Thursday, August 8, 2013

what belongs to you

Come September or shortly before, there would always be a trip to the clothing store, a time to buy what was necessary against the coming school year. And invariably there would be at least one pair of blue jeans.

Blue jeans were not fashion statements at the time. Blue jeans were what hard-working men and hard-playing kids needed. There was only one kind -- Levi's.

When Levi's came off the shelf in those almost-autumn days, they were as hard and smooth as an ironing board -- folded and plastered-down and as neat as a pin. Their smoothness was due, in part, to the tough thickness of the material. Levi's were double-stitched along the seams and the zippers or fly buttons were made of metal. Levi's were serious clothing -- built to last -- and they were stiff as a board. Only with repeated use and repeated washing were they "broken in." And at that point they became as soft and malleable and reassuring as flesh on a forearm. A broken-in pair of Levi's were nothing special and yet, in their own quiet way, were as comforting as a hot cup of cocoa. They fit and were fit and no one talked about it.... a kind of ahhhh without the ahhhhhh.

Maybe it's not the same for others, but this is a half-baked description of how it was for me ....

Last night, pretty much out of no where, it occurred to me that I had spent somewhat more than half of my life -- maybe 40 years -- pursuing spiritual interests. I guess that pursuit could be called serious, but I have no convincing yardstick against which to measure that assertion. It is what I did and, given an actuarial life span, it's a fair amount of time.

When the interest first struck me, spiritual notions were as smooth and stiff as a pair of Levi's. Spiritual life was what other people did, what they had achieved, and what I likewise wanted to attain. The fact that spiritual life belonged to someone else was clear from the number of informative books that mushroomed on my shelves. It was clear from the lectures I went to, listening intently to what someone else knew or seemed to know. It was clear from my vocabulary -- "enlightenment," "compassion," "emptiness," "zazen" etc. It was clear from my mimicking of ritual or of demeanors that others displayed and I wished I could. Even the retreats I attended belonged to someone else -- someone who knew better and, by extension, was better. As Levi's on the store shelf still belonged, in some sense, to the manufacturer, so spiritual hopes and goals were not my property yet. They belonged to someone else. I might swoon and yearn and talk a lot, but there was a brittleness ... not something bad or less-worthy, but just something that was par for the course for new jeans or new spiritual awareness.

Forty-plus years of trying .... and I blush to think of how trying I must have been to my friends and acquaintances as the years passed, as the seriousness and solemnity shaped and reshaped themselves, as the tears and anger and love rose up and fell away ... and as I tried to transmit (and perhaps get others to agree with) my experiences and be welcomed into whatever un-lonely social setting I chose. If there happens to be a hell, I have a feeling it would consist of having to live in the environs of an earlier, more trying, version of myself, the one who had chosen a specific spiritual arena -- Zen -- and then followed the Yellow Brick Road. Yes, like a lot of others who probably did it better, I tried. But trying is no excuse for being trying... or anyhow that's how I see it now.

When I started out, I imagined that spiritual wisdom and capacity belonged to someone else. That notion strikes me as mildly ludicrous these days. This is not to say I think I've got it "right" or that I have achieved some transcendent bingo or have any standing at all relative to the discipline I chose. It just means that, despite an on-going interest in spiritual life, now it simply belongs to me. It belongs to me not like some certificate on the wall, but rather as my right hand belongs to me ... it can be wondrous and it can be boring, but there it is. And in the background is a friendly voice murmuring gently and with a slight smile, "Of course it belongs to you. What the fuck did you expect?"

Well, the answer to that is that there was a time when I expected something more -- that there would be a more authoritative voice or source or capacity. That there would be a teacher or teaching that would light the way ... a brighter and more salutary way. And of course there are always teachers and teachings that point out one thing or another. Some of them can be terribly trying, but some have good suggestions. And where the suggestions are good, I am willing to extend my right hand, to give it a whirl ... but the premise is no longer that someone else has built a better mouse trap.

I guess what brought all this to mind was the occasional irritation I can feel when reading Zen Buddhist disquisitions. They go on and on and on and on and some churlish voice wonders, "What are you on about?!" And of course the basis of the irritation is not with the person who feels compelled to explain or help or find meaning or flog the "Zen" horse. The irritation is with myself for imagining I would want to read it simply because I have an on-going interest in spiritual matters.

This is not to suggest I think I am right and someone else is wrong. It is to suggest that -- right, wrong, or indifferent -- these Levis fit me fine. I like them as I like hard-boiled eggs and dislike anchovies... as I like my right hand. It is to suggest that I am willing to be wrong, assuming right and wrong have any real usefulness.

So much trying.

So trying.

My flagging energies do not allow any longer for so much trying. What did it ever get me? Soft jeans, I suppose, but still....

I do hope that others will not be tricked into trying, but I have a hunch that that is too much to hope.

Most people are right-handed, but some are left-handed. No difference. It's pretty kool either way.

Now ... how about them Red Sox or the migration of butterflies or a trip to the store to buy back-to-school clothing?


  1. You should stroll along Paradise Road, lovely at this time of year. Try not to think about anything.

  2. Levi's are no longer the durable investment they once were, but then neither am i. As to spiritual pursuits, i'm reading more history and physics and finding more confirmations than on most buddhist boards. Sitting becomes a habit i suppose, and a comfort perhaps, but after that, it's my understanding of and relationship with the world that seem important.