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Lions Roar : January 2003
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2003 35 who did it for no reason but to come in from the suburbs for some kicks, and the sad agony of the boy’s parents who owned a pizza parlor nearby. St. Paul is a small city with a big heart. If I was still enough, I could feel it all—the empty lots, the great river driving itself under bridges, the Schmidt brewery emit- ting a smell that I thought meant the town was toasting a lot of bread, but found out later was the focal point of an irate neighborhood protest. In early fall when the weath- er was warm I sat on the wood-and-wrought-iron bench that was set out in front of the café under a black locust. I even sat out there in slow drizzles and fog when the streets were slick and deserted. After fifteen years in New Mexico, the gray and mist were a great balm. Sometimes if I was across the river in Minneapolis I sat at Dunn Brothers Café on Hennepin, and then, too, at the one in Linden Hills. Hadn’t this always been my writ- ing life? To fill spiral notebooks, write whole manuscripts in local luncheonettes and restaurants? But now here was my Zen life, too, happening in a café at the same square tables, only without a notebook. Hadn’t I already declared that Zen and writing were one? In and out I’d breathe. My belly would fill, my belly would contract. I lifted the hot paper cup to my lips, my eyes now not down on the page but rather unfocused on the top of the chair pushed under the table across from me. My world of meditation was getting large for me. By leaving the old structure, I was loosening my tight grip on my old Zen teacher. I was finally letting go of him. I was bringing my zazen out into the street. But who wants to let go of something you love? I did all this, but I did not recog- nize what was happening to me. THERE IS A RECORDED INTERVIEW of me on a panel with an old dharma friend on December 21, 2001. It was a Saturday evening, the second winter of my return to Minneapolis, and the weather had tipped to thirty below. I ’d just been driven across town by a kind young Zen student. No, not driven—the car slipped across black ice. I was so stunned by the time I was in front of the audience, most of my responses to the moderator’s questions were, “You can find the answer to that in one of my books.” I only knew no matter how deluded you may be, the land told you you would not last forever. As a matter of fact, driving home that night might be the end of you. By the last days of February, even the most fastidious homeowners—and believe me, St. Paul is full of them— had given up shoveling their walks. In early March I looked out my apartment window to the corner of Dale and Lincoln near posh Crocus Hill and watched the man across the street blaze out of his large many-floored, old pale blue clapboard house, jacket flying open, with a long ax in his hand. While bellowing out months of confine- ment in piercing yelps, he hacked away at the ice built up by the curb. Behind him stood a massive crabapple, its branches frozen and curled in a death cry. I had scheduled, for mid-April, a day-long public walk- ing and writing retreat. I doubted now that it would take place. Where would we walk? In circles around the hallway of the zendo? My plan had been to meet at the zendo, write for two rounds, then venture out on a slow mindful stroll, feeling the clear placement of heel, the roll of toes, the lift- ing of foot, the bend of knee, the lowering of hip, as we made our way through the dank, dark streets of industrial St. Paul, across railroad tracks and under a bridge, to be surprised by a long, spiral, stone tunnel, opening into Swede Hollow along a winding creek and yellow grass (after all, when I planned it the year before, wasn’t April supposed to be spring?), then climbing up to an old-fash- ioned, cast-iron, high-ceilinged café with a good soup and delicious desserts where we could write again at small tables. I would not tell the students where we were going. I would just lead them out the zendo door into the ware- house district with cigarette butts in wet clusters, gathered in sidewalk cracks. We would walk past the Black Dog Café and the smokers hunched on the outside stoop and near the square for the Lowertown farmers’ market where impossible summer and fresh-grown produce would arrive again. In this city of large oaks, magnificent elms and maples, I managed to return to practice Zen at a zendo surround- ed by concrete, where one spindly young line of a tree gal- lantly fought by a metal gate to survive. I’d renamed the practice center “The Lone Tree Zendo.” And, yes, in truth, I did actually go there early mornings and Saturdays and Sundays, for weekend and week-long retreats. I was working on koans, ancient teaching stories that tested the depth of your realization. I had to present my understanding and it never came from logic or the thinking brain. I had to step out of my normal existence and come face-to-face with images from eighth to tenth- century China: a rhinoceros fan, a buffalo passing through a window, an oak tree in the courtyard. The northern cold penetrated me as deeply as these koans. No fly, no bare finger could survive—even sound cracked. I was gouged by impermanence. The first miserable weekend in April came. I looked at the roster of twenty-four faithful souls who had regis- tered for the writing retreat. Two women from Lincoln, Nebraska, were flying in. A woman from Milwaukee—a six-hour drive away—was leaving at 3:30 a.m . to make the 9:30 beginning. Such determination. Only in the Midwest, I thought. I noted with delight that Tall Suzy and her friend from Fargo were coming. She’d studied with me back in New Mexico. Mike, the Vietnam vet, from Austin, Minnesota, was driving up too. I nervously fingered the page with the list of names. Roshi had been dead for a long time and still I missed him and did not know how to complete the relationship that had begun over twenty years before.