A Summer’s Koan
by Catherine J. Denial, guest contributor
This summer, I headed to Minneapolis on a research trip, glad to be headed north after two years’ absence. I rented a tiny house on the city’s south side, and hauled books and papers and photocopies with me — the tools of my trade in glorious abundance.
And then the state government shut down. Thousands of Minnesotans were thrown out of their jobs, and services of every imaginable kind ground to a halt. I was not someone whose income suffered from the shutdown, only someone who could not access the state’s historic sites, museums, or archives. My ability to do my job was, in a tangled way, connected to my ability to do those things, but I did not face hardship, only a struggle to let go of plans and goals that I had convinced myself I must achieve.
Thanks to the books and papers I’d brought with me, I could keep plugging away at my project at the dining room table in my borrowed home. Yet without a schedule, and without the daily trips back and forth to St. Paul that I’d planned, I was forced to slow down, to rethink my purpose. I was forced to consider new definitions of accomplishment, new ways of being in a different place, and to experience a different kind of time.
As I grumpily relaxed my hold, my plans for what might have been, new things flooded into those spaces. I began to read books that had nothing to do with my work and everything to do with living a full and balanced life. I devoured Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara, a chronicle of the California wildfires of 2008 and the efforts of the Tassajara community to both save their monastery and do so with Buddhist compassion and attention.
I discovered The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd, in which author Mary Rose O’Rielley recounted her sabbatical away from her position as an English professor, learning – from sheep — the art of staying present and paying attention to the smallest things (lest a sheep hoofed you in the head). I began to pay attention in my own life — to slow my pace as I walked the paths around Lake Nokomis; saw the ducks on parade, the red-winged blackbirds at play, the butterflies feasting on coneflowers, and the eagle that sent the local crows into cacophonous disarray.
That I was learning a new way of being in the world crystallized for me in the strangest place — the tiny bathroom of my temporary home. There I began each day in a diminutive shower stall, and gradually I realized that I’d been presented with a koan: How did a person shave their legs in such an economical space? I tried, for three weeks, every conceivable solution to this female, summer problem, wrestled with what seemed, within the contours of my life, as unanswerable a question as the sound of one hand clapping. And then, on my penultimate day in the city, on terms set by forces beyond my control, I realized my solution: turn off the water; work without the thing that habit has told you is necessary to your life.
It perhaps sounds strange to suggest that the practice of paying attention and opening my heart, mind, and being to change came together in a shower in Minneapolis, but it did. I sent out a thank you to the glad spirit of the universe, and to Mary Rose O’Rielley for her observation that you never quite know who your Zen masters will be. For her, it was sheep; for me it was monks, booksellers, waterfowl, and razors. I am grateful to, and humbled by, each and all.
Catherine Denial is assistant professor of History at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. She is writing a book about the political and personal meaning of marriage in Dakota and Ojibwe country between 1815 and 1845. For the remainder of the summer, she’s working on syllabi for her fall classes and trying to relearn to ride a bike.
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