“To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.” – Shunryu Suzuki
My life has been a long sorrow broken by moments of incandescent grace, a grace that sometimes threatens to permanently overwhelm me, but the time is not quite yet. There are too many details to the sorrow — my father’s alcoholism, rejection compounded by rejection, a large inquisitive mind confined by the narrowness of circumstances — so a Zen brushstroke will have to do.
The grace has come in different forms. There has been the grace of the Sierra Nevada standing high outside the front window of my youth and looming over the fields where I worked with my grandfather — a grace of place that worked to ease the pain of existence.
I encountered the grace of family when I was 42 and a good woman and her five-year old daughter entered my life, allowed me to be husband and father. There is a grace to the willing sacrifice, of loving a child so much that one can no longer hold on to the old habits and opinions that governed reality for so long.
Once I was asked how I could be such a successful parent with the history that I had had to endure. I replied, “I was always present for my daughter and I gave her a large pasture. Her pasture was always slightly larger than her reach so that she never felt imprisoned. She always knew that I loved her.” This type of love requires a full presence and awareness, qualities of which I would have been incapable without the sacrifice of my prejudices and complaints. She is now a happy woman, intelligent, caring, and free.
There has been the grace of old men who stopped to show me the way. It began with my grandfather in the fields, wordlessly connecting me to the soil beneath my feet. Another old man just let me tell him stories and in turn told me stories populated with men searching for the true nature of things. He once told me of standing unseen behind me and my and new family as my daughter sat upon my shoulders to take in the view. He wept with joy for my good fortune.
And then there was Robert. He picked me from a crowd in order to further awaken me to who I really am. When I asked him why, he replied, “Someone once did this for me. Someday you must do it for another.”
I carry what I call a glorious debt, so I write. I write of the mountains of my youth, of old caring men, of a loved wife and daughter, of life constantly trying to expose itself, and of what it means to be a human in the face of mystery. There are very few takers. If there were the grace would surely overtake me, for I could pay down my glorious debt.
The Dusty Feather of Flight
Great red rocks tower over the Santa Ynez
and the ancient spirits of time and place seem
as real as the stone.
Young people come here restless to party and drink,
then climb the red towers and
throw themselves down to the river
barely missing the rocks.
Some do not miss.
A few hundred feet away we walk the dirt road
lined with sedimentary rock and white sage
and by the road
a redtail dead from some unknown cause.
I kneel, turn it over,
gently pluck a long feather from its wing
to hand to my daughter,
Keep this I say, it is an omen
a gesture from the spirits to you.
Behind us the young ones throw themselves down
over and over
desperately seeking the sensation of flight.
Here is the dusty way, its creatures,
this poem a feather.