Homage to Thich Nhat Hahn

Something has happened to me I can’t say what. It seems I’ve stepped from one concentric mandala to a smaller one, a turn toward peace. It’s as though all the laughing I’ve done has blown backwards and now that wind has pushed me to contentment. I can write it. I can dance a little. I believe in peace but now I “am” just so, a difference.

Like anyone I’ve had a hard life—I was bullied in childhood because of my disability. I’ve been oppressed in the work place and all the while, like some refracted ring of sun around a tiny lens inside the spyglass, I knew it wasn’t real, knew I wasn’t in those rooms. I wasn’t there when the famous University of Iowa professor of modernist poetry told me I couldn’t be in his class because of my blindness. Wasn’t there when the college president told me behind closed doors I’d have to learn how to drive a golf cart and hand out towels to summer lacrosse players if I wanted to keep my adjunct teaching job—who told me my blindness simply meant I wasn’t competitive enough.

Wasn’t there and wasn’t there.

All of us take steep paths to find contentment. My setbacks never felt real as I climbed. Oh the arrows hurt and the tears were hot, I won’t contest it. There was the eighth grade teacher who laughed about my blindness in front of the entire class. Who caused me to stumble from the room to peals of adolescent laughter. But as a friend of mine in Finland likes to say, “I’m the bird inside the bird” and somehow I always knew it.

I couldn’t think my way to peace. Of course I tried. Reading played a major role. I read the ascetics and martyrs, the ecstatics and the happiest rebels. The list is long.

But reading was to inner peace as the sound of someone else’s gramophone.

I took long swims; sat beside lakes; spent months alone. And these things were good.

One day in middle age, walking with my white cane sweeping the sidewalk it occurred to me the stick was leaving tiny dots in snow. That was a Zen moment for me and I wrote this tiny poem:

Zen Braille

Basho is that you?

I’m friendless

As the poplar

Still working my way down the street,

Curious, hands moving swiftly

On the book of wind.

When I traveled to China and saw men writing poems with water on the sidewalks I knew we were of the same tribe.

**

The world of course, simply is, but my journey across it changed forever in March, 1994 when I put aside my fear and trained with my first guide dog.

Here’s a journal entry I wrote moments before I met my dog:

Journal, March 3, 1994:

Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.” (Meister Eckhart) I am willing. I am an amenable greenhorn!  

“Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me.” (Walt Whitman) Afoot and lighthearted! Walt! Amen! 

“You know, it’s quite a job starting to love somebody. You have to have energy, generosity, blindness. There is even a moment, in the very beginning, when you have to jump across a precipice: if you think about it you don’t do it.” (Jean Paul Sartre)

**

Peace takes risk. There’s an old Zen adage: “if you want to get across, get across…”

You’ve got to start somewhere. Take a first step. Take it despite your hurt and anger.

When they gave me a yellow Labrador named “Corky” I started.

They told me to walk with her.

And there I was hurrying past storefronts. Corky pulled and I concentrated on breathing, trying to be loose. My arm was straight, my shoulders squared, my posture  upright. In the guide dog lecture it had sounded easy but now I was moving faster than I’d ever gone before. I was scared and joyous as we went. A trainer was behind us, monitoring. We were “stepping out” as they say in guide dog work. Corky was going so quickly I didn’t have time to worry about oncoming shadows—people, street signs—whatever they were, they just dropped behind us.

I’d always been a timid walker. A tippy-toe walker. Now I was putting everything my feet and for the first time I felt alive in relation to my footfalls. It a circumstance for which I’d no prior lingo: a dog driven invitation to forwardness. Pounding up the sidewalk we were forwardness itself.

Then Corky stopped. Firmly. She’d arrived at our first curb. “God,” I thought, “she’s doing what the trainers said she’d do.” Then she backed up. The harness, the well known guide dog accouterment is perfectly rigid. Its handle is a steel fork with a skin of leather. As your dog moves you move.

“Earth will be safe when we feel in us enough safety,” I thought. The words were Thich Nhat Hanh’s, the great Viet Names Buddhist teacher. I felt safe at the curb.

“Nice stop,” said Barbara a trainer stationed just a few feet away. “That’s our Corky girl!”

“And she’ll always do that?” I said—it was half a question, half exclamation.

“Yep,” said Barbara. “She’ll always do that.”

“Earth will be safe,” I said to Corky.

**

Peace is always inside and outside at once. Reading and sitting are good, but you also have to walk it.

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