of the stillness that gathers into the shape of a life, scatters into fragments, and then gathers again.”  Perhaps we, too, who have suffered the absence of normal human relationships and activities, can carry back into our ordinary days whatever insights, wisdom, and renewed appreciation we may have acquired during our many months apart. Speech after long silence; it is right.

_____

Scott Russell Sanders, “Silence,” The Force of Spirit (Beacon, 2000), 151-164.

Scott Russell Sanders, “Stillness,” A Conversationist Manifesto (Indiana, 2009), 195-20.

Photo: Scott Russell Sanders

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In a drawing our seven-year-old granddaughter made during the lockdown, Rapunzel is escaping from the wicked witch’s tower. “We rescue ourselves without long hair,” she explains, as she and a companion descend from a rope suspended from a window. Meanwhile a knight-in-arms, who has arrived on cue to liberate the damsel in distress, looks on, bewildered.

Our granddaughter’s drawing admits of multiple interpretations. To a contemporary feminist, it might exemplify a salutary revision of a patriarchal tale. To a child psychologist, it might represent a healthy, if anxious, response to prolonged confinement. But to a Marine Corps veteran—or anyone who remembers Clint Eastwood’s movie Heartbreak Ridge—the imprisoned maiden’s resourceful escape might bring to mind a familiar mantra.

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome may or may not have originated with the US Marines, but it has long been associated with that branch of the armed services. According to one theory, the motto reflects the fact that the Marines, for all their valor on land and sea and in the air, have often found themselves on the tail end of the supply chain. They have learned to make do. Their verbal triumvirate, itself a model of minimalism and concision, offers one effective way of dealing with adversity, uncertainty, and deprivation. And, as a three-pronged tool for coping with life’s vicissitudes, it has much in common with three cardinal principles of Zen teachings.

Improvise

Of the truths that the Zen tradition holds to be self-evident, none is more central than the impermanence of all conditioned things. Challenged to encapsulate Zen teachings in seven words, the American poet Jane Hirshfield proposed, “Everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.”

If we are indeed paying attention to our experience, we have little choice but to assent to Hirshfield’s first assertion. Not only does everything, in the long or short run, change, be it external phenomena or our private feelings, notions, and states of mind. More fundamentally, those moment-by-moment changes are governed by what Zen calls the law of impermanence. Paradoxically, that natural law differs from human laws in not being subject to revision or revocation.

Given the universality of impermanence, improvisation becomes more than a last resort, to be employed only when there is no practical alternative. It might better be seen as the only realistic response to ever-changing conditions, external and internal. Whether the situation at hand be the absence of an essential ingredient when following a favorite recipe or the arrival of an unexpected visitor just as one is sitting down to dinner, improvisation is often the most practical, appropriate, and humane course of action.

Adapt

The second imperative in Hirshfield’s formulation—“everything is connected”—articulates a second fundamental tenet of Zen teachings, namely the doctrine of interdependence or “dependent origination.” Simply put, this doctrine states that everything depends upon everything else. The things of this world may appear solid, singular, and autonomous, but in reality they are transitory, insubstantial, and interconnected in the vast web of life. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains in his book The Heart of Understanding, a piece of paper depends for its very existence on trees, water, soil, the forester, and so on. Without them, the paper could not exist.

For that reason, it is seldom wise to reflexively apply a rigid formula to a specific situation. Causes and conditions must be considered, and our practiced responses must be adapted to the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. Analogous to its counterpart in the natural world, the practice of adaptation in human affairs requires us to remain continuously aware of present conditions and to align our best efforts with those conditions, lest our well-intentioned actions prove erroneous or harmful.

Overcome

In its original context, this term applies most directly to external obstacles: whatever stands in the way of a successful mission. Applied to Zen practice, however, the metaphor of conquest may seem a poor fit, the primary aims of the practice being not military victory but clarity, equanimity, and compassionate wisdom.

Yet, in everyday life, Zen practice often involves “going against the grain,” whether that grain be conventional thought or, more immediately, the force of habit. Zen teachings speak often of “habit energy,” viewing that energy in a largely negative light. Ingrained and often impervious to change, our long-standing habits present formidable obstacles to improvisation and adaptation, and more so as we grow older. “I adore tradition,” the pianist and teacher Nadia Boulanger once remarked, “but I cannot stand habit.” Her aversion was not unfounded.

