Monday, July 30, 2012

building a cabin

Once upon a time, I owned some land up in the hills. It was an L-shaped bit of property -- 30 acres, give or take a little. The short side of the 'L' sat next to a dirt road and had a large, weathered barn for adornment. Once, the short side of the 'L' had been a hay field, but by the time I acquired it, it was overgrown and untended. There were milkweed plants and brambles and a small patch of wild and delicious strawberries.

The long side of the 'L' also touched the dirt road, but reached back into the woods 1,000 feet or more. Deep in those woods was a clutch of really, really big maples that somehow had eluded the saws of man or the dissolutions of nature. To stand among those maples was to marvel and feel strangely blessed. It was like being in a cathedral. How much they must have seen and known. How had they managed to escape the 'improvements' that are part and parcel of an insistent Man? I didn't know and didn't care ... their sturdy silence was enough for me.

I had bought the land in a youthful burst of enthusiasm linked to the 'simplicities' I found lurking in the spiritual books I was reading at the time. A quiet place seemed to rise up off the pages together with whatever other inspirations there might have been. I hadn't read Thoreau and so the terminology wasn't precisely American-bred, but Hinduism and Buddhism and whatever all else I was reading seemed to posit the same stuff ... simplicity, quietude, reflection, a retreat from the material acquisitions that seemed to stack up in both the society I inhabited and in the life I led -- stuff, piling up like horse shit on a rising manure pile.

I wanted to build a cabin, but when the notion took root, I was faced with an inescapable fact: I didn't have clue-one as to how anyone built a cabin. Since I only had days off from my newspaper reporting job on which to make the effort, I knew this cabin would be a patient and long-ish project. But still, long or short, I was dumber than a box of rocks when it came to the particulars: The land rested beneath my feet; the timber existed in the woods ... but I didn't have a clue about how to actualize my intention.

So I started to read up on building cabins. Article after article started to fill in the blanks in my mind.

The spot I chose for my imaginary cabin was on top of a low hill whose underpinnings were solid rock. In order to reach the spot, I needed a road and so I began using my off days to chop trees, clear brush and approach the summit. It was a job a bulldozer might have done in a day or two, but I didn't have the income to hire one and besides, a bulldozer ran afoul or my 'simplicity' dreams. So I chopped and sweat and swore ... and then read articles about how to build a cabin.

The cabin articles filled my mind, but they also were miles ahead of my expertise. I wanted someone or something to hold my hand in the simplest and dumbest possible way, but the articles all seemed to assume I knew things about foundations and roofs and windows that I simply didn't quite get. I began to feel overwhelmed ... too much information telling me too little and leaving me gasping for a practical, very simple approach.

And then I found it -- an article from the Washington Post about building cabins. "The first thing to know about building a cabin," the article advised, "is that you are not building a cabin. You are digging a hole. Anyone can dig a hole." This was the kind of hand-holding I needed. It spoke to my expectant mind all awash with Thoreau-like dreams (ah, peace, serenity and a refuge from an acquisitive society ... my own included). Digging a hole was what I needed to hear. Clear, simple, direct ... never mind all the smarmy and confused dreams ... start sweating!

The cabin never did get built, but I spent hours and hours in the woods, chasing the notion that it might and that my spiritual adventure, whatever it turned out to be, would turn out better, more wholesome and more in line with the heights I imagined spiritual endeavor might attain.

The cabin never got built in part because I quit my job at the newspaper, moved back to New York, joined a Zen center and started digging a hole there. I was clumsy, I was klutzy, I read a lot of dream-inspiring books, but the very simple, hole-digging pastime called zazen, or seated meditation, was my kind of simplicity ... extremely complicated on the one hand, but utterly simple on the other: Get your ass on the cushion, focus the mind, sweat, and keep on digging.

"The first thing to know about enlightenment is that it has nothing to do with enlightenment. It has to do (in one sense) with sitting on a cushion. Anyone can sit on a cushion." Dig. Sweat. Swear.

Like some half-baked, spiritual-book-shelf guru, I could say that the doing is the completion, but I hate shit like that. Everyone needs their dreams, however befuddled or delightful they may be. Dream Thoreau, dream enlightenment, dream whatever dream appeals and beckons. Knock yourself out. And simultaneously, if the shovel presents itself, pick it up and get to work.

The cabin never did get built, either in the woods or in Zen practice.

But just because it didn't get built doesn't mean it's not there, cozy as a down comforter on a winter night.

I got my cabin. It's there as surely as the sun rises in the East. I just don't have to look for it.

I got my cabin.

I just haven't found it yet.

Nor do I expect to.

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