Saturday, July 30, 2011

the longest awkward age

An email query yesterday led me down into the cellar, through the Indiana-Jones-movie cobwebs, and over to where the old mold-gathering boxes sat. Notebook after notebook stood testimony to an earlier time, a time when I 'kept a journal.'

I was looking for 1975-1976 and it took some doing. Neatniks might have stored their history in a chronological perfection, but these boxes were full of higglety-pigglety disarray. They smelled of the disuse they had been subjected to. Finally, I grabbed three spiral notebooks that seemed to fit the time frame I was after. I did not look forward to rereading ancient history -- dead runes, stale crackers, old observations whose impact on the present was suspect at best and ludicrous at worst.

But I was pleasantly surprised, somehow. Because the information I was looking for would probably have been spliced into the page-after-page of sometimes-neat, sometimes-scruffy handwriting, I was forced to give everything a close skim.

The question in question was: When had my Zen teacher's teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, gone into seclusion and where, precisely, had he done it. The seclusion was widely interpreted as a reproof and rebuff to one of Soen's students, Eido Shimano (roshi), whose destructive behavior with women students had shattered much of the tranquility that can be useful in the group-practice of Zen. Soen tried to help, tried (though how hard is open to question) to get Shimano's attention and excite a willingness to repent and revise. All these years later, it is clear he did not succeed ... but the question was not whether he succeeded, but when did he go into seclusion and where.

I opened the first notebook and found myself in the midst of Rohatsu sesshin, probably the single most intensive formal seven-day retreat on the Rinzai Zen Buddhist calendar. The 35-year-old writer was working eight hours a day painting an apartment in New York and doing zazen (seated) meditation at the beginning and end of each work day ... for a total of another eight or so hours. He was not surprised by what he was doing or the lengths to which he was willing to go in order to do it. He was only three or four years into practice and as such, full of as much zeal as clumsiness ... still relying on his writing as a means of asserting that this business was within his control.

Reading his words so many years later, I was not, as I thought I might be, embarrassed or disgusted by his efforts. I was somehow touched. It was all so common, so ordinary, so human. Trying, trying, trying; failing, failing, failing: He wasn't much different from other spiritual-life aspirants -- by turns arrogant and foolish, knowing and utterly without the foundation to know ... with a 35-year hindsight, I liked this man quite a lot. He was doing something I admired.

And as I skimmed the pages, I came to a carbon copy of a letter I had sent to Soen Roshi about what some referred to then as "The Fuck Follies" -- Eido Shimano's coercive and egotistical behavior, his subtle and self-serving abusive treatment of women students and his consequent disruption of the sangha or Zen community ... a disruption that, for good reason, is considered a serious no-no in Buddhist practice.

And as part of that letter, the writer had included a quote from Thornton Wilder, a wonderful American writer whose early works were often neglected in favor of his later, more famous confections.

The quote said:

Of all the forms of genius, goodness has the longest awkward age.
The quote reached out of the past and hit some present nail squarely on the head. "Awkward age" is perhaps the best description I ever heard of spiritual endeavor as a whole. Anyone who has been a kid knows what it is to be awkward. Anyone who has been a teenager knows what it is to be awkward. Anyone who has been an adult knows what it is to be awkward. "Awkward" describes behavior that is not yet sure of its footing, that longs for understanding (and may as a result assert 'understanding' quite forcefully) but really is just play-acting in an effort to be at home with what seems to be at a distance.

"Awkward" is a gentle word in my book. It is descriptive, not critical. "Awkward" is a state that anyone might wish to surpass. Awkward is not anything to thumb your nose at. It's just awkward for the moment. And what is the entire panorama of spiritual endeavor if not an expression of awkwardness? As delightful and delicious and enticing and fulfilling as it may be, still the question must eventually be asked, "Who makes this shit up?"

"Awkward" strengthens the muscles that long not to be awkward. It goes on for years and years and years and years. And awkwardness is a good thing -- a true inspiration ... even if those who are inspired can sometimes be a royal pain in the ass, even to themselves.

On the page, there I was, a 35-year-old toddler, someone who used the imagined competence of words as a support, tipping and swaying and trying and failing and ... who does not feel sympathy for a toddler? Who does not wish him or her well in some heartfelt way? Who will not silently cheer, "Come on! You can do it!" Go ahead and make your mistakes ... fall flat on your ass ... but keep on going. Never stop.

Spiritual endeavor -- who makes this shit up? Goodness -- who makes this shit up? No one can stop being awkward just by hearing some words. No one can stop being awkward until they plumb the depths of awkwardness. And no one can be good without embracing whatever it is that is somehow considered to be not-good.

On the old and moldy pages, I was touched by the awkwardness I read. I was touched not because I had somehow left it in some imagined past, but because I am touched by awkward things, courageous things, patient things, dubious things.

It is worth it to be awkward about goodness ... shy and arrogant and uncertain and full of an effort that fails a million times. Since there is no escaping the awkwardness of our lives, it is best to enter with a firm and gentle spirit, I'd say.

What a klutz!

How perfectly delightful!

1 comment:

  1. I am no longer who I was, nor likely am I who I may become. But who else could I have been? could I be? I can't imagine doing anything differently, even knowing what I know now. I can't imagine wanting to be anyone else. It wasn't always delightful, but it was survivable.