Over time, however, even the force of habit can be overcome, chiefly through the office of mindful awareness. Through diligent practice, Zen teachings assure us, the “energy of mindfulness” can encompass and transform our most corrosive habits of heart and mind. Conjoined with the practices of improvisation and adaptation, it can enable us to live more flexibly and wisely—and rescue us from our self-constructed towers.   

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shunryu-suzuki PS

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

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For people suffering from hypertension, panic attacks, insomnia, and other anxiety-related afflictions, many doctors now prescribe meditation. As a longtime practitioner, who has experienced the benefits of meditation over and again, I heartily endorse that prescription. But “meditation” is a large category. And even if you narrow it to Buddhist meditation, what you are speaking of is a loose aggregate of teachings, forms, and practices, some of them more useful than others.

Here in the midst of a pandemic, when most of us are experiencing fear, anxiety, and uncertainty on a daily basis, any meditative practice that purports to be helpful needs to address that emotional landscape. At the same time, that same practice will be most beneficial if it also enables the practitioner to remain engaged and realistic. Absent that realism and engagement, meditation can become yet another form of escape, and its overall benefit will be limited at best.

Of the many Buddhist practices available and accessible to newcomers, I would recommend two in particular. The first is drawn from the Theravadan school of Buddhism, as practiced in Southeast Asia. The second is rooted in the Chan and Zen schools of medieval China and Japan. Worthwhile as these practices are in separation, they are even more so when skillfully combined. At once contrasting and complementary, they address the need for stability and concentration, on the one hand, and on the other, the need to remain open and fully aware of a rapidly changing social reality. (more…)

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John Daido Loori

In his poem “New Hampshire” (1923), Robert Frost broods on the meaning of a place name. Listing the names of small towns in that state, he pauses at the name Still Corners, remarking that the town is “so called not because / The place is silent all day long, nor yet / Because it boasts a whisky still—because / It set out once to be a city and still / Is only corners, cross-roads in a wood.” Whether Frost is pulling the reader’s leg, as he was known to do, or is making a serious point about stunted growth, his riff calls attention to the suggestive ambiguity in the name he’s elected to contemplate.

A kindred ambiguity surrounds the phrase “the still point,” which Frost’s contemporary T.S. Eliot brought into prominence in his poem “Burnt Norton” (1936). In that expansive meditation on “time present and time past,” Eliot alludes to “the still point of the turning world,” a coinage that has since found its way into the mainstream of English discourse. At least three American wellness centers are known as The Still Point, and the British writer Amy Sackville chose the phrase as the title of her debut novel, identifying the “still point” with the North Pole. More pertinently for Zen practitioners, John Daido Loori (1931-2009), founder and abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery, invoked the phrase for his book Finding the Still Point, a basic manual on Zen meditation. For Loori, finding that point was an essential component of Zen practice, if not its central aim. (more…)

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Shundo Aoyama Roshi

If there is one commonly held value in our divided culture, it is the idea—and the ideal—of perfection. We would like to eat the perfectly cooked burger (or steak, or ratatouille). We would like to go on the perfect vacation. We desire perfect health, a perfect relationship, a perfect retirement, and even a perfect death, whatever that might be. That the goal of perfection, whether in work or love, is elusive and for many unattainable only heightens the intensity of the struggle.

To this familiar but often destructive system of values, Zen teachings offer a salutary alternative. In her book Zen Seeds, the Soto Zen priest Shundo Aoyama Roshi (b. 1933) describes the characters on a hand-painted scroll hanging in a tea house. Some of the characters are misaligned, and one is missing. As Aoyama explains, when “ordinary people” practice calligraphy, they “go to great pains to achieve perfect alignment and would consider missing characters inexcusable.” But from the vantage point of classical Zen teachings, perfection is not necessarily a virtue. “When the line wavers,” wrote Zen master Murata Juko (1422-1502), founder of the tea ceremony, “and characters are omitted . . . the effect is superior.” And, in the words of Yoshida Kenko (1284-1310), “When everything is carefully regulated, it’s boring.” By contrast, imperfection can be a source of interest, truth, and beauty, whether the context be visual art, the natural world, or the conduct of everyday life. (more…)

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